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Military options to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine

The US position and future actions on the Ukraine continue to evolve as more reporting comes out.  Reportedly, in order to avoid a broader military conflict, President Biden has apparently advised Ukraine to appease Russian President Vladimir Putin by potentially ceding territory or granting autonomy to the Russian-backed separatist regions, The Daily Caller reported on Sunday.

The report of Biden allegedly urging Ukrainian appeasement of Putin coincides with public remarks he made that essentially foreswore the possibility of America taking any sort of military action to oppose Russian aggression against Ukraine.

It was the Associated Press that first reported on the supposed concessions President Biden had suggested in a call Thursday with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, which came two days after a call Biden held with Putin to discuss, among other things, the unsettling situation on the border shared by the two former Soviet republics.

In a sense, Biden offered up conflicting messages to Ukraine and the world, in that he reportedly assured Zelensky that the US would defend Ukrainian sovereignty and territory and would respond to any Russian invasion with defensive aid, military deployments to nearby NATO allies, and harsh economic sanctions aimed at Russia.

At the same time, however, the Biden administration was reportedly pressing Ukraine to grant greater autonomy to the Russia-aligned regions controlled by separatists who had revolted against the government in Kyiv in 2014. Those eastern regions, such as Donbas, are currently labeled with an ambiguous and vaguely-defined “special status” that was established in a 2015 peace deal but has never been formalized. 

Also, the Biden administration is reportedly holding back $200 million in aid to Ukraine.  Is this to gain leverage with Russia (if they don’t invade then no aid) or is it leverage against the Ukraine to make concessions?  When talking of leverage, one must always consider sanctions and embargos.  The biggest item the US could embargo is gas and oil.  They account for about 30% of Russia’s annual income—oh I forget that we are no longer an oil exporter.  This leverage is gone and Putin knows it.  This brings us back to the capitulation or some other kind of military action.

In effect, it would appear that Biden and his administration are searching for a way to cave to Putin’s ambitions and demands without appearing publicly to do so, and it will undoubtedly be a hard sell to get Ukraine to go along with it, to say nothing of other actual NATO allies situated on Russia’s flank who could see themselves facing a similar fate in the future.

Biden noted that he also informed Putin — and Putin reportedly understood — that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would likely result in the U.S. troop presence being bolstered in other nearby NATO nations, as well as that America would provide Ukraine with additional “defensive capability.”

However, as for putting U.S. “boots on the ground” in Ukraine, Biden said, “That is not on the table.”

However, there are other military options in the region that could leverage Russia to back off from any invasion of Ukraine.  Whether the Biden administration has the stomach for true strategic maneuvering we do not know, but thought repeating some ideas that are now getting some visibility in Washington might be useful.

A major military operation in Ukraine would take most of Russia’s active military ground and airborne forces to accomplish, but it could be done.  But what if there were other demands on those forces? Obviously, such strategic actions would be a combination of political/diplomatic, economic, psychological and military activities.  However, it is the military activity that needs to be considered as it is the foremost activity that Russia will understand. 

Since military force is something that Russia seems to understand, are there other theaters where Russian hegemony can be challenged creating a need for a Russian military response—thus diluting the force available to attack Ukraine?  Said differently: Are there non warfighting force deployments that could demonstrate US/NATO resolve while controlling the possibility of escalation.  Such deployments would also allow Biden to portray an image of strength and statesmanship.  And if he followed through, he could be an emancipator.

What if the US/NATO were to threaten Russia’s previous efforts to establish buffer zones through so-called “frozen conflicts?”  

In Georgia, Russia has created two autonomous zones through frozen conflicts — Abkhazia in the Black Sea region and Ossetia in the north. In Moldova, a small Russian force remains inside the breakaway Republic of Transnistria, which borders Ukraine.

These Russian expansionist deployments are exposed and vulnerable to military action.  Military action by Georgia and Moldova, supported by the US and NATO.   Most importantly, threatening these zones would not threaten Russian territory. Russia has not declared them to be Russian territory. Reinforcing Moldovan and Georgian forces with NATO forces could create a credible threat to retake these breakaway zones.  To hold them would require Russia to divert military forces from those they plan to use against Ukraine. How much of a threat would be required?  Probably several armored brigade combat teams with air support could create a credible threat.  Russia would have to divert at least comparable forces not counting those required to open and maintain robust lines of communication.

Also, the US and NATO could threaten to conduct a blockade or quarantine of the Russian exclave in Kaliningrad which is surrounded by Poland and the Baltic Sea. Such an action would stress Russian military resources, especially when coupled with the build-ups around the Russian outposts in Moldova and Georgia.   

There are also actions that could be taken with respect to the Black Sea, but that would require Turkish assistance.  In a longer-term game such actions would be helpful, but in the short-term gaining active Turkish support against Russia might be quite difficult.

We can hope that President Biden’s strategic decisions are not limited to the weak positions outlined earlier.  If the US and NATO want to prevent Russia from attacking Ukraine next month it would be prudent if they create counter pressure options similar to those noted above. That means more than “saying” we would take steps. The troops and equipment must be moved and positioned so that actions are available should NATO so choose.  This is a non-combat option that will clearly be visible in Moscow.  This is the kind of diplomacy through strength that Russian leaders can understand.  Will leaders in Paris, Berlin, London and Washington understand?

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