What If Russia Invades Ukraine?

A look at the past could help Washington and its allies devise the proper response.

Despite the election of Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine’s president, the withdrawal of some Russian forces from Ukraine's border and efforts to move diplomacy along, the specter of a Kremlin military incursion remains as does the West’s befuddlement about what to do should an attack occur. In thinking through the problem, American decision makers would do well to examine how past presidents dealt with Moscow’s direct and proxy interventions during the Cold War and beyond.

History reveals four patterns. At one end, the United States relied on massive force in Korea and Vietnam. In response to Soviet suppression of revolts in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968), policy stopped at gawking and pouting. In Afghanistan (1979-89), Washington took a middle position joining economic and other sanctions with more significant military material assistance to resisters, while in Georgia (2008), it relied largely on diplomacy.

Could any of these strategies be the recipe for Ukraine today? For the moment, the Georgia track may hold the best course, reserving the Afghan template, should Moscow invade Ukraine. The remaining options—insertion of large numbers of Western forces, raising risks of a broader European war, while the East German, Hungarian and Czech option—turn a blind eye—would promise an easy out for the West, but would encourage Russia to look further afield to bring additional former Soviet states, populations and others into the fold. A look back at history explains.

For Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, the large commitment of American forces to Korea and Vietnam came from fear of the slippery slope, a Munich redux as the Cold War heated up. The lesson is—never again. As Harry Truman explained in his memoir: “I felt certain that if South Korea was allowed to fall, Communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores.” Failure to respond could be the “start of a chain of events leading most probably to world war.” Echoing him, Johnson said of Vietnam, “If we ran out of Southeast Asia, it could be trouble ahead in every part of the globe—not just in Asia but in the Middle East and in Europe, Africa and in Latin America. I was convinced that our retreat from this challenge would open the path to World War III.” The result, the United States fought multiyear wars with too much sacrifice in blood and treasure with little to show for U.S. security in the end.

Circumstance would prompt Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson to see things differently in Eastern Europe. The Eisenhower administration put itself in an early bind calling for “rollback” and “liberation” of the region from Soviet domination. But soon after entering office, hubris faced reality, leaving Washington with little but humanitarian aid to offer East Berliners when they revolted in 1953.

On the eve of the Hungarian revolution, the muddle of administration policy was reflected in the key July 18, 1956 National Security Council policy statement. On the one hand, the guidance conceded that “incitements to violence” in the East could result in a “net loss” to U.S. “objectives” due to reprisals. On the other hand, it declared U.S. policy should “not discourage” “spontaneous manifestations of discontent and opposition.” It called for assisting “nationalists in any form where conducive to independence from Soviet domination.” Then came Hungary and, again, reality. Reflecting on why he decided to stand down after publically “deploring” the intervention, Eisenhower conceded, “Sending United States troops alone into Hungary through hostile or neutral territory would have involved us in general war.” Twelve years later as Soviet forces entered Prague, Lyndon Johnson concurred.

December 1979 Afghanistan, the brink of a new decade, saw another Kremlin military challenge with a twist—Moscow’s sole large-scale, Cold War military plunge into a non–Warsaw Pact state. For President Jimmy Carter, the occupation became “the most serious threat to world peace since World War II.” The fear was that Afghanistan would become the launch pad for Moscow to control the globe’s Persian Gulf oil spigot.

Given the stakes, gawking and pouting were taken off the table. Instead, Washington response was to implement sanctions—the boycott of the Olympics and the halt of a large grain sale to Moscow. More significant but hidden from view, Carter and then Reagan took a leaf from the Soviet playbook to green-light the infiltration of critical antiarmor and aircraft weapons to Afghan resisters from neighboring Pakistan. The result turned the tide.

Policy toward Russia’s 2008 Georgia invasion was quite another matter. Diplomacy substituted for guns. In her memoir, Condoleezza Rice described the National Security Council decision-making: