NATO and the European Union are dithering over how to provide military assistance to qawE Ukraine without provoking Putin. All are agreed that declaring a no-fly zone is tantamount to an act of war, because it means shooting down Russian airplanes when they invade Ukrainian air space. But NATO and Russia both have nuclear weapons, and no one wants to put Putin to the test, in essence daring him to make good on his threat to use them. Putin’s forces may not be performing well on the ground, but that doesn’t make his nuclear arsenal any less lethal.
Since the Cold War, Russia and the United States have come up to the brink, but no further, because of the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The knowledge that no matter which side fires the first missile, there can be no winner, but rather assured mutual destruction, is the ultimate deterrent. In addition, the resultant radioactivity would soon poison the entire planet. The holocaust would spell the end of most of terrestrial lifeforms and possibly the annihilation of the planet itself.
I sincerely doubt, however, that Putin, despite his veiled threats and as out-of-control as he seems to be, is not so insane as to actually detonate a nuclear device. Still, he is armed with 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons designed for use on the battlefield that can have a very limited range of total destruction and radiation fields. He may not hesitate to use these as a last resort if he sees he has no chance of subduing Ukraine.
Even a war with conventional weapons would be catastrophic. A conflict that sets half the world (the 30 members of NATO, the European Union and our Pacific allies) against the other (Russia and its allies, China and North Korea) is unthinkable, but not impossible.
But avoiding escalation is a vain hope. So long as the Western allies refuse to “close the sky,” Putin will continue to drop bombs until every building is demolished and no Ukrainian remains standing. Can the West truly just stand by on the sidelines and watch the fighting, the bombing, the dying, and the suffering? Civilians murdered, soldiers maimed, children orphaned, families separated, an entire nation snuffed out? Or will it try to thread the needle by donating planes for Ukrainian pilots to fend off the Russians? This too is risky. Putin announced that any countries holding planes meant for Ukraine may be considered adversaries.
The free world is not standing by. It is sending weapons and humanitarian and medical supplies. By the eleventh day of the war, almost 20,000 volunteers from 52 countries had streamed to Ukraine to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with soldiers on the front lines. Foreign medics are tending to the wounded in hospitals and on the battlefield. Almost three million refugees have received offers of shelter, food, and clothing when they succeeded in crossing the border. All over the world, people are protesting and raising money for the beleaguered nation. In Russia, thousands have been arrested for demonstrating against the war, more than 4,500 in one day alone.
President Biden is flying to Brussels for an extraordinary NATO summit meeting on March 23. Let’s hope they will agree on a way to end the bombing and safely evacuate civilians.