The Realist Case for NATO Intervention in Ukraine

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer


NATO jets on an air-policing exercise (Picture Credit: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

If ideals were reason enough to go to war, NATO would be fighting on the side of Ukraine by now. It’s hard to imagine a worthier cause. Today, Ukraine is fighting to defend its independence, its democracy, and its freedom against an invading autocracy bent on subsuming it into its empire. Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s excuses for his aggression – to “de-Nazify” Ukraine or to prevent it from joining NATO – could not be more ridiculous. The contrast between Ukraine, outmanned and outgunned and alone, facing down the full might of the Russian war machine, whilst the most powerful countries in the free world cower behind their borders, could not be starker. For the past month, the world has been awed by the courage of Ukraine’s soldiers, its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and its ordinary people, and horrified by the atrocities the Russian military is committing against its civilians.

Residential building in Kiev after a Russian bombardment (Picture Credit: manhhai)

The reason we’re given for NATO’s refusal to intervene directly in Ukraine is a realist one: as much as we might sympathize with the Ukrainian people, as noble as their cause is, it’s simply not in NATO’s interests to intervene. Even as someone who’s often accused of being coldblooded, though, I find these “realist” arguments for non-intervention unconvincing.


First, Ukraine is not as difficult to defend against Russia as most experts feared. Its military did not disintegrate when the Russians invaded, its government did not collapse, and its people did not surrender. Instead, against almost all expectations, Ukraine has mounted an incredible resistance against Russian forces, slowing, or even stopping, their advance in much of the country, killing four Russian generals, inflicting more casualties on the Russian military in three weeks than the American military lost in 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq combined, and puncturing its reputation. Over the past few weeks, the Ukrainians have demonstrated beyond all doubt that they are more than willing and able to do most of the fighting, and it’s virtually certain that even a relatively modest NATO intervention would decisively tip the scales in Ukraine’s favor, enabling it to drive the Russians out of the country and secure its borders. The most likely result of NATO intervention is a clear victory for it and its friends and a clear defeat for its chief enemy, Vladimir Putin.

Ruins of Russian tanks near the city of Bucha in Ukraine (Picture Credit: Міністерство внутрішніх справ України)

The loudest realist objection to such an intervention is that it risks nuclear war with Russia, and, because the prospect of nuclear holocaust is so cataclysmic, no one should risk it. (Putin, of course, has been happy to stoke such fears by broadcasting that he’s put Russia’s nuclear forces on “special alert.”) If we follow this line of logic, though, it becomes an argument against taking up arms against anyone, so long as they have nuclear weapons, and for rolling over for any aggressor who threatens to use them.


Furthermore, this argument overstates the risk of nuclear war with Russia from NATO intervention in Ukraine, which is negligible. During the Korean War, American and Russian jets fought each other in the skies without even coming close to triggering nuclear holocaust. Because Putin knows nuking any NATO country risks his nation’s complete destruction from the alliance’s combined arsenal, it’s highly unlikely he’d do so in any scenario short of a NATO invasion of Russia, something that is not, and probably never will be, on the table. “Nuclear weapons are why the United States should refrain from attacking Russia directly,” noted Eliot A. Cohen, Robert E. Osgood Professor at John’s Hopkin’s University’s School of Advanced International Studies and former Counsellor of the State Department, “not why it should fear fighting Russians in a country they invaded.” Yes, Putin does sometimes act like he’s unhinged (probably because he knows it’s useful for his enemies to fear that he is), but his performances have never been very convincing. Putin is no raving lunatic; he’s known for being cold, calculating, chillingly rational – and it’s these qualities that make him so formidable, and at the same time so unlikely to order mutually-assured destruction in a fit of pique.

Another realist objection to NATO intervention is that it would “provoke” Putin. Here, it’s hard to see what exactly NATO countries are afraid of. Are they afraid that Putin might start a nuclear war? As we’ve already seen, this is highly unlikely. Are they afraid that Putin might escalate the war in Ukraine? Putin is already throwing pretty much everything he has at Ukraine, and with limited success. Are they afraid that Putin might attack them in retaliation? Putin is having enough trouble as it is attacking just one country – there is no surer way for him to fail than to spread his forces out to try to attack multiple countries simultaneously. If Putin is fool enough to do so, NATO will give as good as it gets, and any attempted invasion of NATO countries will be repelled. Are they afraid of antagonizing Putin? Right now, NATO countries are sanctioning Russia to hell, have frozen its central bank’s euro and dollar reserves, and are actively arming Ukrainians to kill Russian soldiers – there is no way that Putin does not already regard them as enemies, cowardly enemies who don’t dare to fight him directly, but enemies just the same, enemies he can get round to punishing after he’s finished dealing with Ukraine. In fact, Putin has said that Western sanctions against Russia are akin to a declaration of war, and likely already regards Russia as being at war with the West – whether officially or not makes little difference to him (note that even now Russia is not officially at war with Ukraine and Putin still calls his invasion a “special operation”).

Animated map showing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over time (Picture Credit: MaitreyaVaruna & Bacon Noodles)

Actually, in all likelihood, it was the excessive fear of provoking Putin that ended up provoking him. Why did he invade Ukraine? Given that Ukraine’s accession to NATO has long been off the table, Putin’s claim that it’s because he feared that it would join the alliance seems like a pretense. The most likely answer is that Putin simply wanted to fold Ukraine back into the Russian empire and thought he could get away with it. And he thought this because NATO countries refused to let Ukraine join the alliance system and did so little to arm it, in large part due to fear of provoking him, because they did little when he invaded Georgia in 2008, and the Crimea in 2014. In short, this fear made his opponents weak, and, as former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned, weakness is provocative.


