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New Atlanticist

February 24, 2022

Experts React: Russia has launched a war against Ukraine. How can the West fight back?

By Atlantic Council experts

With Russia launching a full-scale assault on Ukraine on Thursday, a major war has begun in Europe with sweeping global implications. Our experts are weighing in with their insights about where this conflict is headed next and how the West can respond. We will update this post as they react to the latest developments in this crisis.

Jump to an expert reaction

Barry Pavel: We are in a new era of sustained contestation between Russia and the West

Christopher Skaluba: The US and allies should be weighing their military options

Emma Ashford: Biden has few good options, but he must use diplomacy to keep this war from spiraling

Kelly A. Grieco: How Biden can avoid a wider war

Thomas S. Warrick: The US homeland will be a theater of operations in this war

Mark J. Massa: Time for the US to reinforce nuclear deterrence

Charles Lichfield: Can Russia’s central bank limit the economic damage?

Andrew L. Peek: History in Chechnya suggests Putin may go big to humiliate the US

Alex Plitsas: Russia is using a freshly sharpened skill set—information operations

Arun Iyer: Putin delivers a three-part wake-up call

Marc Polymeropoulos: The US can follow the 1980s Afghanistan playbook to back Ukraine

We are in a new era of sustained contestation between Russia and the West

When Russia launched a full-scale military assault across the border of Ukraine last evening, it wasn’t just an attack on Ukraine. The world has now entered a new and far more dangerous era of history. It will be a period of sustained contestation between Russia and the West. As expected, Putin is planning to forcibly take over all of Ukraine in the current operation. More broadly, he wants nothing less than to restore as much of the former Soviet dominion as possible by pushing as far west, north, and south with military measures, nuclear saber-rattling, and hybrid-warfare tools.

In order to counter this Russian triple threat, NATO will need to significantly ramp up its efforts in three core areas: 

1. Its conventional defense posture to deter attacks on and the coercion of its easternmost members. 

2. Its coordination with the European Union (EU) to counter intensified Russian hybrid-warfare efforts (intelligence, cyber, disinformation, etc.) and buttress resilience across members’ homelands. 

3. Its nuclear posture to help deter Russian aggression, as Russia now has conventional force superiority in Europe.

In this new era, intermittent crises will ebb and flow. That will be far more dangerous for our security. But as we have already seen, the new Russian menace to Europe will unify NATO allies and EU partners like never before, and in the end, Russian President Vladimir Putin will lose in the face of the West’s strength, unity, and resilience.

Barry Pavel is senior vice president and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

The US and allies should be weighing their military options

The aggregation of a nearly 200,000-person army on Ukraine’s borders had permanently changed the contours of European security—whether Russia carried through with an invasion or not. With the invasion now underway, however, the consequences of Russia’s actions are both more urgent and more profound. 

US President Joe Biden was right when he tweeted that “Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring.” But when the history of this tragic aggression is written, the abject failure of US policy towards Russia across multiple administrations will be a significant part of the story (and equally so for European policy failures). At every turn, often in service of the United States’ legitimate, if overdetermined, focus on China, Russia has been written off as a declining power that could not credibly challenge Western objectives. This assumption has blinded the US policy community to Putin’s ambition and capability, effected a distancing from NATO underpinned by a Pollyannaish belief that the burdens of European security and Russian deterrence could be offloaded to Europeans, and left the United States unprepared to deal effectively with the current crisis. 

As for navigating this perilous moment, the Biden administration and its allies in Europe have performed admirably in preemptively identifying the Kremlin’s intentions and calling out Russian belligerence. In doing so, any varnish of legitimacy for Russia’s clumsy false flags and pretexts has been exposed, leaving Moscow isolated politically. None of that has stopped the invasion, however. While Putin is speaking the language of martial power, the West is speaking the language of economic sanctions and light displays. Until this fundamental disparity changes, the Kremlin will control the agenda. Now that Putin’s intentions are clear, the West desperately needs to add more military options to its deterrence efforts. Putin is unlikely to stop until he is punched in the nose or thinks he will be. 

To that end, the United States and its European allies must ramp up efforts to help Ukraine defend itself, immediately providing whatever weapons, military advice, and intelligence they can muster to enable the Ukrainian resistance to exact a cost on the Russian military. NATO must deploy the NATO Response Force to reinforce the frontline states, both as a signal of agility and solidarity. And despite promises by Biden and other allied leaders to forego direct military intervention in the conflict, the United States and key allies should consider military options for degrading Russian air defenses and missile capabilities from the air, maritime, or cyber domains. Even the prospect of US or allied involvement might give Putin pause about the risk to his military and his chances of victory. In fact, Putin’s warning of “consequences you have never seen” for any foreign intervention—likely a thinly veiled threat for nuclear retaliation— suggests how much Putin fears Western capability.

