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The Case Against Direct Military Intervention in Ukraine
Do you want America to be the world's police force?
Over at The Strategist, Kevin James had a piece called, “The case for direct military intervention in Ukraine.” Given that James is not alone in his desire to insert American forces into the war between Russia and Ukraine, it seemed like a column that deserved a response. Quite frankly, James’ reasoning seemed a bit foggy, but here’s the main thrust of his argument:
Yet this war is destined to end in a terrible defeat for the West unless it changes its strategy. The reason is simple: you can’t wage an economic war against a hostile, nuclear-armed opponent if you accept whatever nuclear red lines your opponent chooses to proclaim.
If Ukraine does fall and Russia responds to the economic war with actions backed by nuclear threats, the West is either going to have to either call Russia’s bluff or choose defeat—with all of the terrible consequences that that would entail. So, if the West is willing to call Russia’s nuclear bluff in the unavoidable confrontation to come, then it only makes sense to do it now and intervene militarily to save Ukraine from a second Holodomor.
...The devastating consequences of the West’s economic war on Russia will affect everyone in that country for decades to come. Yet, as crippling as these sanctions are for the overall Russian economy, they won’t prevent Russia from completing the conquest of Ukraine (though they do have a useful role to play). At that point, Putin will be victorious—on his own terms.
...Putin will have to react. And that reaction will have to take the form of a direct confrontation with the West because he will have no other options left. When that confrontation comes, the West will have to either appease Putin by ending the economic war and recognising the Russian conquest of Ukraine or call Putin’s bluff.
...Russia is going to attempt to win the war in Ukraine by repeating the tactics it used on the Chechen capital of Grozny in the 1990s. It will attempt to force the Ukrainian population into submission after the war by waging a campaign of murder and terror. The West can prevent this horror by directly intervening in the war with sufficient military force to ensure that Russia’s invasion fails. Russia is planning to get away with this horror anyway by cowing the vastly more powerful West into submission with nuclear threats.
Granting Putin victory in Ukraine will not lead to peace in our time; instead, it will ensure that Putin will confront the West again. At some point, the West is going to call Putin’s nuclear bluff. Let us call that bluff now and save Ukraine.
If we were summarizing this argument, it would be that Russia is likely to win in Ukraine, but the economic sanctions are so devastating that Putin will be forced to take action to secure his gains. That action will undoubtedly be telling the West that if they don’t pull the economic sanctions on Russia and let him keep Ukraine, he will launch his nuclear arsenal. Eventually, that will lead to war and since that’s the case, why not get the show on the road? Others have argued that we should put a no-fly zone in place or send American troops into the fight for humanitarian reasons… or alternately, because they won’t say this out loud, we should send Americans to die in Ukraine because it’s the trendy cause of the moment and virtue signaling is more important than the lives of our soldiers.
So, let’s start breaking this down.
First of all, the Russian army has performed miserably in Ukraine. We’re three weeks into the fighting and not only are Russian losses orders of magnitude higher than expected, but the vast majority of the country also remains outside of their control and the population of Ukraine seems to uniformly oppose them. That means they’ll face a bloody and painful insurgency in areas they do hold, particularly since they will have extreme difficulty stopping the West from pouring military aid across Ukraine’s large border. Given time, will Russia ramp up the brutality and manage to beat down Ukraine’s military? Almost everyone would have thought so beforehand, but today, it’s hard to say for sure, especially since economic sanctions are doing so much damage to the country that Russia simply may not be able to take the economic beating much longer.
Russia was only able to keep from defaulting on its debts yesterday because the Biden administration cooperated with them and allowed them to use frozen funds to pay. Russia is going to have to make a bigger payment in April and again unless the United States allows Russia to pay with frozen funds, there is a good chance they are going to default. Economically, Russia is hanging on by a thread. The Ruble has lost about 1/3 of its value since the war started, the Russian stock market has closed, Russian banks have been cut off from the SWIFT system which led to bank runs, foreign corporations have pulled out, and Russia’s debt status has been downgraded to “junk.”
Can Russia take this level of economic pain month after month for the foreseeable future? Probably not.
That puts Russia in an extraordinarily difficult position. They desperately need to pull out of Ukraine so they can start getting these sanctions off of their economy. However, given their lack of success in Ukraine, that could make them look extremely weak and incompetent. For a strongman like Putin, that can be fatal. Literally.
