War Stories

Everyone Is Starting to Admit Something Frightening About Ukraine

The conflict has become a proxy war between NATO and Russia, with more risks for everyone involved.

Austin speaking at a podium with an American flag and a curtain behind him
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently said America’s goals in Ukraine included weakening Russia as a military power. Andre Pain/Getty Images

The war between Russia and Ukraine is swiftly evolving into a war between Russia and NATO. In one respect, this is good: It gives Ukraine a higher chance of repelling Moscow’s invasion and even winning. In another respect, it is risky: The wider the war spreads, and the more Russia seems to be losing, the more compelled Vladimir Putin may feel to lash out with extreme violence.

This shift in the West’s approach to the war was first signaled on Monday, when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the United States’ goals in the war were not only to protect Ukraine as a democratic, sovereign country but also to “weaken” Russia as a military power. This has been obvious for some time, but even some U.S. officials were surprised to hear Austin express the fact so explicitly.

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A few days later, Austin hosted a meeting of defense officials from 40 nations, as well as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, at Ramstein Air Base, headquarters of NATO Air Command, in Germany, to coordinate military assistance to Ukraine. The meeting prompted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to complain, “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.”

Back in February, on the day he invaded Ukraine, Putin warned that “whoever tries to hinder us” will face “consequences that you have never faced in your history”—which many took, reasonably, as a threat to use nuclear weapons. Putin later said he would regard direct NATO intervention as a threat to Russia, triggering those same consequences.

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For that reason, President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have stopped short of sending their own troops or mounting a no-fly zone with their own planes, noting that doing so would mean declaring war on Russia, which could set off World War III. In the first several weeks of the war, these leaders also declined to send Ukraine “heavy weapons,” including howitzers and artillery shells that, if fired from eastern Ukraine, could hit Russian territory.

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In recent days, the Western nations have relaxed the limits on heavy weapons. Even the German parliament—which, for historical reasons, has steered clear of any sort of intervention in foreign wars, until two months ago—voted overwhelmingly to send Ukraine heavy weapons; earlier, the German chancellor boosted his country’s defense budget by extravagant sums.

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On Thursday, Biden asked Congress for another $33 billion in aid to Ukraine—two-thirds of it for military assistance, enough to keep the fight going for another five months. This is on top of the $13.6 billion Biden requested just two months ago. To put this in perspective, the total sum slightly exceeds the $40 billion that the U.S. spent on average each year to support its own 20-year war in Afghanistan.

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Biden also invoked the World War II–era Lend-Lease Act to speed up the transfer of weapons from the U.S. military’s stockpile. That legislation authorized the lending of military equipment to foreign countries “whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States.”

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There it is, then, in Biden’s own proclamation: The defense of Ukraine is “vital to the defense of the United States.”

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Perhaps in response to this surge in U.S. and NATO assistance—though also no doubt to step up his own army’s dreadful performance—Putin is moving closer to viewing the conflict not merely as a “special military operation” against Ukraine, which he has dismissed as a mythical country, but a full-fledged war against a global superpower. On Wednesday, he appointed Valery Gerasimov, the Russian chief of the general staff, to take command of the offensive in eastern Ukraine.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the Russian army will suddenly snap to—chiefs of staff, even one as celebrated as Gerasimov, don’t necessarily have operational expertise—but it does signify that Putin has reassessed the nature of the war and elevated its stakes.

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Nor is Putin conceding any ground to Ukraine, despite the recent retreat of Russian troops from the area around Kyiv. Though the fighting is now focused in the country’s eastern region of Donbas, where both sides are exchanging fierce artillery fire, Russia fired two cruise missiles at Kyiv just hours after U.N. Secretary General António Guterres visited the capital and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The timing of the missile attack—which few see as mere coincidence—suggests that Putin regards the United Nations as another outside institution arrayed against his motherland. Whether or not he really believes this, it plays into his domestic political campaign to purge all Western influences from Russia—and to present the war in Ukraine, which he depicts as a hellhole led by Nazis, as one front in this campaign.

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The intensifying barrages and the increasingly demonizing rhetoric make it hard to imagine a cease-fire or meaningful peace talks emerging anytime soon.

One unexpected event this week did provide some reason to feel a bit less pessimistic, however. On Wednesday, the United States and Russia carried out an elaborately planned prisoner exchange. Trevor Reed, a U.S. Marine veteran, was released from a Moscow prison where he’d been serving three years of a long sentence for assaulting an officer. Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot, was released from a federal prison where he’d been serving a 20-year sentence for drug smuggling. Just like in a scene from a movie, two planes—one American, one Russian—pulled up side by side on a runway in Turkey; each prisoner got out of his plane, walked a few yards, and got into the other plane.

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As the Associated Press noted, the prisoner swap “would have been a notable diplomatic maneuver even in times of peace,” much less at a time when the war in Ukraine “has driven relations with the U.S. to their lowest point in decades.” There are no signs that fruitful diplomacy on this one relatively small matter might translate to similar successes on the scale of war and peace. In fact, Biden, while trumpeting the prisoner swap, discouraged anyone mulling such implications. Still, the Reed-Yaroshenko trade indicates that diplomatic relations—civil contact between U.S. and Russian officials—do still exist on some level.

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It is not inconceivable that Putin, seeing the war as a titanic struggle with the United States, might feel emboldened to dangle a peace feeler to Washington, if he ever feels like stopping the war at all. He may well feel more dignified negotiating with the president of the United States than he would with the president of Ukraine. Whether it’s in anyone’s interest to let him feel more dignified is another question. But if the war spirals out of control and seems on the verge of escalating to new, more far-flung horrors, doing so might be better than the alternative.

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