How should the U.S. respond to a Russian attack on Ukraine?

I don’t know anyone who believes the U.S. should respond with American boots on the ground. I know few people who believe the U.S should do nothing.

The range of acceptable options lies somewhere between imposing more sanctions on Russia, but going no further, and providing some form of military assistance short of ground troops.

As to sanctions, there’s a debate about how much damage even stringent ones would impose on Russia. There’s also the question, raised by Joe Biden himself during his most recent press conference, of the extent to which Europe would go along with stringent sanctions.

Based on what Biden said, it’s fair to infer that Europe would balk at severe sanctions. If so, it’s fair to infer that a sanctions regime wouldn’t impose the kind of damage on Russia that would cause it pull out of Ukraine or deter it from such adventurism. Indeed, I question whether any sanctions regime could induce Putin to curb his territorial ambitions.

In sum, sanctions are a weak response.

What other options, short of ground troops are there? Michael Vickers, a Defense Department official during the Obama years, lays them out in this article. He raises the possibility of deploying U.S. air power against Russia. He does so in the context of deterring Putin from moving against Ukraine, but for air power to be a credible deterrent, we must be prepared to use it in case Putin is not deterred.

Even just the use of our air power would put Americans in harms way and put America at war with Russia. I don’t see a prudent administration doing this.

Vickers suggests the following course of action, on top of sanctions, if Russia attacks Ukraine:

The United States should also support Ukrainian resistance to Russian occupation and a Russia-installed government with lethal means, to include advanced anti-armor and anti-air weapons. We drove the Russians out of Afghanistan during the 1980s using similar means, and we can drive them out of Ukraine should they invade and occupy the country.

We should also support the resistance to Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, which will significantly expand Putin’s territorial control problem and increase the cost of his invasion. As part of this strategy, Poland should also open its borders to Belarusian refugees. Finally, we should employ cyber and other covert means to undermine Putin’s rule in Russia. It’s past time to give Putin a taste of his own medicine.

I don’t know whether Vickers is correct in his assessment that we could drive the Russians out of Ukraine through the same methods we used to help the Afghans drive out the Russians in the 1980s. But there’s no doubt that Putin doesn’t want another Afghanistan or anything like it. Nor do the Russian people. Were Russia to become bogged down in Ukraine and incur a steady loss of Russian life there, Putin’s grip on power might well slip.

Therefore, we should make it clear to Putin, if we haven’t already, that we will support Ukrainian resistance to Russia. And we should make good on that threat if there is an invasion/occupation.

Some might argue that this response isn’t warranted because Ukraine’s fate has no bearing on U.S. interests. I consider this argument frivolous in the context of a debate over whether to provide the kind of assistance described above. It’s clear to me that America has enough of a stake in opposing Russia to justify providing aid, as opposed to troops, to support Ukraine.

Nonetheless, before the U.S. comes to Ukraine’s aid against a Russian attack, that U.S. interest will have to be spelled out, not just asserted.

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