The U.S. Response to War on Ukraine Needs Work

COMMENTARY Global Politics

The U.S. Response to War on Ukraine Needs Work

Jun 23rd, 2022 8 min read

Commentary By

Alexis Mrachek @AlexisMrachek

Policy Analyst, Russia and Eurasia

Peter Brookes @Brookes_Peter

Senior Research Fellow, Center for National Defense

The Ukrainian flag is flown in a building in Irpin, near Kyiv, Ukraine on June 21, 2022. Metin Aktas / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Diplomacy should always be attempted, but clearly its use as a tool, lacks proven success dealing with a Russia under Vladimir Putin’s control.

Heavy weaponry from the West should have been provided much earlier in the conflict—if not before the invasion.

The Western response to Russian aggression so far has, unfortunately, been mixed and must improve significantly.

Since Russia launched its most recent invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the United States and NATO have provided political, military, economic, and other forms of aid and support to Ukraine. While well-intentioned, Washington could improve the types, quantity, and velocity of the aid it provides to Kyiv.

Kyiv’s ability to defeat Moscow’s unjust invasion is critical to defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, but also to returning stability to Eastern Europe, protecting the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and re-establishing deterrence against Russian nationalist ambitions fomented by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On the diplomatic front, the United States initiated several calls and meetings with Russian officials before the second invasion, but none were fruitful. One significant meeting was the Biden-Putin Summit in June 2021 where President Joe Biden met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva to discuss a number of issues, including human rights, Ukraine, and cyberattacks.

President Biden asserted at the summit that the United States has an “unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” This was an important statement to make given Russia’s military buildup, which began in April 2021, the Russo-Ukrainian war that started in the Donbas region in 2014, and the ongoing illegal Russian occupation of Crimea. In the end, the diplomatic rhetoric was not enough to prevent Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine.

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President Biden and Putin described the overall meeting as friendly and constructive, but they did not agree upon anything of substance. Other significant meetings occurred in January 2022 among the United States, NATO, and Russia. At the bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue (SSD) between the U.S. and Russia, the United States urged Russia to de-escalate the situation along the Russian-Ukrainian border, but Russia continued to claim that it had no intentions of attacking or further invading Ukraine and said the West should not fear “any kind of escalation.”

A month before the January SSD meeting, Russia demanded security guarantees such as NATO retracting its offer of membership to Ukraine and the cessation of all U.S. and allied military activity in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but the U.S. wisely did not capitulate. Rather, the United States made clear at the SSD that there would be significant consequences for Moscow “well beyond” what it faced in 2014.

In the NATO-Russia Council meeting in January, NATO allies insisted Russia “respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors,” and reaffirmed that the alliance would not accept Russian demands to uninvite Ukraine into NATO. NATO also even offered Russia a series of further meetings to discuss wider issues, but the Russian delegation demurred.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, following the meeting, reported that “significant differences remained” between NATO and Russia. Besides these meetings, multiple calls were held between President Biden and Putin. It is positive that the U.S. and NATO sought to utilize diplomacy in their approach towards Russia to try to prevent a second invasion of Ukraine, but the fact is that from Russia’s perspective, the calls and meetings simply served as a means to buy time to decide its actions and build up its invasion forces.

Now, it is evident that Moscow crafted a multitude of contrived reasons for invading Ukraine, such as to “de-Nazify” the country or to “liberate” its population from nationalists. Diplomacy should always be attempted, but clearly its use as a tool, lacks proven success dealing with a Russia under Vladimir Putin’s control.

In the end, the American and NATO diplomatic effort failed to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The West, in some cases, has been challenged in garnering support against the Russian invasion, including at the United Nations and among a number of major influential countries, most prominently with China and India.

In contrast, the United States and its allies and partners seemingly have done well in the information space regarding Ukraine. In the weeks leading up to February 24, the U.S. consistently informed Ukraine, according to its intelligence agencies, that a second Russian invasion looked imminent. On January 14, 2022, U.S. intelligence revealed that Russia could invade within the next month.

On February 18, President Biden, citing U.S. intelligence, reported that Moscow would target Kyiv within the coming week. In hindsight, these were extremely accurate assessments, only a mere few days off. Now more than two months into Russia’s war in Ukraine, the United States and others reportedly continues to provide useful intelligence to Ukraine.

In the first half of April, the Biden administration disclosed it was moving to “significantly expand the intelligence it is providing to Ukraine’s forces” so that they can better target Russia’s forces in the Donbas region and Crimea. While it is unclear which types of intelligence has been, and is being, provided, it is reasonable to suggest that Western intelligence may have made a difference in the largely unexpected success of the Ukrainian campaign so far.

