The Sky Isn’t Falling
If you’ve been around the internet at all over the past year and a half of war in Ukraine, you’ve likely seen breathless claims that Western aid is pushing us to the brink of a third world war. These terrified statements are the bread and butter of those who wish to see military aid to Ukraine reduced or stopped entirely. Some are pure isolationists, others are useful idiots for Russia, more are skeptics of American military power, and yet others are more vituperative Asia-firsters. Regardless of their personal ideological predilections, these commentators are aligned in their fearmongering over drastic, rapid escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War into a broad-based, global, nuclear-tinged Armageddon. Despite differences in motive, the Ukraine doves all sing from the same hymnal. The refrain is simple. Every Ukrainian advance: World War III. Every new weapons system delivered to Kyiv: World War III. Every response to Russian aggression: World War III. Every revelation of Western support – intelligence, economic, or otherwise: World War III.
They’re certainly consistent, but are they correct? That answer is a resounding nyet. This argument is merely a brickbat with which to attack Ukraine hawks; it has no relation to either the current day or the historical reality. This bedwetter caucus not only misrepresents the escalation dynamics of the Ukraine war, but also of both World Wars. On top of that, they fail to understand the significant differences between the present conflict and those of the past. In short, their argument is fatally flawed. Let us count the ways.
To begin with, these Internet Chicken Littles invoke the specter of World War while totally misapprehending the root causes and escalation dynamics behind those totalizing conflicts. This faulty history entirely undermines their claims about escalation in the current day; in some cases, the lessons learned from the outbreak of war tell the exact opposite story from that which the bedwetters promote.
There is perhaps no major war that is more poorly understood in the popular consciousness (especially in the United States) than World War I. In the public recollection, the Great War was utterly meaningless, fought by European imperialists and arms merchants for no reasons other than pure hubris and profit. It was stumbled into with zero regard for the consequences and no idea that a wider war would erupt from an assassination in the Balkans. The murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 is the starting point for many of the popular histories of the conflict and has been seared into the public mind as the origin story of the 20th century’s first taste of total war. Frustratingly for those of us who study this fascinating conflict, this conception is dramatically at odds with the history. It lacks crucial context that situates the war within a wider geopolitical competition and ignores the very real – sometimes intractable – disputes that drove European belligerence.
World War I was not sleepwalked into, nor was it the immediate result of Gavrilo Princip’s bullets. It was a long time coming, with large-scale geopolitical rivalries, spanning decades, coming to a head around the world. The war was not the product of a volcanic explosion over a single summer; it was a far more tectonic process. Diplomatic, strategic, and economic shifts from 1870 to those fateful August days in 1914 drove the coming of the War to End All Wars. The massive changes afoot in that era propelled the Great Powers – Britain, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Russia – in new and surprising directions, bringing them into greater and greater conflict. There was a plethora of smaller tremors throughout the period, from the Jameson Raid to Agadir, culminating finally in the earth-rending cataclysm of total war. Those less serious shocks – including several brutal wars across the world, with at least three in the Balkans themselves – were the necessary precursors for the eventual conflagration which consumed the Great Powers.
