Recently, as Ukraine is fighting alone in Europe’s existential war, a simple question has been on the minds of both Ukrainians and many Lithuanians: why does the West not impose a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine’s territory, thus protecting Ukrainian towns and cities from Russian bombers, fighter jets, and missiles.
I would understand if NATO explained that it simply does not have the military capability to do so at the moment. However, I do not understand at all the explanation that American or other NATO countries’ fighter planes or other forces cannot fight the Russians because that would supposedly threaten, as it were, the outbreak of World War III.
I do not judge the likelihood of such possible threats, but what worries me most is that such military thinking could also mean that NATO fighters would be afraid to fight Russian forces in defence of Lithuanian skies. Because someone might think that even if NATO forces had to defend the skies of Lithuania against a Russian invasion, it could lead to World War III.
I do not see that it makes much difference whose skies the Americans would have to defend against a Russian invasion, whether it is Ukraine’s or Lithuania’s. They would still have to fight Russian forces, and in both cases, the chances of World War III would be very similar. Therefore, NATO’s Article 5 does not make much difference in this case: I do not see why the Russian reaction should be very different depending on whether the Americans are defending the skies of Ukraine or Lithuania.
However, the rhetoric now coming from NATO or its members that NATO troops cannot defend Ukraine because it could lead to World War III automatically makes NATO much weaker than Russia, because, in a war, it is not who has the stronger army or economy that determines who wins, but who has the stronger will to fight for victory. This is what the Ukrainians are demonstrating.
In this respect, in this crisis, NATO, which has far greater military capabilities than Putin’s Russia, is so far behaving like the street bully in the Soviet-era nursery rhyme who is running for cover around a corner:
“Их было пятеро, нас — двадцатьпятеро. Ну, мы бы им дали, если б они нас догнали!” (“They were five, we were twenty-five. Oh, how we would have beaten them if they had caught up with us”).
It is perhaps obvious that if such a philosophy were to dominate Western military and defence thinking, it would be difficult to expect that such thinking would succeed in deterring Putin from ever new military aggressions. Yet, the excess of such thinking in the West may be what led to Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.
Perhaps it is good that this weakness in Western thinking is increasingly visible to Western experts. For example, as recently as last year, Keir Giles, a renowned expert on Western military thinking and Russian deterrence, from the famous British think tank Chatham House, warned very vividly of the dangers of such thinking, publishing a very important study back in September 2021, titled “What deters Russia? Enduring principles for responding to Moscow”.
It is regrettable that not all Western and NATO leaders seem to have yet taken note of the study’s fundamental conclusions. For if they had, they would certainly not publicly repeat like a mantra the phrase that NATO cannot fight Russian forces in Ukraine because it would supposedly lead to World War III. Because the study argues that the West must adopt the exact opposite posture and rhetoric in its dealings with an aggressive Russia: the West must publicly declare that it is ready for hostilities, period. This posture would also deter the Kremlin from any aggression.
For those who do not have time to read the whole study, I offer a few key quotes:
“Once relations with Russia deteriorate to the point where decisions need to be made about escalation, a key requirement for preventing Russia from achieving its aims is not being seen to be desperate to avoid conflict.
As long as the West is entirely predictable, Russia believes it can escalate cost-free because the West will always want to sit down and negotiate.
In three armed conflicts (Georgia 2008, Ukraine 2014–15 and Syria 2015–16), Russia has achieved strategic aims by exploiting Western preoccupation with ending the conflict.
In order to avoid this trap, it is essential that Russia’s adversaries also display a willingness to exhibit a firm response to challenges, up to and including meeting force with force and maintaining escalation dominance.”
If you would like to listen to Keir Giles himself and the Friends of European Russia Forum’s discussion on the study, you can listen to a recording of the discussion on 20.12.2021
And for those who want to dig deeper, I can offer a link to the study itself, and in particular to the 6th principle of “Avoid conflict avoidance”, the key conclusion of which is simple – we should not be afraid to show Putin our power.