Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) used to prevent war between NATO and Russia. Now it appears to just prevent NATO from fighting back militarily. So Russia can do whatever it wants without fear of military retaliation from NATO.
A question: were NATO to fight back, would the idea of mutually assured destruction prevent Russia from escalating for the same reasons that make NATO hesitant to intervene more directly? If so, then perhaps NATO should have intervened directly from the outset.
There is also the possibility that Putin will escalate anyway and deploy nuclear weapons out of desperation or impatience (or because he’s suicidal or just plain evil), in which case NATO should also have intervened earlier, because it wouldn’t have mattered. And in such a scenario perhaps there is a chance, however slim, that Putin could have been brought to heel.
Of course, nobody has a crystal ball. We don’t know what Putin will do if NATO retaliates directly, or if Putin becomes desperate. So we’re left with Russia and NATO not just capable of destroying one another but much of the rest of the world, and Russia savaging Ukraine because it suspects it can get away with it aware that NATO will stand by (not entirely helplessly but certainly not bringing all its forces to bear) for fear of Putin abandoning all reason and killing us all (or most of us). Which he might do anyway.
And in this way we are held hostage, made impotent, unable to help Ukraine or prevent future similar aggressions from either Russia or China (e.g., Taiwan) or (insert aggressor of choice here). This is obviously untenable. The problem is that the stakes are so high (back to mutually assured destruction) that NATO can’t afford to get the calculus wrong. On the one hand, with NATO’s current strategy, global bullies will probably continue to ride roughshod over the rest of us and it will just keep getting worse until the final fatality, the final bullet in the final head, as it were, could well be democracy itself.
On the other hand, should NATO opt to intervene directly (e.g., fly over zone) the probability is at least medium that the result will be catastrophic for all of us: a third world war, millions if not billions of casualties, with the survivors looking back wistfully at a mere pandemic as a kind of lost golden age.
Emotionally, I want to intervene directly. I want the no fly zone. I don’t want the bully to get away with it. I want the cavalry to show up, kick the bully’s ass, save Ukraine and democracy, and everyone (except the bully) lives happily ever after.
Intellectually, I know it isn’t going to be that easy. That we have to get the calculus right. That we have to defuse this bomb without blowing everybody up. I believe it to be possible. As Former Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations Abba Eban has said (a version of the quote is often misattributed to Winston Churchill), “Men and nations do act wisely when they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” It is a tragic function of the human condition that wisdom does not always (or even often) come first.
Myself, I do not presume to possess the wisdom required to lift us out of this awful predicament. Maybe sanctions will be sufficient; maybe some other action will be required. I don’t know. I have only faith in the collective wisdom of humankind (sadly after much bloodshed, suffering and tragedy) to eventually get the calculus right.