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What Is America’s Plan If Russia Does Invade Ukraine?

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A KC-135 Stratotanker from the 22nd Air Refueling Wing refuels a B-2 Spirit from the 509th Bomb Wing, Aug. 29, 2012. A B-2 Spirit is designed to be very difficult to detect so it can better engage enemies during war efforts. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class Maurice A. Hodges)

Last Thursday after talks between the United States, NATO, and Russia wrapped their third and final day, Michael Carpenter, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), somberly assessed that the “drumbeat of war (between Russia and Ukraine) is sounding loud.” Added National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, “the threat of military invasion is high.” As more reports indicate the chances of war are growing by the day, it is critical that the United States begin now, before the onset of hostilities, to decide how it will respond.

Waiting until Russian tanks are rolling across the Ukrainian border before addressing the crisis, and we’ll be at much higher risk of making an emotion-based decision that could perversely undermine, not preserve, our national security.

While there is reasonable debate about which actions Washington could take, the objective of those actions should be simple and clear: safeguard U.S. and NATO security and preserve America’s ability to prosper economically. Any action that would contribute to those goals should be considered – but any that a sober, reality-based assessment indicates would likely harm those objectives should be summarily rejected. There is a growing urgency to carefully consider potential U.S. responses.

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that the three days of talks between the West and Russia yielded no fruit, as both U.S./NATO and Russian officials entered the talks with irreconcilable positions. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said neither the U.S. nor NATO would ever allow a third party to “slam the door shut” on NATO’s open door policy, refusing to rule out Ukraine or Georgia admission into the Western Alliance.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg went further, emphatically stating “we stand by our decisions” from the 2008 Bucharest Summit (which declared, “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO.  We agree today that these countries will become members of NATO.”).  Moscow’s position was equally rigid.

Putin’s chief negotiator, Sergey Ryabkov, entered the talks emphatically stating that Russia required “ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees. Not assurances, not safeguards, but guarantees.” Following the talks, Russian Ambassador Alexander Lukashevich said there could be “catastrophic consequences” if the West didn’t accept Putin’s red lines on Ukraine, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov adding on Friday that Russia “categorically will not accept the appearance of NATO right on our borders.”

Alongside competing and irreconcilable statements made by the two sides, there are growing signs of a continued buildup of Russian combat power near the Ukraine border. In addition to the approximately 100,000 troops that have been deployed there in recent months, on Friday the Kremlin announced that thousands more troops from its Eastern Military District were mobilizing for an unplanned exercise that would carry troops “across the great distances of the territory of the Russian Federation” in the direction of Ukraine.

Until or unless Putin gives orders for his troops to attack, war remains a possibility only, and may never occur. Hopefully that will be the case and diplomacy will eventually preclude an armed conflict. But because political tensions are increasing and Russia continues mobilizing the combat power that would be necessary for an invasion, it is necessary for the United States to begin, now, formulating a sober, unemotional, and realist-based policy in the event diplomacy fails.

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense under Obama Evelyn Farkas has gone so far as to suggest the U.S. should consider using military force against Russia. Dr. Farkas argued that if Russia invades Ukraine, the U.S. should issue an ultimatum warning that if Putin doesn’t withdraw, the U.S. and allies must be “willing to take action to enforce it,” even if it means using the U.S. “military to roll back Russians—even at risk of direct combat.”

Thus far, Biden has been wise in signaling that he would not use American combat troops against Russia in retaliation of a Ukrainian invasion. But its clear that in the event of an actual invasion where television and social media would be saturated with horrific images of Russian armor and missile power destroying Ukrainian defenses, the pressure to “do more” will rise dramatically, potentially even those advocating for armed intervention like that espoused by Dr. Farkas. Under no circumstances should Biden give in to such pressures, because the results for the United States could be catastrophic.

First, it would take months for the U.S. to mobilize and deploy sufficient combat power that would be needed to engage Russian mechanized forces, and even then, we would be fighting with logistic lines hundreds of miles long, while Russia would be literally next door to the fight, with secure lines of communication to all its resupply and maintenance needs.

