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Can U.S. and allies stand with Zelenskyy?

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.

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“Close the sky!”

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.

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