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Though a no-fly zone over Ukraine seems to have been ruled out by both the White House and Congress for the time being, strident calls for intervention by the United States and NATO to stop Russia's brutal assault are still featured in major papers, on television, and on social media. In this essay, I'll run through a case for extreme caution when considering getting into a shooting war with Russia, and then highlight some implications for the path forward. This war is teaching us how many of our optimistic assumptions about the world have been deeply flawed and dangerous. It's time to adjust.
The best argument put forth by proponents for intervention is as follows: Russian President Vladimir Putin is not suicidal, so he won't start a nuclear war. And if we don't stop him in Ukraine, he is likely to be emboldened to start a war with NATO countries, doubting our resolve to defend current members. Let's examine this argument in detail.
I happen to agree with the assertion that Putin is not suicidal, and is in fact a rational actor. (Shadi and I have both tackled this question in the last few weeks here on Wisdom of Crowds in different ways.) The former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev made as good a case as any that Putin's attack on Ukraine itself was not irrational, just ill-conceived. I, too, felt this way in the run-up to the war: if Putin felt confident in his intelligence assessments about what the war would look like, it would make a lot of sense to move in big now. I doubted whether he had the stones to risk so much on what in any case would be a challenging military endeavor—the wholesale takeover of one of Europe's largest countries—but figured he had better information than we did in the public domain. Just because Putin was catastrophically ill-served by his military intelligence apparatus does not make the invasion "insane", Kozyrev argues.
What of Putin's "insane" nationalist diatribes that kicked off the war? They certainly give us a sense of Putin's level of motivation. But Kozyrev is correct to not write them off as signs of irrationality either. Though Putin's obsessions about Ukrainians being wayward Russians flies in the face of observable facts—Ukrainian citizens have not in fact flocked to Russia for protection from their elected Western-backed government—that proves nothing. I remember people watching Serbia's attack on Kosovo with incomprehension, thinking to themselves, "He can't just expel the entire Albanian population!" Circumstantial evidence exists that this was precisely the plan. And even if the plan was never actually approved, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic would have had no difficulty rationally justifying it in nationalist terms. For Putin, all the Ukrainians that either flee to Europe or stay and fight the Russians are regrettably deluded as to their true natures. They suffer from false consciousness. They must be dealt with one way or another.
Kozyrev, however, goes one step further in his claims. He says that because Putin is a rational actor, he would never use nuclear weapons. He concludes as follows:
Kozyrev isn't explicitly arguing for a no-fly zone, but the implications are clear: don't be deterred by Putin's nukes from intervening. Putin would never dare respond by escalating in a way that would end his regime.
Human rights activists like the Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and other media pundits and experts have taken this argument further. They have argued that Putin would conclude from American unwillingness to intervene in Ukraine that its guarantees to NATO allies are flimsy. "Biden & others insist NATO would retaliate should Putin attack Baltic members," Kasparov tweeted. "Watching Ukraine, I am not sure of that at all, and Putin won't be either." The synthesis is as follows: Kozyrev is right that Putin is not suicidal, so he would back down if we confronted Russian forces in Ukraine. And by not intervening, we are emboldening him to attack NATO states after he is done with Ukraine.
This argument is wrong on at least two levels. First, it misunderstands the nature of war and escalation, and assumes that only a crazy person would deign to escalate a war past the nuclear threshold. That's simply not the case. The Cold War nuclear strategist Herman Kahn wrote extensively about the "escalatory ladder" between nuclear-armed powers: at every step of a given conflict, the sides will be faced with the option of reaching for more and more destructive weapons at their disposal. Kozyrev and Kasparov's criticism against inaction remains loosely plausible within Kahn's framework: Would a rational actor choose to take the fatal step? If neither the United States or Russia is suicidal, we should not fear intervening to end the bloodshed in Ukraine. Neither side would choose to end the world.
