If the Russians are bluffing, they’re good at it.
In late November, Moscow began a costly buildup of about 100,000 troops and support personnel as well as heavy military equipment along its legitimate and illegitimate borders with Ukraine. Russia’s posture has grown only more aggressive since then. Russia insists that it needs security guarantees from the West if it is to deescalate the conflict it threatens to wage in Europe, but those guarantees—up to and including paring back NATO’s deployments to exclude former Warsaw Pact nations—are non-starters. Meanwhile, the Biden White House has alleged that Russia has already introduced saboteurs into Ukraine with the mission of “fabricating a pretext for invasion,” according to White House Press Sec. Jen Psaki.
Russia is projecting alarming seriousness about its designs on Ukraine, but the Biden administration is not responding with similar resolve. The administration’s on-record accusation that Moscow is “laying the groundwork” for an invasion suggests a level of certainty that should lead the White House to pull out all the stops in the effort to deter such an advance.
That initiative would have many features. It might include diplomatic entreaties, promises of summitry, or even concessions such as a promise to unilaterally observe defunct treaties like “Open Skies” or the “Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.” But it must also be accompanied by a military dimension beyond pledging “military support” for America’s allies. It would involve the deployment of troops and equipment to the borders of Poland and the Baltic States, naval assets to the Black Sea, and area-denial munitions and systems across Central and Eastern Europe. Instead, the administration is seeking to deter Moscow with the promise of financial and technological sanctions that the Kremlin has already demonstrated a willingness to absorb. A blistering rebuke of Vladimir Putin on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly won’t push back a Russian advance, much less preempt one.
The Biden White House’s response to this looming crisis is hardly commensurate with the urgency of the threat, which suggests that the threat has been badly underestimated.
If Biden’s team has already accepted the inevitability of a second Russian invasion of Ukraine, they will have misjudged the horrors such a turn of events would produce. American officials privy to the intelligence already believe that Russia’s capabilities could facilitate a “modern-day blitzkrieg” across Ukraine. If it were so inclined, Moscow could ground Ukraine’s air force and overwhelm its regular military within hours of open conflict. The Russian International Affairs Council outlined just such a scenario, in which a multi-pronged Russian offensive drives to the banks of the Dnieper River, encircling and eventually taking Kyiv, and carving out a Vichy “Western Ukraine” that would all but end the country’s 30-year experiment with independence. But that would only be the beginning.
Ukraine’s forces are better armed, better trained, and more capable than they were in 2014, when “little green men” descended on Donbas and the Russian paratroopers took Crimea with little resistance. Also unlike in 2014, the territories Russia would be fighting over aren’t populated by Russian-speaking Ukrainians with as much affection for the Motherland as for the nation that issued their passports. The remnants of a routed Ukrainian military could mount a protracted campaign of resistance from such positions. Indeed, that may be Kyiv’s only hope. “One senior Ukrainian military official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that if all else failed, the military would simply open its weapons depots and allow the Ukrainian people to take whatever they need to defend themselves and their families,” the New York Times reported in December.
This is the nightmare scenario; and U.S. officials are fully aware of it. The Times reported this month that the Pentagon has warned Russia that an invasion of Ukraine would be followed by a “bloody insurgency similar to the one that drove the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.” That is as much a threat to Russia as it is to the Atlantic Alliance. Such a conflict on NATO’s borders would produce a destabilizing refugee crisis with millions of displaced Ukrainians all heading West. It would drive investment away from the Continent, exacerbating European political dysfunction and producing social malaise. It would likely necessitate the deployment of special forces into the semi-governed areas of Ukraine along NATO’s borders, increasing the risk of embroiling the West in a war it hoped to avoid and increasing the prospect of inadvertent conflict with Moscow.
Even something short of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine has the potential to destabilize the European Union and pit nations that favor an accommodationist approach to Russian ambitions against those with bitter memories of appeasement. If Russia cannot be talked or coaxed into backing down, it must be compelled to do so by the U.S.’s raising the costs of such a course of action to unacceptable levels. If that seems like too much of a risk to the Biden administration, then the Biden administration does not fully comprehend the consequences associated with a new land war in Europe.