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On Ukraine, there’s no war that emotional hastiness can’t make worse

Make no mistake about it: the war in Ukraine is, quite clearly, awful, and the ordinary citizens of Ukraine are undoubtedly victims in it.

Right now there is heated debate in the West over the origins of this mess and which geopolitical factions are to blame. Is Russia mainly responsible, or NATO? Did Zelensky provoke Putin, or is the Russian President simply an evil madman? Is everyone responsible to some degree? Who is in the wrong?

Many of the debate’s most passionate participants tend to be people hundreds of kilometres away from the violence in unrelated countries, tweeting from the safety and comfort of their homes. But at this moment, how the conflict started and who is in the wrong is actually irrelevant.

The fact is, innocent Ukrainian civilians are being killed in their own country and in their own cities by foreign soldiers. Regardless of circumstance, that is wrong and a tragedy which is to be unequivocally condemned by any right-thinking person.

The question that faces us now is, what exactly should be done about it?

America and the EU’s response so far is clear: provide the Ukrainians with hundreds of millions of euros worth of deadly weapons to kill the Russian forces. They’re sending everything from anti-tank weapons, to Stinger missiles which caused havoc for the Soviets in Afghanistan.

While the Irish government insists that they’re not sending weapons and will only be providing non-lethal materials like fuel, this generally assists the war effort, and no doubt at least some of that fuel will be used in military vehicles.

The West has put heavy sanctions on Russia, and is providing info to the Ukrainians about where Russian troops are to kill them.

Some are even threatening to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would mean EU and NATO forces shooting down Russian aircraft that entered the country.

All of this might be emotionally satisfying, and help us to feel like we are helping an oppressed people in need. But are these the right moves?

It’s an interesting facet of human nature that, when it comes to fights – even low-level street fights – people only tend to think of what they’re going to do. “I’ll slap the head off yer man, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.”

But they rarely think about how the other person is going to respond.

Is getting shot part of your plan? Because shooting people that slap him might be part of his. There aren’t many people who will just stand there and allow you to take action against them – retaliation is inevitable, and saying “But he started it!” won’t really do you much good when that retaliation comes. In the heat of the moment we often forget to stop and think about that obvious next step.

That’s true of individual man-on-man conflict, and the very same principle applies to war and geopolitics.

It’s all well and good to run around thinking “Let’s arm Ukraine, let’s sanction Russia, let’s do this & that.” But many don’t stop to think one step further: how will Putin respond?

Just because EU troops aren’t pulling the trigger, if the bloc is providing guns and bullets which will kill Russian soldiers, it’s easy to see how Putin could interpret it as a huge escalation. It’s probable that Russia won’t take kindly to their soldiers being shot with German and American weapons.

You may say “Well Russia deserves it, Ukraine needs our help” – and that very well may be true. But we should realise the gravity of this decision and acknowledge that the situation is ratcheting up big time.

If, hypothetically, the EU states were at war with an enemy, and China was giving our foes guns and bombs to kill us with, most people would consider China to be throwing its hat into the arena. Right or wrong, it would warrant a big response. And it’s likely that Russia feels similarly about us.

None of this is a defence of Putin or a critique of Ukraine. But it is to say, we should understand the potential consequences of what we’re doing and where this could lead.

It’s well known by now (or it should be) that Europe relies heavily on imported Russian gas to keep the lights on. The EU gets around 41% of its gas from Russia, 47% of its solid fuel such as coal, and 27% of its crude oil.

What this means is, at the moment’s notice, Putin could decide to stop supplying Europe with energy, and plunge the entire continent into darkness. Fuel shortages would mean you couldn’t drive your car (even electric ones). We could be stumbling around by candle light with fuel and electricity rationing in place. The economy would grind to a standstill.

In Texas, around this time last year, power went out during a cold snap and hundreds of people died in their home from the cold, including one 11 year old boy who froze to death in his bed. People had to huddle in their cars with the heating on to avoid literally dying of hypothermia. This happened in a first world, modern, developed country.

Imagine that, but instead of being confined to just one state like Texas, it’s all of the EU – a continent of half a billion people. Power outages are absolutely no joke and can be seriously deadly.

The German power grid (and by extension the European grid) almost collapsed a year or so ago just from a bout of particularly cold weather. And that was an accident – imagine what could happen if it was another world power deliberately attacking our energy supply.

Moreover, Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal on earth, with 5,977 warheads at its disposal.

For a sense of scale here, according to World Atlas, there are around 4,416 cities on earth. Not just capital cities mind you – cities in general. That includes Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Galway, Waterford, Limerick – etcetera. Russia has enough nuclear bombs for every city on the entire planet, with around 1,500 left over.

“He wouldn’t be mad enough to use nukes,” you might say. “Sure, that would mean him being destroyed too. That’s what M.A.D. is all about.”

But Putin has already put Russia’s nuclear forces on special alert, and Russian state-run media is saying some fairly concerning things about the prospect of nuclear annihilation.

Dmitry Kiselyov is a journalist appointed by Putin to run Rossiya Segodnya – a Russian state-run news agency. He used to work for USSR Central Television and has long been a major media voice in the country.

This week, Kiselyov said on-air:

“Our submarines can shoot more than 500 nuclear warheads. This would guarantee destruction of the USA, and all other NATO countries. In accordance with the principle ‘Why do we need the world, if Russia isn’t there?’ Russia’s nuclear arms are delivered by the world’s fastest strategic bombers. That’s without even mentioning Russian Strategic Missile Forces. The Russian nuclear potential is the strongest in the world. Today our Russian Nuclear Triad is on the high alert. Putin did warn [the West]. Do not try to scare Russia.”

Is he bluffing and just trying to scare us? Would Russia really use nuclear weapons over this? They invaded Ukraine, and many western experts didn’t think they’d do that. Is this really something we can afford to be wrong about?

We’re told that Putin is a deranged thug, crazed and pure evil; an erratic, cold-blooded madman. We’re told his mental health is in question – one former US defence secretary says he’s getting “nervous and desperate.”

If all of that is true (and it very well may be), what makes us think he won’t reduce Berlin to radioactive ashes if cornered? I have no idea what this man might do under pressure, and neither do our leaders.

If the nukes start flying, it will be no good to say “But sure, we didn’t kill your troops, we just armed the people who did!” Serious moves are being made by the EU and NATO, and they are not to be taken lightly.

There is no doubt a case one could make for intervening in this conflict. The Ukrainian people don’t deserve what’s happening to them. But if we act recklessly, and we end up with a nuclear holocaust and tens or hundreds of millions of innocents around the world dead, good intentions and noble sentiment will not be enough to put the pieces of our destroyed planet back together.

Maybe these moves are the right moves. But we should think long and hard before we make them, and consider the possible ramifications with great care. No matter how bad the situation is now, there is no tragedy so bad that emotional and rash stupidity could not make it worse.

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