President Vladimir Putin’s forces have encircled Ukraine.
Many believe that these deployments are a feint, that what we’re actually seeing is one big scare tactic, designed to deter international sanctions. Perhaps.
Still, it’s a dangerous gamble to assume that Putin will stay within Crimea. In fact, two specific factors suggest that Russia’s president may be planning a new offensive.
First, consider the character of Russia’s military deployments.
Over the last few days, among the many units that have been sent on “exercise” near Ukraine, Russia has deployed 8,500 artillery troops to its southern military district (the Russian military command that borders Ukraine). Additionally, Putin has sent an airborne brigade into the Rostov Oblast, which runs along Ukraine’s southeastern border. The Russians have also accepted a “request” from Belarus to situate forces in their territory (in this case, fighter jets).
Again, Russia claims that these actions are simply about training and preparedness. But the combined arms encirclement is concerning. At a strategic level, whether this is preparation or posturing, Putin is establishing a superb position from which to launch a very serious attack and envelop Ukraine’s eastern territories.
Invading from the north, east, and southeast, the Russians could likely overwhelm the Ukrainian military in a classic pincer movement. By seizing the E105 highway, which runs from Kharkiv on the northern border of eastern Ukraine to the transport hub of Melitopol on the coast, Putin would be able to open a supply route to his forces in Crimea. In doing so, he could establish a contiguous front line against western Ukraine. Taking advantage of the Dnieper River, which runs from north to south, the Russians could effectively split Ukraine into two parts.
While Russia might not annex eastern Ukraine in its entirety, a push to the Dnieper would evidently destabilize the government in Kiev. Putin would regard the perception of a split Ukraine as a victory in and of itself.
In this context, Russia’s airborne deployment is especially concerning. These paratroopers are trained and prepared for aggressive seizure operations, which would be critical to any invasion.
All of this leads us to one unenviable question.
How should the world respond to the growing threat of invasion? First, President Obama must recognize the urgent necessity of American leadership. Up until this point, America’s response to this crisis has been a grumbling mixture of equivocation and hyperbole. Facing this moment of consequence, the president must prove his critics wrong. He should deliver a plain message to Putin:
An invasion beyond Crimea will not see American acquiescence, and if Putin takes such action, America will return to Europe ready for a second Cold War, hardened, capable, and willing to use force to oppose Russian aggression.
Obama must also force EU leaders to get real: prepare for action and back away from narrow notions of economic interest. The U.S. and the EU must establish that an expanded invasion would result in Russia’s unprecedented diplomatic isolation: the expulsion of Russian ambassadors, Russian alienation from Western financial markets, and an end to dialogue, investment, and civic engagement. Moreover, Obama must speak plainly about the EU’s pathetic neglect of military spending. No longer should American taxpayers be expected to pay for the continent’s defense while EU leaders throw money at their bloated welfare states.
But that won’t be enough.
As I’ve argued previously, in the early days of this crisis, Obama had an opportunity to draw a real red line: He should have ordered a limited deployment of U.S. military forces to Kiev. In simple terms, this would have been an unambiguous symbol of American power and an undeniable signal of American resolve.
Time remains for Obama to find his courage. Indeed, Putin is likely still waiting to see how the international community responds to his latest intimidation. That means he can be deterred.
But if the worse happens, if Russia does invade, America must be ready to respond on principle. Whatever the risks of escalation might be, the risks of inaction are undeniably catastrophic. Were Russia to seize eastern Ukraine unchallenged, democracies in Eastern Europe would be increasingly Putin’s subjects behind a 21st-century Iron Curtain, forced to choose between submission and oppression.
Yes, it’s obvious that there are no good options here. But there are options. The right one is to draw a line and stick to it. Neglecting that choice, we’ll see a new “biggest thing” in our lifetimes — a new understanding of power and a rapid reversal of freedom’s fortunes.