The fear – the big fear – is that something will happen in the war in Ukraine and suddenly it will turn into a nuclear confrontation between Russia and the United States.
That’s precisely the fear that Vladimir Putin is playing with when he sends a protest note to President Joe Biden and publishes a threatening video.
The diplomatic note warned of “unpredictable consequences” if the United States continues to send weapons to the Ukrainian military. To back up the message, Putin also broadcast the video of an intercontinental ballistic missile launch. “It will make those who try to threaten our country think twice,” he said.
No one wants a third world war. Much less with nuclear weapons. That’s why the United States and most of the European countries do not favor intervening directly in the brutal invasion of Ukraine. But since they cannot remain morally and strategically with their arms crossed in the face of massacres of civilians and human rights violation, the middle road is to provide weapons to the enemies of the Russians.
President Biden – after the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan – has promised he will not send US troops to Ukraine. Biden knows perfectly well that would imply a much bigger war, perhaps the biggest and deadliest in the history of humanity. But under growing pressure from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and members of the US congress, this week he announced the shipment of more weapons to Ukraine – including long range missiles and drones – valued at $1 billion. In all, the US has sent $3.4 billion in military aid.
Biden described the assistance as “unprecedented.” But it appears he has reached his limit. He has resisted Zelensky’s constant calls for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The fear is justified. The briefest confrontation between US and Russian warplanes could wind up in a war that so many people are trying to avoid.
Putin has one advantage. He knows the United States will not go into Ukraine. Neither will France, Germany or England. And that’s why he’s had all the time to rethink his strategy, make new plans and attack again.
Putin’s first invasion – launched on Feb. 24 – did not go according to his plans. His land forces showed a lot of fractures. And the Ukrainian army, full of volunteers, has been much more disciplined, courageous and defiant than the Russian invaders ever imagined. Kiev, the capital, never fell, and Zelensky continues to operate as a visionary, honest and daredevil leader. Nothing like a time when you face your disappearance to show the world your truths.
More recently we have seen the second wave of attacks by the Russian military in Ukraine. Extremely difficult weeks are coming. The question is whether Putin will settle for just a slice of the cake: the provinces in eastern Ukraine and the land that connects to the Crimean peninsula, which Putin seized without punishment in 2014. Or will he seek to grab all of Ukraine.
The answer depends in part on the effectiveness of the weaponry the US is providing to Ukrainian soldiers. A second setback for the Russian military would show the gaps in Putin’s strategy. And there’s nothing more dangerous than someone with grandiose dreams when he’s forced to admit his fragility. He can do crazy things.
These are dangerous times.
Democracy is retreating across the world. Seventy percent of the world’s population – about 5.4 billion people – live under dictatorships or authoritarian leaders, according to a recent study by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. And it is absolutely frustrating to see the world paralyzed as an autocratic regime like Russia’s tries to gobble up a democracy like Ukraine’s. The same report adds that 35 countries have seen freedom of expression curtailed in the last 10 years. The world is moving backward. The democratic hopes sparked by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 are now far behind us.
And I fear that things will also get worse in Ukraine. I was in Leopolis at the start of the war, and despite the conflict there was the sense the Russians would never reach there, just one hour from the border with Poland. Leopolis, they told me, would be the last city to fall. That’s why it was full of refugees and journalists.
But it was attacked this week. At least seven people died in Russian bombardments. As I read the news I recall its marvelous opera theater, its cobblestone streets and plazas and boulevards lined with carefully pruned trees, its intense cultural life and the fierce refusal by its people to change their routines because of the Russians. I visited a couple of restaurants in Leopolis whose owners did not want to close just because of the war. One of them even accepted payment with a credit card: it was betting on the future. And I ate very well. It was their way of saying, “we’re going to win.”
Maybe that’s the secret of this war. Not one Ukrainian told me they were going to lose. Not one. Perhaps I met people who were especially young and optimistic. What I do know is that the Ukrainians’ determination to defend the country they love is much more powerful than the determination of Russian soldiers to grab a land that is not theirs.
Of course, the weaponry is important. And this terrible war still could surprise us with unpredictable consequences. But if there’s a soul, it’s on the side of Ukraine.