Rehearsals for the Apocalypse

April 22nd, 2022 - by Ted Galen Carpenter / The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

If We Don’t Want Nuclear War,
Why Are We Pushing for One? 

Ted Galen Carpenter / The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

(April 19, 2022) — The principal features of the US and NATO response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are now readily apparent.

In addition to the US-led effort to orchestrate a campaign of global economic warfare to isolate and punish Russia, Washington and its allies have adopted a policy of showering Kyiv with sophisticated weapons to boost the effectiveness of the country’s military resistance. Proposals also keep surfacing to provide Ukraine with more capable jet fighters. In addition to the weaponry, the United States and other NATO members are actively sharing military intelligence with Ukraine.

The first component of the West’s strategy has enjoyed only limited effectiveness, but the second one has achieved considerable success. Russia has discovered that its “special military operation” in Ukraine has gone much slower and come at a substantially greater cost in both materiel and lives than the Kremlin anticipated.

This development has encouraged optimistic hawks throughout the West to advocate an even more vigorous military assistance program under the assumption that Ukraine actually might be able to win the war against its much larger, stronger neighbor. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) contends that “a loss for Putin is possible if the freedom-loving world goes all-in for victory.”

Among other steps, in his view, “all-in means providing the Ukrainian Armed Forces with additional lethal aid and capabilities.”

Ukraine is not Vietnam or Afghanistan —
Russia is not going to leave what it believes to be
a key national interest without a fight.

It is a faulty and potentially very dangerous belief that could well bring about a nuclear war. Moscow’s principal objectives in Ukraine are straightforward and uncompromising: compelling Kyiv to relinquish its ambitions to join NATO and instead embrace legally binding neutrality, gaining Ukrainian recognition of Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea, and forcing Ukraine to accept the Russian supervised “independence” of the secessionist Donbas republics.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin and other members of the country’s political and military elite conclude that the war in Ukraine is failing and that Moscow will not achieve those objectives, the Kremlin’s response is likely to be very unpleasant for all concerned. A cornered Putin administration would have a powerful incentive to escalate the conflict by using tactical nuclear weapons against military and political targets in Ukraine.

A few Western officials, including CIA Director William J. Burns, seem aware of the potential danger. In his response to a question from former Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) on April 14, Burns warned that “potential desperation” to extract the semblance of a victory in Ukraine could tempt Putin to order the use of a tactical or low-yield nuclear weapon.

Such weapons are much smaller than the “city-buster,” multi-megaton monsters that both superpowers tested during the Cold War and still remain in the strategic arsenals of the United States and Russia. Nevertheless, the destructive effects of detonating even tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons would be sizable, and the symbolic importance of crossing the nuclear threshold would be monumental.

It is extremely reckless to pursue measures that increase the likelihood of such a scenario. Yet the policies that the United States and other NATO governments are adopting (frequently prodded by elements of foreign policy establishment and the so-called mainstream news media) create precisely that danger. Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, contends blithely that warnings from Putin about using nuclear weapons in response to mounting Western military assistance to Kyiv should be ignored. “The threat of escalation is cheap talk,” McFaul states confidently. “Putin is bluffing.”

Such arrogance could lead to catastrophe. Officials during the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, dismissed the Kremlin’s repeated warnings that trying to make Ukraine a NATO member, or even to turn Ukraine into a military asset of the Alliance without offering formal membership, would cross a red line that Russia could not tolerate. Clearly, the Biden administration missed or ignored the warning signals. The ongoing Russian military operation in Ukraine is definitive evidence that the Kremlin was not bluffing.

Proponents of increased Western military assistance implicitly embrace the same strategy that the United States used against the Soviet Union’s occupation army in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Assisting the Afghan mujahedin (especially by giving those insurgents Stinger anti-aircraft missiles) did indeed impede and bleed Washington’s Cold War rival.

Moreover, the Soviets did not escalate and seek a direct confrontation with the United States by, for example, striking at US forces in Pakistan or the Greater Middle East. Advocates of intensified military assistance to Ukraine could also note that the United States did not retaliate against the USSR when Moscow supplied military hardware to Hanoi during the Vietnam War.

However, there is crucial difference between those episodes and the current situation in Ukraine. The US intervention in Vietnam always was a (foolish) war of choice on Washington’s part, but it was made in a country thousands of miles from the American homeland. Policymakers would embrace a similar folly in equally distant Afghanistan decades later.

The situation was a little more complex regarding the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan, since that country was closer to the Soviet Union and within Moscow’s sphere of influence. Nevertheless, Afghanistan was never a core security interest of the USSR. Both great powers could walk away from their ill-starred military adventures, albeit with a sense of chagrin about a costly and embarrassing policy failure.

Russia’s Ukraine commitment is not even remotely in the same category, and it is highly improbable that Putin and the rest of the political elite will tolerate a humiliating military defeat there. As the Kremlin repeatedly emphasized in the years leading up to the current war, Ukraine is of special importance to Russia for strategic, economic, and historical reasons. Therefore, defeat is not an option for the Kremlin.

The stronger and more effective Ukraine’s military resistance, the greater the danger that Russia may escalate its offensive to the point of using nuclear weapons. Once the nuclear threshold is crossed, the ability of either side to control the escalation process is uncertain, and the potential consequences are horrific. One can readily sympathize with the Ukrainian victims of Russia’s aggression.

