Skip to main content

How Ukraine crisis could pull U.S. to war

By Graham Allison
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Graham Allison: Geneva deal on de-escalation in Ukraine a ray of hope
  • He says unless terms are implemented and conflict reversed, civil war still a threat
  • He says West does have an interest in stalling Russia-coaxed incursions
  • Allison: If Latvia, part of NATO, were next, U.S. could be compelled to enter conflict

Editor's note: Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He served as assistant secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration and as an adviser to the secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Despite the ray of good news in Thursday's Geneva agreement on steps to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine, President Obama was right to sound a note of caution, observing that "I don't think we can be sure of anything at this point."

The deal, reached by Russia, Ukraine and the West, called for, among other things, disarming illegally armed pro-Russian demonstrators in eastern Ukraine, and the surrender of the government buildings they have seized.

These are good and essential first steps, but unless they can now be implemented as a basis on which the parties can move to further, bolder steps to reverse underlying trends, Ukraine could still slide into civil war. If this happened, how would it affect American national interests? Could Ukraine become a 21st century echo of the Balkans in the 1990s, when the collapse of Yugoslavia saw a decade of war between Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovars? (No one should forget that just a century ago Ukraine was sucked into a tragic, bloody civil war shortly after gaining independence in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.)

Graham Allison
Graham Allison

There is a saying that history never repeats itself, but it does sometimes rhyme. Fortunately, full-blown civil war in Ukraine still seems unlikely — mainly because one side, the Ukrainian government, appears both unable and unwilling to fight. Nonetheless, it's not hard to sketch a scenario in which war is the outcome -- and from that to envision a further scenario in which the U.S. finds itself drawn into a direct confrontation. (More on that in a moment.)

As we have seen in the past two weeks in eastern Ukraine, Russian speakers— acting either spontaneously, or at the behest of Russian security services, or both — have taken control of government buildings in 10 cities in Ukraine's eastern provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv. Ukrainian military, security and police forces are so impotent, demoralized and compromised by Russian infiltration that their response has so far been pathetic.

This week, the New York Times reported on the Ukrainian government's "glaring humiliation," when a military operation to confront pro-Russian militants instead saw Ukraine's 21 armored vehicles separating into two columns, surrendering or retreating. In several instances, when confronted by pro-Russian crowds, soldiers and policemen have even switched sides.

If Thursday's deal unravels and Ukrainian authorities remain unable to restore basic law and order, the pro-Russian demonstrators occupying buildings will be emboldened to expand their reach. Further steps may include the demonstrators setting up an independent "republic" in the three Eastern regions and seeking to drive out forces loyal to Ukraine's interim government, provoking the Kiev government to respond with greater force, and then calling in Russian troops to defend them against what they will claim to be "fascists" from western Ukraine.

Ukraine PM skeptical of Russian deal
'Grotesque' flyers warn Jews
Ex KGB: Putin knows how to handle things

Responding to a crackdown, Russian security forces would likely provide arms and other assistance to the Russian speakers, claiming that such a call for assistance from "compatriots" is impossible to ignore. As conflict intensifies, western Ukrainians, perhaps even Poles or other Europeans, could come to the aid of Ukraine. In this spiral, one thing could lead to the next, ending in significant bloodshed in eastern Ukraine, and perhaps even spreading beyond.

Widespread violence or civil war would certainly be a calamity for Ukrainians. But would its consequences for American national interests require an American military response? Fortunately for Americans, the answer is no. In 2008, when Russia crushed Georgia in a short war that ended in Russia's recognition of independence for the former Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that was President George W Bush's answer.

As the ongoing civil war in Syria has claimed more than 150,000 lives, neither President Obama nor his most ardent critics, like Arizona Sen. John McCain, have judged this such an extreme threat to U.S. interests that Americans must kill and to die to stop it.

That the U.S. does not have vital national interests in Ukraine will not mean that the U.S. has no national interest in holding Moscow accountable for violating territorial integrity assurances that Russia and the U.S. gave to Ukraine in 1994 in persuading it to give up nuclear weapons. Indeed, if left to take its course, this crisis has the potential to fuel further developments that engage core American national interests.

For example, if Crimea becomes Putin's precedent for creeping annexation in which Russia-instigated Russian speakers occupy government buildings, liberate a territory and establish a relationship with Russia, where will this stop? Could the 25% of the population in Latvia who are Russian speakers be tempted (or coaxed) to follow suit? (Both Latvians and Russians vividly recall that in 1940 Stalin annexed Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, nations that regained their independence only in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.)

Russian military intervention in Latvia, even under the guise of special forces in green garb without insignia, would almost certainly be engaged by Latvian military and police. If Russian security forces came to the assistance of their brethren in Latvia, as they would be likely to do, this would mean a direct confrontation between Russia and the U.S.-led NATO.

Many Americans are not aware that Latvia and its Baltic neighbors are members of the NATO alliance, of which the United States is the leader. How many Americans know that members of that alliance, including the United States, commit themselves in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to regard an attack against one NATO signatory as "an attack against them all"? Pursuant to that commitment, successive American presidents have approved war plans in which Americans would fight to defend the territory of all members of the alliance.

Preventing Ukraine's collapse into civil war must therefore be a high priority for the leaders of both the United States and Russia. The Geneva agreement on "initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security," which U.S. and Russian diplomats signed, along with their EU and Ukrainian counterparts, represents the first real step in the international community's collective effort to reverse Ukraine's slide into chaos.

Leaders in both Washington and Moscow will have to follow up with further, bolder steps to prevent Ukraine's spiraling into a civil war that could draw them into a direct confrontation. These additional steps will require all parties to accept arrangements that would be unacceptable — except for the fact that all feasible alternatives are even worse.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT