Will Biden continue saying no to Zelensky?

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky will address the U.S. Congress on Wednesday morning, and he is extremely likely to ask Congress for more help. This presents yet another worsening problem for the Biden administration, as it may well end up being the only entity willing to tell Zelensky “no.” Meanwhile, as Vladimir Putin shows a seemingly endless appetite for war, destruction, and human suffering, there is one particularly grim question we should be considering: At what point does a conflict between Russia and NATO become inevitable?

The Difficulty of Saying ‘No’ to Zelensky

The good news is that the Ukrainian people are blessed with a courageous, gutsy, charismatic leader in President Zelensky — even if calling him “Churchill on steroids,” as Virginia senator Mark Warner did Monday, is laying it on a bit thick.* Sixty percent of Americans see Zelensky favorably, and just 18 percent unfavorably. John Ondrasik just released a song about Zelensky, asking “Can One Man Save the World?” (All that, and he’s also the voice of Paddington Bear in Ukraine.)

The bad news is that U.S. interests and Ukrainian interests are like a Venn Diagram — they overlap quite a bit, but not quite entirely. The primary difference is that Zelensky will do anything to save his country, and there’s nothing he would like more than for NATO to come riding to the rescue, like the cavalry in an old Western movie. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that NATO intervention would start World War III between Russia and NATO, and God knows how that conflict would end.

The U.S. is walking a tightrope as an ally to Ukraine but not a combatant — sanctioning Russia in every way possible, attempting to isolate it geopolitically and diplomatically, and shipping arms to and sharing intelligence with the Ukrainians. There is no doubt that the line between being a Ukrainian ally and being a combatant is fuzzy. We’ll ship Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin anti-tank weapons, but not help transfer Polish MiG-29s to the Ukrainians. The position of the Biden administration is that it is fine for a Ukrainian soldier to kill a Russian using a U.S.-supplied Stinger or Javelin, but it would be “escalatory” for a Ukrainian soldier to kill a Russian using a Polish-supplied MiG-29. This doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Zelensky will address the U.S. Congress on Wednesday morning, and his message will be simulcast to the U.S. television networks.

Zelensky requested the opportunity to address Congress, and he is going to ask Congress for more help. Politico reports that, “According to one person with knowledge of the address, he plans ‘to name and shame,’ meaning excoriating the West for not doing enough to defend his country, though he will balance his remarks with some gratitude for what has been provided.”

At minimum, Zelensky will ask the U.S. to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine and help transfer those Polish MiG-29s. Who knows, maybe he will ask for U.S. troops to intervene, perhaps adopting Ludovic Hood’s proposal of inserting “heavily armored forces into pockets of western Ukraine, making clear that such deployments are at the invitation of the sovereign government, are designed to safeguard humanitarian operations, and won’t engage offensively with Russian forces.”

As laid out here and here, those proposals are at minimum extremely risky, and likely very bad ideas. NATO forces that enter Ukraine or Ukrainian airspace are likely to be treated as legitimate targets by the Russian forces there. Sooner or later — or perhaps immediately — Russian forces will fire upon the NATO forces, the NATO forces will retaliate, and the war between Russia and NATO begins.

This presents yet another worsening problem for the Biden administration, as they may well end up being the only ones willing to tell Zelensky “no.”

Members of Congress are not particularly good at choosing the wise but unpopular choice over the unwise but popular choice. Back on March 4, a Reuters poll found that 74 percent of Americans supported NATO establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. A more recent CBS News poll found that 59 percent of Americans support creating a no-fly zone over Ukraine, but when the pollster subsequently asked if they supported a no-fly zone if Russia sees that as an act of war, support dropped to 38 percent. The YouGov poll found 40 percent supported the idea initially, but support dropped to 30 percent when people were asked whether the U.S. military should shoot down Russian military planes flying over Ukraine; opposition increased from 30 percent to 46 percent.

It seems that a decent number of Americans want NATO to enforce a “no-fly zone” that does not involve shooting down Russian aircraft. Apparently, they think enforcement would involve writing the Russians a sternly worded letter or something.

