Can America and NATO Avoid a Broader War Over Ukraine?

Can America and NATO Avoid a Broader War Over Ukraine?

By supplying Ukraine with weapons, ammunition, and intelligence the United States and NATO are waging a proxy war against Russia.

Make no mistake. By supplying Ukraine with weapons, ammunition, and intelligence the United States and NATO are waging a proxy war against Russia. And in his speech to Congress, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky pulled on America’s heartstrings in a plea for Washington to “do more.” That is, to deepen U.S. involvement. But the United States and NATO already are pushing their support for Ukraine into a danger zone where the risk of a direct U.S./NATO confrontation with Russia is rising. At the same time, negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow suggest a diplomatic resolution of the war is within reach. It is to this effort to end the war that Washington’s energies should be focused.

Why should there be concern that the U.S. could become militarily involved in the Ukraine conflict? After all, senior U.S. (and NATO) officials have stated on multiple occasions that the U.S. will neither send combat forces into, or impose a no-fly zone over, Ukraine. As Biden stated on March 11, “We will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine. Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War Three, something we must strive to prevent.” That is the correct policy, and there is no reason to doubt Biden’s sincerity on this point. However, other presidents have made similar commitments. And broken them.

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election on the platform that “He Kept Us Out of War.” In 1917, Wilson took the United States into World War I. In an October 30, 1940, speech in Boston, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” Just over a year later, the U.S. was at war with both Germany and Japan. In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson stated that “We are not about to send American boys nine or 10,000 miles away from their homes to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” By the middle of 1965, American troops were fighting a war in South Vietnam that ultimately would claim 58,000 American lives.

For better or worse, in international politics, the days of “cabinet diplomacy” have long since passed. In the United States, Congressional and public opinion can either push administrations—or be manipulated by them—to adopt unwise policies. Moreover, the openness of the American political system allows diasporas living in the U.S. to influence Washington’s foreign policy decisions. This can be done—perfectly legally—by utilizing public relations and lobbying firms and forming political action committees to make campaign contributions. The best-known example is, of course, AIPAC (the American Israel Political Action Committee), which has had an outsized—and largely baleful—impact on American policy in the Middle East. There is an active, well-funded, and vocal Ukrainian diaspora lobbying for stronger American support for Kyiv. Similarly, Poland and the Baltic States, benefit from the activities of diasporas that lobby for the United States—through NATO—to defend them from Russia.

In the United States (and Europe) Ukraine clearly is winning the war in terms of perception management. Since the war’s outbreak, Ukraine’s ex-actor president Volodymyr Zelensky has displayed an unerring feel for influencing American opinion. He successfully has cast Ukraine as a defender of democracy in what President Joe Biden has called (even before the war) a global struggle between democracy and autocracy. It is now routine to see American journalists describe Ukraine as a democracy. This is remarkable. Freedom House, recognized as the authority, classifies Ukraine’s domestic political system as only “partly free.” Similarly,, which ranks 180 countries from least to most corrupt pegs Ukraine as 122, which makes it one of the world’s more corrupt governments. Both Freedom House and Transparency note that corruption is rampant in Ukraine. Whatever Ukraine is it is far from a model of democracy. Yet Zelensky, and Kyiv’s supporters in the United States, have successfully whitewashed Ukraine’s governance flaws and transformed it into the embodiment of democratic virtue.

Zelensky’s acting skills were on display fully in his speech to Congress. He played to Americans’ instinctive sympathy for the underdog. He challenged the United States to “do more” for Ukraine; specifically asking—again—for a no-fly zone, and arming Ukraine with jet fighters and more potent air defense systems. He suggested—not too subtlety—that Biden was not exercising enough leadership in the crisis. He played to America’s emotions by showing harrowing scenes of the death and destruction Ukraine has suffered during the war. He likened Ukraine’s plight to that of the United States after 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. Even before Zelensky’s speech, talk of Russian “atrocities” and “war crimes” has spread from Kyiv to the Beltway, and is echoed in the American media—which has abandoned any semblance of objectivity and become a cheerleader for Ukraine.

