[Editor’s Note: The conflict in Ukraine is complex, and Catholics of good will can strongly disagree on the best steps to bring about a lasting peace. Crisis Magazine has emphasized the need for negotiations without U.S./NATO military intervention to resolve the conflict, but we share alternate views in order to promote productive debate.]
The West’s tepid response to the unprovoked and wholly unjustified Russian invasion of Ukraine will have far-reaching and devastating consequences. Far from making military conflict—even nuclear conflict—less likely, this faint-hearted response will, in fact, make it much more likely, even probable.
Immediately upon launching his attack on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin essentially threatened nuclear retaliation against any nation that interfered militarily with his plans to destroy a neighbor of 44 million people. Unlike Khrushchev’s bellicose language at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this preemptive war of words appears to have totally unnerved Western democracies. Naturally fearful of nuclear Armageddon, they quickly decided that the mere threat of the same required them to issue a carte blanche to Putin.
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They then retreated into the fantasyland of United Nations declarations, political platitudes, and the largely symbolic war of economic sanctions, the latter being more likely to damage the West than Russia by solidifying the Moscow-Beijing axis. Nothing in the way of decisive military aid has been offered to Ukraine, despite previous assurances to do just that.
So far, we have given the Ukrainians mostly infantry-fired anti-tank weapons. These are good, but not nearly sufficient to provoke a Russian withdrawal or even a ceasefire. This aid seems merely to have changed the Russian strategy from moving quickly to occupy cities to simply leveling them. Without dramatic assistance from the air and protection from land-based missiles, we could see all of Ukraine’s infrastructure and cities reduced to rubble in the coming weeks, in addition to an enormous loss of civilian lives.
What should we be doing? We should be supplying counter-battery radars and sophisticated missile systems to destroy the Russian artillery that is laying waste to Ukraine. The Ukrainians have some of these systems, but not nearly enough for the onslaught they are facing. We should be flying—not merely supplying—MQ9 Reaper attack drones out of Poland and Romania. Experienced U.S. Air Force or CIA pilots, stationed in America, can operate these aircraft without interference to destroy Russian vehicles and stop armor advances and resupply.
Too late to prevent the capture of ports by Russian forces, we should prevent Russian maritime resupply by mining the Black Sea harbors in Crimea, and especially the port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. None of these harbors are recognized by the international community as belonging to Russia. They belong to Ukraine, who has sole right to authorize their defense.
In addition, NATO’s former supreme allied commander in Europe, retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, has called for a military no-fly zone over Ukraine, knowing full well this will lead to Russian aircraft being shot down. Barring that, Breedlove has insisted that we must at least declare a humanitarian no-fly zone, with aid-carrying aircraft fully protected in the event they are fired upon.
Lastly, we should at least permit formation of an “international brigade” or legion of foreign volunteers with military experience who are willing to put on a Ukrainian uniform and oppose Russian aggression. Did their respective nations not outlaw such mercenary activities, it would be relatively easy to gather a sizeable force of military veterans from America, Australia, Great Britain, Scandinavia, South Africa, Switzerland, and even Israel and other countries.
It may be objected that any such Western intervention amounts to an escalation likely to cause a nuclear (or at least more significant) conflict than negotiating. Although this cannot be excluded—there are no guaranteed results from any action or inaction—doing practically nothing also carries grave risks, as I explain below.
In any case, at this point, there is no reason whatsoever for Putin to engage in negotiations. He may be suffering some losses in personnel and equipment, but they are clearly sustainable from his point of view. Without significant military aid, this conflict will likely end with the destruction of Ukraine, the toppling of its government, and the creation of fragmented, pro-Moscow buffer states between Russia and NATO-allied Poland and Romania. In other words, Putin wins. He will then be free to pursue his next objectives.
Unfortunately, efforts to provide Ukraine with certain types of decisive military assistance have been blocked or never proceeded beyond the discussion phase. For example, when Poland tried to hand over 75 older-generation fighter planes to Ukrainian pilots, NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg put a stop to the transfer. He also ruled out any type of no-fly zone. This has led retired Gen. Jack Keane to predict that Putin will mobilize almost his entire military complex, if necessary, to crush Ukraine, since he recognizes the lack of international resolve to stop him.
Let us be clear about what message this sends to both Putin and to China’s Xi Jinping. If the attack by a nuclear power on a smaller, non-nuclear nation cannot be directly opposed by friendly states because of the possibility that the aggressor might be insane enough to initiate World War III, it means that such tyrants are free to terrorize smaller, defenseless neighbors at will.
The West will send moral support and small arms and ammunition, while the aggressor’s stand-off weapons and modern aircraft reduce the victim nation’s cities to rubble, sending their population into exile, and leaving countless thousands of victims half-buried in the ruins. For the Ukrainians, it is already World War III. That is exactly what we are now witnessing in Ukraine. And it is likely to get much worse.
On March 2, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was seen standing in front of a map that suggested Russian and Belarusian military units could soon be invading Moldova. If we will not provide decisive assistance to Ukraine, it is evident that we will do next to nothing for the much smaller Moldova.
Even Georgia, a future aspirant to join NATO, knows that it is highly vulnerable, having already lost two provinces due to Russian military intervention. Almost immediately after the invasion of Ukraine, Georgia applied to join the E.U. This is the same pointless move of desperation taken by Ukraine itself, but the E.U. is an organization that believes in its shared economic advantages, not in shared risks.
More importantly, the West’s reaction to the destruction of Ukraine is like waving a red cape in front of the Chinese bull. In the conflict between Beijing and Taipei, the CCP has much more at stake—from their point of view—than Russia ever risked from a western-leaning Ukraine. And Beijing’s constant threats to take military action against the Republic of China (Taiwan), combined with one of the most rapid and significant military buildups in history, leaves little doubt that their words are not mere bluster.
For years now, intelligence agencies have predicted a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is quite possible under the right conditions, such as a weak U.S. president, declining American military might, and international distractions. With this very trifecta laid out before them, I would be more than surprised if the Chinese communists do not make their move this year or next, at the latest.
And then our choice will be much grimmer: either oppose a nuclear-armed China, strongly allied with a nuclear-armed North Korea, or watch 75 percent of the world’s production of microchips fall into the hands of the most totalitarian regime in human history. And along with that, the freedoms of millions more Chinese will have been destroyed, as has just occurred in Hong Kong.
Finally, it was iron-clad security guarantees from the U.S. and Great Britain that persuaded Ukraine to give up its massive arsenal of nuclear weapons in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainians now feel betrayed and deeply regret what they view as a catastrophic decision. There is no doubt that other small nations have gotten the message: Only nuclear weapons can guarantee against an invasion by a vastly superior enemy.
Certainly, the North Koreans understand this, and any chance there ever was to persuade them to eliminate their own nuclear stockpile has now vanished. On the contrary, we are about to enter an era of nuclear proliferation unseen since the 1970s. I expect many smaller nations to begin nuclear weapon development programs in the near future.
Of course, what is not at stake in Ukraine is the ultimate destiny of mankind, and certainly not the salvation of any individual man, whose fate transcends the fleeting glories and infamies of nations and history makers. And neither Russia, nor Ukraine, nor NATO, nor America represents anything close to the Christian idea of a rightly-ordered society. Nevertheless, it is in this quotidian world of failing cultures and flawed historical figures that we live, that our children inhabit, that our grandchildren will inherit. We owe them more than a world that cowers in such a fear of death that it must callously look away from death so horrifically visited upon the weak and innocent.
[Photo Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images]