If Russia Commits to a Minor Incursion of Ukraine, The West Will Be in a Bind

Short of a full-scale invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin might take less dramatic action in Ukraine, greatly complicating a response by the US and its allies. He may carry out a “small invasion,” like as a cyberattack, putting the US and Europe at odds over the sort and degree of economic penalties to impose on Moscow, as well as how to boost support for Kyiv.

When Biden said on Wednesday that retaliating for Russian actions in Ukraine would depend on the specifics, he garnered significant criticism. “It’s one thing if it’s a tiny intrusion, but then we wind up fighting over what to do and what not to do,” he explained.

On Thursday, Biden and other administration officials sought to clean up his remarks. “Any gathered Russian forces moving across the Ukrainian border is an invasion,” Biden said, adding that it would be punished with a “serious and organized economic retaliation.”

Even if the “minor incursion” remark was misinterpreted, it raised a potentially problematic issue: while the US and its allies agree on a strong response to a Russian invasion, it’s unclear how they would react to Russian aggression that falls short of that, such as a cyberattack or increased support for pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy was among those who expressed alarm about Biden’s statement regarding “small incursions.”

“We would want to remind the major powers that petty intrusions and little states do not exist.” He wrote, “Just as there are no little casualties and little pain at the loss of loved ones.”

Biden had made it obvious to Putin where and how to build a gap between the US and its European allies by utilizing only a part of the vast military force he has built along Ukraine’s borders to take limited action, according to the complaints. Although Russian officials have stated that they have no plans to invade Ukraine, the mobilization of a sizable battle force around its borders, estimated at 100,000 troops, has raised fears of a devastating ground war.

Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican and a key partner of Democrats on several issues, called Biden’s statement “very worrisome and dangerous.”

“A greenlight for Putin,” said California Republican Rep. Mike Garcia, one of many who used the phrase.

One option for limited Russian military action is for Putin to deploy much of the Russian ground army away from the border while bolstering rebels in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas area. In over eight years of combat, more than 14,000 people have been slain in this battle.

“Russia has a long history of utilizing techniques other than overt military action to carry out aggression,” Biden said on Thursday, referring to paramilitary tactics, so-called gray zone strikes, and activities by Russian soldiers not wearing Russian insignia.

European partners have mostly joined the US in insisting that Putin refrain from moving farther into Ukrainian territory and threatening a harsh response if he does. However, the allies do not appear to have reached an agreement on what political and financial sanctions to impose, or even what would spark a reaction.

Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, said “any kind of intervention into Ukraine on any scale whatsoever” would be a tragedy for Russia and the globe, but he didn’t say how the West would respond. “There is a package of international sanctions ready to go,” his defense minister, Ben Wallace, told Parliament, “that will ensure that the Russian government is punished if it crosses the line,” but he didn’t specify what that line was, other than warning against “any destabilizing action” by Russia in Ukraine.

When asked about Biden’s remark about a “small invasion” on Thursday, a French official said it didn’t change the “European agreement” that any fresh aggression on Ukrainian sovereignty would have “huge and grave consequences.” However, the diplomat did not clarify on those implications or what would constitute such an attack after meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and conferring with European peers on the Ukraine problem.

To explain his government’s position, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity.

After seizing control of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and supporting a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, Putin suffered very minor international repercussions. His main demand to the West is for NATO to promise that Ukraine would never be permitted to join the alliance, which Washington and its allies have flatly refused.

On Wednesday, Biden observed that coordinating a sanctions plan is complicated further by the fact that sanctions targeted at hurting Russian finance would have a severe impact on the US and European economy.

“As a result, I have to make sure that everyone is on the same page as we move forward,” he explained.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the leaders of a bipartisan congressional delegation that visited Ukraine last weekend, said she saw no signs of a rift with Europeans over how far Russia would have to go to elicit a response.

Seth Jones, a political scientist, and Philip Wasielewski, a former CIA paramilitary officer, suggested many plausible possibilities in their study of the Ukraine issue, short of an all-out Russian invasion. According to their research published last week for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, this might entail Putin putting conventional soldiers into the Donbas separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as “peacekeepers” and refusing to withdraw them until peace negotiations are successful.

“All alternative possibilities would result in substantial international penalties and economic hardship, and would be detrimental to the purpose of weakening NATO or detaching the US from its European security responsibilities,” they concluded.

Taking Ukrainian land as far west as the Dnieper River, which runs south through Kyiv to the Black Sea near the Crimean Peninsula, is one of the other choices. Putin may try to exploit the area as a negotiation chip or totally integrate it into the Russian Federation. Jones and Wasielewski collaborated on the project.

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