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Putin's dangerous gambit: To invade, or not?

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As Russia and the NATO alliance ascend the escalation ladder to dizzying heights over the fate of Ukraine, the possibility of military conflict grows with each successive rung. Just in the past week, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military buildup near Ukraine’s borders has grown to nearly 130,000 troops, and expanded into neighboring Belarus. The United States and its NATO allies are rushing warships and fighter aircraft to the alliance’s vulnerable eastern flank, even as they airlift hundreds of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and tons of military equipment to Kyiv for the purpose of inflicting casualties on any Russian invasion force.

In a press briefing today, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley stressed that with over 100,000 troops and a full panoply of military capabilities massed on Ukraine’s border — including mechanized ground units, air and naval forces, missile batteries, electronic warfare and cyber units and logistics — Russia certainly has the capability to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

“This is larger in scale and scope in terms of the massing of forces than anything we’ve seen in recent memory. You’d have to go back to the Cold War to see something of this magnitude,” said Milley. “So yes, it does feel different.”

For Vladimir Putin, the move on Ukraine follows the hard logic of brute military power, which he judges is weighted in his favor. Russia has spent a decade modernizing and professionalizing its military. A once clumsy Soviet-style force overwhelmingly made up of draftees is now an agile force of roughly two-thirds professional soldiers who have gained combat experience through the annexation of Crimea, the proxy war in eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014 and operations in Syria beginning in 2015.

Ever since his service as a KGB intelligence officer in East Germany at the end of the Cold War, Putin has chafed against the dissolution of the former Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” and he longs to reassemble a compliant empire. He has also long viewed the subsequent expansion of the NATO alliance eastward against Russia’s repeated protests as an acute historical grievance. After the chaotic, U.S.-led alliance retreat from Afghanistan, four years of “America First” rhetoric from former President Donald Trump, and the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol, experts say Putin believes that the Western alliance is weak.

“From the Russian perspective, even as their military has gotten stronger, the U.S. position has gotten weaker over the past decade,” said George Beebe, former director of the CIA’s Russia analysis division and currently the director of studies at the Center for the National Interest. After Afghanistan, the Russians believe that the United States is in retreat internationally and that U.S. military forces in Europe have declined over the years. Then there is the sense that Washington is hamstrung by significant domestic problems.

Joe Biden
Biden at the White House last week. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“Putin also knows that the Biden administration has a bigger problem it wants to focus on geopolitically in the rise of China, and he sees Ukraine under its current leadership moving steadily towards the West,” said Beebe. “A combination of all those factors have prompted Putin to press for a resolution of the issue of NATO expansion that Russia has complained about for 20 years.”

Retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent much of his career in Europe defending the NATO alliance, and he too sees it as the real focus of Putin’s military provocations. “Certainly Putin would like to reestablish a sphere of influence in eastern Europe, but I think his primary goal remains trying to discredit the NATO alliance by taking provocative steps to gauge its degree of cohesion and test its solidarity. If NATO falters then Putin will already have achieved his main goal,” Dempsey told Yahoo News.

To date Dempsey believes the Biden administration and NATO have met the test by taking measured steps to engage in diplomacy with the Russians; develop punitive sanctions as a deterrent; arm the Ukrainians to impose a higher cost on Russian aggression; and reinforce and reassure vulnerable eastern NATO member states to maintain alliance cohesion. “The choreography of our actions matter, because you want to enable and empower diplomacy, while at the same time not being seen as indecisive,” he said. “And I think we have the choreography and sequence of moves about right. The Russians will claim we’re being provocative in our response, but what’s provocative is positioning more than 100,000 troops on a neighbor’s border.”

Martin Dempsey
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. (Drew Angerer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

If Putin’s primary focus is to sow doubt within NATO, look first to the alliance’s vulnerable frontline states to gauge the response. Currently there are only four multinational, battalion-sized (500-1,000 troops) NATO battle groups deployed on a rotational basis to the alliance’s eastern flank, where they serve mainly as a trip-wire force that would need immediate reinforcement if actual fighting broke out. When President Biden was briefed on the Ukraine crisis last week at Camp David, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reportedly presented a plan to deploy an initial 1,000 to 5,000 troops to eastern European nations, with an option to “increase that number tenfold” if the situation worsens.

Privately, a retired four-star general with long experience in NATO said the situation in the east requires deployment of at least a reinforced Army armored division with an expanded headquarters and an air-defense element, or upwards of 20,000 troops.

“I don’t believe Putin would be so reckless as to attack a NATO member country, but the best way to deter him from entertaining that thought in the future would be a show of strength on NATO’s eastern flank,” he said. “Because with his massive military buildup Putin is essentially conducting what we call a ‘reconnaissance in force,’ seeing how NATO reacts and constantly recalculating his cost-benefit analysis before making his next move. At the end of the day, I don’t think he plans to invade Ukraine so much as force it back into Moscow’s sphere of influence.”

