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Ukraine Could Be the Spark for a War Between Russia and America

F-16 Viper
An Air Force F-16 Viper taxis just a few hundred feet from the wall of fire at the Fort Worth Alliance Air Show, Oct. 28, 2017 at Fort Worth, Texas. (Courtesy photo by Air Force Viper Demo Team)

The United States has been walking a geopolitical high wire for several months, balancing conflicting objectives in the Russo-Ukraine War. On the one hand, the US is working to bolster Ukrainian defenses, allowing Zelensky’s forces to thwart Russian invaders. Simultaneously, the US is being careful not to antagonize Russia to the point of escalation. Obviously, the US is antagonizing Russia – by donating weapons, money, and expertise to the Ukrainian cause. The question, however, is how much can the US antagonize Russia before eliciting escalation.

Early in the conflict, which began last February, there was acute fear that US aid would antagonize Russia to escalation. So far, that has not happened; the Russian tolerance for US assistance appears high – or Russia simply lacks the capacity to retaliate. Either way, Russia has sat by while the US-led “West” functionally enables the ongoing Ukrainian resistance.

While the potential for escalation is lower than believed in the Russo-Ukrainian War’s early days, the potential nonetheless remains. Here are some possible escalation ignitors.

A security guarantee, whether through formal inclusion in the NATO Treaty or some alternative security treaty, could well lead to escalation. Russia has been perfectly clear that a Western-aligned Ukraine is strategically unacceptable. Were the West to bring Ukraine formally into the fold, it could provoke a Russian reaction. Then, of course, there is NATO’s Article 5 stipulation; if Ukraine were a member of NATO, an attack against Ukraine would warrant a full-fledged response from NATO’s other treaty members. Article 5 has only been evoked once – after the 9/11 attacks – but never against an opponent as capable of conventional or nuclear conflict as Russia. Any form of security guarantee with Ukraine likely leads to escalation.

Earlier in the conflict, many pundits advocated for the establishment of a Western-enforced No Fly Zone. Wisely, the West demurred. A No Fly Zone over Ukraine would likely lead to escalation with Russia, which could take several forms. One, Russia might forcefully oppose the symbolic and strategic hit a No Fly Zone would impose; Russia may feel incentivized to try and disrupt the No Fly Zone, less they objectively lose control of the airspace over Ukraine. Two, enforcing a No Fly Zone requires the enforcers to engage with violators of the No Fly Zone; so, if a Russian jet entered the No Fly Zone, a western (most likely US) jet would have to engage. A confrontation of this magnitude would be uniquely significant and would certainly lead to broader escalation.

Western “boots on the ground” would be an escalation in and of itself; putting Western troops into the battle space would be a watershed decision that would undoubtedly lead to Western troops coming into direct contact with Russian forces.

The first several months of conflict suggest Russia is maxed out militarily – their logistics are confused, their equipment outdated, their progress marginal; their economy and supply chains are suffering over harsh sanctions. Despite having superior forces on paper, Russia is struggling against a Western-enhanced Ukrainian resistance. The conflict has been surprisingly balanced – yet if the US or the West puts their thumb on the scale any further, with say enforcing a No Fly Zone, or placing troops in Ukraine, the scale would likely tip in favor of Ukraine – which counterintuitively is quite dangerous; for if Russia is clearly outmatched in a conventional conflict, they may resort to reliance on their sprawling nuclear arsenal. Nuclear strikes would of course decimate Ukraine and perhaps draw the international community into some sort of proportionate response – a situation to be ardently avoided.

TOS-1 Buratino

Russian TOS-1. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The ongoing war has been bad for Ukraine. Escalation would be even worse. The US has avoided prompting a Russian escalation. But the US should be facilitating the peace-making process.

Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.

Written By

Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. cobo

    September 8, 2022 at 1:31 pm

    You don’t “make peace” with an agressive enemy. NATO’s former role of deterring aggression is obsolete. NATO needs to go to war. Our enemies’ nuclear forces are not more lethal than ours. Their aggression against our interests cannot be allowed.

    Transnistria and Kaliningrad are not simple exclaves, they’re forward deployed military outposts for future Russian excuses to invade. Destroying Russia’s forward deployed military outposts, including their presence in Svalbard, needs to be done.

