If President Joe Biden or the international community designates Russian President Vladimir Putin as a war criminal, that would mean his end as a world leader and that would strike a blow against his reputation, which he cares most about, according to former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark.
The retired U.S. Army general also called for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine during an interview with The New York Post's op-ed editor Kelly Jane Torrance published Thursday.
"The most important move now is for the president to announce Vladimir Putin is a war criminal," Clark said. "If it goes through, it means the end of Putin as a world leader no matter how this turns out. It's a very powerful move. Putin doesn't really care about the money. He does care about his reputation, and so does China."
Declaring Putin as a war criminal would also strengthen European support, as "European governments are all attentive to the concept of war crimes," said Clark, and it would show support for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Clark, meanwhile, called it "wrongheaded" for NATO to refuse to institute a no-fly zone over Ukraine, and called for that move to be made.
"This is driven by the United States, and I would urge the United States to reconsider this," said Clark. "Russia does not own the borders of Ukraine. They belong to Ukraine. Ukraine is a nation under threat, and under the United Nations Charter, nations have the right to request assistance for self-defense."
Clark also rejected arguments that a no-fly zone would escalate violence.
"[They] say, oh it's because of the Russians, they might come up and contest it. That's the Russians' problem," said Clark. "They're going to get shot down. Okay, then what? Putin says he's going to use a nuclear weapon. If we back away from that challenge, if we don't confront it, this is like a two-pair poker bluff, for incredibly high stakes."
Clark acknowledged that Putin might use a nuclear weapon, "if he was losing," but questioned why the United States would give up on the concept of extended deterrence over a nuclear threat, and also would happen if China, North Korea, or Iran would threaten the use of nuclear weapons if the United States would give up on deterrence procedures.
"It was easy to be the world's hyperpower when we were going against Libya, Iraq, and Syria," said Clark. "The United States has to recalibrate its understanding, leadership, and processes to work in this new area or we will lose the rules-based international system, which we're proud to have established after World War II and which we established by using the concept of extended deterrence."
Meanwhile, the United States could also use cyberattacks to degrade Russia's power, but even that's a problem because anything that's done to affect Russian operations will cross Putin's "so-called red line."
"Ukraine is the toughest opponent he will face, tougher than, let's say, Latvia or Estonia or Lithuania," said Clark. "If you can't find a way to deal with his threats now, you have to find a way to deal with them later. And not only from Putin but from North Korea, Iran, and China."
There were always questions during the Cold War, Clark added, whether the United States would risk its cities, such as New York City, to defend cities like Hamburg, Germany from Russia, and he said that now the United States must also "think about our situation and measure what actions we can take against what risks they incur both immediate and long term."
But it also "depends on Putin" whether further action will escalate matters further in Ukraine, said Clark, and he thinks that is "more than a little unpredictable."
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