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What should we think about Ukraine, NATO and cluster bombs?
One thing is certainly true: without NATO, Ukraine has no future at all.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy knows that Ukraine’s future lies in NATO, and NATO said as much in its communiqué Tuesday. The long document mentions Ukraine 45 times in 90 numbered paragraphs, and establishes a NATO-Ukraine Council. Specifically, NATO said it would “support” Ukraine in defending itself against the “Russian war of aggression against Ukraine” though the meaning of that word is not defined. One thing is certainly true: without NATO, Ukraine has no future at all.
Inviting Ukraine into NATO at this point in history would be like a health insurance company writing a cancer policy on someone who has been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. It would mean instant war with Russia, since Article 5 of the treaty requires all members to treat an attack against any member as its own war.
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NATO seems to be most worried about weapons and proliferation, but of the nuclear type. The organization is concerned about Iran also, in a very real way. But the kind of “support” for Ukraine and its citizens seems to be purposely nebulous. The U.S. has always made military aid to Ukraine an effort to fight with both hands behind our back. We will give Ukraine just enough to keep from being consumed, but not really enough to take its territory from Russia.
A ground war fought by artillery, mines, drones, infantry, armor and sabotage is a recipe for a meat grinder, and that’s exactly what we have in Ukraine. Plus, Russia has the advantage of being able to create massive environmental damage and poisoning great swaths of fertile eastern Ukraine farmland with radioactive waste. If you call that an advantage, I guess.
In response to this, by degrees, President Biden has acceded more and more to Zelensky’s wishes and his laundry list of weapons needs. The latest in this progression is the delivery of cluster munitions, which the New York Times editorial board condemned as “wrong” for moral reasons. Cluster bombs are indeed bad, as they seed the ground with thousands of bomblets, and even a small number (somewhere between two and three percent) of “duds” can create a hazard for years after a war by laying dormant until civilians come across them.
But in the face of what Russia is prepared to do, Ukraine’s leaders seem to think it’s an acceptable price to pay when they are showering their own land with these weapons. Who gets to make the moral choices in this kind of war? If we really wanted to win it, America could flex our military might, strike Russia’s command and control with F-35, B-52, B-2 and other weapons systems that have a good chance of success, conduct a “shock and awe” campaign against Russian invaders, then send large columns of M1A2 tanks into the smoking gaps to mop up. There is no reason to believe that Putin’s troops are any better than Saddam’s were in 1991.
Instead of winning this war, America wants Ukraine to win it, but not too hard, because we are more worried about Putin’s nuclear weapons (as is NATO) and who might replace him should be be overthrown. This has been the strategy ever since the first strikes against Kyiv were repelled and the Russians retreated into their current meat-grinder approach.
And now, Congress is balking at funding more ammunition in the face of giving away stocks to Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday:
The U.S. is ramping up to produce more than 20,000 shells a month this year and more in 2024, the U.S. Army says. But America’s adversaries can do the math and understand the U.S. may struggle to support a long war. The Biden crowd has cited limited stocks as a reason to withhold the Army Tactical Missile System, which could help Kyiv strike deep into Russian positions. The Administration is now leaking that it might furnish the missiles as Ukraine’s summer offensive becomes a slog.
With all the weapons sent to Ukraine, the failure to restock some critical systems like the LRASMs (long range anti-ship missiles), Standard Missile-6 and AMRAAM. This means that if China should invade Taiwan, America’s ability to defend would be degraded and limited. The U.S. might have the world’s biggest navy (and the biggest air force, followed by the second biggest air force: the U.S. Navy) but that doesn’t mean we can supply weapons for one large conflict while preparing for several others around the world at the same time. At least not without cost and approval from Congress.
If supplying cluster munition to Ukraine is morally wrong, how wrong is it to continually supply all kinds of other weapons in what has become a “slog,” that could last for years as Russia exploits its advantage in manpower and old-fashioned, dumb bomb, Soviet-era artillery shells, and plain old infantry fighting? Add to that the fact that Russia still possesses the ability to make more hypersonic missiles, cruise missiles, drones, and more advanced weapons as the war continues. And Putin has no hesitance to threaten to play his nuclear card.
Now, the politicians gathered in Vilnius to discuss NATO’s position on Ukraine, welcoming new member Finland (no friend of Russia), and about to welcome Sweden. The Baltic states are already part of NATO, along with Poland. If NATO was in Ukraine’s future, it should have been so for a long time, yet for decades, the organization deferred and spurned Ukraine’s aspiration for membership. It seems this round is a “too little, too late” flaccid statement, also. As long as Kyiv is in Ukrainian hands, NATO seems satisfied to sit on its hands and let the people of Ukraine suffer.
It would be more moral to win the war, but of course, as George Orwell wrote, the quickest way to end a war is to lose it. NATO suffers from sclerosis of political purpose. Nobody wants to be the one responsible for sending Putin over the nuclear edge, which would end Russia. Because of that, Ukraine is left with no future outside of NATO.
The way things are going, one day Congress will decide that that future is not worth waiting for, and the weapons trains will stop. Then Ukraine’s days will be numbered, unless some other NATO members step up. Without U.S. leadership, that seems remote.
NATO’s words may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. NATO is certainly in Ukraine’s future, because there will be no future for Ukraine as an independent country unless NATO decides to act. Though writing the cancer policy for the Stage 4 patient might be a recipe for losing one’s shirt on the premiums, it’s the moral choice. The other option is certain death. Let’s not deal in euphemisms: NATO’s ephemeral “conditions” to admit Ukraine are meaningless; to Zelenskyy, it’s join or die.
This is what Zelenskyy is going to tell President Biden when they meet today. And it’s exactly what we should think also.