One thing that has become crystal clear as Russia continues to advance in Ukraine is how helpless the United States-led Nato alliance looks despite calls to act more decisively to stop the war. Despite the clear signs that were coming from Moscow for months, the alliance today looks like a deer caught in the headlights — so confused it is either unable or not willing to do anything.
The US and other countries have already supplied Ukraine with weapons, anti-aircraft systems and intelligence capabilities. The question on everybody’s mind though is what Nato will do if the conflict escalates further. More importantly, who will win if Nato decides to declare war on Russia, the world’s most formidable nuclear power?
Nato has so far remained on the sidelines, theoretically. Apart from supplying military equipment, the alliance has resisted calls for direct intervention. The US and its allies have even ruled out a move to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine as demanded by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his supporters in the west.
Addressing the US Congress virtually last week, Zelensky appealed passionately for a no-fly zone over his country. He concluded his speech with a video that ended with the words, “Close the sky over Ukraine.” In similar speeches he has made during the past month, he urged everyone who would listen to confront Russia’s air power. “If you don’t help us now, if you fail to offer a powerful assistance to Ukraine, tomorrow the war will knock on your door,” he warned Nato leaders in one of those speeches.
Those who support Zelensky argue that a Nato vs Russia conflict is inevitable anyway. General Sir Chris Deverell, the former British military chief, tweeted few days ago that imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine seems increasingly “necessary”, adding that Nato is destined to face Russia sooner or later.
In a series of tweets, Deverell said he was initially against the imposition of a no-fly zone by Nato in Ukraine, believing it would surely escalate the conflict. But as Putin seems hell-bent on escalation, the question now is: “Does Nato fight him now or fight him later?” The same logic has been shared by the American conservative group the Atlantic Council.
The repeated calls have somehow been so effective that a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that “a broad bipartisan majority of Americans”, 74 per cent, think the US should work with Nato to set up no-fly zones “to protect Ukraine from Russian air strikes.”
But to put it simply, imposing a no-fly zone is practically a declaration of war with Russia. It is basically a military commitment to ensure that no Russian aircraft fly over Ukraine. To implement that, the US and Nato will have to patrol the skies over Ukraine and shoot down any Russian plane that enters that airspace. Russia is unlikely to accept the decision and will certainly not refrain from flying over Ukraine — an all-out war is sure. That is the reason Western leaders have been ruling out the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone.
The core principle of Nato is collective defence. If any member state is attacked by a third party, then every member state must step in to defend it. Ukraine is, of course, not a member and therefore the alliance is not obliged to defend it. But many in the West have called for action citing a bigger danger if Russia’s offensive in Ukraine is not checked now.
This growing idea was notably floated by the UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss last week. If the war is not stopped in Ukraine, she said, “we are going to see others under threat — the Baltics, Poland, Moldova, and it could end up in a conflict with Nato”.
But will Nato be able to stand up to Russia in this increasingly inevitable war? The answer is not so simple but the consequences will be unimaginable. Nato plus the US outgun Russia, marginally though. But without the full force of the US, there is absolutely no way European powers would stand a chance.
Russia has an active military force of 1.154 million soldiers. With the reserve and paramilitary forces, the number will exceed the 3 million mark. Russia also has the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons — approximately 6,400 warheads. Russia has a conventional war advantage with more than 22,710 battle tanks.
The leading Nato power, the US, has an army of active 1.346 million soldiers. With the reserve forces, the number will go up to a little over 2 million. But the US has a great advantage in the air and the sea. With 14,061 planes (vs Russia’s 3,212) and the Navy’s 17,781 ships (including 11 aircraft carrier) vs Russia’s 4,650 vessels (one aircraft carrier), the US clearly has an edge.
Other Nato members don’t even come close to those massive numbers. But the three leading Nato members, the US, France and the UK have between them at least 6,600 nuclear warheads, slightly bigger than Russia’s.
Will we reach that stage where we will be talking nuclear? I doubt, although the recent developments showed that nothing is out of the question these days. Nato will surely want to stay out of this conflict as long as possible. Its leaders know that a war with Russia will be MAD (mutually assured destruction).
But for how long can the alliance afford to stay on the sidelines? That is not clear and may not be as assured. The public opinion in the West has so far been restrained. No large protests. Perhaps thousands here and few more thousands there. But as the war intensifies, and the bloody images of casualties hit the screens and social media platforms, Western leaders will feel the heat. They may not be able to stay out of this for long.
Russia knows that too and its forces have thus been restrained so far. They have been careful in their strikes to avoid civilian casualties. Otherwise, the planet may not survive this time this MAD situation.