The United States and Europe have jumped through hoops for the last three months to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine. The threat of further sanctions on Russia and its oligarchs has not proven effective. As Russia’s ambassador to Sweden Viktor Tatarintsev so delicately put it, Putin “doesn’t give a s–t about the risk of Western sanctions if his country were to invade Ukraine.” Perhaps it’s time to stop talking and start deterring.
The United States, Europe, and NATO should pay attention to Tatarintsev. He is sending a message from the Kremlin. Economic pressure on Russia will not alter Putin’s goal to ensure that the NATO alliance not admit Ukraine. Historically, sanctions, no matter how draconian, fail when there are alternative economic options. As Tatarintsev mocked, “We are more self-sufficient and have been able to increase our exports. We have no Italian or Swiss cheese, but we’ve learned to make just as good Russian cheeses using Italian and Swiss recipes.”
NATO and the United States have not been able to force Putin to take into account the value of the “correlation of forces” (COF), a concept the former Soviet Union understood clearly. Simply put, COF compares military capabilities between two adversaries, estimating the outcome of a combat engagement, including the relative attrition of forces, and calculating losses in soldiers and equipment. When both sides believe the cost of such a battle is unacceptable, a state of mutual deterrence exists. Despite the 150,000 Russian soldiers and their equipment now positioned on Ukraine’s borders, NATO and the United States have failed to impress on Putin the considerable military prowess available to thwart his advance on Ukraine.
In a January press conference at the Pentagon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley provided an accounting of what the Russian military could face by confronting NATO countries. The inference was that a Kremlin invasion of Ukraine would quickly spill over and place at risk an alliance member.
In addition to Ukraine’s roughly 150,000 active-duty soldiers and many more in its reserve forces, “Ukraine has other units, and they maintain artillery, air defense, airfields, bases, depots, and they have a highly regarded Territorial Force and People’s Militia. Their combat capabilities have improved since 2014 when Russia annexed illegally Crimea,” Milley explained. The chairman described NATO’s capability should events demand it to engage. There are about “130-plus brigades of maneuver forces, not counting U.S. forces, 93 squadrons of high-end fighters, four carriers, and many more surface combatants. The military capability of NATO is very, very significant.”
As tensions on the Ukrainian border have increased, the phone calls between Putin and President Joe Biden have ramped up, the most recent on Feb. 12. Despite the flurry of conversations, Fox News reported, there has been “[n]o fundamental change” in Russia’s stance. A mere 6,000 U.S. troops dribbled out 3,000 at a time may not be that impressive to Moscow, with 150,000 of its combat-ready soldiers and equipment in position.
In the wake of fruitless negotiations and unimpressive threats of sanctions, the United States could resurrect an exercise like the Cold War-era REFORGER-87 (Return of Forces to Germany) that involved 124,800 participants. Such numbers would undoubtedly send a stronger message to Moscow. Invade Ukraine, and it will be prohibitively costly. Conventional deterrence has its uses.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
~ Read more from Dave Patterson.