When reading the thoughtful report, Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do, ask: What political objective does it intend to achieve, and will the recommended policies achieve it? That objective is: “The United States and NATO should seek to create a situation in which the Kremlin considers the option of further military action in or against Ukraine too costly to pursue. The combination of closing off that option plus the cumulative impact of Western economic sanctions could produce conditions in which Moscow decides to negotiate a genuine settlement that allows Ukraine to reestablish full sovereignty over Donetsk and Luhansk.” Does the lethal and nonlethal assistance that the report recommends providing to Ukraine create this “situation” or produce these “conditions?” (There is another less concrete political objective—“preserving the credibility of security assurances for the future”—which credibility hawks can attempt to defend.)
The report makes a convincing case, based upon the authors’ discussions in the region and their net assessment, that these military capabilities are indeed needed by the Ukrainian armed forces and could change the battlefield calculus, assuming that separatist and Russian forces themselves remain relatively static.
But will the death of a few more separatists and destruction of Russian equipment achieve the political objective—changing the calculus of Putin’s thinking in order to compel him to endorse a genuine settlement. This is improbable, and there are two more troubling and foreseeable pathways that could unfold: it demonstrates that Ukraine is actually not that important to the transatlantic alliance, and this limited capability is the maximum of what the United States and NATO will do (this seems most likely); or, it triggers Putin to double-down on his support for separatist forces and non-uniformed Russian security forces in Ukraine to firmly establish facts on the ground before those capabilities are fully integrated into Ukrainian security forces, which could take nine to twelve months (this escalation concern seems less likely).
(The report hints that the lethal aid should be rushed to deter “a new offensive [that] could be launched once the spring arrives in April/May.” This would be a highly ambitious, if not unprecedented, political and logistical effort.) Either the demonstration of the relative unimportance of Ukraine, or Putin’s escalation would result in a strategic failure in that it did not prevent “further military action in or against Ukraine.”
Moreover, for a report premised on deterring further Russian aggression beyond Ukraine, it asks little of America’s NATO allies. “The U.S. government should approach Poland, the Baltic States, Canada and Britain regarding their readiness to provide lethal military assistance.” Presumably, these conversations have already taken place and, judging by the public comments of allied foreign and defense ministry officials, there may not be a commitment from them to provide lethal assistance. Notably, the authors do not propose approaching France or Germany, since their responses would be “no.” Furthermore, if European allies and Canada refrain, the report implies that the United States should provide this assistance, training, and sustainment on its own.
The one specific recommendation that does square is “electronic counter-measures for use against opposing UAVs.” The Russians have tremendous redundancy built into such line-of-sight communications for small clusters of tactical drones. Ukraine would require a great deal of pinpoint jamming capabilities (and training) to effectively do this, and not fratricide their own communications. The enduring solution to preventing the Russian drone from collecting such battlefield intelligence—that supports their artillery and rocket fire—is to shoot down them down.
The reason the report may not recommend shooting them down is the distinct possibility that it would result in further escalation. Recall the April 20, 2008, incident when a Georgian drone flying beyond a UN-monitored cease-fire line in the separatist region of Abkhazia was shot down by a Russian MIG-29 fighter jet. Less than one month prior, Abkhaz forces had similarly shot down a Georgian drone off the coast of Ochamchira with surface-to-air missiles. As the European Union fact-finding mission later determined, these drone incursions were “one of the sources of tension” that resulted in the military conflict that broke out between Russia and Georgia that August.
This important report will be eagerly devoured on Capitol Hill, as there have been several Pentagon and U.S. European Command briefings for staffers and congressional members on what lethal and non-lethal aid the United States could provide to Ukraine and within what time frame. Whether there has been equal thinking about what impact, if any, this lethal aid would have on Putin’s calculus to endorse a ceasefire and eventual settlement is unclear. Many congressional members say that Putin has not been deterred, but he has, to some degree, because if he wanted to he could order the full-scale invasion of the entirety of Ukrainian territory. That he has kept Russian direct personnel support for the separatists’ brutal aggression relatively small (1,000 military and intelligence personnel by recent NATO estimates) demonstrates that his decisions are rational (to him) and done with some awareness of the likely consequences.
It is conventional wisdom among these congressional members, though less so among staffers, that Putin will be deterred if just enough lethal aid is provided to Ukraine. But how much is that, exactly, and what if he is not deterred, since he retains an estimated forty-thousand well-trained ground troops and fleets of air-to-ground attack aircraft just across the border in Russia, which he could unleash quickly?