The U.S. and NATO must fight
(Coauthored with Elizabeth Fama)
Why are we — the U.S., NATO, the civilized western world — not fighting for Ukraine? If we do not fight in Ukraine now, we will fight there later, or in the Baltics, Poland, or Taiwan, at much greater cost. If we do not forcefully reverse this invasion, larger ones will follow.
The next few days and weeks are vital. If the government of Ukraine falls, President Zelenskyy and other leaders of the legitimate government will be jailed or murdered. Russia will annex Ukraine, or install a puppet government with a defense treaty. It will declare Ukraine under the Russian nuclear umbrella. Freeing Ukraine after the fact, re-creating a government, will be much harder and riskier.
Sanctions will not save Ukraine. Sanctions were intended as a deterrent. Sanctions are a punishment. Sanctions are not an effective way to fight a war. They will do little to stop Russia from winning in the next month or two. Sanctions will not achieve what must be our goal: Russian withdrawal, Ukrainian sovereignty, a return to the borders we pledged to uphold in 1994. Cuba, Iran, and North Korea withstood sanctions for decades. So will Russia.
Now that sanctions have failed to deter Putin, what is the plan? On the current course, if we don’t provide more help, Ukraine loses, the country is destroyed or partitioned, and we settle in for decades of deciding just how much energy Russia sells to Europe, what Europe sells in return, and how much tut-tutting we do about Russia trading with China, Iran, and others. While Putin turns his roving eye to the Baltics.
To save Ukraine, to save its democratically elected government, to save its people, to stop this from happening over and over, allies must fight.
We have the means. Russia does not have the power of the old Soviet Union, or of Nazi Germany. Russia spends $62 billion a year on its military. The US spends $788 billion. Germany and France spend $53 each, and the U.K. $59. NATO as a whole spends about $1.2 trillion a year on defense, almost twenty times what Russia spends. Our armies are larger, better equipped, and better trained than Russia’s. We lack only the will.
News from Ukraine already suggests unexpected Russian weakness: deficiencies in advanced weapons, tactics, training, supplies, and intelligence. There is a good chance that Russia needs this to be over quickly. If this is true, it is all the more important for us to help Ukraine to hold on.
What can be done in practical terms? NATO can immediately declare a Russian no-fly zone over Ukraine. Denying Russia the skies would critically hamper their invasion. NATO can launch missiles, drones, and airstrikes at Russian army assets. NATO should move invasion forces to the Ukrainian borders. Allies could work closely and directly with the Ukrainian Army, and support their intelligence. The U.S. could unleash our own cyber capabilities. We should protect President Zelenskyy and his government. (The man is a hero.)
We cannot fight, many say, because any engagement of NATO and Russian forces could provoke a nuclear escalation. It’s a legitimate worry. Putin is already capitalizing on this fear by placing nuclear forces on alert in response to sanctions. First, Putin knows the retaliation that would follow. Second, our goal is freedom for Ukraine, not invasion of Russia or regime change in Russia. Nuclear weapons exist to defend a country, not to prosecute aggressive wars, and even Putin knows that. That’s why the potential for nuclear war is higher if we try to free Ukraine after Russia has already subsumed it into its sovereign territory. Most of all, if we cannot ever use our conventional military to stop an unprovoked invasion, we surrender now and watch the Century of Invasions unfold.
We must not fight, others say, in “forever wars” in far-away countries. But in Ukraine we would not be toppling a regime, or “nation-building.” We would be defending and preserving an elected government and its civil society.
We did this before. In 1990, Saddam Hussein conquered and annexed Kuwait. A coalition of thirty-five nations fought, forced Iraqi troops back to the border, and left. Why did we fight over such a distant piece of land? To stop the next invasion.
We two are not habitual hawks. We recognize that the history of U.S. foreign interventions has included failures. We know that our military cannot rescue millions of people trapped in misery by despots. But the U.S. and our allies must send a message to those despots that we will not return to a world of naked territorial aggression, and that we will fight, if need be, to stop it.
Update. Bottom line: We must not let Ukraine lose. Do what it takes, calibrate responses, sure, maybe we don’t have the right strategy. Maybe big sanctions will do it. Maybe Putin will be overthrown, But letting Ukraine lose and then settling in for a sanctions negotiation is an unacceptable outcome. Do not let Ukraine lose.