If we’re willing to provide Ukraine with fighter jets and advanced weapons systems, why not just go all the way and make them a nuclear power? Some members of Congress and the media seem confused about the meaning of the word “escalatory,” perhaps a bit of hyperbole might help them sort it out.
As the war in Ukraine rages into its fourth week, Congress is abuzz with plans to better arm the Ukrainian military against unprovoked Russian aggression. On Tuesday, a group of “top” Republican lawmakers including Senators Marco Rubio and James Inhofe, called on the Biden Administration to “provide a robust package of lethal and nonlethal aid to Ukraine.” The goal is to “ensure Ukraine’s military and security forces remain armed and provisioned to sustain their successful attempts to repel and disrupt Russia’s illegal, unprovoked, and unprecedented invasion.” The lawmakers argued that we should go above and beyond our current deliveries of stinger missiles, javelin anti-tank weapons, and small arms to much more lethal and powerful options. In their view, this includes “Soviet- or Russian-made strategic and tactical air defense systems” and even “Polish MiG-29s,” fighter jets familiar to anyone who’s seen Top Gun. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is in agreement, introducing a resolution to urge President Biden in this direction. “I’m urging the Senate to speak with one voice, to meet the moment…If we had a vote on the resolution to supply the Ukrainian military with the MiG fighters and other air defense systems, it would be a shot in the arm to Ukrainian people and their military,” he said, adding “It would be a blow to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. If we do this soon, I think it really could help the outcome of this conflict.”
Throughout, precious little attention has been paid to two critical issues. First, would delivering these arms and aircrafts actually be effective? We’re not talking about shipping them a pallet of new iPhones or a fleet of Teslas, after all. This is precision military equipment and weaponry that requires years, if not decades, of training to use properly, plus all of the supporting infrastructure to maintain and repair it. Putting this another way, if operating this equipment was so easy and essential, why did we not ship them to Ukraine before the invasion? The lead up to the invasion was only months long, after all, and literally no one was talking about the need for fighter jets or advanced anti-ballistic weapons systems to bolster the Ukrainian military. In fact, no one was talking about the Ukraine military at all. Most experts believed Kiev would fall in 72 hours, but now we’re suddenly supposed to believe that the experts are right this time and Russia will prevail unless we deliver them immediately. Further, no one pushing these ideas has actually bothered to explain whether or not Ukraine is capable of using them properly and what infrastructure is required to support them. Instead, they brush off the very question, saying essentially that, of course, they can, without providing any actual evidence, as if it should be obvious to everyone that advanced weapons are as easy to use as Google.
Even more concerning, they similarly brush off legitimate concerns that supplying these more advanced weapons might escalate the conflict even further and ultimately embroil the United States and our NATO allies in a direct war with Russia. The lawmakers’ letter to the Biden Administration says only, “We encourage the Departments to re-evaluate the flawed conclusion that the transfer of these fighter jets to Ukraine would be ‘escalatory’ in comparison to the weapons systems that have already been delivered to Ukraine by the U.S. and our allies and partners.” Except, there’s an obvious, incontrovertible difference that we can’t simply dismiss as a “flawed conclusion,” namely that US had been supplying stingers and javelins to Ukraine since Donald Trump was in office. This was the status quo before the Russian invasion. By definition, supplying additional weapons systems after the invasion is an escalation, and will surely be seized upon by Russia as such. If not, why not just ship them nuclear weapons? After all, nothing could be more of a deterrent than mutually assured destruction. This may seem like hyperbole, and to some extent it is, but fundamentally, why not? If you are willing to ship Ukraine ever more advanced weapons systems to combat Russia and these weapons systems are the answer to all our problems, where do you draw the line? Why would arming them straight up with nukes be out of the question? It’s a guaranteed way to end the war in its tracks and prevent Russia from seizing Ukraine. Some might be concerned about nuclear proliferation, but Ukraine already operates nuclear reactors for civilian purposes and far less stable countries like Pakistan already have the weaponized-versions, as does most of NATO. Speaking of which, we’ve been talking about bringing Ukraine into the NATO fold for more than a decade now. What better way to initiate them than by making them a nuclear power?
