WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has no plans to respond to another Russian invasion of Ukraine by sending combat troops. But he could pursue a number of less dramatic but still risky military options, including supporting a post-invasion Ukrainian resistance.
The reason not to get directly involved in a war between Russia and Ukraine is simple: the United States has no treaty obligations with Kiev, and a conflict with Moscow would be a big gamble, given its potential to expand into Europe, destabilize the region and aggravate to a point where a nuclear exchange could occur.
But doing too little also has its risks. It might suggest tolerance for future Russian moves against other Eastern European countries, such as the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — even though they, as NATO members, have security guarantees from Washington and the rest of the alliance.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is in Europe this week to meet with Ukrainian authorities, consult NATO allies and meet his Russian counterpart on Friday, has assured “an unwavering commitment by the United States to sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine. But he has not publicly defined the limits of that commitment.
How far, then, could the United States and its allies go to help Ukraine defend itself in the event that a Russian troop buildup along its border ends in an invasion?
WHY NOT DISPUTE A RUSSIAN INVASION?
Going to war against Russia in Ukraine could tie up American forces and resources for years and come at a high personal cost, with an uncertain outcome, at a time when the Biden administration is trying to focus on China as the main security threat. .
Biden said Wednesday that he “believes” Russian President Vladimir Putin will end up sending his forces to Ukraine, though he also said he doesn’t think his counterpart is seeking an all-out confrontation. Biden did not address the possibility of sending ground troops into Ukrainian territory to stop an invasion, something he had previously ruled out.
The US president said he does not know how Putin will use the forces he has built up near the Ukraine border, but the US and NATO have rejected what Moscow sees as their main demand — a guarantee that the Western military alliance will not expand further. to the east. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 after toppling a pro-Moscow president and intervened in the country’s east that same year to support a separatist insurgency. More than 14,000 people have lost their lives in almost eight years of fighting in that region.
The stakes are high in Ukraine, both politically and militarily. Lawmakers have stepped up their criticism of Biden’s position on Putin. Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, accused the president of “wailing and appeasement” but has not called for the deployment of combat forces. Jim Himes, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, called for an urgent “steady airlift” of military equipment and trainers to Ukraine.
Philip Breedlove, a retired Air Force general who served as NATO’s top commander in Europe from 2013 to 2016, said in an interview that he neither expects nor recommends that Washington send combat troops to Ukraine. Instead, the United States and its allies should look for ways to help the country defend its airspace and territorial waters, fields where Russia has clear superiority, he added.
“These are things that we should consider as an alliance and as a nation,” he said. “If Mr. Putin is allowed to invade Ukraine and there are few or no consequences, we will see more of the same.”
WHAT ARE BIDEN’S OTHER OPTIONS?
Given its clear military inferiority, Ukraine would not be able to prevent Russian forces from crossing its border. But with the help of the United States and other allies, it could dissuade Putin from acting if he is convinced the cost would be too high.
“The key to thwarting Russian ambitions is to prevent Moscow from achieving a quick victory and to raise the economic, political and military costs by imposing economic sanctions, ensuring political isolation with the West and raising the possibility of a protracted insurgency that wears down the military. Russian,” political scientist Seth Jones and Philip Wasielewski, a former CIA paramilitary agent, wrote in an analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies on January 13.
The White House has suggested that their ideas are along the same lines.
HOW IS THE US NOW SUPPORTING THE UKRAINIAN MILITARY?
According to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, there are about 200 National Guard soldiers in Ukraine to train and advise local forces, and he said on Tuesday there are no plans to increase their number. In addition, there is an undisclosed number of special operations agents on a training mission. Kirby did not specify whether the troops would be withdrawn in the event of a Russian invasion, but said the Pentagon “will take all appropriate and proper decisions to ensure that our people are safe in any event.”
The government said on Wednesday it would allocate an additional $200 million in defensive military aid to Ukraine. Since 2014, the United States has allocated nearly $2.5 billion in defense aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank missiles and radars.
HOW COULD THE US HELP UKRAINE AFTER AN INVASION?
It is not clear. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said last week that the United States could “drastically strengthen” its support for Ukraine’s “territorial integrity and sovereignty,” but did not elaborate.
The White House says it is also open to sending military reinforcements to NATO allies on the eastern border who want US backing.
Jones and Wasielewski argue that in addition to applying harsh sanctions against Moscow in the event of an invasion, the United States should provide Ukraine with a wide range of military assistance at no cost. This would include air defense systems, anti-tank and anti-ship systems. electronic warfare and cyber defense systems, and ammunition for small arms and artillery, among others.
“The United States and NATO should prepare to offer long-term support to the Ukrainian resistance, regardless of what form it ends up taking,” they wrote. This aid could be delivered overtly with the help of Washington troops, including special operations forces, or through covert action spearheaded by the CIA and authorized by Biden, they added.
This could put US troops in the front line of fire, drawing Washington into the fight it is determined to avoid.
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