As the attack on Ukraine gains velocity, President Volodymyr Zelensky and his circle of advisors are pleading with the U.S. and Western allies to establish a no fly zone over the country, which would require the allies to shoot down Russian planes over Ukrainian air space.
Here's why the U.S. doesn't want to engage in a shooting war with Russia.
Not Your Grandfather's Hiroshima
The New Republic's editor Michael Tomasky, someone we've appreciated in his earlier incarnations as a columnist for the Guardian and elsewhere, asks the question that's been lurking in all of our minds. Why is the international community taking Putin's threat of using nuclear weapons so seriously? Would the Russian president really destroy the entire world so he can control Ukraine? (And would Ukraine even exist after a nuclear holocaust?)
As Tomasky explained in his Friday newsletter, nukes aren't what they used to be:
When we think of going nuclear, we think, as Randy Newman once put it, “Boom goes London / boom Paree.” We think of a major city being leveled with hundreds of thousands of deaths. But this is not your father’s nuclear arsenal. Consider: Little Boy (dropped on Hiroshima) had a blast power of 15 kilotons, and Fat Man (Nagasaki) 25 kilotons. But these days, the United States has a weapon that is just 8 kilotons, Slate’s Fred Kaplan reported. Russia, according to this article, may have even smaller ones. If Putin thinks he’d kill “only” about, oh, 15,000 people, and much faster than the time it would take to kill that number conventionally and bring Kyiv to its knees, well …
To save you the trouble of clicking through on the link to Kaplan's Slate article, here's the 411: In 2020, the U.S. Navy deployed what's called a "low yield" nuclear weapon on some Trident submarines. These low-yield nukes have changed the game. The U.S. has a shitload of them. So does Russia. Kaplan wrote:
For many years, arms control advocates have argued that low-yield nuclear weapons are destabilizing because they lower the threshold between conventional and nuclear war. They seem to be—they are designed to be—more usable as weapons of war, and therefore some president, in a crisis, might feel more tempted to use them. (The United States has always had an explicit policy of reserving the right to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict.)
Putin has announced that a no fly zone would be tantamount to a declaration of war. While U.S. military experts have said that the U.S. would ultimately win a shooting war, the toll of such a conflict is almost unimaginable. This is why the Biden administration has repeatedly ruled out the possibility.
But the administration is doing nearly everything short of sending in U.S. fighter planes. While a no fly zone remains a non-starter, the U.S. has broken records getting sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine.
What neither the U.S. nor Europe has done so far is ban imports of Russian oil and gas. In his State of the Union speech earlier this week, Biden acknowledged the politics preventing such a move. He announced the release of 30 billion barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, matched by an equal amount from allies around the world that would "blunt" gas prices in the U.S.
While Russian imports comprise only 4 percent of U.S. oil consumption, oil prices are likely to continue their rise, with or without a ban, and if the U.S. goes forward with banning Russian imports, support for Ukraine may falter.
It's certain that the Biden administration is discussing the possibility with allies, and it's unclear what good a unilateral ban would do. Nevertheless, there's a bipartisan move in Congress to put a ban in place. Axios reports:
What happened: There's bipartisan momentum to move swiftly to bar imports of Russian oil and gas to the U.S. amid Vladimir Putin's war with Ukraine. Eighteen senators, ranging from liberals like Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) to conservatives like Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), are on board with a bill doing that. Speaker Nancy Pelosi backed the idea as well.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox News that senators would try to pressure Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to take the bill up next week. He predicted it would get 75 votes. (Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) didn't go quite that high in giving us his estimate of the support for such sanctions.)
While a unilateral U.S. ban on Russian imports may not affect Russia's economy, it's rather mind-bending to hear the word "bipartisan" applied to U.S. politics, the first time in recent memory that this phrase has been used to describe action rather than inaction.
Short of War, What Can Be Done?
For the record, Lindsey Graham is also talking up the notion of assassinating Putin, asking: "Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military?"in a tweet. (Because where else are foreign policy initiatives floated?)
"The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out. You would be doing your country - and the world - a great service," Graham said.
