The US involvement in the Ukraine crisis has long gone beyond any imaginable boundaries. From the beginning, the United States was vigilant about Russia’s growing military movements and amassing more than 150,000 combat-ready troops near the Ukrainian border, but did not intend to provoke Russia. Two days after the convoy of Russian tanks crossed the Ukraine border, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that the United States’ sole purpose is to support the Ukrainian people. A goal for which the United States will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars only for military aid. The White House imposed sanctions on several banks, oligarchs, political elites, corporations, government agencies, and members of the Putin family to pressure Russian leaders to halt military operations and send Russian troops back without intervention. A direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia was tantamount to World War III which Biden believed should have been avoided at all costs.
Now, about three months later, the conflict has turned into a full-blown proxy war with Russia, with far-reaching potential consequences. As a result, US officials are considering a more ambitious and aggressive role for the United States in this conflict to weaken Russia. This shift in strategy and approach has raised concerns about the rising levels of tensions and their spread to other parts of Europe and even the world. ” Throughout our history, we’ve learned that when dictators do not pay the price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and engage in more aggression,” Biden told reporters, citing historical experience “. They keep moving. And the costs, the threats to America and the world, keep rising.”
On his first trip to Asia, President Biden signed a roughly $40 billion bill to support Ukraine in the war against Russia. The bill enjoyed bipartisan support and easily passed both houses of Congress. This aid package is virtually tantamount to about half of Russia’s total defense budget, and more than half of the US State Department’s annual budget. However, in Biden’s view, this whopping amount of money is only a small cost ” to lessen the risk of future conflicts”.
Putin views Ukraine as the proxy of NATO led by the United States in the current conflict. Biden attempted to mute this narrative; therefore, he entered the war emphasizing that he did not want to turn the conflict into a confrontation between the United States and Russia. Initially, to the US, supporting Ukraine was like helping a small democracy struggling to defend itself against the domination of a more powerful, authoritarian, and expansionist neighbor. However, with the escalation of the tensions, the war in Ukraine now seems to have turned into a United States war. On April 24, the US Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense met with Zelensky in Kyiv to symbolically emphasize US support for Ukraine. This visit clearly reflects how this conflict turned from a war over Ukraine to a US-Russia confrontation.
At the end of his visit to Ukraine near the Polish border, Austin stated that the United States’ goal is to weaken Russia to the point where it can no longer invade its neighbors. Shortly afterward, analysts and experts expressed their concerns over these remarks as they could encourage Russia to escalate the dispute to a global level. Two days later, Austin convened the defense ministers of more than 40 countries in Ramstein, the largest US military base in southwestern Germany, to coordinate the process of supporting Ukraine and form a coalition of nations of goodwill to meet every month in order to strengthen international cooperation and overcome the current crises and conflicts.
For some, this change was inevitable. The United States is deeply involved in this crisis for a number of reasons. Diplomacy between Ukraine and Russia has stopped. In any case, Moscow’s initial involvement in the peace talks did not seem serious and credible. Putin is very greedy and historically very motivated. Russia has territorial claims to Crimea, the Donbas region, and the territories between the two along the Black Sea. Putin is not under enough pressure to come to the negotiating table. The United States is also motivated by the poor and unexpected performance of the Russian military as the world’s second most powerful army. US intelligence agencies feared that Kyiv would fall under the Russian military’s control within 72 hours. But Ukraine managed to hold the capital, and Russian forces retreated from their initial military objectives and instead focused their military operations on occupying the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine.
The increase in US intervention was also in response to long-standing fears by countries near or bordering Russia that Putin’s invasion might not be limited to Ukraine. On April 22, a senior Russian military commander stated that Moscow was seeking full control of eastern and southern Ukraine to pave the way for Moldova. Moscow’s rhetoric on nuclear weapons has also been increasingly alarming to US officials. ” Certainly nobody wants to see, or nobody should want to see, it escalates into the nuclear realm,” Pentagon spokesman Kirby said on April 27.
Biden’s decision to engage the United States more deeply in the Ukraine crisis has been widely supported domestically. Despite the unfortunate experiences of the past two decades in Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the United States has a moral responsibility to stop the killing of civilians in Ukraine, according to a report released by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in mid-April. Three-quarters of respondents were concerned that the situation was deteriorating. More than 80 percent of respondents consider Putin a war criminal. Yet only 19 percent of Americans believe the United States should do more, even at the cost of a direct war with Russia in Ukraine.
