Pres. Zelenskyy’s impassioned plea to the U.S. and NATO for a no-fly zone over Ukraine goes not unheard, but unheeded.
The fear that direct engagement with Russia initiated by downing a Russian plane over Ukraine’s airspace would spark a confrontation with Putin is realistic. He is being backed into a corner that leaves him few options. The most likely is what he is doing now, doubling down and intensifying the terror and destruction. That he would suffer the humiliation of surrender is inconceivable. Like TFG, Putin cannot admit he was wrong. He miscalculated by assuming the Ukrainians identified as Russians and would welcome the Russian troops as liberators from non-existent Nazis.
Diplomatic initiatives, devastating sanctions and arming the Ukrainians have not curbed the hostilities, let alone ended the fighting. Ukrainian resistance has slowed the Russian invasion, but brave as the Ukrainians are, they are being killed and losing ground. They will eventually have to succumb to Putin’s force majeure.
If Western allies allow Putin to continue the annihilation of Ukraine by mercilessly shelling and besieging its cities, depriving them of power, water, food, and heat in sub-freezing weather; mining and blocking humanitarian corridors for fleeing civilians; bombing hospitals and wantonly killing civilians, Putin will have no incentive to restrain from forcibly annexing former Soviet republics to achieve his dream of restoring the Russian empire.
But the Baltic states and Poland are now members of NATO, so any aggression against them will constrain the alliance to defend them militarily, probably igniting World War III. In other words, inaction now could well result in the very thing NATO seeks to avoid. And Ukraine would be smoking rubble.
The greatest fear in provoking Russia is that Putin will make good on his threat to use nuclear weapons. Since 1945, the nuclear option has been off the table. The Cuban missile crisis was the exception, but even then, nuclear missiles served as deterrents because the would-be combatents recognized that in a nuclear war there could be no winners, only mutual destruction.
As terrifying as Putin’s putative willingness to go nuclear is, we are now at a point where we will have to risk it, if not now, then very likely later. Though Ukraine is not a NATO member, and thus we have no treaty obligation to defend it, letting 44 million Ukrainians die or go into exile will expose our professed ideals of liberty and democracy to be shallow and hypocritical. Putin has few options, but so does the West.