Rarely do I credit the Biden Administration, but poor and inconsistent messaging aside, they got the decision on the MiG-29s correct. There is no doubt that shipping fighter jets to Ukraine is a risky maneuver, and one for which no one has explained how to truly reap the benefits, merely assuming Ukraine’s air force is chock full of Tom Cruise characters. Alas, concerns about risk do not seem to be high on the list of proponents of various strategies to “do something.” Don’t get me wrong, I understand the desire. The stories coming out of Ukraine are atrocious, but the last thing we want to do right now is bring about a broader, potentially nuclear conflict. In some cases, doing nothing is the best option in the long term, as difficult as that might be to accept in the face of near daily atrocities. Consider the potential impact of proposals to deliver humanitarian aid. The Wall Street Journal carried an op-ed calling for a “humanitarian airlift” by Douglas Feith and John Hannah accompanied by a supporting editorial. The authors claimed that the United States should openly organize and fund a plan to “provide food, medicine and other nonmilitary supplies for days, weeks and maybe longer.” Given the potential for increased tension between Russia and the United States, the authors recommend the program be carried out by countries viewed “as not hostile to Russia — perhaps Brazil, Egypt, India and the United Arab Emirates — could take the lead in flying planes into Ukraine.” Unsure how Russia might react to such a move, they note Russian President Vladimir Putin “would either consent and facilitate distribution of supplies or provoke more denunciations of Russia for its inhumanity.”
This conclusion, however, is entirely unclear. Russia is bombing civilian targets as an essential part of their strategy. Some would say the cruelty is the point as they hope to quell the Ukrainian people who have so far refused to surrender. Why would President Putin allow aid to be delivered when the entire purpose is to make Ukraine suffer? In truth, he is likely to perceive this as an escalation at worst, or an impediment to his mission at best. Incredibly, Mr. Feith and Mr. Hannah insist their proposal has “little to no downside,” as if Russia potentially shooting a humanitarian plane from whatever country out of the sky isn’t remotely conceivable, nor would be considered a bad development. Right now, multiple journalists have been killed or severely injured in Ukraine. What are we going to do when aid workers are blown to bits as well? One gets a sense of their real agenda with a seemingly throw away line, noting that the airlift “doesn’t preclude efforts to arm the Ukrainians better, or eventually to establish a no-fly zone, but because the airlift is far less risky it should be more readily doable.”
I would agree that the airlift is less risky than some other options and also serves a noble purpose, but it still carries plenty of risk, especially amid the continued march towards ever more powerful weapons and a no-fly zone. Ultimately, we must strike the right balance: Encourage a continuous flow of ideas, but ensure that the consequences of each are fully considered before insisting it’s the best path forward. We should also get more creative. Ukraine has been filming interviews with Russian POWs, decrying their own leader. “I want to tell our commander-in-chief to stop terror acts in Ukraine because when we come back we’ll rise against him. Putin “has given orders to commit crimes. It’s not just to demilitarize Ukraine or defeat the Armed Forces of Ukraine, but now cities of peaceful civilians are being destroyed.” “The crimes that we committed; we all will be judged.” These quotes came straight from Russian soldiers. Close to 1,000 have been captured so far and Ukraine has promised to treat them honorably.
The soldiers themselves concur, with one saying, The treatment has been acceptable. They’ve offered us food and drink. They offered medical treatment.” This comes amid reports that morale is low in some Russian units. As a senior US official described it, “They again did not expect the resistance that they were going to get, and that their own morale has suffered as a result.” High morale is an essential component of a successful fighting force. This was one of Napoleon’s secret weapons as he stormed through most of Europe, what he termed “esprit de corp.” He believed success was one fourth troops and equipment, but three fourths morale. “Severe to the officers, kindly to the men” was his mantra, one the Russians appear to be violating daily. We should use this lesson now and take steps to disband the army as I argued early in the week. Experts claim that one need only incapacitate about a third of an army before it disbands. Every soldier we can take off the field counts, for if Putin doesn’t have a functioning army, Ukraine and the world doesn’t have this problem. Of course, we could just give them nukes instead.