Washington must stop worrying about World War III and act

Over the past week, President Biden and senior members of his staff have asserted that certain actions in support of Ukraine might lead to a direct confrontation with Russia and begin World War III. As Biden put it, “We will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine. Direct conflict between NATO and Russia is World War III, something we must strive to prevent.”

Accordingly, the White House has blocked the transfer of Polish MiG-29 fighters to Ukraine. For the same reason, the administration has denied urgent requests by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, even if it is limited to supporting humanitarian operations. The White House also has dragged its heels on transferring Patriot high-altitude air defense systems to Ukraine. And it has rejected calls for sending special forces to assist the Ukrainian army.

{mosads}There may be good reasons for blocking the transfers. For example, Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of the European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, has argued that the transfer of fighters would not “appreciably increase the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force.” Indeed, Russian forces shot down Ukrainian MiGs over Crimea in 2014, and Ukrainian forces have shot down Russian MiGs in the current conflict. On the other hand, Ukrainian pilots have acquitted themselves well against Russian forces, and some argue that providing Kyiv with more MiGs, especially to replace those which the Russians have shot down, would enable Ukraine to prevent Russia from obtaining unrestricted air superiority.

Whatever the merits, or otherwise, of implementing any of Ukraine’s specific requests for systems beyond those it already is receiving from the West, starting another world war should not be the reason for denying those requests. The World War III argument presupposes that Russian President Vladimir Putin would go beyond his directive to increase the readiness of Russia’s nuclear weapons in response to Western sanctions and what he claimed were “aggressive statements” by NATO. As matters stand, Putin’s order to put his forces in a “special regime of combat duty” was actually something less than ordering them on full alert. It called for transferring more troops to buttress the forces that operate Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, the White House fears that, if provoked, Putin could make good on his threats to fire nuclear warheads at NATO forces if they cross whatever “red line” he has set.  


Russia certainly has the wherewithal to start a nuclear conflict in Europe; it still deploys approximately 2,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons, roughly 10 times those of the United States. Yet, the Soviet Union had more than six times as many weapons in 1973, when the United States went on nuclear alert — and did so not in support of NATO, but rather, to protect Israel during the Yom Kippur War. At the time, the Soviet Politburo, seeing that the Israelis had encircled the Egyptian Third Army and were also within artillery range of Damascus, contemplated sending airborne troops to seize the Golan Heights. The Nixon administration responded by going to Strategic Nuclear Defense Condition 3 (DefCon3), one level below the Defcon 2 alert that the Kennedy administration had ordered during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the Joint Chiefs ordered in the first stages of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The Politburo debated whether and how to respond to the American alert. Defense Minister Marshal Andrei Grechko called for a forcible response. Others, notably KGB chief Yuri Andropov and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, argued against precipitating a world war. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet chief, backed down.

Washington has not responded to Putin’s threats, but Putin has yet to formally put his forces on nuclear alert. Putin has no idea how the United States might respond, were he to do so, much less to order his troops to fire a tactical nuclear weapon, presumably in line with Russia’s so-called doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate.”

{mossecondads}Pop psychologists may think Putin is irrational, that he might be prepared to destroy the world if he does not get his way in Ukraine. There is no evidence to that effect, however. On the contrary, he appears to be pursuing in Ukraine the same strategy that he employed against Chechnya in 1999-2000 — namely, to wear down the opposition by destroying any semblance of normal life among the local population. Like the Soviet Politburo in 1973, the last thing Putin is likely to want is an all-out nuclear war that would devastate his country and put an end to his dream of reviving any semblance of the Russian Empire. Firing off a nuclear weapon could lead to just that.

There have been numerous suggestions — including mine — for the contents of a peaceful resolution of this horrible war. Kyiv has indicated that it is prepared to consider neutrality and forgo its desire to join NATO, but Putin remains unsatisfied. He will negotiate an end to hostilities only when he realizes that he cannot win. That may take more than months, perhaps over a year. For the war to go on that long, however, Ukrainian forces must be able to continue to hold out against the Russian onslaught.

The key to Kyiv’s ability to sustain its resistance to Russia’s aggression is for the White House to stop deterring itself with nightmare visions of World War III. Instead, it should provide Ukraine with not only more of the same systems but also at least some of the more advanced weaponry for which Zelensky continues to plead — and did so before Congress. And it should encourage its allies and partners to do so as well.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Joe Biden Nuclear warfare Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukrainian crisis Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky World War III

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