US options to curb Russia on Ukraine: Boots on the ground in Poland?

Amid GOP cries to 'do something' on Ukraine, the Pentagon weighs increasing military exercises, forward deploying equipment and personnel, and increasing naval, air, and ground presence. But there are also risks in doing too much, Pentagon officials say.

Andrey Basevich/AP
A masked man stands atop of a barricade at the regional administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine, Tuesday. US officials say Russia is fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Crimea, the satirical website The Onion ran a fictitious letter from Russian President Vladimir Putin thanking the US “for being so cool” about the whole thing.

“Believe me, I know it must have been hard to stand idly by and do nothing as a foreign military invaded one of your allies,” the fictitious Mr. Putin wrote. “But you didn’t really make much of a fuss over any of it, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.”

It nicely captures the frustrations of many Obama administration critics who are increasingly demanding that the White House “do something” about Russia troop buildup on the Ukrainian border if it wishes to maintain any credibility on the world stage.

This “doing something” generally means taking military action. Yet what would a “meaningful military response” look like at a time when the Obama administration is determined not to be the world's policeman? And would armed escalation be a wise move?

That was the subject of a hearing Tuesday on Russian military developments, which Putin is using as a tool to “reestablish a Russian sphere of influence in Europe,” warned House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R) of California. Fail to act, and the US risks losing major credibility among its allies, and more importantly, among its adversaries, both of whom, “are watching our every move.”

A number of right-leaning analysts have suggested that “the best way to invite Russia into Ukraine” is to fail to act, as Dov Zakheim, a senior fellow at CNA Analysis, put it during a Heritage Foundation discussion last week as he called for the US to move “land forces – not just air forces” to the region. “We need to move them quickly,” he added, “not just into Poland but into the Balkan states.”

Lawmakers steered clear of prescriptions during the hearing Tuesday but did express a great deal of curiosity about what, precisely, the US military options are. The US Navy is now sending an additional ship to the region, which should arrive within the week, said Vice Adm. Frank Pandolfe, director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff. NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Philip Breedlove, is weighing the possibility of “increasing military exercises, forward deploying additional military equipment and personnel, and increasing our naval, air, and ground presence.” 

The US has also reassured allies that its commitment to Article 5, NATO’s collective defense agreement, “is ironclad, and we are not just saying that,” Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs, assured lawmakers, should Russia attempt to venture into a NATO-member country.

Do you think Putin understands that? one lawmaker asked. “I mean, is he trying to put the whole motherland back together?” 

“I always hesitate to try to put myself in Putin’s head. But what I can say is that Russia’s behavior clearly seems to be motivated by a sense ... that they are better off having client states around them that are completely beholden to Moscow,” Admiral Pandolfe said, adding dryly, “We don’t share that view.” 

But even so, would it not be more appropriate for European nations to step up, rather than the US, given that this is happening in their backyard,” Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina wondered. “Now, I understand that we have these treaties and I understand the role of NATO and I do support NATO, by the way. But here we go again trying to take the lead, so to speak,” he said. 

“And I think that, quite frankly, that sometimes instead of being the leader, we should be supporting these other nations, let them take the lead, let them be the one to say to Putin, ‘If you go any further you’re going to see the German troops, or the French troops, or the Brits,’ ” he added.

Mr. Chollet seemed relieved at the line of inquiry. “Sir, a great question,” he said. After all, only three European nations – Estonia, Greece, and the UK – contributed the required NATO membership fee of 2 percent or more of their GDP. The US, by contrast, contributes roughly 70 percent of the NATO budget, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) of Illinois, a combat veteran, pointed out.

Currently, the Russian military’s ability to extend its sphere of influence outside its region is “very limited,” Pandolfe said, while at the same time cautioning that while once “starved of funding and fragmented” the Russian military is increasingly “streamlined” and its most elite units are “well trained and equipped.” 

Still, “Russia is not the Soviet Union,” Chollet noted. While the USSR’s military size was 4.3 million, the current Russian army numbers less than 1 million, Pandolfe pointed out, noting that many are still conscripts.

Even so, “The notion that if we’re somehow just tough enough,” as Rep. Adam Smith (D) of Washington put it, “is one that I always want to make sure does not stand unchallenged, because it can lead to some very, very bad results.” 

As far as the deterrent impact of the US flexing its military might, Representative Smith noted that Russia invaded Georgia during a time when the US was spending $700 billion a year in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The US military was never stronger than it was in 2008,” he said. “We had just invaded two countries and deposed of their leadership and Putin went in and basically annexed two parts of Georgia in the midst of that,” he said. “So, obviously, strength alone is not enough.”

The US could arm the Ukraine, “and say, ‘Hey, Russia’s coming, we’re going to start arming you to the teeth and fight a proxy war with them,” Smith suggested facetiously. 

“Sir, our overall approach throughout this entire crisis has been we want to deescalate tensions, and the president has been very clear that there is not a military solution to the Ukrainian crisis,” Pandolfe responded. “Now, whether or not that has any effect on Mr. Putin’s mindset is anyone’s guess. But it also just may be the right thing to do anyway.”

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