Four steps for deterring an invasion of Ukraine

Mikhail Metzel/Pool Sputnik Kremlin via AP

Russia’s buildup of forces near its border with Ukraine continues apace and is expected to reach 175,000 troops early in the new year. Having lopped off Crimea in 2014, and supported the breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, Moscow now appears poised to absorb both provinces and to seize more territory in eastern Ukraine. 

Moreover, echoing Hitler’s justification for marching into Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland in 1938 — and indeed, its own pronouncements when it took Crimea — the Kremlin will argue that it is simply fulfilling the will of the Russian speakers who purport to chafe under Kiev’s rule. And should Russia seize eastern Ukraine with impunity, while the United States and the West respond with little more than another round of sanctions, there can be no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin next will set his sights on conquering the remainder of the country, much as Hitler subsequently seized all of Czechoslovakia.  

An invasion of Ukraine is not inevitable, however. Putin’s canny national security adviser, Yuri Ushakov, who served from 1998-2008 as Moscow’s ambassador to Washington, has stated that no one has a right to complain about Russian forces exercising on their own territory. In other words, the Kremlin has identified an off-ramp should it conclude that an invasion would be too costly — not only politically and economically but militarily as well. 

The Biden administration has the power to drive Putin toward that conclusion. In their two-hour meeting on Tuesday, Biden made it clear to Putin that a Russian attack on Ukraine would lead to very serious consequences. His administration is considering steps to assist Ukrainian forces, most notably by approving shipments of additional Javelin anti-tank missiles and other defensive systems to the Kyiv government. In addition, Biden administration officials have threatened Putin with sanctions that would result in “significant and severe economic harm to the Russian economy,” which reportedly include exclusion from the SWIFT international interbank transfer system, sanctions on Putin’s closest associates, and possibly even cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe. 

Yet, the United States could do much more. To begin with, in response to Kyiv’s request for a wide range of capabilities, including electronic warfare support, Washington should mount a massive weapons airlift along the lines of both the 1948 Berlin airlift and the airlift that enabled Israel to turn the tables on its Arab opponents in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. America can rapidly mount such an airlift and weapons transfer. Having been in charge of coordinating the Pentagon’s supply of equipment to Britain in the 1982 Falklands War, I marveled at the speed with which the American military delivered materiel from its depots to Britain’s Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, sometimes doing so in less than two days. In 1982, the Pentagon was able to meet every British request for assistance; it should do the same for Ukraine today.

In addition, Washington should immediately deploy Special Operating Forces to Ukraine to help organize and support the country’s defenses. Whether or not it does so publicly matters little; the Russians will know exactly when American units have landed on Ukrainian soil. 

Third, the Biden administration should call on Britain and its other NATO allies to contribute their own special operators to bolster the Ukrainian defense effort. The NATO allies cannot afford to sit on their hands while Russia gobbles up part or all of Ukraine. Putin’s next target may well be a NATO state — most likely one of the Baltic states whose Russian speakers may “invite” Moscow to absorb them inside its boundaries. Finally, Washington could mount a show of naval force in the Black Sea to underscore its determination that, unlike with Crimea in 2014 or Georgia in 2008, this time Russian aggression will not go unpunished.

A strong American and western response would be an important message — not only to Putin, but also to Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose claims that Taiwan is an integral part of China echo Putin’s repeated assertions that Ukraine is historically part of Russia. Should the West fail to deter Russian forces from marching into Ukraine, China may well conclude that action against Taiwan would provoke nothing more than a similarly weak response. 

On the other hand, were Russia to back away from an invasion and, in the spirit of Ushakov’s statement, assert that it was doing nothing more than conducting a major exercise on its own territory, China may well rethink its own plans for reclaiming Taiwan. And that would demonstrate that the American deterrent remains both visible and powerful, not only in Europe but in Asia as well.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Crimea NATO Russia-Ukraine conflict Taiwan US-Russia relations Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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