Once the cycle of escalation starts, it's hard to stop.
So it's both alarming and unsurprising that Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Sunday put his country's nuclear forces on alert, pushing back against the flood of sanctions and angry rhetoric from Western leaders that has followed his decision to invade Ukraine. "Top officials in leading NATO countries have allowed themselves to make aggressive comments about our country," Putin said. He might have been referring to last week's comment from the French foreign minister that "the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance," which itself was a response to Putin's own nuclear-tinged warning against outside countries interfering in his war. Every tit-for-tat heating up of rhetoric just ratchets the tensions a little bit higher.
Escalating is easy. Prudence is difficult. But prudence is exactly what is needed from U.S. and European leaders in the days and weeks ahead.
What does that mean in this case? It doesn't mean surrendering to Putin's aggression by giving up sanctions against Russia or the (so-far) limited efforts to aid Ukraine in its defense. But it does mean remembering — as if he'd let us forget — that Putin has command of a large arsenal of nuclear weapons, and that any direct confrontation between NATO and Russian forces might turn a regional calamity into a worldwide disaster. It means (as my colleague Damon Linker put it) being very careful that the "urge to do something" doesn't make a bad situation much worse.
It means being calm, even when events seem to demand otherwise.
For example: It's easy to see how the U.S. response to Putin's nuclear provocation could spin out of control. As The New York Times' Max Fisher pointed out on Sunday, it's unlikely that Putin actually wants to start a nuclear war — but it's also possible the combination of itchy trigger fingers and simple misunderstandings could end in calamity. "Putin is not insane; he is not going to deliberately start a nuclear war," Fisher wrote. "Rather, the main risk is a freak accident or miscalculation that sets either side hurtling toward last-ditch 'defensive' strikes in error — very unlikely, but not impossible."
Which is why America's best response to Russia's nuclear alert is probably to do nothing for now. "Putin would like nothing better than to take everyone's mind off Ukraine and focus us all on a game of nuclear chicken," The Atlantic's Tom Nichols wrote Sunday. So why give him that opportunity?
The good news is that the Biden Administration is indeed playing it cool for the moment. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called Putin's escalation "totally unacceptable" — but there was no announcement that American forces were raising their own nuclear alert status. Prudent.
The bad news is that President Biden will be faced with dozens more moments like Sunday's, endless crises that will demand a fresh choice about whether or not to respond, and then how to respond effectively without being too provocative. With the stakes so high, it will be much easier to get those decisions wrong than to get them right. And those decisions — no matter how wise or unwise they end up being — will be instantly castigated by a Republican Party that has collectively decided that there will be no rallying around the flag for a Democratic president.
And if, as likely, things get worse in Ukraine in the short-term future, the voices calling for a "tougher" reaction from the United States are likely to get louder. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) is an honorable man, but his proposal of a U.S.-enforced "no-fly zone" over Ukraine would immediately, and probably violently, pit American forces against the Russian military. Similarly, glib talk of "regime change" in Russia will probably produce more problems than solutions. The hawkish impulse might be understandable in the current crisis — who doesn't want to see a bully get a bloody nose, and get it right this instant? — but that doesn't make it smart: If a bully has a gun, the satisfaction that comes from punching him might be short-lived. That would be … imprudent.
As always, President Biden might get every decision right and still end up with an unsatisfactory outcome: It remains very likely that Ukraine or some significant portion of it ends up under Putin's thumb. There may be no winning scenario for the good guys, only a series of less-bad possibilities. Anybody who says they have a secret-but-magical solution to the Russo-Ukraine war — like, say, former President Trump — is selling you something. Sometimes, there is no easy way forward.