We must put emotions aside and ask the hard questions on Ukraine

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) wears a Ukrainian and American flag pin during a press conference on Thursday, March 3, 2022 to introduce the Banning Russian Energy Imports Act.
Greg Nash

As a country, and certainly at a policy level, we need to have serious conversations and ask hard questions about America’s and NATOs interests in Ukraine before undertaking measures that could well lead to an escalation spiral with Moscow—this is not to say the West should not act, but that it should act in a clear-eyed fashion.

We must ask ourselves what are our priorities, what are our strategic interests and what risks are we willing to accept to help create conditions for a political settlement on the ground. We must also be clear-eyed about the risks and potential consequences. Answers to those questions should drive our decision-making when it comes to the extent of, and any expansion to, our support to Ukraine.  

{mosads}Such an accounting is never easy — the heart-wrenching scenes of families being torn apart, refugees fleeing to neighboring countries and the bravery and heroism of the Ukrainian people make such calculus very human and difficult. It is far easier to be swept up in the emotionally laden imagery and stories spread on social media or the performative aspect of society’s response to Russia’s invasion, rather than dispassionately ask and consider questions about hard power, interests and risks. Indeed, that Ukraine has so successfully waged the information war may have given rise to greater expectations about Kyiv’s ability to withstand Russia’s onslaught and an underestimation of Moscow’s ability to sustain its war.  

At the end of the day, we must ask hard questions and seek candid answers. What are our interests in Ukraine? What is an achievable political outcome? What can we achieve at a politically acceptable cost in Ukraine? Will our actions lead to increased violence or harm? Will our actions lead to potential escalation or expansion of the crisis? Are we willing to put NATO or American troops in harms’ way for those political objectives? Are we willing to put NATO or American troops into a position where hostilities with a nuclear power would almost be certain? How will Moscow respond?  

If we believe that implementing a no-fly-zone or establishing protected humanitarian corridors are the morally right and politically necessary decisions, then we must be prepared to answer second and third order questions. What happens if a NATO aircraft is shot down? How will Brussels or Washington respond? If NATO retaliates, are we prepared for Moscow’s inevitable response? How do we keep those exchanges from escalating to something much worse? Will such an intervention lead to the aforementioned provocations and if so, how do we respond then?   

The answers to those questions, above all else, must drive our policy decision-making.   

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We must also be abundantly clear with ourselves and Russia that we recognize that this current crisis is unlike previous encounters. The risks of miscalculation and escalation are very real, as are the potential consequences. This is not 1991 or 2003 Iraq, Afghanistan in 2001, or Libya in 2011. Those conflicts were executed by the West in a situation of overwhelming conventional superiority against an adversary that was marginal at best — conditions that do would not exist in Ukraine. Russia’s recent military performance in Ukraine notwithstanding, it is still a near-peer, nuclear power with the capacity to exercise unconventional and traditional power.   

We are, right now, one or two decisions removed from having NATO/American troops staring at Russian troops across Ukraine’s battlefields. The consequences of who blinks first or who blinks at all could well be catastrophic if we do not act in a measured smart, and cautious fashion. We must consider these issues proactively, not reactively.   

Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said as much on CNN’s State of the Union, warning “The escalation risk with a nuclear power is severe, and it is a different kind of conflict than other conflicts the American people have seen over the years. The American president, Joe Biden, has to take that responsibility extremely seriously.”  

Perhaps the closest analogue to this crisis is when Russia seized Pristina airport ahead of an advancing NATO column in the wake of the Kosovo War. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Wesley Clark allegedly told British Lieutenant General Mike Jackson to retake the airport, to which Jackson is reported to have said, “I’m not going to start the third world war for you.” Cooler heads prevailed in that incident, the severity of which is certainly open to debate, but having two nuclear-armed powers shooting at one another is undesirable in any scenario.      

When it comes to escalation, we must not fear it — fearing escalation cedes psychological terrain to the adversary — something Putin will undoubtedly use to his advantage. Rather, the West must be both aware of the risks of, and cautious about, escalation. If the West believes that it can narrowly define the scope of an expanded involvement in Ukraine and manage escalation to achieve its politically defined objectives, then escalation is an acceptable risk. That is, however, a very big if.  

{mossecondads}We must also seek to understand how President Vladimir Putin understands escalation. As James Nixey of Chatham House has written “nuclear threats are a standard part of his repertoire – not a warfighting but a successful diplomatic tactic, deployed whenever he wants Russia to get away with something heinous.”  

In an article for the Atlantic, Tom McTague, rightly argues that a perfect storm of sorts risks forming over Ukraine. “The danger, then, is that escalating Western support for Ukraine — fueled by Putin’s barbarism, Ukrainian success, and Western optimism — will combine with the Russian regime’s growing weakness to create the conditions for miscalculation born of desperation.” This then, is the real risk: miscalculation and an escalatory slide that takes a “special military operation” or limited war in Ukraine and expands its scope to NATO countries, escalates in barbarity and the use of unconventional weapons, or seeks to provocation somewhere else.    

We must consider, above all else, our interests when deciding how we should act and what those actions should entail, and we must be clear-eyed in our calculus as these decisions to act (or not) will have consequences.  

Joshua C. Huminski is director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and a George Mason University National Security Institute visiting fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski. 

Editor’s note: This piece was updated on March 21 at 9:38 a.m. EST.

Tags Contemporary history International reactions to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Mike Rogers Post-Soviet conflicts Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Russian irredentism Russo-Ukrainian War Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin World War III

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