Concerns about whether such action would escalate the crisis are valid, but the crisis is escalating significantly in any case. Add in that any objective analysis of Russia’s trajectory since its invasion of Georgia in 2008 must account for the possibility that Ukraine might just be a stop along the way to threatening NATO directly, and the time for more aggressive military signaling is now. Even standing firm on the increasingly dubious assumption that deterrence of aggression on NATO territory will hold, Putin’s “denazification” rhetoric is setting the stage for a campaign of indiscriminate carnage against Ukraine’s population such that calls for a Responsibility to Protect intervention are possible. Any atrocity is unconscionable. One that is telegraphed and on NATO’s direct border would be tragically fatal for NATO’s credibility.

Europe’s history reminds us that failure to confront a tyrant in the service of peace can lead to horrific, generational consequences. Whether this is one of those moments remains to be seen, but as it becomes clearer that valiant and vigorous attempts at diplomacy are falling on deaf ears in Moscow, the military dimensions of a response need urgent definition. 

Christopher Skaluba is the director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and the former principal director for European & NATO policy at the US Defense Department.

Biden has few good options, but he must use diplomacy to keep this war from spiraling

The extent to which events thus far in Ukraine are mirroring intelligence released by the United States and allied governments in recent weeks is notable. Based on that, we are liable to see a continued barrage of air attacks on military targets and airports, along with a coordinated push to trap the Ukrainian army in the east of the country. It is unlikely this fight will end well for Ukraine, whose armed forces are badly outgunned by invading Russian forces. 

There are few good options for Western policymakers. The Biden administration has wisely precluded the use of US forces in this conflict, and with it, hopefully the risk of military or nuclear escalation between the United States and Russia. But diplomacy is likely on hold for the moment, and sanctions—though they will be punitive—aren’t going to shift the course of the invasion. 

The administration should have three core objectives going forward. First, prevent the spillover of conflict from Ukraine into Europe more broadly, including managing refugee flows, and preventing any conflict escalation. Second, they must weigh the broader implications of the conflict for the future of European security. NATO will undoubtedly need to bolster its own permanent eastern military defenses; this is the time for European leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron, who has long suggested that Europe has the capacity for strategic autonomy, to match rhetoric with increased military commitments. Finally, a more militarized Europe that harkens back to the early days of the Cold War will also be dangerous; the administration should maintain diplomatic ties and think carefully about ways to mitigate the risks of conflict or nuclear brinkmanship.

Emma Ashford is a resident senior fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

How Biden can avoid a wider war

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has triggered the worst security crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Just as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo in July 1914 set off a chain of unpredictable and uncontrollable events that culminated in World War I, so the present crisis over Ukraine risks spreading and enveloping the United States and Europe in a wider war. Putin’s not-so-subtle threat of nuclear escalation, warning against Western interference, is a stark reminder of the dangers.  

The Biden administration should do three key things:

1. Resist the impulse to intervene. Harrowing images of Ukrainian suffering in the days and weeks ahead will stir public conscience, and the calls for Washington “to do something” militarily will understandably grow louder. But Western military aid, however well intentioned, is likely to do more harm than good. Given Russia’s considerable military advantages, even massive military aid would be insufficient to tilt the local balance of power in Ukraine’s favor. Paradoxically, the military aid meant to stop the killing and suffering would doubtless prolong it. It would also be a recipe for inadvertent escalation. The Russians might well target NATO’s supply corridors, Ukrainian fighters crossing into NATO borders, and any training bases inside NATO countries. It is easy to imagine how these events could spiral out of control. 

2.  Establish deconfliction mechanisms. With the United States and NATO deploying forces and equipment to NATO countries that border Ukraine and Russia, military accidents threaten to spiral into military conflict. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed contacts between NATO military commanders and their Russian counterparts. Eastern Europe’s congested airspace will increase air-to-air interactions and surface-to-air missile threats, increasing the risks of accidents that could set in motion an escalation spiral. If not already the case, the United States and NATO should stand up deconfliction coordination cells, like in Syria, to manage interactions with Russian forces and reduce the risks of accidental escalation.        

