The Day After Russia Attacks


  • Despite a flurry of meetings in recent weeks, the United States, NATO, Ukraine, and Russia have not moved any closer to a diplomatic solution or a reduction of tensions on the Ukrainian-Russian border.
  • This would be an enormous operation requiring all the forces Russia has assembled in Crimea and along Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders.
  • Washington has put itself in a position in which, short of threatening military escalation, deterrence will probably fail.

Despite a flurry of meetings in recent weeks, the US, NATO, Ukraine, and Russia have made no progress toward a diplomatic solution or a reduction in tensions on the Ukrainian-Russian border as reported by Foreign Affairs.

Diplomatic pretences 

Although Russia has not completely abandoned diplomatic pretences, the chasm between Russian and Western expectations has been laid bare.

Russian officials have made clear that they are not interested in proposals focused solely on strategic stability or on military exercises, or even a moratorium on NATO membership for Ukraine.

Meanwhile, despite assurances that Russia has no plans to “invade” Ukraine—the Russian military has been occupying Ukraine’s territory and fighting a war on Ukrainian soil since 2014—the military buildup along the Ukrainian-Russian border has continued unabated.

Do I think he’ll test the West, test the United States and NATO, as significantly as he can?

“Yes, I think he will,” the president said at a press conference. 

It is an outcome that no one should crave.

What happens now?

Presuming that diplomacy fails, there are three scenarios that could play out.

Which one comes to pass will depend in large part on how Putin decides he can best achieve his ultimate goals: crippling Ukrainian military capabilities, sowing turmoil in the Ukrainian government, and, ultimately, turning Ukraine into a failed state—an outcome that Putin seeks because it would bring an end to the threat of Ukraine as an intractable adversary and increasingly serious security challenge.

Faced with declining influence and control over Ukrainian domestic and foreign policy, the Kremlin can achieve its objectives only with military force.

The first scenario would involve a coercive diplomatic resolution to the present crisis.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation has already taken the step of introducing a bill to the Russian State Duma that would recognize the separatist statelets in the Donbas in a manner similar to the way Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions in Georgia. This would allow the Kremlin to avoid further military escalation yet still come away with a “win.” 

A second scenario would involve a limited Russian offensive, with limited airpower, to seize additional territory in eastern Ukraine and in the Donbas, perhaps as an extension of recognition or full annexation. In this scenario, Russia would seize Mariupol, a major Ukrainian port on the Sea of Azov, as well as Kharkiv, a major city with symbolic importance as the interwar capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. 

From the south, Russia could establish a “land bridge” connecting Crimea to Russia’s mainland. 

It could also launch an amphibious operation to seize Odessa, Ukraine’s most important port, and then push toward Russian forces already stationed in Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova.

Therefore, the third and most likely outcome is a full-scale Russian offensive employing land, air, and sea power on all axes of attack. In this scenario, Russia would establish air and naval superiority as quickly as possible. 

A long-term occupation would be unlikely in this scenario. Storming and pacifying major cities would entail a level of urban warfare and additional casualties that the Russian military probably wishes to avoid. 

Russian forces would be more likely to capture and hold territory to establish and protect supply lines and then withdraw after obtaining a favourable diplomatic settlement or inflicting sufficient damage.

Russia would also prioritize the destruction of Ukrainian arms manufacturers.

Cyberattacks would hit critical infrastructure, such as Ukraine’s power grid, which could further paralyze the Ukrainian state. Russia would also prioritize the destruction of Ukrainian arms manufacturers. 

By eliminating Ukraine’s capacity to develop and produce Neptune cruise missiles, Sapsan missile systems, and Hrim-2 short-range ballistic missiles, Russia could remove the prospective threat of conventional deterrence from Ukraine in the immediate future.

If all went according to Russia’s plan, the attacks would cripple the Ukrainian government, military, and economic infrastructure—all important steps toward the goal of rendering Ukraine a failed state.

An unprecedented response

Regardless of whether Russia opts for a more limited incursion or a broader attack, the consequences it faces from the United States and its allies and partners must be unprecedented, as the Biden administration has previously warned they would be.

Congress must not lend credence to that belief.

The potency of Menendez’s bill comes not only from its substance but also in the signal it would send about overwhelming bipartisan support for Ukraine.

Some might question the effectiveness of sanctions as tools for deterrence or behavioural change.

That said, without transatlantic unity and cooperation from the EU, sanctions will be far less meaningful and effective—and Washington’s European allies are wary of the potential for sanctions to harm their own economies.

Other countries worry that disconnecting Russian financial institutions from SWIFT would create blowback for the European economy, and since SWIFT is beholden to Belgian and European law, Washington must rely to some extent on European acquiescence to enforce any Russian cutoff.

Step it up

On the military front, if it is not already doing so, the United States can aid the Ukrainian government’s response to Russian operations by sharing strategic, operational, and even tactical intelligence in real-time.

Additionally, in the unlikely event of prolonged occupation and insurgency, the Biden administration should support Ukrainian insurgents.

Washington should also deploy additional forces and military equipment to reassure and aid its European allies.

This would surely raise the risk of an expanded conflagration.

At a minimum, countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia will likely increase their own defences while appealing to the United States to expand its Enhanced Forward Presence missions, the multinational, battalion-size battle groups that NATO stations in its most vulnerable member states.

Time to prepare

Although the Biden administration has handled the process of faux negotiations with Russia admirably, the ultimate outcome will still be the partial result of missed opportunities.

In hindsight, a more forceful response to the military buildup that Russia carried out on its border with Ukraine last April could have led to preemptive force-posture changes and the introduction of lethal aid to Ukraine, which might have had a greater impact on altering the Kremlin’s calculus for a military-technical solution.

The world is on the brink of the largest military offensive in Europe since World War II.

And even if Washington or Kyiv did change its stance, there is still no guarantee that Moscow would be satisfied and de-escalated.

The moment a war starts, the geopolitical landscape will become significantly more challenging for U.S. national security.

Washington should assume the worst and plan accordingly, leveraging all elements of its power to protect U.S. interests.

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Source: Foreign Affairs


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