The Bunker: Ukraine’s Lessons (So Far)
The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.
This week in The Bunker: A nuclear-megatonned megalomaniac forged by the Cold War KGB, and how little the Pentagon and NATO can do to thwart him; the Navy continues to be at sea when it comes to building ships; and more.
IMPOTENCE ON PARADE
A sidelined Pentagon ponders
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, and for those of us who support them. It marks the biggest global shock since 9/11. But unlike those terror attacks, it wasn’t carried out by a handful of zealous nomads. Instead, it has been launched by Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader astride the world’s largest nuclear stockpile. It’s a stark reminder of the limits of military power—especially U.S. military might, the world’s most powerful. The U.S. will sit this war out, President Biden said in his first State of the Union address March 1. “The Ukrainians are fighting back with pure courage,” he added. “But the next few days, weeks and months will be hard on them.”
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It’s frustrating to see Ukraine ground like so much wheat between Putin’s troops and the West’s static military forces arrayed along NATO’s eastern front. U.S. troops and aircraft rushed to the Ukrainian border to bolster NATO allies including Estonia (NATO member since 2004), Germany (1955), Poland (1999), and Romania (2004). But they then merely watched as Russian artillery, tanks and aircraft pounded targets across Ukraine (a NATO “Enhanced Opportunities Partner” for the past 20 months.) “It’s an interesting time to be watching this and ‘watching’ is a word that bothers me,” said Phil Breedlove, a retired Air Force general who served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander from 2013 to 2016. “Ukraine is fighting for freedom, and the West is ‘watching.’”
NATO has refused to come to Ukraine’s aid, beyond supplying Kyiv with additional weapons, for fear of triggering a wider war. There’s fear, given Putin’s mindset, that it could turn nuclear overnight. The West has ruled out creating a no-fly zone over Ukraine to keep Russian aircraft from bombing the civilians below (although the FAA has barred U.S. carriers [PDF] from Ukrainian skies to protect the rest of us). There is one bright, shining line: Biden and other 29 NATO leaders have made it clear that they would go to war if Putin attacks any of them. Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz described war as “a continuation of politics by other means.” But in the case of Ukraine, a subordinate Clausewitz might be labeled “hanging a country out to dry.”
The West saw this coming for months, but preferred not to upset Russia by supplying Ukraine with the arms needed to give Kyiv a fighting chance. That, and the fumbled U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, convinced Putin to launch his war of choice. Now that he has done that, the U.S. and its allies have chosen not to intervene for fear of an atomic blowup. Ironically, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons a generation ago in exchange for assurances, backed by the U.S. and Britain, that Russia would leave it alone. Now Russia has chosen to ignore its pledge. And it is NATO that is leaving Ukraine alone. We are watching a country fall through the crack of realpolitik.
Putin’s Ukrainian misadventure leaves us with several grim lessons:
The Bunker was with Defense Secretary William Perry in Kyiv in 1994 when he announced the U.S. would give Ukraine $50 million to rid itself of the 46 SS-24 intercontinental ballistic missiles the fledgling nation had inherited from the Soviet Union. It swapped its 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads for a toothless pledge from Great Britain, Russia, and the U.S. guaranteeing its security. “Ukraine has received security guarantees for abandoning the world’s third [biggest] nuclear capability,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said shortly before the Russians invaded his country. “We don’t have that weapon. We also have no security.”
Some saw it as a bad deal even before it was struck. “It is imperative to maintain peace between Russia and Ukraine. That means ensuring that the Russians, who have a history of bad relations with Ukraine, do not move to reconquer it,” John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, warned in a prescient 1993 piece (PDF) urging Ukraine to hang on to its nukes. “Ukraine cannot defend itself against a nuclear-armed Russia with conventional weapons, and no state, including the United States, is going to extend to it a meaningful security guarantee.”
Now, despite the grit its citizens are showing, Ukraine finds itself pretty much powerless to stop the Russian onslaught. Putin has advised the rest of the world to stay out of what he sees as a family spat, with a dark February 25 warning of “ominous consequences.” Some viewed that as a veiled threat to use nuclear weapons against outsiders who might come to Kyiv’s defense (it echoed the “fire and fury” warning that President Trump made against North Korea in 2017). Putin further ratcheted up nuclear tensions February 27 when he ambiguously announced he had put his nuclear forces on a higher alert following “aggressive statements” and the growing list of sanctions imposed by Western nations.
