Analysts and pundits in the United States and Europe are increasingly optimistic about Ukraine’s ability to win its war against Russia. They are also pushing the Biden administration to increase the flow of military hardware to Kyiv to maximize Ukraine’s chances of victory. A new missive to that effect comes from Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Max Boot in a May 2 Washington Post column. Boot argues that the United States should provide Ukraine “all the weapons it needs to win.” Nor should the administration let escalating threats from Vladimir Putin dissuade Washington from following this course, Boot said.
More worrying than the recklessly hawkish sentiments of smug pundits is that US and European officials are also talking openly about helping Ukraine win its war and inflicting a humiliating defeat on Russia. The US delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that visited Kyiv in early May repeatedly underlined this theme, as well as the promise of continued military assistance from Washington until victory.
What these individuals don’t seem to understand is that Ukraine is a vital Russian security interest, and the Kremlin will likely do whatever is necessary – probably even the use of tactical nuclear weapons – to prevent defeat. Failure to understand how important Ukraine is to Russia has caused Western leaders to ignore Moscow‘s warnings for more than a decade against kyiv joining NATO or an informal military ally. For the same reason, they seem to be making an even more dangerous mistake by ignoring the Kremlin’s latest warnings of dire consequences if NATO uses Ukraine as a pawn in a proxy war against Russia.
Boot and other experts even dismiss comments coming from Russia about the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia, blithely argues that Putin’s warnings about the use of nuclear weapons in response to increased Western military assistance to kyiv should be ignored. “The threat of escalation is cheap talk,” McFaul says confidently. “Putin is bluffing.
Boot also considers the risk of a nuclear confrontation to be minimal. “The least likely scenario is the most apocalyptic: Russia attacks NATO countries with conventional or nuclear weapons. Putin is not suicidal and he knows the US response would be devastating. Boot concedes that “a more limited use of nuclear weapons against Ukrainian bases or population centers is slightly more plausible.” However, Biden can thwart such a scenario.
…pointing out that while under current circumstances the United States will not fight Russia directly, all bets are off if Putin goes nuclear. Even without resorting to their own nuclear weapons, NATO could launch airstrikes that would quickly sink the entire Russian Black Sea Fleet and destroy much of the Russian military in and around Ukraine. It would shake Putin’s criminal regime to its core.
These confident hawks are insisting that the Biden administration not give in to Russia’s “nuclear blackmail.” They seem blissfully oblivious to the likely consequences if they get it wrong. Generally, Boot seems to believe that the mere threat of NATO airstrikes against Russian targets would intimidate Putin. The possibility of Russia deciding instead to wage a broader nuclear war in response to the sinking of “the entire Russian Black Sea Fleet” or the destruction of “a large part of the Russian military in and around Ukraine” doesn’t even seem to come to mind. Yet such a cornered great power response to a catastrophic defeat involving a vital security interest (a docile Ukraine) is not only possible, it is highly probable.
Contrary to the dangerously jaded attitudes of foreign policy hawks, it is imperative that the United States and its NATO allies take the new warnings from the Kremlin very seriously. Perhaps Western elites mistakenly believe that Russian leaders are as prone as their American counterparts to invoke the concept of vital interests with occasional promiscuity. Political leaders who insisted that Vietnam and Iraq were vital US security interests were certainly guilty of this offence. The degree of risk the United States is taking to help Ukraine is the latest evidence of such negligence and sloppy thinking.
However, nations have genuine vital interests and great powers will do almost anything to prevail in such situations. For example, the United States would never tolerate outside interference if it took military action to prevent Canada or Mexico from joining a powerful and hostile military alliance led by China. Any effort by Beijing to support an armed Canadian or Mexican “resistance” would be considered extremely provocative. And if Washington concluded that because of this outside interference it was about to lose the war, it would be extremely dangerous for the People’s Republic of China to assume that the American leadership would keep the conflict non-nuclear.
Ukraine has an importance for Russia comparable to that of Canada or Mexico for the United States. Preventing Ukraine from becoming a NATO military pawn is the most vital vital interest for the Russian leadership. The closer Moscow gets to defeat in the war against Ukraine, the more likely it is that the Kremlin will do whatever it takes, take whatever risks necessary, to prevent such an outcome. Proponents of helping Ukraine achieve “victory” and thereby humiliating Russia are flirting with Armageddon.
Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow in Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and Contributing Editor to the national interestis the author of twelve books and more than 950 articles on international affairs.