Editorial: Ukraine: Lines in the sand
No doubt, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine presents complex and fraught choices for America, NATO and our western allies. His sudden invasion and willingness to bomb civilian targets caught much of the world by surprise — even though President Biden rightly telegraphed to the world an invasion was imminent.
What wasn’t known was the fierce resistance of Ukraine’s military, the fighting will of its people and how they and their president would rally the world to their defense. Nor did the world know of the ineffectiveness — in these early days of the invasion — of Russia’s military.
Two weeks into this war, what seems clear is that it could well be a drawn-out affair with high casualties on both sides, along with the death of thousands of civilians and the wanton destruction of many Ukrainian cities. Everyone is desperate for a way out of such devastation — except, pundits are quick to say, Putin.
Putin, they reason, has too much at stake to withdraw short of Ukraine’s defeat, or in terms that Russia could claim its goals of the invasion were met.
“In the coming weeks it will become more and more obvious that our biggest problem with Putin in Ukraine is that he will refuse to lose early and small, and the only other outcome is that he will lose big and late,” writes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “But because this is solely his war and he cannot admit defeat, he could keep doubling down in Ukraine until… until he contemplates using a nuclear weapon.”
It’s a thought, Friedman says, that terrifies him, but he goes on to say he doesn’t see how Putin can “win” in Ukraine in any sustainable way; that the hatred of him and Russia among Ukrainians will make it nearly impossible to control a nation of 40-plus million people for any length of time. And as long as Russia occupies Ukraine and the West’s sanctions are in place, Russia’s economy will remain severely crippled. It is, in short, a no-win scenario for Putin. In that view of things, further devastation is Putin’s only way to save face, to show he (and Russia) are strong.
Many political and military analysts share Friedman’s perspective. The majority agrees that to confront Putin directly could prompt Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons, a cataclysmic outcome that must be avoided at all costs.
Certainly, that’s the safe way forward.
But is it the West’s best response?
There are reasons to think not. First, it’s highly doubtful Putin will withdraw without being forced to; second, as a matter of strategy, stating upfront that military options are off the table for the West negates any effective short-term response. If the stance of NATO and western allies is to never engage aggressors with military force when they invade an independent country (outside of the NATO alliance) without provocation, then economic sanctions are an aggressor’s only fear of reprisal. The West’s economic sanctions are impressive and will be effective long-term against Russia, but at what cost to Ukraine or to others in Ukraine’s place?
And why is Putin able to dictate the terms of engagement; that he alone is able to draw lines in the sand by which the West cannot cross?
Putin broke the rules of détente that prevailed these past 75 years, Today, the West should respond by reframing the terms of engagement. Along with economic sanctions, the West should let Putin know it will be implementing defensive military measures, and make clear to the world these are not meant to be declarations of war. (Seize the media and make the case.)
The West could make clear, for example, they will be protecting Ukraine’s remaining nuclear power plants with international forces to prevent damage to the plants (and catastrophic loss of life and environmental harm) in the event they came under attack. The West could draw a line a respectable distance east of Odessa to say its intent was not to allow Russian forces to advance further west, so as to keep at least one Ukrainian port to the Black Sea open for Ukraine. It could, and should, take Poland up on its offer to supply Ukraine with military jets to make control of Ukraine’s air space a fairer fight. (It was a mistake to stop that action. Little difference to give Ukraine tanks and missiles to shoot down aircraft, but suddenly draw the line at not providing jets only because Putin said not to.)
Putin may consider each of those actions to be declarations of war, but then again, he has already said the economic sanctions are “declarations of war” — to no worse effect. Furthermore, each of these responses would be a concrete step that Putin can choose to accept and avoid conflict with the West. These are the West’s lines in the sand by which Putin should not cross lest he starts a nuclear war. That angst needs to be his. These military responses definitely raise the stakes; they create high risk. But there is also risk in not doing enough and, from a military perspective, it’s clear we’re not doing enough, soon enough for Ukraine.
Modest military action by the West forces Putin to recognize his military victory isn’t assured and gives him a way to save face as a man of reason.
He could claim his goals were mostly achieved, but that his intent is not to start a nuclear war. He could be seen as the one who makes the rational choice when the world was at the brink. Part of the package could be the West agrees not to stage NATO troops in the Ukraine for the next decade, while also keeping open the possibility of selling them weapons, which allows them to rebuild a Ukrainian military, as they surely would.
Much else would need to be negotiated (including the withdrawal of Russian forces), of course, but the first step is getting Putin to recognize the smart move is to cut his losses. He can’t do that and save face, unless he is forced to by a military greater than Ukraine’s.
Editor’s disclaimer: I have no particular insight to make these comments. I’m certainly no military analyst. There are many good reasons not to pursue any action that might prompt the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. But I’m frustrated by these events, and find it unfathomable that the world would stand idle and watch a nation fall — and all the death that implies — when it has the means to say no..
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