Putin’s aggression: Let’s not be surprised again
From the disastrous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan to the tepid response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, our national security leadership has assured us that they war-gamed all possible scenarios. But President Biden’s seasoned national security team was supposed to shape the world and instead is being shaped by it.
Regarding Ukraine, the Biden administration has allowed the president to be surprised a second time. The first was the failure to anticipate the collapse of Afghanistan, and the second was the will of the Ukrainian people to fight, which has ignited global indignation against Russia and forced the Biden team — and the world — to increase their response on the fly.
It seems we never learn. Our leaders might want to re-read the 9/11 report, which found that U.S. leadership “lacked imagination” and therefore was surprised by the attacks. Most importantly, telling the boss what he wants to hear did not, and does not, serve our nation well.
Nor should we forget the 2002 war game called Millennial Challenge, when the defense leadership at the time rigged the outcome of a war game to prove that their strategy to fight wars would work — until retired Gen. Paul Van Riper played a “thinking enemy,” something he was not supposed to do, and defeated and embarrassed the defense leadership and their forces. Unlike 9/11, however, the Millennial Challenge was a costless lesson but one we have not yet heeded.
What we need are war-game scenarios that force our national security team into an action-reaction-action sequence, instead of just reacting to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s massacre of the Ukrainian people. Here are a few suggestions of what the U.S. national security leadership should be preparing for:
Siege and murder. What will be the U.S. response to a Russian strategy of circling a town and obliterating it? Do we watch millions of people die? What if Putin blockades a town to starve it? How do we provide humanitarian assistance?
Nerve agents and chemical weapons. We know that Russia has used nerve agents to assassinate opponents on European soil, and has supported a murderous regime in Syria that has used these weapons. What do we do if Russia uses nerve agents in Ukraine?
Minor incursion against NATO allies. We are providing munitions and support to Ukraine. How long before Russia moves to cut off this aid and, in doing so, bombs the storage sites located just outside Ukraine’s borders? Does a “minor” incursion into NATO territory go unanswered?
Russia’s “Little Green Men” in the Baltics and Poland. What happens if Russia does not launch an incursion into NATO territory but instead sends saboteurs? Are the U.S. and NATO willing to trade pipe bombs on their soil for continued arms shipments to Ukraine?
The Russians say they are at war. Putin has stated that American economic sanctions are an act of war. It does not matter what we believe; what matters is that he believes it. What do we do now? Just because we say we are not at war does not mean we are not at war. Maybe we should listen to Putin; he has been crystal clear in signaling his next move.
Got gas? We might think the war is taking place in Europe, but what happens if the Russians interfere in the Middle East or disrupt the maritime routes used to transport oil out of the area? Are we ready for a new Battle of the Atlantic? Does anybody think Putin will sit by idly when we stop Russian oil purchases? Isn’t he likely to expand the war?
Tactical nuclear weapons. This is the scenario nobody wants to talk about. If Putin is cornered and has nothing left to lose, would he be willing to cross this line? And, if so, then what? Are we doing anything to prepare for this, such as stockpiling medicine and other crucial supplies? Or, will the U.S. act surprised and be unprepared? We certainly do not want to trigger a nuclear Armageddon, so we need to think this one through carefully.
Taiwan’s independence is threatened. We know China is watching what’s happening with the Russo-Ukrainian war. What if they do the math and decide that the West cannot defend two fronts? After all, we told them this in our current National Defense Strategy, which states we can fight only one war at a time. Is China willing to fan the flames of Ukraine — provoking Russia into harsher actions to tie down the U.S. — just to ensure it can easily take Taiwan? We should be prepared.
There are arguably many other ways that Russia and China could use to cause problems around the world now. The point is that our national security team needs people with the audacity of Gen. Van Riper, people who are not cowed into supporting war games that are used to validate already decided-upon courses of action. It’s horrifying to watch Putin’s national security team cower before him and support this ill-advised war. We owe our president better; he never should have to say, “We were surprised.”
Retired Maj. Gen. John G. Ferrari is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former director of program analysis and evaluation for the U.S. Army.