As the Russian military strikes Ukraine with an offensive ground and air campaign indiscriminate in its scope, calls have risen to support the Ukrainians. As the argument goes, there is a moral obligation to intervene. To watch Russia shell civilian targets, hospitals, and schools, and then standby while supposedly being a “city-on-a-hill” is an egregious dereliction to humanity. I am sympathetic to this standpoint, but with that being said, there are risks to engaging the Russians that need to be considered. Noble intentions need to be backed up with a wise, determinant resolve.
The world has witnessed Russian missile strikes on soft (non-military) targets and in response some have proposed installing a no-fly zone over the skies of Ukraine. A no-fly zone is what the US immediately implemented after the Twin Towers came down in New York on September 11th. It means, quite simply: any aircraft or projectile that enters Ukrainian airspace will be shot down. A no-fly zone that is not 100% enforced is not a no-fly zone.
Implementing such an action could quickly get messy, even while the intentions for one are noble and good. To go this route means almost definitely firing on Russian military equipment and this would be seen as an aggressive act of war, one of which would almost immediately lead to a direct conflict between two highly-capable nuclear superpowers. Vladimir Putin has already put his nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers on increased readiness to launch orders. While I cannot say for sure whether these weapons will be employed, I can say it is not out of the realm of possibility that lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons could be used by a desperate Russian military. They have already faced strategic and logistical hardships. Having their air supremacy challenged will be seen as a threat to the long-term success of their invasion. What is already a catastrophic human tragedy could become an even larger one. Whoever installs the no-fly zone (be it NATO, the US, or both) has to be prepared to explain when the no-fly zone will be terminated, what follow-on operations look like in their proper scope, and the extent of the military resources that will be provided to successfully handle any contingencies or new (and more significant) confrontations that may arise as a result.
History has proven in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq that the US (and even NATO) has consistently failed in such planning efforts. Innocent lives have been lost by the thousands as a result of hasty actions backed up with neither commitment nor dedicated perseverance. What begins with normal noble intentions often fails to be seen through to the end. Wars captivate the attention of individualistic first-world countries for a moment, but soon become a burden, resulting in international actors losing sight of purpose behind their involvements.
Based on how the Russian advance has gone so far, it is highly questionable whether Ukraine is headed for total Russian occupation. The Russian military, as of this writing, has still not taken Kyiv (even the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff thought it could fall within three days of the first boots crossing the border in Ukraine), and it has endured a struggle trying to conquer other major cities as well. Because the ground is not frozen as expected, tanks are sliding through the mud. There have been problems with their supply lines. The Ukrainians have put up a strong fight, so much so that regular citizens have resorted to throwing easily-made Molotov cocktails at the invading forces. All of these factors have led to analysts believing that Ukraine could be ripe for a new insurgency; and where there is an insurgency there is almost always a counterinsurgency. If the Russian military can only conquer and hold territory to the east of the Dnieper River, then there will be an east Ukraine and a west Ukraine. Under this scenario, it has been suggested that an insurgency in the east could be supported by the western half of the nation by NATO and the US through the supplying of weapons, food, and other necessities.
However, this will nonetheless be costly and begs the question: will troops that fall under US European Command (this includes the NATO Response Force) play a role in the insurgency? If so, will the role be advisory or combatant? Either role can quickly become escalatory, especially as a result of the importance the Russian military has attached to artillery. It would be difficult for the President of the United States to do nothing if an American soldier was killed as a result of an illegally-fired Russian projectile; but again, a response even miniscule in scale could trigger a broader conflict between Russia and the United States.
One of the most renowned military figures of the 20th century was General Colin Powell, who as a general officer contributed the “Powell Doctrine” to the military lexicon. The Powell Doctrine states that before using military power abroad, there must be a clearly defined mission with reasonable end goals. Political leaders owe military leaders a vision for when carefully planned military actions will cease. When it comes to this conflict, in any case, if the Commander of European Command (EUCOM) and the US were to deploy allied troops to deter Russia through military means, there must be a resolve to follow-through with a planned strategy detailing the extent to which these forces would be involved. Otherwise such action could have long-term ramifications and turn into something deeply irresponsible.
Americans should be concerned about the war crimes occurring en masse in Ukraine and civilized nations should not idly sit by and accept leadership offering piecemeal solutions to what is blatantly evil aggression being conducted by Russia. At the same time, to be resolute in a response means seeing it through, no matter the cost. If the US and NATO become involved in this war, it is imperative their operations run according to the tempo of a well-defined plan. Leaders need to consider that engaging Putin’s military could mean a multi-domain fight with a near-peer competitor in Europe. Though action may be important for both the common good and for the defense of Ukraine, to repeat Afghanistan and desert the strategic imperative is just as immoral as not doing anything at all. As the world ponders a proportional response to Russia, crafting a plan under the tenets of the Powell Doctrine will be the difference between failing Ukraine and rising to the occasion in the deterrence of one of the world’s most reckless governments.