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No-fly zone in Ukraine could lead to nuclear war

Mitchell Gurfield admires the sentiment of Mickey Friedman's latest article, but cautions against the advice of antagonizing a brutal Putin.

To the editor: 

I have known Mickey Friedman for almost six decades, and during our long friendship I have admired him greatly for both his intellect and his heart. We have had scores of political discussions and almost always have been in agreement. But with respect to his latest column dealing with what the United States and the West should do in response to Putin’s savage war against Ukraine, I find myself in strong disagreement with him. He advocates two measures that we should take. The first is to implement the no-fly zone that President Zelensky has been pleading for and the second is to establish humanitarian areas within Ukraine, defended by soldiers, including those possibly from NATO countries, where citizens can go to in order to be safe.

The rationale for his position is that the Ukrainian people are being slaughtered and it is now time to stand up to the bully, Putin.  He is, of course, right about the horrors that are being inflicted and that Putin is a bully (and a lot more). But he is wrong about standing up to him in the ways he suggests. The reason is that they would almost certainly lead to conventional armed conflict between Russia and the United States which, in turn, could escalate into nuclear war. The definition of the latter is mass mutual destruction, and up to now there has been an understanding among the nuclear powers that nuclear war is unthinkable and must never occur. But Putin can’t be counted on at this point to agree to this understanding. Ukraine, which he believes belongs to Russia, and which he has been obsessed with controlling, is a special case for him.

We don’t know for sure that Putin would resort to a first strike with nuclear weapons, but there are enough reasons to believe that he might. Here is what some of the Russia experts have told us: he is a brutal man; he hates the United States and the West, and believes he is locked in an existential conflict with them; he is determined to reestablish the Russian empire and that among his heroes are Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Stalin; he is a pre-modern, Christian mystic who believes in conspiratorial theories; he is paranoid and isolated inside the Kremlin, and final decisions are made by him alone. And from the way he has savaged Ukraine, can there be any doubt that he is driven by an underlying rage to accomplish his objectives.

All of this makes Putin exceedingly dangerous. We would in our hearts like to stand up to him with direct force. But, Mickey, this is not like the bullies you dealt with on the streets of New York City and at Dewitt Clinton High School. This is a bully with 6,000 nuclear weapons and the ability to destroy the whole world. So, we have to use our heads even when our hearts tell us something else. From all the information we have, the sanctions are hitting Russia hard and their effect will only be harder as time goes on. They are the proper, cool-headed rational response at this time. Should Putin decide to invade another country, that will call for more than sanctions.

There are times in life when the exercise of restraint of force is not weakness but the wisest policy. This is one of them. We are not appeasing Putin like Chamberlin did with Hitler. We are using economic sanctions, more powerful than at any other time in the history of the world, as a weapon. And by doing so, avoiding wider, more catastrophic war.

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