On the Strategic and Moral Difficulties of Dealing with Russia under Vladimir Putin
The horrific destruction underway in the Ukraine may have unfolded more slowly than President Putin intended, but it continues inexorably and lately with a rising intensity of shelling on civilians that may reflect his growing frustration. Sadly, this follows a strategy Russia has used before from Chechnya to Syria, so we should not really be surprised
The West has responded with a degree of unity and depth far exceeding what Putin expected. In one week he has effected a strategic realignment of generational significance. Germany has totally changed course. He has united all of Europe (beyond the EU and NATO) as well as the wider “West” as far as Australia. Russia stands condemned by 141 States in the UN.
Economic sanctions of unprecedented scale have been enacted, which will eventually devastate Russia. Yet, they may be too gradual to stop Russia’s military campaign now. They will also affect most the Russian people, rather than their government, a people kept in ignorance of the facts by the state media. So these sanctions may at first increase support for Putin, who will try use them as evidence of his fiction that Russia is under attack.
But as of now, there is both a strategic and moral difficulty for the West that seems too little discussed.
First. insofar as the West has stated unequivocally that it will not engage militarily within the Ukraine, either with “boots on the ground” or a no-fly zone, it has ceded a significant strategic advantage to Putin.
This relates directly to the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons by Putin. While the West has rhetorically linked non-intervention to Ukraine’s not being a member of NATO (whereby an attack on one is an attack on all), the underlying reason is that Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons if NATO intervenes. (NATO has after all intervened outside its borders before, where that threat did not apply as in 1992, after the collapse of Yugoslavia,when it imposed a no-fly zone over central Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This implies that Putin has merely to hint at the nuclear option for the West to hold back. But if this be granted, why should he not seek to expand the protection this gives for further operations? Suppose he seizes all or part of the Ukraine, or even simply wants a diversion, he could just announce that one or another secessionist part of a Baltic Republic or Georgia has asked for his help and send in the tanks. He could then warn that any interference by the West would “Get such a response as you have never seen before” which is code for the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
To allow it to be established that merely to hint at such can freeze all possibility of Western military intervention is a recipe for progressive erosion of the capacity to resist force by any means other than the merely economic.
This will not be lost on China, which might say next “you must allow us seize Taiwan or else” or indeed, any other state that has or may soon have nuclear weapons. What would stop Iran, when it has such weapons from declaring that all shipping passing through the straits of Hormuz must seek its approval, or that unless Lebanon be rendered a client state it could use such a weapon?
All this, turns first on any move away from the doctrine which froze all possibility of military conflict in Europe during the cold war, namely the doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction”, since this made any use of nuclear weapons rationally unthinkable.
Putin knows there would be an overwhelming military response should he put one foot across the borders of NATO. But he is now employing the threat of an unpredictable use of tactical nuclear weapons to create an unfettered space for him to destroy the Ukraine. Unless untold lives are to be lost this is a freedom he must be denied by the West creating significant uncertainty about its non-nuclear response and the scale of its support and supplies the Ukraine.
Failure to do this generates a growing moral dilemma. Insofar as the West is entirely unambiguous in saying it will not intervene militarily in support of the Ukraine, no matter how high the cost in lives and destruction, how can we rightly continue to urge the Ukrainians to fight on, while our own intelligence assessments all predict it to be only a matter of time before they will be defeated and during which many thousands will be killed?
The bravery of the Ukrainian resistance has been unsurpassed and their success astonishing. The West’s existing despatch of weapons has clearly been of effect, but we must now make a hard choice. Either we find overt or clandestine ways to offer such support as will entail that Ukraine could successfully hold back the Russian onslaught, or we should urge that they lay down their arms now, and simply trust that over time the economic sanctions will force a Russian withdrawal.
Standing ovations, the holding of many minutes of silence and no doubt the construction of deeply moving future memorials, will never make up for deciding for now, only to oppose Putin down to the last Ukrainian.