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In Praise of Prudence

Vladimir Putin clearly miscalculated in choosing to invade Ukraine. He misjudged the courage of Ukrainians in standing up to the Russian invasion. He misjudged the capabilities of Ukrainian troops. He misjudged the ability and willingness of Western Europeans to impose pain on themselves in order to punish Putin and Russia economically. And he misjudged Joe Biden’s capacity to marshal NATO and the EU to a stronger unity of purpose than they have seen in decades. The result: instead of easily occupying a collapsing Ukraine, as he expected, his forces are bogged down trying to besiege and occupy the major cities, and committing atrocious violence on noncombatants in the process.

Putin, surprisingly, cannot win this war, and the longer he keeps trying, the worse the damage to his economy, his armed forces, and his own grip on power.

Putin, surprisingly, cannot win this war, and the longer he keeps trying, the worse the damage to his economy, his armed forces, and his own grip on power. The Ukrainians, surprisingly, cannot lose this war: the longer they can avoid losing, the more likely they will win. But they will suffer devastating destruction in the process. They need for the war to end.

To end the war, the Ukrainian government may have to make enough territorial concessions to give Putin something to crow about. At a minimum, they will probably have to give up their claims on the Crimea and the Donbas region, both already under Russian occupation. But Russia is in no position to demand regime change, much less absorption of Ukraine into Russia. Ukraine will probably have to agree not to seek NATO membership.

Biden and other NATO and EU governments clearly see the Russian invasion as illegitimate under international law, and have provided Ukraine with a great deal of military, humanitarian and economic aid, as well as symbolic support in the UN. The war is fundamentally about blocking Ukraine from NATO membership, and Ukraine is not now, nor is it likely to be a NATO member.

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This places NATO — and especially the US — in a delicate position. NATO is not obliged by treaty to defend Ukraine, even if its members sympathize with that country. Paradoxically, NATO military action to defend Ukraine would probably be seen by Putin as more provocative that defending one of its own members (e.g., Estonia). The risk would be high of an escalation to a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia. This might initially be confined to Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, but could easily escalate into a global nuclear World War III.

This is the balance Biden and his colleagues are trying to strike. They want to aid Ukraine enough to keep it from losing, but they don’t want to drive Putin into a corner where he is tempted to go nuclear. Of course we must remember that using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be literally self-destructive for Russia and its ally Belarus, because radioactive fallout would render large adjacent areas of Russia and Belarus uninhabitable. So it is almost inconceivable that Putin would rationally choose nuclear weapons, but we don’t want to put him in a box where that’s the only alternative to defeat. We want negotiation, not a Götterdämmerung.

Joe Biden has managed this balance well. His opponents say he hasn’t been forceful enough, and many supporters and opponents are calling for a no-fly zone, and for transfer of fighter jets to Ukraine. President Zelensky is calling for both. But Biden not only has a strong interest in Ukraine’s success in this war, he also has a far more vital interest in avoiding a nuclear World War III. 

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Either a no-fly zone or provision of advanced aircraft to Ukraine hold a high potential of direct conflict between the US and Russia, which could easily escalate into a nuclear exchange and a global war.

Assuring the victory of Ukraine is not Biden’s highest duty. Preventing World War III is.

John Peeler