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Is There a Security Umbrella for Ukraine?

Volodymyr Zelensky
Volodymyr Zelensky and Biden. White House Handout.

Is There a Security Umbrella for Ukraine? – Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war against Ukraine is the largest interstate conflict on European soil since 1945. It has been a terrible war, with enormous loss of life. Credible accounts of war crimes abound. Urban centers such as Mariupol, Lyman, and Bakhmut are now in ruins. The amount of human misery and suffering is incalculable.

Yet despite the horrors unfolding in Ukraine, analysts mostly agree that the conflict has a low chance of escalating to become a general European war. To be sure, there is a great deal of fear about Russian expansionism in Poland and the Baltic states. These anxieties must not be trivialized. But nor should they be taken as representative of how the rest of Europe feels about the war.

Ukraine Changes Everything…and Nothing

Simply put, there is little evidence that most Europeans view their own physical security as being affected by what is happening in Ukraine. How exactly have NATO and Russia managed to prevent the horizontal escalation of the war in Ukraine? What gives the West confidence that the war will not spill over into neighboring countries? And what lessons might be applied to keep Ukraine (and others) safe from Russian predation in the future?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States and its European partners have tried three primary ways of maintaining peaceful relations with the Russian giant: political integration, economic cooperation, and extended deterrence in the form of US security guarantees to NATO members. Of these, only the last has stood the tests of time, divergent security interests, and war.

The political and economic love-bombing of Russia was supposed to build a constructive east-west relationship. The wager was that Russia could be turned into a friend and trusted partner—a fully Westernized country with which NATO members could have no major quarrel.

Toward this end, the West invited Russia to join Western-led organizations during the 1990s and 2000s, such as the Council of Europe, G8, World Trade Organization, NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, and the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council. At the same time, Europeans made themselves highly reliant upon Russian oil and gas, and rolled out the red carpet for Russian oligarchs.

As we now know, however, the wager did not pay off. Russia has not democratized. Its leaders have not become converts to the “liberal” world order. The levers of power in Moscow are still being pulled by people whom Russia’s neighbors have reason to fear.

Extended deterrence, on the other hand, was never meant to foster friendly relations with Russia. It was only ever intended to stave off a general war in Europe. In this sense, the US security umbrella is forbidding, frigid, and dissatisfying; it is a distressing artefact of the Cold War, which most Europeans surely wish could be consigned to history.

But at least extended deterrence has the distinct advantage of having actually worked. Russia still fears that, if it attacks a NATO member, it might be drawn into an unwinnable war with the United States and its powerful Western European allies. The West, for its part, refrains from attacking Russia directly because it fears the consequences of war with a nuclear-armed great power.

There is nothing automatic about this deterrence regime. It will always be a challenge for the United States to credibly threaten to fight Russia in defense of, say, Estonia. War between Russia and NATO could still happen as the result of recklessness, miscalculation, or desperation. But all things being equal, it seems obvious that the mutual threat of nuclear annihilation has helped to keep Russia and NATO at peace even during a period of war on the European continent—no trivial thing.

What does all this mean for the future of security and stability on the European continent? First, Europe must come to terms with the fact that there is no hope of a warm peace between Russia and the West, at least not while Vladimir Putin remains alive and in charge. For the foreseeable future, political cooperation with Europe’s worst war criminal will be superficial at best.

Nor is there going to be any appetite for restoring economic interdependence as a pillar of relations with Russia. On the contrary, Western firms and governments will be slow to resume commercial ties. For better or worse, then, the ossification of Europe into two political and economic camps should probably be regarded as inevitable. Bare peace is about as good as things will get for the foreseeable future.

But if extended deterrence and nuclear weapons are going to be the greatest—and most terrifying—guarantees of peace on the European continent, where does this leave countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia that have no formal allies to call upon and no nuclear umbrella to cower under? Who—if anyone—will provide for their defense?

For its part, Ukraine wants NATO membership. Kyiv has made no secret of this fact. So far, however, the alliance has refused to open its arms. Others have suggested that Ukraine must develop a unilateral capacity to deter future Russian aggression, whether by acquiring nuclear weapons or adopting a sort of impregnable “fortified neutrality” posture. But this is easier said than done. Ukraine cannot simply choose to become strong enough to deter its powerful neighbor to the east.

The Future of Europe

In the final analysis, Europe faces a grim future. The division of the continent into two nuclear-armed armed camps—Russia and Belarus on one side, NATO on the other—is a recipe for cold, unforgiving, and unadorned peace on the continent. But even this hibernal version of security looks set to exclude Ukraine, a country that has suffered so much and yet still cannot gain access to the spartan security umbrellas that others have at least managed to clamber beneath.

