War, in general, never presents perfect choices where going one way (if it works) will be pain-free. Trade-offs and trenches go hand-in-hand. As we’re learning – since our intelligence services are suddenly liberated like never before to tell what they know – Putin started this war not only under false pretense but under the false impression that Ukraine would welcome his war on them with open arms. Alas, for Vlad, just enough Ukrainians have tasted democracy and preferred it to autocracy. They will never willingly live under a dictatorship ever again. And Vlad – being a corrupt despot who stole from Russia instead of modernizing Russia’s vaunted military – doesn’t have the military might to conquer anyone. Oh, sure, Putin can shoot missiles at a target but that won’t win you any wars.
And if what started this morning when Ukrainian helicopters attacked an oil depot inside Russia becomes a regular occurrence? If Ukraine takes Putin’s war to Russian soil? How will Putin explain that? Putin may have made it illegal to call what he’s doing in Ukraine a “war”. What’s he going to call what Ukraine is doing to Russia daily? Spoiler alert: it doesn’t matter.
Putin’s concern with nomenclature is a branding problem. He believes that calling what the Russian army is doing to Ukraine “a war” won’t sell to ordinary Russians. On this side of the Russian border, we call it “a war”, but we won’t call it “World War Three”. This, too, is utterly irrelevant. History will be the final arbiter as to what this should properly be called. It’s not like Putin’s going to haul out some rule book to justify escalating from the weapons he’s used so far (including hypersonic weapons, cluster bombs and thermobaric explosives that suck up all the oxygen, creating a massive vacuum) to bio weapons, chemical weapons and nuclear devices. Putin lives in a rabbit hole of his own making. Unfortunately, what happens inside his rabbit hole can impact people outside it.
The Ukrainians have been begging for a no-fly zone. They haven’t gotten it because NATO fears that American or NATO pilots engaging with Russian pilots will be the event that “triggers” Putin to action – giving him the excuse he wants to escalate to the unthinkable. Zelenskyy is a great pitch man for Ukraine. He’s put us on the defensive repeatedly – despite all the help we’re providing – because it’s not the “right” help.
But, let’s say NATO’s correct. Let’s say initiating a no fly zone did give Putin the excuse he thinks he needs to justify – to himself – going nuclear. Putin has no qualms about going bio-weapon or chemical . He’s already used chemical weapons in Syria and gotten away with it. Were Putin to use chemical weapons or go nuclear, he’d be doing it in part to make a point – that he’s prepared to use them.
Crazy as that makes Putin, he’s not crazy-crazy. He isn’t planning to launch his nuke at New York or Washington, DC. He isn’t planning to hit NATO. He won’t launch at some neutral country. Same goes for his few friends – North Korea, Iran, India, China. He has no intention of firing a nuke at them.
That leaves one place for Putin to go misadventuring – Ukraine. If/when Putin escalates his brutality, he’ll spend the rage on Ukraine. Poor, battered, abused, war-crimed-upon Ukrainie.
That, I believe, is what Joe Biden is trying to save Ukraine from: something even worse – not just for the world but for Ukraine. So far, Putin has gotten away with what the rest of the world calls war crime. It remains entirely possible that he’ll go to his grave having never personally paid for being a war criminal.
The Ukrainians are the front line fighters in the war to save democracy. That wasn’t a fight they chose for themselves; it was chosen for them. The entire democratic world aches to save them – to spare them one more instance of Putin’s brutality. Alas, world events move like a giant oil tanker. Stopping them or getting world leaders to change direction is difficult task. Not impossible, just challenging in the extreme.