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Sovereignty, War, and Ukraine

The direct impetus for this post is another call for the “sovereignty” of the European Union by means of a common defense organization, pronounced by the head of the European Commission, Ursala von der Leyen, in May ( She gave a speech on the occasion of Macron’s acceptance of the Westphalia Peace Prize in which she “claimed that Europe was ‘moving towards more sovereignty in the realm of defence.'” Macron, who received the prize because of his work for European unity, has also spoken recently of the need for the European Union to have sovereignty.

I will leave aside for the moment the question of whether members ever intended to give sovereignty to the EU (it is a worthy question, but too much to tackle at the moment) and instead turn to the reason for this focus on a common European defense: the Ukraine war. Europe has been heedless of the Russian threat for decades, depending on the U.S. as a backstop for its own unwillingness to meet its NATO obligations. That has turned around drastically in the past two years. As of 2020, only 9 NATO members were meeting the standard, agreed in 2014, that each state should spend 2% of its GDP on defense; NATO said that 18 were expected to meet that target this year. Defense budgets have increased a striking 20% just in the last year, indicating that Europe is finally taking the Russian threat seriously.

This is good in principle; European states need to realize that the world is not entirely safe and they must put forth an effort to secure their own safety. I continue to worry, however, that unrestricted aid to Ukraine is ultimately going to open Europe and the world to consequences much worse than a Russian invasion. As long as Ukraine is fighting a defensive war, it appears that Russia is not going to escalate the conflict due to Western aid. We have gradually seen aid creep, however, from purely defensive weapons to those that can strike into Russia. Putin has now ordered Russia to conduct a tactical nuclear exercise in response to Western provocations. Many in the West dismiss Putin’s threats as idle, but I don’t take Russia’s concerns (or Putin’s) so lightly.

Sure, Putin is unlikely to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. in retaliation for aid to Ukraine — what would be the point? But I do think Russia might easily get to the point where they take the next step in escalation. Maybe it’s chemical weapons; maybe it’s tactical nuclear weapons. How would the West react? Surely we would not launch a strategic nulcear strike in response; again, that would be overkill. But I think public opinion would be shocked and would expect some reaction. Would this mean sending tactical nuclear weapons to Ukraine? How would Russia respond to that?

The escalation game is a dangerous one. The idea is to push the envelope gradually so that the enemy doesn’t feel they can respond decisively. Don’t underestimate their ability to respond in kind, escalating in ways that are short of outright nuclear war but which push the boundaries of what is acceptable. This is a dangerous game and ultimately a losing one. That’s why the only right answer in Ukraine is to negotiate peace before we have to find out the hard way what the limits of Western aid to Ukraine are before Russia starts us down the fateful path toward nuclear war.

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