The Ukraine crisis has turned into an active proxy war against Russia for the United States. Washington is seeking to weaken Russia while avoiding any direct confrontation with it. On the other hand, Putin’s tone has clearly become more militant as he threatened to use a nuclear arsenal. ” We have all the instruments for this, such that no one can boast of.” ” We’re going to use them if we have to.”
Are such statements merely political bluff to intimidate the enemy, or should they be considered serious warnings that necessitate a rethinking of the risks of the current strategy? Would the change in the US approach escalate the Ukraine crisis from a regional to a global crisis and lead to an unwanted nuclear confrontation?
The imminent nuclear encounter
Despite the experts’ initial predictions, Russia has not been completely unsuccessful in the Ukraine war. This is while, even now, some officials and analysts hold that given the capabilities of the Ukrainian military, the inspirational leadership of Vladimir Zelensky, the scale and speed of Western arms shipments, and the imposition of unprecedented sanctions, Russia’s defeat is not far away. Obviously, one should be very cautious in accepting such predictions, but if this war is to turn into a catastrophe for Moscow, it is necessary for Western leaders to consider the consequences as well.
The leitmotif of the remarks and writings of many strategic analysts over the past few weeks is the fear of intensification and the spread of war beyond the borders of Ukraine. However, these discussions revolve only around NATO’s direct involvement in the war as the possible route to escalation. This fear is quite realistic, but fortunately, NATO and the Biden administration have shown so far that they are fully aware of it. The direct confrontation between NATO and Warsaw forces was a Cold War taboo that has been updated in the post-Cold War era. US President Joe Biden has demonstrated his commitment to this red line by not sending troops to Ukraine and by opposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. He said in early March, just two weeks after the start of the war, that “direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III, something we must strive to prevent.”
The Biden administration recognizes that direct confrontation between Russia and NATO might lead to competition in risk-taking: a situation in which each time parties engage in riskier behavior to persuade the other to back down and show how much the issue is crucial to them. It is blatantly obvious that in the case of NATO and Russia the riskier behavior is using nuclear weapons. The reality, however, is that even the tendency to avoid direct confrontation through proxy warfare will not guarantee that the conflict will not escalate to a catastrophic level. Therefore, it is necessary to consider other ways that can intensify this conflict as well.
The most worrying prospect imaginable is where the West’s military and economic pressures push Russia to escalate the tensions in order to survive the conflict. There are two possibilities on the basis that the West may threaten the survival of the Russian government even without direct confrontation with its military forces: by destroying the Russian economy and army.
Russia’s military performance as the second most powerful army in the world has definitely not lived up to the expectations. However, the impact of Western intervention should not be underestimated. New York Times reported that 17,000 anti-tank missiles were sent to Ukraine only in the first six days of the war, not to mention the number of anti-aircraft missiles or the level of Western intelligence support. This situation can make it more difficult, or even impossible, for the Russian military to achieve its goals and in the worst-case scenario might even collapse.
According to an estimate by the British Ministry of Defense, Russia has already lost a third of its ground forces in the war. Some believe that the number of casualties is even higher. Russia will be completely defenseless if its ground forces lose their effectiveness due to factors such as weak commanding, high casualties, low morale, and severe logistical shortcomings. A militarily defenseless Russia makes Putin extremely vulnerable at home and abroad.
Putin would be deeply concerned about the uprising of neighbors with whom Russia has had a long-standing dispute. Japan, for example, has territorial claims to a number of North Pacific islands that are now part of Russian territory. Putin also sees the US-led NATO as an expansionist offensive force seeking complete domination of Europe. Such threats may seem fictitious, but Putin certainly thinks otherwise.
In addition, he may be held responsible by his rivals and domestic opponents for the humiliation of the Russian military as Russia’s holiest institution. All his credibility will be lost, and Putin will be terrified of the possibility of any action against his leadership. Just like any other dictator, there is no guarantee that he will be quietly removed from power. Therefore, he will fear for his safety and health as well.
