I have written recently about the strategic objectives in Ukraine. At that point the choices were to win or not to win and the Biden administration was seeking a negotiated settlement with some form of appeasement of Russia. Subsequently, I wrote about a movement within NATO and later the US away from purely defensive weapons towards offensive or more multi-purposed weapons. Given, Ukrainian successes and Russian losses the NATO and US goals seem to be evolving more in recent days.
Secretary of Defense Austin told reporters and his NATO colleagues after a visit to Ukraine that: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” He went on to highlight that: “So it has already lost a lot of military capability. And a lot of its troops, quite frankly. And we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.” This is a significant change in objectives and is supported by the change in weapon deliveries.
The Russian response to Secretary Austin has been more nuclear weapon rattling. Previously, the Biden administration was scared by the Russian potential to escalate to de-escalate by the use of nuclear weapons. Something changed. One can only guess/assume that there have been assurances from inside the Russian military that the escalation option is “under control.”
NATO seems much more emboldened. Talks about Sweden and Finland joining the alliance continue unabated. Ukraine joining NATO is again being suggested. One of the interesting arguments is that as Ukraine gains more NATO weapons and gets weaned off of Russian/Soviet weapons the compatibility suggests to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense that his country is moving in that direction.
I find the argument that using Ukrainian surrogates with western weapons to weaken Russia has some moralistic problems. What bothers me is that what do we say to the Ukrainians if the strategy fails? Sorry? Realistically, it seems that the strategic goal is potentially leading to NATO active involvement to ensure that the threat posed by Russian aggression is eliminated for something approaching a decade. Is the next strategic objective creep going to require NATO forces on the ground and in the air to achieve the desired Russian neutering? This seems to me to be obvious.
There are a lot of implications and dangers if such a strategy is successful. I am reminded of the idea of a ”peace dividend”. This was supposed to be benefit from the end of the cold war. However, arguing against cutting the defense budget Senator from Kansas Nancy Landon Kassebaum suggested that the benefit of the end of the cold war was peace. She argued in a presentation to the Army War College[i] that the cold war provided some stability and predictability to international relations. Given the increasingly bellicose actions of the Chinese one can argue that a peace in Europe benefit would be more than negated by increased Chinese expansion.
The issue of Russian escalation has to remain in defense planners’ minds. The best way to preclude such escalation is to prepare for it and to demonstrate the willingness and capability to defend against such an attack and to respond in kind. Mutual assured destruction and the prevention of nuclear exchanges because of it seems to continue to be applicable.
As the battles continue and the outcomes ebb and flow, we will remain vigilant and report the next twist in this on-going struggle for Ukraine.
[i] I was her escort officer and greatly enjoyed our conversations before and after her presentation.