As announcements of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine pour in, Russia continues to amass 130,000 forces near Ukraine’s border and conduct live fire naval exercises along the entirety of Ukraine’s southern coast. Amid these heightened tensions, the U.S. and NATO must continue to demonstrate resolve in the face of Putin’s sustained pressure campaign. Much of the West’s hard-earned gains of the Cold War – – i.e., freedom from Russian aggression – – are at stake, and the Biden administration needs to make the case as to why Ukraine’s security matters and implement additional deterrence measures.
Many Americans may wonder why Ukraine’s sovereignty should be a point of concern for the U.S. Why, they ask, should America become involved in yet another crisis in a land far removed from its shores?
In short, Ukraine’s security affects both Europe’s and America’s safety.
Ukraine’s security matters to the post-Cold War order in Europe, an arrangement backed by NATO that has brought peace to a continent that has been wracked by violence for hundreds of years. Maintaining the political and economic stability of Europe has delivered prosperity to the region, preventing the U.S. from being dragged into large scale European conflicts as happened with World War I and World War II. (A notable exception to this was the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.)
The security that NATO affords has been a force multiplier for the U.S., assisting Washington with deterrence against Russian hostility, counter-terror efforts in the War on Terror and, according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, addressing challenges posed by a rising China.
A failure by the U.S. to respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine would damage confidence in the region’s safety, calling into question America’s reliance as a security partner to countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It may also pave the way for a world in which democratic capitalism falters under authoritarian systems used by the likes of Russia and China. Such regimes have been a disaster for human liberty, employing coercion to bully and exact economic concessions, suppress dissenting political views and eradicate religions that are identified as troublesome by the state.
Also at stake is the postwar principle that larger countries like Putin’s Russia ought not to control regional democracies just because they can. Ukraine is a sister democracy that deserves support from the democratic world.
However, it is not just Washington that places importance in Ukraine’s future and opposes Russian belligerence. Polls indicate that Europe does not want to fall under an iron curtain 2.0. According to Gallup, since Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russian leadership has been consistently unpopular in the former Eastern bloc countries and this sentiment has only increased since the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine began.
A separate European Council on Foreign Relations poll showed that Europeans think an invasion of Ukraine would be a problem for European security more generally, and north of 60% of respondents think NATO should come to the defense of Ukraine in the event of a Russian attack.
So, what can the Biden administration do to protect U.S. and allied interests during this uncertain time?
First, it bears mentioning that Biden deserves credit for pledging Nord Stream 2 sanctions and other economic penalties in the event of a Russian invasion. He has also kept the West together and implemented deterrence measures – – in particular, sending troops to Poland, Romania and Germany.
He has also rightly refused Putin’s demands to shrink NATO’s footprint and to bar Ukraine from joining the alliance. To lower tensions, Biden has offered Russia negotiations concerning military drills and missile placements as confidence building measures and diplomatic off-ramps.
Additionally, the Biden administration has done an effective job getting ahead of events and publicizing Russia’s plans for false flag operations and general invasion preparations. This has countered Putin’s propaganda that Washington and Kyiv are the aggressors and Moscow is the victim.
All of these actions have improved trans-Atlantic relations which had been frayed by Biden’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan and poorly handled AUKUS initiative rollout that angered France and the European Union.
Going forward, Biden must do more, namely:
•Send U.S. troops to the Baltic states, preferably from the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division. This will help reinforce NATO territory, reassure our allies and add to deterrence. The presence of U.S. troops in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania would serve a symbolic role of allied determination as it places U.S. forces closer to Russia’s doorstep. It will also return Washington to an updated and necessary containment doctrine as originally detailed by George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’.
•Ramp up current efforts to arm the Ukrainians to that akin to President Richard Nixon’s Operation Nickel Grass airlift of weapons to Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Ukrainian military needs additional Javelin anti-tank missiles to attack Russian land forces, Stinger surface-to-air missiles to attack Russian aircraft, land-based anti-ship missiles to attack Russian vessels in the Black Sea and long-range artillery. The Biden administration will need to equip the Ukrainian people with the armaments they will need to fight an insurgency against Russia similar to how the Taliban fought against Russian and U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
•Bolster both Ukrainian and NATO cyber offensive and cyber defensive capabilities, strengthen Ukraine’s electrical grid and provide intelligence when needed.
•Project national unity of U.S. resolve against Russian expansionism. It is clear that Putin believes tensions within American society – – which he helped to stir through meddling in American domestic politics – – are so fraught that Republicans and Democrats cannot work together. Putin is banking on U.S. national security policy changing with each election cycle, rendering it ineffective. Biden can change this by clear demonstrations of working with Republicans to address the crisis in Ukraine, and such unity would itself serve as a form of deterrence of Putin. A failure to do so jeopardizes America’s most important foreign policy accomplishment in the postwar era – – victory over the Soviet Union and all that it stood for.
•Deploy additional U.S. air power to NATO member countries in Russia’s vicinity as a further sign that NATO has been mobilized and is now more united due to Putin’s actions.
•As a show of strength, conduct rotating joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean with NATO allies, similar to the February 6-7 combined training by U.S., French and Italian aircraft carrier strike groups. U.S. Navy destroyers should also be sent to the Black Sea as a clear indication of Washington’s intent of defending its fellow NATO member states.
•NATO should move to allow Sweden and Finland into the alliance. Putin’s destabilizing actions have justified the bolstering of NATO and Secretary General Stoltenberg ought to take advantage of this opportunity.
•Work with the EU to provide Ukraine with economic assistance packages to help Kyiv address its financing needs. Putin’s menacing actions have damaged Ukraine’s economy and caused panic in the country’s financial markets.
•Announce preparations for confiscating Russia’s offshore wealth as well as the ill-gotten personal finances of Putin and the oligarchs who prop up his government. For perspective, a 2017 Chicago Booth Review study claimed that as much as 54% of Russia’s GDP consisted of its offshore wealth.
There are different theories as to what Putin’s intentions entail. Among them, forcing Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit; shattering the post-Cold War security structure; rejecting the universality of Western values; recovering territories that Putin considers as historic Russia; buffering Russia with non-democratic states to prevent the Russian people from seeing prosperous and democratic Slavic societies that may undermine Putin’s authoritarian model; or keeping Ukraine’s territorial integrity intact while continuing a destabilization campaign that seeks to eventually impose a submissive, compliant relationship with Moscow through coercive diplomacy.
Whatever Putin’s endgame is, the aforementioned deterrence measures will demonstrate the resolve of America and NATO while preventing the alliance from being dragged into a war on Putin’s terms. The clear signals of such actions are likely to lower chances of miscalculations that may give rise to a large, costly confrontation with Russia.
Such an approach will also help the Biden administration continue meeting its other global security obligations concerning the Indo-Pacific, counterterrorism operations, etc. as the standoff with Russia unfolds.