Martin Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes a blunt force invasion and occupation of a country of more than 44 million largely hostile inhabitants seems out of character for Gen. Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, who is best known in the West for perpetrating distracting feints and false flag operations.

BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles of the Russian Southern Military District's 150th Rifle Division take part in a military exercise at Kadamovsky Range. (Erik Romanenko\TASS via Getty Images)
BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles of the Russian Southern Military District's 150th Rifle Division take part in a military exercise at Kadamovsky Range. (Erik Romanenko\TASS via Getty Images)

“I’m not one who believes Putin is a master strategist, and he may be overreaching,” said Dempsey, noting that Russia has amassed roughly 60 battle groups near Ukraine’s border.

“I had 52 battalion-sized battle groups in Baghdad in 2004, and that city swallowed my entire force. Urban areas inside Ukraine would easily swallow 60 Russian battle groups, and I think the Ukrainians will put up a good fight,” he continued.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, agrees that invasion is unlikely. “If Putin continues down this road towards an invasion of Ukraine he is either getting bad advice or listening to the wrong people, or else he has another goal in mind altogether, which I suspect,” he told Yahoo News. “Putin miscalculated that the United States and NATO were weak, but his threats are pulling the alliance back together.”

“Putin is sometimes characterized as a gambler with a high tolerance for risk,” Hertling said. “If he rolls the dice on Ukraine, he may find there are some bad gambles that are hard to recover from.”

Ever since Russia forcibly annexed Crimea and launched a proxy war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the United States and some of its NATO allies have sent military advisers to a Ukrainian training ground in the west, far from the front lines. There they train Ukrainian soldiers on more modern equipment, including Javelin anti-tank missiles supplied by the United States. Currently there are roughly 150 such U.S. military advisers in Ukraine, including Army Special Operations Forces.

In response to the buildup of Russian forces near the border, however, the United States has approved a number of NATO allies airlifting a torrent of anti-tank and air defense missiles to Ukraine from their existing stockpiles. A third U.S. shipment of 300 Javelin anti-tank missiles arrived in Ukraine this week, part of nearly 80 tons of ammunition and military equipment that also reportedly included radar systems and medical supplies.

A Ukrainian soldier
A Ukrainian soldier takes part in a military exercise at the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security of the National Academy of Land Forces. (Mykola Tys/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

After years of restraint in supporting Ukraine with defensive anti-armor systems, senior Biden administration officials have reportedly warned the Russians that the United States would back an insurgency against an occupying force in Ukraine. The U.S. approval of NATO members Lithuania and Latvia sending American-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine was also partly symbolic, recalling the critical role those weapons played in defeating the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

“By facilitating shipments of Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles for Ukraine, the United States is signaling that despite not having any U.S. troops involved, if Russian troops invade they will be made to bleed, and any occupation will be made as painful as possible,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe and currently the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis. While the man-portable weapons will do little to blunt an all-out juggernaut of Russian mechanized and tank forces backed by airpower, they can exact a cost in the hands of a Ukrainian military that he believes will fight hard.

“All of those moves show that NATO is shifting from deterrence through threatened economic sanctions to deterrence through a more active force posture, and that’s very important,” said Hodges. “The last thing Vladimir Putin wants to see is NATO sticking together in this crisis, because together our economic and military power dwarfs that of Russia.”

Yet there are already signs of serious strains in an alliance of 30 nations that has lost much of its hard power muscle memory since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Notably, Berlin refused to allow Estonia to send artillery pieces that originated in Germany to Ukraine, and has resisted agreeing to use its Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline with Russia as a bargaining chip and possible leverage in the current crisis. Germany’s status as a reliable ally was also tarnished after its Navy chief, Kay-Achim Schönbach, recently resigned after stating publicly that it was “nonsense” to suggest that Vladimir Putin wanted to invade Ukraine and that the Russian strongman deserved “respect” rather than enmity.

Experts are also closely watching whether the North Atlantic Council, NATOs highest decision-making body made up of representatives of all 30 member states, takes the critical but unprecedented step of activating NATO’s 40,000-troop Rapid Response Force. Once activated, the Rapid Response Force would fall under the command of NATO’s supreme allied commander, currently U.S. Gen. Tod Wolters, who would almost certainly deploy it to vulnerable and nervous allies in the east near Russia and Belarus, to include the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, along with Poland and Romania. By putting 8,500 U.S.-based troops on heightened alert for deployment, the Pentagon has signaled that it is ready to contribute to the Rapid Response Force.

“I’m bullish that with continued U.S. leadership the alliance will stay unified, because while Germany is clearly the weak link at the moment, at the end of the day Berlin doesn’t want to be standing alone in opposition to the United States. Germany’s future depends on the alliance,” said Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and currently president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s also clear that NATO needs to deploy more military forces to the east to signal both to our eastern allies and to the Russians that NATO is willing and able to meet its Article V commitments and defend them.”

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