Ukraine, Russia, and the Dangers of a Wider War


Wesley Smith

March 4

7 min read

Foreign Policy



A large-scale war has begun in Europe.  Russia is attacking Ukraine.  Russia is also attacking all the rules of normal life, human decency, and international law.  Vladimir Putin has joined the ranks of the three worst tyrants of the 20th Century:  Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Mao Zedong.  These three, in their quest for land and power, killed tens of millions of people—most of them innocent civilians.  Like them, Putin’s disregard for international norms and the sanctity of innocent lives is shocking.  Russian forces were initially attacking military targets using precision-guided weapons.  No more.  Indiscriminate, reckless bombing and missile attacks are taking place at this moment.  Women, youth, and small children are being killed and wounded along with Ukrainian soldiers.  To Putin, apartment buildings, schools, and medical facilities are now legitimate targets.

With his oversized ego and desire for rebuilding and enlarging a greater Russia, Putin is indifferent to the suffering he is causing.  His undisguised, naked aggression has led him into shocking war crimes.  Perhaps he does not care, but he is a pariah and a criminal in the eyes of most people in the world.  Even the United Nations voted overwhelmingly in the General Assembly to condemn the actions of Putin’s Russia.  As citizens in Moscow and other parts of Russia protest the actions of their president—they are summarily arrested and carried away to only God knows where.  Thousands of Russian troops, along with innocent Ukrainians, have died. More will die. This is an oversized nightmare the likes of which Europe has not seen since the end of World War II in 1945.

With the end of that war, the establishment of the United Nations, and the beginning of the NATO alliance—most thought that this kind of war would never happen again. NATO and the United Nations were designed to prevent what the world is now witnessing. But the nightmare of war in Europe has returned.  We woke up in recent days to a world that is less safe than most of us could have imagined.

Part of what makes this situation so dire and alarming is because no one knows how and where this will end.  There is the potential for other nations to be drawn into this conflict in an active role—whether by design or accidentally.  War has an inherent unpredictability built into it.  Already, Putin has issued a veiled threat of using nuclear weapons.  NATO nations border Ukraine and Russia.  Several of these NATO member states used to be part of the Soviet Union.  Others were part of the Warsaw Pact, closely aligned with the brutal former Communist regime.  As they turned to the West and embraced freedom and some form of democracy—Putin has resented their realignment and implausibly sees them as a threat to Russia.  Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are small former Soviet Republics; they were seized and annexed by another brutal Russian during WW II: Joseph Stalin. They are now members of NATO. Putin called them out by name recently. They are easier targets if Putin decides to expand his actions if Ukraine falls.

If any NATO country is attacked, Article 5 of the NATO Charter will be invoked.  This has only happened once.  After the attacks in the U.S. on 9/11, NATO declared Article 5 in force: An attack on one NATO country is an attack on every NATO country.  Collective defense will be required.  While each NATO member decides what that involvement might entail—and they are not required to use military force in defense of their NATO partners—it is likely that any attack on a NATO country by Russia will result in an all-out war. Russia will be at war with the United States and our allies. Article 6 of the charter defines an attack as any armed aggression against the territory, vessels, planes, or troops of any NATO country.  For the first time in history, we are living with that sobering possibility.  A Russian attack of a NATO state is our worst-case scenario.  Thanks to the irrational belligerence and unbridled ambition of Vladimir Putin, we do not know for sure if this will happen.  That uncertainty is unprecedented.

The world, and all people who believe in justice and freedom, must do everything in their power to support and defend Ukraine.  What this entails and how it looks will be different for each country.  Certainly, the vast shipments of arms, ammunition, and other support to Ukraine is a given.  Nations such as Switzerland and Sweden that normally do not take sides are lining up behind Ukraine, condemning and sanctioning Russia.  Covertly and overtly, the U.S. and our allies are doing everything possible—short of going to war with Russia—to defend Ukraine.  The question is, will Putin see nations who support Ukraine as targets for his aggression?  For example, if Ukrainian fighters seek sanctuary in nearby countries—what happens if Russia attacks those Ukrainian soldiers in the sovereign territory of a nearby country?  Technically, that is an act of war.  Would that lead to the invocation of Article 5 and would NATO be obligated to go to war with Russia?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said recently, “Putin has shattered the peace in Europe.”  He reaffirmed that NATO will always stand together.  He mentioned that fighter jets from the United States are now flying alongside the Polish Air Force, “keeping the skies over NATO safe, 24/7.” French troops are arriving in Romania. British forces are in Estonia.  The NATO Response Force is activated, some 40,000 strong.  In concluding remarks to the press, Stoltenberg stated, “Our message to President Putin is: Stop the war.  Pull out all your forces from Ukraine and engage in good faith in diplomatic efforts.  The world stands with Ukraine.”

The one thing we can no longer assume is that Putin sees the world, and the unthinkable aspect of a war in Europe, in the same way as Europe and the United States might view it.  What is unthinkable and foolish in the eyes of most Western leaders might not be viewed the same way by Putin.  In any lead-up to war, the enemy gets a vote.  No matter how much one nation seeks to avoid war—the aggressor can negate that peaceful desire. Already Putin’s rationale for invading Ukraine and the excuses for his aggression make no sense.  He plays Russia as the victim.  His violent attacks in Ukraine are justified in his mind as being acts of national defense for Russia.  Horrible, evil, unstable people rarely see themselves as horrible, evil, or unstable.

What we cannot do is to ultimately pretend this is not happening.  Appeasement of Vladimir Putin following his attacks on Georgia and Crimea is partly how we find ourselves in this present predicament.  Whether it is further and more severe sanctions, more arms to Ukraine, or supporting an insurgency when Ukraine falls to Russia—the world cannot let fear of Russian retaliation allow Putin to redraw boundaries in Europe and commit war crimes and unthinkable atrocities with impunity.  The world cannot—must not—let Putin get away with this.  It would invite further aggression, not only by Russia—but other belligerents like Iran, China, and North Korea.  The enemies of freedom—to say nothing of the enemies of human decency—are watching.

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