The scale of the sanctions imposed on the Russian economy has been unprecedented since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. Sanctions are expected to have unprecedented long-term consequences. Large investors and foreign retailers are leaving Russia and the rise of inflation and ruble depreciation are expected to continue in the long run, despite the Russian central bank’s recent successes. Manufacturing companies will soon be shut down due to restrictions on importing raw materials for production and equipment for machinery maintenance. Also, slow down of employment rates, a rise in unemployment, and as a result lower living standards are expected following sanctions. Russia may continue to earn foreign exchange, but sanctions ensure that the money cannot be put into use.
Sanctions are a modern, civilized alternative to war designed to weaken the enemy, bring it to the negotiating table, or succumb. Nonetheless, evidence showing a change in the behavior and policy of the country under sanctions is not considerable and persuasive. The danger is that sanctions might even escalate the conflict by provoking opposition. What makes the sanctions regime against Russia even more fragile is that nothing like this has ever been used against any major nuclear power. The Western governments do not seem to have a realistic idea of where these activities are going to lead. The sanctions appear to be aimed solely at punishing Russia, but at the cost of ignoring the more far-reaching consequences, it could have for the world.
Obviously, when Russia as a nuclear-armed state is threatened, it stands to reason to consider the actual use of a nuclear bomb by this country in a conflict as this is in line with their “escalate to deescalate” doctrine. Of course, the mere existence of an existential threat does not necessarily mean the outbreak of a full-blown nuclear war.
At least initially, Putin may test an underground or atmospheric nuclear bomb as a warning, or he could use a low-yield nuclear weapon against a remote military target in Ukraine. Such a move would break a rigid taboo, but Putin has already violated other international norms. He may avoid a direct attack on NATO members or large-scale casualties in Ukraine because he believes his actions should reflect Russia’s determination but not go beyond the US tolerance threshold. In Putin’s eye, such a move would pave the way for a speedy end to the conflict, as it would force the West to rethink the continuation of its policies in support of the Zelensky government.
Undoubtedly, this is a huge gamble as no one can be sure that the use of nuclear weapons will definitely remain limited to such a level. But if Putin thinks he is on the verge of suffering a complete failure, a military collapse or even being ousted from power, there is no reason why he should not consider raising the level of the conflict and taking the risk? The risk of escalating the conflict to a full-blown nuclear war between NATO and Russia is perhaps greater now than ever before in the Cold War. While Biden’s government is pursuing the idea of a weakened Russia, it is unlikely that Russia will undergo the imagined military and economic collapse only as a loser.
Turning Ukraine to Libya and Syria
The United States and NATO have chosen Ukraine as a staging ground for a proxy war against Russia which has a great potential for a nuclear catastrophe. Furthermore, NATO and the West’s sending arms and militants to Ukraine is adding insult to injury. With the influx of foreign weapons and fighters into Ukraine, Western leaders are paving the way for future conflicts of a different kind.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine was a defining moment for the Western world. It was the moment that history repeated itself and the call for action and struggle for survival have been renewed in the West. The twentieth-century giant has returned and is determined to separate Europe and restore the Iron Curtain. This was an emotional driver for Ukrainians which was deeply stirred and supported by the West via militarization of the whole population.
This situation is exactly reminiscent of the days when popular revolutions against former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned violent, and the measures taken to support the revolutionaries lacked the necessary precision and foresight. As a consequence, just like in the Middle East and North Africa, the foundation of ongoing crises will be laid in Europe this time.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a large number of weapons and ammunition were sent to the country from Europe and North America in support of the Ukrainian government. Advanced weapons such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, light weapons and ammunition, as well as military vehicles, advanced radios, and everything needed to win a modern war, have been sent to Ukraine. The scale and speed of air shipments of weapons to Ukraine are probably unprecedented in modern history. It is estimated that more than 20 countries, including Belgium, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, and Romania, are currently involved in sending weapons to Ukraine.
The goal was to neutralize Russia’s military and technological superiority by immediately supplying everything Ukraine needed. The West doubled its efforts after the Russian army’s initial failure to capture Kyiv and as Ukraine attempted to thwart Russia’s alternative plan to invade the Donbas region. Thus, the process of Western military support for Ukraine has now entered another phase, both quantitatively and qualitatively – by sending more, heavier, and more advanced weapons to the country. But this seemingly valid logic has many unintended consequences.
*Sarah Neumann is a professor of political science and teaches political science courses at Universities in Germany