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Yale 62

The U.S. Response to the War in Ukraine

By Bill Boehmler

I have been concerned that until recently, U.S. support for the Ukrainians has been anemic. Our slow response to Russian aggression has led to horrific consequences for Ukraine and its people. I have written the following note to explain my concerns and pose questions that I haven’t heard addressed in mainstream media.

In 2005, Vladimir Putin revealed his intentions toward countries that had left the Soviet Union.

In an address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation he stated that the collapse of the Soviet empire was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” In 2007 Russian hackers began a cyber-attack on Estonia which has continued on and off since then. Following the impeachment and flight of Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Russian troops invaded Crimea, which was subsequently annexed by Russia. Russian-supported separatists in the Donbas region created turmoil beginning in 2014, which led to the still contested establishment of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics.

Russian buildup of forces along the border of Russia and Ukraine, and the border of Belarus and Ukraine accelerated in late 2021. The buildup included troops estimated at as much as 190,000 men, tanks, heavy artillery, and rocket launchers. Despite these ominous signs, the judgment of the West as well as the Ukraine government, seemed to be that a full Russian invasion was unlikely. With regard to the United States, the question seems to be whether we were caught half-asleep and flat-footed.

Trump’s attacks on NATO had led to questions of its cohesion. European dependence on Russian oil seemed to lead to reluctance of NATO to get involved. This dependence had been well recognized for years, but the strategic problem had not been addressed. It is unrealistic to think private companies would create the excess capacity to replace Russian energy with Western sources in the event of conflict with Russia. Corporations do not behave that way. Would it have been politically feasible for the United States to alleviate European dependence with LNG shipping vessels and support for natural gas production? The dependence on Russian energy probably figured in Putin’s decision to risk launching an invasion of the Ukraine.

A factor in Ukraine’s ability to mount a strong defense was its outdated Soviet era tanks and artillery, dependent on spare parts and compatible munitions available only from Russian sources. Air power seemed particularly weak in comparison to Russian capabilities. While the United States had been supplying military aid to Ukraine, the amount and its nature seemed inadequate to Ukrainian needs. The lack of adequate conventional weapons was illustrated by the stalled ten-mile line of Russian troop carriers which looked like sitting ducks, and seemed a lost opportunity. We appeared to be reluctant to provide airplanes or air support, and advanced precision artillery and missile systems. Our decision not to provide or facilitate aircraft continues to this day. The fear may have been twofold: concern that advanced American equipment might fall into Russian hands; and perceived risk that Russia would respond to these “provocations” by employing tactical nuclear weapons, perhaps leading to World War III.

One wonders whether Putin plays a better “game of chicken” than we do. We feared that significant support for Ukraine might lead to a Russian nuclear response. A more cynical view would be that we viewed Ukraine as a lost cause not worth supporting with our capital and advanced weapons systems. Or perhaps we saw Ukraine as falling within Russia’s sphere of influence and not worth the possible consequences of taking vigorous action.

On the other hand, Putin seemed relatively unconcerned that his invasion would lead to a robust response from the United States or NATO, possibly leading to Word War III. Putin learned from Crimea and was willing to make a further test of Western resolve. In retrospect he miscalculated badly. However, the question remains whether support for Ukraine with modern sophisticated weapons of war, combined with threats to alleviate European dependence on Russian energy would have deterred Putin from launching the tragic and inhumane Russo-Ukrainian war.

This note may appear amateurish – not surprising in that its author is an amateur in these matters. It was drafted in the hope that the class of ‘62 may have members directly, or even peripherally involved in the questions of U.S. preparedness and effectiveness that I have posed.

 
We welcome your comments below.

3 comments to Ukraine.

  • Bill Weber

    Bill,

    Thanks for thought provoking article. With the recent developments, including Russia claiming to annex portions of Ukraine, the situation becomes even more distressing. I imagine Putin is thinking that this part of Ukraine is now part of Russia, so any attack on these regions will be considered an attack on Russia, which may be an excuse for drastic reactions. Something like the “goose and gander”

    Thoughts of our classmates?

