NATO members closest to the Russian threat are seeking “adjustments” to the alliance’s defense posture to show Russian President Vladimir Putin that America will defend NATO’s eastern flank in the event of hostilities in Ukraine. Meanwhile, a Ukrainian defense official who spoke to Air Force Magazine on condition of anonymity said “a signal” that the U.S. will deliver needed air defenses to Ukraine would be enough to deter Russia from mounting an invasion.
In recent weeks, President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III promised that Ukraine will get the assistance it needs to defend itself. A last-minute visit to Washington by Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov on Nov. 19 detailed an urgent need for air defense capabilities, and an American air defense team visited Ukraine to assess the country’s needs Nov. 29. But still, there has been no new announcement of defense assistance to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Russia appears to be preparing for war.
“First, Russia will use its Air Force and missiles,” said the Ukrainian defense official, describing a buildup of military medical supplies, blood, and plasma along the Russian border with Ukraine that is consistent with casualty care. Further, hundreds of empty tents are positioned and ready for the arrival of Russian combat brigades. Only a small number of those tents are heated for soldiers who maintain the readiness of waiting Russian tanks.
“We have to prepare now,” the official said. “Point No. 1 is air defense.”
The swampy, soft land of the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine will freeze in January, making it easy for Russian tanks to roll in with air support. American-supplied and Ukrainian-purchased javelin anti-tank weapons will help push them back. But Ukraine’s air defenses are insufficient to stop Russian fighter jets, bombers, and attack helicopters from striking positions in eastern Ukraine “in a matter of hours.” The ability to shoot down Russian aircraft can deter Putin from invading, Ukraine believes.
In Georgia in 2008, several Russian aircraft were shot down in the opening salvo, including a strategic bomber, before Russia pulled back its air offensive.
“Even with weak air defenses, we can shoot down a couple aircraft,” the Ukrainian official said. “How many casualties will they sustain?”
Until now, Russian deaths in the seven-year, low-intensity conflict with Ukraine have been hidden from public view, buried in unmarked graves near the Russian frontline, Ukrainian intelligence has found.
A recent Russian troop buildup of some 100,000 personnel has surrounded Ukraine and its army of 250,000 troops. An estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Russian and Russian-backed separatists are near the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in southeastern Ukraine, requiring a roughly equivalent Ukrainian force on a three-pronged rotation. Russia’s joint Zapad exercises with Belarus in September positioned additional equipment and forces along Ukraine’s northern border, and the Belarusian Army is believed to act at the command of Putin. To the west of Ukraine’s principal port Odessa, on the southern coast, is the disputed Transnistria region of Moldova. An additional 1,500 Russian soldiers are positioned there with reinforcements to assist a potential amphibious attack from the Black Sea, where Russia maintains a powerful naval presence.
“Any weapon is a deterrent,” the Ukrainian defense official said.
“It’s the signal,” the official added, describing how Ukraine can prevent a Russian invasion with U.S. defense assistance. “It can declare openly that, ‘We will provide assistance with the appropriate capabilities.’”
NATO’s Defense Posture
The Eastern flank of NATO, from the Baltic countries to Poland to the Black Sea countries of Romania and Bulgaria, were part of the Soviet Union or members of the Warsaw Pact. The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad shares borders with both Poland and Lithuania, and Russian-occupied Crimea is just 200 miles from Romania on the Black Sea. These heavily defended non-contiguous outposts are separated by a buffer zone of non-NATO countries. The largest country among them is Ukraine.
Ukraine’s drift to the West, including a constitutional mandate to seek European Union and NATO membership, has been a redline Putin has sought to stop.
The 2014 Russian invasion by “little green men” that bore no identifying flag on their shoulders seized Crimea and created a low-intensity conflict in the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine. A full-scale Russian invasion would destabilize Europe and bring Russia closer to the NATO borders of the countries that once formed part of the Russian Empire.
The Biden administration and the Defense Department have indicated that deterrence on the eastern flank is currently sufficient. Eastern flank defense officials who spoke to Air Force Magazine said otherwise.
“We kind of signaled to the U.S. that certain adjustments [should] come, even right now, to signal resolve,” an eastern flank defense official close to discussions at NATO headquarters in Brussels told Air Force Magazine.
“We suggested some kind of a visible signal of resolve and then preparing options for possible escalation,” the official said. “Then, the U.S. and NATO in general should be in position to be prepared, should be prepared basically, to reinforce the east.”
Former George W. Bush-era deputy assistant secretary of state Mark Gunzinger said the eastern flank nations have serious concerns about the possibility that Putin would invade Ukraine.