3. Take clear and predictable actions. Though it may seem paranoid to Western minds, Russian forces may fear a surprise attack from NATO. With Russian commanders conducting military operations under fluid and uncertain conditions, what Carl von Clausewitz called the “fog of war,” the chances of misperceptions and misunderstandings are high. In this dangerous environment, NATO should provide prenotification to the Russians of any large force movements. Both sides must avoid misunderstandings that could inadvertently set in motion a spiral that would turn the current crisis into a wider European war, as happened so tragically in 1914.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a brutal tragedy, and the impulse to alleviate human suffering and act is strong, but Washington would be well advised to consider the unintended consequences of action. 

Kelly A. Grieco is a resident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center’s New American Engagement Initiative.

The US homeland will be a theater of operations in this war

It’s going to be a long war, and the homeland will be a theater of operations—in both senses of the word “theater.” 

First, Putin has the tools of hybrid warfare at his disposal: disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, the weaponization of social media, and election manipulation. Up until now, those tools have not been life-or-death for Putin—but they are now. US-based social-media companies, essential businesses, and critical infrastructure are all now on the front lines. So, too, are the personal computers and cell phones of average Americans and Europeans, as they have become the preferred way Western publics get their news. 

Second, Putin wins if he weakens Western resolve by creating division within American and European societies. Expect some theatrical performances and amplification of dissident voices with the purpose of sowing division and dissention within Western society. The cohesion and societal resilience of the United States, in particular, is now more important than ever.

Thomas S. Warrick is a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Programs and the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice. Previously he was the deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at the US Department of Homeland Security.

Time for the US to reinforce nuclear deterrence

Putin’s dystopian speech early Thursday made one thing abundantly clear: To deter a Western response to his war of aggression on Ukraine, Russia is willing to threaten nuclear war. Putin’s threat of “consequences greater than any you have faced in history” is substantiated by Russia’s robust nuclear arsenal—which includes short-range, nuclear-capable weapons—and Russian nuclear drills this past weekend signal that the Kremlin is prepared to make nuclear threats. To be clear, Putin does not need to use nuclear weapons in his invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russian military doctrine emphasizes the possibility of early nuclear use, and the international community should expect him to continue making nuclear threats—emphasizing Russia’s nuclear potential—as a “keep out” sign to NATO. We could even see Russia flex its “exotic” nuclear weapons to ratchet up nuclear fears in NATO.

If Russian troops stop their advance and begin to consolidate their positions, Russia may issue nuclear threats to deter any Ukrainian counteroffensive. While unlikely, it is possible that an attack with conventionally armed missiles could be misinterpreted as an inbound Russian nuclear attack, as some of these so-called “dual capable” weapons can also carry nuclear warheads.

While the United States and NATO have taken steps to reinforce conventional forces on the Alliance’s eastern flank, nuclear efforts have been less robust. It is longstanding US policy to reserve the right to use nuclear weapons to defend against even a conventional attack on its treaty allies (a policy the Biden administration has reportedly been reconsidering). Beyond a handful of B-52 strategic bombers deployed to the United Kingdom, the F-15E, F-16C/D, and F-35A fighters forward deployed to Europe are capable of dropping the handful of US nuclear bombs permanently based in Europe. But most of the newly deployed warplanes are stationed further east than the bomb bases—these deployments are aimed primarily at conventional reinforcement.

So what’s next for nuclear deterrence in this crisis?

  1. The Biden administration can make a strong statement about extended nuclear deterrence in its forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review. US nuclear forces could also be taken to higher levels of alert, especially the bomber leg of the triad. The administration’s instinct to take strong action to defend allies may conflict here with Biden’s stated intent to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US national-security policy.
  1. NATO also needs to rethink its defense posture in light of what may end up being a permanent Russian military occupation of Belarus and Ukraine, where Russia may even station nuclear weapons in the future. This rethinking should include adjustments to nuclear posture, including potential further forward deployments of US nuclear weapons to the continent. This will likely prove controversial—the new German government strongly considered ending the deployment of US nuclear weapons on German soil altogether. So getting all thirty NATO nations (some of which have strong anti-nuclear political parties) on board with a strategy that embraces more nuclear weapons seems challenging—but less so today than last week.

Some are calling the Russian invasion a wake-up call for Europe. But the West also needs to wake up to the reality that nuclear weapons are not a relic of the Cold War and are in fact central to the most important security challenges of our time.

Mark J. Massa is an assistant director in the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice.

