No, this isn’t World War III. Let’s keep it that way.
Zelenskyy called on U.S. leaders to be “leaders of peace.” And that means resisting war.
Pushkin Russian Restaurant in San Diego serves traditional fare from across the former Soviet republics. Until about a month ago, it was just another ethnic restaurant in a major U.S. city. Today, Pushkin gets 15-20 hate calls every single day. “We’re on the same side,” owner Ike Gazaryan told a local television station last week.
This is the uglier side of the otherwise incredible support for Ukraine we’ve seen since the start of Vladimir Putin’s horrific invasion. The outpouring of public support has mostly taken the form of donations to charities supporting Ukrainian refugees, or adding Ukrainian flags to flagpoles, Twitter handles, and lapel pins, but Pushkin in San Diego is hardly alone in weathering the uglier side of our rising anti-Russian fervor.
Obviously blaming Russian American businesses for what a dictator in Russia is doing is wrong and inexcusable. But I share it to make a broader argument about human emotions, particularly when it comes to war. They are both incredibly powerful and remarkably imprecise.
This morning, the Ukrainian president gave an impassioned, eloquent speech to Congress. In it, he compared the nightly terror inflicted upon cities in Ukraine to the terror of 9/11. The courage of his leadership, the integrity of his example, and the clarity of his cause were moving. Alongside his speech, he shared a graphic video contrasting Ukraine before the war with the images of siege we’ve been witnessing since the bombardment started. We’ve seen these images before; they are seared into our collective consciousness: bombed-out apartment blocks, women and children packed in overcrowded train cars, pregnant mothers evacuated from smoldering hospitals. As I write this, I feel my blood boiling in rage.
But that’s exactly it. Rage is not a particularly helpful emotion right now — however justified it might be. But rage is building. Hence the hate calls to Pushkin Russian Restaurant … and the growing calls to “do something” about the destruction of innocent children, women, and men in Ukraine.
But we are “do[ing] something.” The U.S. and Europe have responded to Russia’s aggression with the most sweeping sanctions we have ever seen against a major global economy. To date, sanctions have targeted every aspect of the Russian economy — from Visa to Apple to McDonald’s.
They’re working. The sanctions have had a crippling impact on Russia’s economy. The ruble has collapsed. The Moscow Stock Exchange has been closed since Feb. 25. Financial markets are preparing for Russia to default on its debt. We are wreaking economic havoc on Russia.
When this war started three weeks ago, nobody thought that three weeks in, Russia would have been repelled from entering Kyiv. Nobody would have thought that the international community would have responded as quickly and with such unity to choke off the Russian economy.
Beyond economic sanctions, the U.S. and Europe have armed Ukraine’s resistance in the form of Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger surface-to-air missiles, and other small arms artillery. And there are growing bipartisan calls inside Congress to offer yet more weapons support, including larger fighter jets and larger S-300 surface-to-air missile systems — weapons Zelenskyy requested specifically in his address. President Biden has already announced $800 million in additional military aid after Zelenskyy’s address.
In his speech, Zelenskyy implored American leadership to be the “leader for peace.” Ironically, that would involve going to war. While we have already crossed the rubicon of equipping Ukraine’s military to resist the Russian onslaught, a “no-fly zone” would imply entering the war. While they sound defensive, no-fly zones involve actively hunting and shooting down enemy aircraft. A no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace would involve the American and Russian militaries directly engaging each other. That is war.
That should never happen. Because as dire as the images from Ukraine are, they pale in comparison to what would transpire if, indeed, the war were to expand beyond Ukraine’s borders. Putin has already framed this war around NATO, declaring the economic sanctions against him and his regime an act of war. Russia also has over 6,000 nuclear warheads in its arsenal.
In an interview with New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, Russia expert and former National Security Council Official Fiona Hill put the consequences of this well:
Because if you make it nuclear, it’s not, again, about Ukraine and Russia and what Russia is doing to Ukraine. It suddenly becomes U.S., NATO, nuclear powers, permanent five at the U.N. Security Council of the nuclear powers— China, U.K., France, Russia, the United States. You put it in a different box. So we have to keep this focus on what this is, which is Russia invading Ukraine.
Yet some argue that failing to stop Putin now is just inviting more aggression, that we are facing another Hitler — a land-hungry autocrat who will continue past Ukraine. Failing to leverage military force to stop him is tantamount to appeasement, they argue. This was conservative New York Times columnist Brett Stephens yesterday:
Refusing to impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine may be justified because it exceeds the risks NATO countries are prepared to tolerate. But the idea that doing so could start World War III ignores history and telegraphs weakness. Americans squared off with Soviet pilots operating under Chinese or North Korean cover in the Korean War without blowing up the world. And our vocal aversion to confrontation is an invitation, not a deterrent, to Russian escalation.
But that implies only a partial reading of history. While the parallels are obvious, there are clear differences here, as well. After Hitler annexed the Sudetenland, a region of what was then Czechoslovakia, French and British leadership recognized the annexation. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain traded it for a peace treaty with Germany that proved as meaningless as the paper it was signed on. He heralded his folly as “peace for our time.” Only after Hitler annexed part of Lithuania, invaded Poland, the USSR, Denmark, and Norway did western powers respond with war.
That’s not what’s happening here. Though Russia’s aggression in Crimea began similarly with an annexation, the U.N. — led by the U.S. — has voted multiple times to reaffirm the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Democracies have responded with sanctions, not declarations of peace.
Right now, Putin’s aggression in Ukraine is dastardly and wrong. But the economic response we’ve led and the support we’ve offered Ukraine has helped slow his pace. Should Putin attack another country or deploy so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons in Ukraine, it might change the calculus. But for now, we must truly remain “leaders of peace” — and that means resisting calls to war.