COLUMN: Avoiding nuclear war | Daily Sentinel

Since Russian tanks and troops poured into Ukraine, the Biden administration has demanded that it do more on the military front: establishing a no-fly zone, supplying fighter jets to Ukraine and even prepare to send American troops into battle. Reports of Russian atrocities will increase the pressure for stronger action. But the arguments against US escalation remain exactly as they were: irrefutable.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy portrays NATO’s caution as a monumental disgrace. Reprimanding the German parliament in March, he invoked the Holocaust: “Every year politicians say ‘never again’. Now I see that those words mean nothing.

What’s surprising is that even in the face of gruesome images and heartbreaking stories, Biden rejected deeper involvement. He and most Washington policymakers understand that the only thing worse than the wanton savagery unleashed by Vladimir Putin would be the catastrophic effects of a nuclear attack. Making sure that doesn’t happen is, and should be, Biden’s highest priority.

It is easy to say that the United States and its allies should have stopped Adolf Hitler when he first attacked. But Hitler had no doomsday weapons. Putin does. As military strategist Bernard Brodie wrote in 1946, a year after the United States used two atomic bombs against Japan: “Hitherto the chief object of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, his main objective must be to avoid them.

In the decades following World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union became bitter enemies – plotting and fighting each other in every corner of the globe. Both maintained huge military forces. Both fought wars beyond their borders. But their fierce competition had clearly defined limits.

“At no time in the long history of the Cold War did Soviet and American military forces directly engage in protracted hostilities,” historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote in 1986. Why not? Because neither was willing to risk a conventional conflict ending in Armageddon. Leaders go into wars because they think they can win. But there can be no winner in a nuclear war.

The Soviet Union has disappeared. But the regime that replaced him has reminded everyone of what he can do. At the start of the invasion, Putin warned that any country trying to stop it would face “consequences such as they have never seen in their history”. Later he said he had put the Russian nuclear forces on high alert.

What is unclear is where his red line is. During the Cold War, the Soviets provided weapons and other aid to the North Koreans and North Vietnamese during our wars against them. We did the same for the Afghans during the Russian occupation. So far, our assistance to Ukraine has been within the framework of established rules of conduct.

But the creation of a no-fly zone would not be, because American warplanes would shoot down Russian planes. Sending fighter jets to Zelensky would fall into a gray area – but carries the danger of pushing Putin too far.

Maybe he’s bluffing using nukes. But maybe he isn’t. The consequences of believing this and being wrong would be horrific. But the consequences of not believing this and being wrong would be cataclysmic.

Russia’s carnage in Ukraine may seem so horrific that failure to do all that is necessary to stop it amounts to moral outrage. But the lesson of post-World War II is that unbearable moral outrages must sometimes be endured.

During the Cold War, the communist rulers of the Soviet Union held half of Europe in bondage, crushing democratic movements wherever they emerged. They abused their own people, sending some 14 million people to forced labor camps. The West had to accept these unacceptable barbarities rather than try to undo them and risk annihilation.

The real urgency here is to find a way to end the war through a negotiated settlement. This will inevitably mean that the world will have to ratify some illegitimate Russian gains. But there is no good alternative. In foreign policy, the choice is often between a terrible option and a worse one.

The images of civilians murdered by Russian troops and abandoned in the streets or buried in mass graves are painful to contemplate. But before we escalate the answer, we should take a long look at another set of images: from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


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