Can Russia’s central bank limit the economic damage?

Russia’s currency fell to a record low of 85.5 rubles to one US dollar Thursday morning in reaction to the fully fledged invasion of Ukraine.  

So far, this weakening of the ruble remains small compared to the 30 percent dive which the Russian stock market has already taken and to the two major depreciations Russia’s currency has experienced since the global financial crisis (25 percent in late 2008, more than 50 percent in late 2014). Both of these occurred as oil prices plummeted, the opposite of what is happening today.  

Still, markets are anticipating very robust packages of Western sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions, which may well reduce the flow of natural resources—Russia’s main source of dollar income. Asian, European, and US stocks have all fallen amid a high volume of trade.  

The Central Bank of Russia (CBR) has announced three measures to stabilize the situation in the domestic financial market: currency market interventions, widening the list of assets banks can use as collateral to borrow rubles, and further liquidity operations.  

Pegged exchange rates have not been part of the CBR’s core mandate since 2014. The tools it had at its disposal—including sizable foreign currency reserves built up when the bank was preventing currency appreciation—proved ineffective in preventing depreciation. Instead, the bank is now meant to focus on controlling inflation and merely use its currency-market interventions to smooth bumps in currency fluctuations.  

The CBR will not try to prevent a stronger depreciation should this become inescapable. It may attempt to limit exchange-rate pass-through inflation by temporarily increasing the key interest rate well above the 9.5 percent it is at today. It was pushed up to 17 percent when the euro-dollar peg was abandoned in 2014. 

Under discussion now in the United States is the possibility of sanctioning the CBR, but this is an extraordinarily complex and potentially costly step for the global economy that is not in the immediate plans. 

—Charles Lichfield is deputy director of the GeoEconomics Center.

History in Chechnya suggests Putin may go big to humiliate the US

It should have been apparent, with the televised humiliation of Sergei Naryshkin on February 21, that Russia was definitely going to war. Vladimir Putin’s casual humiliation of his Foreign Intelligence Service boss, one of the most powerful men in Russia, was a reminder that Putin’s regime is not just a masterful practitioner of gray-zone full-spectrum warfare and deception, but also in a real sense deeply sadistic. Putin enjoyed Naryshkin’s embarrassment. Putin enjoyed seeing him crawl. And at that moment it should have been clear that he would damn the consequences and enjoy humiliating the most powerful countries in the world as well. Even if it meant the mother of all sanctions, maximum pressure, or something worse.

Putin’s formative political experience as an executive was the second Chechen war. At that time there was speculation that Russia would stop at the Terek River in northern Chechnya, a more sympathetic and pro-Russian area than Grozny or the highlands, and that that would be a preferable way to deliver a lesson to Aslan Maskhadov’s government, rather than wading into the same kind of guerilla fighting that had cost former Russian President Boris Yeltsin badly four years earlier. It made sense, tactically and strategically, but it was completely wrong. Putin carried the war to a bitter conclusion and now Chechnya is again part of Russia.

This is also a lesson in just how obsolete our focus on hybrid war is. For four months the smart money arguably was either that Putin was bluffing, that he wanted a political guarantee of non-NATO-ization from the Ukrainians but without a war, or that he would relaunch an asymmetric conflict in eastern Ukraine until he got such a guarantee. Now the smart money arguably says that the Russians will stop short of swallowing all of Ukraine: They will take the Mariupol land bridge and more of Ukraine’s eastern salient, and maybe even Kyiv, but the fight will be more costly than the Russians can stand and not worth expanding further west. But those arguments were also true for Chechnya twenty years ago at the beginning of Putin’s career, and he foreswore them in favor of winning. And he did win, so the smart money now may be that he wants US humiliation above all.

Andrew L. Peek is a nonresident senior fellow at the Council’s Middle East Programs. He was previously the senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council.

Russia is using a freshly sharpened skill setinformation operations

Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine was built upon the playbook Putin executed and perfected in 2014 in what became a battlefield experiment in hybrid warfare with information operations as the main effort. 

As in 2014, Putin has utilized offensive information operations including both deception and influence to create a pretext for military action. Putin has continued to use defending the  Russian diaspora in Ukraine from non-existent anti-Russia Ukrainian “fascists” as a pretext.

Putin has reinforced this through staged “attacks” in poorly constructed videos. Metadata for many of these videos have revealed that they were filmed years ago and have nothing to do with the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Putin has also sought to portray Ukrainians as aggressors for both his domestic and international audiences.

