Russian Caution Should Be a Lesson

Russian Caution Should Be a Lesson

Russia’s own meekness has betrayed either Putin’s blood-crazed focus solely on Ukraine or Moscow’s unwillingness to contest a war with NATO seriously.

Editor’s Note: this article is a response to “Joe Biden’s Ukraine Policy is Marching Toward Catastrophe” by Robert Clarke and Jordan Beardsley, which appeared in The National Interest on June 17, 2024

Congressional action, bipartisan criticism, and a new Russian offensive have pushed the Biden administration into refitting and reenergizing its Ukraine war policy. Early spring saw a greater volume of long-range firepower provided to Kyiv. The Russian Kharkiv Oblast offensive showcased the failures of restraining Ukrainian military strikes. Russia had massed forces in its own territory, knowing such formations were safe from Ukrainian attacks using weapons supplied by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The White House has dreaded Russian “escalation” if Western weapons struck inside Russia’s internationally recognized borders. The policy, which has already provided Russian artillery forces to level Ukrainian positions with impunity, prevented Ukraine from immediately stopping the assault across its northeastern border. The White House now allows Ukraine to hit a small subset of Russian military targets across the border.

The White House is finally coming around to policies that can push for a Ukrainian victory. A fear of escalation still stymies some analysts, leading to understandable but inaccurate assessments of the risk. Writing in this publication, Robert Clarke and Jason Beardsley lay out how this new strike permission—and the theoretical deployment of U.S. or NATO military trainers—risks provoking a Russian attack on NATO. Let’s set aside that this second item is a proposal from French president Emmanuel Macron, and the U.S. commitment to such training is much less drastic

Their argument that these Ukrainian attacks will anger Russia is fair. Still, the argument that they will provoke a major Russian response against NATO ignores a long history of Moscow cowering against displays of Western resolve. An angry, vodka-fueled Twitter rant from Dmitri Medvedev is far more likely than an armed attack on NATO. Their case misrepresents both battlefield conditions and the nature of proposed training missions, relying on historical disanalogies. Finally, the argument that these changes won’t affect the war is already being disproved by facts on the ground.

It is true that Ukraine striking Russian territory with Western-supplied weapons is an escalation. By its very definition, it is a reversal from a policy the United States has enforced since February 2022. Moscow has drawn a redline on this issue: this follows the twenty-four redlines Russia drew in 2022 and fifteen in 2023. A non-exhaustive list of demands would include that the West does not provide Ukraine MiG-29 fighters; Patriot air defenses; either old Soviet or modern Western tanks; and HIMARs, Storm Shadow/SCALP-E, and ATACM missile systems. Putin and his cronies have also provided threats both drastic in their response and vague in their provocation, such as saying even Russian military tactical defeats could lead to a nuclear exchange

Russia has already insisted that these limits apply to illegally annexed and occupied territories: Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts, as well as Crimea. The Russian response to Ukrainian strikes in occupied Crimea has mostly been to suffer horrible casualties and lose valuable equipment. Ukraine has launched strikes against Russian air bases, oil refineries, and even Moscow military buildings using domestically produced drones, as the authors note. The response to this has been muted. Perhaps Russia has taken to intensifying its barrage of Ukrainian cities, but there is no evidence that Russia would ever stop bombing civilian targets without mercy. It is the Russian way of war.

If the escalation threat is theoretically understandable but overplayed, Clarke and Beardsley’s argument against a training mission relies on a misrepresentation of how to conduct the war. The caution of “mission creep” and analogies, both historical and contemporary, are misapplied. Let’s first approach the Vietnam War comparison and other examples of U.S. military advisors. The narrative of the United States being pulled into Vietnam in part because the United States slowly took over South Vietnam’s military mission must not be so stretched. 

Let’s first put forward the fact that American escalation in Vietnam was predominantly sparked by the Gulf of Tonkin incident, an imagined clash seized upon to propel the United States into war in Indochina. It is not worth spending time debating the drastic difference between the Johnson and Biden administration’s foreign policy. The “mission creep” argument is historically dependent on the Vietnam case study despite its outstanding nature. American troops are deployed in 178 countries around the globe. The 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF)—itself a caution against strategic mission creep but undoubtedly not a true example of escalation—has seen U.S. forces deployed across twenty-two countries. American intelligence operators have been operating in Ukraine since shortly after the war began in 2014.