When Zelensky addresses Congress Wednesday, he’s going to make a heartfelt plea for a no-fly zone and likely more, and there’s a good chance a significant percentage of Congress will endorse the idea. The Biden administration had better be ready to disappoint everyone. (Then again, this administration has had a lot of practice at disappointing people.)

Russia’s Ragnarok

But even if U.S. policy on a no-fly zone or transferring MiGs doesn’t change, there is one particularly grim question we should be chewing over in the back of our minds: At what point does a conflict between Russia and NATO become inevitable? The official Russian military doctrine, “escalate to deescalate” — that is, if Russia were subjected to a major non-nuclear assault that exceeded its capacity for conventional defense, it would ‘de-escalate’ the conflict by launching a limited — or tactical — nuclear strike. In other words, Russia’s official strategy when losing a war is to escalate it by using tactical battlefield nukes, in order to “deescalate” it.

Right now, Russia may well be losing the war — at minimum, it’s plodding ahead, paying a gargantuan price in blood and treasure, and getting humiliated on the world stage.

At each step of this war, when Putin has encountered an obstacle, he escalated his aggression instead of pulling back. When the initial strikes didn’t spur a quick surrender, the full-scale invasion accelerated. When Zelensky became a world hero and economic sanctions kicked in, Russian forces turned their attention to shelling cities and killing civilians. As NATO allies sent more weapons to Ukraine, Russian jets bombed a military-training center near the Polish border.

This is why it is exceptionally difficult to believe Putin is looking for, or willing to accept, some sort of diplomat-negotiated “off ramp.” This is Russia’s Ragnarok — either Ukraine ceases to exist as a coherent independent country, or Putin loses power. The Russian military’s fearsome reputation isn’t going to come back for a long time. The Russian economy isn’t going to come back for a long time. You’ll never see Putin at a major international summit again. And even if the Russian assault halted tomorrow, rebuilding Ukraine would take years and years and fortunes in international aid. There is no “reset button” to the status quo ante.

The West is in a Catch-22 — the worse the war in Ukraine goes for Putin, the less he has to lose by escalating it and by trying to force Western leaders to make concessions in exchange for peace. Why shouldn’t Putin turn to cyberwarfare against the West or to building up troops along Russia’s borders with the Baltic States? There’s not much left in Russia for the West to sanction. Some part of Putin is undoubtedly itching for a shooting war against NATO so he can finally show his people that NATO was the dire threat he always insisted it was.

For what it is worth, Igor Shushko contends that Putin and his highest-level officers are discussing a declaration that the NATO weapons exports to Ukraine represent an act of war against Russia, and/or that the sanctions represent an economic declaration of war, that NATO effectively started the war, and that Russia’s “response need not be symmetrical and [Russia] can respond to any act of aggression with any means available in a military confrontation.” Shusko’s report is particularly ominous in that it suggests that Russian intelligence continues to misread the West as badly as they misread the Ukrainians; they deem it likely that the West will eagerly make territorial and security concessions to Russia in order to end the war.

In other words, Putin may decide that all of the Biden administration and NATO’s careful line-treading doesn’t matter, and that by objecting to Russian’s invasion, and responding economically and through arms transfers, NATO “started” the war. That’s a crazy interpretation of events, but Putin always finds a way to see himself and Russia as victims and the U.S. and the West as the aggressors. Whatever the state of Putin’s mind, he does not seem like a man capable of recognizing that he has made a catastrophic, country-wrecking mistake. He will want to scapegoat NATO for all the suffering he has brought to Russia.

If Putin is contemplating an announcement that Russia is at war with NATO . . . wouldn’t it make sense to have some conventional-weapons and cyberwarfare knockout punches ready to go?

If Putin wants a fight with the U.S. and its allies, the U.S. and its allies should be communicating to everyone in Russia — including those closest to him — that a fight would go very, very badly for Russia, really fast, and make Russia’s already-crippling conditions look like the good old days.

*Churchill didn’t need steroids; he’d kick your butt while drunk or hung over.

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