Crimea: The ultimate redline? In a predictable but significant reversal of policy, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that he would support the training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets.
This comes in conjunction with comments that British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made recently to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, indicating that Britain would begin training Ukrainian fighter pilots.
With two of the biggest members of the NATO alliance talking about supplying fourth-generation warplanes to Ukraine’s forces in the wake of Ukraine’s forces being defeated at Bakhmut by Russian forces (which were primarily led by the private military firm, Wagner Group), one can anticipate that the Western alliance is readying to do more than just provide training to Ukrainian pilots on their warplanes. It is readying to hand over F-16 jets to the Ukrainians.
Of course, the question should be: What will this do for Ukraine’s war effort?
After all, handing over a small number of these jets will likely do little to fundamentally alter the balance in Ukraine’s favor.
At best, it will secure that which could have already been secured earlier in this fight and at a far cheaper rate: a negotiated cease-fire that divides the country between the Russian-controlled east and the pro-NATO Western Ukraine. At worst, this move will prolong a war that is destroying Ukraine and only slowing the Russians, while perennially distracting the West from the threat emanating from China.
The Impact of F-16s
It has been rumored that the West fantasizes a NATO-backed Ukrainian army would be able to soon mount a successful counterattack against the Russians in the strategically vital Crimean Peninsula. The hope is that the Ukrainians can push the Russians out of Crimea, a territory that has been under some form of Russian influence going back to Catherine the Great’s time.
Russia Wants Warm Water Ports
What’s more, one of only two Russian-controlled warm water ports exists in Crimea, on the Black Sea. The other Russian warm water port is in Syria, along the Mediterranean coast. Going back to the days of Ivan the Terrible, the Russians have been simultaneously convinced of their cultural superiority and obsessed with their territorial insecurity.
This has driven Russian leaders, whether tsarist, communist, or autocratic — as Putin is today — to continually seek to expand their territory away from the Russian core in Moscow.
Part of this impetus was self-defense. Part of it was, as with most great powers seeking territorial aggrandizement, imperialistic. These two needs of Russian policymakers fused into one self-fulfilling policy: Russia must expand or die.
Specifically, the quest for warm water ports can be traced back to the sea-loving Peter the Great, who sought to reorient Russia’s continental power in the heartland of Eurasia toward naval power, as other great European empires were doing at the time. This led to Russia’s obsession with acquiring and maintaining warm water ports from where they could project naval power far beyond the Eurasian landmass.
Crimea has played an essential element in that grand strategy.
Outside of their submarine fleet, Russia’s navy today is a weak shadow of what it was at the height of the Soviet Union. Thus, Moscow’s iron grip on Crimea. Since 2010, the West has fantasized about permanently evicting Russia from its naval base on Sevastopol. When Moscow thought they might lose access to this critical port during the Euromaidan protests that pushed the pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych out of power in Kyiv and replaced his regime with the pro-NATO government that currently rules Ukraine, Moscow ordered an invasion of Crimea.
There Is No Justifying Russian Actions (But Does That Really Matter?)
It’s not right that Russia has treated Ukraine as it has. But no one really cares. All that matters is what Ukraine can do to counter it, without sliding into nuclear conflict (or, to put it more accurately, forcing NATO to go to nuclear war against Russia on their behalf).
Only Ukraine’s benefactor, the United States, can slow the rush to escalation. YetBiden appears unable or unwilling to rein in the Ukrainians.
Just as with the much-ballyhooed tanks that the West was supposedly flooding into the conflict, whatever handful of NATO planes that Ukraine is set to receive will make little difference. Like those tanks, there are not enough F-16s being fielded in a timely enough manner to give Ukraine an advantage against the larger Russian forces.
All this action will do is compel Russia’s leadership to expand their own commitment to this brutal war, ensuring that the United States will never be able to refocus its attention and limited resources to containing Iranian aggression in the Middle East and deterring Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific. And with each escalation there is a parallel risk that nuclear confrontation occurs.
Crimea: How a Nuclear War Starts?
Should the Ukrainians follow through on their long-time plans to launch an offensive into Crimea, and should that offensive prove to be more effective than what most independent military analysts believe is possible, then Russia will use nukes. For the time being, though, I remain skeptical that he’d take such a caustic action over the introduction of a handful of hand-me-down F-16s.
The potential Crimean offensive is the real nuclear red line.
Once Ukrainian forces strike the peninsula, all bets will be off. Putin will likely deploy tactical nuclear weapons. The West will then be compelled to enter the conflict directly, which will only escalate the nuclear fight, from limited tactical nuclear weapon strikes within Ukraine to something much wider.
American and Russian Leaders are Abysmal
The risk, therefore, of nuclear conflict has not been this high since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unlike in 1962, neither side is led by men who have seen combat. (John F. Kennedy famously fought in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War and Nikita Khrushchev served in the Red Army at the gruesome Battle of Stalingrad.)
Both leaders at that time understood on some level where total warfare would lead their respective countries. They were willing to negotiate a settlement rather than let slip the atomic dogs of nuclear war.
Neither Vladimir Putin, harboring his grudge against the West for its victory in the Cold War, nor Joe Biden, influenced by Ukraine via his son’s alleged corrupt exploits in Ukraine, understand the dark forces they’re playing with.
We can only hope and pray that those around these two leaders can eventually see reason and work to ratchet down the tensions rather than escalating them. In the case of America especially, the country has very little to gain from expanding the war.
Until then, though, the nuclear clock should be set as close to midnight as possible.
A 19FortyFive Senior Editor, Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as at American Greatness and the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life (May 16), and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy (July 23). Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.