What are the risks and benefits of US/NATO military options in Ukraine? Our strategic risk calculator has answers.

By Lt Col Tyson Wetzel and Barry Pavel

Faced with the shocking images of Russian military forces indiscriminately shelling civilians across Ukraine, Western countries are under mounting pressure to find new ways to help Ukrainians defend themselves. As the Atlantic Council’s military fellows concluded in their latest assessment, Russian forces—despite seriously stumbling during their first week of combat in Ukraine—still pose a perilous threat as the Kremlin’s invasion proceeds.

While the Biden administration is working closely with NATO allies and European partners to respond to the invasion diplomatically and economically—as well as pledging billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine—many analysts also are advocating specific ideas for how Western leaders can “do more” to bolster Kyiv’s defenses. Clearly, if the United States and its allies and partners are going to increase their support for Ukraine, it must happen immediately. But such action also must be carefully considered, and its relative benefits in terms of effectiveness must be weighed against the potential risks of escalating the conflict to a war between Russia and NATO.

With that in mind, on March 3 the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security conducted a survey of thirty-seven national security experts, including a former ambassador to Russia and top NATO official, former senior officials at the US National Security Council and Defense Department, retired and active-duty military personnel, and experts across the Atlantic Council. We asked them to evaluate eleven options, all primarily military in nature, that the United States and NATO could take to strengthen Ukraine’s defenses. The result is a strategic risk calculator for policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic to assess the possible risks and benefits of boosting their military assistance to the Ukrainian government.

Our approach

We presented our survey respondents with eleven options that span humanitarian assistance, the transfer of military equipment to Ukraine, and even covert and overt military actions within the country. The description of each option included a basic concept of operations and purpose.

These options were evaluated on two criteria:

For every option, we calculated the average score across all survey respondents on the effectiveness and escalation measures. Based on how each option scored on these measures, we then gave it an overall designation of “significantly positive,” “slightly positive,” “neutral,” “slightly negative,” or “significantly negative.” We calculated this “net rating” by subtracting the average effectiveness score by the average escalation score as a proxy for the balance our experts felt the option struck between offering effective support for Ukraine and managing the risks of escalation. We also asked survey respondents to rank each option using these two criteria and offered them the opportunity to provide additional comments describing their assessment and recommendations for improving or modifying the option. Our results are plotted in our “effectiveness versus risk” matrix below:

A fluid environment

This war, like all others, is dynamic and highly unpredictable. The pressures on, and the perceived interests of, NATO nations, Russia, and Ukraine will ebb and flow over time as the battle evolves. We would therefore expect the ways in which respondents score these military options to shift as the major parameters of the war, and the associated impact on the key interests of the parties involved, change.

In particular, it is very likely that images of mass humanitarian suffering and widespread killing of innocent civilians by the undisciplined and oftentimes unprofessional Russian military forces will exert even greater pressure on the United States and NATO allies to act more forcefully. This is why the West’s perception of the relative balance of risks may well change over the course of this conflict.

The best options

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The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.