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No Troops Needed: How America Can Punish Russia for a Ukraine Invasion

Kyiv, Ukraine
Image of Russian TOS-2 Weapons. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

For many Ukrainians, the question “what will the West do if Russia starts a war?” rings hollow. Since 2014 (and even before) Russia has been trying to force Kyiv to acquiesce to its regional dominance. Low-level warfare on Ukraine’s eastern border has cost hundreds of lives and disrupted the politics and economy of the rest of the country. Some analysts call this “gray zone” or “hybrid” warfare, although both of those terms suggest more novelty than Russian actions really reveal. But now of course Russia is threatening to enforce its will through more traditional military means.

The US has virtually ruled out a response using military force in the air, at sea, or on the land. US fighters will not contest Ukrainian airspace, and US warships are unlikely to attack their Russian counterparts or deliver ordnance from sea to land. The prospect of US soldiers fighting in Ukraine seems particularly remote. But of course, the United States has lots of tools in the toolbox. In a previous column, I discussed how the United States is considering using its weapons in what we might call the “financial domain.”  Here, we can think about the steps that the United States might take in space and in the cyber domain.

Russia vs. Ukraine: The Intel Game

In space, the omnipresence of satellites has already changed the calculus of war. Russia’s mobilization efforts are glaringly obvious to Ukraine and to the rest of the world. An attack like Operation Barbarossa, in which the German acquired complete strategic and operational surprise, is no longer possible. Russia can disguise its moves in order to give its armed forces a tactical advantage, but the world is watching. The United States can take further steps, however.  In the event of a conflict, the United States could supply the Ukrainian armed forces with substantial intelligence with respect to the movement, strength, and logistical support networks of Russian forces in the field. This matters a great deal on the ground; Ukrainian artillery bombardments directed by US-supplied satellite intelligence could kill hundreds or even thousands of Russian troops.

The US could also lend its massive satellite communications capabilities to Ukrainian forces in the field, and although there would certainly be interoperability concerns these networks could provide communications more secure and more immediate than Ukraine’s armed forces currently possess. Even if the Biden administration hesitated to turn over the keys to the kingdom, Ukraine could use the assets of private space companies. There is little that Russia can do to prevent this, short of attacks against satellites operated by the United States and other countries.  This would represent a massive escalation and might well incur retaliation against Russia’s own relatively less-developed satellite networks.

Russia vs. Ukraine: The Cyber Game

With respect to the cyber domain, Russia and Ukraine have been engaged in a low-key cyber conflict since before 2014. Russia used cyber-attacks to disrupt Ukraine during the 2014 war, just as it had against Georgia in 2008. Russia’s capabilities are surely formidable, with attacks likely to come from both state-owned and state-sponsored actors. Indeed, some reports already indicate that Russia has begun to harass both civilian and governmental Ukrainian targets. The United States tends to keep its cyber capabilities close to the vest, and so it’s unclear what Washington can do to disrupt or divert the flow of information in deployed Russian military forces. But freezing or even damaging Russian communications could have significant tactical and operational effects. The US could also launch a wide-ranging set of cyber-attacks against Russian government institutions and Russia’s own cyber-agencies; such efforts have seen some success in the recent past. It remains unclear, however, how willing either Moscow or Washington will be to let the cyber dogs off their leashes.

US cyber and space assets probably can’t win the war for Ukraine, but they can definitely hurt Russia. Information about Russian troop movements could lead to the deaths of hundreds or thousands of Russian troops. We don’t know how Russia will view such efforts, but the sophistication and extent of US capabilities in both the space and the cyber domains are well-known to the Russians. Much will depend on what the Biden administration wants the post-war environment to look like. If Washington decides that relations with the Putin government are unsalvageable, it has little incentive to go easy.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.



  1. Commentar

    January 18, 2022 at 5:01 pm

    It is the west and Ukrainian fascists who want war, same like Germany and its allies in 1941.

    After the 2014 coup, antifascists in eastern Ukraine rose up;the result was Kyiv with support from US employed massive heavy firepower against targets in Donbass.

    Then fortunes changed with the setback at Ilovaisk (Iloyask), where antifascists gave Kyiv a taste of its own medicine, turning deadly firepower onto its forces. It was followed by the loss of Donetsk airport and the ignominious defeat at debaltseve.

    But west and it’s client not giving up at all. With NATO membership, Kyiv will be able to put Donbass to the sword, thus Putin must stand firm.

    Putin can put them in their place by testing hypersonic weaponry on Kyiv itself if push turns into shove. Russia is Numero uno in the arena of hypersonics. No contest. Even US can’t put a candle to Russian capability in this field. Hypersonics is Russia’s ‘trump’ card.