So, Kevin James assumes that Putin will look at this dilemma, decide the only way out is to demand that the West pull all sanctions off his country, or be nuked and that we will capitulate.
While we can’t rule anything out, that scenario seems unlikely. VERY UNLIKELY. Because Putin realizes that the second he launches nuclear weapons, the only place they’ll be speaking Russian an hour later is in Hell. That’s the reason the United States and the Soviet Union made it through the Cold War. Because the people in charge are ultimately rational actors and understand the concept of mutually assured destruction. The second you tell a nation with nuclear weapons, “Do anything we say, or we nuke you,” you are taking a high-risk gamble with the continued existence of your civilization. Even if Putin did make that threat, there’s no reason we’d be inclined to capitulate. In fact, North Korea has already gone that route and the response made world news.
If we were picking a much more likely scenario, it would be that Putin continues bloodying Ukraine, gets some kind of concessions out of Ukraine’s leader Zelenskyy (territory, promises of neutrality, etc.), gets guarantees that most of the sanctions will end if he leaves, then declares “victory,” sends the troops back home and starts cranking his propaganda organs up to explain how this was all a glorious triumph for Mother Russia.
The Bush Doctrine, which featured pre-emptive strikes on hostile nations hosting terrorist groups planning to strike the United States made a certain amount of sense. On the other hand, going to war with Russia based on the theory that they’re definitely going to threaten to nuke us, and we’ll have no choice other than to go to war with them at some point, seems to be very spotty reasoning.
Getting beyond what James said, other people think we should attack Russia for humanitarian reasons. “We’ve got to save Ukraine.”
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They’re not a member of NATO. We’re friendly with Ukraine, but they’re not an ally of our nation in a meaningful sense. Strategically, it does make sense for us to want to see them hold off Russia since we helped convince them to give up their nukes in 1994. Any nation with WMDs that looks at Obama’s disastrous intervention in Libya and what’s going on in Ukraine is going to conclude, quite correctly, that they would be foolish to ever get rid of them. We also signed the Budapest Memorandum with Ukraine in 1994 to persuade them to give up their nukes. Part of that agreement included promises to send military aid to Ukraine if Russia invaded. We’ve lived up to that commitment.
So, should we go further? For example, what about setting up a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine? Some people talk about that as if it’s practically a neutral act, however, it’s anything but. On the contrary, it would be an act of war against Russia. It would require American planes to shoot down Russian planes and bomb Russian air defenses. We would end up killing hundreds, perhaps thousands of Russians in that scenario, and at that point, it would essentially be “our war.” Naturally, the same goes for confronting the Russians directly. The second we start doing that, we would be at war with Russia.
That begs a question.
What would the end game of that war be? Are we going to invade Russia? Are we going to drive Russian troops out of Ukraine and park 100,000 troops in that country for the foreseeable future while both of our nations threaten each other? How many American lives are we willing to feed into the grinder to protect Ukraine, a country most Americans can’t even find on a map? Do we really want to put a nuclear-armed power in a position where they may have to choose between being conquered or firing off their nuclear arsenal?
Ultimately, Ukraine is not our circus and not our monkeys… unless we want to be the world’s sheriff. Is that really what we want to do? Because it’s incredibly expensive, ultimately very few people around the globe appreciate us for it, and if there’s any lesson we should have learned over the last few decades, it’s that trying to fill that role is a lot more trouble than it’s worth.
So, what should we do in Ukraine? We should look at it through the lens of two classic quotes about foreign policy:
We may sympathize with Ukraine and dislike Russia, but neither Russia nor Ukraine is our friend or ally. Seeing Russia’s economy shake itself to pieces while they struggle in the field to achieve a Pyrrhic victory that would grant them nothing but economic ruin and a long-term insurgency is in our interest. In other words, Putin has made a terrible mistake and we should keep shipping military aid to Ukraine, hold the line on sanctions (which we went overboard with and may come to regret down the road – more here – but in for a penny, in for a pound) and let Putin try to figure out how to extricate himself from this mess while we watch from the sidelines.
Putin IS a bad guy, and we absolutely should feel sympathy for the Ukrainian people, but it’s simply not in our nation’s best interest to engage in direct military intervention in Ukraine.