Second, if Putin orders a strike, it will likely be in keeping with his uses of force throughout his tenure, which features limited objectives, decisive employment of force, and short duration. In all probability, he would not try to capture all of Ukraine, but only the eastern enclaves that are already strongly pro-Russian. Such limited objectives could likely be attained in a matter of weeks or few months – not near enough time for U.S. to mount an effective military response.

Third, though the U.S. would rightly abhor Russia’s use of force against Ukraine, it would not represent a threat to American national security. On the other side of the Ukraine border sits a 30-nation military bloc with Article 5 security obligations – and Putin is keenly aware Russia doesn’t have anywhere near the economic or military capacity to go to war against all of NATO.

Lastly, and most critical of all: The chances of a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia rise dramatically if the two engage in open, conventional battle. There is nothing in all of Europe that would be worth losing an American city to a nuclear blast.

Knowing that fighting Russia over Ukraine should not be on the table, what options might Biden have to respond? The hard, blunt truth of it is: not many. Biden will almost certainly enact heavy economic sanctions on Russia, as he has already openly warned. Europe will most likely enact sanctions of their own (Nordstream 2 could be permanently shut down).

It is also probable that Finland and Sweden will come under great pressure from their population to consider joining NATO. The eastern European members of NATO would be motivated to increase their defense spending, significantly, further deterring Russia from any thought of trying to attack further West. All of that would be bad for Putin and impose significant long-term costs on Moscow, and deter Putin from making any further moves against alliance members.

Refusing to be drawn into a military clash with Russia would limit the damage to the cross-border conflict between Kyiv and Moscow and prevent any further bloodshed or destruction of NATO countries or armies – and avoiding war at that point would enhance U.S. national security and preserve our ability to continue prospering economically.

In the unfortunate and regrettable event that Putin takes the costly action to invade any part of Ukraine, Biden must be firm and immovable in resisting the pressures that might come upon him to respond with U.S. military power directed against Russia. Doing so could drag us into an unnecessary war that, in a worst-case, could result in a catastrophic nuclear exchange.

Daniel L. Davis, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him Twitter: @DanielLDavis1.

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Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Alex

    January 16, 2022 at 8:32 pm

    Heads in the United States cannot understand that Russia will not fight again in Europe, but will send the entire North American continent to the bottom. What for?

  2. Bankotsu

    January 17, 2022 at 1:33 am

    “…But its clear that in the event of an actual invasion where television and social media would be saturated with horrific images of Russian armor and missile power destroying Ukrainian defenses, the pressure to “do more” will rise dramatically, potentially even those advocating for armed intervention like that espoused by Dr. Farkas…”

    I don’t buy that at all.

    Americans will risk thermonuclear war if they see Ukrainian army being destroyed by Russia on TV?

    Sorry, I don’t think that Americans are that stupid. They love their country. Americans will say:”To hell with Ukraine. We are not fighting thermonuclear war over that corrupt and degenerate country!” I am betting on that.

    Americans are quite shrewd, they know BS when they see it.

    And there is nothing more BS than risking thermonuclear war over Ukraine.

    American people are many things, idiots they are not.

  3. Commentar

    January 17, 2022 at 8:17 am

    Nearly half of Americans still believe that the 2020 election was stolen and 40% believe democracy in America is headed for the sewage retention pond, what could America do if there’s an invasion. Americans will only rush to get their guns. And fire live rounds at fellow citizens.thinking they were Russian immigrants.

    Russia won’t invade cuz it just isn’t uncle Sam who likes to invade all and sundry.

    Russia would prefer to help the militias in Donbass (Donbas in Ukraine speak), or turn the central square in kviv into a pile of broken rubble. Why invade in the first place, as invasion costs lotsa money.