  2. Slack

    January 18, 2022 at 8:53 pm

    The west will incite ukraine to fire the first shot in the coming NATO proxy war on russia.

    But the west will quickly come a cropper in this very unholy endeavor, and with ukraine most likely capitulating after its capital has been reduced to rubble, the west will begin blaming one another. Heh, heh. You get to reap what you sow.

    You sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.


    January 19, 2022 at 2:44 am

    America, for sure, can punish russia. But punishment is a two-way street. If America fails (to succeed in cowing russia) and russia thumbs its nose at Nato, America would receive its biggest ever slap after Kabul. Anyone remember Kabul, Aug 2020? America’s well-armed soldiers reduced to firing on afghan civilians while talib fighters stood guard outside.

  4. Edfiero

    January 19, 2022 at 6:34 am

    @Commentar or der komisar or Vlad or Yuri. Tell me, what is Russia known for? What do you export beyond natural gas? Russia is a 2nd class country at best. You just can’t stand the idea of Ukraine’s success while Russia flounders!

  5. Tony

    January 19, 2022 at 11:27 am

    The Germans are denying their airspace to the British, who are flying military weaponry to Ukraine. The Germans are also pushing back against expelling Russia from the world banking system.

    Whose side are the Germans on? And if they are acting this way, why the hell should we take steps to protect them? Let the smug Europeans worry about Putin, he is their problem (or ally, in the case of Germany).

  6. Juan

    January 19, 2022 at 1:33 pm

    Commentar? Your ignorance is matched by the ridiculousness of that name. What are your vaunted hypersonic weapons going to count for in the mud and streets of an angry occupied territory?

    Frazier, with no US troops fighting in Ukraine, not sure what your point is. When it comes to consequences, what are the Russians going to do? Invade a independent neighboring country?

  7. Alex

    January 19, 2022 at 5:44 pm

    It must be understood that Russia will never allow Ukraine to join NATO. And Russia is ready for a third world war. Are millions of Americans ready for it? After all, the impact will be massive and will create the Mexican-Canadian Strait. Is the poorest country in Eurasia, namely Ukraine, worthy of this happening? It was looted from the inside by the oligarchs and from the outside by the Anglo-Saxons.

  8. Joseph Edelen

    January 20, 2022 at 11:33 am

    I will wait to see how committed western Europe is. It is winter in the northern hemisphere and much of Europe depends on Russian natural gas for heating homes.

  9. Paul saver

    January 20, 2022 at 4:52 pm

    If Russia wants Ukraine, then let them take it.. it is not even close to being worth the time and effort for the United States to get suckered in to. Russia is always looking for an opportunity to test their latest military tech. Ukraine is right next door and is convenient for them.. nasty commie bastards they are.

  10. Andrew P

    January 21, 2022 at 3:57 am

    Why should Putin stop at Ukraine? Putin has been waiting decades for a US President as stupid, senile, weak, corrupt, and craven as Biden. It is the opportunity of a lifetime. Putin will act to put the USSR back together again. Once the Russian army starts moving west, it won’t stop at the Ukrainian border. It will roll through the Baltics and keep going. It probably won’t stop until Harris invokes the 25th Amendment, puts Biden in a nursing home, and orders the use of nuclear weapons.

  11. Seven

    January 21, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    The above aren’t great comments, but the author reminds us why lawyers or people who hang out with them too long have since 1865 (notwithstanding OSS swashbuckling during WW2) made poor tacticians and even worse strategists.

    Mr Farley clearly has no idea what he’s talking about in terms of any connection between US satellite coverage of Ukraine (including imagery of MH17 hell will freeze over before we’ll be allowed to see it) and Kyiv’s tactical ISR which after a hypothetical Russian invasion would consist of handheld drones while the vaunted Turkish Bayrektar TB2s and the Ukrainian Air Force are incinerated on the ground by Kalibr cruise missile strikes.

    Stick with reality based assessments Mr Farley and Guns Lawyers and Money blog fans…

  12. Seven

    January 22, 2022 at 10:10 am

    Also it is Farley’s incompetence in military affairs combined with his desire for competent Turkish cannon fodder vs the Russians that makes him gullible to Turkey’s Bayrektar drone porn propaganda. Twitter is full of boasting about the TB2’s combat successes against Russian made air defenses operated by enemies like the Armenians who, conveniently enough for Ankara, did not have significant modern air forces or standoff missiles and drones of their own to shoot down the TB2s or kill its crews on the ground. Unlike General Haftar’s handful of Belarussian mercenary MiG pilots that is something Russia does not lack. One wonders if Farley has ever considered that in this case disinformation or misinformation targeting himself and US natsec / mil twitter users is coming from inside the NATO house.

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