In the days before Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of his neighbour, it was assumed that the main challenge for NATO and the West would be limiting the scale of Russia’s victory in Ukraine. Mr. Putin’s army was expected to deliver a rerun of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary – the decapitation of an unfriendly regime and its replacement with a puppet – along with the annexation of large chunks of Ukrainian territory, as in 2014.
Western policy aimed at ensuring Mr. Putin wouldn’t win too much, too easily, while paying a high price.
But barely more than two months later, the main challenge for the West is less and less about limiting the extent of Mr. Putin’s victory, and ever more about managing the scale of his defeat – and the danger that he will try to stave off defeat by escalating.
Russia, diminished successor to the Soviet Union, is a superpower in only one dimension. Its economy is about the size of Canada’s. Its most important source of wealth is oil and gas, and its chief customers are now working on becoming ex-customers. Its political system – autocracy plus kleptocracy – holds limited appeal beyond its borders, save for aspiring autocrats. Its military is a pale shadow of its Soviet predecessor.
However, for all these weaknesses, Mr. Putin has one trump card: nuclear weapons. He has the largest arsenal on the planet, with thousands of warheads. And the Russian President and his associates are not afraid to hint at using them. They are willing to talk about the unthinkable because of weakness in every other dimension of power. Mr. Putin’s regime is marked by frustration and impotence. Its dreams consistently exceed its capacity. The only area where it remains a superpower is in its ability to unleash Armageddon.
And this weak, insecure regime with a surplus of weapons of mass destruction has now painted itself into a corner in Ukraine. That makes this war unlike any other conflict of the Cold War or post-Cold War era.
From the dawn of the atomic age, it was understood that a direct military confrontation between two nuclear-armed superpowers risked escalating into nuclear war. The Americans and the Soviets engaged in many hot military conflicts, but they always managed to keep them from boiling over local borders.
For example, in the 1960s and early 70s, Moscow supplied massive amounts of weaponry, including artillery, fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles, to the North Vietnamese fighting the U.S. in South Vietnam. The Americans would do something similar in support of Afghans fighting a Soviet invasion in the 1980s.
But the two superpowers were careful about not taking direct aim at one another.
The West has every reason to continue supporting Ukraine with increasing quantities of weapons and financial aid, with the aim of ensuring that last month’s defeat of the Russian advance on Kyiv is repeated across the country. Ukraine is entitled, by law and a basic humanity, to defend itself. And countries such as Canada have every reason to help it do so.
But we need to be careful to signal to Russia that our goals do not extend beyond Ukraine’s borders. That while we will move heaven and earth and plane loads of arms to defend Ukraine, we are not aiming at regime change across the border, in Russia.
Should we be hoping for regime change in Russia? Obviously. But openly talking about it as a war aim, and making a reality of Mr. Putin’s claim that NATO is attacking Russia, is to be avoided.
U.S. President Joe Biden, in an apparently unscripted moment in late March, said that Mr. Putin “cannot remain in power.” And last week, U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said that his goal was “to see Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kind of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
Such words expand Western war aims from defending Ukraine to defeating Russia, and even overthrowing Mr. Putin. In a different time and place, those might be legitimate and even achievable goals. But not here and not now. The Russian nuclear arsenal makes such objectives imprudent to aim for, and counterproductive to give voice to.
To rework a phrase from former U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt, the West needs to speak softly – even as it keeps on arming Ukraine with more and more big sticks.
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