Many have been asking me to write something on the Ukraine. I have been holding off because I am of mixed minds on the Ukraine.
The globalist in me wants to deter aggression on the international stage. This means that the US should not only talk a good tough game but should act in consonance with what it says. In other words, talk tough and carry a big stick. This suggests the need to deploy forces for deterrent purposes. However, should deterrence fail we would have no alternative but to then conduct military operations.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world sees our president as weak, indecisive and as a bully who will bluster and threaten, but in the end probably do nothing. This perception increases the probability of deterrence failing and US troops then being caught up in a war that we don’t need.
The other problem is that much of the US deterrence credibility has also been undermined by its energy policy. It has made itself dependent on Russian oil and encouraged the Russians to finish a pipeline to western Europe so that it could be more dependent on Russian energy. (And one wonders why the Germans are dragging their feet in supporting the Ukraine.) Today’s communiques from Berlin indicate that Germany has accepted the US position of holding the unfinished pipeline hostage as a means of deterring Russia. After agreeing to the Nord Stream II pipeline, it is difficult to believe today’s announcement. We will see.
As a strategist I see us being drawn into the wrong fight at the wrong place and at the wrong time. No matter what we do we will have limited credibility as many will see US actions on the Ukraine as a ‘wag the dog” activity to try and bolster the president’s standing. In short, he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t with respect to Ukraine. However, if he were to pivot, and admit that this isn’t our fight. It is a European fight. And focus on China and work to prevent a Chinese – Russian alliance while reversing his position on China and energy, he could come out of this with the US in a much stronger position.
The Biden administration, inadvertently, has caused many of the European countries to take action in terms of military aid to the Ukraine and the forward repositioning of forces to at least prevent a conflict over the Ukraine to expand to NATO member states. Given that one of Putin’s goals is to destroy NATO his actions have to date had the opposite effect. With the energy policy reversal noted above Germany might feel less dependent upon Russia to survive the European winter and thus more willing to contribute to the alliance efforts in eastern Europe. This is of course what Trump was seeking 4 years ago, but since it was a Trump position Biden’s political base, to the extent that there is one, will find such actions as impossible to accept—Trump policies on energy, China and for increased European efforts in support of European stability and peace—ugh!
This is why I am torn. The right policy is politically impossible for the Biden administration. It has blocked itself into what for me is the wrong policy at the wrong time. So, given this undesirable situation what should the administration do? Demanding that Europe carry the weight in reinforcing Ukraine with logistics and war fighting units is a first step. It is also critical that the US maintain nuclear deterrence in Europe as this is the biggest genie out there. To do this will require forward deploying nuclear capable forces that can strike back at Russia. if necessary. What “if necessary” means must remain vague and ambiguous enough that the Russians will not consider the first use of battlefield nuclear weapons.
The Russian demands of not allowing Ukraine to enter NATO and to withdraw support from the Baltic states and Poland are totally unacceptable and there is no ground for negotiation. Negotiating another arms control limitation agreement for Europe might be possible, but will probably take years to negotiate. The Intermediate Range weapons treaty took years,
To my friends who asked me to write about this instead of Khe Sanh I now ask them: what does it mean to win in this situation? This is the ultimate question that no one is writing about. Let me posit some outcomes that might define winning:
- NATO remains united and acts as a coherent whole to deter Russian aggression
- Russia decides that its goal of repelling the US from Europe is presently unattainable through present means.
- Ground conflict is avoided or minimized around the borders of Ukraine
- European dependence on Russian energy is at least tempered and is always at risk so that Russia has to rethink its ability to hold the heating of European homes at risk.
- The US begins the needed rethinking of its strategic priorities and related policies—this may require a new administration.
These are win criteria that should have been thought of initially, but unfortunately NATO and the US gave the Russians the initiative many years ago in the Crimea and have never regained it.
Ukraine is not a winning situation in the short term so unfortunately the best we can hope for is a stalemate—not a war.
(I have refrained from talking about President Biden’s talk last night with the Ukrainian president. Some have characterized it a s a disaster, but who can believe CNN.)