The Day Following Russia's Attacks

What a Ukrainian War Would Look Like—and How America Should React.

Despite a flurry of discussions in recent weeks, the US, NATO, Ukraine, and Russia have not advanced any closer to a diplomatic settlement or lowering tensions on the Ukrainian-Russian border. Although Russia has not abandoned diplomatic pretenses entirely, the gap between Russian and Western expectations has been exposed. Russian officials have made it plain that they are not interested in ideas that focus simply on strategic stability, military drills, or even a delay on Ukraine's NATO membership. Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks nothing less than the complete dismantling of Europe's post–Cold War security architecture, as well as a rollback of fundamental international agreements governing states' rights to self-determination—a result that the US and its partners and allies will never accept.

Meanwhile, despite promises from Russia that it has no plans to "invade" Ukraine—the Russian military has been occupying Ukrainian land and conducting a war on Ukrainian turf since 2014—military buildup along the Ukrainian-Russian border has proceeded uninterrupted. Military equipment from Russia's Eastern Military District has recently started moving westward, while attack and transport helicopters, as well as support forces, have been positioned in preparation for a full-scale onslaught. Russia also justified a military buildup north of Ukraine by announcing joint military drills with Belarus that will take place until February 20. Russian military are already concentrating along Ukraine's southern and southeastern borders. Additional measures must be taken before an operation can begin, but the present live-fire drills and exercises, as well as the arrival of supply units, indicate that a force is prepared for action.

Earlier this week, US Vice President Joe Biden warned that Putin will eventually decide to launch an invasion or incursion. "Do I believe he will put the West, the United States, and NATO to the test as much as he possibly can?" "I believe he will," the president remarked during a press conference. "I'm guessing he'll move in," Biden added.

A large-scale armed battle in Ukraine would be a disaster. It is a result that no one should desire. However, it is now a possibility for which the United States must prepare.


In the event that diplomacy fails, there are three possible outcomes.
Which one occurs will be determined in large part by how Putin determines he can best achieve his ultimate goals: crippling Ukrainian military capabilities, sowing turmoil in the Ukrainian government, and, eventually, turning Ukraine into a failed state—an outcome that Putin seeks because it would end the threat of Ukraine as an intractable adversary and increasingly serious security challenge.  Putin despises the idea of a thriving and wealthy democratic model at the cradle of East Slavic civilization, a development that may offer Russian citizens with an increasingly appealing and inspiring framework for their own democratic transition. Faced with dwindling influence and control over Ukrainian domestic and foreign policy, the Kremlin's only option is to use armed force to achieve its goals.


The first option entails a forceful diplomatic solution to the current problem. Russia may take steps to formally recognize or annexe the seized Donbas territory of eastern Ukraine. The Russian Communist Party has already introduced a measure in the Russian State Duma that would recognize the separatist statelets in the Donbas in the same way that Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway areas in Georgia. This would enable the Kremlin to avoid further military escalation while yet claiming a "victory." The Russian leadership may also hope to provoke Ukraine into making a mistake similar to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's in 2008, when he chose to fight Russian-backed separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, providing the Kremlin with a pretext for additional military action and plausible deniability for any culpability.

Such steps, however, would not constitute victories for Russia; rather, they would essentially calcify the existing quo, and Russia would lose the ability to integrate a pro-Kremlin "fifth column" into Ukrainian internal affairs. If Putin chooses this course, then the United States and NATO may still respond with additional deployments along NATO’s eastern flank, which would bring about the kind of security dilemma that the Kremlin wants to avoid.

A second option would be a limited Russian attack, using limited airpower, to grab further land in eastern Ukraine and the Donbas, possibly as an extension of recognition or complete annexation. In this scenario, Russia would conquer Mariupol, a significant Ukrainian port on the Sea of Azov, as well as Kharkiv, a landmark city that served as the interwar capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Russia might potentially launch a more ambitious, enlarged version of this attack from the east and south, using land, air, and sea force. 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.

A move of this magnitude would deprive Ukraine of major commercial ports along its southern coast, make Ukraine landlocked, and alleviate Russia's long-standing logistical issues with supplying supplies, particularly water, to Crimea. This would be a massive operation needing all of Russia's soldiers in Crimea as well as throughout Ukraine's eastern and northern borders. This would also necessitate taking and retaining disputed terrain. Russia would be compelled to embark on an expensive battle to take key Ukrainian cities, exposing its soldiers to difficult urban combat, a lengthy military campaign, and a costly insurgency. Furthermore, conquering and retaining territory for a long-term occupation would weaken Ukraine without resulting in a failed state.

As a result, the third and most likely conclusion is a full-fledged Russian onslaught deploying land, air, and sea force across all attack axes. Russia would gain air and naval supremacy as soon as feasible in this scenario. Some Russian ground troops would then push northeast toward Kharkiv and Sumy, while others positioned in Crimea and the Donbas would advance south and east, respectively. Meanwhile, Russian soldiers in Belarus might directly threaten Kyiv, tying down Ukrainian forces that could otherwise march east and south. These forces may move on Kyiv in order to speed the Ukrainian government's surrender.

