My Ukrainian friends continue to be upset about my failure to endorse a no-fly zone over Ukraine. As I explained in my last post, the reason I am opposed is that it would necessarily involve NATO forces directly attacking Russian targets on Russian territory, with all of the dangers of escalation this implies. Among other things, there is no appetite for taking this risk in the U.S. Congress right now, and the strong support for Ukraine in America right now would begin to disintegrate were we to take this step. Something similar would happen within the NATO alliance.
To this, there are two responses that are more moral than strategic posed by my Ukrainian friends. The first was to ask whether there was a “red line” at which the humanitarian catastrophe enveloping Ukraine got so large that it would justify taking such a risk.
I don’t know the answer to this question. In all previous humanitarian interventions, there was never a risk of the intervention leading to interstate war between nuclear-armed great powers. This risk did appear during the Cold War, particularly in the Middle East, but in those cases both NATO and the Soviet Union acted very cautiously.
The second question has to do with solidarity among liberal democracies. As I argued, the Ukrainians right now are fighting and dying alone on behalf of all of us. The outside world has shown surprising solidarity with them, but other countries are not presently sharing anything like a comparable level of risk and cost to themselves. Since the Russian onslaught is really an attack on all of us that just happens to be localized in Ukraine right now, don’t we have reason to open up other fronts against Moscow, including other military initiatives beyond weapons resupply?
I would say that the answer to the latter question is yes, with the caveat that publics in Western countries need to be brought on board with this thought because they’re not there yet. For the time being, I think we need to do several things quite urgently.
We need to move quickly to supply Ukraine with ground-based air defense systems. President Volodymyr Zelensky in his address to the U.S. Congress suggested that if a no-fly zone was impossible, we should at least accelerate the shipment of S-300 missile systems from our NATO partners, as well as other types of arms. This is happening as we speak, but it needs to happen more quickly.
We need to pay much more attention to what is happening in the south of Ukraine. There the Russians have made much more progress in moving against Ukrainian forces fighting in the Donbas, and there is a real risk that a major part of the Ukrainian army could be cut off and trapped there as this RUSI report indicates. This would obviously be a terrible blow to Ukrainian morale across the board. We haven’t paid much attention to ways that we could help interdict Russian efforts to resupply their forces in this theater. This would involve, in the first instance, attacks on Russian forces operating in Ukraine rather than in Russia itself, or naval forces that are effectively blockading Ukraine.
All of this involves risks that are impossible to calculate. One can make a plausible case that Putin would back down in the face of a strong NATO response, or the opposite, that he will get desperate and escalate in unforeseen and deadly ways. The defense of a broader democratic order may require that we break out of our initial assumptions about what are acceptable levels of risk to take.
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