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Why Russia Can Invade Ukraine

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991 there were many in both NATO and the Eastern Bloc who believed that there could finally be peace between the two sides. For almost twenty years this was true. However, beginning with the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, and now in the Ukraine conflict, relations between Russia and NATO have been falling apart. Why? Shouldn’t both sides want peace? Isn’t Russia afraid of NATO retaliation? What does Russia gain form all of this?

Last March, President Obama gave a speech in Brussels in which he reaffirmed American support of Ukraine against Russian aggression. In his speech he states that “Over the last several days, the United States, Europe and our partners around the world have been united in defense of these ideals [democracy] and united in support of the Ukrainian people.” However, immediately following this, he says “We have sent no troops there. What we want is for the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions, just like other free people around the world.”

Herein lies the problem. Imagine a game, with Russia on one side, and NATO on the other. Russia can either invade or not invade Ukraine, and NATO can either defend or not defend Ukraine. If Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine then, it doesn’t matter what NATO does, and NATO doesn’t lose anything. If Russia invades, and NATO defends, world war could break out and that would be catastrophic. If Russia invades and NATO doesn’t defend, then Russia gains something, and NATO loses, but no where near as much as had a war broken out. The catch here is that while neither NATO nor Russia wants a world war, NATO’s dominant strategy is to remain on the sidelines (because of how fearful we are of world war). Russia, knowing this, is generally free to act how it wants.

The key to fixing the crisis is to change Russia’s payoff for an invasion from a net gain to a net loss. Achieving this through economic means (as military ones are out of the question) seems to be the best response, but it’s difficult to be successful when Russia controls the flow of so many resources, such as natural gas, into Europe. It’s even possible that we won’t be able to dissuade Russia. We understand so little about Putin’s mindset that it’s possible that no amount of economic sanctions will outweigh, in Putin’s mind, territorial gain in Crimea, Ukraine, and the former Eastern Bloc.


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