How to win in Ukraine: pour it on, and don’t worry about escalation

How to win in Ukraine: pour it on, and don’t worry about escalation

Russia has gained on the battlefield in recent weeks, but Ukraine’s cause is far from hopeless. The United States and its allies can give Kyiv the training and technological advantage it needs, but the Biden administration has failed to provide the necessary U.S. military involvement for fears of Russia using nuclear weapons against Ukraine or taking action against U.S. forces. Such fears are overblown: such escalation would be dangerous and undesirable for Russia. The Biden administration should increase the intensity of its military activities and thereby enable a Ukrainian victory.

The administration’s caution was visible from the beginning of the war. The administration’s policy of no U.S. “boots on the ground” limits U.S. military presence to a few personnel attached to the embassy. The scope of U.S. weaponry provided to Ukraine has expanded, but only gradually: towed artillery was announced in April 2022, HIMARS wheeled rocket systems in June 2022, Patriot air defense in December 2022, ground combat vehicles in January 2023, cluster munitions in July 2023, and Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) ground-launched in April.

Russia has made threats to NATO to dissuade this support, but none have come to fruition. Indeed, there is good reason to think Russia has little intention to act on them. A larger war with the United States would pose tremendous risks to Russia. Russia’s repeated aggression against Ukraine while avoiding even limited strikes against U.S. or NATO targets suggests that it understands the seriousness of NATO’s defense commitments.

Similarly, using nuclear weapons against Ukraine, would pose grave costs to Russia, including the “catastrophic consequences” warned by U.S. officials. Russian nuclear use would also put at risk its relationships with China and India that are critical to mitigating sanctions, and incentivize Ukraine, Poland, or other Russian adversaries to seek to build up their nuclear arsenals.

Shifting U.S. policy in several areas would improve Ukraine’s military situation with minimal risk of Russian escalation. First, the United States could rescind its insistence that U.S.-provided munitions only be used on Ukrainian soil, and stop pressing Ukraine to refrain from attacks on Russian territory. Given that Ukraine suffers daily casualties from attacks on purely civilian targets, retaliation against Russian infrastructure is more than fair game and can help to even Ukraine’s odds by degrading Russia’s logistical capacity. Ukraine would bear the brunt of any Russian response, but Kyiv is prepared to take that risk.

Second, the United States could expand its visible U.S. military presence in Ukraine. Western advisors need to be in Ukraine to understand the status and needs of Ukraine’s forces to provide the necessary qualitative superiority. Increases in U.S. advisors or even trainers can be distinguished from any kind of combat role. If, tragically, U.S personnel were to be killed in a Russian attack, the Biden administration would have significant latitude to control its response.

Third, the United States should look to expand its operations in space and cyberspace in response Russia’s cyber attacks against U.S. space providers and jamming against NATO allies. In a recent RAND report on strategic stability in space, we argue that reversible actions like jamming are useful options for the United States because can signal to an adversary and provide an additional threat of punishment without increasing the scope of conflict. Given Russia’s use of space communications, for example, such actions also can have a temporary operational benefit. Russia could escalate with increased cyber attacks or other activities in response but would risk exposing their exploits and losing the opportunity to use such attacks in the future.

Additional U.S. action could also catalyze other allies to increase their support, as allies traditionally look to the United States for leadership. Germany would not provide Leopard tanks until the United States provided Abrams. Perhaps further U.S. support would lead to Germany to provide Taurus, its own long-range cruise missile. From a narrow U.S. perspective, greater U.S. involvement is an opportunity to test new capabilities and gain experience helping a partner facing a numerically superior foe. Such experience could be very relevant for helping Taiwan resist Chinese aggression.

To be sure, avoiding direct military conflict with Russia is of paramount interest. Caution must be exercised to avoid a slippery slope that leads U.S. forces into combat against Russia. The measures suggested above are not a call for the involvement of U.S. combat forces, but instead a means of incrementally stepping up U.S. policy on Ukraine. 

Russia cannot indefinitely sustain disproportionate losses in men and materiel. Removing constraints on U.S. assistance will enable Ukraine to attrit Russian forces and overcome its superior numbers, especially at a time when renewed Russian attacks are putting pressure on Ukraine. The United States and its allies should take advantage of Russia’s necessary restraint against NATO, and do more to help Ukraine defeat Russia. The Biden administration was understandably careful early in the war. There is now room for a far more intensive U.S. role.

Andrew Radin is a senior political scientist at RAND, a non-profit nonpartisan research institution. He is the co-lead author of the recently published RAND report “Strategic Stability in Space: Assessing U.S. Concepts and Approaches.”



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