Thursday, March 10, 2022

Can the West Save Kyiv Without Starting a War With Russia?

 From Janice Gross Stein, at Foreign Affairs, "The Ukraine Dilemma":

In the months preceding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin was planning an attack, the United States and its allies pursued two strategies in sequence. First, they tried to control escalation. U.S. President Joe Biden made an early and firm commitment not to send U.S. forces to Ukraine in order to reduce the chance of an all-out war with Russia. Then, he turned to a strategy of coercive diplomacy, combining threats with inducements. Biden warned of severe economic consequences if Putin attacked and offered to negotiate with Russia over its security concerns.

That strategy failed the moment Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border. Now, as Russian forces push closer to Kyiv, Western policymakers have two competing objectives. On the one hand, they want to do everything short of committing military force to help Ukraine survive Russia’s brutal and unjustified attack. On the other hand, they want to prevent a full-scale war between Russia and NATO. What makes the challenge so hard is that the more they do to achieve one objective, the less likely they are to achieve the other. Tradeoffs are the norm in foreign policy, but rarely is the choice as stark as it is in Ukraine. It is no surprise that NATO members are struggling to thread the needle.

Consider the question of a no-fly zone, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has urgently requested NATO establish over his country. A no-fly zone would significantly help Ukraine’s embattled forces, but it would also raise the odds that Russian forces might unintentionally or deliberately attack NATO aircraft, which is why members of the alliance have ruled it out. In other words, the United States and its allies face a tough dilemma: how can they protect Ukraine and push back against Russian aggression, but avoid a war with Russia, a country that has the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons?


As attacks on Ukraine go on, it is all too easy to imagine scenarios in which NATO and Russia find themselves in a direct conflict that neither side wants. One pathway to escalation involves the convoys coming in from Poland and Romania to resupply Ukrainian forces with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Russia could attack these convoys in order to choke off the flow of military supplies that are making a significant difference on the battlefield. Although it is not NATO itself that is organizing these shipments but rather individual members, NATO is a collective security organization. An attack against any NATO member is an attack against all. Imagine if a Russian jet bombed French military equipment being unloaded at a base in Romania. Would such an attack justify invoking Article 5, the commitment to collective defense in the NATO charter? That proposition has not been tested, but if NATO leaders concluded that such an attack did justify collective defense, then NATO and Russia would find themselves at war.

Even more alarming are scenarios in which the current crisis could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. In the days immediately preceding the attack and several times since, Russian leaders have spoken about nuclear weapons. Putin has raised the alert of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces twice, and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned on March 2 that any war with NATO would be nuclear. So far, Russian forces have not increased their readiness in response to these alerts, and some argue that Russian nuclear threats are nothing more than saber rattling designed to deter NATO from providing the critical military support in the air and on the ground that Ukraine needs. But no member of NATO, especially those in Europe, is willing to dismiss Russian nuclear threats as a bluff and open the door to deadly escalation.

So far, the West has made little progress on controlling escalation. The negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian officials are moving at a desultory pace. They have agreed only to establish humanitarian corridors for refugees and safe zones around nuclear plants, and Russian forces violated both almost immediately after the agreements were announced. The Pentagon and the Russian Ministry of Defense have also established a new hotline to deconflict U.S. and Russian forces. But all these measures are only weak brakes on escalation.

Deterrence at its current level of punishment also doesn’t seem to be working. Sanctions always take time to work; they don’t stop tanks that are rolling. Russia’s leaders have given no indication yet that they are genuinely interested in a ceasefire or negotiations. To the contrary, they are doubling down on their attacks. After his March 3 conversation with Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron said he had concluded that the Russian president was intent on taking all of Ukraine. Battlefield pressures may push Putin to make an offer, but he has made his long-term intentions clear.

As public outrage over the invasion grows and civilian casualties mount, NATO countries will have to walk a fine line between deterring Russia and escalating the conflict. There are two ways to think about this problem.

The first draws heavily on well-established theories of rationality and deterrence. The only way to stop an aggressive leader, these arguments go, is to raise the costs of military action and demonstrate unshakable resolve, both in words and deeds. That was how the economist Thomas Schelling saw the Cuban missile crisis. Schelling argued that the standoff with the Soviet Union was a game of chicken, in which two drivers are headed straight toward each other on a narrow road. When you’re playing chicken, Schelling argued, the best strategy is to throw away your steering wheel, so that the other driver sees that you can no longer swerve. That driver now has no choice but to swerve in order to avoid a crash.

Since the war began, NATO leaders have reinforced deterrence...