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Stop the Fighting in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has reached a dangerous and precarious moment. Having failed in their initial attempt to overcome Ukrainian resistance through a conventional ground assault, the Russian invaders are now resorting to indiscriminate shelling and bombing of urban areas, producing an ever-growing toll of civilian casualties. As we go to press, Russian armored columns are attempting to encircle Kyiv and other major cities, cutting off access to food, water, and power in a brutal drive to force their surrender. Adding to the danger, Moscow has declared that further Western arms shipments to the Ukrainian defenders are a “legitimate target” of Russian attack—a threat made all too real when Russian missiles struck a Ukrainian training base near the Polish border on March 13. We stand on the precipice, then, of a major war in Europe—and one that would entail a significant risk of nuclear escalation. Preventing such an outcome and bringing relief to the suffering people of Ukraine must therefore be the world’s overriding objectives at this critical moment.

Vladimir Putin ordered his unlawful and unjustified invasion in the mistaken belief that the Ukrainians would put up minimal resistance, that heavily armed Russian forces would deliver a rapid victory, and that the West would respond in an incoherent, ineffectual fashion. He was wrong on every count: The Ukrainians have mounted an unexpectedly strong resistance; numerically superior Russian forces proved incapable of seizing the strategic advantage; and the West responded in a unified and vigorous fashion.

In response to these setbacks and humiliations, Putin appears determined to increase the pain being inflicting on Ukraine by his forces—producing more casualties every day, eliciting ever-greater anger and punitive moves from the West, and causing more hardship for his own people. The daily images on Western TV of Ukrainian cities under attack and civilians running in terror have aroused fierce anti-Russian sentiment, stoking the war hawks’ calls for direct US military involvement and making any future normalization of relations with Moscow increasingly remote.

As a result of his reckless escalation, Putin has brought us closer to the outbreak of a Europe-wide war than at any time since the Berlin crises of the 1960s. As in those earlier confrontations, a precipitous NATO response could lead to uncontrolled escalation, possibly triggering the early use of nuclear weapons—something Putin has already suggested he might resort to. The growing use of NATO bases in Poland to supply arms and ammunition to the Ukrainian military represents a significant threat to Russian forces and could prompt a lethal response, with obvious escalatory implications, although Moscow has so far limited its attacks to Ukrainian bases near the Polish border. If NATO imposes a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as called for by many in Washington, we should expect shoot-outs between opposing aircraft and inevitable losses, prompting countermeasures by each side and the likely commitment of main battle forces. Once that occurs, Russian and US military doctrine both envision the potential use of nuclear weapons to stave off a battlefield defeat. Putin—already feeling cornered by the forces arrayed against him—could prove especially trigger-happy.

Avoiding such an outcome must be the world’s paramount objective at this incredibly dangerous moment. However great our sympathies for the victims of Russian attacks, US and European leaders must resist the pressure to impose a no-fly zone or to otherwise become directly involved in the fighting. Such a move would only prolong Ukrainian suffering and expose more of Europe to the bloody costs of war—and deepen the risk of a nuclear conflagration that would leave no part of the globe untouched.

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