Watching events unfold in Ukraine over the course of the last two weeks, since Russia launched its unprovoked, reckless, and apparently poorly-planned and supported invasion on February 24th, 2022, many of us in The West are likely torn between two conflicting impulses.
The first, and likely more emotionally charged and dominant of the two, is the urge to do something to help the people of Ukraine to defend themselves. This impulse has manifested itself in calls for crippling financial sanctions against Russia, arming Ukraine with all manner of lethal weapons, cheering companies and organizations that have decided to shun Putin’s country, and for some few thousand Americans, enlisting in Ukraine’s international volunteer battalions to fight the Russians directly.
This first impulse has also led many citizens of The West to support and call for welcoming Ukraine into the European Union and NATO, and even the establishment of a No-Fly Zone over Ukraine. Some have even gone so far as to call for NATO ground forces involvement in the war. These more serious and increasingly escalatory suggested measures have bumped up hard against the geopolitical barrier presented by the second impulse many of us feel.
The more logical, practical, and cautious parts of our collective consciousness cannot help but be wary of what might happen if NATO and/or American forces come face to face with Russian forces on the battlefield and begin killing one another. It is not that we worry that Russia will defeat our forces — that notion has been firmly mooted by the Russians’ seemingly amateurish and disorganized performance on the battlefield to date — but rather, that a hot war between NATO and Russia has the real potential to turn into a nuclear exchange.
This second impulse is a justified one, and should not be wholly subjugated to the more pressing emotional desire to do something to help the heroic Ukrainians fight back against a brutal invader. We should not let our fervent and entirely justified desire to do all that we can for Ukraine drag us blindly into a nuclear exchange or World War III. Cooler heads must prevail and weigh decisions based on sound judgment and with the prevention of global nuclear war as the overriding concern.
That all said, the supremacy of geopolitical caution and logic need not prevent The West from going further in making Russia pay for its wanton disregard of Ukraine’s sovereignty and its callous targeting of civilians and non-military infrastructure in the country.
The United States and Europe should continue its near-total economic war on Russia, which advanced further on March 8th with the United States announcing an import ban on Russian oil and gas. Russia should continue to feel the effects of its war of choice, and pay the high economic price for its disregard of geopolitical norms.
Additionally, Europe and the United States should up our shipments of lethal and monetary aid to Ukraine, including intelligence covert action programs and the provision of fighter aircraft that Ukrainian pilots can use to firmly establish and maintain air superiority over its own skies.
A Lend-Lease type program with Poland, as has been recently suggested in the media, in which Poland provides fighters to Ukraine, and the United States replenishes Polish stocks with U.S. fighters, is the right type of move. It signals to Ukraine — and Russia — that while NATO countries are not going to join the fight as direct combatants (unless attacked), they are nevertheless committed to Russia’s total defeat in its ill-chosen war against Ukraine. Earlier today, Poland signaled its willingness to turn over its fleet of MiG-29s to the U.S., seemingly to be transferred further to Ukraine from there.
U.S. President Joe Biden and European leaders should also make it crystal clear to their own publics, to both the Russian and Ukrainian publics, and most importantly, to Vladimir Putin, that Western governments are balanced on the knife’s edge of calculated non-direct involvement and committing forces in some fashion to the fight. In other words, Putin must believe that he is one Russian misstep away from drawing NATO into the conflict. He must have no doubt that NATO forces will not hesitate to defend each and every member, and he must also believe that the possibility exists that NATO member forces might individually or collectively join the fray if Russian invasion forces cross some clearly-delineated red lines.
What those red lines are will have to be hashed out amongst U.S. and European political leaders, weighing the views of their respective publics and what various American and European leaders deem acceptable justifications for war with Russia. Even if they cannot come to firm collective agreement over what those agreed-upon red lines are, Putin must believe that they exist and will be enforced.
Vladimir Putin has for too long seen The West, its leaders, and its citizens as mired in internal political strife, collectively fragmented, and half-heartedly committed to democracy and the international political order. The brave citizen-soldiers and army of Ukraine — and by extension, Western unity in support of them — should have disabused him of these notions over the last two weeks. Still, we must continue to present a united front in support of Ukraine, and stand up to the despot of Moscow for as long as it takes.
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