Tanks and missiles and possibly planes, oh my!

President Biden approves the shipment of M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine over the objections of his top military advisers and fighter jets are apparently back under consideration.  The media meanwhile has decided that there is no risk of Russian retaliation because these escalations do not meet the experts technical definition of war.  After all, who cares what Putin thinks?

Last year, I asked a satirical question:  Why not simply send nuclear weapons to Ukraine and end the war in a single shipment?  I had meant it to illustrate the absurdity and the potential danger of a rudderless Ukraine strategy based primarily on the shipment of advanced weaponry and ineffectual sanctions.  If the centerpiece of our plan is to arm the Ukrainian military against the Russians without committing any US or NATO troops, why not simply go all the way?  At the time, the discussion was over whether we should send older MIG aircraft from Poland to enable Ukraine to defend itself in the skies.  In those early days of the war, there was at least a debate about whether the move would be considered provocative and could result in an escalation of the war beyond Ukraine itself.  Cooler heads prevailed and the plan was ultimately scrapped, but since then we’ve steadily been increasing the supply of arms with little thought to how Russia might react.  First, it was longer range missiles delivered last September.  Last week, it was tanks, 31 state of the art M1 Abrams tanks to be precise.  The decision was apparently made by President Joe Biden himself, after members of his administration and the military had said for weeks that sending tanks was not a good idea for several reasons.  According to NBC News, “both Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley have recommended against sending M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, the three U.S. officials said.  Milley and Austin have cited how long it takes to train personnel to operate the tanks and how difficult the tanks are to maintain. They also have argued they are not the right vehicles for the fight in Ukraine right now, according to the officials.” Subsequent reporting revealed that “The president’s reversal on tanks caught some military officials by surprise, and it marked the second time in a month that such a dynamic has played out between the White House and the Defense Department over Ukraine aid, said three people familiar with the matter.”

As a result, only two things appear to remain constant:  The ante keeps going up and the concern for a negative backlash from Russia keeps going down.  Some in the media are now claiming that these concerns in general are meaningless short of an actual shooting war.  CNN’s Luke McGee asked if the decision to “finally send tanks to Ukraine” means that NATO is now in “direct conflict with Russia.”  His answer?  “This narrative, which is being pushed hard by the Kremlin, undoubtedly helps Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies deflect from the fact that Russia launched an unprovoked attack on Ukraine and illegally occupied parts of a sovereign state.”  Instead, he believes “the consensus among experts is that no NATO member is anywhere near what could be considered to be being at war with Russia by any internationally accepted legal definition. Therefore, the idea that the alliance is at war with Russia is a non-starter.”  Apparently, Mr. McGee has never heard the old expression it takes two tango.  NATO is not the sole decision maker in whether or not we are at war with Russia.  Russia and their supposedly insane President, Vladimir Putin, have a vote in this regard and they can choose to escalate on their own based on their assessment of the threat independent of the “experts” who think otherwise.  One of the root causes of the war is the Russian belief that the eastward expansion of NATO is a threat and impinges on their influence in the region.  Right, wrong, or indifferent, Vladimir Putin himself raised this concern repeatedly under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  He was ignored by all the experts, who kept insisting we expand the alliance to 30 countries, and continually pushed for more including Ukraine itself.  Last year, these same experts failed to predict the length and depth of the hostilities, assured us the war would be over in a few days, that sanctions would cripple the Russian economy, and made many another false promise as the conflict itself grinds into its second year.  If they were right on any of these questions, there would not be a war going on in the first place.  Therefore, a naïve reliance on textbook definitions is useless, but this is what the expert class does, deal with fantasy rather than reality.  For example, William Alberque from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said “War would require strikes carried out by US or NATO forces, in uniform, attacking from NATO territory against Russian forces, Russian territory, or the Russian populace.  Any fighting by Ukraine – with any conventional weapons, against any Russian forces – is not US/NATO war on Ukraine, no matter how much Russia wants to claim it so.”