“He already successfully seized and occupied Crimea,” said Gunzinger, now director of future aerospace concepts and capabilities assessments at AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
“If he should do that in the eastern provinces of Ukraine, that escalates tensions throughout Europe, of course,” he continued. “So should we expect that three, four, or five years from then, maybe he makes a similar move against Estonia, or Latvia, or Lithuania, under the pretense of, ‘Well, we’re protecting our Russian nationals in the eastern provinces and countries—this is defensive in nature.’”
Gunzinger added: “It could erode, frankly, confidence in NATO and its ability to deter threats.”
The U.S. has committed to support a Baltic integrated air and missile defense system. All that currently exists in the three nations sandwiched between Kaliningrad and Belarus are a hodgepodge of small European and Soviet-era systems for short and medium-range air defense. The Baltic nations are also without an air force and depend on European NATO air policing aircraft to regularly push Russian jets out of NATO airspace. All while heavily guarded Kaliningrad is armed with Russia’s most exquisite anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapon system, the S-400.
“Kaliningrad Oblast remains the most militarized area in our region,” a Lithuanian defense official told Air Force Magazine, noting that 500 U.S. troops are currently in Lithuania as part of a rotational battalion.
“[It] continues to pose a threat to all of the Baltic region, as well as a majority of the Western European capitals, because of the operational reach of weapons systems that are deployed,” he added.
The official said that similarly, preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine is a matter of national security for the Baltic nations.
“We should do everything to prevent that,” he added. “Doing everything that’s possible, both from Lithuania and, collectively, to prevent anything like Russia occupying Ukraine. So, that would be the main objective.”
The NATO posture on the eastern flank is not designed to do that.
“This is not a process that is meant to deter a Russian incursion into Ukraine,” the Brussels official said of alliance capabilities in the region. “This was meant in terms of the reinforcement of the eastern flank.”
The official said nonetheless additional U.S. presence and capabilities to counter Russian A2AD and long-range precision strike capabilities are still needed to deter Russia.
“I don’t think that the intent of the U.S. right now is to deter militarily Russia from attacking Ukraine,” the official said, citing President Biden and National security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s warning to Russia about strong economic sanctions and political measures should Russia invade Ukraine.
‘De-escalation and Diplomacy’
Briefing journalists after President Biden’s 90-minute Dec. 9 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and a separate call with the Bucharest Nine group of Eastern European NATO allies, a senior administration official said Biden told Putin that Ukraine would receive additional defense assistance “if Russia further invades Ukraine.” That is, after a potential invasion.
That assistance would be coupled with economic sanctions and further capabilities for NATO allies on the eastern flank. The official said Biden called on Putin to choose “de-escalation and diplomacy.”
“What I can say from the President’s perspective is that he did make very clear to President Zelensky what he had also said to President Putin, which is a strong and ongoing commitment by the United States to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, [citing] the continuing security assistance that we have been continuing to provide to Ukraine,” the senior administration official told reporters.
The Ukrainian defense official said Russia reacts to strength and Putin is provoked to act when he sees weakness and opportunity.
The range of creative solutions to deter Russia from invading Ukraine has included diverting bought and paid for military hardware that was originally intended for the former government of Afghanistan; inviting U.S. aircraft to land and refuel at Ukrainian air bases; and an invitation for the U.S. to train troops further east than the Yavoriv Combat Training Center, where the Florida National Guard’s 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team recently arrived for a training mission.
“It would show the flag,” the Ukrainian official said, referring to the deterrent effect of U.S. troops on Ukrainian soil.
So far, those offers have been declined, with Biden saying Dec. 8 that the option of U.S. troops in Ukraine was “not on the table.”
The Brussels official said there is a split between Eastern and Western European NATO allies over defense support to Ukraine.
“This can only be done by individual allies,” the official said.
“We welcome U.S. assistance to Ukraine,” the official added. “We think that is a step to deter possible aggression—if it’s effective, if it’s in time. Air defenses would certainly provide dilemmas to Russian plots.”
Members of Congress wrote a letter Dec. 8 calling on the President to deliver more defense assistance to Ukraine. In addition, a hefty Ukraine defense assistance package lingers as part of the as-yet un-passed National Defense Authorization Act, though enacting and delivering such a thing could take months or years.
“I don’t think he would give it the level of assistance that would be needed for Ukrainian forces to inflict that kind of a punishment against an invading force,” Gunzinger said.
“This is more than a temporary crisis involving Ukraine,” he added. “This involves defense of NATO’s eastern flank, and more needs to be done.”