In parallel, Putin has helped to prove-up separatist movements and governing bodies in majority ethnic Russian enclaves in Ukraine. When his forces were staged and ready to act, Putin had these separatist groups declare independence, and he then recognized them. He also had them call for Russian military support for protection.

In doing so, Putin created a pretext for Russian forces to invade a sovereign country seemingly at the invitation of local authorities. As such, his forces were able to enter and occupy these areas without much effort. In this case, information operations became the main effort supported by kinetic forces whose only job was to occupy territory he took over through exploitation of the information environment.  

While this is nearly identical to what he did in 2014, this time he has taken it a step further and has invaded additional areas of Ukraine with troops landing as far as Kyiv. Putin’s battlefield experiment in 2014 in Ukraine as well as efforts to influence the 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections allowed him and his national security apparatus to hone their information operations skill set to produce strategic effects with minimal combat operations. 

Failure to address Putin’s continued aggression and his belief that Western forces would not intervene in Ukraine led him to the decision to invade. He also made a strategic and calculated decision that his objectives in Ukraine outweighed whatever sanctions would subsequently be imposed on him by Western powers. So it begs the question—what will it take to walk Putin back and reestablish deterrence?—Alex Plitsas is a nonresident senior fellow with the Forward Defense practice at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Alex Plitsas is a nonresident senior fellow with the Forward Defense practice at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Putin delivers a three-part wake-up call

The last seventy-two hours have been a wake-up call for many worldwide, including some seasoned experts in the US national-security arena. Here are three areas to watch:

  1. The long-standing hybrid warfare “alarmists,” including myself, who have been aggressively pushing for more US effort in the gray zone have regrettably been vindicated. Vladimir Putin has waged hybrid warfare for more than a decade leading up to this moment, with no substantive response, and as a result he has been able to prepare the environment in Ukraine and to shape the behavior of NATO allies and the United States through economic, energy, and political warfare. As a result, he has been able to carry out brazen conventional and unconventional activities, with only nominal international resistance to date.
  2. Many in the global security community have previously assessed that Putin, even with his bluster and low-level malign activity, will ultimately behave like a rational actor. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine indicates most clearly that we can no longer rely on that assessment. This becomes exponentially troubling for a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with a considerable nuclear arsenal and demonstrated ill intent toward the United States and NATO. The Russians chairing a Security Council session about them destabilizing global security clearly meets the standard for theater of the absurd.
  3. China is getting a free no-risk war game at the expense of Ukraine, the United States, Europe, and Russia. This moment is as much about deterring China as it is about Ukraine or Russia, arguably moreso. The US and allied response to this situation must serve to dissuade aggression from China. Russia must sustain casualties, lose international prestige, and suffer economically in a very visible way. The United States must clearly demonstrate national will. Otherwise, this will only serve to embolden China.

Arun Iyer is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice.The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or any other US government agency.

The US can follow the 1980s Afghanistan playbook to back Ukraine

The United States now moves to a “right of boom” response phase, where it no doubt had policy options in place for “when” the Russians took concrete actions. Sanctions will be the primary tool. But there likely is more that will be out of the public view. That should include robust classic covert action (via the intelligence community), as well as irregular warfare (via US special operations forces), under separate US government authorities. The United States will advise, assist, train, and equip the Ukrainian military and intelligence organs as a main focus of this effort. The US government is far better at supporting insurgencies than in running counterinsurgency operations, so this is a plus. Think of the US government assistance to the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s as the model. I also believe there is bipartisan congressional support for such a mix of covert action and irregular warfare. Given the extent of US government interaction with the Ukrainian national-security establishment, both the infrastructure as well as the experience of our personnel is there to make a strong difference. Sending as many Russians home in body bags as possible, highlighting the cost of Putin’s folly, and increasing pressure on him from the Russian public and the military to withdraw will be the key measures of effectiveness in such a campaign.  

Marc Polymeropoulos is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice who served in the Central Intelligence Agency for twenty-six years.

Further reading

Related Experts: Barry Pavel, Christopher Skaluba, Emma Ashford, Thomas S. Warrick, Andrew L. Peek, Marc Polymeropoulos, Mark J. Massa, Arun Iyer, Kelly A. Grieco, and Alex Plitsas

Image: People take part in a protest against Russia's military operation in Ukraine in Times Square, in New York City, US on February 24, 2022. Photo via REUTERS/Jeenah Moon.