NATO’s next cold war with Russia will be freezing indeed. But it will be even worse on the outside.

Dr. Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities, and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive. Follow him on Twitter, @PeterHarrisCSU.

Written By

Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.



  1. Commentar

    May 7, 2023 at 9:24 am

    There’s none.

    The reason is US and allies are furiously peddling russophobia as the de facto currency for establishing new world order where Washington is recognized as the undisputed master.

    In the thirties, Germany and allies once peddled antisemitism as currency for their aim to establish control of Europe, but now this has been replicated in a new form by US and allies

    Thus no security umbrella.

    The struggle for life-or-death supremacy has been started, and like in 1945, will end when one side gets vanquished.

    As such, definitely, no umbrella of security. It is just a fight or struggle to the bitter end where like in Vietnam or Afghanistan, the winner takes all.

    The winner in this present struggle will be the one who dares to use n-u-c-l-e-a-r arms to bring the war to a screeching halt.

    Once nukes are used, security will start to take hold. Until the next bloody eventuality (brought about by rising tide of unrestrained globalism) when memory of war and suffering fades away allowing it to rear its head once more.

    Moral of the current events of ukro proxy war – never let an outsider dictate or sway or control the domestic situation.

    In 1955, Austria became a free and sovereign nation when upon drafting and adopting permanent neutrality into its constitution, the US military was forced to leave Austrian soil. Best ever security umbrella in Europe post ww2.

  2. Putin Apologist

    May 7, 2023 at 11:00 am

    Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine was totally provoked. It was provoked by decades of post-Cold War NATO expansion towards Russia’s borders. Provoked by the presences of unwarranted American, British and Canadian military personnel in Ukraine. Provoked by Ukraine’s hosting of anti-Russia NATO war games on its territory. Provoked by a civil war that pitted Ukrainians living in the country against Russians living in the country, a civil war that Washington and the West did nothing to help end.

    As for Mariupol being in ruins, I say poppycock. I challenge anyone to view the videos of Mariupol’s renewal on YouTube. This liberated city, with the help of thousands of construction workers from Russia, is being rebuilt. Life in the city, after nearly eight years of NAZI occupation, is finally returning to normal.

  3. Gary Jacobs

    May 7, 2023 at 1:31 pm

    “It will always be a challenge for the United States to credibly threaten to fight Russia in defense of, say, Estonia.”

    Not everything needs to fall on the US.

    Poland is right nearby, and is quickly becoming a regional land force power with its purchase of hundreds of Abrams tanks, hundreds of tanks from S. Korea, as well as HIMARS, other MLRS from S. Korea, + long-ish range weapons.

    If Ukraine can punish the Russian Imperialists with what they have, Poland can be a pillar of keeping the Russians in check with the force they are building.

    Furthermore, Finland is now joining NATO, and is right across the water from Estonia. Finns have put in for a large purchase of munitions that can be fired from their M270s, the same ammo as HIMARS. Other long range munitions like PrSM will be available to launch from the same HIMARS family of platforms soon.

    Germany’s Rheinmetall has applied for a license to build munitions to be launched from HIMARS, and Germany has its own M270s that fire the same munitions.

    Even the Dutch have gotten into the long range munitions game with a recent announcement of their intent to purchase the Israeli PULS system, which can already fire a variety of munitions from short range up to 400km.

    And then there is the F35. Roughly 600 will be operated by EU countries soon. That 5th Gen capability of stealth, data fusion, and ability to be used as a targeting node for other long range missiles is really something the Russians dont want to mess with.

    The flip side of all the military talk is that NATO is a defensive alliance, and clearly Russia knows there is ZERO threat of invasion from NATO because they pulled massive amounts of their ground troops from Kaliningrad and their border with Finland to fight in Ukraine.

    NATO troops could dance a jig to Moscow quite easily. But nobody in NATO actually wants that.

    Russia is the only country in the region that still has delusions of imperialist grandeur

  4. Sofronie the Monk

    May 7, 2023 at 3:14 pm

    @Putin apologist: And it was provoked by the fact that Eastern Europeans simply didnot want to be part of the Russian empire. How naughty of us, right?

    @Commentar: My dear boy, we didn’t learn Russiophobia from the US or Western Europe, we learned it from centuries of being next to Russia. So yes, we hate them with a vengeance for all the crap they did to everyone around us in the last 2-300 years.

  5. 403Forbidden

    May 7, 2023 at 4:52 pm

    The Russian military must take the bull by the horns to provide or create a ‘security umbrella’ for both Ukraine and Russia.