However, the harsh truth is that a Ukrainian “victory” so desired by Western hawks is a fantasy. Even the West’s ongoing attempt to boost Kyiv’s military prospects might well lead to a catastrophe for the United States, NATO, and perhaps the human race.

Is Official Washington Flirting with World War? 

Ted Galen Carpenter / Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

(March 22, 2022) — Joe Biden deserves credit for having ruled out the most irresponsible policy options for dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, US officials continue to embrace other options that have alarming potential to embroil the United States in an armed confrontation with Russia.

Early on, he stated emphatically that the United States would not send troops to Ukraine or otherwise directly confront Russia militarily. Since then, he also has resisted pressure from hawks in both parties to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine — a scheme that would be almost as reckless as sending US ground forces. Enforcing a no-fly zone would require a willingness to shoot Russian planes out of the sky. Biden has been prudent enough to recognize that the move would likely trigger a US war with Russia, with probable nuclear consequences.

The president even overruled a more limited, but still dangerous, plan being pushed by some NATO allies, especially Poland, to transfer jet fighters to Ukraine. That proposal seemed to have some support among Biden’s advisers. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated in one press interview that the United States was giving a “green light” to Poland’s request to make such a transfer.

The White House backed away from that plan, however, when it became clear that Warsaw wanted to ship the jets to a US airbase in Germany. The United States would then be responsible for transferring those planes to Ukraine, making Washington the point man in an escalating confrontation with Russia. The administration has held its ground even when more than 40 GOP senators signed an open letter pressuring the president to support Warsaw’s dangerous plan.

But there are other options getting a full embrace from the White House and administration that could escalate violence and drag the US into direct conflict with Russia nonetheless. Even before the first Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border, Washington and some of its NATO allies were lavishing arms on Kyiv and training Ukrainian military forces.

Those arms packages included Javelin anti-tank missiles that have done so much damage to Russian armored columns. Shipments approved since the invasion have included more Javelins, plus Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

A $3.5 billion aid package announced by Biden last week includes 800 anti-aircraft missiles; 9,000 anti-armor systems; 7,000 small arms, 20 million rounds of ammunition; body armor, and so-called ‘kamikaze’ Switchblade drones.

The US and its allies also are considering shipping S-300 air defense systems to Ukraine.

This arms aid constitutes an extremely risky step. Moscow already has warned that convoys carrying such weapons are legitimate targets of war. Yet an attack on one of those convoys might well result in casualties among American or other NATO personnel — even if the interception occurred inside Ukraine.

Moreover, the Kremlin’s declaration that the arms shipments are legitimate targets is not even the most worrisome indicator. In his first speech announcing the “special military operation” in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin warned all outside parties (clearly meaning NATO members) not to interfere. “Anyone who tries to interfere with us …must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.”  [Emphasis added]

Putin could easily interpret the US-orchestrated cascade of NATO weaponry to support Ukraine’s military resistance as unacceptable interference. The same is true of another Biden administration measure—sharing intelligence data with Kyiv, possibly even providing Ukrainian forces with real-time targeting information.

By engaging in such conduct, US leaders risk a direct military confrontation with Russia. That means that they are flirting with triggering World War III and the prospect of a devastating nuclear exchange. Ukraine’s security, territorial integrity, and even independence are not even remotely worth enough to the United States to incur such a risk to the American people.

The best way for the United States to stay out of a catastrophic war is to remain far back from any red lines that could trigger a confrontation. It is the height of folly to see how close we can get to such lines without inadvertently crossing one. Yet with its arms shipments to Kyiv and the sharing of military intelligence with Ukrainian forces, the Biden administration has adopted precisely that approach.

Extreme caution is perhaps even more essential in dealing with Russia than with any other major power, both because that country possesses several thousand nuclear weapons and bilateral relations have become so toxic. In the years leading up to Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine, the United States and NATO blew through warning light after warning light that the Kremlin flashed with respect to the Alliance’s overall expansion to Russia’s borders, and especially NATO’s growing military collaboration with Kyiv. The Kremlin warned specifically that adding Ukraine to the Alliance would cross a red line that would require a harsh Russian response.

Just two months before the start of the war, Putin demanded that NATO provide security guarantees on an array of issues, including that Ukraine would never be invited to join NATO and that NATO forces would never be deployed on Ukrainian soil. The United States and its allies failed to respond positively to Moscow’s demands. Such arrogance and myopia with respect to Russia’s core security interests played a significant role in producing the current crisis.

Given that unfortunate track record, we must take Putin’s new warnings about the Ukraine war with far greater caution. Instead, the administration seems to be adopting a strategy toward Ukraine based on the model Washington used against Soviet forces in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. By providing funds and weapons to the Afghan mujahidin, the United States bled Soviet forces and created a massive headache for its superpower rival. That move was similar to (and payback for) the strategy that Moscow had used against the ill-fated US intervention in Vietnam.

In both cases, the targeted superpower refrained from striking back with military force against its tormentor. We dare not assume, however, that Russia will play by the same proxy war rules with respect to Ukraine. In his speech announcing the invasion, Putin described the operation as a “question of life or death” that Russia was facing as a result of NATO’s expansion.

That comment strongly suggests that the Kremlin is prepared to do whatever is necessary to achieve victory. By bolstering Russia’s enemy and both impeding and bleeding Russian forces in an arena that Putin considers vital to his country’s security, Washington is pursuing a provocative, very risky strategy. The Biden administration is flirting with Armageddon.

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