The public needs straight talk about what’s happening in Eastern Europe.
President Joe Biden and the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson need to level with their own countrymen about the rising risk of war against Russia. The public’s getting double talk — praise for the Ukrainians’ courage but also empty promises that what’s happening in Ukraine will stay in Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised Sunday that “President Biden has been clear that we are not going to get into a war with Russia.”
Johnson wrote in the New York Times on Monday that “this is not a NATO conflict and it will not become one.”
That’s ridiculous. The U.K. and the U.S. can’t make that guarantee. There are too many tripwires leading to broad-scale war.
American eyes are on gruesome television images of Ukrainians huddled in the basements of bombed hospitals or running down snowy roads with children in their arms to escape Russian missile fire.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin is eyeing territory beyond Ukraine, including Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all NATO allies once under Soviet domination.
These countries and five other NATO members have already triggered Article 4 of the NATO agreement, calling for consultations about the serious Russian threat.
In response, the U.S. and other NATO allies are moving ground troops and tanks into Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. News broke Monday that the U.S. is considering supplying air defense systems to these three Baltic countries.
On Monday, Blinken also pledged to Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, that “we will defend every inch of NATO territory if it comes under attack.”
Putin himself is laying tripwires for a NATO conflict. Sunday, he warned that foreign countries like Romania that are allowing Ukrainian fighter pilots to use their airstrips may be viewed by Moscow as parties to the conflict. Putin could say the same about Poland’s announced decision to lend fighter planes to Ukraine.
Putin even labeled economic sanctions “akin to a declaration of war.”
Cowed by Putin’s warnings, the U.S. and NATO allies refuse Ukraine’s requests for a no-fly zone. Blinken concedes that without NATO pilots fighting off Russian bombers, Ukrainians face bloodier days ahead as the Russians “keep grinding things down,” leveling city after city. A high price to pay, and for what?
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda warned Blinken, “if we want to avoid the Third World War,” Putin must be stopped in Ukraine. Nauseda is worried his own country will be next, but he nevertheless is driving home a fundamental truth. It won’t be easier to stop Putin after he crushes Ukraine.
It’s never easier to stop a bully once he’s allowed to win a fight.
Though Ukraine is not part of NATO, it’s arguable that the U.S. and U.K. owe Ukraine more than they’re doing. In 1994, they pressured newly independent Ukraine into surrendering its nuclear weapons to Russia under the Budapest Memorandum with tacit assurances — now conveniently forgotten — that they would respond if Russia threatened them.
History aside, the question is, how long can Putin be allowed to continue snuffing out innocent lives in Eastern Europe? Russia’s economy is tanking as corporations pull out and the half-hearted sanctions already imposed by the West take effect. If oil and gas exports were also banned, Bloomberg Economics predicts, the Russian economy would contract a devastating 14% this year. Russia may be more a more vulnerable foe now than at another time.
Is NATO ready to fight this weakened foe? Despite neglecting the Russian threat for years, NATO outspends Russia on armaments 15 to 1 and outnumbers Russian ground forces 4 to 1, according to retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO supreme allied commander.
War is a last resort.
Now is the time for the Biden administration to talk honestly about what it already knows is true. The U.S. and NATO allies may be forced into a war with Russia, not because we choose to go to war but because a tyrant leaves us no choice.
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