Nervous-Making War Plans
Terry H. Schwadron
Jan. 25, 2022
It is breathtaking that we find ourselves on the brink of another war that looms in Europe but could suck in the world. It should be far more nervous making even than we’re seeing.
Any U.S. fantasy over the last weeks that a showdown with Russia over invading neighboring Ukraine can be neatly shunted side with threats of clean, if arms-length economic sanctions rather than U.S. military involvement seems to be slipping away by the hour.
Indeed, from the strategic rumblings we hear about away from the front, we should be worried that whatever happens in Ukraine will ripple into other emergencies over Taiwan, through the Middle East and heighten nuclear tensions.
Even as Joe Biden is weighing a decision on deploying up to 5,000 U.S. troops to Eastern Europe:
· The United States is sending $200 million dollars’ worth of mostly defensive weapons and dispatching more ships and aircraft to Europe.
· NATO is putting troops on alert, and sending jets to Eastern Europe.
· The Americans and British are warning embassy families to leave Ukraine
· According to British intelligence, Russia has plans to install a Russia-friendly government in place in Ukraine.
· Diplomats from the U.S., Europe and Russia are talking about ways out, but evidently talking past one another.
The only thing that seems clear about Putin’s intentions towards grabbing territory in the Ukraine for a rebuilt Russia is that the threats increasingly are real and will suck Americans into international conflict, exactly the outcome that both Russia and the United States say they do not want.
Against all of this, we’re seeing our congressional leaders dueling about who’s tougher, and about whether we should be undertaking measures right now, before any anticipated incursion by the 100,000 or so Russian troops lining the Ukrainian border. Republican speakers are calling Biden weak, even as Biden is considering putting American forces on the ground in the neighboring countries. Republicans don’t seem to remember that it was Donald Trump who imposed sanctions on Russia over election violations, but not over its activities towards Ukraine, and Trump who withheld military aid to Ukraine unless it came up with dirt on Biden, until that became public.
Of course, Putin could stop. But that might require a decision that someone committed to a reconstituted Russian empire just doesn’t want to reflect.
As apparently fruitlessly talks continue, the looming strategic pivot to move well beyond economic sanction threats to expanded American military involvement should be a wake-up call.
The idea of economic sanctions was that they would be punishment, perhaps severe punishment, for violating international norms, but that would not put an America tired of 20 years of Afghan and Iraq conflicts back into military confrontation.
As The Times noted, the strategy was for a restrained stance on Ukraine, out of fear of provoking Russia into invading. But clearly those threats of economic sanction alone have not yet proved successful in changing Putin’s calculations.
Our televisions, which offer more headlines about football than about the deteriorating situation in Ukraine, offer a continuing series of talking heads who each discuss a need for “toughness” without wanting to use U.S. troops.
Biden’s consideration of new Pentagon plans presented over the weekend seem to blow that clean vision out the window. The early estimates of sending 1,000 to 5,000 troops to Eastern European countries — the Pentagon said it is is readying 8,500 troops — came with plans to increase that number tenfold if things deteriorate. None of the plans apparently have the U.S. sending troops to Ukraine itself, but they could be deployed nearby. There are currently 70,000 U.S. troops in Europe.
Still, as The Times said, the deployment of thousands of additional American troops to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland or Romania is exactly the scenario that Putin has wanted to avoid. Russia will “respond appropriately” if the United States deploys more troops in Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries, the Interfax news agency quoted Russian lawmaker Andrei Kartapolov as saying. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the West is illustrating “hysteria” and dispatching information “laced with lies,” according to Reuters.
In Washington, senators from both parties are trying to devise a bill authorizing economic sanctions aimed at crippling Russia’s economy. The sticking points seem to be when they should take effect and what they should seek to achieve. “The focus now should be on stopping an invasion, not what happens afterwards,” Sen. James Risch (R-Ida.), ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said. He added. “What happens afterwards is not really debatable.” His counterpart in the House, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) wants immediate joint war games in Europe to project offensive power to Russia. He has offered the Guaranteeing Ukrainian Autonomy by Reinforcing its Defense Act, or GUARD Act, that would move to bolster Kyiv’s defense capabilities and reject some of Russia’s demands — moves already under way.
Democratic voices are just as bellicose but lean more towards backing Biden’s strategy of using the sanctions as threats.
Weirdly, Fox commentator Tucker Carlson keeps calling for Americans to back the Russian attempts to grab Ukraine, and followers are now calling congress members to do so.
What seems evident is that the White House is moving much faster than Congress, and that any political necessities towards bipartisan consensus are being lapped by considerations of sending actual troops to the region.
What is most ominous, however, are the steady notes of warning from diplomats and academics who see the conflict spilling well beyond central Europe. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been visible and clear in arguing that what is at stake in Ukraine could trigger similar moves by China towards Taiwan and increased unrest in the Middle East.
They see a rebuke of basic international norms following the world wars and the Cold War against invasions of national sovereignty. “To allow Russia to violate those principles with impunity would drag us all back to a much more dangerous and unstable time, “ said Blinken.
The irony here is that U.S. leadership in these matters is itself in question because of the effects of deep division and sinking popularity for Biden.