In Europe and the United States, the debate about whether the West should step up its response to the Ukraine crisis is gaining momentum. Already, a debate that should be as sober and rational as possible has become heated and agitated. It is, admittedly, not easy to come to a quick and clear-cut decision on whether to support the Ukrainian armed forces, which are fighting pro-Russian rebels in the country’s east. Many good arguments on both sides need to be weighed up.

Unfortunately in such cases, pundits and commentators tend to offer quick yes or no answers without breaking the issue down into its fundamentals. The West’s dilemma in Ukraine rests on four essential questions. Ultimately, it all comes down to risk.

Jan Techau
Techau was the director of Carnegie Europe, the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Techau works on EU integration and foreign policy, transatlantic affairs, and German foreign and security policy.
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The first and most basic question is what the West’s interest is in the crisis. It seems that the overriding interest of the Europeans and Americans is to keep the peace and freedom in Europe intact. To ensure this, they have created a system of guarantees and job-sharing arrangements within the rules-based system of two multilateral organizations, NATO and the EU.

The transatlantic alliance is the channel through which the U.S. security guarantee for Europe is administered; the European Union is the framework within which the Europeans take care of their tricky business of conflict prevention and resolution. As Europeans are unable and unwilling to guarantee their own military security independently of the United States, NATO is the more relevant organization for preserving peace and freedom against an external threat. Essentially, NATO is the cornerstone of the European Pax Americana.

From this follows a second question, and one that is less straightforward. It is the question of whether the Ukraine crisis is actually a threat to the peace order in Europe. Is the conflict a violation that undermines Pax Americana? If you answer this question with “no,” as some do (“What do we care about Ukraine? It is not in NATO, so this is none of our business.”), then all the West needs to do is keep NATO territory safe, and that’s that. If, however, you answer the question with “yes,” things get tricky.

Because then a third question arises: How much of a violation is the West willing to accept? In other words, is Russian interference in Ukraine important enough for the West to justify reactionary measures that might create fallout elsewhere?

The West must ask itself how risky it would be to do nothing in #Ukraine.
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The Europeans and Americans must also ask themselves how risky it would be to do nothing, and whether inaction would invite further escalation by the other side. The West should consider what kind of signal it is sending to third parties that have no stake in this particular issue but are interested in finding out about Western cost-benefit calculations in times of crisis.

If the Russian transgression in Ukraine is acceptable to the West, or if getting tough has a bad cost-benefit ratio, then sticking to the status quo is the order of the day. If, however, the Western allies can’t tolerate the current situation, then they must take action beyond the status quo.

As you might have guessed, this leads to a fourth fundamental question: How much is the West willing to risk to counter the violation? As it is not entirely predictable what kind of result Western action will produce, the issue is whether you are willing to accept a low or a high degree of uncertainty about the outcome.

If they are honest with themselves, both those in favor of and those against arming the Ukrainian government understand that a more robust Western position could lead to further escalation. But both camps also acknowledge that action could potentially lead to deescalation because it forces the other side to realize it has gone too far.

Neither the armers nor the nonarmers can be certain about the outcome of their proposed policy, but the armers are prepared to accept a higher uncertainty of outcome (that is, risk) than the nonarmers. Your willingness to take on risk depends on two factors: whether you think the current situation is grave enough to make higher risk tolerable; and whether you believe that doing something is less risky than doing nothing.

So far in their official responses, leaders in the West have sent out a pretty clear message: yes, our interest is to keep Europe safe and free; and yes, Russian aggression in Ukraine was a violation of the European peace order.

But at the same time, they have also made clear—though almost certainly unintentionally—that Moscow’s actions were at least partly acceptable. Everybody decries the annexation of Crimea, but nobody is willing to risk too much to reverse it. The West did impose sanctions on Russia, but in reality, they are not at a level that costs the EU and the United States too much.

Those arguing in favor of sending weapons to the Ukrainian army are now trying to make the West less risk averse. They want to convince publics and decisionmakers that arming Ukraine is a risk worth taking. It is no surprise that they find a more receptive audience in the United States than in Europe. America is physically farther removed from Ukraine than the EU is and would feel much less of a direct impact if the arms policy led to an escalation instead of a deescalation.

U.S. leaders are also more receptive because their reputation as principled and firm decisionmakers is much more at stake than that of their European counterparts. An administration seen as weak on foreign policy might find it tempting to prove its toughness. The risk of looking weak at home would then outweigh the risk of arms deliveries going wrong.

#Ukraine will remain too unimportant for Western leaders to take bigger risks.
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In another calculation, U.S. President Barack Obama needs to assess what’s more risky for him: staying out of the Ukraine crisis, thereby undermining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view of him; or sending arms, thereby feeding into the Russian propaganda story that the conflict is the result of Western aggression.

My guess is that Ukraine will remain too unimportant for Western leaders to take bigger risks in their strategy. This would probably change only if the danger of a spillover into NATO territory became imminent. As long as Putin stays away from that, he will probably be able to get away with a lot more than he has so far.