Military do-somethingism is running amok in Washington
Military do-somethingism is running amok in Washington once again. Despite Russian military reverses and the withdrawal of Russian forces from the vicinity of Kyiv, there is an increasing clamor for some form of Western military intervention in the war in Ukraine from quite a few prominent analysts, pundits, and even some reporters.
According to the interventionists, the United States and its allies are either already “at war” with Russia in a grand ideological struggle, or they shouldn’t be afraid to escalate and widen the conflict, or some combination of the two.
The Biden administration has been rejecting these demands for intervention so far, but the growing and high-profile agitation for entry into a potentially catastrophic war is a disturbing sign of how deeply biased in favor of military action our foreign policy debates remain after decades of conflict.
Some proponents of intervention tout the successful management of the risk of nuclear escalation during the Cold War and over the last 30 years as a reason why the United States and its allies should now do the opposite of what they did over the last seven decades and intervene directly against Russian forces. Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution and Lawfare dismissed fears of nuclear escalation this way: “One of the oddities of the current debate over Russia and Ukraine is the shared certainty of the American Left and Right that confronting Russia inevitably risks World War III. This is bewildering. It’s like we don’t have 70 years of managing nuclear risk with Russia or something.”
The fact that the United States and Russia have successfully managed to avoid direct conflict for all this time is now being used as an excuse to dive into war. It’s as if the prudence and restraint of previous generations somehow give us license to behave in the reckless ways that our predecessors rejected. Advocates of intervention in Ukraine are showing the same inflexibility and carelessness that characterized advocates of rollback in the early Cold War, and their arguments should be tossed out for the same reasons.
The conceit that Russia is already “at war” with the United States and its allies is useful to militarists in the West and hardliners in the Kremlin, but it is not true. This mistakes the existence of a hostile attitude for an ongoing direct conflict. For some analysts, the mere existence of a Russian government headed by Vladimir Putin is enough to claim that Russia is “at war” with us.
That is what Anne Applebaum claimed in a recent article in The Atlantic. “But as long as Russia is ruled by Putin,” she wrote, “then Russia is at war with us too. So are Belarus, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua, Hungary, and potentially many others.” This defines war so broadly and abstractly in terms of regime type that it is a blueprint for another unwinnable and endless war, but this time against “autocracy” instead of terrorism. It also implicitly makes regime change the only way to end this supposed war, since the state of war is linked to the existence of the current regime.
The White House press corps has been relentless in badgering the Biden administration over its unwillingness to enter the war directly. Whether it has concerned sending Polish MiGs, establishing a no-fly zone, or some other form of military action, many of the journalists at White House press briefings have been incredulous that the president isn’t contemplating a war of choice that could lead to the destruction of our country. CBS’s Steven Portnoy was one of the most recent to dwell on this point, asking Press Secretary Jen Psaki, “Why shouldn’t the image of the atrocities from Bucha compel a worldwide unified coalition kinetic response…a military response led by the United States and international partners?”
Psaki patiently explained that the president’s chief responsibility is to act in the interests of the United States, and those interests are not served by going to war with Russia. Left unsaid was that the “worldwide unified coalition” response that the reporter envisions would be made up almost entirely by U.S. forces and that would be perceived by Moscow as an existential threat to their state and the current regime.
The poor performance of Russian forces in Ukraine seems to have encouraged advocates of intervention to believe that the United States and its allies can join the war without running unacceptable risks. Charli Carpenter, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and director of Human Security Lab, proposed threatening a major assault by NATO: “An all-out NATO assault to drive Russia back and enforce the U.N. Charter could, at this point, quite reasonably be threatened if Russia does not withdraw.” As many observers have noted, one of the few things that might help the Russian government at home and internationally is if their aggressive war against Ukraine could be turned into a direct conflict with NATO.
Assuming that it could be organized soon enough to matter, a NATO assault would almost certainly be seen in Moscow as an effort to destroy the Russian government, and that is one of the few scenarios where the Russian use of nuclear weapons is most likely to happen. Given Russian forces’ apparent conventional weaknesses, they might also resort to using nuclear weapons to try staving off defeat on the battlefield. Once nuclear weapons are used in anger, it will be difficult to prevent things from spiraling further out of control.
There is simply no comparison between a proposed intervention in Ukraine and the intervention in Bosnia or the Gulf War. The potential hazards of using force in those cases were minuscule compared to the dangers that attacking Russian forces on Russia’s doorstep would involve. If we want to see an end to war crimes and atrocities committed against the Ukrainian people, we need to be looking for a way to secure a durable ceasefire and peace treaty rather than finding justifications for more military action.
Far too many Western analysts and pundits are still looking at the world through the prism of the 1990s when U.S. power was effectively unchecked and could be used at will. Interventionists have no problem embracing the framework of Cold War ideological rivalry, but they do not want to be limited by the constraints that nuclear weapons impose on both the United States and Russia. It is very well to say that another government doesn’t want to use nuclear weapons, but that is not a proposition that we want to test by attacking their forces. We should ask how far our government would be prepared to go if a rival power launched direct attacks on our forces when they were engaged in a war, and then ask ourselves again if it is worth risking the potentially massive losses that might result.
The United States repeatedly chose not to fight the Soviet Union directly when the latter invaded other countries because of the inherent risks of triggering a larger war. Those invasions were arguably less important to Moscow than this one is to the current Russian leadership, so if we feared nuclear escalation in the event of Western intervention then we should be at least as concerned about it now. If the United States wasn’t prepared to fight a general war over Hungary in 1956, it certainly shouldn’t be contemplating one over Ukraine today.