  4. gooch

    January 17, 2022 at 8:45 pm

    Who cares….what is the US really gonna do? Ukraine is a factor only as Europe’s buffer: think of that big, beat-up, graffiti-coated concrete wall that stands boldly and tirelessly along any given city highway designed to keep things (on one side) marginally quieter and safer and you see Ukraine’s role in Europe. Will Biden fly a huge chunk of a fatigued (exhausted and camouflaged) US Army over on commercial air, the morass force of choice trained to maintain flourishing desert FOBs and conduct mounted daytime security patrols, to Germany so they can realize they have the wrong training, equipment (here’s looking at you cold/wet weather clothing, hand/footwear, NBC, etc.) and ultimately cannot discern any clear rationale to fight in the miserable, cold wet mess of a Northern Europe winter-spring? (unless of course they are bolstered by a spontaneously ignited dedication to sacrifice all on behalf of..of..Europeans…who have done nothing but look down their noses with scorn at the US, its culture and its people since the 1950’s??). Wait?! Send in the Marines!…but no, they just got rid of all of their tanks, a good deal of artillery and even some of that uncouth-good-for-nothing-thing-that-is-all-that-is-needed-in-war Marine infantry, and in any event need to be plotting island campaigns sans amphibious vehicles, boats, fire support, air support and the moral support that says they’re still special given the rise of a most especially special SOCOM force. The EU in turn is just flabby with little military strength and less unity when it comes to anything beyond dreamy rainbow and green initiatives and where any military prowess is viewed as an evil squandering of revenue better spent on comfort items and bonbon policy that enables universal feel-good sentiment. The US is decadent, indecisive and self-centered (not to mention completely divided as the two sides mumblety-peg their way through fantastic visions of new civil war victory)…Joe and Kammala ensure there will be little more than some rusty saber-rattling, ephemeral sanctions, notwithstanding some giggling excitement amongst the intel/ops community who get to spend all sorts of money James-Bonding as they furtively shuttle weapons and aid to the doomed Ukrainian forces [which beats getting microwaved at the office/hotel by a country mile] ….all so the aged and mouldering American “Blue Team/pill” executive and legislative set can point to capital-R “Results” versus their double-chinned, mouth-breathing American “Red Team/pill” opponents back in the DC. Putin plans carefully, moves with conviction and acts with strategic outcomes in mind for Russia (IOW, leading his nation). He is not bound by the meaningless treaties the West seems totally enamored with and, unlike most every other leader (Developed world…every Third World leader still gets it) in the world, understands that tanks, fuel, trucks, guns and infantry will decide this much more than sanctions and hand-wringing media displeasure. In this arena, Putin (and Xi for that matter), can basically do whatever he wants because, admire or hate him, he is a leader who is hard-wired to “fight to win”, a phrase that is foreign in every Western language.
    Real Western leaders would be meeting in Ukraine and having a summit [mind you, we’re talking competent, lively and sharp-witted leaders], talking publicly, face to face with Putin, and working things out the way real world leaders used to all the time like it was their J-O-B.

  5. Cerebus

    January 17, 2022 at 9:54 pm

    Why do all posters and authors opine under the premise that the USA is the only one risking the initiation of a thermonuclear war and suffering a first strike were the USA to engage Russian troops directly? This is complete nonsense. The risk is equally borne by Russia as are the consequences. Putin must ask if the people are ready to bear this. Putin knows this would be the end of his reign should he invade and he would not be welcomed as in the company of free nations. He would become an outcast.

    Many nations are either nuclear armed or mere minutes from breakout and they will not be sitting on their hands with their eyes and ears closed. No, this will be a pure conventional war with the goals clearly defined. Russia will enjoy initial gains and then be rapidly driven back. Securing supply line will be impossible and they will not enjoy air superiority. Worst of all, Russian weapons systems would very likely be exposed as ineffective and this would be devastating for global sales and partner confidence.

  6. Alex

    January 17, 2022 at 11:08 pm

    Russia is on its territory. On the home continent. She is not climbing across the ocean with a weapon. In any case, Russia will be able to win on its territory with a 100% guarantee. History remembers how many countries united against Russia and were simply destroyed on the territory of Russia. Who will fight? Those who hope to sit out in their countries or a bunch of neo-Nazis? None of them. But at the same time, Russia has enough strength to destroy both. The question is different: Western countries do not feel sorry for their people? They asked their people if they wanted war because of their government’s lies and propaganda?

  7. Bankotsu

    January 18, 2022 at 7:08 am

    NATO can’t even win a war with Taliban, they want to win a war with Russia in its backyard?

    Makes no sense to me.

  8. Bobby

    January 18, 2022 at 10:02 am

    @Bankotsu Russia has nothing to brag about either when it comes to Afghanistan.

  9. Alex

    January 19, 2022 at 5:46 pm

    Russia was leaving Afghanistan proudly raising its head. And the United States fled like thieves.

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