In the World War I analogy, the war in Ukraine is far more similar to one of those tremors than it is to the main event. It is a localized conflict, it stems from a very specific regional disagreement (Russia thinks Ukraine is Russia; they’re wrong), and, although it is something of a proxy war with NATO, it does not have immediate existential ramifications in other theaters. The Boer War and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 are much closer analogues, while non-combat events like the Agadir crisis, the Fashoda incident, and the Panjdeh dispute were more direct clashes of major powers. Similarly, the escalation dynamics have proven vastly different from that of World War I. Russia has prosecuted its invasion without even formally mobilizing for or declaring war, while Western aid has come in dribs and drabs, not all at once. In 1914, the belligerents were bound inextricably to a tightly-organized mobilization process which necessitated a one-way climb up the escalation ladder and incentivized speed and commitment. Once even a small part of the war machine was set into motion, its logic progressed inevitably to full-scale conflict. This is not at all the case today. These factors make the First World War an especially poor analogue to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
The Second World War is also an inappropriate analogy to today’s fight, but for different reasons. Historical knowledge of WWII is certainly not lacking in the Western world given how seemingly obsessed we are with it. The years between 1939 and 1945 are ubiquitous in popular culture, the Holocaust is a touchstone of American life, and “Nazi” has been the political insult du jour for at least the past decade. The conflict is seen by even the most ardent opponents of American power as a just war in which the outcome was positive. Suffice it to say, the war is fairly well-understood and highly regarded in the public imagination, far more so than is its predecessor. But that does not mean that World War II analogies are generally apt, even if they are made with incredible frequency. In the case of the Russo-Ukrainian War, the analogy is faulty; in fact, it suggests the opposite approach from that which the Chicken Littles promote.
Most Americans associate the outbreak of war with either the invasion of Poland in September 1939 or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, but the war had already been raging for years prior to either event. Japan invaded China in 1937, sparking the conflict which evolved into the Pacific theater of the global war; Hitler and his Nazis were escalating militarily in Europe since the mid-1930s, gobbling up territory of other sovereign states with the tacit acceptance of the major European nations. These provocations were steadily ramped up by the expansionist, genocidal regimes of the Axis over the course of nearly a decade before they were finally pushed back against militarily. The relative lack of response to such aggressive moves against the international order incentivized further, more inflammatory incitements. The most infamous instance of this repeated trope came in Munich in 1938, when then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain walked away with “peace in our time.” Unfortunately, that ‘peace’ was worth less than the piece of paper it was printed on, and Britain was at war the following autumn. By the time the European Allies saw fit to rebuke Nazi aggression, the German war machine was in full swing, rampaging across the Continent. Despite the long lead time, the British and French were woefully underprepared for the Nazi onslaught that only gained in power as time elapsed and battlefield victories were attained.
A similar story played itself out in Asia, where Imperial Japan ran roughshod over the western Pacific, consolidating its hold on regional supremacy and directly threatening American interests. Washington was loath to become militarily engaged in the region and responded only with economic sanctions and volunteer aid to the besieged Chinese. The sanctions regime did indeed hurt Japan, but the lack of military response saw Tokyo begin to view the US as a paper tiger that could be put out of commission in the Pacific with one swift stroke. That came to pass on a sunny Sunday morning in Hawaii, a day which “will live in infamy.” The simultaneous attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines (then an American territory), and other Western possessions in Southeast Asia put the Allies on the back foot in the region, a posture they would suffer until at least 1943. Eventually, the industrial might and secure homeland of the United States won the war in the Pacific, but at a terrible cost – for Japanese and American alike.
The story of the escalation towards and outbreak of World War II is one of missed opportunities and lack of appropriate, timely response to repeated belligerence. Had the Allies seen the threats posed by the Axis sooner, rearmed accordingly, and martially rebuked the earliest aggressive maneuvers, the wanton destruction of the deadliest war in modern history may have been reduced. When it comes to the war in Ukraine, the lesson to be learned from 1939 means ensuring a rapid, unified, tough response to such provocations. The Western nations aiding Ukraine are taking heed of that example – to varying degrees – and are responding appropriately to Russia’s invasion by aiding in Kyiv’s defense. Instead of provoking World War III, NATO is doing its level best to avoid it. And this is exactly in keeping with the moral of the Second World War – directly contrary to the ideas of the bedwetter caucus.
Now that we’ve seen how historically inapt this “World War III” scaremongering is, let’s move to the present day. Just as with the world wars of the past century, these anti-Ukraine partisans hugely misunderstand the dynamics of the current war. The chronic doomsaying is utterly detached from reality based on the evidence of the last year and a half.
