By Ellie Boyden
This weekend (27th March), the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to America and Western Europe to supply more weaponry, claiming that “this is all for freedom not only in Ukraine — this is for freedom in Europe.” Zelenskyy’s statement illustrates the multiple dimensions of this conflict. Firstly, the Russian military’s continued devastating strikes against innocent civilians, which have been described as genocidal, create insurmountable moral pressure for the West to do what they can to support Ukraine.
Secondly, Putin claims that he has no further expansionary intentions and blames Nato’s eastward expansion for the invasion of Ukraine. However, many diplomatic figures argue that he has imperialist aims, supported by his 2014 annexation of Crimea and multiple essays justifying Russian expansion based on false historical claims. The measure of Putin’s success in Ukraine will set the future parameters for his ambitions. Finally, Biden presents Zelenskyy as leading a conflict against Putin’s oppressive ‘tyranny’. Unsurprisingly then, the question in the forefront of many people’s minds at the moment is whether the West should be doing more to deter Putin’s aggressive campaign.
So far, the West has implemented severe economic sanctions on Russia, impairing its stock market and currency. In the long term however, the decoupling of Russia and Europe’s connected economy could prove difficult, and despite the damage caused to Russia’s economy, Putin knows sanctions will also negatively affect Europe with soaring energy prices. Sanctions also harm civilians in Russia that are helpless to prevent Putin’s actions in Ukraine, although measures such as a food-for-oil arrangement could ensure that trade with Russia fulfils humanitarian purposes, rather than sustaining the war effort. So, what additional measures could be taken?
The United Nations cannot militarily intervene due to Russia’s position on the Security Council. NATO has no reason to get involved as of yet and Biden is unwilling to implement Zelenskyy’s ‘no fly zone’, which would provoke direct confrontation between Nato and Russian troops. Politicians are reluctant to advocate intervention until the pressure on them increases, from fear of escalating relations with Putin.
A clear development that would necessitate the West’s military intervention is the use of chemical or biological warfare. Putin’s hopes of a quick victory were based upon poor intelligence, and in the light of effective resistance from Ukrainian troops, the conflict seems likely to become one of attrition. Putin will not willingly accept outright military failure as it will compromise his political position domestically.
The Kremlin has already alleged that the US supports a bioweapons programme in Ukraine – supposedly to justify their potential use by Russian troops. These weapons may not drastically increase casualties compared to conventional tactics, but represent another step towards conflict escalation. In this context, the West would not only have a moral requirement to intervene but would have to do so to prevent emboldening Putin, whose discourse is increasingly lined with nuclear threats. Many experts claim that the likelihood of Putin initiating nuclear warfare is low, but it would represent the next stage of escalation after biological or chemical weapons.
Ultimately, sanctions and Russian domestic unrest, which may increase with the changeover of conscripts, will only have a long-term effect on Putin, by which time many more innocent people could be killed. The West currently supplies defensive weapons to Ukraine, but these cannot prevent night bombing raids or heavy artillery bombardments, that kill large numbers of civilians. At risk of escalating hostile relations with Putin, Nato members should seriously consider targeted military intervention and supplying offensive weapons to Ukraine. In a context where civilians consistently suffer due to troops’ inability to repel artillery strikes and Putin clearly is the aggressor, the West arguably has a moral responsibility to intervene. Ukraine needs sustained support so that it can maintain stockpiles of military supplies for the duration of the war and enter negotiations in a strong position. Its improved military capacity could therefore not only save countless lives but send a strong message to the Kremlin and its expansionary ambitions.
Image: Noah Eleazar via Unsplash