By Thomas Neuburger
What could the U.S. do to defend Ukraine militarily?
The answer is, almost nothing. What could it do to itself in the process? Quite a lot of damage.
Consider this examination from Scott Ritter, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer and UN weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991-1998:
The Pentagon is in the process of preparing options for President Joe Biden regarding the deployment of US forces into NATO’s eastern flank to seek to deter Russia from acting against Ukraine, or threatening NATO’s easternmost members of Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.
Some 8,500 US troops have been put on standby to be prepared to deploy to Europe on short notice. These are the US contingent of the NATO Response Force, a multinational, 40,000-troop unit tasked with responding to aggression against member countries.
If the US wanted to do more, it could deploy a few squadrons of US Air Force fighters, along with another heavy armored brigade, whose equipment is prepositioned in Poland, and some support troops. It could also send 3,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division, which is tasked to “respond to crisis contingencies anywhere in the world within 18 hours.”
All these troops, however, even if assembled in aggregate, could not stand up to a potential Russian adversary, for the simple fact that none of these forces have trained to fight a modern combined arms conflict against a peer-level opponent. Putting troops and equipment on a battlefield is the easy part; having them perform to standard is harder, and having them execute doctrine that is no longer in vogue is impossible.
Joe Biden might think he’s flexing hard with this talk of military power projection. All he is doing, however, is further underscoring the absolute dismal state of combat readiness that the US military finds itself in after 20 years of low-intensity conflict in a losing cause.
The time to have deployed 50,000 troops to Europe was in 2008, after the Russian-Georgian War, or 2014, after the Crimea crisis. Having 50,000 well-armed US troops refocused on the difficult task of fighting a sustained ground conflict in Europe might have forced Russia to reconsider its options. By considering this option now, all Biden is doing is proving the point that the US is a failing superpower, and NATO is lacking both purpose and drive.
Calling the U.S. military force in Europe a "shadow of its former self," Ritter notes that what was available to the U.S. in Europe in 1990 was "213,000 combat-ready forces" in US Army in Europe (USAREUR), with "a total combat capacity" — all forces available for deployment — "of over 550,000 troops."
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the core U.S. force in Europe, USAREUR, was reduced to about 62,000 soldiers. The reduction in force of key NATO allies — Germany, the UK and others — followed a similar trajectory.
The Pretense of Power
Bottom line is this: The U.S. and its "allies" would lose a war with Russia over Ukraine:
Without projecting Russian intent, the reality is that the Russian military buildup in its western and southern military districts, when combined with the deployment of mobile forces in Belarus, represent a military power projection capability that is not only more than capable of defeating Ukraine, but also NATO forces currently deployed on its eastern flank. The chances of such an all-out conventional-style war may be extremely slim, but there is no doubting who holds the advantage here.
In other words, what the U.S. has available to it, in Ritter's words, is "the pretense of power" and not power itself.
What could the U.S. lose if Russia picks up the gauntlet Biden is throwing down? It could lose that pretense and be exposed for what it is, a bully fit only for beating its lesser victims.
If the U.S. keeps posturing, it's up to Putin alone to decide whether to expose our weaknesses. If he doesn't, it may be an act of mercy.