At the top of the agenda for the call Thursday afternoon between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin was the huge military force Russia has been amassing to the north, east and south of Ukraine. According to a statement released by the White House, Biden “made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine.”
Whatever strategy is employed, a war of such scale and violence would ricochet much more widely than the geographically contained conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s troops look poised to attack in what might seem like a repeat of 2014. On that occasion, following Putin’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula, Russian military units rolled into eastern Ukraine in a successful bid to prevent Ukraine’s military from defeating Russian-speaking Ukrainian separatists backed by Moscow.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine, which still rages, has been a tragedy for Ukrainians, 14,000 of whom have died so far. Part of the southeastern border of Ukraine is now a war zone periodically ravaged by artillery fire, mine explosions and sniper fire exchanged between the Ukrainian military and the pro-Russian separatists.
But for all of its terrible human toll, it has remained a localized conflict. Should Putin escalate Russia’s intervention in Ukraine this winter, it would almost certainly be on a larger, even more overt scale that would not only cause much more destruction, but also have reverberations far beyond Ukraine. So it’s urgent that the U.S. do what it can to discourage such an attack.
The scope of the hardware gives an indication of the difference in scale. In August 2014, just eight Russian mechanized units, called Battalion Tactical Groups, rolled into eastern Ukraine and dealt a series of crushing defeats to Ukrainian ground forces. Russian artillery annihilated Ukrainian troops before they could enter the fight, and a rocket barrage killed 29 civilians in an urban residential area.
Now, in the closing months of 2021, Russia has mustered over 50 additional Battalion Tactical Groups with an estimated 100,000 total troops positioned near Ukraine so far, along with a regiment of powerful long-distance ballistic missiles and rocket launchers. And the troops look like a credible invasion force in size and capability — including the kind of logistical and medical preparations one expects of a real military effort, not just a demonstration.
If Putin decides to attack, how he would employ these forces is uncertain. Russia might bombard Ukraine with missiles, air power and artillery, or it might invade with mechanized forces, possibly capturing some areas temporarily or potentially even cutting Ukraine in two by seizing all the land east of the Dnieper River.
Whatever strategy is employed, a war of such scale and violence would ricochet much more widely than the geographically contained conflict in eastern Ukraine. It would create problems for close American allies in Europe, as well as more directly for the U.S. itself. Which is why the stakes are even higher and U.S. policy has to be even shrewder.
For starters, a Russian invasion of Ukraine would create insecurity across Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians might flee fighting and bombardment, creating a new refugee crisis. As with the Malaysian airliner mistakenly shot down by a Russian missile in 2014 over Ukraine, killing all 298 aboard, there would be risk of collateral damage — yes, Russian missiles have hit the wrong country before. And if Russia occupied substantial Ukrainian territory, it might result in brutal and interminable partisan warfare.
In response to this conflagration, NATO member states neighboring Ukraine — Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Poland — would be justified in demanding greater protection from NATO for fear of further Russian aggression and to contain spillover. And countries that lobby NATO for a harder line on Russia and more direct support to Ukraine, like Poland and Lithuania, might be tempted to respond independently, which could have unforeseen consequences right in the heart of the European continent.
Of course, Moscow would criticize the U.S.’s providing more security to NATO’s eastern members as a sign of aggressive intent, feeding an escalating security crisis in central Europe, as well as an arms race. That would jack up the costs for U.S. defense spending to maintain and modernize more ground forces to defend NATO members.
It would also once again hobble Washington’s attempts to “pivot to Asia” and focus primarily on Indo-Pacific security, even though China ultimately amounts to a more formidable long-term competitor with the U.S. than Russia because of its greater population and wealth. The U.S. could end up absorbed in a lengthy, two-front strategic competition like that which dragged down the Soviet Union when it faced both NATO and China.
Isolationists complaining about U.S. overinvolvement in global conflicts have it backwards. Nothing is more likely to spur U.S. and European defense spending and global military deployments than a Russian attack on Ukraine — not U.S. actions to forestall an invasion.
It has been incumbent on Biden, therefore, to make military action in Ukraine as unappealing as possible to Putin, while making restraint more tolerable. Threats of massive U.S. military assistance to Ukraine aren’t effective, because heavier hardware, like modern air-defense missiles, couldn’t arrive in time to alter a military balance that’s heavily weighted toward Moscow. At the same time, such threats risk reinforcing Putin’s logic that he must strike soon to prevent a more robust NATO military presence on his border.
Instead, the U.S. must concretely lay out the expensive costs Putin is likely to face should he invade: tighter sanctions and lost economic opportunities, including the Nord Stream 2 pipeline’s delivering cheap natural gas for heating to Western Europe.
Biden must also look for ways to assuage Moscow’s anxieties that Ukraine may become a hostile military staging ground on its border without compromising U.S. and European security or legitimizing its actions in Ukraine.
That’s no easy task, as on Dec. 17 Russia published sweeping demands it was making of Washington and NATO that are widely recognized as unacceptable nonstarters, such as restricting NATO from ever adding new members and banning U.S. bombers and ships from patrolling international airspace and waters that lie within weapons’ range (i.e. hundreds of miles or even more) of Russian territory.
Biden couldn’t, and surely didn’t, give in to the Kremlin’s ultimatums in the conversation Thursday afternoon, and he shouldn’t be cajoled into making pledges that weaken Kyiv’s sovereignty, especially when it’s not even in the room. But Putin’s highballing may still illuminate some areas where mutually acceptable agreements are possible.
For example, Putin claims he’s worried that the U.S. plans to deploy land-based medium-range missiles in Ukraine. In reality, U.S. medium-range missiles, which will become operational only in a few years, are unlikely to be deployed as far forward as Ukraine. Hashing out new reciprocal restrictions on their deployment could ease that concern.
Washington should attempt to prevent a war simply because it would cause untold devastation and result in thousands of Ukrainians’ and Russians’ losing their lives. But if that explanation is not self-interested enough, consider this: America has every reason to try to prevent destructive conflict from unfolding next to allied democracies it has pledged to protect.