Bob Kennedy arguest that the U.S. should throw Ukraine a lifeline in the form of a humanitarian zone in the Western part of the country.Photo by Janosch Diggelmann on Unsplash

Editor’s note: This commentary was written by Robert Kennedy, president of the Atlanta Council on International Relations

With an unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine, war has come to the European continent. Predictably, Russian leader Vladimir Putin was not deterred by the threat of sanctions. Twice now, Putin has decided to invade Ukraine in defiance of Article 2 of the United Nations Charter, in which member states agree to respect other nations’ territorial integrity.  

Putin has also violated another commitment to the country where Russia is now bombing cities under the false pretense that Ukraine should never have been an independent nation: The Budapest memorandum of 1994, signed by Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom, reaffirmed all parties’ commitment to respecting Ukrainian independence and sovereignty. Only with this guarantee did Ukraine give up the nuclear weapons that fell into its possession with the demise of the Soviet Union – a capability that surely would have made Russia think twice about the current invasion.  

With these commitments ruptured, the entire post-Cold War European security architecture has been interrupted, if not completely broken. The principal questions now confronting the international community are how to deter Putin from further aggression in Ukraine and perhaps elsewhere in Europe and how to end the humanitarian disaster that has befallen the people of Ukraine. Sanctions did not force Russia to leave Crimea. The threat of sanctions has not deterred Russia from invading Ukraine. Further sanctions will not stop Putin from his objective of conquering all of Ukraine.

It is important to understand the history of Russia’s security concerns, which stem from more than a millennium of grievance. Invasions over the past thousand years have led them to seek friendly neighbors, and the psychological wounds  of the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and Russian military in the 1990s cannot be overstated. These factors have fueled Russian resentment over being brushed aside as largely insignificant following the end of the Cold War, as well as its paranoia over the expansion of NATO and the perceived threat from that expansion. Such concerns do not justify, as some are now doing, an unprovoked invasion of a neighbor that has posed no threat to Russia.   

Should Putin be allowed to succeed in the conquest of Ukraine, he likely will be emboldened, as was Hitler in the run-up to World War II. Failure to act decisively also will send a dangerous message to Putin and other would-be tyrants that the United States and other democratic countries are unwilling to risk war, unless their truly vital interests are at stake.  

What will be next on Putin’s list as he searches for security through conquest –Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, perhaps other countries in eastern Europe that were once under the Soviet hammer? How will Xi Jinping read the message in China‘s attempts to swallow democratic Taiwan?  Will the U.S. construe any of those countries as “vital” to its interest and survival? 

Putin, with a carefully calculated angry demeanor, has threatened any country attempting to interfere with “consequences you have never seen” – an implicit threat to use tactical nuclear weapons. Putin is a gambler. He is shrewd. But he is not reckless or stupid. He will not risk a war with the United States that he knows that he can’t win. He wishes to go down in history as the one who defied the United States and re-established Russia as a world power with hegemony over territories lost following the demise of the Soviet Union, not as a mass murderer who brought nuclear war to Europe and in so doing devastated Russia.  

His calculus is that he can frighten the U.S., its allies, and others around the world into limiting their assistance to Ukraine and submitting to his military conquest. He is counting on Europeans and others to eventually tire of sanctions. Putin has been playing chess; we have been playing checkers.

The President of the United States and fellow NATO leaders have declared that they will not intervene militarily in Ukraine, in order to avoid directly engaging in a conflict with Russia. They also have declined to initiate a “No Fly Zone” in Ukraine. The result so far is the slow but nevertheless devastating advance of Russian forces in Ukraine and a corresponding humanitarian disaster.  

It is time to act. A humanitarian safe zone needs to be established in western Ukraine. The United States should form a coalition of forces to protect civilians fleeing the war. The coalition should make it clear that any attack on these civilians or on the forces protecting them will not be tolerated. 

Such a Humanitarian Safe Zone would be a non-aggressive act and would force Putin to be the one to escalate the conflict, should he opt to attack those in the Safe Zone. Such a zone might also provide sanctuary for the Ukrainian government, should Kyiv be overrun.

Yes, there are risks in such an effort. Risks perhaps can be mitigated by once again offering arms control agreements that hold the promise of improved security for Russia, as well as Russia’s neighbors to the west. There were risks in the humanitarian relief of Berlin in 1948-49. There were risks throughout the Cold War. However, nothing less than the future of an international order and a more civilized world is at stake.

Over 2 million people have fled the bombs, missiles, and rockets of invading Russian forces. The tragedy confronting Ukraine is a tragedy that also confronts the entire world. It is now time to limit the human tragedy unfolding before us. 

Robert Kennedy is the president of the Atlanta Council on International Relations and serves as professor emeritus at Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia institute of Technology, where he taught for 20 years. His distinguished career at the intersection of education and defense and security includes stints as director of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany; deputy commandant at the NATO Defense College in Rome, and a variety of other positions and commendations. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Georgetown University and a B.S. from the United States Air Force Academy. See his full bio here or read his pre-war commentary on Ukraine: Commentary: To Deter Russia’s Ukraine Gambit, the U.S. Must Up the Ante

Disclaimer: The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Board so Directors or Advisor or members of Atlanta Council on International Relations.