Will Western restraint survive a brutal battle in Kyiv?

Vladimir Putin and President Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

American and European powers have so far responded to Russia's invasion of Ukraine with a remarkable degree of unanimity, toughness, and restraint. We've imposed painful economic sanctions and isolated Russia in numerous other ways, but we've refrained from moves — like imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine — that would be maximally likely to start an escalatory spiral which could spark outright military hostilities between NATO and Russia.

But will such sobriety hold through the moral turbulence of the coming days and weeks?

Russia has already begun to fire rockets at civilian areas of Kharkiv, Ukraine's largest city. And 300 miles to the west, the battle for the capital of Kyiv is just getting underway, with aerial bombardment intensifying. That will only increase with each passing day, bringing images of unspeakable human suffering to the outside world. Eventually, Russian troops will enter the city, leading to even more horrific sights and sounds, as soldiers from both sides do battle in the streets.

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What will happen to public opinion throughout the Western world as these events unfold? American, British, or French air power could easily have bombed the 40-mile convoy of Russian forces as it has slowly moved into position outside of Kyiv over the past several days. But they didn't. Once those troops begin pummeling the city, killing more than consciences can bear, will people take to the streets of Western capitals, pivoting slightly from last weekend's anti-war, pro-Ukraine protests in Berlin, Amsterdam, London, and Milan to demand something be done to stop the slaughter? Will more than a handful of American politicians begin insisting we use our air power to give Ukrainian patriots a fighting chance and to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for ordering the bloodbath?

And then there's Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has become the face of Ukraine's courageous struggle against Russia's ruthlessness, his image and voice recognized and admired the world over. What if he is killed in battle, turned instantly into a martyr to his country's cause? Or captured by Russian forces and quickly convicted and executed in a military tribunal? That would be a foolish move in terms of propaganda. But then this whole operation has been a public relations disaster for Russia, so all bets are off.

Already we've seen tectonic shifts in geopolitics since Russia's invasion began. As things get bloodier on the ground in Ukraine, the urge to go much further down the road of escalation is bound to be fierce. Much depends on the West's capacity to keep its cool.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.