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Euro-Atlantic Trolley Problem

State of the Union: The greater ethical consideration is not dooming the combined population of Europe and North America to a nuclear holocaust over the Crimea question.

(Photo by DAMIR SENCAR/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Ambassador Kurt Volker offers three arguments in his column  “Ukraine is doing Nato’s job for it.”

First, he argues that if Russia isn’t defeated in Ukraine, none of the Baltic states or even Finland is safe from further Russian imperialism, as no one is safe next to an authoritarian Russia. Second, he claims that Ukraine is fighting for democracy and human rights, the values on which NATO is founded, and that Russia is attacking Ukraine because Moscow cannot allow the flourishing of such values in its neighborhood. Third, he argues that it is inconceivable that NATO can claim to defend “Europe” without Ukraine in it. 


None of those claims is analytically accurate. Threat is a combination of intention and capability, and so far Russia has demonstrated that it can barely hang on to 17 percent of its neighboring country even while losing the cream of its trained armor and infantry. Second, any event is explained best by the exceptions to the rule. So far there is no evidence that Russia has any designs on any Baltic state or any country under the NATO umbrella. The Russian top leadership isn’t irrational, fanatical, or messianic. Russia didn’t invade Finland or Montenegro in recent years despite NATO enlargement. Ukraine, for cultural as well as geo-strategic reasons, was always an exception and more important to the Russian strategic calculus. One might disagree with that assessment, but to ignore it is ahistorical. 

Second, the claim that Ukraine is fighting for democracy and liberalism is questionable and bold for a country that quite literally has militias sporting Schutzstaffel patches on their arms, has eradicated Russian as a second language, and has declared there will be no elections as long as the conflict lasts. 

Third, the idea that NATO cannot defend Europe with Ukraine out of it is predicated on the premise that NATO deterrence has failed. There is no evidence of NATO deterrence failure. Russian tanks are not rolling through the Polish meadows, nor will they any time in the near future, given the state of the Russian economy and Russian military. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy, and, all things considered, Ukrainian resistance thus far has been heroic and worthy of emulation and admiration for centuries to come. Nevertheless, Russia is a nuclear power, and that has laid an ethical “trolley problem” before the alliance. Power is amoral and creates its own reality. The Biden administration has so far barely managed to balance the instinct of hurting Russia and defending Ukraine with the instinct for great power equilibrium and avoiding an all-out nuclear war. Yet, given Russian performance in the Ukrainian theatre, there absolutely should not be an American force posture increase in Europe. 

Nor should Ukraine's aspiration to join NATO be considered with any urgency. Ukraine has a long way to go, as the allies have determined. And it is the correct posture based on a greater ethical consideration. The core aim now is to ensure that Russia (and Ukraine) understand that a negotiated settlement is the only way out of this self-inflicted quagmire. But the greater ethical consideration is not to doom the combined population of Europe and North America to a nuclear holocaust over the question of who is master of Crimea. 


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