An invasion of Ukraine by Russia would be disastrous, and a wider European conflict would be far worse. Whether or whether a broader conflict breaks out depends in part on President Vladimir Putin’s objectives, in part on the military response of the West, and in part on pure chance.
Despite the fact that US and European officials have been warning for days that a Russian invasion is coming, Putin’s administration officially welcomed more security discussions with the West on Tuesday. It also declared that some of its military stationed around Ukraine will return to their normal locations, despite the fact that US and other Western officials indicated it was too early to say if the threat of invasion had abated.
By its very nature, war is unpredictable, and the stakes are tremendous, not just for an outmatched Ukraine, but also for Europe and the US. The European security system, which was formed after World War II and later peacefully altered with the reunification of Germany, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the expansion of NATO, is undoubtedly under jeopardy.
President Joe Biden has stated that neither he nor America’s NATO partners will confront Russia in Ukraine. As a result, a Russian invasion would not necessarily lead to a larger conflict. However, if Putin expands his attack beyond Ukraine’s borders and into NATO territory, the US may be pushed into the conflict. This is because the North Atlantic Treaty requires Washington to defend its friends, some of whom believe they are Russian targets.
“Make no mistake about it. “Every inch of NATO territory will be defended with the full might of American strength,” Biden stated on Tuesday. “An attack on one NATO member country is an attack on us all.”
“We will respond firmly,” Biden warned if any American in Ukraine is targeted by Russia.
Aside from the improbable possibility of Putin purposefully expanding an assault beyond Ukraine, even a small conflict may grow due to an accident, a miscalculation, or a misunderstanding. Once the battle began, a stroke of bad luck may result in even more violence.
Even if Putin backs off in the next days and pursues a negotiated approach to his security objectives, the huge tension caused by his buildup of forces on Ukraine’s borders might have long-term consequences elsewhere in Europe. The Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, who were previously part of the Soviet Union, may argue for a larger and more permanent US military presence on NATO’s eastern front.
When US Military Secretary Lloyd Austin attends a two-day conference of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday, a wide range of alternatives for settling the Ukraine issue and managing relations with Russia will be discussed. Austin is also set to meet with his colleagues from the three Baltic republics in a combined meeting.
Biden has sent 5,000 additional troops to Europe, including a top Army general, to show the US’ commitment to eastern flank allies like Poland and Romania, who share Ukraine’s borders. Some of the additional soldiers are from an airborne infantry combat unit in southern Poland, not far from the Ukrainian border, where they are ready to temporarily shelter and aid citizens fleeing Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion.
Apart from the risk of an unintended or unanticipated incident along Ukraine’s western borders, the scope of Russia’s military buildup and its options for disrupting Ukrainian and Western communications open the door to an escalation that could include the US.
Two wild cards in the Ukraine crisis, according to James Stavridis, a former chief commander of NATO forces in Europe and a retired Navy admiral, are the possibility of escalation to cyberwar and the possibility of an unintended escalation in the Black Sea, where Ukraine’s small fleet is caught between Russia’s and NATO nations’ larger navies.
“A missile that goes astray and hits a non-combatant, such as a US ship,” Stavridis stated.
He thinks that any Russian attack on Ukraine would include cyber warfare, with the US and its allies working to safeguard the Ukrainian military’s capacity to communicate with and command field units, as well as the power grid and other civilian infrastructure.
“This may easily lead to Russian retribution in the cyber domain, swiftly and dangerously expanding the battle,” Stavridis added.
Biden alluded to a similar out-of-the-box threat. “We’re prepared to retaliate if Russia strikes the United States or our allies through asymmetric tactics, such as disruptive cyber assaults on our companies or essential infrastructure,” he added.
Unless Putin knew Biden would be hesitant to go to war to defend NATO partners, Jim Townsend, the Pentagon’s senior Europe and NATO policy officer during the Obama administration, saw little likelihood that Putin would deliberately expand an attack beyond Ukraine. He believes that an unforeseen event, such as a Western military plane being shot down near the border, is more possible.
“My greatest concern is that we will descend a dangerous path that no one desires,” he remarked.