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Yes, confronting Putin is the right thing to do. It is necessary, it is urgent. Not recklessly, but forcefully, because he has made it very clear that he not only wants to continue to subjugate Russia but that he also intends to subjugate, at least, Europe.
And no, it’s not mere yellow journalism. The Russian invasion of Ukraine crosses an almost irreversible line, and puts the Moscow regime on a direct collision course with the European powers and the United States. It is true that in previous decades Russia had invaded Georgia and Chechnya, as well as intervening in Syria, but none of these interventions upset the European balance. The one in Ukraine did, with all that it implied.
The reason? If Russia gets its way and crushes the Ukrainians, it will increase its control of the Black Sea and put a wedge over all of Eastern Europe, putting all the republics that once lived under the terror of the Soviet empire on alert. Poland, Romania, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are countries that today are part of Western alliances, but which Putin considers his own, and which he wants to take back. And they do not even hide it, Putin’s propaganda machine is already talking directly about “denazifying” Poland. Yes, the same pretext they used with Ukraine.
The resulting disruption in the European balances would leave us all at the gates of a World War III; or at least of a full-scale continental confrontation. Basically, as the situation in Ukraine becomes more complex, the West is left with only two options: go all out against Putin, at the risk of a world war; or give in to Putin, at the risk of him tyrannizing millions… And then launch a world war anyway.
The slippery road to war
Global conflicts are not declared overnight, they simmer for a long time, accumulating signals and grudges, and that seems to be happening now, as the drums of war increase in intensity, not only in the cities of Ukraine, but also in the international arena. On March 16, Russia was formally expelled from the “Council of Europe.” A day earlier, on March 15, the U.S. Senate unanimously declared Vladimir Putin a war criminal, just hours after the Russian government had officially “sanctioned” President Biden.
But does that seriously open the door to a risk of full-scale, even nuclear, war? The answer is: yes. In fact, the Secretary-General of the United Nations himself, Antonio Guterres, pointed out directly that: “the prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility.”
Yes, he goes again, just to be clear: nuclear war “is back within the realm of possibility.” This is key.
After the atomic detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was clear to the world that war had changed forever. Nuclear weapons, with their power to vaporize entire cities, radically altered the calculations of military strategy. After all, when all it takes is a handful of missiles to char a country, all other weapons pale in comparison.
World War II ended and the Cold War began. The Soviets stole the blueprints for the bomb, and in just a couple of decades, we slipped to the point of “MAD” (mutual assured destruction), visually embodied in the constant testing of ever more sophisticated nuclear weapons that were kept present in the conversation.
Our grandparents and our parents lived it. The drills and the talks, the “missile crisis” in Cuba, the latent fear that, sooner rather than later, the USSR and the United States would go to direct war, missiles would buzz, and humanity would die. Then, in the late 1980s, the Berlin Wall fell, and the “iron curtain” collapsed. The Soviet Union collapsed into pieces, and with it the risk of apocalypse plummeted in our minds.
However, the arsenals did not disappear after the end of the Cold War. There were indeed some disarmament programs, but by and large, the destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons remained, even if the world decided to stop thinking about them.
The risk did not disappear, we simply closed our eyes. Thus, we reached 2022 when the Ukraine crisis made us wake up like Monterroso’s proverbial character, to look around us and discover in panic that, like the dinosaur in the story, nuclear bombs and Russia’s imperial visions were “still there.”
Confronting Putin is the right thing to do
So do we give in to the tyrant in Moscow, in the vain hope that he will satiate his ambitions in the blood of the Ukrainian republic? And then, in 3 or 5, or 10 years, when he launches himself against Poland or the Baltic States, do we give in again? Do we gift Europe to Putin, and (while we are at it) Asia to the Chinese dictatorship? These are not easy questions, but it seems to me that at this point, to give in is merely to postpone; it would be, to paraphrase that quote attributed to Churchill, to stay with humiliation and (eventually) with war.
A few days ago, Bret Stephens wrote in an unmissable article for The New York Times, where he asserts that “our vocal aversion to confrontation” invites Russian escalation, rather than deterring it. The normal course, he adds, is for Vladimir to redouble his attacks, even using low-yield chemical or nuclear weapons, to win quickly, terrorize the West and consolidate his power, especially considering that, even in such a scenario, sanctions against him would be only “marginally graver than the ones already inflicted.”
I broadly agree with this diagnosis. Putin has broken many diplomatic dikes and is poised to break more. To confront him, the West must be both prudent and effective. Russia must not win a complete victory over Ukraine, even if it means backing the defenders with Western troops, aware that giving in to Vladimir will not eliminate the risk of a World War III; on the contrary, it will feed Moscow’s voracity and show all the nuclear powers the way to fulfill its whims.
Yes, confronting Putin in Ukraine may provoke retaliation from Moscow, but that risk should not paralyze us. And it is nothing new, war is a shadow that we humans ourselves build and from which we cannot escape. All that remains is simply to do the right thing.
Gerardo Garibay Camarena, is a doctor of law, writer and political analyst with experience in the public and private sectors. His new book is "How to Play Chess Without Craps: A Guide to Reading Politics and Understanding Politicians" // Gerardo Garibay Camarena es doctor en derecho, escritor y analista político con experiencia en el sector público y privado. Su nuevo libro es “Cómo jugar al ajedrez Sin dados: Una guía para leer la política y entender a los políticos”