Threatening nuclear war used to be the equivalent of discussing politics and/or religion at the dinner table—something that wasn’t done. But in the past five years, such rhetoric has now been brandished twice—by the leaders of the two superpowers who stood on the brink of nuclear war for 40 years without pressing that button. This is not a positive trend.
Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization inflamed Russia as the alliance expanded eastward through former members of the Warsaw Pact that had once been Soviet satellites. That’s long been a festering sore for Putin, and one that has only gotten worse as Ukraine’s relations with the West have warmed in recent years. Both Ukraine and Georgia have sought NATO membership, but it’s not in the cards. That’s because of NATO’s Article 5, which binds the alliance’s 30 members to fight for any member that comes under attack. And that’s why NATO membership for both Ukraine (which Russia first attacked in 2014) and Georgia (which it attacked in 2008) is not going to happen. Both were formally part of the Soviet Union before it fell apart, and existing NATO states don’t want to embarrass a nuclear-armed Russia.
“Inviting Ukraine to join NATO would be a significant strategic mistake,” Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution wrote last June. But Putin has demanded the opposite: that Ukraine be barred from ever joining NATO. Yet no nation worthy of the label can give up its sovereignty like that. It's worth pondering how things might have turned out if NATO and Moscow had tacitly agreed to a demilitarized zone of non-NATO states along the Russian frontier, striving to keep the defeated-but-still-proud Red bear hibernating.
The short list of Pentagon contracts (PDF) with Ukraine in recent years now looks paltry. But, better late than never, the White House told Congress 24 hours after Russia invaded that it wants $6.4 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine.
The arguments have already begun on what the West might have done to deter Putin. “Unlike during the Cold War, when the U.S. successfully deterred the Soviets for decades, the U.S. has now implicitly recognized Russia’s sphere of influence and perhaps undermined its own role as the most powerful global protector of democracy,” Alexander Vindman wrote February 24. He’s the Ukrainian-born U.S. Army officer ousted from President Trump’s National Security Council in 2020 after blowing the whistle when Trump went digging for Ukrainian dirt on Joe Biden. Vindman argues NATO could have provided Ukraine with more weapons more quickly, and that Biden erred in December when he forfeited “strategic ambiguity” by making clear that U.S. troops would not fight in Ukraine. “Overnight,” Vindman concluded, “the geopolitical outlook has become significantly worse for U.S. national-security interests, and now the U.S. must manage the fallout [pun intended?—editor] accordingly.”
War by other means
Despite NATO’s sidelined military forces, the conflict is highlighting the value of intelligence, cyber and sanctions. In a world armed with nuclear weapons, these kinds of non-kinetic weapons are the only ones capable of keeping bullies at bay while reducing the risk of Armageddon. Calls for boosting the U.S. defense budget are already sounding, but that would only give an illusion of greater security. A bigger, better, and more-costly U.S. military would not have thwarted Putin’s invasion.
Kinetic warfare, unless waged against a far-weaker state, is so 20th Century. And even then it often doesn’t work, as we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq. A smarter and—marginally—kinder and gentler 21st Century warfare involves harnessing the technology and commerce that have dramatically shrunk the world since the Pentagon began creating what we now call the Internet nearly 60 years ago.
While the U.S. was unable to derail Putin’s invasion, it did telegraph what his forces were going to do before they did it—an adroit use of hard-won intelligence that frustrated Putin and his inner circle. There are reports that the U.S. may launch cyberattacks against Russia. Commercial satellites relying on the Pentagon’s GPS system let the world know where Russian tanks are headed. Social-media giants can punish Russia state media while permitting its citizens, and those in Ukraine, to share horrific images of Moscow’s brutality.
Finally, after an initial barrage of anemic sanctions, the U.S. and most of its allies have announced tougher financial restrictions on top Russian banks, including moves designed to deny Russia’s central bank access to the $640 billion it has stashed in London and New York (although there’s an oil loophole big enough to sail a supertanker through). The West is also imposing financial sanctions on Putin personally. While these won’t deliver a knock-out-blow, they are the boxing equivalent of a geopolitical rope-a-dope strategy designed to impair, and perhaps cripple, Russia’s economy in the coming weeks.
A Hero is Born
Finally, let’s give Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky credit: it’s refreshing to see a foreign leader explode on the world stage who isn’t a crook, a stooge, a plutocrat, or a Putincrat. The one-time comedian—who played a Ukrainian president in Servant of the People on Ukrainian TV from 2015 to 2019—has vowed to stay in Ukraine and fight. When Washington offered to ferry him to safety out of his own country, he responded with a retort for the ages: “The fight is here,” he said. “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
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