John Bell and John Zada are co-founders of The Conciliators Guild, an international conflict resolution organization based in Oxford, U.K.
The war in Ukraine has shaken Europe and the West out of its apathy and torpor where Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical ambitions are concerned. This adjustment, reflected in Germany’s decision to increase defence spending and to postpone the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, and in the unity demonstrated by NATO, is a positive development and one that was a long time coming.
However, despite the shock and brutality of Mr. Putin’s invasion, it is important for Moscow’s rivals in Europe, NATO and the West to calibrate their response in Ukraine.
The Western reaction, although understandable and appropriate at many levels, has also fallen into a binary “them or us,” “either/or” mode derived partly out of the “cancel culture” reflex that has recently pervaded Western society. The initial high emotional reactions are to some degree natural, but they may not be the best basis for effective action: it is equally as important not to inflame Mr. Putin into further extreme violence as it is to dissuade his behaviour in the future.
Western leaders and the news media must remember that this is much more Mr. Putin’s war than Russia’s, and that an omnibus approach of sanctioning “all Russian things” in response is unwise. It does unnecessary damage to the manifold interpersonal and co-operative relationships that matter for the future links between Russia and the West, including for conflict mitigation in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Banning the books of Dostoyevsky (who, ironically, was sent to a Siberian labour camp for reading banned books), cancelling Russian musicians, and preventing academic and cultural co-operation in the name of righteously taking a stance will do more harm than good.
The key is an effective response to Mr. Putin’s actions in Ukraine, not a blanket, knee-jerk backlash that makes us feel good, or right. As natural as our reactions to Mr. Putin’s invasion are, clarity of goals, shrewd strategy and a sober understanding of consequences, both intended and unintended, are imperatives.
This applies especially in the military sphere, where the possibilities of further catastrophes are very real. Additional military aid to Ukraine going forward is likely to inflame Mr. Putin, feed his paranoia and provide him excuses for further operations westward. Although providing arms to the Ukrainian resistance addresses our need to feel that we are doing something to help the victim, it also indirectly abets Mr. Putin’s mission. This military aid will not be enough to sink Mr. Putin in Ukraine – his army is too strong and his fear of humiliation too great.
Calls by some for a Western-enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine is also a recipe for further confrontation, and would be a de facto declaration of war by NATO that would imperil the planet. Furthermore, horrifically and inconceivably, military aid may also lead to the Russian President making good on his nuclear brinksmanship threats out of the spite which fuels his bellicosity, whether tactically on the battlefield to intimidate Ukrainians and those of us arming them, or perhaps in a larger and uncontrollable escalation scenario, beyond.
Mr. Putin has already likened Western economic sanctions to a “declaration of war.” Ratcheting up those sanctions to include all petroleum exports, though effective as a pressure tactic, may back him into a corner and cause him to lash out against us militarily.
Long-time American Putin watcher Fiona Hill recently stated in an interview, with regards to the Russian President and his nuclear weapons, “If anybody thinks that Putin wouldn’t use something that he’s got that is unusual and cruel, think again. Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would. And he wants us to know that, of course.”
Mr. Putin’s army is strong enough to overcome the military assistance currently envisaged by Western countries. However, Mr. Putin may become bogged down in Ukraine as an occupier over time anyway because of the lack of will and inefficiencies of his army, the inspired Ukrainian resistance, and a half-baked and impulsive Russian strategy to start with.
As much as the invasion means Ukraine is a victim, the West would be wise to let Mr. Putin sink in that morass, and make crystal clear what the real red line is: NATO. Any Russian action against a NATO country will lead to war between NATO and Russia. Aggression by Moscow in this regard will at least not be of our own provocation or impulsive error – as he may have just committed in Ukraine.
Ukraine is the unfortunate victim of decades of mismanagement by both East and West, as well as the hallucinatory ambitions and spiteful vengeance of the Russian leader. Ukraine is fully deserving of all forms of non-lethal aid. As difficult as it is, Western countries will need to prepare properly for this now-active adversary where it matters most, and not to dive, in the heat of the moment, into actions – such as arming Ukraine – that may ultimately serve the tyrant’s purposes.
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