Ukraine and the Balance of Power: An Inter-theater Perspective

The current crisis in Ukraine has put Russia once again at the center of the transatlantic agenda. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 had already pushed NATO to (re)prioritize deterrence in Europe’s eastern flank. However, the alliance has sought to broaden its perspective in recent years by taking stock of other security challenges, not least of all the strategic implications of China’s rise. Such a trend was arguably partly motivated by a willingness to mitigate a perceived gap in strategic priorities between NATO (“Russia first”) and the United States (“China first”). Ultimately, it was also informed by the concern that unless the alliance takes U.S. strategic priorities more seriously, it might lose its appeal in Washington, whose support and investment are essential to NATO’s own health.

Yet, the specter of a war in Ukraine raises difficult questions about priorities for both NATO and the United States while also highlighting the connections between Europe and Asia. Can the alliance keep ruminating about the need for a global perspective at a time when deterrence and security in Europe are under threat? As the United States weighs its Ukraine options, how much importance should it give to China-related considerations? Should the United States worry that an elusive response to Russian aggression in Ukraine may damage its own reputation and credibility in the eyes of other partners and allies, including in Asia? Conversely, how much should the United States worry about antagonizing Russia and pushing it closer to China, or about not being entangled in a European war that could possibly invite opportunistic aggression in Asia?

Those who argue against NATO engagement in Ukraine point to an alleged “asymmetry of interests” between Russia and the West over Ukraine. The assumption that Russia has a core interest in Ukraine and the United States a peripheral one appears to be rather widespread, as is the notion that Washington has bigger fish to fry. But shouldn’t a similar logic apply to Taiwan, which China defines as a core interest and the United States does not? Similarly, many Europeans argue that the logic of the security dilemma works in favor of de-escalation in Ukraine and that normative musings about democratic solidarity or Ukraine’s right to choose should not undermine Europe’s material interest in stability. This begs the question of whether Russia would be satisfied and simply retreat into a predictable relationship with the West following a hypothetical “win” in Ukraine, whatever that means. Still others argue it is not just up to Ukraine to decide the terms of its relationship with the West, but also up to the West itself. Many of these same voices point to the problem of endemic corruption in Ukraine.  

Whether one clings to arguments about an asymmetry of interests, Ukraine’s corruption or lack of full-fledged liberal-democratic credentials, assertions that cold-headed realism should trump liberal illusions, or that a showdown in Europe should be avoided in light of China’s rise, the conclusion seems invariably the same: holding Ukraine is not a core Western interest.  

The critical question of what the West’s actual geopolitical interest is in preserving Ukraine’s independence does not get enough attention. Admittedly, such a question cannot be addressed in isolation, for neither the world nor U.S. grand strategy revolves around Europe any longer.  It is therefore important to think about how the Ukraine crisis affects Western interests elsewhere, whether directly or indirectly—not least in relation to China and Asia. Such an inter-theater approach is relevant not only from a U.S. perspective, but also from a European one. 

First, the preservation of a favorable balance of power—or, for that matter, a liberal and open order—in the key regions of Europe and East Asia is a vital geopolitical good that is taken as an article of faith in U.S. national security debates. But it is also embraced by the United States’ European (and Asian) allies. Because Europe and East Asia boast the largest concentration of industrial, technological, and military resources, the logic goes, the prospect of any single actor dominating either region would automatically endanger U.S.-Western primacy at sea and freedom of navigation, which is arguably the foundation of an open international system. The preservation of a balance of power in Europe and East Asia is therefore not only a vital U.S. national security interest but also the first line of defense of an open international order from which European and Asian allies and partners also benefit. From this viewpoint, the U.S. rebalance to Asia or prioritization of strategic competition with China would be in the collective interest of the West, for its main aim would be to defend the open system at its most vulnerable spot, namely East Asia given China’s economic mass and military potential.

A second, often overlooked, reason the West has a geopolitical interest in preserving Ukraine’s independence has to do with the gap that exists between the U.S.-led security architectures in Europe and those in East Asia in terms of geostrategic depth. Partly due to the challenging strategic geography of East Asia, the U.S.-led defense perimeter enjoys very limited depth there. China’s territory hugs the Western Pacific, and with the exception of Japan and Taiwan, there is little standing between China and the U.S. Navy. This contrasts with the surplus of strategic depth NATO enjoys in Europe, which encompasses much of the north European plain (notably with the accession of the Baltic states and Poland to NATO), Europe’s two “internal seas” (the Mediterranean and Baltic), and approaches from the North Atlantic. Critically, such surplus of geostrategic depth demands fewer U.S. resources to secure Europe, which in turn makes it relatively easier for the United States to rebalance to Asia.

From a geostrategic perspective, an independent Ukraine is a boon to NATO’s defense perimeter in Europe, separating Russia from Central Europe (Slovakia, Hungary, and southern Poland) and the Balkan Peninsula. Should Kiev fall completely within Moscow’s strategic orbit, let alone move toward some form of military alliance—whatever the actual modalities—deterrence and defense along Europe’s eastern flank would become significantly more complicated and costly. The entire continental space running from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea would suddenly be under pressure. This problem is further compounded by Lukashenko’s seeming subservience to Moscow and the recent deployment of Russian forces in Belarus. In short, the loss of Ukraine would require a much more sustained NATO effort in the area of deterrence, thus potentially frustrating the alliance’s broader security agenda. This could eat more significantly into the United States’ strategic bandwidth, otherwise needed to adequately resource a much-needed military rebalance to Asia. It could even create incentives for opportunistic Chinese aggression in Asia, especially taking into account growing Sino-Russian military cooperation and speculation about Sino-Russian coordinated probing in Europe and East Asia. In other words, an independent Ukraine helps secure Europe in a cost-efficient way.

As long as preserving a balance of power in Europe and East Asia remains a core U.S. and Western geopolitical objective, and as long as it hinges largely on U.S. power, the security and deterrence architecture of these two regions will remain intertwined. The question is not so much which region matters most or under which circumstances, for the unraveling of the security architecture in one region will punch a hole in the West’s forward defense perimeter in Eurasia and eventually endanger security in the other region. This is why the United States’ European and Asian allies have a stake in each other’s security and in the preservation of a favorable balance of power in each other’s region—and why deterrence and U.S. alliances need to be considered from an inter-theater perspective.

Luis Simón is the Argyros Family Foundation visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia program at the Center for International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is the director of the Brussels office of the Elcano Royal Institute and director of the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Brussels School of Governance.

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Luis Simón

Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program