Russia and Ukraine: The Three Scariest Statements

Russia continues its war on Ukraine. The US and its allies continue flooding weapons into Ukraine. The war goes on, and Ukrainians continue to suffer and die.

The last several days have offered little hope but lots of fear. They have also offered three of the scariest statements yet of the war. They are scary because each one threatens to escalate or prolong the war.

No Ceasefire

In a July 22 interview, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rejected any ceasefire that allows Russia to hold on to Crimea and territories it has acquired since the start of the war. Since no Russian leader will return Crimea, that formulation seems to kill any hope of a ceasefire to this war.

"Freezing the conflict with the Russian Federation means a pause that gives the Russian Federation a break for rest," Zelensky said. "They will not use this pause to change their geopolitics or to renounce their claims on the former Soviet republics." Zelensky said a ceasefire would allow Russia to swallow Crimea and the Donbas and "Then it will rest and in two or three years, it will seize two more regions and say again: Freeze the conflict. And it will keep going further and further. One hundred percent."

The loss of hope for a ceasefire risks prolonging the war. It could also risk escalating it. In Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War, Lindsey O’Rourke argues that "chronic divergence of policy preferences" leads countries to undertake coups.

When countries face solvable problems, they often use diplomacy or coercion. One time problems may even lead to war. But if the problem is a chronic, intractable problem, since the problem appears unsolvable, the source of the problem needs to be removed. That can motivate countries to consider coups. It could also lead countries to expand their war goals.

The no ceasefire statement is scary because if the war can’t be stopped by a ceasefire, or if there can be no ceasefire without Russia giving up land it cannot agree to give up, then the risk of Russia attempting to end the war by accomplishing enhanced goals – be it coups or broader conquest – goes up.

Long Range Missiles

In June, the US announced the provision of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to Ukraine. At the same time, the UK announced that it will send Ukraine M270 multiple-launch rocket systems. These rocket launch systems can fire rockets 50 miles and, so, are capable of striking inside Russia.

Since Russia’s goals include keeping Ukraine out of NATO and keeping Ukraine from becoming a base for NATO weapons so close to Russia’s borders, Russia warned that weapons that can reach Russia from farther away mean Russia would have to push the boundary of the territory that could host them further away. "The longer the range of weapons you supply," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "the farther away the line from where [Ukraine] could threaten the Russian Federation will be pushed.”

The US and UK not only sent the weapons, leading Lavrov to declare that "the geographical tasks of the special operation of the Russian troops will change. . . . It’s far from being just the DPR and LPR [Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics], it’s also “Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions and a number of other territories,” they have promised to send more. The New York Times reports that on July 20, "American military officials said Wednesday that they planned to send four more of the M142 HIMARS multiple-rocket launch vehicles, as well as more of the guided rockets they fire and more guided artillery ammunition." Added to the sixteen HIMARS the US has already sent, that would make the total delivery to Ukraine twenty. The US has promised to send the new shipment of four HIMARS "as quickly as possible."

On July 27, Russian officials said that a key bridge that had to be closed after being damaged by Ukrainian fire was the target of "fire from U.S.-supplied high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS)."

The statement promising to send Ukraine more long-range rocket systems is scary because it risks expanding the war by pushing Russia’s boundary goals further west into Ukraine.

Crimea a Legitimate Target

Though Ukraine has apparently provided assurances to the US that it will not use the long range missiles to strike inside Russian territory, they have also apparently said that they could be used to strike inside Crimea.

The problem is that to the massive majority of Crimeans and Russians, Crimea is Russian territory. To Putin – or any Russian leader – using US supplied long range missiles to strike inside Crimea is using US supplied long range missiles to strike inside Russia. That, according to former president and current Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev, would lead to the Ukrainian leadership being “faced with a doomsday, very quick and tough, immediately.”

The statement that Crimea is a legitimate target of US supplied weapons is scary because it may cross Russia’s red line for US involvement in the war. Russia could expand its military targets and war aims if it feels that US involvement has become sufficiently intense to threaten the destruction of Russia or the loss of its acquired territories.

Attacks on Crimea with US supplied long range missiles could be seen by Russia as both. It could be seen as the loss of territory no Russian leader could lose. And, since Russia sees Crimea as Russia, the loss of Crimea could be seen as the destruction of the Russian state. The declaration that Crimea is a legitimate target, then, risks Russia escalating the war.

These three recent statements, the ruling out of a ceasefire, the provision of more long range rocket systems and the declaration that Crimea is a legitimate target, are three of the scariest statements yet because they all risk prolonging, extending or expanding a war that needs to stop.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.