Meet the Author | Michael Kimmage

‘When it comes to the West’s efforts to deter Russia, the story is one of failure’

Ukrainian soldiers at the scene of Russian shelling in Orikhiv, Zaporizhia Region, May 2024 © IMAGO / ABACAPRESS.

Why is the title of your book on the war in Ukraine Collisions and not Collision?

The word collision correctly implies that this is a war between Russia and Ukraine. This is the fundamental truth of this war, but in its origins and its nature the Russia-Ukraine framing is not the only one that helps us to understand the war. It’s crucial to embed the Russia-Ukraine conflict in a Russia-Europe conflict. In part this concerns Ukraine's European aspirations. It also concerns Russia's understanding of where it fits or doesn't fit in Europe’s security architecture. The financial and military assistance provided by various European countries to Ukraine during the war has of course been crucial.

The collision between Russia and the United States is equally important. If you look at Kremlin rhetoric about the war, it often alleges a larger war between Russia and the United States. The United States is deeply involved in the project of helping Ukraine to survive. Three or four months before the war, the United States was sharing intelligence with Ukraine and increasing its military assistance. As the war has continued, the United States has been a necessary piece of Ukraine’s military infrastructure and a necessary piece of the diplomatic structure for countries that are sanctioning Russia and supporting Ukraine. In all these respects, we don't have one collision but multiple collisions, and as students of the war we must do our best to disentangle them.

You talk in your book about a ‘failure of deterrence’. In what way were Western policies vis-à-vis Ukraine ultimately a factor in Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale war against Ukraine?

It’s difficult to speak of deterrence in 2014. I don't think anybody predicted, first of all, the Maidan Revolution and then the annexation of Crimea. The annexation of Crimea occurred so quickly and so unexpectedly that no attempt was made to deter Russia. You could speak a bit differently about Russia's incursion into the Donbas (in eastern Ukraine) in 2014 and 2015, but that incursion also occurred under confusing circumstances, and very little was done to deter Russia. There was an effort to punish Russia through sanctions, but in the spring of 2014 deterrence was not the German, the European or the Western objective. Deterrence was, however, a stated objective in 2021 and 2022, certainly from the United States’ point of view; I can't speak across the board for European countries in this regard. Washington’s hope was that the threat of economic sanctions or a promise of support to Ukraine would get Russia to change course. That completely failed.

In sum, when it comes to the West’s efforts to deter Russia, the story is one of failure, and now it is too late. We can no longer speak of deterring Russia: the war is in its third year, and Russia is currently advancing militarily in Ukraine. By contrast, we can speak of containing Russia. It is very important to understand what happened over the past ten years. In the future, our policies will only succeed if we know where mistakes were made in the past. One of the key questions regarding Russia’s war against Ukraine, from 2014 to 2024, is the question of non-deterrence.

At one point you write that there’s ‘nothing cold’ about the 2022 war. What distinguishes it from the Cold War?

Not everything. You have a number of Cold War conflicts that are roughly similar to the war in Ukraine. The Vietnam War is probably the best example. China and the Soviet Union supported North Vietnam, while the United States was directly involved in the war in the south. But the difference between now and the Cold War lies in the nature of support Europe and the United States are giving to Ukraine. This support is much more direct, much more open and much more dynamic than in any comparable Cold War conflict. True, there aren't uniformed American or German soldiers in Ukraine, but the cooperation between the West and Ukraine and the sophistication of military support go far beyond the precedents of the Cold War in Europe.

Today’s war is a dynamic, fluid conflict within Europe. Russian missiles have flown over Romanian and Polish airspace. Refugee flows show how porous the border is between this war and the larger European landscape. That kind of dynamism is unfamiliar from the European Cold War. Although the Cold War was unbelievably tense and dangerous in Europe, Europe – with the exception of the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia – was outside the immediate Cold War fighting. This, sadly, is no longer the case.

In addition, the Cold War, from the late 1950s onwards, witnessed lots of diplomatic engagement. Arms control was the anchor. It was believed that technical expertise, negotiation, diplomacy and some degree of dialogue and understanding were necessary to stave off the worst-case scenarios. Although that there's still an interest in that in the West, Russia is clearly refusing to compartmentalise this war. Russia has also used a kind of nuclear rhetoric in its war against Ukraine (and other states) that it never used in the Cold War. It can appear that, for Moscow, various nuclear options are on the table. Whether that's true or not is anybody's guess, but that puts us in a world that is less secure and less restrained than the fraught and tense world of the Cold War.

Ukraine’s Western orientation is beyond doubt since February 2022, but membership of NATO and/or the EU is not likely in the foreseeable future. What other forms could integration take for Ukraine?

When it comes to Ukraine, both NATO and the EU suffer from being binary institutions. You're either a member or you're not a member. There have been a few efforts to change that in NATO in the past, but the Article Five commitment remains essential, and that's either there or it isn't. Ukraine may gain EU membership eventually, but I think it's also going to be quite slow. It is therefore crucial to build up new kinds of affiliation, perhaps designed especially for Ukraine, that could expedite membership on the one hand but also provide piecemeal some of the things that EU membership offers. Not everything all at once, but step by step. That’s sensible for the European Union, and it could give Ukraine a morale boost. At the end of the war, it will be a part of the club.

I think something similar could be said about NATO. We don't know what's going to happen with the U.S. presidential election in 2024, but a President Trump would be less receptive to a Ukraine in NATO than a President Biden. President Biden has been crystal clear that NATO membership in Ukraine is impossible until the war is over, but that doesn't mean that NATO member states cannot provide security guarantees and commitments to Ukraine. Some, like the United Kingdom, already have. You can work off of that more flexible pattern, exploring how Ukraine can be partially integrated before the complete integration occurs.

After months of wrangling over the 60-billion-dollar US aid package for Ukraine, the House of Representatives finally passed the bill on it in mid-April. Does this make you confident that the US will stay the course on Ukraine?

No. I don't think it's possible to draw that conclusion from the last six to seven months. Since the first year of the war, the consensus about commitment to Ukraine has been steadily declining in the United States. Now, there is one scenario where this would not hold true, and this is if President Biden is re-elected and both the House and the Senate, or at the very least, the House, come under the control of the Democrats. In that case, it would be very easy for the executive and the legislative branches to operate in tandem in supporting Ukraine, but that's hardly a guaranteed outcome at the moment.

In my view, Congress made the right decision. Unfortunately, the House of Representatives took a lot of time to make it, but even though the bill got to the floor and passed, more than half of Republicans were against it. Even if Trump loses, even if the Democrats have a good year in 2024, half of the Republican Party or more is not in tune with the policy of supporting Ukraine. Such party-political polarisation on a key matter of U.S. foreign policy would have been highly unusual in the Cold War. There were lots of fights and battles about the Cold War in domestic American politics, but in the legislative and executive branches of government the basic consensus behind the containment of the Soviet Union was solid. The political landscape is different today. This doesn't make me pessimistic. It simply means that to get the results that they want supporters of Ukraine will have to navigate the American political system, and they will have to think carefully and strategically about domestic American politics.

The interview was conducted by Anne Boden, editor at ZOiS.

Michael Kimmage is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America. He is also a fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

Kimmage, Michael: Collisions: The Origins of the War in Ukraine and the New Global Instability. Oxford University Press, 2024.