    The Kerch bridge and the naval base in Savastopol await destruction, as does the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Get ready globally, including in the America’s where the Russians have allies. Arm our nuclear weapons for instant attack if they are foolish enough to try. Fight

  2. Roger Bacon

    September 8, 2022 at 2:25 pm

    I, for one, am gald we are finally backing a country where the people are willing to FIGHT for their freedom. Kuwaitis danced in night clubs while we liberated their country. Afghans dropped their guns and fled in a matter of days after the US left. The South Vietnamese rolled over for the communists. Even if their goverment is corrupt as hell, the people of Ukraine are willing to fight!

  3. 403Forbidden

    September 8, 2022 at 3:54 pm

    Make no bones about it, America hankers for wars like an opioid addict hankers for painkillers (like fentanyl).

    America has waged nearly 400 wars since 1776, and now with a trillion-dollar military budget annually, what’s the problem with war-hankering.

    The current president is severely afflicted with late-stage dementia, brain cancer, repeated bouts of neural-crippling covid, bse, Alzheimer, and personal hitlerian dreams of political military glory.Je has even declared half the citizenry as hostile forces bent on destroying the soul of the republic.

    However, back to the war for Ukraine. This war has been planned in retaliation (and punishment) for Russian intervention & Russian disinformation during Nov 2020 election, but since when has America been innocent of such transgression.

    The Biden war for Ukraine will eventually result in US military getting involved and then naturally forcing Moscow to use tactical nukes when things take a turn for the worse after a harsh winter has rolled over the land.

    This coming winter’s going to hard on everyone, but especially hard for Ukraine and Russia that fell for the trap set by a genghisian warmonger on his last legs fully determined to force lots of people to provide him company as he makes his way to the pearly gates.

    So, war can’t be avoided. Direct involement can’t be avoided. Winter can’t be avoided. But people still have time to stock up larders and storerooms with adequate stocks of essential/survival items before biden-ordered armageddon arrives.

  4. Gary Jacobs

    September 8, 2022 at 4:23 pm

    403Forbidden – lol, you are having a temper tantrum like a spoiled child trying to get his way. The adults in the room that learned history are having none of it. This was an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia with imperialist delusions. Russia has been invading and bullying its neighbors for centuries. If Russia wants to blame others for wanting to join NATO, it should collectively look in the mirror.

    Obama pulled the last US tanks out of Europe in 2013, and won re-election on a political platform of better relations with Russia. In less than a year Putin Invaded Crimea and the Donbas. That’s after leveraging Ukraine to not sign an economic deal with the EU and instead sign 1 with Russia.

    Again, if Russia wonders why its sphere of influence is shrinking at it has become a pariah state… it largely has itself, and Putin, to blame. There are certainly some things the west could have done better to help Russia manage the transition of the post Soviet Era… but the blame is still largely Russia’s to bare alone.

    The sooner you stop blaming others for all of Russia’s problems and start to do things to evolve into the 21st century…instead of sharing Putin’s nostalgia for Peter “the Great’s” theft of other people’s land… the sooner we can all start to work together for a better future.

  5. Scooter Van Neuter

    September 8, 2022 at 5:08 pm

    The cat is out of the bag – Russia is in many ways a paper tiger, but one holding a large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. The fact that NATO is now aware of the fact that they could easily steamroller Russia with conventional weapons makes Putin more dangerous than ever as the only avenue to cowering the West is to use his tactical battlefield nukes.
    These are very perilous times and unless Russia suddenly backs down and withdraws from Ukraine (not bloody likely), the next 6 months could be tense.

  6. Karis Fra Mauro

    September 8, 2022 at 5:35 pm

    It’s good to be realistic about the stakes. Russia has enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world, and they are not a benevolent actor. However that is an argument for opposing Russia, not submitting to it. Fighting risks destruction but not fighting? Guarantees it. We have indeed been down this road before, and succumbing to the temptation for appeasement, for “Peace in our time”, leads to the very darkest of places.

  7. Jim

    September 8, 2022 at 7:53 pm

    Given the comments above, neocons are getting nervous about the ultimate outcome of the war.

