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Littwin: Is Biden too cautious in arming Ukraine? Or is his memory better than you think?

The one thing that Biden and Trump — both of a certain age — seem to agree on is that Russia’s stalled war in Ukraine could still lead to the possibility of World War III.

Every night I turn on the TV to check in on Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine — the all-too-real March Madness, brought directly to our living rooms.

And I find that I root for a variety of outcomes — one, that the war ends today, with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, dressed in his olive green T-shirt, leading the victory parade; two, if Ukraine can’t win, it can at least play to a negotiated truce; and, three, that whatever else happens, this war doesn’t somehow lead to World War III. 

Mike Littwin

Once, a Ukrainian victory over the Russian behemoth seemed unlikely, if not impossible. But despite the wanton destruction, the needless deaths, the shattered buildings, the desperate refugees, the willful attacks on civilians, the bombs aimed at hospitals, the war seems to be at something of a stalemate, or so the experts tell us. 

But we also know that tens of thousands face catastrophe in Mariupol.

Yes, the economic sanctions — and the multinationals that are leaving Moscow — are having a clear impact on not just Putin and the oligarchs but also the Russian people, and not just because they can’t get to McDonald’s.

Maybe whoever said it first — that Russia is a third-rate power that is really little more than a gas station with nukes — had it right.

But it’s the with-nukes part that must concern us. That’s why we must consider the prospect of World War III — which doesn’t mean a world war in the traditional sense so much as it does a nuclear war, with much of the world turned into what some call collateral damage. The conventional wisdom was that Russian troops would march directly to Kyiv, topple the government and set up a puppet regime. If that also turned into a Russian disaster — the prospect for a well-supplied and motivated Ukrainian insurgency was always in the cards — it wouldn’t lead to nuclear war.

Maybe you have to be of a certain age to understand the risks. As far as I can tell, the one thing that Joe Biden and Donald Trump — who are both definitely of a certain age — seem to agree on is that the war in Ukraine could, in fact, lead to World War III. They both remember just how hot the Cold War could get.

They blame different people, of course, for the crisis. Trump blames Biden. Biden blames Putin. Fortunately, most Republicans, even those who freely criticize Biden for being too cautious in supplying Ukraine, blame Putin, too. 

Biden has been insistent that we will not fight World War III in Ukraine. That’s why he won’t agree to a no-fly zone. That’s why, despite pressure from Republicans and some Democrats, Biden has been reluctant to give Ukraine offensive weapons — including a few dozen old Polish MiG-29 fighter jets. Every step Biden and the NATO allies take in arming Ukraine with defensive weapons — with as many Stinger and Javelin missiles as we can turn out — could be seen as a provocation by Putin. No one really knows what step could be the provocation too far.

We can only hope that Putin has the same concerns when he considers, say, using chemical weapons in Ukraine or if he were to attack a NATO country that we are bound, by treaty, to protect.

It’s hard to remember the last time that the possibility of World War III was on the table. I’m not sure exactly when the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction — MAD — finally took hold, but it was sometime after the Cuban Missile Crisis when World War III seemed to come all too close. I was all of 13 in 1962 when I got my introduction to the concept of mortality.

A friend of mine, whose dad was a fighter pilot stationed in Germany during the crisis, was telling me the other day about how his father’s plane was on full alert, armed with nukes and pointing toward Soviet targets. A mistaken message, a false move, a rogue commander, anything was possible.

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Eventually the wall fell, the Soviet Union crumbled and democracy seemed to be on the march. And although Russia kept its nukes — and made a deal, now broken, to take back Ukrainian nukes in exchange for security guarantees — the chance of nuclear conflict seemed ever more remote.

But what if Putin is serious — and not just fear-mongering — when he talks of using limited nuclear weapons? Putin has already attacked a nuclear energy plant in Ukraine. I tend to dismiss the armchair psychologists who say Putin has gone mad, but I don’t dismiss the risk of desperation.

And now we’re told, or maybe we just weren’t listening before, that Russia and the United States both have smaller nuclear weapons that are much less destructive than the ones we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What could we get then — World War II ¾?

The most obvious thing about the war is that Putin has made a terrible miscalculation and now seems to have no idea how to undo his mistake. Once, it would have been easy enough for him to stop the war, negotiate terms and declare victory. Now, there are estimates of as many as 10,000 Russian soldiers, and maybe more, who have died. 

And if Putin’s propaganda has convinced a majority of the Russians that they’re fighting Nazis in Ukraine— a move Stalin would have enjoyed— how does he explain coming home with all those body bags while leaving the so-called Nazis in power? 

Biden is heading to Europe for a series of meetings with heads of NATO countries, to talk of next steps and, mostly, to show Putin once again that his biggest miscalculation was believing his invasion of Ukraine would split the NATO alliance. 

For those of us safely at home, war may be hell, as the general famously said, but it’s also the ultimate made-for-cable-TV-news event. You have an obvious bad guy in Putin and then you have Zelenskyy, the hero, the one who chose to stay in Kyiv to rally his people, even as the Russian troops seemed to be hours from reaching the capital. 

The great movie director Francois Truffaut once said that no matter the intention, “Every film about war ends up being pro-war.”

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And I worry that he’s right — and that a real war playing out on TV is not so different.

And every time Zelenskyy says that we in the West, we in the United States, must do more, must set up a no-fly zone, must send in ever more powerful weapons of war, I know how hard he is to resist. More than just charisma, the former comic/actor now has the receipts. Who doesn’t want to help him? Who doesn’t want to help the brave Ukrainian fighters? Who doesn’t feel it in his gut?

But ask yourself this, what if the Russians regroup and the war turns, what would we do then? Where would we draw the line? How do we know if Putin is playing Nixon’s Madman card or if a nuclear threat is real?

That’s the problem. We don’t know how far we can push Putin. But the problem runs even deeper than that. The truth is, the last thing we want to do is to ever find out.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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