Opinion | Western countries must optimize solution in Ukraine conflict


Photo courtesy of Simon Shuster/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Flickr

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits positions of armed forces near the frontline in the Donbass region, Ukraine April 9. Senior columnist Eddie Ryan argues that western countries should step up to aid Ukraine.

By Eddie Ryan, Senior Columnist

After several weeks of war, the reality of the invasion in Ukraine has only grown darker. To call Ukrainian resistance valiant would be an understatement. As these efforts have kept Kyiv alive, they’ve also driven Putin to bloodier siege and bombardment tactics.

As I write, the southern port city of Mariupol is getting the worst of it. Several efforts to establish humanitarian corridors have failed after Russian forces shelled fleeing civilians.

A maternal hospital was bombed, killing at least 17. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have spent the week trapped inside, ducking shells without access to water, power or electricity. The situation has been described as “apocalyptic.”

Over two million have fled Ukraine, and officials in some cities are preparing to dig mass graves in anticipation of mounting civilian deaths. Many around the world watch with horror, perched like trapeze artists on a wicked moral tightrope: Passivity feels heartless, yet action could bring further catastrophe.

It’s an appropriate moment to consider both what the West can do and what it shouldn’t try. There are at least four important response avenues to evaluate.

The first is sanctions. These have the greatest impact when countries really commit to them, as the West has started to do. But they also bring costs to the countries that lay them, including the risk that sanctions backfire.

President Biden and many European leaders have started to accept the inevitable: for sanctions to really hurt Putin, the West must make sacrifices. Biden finally took the difficult step of banning Russian oil and gas imports.

Targeting oligarchs and banks — SWIFT bans included — is great, but Russia is after all a petrostate. While inflation-weary Americans will get hit at the gas pump, Putin’s regime could potentially suffer a worse blow.

Will it work? There are no guarantees here. If Putin keeps enough Russians under the impression that the West is bullying them once again, they will bitterly associate the everyday pain of sanctions with the West alone. Economic woes turn into a win for Putin. This is where the role of media becomes crucial, and why solutions must be multipronged.

The second response path involves weapons deployments — probably good — and a no-fly zone — very bad. NATO and U.S. arms have bolstered Ukraine’s resistance. Still, there’s cause for caution; at any moment, Putin could conceivably flip and declare these shipments the kind of “intervention” he warned would be met with unprecedented retribution. The U.S.’s decision not to fly Polish jets to Ukraine directly from the American base in Berlin was prudent.

As for the no-fly zone, Fred Kaplan makes a sound case for why it shouldn’t even be on the table. Maintaining one would mean shooting down Russian planes and bombing their anti-aircraft artillery, akin to a military confrontation. Putin may be desperate; giving him an excuse to wage a broader war or even consider launching a nuclear missile would be a pretty stupid move.

The other two response paths get less attention. They involve peace terms and independent media.

The former are murkier, and there’s certainly been an absurd element to the talks Putin and Zelensky have had since the invasion. Still, this option has to be considered. Few people want to see Ukraine bullied into renouncing its sovereign ability to join NATO — even if many of those people consider Ukrainian membership unwise. Recognizing the Crimean annexation or partially demilitarizing are also unappealing choices. Nevertheless, these concessions beat a fallen Kyiv.

Of course, the concessions avenue is horribly unsatisfying, since it leaves the door open for Putin to come calling again with fresh demands. Ukraine would gradually be ground into a Russian satellite state.

Subverting Putin’s propaganda machine could be the key to unraveling his shroud of legitimacy — but it would have to come from Russians themselves. One Russian journalist argued that independent media subject to censorship should publish nothing rather than serve as mouthpieces of the state. Doing so could prompt citizens who usually absorb state headlines to question what’s really going on. It could disrupt the fabric of ignorance that keeps a mass protest movement from coalescing.

Here’s where these solutions must work in tandem. No matter how badly Russian citizens suffer from sanctions, Putin’s maniacal scheme will survive unless the pain is channeled into widespread dissent. Without strategic resistance efforts by Russian journalists, there won’t be unrest.

In view of all this, the best-case scenario is a protest movement raucous enough to cause a collapse of Putin’s regime. Worst-case, the West puts troops on Ukrainian soil or planes in its airspace and Putin fires a nuke.

What seems most likely is a very depressing state of affairs. Either Kyiv falls within weeks and Moscow installs a puppet government or Zelensky signs off on concessions and Russian bullying resumes later. Nobody wins — not Putin, who’s already incurred political and logistical costs and certainly not Ukraine or the West. To help Ukraine without worsening matters, the West should strive for the optimal combination of these four strategies.


Eddie is a junior in LAS.

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