America's commitment to defending the country is very uncertain
Is Russia going to invade Ukraine this winter? And if so, what, if anything, should NATO do about it? Recent Russian troop movements are alarming Western analysts. While previous invasion scares fizzled out, even sober observers are noting that Russia’s most recent buildup of matériel along its western borders is qualitatively different in scale, and are puzzling over Putin’s intentions.
On the one hand, Britain’s eminent strategist Sir Lawrence Freedman notes that “these war scares are regular occurrences.” He assures anxious observers that “the troop buildups are substantial but could not sustain an invasion. The purpose appears to be largely deterrent, to dissuade Ukraine from taking the offensive against the Donbas separatists.”
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Supposedly, the Ukrainian government isn’t particularly concerned. Despite warning that an invasion could take place in the New Year, Ukrainian troops haven’t been called up to deal with any anticipated assault and the country hasn’t been moved onto a general war footing.
But the American government seems to disagree. US intelligence officials are said to be briefing European allies that the Russian army has positioned around 100,000 troops in around 100 battalion tactical groups ready for what they describe as “an operation in rough terrain and freezing conditions,” ready to move in from the Crimea, western Russia and Belarus for an assault “covering extensive territory and prepared for a potentially prolonged occupation.”
For the Biden administration, this is all a tremendous headache. Despite often erroneously being described as an ally, there are no Western treaty obligations to defend Ukraine from a Russian assault, and Russia’s will to reincorporate the country within its sphere of influence is much likely greater than America’s desire or Europe’s capacity to fight a major European war. As the RAND corporation analyst and Russia expert Dara Massicot warns, for the US “the choices are now go all in, or find the off-ramp.”
The Biden administration is mulling sending Ukraine additional supplies of anti-tank guided missiles to blunt any attempted invasion, but as the analyst Rob Lee notes, the Russian superiority in numbers and equipment is so great that the Ukrainians will likely suffer a defeat as quick and catastrophic as that of Armenia in its recent war with Azerbaijan, with its most important matériel knocked out in the first few hours by Russian stand-off munitions.
What does Putin want? The Western consensus is that he does not seem to have yet committed himself to an invasion, but is setting up the pieces on the chessboard to win a war swiftly should he decide to pull the trigger. The aim — probably — is to arrest Ukraine’s westward drift through intimidation rather than full-scale war, but the simple answer is that no-one knows for sure, perhaps not even Putin himself.
But with America keen to disengage from Europe to concentrate attention on the Taiwan problem, and Europe dependent on Russian gas during what looks to be a cold winter, Putin may be gambling that the constellations have finally aligned in his favour. As with Taiwan, America’s commitment to defend Ukraine from invasion is very uncertain, and perhaps more bluff than reality: the great questions troubling NATO now are whether or not Putin feels like calling that bluff, and whether or not Ukraine is, ultimately, worth defending. For all that American planners are trying to concentrate on China, Biden’s riskiest foreign policy challenge yet may well be in a wintry Europe.