Therese Raphael

Our Fear of Escalation in Ukraine Has Only Made It More Likely

The democracies opposed to Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine have been clear that, in Boris Johnson’s words, “Putin must fail.” But they haven’t defined failure. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss took a stab at it on Wednesday night, and it’s worth a closer look at what she said.

Her 2022 Mansion House speech, a set-piece event in the British political calendar, was headlined “the return of geopolitics.” She argued that winning the war in Ukraine is a “strategic imperative” that will require supplying the country with heavy weaponry, including tanks and airplanes, and ramping up arms production.

Gone was any pretense of limited, defensive help, but that disappeared with Russia’s massacres in Bucha if not before. The Biden administration has also amped up support, including asking Congress for another $20 billion in military aid as part of the $33 billion lend-lease package modeled on the World War II program that helped defeat Hitler.

But Truss pushed the boat out beyond previous US talk of a free and independent Ukraine and a weakened Russia, specifying what exactly the UK believes the goal ought to be: “We will keep going further and faster to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine,” she said. Truss’s reference to the “whole of Ukraine” — which includes Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 — suggests a return to pre-invasion borders should not be acceptable.

But who is “we”?

If Truss is speaking about Britain on its own (and, to be fair, that’s the only country she represents), the effect is like a middle-school kid telling a few friends she’ll take on the high-school bully. Britain is a middling power, though it punches above its weight on international security because of its close relationship with the US, its seat on the United Nations Security Council and perhaps also its status as the world’s second largest arms exporter. Yes, soft power carries some weight, but for all of Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelenskiy’s praise of Boris Johnson, the British cannot push Russia out of Ukraine.

Truss, of course, knows this well. Often mooted as a potential successor to Boris Johnson, her speech was principally aimed at a domestic audience. Still, it laid down a marker for the US and other NATO allies and democratic nations, too.

For months now, policies have focused on what’s called “escalation aversion,” and centered on two arguments. The first, embraced by many US Republicans, was that while our sympathy with Ukraine may be great, our interests are limited unless Putin decides to attack a NATO member. That case has been thoroughly demolished — not just by the humanitarian devastation in Ukraine, but by the global economic and security consequences and Putin’s continued ratcheting up of threats. The desire to avoid escalation drove Putin to double down.

“If Putin succeeds there will be untold further misery across Europe and terrible consequences across the globe,” Truss noted. “We would never feel safe again.” She is right. Russia would convert any territory it has conquered to military bases. Biden echoed those sentiments to Congress on Thursday in arguing for the lend-lease program.

The other argument that limited support for Ukraine’s military effort was the trapped-rat theory of Putin’s behavior: If he didn’t have a way out, he’d only become more desperate, possibly leading to the use of nuclear or other banned weapons. The argument for off-ramps has achieved little. It didn’t prevent atrocities in Bucha, Mariupol or elsewhere. Last week Putin, tested an intercontinental nuclear-capable missile. This week, he warned of “lightening fast” retaliation for those intervening to help Ukraine. He has cut gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria and is threatening Moldova too.

Putin’s entire raison d’etre is expansionist and zero-sum. NATO’s transparency about its high threshold for intervention — in other words, its lack of strategic ambiguity — simply gives Putin a wider berth. Truss’s more interventionist language, if carried through outside of Britain, could help establish a sense of strategic ambiguity that should give Putin pause.

Responding to the threat posed by Putin requires a long-term policy of heavily arming Ukraine and seeking to degrade Russia’s war-making abilities financially and militarily. That much seems to be happening. But it also demands a markedly different strategic concept, one that embraces the possibility of preemptive interventions.

Truss called on allies to reject “the false choice between euro-Atlantic security and Indo-Pacific security. In the modern world, we need both. We need a global NATO.” The evocation of NATO’s Article 5 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks is a precedent of sorts, but NATO has never done much to flesh that out. The Madrid summit in June is a chance to change that.

Truss’s definition of victory, returning Ukraine to its pre-2014 borders, raises the stakes considerably. But then Putin’s repeated reference to his nuclear arsenal had already done that. As Truss notes, this path carries risks. There is always the chance that a proxy war becomes a hot war.

It is in Britain and NATO’s interest to prevent that from happening, but avoiding escalation in an attempt to contain costs is exactly what left Ukraine so vulnerable and it is what increased wider security risks today. Deterrence breaks down without credibility. Instead, Britain and its allies must accept the possibility of escalation because, as Truss put it, “inaction is the greatest provocation.”