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March 23, 2022 11:20 am

Should NATO Enter the Russian-Ukrainian Fray?

avatar by Alon Ben-Meir


Demonstrators gather in support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion and watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s speech as it is broadcasted to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 20, 2022. REUTERS/Corinna Kern

It is hard to describe the excruciatingly painful destruction that Putin is inflicting on Ukraine. However, whereas NATO should provide Ukraine with active defensive military equipment, it should not directly join the war, which could ignite a major European — if not world — war.

There are growing voices from academia, the military, and former and current American and EU officials calling on the Biden administration to heed Ukrainian President Zelensky’s appeal to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Beyond a no-fly zone, they raise a legitimate question — do the US and its allies have a limit as to how far and for how long Russia’s President Putin can indiscriminately bombard Ukrainian cities, killing thousands of innocent men, women, and children, before NATO intervenes to end the slaughter?

Indeed, everyone with a conscience feels the horror of this unprovoked and utterly unjustified war. However, if we want to prevent an all-out war in Europe, we have to be extraordinarily prudent and not allow our sense of outrage to lead to a full-blown war.

There are many reasons why we should not confront Russia directly, especially now that we are taking many non-military measures, including crippling sanctions, while remaining united and resolved to indirectly inflict heavy military losses on Russia and render it a pariah state. In addition, once they become aware of the unspeakable horror Putin is inflicting on the people and cities of a peaceful neighbor, the Russian people could rise against their corrupt and brutal leader.

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Here are several reasons why NATO should not get directly involved in this horrific war, and what it must do to inflict indirectly the heaviest toll on the Russian army while exposing Putin as a war criminal.

First, introducing a no-fly zone would pit NATO directly against Russia, as it will require an extensive campaign against Russian jet fighter planes, as well as destroying Russia’s S-300 and S-400 air defense systems, which Russia would certainly use to intercept NATO missiles enforcing a no-fly zone. This move would escalate and draw NATO into a broader war.

Second, at the present time, some Russian people are demonstrating against the war. However, if NATO intervenes and expands beyond Ukraine’s borders, and NATO begins to attack numerous targets inside Russia, it would doubtless galvanize Russians against Western powers.

Third, several European countries who are not NATO members, especially Sweden and Finland, reportedly do not want NATO to go to war with Russia, fearing that they would eventually be dragged into it without having NATO’s protection.

Fourth, by avoiding direct military involvement, NATO will spare the lives of tens if not hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians on both sides. And so long as the West continues to supply Ukraine with military equipment while Russia is sustaining crippling sanction and heavy military losses, NATO should continue with this strategy, which may precipitate a coup inside Russia itself.

Fifth, a direct confrontation with Russia could deliberately or accidentally escalate and engulf many countries beyond the European theater.

Sixth, prior to escalating the conflict with Russia, NATO must consider where China stands. As Putin’s atrocities are exposed, the Chinese may well heed the US’ call to play a constructive role by using its influence on Putin to end the war without further catastrophic losses. Given, however, the closeness between Putin and President Xi, the latter would likely not do so if NATO engages Russia militarily.

Seventh, given that Russia’s conventional weapons are still limited and considerably inferior to the combined forces of NATO, and given Russia’s considerable losses, Putin may resort out of desperation to using tactical nuclear weapons which is the mother of all catastrophes. This is the worst of all possible scenarios. The US and its allies must spare no effort to prevent it.

Finally, regardless of how distasteful it would seem to make any concession to Putin to end the conflict, we need to weigh the consequences of a prolonged war on the Ukrainian people. To avoid that, it will be necessary to offer Putin a face-saving way out, bearing in mind that there are no other realistic alternatives.

This may include Ukraine becoming a neutral country and committing not to join NATO, to which President Zelensky has already conceded. And instead of recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, as Putin is demanding, Zelensky could offer to declare these two provinces semi-autonomous and also agree to acknowledge Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea, which in any case Russia is unlikely to ever relinquish.

This general framework for a solution is neither fair nor morally correct, but it must be weighed against the potential continuing massive destruction and loss of lives in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. Moreover, the prolongation of the war could escalate and pit NATO against Russia with the potential of introducing weapons of mass destruction, which must be avoided at any cost.

Putin will be watching carefully what comes out of the summit between NATO heads of states. The message Putin should receive must be unequivocal, clear, and absolutely credible. He should be warned that NATO’s response to the use of any kind of weapons of mass destruction will be quick, decisive, and painful, which would render Russia a bankrupt, pariah, and failed state.

Putin will be remembered as the Russian despot who not only failed to restore his pipe dream of the Russian empire, but savagely destroyed Russia’s international standing, from which it will take decades to recover.

The West must learn a cogent lesson from this gruesome war and remain united, vigilant, militarily prepared, and become energy independent from Russia. It should know that the Russian bear will still be lurking in the dark for years if not decades to come, but will dare not threaten the West knowing that only a humiliating and costly defeat will await it.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.

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