Another Cuban Missile Crisis? – WSJ

The logic of war prompted two high-profile visits to Ukraine last week. On a visit to the front lines from Russia, General Valery Gerasimov, the army chief of staff and the most senior uniformed officer in Vladimir Putin’s army. From the United States, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, arguably the wisest and most accomplished leader of the Democratic Party, currently controls both houses of Congress as well as the White House. General Gerasimov’s mission is to understand the forces controlling the latest Russian military offensive; Speaker Pelosi was in Ukraine to emphasize how important the country’s war has become to the United States and vowed that it would stand with Ukraine “until victory is won.”

It is not surprising that the US and Russia send senior leaders to the war zone. The war in Ukraine is Europe’s most serious military conflict since World War Two, and it threatens to trigger the biggest nuclear crisis since the height of the Cold War. Both sides have repeatedly been caught off guard by the intense military conflict, and both sides continue to raise the stakes even as the risk of nuclear confrontation grows.

For Putin, the unexpected is almost always bad. The initial offensive had collapsed into a slog through hostile terrain by an army whose leadership, intelligence, and logistical failures exposed the internal weakness of the decadent Russian state. Far from dividing and threatening Europe, the attacks strengthened and unified the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, led to a revolution in German strategic thinking, and made many the possibility that Sweden and Finland will join the alliance even as it moves more forces closer to Russian territory. .

Washington has encountered some strategic surprises of its own. President Biden’s strategy calls for “stopping Russia,” believing that diplomacy can prevent new conflicts in Eastern Europe. That calculation is clearly wrong. Once the war began, Ukraine did not collapse as quickly as Washington had predicted. Ukraine’s early successes prompted more US help, but Washington’s unprecedented sanctions have failed to weaken Mr. Putin’s resolve or shake his domestic political support.

Having been drawn too far into the conflict, Washington cannot now accept a failed Ukraine without serious damage to its honor and credibility. But even with nuclear risk reduction, the task of supporting a bankrupt Ukraine to gain an upper hand over larger Russian forces in a war of attrition is a daunting one. For now, the Biden administration is committed to winning a war it thinks will not happen on the side of a country it sees as helpless in the face of dangers and difficulties it doesn’t yet know how to assess. .

The revolution in American thinking about Ukraine is reminiscent of the altered perceptions of North Korea in 1950. At the time, American policymakers signaled that South Korea was beyond the defensive encirclement. of Washington – until the North Korean invasion made them realize how important North Korea was.

Before Putin’s invasion, the West often viewed Ukraine as a strategic and economic backwater. It was a weak and corrupt state, whose politics reflected the shadowy struggles between oligarchs. Today, we think of Ukraine as a strong democratic country whose security is crucial to the stability of Europe.

The shift in Western perceptions makes finding compromises much more difficult. A few weeks ago, placating Putin by giving him more Ukrainian territory in a “compromising peace” was seen by many Western policymakers as the natural and necessary outcome of the war. . That approach now seems both morally reprehensible and strategically futile. This changed perspective explains why Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Ms. Pelosi started talking about degrading Russia and seeking victory for Ukraine.

This shifting Western approach confirms Putin’s belief that the conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine is an existential conflict for Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia cannot truly be a great power, and the West is willing to fight to prevent Russia from achieving what, in Putin’s view, is an inevitable goal.

The most remarkable thing about this crisis by far is the speed with which it moves toward threats of nuclear war. Senior Russian officials such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are openly speculating about the possibility of a nuclear escalation, perhaps in hopes of thwarting Western support for Ukraine. Given its volatile nature and potential to drive both Russia and the West toward the nuclear option, the Ukraine war has so far resembled the confrontation of the early decades of the Cold War, when nuclear threats from a or both are frequently brought up in times of crisis. After the Nixon administration, such threats became the background as the superpowers adjusted to the balance between terrorism and the rules of the nuclear dance.

During the Cold War, the West used nuclear deterrence to offset Soviet superiority over conventional forces in the European theater. At least initially, Moscow’s massive armies could prevail in an attack across Germany, but the threat that NATO would retaliate with nuclear weapons deterred the Soviet invasion. . Now, however, the apparent weakness and disorder of Russia’s conventional forces reveal a new possibility: a weaker Russia must try to contain NATO in Ukraine with nuclear threats.

Putin certainly hopes that the prospect of tactical nuclear strikes on the European continent will test the cohesion of the NATO alliance. While no one wanted to be cited in the record, senior Europeans whispered to sympathetic journalists about concerns that the Biden administration was escalating too far and too quickly. Will France and Germany continue to support US policy if Russia strikes Ukrainian targets with nuclear warheads? Is American public ready for a recurrence of the Cuban missile crisis?

The Ukraine war is less than 10 weeks old, and it has created a world political revolution. The next 10 weeks could be even more thrilling. President Biden could soon face a test as severe as any US president since World War II. We must hope and pray that he gets the job done.

Journal Editorial Report: Paul Gigot Interview with General Jack Keane. Image: Shutterstock / AP / Russian Ministry of Defense Summary: Mark Kelly

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