American and NATO efforts to assist Ukraine in its conflict with Russia have escalated alarmingly since Putin launched his invasion almost one year ago. We began by doing virtually nothing to help Ukraine, except rhetorically and by way of offering Ukrainian leaders a one-way flight into exile. Since then we have imposed history-making economic and financial sanctions against Russia, and we have progressively taken on the responsibilities of funding, supplying, training, and providing intelligence for the Ukrainian security forces. It is an open question whether the average Ukrainian soldier now serves under Volodymyr Zelenskyy or Joe Biden.
Needless to say, the more deeply the United States and its NATO allies intervene in Ukraine, the greater the risk Russia will perceive the conflict, as indeed it already seems to, as a proxy war between itself and the West.
Putin will argue that the United States and NATO are “in” Ukraine for one reason and one reason only: to weaken Russia, which is the greatest obstacle to Western hegemony worldwide. The West will regard this assertion as the purest nonsense, of course, but the problem is that, from the Russian perspective, it seems eminently plausible.
If Putin’s compatriots think he’s right about the stakes, then the danger of major escalation on the Russian side, even the use of nuclear weapons, becomes unacceptably high—or, rather, any sane, rational observer in the West might be tempted to conclude as much.
This week the West crossed several red lines, bringing us closer to this nightmare scenario.
The United States decided to authorize the shipping of M1 Abrams main battle tanks to Ukraine, which, from the Russian perspective, is bad; but worse was to come. The Germans decided to send their own Leopard tanks to Ukraine. As if to underline the message that Germany, and German arms, “stand with” Ukraine, the German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock declared: “we are fighting a war against Russia.” This contradicted numerous other statements that had come out of the German government, reassuring Germans and their international partners that Germany was not a belligerent in the conflict. Baerbock’s idle boast may have been primarily a poor choice of words, therefore, but its impact in Russia was profound. The Russian Foreign Ministry accused the West of prosecuting a premeditated war against Russia and added ominously: “Don’t say later that we didn’t warn you.”
To those who regard these verbal barbs as insignificant, some historical context is needed. For Russians, the preeminent conflict in all of history, and Russia’s finest hour (bar none), came in the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany. The celebration of the heroic resistance of the Soviet peoples against Hitler’s invasion of their homeland was one of the central themes of Soviet culture, in fact, and antifascism became one of the leading values of the Communist Bloc. Men like Putin grew up in an environment in which the Soviet Union’s Western enemies were constantly derided as “fascists,” in a manner that was designed to link them, in the Soviet mind, with the nation’s all-time greatest enemy: Adolf Hitler.
It does not matter whether such comparisons were fair or reasonable. What matters is that they were a touchstone of Soviet life, and much of that aversion to the West, and to “fascism,” as Russians define it, remains relevant to Russian public and elite opinion today, based on polling evidence. This is precisely why Putin invaded Ukraine claiming that a nationalist and “Nazi” cabal had seized control there and was actively engaged in genocide against ethnic Russians. This was a claim that played on the anti-Western and anti-fascist biases of the Russian people, rooted in history. It was a claim that Putin himself, and people who think like Putin, were primed to regard as plausible.
What effect, then, will it have on Putin’s resolve and Russian public opinion when the German Foreign Minister casually declares war against Russia, and when Germany dispatches its most modern tanks to fight on Ukrainian battlefields? The question answers itself. These intemperate actions are a fulfillment of the worst Russian nightmare: of an aggressive Western campaign to invade and destroy Russia herself (of which Ukraine is a part, in most Russian minds). It is a repeat, in fact, of the German tactics of World War II, which sought to use Ukrainian “nationalists” as cannon fodder against Soviet Russian forces. All this is confirmation, from the Russian point of view, of the extremely high stakes for which they are fighting, and of the fact that they, not Ukraine, are the nation that is targeted for destruction.
Does all of this mean that Russia is bound to “go nuclear” in Ukraine? Not necessarily. Russia is a powerful and resourceful country, despite appearances to the contrary, and it has a long history of acting circumspectly in its encounters with the United States, NATO, and the West—not out of respect so much as fear of Western strength.
In the medium term, it is much more likely that Russia will mobilize more of its reserves and militarize as much of its industrial sector as possible so as to facilitate an all-out effort to defeat the present government and security forces of Ukraine in a spring or summer offensive. And that, of course, will pose to the West even more agonizing questions about the lengths to which we are willing to go to “win” a war in Ukraine that we, by our naïveté and arrogance, helped to provoke, and which we seem to have no earthly idea how to end on favorable terms.