The Western aid effort has been frustratingly piecemeal and haphazard, with weapons systems being sent over only after months of hemming and hawing, long delays in procurement, and repeated fits and starts. That approach has given Moscow plenty of opportunity to escalate its assault if it so desired, but we have not seen this happen. More materiel has been shipped, yet no escalation. New weapons systems – including some like HIMARS that Russia declared a red line – have been promised and fielded, but there was no escalatory response. Even dramatic counterattacks by Ukraine have not been met with the massive, overwhelming escalation that the bedwetters fear. Ukraine sunk the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, but there was no major response. It has, multiple times, attacked the Kerch Strait Bridge, Russia’s main link to Crimea from its own territory; no overwhelming reply. Just last week, it blew up a drydock in occupied Crimea, crippling a nuclear submarine and other naval vessels. As of now, there has been no intensification of the war effort. Kyiv has sent suicide drones to attack buildings in Moscow itself, the very heart of the Russian nation, but the Kremlin has not climbed the escalation ladder. It sure seems like the fearmongers have fallen hook, line, and sinker for a Russian bluff – and not a particularly good one at that.
One reason that Russia has not escalated in any serious way after these repeated Western ‘provocations’ (in the minds of the bedwetters) is that their invasion was scorched earth from the jump. It is hard to escalate beyond the deliberate massacre of civilian populations, the purposeful destruction of cultural sites, a policy of mass kidnapping and relocation of Ukrainian children, murder of POWs, attacking humanitarian aid vessels, and attempted annexation of large swathes of Ukrainian territory. The only rungs left on the escalation ladder are truly drastic options: saturation bombing and nuclear use. Neither is a serious choice for Vladimir Putin. Saturation bombing of cities, as was the norm in World War II, is not an available option for the Kremlin. To carry out such a strategy, the bombing power needs air superiority over the targets and an enormous amount of ammunition, neither of which Russia can bring to bear.
Nuclear threats are a different story, as Russia clearly has the ability to launch such an attack on Ukraine or against the Western allies that are supporting its defense. But merely having the ability to play the nuclear card does not mean that it is a credible threat. The argument that hawks want to start nuclear war because we believe in the defense of Ukraine is totally bogus. The raising of this specific danger is meant to play at the emotions of Western populations and scare them out of taking reasonable positions vis a vis geopolitics. Nuclear use in Ukraine would sign the death warrant for Vladimir Putin and his regime, something the man in the Kremlin clearly wants to avoid. The escalation pattern to date confirms this supposition, as battlefield reverses have not been met with mass destructive force.
Furthermore, this argument, applied more broadly, would result in a total collapse of American power and a far more dangerous world than the one we live in. If the mere threat of nuclear use is enough to deter us acting in our own interests and allow the threatening power to do whatever it pleases, then we are nothing more than a paper tiger. Giving carte blanche to evil regimes to act badly around the world is a total repudiation of the postwar order, which is precisely what the malefactors in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran seek. Such an attitude would incentivize nuclear proliferation, and not only among nation-states, but non-state actors as well. In this new world, how would we be able to defend our interests? If we are prevented from taking action by the suggestion of nuclear use, we become a geopolitical pushover. In that case, why should the US have nuclear weapons in the first place? And why can’t we act as effectively against our adversaries by making similar threats? Clearly, they do not find this nuclear blackmail as compelling a danger as our so-called ‘realists’ do.
It’s bad enough when influential online commentators and observers buy into and promulgate this nonsense, but it is far worse when elected representatives do. Unfortunately, we are in that exact situation with many NatCon (read: isolationist) Republicans in Congress and the Biden team in the White House.
