Playing Chicken

Alan Zendell, April 20, 2022,

Remember the crazy things we did as teenagers and some still do as adults? How many times have you driven on a two-lane road behind a vehicle going well below the speed limit until you were frustrated enough to pass it despite limited sight lines? Did you let the risk stop you? The driver you were passing might suddenly speed up just as a vehicle appears in the passing lane coming toward you. Did you floor your accelerator, knowing you probably had enough time to pull back in your lane ahead of that slowpoke, but not entirely sure? Two cars rushing toward each other, waiting to see who flinches first is the ultimate game of chicken.

I see two games of chicken in our future, one immediate and extremely dangerous, one a year or two away, but possibly even more dangerous to our democracy. First is the strategic chess game between NATO and Russia over the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. NATO requires unanimity in its military decisions, yet its leaders have struck a balance. Europe allowed, in fact wanted the United States to take the lead, while President Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pledged to respect Europe’s need to veto some sanctions, like immediately banning all Russian oil and gas imports. NATO’s unity, helped greatly by Ukraine’s amazing grit in the fight against superior Russian forces, is vital.

Russia and Vladimir Putin do not need unanimity or unity. Putin is completely in charge in Russia, at least until those around him decide he isn’t. He and his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, defined their vision in terms of perceived “existential threats to Russia’s homeland.” They would have NATO believe that if they viewed Ukraine, us, or anyone else as such an existential threat, they would escalate the fight as far as necessary, including the use of nuclear weapons. After threatening that NATO continuing to arm Ukraine might pose such a threat, Putin symbolically moved tactical nukes into Crimea this week.

As the nominal leaders of NATO’s defense of Ukraine, Biden and Blinken have been clear that their decisions to arm and train the Ukrainian military would be measured, always cognizant of what Russia might perceive as a direct NATO threat. For weeks, they argued that supplying Ukraine with Soviet-era MIG fighter planes was off the table because it might result in a direct confrontation that could trigger Article 5 of the NATO treaty which could spark World War III.

On the other side was the example of Europe appeasing Hitler in the 1930s rather than confronting him, and similar examples throughout history that all lead to the same conclusion. Appeasing autocrats, displaying fear and weakness rather than strength, is far more dangerous than strongly defending our allies’ borders. Biden, et al, understand that, but their posture in the world media had to be understated and subtle. Now, as Russia has begun a massive assault on the southeastern provinces of Ukraine in which they “must be victorious,” NATO must decide how seriously to take the implied threat that Putin will use every available weapon if his military continues to falter.

Today, we see that NATO has been planning its own escalation on a carefully measured time scale in reaction to Russia’s campaign of total destruction and utter disregard for what we naively regard as the “rules of war.” In addition to the attack helicopters announced last week, Ukraine is apparently going to receive those MIGs after all, and Biden has dropped the pretense that Americans will not train Ukrainian fighters in the use of the weapons we give them. Our experts will train a select number of Ukrainians in NATO countries, who will then go home to train their own forces.

As always, the ultimate question is who will blink first. My money is on Putin, unless he has truly lost his mind. Biden and his NATO counterparts understand blinking first would likely lead to a sequence of military adventures by Putin that will ultimately force the confrontation no one wants.

The second developing game of chicken hasn’t begun yet, but it’s coming. Republicans Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney broke with the pro-Trump wing of the Republican party, voted to convict Trump in the second impeachment trial, and chose to participate in the January 6th Committee’s investigation of Trump’s attempt to overthrow the 2020 election. But then Kinzinger announced he would leave Congress at the end of this term. What was that about?

Now it’s becoming clear, as Kinzinger announced he might challenge Trump in the 2024 primaries. Kinzinger knows he’ll probably be crushed by the party Trump now seems to almost own, but he relishes the opportunity to have a national stage supported by big money interests that he can use to broadcast the truth about who Trump is, what he has done, and what he will try to do if he returns to power. This chicken fight is likely to result in a head on collision that rivals the most explosive crash ever seen on the NASCAR circuit.

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