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The Bunker: Nukes Keep U.S. Sidelined Over Ukraine

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.


This week in The Bunker: The U.S. walks a fuzzy line, trying to help Ukraine battle Russia without starting World War III, as it says “no” to warplanes and no-fly zones; the “every inch” rhetoric; Germany buys a pig in a poke; and more.

BOOM SERVICE

Nuclear weapons keep the U.S. sidelined

"We don't pay taxes,” hotel magnate Leona Helmsley reputedly once said. “Only the little people pay taxes.” It works the same way when it comes to the brutal calculus of nuclear weapons: it keeps the U.S. and Russia (and before it, the Soviet Union) from going to war directly against each other. Instead, only the people in smaller countries—in Korea, Vietnam, and now Ukraine—have to die, unshielded by atomic umbrellas.

That U.S.-Russian standoff depends on the so-called logic of Mutually-Assured Destruction. It keeps each side’s atomic arms holstered, knowing a counter-strike will surely follow. But that requires mutual rationality to work. And that is something that has been in doubt ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his flawed Red-Starred invasion of Ukraine February 24. Three days later, he announced he had raised the alert level of his nuclear forces.

“The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned March 14. There are growing concerns that Putin could use small, low-yield nuclear weapons against Ukraine if Kyiv’s military continues to frustrate Moscow’s forces. “Russia is starting with threats in the hope that will work, but it retains the option of following through with actual nuclear strikes if it comes to that,” warns Matthew Kroenig, a nuclear-weapons expert who has served in the Pentagon.

There hasn’t been such a major interstate war in Europe since World War II ended there on May 8, 1945, nearly 77 years ago. V-E Day was 90 days before the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, signaling the dawn of the nuclear age. That is the stage on which this new European war is taking place. And that is the fear that is guiding the U.S. reaction to the horrors now unfolding in Ukraine.

PLANE-SPEAKING

U.S. shoots down planes—twice

The Biden administration has been resolute in staying out of the Russo-Ukrainian war. While eager to help supply Ukraine with weapons, and to deal with the growing humanitarian disaster Russia’s cruelty has unleashed, it has drawn two lines in the flak-filled air over Ukraine: first, it will not play a role in providing Ukraine with warplanes (either MiG-29s from Poland or A-10s from the U.S.). Second, it will not impose a no-fly-zone(PDF) over Ukraine to keep Russian warplanes out, despite repeated pleas from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do so. Instead, it has pretty much limited its lethal support to intelligence and sending missiles designed to kill Russian tanks and aircraft. Moscow has warned that such shipments are “legitimate targets” as it launches attacks ever closer to NATO soil.

It's a dangerous dance, trying to figure out the fuzzy line that the U.S. and NATO should not cross. Some maintain the U.S. should be doing more, perhaps imposing some kind of a limited no-fly-zone. But once warplanes bearing U.S. fingerprints are over Ukraine, one mistake could ignite a war between Russia and the U.S. When that fact is made clear by pollsters, U.S. support for a no-fly zone drops sharply. The Bunker once tagged along on such a mission against Iraq, and knows how quickly the best motives can flame out. He’ll never forget that grim 1994 day at the Pentagon after two U.S. Air Force F-15s flying over northern Iraq killed 26 people, including 15 Americans. They had mistaken a pair of U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for two Russian-built Iraqi Mi-24 Hind choppers and shot them over the sky.

The stakes of a shootdown involving Russian and NATO warplanes over Ukraine could be far more deadly.

“UNITY OF COMMENT”

Inching to, or from, war

Unity of command(PDF) is vital in any military organization. It basically means there is a single chain of command with each link following orders from the one above, and not some tangled spaghetti-plate command structure that leaves subordinates guessing whose orders to follow. “Unity of comment” may be just as important. It’s when those in charge repeatedly put down identical markers to ensure there is no doubt about what line should not be crossed. The Biden administration has made it clear that if Putin so much as makes a “minor incursion” into NATO territory, to recoin a phrase, war will break out between history’s most powerful military alliance and Russia.

“The United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power,” Biden said February 15, nine days before Russian tanks rumbled into Ukraine.

That talking point has gotten around:

“We will, if we must, defend every inch of NATO territory,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pledged at NATO headquarters in Belgium February 17.

“We’re going to do what we need to do to defend every inch of NATO territory,” Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said from the podium at the Pentagon press-briefing room February 25.

“We will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of our collective power,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in the former Soviet state of Estonia March 8.

“We take seriously our commitment to defend, if necessary, every inch of NATO territory,” Vice President Kamala Harris told U.S. troops in Poland March 11.

The same day, Biden repeated his pledge to “defend every single inch of NATO territory” from Russia, but declared anew that the U.S. military won’t venture into Ukraine to fight. “Don’t kid yourself,” he said. “That’s called World War III.”

In that case, better keep your fingers crossed that Putin’s troops don’t inch across that line, either.

“OPERATION ALLIED BARGAIN”

Germany to buy F-35s

On March 14, Germany said it plans to buy up to 35 Lockheed F-35s. It’s part of its move to boost its military spending by more than 50% following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Germans are going to need the extra bucks to pay for the plane, which seems to be “in a state of suspended development, with little progress made in 2021 toward improving its lackluster performance,” POGO’s Dan Grazier reported March 9. “Despite more than 20 years and approximately $62.5 billion spent so far on research and development alone, program officials still haven’t been able to deliver an aircraft that can fly as often as needed or to demonstrate its ability to perform in combat.” As they say, with friends like this…

WHAT WE'RE READING

Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently

Risky business

The Pentagon has it all wrong when it comes to weighing risk, Neils Abderhalden, an Air Force officer, explained March 11 in The Strategy Bridge.

Take your medicine!

The Army general in charge of developing and distributing COVID-19 vaccines reflects on the effort, and the lessons it offers the Pentagon, in this March 13 interview with Jen Judson at Defense News.

Combat-tested

She was protecting U.S. troops on the ground in Baghdad nearly 20 years ago when a missile shredded the tail of her A-10 attack plane. Retired Air Force Colonel Kim “Killer Chick” Campbell recalled the landing of a lifetime March 11 at Task & Purpose.

A-bomb ace

Russian General Evgeny Maslin, who collected the nuclear arsenals of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine and secured them in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has died at 84, the New York Times reported March 9. 1937-2022. R.I.P.

Whoops!

India’s Ministry of Defence announced March 11 that “a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile” into neighboring arch-enemy Pakistan. Luckily for the subcontinent, no one was hurt.

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