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 favorable diplomatic settlement or inflicting sufficient damage. Ukraine and the West would then be left to pick up the pieces. This operation would focus on punitive strikes on the Ukrainian government, the military, critical infrastructure, and places important to Ukrainians’ national identity and morale. Russia would aim its bombs, rockets, artillery, cruise missiles, and short-range ballistic missiles at targets such as the presidential palace, presidential administrative buildings, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s legislature), the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Ukrainian Security Service headquarters, and Maidan Nezalezhnosti (the central square in Kyiv and the site of multiple pro-democracy revolutions), among other notable decision-making organs and landmarks. 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.


The ground and sea attack would be aimed to encircle and destroy Ukraine's armed forces, retain only crucial terrain, and employ airpower and long-range weapons to achieve Russia's military and political objectives. These strikes would cause tens of thousands of deaths and a humanitarian disaster, causing instability in civilian and military command lines and even decapitating Ukraine's government. If everything went according to Russia's plan, the strikes would impair Ukraine's government, military, and economic infrastructure, all of which would contribute to the country's demise.


Whether Russia chooses a more limited invasion or a larger strike, the implications for the United States and its friends and partners must be unprecedented, as the Biden administration has already warned. The Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act of 2022, presented by U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and the chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, resembles a wish list for supporters of Ukrainian sovereignty. It includes provisions for the use of the Department of Defense lease authority and the Special Defense Acquisition Fund to support Ukraine; additional loans to support Ukraine’s military; enhanced Ukrainian defensive capabilities; increased support for U.S.-Ukrainian military exchange programs; additional assistance for combating disinformation in Ukraine; the public disclosure of ill-gotten assets belonging to Putin and members of his inner circle; sanctions on Russian state officials who participate in or aid an attack on Ukraine; sanctions on Russian financial institutions; sanctions requiring the disconnection of major Russian financial institutions from financial messaging services such as SWIFT; a prohibition on transactions involving Russia’s sovereign debt; a review of sanctions on Nord Stream 2; and sanctions on the Russian energy and mining sectors. Although the bill provides potential waivers in several instances and an exception for the importation of goods, its passage would still represent a bold step toward defending Ukraine.

The Biden administration has already stated its support for Menendez's legislation. Biden should go a step further and lead it through the Senate and House, carefully working to ensure that these essential steps do not become another casualty of political fighting. Biden got off to a strong start with a recent discussion with senators from both parties on Ukraine. To bridge party gaps, Democratic senators could explore including provisions from a rival measure offered by Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Traditionally, there has been strong bipartisan support for Ukraine. But the Kremlin believes that a lack of U.S. internal cohesion will undermine Washington’s capacity for a strong response. 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.

The administration should also follow through on sanctions targeting sophisticated US technology exports to Russia (such as semiconductors and microchips), a step that might harm Russia's aerospace and defense industry. Furthermore, either Congress or the Biden administration must go beyond just exposing Putin's inner circle's assets and begin actually targeting those assets, beginning with penalties on 35 persons previously proposed by Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. Putting pressure on the prominent billionaires around Putin will be just as crucial, if not more so, than penalizing the officials who will be actively participating in military operations.

Some may dispute the usefulness of punishments as deterrents or instruments for behavioral change. Indeed, Russia may be able to weather the storm with $630 billion in international reserves, increased indigenization of critical industries, a favorable energy market, and alternatives to SWIFT in the form of the domestic Russian System for Transfer of Financial Messages and the Chinese Cross-Border Interbank Payment System. Such worries, however, ignore the fact that sanctions will continue to inflict costs and degrade the Kremlin's networks of negative influence. The possibility of sanctions has already had a negative impact on the Russian stock market.

However, without transatlantic unity and cooperation from the EU, sanctions will be considerably less significant and effective—and Washington's European allies are concerned about the possibility of penalties harming their own economy. According to Biden's remarks at a recent press conference, Washington looks to be failing to mount a coherent response to Russian aggression, particularly in the event of cyberattacks, nonmilitary, or paramilitary acts. French President Emmanuel Macron has already shattered the appearance of a united front by asking for the EU to hold its own discussion with Russia. Meanwhile, Germany has refused to export arms to Ukraine and has failed to provide a definitive position on delaying or canceling approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bring Russian gas to Europe.

Russia may shut off its energy supply to Europe, exacerbating the current European energy crisis and jeopardizing transatlantic unity. Last December, the energy situation prompted the United States to export extra liquefied natural gas to EU members. To prevent internal implications, Europe may be obliged to explore alternate energy sources on a short timeline. To the greatest degree feasible, Washington should support its European friends and partners in reducing the energy gap through strategic oil and gas assets.


