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What Will Start the War?

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Floyd Ciruli

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History and polling indicate some of the circumstances that restrain and propel the U.S. to war. Iraq and Afghanistan are recent memories of failed military engagements offering restraint, but recent public opinion research shows that Americans strongly support Ukraine and oppose Russia since the invasion.

  • Russia is seen as a threat, Putin a very bad actor
  • Ukraine and President Zelenskyy have overwhelming approval
  • Sanctions have bipartisan support, even if prices rise
  • Growing abhorrence of the war crimes
  • But strong opposition to use of troops in direct combat with Russians, some (partisan) criticism of NATO and apprehension about danger of use of atomic weapons

The Biden administration and NATO members are very cautious to not engage directly with Russia while providing material help and imposing severe sanctions. Russia, of course, knows this caution and is expert in American and European public opinion and leadership views. They work diligently to expand the zone of non-interference as to what constitutes “war” and raise the possibility of countermeasures, including the threat of nuclear weapons. Their goal is to divide the alliance and populations and to hold the West at the NATO borders while the war continues.

Unfortunately for Russia, the war is taking much longer than expected and the media coverage of the carnage is building increased hostility toward Russia’s actions and Putin specifically. There is public pressure for more action. The U.S. administration remains cautious, but has used more aggressive accusations and rhetoric about war crimes and genocide.

What could get America into combat?

President Biden and NATO have said a direct attack on NATO would trigger an “appropriate” response. The following have been mentioned as serious enough to cause the U.S.-NATO to examine an “appropriate” or “proportional” response.

  • Direct attacks of a NATO country
  • Attack in non-Ukraine space against American forces, such as an attack against a U.S./NATO military plane or a Black Sea ship
  • The use of chemical weapons

But the debate today is: Should NATO and the U.S. try to create a no-fly zone, safe corridors or provide food, water and medical help to trapped civilians? Putin would likely claim it an act of war. Even if the U.S./NATO actions didn’t produce a specific counteraction from Russia, the effort to implement and protect the programs could put the U.S./NATO in combat with Russian forces and weapons, including some in Russian territory. That could produce the escalation the West is trying to avoid.