Barry R Posen is Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT, former Director of the MIT Security Studies Program, and serves on the Executive Committee of Seminar XXI. This article first appeared here.
As Moscow threatens Ukraine to convince the United States and its European partners to abandon their post-Cold War policy of institutional creep to Russia’s borders, the US foreign policy establishment has unleashed the (rhetorical) dogs of war. The joke among the troops of General George “Blood and Guts” Patton was, “yeah, his guts; our blood.” And just like Patton, some experts seem willing to fight to the last Ukrainian rather than give up the liberal hegemony project in Europe and treat Russia like a normal great power. Most great powers have a rule that they live by: political scientist Steve Van Evera calls it the NUPIMBY rule—no unfriendly powers in my backyard. The United States enforces this rule in its hemisphere; Russia is trying to establish it along its borders. An agreement among the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Ukraine itself that Ukraine would opt for neutrality rather than NATO membership would satisfy this principle, but so far Ukraine and its friends have rejected that solution.
Because President Biden explicitly has abjured any intention to send US forces to fight in Ukraine and virtually no one believes that the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian military could today mount a successful defense of the country, two nostrums have been commended by US experts. Both encourage the Ukrainians to fight the Russians, but have little likelihood of producing military success.
The first is the “panacea weapon” solution. Advocates recommend showering the Ukrainian military with person-portable, precision-guided, anti-tank (Javelin) and anti-aircraft (Stinger) weapons, though few say just how many of these expensive systems they would send. Given that Ukraine itself produces analogous weapons, it is surely the case that the Ukrainian army has trained some skilled operators, and could train more. The Javelin’s somewhat larger predecessor, the TOW, proved deadly in the hands of Syrian rebels versus Assad’s tanks. And early Stingers gave Afghan insurgents some leverage over Soviet attack helicopters. These are indeed excellent weapons.
That said, they are not magical weapons in the large scale, combined-arms, armored warfare that would likely characterize much if not most of the fighting in a Russian invasion. As demonstrated by the US in two wars in Iraq, and by the Russians in recent fighting in the Donbas, well-armed, well equipped, and determined attackers do everything they can to suppress infantry who may try to use these portable weapons. In particular, multiple rocket launchers firing large numbers of cluster munitions, with hundreds of bomblets per missile, supported by large amounts of more conventional artillery fire, make it quite challenging for missile gunners to engage the scores of armored fighting vehicles any one of them might encounter without getting killed.
The implication for a battle in Ukraine is that where Russian armored units wish to succeed, they will pour vast firepower on defending Ukrainian troops, and then try to overwhelm them with superior numbers. This is how the Soviets planned to fight NATO, and this is how the Russians would likely attack the Ukrainians. Javelins and Stingers can certainly make the Russians pay, because they are indeed great weapons, but they are unlikely to change the operational outcomes. Ukrainian units would no doubt fight bravely, but given the geography of the country, the open topography of much of its landscape, and the overall numerical superiority that Russia enjoys, it is unlikely that Ukraine will be able to defend itself successfully.
The second tool to shore up deterrence of a Russian attack is the threat to support a Ukrainian insurgency. Many Ukrainians are said to be rushing to the colors to demonstrate their willingness to defend the state. But insurgency is hard to organize and sustain in modern societies because the life of an insurgent is indescribably hard and an occupier can more readily monitor and control an urban than a rural population. The flat and open terrain in Ukraine is largely unfavorable to guerrilla warfare. This is particularly true in southeastern Ukraine, where Russian aggression seems most likely, given the lack of mountains, forests, or swamps for insurgents to use as base camps. Iraq did show that insurgencies can organize in urban and exurban environments, but it also showed that systematic repression can ultimately drive urban insurgents out of business. Counterinsurgency success depends greatly on intelligence. If the Russians were to confine their aggression to the area between their current bridgeheads in the Donbas and their 2014 conquest in Crimea, they may find a population that is more inclined to tolerate the occupation grudgingly than to fight it. There are many Russians and Russian speakers in this region, and though most would not welcome Russian troops, only a few need to prove cooperative for the Russians to collect sufficient intelligence to suppress urban insurgents.
Russian occupiers might face a greater challenge were they to cross the Dnepr and attempt to conquer all of Ukraine. There they would encounter Ukrainian nationals and nationalists likely to contest a Russian occupation; collaborators might be scarce. The terrain, however, is only marginally better for an insurgency. There are forests and bogs along much of the Belarusian border where insurgents might shelter. But those who argue that the West could easily support them are probably wrong. With Belarusian help the Russians could surround this region. Insurgents might survive, but what else could they do? The Carpathian Mountains could offer a haven along the borders with Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania—all NATO members. But insurgents in either stronghold probably could not strike widely or hard enough to eject the Russians from the rest of Ukraine. And if Russia puts troops on Ukraine’s borders, as they surely would, the West would be trying to support these insurgents with no direct undefended land route. To hold one open would require that the United States and its allies do what they manifestly do not wish to do—fight the Russians.
Advocates of arming the Ukrainians for a more robust conventional defense or for an insurgency implicitly acknowledge that US forces either should not, or for political reasons cannot, help Ukraine defend itself. The solutions they recommend are unlikely to result in an autonomous, robust Ukrainian defensive capacity. Instead, these solutions simply would enable some heroic Ukrainians to kill and die more effectively for their country, while offering the promise of false hope that the West will come to its aid. And if Ukrainians believe that, then they also will continue to believe that they don’t have to swallow the bitter pill of accepting armed neutrality between NATO and Russia, rather than NATO membership. Is opening the door to this kind of bloody, but ultimately unsuccessful defense, really more in NATO’s interest and more in Ukraine’s interest than cutting a deal?