Those in the West who worry that Vladimir Putin might use nuclear weapons should be conscious of one thing: Whatever one thinks is the risk of a nuclear nightmare in the coming weeks and months, it likely is less than it might have been. The United States and NATO practiced restraint, choosing to not put boots on the ground and instead to aid Ukraine in its war with Russia. The decision to pursue inaction eventually may prove to be one the most consequential, and fruitful, policy choices in recent decades. This decision also highlights the benefits of restraint in foreign policy.
It is easy to forget that things appear to be going well for the Ukrainians. Russia’s invasion is failing. Two phases of the unprovoked Russian campaign have proven unsuccessful. First there was the abortive “smash and grab” aimed at Kyiv and other cities that ran out of gas, literally. Next, the Russian military retreated, at the same time falling back on familiar archaic tactics of massive artillery bombardments and plodding frontal assaults. Ukrainian forces countered by deploying surprise-and-maneuver tactics that cost Russia more territory than it had gained since the retrenchment.
To top things off, the Russian military apparatus in Ukraine appears to be imploding. Again defying his own public pronouncements, Putin has altered Russian law to compel the haphazard conscription of just about any adult male found wandering the streets in Russia. This desperate attempt to shore up his faltering army in Ukraine is even more doomed than earlier efforts. Sending old, ill or unwilling and poorly trained draftees into combat exposes the depths of Russia’s military deficiencies, while further undermining Putin’s tragic foreign policy.
Americans are used to thinking that our intervention is required to address just about all of the world’s problems. Occasionally, this can be the case. But our active involvement is needed much less often than Americans may think. Much as Ukrainian commanders have skillfully “shaped” battlefields in Kharkiv, Kherson and now Lugansk, the United States can play a pivotal role in world affairs by shaping geostrategic conditions, preventing the unwanted actions of others by the prospect of our involvement, something that can be wielded only when we are not already involved. Inaction is one of America’s most impactful and underappreciated policy options.
Putin has been desperate to keep NATO out of the fight in Ukraine. Initially, Russian threats of nuclear use did exactly that. But now the shoe is on the other foot. The United States and its allies have clearly signaled to Putin that the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), such as “low yield” or “tactical” nuclear weapons would unwind the very conditions that have been the foremost element of Putin’s strategy. If the United States or NATO had decided earlier to deploy their forces to Ukraine, they could not now hold this threat over Putin’s head. Indeed, the presence of NATO troops in Ukraine would instead create a juicy target for Russia’s nukes.
The threat seems to be working. Putin was clearly rattled when his expensive pet project, the Kerch Bridge, was attacked by saboteurs. Instead of a nuclear response, Putin chose to expend a large portion of his army’s shrinking arsenal of precision cruise missiles on an illegal attack on population centers in Ukraine, in the process targeting innocent civilians, as well as Ukraine’s power infrastructure. Low-yield nuclear weapons are not of much value to Russian commanders under the conditions present on Ukrainian battlefields. But they might still be used against Ukrainian cities. The fact that Putin has hesitated, choosing for the moment to strike Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure with Russia’s limited and dwindling supply of expensive precision cruise missiles, tells us that NATO’s decision to hold the threat of intervention in reserve continues to discourage Russian officials from escalating to unconventional (i.e., nuclear) options.
There are other benefits of Western inaction that perhaps deserve more recognition. By fighting for their own country’s survival, Ukrainians have discovered enormous reserves of strength and resilience. Like the British in the Blitz in World War II, or Israeli citizens in subsequent conflicts, the fortitude of Ukrainians during this time of national peril may be exactly what is needed in the wake of the current contest, when the world’s attention wanes and Russian forces remain on Ukraine’s borders. The record of nations that rely on others to protect them is not enviable.
Western nations have provided valuable material assistance, of course. The contribution to the Ukrainian war effort of weapons such as Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles, the M777 howitzer and HIMARS have been hailed by the Ukrainians themselves. But it is Ukrainians in harm’s way who are wielding these foreign weapons. Western assistance alone cannot extinguish Russia’s territorial ambitions. Nor can the West give Ukrainian forces the confidence to prevail against whatever more persistent efforts supplant the current faltering Russian invasion.
Amid episodic euphoria over Ukrainian successes, or occasional anxiety when Ukraine faces setbacks, it is important to highlight the wisdom of a strategy of restraint. Western nations have refrained from falling into the traps that would provide Putin with an excuse to widen the war, while continuing to support Ukrainian politicians and diplomats on the world scene, and Ukrainian forces on the ground.
War is serious business. Do too little and you lose. Do too much in the nuclear era and everyone loses, permanently. There is no need for impatience. Putin has committed profound errors that are steadily weakening Russia’s economy and its ability to fight. Russia’s long-term prospects for influence, and hold on power, are increasingly tenuous. All that NATO and the West must do is to stay the course, which to date has involved wise restraint.