Ukraine

As I write this piece, the world is on the brink of the biggest combat operations in Europe since World War II. Approximately 190,000 Russian troops threaten Ukraine’s borders on three sides supported by air and naval units in position to attack targets inside Ukraine. In military intelligence terms, all of the Indicators and Warnings (I&W) point to an invasion within days or even hours. Most telling is that the Russians have moved perishables, such as blood and plasma supplies, to positions near the border. Those types of logistics cannot sit in storage at the front for long.

Yesterday President Biden made a rare revelation in a speech to the nation addressing the impending crisis. When asked if Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided on his course of action, the president responded, “As of this moment, I am convinced he’s made the decision.” By that, he meant that Mr. Putin had decided to invade. When asked how he could know, he responded that the U.S. has a “significant intelligence capability.” This is important on several levels. One is that he is telling the world that the full weight of American capabilities indicates that the attack will happen and we should be prepared. On another level he is giving Mr. Putin an indication of our skill and capability in using our intelligence assets to keep a much closer eye on him and his activities than he might know. Finally, if we have this level of granularity into the Kremlin’s thinking, we may yet deter him from taking military action.

Personally, I have thought for quite awhile that the Russians would attack Ukraine. The only questions were when, and how strongly. He is going to do it. Mr. Putin clearly stated on numerous occasions that he considers Ukraine to be part of Russia. He will not be deterred. How far he goes depends on the Ukrainians. Mr. Putin’s goal is to depose the current Ukrainian government and to replace them with one that is more “friendly” to Russia. How far he goes militarily most likely will depend on the depth and degree of resistance from the Ukrainians and whether the current government stays in place.

This afternoon the artillery and Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) attacks from the separatist regions of Ukraine have dramatically increased. At the same time, they are evacuating civilians from cities in the Donbas region, specifically the Donetsk People’s Republic — one of the break away regions in southeastern Ukraine — to Russia. The Russians and their proxies in the occupied region are trying to provoke a response from the Ukrainians as a pretext to attack. So far, the Ukrainian military has exercised remarkable restraint by not taking the bait. As the Biden Administration has warned over the last several weeks, there is likely to be a major “false flag” incident (Russian agents attack their own people, or buildings or otherwise make it look like an atrocity occurred) to further the lie that Ukraine is the instigator of hostilities. There are numerous misinformation campaigns underway on the internet claiming that the Ukrainians are conducting genocide against the separatists or that chemical weapons attacks have occurred there. It is likely that some major manufactured incident will give the Russians their excuse to invade.

The Biden Administration has put steel into the spine of our NATO and EU allies. After weeks of diligent diplomatic efforts, the vast majority of the world’s leaders are condemning the impending attack and are onboard with sanctions aimed at crippling the Russian economy and going after Mr. Putin and his pals directly. Questions remain as to whether those sanctions should be used before or after the invasion. Many diplomats argue that invoking sanctions now may give Mr. Putin an excuse to attack. Others, such as Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky argue that they should be put in play immediately. At a security summit in Munich today, Mr. Zelensky addressed the assembled diplomats, including Vice President Kamala Harris, and bitterly chastised the western powers for waiting. He argued that sanctions need to be implemented now, not after the attack when Ukraine’s economy will have collapsed and “parts of our country will be occupied.”

Further, Mr. Zelensky decried the absence of support promised in a 1994 agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. Put together by the United States, United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation, the Memorandum gave security assurances to Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan against threats or use of force to change the territorial integrity or political independence of those states in return for their relinquishing all nuclear weapons. Following the break up of the Soviet Union, those three countries had large stockpiles of former Soviet nuclear weapons. Indeed, in 1994 Ukraine had the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. While the Russians retained operational control of the weapons due to controls required to utilize them, the Ukrainians had physical control of them. Arms control experts around the world worried about those three states’ ability to protect the weapons from falling into the wrong hands, especially terrorist hands. Mr. Zelensky today pointed out that in 2014 Ukraine got no help from anyone when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. He wants it now.

Post World War II history teaches us that our enemies, competitors and adversaries often grossly under estimate American resolve. They view our very public domestic political fights as signs that we are distracted or weak. Currently, the incorrect view that we “ran away” in Afghanistan solidified the narrative that the U.S. was no longer a player on the world stage. Wrong. Over the last year, the Biden Administration worked hard to repair the damage done by the former guy to our relationships with our allies and especially within NATO. In my view, Mr. Putin did not expect the strong, and most importantly, unified stand that the West is taking to support Ukraine. He miscalculated. The effort to deter him permanently will probably fail, but it appears he is at least thinking twice before proceeding. In the end he probably will calculate that he can survive the sanctions and other non-military measures from the West. He is on a vision quest to restore the Russian Empire and Ukraine is the key to his ambitions. At this point, he cannot totally turn away. Deflect, delay, or otherwise play games with the timing or methods of attack, but in the end he will not leave Ukraine as it is.

The U.S. deployed about 5,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to Poland. Accompanying them is a headquarters element from the XVIII Airborne Corps to form Joint Task Force (JTF) Dragon. Their deployment is designed to strengthen our ties to NATO and probably to help with the influx of refugees into Poland when the fighting starts. Additionally, about 2,000 troops are redeploying from Germany to Romania for the same reasons. Both Poland and Romania border Ukraine. There are about 80,000 members of the U.S. military in Europe including forces from every branch. Some of those are rotating forces that come in and out of various countries based on the threat and/or exercises. Less well known is the fact that the U.S. has elements of the U.S. Navy ashore in Poland and Romania. The Navy’s Aegis Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) System that is the main battery on our cruisers and destroyers is now in ground based installations in those two countries. Known as Aegis Ashore they are placed there to protect our NATO allies from “rogue” ballistic missiles — most likely from Iran or North Korea. They are purely defensive in nature, but you will sometimes hear Mr. Putin reference them when he talks about Russian security threats from NATO.

When the invasion begins, it is unlikely to start with Russian troops blasting their way across the border. The fighting will come in stages, perhaps with operational pauses to negotiate before the next attack. Cyber attacks will be followed by an onslaught from the air from the Russian air forces and from cruise missiles from Russian ships in the Black Sea. Ukraine has little in the way of air forces or air defense capabilities. The Russians will own the air space which will allow them to move forces with impunity and attack at will. Russia does not have to occupy the entire country. Decapitating the government and holding key positions in key cities will give them the “victory” that they need to control Ukraine’s future. Russia has been fighting in Syria for years. They made a point of rotating all of their key combat units through that battle space so that they are now all battle tested. Both in terms of individual units, and in terms of command and control of combat forces spread over a wide area — two things that they did not previously possess or do well. They have learned a lot of lessons and have applied them.

The Ukrainians have the will to resist but little in the way of organized military forces once they have been decimated from the air. Their plan is to conduct a guerilla war and to inflict as many Russian casualties as possible to undermine the will of the Russian people when their sons and daughters are killed or maimed.

Make no mistake about it. This is going to be ugly. Barring a Ukrainian surrender or collapse at the start, there will be tens of thousands of casualties and as many as a million refugees fleeing the country. This will have world impact, economically and politically. We will all suffer. As is often the case, once war begins, no one can predict whether it will spread or how it will play out in the end. A few “mistakes” could lead Europe into another war. Kyiv is a modern city with about 2.5 million residents. Once electricity is knocked out and water is unavailable living conditions in the city will deteriorate rapidly. In addition to war casualties, it will be a humanitarian disaster.

As President Biden and his cabinet have been warning us, events in Ukraine will not be about some far off place nobody has ever heard of or people we do not care about. Even if one thinks that now, a war in eastern Europe will impact all of us.