    Yes, the U. S. could get into a war with Russia, but not as most neocons would suppose. The most likely scenario is that Russia achieves (the long awaited breakout) rapid advances and Washington gets desperate not to lose the war…

    Washington knows should the Ukraine project become an abject failure, there is a good chance heads will finally roll in neocon circles of power. So far the neocons have been able to slip responsibility for their many foreign policy failures over the years.

    (But it’s important to know, “regime change” is the only measuring stick neocons respect. Whatever happens next is an afterthought, not a serious consideration.

    Thus, the wreckage left over from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and now, Ukraine doesn’t bother neocons at all.)

    With an undeniable loss, the neocons will finally be cornered and held to account and will be put out of power and the taxpayer money will be cut off for their warmongering projects.

    In the neocon’s world-view the above can’t be allowed to happen, period, full stop.

    Neocons are more than capable of the mentality (see cobo above) needed to use a tactical nuclear weapon if they think it will prevent their exposure as reckless warmongers that have used U. S. military might to engage their drive for world domination.

    So, again, yes, war between the U. S. and Russia is possible.

  8. Yrral

    September 8, 2022 at 8:06 pm

    Ukraine is being carved up like a Thanksgiving day Turkey,the average American have no idea about the leadership in Ukraine is a hapless, hopeless ,and helpless,after all this aid they loss more territory ,still begging for a lost cause,

  9. Dale

    September 8, 2022 at 10:27 pm

    Honestly if that nuclear power station goes boom I think NATO should put boots on the ground and show Russia what fighting NATO is all about. I grew up during the cold war and this Russia isn’t that Russia.

    There is a point where you have to make a stand and the US made or at least very strongly implied promises when asking Ukraine to give up their nuclear arsenal. We are known for not keeping our promises and for once I am glad we are.

    Also totally agree with a previous post. I also am glad to help a country that for once actually cares. I watched “this is what winning looks like” before we pulled out. No reason the US should put in all the money and effort for a country that doesn’t care. Ukraine has a ton of corruption, or at least did. I suspect after all this, the country is much tighter knit and a lot of corruption gets rooted out.

    Final note, I am a little jealous of Ukraine. You would probably have to go back as far as Kennedy to find a president with comparable sized balls to Zelinsky. Can you really imagine Biden, or Obama, or Trump saying they didn’t need a ride they needed bullets?

  10. Gary Jacobs

    September 9, 2022 at 12:02 pm

    Jim + Yrall, both of you are so silly wrong it took me 5 minutes to stop laughing.

    Jim – I dont even think you know what the real meaning of the word ‘neocon’ is. For all of their failures in Iraq, it wasnt them who finally screwed the pooch there or in Afghanistan. That was Obama, Trump, and Biden. None of whom are neocons at all. After a series of mistakes in both countries, each President was handed a situation that could have been managed at much lower cost without total failure. They chose failure.

    If the US had left behind a residual force in Iraq when Obama 1st pulled out, and in Afghan under Biden… on a smaller scale than we did in Japan and Korea… the years since would be a lot different in those two countries. Those are stupid political failures that have nothing to do with ‘neocons’.

    As for Ukraine, we are getting a lot of bang for our buck. Ukraine is clearly well motivated, and the type of warfare fits the US abilities and equipment quite well. Russia is on the verge of a MASSIVE set of defeats in Ukraine in the east and in the south.

    The idea that you two are here attempting to spin your narratives at a time when Ukraine has the initiative and has taken back more ground in 6 days than Russia has taken in over 6 weeks makes me laugh. Unless Ukraine makes a series of mistakes very soon, or Russia sends in an influx of well trained and equipped troops [which dont exist], than the next 3-5 weeks will see a series of defeats for Russian forces in Ukraine in the south and north east.

    There is a high probability that Russia will launch its aging stock of S300 missiles as ground attack weapons even though they were meant for air defense. In this mode all they really are is a weapon of terror against civilian populations. Because that’s how pathetic the Russians are, and I proudly support Ukraine against Russian aggression.

    Have a nice day.

  11. GhostTomahawk

    September 9, 2022 at 1:15 pm

    This is an idiotic strategy we are employing. The United States would never permit a near peer to fortify our opponent anymore. The US needs to withdraw its aid for Ukraine. They don’t need money or equipment. This is a war of attrition. Ukraine will either lose because they can’t field an army which will leave the country devastated or sue for peace and give up land to broke a deal. Zelensky is a moron and so are western leaders who are dumping their own treasury and materiel into a country that ISN’T EVEN AN ALLY.

