- Saturday, June 22, 2024

The phrase to “drag one’s coat” goes back to the 19th century. It probably arose in the context of Irishmen picking fights at the Donnybrook Fair. It’s a provocation, daring someone to step on your coat so you can start a fight.

It’s exactly the sort of provocation that we became accustomed to during the Cold War. The Soviets would “drag their coat” by sailing naval vessels close to American coasts and flying their aircraft close to our borders. We did the same to them.

The direct proportionality of one provocation to another showed a dedication to symmetry: Neither we nor the Soviets wanted to escalate the provocations and risk nuclear war.

The Russians and we are still doing these things. The most recent “drag your coat” incident, however, is a bit different.

A small group of Russian naval ships began a five-day visit to Cuba on June 12. The nuclear submarine Kazan — which Cuba says isn’t carrying nuclear weapons — was joined by the frigate Admiral Gorshkov, an oiler and a salvage tug. They reportedly sailed as close as 20 miles to our coast.

Either the Kazan or the Gorshkov could be carrying hypersonic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. If either or both of them are, those weapons could be launched so close to our shores, we would have little or no warning before reaching their targets.

Though the threat is real and U.S-.Russian relations are at a low point, this is not like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when we and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war.

The reason the Russian ships made this visit to Cuba is probably that President Biden recently enabled Ukraine to use U.S.-made weapons to attack positions in Russia. Mr. Biden also signed a 10-year agreement with Ukraine for U.S. military aid and the G7’s agreement to use income from frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine pay for its defense against the Russian invasion, which is now 16 months old.

Even before all this was the incredibly unwise April statement by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that NATO was working to devise an irreversible path for Ukraine to become a NATO member. Russian President Vladimir Putin will never permit that to happen.

Mr. Biden’s decade-long agreement with Ukraine can be voided at any time by any future president, like former President Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear weapons deal with Iran. Moreover, any further aid to Ukraine has to be enacted by Congress, which is less than a sure thing.

Just before his March reelection, Mr. Putin renewed his nuclear bluster, saying his nation was ready for nuclear war. On June 6, Mr. Putin, responding to Mr. Biden’s permission for Ukraine to strike inside Russia with U.S.-made weapons, suggested that he could provide other nations with weapons to strike Western targets.

Mr. Putin said, “If someone considers it possible to supply such weapons to a combat zone to strike our territory and create problems for us, then why do we not have the right to supply our weapons of the same class to those regions of the world from which the strikes will be carried out on sensitive objects of those countries that do this in relation to Russia?”

He added: “That is, the answer may be symmetrical. We will think about it.”

Nuclear weapons are the most asymmetrical weapons devised by mankind. It would be wrong to make too much of Mr. Putin’s “the answer may be symmetrical” comment. But it may be a hint — despite his nuclear bluster — that he isn’t thinking, at least right now, about using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

NATO membership for Ukraine could well reverse that thinking.

Mr. Putin’s latest “peace” proposal for Ukraine demanded Ukrainian forces withdraw from all Russian-occupied territory. It’s not peace that he has in mind, which is further demonstrated by the Russian naval vessels dragging their coats near our coast.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gained diplomatic support from the mid-June two-day peace summit at which 80 countries said, in their final communique, that the territorial integrity of Ukraine had to be the basis of any peace. (Mr. Biden, who had a more pressing need to attend a Hollywood fundraiser, sent Vice President Kamala Harris in his place.)

This brings us back to Mr. Putin. Will Russia pull out of Ukraine like the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989 with its tail between its legs? Hardly. In 1989, the Soviet Union was falling apart. Mr. Putin — playing second fiddle to Xi Jinping in the China-Russia-Iran-North Korea axis of evil — remains strong.

Mr. Putin will launch a new summer offensive in Ukraine, notwithstanding our aid to that nation and the threat of more economic sanctions.

Russia can feed more troops into battle than Ukraine, but that is no guarantee of success. Nor is the U.S. and NATO nations’ aid flowing to Ukraine, including F-16s, which Ukraine is supposed to get next month.

Mr. Biden’s policy has always been to content himself with a stalemate in this war. If neither Russia nor Ukraine can break the stalemate to its advantage, the war between them may become Mr. Biden’s biggest “forever war.”

• Jed Babbin is a national security and foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Times and contributing editor for The American Spectator.

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