The Struggle with Russia

The West has careened from fear to confidence in Ukraine.

The fear may well return.

On February 25, 2022, the day after the present Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced, the West feared Russia.

The West feared escalation.

The West feared nuclear war.

And so the West would commit only to very limited supply of arms to Ukraine. Antitank small arms. But no tanks. No artillery. No big missiles.

Then Russia’s conventional forces struggled in the field. Russia withdrew her forces from the north and gave up on the reduction of Kyiv.

Now the West’s confidence grew. Russia appeared to be a paper tiger. And now the arms poured in. Artillery. Missile systems. Tanks.

But it was unclear why Russia’s poor showing as a conventional military so stoked Western confidence, because the threat to the West had always been a nuclear threat.

On February 25, 2022, no one thought that Russia might retaliate against the Western arming of Ukraine by undertaking a conventional invasion, of, say, Britain.

What the West feared was that Russia might respond by using battlefield nuclear weapons according to her doctrine of escalating to deescalate. She might drop a nuclear weapon on Kyiv.

And then what?

For the West not to respond by dropping a nuke on Russian forces would be to condone Russia’s use of the weapons. But to respond in that way might draw a nuclear response from Russia.

There would be nuclear war.

The peculiar thing about the resurgence of Western confidence after Russia’s conventional forces struggled is that Russia’s poor performance with conventional arms didn’t change the nuclear calculus.

Unless one wished to infer from Russia’s difficulty hitting Ukrainian targets with her long range missiles, or her inability to achieve air superiority, that Russia was in fact incapable of using her nuclear weapons at all, there was no basis in Russia’s weakness in conventional arms to support the view that Russia was not a threat to the West after all.

Indeed, as we have been reminded by Russia’s renewed threats to use nuclear weapons in response to her loss of the city of Izium, her conventional military failures made her more likely to resort to nuclear war.

If the West feared nuclear war with Russia on February 25, 2022, the West ought to have feared nuclear war with Russia even more on April 2, 2022, once Russia had retreated from Kyiv. If the West thought it unwise to supply Ukraine with weapons on February 25, 2022, then the West should have thought it even less wise to supply Ukraine with weapons in April 2022.

Instead, the West sent more.

I do not mean to say that the West should not have sent more weapons. But I do mean to say that the West ought to have been aware, in sending them, that the West was increasing the risk of nuclear war. The arming of Ukraine ought to have been carried out with a sense of courage—with an awareness that great and increasing risks were being undertaken in the interest of winning a struggle with a nuclear adversary.

Instead, it was undertaken with a sense of relief and confidence. It was undertaken out of the irrational belief that Russia’s conventional military weakness meant that supplying the weapons would not be as dangerous as had at first appeared.

Which is a problem, because it suggests that West will not be ready when, as is increasingly likely, Russia uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

For if Russia were to do that, the West would find itself right back in the scary world of February 25, 2022, a world in which the West’s first instinct was not courage but rather fear and paralysis.

If the West’s basis for standing up to Russia over the past six months has been the belief that Russia is no real threat, then when Russia demonstrates that she remains a threat—indeed an existential threat—the West’s basis for standing up to Russia will disappear.

If it seemed obvious to the Biden Administration in the lead-up to the invasion that drawing a red line and committing to arm Ukraine would be unwise, because it could lead to nuclear war, then it will seem equally obvious to the Biden Administration on the morning after a nuclear attack by Russia on Ukraine that responding in kind would be unwise, because it could lead to nuclear war.

But if the Biden Administration does not respond, then the West will lose.

The problem with the past six months of Western policy toward Russia is that it has been built on the fantasy that Russia’s inability to get tanks to Kyiv means that she is not a nuclear threat.

In fact she remains a grave nuclear threat, and the West has been fighting a proxy war against her. And not just any proxy war, but the supremely dangerous form in which only one side believes that there is a proxy involved. Russia does not think this is a proxy war. She thinks that Ukraine (unlike, say, Afghanistan) is hers.

When the West decided in April to arm Ukraine in earnest, the West decided to escalate a conflict between the West and a nuclear adversary. The West can only win such a nuclear struggle if the West knows that it is in fact a nuclear struggle.

And only if the West is willing to risk the West’s annihilation in order to win.

On February 25, 2022, the West was not prepared to take such a risk.

Is the West ready to take it now?