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With the biggest European war since World War II accelerating at a rapid pace, world leaders are sounding the alarm. The Ukrainians have advanced on every front, bravely reclaiming their stolen territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin responds with explosions in Kyiv. They’re only conventional blasts — for now — but current rhetoric from Putin suggests further escalation may be imminent, possibly coming in the form of a dirty bomb, a non-nuclear device laced with radioactive material.

With the future of Europe uncertain, the U.S. and the West have two options: abandon Ukraine, leaving it to almost certain defeat, or support the young democracy to the end, well braced for the risks, whatever they may be.

We cannot abandon Ukraine to the beast of an aggressor that rapes and murders women and children. We can not let them suffer a 21st-century genocide that awaits them, should the Russians triumph. 

Putin must fail. The West must back Ukraine with the whole of its technological and economic might for “as long as it takes,” as President Joe Biden has said. American public opinion concurs.

Robert Franzese, a professor of International and Comparative Studies at the University of Michigan, explains that “Western support of Ukraine must continue, and expand if necessary, until Russia can be made to concede. If the West were to abandon Ukraine, that would be catastrophic, as it is hard to see how that could end in anything other than complete victory for authoritarian ethnoreligious extremism.”

Franzese continues, “I don’t see any rational gain for Putin from using weapons of mass destruction, not even if his cause seems imminent to total failure, complete Ukrainian victory, but one cannot absolutely rule out (complete) mistakes, miscalculations, irrationality.”

We must hope that Putin realizes the negative consequences of using a dirty bomb, but we cannot count on it. He is neither immune to mistakes, highly calculating nor rational. A series of blunders and atrocities has shattered the Western perception of Putin as a deeply thinking pragmatist. He is not the man we thought he was. A mushroom cloud in Ukraine could easily become a nuclear holocaust. The West should continue to pursue the noble cause of total Ukrainian victory. But there is no victory if New York is made a crematorium, no glory in an incinerator.

Biden and the West must counter Putin’s brash rhetoric and spontaneous behavior with a coordinated, highly deliberate game plan. Russia must be routed back to the 2014 borders before peace can be discussed. But to allow Ukraine to press on beyond this point would only escalate the war further. As Henry Kissinger, the legendary Cold War diplomat, describes, “Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante. Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself.”

Offering Putin an off ramp is not sacrilege, it’s good policy. Putin’s fall from power is an admirable fantasy, but nothing more.

Putin’s unprovoked invasion is about more than just his legacy now. It’s his very hold on power in Russia. At present, Putin shows no signs of a plan to step down voluntarily, even as resentment grows within the Kremlin. A close Putin ally has suggested the Russian defense minister should commit suicide to atone for repeated Russian failures in Ukraine. While Putin himself has not come directly under public criticism, the noose is tightening.

If the defeats continue, his position could become untenable. Winston Churchill famously said, “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry.” If Putin feels the jaws closing in, the West must allow him some other escape than the nuclear option.

As Putin’s plan of freezing Europe into submission by limiting their natural gas proves unsuccessful, he is eyeing vulnerable critical NATO infrastructure. He has no other choice. His economic war on Europe has created considerable discontent in Europe, but European and American public opinion remains predominantly in favor of supporting Ukraine. The Russian military is no match for advanced Western arms. And if Putin cannot win on the battlefield, he will seek victory elsewhere. 

But there is reason for optimism. Putin recently reaffirmed Russian nuclear doctrine, meaning he may be trying to walk back his dangerous dirty bomb remarks from earlier this year. On the American side, the Biden administration is changing its message to Ukraine, asking them to demonstrate openness to negotiate with the Putin regime. Even China, a staunch Russian ally, has spoken out against provocative Russian nuclear rhetoric.

Lines of communication between Washington D.C. and Moscow remain open and must stay that way. The two sides must do everything possible to achieve peace. At present, nuclear armageddon remains unlikely but dangerously possible. But it is preventable, and we must hope our leaders are up to the task.

Jack Brady is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at jackrbra@umich.edu.