Talking Strategically about the Russia-Ukraine War

Talking Strategically about the Russia-Ukraine War

. 12 min read

Many West European public debates about help for Ukraine juxtapose feelings of solidarity for Ukrainians with concerns about security of the West. This dualism ignores core national interests of EU and NATO member countries in a Russian defeat as well as in a safe, stable, and resilient Ukraine.

By Andreas Umland

Western support for Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s aggression over the last seven months has been non-trivial yet insufficient. The magnitude and impact of both military help for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia remain wanting. As a result, Moscow’s terror war in Ukraine persists unabated. While the Russian economy has run into problems, it continues to function. So far, the Russian state apparatus and political elite appear unimpressed.

The Allure of Pseudo-Realism

One of the reasons for the West’s failure to mobilize more support for Ukraine is a misperception of the salience of the Russian-Ukrainian war among parts of the West European public. So far, the war is perceived by many observers as an Eastern European rather than all-European security challenge. Empathy with the Ukrainians and disapproval of Russia’s assault are high not only in East-Central Europe. The Western public too has developed a surprising interest and compassion for Ukraine.

Yet, in most Western Europeans’ mind, what happens in Ukraine stays in Ukraine. The war may be perceived as having repercussions for Westerners too, yet such acknowledgement of possible after-effects does not lead to increased demand for help to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

This discursive frame misdirects European and national debates about possible ways to contain Moscow’s aggression. A seemingly emotional urge for international solidarity becomes juxtaposed against presumably rational considerations for national security. “Realist” arguments about Western strategy and safety weaken “idealist” calls for more care and aid. The gist of much Western thinking about the war remains something like: “We support the Ukrainians, of course, in their fight for freedom and independence. Yet, at the end of the day, all politics is local. While we empathize with Ukraine’s agony, it is not our pain.”

Drawing such mental lines between Ukrainian defense and Western security poses as prudency. It expresses, however, an escapist rather than pragmatic worldview. Continuing naiveté of Western pseudo-realism not only undermines the normative foundations upon which domestic consensus and international cooperation of Western states are built but also misrepresents the plain geographic reality and geopolitical role of Ukraine for Europe and the world. The fate of the Ukrainian state and its citizens has wider implications for the European continent and international system.

What will happen to world security, if Russia continues its military assault on Ukrainian statehood for many more months or even years? Realists acknowledge that this means an unfortunate devaluation of international law, in general, and the European security order, in particular, but such negative repercussions are often seen as bearable collateral damage of a partial appeasement of Russia. An escalation of Russian-Western tension, as the typical reasoning in the background seems to be, would be far worse.

Raising the specter of a nuclear war is a common killer argument. To avoid an apocalypse, so the typical argument goes, any costs are justifiable. The damage that a Russian success in Ukraine will do to the international system is surely regrettable. Yet, it is still preferable to the alternative of continued military confrontation and risk of atomic escalation—such is the logic of some Western realists. It helps that a nation other than one’s own has to make the necessary sacrifices to appease the Kremlin. The Ukrainians will have to get by with limited Western support and continue to bear the brunt of the consequences of the war. Too bad for them!

This seemingly realistic approach is not only cynical but escapist, in both paradigmatic and practical terms. First, it goes against the grain of consistent realism to argue that counter-alliance building, and substantive armed deterrence do not work vis-à-vis Russia. Whatever military support Ukraine can get and whatever Western sanctions on Russia are imposed, according to a widespread assumption, Moscow is prepared to escalate further. Russians will be ready to bear even highly destructive damage to their economy, military, and society—eventually risking the integrity of their state. Yet, if Russians indeed behave “unrealistically:” What is realism for then?

Second, in much “realist” reasoning, it is not only unclear which costs for an appeasing approach to Moscow may be imposed upon Kyiv and which may not, but there is also a lack of attention to secondary risks and costs of the war for countries other than Ukraine and Russia. More often than not, these vagaries remain either unmentioned or discussed only in passing in public debates about the war. If brought up, they are sometimes brushed aside as remote or negligible, or both.