    The two guys in the photo are the top fascists promoting the globalist apostate woke fascist philosophy, the newest religion from Washington, the latest weapon or instrument for taking control of the globe.

    To stop that two fascists right in their tracks, the Russian military must employ tactical nukes against their foot soldiers in Ukraine.

    If need be, shove aside Vladimir Putin as he has proven to be just a weak leader.


    Wipe out kyiv, lviv, Odessa and other ukro centers.With tactical nukes. 140kt and below.

    Forget the 2024 Olympics, the ISS, sprawling embassies in western capitals and other putinista-class frivolities.

    This is a death-or-life struggle for survival, and success in this will guarantee and provide a security umbrella for both Ukraine and Russia. For the next one hundred (100) years or more.

    The die has been thrown by the two fascists shown in the photo. Now the moment to collect the dues and end the game. And forge the best security umbrella for the next 100 years.

  6. Jim

    May 7, 2023 at 5:42 pm

    A lot rides with Commander-n-Chief Biden.

  7. Jim

    May 7, 2023 at 8:36 pm

    A ‘Security Umbrella for Ukraine?’

    We are doing the best we can @ the moment, given all the circumstances.

    The real question:

    Will it work?

    The Jury is still out.

  8. 5am

    May 7, 2023 at 8:54 pm

    still tryna figure why was hunterB, despite no expertise, was on the board of Burisma while Joe was viceP?

  9. H.R. Holm

    May 7, 2023 at 10:35 pm

    @Gary Jacobs—-well, if the Europeans are building such big muscle-man arsenals, including 600 (?) F-35’s, well, then what does the U.S. largely have to ‘stick around’ on the European continent for? Really, when will Americans elect a President who will tell Europe outright, “Look, you all have been fighting amongst yourselves one way or another for over the last 100 years now (and going back even further than that). It’s about time every country on your continent huddle together and hash out some sort of agreement that will keep you from going at each others’ throats. Do *something* with real substantive results, don’t just have perpetual conferences that lead nowhere. Get to it and just do it. We’re tired of being your international firemen, policemen, and EMTs.” ?And with that announce that most U.S. forces will be withdrawn from Europe. Oh, you’ll see quite a scramble to get something done then, alright. They’ll *have* to, no choice. And hey, with all those shiny new weapy-toys they have accumulated, they shouldn’t have to worry about a reputedly now-depleted Russian army charging westward. And regarding the nuclear factor, how quickly could Germany ramp up on installing its own, complete with intermediate-range missiles, enough with the distance to cover all Russian vital targets along an arc from St. Petersburg over thru the Ural Mountains, and back down over to the Erstwhile Stalingrand and the Caucuses? Too bad the U.S.could not have kept the Pershings IIs and their warheads around in storage back in the U.S. homeland, we could have turned them over to the Germans as a start, if they wanted.

  10. David Chang

    May 8, 2023 at 3:12 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Mr. Harris talks about collective defense, but collective defense is a lie, because people do not want to undertake the defense duty.

    Therefore, antiwar and collective defense are the popular wrong thoughts promoted by Communist Party and Democratic Party, but another wrong religious thought of the Democratic Party and the Communist Party, the hypothesis of evolution, is teaching people to murder and rob, that is also encouraging war. So the good political thought is moral truth, but is not light, people should confess and repent to God, and obey Ten Commandments. Ten Commandments is justice, not light.

    This is also the conclusion of game theory that war is always caused by reason. This is also the conclusion of the nuclear weapons policy 60 years ago, because people cannot prevent atomic war, people should trust God to stop atomic war.

    Wherefore people despise ten commandments, now therefore the sword shall never depart from people. Every word that people shall speak, people shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by every word people shalt be justified, and by every word people shalt be condemned.

    God bless America.

  11. 5am

    May 8, 2023 at 4:57 am

    i still wonder why H.biden served on the board of Ukraines energy giant Burisma , despite no experience, while his dad was VP.

  12. Mike1986

    May 8, 2023 at 8:59 am

    The simple fact that you have to keep repeating “unprovoked” let’s me know it was provoked. It also let’s us know you probably aren’t telling the truth about other stories. Do a better job please.

  13. Tamerlane

    May 9, 2023 at 12:04 pm

    There’s no security blanket for Ukraine that the American people have extended, that’s for sure. We have no desire to accept the risk of going to thermonuclear war over a shithole in Eastern Europe. If the Europeans want to issue such a guarantee, they’re welcome to do so, on their own. I have zero interest and would trade up to every single Ukrainian’s life for American service members if push came to shove—as of course every patriotic American would.

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