Since Russia invaded Ukraine in Feb-ruary, relatively few in the Western commentariat have been willing to call for the United States to engage in direct war against Moscow. The reasons for this caution are obvious — Russia is a nu-clear state, and has a military that, its recent un-derperformance notwithstanding, is still vastly more formidable than any recent target of U.S. military intervention.
Yet despite — or perhaps because of — this general resistance to direct U.S. involvement, many commentators and politicians have come up with more underhanded proposals for American military intervention.
Most notably, this began with widespread calls for the United States and NATO to establish a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine early in the war. In spite of its innocuous and legalistic name, the Biden administration soundly rejected this proposal as its enforcement would rather obviously ent-ail shooting down Russian aircraft, which in turn would lead to a wider war.
More recently, as the danger of a global food crisis made worse by the loss of grain exports from Ukraine and Russia has increased, new calls have emerged for the United States and allies to use naval power to ensure that Ukrainian grain can safely transit the Black Sea.
Similar to demands for a no-fly zone, these ideas have been wrapped in humanitarian language. But in reality, they amount to a call for highly risky U.S.-led military action.
Versions of the proposal have been put forward by Lithuania’s foreign minister, retired U.S. military leaders including admiral James Stavridis, general Wesley Clark, and general Jack Keane, as well as Democratic representative Elissa Slotkin and the editorial boards of the Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal.
While these proposals vary in detail, all invoke the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention to justify and legitimize the action. The Wall Street Journal calls for a U.S.-led naval escort to be “planned and pitched as a humanitarian operation.” Stavridis referred to his plan as a “humanitarian grain mission” while Slotkin simply called for a “humanitarian escort.” The Boston Globe called its proposal a “human-rights mission” while the Lithuanian foreign minister deemed it a “non-military humanitarian mission.”
Most strikingly, both the Lithuanian foreign minister and the Wall Street Journal have referred to the nations participating in this hypothetical naval escort as a “coalition of the willing,” and odd choice given that phrase’s association with the U.S. war on Iraq and the Bush administration’s efforts to give a veneer of multilateral legitimacy to its illegal invasion.
Compared to the invasion of Iraq, these proposals have a much greater claim to humanitarian purpose. The growing global food crisis, exacerbated both by sanctions and the Russian blockade, threatens to cause famine and other dire consequences especially in the Middle East and North Africa. A successful effort to free up the Ukrai-nian grain trapped by Rus-sia’s blockade could undou-btedly alleviate the crisis.
A naval escort, however, would by definition require significant military forces, both to carry out demining operations and to wield a serious threat of retaliation against any Russian attacks on shipping. Wall Street Journal opinion writer Seth Cropsey was particularly explicit on this point, calling for “an overwhelming naval task force consisting of small and large surface combatants with submarine and air support.” Whatever coalition was assembled for the operation, it is likely that the United States would have to provide the bulk of these capabilities.
As with past attempts at humanitarian intervention, it is impossible to disentangle these proposals’ military means from their hum-anitarian ends. While this tension may have been possible to ignore when intervening in failed states or against far weaker powers with limited ability to retaliate, to do so would be far more perilous in this case.
Proponents of a naval intervention like Cropsey correctly point out that the blockade and the pain it is causing are essential parts of Russia’s war strategy, in-tended to put pressure on Ukraine and its allies to se-ek an end to the war on te-rms more favorable to Mo-scow. For Russia to allow its blockade to be broken without interference would be to give up a great deal of leverage, and may, from Russia’s perspective, risk emboldening further U.S. and NATO intervention in other areas of the conflict. Under these circumstances, Russia might find it immensely difficult not to challenge such a U.S.-led operation as the above commentators advocate.
Furthermore, given Rus-sia’s behavior in the war so far, its leadership is unlikely to care that such an operation has been framed as a “humanitarian action.” The presence of a Western naval flotilla in nearby waters f-or the expressed purpose of countering Moscow’s war strategy would no doubt be perceived as a military threat. That such a convoy would have an ultimate humanitarian objective will not negate these facts.
Even short of Russia directly and deliberately attacking coalition ships, the risk of accidental escalation would be high, as demonstrated by the 1988 U.S. downing of an Iranian civilian airliner while conducting a similar operation to protect oil shipments through the Persian Gulf.
In the face of these conditions, the contention that the U.S. and its allies can break Moscow’s blockade “without firing a shot” is dubious at best.
There may be better ways to circumvent the blockade. Of course, a negotiated end to the war itself would accomplish this. Short of that, though, others have offered less risky proposals to export the grain. These include transporting the grain on a short overland route to a Romanian port, achieving a limited agreement on grain exports with Russia, or supporting a naval escort led by some of the non-Western countries most dependent on Ukrainian wheat. While it is unclear that the latter operation would be workable, it would have the advantage of being both credibly multilateral and, by minimizing the military role of countries which have strongly taken sides in the war, less potentially escalatory.
The global food crisis exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens disastrous consequen-ces for political stability and human welfare worldwide. Serious efforts to mitigate this crisis, including t-hrough vigorous diplomacy, must be considered. But a mission that seeks to ac-hieve humanitarian objecti-ves through military means is still a military operation, carrying all the risks that that entails. Advocates of this move should not use rosy language to pretend otherwise.