Defending Ukraine: US must offer military support not just economic threats

The West is facing a profound series of decisions on Ukraine. Despite President BidenJoe BidenCourt nixes offshore drilling leases auctioned by Biden administration Laquan McDonald's family pushes for federal charges against officer ahead of early release Biden speaks with Ukrainian president amid Russian threat MORE’s videoconference with Russian President Putin and agreement to have their teams “follow up” on diplomacy, the threat remains from Russia’s extensive and threatening military buildup on Ukraine’s borders. Maintaining Ukraine’s sovereignty and democracy is a critical challenge demanding an effective response. An appropriate military component needs to be part of that response in the event diplomacy fails.

Russia’s actions and the prospect for conflict have received widespread condemnation from the United States and its allies. Biden has engaged in extensive consultations with allies underscoring the importance of Ukraine’s sovereignty and the need to make it “very, very difficult” for an attack to succeed.

The French and German foreign ministers have jointly declared, “Germany and France are steadfast in their unwavering support for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. ... Any new attempt to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity would have serious consequences.” The United Kingdom has likewise made clear its “unwavering support for Ukraine's territorial integrity and ... continue[d] ... support ... in the face of Russian hostility.”

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While the precise actions that might be taken in the face of an invasion have not been spelled out, U.S. Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenOvernight Defense & National Security — Inside Austin's civilian harm directive North Korea sparks US condemnation with latest missile launch Republicans again call for Oversight hearing on Afghanistan withdrawal MORE has said, “We've made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high impact economic measures that we've refrained from using in the past."  Moreover, he stated that NATO is "prepared to impose severe costs for further Russian aggression in Ukraine" and is "prepared to reinforce its defenses on the eastern flank." 

However strong those words might seem, they do not enhance Ukraine’s ability to meet the military challenge of a Russian invasion. The proposed responses are economic, on the one hand, and internal to NATO on the other.

If Russia does undertake an attack — and the U.S. intelligence community has warned that it is planning an invasion with 175,000 troops — Ukraine will need an effective military response if it is to maintain its sovereignty. The United States and its allies should plan to provide necessary operational support to the Ukraine military in the event of such a conflict.

Russia should not be allowed a clear field as it had in its 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, undertaken in blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and the United Nations charter, as well as Russia’s diplomatic promises under the 1994 Budapest memorandum guaranteeing to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

The United States has made support for democracy a leading element of its national security strategy, but this week’s Summit for Democracy undertaken by the Biden administration will mean little if the West stands by as another democracy, especially one with a close relationship with NATO, is attacked entirely without provocation. NATO regularly speaks of the importance of values. The U.S. Interim National Security Strategic Guidance provides that “democracy holds the key to freedom, prosperity, peace, and dignity,” “that democracy can still deliver for our people and for people around the world,” and “if we work together with our democratic partners, with strength and confidence, we will meet every challenge and outpace every challenger.” Russia, however, is most directly presenting a challenge to democracy in Ukraine.

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The United States should undertake, as part of its response to this Russian challenge, an effective military component that would help deter, and, if necessary, defeat, a Russian invasion. That component should have three elements.

First, at home, the administration should work with Congress to ensure that there is coordinated agreement to provide military operational support to Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion. The United States should not engage in military conflicts, even in a supporting role, unless there is a congressional commitment for such actions. While there are various forms of obtaining congressional approval, a clear congressional statement should be a prerequisite. Congress has previously enacted multiple statutes providing support to Ukraine since 2014. Among others, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014 states that it is the policy of the United States to “deter the government of the Russian federation from further destabilizing and invading Ukraine.” 

Second, diplomatically — and assuming congressional support, the administration should make clear to Russia that the United States would engage operationally to support the Ukraine military in the event of a Russian invasion. The fundamental point would be to deter any such action by making clear the costs and the unlikelihood of achieving control over Ukraine. It is, of course, not clear whether Russia’s prospective actions would involve the entirely of Ukraine or be limited to the Donbas area where it now has significant influence. United States operations should not include front-line combat activities — those should be left to Ukraine forces if required. The U.S. should support the Ukraine military in the portion of the country that the Ukraine government currently controls — and where the United States and other allies and partners such as the United Kingdom and Canada, Denmark and Sweden have previously undertaken training and assist actions. 

Additionally, and importantly, the United States should also seek comparable operational support to Ukraine from other allies. It would be desirable if NATO would provide such support, but there is a much greater likelihood of establishing a coalition — akin to the counter-ISIS coalition — than having a NATO effort, and the United Kingdom appears ready to provide such support.

Third, the United States would need an effective concept of operations so that support to Ukraine would successfully thwart Russian objectives. The president should require the Defense Department to provide appropriate analyses including differentiating between efforts regarding the Donbas region and the rest of Ukraine. An important issue would be the necessary logistical support for any United States forces including both in neighboring countries such as Poland and Romania as well as countries further removed including particularly Germany.

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The concept of operations should delineate what types of capabilities would be required to help Ukraine establish an effective defense. The United States would be in a supporting role — consistent with the administration’s desire to avoid “direct use of American military forces”--with the combat role being taken by Ukraine forces. As part of the congressional action noted above, Congress should also ensure that the United States had the necessary authorizations and funding required to build up and sustain Ukrainian military inventories. While an actual operational plan would await Defense Department analysis, certain elements seem likely to be included:

  • Buildup and sustainment of Ukraine weapons inventories
  • Logistical support, both with respect to weaponry but also to other requirements that might arise in the event of an invasion
  • Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as critical to force disposition, targeting and defense
  • Command, control and communications support
  • Cybersecurity, to enhance resilience of Ukraine military and critical infrastructure networks
  • Air defense including Stinger missiles to Ukraine and perhaps U.S.-operated Patriot (or other allied) batteries to protect rear areas including allied supporting forces
  • Counter electronic warfare

The United States might also provide operational planning support as well as training if and as required, and allies additional to the United States could provide requisite materiel and support.

Deterring a Russian invasion of Ukraine might be accomplished by the ongoing threat from the United States and allies of economic sanctions against Russia. But a military dimension that makes Russian success improbable could be the critical requirement in assuring that Ukraine remains a free and democratic nation. As the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance provides, “work[ing] together with our democratic partners, with strength and confidence, we will meet [that] challenge.”

Franklin D. Kramer is a distinguished fellow and a board member of the Atlantic Council and a former assistant secretary of Defense. He is the coauthor of “Transformative Priorities for National Defense” and “Meeting the Russian Conventional Challenge.”