The Subversion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

There are, however, a number of nontrivial issues that Russia’s war against Ukraine and the West’s so far restrained countermeasures imply for Europe or even humankind as a whole. Above all, the Russian attack and hesitant or absent response to it by other members of the UN Security Council and General Assembly undermine the logic of the international regime for the prevention of the spread of nuclear arms. The war started eight-and-half years ago and proceeds the way it does, to a large degree, because Russia has weapons of mass destruction and Ukraine does not.

What is worse: Moscow not only enjoys a huge nuclear advantage but is explicitly allowed, by a UN registered multilateral agreement, to possess its atomic arsenal. The 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) permits five countries of the world, among them Russia, to build and hold nuclear weapons. Every other of the altogether 191 signatory states of the NPT, among them Ukraine, are explicitly forbidden to develop and own atomic weapons.

The Russian-Ukrainian war is even more odd since Ukraine once possessed a large nuclear weapons arsenal that it had inherited from the USSR. Kyiv decided, together with Minsk and Almaty, to relinquish not only most, but all Soviet atomic warheads and material the three countries still possessed in the early 1990s. They signed the NPT as fully non-nuclear-weapon states.

In exchange, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan were each issued a special document by the NPT’s three depositary governments, the United States, Great Britain, and Russia, in 1994. These so-called Budapest Memoranda contained security assurances by Washington, London, and Moscow. The three great powers promised to respect the sovereignty and borders of the three former nuclear-weapon states and to refrain from exerting political, economic, and military pressure on them. The other two official nuclear-weapon states under the NPT, France, and China, provided separate governmental statements announcing their respect for Ukraine’s, Belarus’s, and Kazakhstan’s independence and integrity.

Since 2014, if not before, Russia has been violating this important document, once signed by Moscow’s then UN Ambassador Sergei Lavrov and deposited with the United Nations, in the most egregious ways. Russia is today punishing Ukraine’s voluntary nuclear disarmament with a rain of tens of thousands of grenades, bombs, rockets, and missiles destroying not only military but also civilian houses and infrastructure, and killing, maiming as well as traumatizing Ukrainians every day. Moscow’s demonstrative subversion of the logic of the non-proliferation regime should worry not only Ukrainians every other nation too.

Hesitant help for Ukraine and belated sanctioning against Russia by loudly peace-loving states, such as Germany, Austria, or the Netherlands, contradict the pacifist motivation behind such behavior. Widespread cautiousness in supporting Kyiv increases the war’s destructive effects on the credibility of the international security system. The contradictory signals emanating not only from Russia, but also from other official nuclear-weapon states, above all from China, as well as the ambivalence of dozens of non-nuclear NPT signatory states entails larger risks.

Continued trade with Russia and only half-hearted or missing support for Ukraine suggest to weaker countries around the world that, if push comes to shove, might is right. The conclusion that nations without a nuclear umbrella may now or in the future draw is: “We can rely neither on international law and the human community, in general, nor on the logic of the NPT and its founders, in particular. Therefore, we need to get the bomb ourselves.”

While the nuclear issue plays, as a warning against World War III, a large role in European debates of Western engagement for Ukraine, an atomic escalation between NATO and Russia is not the only and, perhaps, not the most salient aspect of it. The already existing fundamental problem for safeguarding the world against nuclear proliferation has received little attention during the last eight years. Instead, many are worried exclusively about an exchange of nuclear strikes that, according to such fears, should have happened several times before, during the Cold War, when the US and USSR possessed far more atomic arms than today. A future spread of weapons of mass destruction as a more likely repercussion of Russia’s war against Ukraine remains mostly unmentioned in public discussions.

The power of the NPT will deteriorate as long as Russia continues to demonstrate that a state threatening to employ nuclear weapons is allowed to expand its territory at will. One would think that such a possible after-effect of Russia’s war against Ukraine should be of high concern to politicians and journalists. Yet, this grave global aftereffect of Moscow’s local behavior in Ukraine has remained either an only occasional topic or a non-issue in most of world-wide mass media reporting about of the war.

