Western Europe is stabbing Ukraine in the back

May 25, 2022

For all their pious platitudes, the governments of Germany, France, and Italy are actively sabotaging the military aid to Ukraine, and have effectively stabbed Kyiv in the back. I have written previously about this danger, but now it has become an open and clear position that is being articulated with increasing vehemence by government officials. The effect has been to deny Ukraine the resupply it needs to outpace the Russians, and instead it was the RFA that managed to regroup faster, which is why it is advancing now in Donbas and digging in around Kherson. The US has — so far — been unable (unwilling?) to force the issue.

Today, Die Zeit tweeted a link to an article with a very provocative headline that claimed that NATO has decided not to supply Ukraine with planes and tanks out of fear that the Russians would treat this as a direct involvement. It turned out that the tweet was inflammatory and the actual article was far more measured. NATO has made no collective decisions one way or the other, and it is up to members to decide what to contribute. Poland has already sent 200 tanks, and so far the Russians have not declared this a direct involvement (despite Kadyrov’s insane TikTok threats that he would end Poland in 6 seconds if ordered to do so). It is, however, true that NATO members from Western Europe are desperately trying to come up with all sorts of reasons not to help the Ukrainians with the weapons they need to defeat the Russians.

I can think of four explanations. First, there is a well-funded fifth-column that is conducting Kremlin’s policies in all Western countries, but especially in Germany and Italy (Hungary’s government is pro-Putin already), and there’s a lot of Russian money sloshing around Europe. These elites and politicians take their marching orders from the Kremlin, and repeat the same points ad nauseam.

Second, there is fear of ending up in a war with Russia. This is understandable, especially perhaps in Germany. I cannot quite fathom what drives this fear: Russia has never won a war against a Western great power unless financed and aided by another Western power. Heck, even then it managed to lose a few. Despite their own myths, the Russians are not all that great at war, and the reason is — as always — their deplorable domestic situation, both political and economic, that simply cannot sustain a prolonged war effort. The lost the Crimean War in their own backyard, they lost the Russo-Japanese War to an upstart island nation, they lost World War I (and fell apart). Their great victories — over Napoleon in 1812-15 and over Hitler in 1941-45 — were both funded and supplied by Westerners (Britain and the United States, respectively), and in both they also had Western allies who fought the same enemy, which meant the Russians never had to deal with the full military potential of either France or Germany. This is not to denigrate their achievements in both wars — nobody is saying that Napoleon and Hitler could have been defeated without the Russians — but to point out that the “Russian way of war” seems to rely a lot on having the right (rich and powerful) allies, invariably of the Western variety.

Which brings me to the war in Ukraine. Setting aside nuclear weapons for a moment, why should the collective West fear a war with Russia? I am not talking about invading Russia, but about fighting in Ukraine. If the Ukrainians could do what they did with the crappy equipment they had, what would an actual Western army be able to do? Kadyrov is preening about taking 6 seconds to destroy Poland, but it’s more likely that Poland would take about a week to destroy the Russian forces in Ukraine. I may be exaggerating, but not by a lot. Bottom line is that the fear of confronting Russia in Ukraine is not well founded, and seems entirely based on the mythology of the Second World War that Moscow has created. In its telling, the Soviet Union single-handedly won that war, but of course nothing could be further from the truth, as Stalin, Zhukov, and Khrushchev all famously said after the war (that without the US the war would have been much harder or impossible to win).

The only thing I can think of that might rationalize such fears are the nuclear weapons. These are terrifying, but they are terrifying for the Russians as well. Several things must be understood about the nukes. First, the most dangerous ones are the strategic nukes (mounted on inter-continental ballistic missiles, carried by bombers, or launchable from submarines). These are capable of striking any target worldwide in about 20-40 minutes (in the case of ICBMs). They can carry hundreds of kilotons worth of nukes or even megatons. The Russians can launch these within 20 minutes or so of receiving an order from Putin that is confirmed by the respective chain of command. The strategic arsenal always has a part that is in a state of readiness because presumably they would need to be launched very quickly.

