Let’s Avoid a WW III 

Weapons from the U.S. and other NATO countries have helped Ukraine thwart Russian attacks on Northern Ukraine.  Now Russia’s on-going second wave in the Eastern region brings new dangers, including threats of chemical attacks and more. As Putin becomes desperate to claim victory before his upcoming WW II victory celebration on May 9, he seems ready to consider first use of so-called “low-yield” tactical nuclear weapons and has this week tested a long -range missile.

According to the April 15 Washington Post, Russa “sent a formal diplomatic note to the United States warning that U.S. and NATO shipments of the ‘most sensitive’ weapons systems to Ukraine were ‘adding fuel’ to the conflict there and could bring ‘unpredictable consequences.'”  Bluff or not, Putin’s threats are real.  In his speech at Georgia Tech on April 14, CIA Director William Burns cautioned: “none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons.”

According to the New York Times, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declared at the end of his April 23 visit to Ukraine that America’s goal is to see Russia “weakened” militarily. As Washington pledges additional arms and demonizes Putin, the escalating proxy war raises the risk of armed conflict between two nuclear armed powers.

Most Americans get their war news from television stations that nightly display grisly war scenes and mostly applaud the increasing U.S. arms aid (now more than $3.2 billion)–while it echoes President Zelensky’s repeated pleas for planes, high-tech weapons and no-fly zones.  With company profits in mind, the U.S. defense industry lobbies members of Congress to sustain the arms flow. In the face of a hawkish Congress and their constituents, President Biden has found himself retreating from his “red lines” that ruled out sophisticated military hardware and nuclear first use.

Few have questioned U.S. determination to keep supplying arms to Zelensky as long as needed.  Few have cited the consequences of a lost wheat harvest in Ukraine. When combined with a likely shortfall in Russian wheat, global shortages will leave millions of poor people in the Middle East and Africa unable to afford an increased price of bread. Hunger and social upheaval could well trigger unprecedented migration. Growing military budgets could fuel a global arms race.  Continuing arms aid will likely prolong the war, (some experts say, for a year or more). Are Americans and other NATO country citizens ready for that?

U.S. sanctions may stifle the Russian economy in the long term, but the ongoing purchases of Russian oil and gas by some European countries are financing Putin’s war today. If Zelensky is told that imports of weapons from the West are now at an end, serious diplomacy (with compromises on both sides) would likely become more pragmatic and urgent for Ukraine.  Given Putin’s focus on May 9 and his current gains in Eastern Ukraine, he may be ready to accept even modest Zelensky concessions as both an off-ramp and a sort of “victory.”

Russian deployment of tactical nukes in Ukraine could easily spark a wider war of ICBMs that can reach both Europe and the U.S. Despite the horrific brutality of the Russian invasion and an outpouring of popular sympathy for Ukraine, Western leaders would be wise to inform their citizens of the real risk of global nuclear war and the urgent necessity of ending arms shipments to Ukraine. On his side, Zelensky must convince his heroic soldiers and fellow citizens that some territorial concessions will now be necessary to bring peace.

Given the current state of the war, China’s President Xi might now be willing to persuade Putin to negotiate a ceasefire.  A renewal of U.S. diplomacy with China would also present an opportunity for the two most powerful nations to begin a dialogue on a new global security structure and multipolar relationships.

In short, the U.S. and NATO should make the reduction of nuclear war-risk a top priority.  They should stop shipping arms to Ukraine and thereby pressure Zelensky to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Russians. At least some territorial concessions by Ukraine (in the Donbas for example) would provide an offramp for Putin and give him at least a partial “victory” to announce at his May 9 event.

However, if the West continues to stoke the conflict with massive transfers of sophisticated arms and verbal attacks on Russia’s President, the immediate diplomatic incentive may be lost. Humanity will then face a greater risk of world hunger, migration surge and nuclear holocaust.

Our objective should now be peace through diplomacy, not endless war through arms aid.

L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.