Strategy Mismatch in Ukraine

The U.S. military strategy for Ukraine is misaligned with the 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS). Among other things, the NSS states that the U.S. will deter future Russian aggression and leverage U.S. leadership to “mobilize collective action to address global risks.”[1] The current military strategy employed in Ukraine does not support the NSS because it will not deter Russia from additional aggressive action and fails to prompt the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members to act on matters vital to their collective security.

More on Ukraine can be found in the collection of US Naval War College Joint Maritime Operations Papers, from which this article is derived.

More on Ukraine can be found in the collection of US Naval War College Joint Maritime Operations Papers, from which this article is derived.

The NSS states that the US military will “remain essential to deterring future acts of inter-state aggression.”[2] However, as it applies to deterring Russia the use of the military has had an opposite effect. Recent events demonstrate Russia’s predictable tendencies when confronted militarily. On two separate occasions in 2015, Russian Su-24 jets overflew the U.S. warships USS Ross and USS Cook during routine U.S. maneuvers in the Black Sea.[3] In May 2016, the United States deployed and activated a first of its kind ballistic missile defense system in Develesu, Romania. In response, Russia deployed a nuclear-capable Iskander missile system to Kaliningrad Oblast, the Russian enclave surrounded by Lithuania and Poland, in October 2016. Russia has a clear history of predictable behavior when confronted militarily; however defense spending is not equal to military confrontation.

The 2015 NDAA authorizes $300 million as part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, the preponderance of which is authorized specifically for defensive weapon systems. Only $50 million is authorized for “offensive-type” weapons such as mortars, crew-served weapons, and anti-armor weapon systems.[4] By limiting assistance spending towards Ukraine’s offensive capability, the U.S. has demonstrated to Russia its unwillingness to escalate hostilities and, thus, fails to deter Russia.

The insufficient supporting funds and distribution of the NDAA funds are not the only way that the U.S. is demonstrating a lack of resolve to support Ukraine and further antagonizing Russia. In a speech at NATO headquarters in March 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama stated:

“To be honest, if we define our interests narrowly, if we applied a coldhearted calculus, we might decide to look the other way. Our economy is not deeply integrated with Ukraine’s. Our people and our homeland face no direct threat from the invasion of Crimea. Our own borders are not threatened by Russia’s annexation.”[5]

In a separate speech in 2015, the President further articulated diplomatic resolution over military action when he said:

“There continues to be a better choice -- the choice of de-escalation, the choice of joining the world in a diplomatic solution to this situation, a choice in which Russia recognizes that it can be a good neighbor and trading partner with Ukraine even as Ukraine is also developing ties with Europe and other parts of the world. I’m going to continue to engage President Putin as well as President Poroshenko and our European partners in pursuit of such a diplomatic solution.”[6]

The de-escalation message conveyed to Russia is indicative that U.S. military strategy concerning Ukraine is inconsistent with U.S. policy; there is a limit to what the U.S. will do to protect Ukraine.

Although the conflict in Ukraine presents many challenges, it also creates opportunities to build and reinforce collective security efforts in support of various national, regional, and global security interests. In February 2015, addressing the Leangkollen Conference in Oslo, Norway, NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow stated, “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is not an isolated incident, but a game-changer in European security.”[7] This confirmed that Russia’s actions against Ukraine were a European issue. This acknowledgement presented an opportunity for the U.S. to further collective security in Europe, which remains a vital interest of the U.S. However, rather than influence NATO to enact measures to strengthen collective defense, the U.S. has assumed the lead role in providing insufficient military support to Ukraine, thereby thwarting collective security efforts in the region.

This analysis of the Ukrainian crisis reveals that the U.S. military strategy for Ukraine is inconsistent with the NSS. The military strategy employed fails to deter Russia and prevents the U.S. from improving collective security efforts in Europe. Examples of similar strategies employed in previous conflicts demonstrate the complexities and challenges associated with such a strategy (such as, Libya and Syria). To prevent similar results, the U.S. must alter its military strategy.

There must be a complete overhaul of U.S. military strategy in Ukraine to align it with the NSS. Specifically, the U.S. should avoid escalation with Russia militarily when it is unwilling to leverage the Ukrainian conflict to compel NATO to improve its collective defenses.

The U.S. must also leverage other instruments of national power to weaken Russia militarily to deter future aggression. Since Ukraine is not an ally and President Obama has clearly indicated their sovereignty is not in U.S. national interest, the U.S. should leverage Russian success in Ukraine to persuade NATO members to improve collective security. To date, few countries have fulfilled their obligation to spend 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense spending. Although, In 2016, 14 NATO members increased their defense spending relative to GDP, the U.S. must continue to engage NATO members to progress toward the shared responsibility of collective defense. However, the US must continue to accept risk and through its own contributions to NATO signal its resolve toward shared responsibility.

David M. Fallon is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, currently attending the U.S. Naval War College, where he wrote a paper on Ukraine, from which this article is derived.  His full paper can be found in this collection of US Naval War College Joint Maritime Operations Papers on Ukraine.

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Header image: Russian marines perform during celebrations marking the forces’ annual holiday in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, November 29, 2014 | Stringer, REUTERS.


[1] Barak H. Obama, National Security Strategy. Washington, DC: The White House, February 2015. (accessed October 22, 2016). Pg. 4

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “A Strange Recent History of Russian Jets Buzzing Navy Ships,” The Washington Post, April 14, 2014, online edition. (accessed October 26, 2016).

[4] U.S.Congress, National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016, Sect. 1250. 114th Cong., 1st sess, 2015,

[5] Barack H. Obama, “Full Transcript: President Obama gives speech addressing Europe, Russia on March 26,” The Washington Post, March 26, 2014, online edition. (accessed October 22, 2016).

[6] Barack H. Obama, “Statement by the President on Ukraine,” (speech, Washington, DC, July 29, 2014), The White House,

[7] Alexander Vershbow, “Prospects for NATO-Russian Relations,” (speech, Oslo, Norway, February 2, 2015), NATO,