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Limiting the war: What might Western intervention look like in Ukraine?

Zelensky in Ukraine
AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gives a speech to the media in Kherson, southern Ukraine, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. Ukraine’s retaking of Kherson was a significant setback for the Kremlin and it came some six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Kherson region and three other provinces in southern and eastern Ukraine — in breach of international law — and declared them Russian territory.

Isolationist and partisan fear-mongering aside, the recent Polish missile incident is not a step toward another world war. Rather, it demonstrates the persistent skittishness — and the lack of strategic clarity — with which the West has pursued its Ukraine policy. The extremely limited prospect of direct Russia-NATO conflict drew all manner of critiques and has prompted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s only rhetorical misstep of the war thus far.

More incidents like this are possible, because Russia may probe Western resolve and because of simple accidents. The immediate solution, of course, is to arm Ukraine sufficiently to win. More generally, Western policymakers and observers of international affairs would do well to consider more carefully the implications and manner of a direct intervention in Ukraine.

In short, the Ukraine War may become a Russia-NATO war — but this need not mean “World War III,” or even a European-wide war.

The Polish missile incident demonstrates that unplanned escalation is remarkably unlikely. It is precisely the sort of incident about which the commentariat and Twitterati have warned for months. Facts on the ground indicate that Russia did not intentionally strike a target in Poland. The location in question, Przewodów, is a village of 413 people under five miles from the Polish-Ukrainian border; it contains no targets of strategic value. If Russia had attacked intentionally, this would be a poor signaling mechanism. Moreover, wreckage from the incident indicates the missile was an S-300 anti-air interceptor, not a ground-attack cruise missile; most likely, it was Ukrainian-launched. Russia had unleashed its greatest missile barrage of the war earlier that day, targeting Ukraine’s power network. The S-300 probably missed its target and continued into Poland, landing in Przewodów and killing two civilians.

The Ukrainians responded overzealously. President Zelensky immediately accused Russia of an attack on Poland. The reaction was entirely understandable. For one thing, Russia bears sole responsibility for the incident; Ukraine must defend its territory. It is remarkable that after eight months of war, similar spillover incidents have not been more common. For another, rumors of public pressure on Ukraine to negotiate — to concede territory for a peace settlement — are mounting, despite Ukraine’s battlefield success. Zelensky almost certainly saw an opportunity to preempt these calls for peace that are simultaneously strategically irrational and morally reprehensible.

Horizontal escalation of some sort remains possible, however. Incidents like the Przewodów affair will occur again; Russia will continue its hybrid probing against the West — cutting undersea cables with its deniable spy ships, for example, or damaging petrochemical pipelines. Moreover, once the West survives winter and once Ukraine likely gains more on the battlefield, Russia will become more desperate to disrupt Western supplies to Ukraine. It is not difficult to imagine Russian strikes near enough to the Polish-Ukrainian border to cause damage in Poland, Russian attacks on grain ships that break the Black Sea Grain Agreement, or even — unlikely as it may be — a Russian-triggered meltdown of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor.

If NATO’s Article 5 were triggered, if the United States and its allies were actively under Russian attack, what sort of response would be strategically reasonable?

Any active confrontation between NATO and Russia is extremely risky. Russia’s nuclear capacity and the now-demonstrable mismatch between Western and Russian capabilities places Russia at an unmistakable disadvantage. This has obvious nuclear implications: If Russia is so badly on the back foot now in Ukraine, and since NATO intervention would tip the scales decisively against Russia, the Kremlin could see it in their interest to employ nuclear weapons to even the odds with the West.

Any NATO intervention would begin with the question of political-military objectives. What might victory mean in this confrontation? Although horizontal escalation would politically expand the war, NATO’s objectives would not change. Its goal would remain an independent Ukraine, at this point within the Western orbit, with defensible borders. This likely includes ensuring that Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, or states, are in Ukrainian hands; it may entail returning the Crimea and the Donbas regions to Ukraine.

Alongside this political-military objective is the recognition that NATO must avoid an unconstrained nuclear exchange with Russia.

The realities of the military balance add a third element: Russia will lose rapidly if NATO actively intervenes in the conflict.

These three factors — political, strategic and military — can be balanced. There are three reasonable responses.

First, NATO should restrict any operations to Ukrainian territory. It should not attack Kaliningrad or Russia’s Indo-Pacific bases, nor should it assault Belarusian territory unless missiles are fired from Belarus against NATO forces or territory. This policy would send a strong signal of restraint to Russia, indicating that NATO has no expansive territorial ambitions and no desire to cripple Russia politically.

Second, NATO should prioritize supporting capabilities, not front-line units, during any intervention. The Ukrainian Armed Forces are winning this war; they do not need NATO to fight it for them — U.S. brigade combat teams need not punch through Russian trench lines. Rather, NATO could provide precision-strike capabilities against Russian command-and-control, electronic warfare mechanisms that can suppress Russian air defenses, and far greater targeting capabilities than Ukraine otherwise possesses. Perhaps most critically, NATO can defend Ukrainian cities, creating an interceptor network around major population centers to destroy incoming Russian missiles.

Third, NATO could demonstrate its ability to act more broadly without taking irreversible kinetic steps. The Black Sea Fleet could be targeted, but only if it is out of port; more likely than not, Russia’s navy will retreat to safe harbor, avoiding a confrontation with the West it is sure to lose. Similarly, U.S. and allied warships and submarines can display their ability to operate around Russia’s nuclear-submarine bastions without attacking Russian forces or limiting their engagements as thoroughly as possible. This option is the unique result of Russia’s extreme force concentration in Ukraine: The Russian air force and army are overwhelmingly engaged in combat already and will be unable to put up significant resistance elsewhere.

By signaling its capabilities and restraint, NATO would place the escalatory burden on Russia. The Kremlin would have a clear choice: Sue for peace and accept a NATO-managed settlement or escalate and be consistently outmatched. Indeed, NATO diplomatic participation might be attractive to Russia. President Zelensky will almost certainly remain intransigent for some time; his country has suffered too severely to have as his initial negotiating position anything less than Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders. But the West, with its far more limited exposure to the conflict, could be more flexible — and, with a powerful interest in the outcome, Washington, Berlin, Paris, Brussels and London could dictate more tangibly the post-conflict settlement than in the current situation.

More likely than not, this war will remain limited, Russia will not prompt NATO intervention, and the West will not unleash its military power. Yet sober analysis demonstrates that the West has more than enough strategic maneuvering space to manipulate the political and military factors of a direct conflict. War is a political phenomenon: A West that plays its cards cannily can manage escalation and emerge victorious without a major nuclear exchange.

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).

Tags Article 5 Black Sea Fleet Crimea Military strategy NATO peace settlement peace talks Poland Russia Russian aggression Russian irredentism Russian military Russian war in Ukraine Ukrainian victory Volodymyr Zelensky Western intervention Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

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