Of course, all war really requires is a Russian willingness to escalate or even an unfortunate accident whatever the truth.  Note the slipperiness of the language even aside from the reliance on technical definitions. US or NATO forces would have to be in uniform, meaning we could send in special operators or covert teams, and it still wouldn’t be a war, nor should Russia perceive it as such. Statements like this are made even more shocking by events last November, when it was believed that a Russian missile had struck Poland and killed several people.  The Associated Press originally broke the story on November 15, claiming “a senior American intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity, that Russian missiles had crossed into Poland and killed two people.”  In principle, this single event could have embroiled Poland directly in the conflict, and under NATO’s charter, every other nation in the alliance would be obligated to declare war on Russia, meaning another world war could by unleashed mostly by accident.  Fortunately for the future of the planet, the report proved to be false, and it was actually a Ukrainian missile that misfired into Poland, but such moments make it clear that wars can begin due to events beyond our control whatever the experts may think.  In a more rational world, this would have given everyone pause:  The longer the conflict draws on, the more likely an incident like this leads to an out of control escalation.  This is not a video game or a simulation. Bad things happen when guns are blazing and missiles are flying. Things you cannot take back. Instead, it appears we’ve devolved into believing we control all sides of the conflict and Putin will make his decisions based on our definitions and terms.  Hence, Mr. McGee goes on to claim that Russia’s reasons for believing the war is driven by NATO aggression are “dubious,” and “they pale in comparison to the documented brutality and illegal actions of Russian forces in Ukraine since Putin ordered the invasion,” which, of course, is completely irrelevant.

Sadly, this does not prevent Mr. McGee from some spending a good portion of his piece bemoaning those who acknowledge this truth as playing into Russia’s hands “in more ways than one.”   John Herbst, a former ambassador to Ukraine, believes “that Russia’s information war on the West has been more successful than its military campaign, in the sense that it has caused credible and rational people in Washington, DC to self-deter from backing increased military support to Ukraine because they overstate the prospect of Putin using nuclear weapons, which would be disastrous for Russia too.”  Of course, according to many of these very same people the entire Russian enterprise in Ukraine has been a disaster for Russia and yet the war goes on, meaning they believe he is acting irrationally anyway and there is little reason to believe he will not continue to do so.  The reality is that Russian President Putin is motivated by a nationalism and a stubbornness our experts simply cannot understand.  If he responded to the same incentives as Western democracies, there would never have been a war.  What’s missing is an understanding of how he perceives events, rather than how we would like him to perceive events.  For example, we blithely assume “Russia knows that a conventional confrontation with NATO would be over very quickly for them,” according to Malcolm Chalmers, a deputy director general at the Royal United Services Think Tank, and therefore he will not escalate, but this is an untested proposition, couched in any event by the use of the word “conventional.”  President Putin could just as easily calculate that NATO would not respond to a “minor incursion,” as President Biden put it in 2021, the same as to a more forceful assault.  He could also conclude that we might not respond militarily to a cyber attack or a special forces operation.  There are no shortage of alternatives to a “conventional confrontation,” many of which can lead directly to one. 

It’s impossible to believe that Mr. McGee and the experts he cited do not know this.  There is no military operation without risk.  It is inherent in the enterprise.  They would have to be ignorant of most of the history of the human race to think that war’s only begin when they are officially sanctioned in some fashion, and yet they persist.  The conclusion is clear:  No request from Ukraine short of actual NATO troops in combat is too provocative.  There isn’t really another way to read this statement, “Multiple European officials and NATO sources agreed with the analysis that Putin going nuclear was unlikely, though the possibility had to be taken seriously and avoided. The question is, avoided at what cost? Ukraine will very likely continue to ask for more weapons and greater support from its allies the longer the war drags on. Each time, every NATO member will have to weigh up whether or not it’s worth the risk, or if dragging its feet actually plays into the Kremlin’s hands.”  He concludes by restating what was already said, “each time Russia warns of escalation – either by itself or NATO – Western capitals must keep sight of the fact: Russia is the aggressor in this conflict and the West is nowhere near being at war with Russia.  And no matter what noises Kremlin officials make about the West trying to destroy Russia, only one sovereign state has invaded another sovereign state and illegally claimed parts of its territory by force.”  Up next apparently are F16, which the Ukrainians are clamoring for and reports suggest the Biden Administration is seriously considering after rejecting Poland’s offer last year.  So we end where we began, why not just send them nukes?  If nothing short of boots on the ground is considered an act of war against Russia, then there’s nothing preventing us from doing so and ending the conflict immediately.

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