America’s Direct Conflict with Russia Tied to Long Conflict in Ukraine

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  • 09/21/2022

The big powers may get drawn deeper into conflict with Russia if things don’t change quickly. The European Union is not doing everything it can to put maximum pressure on Russia. NATO’s future is tied up on whether Ukraine can continue to be a buffer between Russia and the West. And the United States is likely to get drawn in if the stalemate continues for a long period of time.

Think about these scenarios. If Russia ends up taking all of Ukraine, then the conflict will end with Russia and NATO at a stalemate and with no buffer zone between the two military foes. If Ukraine pushes Russia back to pre-invasion areas, then declares victory, the conflict will reset to the status quo before the invasion. But if the conflict goes on for another year with no end in sight, that could draw both NATO and the United States into a direct conflict with Russia.

The EU is in a tough neighborhood. The Russians are right nearby, and they are making progress in their attempt to destroy Ukraine before it can move (politically) toward the West. As a way to push back, the EU is willing to impose sanctions against Russia. But it isn’t doing everything it needs to do in order to win. It is stopping short of sanctioning a key metal: Russian titanium. Light and flexible, titanium is used in making modern aircraft. Russia is the world’s third-largest titanium producer. That is why Airbus, the big European aerospace company, doesn’t want sanctions to include the metal. Airbus gets about half of the titanium it uses from Russia, so it argues that an embargo on the metal would hurt Europe more than it would hurt Russia.

“We think sanctioning titanium from Russia would be sanctioning ourselves,” Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury said recently. Well, it would be sanctioning Airbus, of course. But Airbus is not, and shouldn’t be, representative of the entire EU.

The Ukrainians, who are on the front lines, know what the stakes are right now. Volodymyr Zelensky told the Davos Forum this year that “maximum sanctions” are the only way to stop Russia. “This is really the moment when it is decided whether brute force will rule the world,” the Ukrainian president warned. “If so, there is no need for further meetings in Davos.” Such sanctions would, of course, include titanium.

The EU isn’t the only institution at risk here. There may also be no future need for NATO. “NATO will have to get its feet wet if it wants anything other than a frozen conflict that carries on without resolution (unfortunately the preferred outcome of many in the West),” writes columnist Holman Jenkins in the Wall Street Journal. “Putin can’t lose to Ukraine, he has to lose to NATO.”

His point is that there may be a future military role for NATO in Europe. If that happens, though, it won’t need Airbus to succeed.

NATO is in another difficult situation, because if NATO intervenes to help Ukraine win, that might trigger Russia to open up a new front and expand the war to a NATO country. There has been no shortage of tough talk coming from the Russians towards the West if they see the U.S.  or NATO intervening in the conflict.

The United States has been aggressive in providing both humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine. The fear is that we get drawn in deeper and deeper as the war continues over a long period of time. Russia is having a tough time getting out of the war. Jenkins adds in the WSJ that “Putin has something to fight for yet to avoid the worst consequences of his own botched aggression, with Ukraine becoming a regional military superpower, getting stronger and stronger with Western backing, while Russia gets weaker and weaker under sanctions, its Chinese captivity, and a war it doesn’t know how to get out of.” The sanctions are working and are one way to keep the United States out of a direct conflict with Russia. Companies like Airbus are undermining the effort to keep both the United States and NATO out of a dangerous escalation of hostilities. By resisting sanctions on titanium, Airbus is making the world more dangerous.

If the EU wants to help Putin find the off-ramp, it could do so by imposing the maximum possible sanctions, including sanctions on titanium. And it could make clear that military contractors like Airbus work for the EU, not the other way around. Until then, it isn’t clear that the EU is doing everything needed to end the conflict, even though it can’t afford to lose.



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