  • Charles Merlis

    Bill, I am also an amateur, but I did take a course with Brad Westerfield and was originally going to be a poli sci major, so combined with my Weltanschauung, I have delusions of grandeur that I know what should be done. I have been writing about this war on Facebook since February when the latest invasion began. I submit a copy of what I wrote earlier today.

    PUTIN has just forced his removal from President of Russia. In an amazing speech in the Kremlin announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian territories into Russia, he has, in effect, declared war on the United States, NATO and the UN. Putin is trying to copy Hitler’s success in taking over the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia through the Munich Agreement of 1938 that was supposed to achieve “peace in our time”. Less than a year later WWII started.
    Putin made Ukrainian territory part of Russia, and pledged to defend it as part of the “Motherland” with all the power at his disposal. The US and NATO have pledged to defend Ukraine. This is a no win situation for at least one side. Either, there is a big win for Russia or a resounding defeat. The only way a compromise may be reached is if the people or the military of Russia remove Putin. That may or may not save Crimea for Russia.
    Soon after the start of the war, I proposed a possible peace settlement to include an internationally supervised referendum in the parts of Ukraine that had been called “Independent” since 2014, including Crimea, to establish if they wanted to be independent, or part of Russia or Ukraine. But Putin has overplayed his hand by an exponential amount. His criminal conduct of the war necessitates reparations by Russia and extinguished any claims Russia may have had to the largely Russian speaking areas of Ukraine. If the War stops now, maybe there could still be a plebiscite in Crimea, and maybe that carrot could help the Russian military decide to oust Putin before they lost the chance of having a Black Sea Port. Of course, that would still depend on the vote of Crimea.
    If you listen to Putin’s speech at the Kremlin, you will see there is no turning back for him. The question is what will we do now. We should encourage and support Ukraine in their current successful offensive which was retaking Ukrainian parts of “Russia” back as Putin was declaring its annexation. The next month is crucial in setting the tone for the end of the fighting. The more territory Ukraine takes back before winter sets in, the more pressure on the Russian powers behind and around Putin to eject him and save some of the Russian economy and dignity.

    You mention the United States was caught flatfooted or unaware. Au contraire, Biden weeks before the invasion was loudly pronouncing it publicly and for months was discussing it with Allies and Ukraine. In general, Biden’s response has been fairly good, as has a bipartisan Congress, with the important caveat that they have been too timid with the transfer of advanced weapons and planes. The early fiasco with not transferring Polish (Russian made) planes (which the Ukrainians were already using) to the Ukrainian Air Force is a prime example. Planes should be transferred as quickly as possible as well as other offensive weaponry that will enable the Ukrainians to recapture territory quickly that Putin has just annexed.
    I think that recent history gave Putin the (over)confidence to launch the war. The ineffectual response to the 2014 Russian takeovers of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk, combined with the badly executed withdrawal from Afghanistan and the European energy reliance on Russia, made any threats by the West to a Russian invasion meaningless. If Trump were still in office dismantling NATO and our allies, Putin’s “genius” may have been confirmed.
    Let us pray, that Dictator Putin has made freedom stronger by attacking it.

  • Larry Price

    I must agree with Charlie when he says that for Putin “there is no turning back for him.” In his career, whenever he faced adversity, Putin doubled down. And it has apparently worked for him so far. So he brings the same thinking to the war with Ukraine.

    When the initial forces did not work, he focused his entire army plus assorted mercenaries on the war. That did not work either. So now he is calling the reserves. That is unlikely to work.

    The next step would be either general mobilization or the use of tactical nuclear weapons. We seem to dread the prospect of the latter. That fear is overblown. People hear nuclear; they think Hiroshima. That is not what we are talking about. If you are in a tank 300 yards from ground zero of a one kiloton device, you will survive. Tactical nuclear weapons are only effective against massed troops. Here the armies are dispersed over a 1300 mile front. So tactical nuclear weapons are unlikely to work either.

    I read in a recent book review in the WSJ that in poker tournaments, “amateurs hold them; pros fold them.” Putin is an amateur and it is high time that our leaders recognize who they are dealing with. Our timid approach has produced sub-optimal results.

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