What Are Some Possible Outcomes From Russia's Aggression Against Ukraine?

As Russia continues to amass troops along Ukraine's border, the regional situation looks increasingly perilous. 

Timothy Frye
February 02, 2022

For two terms, President Obama promised that U.S. foreign policy would pivot to Asia given the need to address the challenge of a rising China, but crises in Libya, Iraq, Ukraine, and Afghanistan frustrated those efforts. It looks like President Biden’s attempts to do the same will suffer a similar fate.  However the current crisis on Russia’s border unfolds, European security will be a high priority for Washington and its allies in Europe for the near future.

President Biden came to office hoping to focus on East Asia and to “park” Russia. The Kremlin had other ideas. Following a buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine’s eastern border in the spring of 2021, the White House agreed to a summit with President Putin in June 2021 with the goal of creating a “stable and predictable” relationship with the Kremlin so that more attention could be paid to China. 

But with Ukraine continuing to move away from Moscow economically, militarily, and culturally; the West distracted; and hardliners increasing their influence on policy in Moscow, the Kremlin decided to mass troops on the eastern, northern, and southern borders of Ukraine. The Kremlin then issued public demands for Washington to create legally binding guarantees that Ukraine would never join NATO and to remove NATO troops and material from all members admitted after 1997 when NATO’s eastward expansion began. These demands had little chance of being accepted and were nothing less than a call to re-litigate the end of the Cold War and rewrite the security architecture of Europe.

Following extensive negotiations with its NATO allies and the government in Kyiv, the U.S. responded by restating its commitments to NATO and to Ukraine, while also pointing to other issues, such as limiting intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe, restricting troops movements, and creating confidence-building measures that might address Moscow’s security concerns. These moves place Putin in a difficult position: Escalate military operations in Ukraine with all its inherent costs or concede to negotiations with the U.S. and NATO having had his opening demands rebuffed.

It is uncertain how the current crisis will play out. A further expansion of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine will bring great loss of life, vast political and economic instability, and likely lead Finland and Sweden to join NATO. Given the lethality of modern warfare and the likely entanglement of Ukraine’s neighbors in the conflict, we will be lucky if the fighting can be contained to Ukraine itself.  

Yet, finding a negotiated settlement will be challenging. Governments in Moscow, Washington, and Kyiv have all taken very strong, public positions that will be difficult to walk back.

Recent history also suggests some pessimism. Over the last 30 years, attempts to integrate Russia into the European security architecture have not managed to square the circle of addressing Russia’s security concerns while also reassuring the countries on Russia’s borders to the west and south.

And the faux stability of the old Cold War is not an option. Given the rise of China, greater integration of Russia with the global economy, and limits on U.S. and Russian power, any hopes that two great powers can police a peace in Europe are unfounded. Governments in the region will need to think creatively and craft new solutions to secure the peace.  

President Putin has brought the complicated issue of European security back on the agenda. If there is one silver lining to emerge from the crisis, it is that there is the possibility of creating measures to mitigate long-standing tensions on the continent. For the moment, the pivot to Asia can wait. 

Timothy Frye

Timothy Frye (GSAS PhD'97) is the Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy. His research and teaching interests are in comparative politics and political economy with a focus on the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. His most recent book is Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia.

This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.