Every morning, I check to see if Kyiv is still standing. If President Zelensky is still alive, and if Ukrainians are still the inhabitants of a free and sovereign state. Every morning, I’m amazed. Ukraine has not only greeted the invading army with defiance but has also somehow managed to stall a numerically and technologically superior enemy for almost a week. They have proved that Ukraine is a strong and very much real nation in spite of the Kremlin’s claims and that its people do not want to live under the Kremlin’s rule.
As the conflict continues, NATO must decide whether it will come to their aid. So far, several NATO members have sent weapons and other types of lethal aid to Ukraine. Notable examples of this include Germany, whose decision to send anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine marks a reversal of deeply entrenched foreign policy positions. While all aid improves Ukraine’s chances, NATO should do more. NATO should send in soldiers as well as weapons and commit to defending Ukraine’s sovereignty with everything it has. It should do this even though Ukraine is not a NATO member, even though committing troops would mean war with Russia.
NATO consists of 30 member states who collectively dwarf Russia’s military power. In fact, Russia’s army has a budget that is only around 8% of that of the US alone, suggesting that NATO’s troops will be considerably better equipped and trained. Meanwhile, Russia’s greatest asset is the fact that it has the largest number of tanks in the world and is, therefore, a formidable land power. However, there is evidence that this strength could be mitigated by the fact that its air force is small compared to NATO members. Saunders and Souva conducted a quantitative analysis of decisive battles in modern wars which found that the establishment of air superiority significantly increased the chances of victory and that air superiority was in fact a better predictor of victory than the adoption of modern ground forces. Therefore, NATO intervention in the form of air as well as ground support could help change the outcome of the Russian invasion. Furthermore, the fact that Ukraine is fiercely resisting could present serious logistical problems for the Russians on the ground. This is because even if they seize control of an area, it is likely that they will have to face the costs of guerilla attacks.
Given these circumstances, a NATO/Ukraine alliance would be in a stronger position than Russia. Its best-case scenario would be a relatively swift, resounding victory. The worst outcome is probably a stalemate and a long, costly war. However, even this is likely to lead to a long-term victory. This is because there seems to be political resistance to the war in Ukraine even within Russia itself. Thousands of people have publicly protested against it in 53 different cities despite police threats, leading to over 1700 arrests by Thursday evening. Furthermore, the economic effects of the war and ensuing sanctions could threaten the wealth of oligarchs that normally support Putin. Russia has already been kicked off Swift, and the rouble has depreciated dramatically. This, along with the fact that waging war is an expensive endeavour, means that even Putin’s support coalition might turn against him if faced with a prolonged war. This means that military victory for NATO and Ukraine would be almost assured. Not only would their forces be technologically and perhaps eventually even numerically superior, but they would only need to hold out in order to win in the long run.
If victory in Ukraine would be so difficult once NATO gets involved, why would Putin take the chance and invade? Some have speculated that he is either crazy or ill, but these allegations remain mere rumours. Instead, the most reasonable explanation is that he was counting on two conditions that would make Russian victory very likely. Firstly, that Ukraine would be easily taken. Given that Ukraine has less than an eighth of Russia’s military budget, a fifth of its tanks, and a mere fifteenth of Russia’s air-force, the Ukrainian army should have been quickly overwhelmed. With this condition, Putin would be able to conquer Ukraine before anybody could react. Then he could point to the lack of resistance to claim that Ukraine was never a real nation and that its people were keen to join Russia all along. Clearly, he miscalculated. Yet even with Ukraine holding out longer than anticipated, the chances of outside intervention and hence defeat remain low. This is because Putin probably also gambled on the stability-instability paradox. In other words, he assumed that NATO would not risk direct war with Russia because it has nuclear weapons. This threat was even implicitly alluded to in his speech on Wednesday.
Russia’s stock of over 6,400 warheads is the largest in the world. Some fear that Putin might be willing to use them against Ukraine or against a NATO member if intervention causes the conflict to swing against him. Furthermore, this strike would probably face retaliation from the various nuclear states within NATO, including the US (2nd largest arsenal) and France (3rd largest arsenal), leading to a full-fledged nuclear war and untold devastation. While the Cold War-era threat of irradiating the entire planet has subsided, the death toll would still be incredibly high. This scenario may be terrifying, but it isn’t very likely. Putin surely knows that NATO also has nukes and that it would not be ideal for these to point towards Russia. In 1945, the Pentagon speculated that it would only take a few hundred nuclear bombs to completely subdue Russia, and nuclear weapons have only become more powerful since that time. Clearly, attacking another country with these weapons of mass destruction would only achieve dragging Russia down with it, something Putin and his supporters certainly do not want. Nonetheless, it could be argued that if Putin faces certain defeat in Ukraine and mounting pressure at home, he might do the unthinkable in a desperate attempt to cling to power. While this is possible, it is important to remember that no dictator, no matter how personalistic they are, can command a country alone. Dictators depend on a support coalition to operate. This support coalition can turn against the regime if it has taken actions strongly against its interests. Starting a nuclear war that could reduce Russia into an irradiated wasteland is certainly not in the interests of Putin’s support coalition.
In conclusion, NATO would almost certainly defeat Russia in a modern conventional war. However, there is no guarantee that the conflict in Ukraine will remain conventional if NATO intervenes. I would say that while the possibility of a nuclear exchange is there the chances are very low. Meanwhile, there is a lot to gain. Ukraine has already denied Putin a swift, easy victory with its fierce resistance and now it is time for NATO to get involved on the ground and deny Putin any sort of victory at all. There are risks to interfering, but let us not forget that there are also risks to standing aside and offering encouragement from afar. Firstly, doing nothing will almost certainly mean that Ukraine will be overwhelmed. The people of Ukraine will lose their sovereignty and right to self-determination, their freedom, and if they persist in fighting for it, their lives. Meanwhile, Putin may not stop with Ukraine. He has previously shown no regard for the sovereignty of Russia’s other neighbours, invading Georgian territory in 2008 for example. The Kremlin’s long-standing attitude to its neighbours and the attempted annexation of Ukraine means that the entire region could be at risk. NATO has a chance to end Putin’s imperialist ambitions now, to allow post-Soviet states to choose their own destiny without threats of violence. NATO should take this chance.