Report, Europe, Russia & Eurasia, Global governance, Foreign policy, Munk School

Escalation Management in Ukraine: Assessing the U.S. Response to Russia’s Manipulation of Risk

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised anew difficult questions of escalation management between nuclear powers. During the last three decades, leaders in Washington and Brussels believed that these complex strategic challenges had been relegated to history, at least in Europe. Russia’s invasion shattered that belief and the norms and rules that had governed the relationship between Washington and Moscow for the last five decades. The United States made clear its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence even though Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and not a formal ally of the United States. It is much more difficult to make commitments to an informal ally credible; there is significantly less uncertainty about the credibility of a commitment when a treaty obligation exists. In the months preceding the invasion, Washington extended deterrence to Ukraine. It warned Russia repeatedly not to attack Ukraine and threatened grave consequences should it do so. Deterrence nevertheless failed. After it failed, the United States immediately confronted the challenges of escalation management. President Joe Biden was determined to avoid a war between NATO and Russian forces—a war he feared could escalate to World War III—and he was simultaneously committed to helping Ukraine defend itself and repel Russian aggression.