War in Ukraine Reaches a Tipping Point
The Ukrainian missile that landed in Poland portends graver risks down the line.
Give President Joe Biden credit: he apparently wasn’t happy when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attempted to lie the U.S. into war. There was a collective intake of breath in Washington and across Europe as everyone waited for a determination as to whose missile struck rural Poland last week, killing two. Thankfully—for the cause of world peace, anyway—the projectile was Ukrainian. But that didn’t stop Zelensky from beating the war drums.
Last time, it was a U.S. president, George W. Bush, who dishonestly took America into a conflict, but that at least was against a weak Third World nation. The consequences were still disastrous: thousands dead and tens of thousands of wounded Americans and hundreds of thousands dead Iraqi civilians, trillions of dollars wasted, and a Middle East in flames.
But what Zelensky would do is much more serious. He called the Poland strike “a really significant escalation” requiring a response, even though the issue would have nothing to do with Ukraine had the missile been launched by Russia. NATO, not Kiev, is responsible for deciding what constitutes a casus belli for the alliance. If that were Zelensky’s decision, American bombs and missiles would have been raining down upon on Moscow since at least February 25th.
Zelensky's attitude is understandable, of course. He cares about Ukraine, not the U.S., and would be happy to fight Russia to the last American if necessary. For Americans, however, his attitude highlights the danger of waging a proxy war with a serious, nuclear-armed power while formally turning over all decisions in the conflict to the party most interested in continuing and escalating the fight.
In this case, entry into the war could trigger a major conventional conflict highlighted by use of tactical nuclear weapons, or even the use of strategic nuclear strikes around the globe, from Russia to Europe to the U.S. That would be a catastrophic result for all concerned, including Ukraine.
It would be bad enough to risk nuclear war had an errant Russian missile in fact hit the territory of a NATO ally. That would warrant a warning, certainly, and perhaps the imposition of meaningful non-lethal consequences, but not full-scale war.
But the missile was not from Russia, and the U.S. has a vital interest in avoiding going to war for a lie. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, however, papered over the dispute with Kiev, acting as if Zelensky’s dissembling was no big deal and promising yet more military aid. Indeed, Blinken made it sound as if what occurred was a minor border incident, perhaps involving some wandering livestock: “We’ve been in regular contact with our Ukrainian partners throughout. I spoke to my Ukrainian counterpart.… We’re sharing the information that we have and, again, the investigation is ongoing."
The current situation is particularly dangerous because of the perverse incentives it creates. There was a similar problem in the U.S. in 2003. President George W. Bush may have believed the falsehoods he was spreading, but not everyone around him was so innocent. Advocates of war with Iraq who did so for their own reasons—to “drain the swamp” and install CIA paid agent Ahmed Chalabi as Iraqi president, for instance—contended that Baghdad was developing nukes and assisting terrorists despite a lack of credible evidence to that effect.
Unfortunately, Kiev has good reason to claim, or conceivably even fake, a Russian attack to draw America into the conflict. Zelensky may have believed what he said last week, but if so, he simply assumed what he wanted to believe was true. And one could reasonably question the fastidiousness of his subordinates in assessing the relevant evidence. After all, they also knew which conclusion was in their nation’s interest.
So flagrant was Ukraine’s dishonesty that allied diplomats privately expressed their dismay. One told the Financial Times: “This is getting ridiculous. The Ukrainians are destroying [our] confidence in them. Nobody is blaming Ukraine and they are openly lying. This is more destructive than the missile.”
But it is not surprising.
Upbraiding Zelensky, as Biden apparently did, isn’t enough. This isn’t the first unsettling surprise by Ukraine for Washington. While the attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge was legitimate, it could escalate the conflict in dangerous ways for the U.S. So too could strikes in border Russian regions near Belgorod, and the assassination of Daria Dugina, a Russian propagandist, not combatant. If Ukraine were operating entirely on its own, such actions would be its business. However, it has succeeded beyond any expectation only because of allied, and especially U.S., support for the Ukrainian military.
