There still may be no war. Perhaps some combination of a diplomatic breakthrough and threats from Ukraine’s allies will convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that invading Ukraine is either no longer necessary or not worth the price. Perhaps Putin has never intended to use these troops, and his buildup on Ukraine’s borders is just a bluff.
The coming weeks could see a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. If it comes to that — and even before it comes to that, if the situation continues to deteriorate — what options are on the table for the United States? President Joe Biden has ruled out deploying U.S. troops to Ukraine to fight the Russians, and few expect that stance to change. But it’s equally unlikely that the U.S. would just back away from what Biden and others have suggested could be the largest invasion of its kind since World War II.
The U.S. does have a range of options to respond to a Russian invasion — or to prepare for the possibility — but most of those options are likely to be limited in their effectiveness and carry significant risks.
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Sanctions: Tech, banking and Putin’s allies
The main U.S. policy response is likely to come in the form of economic punishment. The U.S. already has dozens of sanctions in place on Russian entities and individuals for activities ranging from the 2014 annexation of Crimea, to Russia’s military intervention in Syria, to human rights abuses. But there are other targets available, including Russia’s state-owned banks, much of its energy industry, and its mining and metals sector.
Another dramatic step the administration is contemplating would hurt the Russian consumer in a tangible way: applying controls on exports of U.S. technology to Russia. In practice, the impact would be sweeping: Beyond direct U.S. exports, if a company is manufacturing smartphones in South Korea and Taiwan, and using any American components — say, Qualcomm semiconductors or Corning glass screens — they would not be able to sell those phones in Russia without a license. The Trump administration used export controls like these to target the Chinese tech giant Huawei, but applying them to an entire country would represent is a dramatic escalation.
Another step that would have significant effects: banning Russian banks from SWIFT, the communications network through which financial institutions conduct global payments and other financial transactions. SWIFT is a major engine of the global economy; more than half the world’s high-value cross-border financial transactions use the network. This is what the U.S. did to Iran in 2012. As another means of cutting Russian financial institutions off from the global economy, Biden has also threatened to block Russian banks’ payments from being converted into dollars, the currency of choice for most financial transactions around the world.
Meanwhile, Putin’s opponents, such as the jailed dissident Alexei Navalny, have long called for the U.S. to apply targeted sanctions to senior Russian oligarchs and officials — the people Putin relies on to keep power. Biden has also said that personal sanctions on Putin himself are not off the table, a step that would put the Russian president in a rogues’ gallery of global leaders who have been sanctioned by the U.S. — a group that includes Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe and Slobodan Milosevic.
The cumulative impact of these sanctions would likely run in the billions of dollars — but would any of them modify Russia’s behavior? Adam Smith, an attorney specializing in sanctions compliance and a former Treasury Department senior adviser, is skeptical. “I think they’re significantly better positioned than they were in 2014, when Russia was in a much more perilous position, geopolitically and economically,” he told Grid.
This isn’t just because Russia’s economy and military are in a stronger position than they were eight years ago. The Russian government has also taken specific steps to sanction-proof its economy, including building one of the world’s largest foreign-exchange reserves and developing its own alternative to SWIFT. Russia’s increasing reliance on trade with China also makes it less vulnerable than it once was to Western trade sanctions. And any Russian oligarch worth his salt has no doubt stashed assets outside the reach of U.S. authorities.
This isn’t to say that these measures won’t have a profound impact on Russian companies and ordinary citizens. But if Putin gets to the point where he’s willing to take such drastic military action, he will almost certainly have priced sanctions into the equation.
Military aid: Now — and in the event of war
If the invasion happens, and if it results in a protracted conflict, a lot more of what is euphemistically called “lethal aid” will likely follow, with an emphasis on anti-tank weapons, air defense systems, small arms, medical equipment and spare parts. The U.S. might also provide intelligence support and targeting assistance to Ukrainian forces.
Unmanned aerial drones will almost certainly play a significant role in any conflict — both for reconnaissance and the targeting of enemy positions. (The remarkably effective use of drones by Azerbaijan against Armenia in last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh war may have been something of a preview.) Ukraine has lately been stockpiling Turkish drones, which it has used effectively against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
But fighting the Russian military itself presents another level of challenge. “You’re going to be dealing with the Russian forces that have layered air defenses and very sophisticated electronic warfare capabilities that can mess with the communications and the command and control of these drones,” Margarita Konaev, a research fellow focused on Russian military technology at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, told Grid. For this reason, Konaev sees drone-related electronic warfare capabilities as a key area for U.S. assistance.
Even if U.S. troops aren’t taking part in combat, there may be Americans on the ground. U.S. special operations forces and CIA paramilitaries have been training Ukrainian special forces in the U.S. and in Ukraine for years, and there’s likely to be more covert assistance and training if the war turns into an “insurgency” against Russian occupiers.