Ukraine’s Nuclear Power Plants

A regionally contained, but more obvious and immediate atomic threat in connection with Russia’s military attack is the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. During the war’s first days, in late February 2022, Russian soldiers invading from Belarus quickly occupied the territory of the decommissioned Chornobyl power plant in northern Ukraine. The Kremlin’s propaganda boasted about the NPP’s capture while Russia’s army stationed some of its troops on the contaminated territory of the 1986 disaster area. Shortly afterwards the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported its loss of communication about dangerous radioactive material stored in a special installation, on the site of the former NPP. Ukraine’s government complained about irregularities in the cooling system for this material.

All of this should have alarmed the international community early on—or at least European media and politicians. Some basic economic-geographic considerations could, in fact, have alerted the European expert and diplomatic communities already throughout the last eight years to this risk close to the EU. At least since 2014, after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and start of a pseudo-civil war in the Donbass, the nuclear risks of a deeper Russian invasion into Ukraine’s heartland were obvious. Everybody with elementary knowledge of Eastern European industrial geography could understand what is at stake in Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion.

Instead of bringing the issue to the forefront already, years ago, the security of Ukrainian NPPs from war have until recently remained under the radar of most journalistic, specialist, and governmental reporting about the war. This is in spite of the fact that, soon after Chornobyl’s capture in March 2022, Ukraine’s and Europe’s largest atomic power plant, the Zaporizhzhia NPP with its six power blocks, at the south Ukrainian city of Enerhodar (literally: “energy giver”) also moved into war territory. The huge NPP even became a locus of Russian-Ukrainian fighting. A nightly exchange of fire between Russia’s and Ukraine’s troops on the territory of one of the world’s largest nuclear facilities was captured by camera and published on the WWW, in spring 2022.

Since Russia’s occupation of Enerhodar, the Zaporizhzhia NPP has come under double administration by officers of the Russian military, on the side, and civilians of the Ukrainian public company Enerhoatom, on the other. This joint responsibility of organs of two states that are at war with each other is an unusual arrangement for Europe’s largest NPP. In recent weeks, it appears moreover that the Kremlin is trying to use the issue of safety of nuclear material at the power plant as an implicit leverage vis-à-vis the West. Some strange incidents at the power plant may have been orchestrated by the Kremlin to increase nervousness in the West. As a result, the security of Ukrainian nuclear power plants is now finally entering Western mass media reporting on the war.

The risks are multiple and not only linked to the Zaporizhzhia plant at Enerhodar. Another atomic station in southern Ukraine, the Iuzhnoukrainsk NPP, has repeatedly been overflown, during the last months, by Russian missiles launched by the Black Sea fleet and heading north in the direction of Kyiv. Two more nuclear power plants in Western Ukraine have not yet been approached by Russian weapons or warheads. However, this could easily happen in the future. For instance, a Russian attack on Western Ukraine via Belarus could quickly move additional Ukrainian NPPs close to, or even into, the fighting zone.

Against the background of Europe’s experience with the aftereffects of the Chornobyl calamity in 1986, the safety of Ukraine’s NPPs should become a salient topic of media, political, and experts’ debates. It should also enter—more deeply than before—diplomatic communication within the West and with Russia. What is important, for Western politicians, diplomats, and experts alike in addressing the issue officially and unofficially, is to make as explicit as possible that the concerns about Ukrainian NPPs are entirely related to Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine.

Moscow is now trying to play a “Chornobyl card” in its media and political campaigning. Russia’s propagandists are attempting to persuade underinformed Western publics that Ukraine is, as in 1986, a source of insecurity for Europe. These misleading narratives need to be counteracted resolutely.

With regard to African and Asian perceptions of the recent grain crisis, the Kremlin partly succeeded with a similar misinformation campaign. Moscow managed to impregnate not only common people, but also the elites in several African and Asian states with the opinion that it is not Russia who is responsible for the food crisis. Instead, Ukraine and the West are to be blamed for the recent shortages of grain and other foodstuff on world markets.