Which ties in with another realist objection to NATO intervention: that it will start WWIII. But it wasn’t the Allies’ willingness to go to war, but the opposite – their excessive fear of war – that caused the last world war. Had the Allies been willing to go to war to stop Hitler when he invaded the Rhineland in 1936, they could have nipped his expansionist ambitions in the bud (Hitler had actually ordered his soldiers to retreat if the Allies intervened, but they didn’t). Had the Allies been willing to go to war to stop Hitler when he tried to annex Czechoslovakia, this would have resulted in open war with Nazi Germany, yes, but not a world war. It became a world war because Hitler’s growing audacity and power (set against the Allies’ cowardice and weakness) encouraged Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Russia, and Imperial Japan to ally with him and to become even more aggressive. (And when war did break out in September 1939, the Allies also had a much harder time fighting it because Czechoslovakia, which had been a strong bulwark against Nazi Germany, was no more.) Ironically, it was the Allies’ excessive fear of war that caused WWII, and made it more difficult to win.


Likewise, if NATO were to intervene in Ukraine, it would probably result in open war with Russia, yes, but not WWIII. What is likely to cause WWIII is if Putin wins in Ukraine, and his growing audacity and power (set against NATO’s cowardice and weakness) encourages Xi Jinping’s China to ally with him and to become even more aggressive. (And when war does break out, NATO will also have a much harder time fighting it because Ukraine, which has proved itself to be such a strong bulwark against Russia, is no more.) Ironically, it’s this excessive fear of WWIII that’s most likely to cause it, and make it more difficult to win.


Funnily enough, many of the “realist” objections against NATO intervention in Ukraine aren’t really realist at all, but are based on a startling naivete about Putin and aggressors like him. They’re based on the notion that Russia is behaving just like any great power does, that if the rest of the world would just allow it a commensurate sphere of influence it would be appeased, as if the geographically largest country in the world with 11% of the Earth’s landmass really needs more territory to feel secure, as if the desired sphere of influence wouldn’t just keep expanding, as if there’s a limit to the ambition and will to power of would-be conquerors like Putin. They’re based on the notion that they can placate Putin by letting him do what he wants, that they can buy lasting peace with him with anything other than countervailing force and the will to use it.

Many of the “realist” objections against NATO intervention in Ukraine aren’t really realist at all, but are based on a startling naivete.

We could take a lesson from the original arch-realist, Niccolò Machiavelli. As he wrote in The Prince:

My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.

For this may be said of men generally: they are ungrateful, fickle, feigners and dissemblers, avoiders of danger, eager for gain. While you benefit them they are all devoted to you…But when you are hard pressed, they turn away. A ruler who has relied completely on their promises, and has neglected to prepare other defenses, will be ruined

Men are less hesitant about offending or harming a ruler who makes himself loved than one who inspires fear. For love is sustained by a bond of gratitude which, because men are excessively self-interested, is broken whenever they see a chance to benefit themselves. But fear is sustained by a dread of punishment that is always effective.

Niccolò Machiavelli

It is time, past time, for NATO countries to stop worrying about provoking Putin, whose prickliness and megalomania perpetually inclines him towards taking offense. It is past time for them to stop trying to inspire goodwill in him rather than fear, since fear is ultimately the only language he understands. And there are good reasons for Putin to fear NATO. NATO’s economy is 29 times the size of Russia’s, it spends over 12 times as much on its military, and its military is four times as big. There’s no reason for NATO to be paralyzed by fear of Russia, especially given the latter’s underwhelming performance in Ukraine thus far. Right now, Putin isn’t afraid of NATO, not because he doubts its strength (it’s far more powerful than Russia), but because he doubts its will to use it to fight him.

It is past time for NATO countries to stop trying to inspire goodwill in Putin rather than fear, since fear is ultimately the only language he understands.

NATO should regain this will to fight, and remind Putin why it’s the most powerful military alliance in the world. It was this demonstrated will to fight that kept Western Europe free during the Cold War, even though the Soviet military was much more powerful than the Russian one is now, that kept West Berlin free, even though it was a tiny island of liberty surrounded by a vast Soviet ocean.


A few weeks ago, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “must fail and be seen to fail.” He’s right. If Putin manages to take Ukraine, and consolidate his gains there (which he well might), it’s likely he will then set his sights on Georgia, or even NATO member states like Estonia and Latvia. China, which is watching this war with great interest, may also make its own moves to invade Taiwan, because the lesson it’s learned is that seizing other countries pays off. It’s up to NATO to show that it doesn’t pay off. To do that, it will have to make sure Putin suffers an unmitigated defeat – that means Russia being forced out of Ukraine, including Luhansk and Donetsk, that means Ukraine becoming a member of NATO, the very thing Putin claims he invaded to prevent, that means Russia ending up in a worse position than it was in before invading, that means Putin chastened and wary of attempting future invasions, not out of goodwill but out of fear of the consequences.


NATO countries are already effectively at war with Russia, because, after all they’ve done to sanction Russia and arm Ukraine, it’s extremely unlikely Putin doesn’t consider them to be at war. It falls to NATO now to make sure it wins that war – and it would be in a much better position to win it with Ukraine (which has so amply demonstrated its military prowess) free and independent and part of the alliance system, a stalwart shield against Russian aggression. For many years, NATO countries have tiptoed around Putin for fear of provoking him, and this has only made him more brazen. It’s time for them to regain the initiative, and show Putin that he should be at least as scared of NATO as NATO is of him.