U.S. Ground Forces in Ukraine?

by Andrew Stuttaford

I read Andrew Langer’s article making the case for a direct U.S. military presence in Ukraine with great interest, but I am afraid that I wasn’t convinced. “Boots on the ground” in the Baltic states (not least to act as the sort of tripwire that Mr. Langer discusses in a Ukrainian context) make a great deal of sense, but Ukraine is a different matter. The Baltic states are in NATO and, if NATO is to maintain its credibility, there needs to be no doubt that the alliance will stand by these countries. Avoiding any ambiguity about that commitment is the best way to ensure that Mr. Putin does not send ‘little green men’ across Baltic borders (dealing with potential domestic subversion within the Baltic states is a different issue, requiring different solutions).

Ukraine, however, is not in NATO. Reinforcing the defenses of existing allies is one thing, sending troops into a “disputed” territory that, fairly or unfairly, Russia sees as its backyard (for reasons that are both a matter of strategic calculation and raw emotion) is quite another. It would feed into the psychosis and the paranoia about “fascists,” “Western imperialists,” and various other bogeymen that appears to be building up in Russia, fueled by a regime that knows a thing or two about propaganda. As so often, the Big Lie is working. There is no merit in giving it a helping hand, or for that matter, creating a domestic political situation where Putin feels that he has no alternative other than to push things in an even more dangerous direction.

Above all, there is the strong possibility that a U.S. (or, presumably NATO) tripwire in Ukraine would not work. There are already plenty of people who wonder whether NATO is really prepared to go to the mat for Narva (Estonia’s easternmost, and overwhelmingly ethnically Russian, city). To believe that voters in the U.S. or other NATO countries would accept that their troops should die for, say, the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk beggars belief. And if Putin believes that the West is not prepared to accept that sacrifice, the tripwire would not be an obstacle, but a temptation. Imagine the situation where Moscow sends “peacekeepers” into Ukraine who simply bypass or isolate what would inevitably only be a very small U.S./ NATO force (Mr. Langer talks of a “strong U.S. presence,” but I cannot see that happening). It is hard to imagine a better advertisement of weakness, an advertisement that would inevitably lead NATO’s Eastern European allies to wonder how good that NATO guarantee really was, creating a state of affairs that could, to say the least, trigger some hedging of bets, and, of course, embolden pro-Russian elements within those countries.

There is also something else. The internal political dynamics of Ukraine are, to put it mildly, complicated. While the number of Ukraine’s Russian-speakers or ethnic Russians (overlapping but not identical categories, incidentally) who wish to see “reunion” with Russia is much less than is sometimes suggested in the Kremlin camp, there is nonetheless a considerable constituency that does not want to have to make a choice between Russia and the West. Just as Putin’s maneuvers appear to have pushed some Ukrainians into a more “European” direction, so the presence of U.S./NATO troops (take a look at this controversy in Latvia for a foretaste of what could lie ahead) could shove others towards Moscow, deepening the divisions in the country still further, and, I should add, putting those troops in an invidious position. They might find themselves treated as heroes in Lvov, but in Donetsk?

Ukraine’s situation is undeniably desperate. Mr Langer writes that it an “absolute certainty” that, in the absence of an effective Western response, “Russia will use instability and weak opposition from Ukraine’s military forces as a pretext for invasion”. That may be more certainty than the facts currently deserve, but I wouldn’t bet against it. And Mr. Langer is surely correct to argue that “once Russia invades Ukraine, there will be little we can do to expel them.” He’s also right that deterrence easily beats the alternative. But that’s only true if the attempted deterrence does indeed deter. In this case, I doubt that it would. On the contrary, I suspect that it would make a bad situation worse.

It is to the West’s advantage to help Ukraine maintain its independence (and, I would hope that a few, so to speak, “quiet Americans” are in the country as part of that effort) but it should do so with a clear awareness of what is realistically achievable, economically, politically and militarily. I agree with Mr. Langer about the likely ineffectiveness of (politically feasible) sanctions, but, so far as I see it, installing a U.S./NATO tripwire there satisfies neither the second nor the third of those tests.