Over the past week, President Biden and senior members of his staff have asserted that certain actions in support of Ukraine might lead to a direct confrontation with Russia and begin World War III. As Biden put it, “We will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine. Direct conflict between NATO and Russia is World War III, something we must strive to prevent.”
Accordingly, the White House has blocked the transfer of Polish MiG-29 fighters to Ukraine. For the same reason, the administration has denied urgent requests by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, even if it is limited to supporting humanitarian operations. The White House also has dragged its heels on transferring Patriot high-altitude air defense systems to Ukraine. And it has rejected calls for sending special forces to assist the Ukrainian army.
There may be good reasons for blocking the transfers. For example, Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of the European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, has argued that the transfer of fighters would not “appreciably increase the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force.” Indeed, Russian forces shot down Ukrainian MiGs over Crimea in 2014, and Ukrainian forces have shot down Russian MiGs in the current conflict. On the other hand, Ukrainian pilots have acquitted themselves well against Russian forces, and some argue that providing Kyiv with more MiGs, especially to replace those which the Russians have shot down, would enable Ukraine to prevent Russia from obtaining unrestricted air superiority.
Whatever the merits, or otherwise, of implementing any of Ukraine’s specific requests for systems beyond those it already is receiving from the West, starting another world war should not be the reason for denying those requests. The World War III argument presupposes that Russian President Vladimir Putin would go beyond his directive to increase the readiness of Russia’s nuclear weapons in response to Western sanctions and what he claimed were “aggressive statements” by NATO. As matters stand, Putin’s order to put his forces in a “special regime of combat duty” was actually something less than ordering them on full alert. It called for transferring more troops to buttress the forces that operate Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, the White House fears that, if provoked, Putin could make good on his threats to fire nuclear warheads at NATO forces if they cross whatever “red line” he has set.
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