I have a question. And I really do pose this as a question to which I seek an answer, not as some gotcha rhetorical trick:
Can Russia just do whatever they want to whomever they want in their neighborhood?
As we watch the escalating horrors continue to unfold in Russia’s devastating, criminal, terrifying war on Ukraine, we (the West in the large) sit here basically paralyzed. Yes, we have sent munitions and humanitarian aid, shared intelligence, and we’ve applied some of the strictest sanctions the world has ever seen. I certainly don’t mean to minimize that. It’s a lot, and it matters. But as the Ukrainians ask for more, in particular, NATO’s help in closing the skies to hostile aircraft, we say that’s a bridge too far.
On its face, this makes perfect sense. To enforce a “no-fly zone” sounds like no big deal, but in fact it would involve our pilots actively shooting down enemy pilots, as well as attacking their anti-aircraft positions on the ground, and supply lines, too. And, if you’re going to get really serious about it, you would want to attack their rear air bases from where they launch—possibly on their own soil. That’s obviously and qualitatively different from shipping in anti-tank missiles for Ukrainian soldiers to fire, or food and blankets. It’s the stuff of Real War—us vs. them.
The centrist Western leaders quite correctly point out that we can’t afford to have a Real War with Russia. Because they have nukes, of course. Thousands of them, and they can target them to any location on the planet. They also have a completely deranged psychopath in possession of the launch codes, and more than enough willing supporters and enablers to make sure that his orders to fire will be carried out if issued. It’s obvious. We have to be very careful there, even if the consequence is the atrocities we see unfolding in towns all across Ukraine as the Russians retreat. So, sorry, Ukraine. It’s going to be a “yes-fly zone.”
Let’s explore a hypothetical. What if the war criminal continues to believe the lies of his generals who tell him that his army is kicking ass, and decides that Ukraine was a good start, but Poland would be a juicier main course? Or if he wants a land route tying Kaliningrad Oblast back to the mainland, and Lithuania and Latvia are in the way? You might say, well, John, those are all NATO members, and of course that’s different. We are obligated by treaty at that point to come to their defense, so we will. (And again, by “we” I mean all of NATO, not just the US.) Article V to the rescue. Avengers assemble!
But the Russian ICBMs don’t just go away in that scenario. If we are paralyzed about engaging Russian forces directly because we believe the maniac will end the world, then why would something like a 75-year-old treaty matter at that point? It’s just words on paper. He’s got nukes and he’s willing to use them, as established. Sorry, Poland. Sorry, Baltics. I’m sure you understand; the nukes, you know? We can’t do Real War for you, either. And of course any non-NATO members in the area can expect the same treatment Ukraine got. Sorry, Finland. Sorry, Moldova.
Based on this (reasonable! I am not arguing for war! I’m just asking a question!) policy of not wanting to directly engage the nuclear-armed madman, it seems to me the answer to my question is, at best, a qualified yes: he can do whatever he wants to adjacent nations. It doesn’t seem like the sanctions as constructed are really going to make a big difference. If anything, they are having the effect of rallying the Russian people behind the war. The oligarchs are miffed about losing their yachts, but they’re ultimately toothless. And the rest of the world is, for cause, terrified of him. The board’s wide open for him.
My qualification on that “yes” is that the one thing that might stop him from plowing further west is the hapless ineptitude of his military. Regardless of what the flunkies are telling the emperor, the troops have no clothes, in some cases literally, and presumably the dedicated, well prepared domestic armies of eastern European nations would kick their sorry asses just like the Ukrainians have, all without boots on the ground (or planes in the sky) help from otthers. But as we’re seeing in the images from Bucha and other places, that victory comes at a nightmarish, unthinkable cost to civilians. Sorry, civilians.
And of course there are other bad actors on the world stage in possession of nuclear arms, or nearly so, and they are watching all of this, and our response.
We are entering such an impossibly dark time. I don’t think there are good answers to any of the questions.
Photo credit: Ukraine’s Tunnel of Love by Walter Martin on Unsplash