US watching this one from the sidelines


The night the Russian attack on Ukraine started, it struck me that this is the first time we’re really seeing air power live on television that isn’t our own. Indeed, watching the flying Russian missiles, helicopters, jet fighters, and columns of advancing Russian tanks – and sympathizing with the Ukrainians – generates different feelings than listening to Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett describe the aerial attack on Baghdad on 1991.

Similarly, this is the first time since the end of the Cold War that the U.S. response is constrained by the presence of a hostile nuclear power. Panama, Iraq 1991, Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq 2003, Libya — in almost every U.S. military operation in the past forty years, the U.S. and its allies did not have to worry about a nuclear-armed foe like Russia or China stepping in and fighting alongside our opponents. (The closest we came was in Kosovo in 1999, and a four-hour battle with Russian mercenaries in Syria in 2018.)

No matter how much Moscow and Beijing didn’t like seeing successful U.S. combat operations in their hemisphere, Vladimir Putin wasn’t about to come riding to the rescue of the Taliban, and Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao weren’t about to lend a helping hand to Saddam Hussein.

But here? Russia is the principal combatant and the antagonist. In “ordinary” circumstances, the U.S. Air Force could send in A-10 Warthogs or other air assets and turn a 40-mile-long convoy of enemy military vehicles into a 40-mile-long line of flaming shrapnel. But taking that action in these circumstances would set off a war between Russia and the U.S., and God only knows how that would end.

So NATO and the U.S. can ship weapons to Ukraine, but NATO troops and pilots cannot fight Russians themselves. To some ears, that may seem like an absurd distinction. But it is one that leaders of NATO think will prevent the war from spreading and escalating.

With that said, in the eyes of the Russian government, that distinction may be hard to see. According to Russian state media, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko is warning that the arms exports to Ukraine could well be targeted by Russian forces: “We are extremely concerned about those arms delivery programmes,” he said. “Everything in this situation is very dangerous, there are no guarantees that there will be no incidents [with NATO].”

Then again, considering the performance of Russian troops in Ukraine right now and the state of the Russian economy, perhaps even the most ardent and aggressive Russian military leader will pause and wonder if it is wise to start shooting at NATO forces.

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