Biden’s tricky strategy to avoid a war with Russia over Ukraine
Joe Biden needed an agreement with Vladimir Putin that would help reduce tensions in Europe over Ukraine and NATO expansion. So he manufactured a crisis as an excuse for putting a US position on the table.
The news coming out of Ukraine was dire – Russia had mobilized between 95-125,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, and US intelligence agencies were predicting that an invasion was imminent. NATO was panicking, and Vladimir Putin was insisting that Ukraine must never be allowed to join the transatlantic alliance.
Biden, to clear the air with Putin, agreed to a video conference with the Russian President, where he “looked him in the eye” and warned of serious consequences, including unprecedented economic sanctions and the threat of deploying additional US forces to Europe, should Russia invade Ukraine.
While much of the public reaction to the Biden-Putin video conference has centered on the sanctions threat, it is the threat to deploy military forces to Europe which provides the greatest insight into the thinking of the Biden administration when it comes to Russia today.
First and foremost, the US threat to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank is empty, and everyone knows it. The US Army is already stretched to the breaking point by maintaining the existing rotation of a single heavy armored brigade, some 5,000 troops, in Europe. By 2022 the US is scheduled to complete the construction of an Army Prepositioned Stock (APS) facility in Poland designed to store a brigade’s worth of equipment (about 85 battle tanks, 190 armored combat vehicles, 35 artillery, and four armored vehicle launched bridges along with hundreds of supporting equipment sets and pieces). That will reduce the deployment time for the assigned brigade from the US to Poland from the 45 to 60 days associated with shipping the equipment into a European port to the four to seven days needed to fly in the troops and issue the equipment for operational employment.
But even with 10,000 troops backed by 170 tanks, 380 armored combat vehicles, and 70 artillery pieces, the US Army would be in no shape to take on a potential Russian opponent.
Back in the 1980s, the US military understood the true nature of Soviet military capabilities. We studied their doctrine. At the National Training Center (NTC), in Fort Irwin, California, the US Army created an opposition force (OPFOR) organized and equipped to replicate two Soviet Motorized Rifle Regiments. “OPFOR soldiers,” a 1986 article about training at the NTC noted, “are thoroughly trained in Soviet battle tactics for the purpose of fighting stateside combat elements as though it were an actual war,” adding that the OPFOR soldiers “dress in Soviet uniforms and use replicas of Russian armored vehicles to make their ‘kills.’ Every move and action of the OPFOR adheres to Soviet principles of armored warfare.”
We had an average of 311,870 troops stationed in Europe per year between 1986 and 1990. We had another 250,000 prepared to deploy to Europe within 10 days. The singular focus of all these men and women was to defeat the Soviet Army in combat.
We had a robust military attaché program in place at our Moscow Embassy that aggressively collected and reported on Soviet military capabilities. Attached to the Soviet Group of Forces, Germany were 14 US military officers, assigned to the US Military Liaison Mission, whose sole job was to monitor the Soviet military presence in East Germany. The Defense Intelligence Agency published an annual report, Soviet Military Power, which was required reading for all US military personnel.
The CIA maintained the Office of Soviet Analysis (SOVA), where the best and the brightest resided, publishing intelligence-based assessments of Soviet military capabilities. They were backed up by the Directorate for Operations’ Soviet/East European Division, which oversaw the CIA’s Moscow Station, where the most elite case officers were sent to ply their trade.
In short, we knew and understood Soviet military capabilities, and the threat they posed.
Today, when it comes to the Russian Federation, the United States is flying blind. At the NTC, the Soviet OPFOR has been replaced with a scaled-down version whose job is to replicate insurgencies and near-peer opponents – i.e., nothing at all what the US military would be facing if it were to be called upon to confront Russian troops in a European ground war. Russian military doctrine no longer serves as the foundation of our own counter-doctrine; Russia may very well be training to fight US and NATO forces, but we no longer anchor our doctrinal philosophy on the singular principle of closing with a destroying the Russian threat.
For the past 20 years, military careers have been defined by the Global War on Terror and, more importantly, waging low-intensity conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. Every aspect of the military establishment, from recruiting, training, clothing, equipping, organizing, deploying, and fighting, was re-worked to deal with this new mode of fighting. Combined arms warfare – the art of war centered on creating lethal synergism between infantry, armor, artillery, airpower, and intelligence – was no longer practiced, and the muscle memory that had accrued from over three decades of training atrophied.
Our intelligence services support that which has been given priority, and since the end of the Cold War, Russia has not been a priority. Once a reservoir of unmatched talent, the departments and offices that once monitored Soviet military power have all been disbanded, replaced by “Eurasian” analysts who treat Russia as but one part of a larger intelligence puzzle. SOVA has been dissolved, taking decades of institutional knowledge about all things Russia along with it.
Our military is no longer trained, equipped, or doctrinally prepared to fight a Russian foe. In a non-nuclear matchup, the result is all-too predictable. The military, of course, is aware of this, and is gradually working toward rebuilding this lost capability. But this will take time and resources, not simply happen overnight.
Joe Biden knows this as well, which is why he has taken pains, in the aftermath of his video conference with Putin, to emphasize that the US obligation to defend its NATO allies does not extend to Ukraine. “The idea that the US is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia invading Ukraine is not on the cards right now,” Biden told the press after his conversation with Putin.
This, of course, begs the question as to what Biden hoped to accomplish by threatening to deploy more American forces to Poland and the Baltics in the first place, especially if the US is not planning on any military confrontation with Russia in the case of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The answer lies in Biden’s political need to shape perception, both at home and abroad. The expectations on the part of his Democrat allies is that he would be tougher on Russia than former president Trump. This public pronouncement has boxed him in considerably, especially when common sense policy options must be put to the side in favor of posturing. Biden was caught off guard last April when Russia mobilized 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, especially when his military leadership informed him that there was little the US could do about it.
The key problem facing the Biden national security team on the need to engage Russia was the fact that any engagement which considered Russian concerns would be seen as a concession. Biden needed to be seen as operating from a position of strength. As such, when Russia conducted its fall military maneuvers, the US purposefully exaggerated what was little more than internal troop movements in response to similar NATO exercises in Poland and the Baltics, and Ukrainian muscle flexing along the Donbass front, turning it into an imminent threat that triggered the current crisis.
Biden’s threat to deploy additional US forces now makes sense. First and foremost – he’s not going to do it. Second, Russia is not preparing to invade Ukraine, and Biden knows it. The current crisis is being driven by Ukraine’s ongoing refusal to implement the Minsk accords when it comes to recognizing the autonomy of the Donbass region, and its continued military posturing as a mechanism of gaining NATO support for its ambition to reconquer the Donbass and Crimea.
Russia has been insisting that the US put pressure on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to adhere to the Minsk agreement, and that the US provide assurances that NATO would stop its eastward expansion. Any move by the US, void of an additional predicate, would be seen by both the American domestic audience, and America’s NATO allies, as a sign of weakness. However, by building up a non-existent threat (i.e., a Russian invasion of Ukraine), and then threatening to dispatch non-existent troops to eastern Europe if Russia were to invade, Biden can now take credit for being strong in the face of Russian aggression. Moreover, when Russia doesn’t invade (and it won’t, unless responding to any large-scale military provocation by Ukraine), Biden can take credit for making Putin back down.
In this context, Jake Sullivan’s announcement that the Biden administration is open to broad talks with Russia about the future of European security, coupled with Biden’s announcement that the US would not come to the aid of Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion, and a similar announcement by Biden that the US would not support Ukrainian membership in NATO for at least 10 years, can be spun as responsible actions taken from a position of strength, instead of the logical response to realpolitik.