The congressional critics see any aid to Ukraine as a waste of taxpayer dollars, if not an outright betrayal of American interests. They raise the bogeyman of escalation in nearly every discussion of the war, believing wholeheartedly that the Biden administration is walking us willingly into global nuclear conflict with each new aid package. The anti-aid sentiment on the political right is waxing as the war drags on and we inch closer to a major government funding battle. Already, several House Republicans and Senator Rand Paul have stated that they will refuse to vote for any budgetary bill that includes further funding for Ukraine, making the prospect of a wider government shutdown all the more plausible. Some of their rhetoric is couched in the idea of accountability for the money being spent, but much of it relies on the cynical scaremongering around nuclear war. Despite the clear evidence that these fears are unfounded, they remain politically viable.
The Biden administration, however, is the worse culprit here given its outsized power over decision-making in the military and diplomatic spheres. Throughout the conflict, the administration has slow-walked weapons deliveries due to fear of escalation by Moscow. The same cycle plays out over and over again. Ukraine’s military requests a new capability to achieve concrete battlefield objectives, the White House waffles on whether to grant that particular request, Biden ultimately decides against giving the weapon system to Ukraine, and a few months later that decision is reversed, only for the actual delivery of the requested capability to come several months afterward. This occurs over the course of about 8 to 12 months from initial request to operationalization on the battlefield. It came with the HIMARS artillery system, the Abrams tank, and the F-16 fighter jet. All followed the same oblique and convoluted process, and the latter two have not even reached deployment yet.
Now, we’re seeing the cycle repeat itself with ATACMS, the long-range missile system which would allow Ukraine to push its counteroffensive further and destroy crucial Russian supply lines and artillery positions. For weeks, the administration sent out conflicting smoke signals, but now news has broken that ATACMS will not be part of the new aid package. In this case, the escalation excuse falls especially flat given that other nations have sent similar weapons systems to Ukraine without a commensurate raising of the stakes by Putin. Still, this disappointing news is regrettably par for the course. Had the White House not gone down the route of playing into this escalation farce, the tactical situation on the ground in Ukraine would be entirely different – and much better. As of now, the Ukrainian counteroffensive is slowly progressing towards the Sea of Azov, but it is miles behind where it could be given properly aggressive support. If the US had acted more decisively in arming Kyiv and delivered the necessary weapons systems in a timely manner, we could be seriously discussing whether retaking Crimea was on the table. At the very least, Ukraine would surely be in a much more favorable negotiating position. And yet, we remain permanently mired in this endless, fear-driven, feedback loop.
But why? The rationale of the congressional Republicans who oppose Ukraine aid is simple: it allows them to attack President Biden on a major foreign policy topic, while signifying their populist bona fides. This, many assume, is the pathway to reelection in the modern, Trump-centric GOP. It is a craven, cynical strategy, but it very well may work out for their careers in the short run. The reasoning behind the Biden administration’s weak-kneed approach is more inscrutable and confusing. The key lies in the White House’s repeated refrain regarding supporting Ukraine: “as long as it takes.” Notice that this is not the same as “whatever it takes,” although they may sound similar. The former is fully compatible with a strategy of prolonging the war, while the latter is more victory-focused and battlefield-oriented.
Why, however, would any supporter of Ukraine want the war to drag on longer? To give the administration the benefit of the doubt as serious, but woefully mistaken, backers of Ukraine, they could want a war of attrition so as to more fully weaken the Russian war machine. Under this plan, a longer war would be worse for Ukraine, but it would also be worse for Russia; this would be seen as a reasonable trade if it neutered a major American adversary, even if it costs countless Ukrainian lives. If one wants to be a bit more conspiratorial (albeit realistic), the Biden team could be trying to extend this war and polarize it along domestic partisan lines to use it as a wedge issue in the 2024 presidential election. Neither option is good, and both are based on the flawed premise that delay or refusal to send more useful aid avoids Russian escalation and perhaps nuclear war. But as we have seen, this is a canard with respect to both past and present.
Ukraine can win this war if we have the courage to support its fight with the necessary vigor and speed. And the sky won’t fall if we do, regardless of what the Chicken Littles online, in Congress, and in the Oval Office think.