These, however, are not the nukes that the Russians are rattling despite delirious discussions on TV. The problem with strategic nuclear weapons is that if the Russians attempt to use them, it would be the end of Russia as well — as the US would doubtless retaliate. The world of mutually assured destruction is the one we have been living in since the 1970s essentially, and, ironically, the very uselessness of these powerful weapons has probably made it a much safer place.

The problem nukes are the tactical ones, which have much shorter ranges (several hundred miles) and generally carry much lighter loads (a couple of kilotons). The Russians have thousands of those, and they can be delivered in various ways. These weapons are not even subject to international arms control agreements despite some efforts to eliminate them. The Russian military doctrine envisions no first use of strategic weapons except when the existence of the state is at stake but allows for use of tactical nukes in the paradoxically-sounding “escalate to deescalate” strategy. The idea there is that if Russian forces are about to suffer some serious defeat, they could use a tactical nuke — exploded somewhere nearby, possibly in an area where it would not directly harm anyone — as a warning to compel the other side to stop. If the warning does not work, they could escalate to striking the local forces with nukes to prevent defeat.

This doctrine will sound familiar to any student of US nuclear strategy. In the 1950s, US doctrine of Graduated Deterrence relied on nuclear weapons for such regional use because the Eisenhower administration did not want to spend the money on a conventional army. There was a lot of criticism because the policy would saddle the US with two bad choices — accept defeat or use nuclear weapons — and since the latter would be politically difficult, it would mean the former. Conventional forces were necessary to “bridge the gap” so to speak. The result was Kennedy’s Flexible Response, which maintained a clear separation between nuclear and conventional forces, which required a massive buildup of the conventional army while simultaneously spending on the Strategic Triad (ensuring that the US had enough nuclear capability in each of the three delivery vehicles I mentioned above to deliver a punitive retaliatory strike if two of the three were destroyed in a surprise attack). At one point in 1962, Defense Secretary McNamara proposed the “No Cities” modification, which envisioned escalation control of the type the Russians are thinking of today: if nukes were used, the US would first strike military targets, holding industrial and population centers “hostage” in the hope that the other side would limit its escalation in order to avoid total destruction. (The Soviets denounced this and insisted that any nuclear war would immediately escalate into a global strategic exchange.) The Russian policy, then, is a combination of graduated deterrence and no cities, and it makes sense if one is willing to bear the cost of being the first one to use nukes since 1945.

The problem for the Russians with this policy, however, is that unlike a strategic strike, getting tactical weapons in use is a lot more cumbersome. The warheads are kept in special storage facilities under lock and key, and to be usable, they have to be removed from there, and transported to be mounted on delivery vehicles. The process involves a fairly sizeable chain of command, where everyone has to agree to execute the command or it will fail. It will take many hours before an ordered strike is actually carried out. It is probably impossible to hide this from satellites that are monitoring all storage facilities. In other words, if the Russians decided to deploy a tactical nuke, the US will probably find out about before a strike occurs. I am fairly confident that the US government has gamed this out and has an appropriate response to this, which will not be to Putin’s liking. (One possibility is to launch preemptive strikes on his bunkers, all of which are known.) And at any rate, it is unclear what effect a warning shot like that would have as one possibility is that it would galvanize the international community instead of cowing them into submission (similar to what happened when Putin used the oil/gas blackmail).

In not so many words, while the possibility that the Russians would resort to nukes if Ukraine is about to win is not zero, it is not very large, and it is not with the type of weapon that people imagine. All of this, however, much be known to the likes of Scholz and Macron, and probably in more detail than to me. So what other explanations exist?

The third option is that Western Europeans fear that a defeated Russian Federation might break apart, ushering all sorts of instability in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Asia, and nobody wants to deal with that. Not the least of the problems being thousands upon thousands of nukes being “orphaned” and possibly “adopted” by the wrong people (like the Taliban, for instance). I have discussed this already so will not dwell on it further here.