It may be worth remembering that the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear catastrophe was also not a result of a Ukrainian leadership failure. Instead, as Serhy Plokhii has recently detailed in his seminal book Chornobyl, the then Head of the Council of Ministers of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was informed about the Chornobyl incident by a nighttime phone call from the Head of the Council of Ministers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. That was in spite of the fact that the Ukrainian prime minister was at the time of the incident in 1986 in Kyiv, i. e. only about 100 kilometers away from Chornobyl. The Soviet prime minister who informed his Ukrainian subordinate in Ukraine’s capital of what was happening not far from Kyiv called him from Moscow, about 700 kilometers away from Chornobyl.

The reason for this strange line of communication was that the USSR’s NPPs were strategic objects. They were thus not under the local administration of the Union’s pseudo-republics. Instead, the construction and operation of all of the USSR’s NPPs were under the direct control of the imperial center in the capital of Russia. This circumstance was one of the various Soviet abnormities that had led to the 1986 Chornobyl incident, in the first place.


There are additional pan-European and partly global risks emanating from Russia’s attack on Ukraine. International chains of trade of foodstuff, energy, as well as other resources and goods, are being interrupted. In addition to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, further international arrangements and organizations too are being undermined. Not only is the integrity of various narrower transcontinental security regimes, like the OSCE, being put under question, but the United Nations and its various organs as well as sub0rganizations, are also coming under pressure, in view of Russia’s vicious assault on Ukraine. In particular, the Security Council and the veto right of its permanent members, including Russia, is now looking absurd. Parts of the UN system and other international organizations are purposefully being weaponized, for neo-imperial purposes, by one of its official guarantors.

Fundamental doubts about the usefulness of the current world order are growing not only among embattled Ukrainians. More and more other people around the world concerned about international security, sympathizing with Ukraine, and/or feeling threatened by Russia or other revanchist countries, are voicing second thoughts too. Activists, politicians, experts, and journalists have, in view of  Moscow’s behavior during the last thirty years, started to discuss the suitability of the UN system for preserving international political stability, justice, and peace.

Russia continues to dismantle the European security order, in particular, as well as the international organizational and legal system, in general. In doing so, the Kremlin takes advantage of Russia’s formal and material privileges, such as Moscow’s special rights under the UN and NPT, or control over nuclear weapons and trade routes. At the same time, the rhetorical and behavioral aggressiveness of official Russia vis-a-visa Ukraine continues unabated. The constantly rising number of atrocities of the Russian army in Ukraine is creating not only moral outrage, but the ever more genocidal character of the Russian attack on Ukraine has wider and longer implications. The Kremlin’s terroristic approach subverts the letter and spirit of dozens of international treaties and organizations in which Moscow participates and of which it is partly a co-founder.

The increasingly obvious transnational and partly global destructiveness of the Kremlin’s behavior should not only make Eastern Europeans pause. Western discussions along a juxtaposition of emotionally driven international solidarity for Ukraine versus rationally argued national interests of one’s own country have always been inapt. They look increasingly misleading today. Western and non-Western politicians, diplomats, experts, and other public speakers should change the emphases and tone of their comments on the war. This concerns their assessments of Russia’s behavior within both, their own countries’ national debates and their interactions with Russian counterparts. They need to highlight more than before the high salience of Moscow’s misbehavior not only for Ukraine, but also for their own nations, Europe, and the world at large.

National publics around the world should be made aware by their leaders, journalists, and scientists that the Kremlin’s adventure in Ukraine is more than just an adventure and has repercussions beyond the tragedies in Mariupol, Bucha or Olenivka. Western and other countries alike should reformulate their positions and rhetoric accordingly vis-à-vis Moscow. In particular, it should become clear to both the Western and Russian publics that only Moscow’s full withdrawal from Ukraine will be a satisfactory solution to the crisis, and an acceptable limitation of its destructive international aftereffects. As a result of such a discursive change, new signals, policies, and treaties from a wider and more resolute coalition of willing states can emerge. Only this can mean that the Kremlin will finally feel enough pressure to change its behavior and become constructive in future negotiations.

Dr. Andreas Umland studied politics and history in Berlin, Oxford, Stanford, and Cambridge. He has been an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA) since 2010 and an analyst at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) of the Swedish Institute of International Relations (UI) since 2021.