A Western aversion to casualties and fears of Russian nuclear use are impeding NATO intervention against a vastly inferior opponent.
Liberal democracies have war fatigue. It has been demonstrated by disengagement and withdrawal from conflicts (like in Afghanistan) and limited interventions (like in Syria, Libya, and Yemen), where Western forces reduced dependence on ground forces and concentrated on airstrikes and assistance to other fighting forces, such as the Saudis in Yemen and rebels in Syria. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 passed with few consequences for Russia, and as Russia prepared to invade the rest of Ukraine on Feb. 24, it was clear that Western nations would stick to a policy of nonengagement.
Sanctions against Russia have been severe, and Ukrainian forces have been receiving weapons, equipment, and valuable intelligence from Western nations, which have allowed them to deploy unexpected force against Russian troops—fiercely contesting their invasion and causing thousands of casualties, loss of tanks, and other armored vehicles, rocket launchers, aircraft, and ships. Diplomatic efforts to keep Russia isolated have also been crucial.
However, Russia’s indiscriminate attacks against Ukrainian civilians—including bombing hospitals and schools as well as the use of horrific weapons, such as cluster bombs and white phosphorus—should drive the West to reevaluate its war engagement policy and take a more active role by implementing a no-fly zone or securing evacuation corridors—perhaps even actively fighting Russian forces.
The main concern is any such escalation could lead to World War III. There are two reasons that this is unlikely. The first is that Russia’s military capabilities are poor relative to those of Western armies. Their forces are not sufficiently trained; their equipment and weapons are dated and inferior; they experience major logistical, operational, and tactical difficulties; and their soldiers have low morale.
Damaging economic sanctions also mean that Russia may not be able to fund a wider war. The expectation that Moscow will be able to escalate the war into other theaters in an effective way, especially by conventional means, is unrealistic. It is possible that if the Russian military continues to struggle, Russian President Vladimir Putin will deploy chemical or even nuclear weapons to increase gains and deter the West from interfering—but that is unlikely.
The second is that Russia has become isolated. To fight a world war, Russia needs powerful allies, which it does not have. Its strongest ally, China, has largely remained on the sidelines since the war started. It abstained from voting against the U.N. resolution demanding that Russia ends its offensive, and it is worried about secondary sanctions if it aids Russia. The only countries besides Russia that voted to reject the resolution were Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria—hardly a winning alliance. Both world wars saw blocks of powerful allies fight one another. Currently, such a bloc does not exist on Russia’s side.
These factors mean that there is not a high risk of substantial escalation into total global war. This should be enough to convince Western nations to change their engagement policy and help Ukraine win the war by repulsing an opponent that is considerably inferior militarily to their own forces. It is unlikely to happen for two main reasons: fear of Russian nukes and the West’s aversion to casualties.
The most widely discussed reason is the concern that Russia will use nuclear weapons if NATO intervenes militarily. Putin has reasserted Russia’s right to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, making this a legitimate concern. However, it is more likely that nuclear deterrence—albeit different to Cold War deterrence—will hold. Russia’s deployment of nuclear weapons, either against Ukraine or against a NATO member state, could incur devastating consequences for Russia.
As then-U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said in 2018, dismissing the notion that tactical nuclear weapons are somehow a lesser threat, “Any nuclear weapon used … is a strategic game-changer.” Therefore, if NATO retaliates with a powerful response, either nuclear or conventional, it may target strategic Russian military positions and perhaps even sites of political power, aiming at wiping out Russian military capabilities and targeting those in positions of authority—a move that could threaten Putin’s leadership. A NATO retaliation should therefore be considered a major threat to Putin, especially because rivals include numerous nations with considerable nuclear capabilities, such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France.
In addition, at the heart of this conflict stands national identity. Putin has little motivation to devastate a county that he wishes to annex and has not knowingly made any preparations for using nuclear weapons. Fear of the bomb accounts for one reason behind the West’s decision to leave Ukraine to fight on its own.
Another consideration is fundamental to the West: casualty sensitivity.
Sensitivity to casualties—specifically deaths among troops—has become a major element affecting liberal democracies’ war preparedness, use of force, and decision-making regarding participation in wars.
The trauma of Britain’s so-called lost generation followed the loss of 750,000 troops in World War I. It overwhelmed the public and affected interwar foreign policy and military preparedness in a misguided attempt to avoid another war. The same happened in other liberal democracies scarred by the war, such as France, whereas countries with shallower liberal and democratic traditions—such as Germany, which suffered heavier losses than France and Britain—consequently gravitated toward fascism and reverted to militarism.
Conflict behavior and public attitudes toward wars have undergone deep changes during the 20th and 21st centuries as a result of extensive liberalization and democratization processes. Liberal concepts of individualism, personal freedoms, a reduction in internal violence, and a comfortable lifestyle that includes longer life expectancy brought about changes in attitudes about war—primarily, that it is an undesirable way to resolve conflicts. Rejecting the violence and suffering that comes with it has made it difficult for leaders of liberal democracies to justify to the public participation in wars, especially wars of choice, in which the nation is not under direct threat.
The United States’ interventions in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, and Iraq, for example, were shaped by the casualties incurred. The 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 U.S. service members and the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, where 18 U.S. soldiers died, provoked powerful reactions against the missions, bringing them to an abrupt end despite them initially enjoying wide public support.
A similar reaction came after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in January 1968, which resulted in 1,500 American fatalities. It was a watershed moment that changed the debate about the war and led to the shelving of plans for escalation. Support for the second war in Iraq also fell dramatically as deaths mounted, causing the American public to question the necessity of the war or its conduct and chances of success.