The Biden Administration’s Ukraine Policy

By Matthew P. Daley

Much ink has been spilt – deservedly – in reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the American response. Herewith are a few analytical and some critical observations. For the most part, the Biden Administration has been doing the right things: continuing to supply Ukraine, rallying international support, especially among the NATO members, conducting an information war which is without precedent and which has been successful in countering Russian misinformation and worse.

The sanctions regime crafted by the Administration is also without precedent. The short term impact on Putin may be nil. The sanctions will not dissuade Russia from continuing military operations marked by violations of the laws of war and international humanitarian law. Nonetheless, they will extract a real price from Russia and the Russian people who, for the most part, seem unaware of what is being done by their government and who tend to support this “special military operation.”

The conduct of diplomacy in advancing the Administation’s policies has been excellent. Putin has already suffered a major defeat by causing the scales to drop from many European eyes and more than a few American ones. NATO, and particularly Germany, have reassessed and broken out of the self-deceiving assumptions about Russia, and, of course, about Putin. In the case of Germany, the credit for this change belongs to Putin, not Biden. While the direction has been the right one, the US pace has been excessively timid.

The challenge we face is that, however bravely the Ukrainians fight and there is no doubt on that score, on the current trajectory it is probable that the Ukrainian military will be crushed by the far greater force Russia brings to the war. Had we accelerated the supply of anti-tank weapons and not refused to supply anti-aircraft weapons until war was at hand, the outcome might be different. We still have refused to supply anti-ship missiles and advanced anti-aircraft missiles.

Now, there are not that many alternatives. The current issue is whether the US and our allies are prepared to mainly watch as Russia attempts the subjugation of Ukraine. Some will say that we have plans for supporting a continued resistance by the Ukrainians under what will certainly be an extraordinarily brutal Russian occupation. From a moral perspective, what the Ukrainians themselves choose to do should be almost determinative. I can recall in the 1950s that America encouraged Eastern Europeans to rise up against the Soviet occupation of their countries while we remained out of the fray when they did.

The A10 Warthog would have decimated the Russian column approaching Kyiv

But it is not clear that it is too late to provide Ukraine with much more effective options that would allow it to impose far higher costs on the Russian military and in the process strengthen its position for a negotiated settlement. Here is where the Administration has taken counsel of its fears rather than its creativity resolve. It is one thing to declare that we will not put “boots” on the ground in Ukraine while rejecting gray area tactics that have been used by the US in the past and which also have found favor with the Russians. For example, before the Russian invasion, the world saw the handiwork of “the little greenmen” (Russian special forces wearing non-descript uniforms absent national or unitinsignia) in Donbas. Similarly, Russian military contractors in Syria attacked US military personnel.

This journal does not have sufficient space to catalog all the covert Russian operations undertaken against us or our allies. Russian pilots flying MIG-15s with North Korean markings did their best to kill American pilots in that undeclared war. One should note that none of these events prompted a wider war.

We are not ourselves strangers to the game. Americans fought against Germany and Japan long before we officially entered the war. Army, Navy and Marine pilots “resigned” their commissions and formed the Flying Tigers that engaged the Japanese long before Admiral Nagumo’s ships set sail for Honolulu. It may not be too late to craft an effective plan to contest effectively Russian air superiority.

The proposal to transfer Russian aircraft from Poland to Ukraine via the US failed for reasons that have not been well explained and are suspect. There should be a way to accomplish this task. The Administration appears extremely risk adverse and fears further steps could risk a wider war. President Biden has declared that further action would(could?) be the start of World War III. This was a dramatic and perhaps foolish public statement offered as a justification for not doing more. But we need to step back and takea fresh look at where we are. World War III may already have started. Putin’s list of grievances extend beyond Ukraine and certainly implicate current NATO allies. The President has asserted that every inch of NATO territory will be defended. The expansion of NATO in violation of assurances made by Secretary James Baker to his Soviet counter part was arguably unwise, but it was done and there is no doubt regarding our Article 5 obligation.

The question now is whether it is in our interest to further reinforce the Ukrainians even if this means running a risk of wider conflict. If Putin means to move beyond Ukraine, better to stop him while Ukraine is in the fight. If the US is not prepared to do that, we should consider urging Ukrainians to accommodate themselves to Putin’s demands and wait for a better day. Which ever path we choose, we will need to substantially increase our own military capabilities for there is no reason to think that subjugating Ukraine constitutes the end of Putin’s objectives. Rather, it may well to reinforce his ambitions.