The threat of the “[blurred lines] between training and direct combat involvement” does not pass muster on two arguments. The frontline is massive; with the Kharkiv offense opening, it stretches 1200 km (750 miles). However, it has been relatively static, with major gains such as the Russian taking of Avdiivka being well-followed. It is not the sort of fluid situation where U.S. and NATO trainers could find themselves suddenly in hard contact with the Russians. This training mission would not be like MACV-SOG sneaking through the jungle or the delicate counterterrorism and counter-insurgency missions that Mr. Beardsley so bravely conducted in the prosecution of the U.S. War on Terror. 

The Ukrainian military is also not the Army of the Republic of Vietnam; Kyiv has spent the last ten years converting a post-Soviet military into something approaching a NATO-compatible force. Ukraine’s defenders are fighting the largest ground war the world has seen since 1945. What they need is a wider training pool to help expedite mobilization and training: boot camps and ground warfare schools, not NATO-style special operations covert support. Mission creep, we may suggest, is much more a boogeyman than a historical precedent.

If that training mission is adopted, it does no good to ignore that there could be a threat from Russian bombing. It is also easy to acknowledge that there are means of lessening this risk. Ukraine is a massive country: the biggest entirely in Europe and only slightly smaller in area than Texas. NATO training missions could take place far from the front and still provide value. Training operations in western Ukraine would allow Kyiv to prepare new brigades under the protection of her airpower. I have argued in Europe’s Edge that NATO countries could extend air defense coverage over such sites. Again, escalation is worthwhile and manageable. Underlying this argument and undermining all concerns about Russian escalation is that Washington and Brussels both have the strength and cause to return the caution to Moscow. Russian threats should not be caved to, but instead, the West should respond with strength and unity.

The gravest error in these recent critiques of the White House’s Ukraine policy pivot is that said pivot is strategically ill-advised. Clarke and Beardsley call the trainer proposal a “high-risk, low-reward situation,” and their essay implies that other changes won’t change the battlefield situation. These claims dance across the length of inaccuracy. It is clear already that Ukraine’s ability to hit Russian military formations on Russian soil has worked. The tempo of the Kharkiv offensive is decreasing, and Kyiv states it is pushing them back. The operational argument for this is rather self-evident: if you deprive the enemy of a safe zone from which they can maneuver and amass, you will be better able to fight them. Precision long-range strike capabilities are invested in for precisely that reason. A significantly increased training operation based in Ukraine follows its own simple logic. More than 100,000 Ukrainian defenders have been trained by European countries alone but often have to travel to Western Europe. 

Kyiv needs more troops, and it needs them fast. The establishment of a NATO-backed training mission in Ukraine—protected by both advanced Western air defense systems and Western deterrence—would shorten the lines of travel. This gets fighters to the front faster. Ukrainian commanders and command staff would not have to be as distracted from their duties with closer training operations. More regular exposure to experienced Ukrainian veterans would also allow NATO planners to correct mistakes and misunderstandings the former has seen in this new sort of modern war. Greater freedom to strike and a wider training capacity will not win this war alone, but both policies can drastically improve Ukraine’s military situation.

Overstating Russia’s escalatory capacity weakens American strategic thinking in Europe and globally. It needs to be restated that the United States and NATO have to show fortitude in the face of Moscow’s vicious tirade of threats. America’s adversaries are not without agency. If Moscow wants to publicly threaten that U.S. missiles hitting Belgorod will lead to Russian missiles hitting Estonia, the Western alliance posture must be more robust. If Putin thinks that setbacks in Ukraine can weaken his regime, surely he can understand that a suicidal war with all of NATO would ruin it. It’s also disastrous to suggest that nuclear blackmail should give Moscow a veto on Washington’s foreign policy. The risks are exceedingly low, but let us not pretend that we cannot stomach any risk.