Photo illustration by John Lyman

Facing Reality: The West’s Desperate Gamble in Ukraine

The shortsighted Western strategy of provoking the “Bear” to test its limits is fraught with peril. This strategy is driven by a sense of desperation among its leaders, as two uncomfortable truths have become evident. First, short of committing ground troops to “save the day,” Ukraine will suffer defeat. The West has largely accepted this inevitability, which is why discord reigns supreme within the European Union and between the Bloc, the U.S., and Britain.

The rhetoric we hear—Biden’s “for as long as it takes,” French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent suggestions of sending NATO troops, and Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Cameron’s saber-rattling about long-range weapons to strike Russian territory—are the desperate attempts of politicians trying to save face. This political theater is designed to buy time and forestall the inevitable.

This brings us to the second truth about Ukraine. Knowing the first truth is upon them, the West must now use every “weapon” remaining in its arsenal to mitigate the outcome of its proxy war with Russia. They will avoid mentioning Ukraine’s defeat. As Macron has commented several times, the defeat of Ukraine is a defeat of the West, NATO, and the EU. The West will attempt to save face and avoid the embarrassment of humiliation at the hands of Moscow. What is interesting about this entire debacle is that it was the West that created the circumstances—NATO encroachment, sanctions, etc.—such that the defeat of Ukraine meant the defeat of the West. Pride and arrogance often have consequences.

The short-sightedness of the West has reached its limits—the point of diminishing returns. The West must not just listen to Moscow; it must now hear Russia’s warnings about the Kremlin’s limits. With the escalation of the Ukraine conflict, including rhetoric about committing NATO ground troops, disregarding Kremlin concerns will no longer work for the West.

In light of the two truths presented above, the essence of the Ukraine crisis is clear: Ukraine, despite its Western promoters, no longer has the initiative in its war with Russia. As well-placed Western diplomats from several NATO countries grudgingly admit, it is time to consider a diplomatic solution since defeat is a real possibility.

Given the reality of these two truths and the resulting self-inflicted “psychological wound” on Western leaders, they have threatened further escalation. David Cameron publicly suggested that Kyiv use Franco-British Storm Shadow missiles to strike deep inside Russia. Emmanuel Macron continues to threaten direct intervention by the French troops to bolster Kyiv’s efforts to prevent disaster.

The Kremlin responded with warnings delineating Moscow’s red lines. The British and French ambassadors received harsh rebukes cautioning their respective governments about the risks involved. There have been some indications that the West got the message. NATO Director-General Jens Stoltenberg has reiterated that NATO has no plans to send troops into Ukraine.

It would be a mistake to feel reassured, however, after the British and French dressing down or Stoltenberg’s denials. The core of this crisis began and remains an intransigence between U.S.-led Western political hegemony that has not abated and a persistent Russian policy that the West refuses to give credence to.

The persistent Kremlin policy alluded to above is Moscow’s understanding of when it would employ certain defenses, including nuclear weapons to protect its sovereignty. The U.S. State Department and the Pentagon characterize Moscow’s not infrequent statements about nuclear weapons as its own “saber-rattling.”

However, Russia’s policy regarding the use of its nuclear arsenal was created over two decades ago. These are not statements or warnings that the West has not heard before. The comments made by Moscow constitute policy statements designed to avert misunderstandings—they do not constitute “saber-rattling.”

Russia’s nuclear policy is complicated, operating on various levels of implementation. Much has been made in the media recently about how the use of nuclear weapons and ground troops might occur in Ukraine. Both Moscow and France, as nuclear powers, are capable of inflicting what may be called “calculated uncertainty” on their adversaries regarding what each might do next. The difference between Putin and Macron is that the former achieves this without “bravado” and more effectively. France’s President Macron has made a habit of posturing an “unrelenting inconsistency” which he calls “strategic ambiguity.” There is an abundance of talk from Macron but very little action.

Thus, there are two tiers of implementation associated with Russia’s nuclear policy. One level stresses that nuclear weapons could only be used if the existence of the Russian state were in danger. Misunderstanding this as a promise that Moscow would only use nuclear weapons if significant portions of Russian territory or population were decimated would be misguided.

There is also another level of implementation that might exist in Moscow’s nuclear policy, which remains unarticulated—treating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Russia, unconditionally, as thresholds for the appropriate use of nuclear weapons. Under these circumstances, the issue of “state existence” becomes the priority—the virtual survival of the country.

Regarding the use of nuclear weapons, one additional tier of implementation should be addressed. Russia has never openly conveyed a policy of restricting its use of nuclear weapons to a specific local theater of military operation (e.g., Ukraine). Russian President Vladimir Putin clarified this in February. Russia would not limit its response in a military confrontation to the local theater of operation if the situation warranted it. This information has not escaped the UK and EU in their role as subordinates to the U.S. in its proxy war with Russia.

The dilemma remains: we are left with the same U.S.-led political hegemonic intransigence that created the proxy war initially. The West has a history of feigning to listen but (since 1989) consistently refusing to hear Russia urging restraint and caution to NATO allies. This intransigent behavior is the psychological “circuit” that brought us to this exceedingly perilous place—called Ukraine. Russia has urged the West since 2007, when the Russian president spoke at the Munich Security Conference, to listen to Russia’s concerns. The EU should have listened and was offered an opportunity to forgo further NATO expansion and negotiate a new security framework for all of Europe. However, U.S.-led political intransigence meant the offer was not given credence by its EU “vassals.”

Intransigence must give way to the reality of the two truths mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Through its frequent policy statements, Russia is sending serious warnings to Western elites. It is time to listen because no one knows how much time is left when intransigence and talk of nuclear weapons remain at cross purposes.