An academic tells us the 'safe' way to escalate the Ukraine War

Dan Altman is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia State University.  He has a Ph.D. from MIT and was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center and Dartmouth's Dickey Center.  He has just written a piece on the Foreign Affairs website explaining how the U.S. and NATO can safely escalate the Ukraine war.  It is an article only an academic could write, full of abstract speculations about how the Russians will react to his proposed moves to escalate the war.  "NATO," he writes, "should pursue a strategy of going as far as possible in Ukraine without plainly crossing Russia's redlines," which he identifies as "openly attacking Russian forces" or "send[ing] combat units into the country."

Professor Altman does not explain how he knows what Russia's "redlines" are today as it fights a war in Ukraine.  His article lacks any discussion of Russian culture, history, or an understanding of Vladimir Putin's thinking about such matters.  Altman provides some superficial accounts of historical events where escalation by wartime opponents or in crisis situations did not lead to global wars.  For example, he cites U.S. actions during the Berlin Airlift and Cuban Missile Crisis as examples where American moves escalated the crises without leading to World War III.  But during the Berlin Airlift, the United States enjoyed a nuclear monopoly, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we enjoyed overwhelming nuclear superiority.  Neither situation exists today.  And in both of those examples, Russia was not fighting a war that we chose to escalate.

Altman's discussion of proxy wars fought during the Cold War are more relevant to the situation in Ukraine.  In Korea and Vietnam, he notes, Soviet forces secretly fought in limited actions against U.S. combat operations.  In Afghanistan, the United States armed Afghan rebels fighting Soviet troops.  More recently, Russian mercenaries in Syria fought U.S. forces in Kurdistan.  In none of these instances, Altman writes, did escalation lead to global war.

From these examples, Altman concludes that "pushing as far as possible without openly attacking is often the best way to compete while managing escalation risks."  "Creative policymaking," he explains, "can engineer options that achieve objectives without crossing redlines, thus preventing a wider war."  He assures us that "Russia's nuclear weapons and greater interests in Ukraine" are irrelevant to whether "creative" escalation would widen the war.

Altman proposes the following escalatory moves: providing more arms (tanks, fighter aircraft, advanced surface-to-air missiles) to Ukraine; increasing economic sanctions against Russia; and encouraging, equipping, and funding NATO "volunteers" (with no upper limits) to fight with Ukrainian soldiers against the Russians.  He is confident that none of these moves would cause Russia to escalate — as confident, one might add, as European statesmen were in 1914 that the assassination of Austria's archduke would not lead to a global war.

Altman's escalatory proposals come after Russia has witnessed decades of seemingly inexorable expansion of NATO to its European border — a reckless expansion that George Kennan (who knew a bit more about Russian history and culture than Altman) predicted would lead to conflict between Russia and NATO. 

The great British geopolitical thinker Sir Halford Mackinder wrote that the most important quality of a statesman is to have "an insight into the minds of other nations than his own."  Germany's Otto von Bismarck had that quality, and it enabled him to diplomatically create a structure of peace and stability in Europe in the late 19th century that unfortunately collapsed when he was forced from power.  But then, Bismarck was not an academic who based his diplomacy and actions on data and superficial readings of history.  That great Prussian/German statesman would have shuddered at the notion of NATO engaging in military escalation within Russia's sphere of influence.  Remember, it was Bismarck who predicted in the late 19th century that the next world war would be caused by some damned fool thing in the Balkans.

Finally, Altman fails to address the most fundamental of all questions about Ukraine: what vital national security interest of the United States is at stake in Ukraine that is worth even the slight risk of a wider war?  The best he can do is to state at the outset of the article that "many feel a burning desire to do more to support" Ukrainians.  If Professor Altman shares that "burning desire," perhaps he should suit up as one of those NATO "volunteers" and fight for Ukraine.  But that would mean stepping down from his ivory tower and suffering the consequences of his reckless policy advice. 

Image: UNDP Ukraine.

If you experience technical problems, please write to