The Anti-Ukraine-Aid Crowd is Using the Accidental Missile Strike in Poland to Argue, Yet Again, that Escalation is Imminent, so We should Cut Off Ukraine. This is Wrong and has been All Year.

downloadThe anti-Ukraine-aid crowd has jumped from one argument to another to get NATO to stop helping Ukraine since February. Many of these claims are inconsistent, but that makes no difference, because their real purpose is to help Putin win the war by saying anything which might convince NATO to halt aid to Ukraine.

This is why the MAGA right and ‘anti-imperial’ left keep bringing up these arguments. They want Putin to win for their own ideological reasons, but they don’t want to say that publicly, because it is embarrassing to side with a fascist imperialist who commits war crimes. So instead they jump from one disconnected argument to another, whose only commonality is the policy recommendation that we abandon Ukraine. And this week’s missile strike in Poland – likely an accident of Ukraine missile defense debris falling on that country – is being instrumentalized yet again for this purpose.

Let’s review the say-anything laundry list of reasons we should abandon Ukraine:

– First we were told that Ukraine couldn’t possibly win the war, so helping it would needlessly provoke Russia.

– Then we heard that because Russia is a ‘great power,’ there really isn’t much we can do. The Ukrainians just have to suffer like the Melians.

– Then, after Russia stumbled, we heard that aid to Ukraine would prolong the war, so we should cut it off to force a settlement.

– Then, after Russia started losing the war, we heard that aid was so expensive that we couldn’t afford it in these times of inflation and rising energy costs, despite a bill around $100 billion against a combined NATO GDP of $40 trillion.

– Then we heard that NATO aid was depleting NATO’s own weapons stocks so much that it would vulnerable to a Russian attack, the same Russia which can’t subdue Ukraine

– Then we heard that European winter heating bills would be sky high because of the Russian gas cut-off. So we should abandon Ukraine, because Germans and Italians apparently won’t wear sweaters when it is cold.

– Then we heard that aid keeps going a war which might escalate into a NATO-Russian general war, a nuclear exchange, or even World War III.

I find this so exasperating and craven. Pro-Putin MAGA righties should just be honest that they admire the Christian nationalist authoritarianism of Putin and Orban. Similarly, anti-imperial lefties should just say that a Putin victory would be a deserved defeat of Western imperialism, neocons, and the blob. Stop lying and pretending you care about peace or stability or whatever.

I wrote an essay on this for Channel News Asia. After the jump is my pre-edited version of that op-ed.

Relax – The Ukraine War is Not About to Escalate

A persistent stream of commentary on the Ukraine war, since its start in February, claims that it might escalate into a major clash between NATO and Russia. Even more frightening have been suggestions about World War III or even a nuclear exchange.

These scenarios are, thankfully, extremely unlikely. The conflict has, in fact, been characterized by the opposite – geographic containment (to Ukraine) and widespread concern by all parties, including the Russians, to prevent it from widening to new parties or otherwise spiral out of control.

This week’s accidental missile strike in Poland illustrates this caution. At first, it appeared to be Russian-launched missile, and there was some irresponsible Twitter commentary about retaliating against Russia or invoking NATO collective security guarantees. This was beaten back quickly on Western op-ed pages, and officials and leaders of NATO countries have been cautious in their statements. The aggrieved party – Poland – did not seek an Article 5 (of NATO Washington Treaty) invocation of collective security; instead, it sought the much more mild consultations of Article 4 of that treaty.

Further, it is highly unlikely that it was a Russian attack. Were Russia to attack NATO, it would launch a far bigger strike than one rocket against a random Polish farm. Increasingly, it appears that the missile was, in fact, a Ukrainian air defense rocket which tragically crashed in Poland while attempting to shoot down incoming Russian air attacks.

Caution was demonstrated all around in this incident. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for all his belligerence in Ukraine, did not, in fact, take the massive escalatory risk of directly striking a NATO state. NATO did not overreact in response, despite some irresponsible voices leaping to conclusions. Ukraine’s mistake was an honest one: it is trying to defend its cities by shooting at incoming Russian missiles, and this mistake, common in warfare, only happened once. What seemed at the beginning of the week like a major escalatory moment – and it was certainly hyped that way in the media for a day or two – will likely pass with no major change in the war.

This reflects the larger containment of the war to Ukraine itself, and the continuing inaccuracy – likely for pro-Russian political reasons – of those who wish to end Western aid to Ukraine for fear it will lead to Russian-NATO escalation. We know now that US officials have been privately speaking to Russian officials since nearly the start of the war, particularly to discourage Russian nuclear weapons use. We also know, from China’s increasingly public statements, that Chinese President Xi Jinping strongly opposes Russian nuclear weapons use in Ukraine. Putin has threatened nuclear escalation since March yet has not acted on it. He is almost certainly bluffing. Indeed, in a speech in September, he had to explicitly say he was not bluffing about nukes, because he has done so for months. And finally, this month he openly declared Russia would not use nuclear weapons, likely because of the pressure he was feeling from all sides not to take that escalatory step.

Conventionally too, there are widespread signs of caution. NATO rejected Ukraine’s request early in the war for a no-fly zone. This would have required NATO to shoot down Russian air assets over Ukraine, which the West turned down as too risky. Similarly, the West has cautiously expanded the quality of weapons systems it has given to Ukraine. Throughout the war, Western leaders have expressed concern that top-tier systems with long-range strike capabilities, particularly aircraft and certain types of missiles, would be too risky to give to the Ukrainians, who might use them to strike inside Russia. And Ukraine, to its credit, has broadly avoided striking Russia within its borders – even though the laws of war permit that – and it has not used donated weapons to do so.

The reason for all this caution – in the midst of a harsh war characterized by Russian brutality toward civilians – is the obvious fear of escalation in a nuclearized environment. All players are aware that Russia has nuclear weapons and would use them if Russia were invaded. Ukraine, and its NATO backers, very obviously do not want to run that risk and have prosecuted the war with some restraint to avoid giving Putin any excuse to take this step. Russia, and its Chinese backer, are similarly aware of NATO nuclear capabilities and have demurred from escalatory steps such as nuclear weapons or strikes on Ukraine’s supply pipelines inside NATO.

In short, the most obvious conclusion from the actual course of the war – despite routine bouts of alarmism about escalation – is that it is not escalating. The war is not widening, like World War I, much less ‘World War III.’ A better description of conflict is a proxy war, where an outside party (NATO) is supporting a smaller power in a conflict against a great power – for example, in the Vietnam War or the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Hence, we should have no anxiety about helping Ukraine, within limits. After nine months and major Russia defeats, the war has not ‘spun out of control,’ per the recurrent alarmist interpretations. Indeed, the WWIII narrative is almost certainly motivated reasoning at this point. That is, real purpose of invoking nukes and WWIII is to support a Russian victory by suggesting that NATO abandon Ukraine because NATO assistance is escalatory. There is little empirical evidence to support this claim. We need not facilitate Putin’s imperialism over lurid, exaggerated claims propagated to support his brutal war.

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University