Other nations are concerned that disconnecting Russian financial institutions from SWIFT will have a negative impact on the European economy, and because SWIFT is subject to Belgian and European law, Washington will have to depend on European agreement to enforce any Russian cutoff. The US might try to coerce European countries into cooperating, as it did in 2012 when it attempted to cut Iran off from SWIFT. However, in order to avoid severing transatlantic ties, Washington may be hesitant to compel its friends.


On the military front, if it isn't already, the US can help the Ukrainian government respond to Russian actions by sharing real-time strategic, operational, and tactical intelligence. Following in the footsteps of the United Kingdom, the United States could dispatch airlifts with deadly aid ahead of a Russian attack. Small guns, ammunition, equipment, and huge amounts of man-portable air-defense systems, as well as more modern systems such as Patriot antiair missiles and Harpoon antiship missiles, should be sent by Washington to Ukraine. Critics of this strategy may claim that delivering these equipment would give an excuse for the Kremlin to undertake a preemptive strike. But if Russian military action is already a given, there would no longer be a reason not to act.

Although these more advanced systems will not be delivered in time to ensure proper training and integration to achieve full operational capability, some of the systems can still be deployed with initial operational capability. They will not change the balance of military strength between Ukraine and Russia, but they will impose extra costs on Russian invaders and contribute to deterrence when used in conjunction with other efforts. The US should also continue to accelerate the clearance process for exports of US-made weapons to Ukraine, as it has done lately for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Furthermore, in the rare case of a lengthy occupation and rebellion, the Biden administration should provide assistance to Ukrainian militants.

Washington should also send more troops and military equipment to reassure and assist its European allies. The nations on NATO's eastern border are still haunted by memories of Soviet and Russian dominance, and they will not sit quietly by. The US must reassure them that it has their backs, as pledged by NATO Charter Article 5. Otherwise, in reaction to a perceived existential danger, they may rush military and humanitarian supplies to their borders, notwithstanding the concerns of the governments of Washington and Western Europe. This would almost certainly increase the likelihood of a larger firestorm. At the very least, countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia will likely strengthen their own defenses while urging the US to expand its Enhanced Forward Presence missions, which are multinational battalion-size battle groups stationed in NATO's most vulnerable member states. To strengthen the alliance even further, Washington should consider opening the door to Finnish and Swedish membership in NATO if any nation decides to join in the event of additional Russian military intervention in Ukraine. The recent dialogue between Biden and the president of Finland should continue, and Biden should have similar discussions with Swedish officials. This may yet influence Russia’s calculus for launching an offensive.

Finally, the United States and its European friends and partners must build humanitarian corridors with the resources and manpower to safeguard refugees in collaboration with international humanitarian organizations. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people may leave the fighting as internally displaced persons within Ukraine or as refugees in neighboring countries. The United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union should respond to this inflow of asylum seekers and refugees by issuing emergency special immigrant visas similar to those issued to Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover of their nation last year. NATO members will have to share the cost imposed by this surge; the alliance's eastern flank countries cannot be expected to act alone.


Although the Biden administration has managed the process of phony discussions with Russia well, the end result will still be influenced in part by wasted chances. Washington has put itself in a situation where, short of military escalation, deterrence is certain to fail. Today's deterrent choices are substantially poorer than they were a year, a month, or even a week ago. The United States' dedication to peace and diplomatic settlements has been admirable during this period, but by focusing on diplomacy without a corresponding emphasis on hard-power capabilities, the Biden administration wasted an opportunity to avert a catastrophe on Europe's eastern flank. In retrospect, a more forceful response to Russia's military buildup on Ukraine's border last April could have resulted in preemptive force posture changes and the introduction of lethal aid to Ukraine, which could have had a greater impact on changing the Kremlin's calculus for a military-technical solution. Washington must now approach Russia with a limited power to discourage and compel because it waited until the last minute to explore the kinds of broad measures that are presently being considered.

The world is on the brink of the largest military offensive in Europe since World War II. Considering the existing interests of the major political stakeholders, the United States, Ukraine, and Russia are unlikely to significantly alter their current approaches to the situation. Washington has no inclination to use force to dissuade Russia, and it will not abandon ideals or values that it has preached for decades. In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky's standing is already precarious due to his declining approval ratings, failure to implement a bilateral de-escalation plan with Russia, lukewarm faith in his ability to lead during a time of war, focus on prosecuting former President Petro Poroshenko on suspicion of treason, a raging feud with oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, and downplaying the current Russian threat. Capitulation to Russia, according to Zelensky, would be political suicide. Even if Washington or Kiev changed their approach, there is no assurance that Moscow would be happy and de-escalate the situation.

The geopolitical situation for US national security will become much more difficult the moment a war begins. Washington should prepare for the worst and plan appropriately, using all of its authority to preserve American interests. The Biden administration must strike a fine balance between avoiding a direct military conflict with Russia and punishing Russia for bringing about this brutal new reality. No work is more critical right now.

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