Editorial: Irony of the ages
The challenge Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky presented to President Biden and the U.S. Congress in his televised Wednesday address was as direct as it was brilliant: If you aspire to be the leader of the free world, he told President Biden (and all Western allies), then you must be willing to fight for freedom.
His sincere appeal for help captured the irony of the ages: to have peace, there are times you must fight.
Yet, the threat of nuclear war makes this a particularly fraught appeal. Because the U.S., France and the United Kingdom are the three NATO countries that possess nuclear weapons and Russia and China are the other two countries with vast nuclear weapon stockpiles, the danger of a nuclear conflict is real. It’s also commonly accepted the détente that has existed since the Cold War was based on the premise of deterrence — that is, each side has a rough parity of nuclear power so that it would be suicidal to deploy the weapons. The threat of mass deaths on both sides was enough to make the use of them unthinkable.
Putin is comfortable pushing the world to the brink of WWIII because he’s betting the U.S. and its allies are too timid to match his dare. The West will be the responsible party, he assumes, so he doesn’t have to be.
The strategic military debate at the moment — the behind the scenes conversations happening 24-7 in the Pentagon and White House — is how much firepower can the West bring to Ukraine’s aide without triggering an escalation. But if President Biden is to be true to his promise that he won’t let Ukraine fall to Russia, a tougher military response may be required.
A no-flight zone over Ukrainian airspace has been ruled out for a number of reasons, but substantial military aid — delivered immediately — will boost Ukraine’s military capacity.
Hopefully, that will be enough. But if peace talks stall and Russian forces move to seal off the capital of Kiev or move to attack Odessa, we would hope the West will do more to create defensive zones around vital areas of that country — and help man them. It is simply not tenable to think that once Putin has conquered strategic areas of that country he will easily walk away from them. Rather he will try to change the boundaries, as he did in Crimea — leaving Ukraine and the West few options but to continue a war-like footing in a divided and greatly weakened Ukraine.
Throughout the past three weeks, much has been written about Zelensky’s meteoric rise as a stalwart of democracy. Who would have imagined a month ago that this former show-biz comedian would do so much to strengthen and re-vitalize the democracies of the world? He and the Ukrainian people have embodied what it means to fight for freedom, for the love of their land and their independence, for the right of self-determination — and consequently jolted Americans and Europeans of all political stripes away from their flirtations with autocratic populists and remember the core values of the democracies they were so casually undermining.
Zelensky went on to raise the prospect of a new world order when he envisioned a body of nations who would respond to each other’s aid within 24 hours. He termed it United for Peace, or U-24, and envisioned a group of democracies that would respond to attacks on their homeland, natural disasters and pandemics within 24 hours. It’s an idea that sounds much like the mission of the United Nations, except that that organization is now rendered useless by the veto powers of two of the world’s more dangerous autocracies: Russia and China.
It’s an intriguing idea that directly addresses the need for more effective international bodies to preserve peace — and stymie the actions of dictators looking to overwhelm smaller neighboring countries.
America is fortunate to have a statesman like President Biden taking measured, but strong, responses to counter Russia’s invasion. Biden is right to warn China not to be on the wrong side of history and lend Russia aid. He’s right to use economic measures to cripple Russia’s ability to carry out a long-term war. He’s right to emphasize America’s willingness to militarily defend every inch of NATO-member countries.
But he’s wrong if he thinks that’s enough. If America and the West are going to be leaders of the free world — leaders of peace — they’ll have to be willing to carry a bigger stick. Specifically, they can no longer broadcast that military options are off the table, that the prospect of nuclear war is so terrible they can’t risk it. That’s a stance that invites dictators to thumb their noses at civility.
Putin broke the détente. To match his dare, the defensive measures available to NATO members should be on the table, and that should start with Ukraine. The hunch is that will bring Putin to the table quicker than not.
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