From day one of the war in Ukraine, the most powerful argument against unrestrained western intervention in the conflict has been the danger of catastrophic escalation into an all-out war between Nato and Russia.
So far, western governments have shied away from a truly existential confrontation with Russia. But the threat remains that continuing western military aid to Ukraine will provoke Russian countermeasures that could turn Moscow’s proxy war with Nato into a direct military conflict.
Western hawks have long argued the danger of escalation is illusory. In an op-ed for the New York Times, former British diplomat Nigel Gould-Davies claimed “Putin has no red lines” and that, far from being deterred by fear of escalation, the West should call Putin’s bluff and threaten Russia with nuclear retaliation if he overreacts to western support for Ukraine.
Gould-Davies provides no hard evidence for his insights into Putin’s mind. His argument is pure speculation, and prompts the question: what if Putin won’t back away from a major war with the West? Should Nato be taking even a small risk of igniting a larger conflict that could kill millions?
Recent decisions by western governments to supply Ukraine with many more tanks and armoured vehicles suggest that the materialisation of such a scenario is not so far-fetched.
The United States has decided to give Ukraine a Patriot missile defence system as well as 50 Bradley Fighting Vehicles. France has promised to send light tanks and Germany has undertaken to send armoured cars. British will dispatch a dozen or so Challenger heavy tanks, while the Germans have been under increasing pressure to supply Ukraine with its heavy tank, the Leopard 2.
According to British historian Lawrence Freedman, writing in the Financial Times, these new supplies reflect western belief that Ukraine needs to win back more territory before Putin will be prepared to make peace.
However, the quantity in question is relatively small. The Russians have already destroyed thousands of Ukrainian tanks and armoured vehicles. A few hundred additional western armoured units will do little or nothing to change the strategic situation. Russia’s war of attrition will grind on. In all probability, Moscow will complete its conquest of the Donbass region, thereby achieving the main goal of the so-called special military operation launched by Putin a year ago.
The real purpose of sending this western armour to Ukraine may be to provide political cover for politicians who fear the blame game that will erupt if and when Russia wins in Ukraine.
Western hardliners know this, which is why they are campaigning for large-scale supply of western military equipment to Ukraine, even if that means depleting Nato’s reserve stocks. In an article for the Washington Post, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and former defence secretary Robert Gates argued that a military stalemate would suit Putin just fine since it would give him time to wear out Ukraine military while strengthening his own armed forces. The way to avert that appalling vista, they argue, is an urgent and dramatic increase in military supplies to Ukraine.
Disturbingly, these latest developments are merely the most recent iteration of a persistent pattern of escalating western military aid to Ukraine. Nato states began by sending large quantities of ammunition, small arms and defensive weaponry, then came long-range howitzers and Himars. Now it is air defence systems, tanks and armoured vehicles.
The psychological consequences of these latest western decisions on arms supplies may prove more lethal than their immediate material impact, because yet again the West will have crossed its own red lines on military aid to Ukraine.
As Putin creeps closer to some kind of military victory in Ukraine, the voice of those urging western restraint will be needed more than ever
There has been much talk of a possible coalition of the willing led by Poland and the US sending troops into western Ukraine or using their air power to establish no-fly zones. Such an intervention would be camouflaged as humanitarian aid, but the inevitable clashes with Russian forces would soon escalate.
However, the real danger of existential escalation comes from incremental steps, not a giant leap directly into the battle.
What will the West do next? There are reports that Britain is considering giving Ukraine long-range missiles that can strike targets deep inside Russia. Another possibility is American supply of swarms of long-range drones. Most worrying is the prospect of western military technicians operating and maintaining Nato equipment in Ukraine, something that would take months of training for the Ukrainians to master.
Putin’s restraint in the face of massive western military aid to Ukraine has been remarkable but his forbearance may not be boundless. If the West goes too far, he may be tempted to risk a degree of escalation himself by, for example, interdicting western supplies before they arrive in Ukraine, or by neutralising the Nato surveillance systems that provide Kyiv with intelligence that enables deadly strikes on Russian targets.
Such actions by Putin would be shocking to those western decision-makers who have become accustomed to the idea that only they can act with impunity when it comes to escalating the Ukraine war.
Never has the world witnessed such a proxy war as that being waged in Ukraine by the West, the overarching aim being to cripple Russia as a great power.
In pursuit of this aim the US and other western governments have showered Ukraine with more than $100 billion worth of military, humanitarian and financial aid. Nato has scoured the globe for old Soviet ammunition and weapons systems that can be readily utilised by the Ukrainians. Western financial institutions have seized control of Russian foreign currency reserves and imposed sanctions designed to destabilise the rouble and collapse Russia’s economy. The West is also working to turn Russia into a pariah state internationally.
Without western support Ukraine’s war effort would have collapsed months ago. The continuation of the war has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian casualties. Ukraine’s economy has been laid waste, while millions of its citizens have fled the country, and many more have been displaced internally.
As Putin creeps closer to some kind of military victory in Ukraine, the voice of those urging western restraint will be needed more than ever. The more territory Ukraine loses, the more casualties it incurs, the greater will be the West’s temptation to take yet another escalatory step towards all-out war with Russia.
Geoffrey Roberts is emeritus professor of history at UCC and a member of the Royal Irish Academy