If Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has ushered in a second incarnation of the Cold War, perhaps the front line of this revived geopolitical confrontation is on the border separating Ukraine and Poland. That’s the point where American power and Russian revanchism could collide, as offensive weapons pour across the border into Ukraine from around the world, in an effort to fuel what many in the West have come to view as Ukraine’s righteous resistance to the Kremlin’s naked aggression.
Indeed, in the last eight days of carnage, as Mr. Putin’s forces stumbled through the initial steps of their invasion, Western media has celebrated Ukraine’s scrappy defiance, and elevated their young actor-turned wartime- leader, Voldomyr Zelensky, into something of a cause célèbre around the world. His self-recorded dispatches from Kyiv were by turns inspiring and desperate, as he called on the world to defend his dying democracy, even as this conflict threatens to spin utterly out of control.
The situation in Ukraine has grown only more dire. After what seemed to be a strategic failure regarding how easily Putin believed his forces might take Ukrainian cities, Russian armed forces have regrouped, and are now bombarding Ukrainian cities with massive and indiscriminate force.
This is hardly surprising. When Russia went to war in Chechnya, they leveled the regional capital of Grozny into dust. In Syria, Russian forces used barrel bombs and cluster munitions in Aleppo and elsewhere, killing civilians on a huge scale. These ugly tactics are thus par for the course, even if they are abhorrent, and illegal according to the laws of armed conflict.
A million fleeing Ukrainians have now crossed the border, in the world’s latest humanitarian crisis, as Russian armed forces begin to level Ukrainian cities in an effort to subdue an inspired resistance. There is mounting rage in the West, and calls for the United States to implement a “no-fly zone” in response to apparent Russian war crimes, in addition to the economic warfare the Biden administration is waging against the Russian state.
As some 20 countries, including Germany, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Finland, the Netherlands, Estonia, Sweden, Poland, Latvia and the United States send weapons into this war, the risk is that we may be creating the conditions for this conflict to expand. That is an intolerable outcome.
As Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently made explicit, “World War Three can only be nuclear.” Vladimir Putin himself made this point quite clearly, as he raised Russia’s nuclear alert status on television, days after he oversaw an exercise testing Russia’s nuclear triad. It was a stark reminder to the West, this war could engulf you. Tread softly.
As the world edges closer to war, the West must now pause, or risk unleashing the unthinkable. After all, a nuclear exchange would not spare Ukraine, or anyone.
Emotions are running white hot in Western capitals, and there is an unfamiliar feeling of helplessness descending on Washington. There’s an urge to “do something” to stop the horror, as Putin’s forces lay siege to Ukraine in an unprovoked war of territorial conquest, and naked aggression.
President Zelensky today pleaded for a no-fly zone, and said that Vladimir Putin’s army would continue on after conquering Ukraine into the rest of Eastern Europe. It is a terrifying thought, and a critical concern for the United States and Europe. Still, there is no evidence that Putin or his generals would continue marching past Ukraine into NATO-aligned countries; it would be a suicidal move, and utterly irrational. For the moment, the Russian army can’t even pacify Ukraine.
There seem to be two opposing currents running through the increasingly shrill discussion of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The first compares Vladimir Putin with Adolf Hitler, and questions whether or not his forces will stop in Ukraine, and posits that he must be stopped before he can attack a NATO country.
The other side of this argument is that the West must exercise extraordinary caution and judgment, in the face of the most perilous geopolitical catastrophe since JFK and Khrushchev came inches away from a nuclear holocaust, amid the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
We have reached a moment where everything is at stake. It is a situation that cries out for careful and deliberative policymaking from Washington, rather than the emotionally-driven response many crave. Even as Russian forces bombard Ukrainian cities and kill civilians, America must exercise endless restraint, even in the face of unimaginable suffering.
As Russian forces make significant advances in Ukraine, with military tactics that show little regard for civilian casualties, the United States just announced that it completed its first delivery of $10 billion in direct military aid to Ukraine. These are stinger missiles and mobile antitank weapons, and they are flowing through the Polish border, as Russian forces currently control most of southern Ukraine.
It seems likely that Vladimir Putin factored Western nations arming Ukraine’s military resistance into his invasion plans, even if he’s been surprised at the strength of that resistance. Simply put, Russia and the United States have both delivered weapons to their favored proxies for many years, into Afghanistan over the last four decades, Syria, and elsewhere.
This is a predictable part of modern warfare. The United States must exact a cost, without enlarging this conflict, and giving Vladimir Putin a way to unite Russians against the West. It is an incredibly thin needle to thread.
When Zelensky pleaded for a no-fly zone today, he warned of “the end of the world” if Russia wins. As valiant as he is, the end of the world is different than the end of the current Ukrainian state. The end of the world is what would happen if American and Russian forces entered into a direct military conflict; this is what must be avoided at all cost. This is why proxy battles happened during the Cold War, and why they’ll happen again, perhaps.
Vladimir Putin must be given a way out of the debacle he’s created. The Biden administration’s greatest task now is to keep the United States, and the world, from entering into a third world war.
America’s primary job isn’t to save Ukraine’s fledgling democracy, no matter how much we might revile Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian aggression, or admire President Zelensky’s democratic ambitions.
This is perhaps an unpopular argument, and it flies in the face of shimmering anger in the West at Putin’s manufacturing of a humanitarian crisis in the heart of Europe.
Yet we should remember that the United States has exercised restraint before, when the risks outweighed the rewards, in Syria, for instance, and Chechnya. We didn’t intervene when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, nor Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Why? Because American intervention would have presaged a nuclear confrontation. That is also the case now.
Again, we’ve reached a moment where direct military intervention may seem like an appealing option, morally or otherwise. We must resist this temptation, or risk the kind of apocalyptic war that would make all of this meaningless.
A “no-fly zone” is merely a clinical euphemism for war. The United States must reexamine diplomatic avenues with the Russian Federation, and make serious overtures to Vladimir Putin. We must be cautious, and respond to the situation on the ground with precision, and restraint. We must balance the need to impose costs on Russian aggression with the likelihood that we make this confrontation intractable, and larger.
It’s early, and the situation is changing rapidly. The United States and its European allies must seek out deescalatory paths, even as we impose economic sanctions, and deliver weapons to our Ukrainian allies. Indeed, we must prioritize finding a diplomatic path out of this morass, if one exists.
American power abroad exists to safeguard the security of Americans at home, rather than to perpetuate itself. That is the Biden administration’s first task now, in this perilous moment, where nuclear armageddon is now back firmly in the realm of possibilities.