Every day we ponder and doubt, Ukrainians are dying.
“Where will he stop?”.
It is a question that is often repeated. It was even plastered on the cover of a leading British newspaper just days before Vladimir Putin’s troops massing near Ukraine entered the country.
Even now, after Russian forces entered Ukraine, moved towards Kyiv and turned the eastern city of Kharkiv and port city of Mariupol into a modern-day Stalingrads, Western leaders are still looking to find this elusive line, where Putin will stop. The line between rightful support for Ukraine, and escalation.
But there is no line.
This line of thinking is symptomatic of the West’s inability to address the perceived return of the threat of war between states, a threat that we haven’t seen in decades.
We haven't seen it - but it has been there.
From Putin’s war in Chechnya, to the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea and emergence of separatist republics in Ukraine, to the intervention in Syria, it’s been there all along.
History hasn’t disappeared, we have stopped paying attention. At each turn we could have stopped Putin, but our sympathies for the people most affected by this new form of Russian imperialism were eroded by the comforting thought that there, somehow, was a line where he would stop.
There is no line.
There is no form of appeasement that will permanently solve Putin’s insecurities. These insecurities come from within Russia rather than from the West. The rationale peddled by Russia and some of its allies that NATO crossed a red line by expanding eastward, and that it is somehow on a “regime-change” spree highlights Putin’s own insecurities.
Putin sees his fight in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Ukraine and in Syria as one and the same: It is a battle for his own survival and that of his regime. As a KGB officer he was posted in Dresden when the Berlin wall collapsed, and saw with his own eyes how a collapse from without eventually led to a collapse from within. How the fall of East Germany led to the collapse of the Soviet Union just two years later.
His vision, drawn from his first-hand experience, shaped the narrative that the West is slowly trying to surround Russia, and that the revolutions (or “coup” in his mind) and protest movements that have gripped the former Soviet republics will eventually come to Moscow.
He may well be right. This is not the reasoning of a madman. But it is still flawed on one key point: The West did not deliberately “expand”, nor did it seek “regime-change” in Russia or its neighbors. Putin himself has pushed what he views as “the Russian world” in the arms of the West.
In other words, there is no way to appease Putin’s insecurities, because the essence of his autocratic regime and the brutality with which he defended it are the very reason why the “Russian world” is not so keen to stay Russian. There is no appeasing Putin, because his own demise comes from within.
We should draw a conclusion from this and stop looking at the line between actions that would help Ukraine, and those that would provoke Putin into an even greater escalation.
Putin does not need any kind of provocation: He will create the ones he needs. Prior to the invasion, Russia was hard at work to paint the upcoming offensive in Ukraine as a “humanitarian intervention”, and to claim Kyiv was going to carry out a “genocide”. The lead up to the war was marked by a series of poorly staged “provocations” blamed on Ukraine.
When ready, and if needed, Putin will come up with the trigger he needs for the escalation he wants.
Russian propaganda isn’t clever in any way. Some are easily debunked (and have been) but they point to a broader effort to insert “doubt” into our decision-making - the kind of doubt that can cripple action. This strategy is used against both decision-makers and the broader public. In Western democracies, it is based on an effort not to convince you that Russia is right, but to insert enough doubt that you will be quiet. That you will think things are not what they look like. That you will carry on with your life.
This strategy has been used by Russia to ride on the wave of populism in Europe and beyond. Until a few weeks ago, it could be argued that this was working. Europe appeared weak and divided. Populist figures were getting cozy with the Kremlin. In the long-term, these Russian influence vectors would have been used to further Russia’s interests. One of them is to maintain a weak and disunited Europe. Russia does not need to conquer our lands if it already has conquered our minds, our leaders, our political systems. But, as the invasion of Ukraine shows, if all else fails, they will, in fact, use force. We should remember that lesson.
The same “crippling doubt” can also be used against world leaders. In Washington, Paris and Berlin there surely are discussions about whether Putin would in fact use nuclear weapons. About whether President Putin has gone mad. About ways to prevent an escalation: If we shoot a Russian plane, will Putin use the bomb?
There surely are some (many I hope) who argue that Putin’s threats are just that - threats. That he is playing mad, in a very choreographed circus of his own making. But I also wouldn’t blame some for doubting that this is true. This doubt is the very purpose of Putin’s apocalyptic discourse. It forces us to be quiet.
But nuclear deterrence hasn’t vanished, and Moscow knows very well what the use of the bomb would bring. A nuclear response to any attack against the West will decimate the Russian leadership, the Russian leader himself and those he claims to protect. Is Putin - the same president that puts giant tables between him and his guests to avoid getting COVID - suddenly ready to become a martyr?
To be sure, Putin and his military are not reluctant to destroy whatever stands in their way. During the first days of the war, the Russian army, which is first and foremost an artillery-oriented one, initially used a limited amount of its massive firepower. But whatever “Blitzkrieg” fantasies were sold to Putin remained in the realm of his staff’s imagination. The Ukrainian army and people, as well as its leader, have shown incredible bravery in the face of annihilation, proving many wrong.
Unfortunately, this is where the danger starts, not where it stops. The Ukrainians would have already won if this was a fair fight. But it isn’t and Russia can suffer blows the Ukrainian army can’t. What it cannot take, it will destroy. As the Russian “swift” offensive was cut short, Russia is resorting to its usual pattern of heavy strikes, to pin down forces and “punish” cities that dared not surrender and are still resisting more than a week after the start of the operation. This means that time is of the essence. Doubt kills.
This does not mean that we should take inconsiderate risks. Possible countermeasures should be evaluated according to a “risk/benefit” analysis. A no-fly zone, for instance, would mean shooting down Russian planes that do cross into Ukraine. That’s a very high risk. In terms of “benefits” it actually doesn’t mitigate the main threat to Ukrainian cities as Russia mostly uses artillery and rocket launchers to carry out daily bombardment.
But we should not shy away from arming Kyiv with the means to continue disputing the sky of Ukraine. Modern air defenses, loitering munitions, drones, anti-tank missiles and fighter jets should flow to Ukraine, regardless of Putin’s threat and claims that this turns us into a party to the conflict. We are a party to this conflict, whether we want it or not.
We should stop saying that we do not want war with Russia, and ponder whether Russia wants war with us. We should stop looking for that imaginary line, and letting doubt cripple our decision-making.
Every day we ponder and doubt, searching for that elusive line, is a day Ukrainians get killed and displaced. A day Ukrainian cities get bombed with massive volleys of rockets and cluster munitions. Our hesitations are deadly and that line, well, that line does not exist.
Michael Horowitz is a geopolitical analyst and head of Le Beck's Intelligence Branch