While it's almost too easy to mock Graham, the South Carolina Republican senator is on the mark, tweeting a vamped-up version of what veteran Russia watchers are describing as a best-case scenario. While U.S. reporters, along with talk show hosts like Stephen Colbert, seem fixated on "the oligarchs," asking Russia hands like Fiona Hill and others if their withdrawal of support will impact Putin, the best case scenario for Ukraine is a revolt by Putin's palace guard.
All Oligarchs Are Alike
To put the oligarch question to rest for once and for all, the Oligarchs are not a unified body politically, and they have numerous options available to them even in the event of a long-term sanctions. Some are already walking away from foreign real estate investments, although not en masse.
Primer enter pares Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich is selling the English Premier League soccer club Chelsea. Frankly, it's not a bad move, because building Chelsea into its current powerhouse status has cost an enormous amount, even by oligarch standards, and the club still needs a new stadium. (Non-football fans may remember Abramovich because of his now ex-partner Dasha Zhukova, a powerhouse art collector, magazine entrepreneur, and real estate magnate in New York now married to Stavros Niarchos.)
Because if Bill Gates can bring back nukes and fight malaria and Elon Musk can take over NASA's job, hell, why couldn't Abramovich stop the war?
Putin's Crackdown on News is a Sign of Weakness
It seems unlikely that a widespread public revolt against Putin will take place, but anti-war protests are mounting - and so are the arrests of protesters. A reported 6,000 protesters have been arrested, a remarkable number, considering the harsh conditions they may face. Alexei Navalny, Putin's most visible rival for power, called on Russians to stage daily protests and, from his prison cell, called Putin "an obviously insane Tsar."
As Putin continued to crack down on the media, enacting a law to punish anyone spreading “false information” about its Ukraine invasion with up to 15 years in prison, employees at Russia's last operating Russian TV station, Rain TV, walked out en masse. Their last words on camera were "No to war."
In an attempt to contain opposition, Putin has shut down Facebook and restricted Twitter in what The New York Times called a harsher clampdown on news and free speech since his ascension to power 22 years ago.
It's important to note that Russians are split in their stances on the war. Like the U.S., there are substantial numbers of Russians who buy into disinformation, which is widely disseminated in state-run media. So it's by no means the most likely scenario that Putin will be deposed anytime soon.
What Hope There Might Be for a Compromise
In the last few days, there has been more talk of a compromise that would allow Putin to save face. Richard Hass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Axios that only pressure from within Russia, because of high troop casualties and economic sanctions, was likely to move Putin. According to Axios reporter Dave Lawler's analysis:
Even in such a scenario, it’s unclear what exit Putin might be willing to take.
- Putin's other core demand, that Ukraine declare itself neutral and rule out future membership in NATO, has long been a nonstarter in Kyiv. It’s unclear whether battlefield realities could change that.
- But having described his mission in Ukraine as one of “deNazification” (however absurd that may be), and spoken at length about Ukraine’s rightful place in Russia’s orbit, Putin would seem to have set the bar for success, at minimum, at the installation of a loyal government.
- There, Putin does have an advantage, however. His control over Russian media is such that he might believe he can sell a modest outcome — a new status for the eastern "republics" and a promise on NATO, perhaps — as a victory, despite the high costs.
But after French president Emmanuel Macron reportedly spoke to Putin on the telephone for 90 minutes, Macron's spokesman said that Putin's goal remained the same: control of all of Ukraine.
Just a note, with thanks to Francois Zalacain for alerting us:
The Independent, once the editorial home of legendary correspondent Robert Fisk, was saved from extinction by Russian oligarch and former KGB Officer Alexander Lebedev in 2010. In 2017, Saudi investor Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel bought a 30% stake in the paper.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and - wait for it - Mitch McConnell are, in Schumer's words, "working very hard in a bipartisan fashion" to free $10 billion in additional aid to Ukraine.
Zelensky, clearly feeling the strain, couldn't resist mentioning that if the powerful sanctions imposed by the West had gone into effect months before, the invasion might not have happened.