U.S. troops to Europe
When the Biden administration says no troops to Ukraine, that doesn’t mean no troops in support of Ukraine. Some 8,500 U.S. troops have been put on high alert for possible deployment to Ukraine’s neighbors and the Baltic states if the situation in Ukraine deteriorates further. As Biden put it, “We’re going to actually increase troop presence in Poland, in Romania, et cetera, if in fact [Putin] moves.” Most of these troops would be sent to bolster the existing NATO Response Force, a 40,000-member multinational contingent intended to respond quickly to emergencies.
These troops could support Ukrainian forces (the U.S. Air Force is already flying reconnaissance missions over eastern Ukraine) and bolster the security of NATO allies in the region. Perhaps as important — symbolically at least — such deployments would be a clear rebuke to one of Russia’s core goals in this conflict — namely, the removal of NATO troops from the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe.
There are risks to the further militarization of this region: NATO scrambled jets hundreds of times during 2021 in response to Russian military flights. A disputed incident involving a British warship passing close to Russian-occupied Crimea in the Black Sea last summer may have been one of the precipitating incidents behind Russia’s current military buildup. The chances of misunderstanding and flare-ups will multiply.
The energy war
If Russia goes to war, its pipelines into Europe may prove as valuable as its tanks or planes. The European Union imports 41 percent of its natural gas and 27 percent of its oil from Russia. Particularly in the dead of winter, this leverage limits just how aggressively Western countries would be willing to target Russia’s all-important energy sector. (At a time of high gas prices and low approval ratings, it may limit just how aggressive Biden is willing to be as well.)
Still, the U.S. is making preparations to fight back in the energy wars. A wide-ranging sanctions bill drafted by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), reportedly backed by the Biden administration, would slap sanctions on Nord Stream 2, a controversial pipeline under the Baltic Sea owned by Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom. If switched on, Nord Stream 2 would double Russian gas exports to Germany. The proposed U.S. sanctions would come into effect if Russian invaded; the Biden administration has pushed back against Republican efforts to immediately sanction the pipeline over the past year. “I want to be very clear: If Russia invades Ukraine one way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said this week. While the German government has been reluctant to play politics with the pipeline in the past, Germany’s foreign minister said Thursday that shutting the pipeline could be part of the “broad bandwidth of responses at our disposal.”
The Biden administration is also discussing plans to provide gas to Europe should Russia reduce or completely cut off supplies. This was reportedly the subject of a White House meeting with the emir of Qatar on Monday.
A war in Ukraine is likely to see a return of high drama to the United Nations. As International Crisis Group’s U.N. director, Richard Gowan, writes, the goal of the U.S. and its allies “will not be to stop the conflict — which will require negotiations far away from New York — but to shame Moscow.” The Russians may also be keen to use the U.N. Security Council, where they will hold the rotating presidency in February, to sell their own narrative on the conflict.
The U.S. could table a resolution at the Security Council condemning Russia’s actions, which Russia — a permanent member of the council — would naturally veto. It’s then likely to turn to the U.N. General Assembly, where Russia does not hold veto power and where every country gets a vote. In 2014, a Ukrainian resolution backed by the U.S. condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea passed in the chamber with 100 votes in favor, 11 against and 58 abstentions. In addition to a PR victory, another U.S. goal at the U.N., according to reporting by Foreign Policy, would be to drive a wedge between Russia and its ally, China, which has been one of the council’s staunchest proponents of defending the territorial sovereignty of U.N. member states.
It may not hearken back to the U.N. drama of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, but expect heated, high-profile, public debates between U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield and her Russian counterpart, Vassily Nebenzia.
Lastly, a helping hand. Konaev says that in addition to military assistance, the U.S. and its allies should be preparing to deliver humanitarian aid: food, water, medicine, gas masks and more. Nongovernmental organizations and governments may also have to contend with a new refugee crisis in both western Ukraine, where fighting is likely to be less severe, and in neighboring countries. Some 1.5 million people have already been internally displaced in Ukraine since the 2014 conflict. In the event of a full-scale Russian invasion, the violence is likely to be far more intense, particularly in the event of a long war involving urban combat.
All the above measures are part of what some have termed a “porcupine” strategy for Ukraine: As in, there’s no way Ukraine can defeat Russia in a head-to-head military contest, but the prospect of conflict can be made too difficult and unappetizing to swallow. The thing is, if the Kremlin is not deterred and invades Ukraine anyway, the essence of the porcupine strategy — setting the stage for a long and costly quagmire, in which Russian invaders are bogged down against an internationally backed insurgency — will wind up making things miserable for those living near the front lines. The United States needs to be prepared for those consequences as well.