It’s a problem with every sizeable military conflict. It begins with heightened interest, somewhat clear goals, and usually hopes for a negotiated settlement. The world is engaged, through humanitarian support or significant events, expressing solidarity. Media is all over it, and billions watch, transfixed.
In almost every case, the conflict gets bogged down. Talks between the two combatants are inevitably unsuccessful, and the war becomes one of attrition. Over time, those nations at a distance from the region eventually lose interest. That’s especially true of democracies because of their short attention spans. Invariably, media pulls out in pursuit of other global emergencies or domestic priorities. Unless you have family involved in one fashion or another in the conflict, you move on. Such is the way of human nature.
One of the critical mitigating factors in such situations is historic agreements or alliances that commit other nations to take military actions to support one side. The world wars drew in other countries as the conflicts ensued. In the case of Ukraine, few such alliances were present. As the battle began, they were neither a member of the European Union nor NATO, so any support given to them by others, though significant, wouldn’t draw the military might of NATO into the war.
I have had some personal experiences of this in both Asia and Africa. The growing human catastrophe drew in other players to save whatever human lives they could in both situations. No-fly zones were established, coupled with humanitarian corridors to transport aid to the conflicted regions. They were always broken by one side or the other but were workable enough to keep people alive. Our own three southern Sudanese children survived through such means.
The problem with Ukraine is Putin’s threat to use tactical nuclear warheads. It changes everything. Do you protect airspace to safeguard humanitarian supply chains, knowing that any encounter in the air with Russia could set off something unimaginable? Or do you keep attempting other methods of funnelling supplies into Ukraine? A debate ensues in the rest of the world that becomes more complicated the longer the fight continues.
This immediate threat of Putin’s going nuclear works to his advantage but confounds the world, including international bodies like the United Nations. The choice becomes almost untenable over time, as increasing amounts of civilians perish or form part of the movement of humanity fleeing to other countries. How long can the world watch as the carnage continues? Over time, most individuals initially engaged with the conflict move off, leaving the problem with governments, the UN, the EU, and even NATO.
Women and children are increasingly falling victim to this conflict. Ukrainian men and even boys use whatever weapons they can find, and their casualty rate will grow as the weeks, months, and years ensue. In a war of attrition like this, a decision will have to be made: allow Putin to continue the civilian carnage or risk the nuclear option by protecting civilians caught in the mayhem.
Sometime this coming week, the number of Ukrainians fleeing the country and becoming refugees will reach 1.5 million. Of those, over half a million will be children. This is ever the way with senseless war. As Gandhi once put it: “If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.” Conflict becomes senseless when we no longer heed that lesson.
Refugees from Ukraine will be primarily women and children since men between 18 and 60 will be staying to fight. Many kids will lose their fathers, grandfathers, and sometimes their mothers forever. Whenever this kind of conflict rears its ugly head, parents seek to get their children to someplace safe, just as the English did in World War Two. We aren’t even two weeks into the conflict, and Ukrainian children are now traumatized, surrounded by mortality, and increasingly facing a future without a father, a mother, or both.
As this conflict wears on and Russia inevitably gains the upper hand, images of the carnage will play much more on the western mind than they do at present. When enough children perish, pressure will mount for someone to do something, likely starting with creating open skies. Critics will continually point out that doing so risks the use of nuclear weapons, and they won’t be wrong.
So, which is it: protect thousands from dying, or risk the loss of tens of thousands, perhaps more, from the use of tactical nuclear weapons? Both sides of the debate are legitimate and deserve a clear airing without senseless judgment. It will be an excruciating thing for those of us engaged in what’s going on when this war goes on and on, with dead bodies piling up over our lack of action. The regret will also become severe if a madman puts nuclear weapons into play. This is the most difficult of all decisions. This is war. This is something that came about because we have been in the process of losing the global consensus we built, maintained, and defended following the insanity of the Second World War. We should have done a better job, all of us.