    So why are we even there? Who has the most to lose if Ukraine falls?

    Follow the money. All that corruption is over there in that govt and we are dumping billions into it…..lol

  12. Jiri Novacek

    September 9, 2022 at 2:59 pm

    Every important russian has his children, lover, wife, millions in property in the west, in London, New York, Paris. Would they sent nukes on their own families? No. Putin read, after the Cold War ended, about McNamara how he cheated the russians to think that US would have been willing to go nuclear. Putin does today the same, he is trying to convince the west that he would be willing to go nuclear, but it is hoax.

  13. Jacksonian Libertarian

    September 9, 2022 at 4:55 pm

    Russia doesn’t have the resources to fight a war in Ukraine, how is it going to fight America and NATO?

    Russia is scaping the bottom of the barrel “buying” (Ukraine pays $0 for 1st World smart weapons) crappy weapons from Iran and North Korea.

    Turns out the Russian 800lb gorilla was a monkey built up by the Western Military Industrial Complex to increase sales.

  14. anon anon

    September 9, 2022 at 5:20 pm

    Why in hades is the author talking about no fly zones or boots on the ground. I have heard 0% of this kind of talk for many, many months. No one is proposing it, and no one believes it will happen. An entire article devoted to 2 strawmen? Ugh…

  15. Gary Jacobs

    September 9, 2022 at 5:25 pm

    GhostTomahawk – Haha. WTF are you yapping about? Ukraine is on the front line of systematically dismantling the terrorist army of Russia which any student of history knows has a centuries long history of invading all its neighbors and stealing their land. Not to mention oppressing their people. They are proving what a well motivated people can do with western support and weapons. We are the leader of NATO, and Ukraine borders several NATO countries.

    And even in peace time Ukraine is actually a key hub of tech talent that works for western companies. They are proving their mettle in many ways, not least of which was developing their own AI that takes in data from across their drones and other ISR assets and allows commanders to see the battlefield to allocate resources to better target Russian forces.

    The massive losses suffered by Russia in the last 5 days will be studied for generations on how a smaller more agile force defeats a larger lumbering aggressor force. For as much as I cant stand the Biden people, and I will never let them live down how stupidly they handle Afghanistan, credit where its due, they are balancing the need to defeat Russia without out massively escalating NATO into a hot war with Russia. Most of the credit goes to the tenacity and will to be free of the Ukrainians, but the Biden Admin deserves due credit. As does Boris Johnson, other EU countries, and especially Poland, the Baltics, etc. All know what is at stake, and have come through quite well.

  16. Steven

    September 10, 2022 at 12:01 am

    It’s at the point where I don’t even read the articles anymore, I just jump to the comments.

  17. Scottfs

    September 10, 2022 at 1:13 pm

    Ukraine is making gains in the South and the North.

    So much for those here and elsewhere who demaned Ukraine surrender to the Russians.

  18. Scottfs

    September 10, 2022 at 1:27 pm

    Ukraine is making gains in the South and the North.

    So much for those here and elsewhere who demaned Ukraine surrender to the Russians. Including thos author.

    This author has forgotten, or perhaps never knew, the massive Soviet intervention in Vietnam. Thousands of Russian troops cycled through North Vietnam, Hundreds of MIGs were sent by Russia, as well as potent anti-aircraft missiles were supplied and resulted in thousands of USA dead and wounded.

    I say, return the favor. Give Ukraine a potent military and air force. Make it clear the World will re-engage with Russia as soon as they withdraw from Ukraine.

    Putin has badly miscalculated.

  19. Punk

    September 10, 2022 at 4:13 pm

    I am sure the US are quaking in their boots if it comes to a war them verses Russia ha ha ha ha,Russia are a third world petrol station and that is basically it they have proved their military is clueless inept pathetic useless has no leaders only cowards to the hilt they run away from Ukraine soldiers when the chips are down like the yellow livered Russian scum they are, Russia would be absolutely ravaged by the US military they would be pulverised very fast it’s that simple fuck putin fuck Russian scummy shitty petrol fumed shut hole

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