The stakes couldn’t be higher in Ukraine. Here’s why and what to do next | John Nagl

At this critical time, discretion is the better part of valor for the United States and the global alliance we lead

LONDON, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 24: Ukrainians demonstrate outside Downing Street against the recent invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 in London, England. Overnight, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with explosions reported in multiple cities and far outside the restive eastern regions held by Russian-backed rebels. European governments reacted with widespread condemnation and vows of more sanctions. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

By John Nagl

It can be difficult to understand that one is living through an epochal event in world history.

That was not the case in October 1962, when the world held its breath as the United States and the Soviet Union stared each other down over Nikita Khrushchev’s covert stationing of nuclear missiles in Cuba.

After diplomacy backed by the threat of military force, the Soviet Union blinked and withdrew its missiles, and Khrushchev lost power about eighteen months later in the world’s closest known brush with nuclear Armageddon.

We may be in a similar moment now.  Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has gone badly, far worse than he reportedly expected, due both to extraordinary Ukrainian valor, substandard Russian logistics, planning, and battlefield performance.

The global reaction has been nearly unanimous and fierce, with Russia facing crippling economic sanctions, Germany lifting its longstanding prohibition on allowing the transport of lethal aid, and NATO gaining significant strength including the possible addition of new members Finland and Sweden.

There has never been an international reaction of such speed and ferocity to an action by any state, a testament both to the nakedness of Putin’s aggression and the masterful diplomacy of the Biden administration.

Putin is cornered like a rat in a cage.  But caged rats don’t have nuclear weapons.

Putin’s decision to increase the readiness of his nuclear forces is an illustration of just how precarious and critical a moment we are in.

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Putin’s mistakes to date have been so egregious that informed observers have questioned his rationality; he is known to have been isolated during the pandemic, and dictators are not famous for being willing to listen to advice that they don’t want to hear.

Putin’s televised national security council meeting and public takedown of his intelligence chief did not inspire confidence that his team has the courage or the ability to tell their boss no.

I have previously argued that a Ukrainian insurgency against a Russian occupation, with its steady drip of Russian conscript casualties headed home, could put pressure on the Putin regime, but the situation is now even more urgent than that.

The military and economic disaster Putin faces will have survival level political implications for his regime. It took eighteen months for the Politburo to remove Khrushchev from power for a mistake that was far less public and humiliating than this fiasco has been; while it is impossible to predict what will happen in the small group of frightened men and women around Putin, it is not difficult to imagine the intense stress under which they labor.

Putin is cornered like a rat in a cage. But caged rats don’t have nuclear weapons.

At this critical time, then, discretion is the better part of valor for the United States and the global alliance we lead.

The valor of our Ukrainian partners has been inspiring, and it is entirely normal for Americans to wish to support them in any way possible in their fight for democracy and freedom.

It is understandable that even very responsible leaders like Republican U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger can seriously suggest that the United States support a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace to provide protection for the freedom fighters against naked Russian aggression.

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That is also the worst possible idea. The Biden administration’s current policy of supporting Ukraine with weapons — Secretaary of State Antony Blinken announced the release of another $350 million recently—goes as far as is prudent toward tipping the scales in Ukraine’s favor without putting U.S. forces in direct combat against Russian pilots.

A no-fly zone would require the suppression of Russian air defenses on the ground—in layman’s terms, bombing Russian troops.  It is not hard to see this idea escalating quickly and very, very badly. Frustrating as it is—and likely will continue to be—to see Ukrainian fighters fighting and dying in combat under Russian bombing runs, restraint is the correct policy on the ground.

Which is not to say that there isn’t more the West can do to support the Ukrainians in their just fight.

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Every expression of support, from cutting Russia off from SWIFT to confiscating Russian oligarch’s yachts to removing Putin from his honorary chairmanship of the world Judo organization puts pressure on a creaky regime that is making bad decisions and implementing policy poorly.

It is impossible to know what will be the final push that topples Putin—but it is not too soon to suggest that his days are numbered after a decision to invade Ukraine that makes stationing nuclear weapons in Cuba seem reasonable and rational.

The question now is how long he can survive in power, and how much damage he does on the way out the door.

John Nagl is a visiting professor of National Security Studies at the Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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