Running Out of Time to
Do the Right Thing in Ukraine

by Robert Winter

Concerns about setting off World War III have made us reluctant up to now to provide Ukraine with the assistance it needs to fully repel the Russian attack. Knowing this, Vladimir Putin has ominously rattled his nuclear saber—among other things, by putting his nuclear forces on high alert. 

While it’s only prudent to take all reasonable steps to avert a nuclear war, we also need to consider the possibility we’re being had. 

Putin’s conventional armed forces have proved themselves to be stunningly inept. Their only realistic chance now of achieving their original goal is to be just as stunningly barbaric. Accordingly, Putin has placed a general known as the “butcher of Syria” at the head of a much larger force than originally attacked Ukraine. It’s worth noting that this sobriquet doesn’t mean he’s tough, or even skillful. All it really indicates is that he’s monstrous—especially so against the defenseless. 

Russia’s Invasion 2.0 runs the risk, though, of so thoroughly sickening America that we feel we have no choice but to step in directly to end the atrocities, and ensure Ukraine’s freedom and survival. In this event, our conventional armed forces are so far superior to theirs that the Russians would likely lose just about everything they throw at us and Ukraine—rendering themselves not only impoverished, but also defeated and largely defenseless. 

I believe Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling is best understood as a hedge against this possibility. 

What’s the likelihood he would actually launch a nuclear attack against either Ukraine or us, though? 

Those nukes do him a lot more good as threats than as fired weapons. As threats, they could gain him a significantly more favorable end to the war than he would otherwise be capable of obtaining. Once fired, they guarantee massive destruction in his country. 

In terms of game theory, the most “favorable” outcome of a nuclear exchange that Putin could hope for is that the United States and Russia would both suffer roughly the same amount of damage. Given the disparity in the readiness of our conventional military forces, though, it’s likely that there is also a significant difference in the effectiveness of our nuclear forces. If this is the case, then picking a nuclear fight because he’s being defeated in a conventional one would only result in Russia suffering a worse loss. 

Putin is not stupid. He must already realize all of this. 

And while he might not especially care about the suffering that a nuclear war with the United States would inflict on his countrymen, he most certainly cares about being assassinated, or even just ousted (and maybe then killed)—as well as about losing all the stupendous wealth that’s made him feel like a such big man all these years. We should also not discount the blow it would be for him to end up known as the dolt whose poor judgment ultimately flattened the country he was claiming to build up. 

Of course, this isn’t to say that there’s zero possibility Putin would launch a nuclear attack. We can never be entirely sure of what’s going through anyone’s mind. Possibly he’s counting on the historical ability of his people to endure great suffering, and is banking on their being better able to survive the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse than we are. 

Nevertheless, it’s a good time to reconsider our own position and options. 

Now that Putin has placed the infamous General Dvornikov in charge of his attack, we might as well forget about carefully compiling additional evidence of war crimes. We already have lots of it, and none of it will accomplish anything unless Russia is resoundingly defeated. What we need to do now is stop this guy, and as soon as possible. 

We should consider getting an emergency United Nations authorization to intervene directly in Ukraine’s defense—but not for very long. There’s a monster at the doorstep of already bombed-out and ravaged areas of eastern and southern Ukraine, and there’s little doubt of the kinds of atrocities he’s poised to inflict. 

This means that when push comes to shove—as it will very soon—we should be prepared to come to Ukraine’s defense entirely on our own. An unacceptable amount of carnage and depravity can sweep over this gallant but now gravely threatened country before we can get even our longtime NATO allies to agree to direct action. And frankly, it’s too much to ask of these allies, who live a lot closer to Russia than we do, to participate in a task we can handle without their help. 

We should instead plan out a lone-wolf policy of vigorous defense, beginning with a clear policy articulation by the President of the United States. It could include the following: 

Just for starters, if Russian aircraft fly into Ukrainian airspace, we will shoot them down. What if these same aircraft engage us in a dogfight that then happens to extend into Russian airspace? Well, they’ll have brought it on themselves if we choose to finish the fight somewhere else. 

More significantly, if any Russian troops or equipment are on Ukrainian soil, we will engage them and drive them out. If they attack with missiles or artillery based outside Ukraine, we will destroy those bases. 

These are all things we can do on our own. 

What’s the end game? Once the Russians realize they can’t win, serious peace negotiations can begin. A key feature should be reparations, to pay for the cost of the destruction Putin has wrought in Ukraine. Possibly some or all of these could be paid from the already-frozen assets of the Russian oligarchs. When that’s done, the crippling economic sanctions on Russia could be eased, or even lifted altogether. 

But what if instead of seeing reason, Putin chooses instead to retaliate with a nuclear attack? Well, we have to plan for that eventuality, too. Shudder-inducing as this prospect may be, we should steel our nerves and plan now to pursue whatever course is most likely to lead to the most acceptable ultimate outcome. 

I believe this would require responding massively, rather than incrementally. 

Anybody who’s driven on a public highway has seen drivers who treat the issue of who’s ahead of whom as some kind of under-the-covers race, with each one accelerating only slightly (because maybe that way the cops won’t notice?) to pass the other, until they’re both traveling at absurdly and dangerously high rates of speed. I’ve found that if I want to pass somebody who displays this kind of behavior, it’s ultimately more prudent to move past them decisively right from the start. 

Likewise, I believe that in responding to a nuclear attack, although we should avoid going wildly overboard (we should at least leave enough standing to give them a reason to come to terms), it’s imperative to shock them out of a cycle of steadily-escalating tit-for-tats that’s actually more likely to ultimately level both our countries, and quite possibly the planet as a whole, before it ends. 

And if they counter with another attack of their own? Then the minute we detect missiles heading our way, we launch enough of our own to ensure the complete devastation of their country. 

I believe our president should openly announce these intentions—all of them. 

Again, it scarcely needs to be said that opening up the possibility of a nuclear war is never a prospect to be taken lightly. But we’re now the only country on earth with the ability to stop the Russian assault on Ukraine in its tracks before the atrocities come crashing down like a tsunami. 

If we don’t do this, even when we hold such a clear advantage in military power, and in order to stop an inexcusable abuse of a peaceful people, totalitarian states like Russia and China will tout our failure to act as one more sign of Western-style democracies’ waning significance on the world stage. This will weaken all the world’s resistance to a dark resurgence of the kinds of authoritarian regimes we fought so hard to defeat in World War II. 

So maybe it all comes down to this:

Would physically stopping Russia from further abusing Ukraine be risk free? Absolutely not. But sometimes in life, good things need to be done in spite of their risk. 

One thing is certain: it’s never good to stand by and allow horrendous things to be done only because we’ve let ourselves be bluffed by a small man holding only a pair of deuces, when we ourselves have a straight flush.