Ukraine: The Limits of Power in a Nuclear Standoff

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by Dan Ehrlich


Ukraine has asked NATO to establish a ‘no fly zone’ over the country. But this was ruled out because it could result in shooting down Russian aircraft and escalating the conflict beyond Ukraine.

In the nuclear superpower age nations least likely to go to war are those with most to lose. Nations with less to lose are more likely to wage war. That’s why Ukraine stands alone. And powerful NATO has been embarrassed by its non-military response to this unprovoked invasion.

The wealthy western nations have too much loss if they challenge Russia militarily. And Vlad Putin knows this.

Yet, in a larger context, what if Russia invaded a NATO member? What then? Putin’s war has revealed all defense alliances and treaties are toothless when military challenges are needed in confronting a nuclear power such as Russia.

I have to look back to the mid 1930s when Italy invaded Ethiopia and its emperor Hailie Selassie pleading in vain with the League of Nations for help. No developed nation wanted a war with Italy over a distant African nation.

Yet, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the UK was quick to declare war against Hitler. This didn’t stop the invasion and for several months the allies did little against Germany.

But that was in a pre nuclear world. When dealing with a dictator such as Putin, who knows the fear factor of nuclear war among western nations, he feels he can do what he wants with impunity, feeling assured no nation or alliance will call his bluff.

Yes, NATO is happy its united in slapping all manner of sanctions on Russia. And sports events are being cancelled here and there. But this won’t stop Putin’s war. He’s driven to knobble Ukraine, whatever that takes. And all the sanctions in the world will mean little to him as long they don’t losen his crip on power.

As for Ukraine, its best hope is a long drawn out, yet devastating conflict that will inflict heavy loses on the Russian military. What Putin doesn’t want is another Afghanistan, where the sight of Russian troops coming back in body bags, forced its exit from that country.

Yet, on a wider level, the reluctance of NATO to challenge Russia militarily in Ukraine, poses the question what good is such an alliance if its not willing to back up its rhetoric. Can Russia, one by one, invade its former Warsaw Pact member nations, with only outrage voiced by the West?

As long as Russia, the world’s largest country, remains a rogue nation, with the autocratic leadership of Putin, he will be calling the shots. And we may have to live with it.

Aside from wanting to have Russia respected as a world superpower, Putin, as with Soviet leaders before him, is obsessed with a threat from the West, from NATO. His pretext for invading Ukraine is to neutralize the security threat it poses to his country.

A Security threat from NATO? It’s a defensive alliance…When has NATO ever threatened to attack Russia? In Putin’s mind, NATO is a threat to Russia by virtue of US missiles aimed at his country, even for defense.

This brings us to the key aspect of the Cold War that Putin wants to revive, the belief that the West wants to subvert and control Russia. It’s a belief entrenched before and after WW2 which mandated keeping the West at arms length from its borders. This was the main function of the Warsaw Pact nations bordering Russia.

Yet, from the Russian perspective there was good reason for this. Most Americans and Brits are ignorant of the fact that the Cold War was a western construct.

The US and UK were so fearful that the 1917 Bolshevik revolution would spread to their workforces, they made a pariah nation out of revolutionary Russia. All but forgotten in the West was the disastrous Allied invasion of the nascent Soviet Union in 1918 designed to assist anti communist forces in overthrowing the Soviets.

The UK, France, US and several other nations sent upwards of 100,000 troops to support the White Russians Against the Reds. The operation was a disaster. Yet the memory of that operation, forgotten in the West, is very much a part of vivid Russian history.

One historian wrote: “The consequences of the expedition “were to poison East-West relations forever after, to contribute significantly to the origins of World War II and the later ‘Cold War,’ and to fix patterns of suspicion and hatred on both sides which even today threaten worse catastrophes in time to come.” For Soviet leaders, the operation was proof that Western powers were keen to destroy the Soviet government if they had the opportunity to do so.”

This is political dogma for Putin and a prime reason for his Ukraine invasion.

When Mikail Gorbachev effectively ended the Cold War in 1990,there was hope Russia might come in from the cold as a new democracy. That hope has been dashed by the ascension of Putin, a dictator who longs for the Cold War and Soviet Union.

The hope for Russia now is in its young people who want a better life than offered by a rogue state and its hard line dogmatic leaders.

But, as long as Putin remains in the driver’s seat Russia’s antagonistic relationship with the West will remain and we will have to live with it.

After Ukraine, it remains to be seen what his next target will be. But we may already know what the West’s reaction will be.

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