Washington should drop its mantra that "everything is up to Kiev." It isn’t, and shouldn’t be—certainly not while Americans are pouring money and arms in Ukraine, leaving them at risk if the conflict spreads. The administration should make very clear how far its support runs, and that it will not join a hot war.
As Georgetown University’s Charles Kupchan observed:
[K]eeping the involvement of the United States at a level proportional to its interests is getting more difficult as the war intensifies. Yes, Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield constitute welcome setbacks to the Kremlin’s predatory ambition. But even though all Russian targets are fair game as Kyiv fights for its sovereignty and territory, Ukrainian actions that substantially raise the risk of escalation may be strategically unwise. To limit the potential for a wider conflict between NATO and Russia, Washington needs Kyiv to be more transparent about its war plans and U.S. officials need more input into Kyiv’s conduct of the war.
Washington also should further open diplomatic channels with Moscow, as appears to be happening, at least to some degree, given reports of CIA Director Bill Burns meeting with his Russian counterpart last week. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have also engaged with Russia, but such conversations need to be broadened to discuss possible political accommodations.
The U.S. also needs to address the Europeans, especially its most fervent hawks, who tend to be among the most lightly armed. For instance, the Baltic states—small nations with minimal armed forces and niggardly defense efforts for governments claiming to be under imminent threat of conquest—are regarded as the most likely to engage in “freelancing,” as when Lithuania sought to block traffic between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia. Everyone knew who would be ultimately stuck fighting the war that might result if Moscow’s forces had decided to shoot their way through, and it wasn’t Vilnius.
It is easy to sacrifice someone else’s lives and money, which is essentially what most U.S. “allies” believe is their role in both bilateral and multilateral security partnerships. Washington submissively agrees to defend them, as is its duty; they generously agree to be defended, as is their right. That relationship is no longer sustainable.
At the very least, those seeking to expand or escalate the Russo-Ukrainian war should demonstrate that they are prepared to deal with the consequences, rather than expect to dump the crisis in Washington. Yet much of Europe’s fervor about finally treating security seriously ebbed as the Biden administration rushed troops and materiel to the continent. Even the United Kingdom now plans on reversing course and slashing defense spending, never mind the supposedly enormous threat posed on Europe’s eastern flank. “Once a leech, always a leech,” appears to be Europe’s operating principle.
Operating as Europe’s patsy is a serious problem, even in peace. The U.S. national debt is now above $31 trillion, and the amount held by the public—some of the total reported is meaningless borrowing by Treasury from Social Security—now exceeds 100 percent of GDP. Planned spending will push the US to nearly twice that level by mid-century, assuming no recessions, wars, financial or geopolitical crises, politicized spending sprees, or any other unpleasantness. Even then, the Europeans undoubtedly will expect Americans to pay for their defense.
In addition to those financial costs, the risks of U.S. involvement are far greater with a war ongoing, particularly one in which Washington already is active and into which it could easily be drawn. Many in Washington don't seem to appreciate that risk, as is evident in the opinion voiced by former U.S. diplomat Alexander Vershbow: “it is ultimately the Ukrainians doing the fighting, so we’ve got to be careful not to second-guess them.”
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Kiev’s success has depended on the abundant outside aid it has received. America's foreign aid should be tailored to American interests, and Washington should rethink what has become an increasingly dangerous almost “all-in” proxy war against Russia. Allied aid should be directed at preserving Ukrainian independence, not defeating Russia, reclaiming Crimea, or imposing regime change in Moscow. The greater allied aid and broader Kiev's objectives, the more likely the Putin government is to mobilize more resources, reinforce attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, target weapons transfers, and consider nuclear escalation. None of these are in America’s interest.
The U.S. should scale back military aid to Kiev, and especially Europe. The time for the Europeans to take their defense seriously is long overdue. But that will happen only when Washington stops doing everything for them. America’s military remain busy around the world. The Europeans should secure their own continent, relieving the U.S. of at least one needless military responsibility.
Zelensky’s misleading missile gambit reinforces the necessity of a change in course for Washington. He did his best to use his own military’s presumably errant hit to drag NATO into his nation’s war against Russia. There almost certainly will be a next time. The U.S. and its allies should get busy erecting firebreaks to this conflict’s spread.