Just how far are Americans willing to go to protect Ukraine?

By Tara Sonenshine, Professor of Practice of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

In war, accidents happen. An emergency NATO meeting of global leaders faced the prospect of a widening of the Russia-Ukraine war directly into Europe this week against the backdrop of an international gathering of leaders, including President Biden, in Bali, Indonesia.  

During the negotiations, missiles hit Poland, a NATO ally with initially no clear answer as to whether the missile was a Russian missile gone astray, a Russian missile purposefully hitting Polish territory or a Ukrainian missile in the act of shooting down Russian missiles. The missile landed just miles from Poland’s border with Ukraine.

NATO immediately invoked Article 4, calling for major consultations by all members to determine the cause.

Poland’s president and NATO’s secretary general have issued an initial assessment that a Ukrainian air defense missile had most likely caused the explosion, which killed two Polish citizen inside the country’s territory.

This incident is a test case for what could happen when one event has a cascading effect during an active conflict. To date, Russia has not attacked Ukraine’s neighbors, knowing that it would put NATO on alert to respond directly under Article 5 of the NATO charter, which calls for other NATO member-states to contribute to the response if one member is attacked, including via military force.

Countries such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are watching closely how NATO behaves, knowing full well that an accident or a deliberate Russian attack could involve any of the Baltic countries.

With winter coming, this Russia-Ukraine saga continues to have its ups and downs.

Ukraine has been making progress in beating back the Russians in the past few weeks leading to a Russian retreat from Kherson. Joyous Ukrainians finally emerged from the battered city as Russian troops fled, leaving mines and destruction.

But even with the progress on the ground in Kherson, the Russian missile barrage in the skies has not stopped. Russia launched a widespread missile attack on Ukraine this week with roughly 90 missiles aimed primarily at the country’s electrical infrastructure. Putin left millions of Ukrainians literally in the dark and the entire world metaphorically in the dark about the Kremlin’s next moves.

Even if this missile was just a mistake on the Ukrainian side while fending off Russian missiles, it forces us to confront the reality that without an end to the war, we live each day with the possibility of a wider European conflict and America getting dragged into it.

How would Americans respond if this missile strike had been a deliberate attack on Europe?

Americans, exhausted after the recent midterm elections, are likely not in the mood to consider a wider war in Europe. With close political margins and an unsettled balance of power in Congress, any discussion of war powers would be contentious. With Thanksgiving and the holidays coming and members going home to their districts, it is a difficult time for centralized decisionmaking.

If we are on the verge of a serious escalation in the war, Americans will have an opinion on their troops going into harm’s way. As recently as October, three out of four Americans said we should support Ukraine. But what they no doubt had in mind is the continued provision of weapons, not troops.

As we have seen with Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans have continuously grown disenchanted with direct military interventions in overseas conflicts. Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed concern over Americans getting involved in regional crises.

Would that be different in Europe?

There are many Americans with European histories and ethnic connections to Ukraine and its neighbors who might be willing to see the United States get more directly involved. There are close to 10 million Polish Americans in this country and millions more from neighboring countries.

Poland is a major American ally and one of our strongest partners in this war. U.S. troops are stationed there, working closely with NATO not just on the Ukrainian war effort but on overall global security, nonproliferation, energy and all the issues that impact our daily lives.

The missile hitting Poland is a wake-up call. This was a fire drill for how the world will respond if a World War III scenario begins to unfold. We need to have tough conversations about a wider war while there is time — before we are under pressure to decide how far America wants to go to protect Ukraine.

This piece is republished from The Hill.

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