But Jacob Parakilas, writing at The Diplomat, provides a better metaphor for thinking about a likely conflict. If we were to get into a hot shooting war with Russia, we would not be in danger of climbing an "escalatory ladder" as much as we would be going further down an "escalatory slide": "The farther down you go," he says, "the more difficult it is to bring yourself to a stop." In other words, it's not strictly speaking about rationality, but about the logic of events.
As General Philip Breedlove, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, noted, the problem with the idea of a no-fly zone is its enforcement. Russian anti-aircraft batteries in Belarus and Russia easily cover all of Ukraine's territory, and would shoot down allied planes at will. In order for a no-fly zone to be enforced, therefore, we would have to be ready to bomb military installations outside of Ukraine, and indeed on Russian soil. While acknowledging these dangers, Breedlove himself thinks that we should not take the threat of a no-fly zone off the table, presumably for strategic ambiguity reasons. As a bluff never carried through, it has some merits: the more Russia wonders about our final intentions, the better. But it's worth carefully thinking through the consequences of actually taking the decision.
Once the United States starts losing planes over Ukraine, for example, the domestic pressure to get revenge will become orders of magnitude greater than it already is. Demands for punitive actions against Russian ground forces will become shriller, with calls to bomb troops in Ukraine as well as bases in Belarus or Russia. Besides a thirst for revenge, righteous indignation would also increase. After all, most of the horrors we are witnessing are the result of Russian artillery pounding an overmatched Ukrainian resistance and targeting helpless civilians in cities. Air power has its limits, however. Properly punishing Russian forces will at some point require deploying ground troops of our own. A no-fly zone could transform into a more ambitious land war for securing Ukrainian territory in no time, a land war that itself spills over into Belarus and Russia.
How bad could that be, though? Doesn't the apparent sorry state of the Russian army mean that NATO would have little trouble in stopping Moscow's murderous campaign fairly quickly? Undoubtedly if NATO were to put its full weight into defeating Russian conventional ground and air forces on a leveled playing field, it could do so fairly decisively. But as the Washington Post's Jason Willick and Professor Caitlin Talmadge of Georgetown University (separately) argued last week, the playing field is not at all leveled. While the United States was preoccupied fighting low-grade colonial wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan and building up its force posture to most effectively kill aggrieved shepherds with machine guns riding around in Toyota LandCruisers, Russia (and China) have been upgrading their tactical nuclear arsenal in preparation for exactly the kind of confrontation we see now in Ukraine.
Tactical nuclear weapons should be distinguished from strategic nuclear weapons. The former are of much lower yield and destructive power than the latter, and are designed to obliterate a tank battalion or a base rather than an entire city. Indeed, they were first developed by the United States in the Cold War in order to deter superior Soviet land forces from contemplating an invasion of a comparatively overmatched NATO army on the European continent. The idea was that if the Soviets rolled tanks into the Fulda Gap, for example, NATO could destroy them without triggering the ultimate escalation to Mutually Assured Destruction—a nuclear exchange targeting cities on both sides that would likely end human civilization as we know it.
The military strategist Elbridge Colby was among those warning in 2018 that American complacency on the question of tactical nukes was leading us to disaster. Liberals and doves were certain that with nuclear war now "unthinkable," there was no point in investing in weapons that would skirt the threshold of total annihilation. It was part a failure of imagination, and part of a broader belief in rationalist "progress"—with the madness of the Cold War behind us, no one would again risk taking the world to the brink. A new day had dawned on the world with the fall of the Soviet Union. There was no going back to darkness.
Sadly, planners in Moscow were not as idealistic, or complacent. Willick cites a Congressional Research Service report, saying that "the United States has only 230 [tactical nuclear weapons], 'with around 100 deployed with aircraft in Europe.' Russia has up to 2,000." Talmadge nails down the predicament we find ourselves in: "The problem is that precisely because all-out nuclear war would be so costly for both the U.S. and Russia, Mr. Putin likely believes it won't happen. As a result, he may feel relatively safe engaging in conventional aggression or even limited nuclear use below that threshold—demonstration strikes, for example, or attacks on military targets—without much risk of a Western response."