The fourth option is that the Western Europeans actually want the Russian Federation to win in the sense that it will remain a European power to serve as a counter-weight to the United States (or the Anglo-Saxon block US/UK, especially now that the UK is out of the EU). This is nothing new. The French always ascribed to themselves a lot more importance in world affairs than their status of victors in WWII that Stalin gave them (also to counter the Anglo-Saxons) despite them clearly not deserving it, having lasted in the war a shorter time than it takes to eat a croissant. Whether it was De Gaul throwing a fit and leaving NATO command or Chirac becoming intensely obstructionist over the Iraq War or Macron somehow managing to violate sanctions right now by selling Russians military technology, the French opposition to US foreign policies has a long and distinguished history.

The Germans, for all their talk about being the most faithful ally, also pursued their own special Ostpolitik since the 1970s, lent vast amounts of money to the USSR during the Cold War, and always had a keen eye for appeasing Moscow, especially in the name of profit, through the years. The architect of the present-day abject European dependence on Russian gas is none other than Chancellor Merkel, who never missed an opportunity to cozy up to the Kremlin while simultaneously helping create hybrid regimes in places like Bulgaria, which looked European but were thoroughly penetrated by Russian interests. The Germans always had this policy of relying on the US for defense (so not investing in their own military) while trading furiously, and profitably, with USSR/Russia (including transfers of Western tech).

In that sense, it is not at all surprising that the traditional desire to play the US and Russia against each other while profiting handsomely from both is still there. What is, however, surprising is the apparent total failure to understand two things. The European initiative in this war is not in Paris, Berlin, or Rome, but in Warsaw, Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius. The moral center of gravity has shifted to the Eastern Europeans, who have articulated a strong and uncompromising response to the Russian aggression, and a vision that is squarely based on the liberal European principles that the “business as usual” Western governments are so fond of paying lip service to without follow through. Scholz and Macron are attempting to sound like wise statesmen but are universally recognized as desperate retrogrades who are throwing sand in the machinery of the Union (as the EU Commission’s own position clearly shows) and just applying brakes to aiding Ukraine using increasingly baroque excuses for doing so.

The US, of course, has it own cottage industry of “wise statesmen” that are currently busy penning editorials or, in the case of war criminal Kissinger, giving brief speeches that sound like he is trying to relieve his dissertation on the politics of Metternich. All of these Kremlin-inspired talking heads are all too happy to trade Ukrainian lands and lives to secure whichever of the four goals they happen to have. It is truly a disgraceful spectacle.

The second thing they fail to understand is that the old ways are not coming back. The Ukrainians are very unlikely to negotiate even if the Russians attempt to “freeze” the conflict along the lines of furthest reach. Russia will not be a normal actor internationally for the foreseeable future, businesses will not go back for a long time, especially now that expropriations have started. When Putin falls (and some expect this might happen before the end of the year), his successors will not be able to negotiate a readmission to the society of nations except at a heavy cost, which will include abandoning all conquests in Ukraine and reparations, at a minimum. With Europe shifting away from Russian gas and oil, the incentives to play nice with an impoverished Moscow will diminish as elites will look for better business opportunities. Association with Russia will be tainted and not to be acknowledged publicly for at least a generation. The Russians cannot win the war they started, and they always end up with some sort of revolution when they lose. This time will be no different. Nobody knows what Putin’s heirs will look like but it will be a long time before Scholz and Macron would be able to invite them to parties.

For years, the West has been mired in pathetic self-doubt and, in the likes of Chomsky, quite a bit of self-loathing. Democracy is failing everywhere, and the only people willing to fight for it seem to be the ones who have first-hand recent knowledge of what life looks like when liberties are taken away. The Eastern Europeans are trying to save the West from its own complacency that has rotted the moral fiber of liberalism to the core. The Western publics are the only ones who seem to understand instinctively that the only moral course is to help Ukraine win the war. I sure hope the public will have its will on this instead of a group of sclerotic elites too accustomed to the comforts of the trough filled with milk and honey paid for with public taxes or Russian money.

One thought on “Western Europe is stabbing Ukraine in the back

  1. How can US officials be confident they really know the location of all Putin’s bunkers and that they can hit them if this is what deterring nuclear escalation might rely on?


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