In Ukraine, when does more aid become too much?

The U.S. is helping Ukraine. Can we do more without starting World War III?

(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

More, more, more.

The United States has made an extraordinary effort — up to a certain point — to aid Ukraine in its defense against Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion. We're not wading directly into the fight, but we've sent thousands of tank-busting weapons to the country and led the way in crippling the Russian economy to deprive the invaders of resources to sustain their war. Partly because of these actions, but mostly because of the Ukrainians themselves, the invasion has faltered.

And yet, many Americans want to do even more. A new CBS News poll says half the country thinks the Biden Administration's measures haven't been tough enough, while just 12 percent think the White House response has been "too strong." (About a third think it's just right.) And there's no shortage of voices willing to urge escalation.

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There's Evelyn Farkas, a former assistant defense secretary under President Obama, calling in a Washington Post op-ed for a "humanitarian" no-fly zone, and suggesting the use of special operations forces to "advise" the Ukrainians. "We must be willing to accept some risk now to save human lives," she wrote. "We might also save ourselves from even greater risks — and sacrifices — later."

There are the 42 Republican senators who wrote last week to President Biden, demanding he help transfer MiG fighter jets to Ukraine. "Enough talk," said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah.) "People are dying, send them the planes that they need."

And there is Alexander Vindman, the former Army officer who served as a key witness in President Donald Trump's first impeachment, scoffing at Biden's repeated statements that he's not going to start World War III with Russia.

"Mr President, you're inviting disaster & emboldening Putin. This declaration invites Putin to pursue EVERY means to subdue Ukraine," Vindman wrote Friday on Twitter. "Of course the American people don't want a war with Russia, but they also don't want to watch Ukrainians slaughtered. We must do more."

The challenge? There is almost certainly a line between "how much the United States can help Ukraine without getting into a direct war with Russia" and "oops, we did too much and now World War III has started" — and we don't really know where that line is. We probably won't know until and unless we've stepped over it.

Prudence would suggest giving the line a wide berth.

Indeed, the practice of the Biden administration so far has been to try to avoid being overly provocative — by keeping its cool when Putin put his nuclear forces on alert, by refusing to put U.S. forces and facilities directly into the fight, and by repeatedly signaling a fervent desire to avoid an armed conflict with Russia. But Biden isn't being endlessly deferential to Russia: He has also repeatedly warned that the United States will "defend every inch of NATO territory," should it come to that. So far it hasn't come to that, thank goodness.

The hawks — Farkas, Vindman, GOP senators and many others — are in more of gambling mood. To be sure, they say they don't want to start World War III, either. "No one wants to broaden the war; no one wants a nuclear-armed NATO alliance fighting a nuclear Russian Federation," Farkas wrote. But they are also very willing to push U.S. activities closer to Putin's tipping point, apparently hoping to stop just short of provoking an outright conflict.

That seems foolhardy. You don't get a do-over on nuclear war. If you lose that bet, you lose everything, forever. "I feel like I'm losing my mind right now," the blogger known as "digby" wrote over the weekend. "Do people not understand what nuclear war is? Really?"

It's possible they don't: The Cold War ended 30 years ago. That means whole generations of Americans have grown up without the shadow of nuclear terror haunting their existence — they had no "duck and cover," no War Games or The Day After or On The Beach. It makes a difference in the mindset.

Similarly, while the president was around for a good chunk of the Cold War, our leadership class is made up mostly of people who don't have his generation's muscle memory that came from decades of trying to avoid a disastrous confrontation with Russia. Instead, many of them seem to be experiencing a "unipolarity hangover" — a set of habits left over from an era when American was nearly unchallengeable. But it would be a mistake to follow those instincts: The Russians can hurt us as much as we can hurt them. Which is to say: Quite badly.

That makes it imperative not to go too far in supporting Ukraine, no matter how justifiably angry and horrified we become. And that means being leery of the line between "not enough" and "too much." Countries blunder into catastrophic wars all the time, blinded by their own good intentions or overstepping because they're too convinced of their own strength. We're seeing such a blunder by Putin right now, but it's not like Americans have to look too far back in their own history for examples.

The truth is, we might be closer to the line than we think.

"I hope people understand the gravity of what we've been doing. We are active participants in this conflict," Andrew Exum, another defense official under the Obama administration, wrote over the weekend, adding: "I have worried some folks don't fully recognize the magnitude of what we're doing when we overtly ship the Ukrainians arms to kill Russians and then publicize the fact we're doing it."

Avoiding conflict doesn't mean it won't come. Maybe a weakened Putin lashes out and attacks a NATO country, and then all bets are off. Hopefully not. American leaders can only control the choices that they make and hope for the best. But they shouldn't be reckless. "More" might be too much. Right now, we know there's a line out there, somewhere, that is dangerous for us to cross. We don't want to find out the hard way that we've already crossed it.

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