This is the situation that calls for no-fly zones are pushing the United States to enter into. Should a no-fly zone turn into a limited land war—as I have argued above is at least somewhat likely—an outmatched Russian army would have recourse to beating back NATO forces with tactical nuclear weapons. If such a war could be kept under the strategic nuclear threshold—a big if—it's not clear that the West could prevail in Ukraine given the tactical nuke disparity. In the meantime, Ukraine would be transformed into a radioactive wasteland.
Neither NATO nor the United States ever officially committed themselves to defending Ukraine's territorial integrity. The degree to which the West has blood on its hands is the degree to which it misled Ukrainians into thinking otherwise. Some in the policy community perhaps thought that non-binding security partnerships would deter Russian aggression. Others probably felt that in making the United States edge towards more binding guarantees, it would act more forthrightly in a crisis. Unsurprisingly, neither of those scenarios materialized. That's gut-wrenching, but is now besides the point. Today, the question is not whether Russia can be deterred, but whether it can be defeated in a limited war. There is plenty of reason to think that it cannot. But once we start fighting such a war to secure even a part of Ukrainian territory, backing down signals a broader lack of resolve.
And therein lies the second, graver danger of Kasparov's misguided line of attack. Direct Western involvement in Ukraine's war that ends up with the United States backing down would perversely lead to an undermining of NATO's current deterrent credibility—exactly the scenario that Kasparov warns not intervening would cause. If Russia can out-gun us on the ground using tactical nukes, the United States will have to eventually blink. Any climb-down would, in turn, lead Putin to wonder about just how far he might press his advantage in broader Europe after the dust has settled in Ukraine. To gamble on no-fly zones working out is to invite disaster.
In order to preserve the ultimate deterrence of NATO guarantees to member states, we need to avoid brinkmanship on Ukrainian soil. Instead of talking about intervention that gets us further down the escalation slide, we need to be doubling down on defending the borders of the NATO alliance. At this perilous moment, this is paramount. We may not be able to win a limited war, but we can credibly still threaten Putin with a disproportionate response should he cross well-established lines. President Biden did well to do just that in his State of the Union address: "As I have made crystal clear," he gravely intoned, "the United States and our allies will defend every inch of territory of NATO countries with the full force of our collective power." This wasn't just empty rhetoric. It is existential that he was unambiguous, communicating to Russia that even as much as a bullet whizzing over the Polish border would not be tolerated.
In the coming days and weeks, if things are not going well for Russian forces, I expect Putin to start saying more forcefully that supplying weapons to Ukrainian fighters is an act of war. (He has not yet done so; he has merely gestured at it being a hostile act. That, in and of itself, is telling.) Once he does, it will be critical that the West not flinch. Keeping exposed European allies on board will be of the utmost importance. As Hal Brands noted recently, the Soviet Union frequently threatened severe reprisals for Western support to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, but never did anything about it. Attacking NATO, after all, would have been as much of a suicidal act in the 1980s as it is today. We need to keep this firmly in mind as Russian rhetoric heats up.
We must continue to be steadfast. We must continue to arm and equip the brave Ukrainian fighters on NATO territory for as long as they are willing to go fight and kill Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil. We must be confident in the knowledge that Putin is a rational actor and is not suicidal, while at the same time avoiding getting pulled into a disastrous expedition we would probably lose. Most horrible of all, we must get used to watching the unwatchable, and take stock of how badly we screwed up to get ourselves, and the wretched Ukrainians, into this horrible endgame.
We will also have to reimagine what the world is likely to look like on the other side of this war. It's going to be an ugly and dangerous place, and nothing like what we have come to expect. We will have to coldly come to terms with it, and embrace its hideous logic. Failing to do so will lead to catastrophe.