The United States also has done well in exposing possible Russian “false flag” operations, once again likely derived from intelligence, especially those revealing the potential use of chemical weapons, arguably deterring the use of this weapon of mass destruction against the Ukrainian military or civilian population.

On the military front, the Biden administration and NATO have been well-intentioned, but could improve vastly their support to Ukrainian forces. On the positive side, the U.S. has provided a large amount of weaponry and equipment to Ukraine over the course of the war, totaling $3.4 billion USD so far. NATO has done so as well.

The weaponry and non-lethal equipment provided so far includes Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, the Switchblade tactical unmanned aerial systems, as well as body armor and helmets, commercial satellite imagery services, ammunition, and medical supplies, amongst many other items.

These weapons were seemingly crucial in the first phase of the war, including blunting the Russian effort to take Kyiv. But these systems may not play as strong a role in the second phase of the war, which seems to be focusing on the South and East of Ukraine, where the topography is markedly different. Ukrainian commanders are pleading for weapons to counter Putin’s assault in the East and South that will likely feature the use of more Russian heavy artillery and armor.

As a result, the United States and NATO must move immediately into a “more, better, faster” mode in supporting the Ukrainian forces. It has, unfortunately, been slow to do so—squandering a possible window of opportunity to bolster Ukrainian defenses while Russian forces recovered and regrouped from its failed campaign in the North.

For instance, the United States is just now providing howitzer long-range artillery and counter-battery radars as well as the necessary training to use it. Heavy weaponry from the West should have been provided much earlier in the conflict—if not before the invasion—not only for defense of Ukrainian territory, but as a way to drive diplomacy and as a possible deterrent to the beginning of a second phase of the war.

In addition, the failure to transfer the Polish MiG-29 fighters to Ukraine earlier in the war, either through NATO or directly was a major mistake. It made NATO look feeble and the support of Kyiv look weak in Moscow’s eyes. A continued failure to transfer the necessary usable, high-technology, light and heavy systems to the Ukrainian forces quickly could significantly impact the outcome of the war in the East and South—and the fate of Ukraine itself.

Economically, the U.S. and NATO have been mostly strong, but they could have done more before February 24 in an effort to deter Russia from invading Ukraine. Now, the U.S. and many of its NATO allies have imposed strong sanctions on Russia, but punitive economic sanctions can take time to have an effect and, as such, many of these sanctions should have been imposed sometime last year when Russia was already increasing its troops on Ukraine’s border.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in fact, believed the same. On February 19, he was severely critical of allied leaders for waiting to impose sanctions until after a Russian invasion, accusing world leaders of “appeasement.” He did not understand why the U.S. and NATO were waiting to impose sanctions, even though Western intelligence already was showing that Russian forces would invade Ukraine.

Once Russia did invade, however, the West, in addition to Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, swiftly imposed harsh economic sanctions, which have had a devastating effect on the Russian economy. The United States sanctioned Sberbank, Alfa Bank, critical major Russian state-owned enterprises, Russian elites and their family members, Vladimir Putin, and Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister. The U.S., in conjunction with Canada, the EU, and the United Kingdom, also cut off Russian banks’ access to the SWIFT international messaging system in addition to imposing several other punitive sanctions. Many NATO allies sanctioned the same persons and entities. It is estimated that Russia’s GDP will have up to a 15 percent downturn this year.

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In addition, 750 companies, many of which are American or NATO-ally based, have curtailed their operations in Russia since February 24. Hundreds of other companies are in the process of retracting from Russia; some are temporarily halting their operations, some have reduced their current operations, some have merely held off on new Russian investments, whereas others have defied demands for exiting the Russian market.

In order to have the most significant impact on the Russian economy, as punishment for Moscow’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and disregard for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and integrity, U.S. and NATO ally-based companies should not waver in halting their operations in Russia for the foreseeable future. Companies that have not retracted from Russia should do so immediately.

Supporting any country with the diplomatic, military, economic and other means for it to wage a war against a foreign adversary is a difficult undertaking. Russia’s military capabilities, nuclear superpower status, and concerns about the state of mind of the Russian leadership make this all the more difficult for the United States and NATO.

The Western response to Russian aggression so far has, unfortunately, been mixed and must improve significantly in the quantity, quality, and delivery of its diplomatic, economic, military, and intelligence support if Ukraine is to repel the Russian invaders, regaining its territorial integrity and sovereignty, returning stability to the region, and reestablishing deterrence against Russia.

This piece originally appeared in The Warsaw Institute Review