First the great hopes, now abysmal fears. The war poses existential questions for the Ukrainians, but also for Germans and Europeans. Vladimir Putin escalates, drafts 300,000 reservists, threatens to use nuclear weapons to dissuade the West from delivering arms to Ukraine.
This aid has enabled the attacked country to quickly recapture occupied territories. The successes strengthened the confidence that the war is coming to an end as the sense of justice demands: aggression must not be rewarded.
But now follows the look into the abyss. Is Ukraine’s freedom worth the risk to Westerners that Putin will reach for the nuclear bomb? Even if it were just a “small” battlefield weapon with a local effect in Ukraine: Is there a threat that Chancellor Olaf Scholz and US President Joe Biden want to avoid? That NATO countries are drawn into the war. And if the West gives in because Putin is threatening to use nuclear weapons, where will it stop: in the Baltic States, in Poland, in Berlin?
33 years after the end of the Cold War, the questions that had long tormented Europeans after 1945 are back. “Rather red than dead”: Would you rather bow to a dictatorship, then the Soviet Union, now Putin? Or vice versa “better dead than red” because you don’t want to live in such a world? And because the announcement of decisive resistance can dissuade the aggressor from escalating.
In the balance of power, Putin’s Russia is even more dramatically inferior to the West than was the Soviet Union. Why should Putin risk his downfall when he has no prospect of victory?
The trade-off between “red” and “dead” is an exaggeration. It makes clear what is at stake. But it only depicts the two extremes of a broad spectrum of possible courses of action.
Putin shies away from general mobilization
Putin is neither a suicide nor an irrational gambler. He weighs costs, benefits and risks. He shrinks from a general mobilization. War is not popular in Russia and the middle class is not willing to sacrifice their sons.
The call-up of 300,000 reservists initially does little to change the Ukrainian superiority. It takes months to recruit, equip, and bring them to the front lines. Until then, Ukraine can advance further if the West helps it.
There is also more than one reading of the referendums in occupied territories. The frightening interpretation: joining Russia is a pretext for Putin to prepare to use whatever means military doctrine allows to defend Russian territory.
A use of nuclear weapons would rob Putin of his last support
The other reading: Moscow has repeatedly postponed the vote due to local resistance. Separatist leaders want to stop them quickly, fearing that Putin will abandon them, forcing him to stand by them.
Using a nuclear weapon would rob Putin of the last backbone he has. China, India and African countries, which currently show – limited – understanding for him, would oppose him.
The dynamic of the past two weeks sounds paradoxical: the greater the success of Western aid, the greater the risk of how to proceed.
Germany and its allies face a dilemma. How can they enable Ukraine to achieve further successes without increasing the risks to an unmanageable level?
Chancellor Scholz has so far avoided growing pressure by postponing decisions, most notably the delivery of tanks. He referred to the motto: no going it alone! Even if that was an excuse with the tanks – it shows the way. The Germans are not alone in their fears. Nor does it depend on them what Putin does or refrains from doing.
If anything impresses him, it’s a resolute and united demeanor from the West. Therefore, not going it alone also means: no German No to further arms aid, for example joint tank deliveries, if the USA and European partners support this.
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