As Ukraine’s leader, Zelensky has a vested interest in moving the geopolitical needle closer to open U.S. and NATO military intervention. Judging from first reactions, his speech was a success. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin praised Zelensky’s “appeal for the United States to end its reluctance to provide international leadership,” and for “shaking Western democracies’ conception of their nations’ obligations to other democracies.” (Even though Ukraine is not a democracy.) Post columnist David Ignatius chimed in by calling for Russia’s “utter defeat,” which, he said, like the defeat of Germany and Japan in World War II, could lead to the “democratic reconstruction of Russia.” Ignatius also advocated ramping up military assistance for Ukraine: “Transfer more antitank and antiaircraft missiles through the four NATO countries that border Ukraine. Provide bigger, more advanced antiaircraft missiles, not just shoulder-fired Stingers. Send more of the Turkish-made drones that have been so deadly. Deliver anti-ship missiles to blunt Russian dominance of the Black Sea coast. Send more fuel and ammunition.”

Even before Zelensky spoke, the mood in America had turned febrile with members of Congress and pundits advancing all sorts of hare-brained schemes—from regime change in Moscow to assassinating Putin—that turned up the pressure on Biden to provide more robust assistance to Ukraine. These pressures—from Congress, the media, and (potentially) the public—are building to a point where the Biden administration’s resolve to stay out of the conflict melts away. Zelensky’s speech has pushed the U.S. closer to “slithering into war.” After the speech, Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal,” and announced a new round of military assistance for Ukraine—that the Financial Times called “a significant escalation by Washington”—valued at $1 billion, and including advanced weapons systems like sophisticated armed drones. Through NATO, Washington also is arranging for Slovakia to provide Kyiv with the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile system.

Since the war began, Zelensky has delivered an Oscar-winning performance as Ukraine’s war leader. However, Ukraine’s interests and America’s are not congruent. As Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan observes “[Zelensky’s] great and primary mission is to save his country ... To put it crudely, it isn’t bad for his purposes if the war escalates, as long as escalation means more allies giving Ukraine what it needs. He won’t mind broadening the conflict if it protects Ukraine. It is his allies who have to worry about broadening the conflict.” It is time for Washington to step back and—before it is too late—defuse the growing crisis over Ukraine. This is possibly the most serious international crisis since October 1962 when the Soviet Union and the United States faced off in the Cuban missile crisis. It is fair to ask whether those calling for ramped-up U.S. actions in support of Ukraine realize how easily the U.S. and Russia—both armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons—could find themselves at war. There is a possible historical parallel worth pondering. World War I was sparked by the June 28, 1914, assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand. Yet, throughout what has become known as the July Crisis, most Europeans were unaware of the conflagration about to engulf them. Indeed, it was only in the last week before war broke out (on August 1) that policymakers grasped the perils that they faced. There already are wake-up calls that should alert U.S. (and European) policymakers to the dangers in this crisis and pull them back before they, like the Europeans in 1914, sleep-walk into a wider war.

Since the war began, the U.S. and NATO have been funneling war supplies—and Western volunteer fighters—into Ukraine through NATO members that border Ukraine—especially Poland and Romania Until now the prevailing assumption (or hope) in Washington and Europe has been that the fighting will remain confined to Ukrainian territory, and that a direct conflict with Russia will be avoided. However, the Kremlin’s chief spokesman has indicated that NATO supply convoys headed to Ukraine are “legitimate targets.” Recent Russian missile strikes at military bases and airfields in western Ukraine—including an attack on a military facility about ten miles from the Polish border—have increased the chances of an armed clash between Russia and the American-led NATO alliance. In Washington (and Europe), those calling for ramped-up military support for Kyiv apparently assume the Kremlin will remain passive while its troops are killed with weapons and ammunition provided by the United States and NATO. This is a big—and dangerous—gamble. The wiser policy for the United States is to de-escalate the crisis and find a diplomatic off-ramp.

Every war or crisis has both proximate causes, and antecedent (or background) causes. The proximate cause of this war is Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. There are two certain background causes of the Ukraine war. First, is what American diplomat George F. Kennan (in his famous 1946 “Long Telegram”) called “the instinctive and traditional Russian sense of insecurity.” Second is NATO expansion, which touched the nerve of Russian insecurity. More controversially, there may be a third background cause: Washington’s policy decisions.

That NATO expansion is a root cause of the Ukraine war is unsurprising. Whether, during negotiations on German reunification, Moscow received a formal commitment that NATO would not expand eastward is contested. However, Russian leaders believe they were given assurances that NATO on this point.