Panel: U.S. Needs ‘Actions with Backbone’ to Deter Russia From Invading Ukraine

January 18, 2022 6:25 PM
A Ukrainian Special Forces Soldier prepares for a mission with the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade and U.S. Army’s 10th Special Forces Group during Exercise Combined Resolve 16 in Hohenfels, Germany, Dec. 8, 2021. US Army Photo

Washington should not “cede the battlefield” to Moscow in resolving the crisis over Ukraine’s future, but instead signal to the Kremlin that any invasion will be met with “actions with backbone,” three international security experts said late last week.
Marshall Billingslea, a former top arms negotiator in the Trump administration, called for the “accelerated development of Army and Marine” intermediate-range missiles with basing plans in place for deployment in 2023 during a pre-recorded forum at the Hudson Institute that aired on Tuesday.

The idea is to “put credible threats back on the table.”

In early December, President Joe Biden said additional troops on the ground beyond the advisers already present is “off the table,” but promised stiff economic sanctions if Russia invaded Ukraine.

What’s needed now is to “somehow change Putin’s belief that Biden won’t stand up to Russia,” Billingslea said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Billingslea called the decision to take “boots on the ground” off the table “a completely unforced error.”

With 100,000 Russian troops with artillery and armor support already near Ukraine’s eastern border and more in Belarus participating in a joint military exercise there with the Belarussian military, William Schneider, a senior fellow at Hudson, said the “tactics [the Russians] are using are classic tactics of criminals … extortion.”

In this latest crisis, the Kremlin is constantly ratcheting up demands, including no further expansion of NATO into former Soviet Republics, like Ukraine, Schneider added.

Schneider countered that NATO “should be moving forces to the Suwalki Gap,” [a thin strip of land between Lithuania and Poland] instead of concentrating its forces to defend the Fulda Gap in Germany. This move could cause Russia to re-think its bullying tactics and gray zone actions, like last week’s cyber attack on Kyiv’s governmental functions. The Kremlin’s large naval base in Kaliningrad would potentially be vulnerable.

He added that Sweden and Finland have grown increasingly frustrated with Russia’s belligerence in dealing with its neighbors and its build-up of air, ground and naval forces in the north. They could add another complication to Kremlin planning, as Russia becomes more reliant on shipping along the Northern Sea Route and access to the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea as the crisis unfolds.

Looking at Kremlin vulnerabilities far from Europe, Bryan Clark, the director of Hudson’s center for defense concepts and technologies, said applying U.S. Cyber Command’s strategy of “persistent engagement” to other areas short of combat, to include electronic warfare to disrupt communications and cyber probes on its Far Eastern Forces, also would draw Moscow’s attention away from Europe.

Likewise, working with Japan to keep a sharp eye on what’s being shipped out of Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast back to Europe would apply new pressure on the Russian military’s plan to resupply and move forces from one region to another. Clark noted that Russia’s deteriorating rail system in its Far East makes maritime shipping more attractive.

Actions like that “would show Russia there are tools available to the U.S. short of war,” Clark said. He added those steps put meaning into the administration’s phrase “integrated deterrence,” which does include economic sanctions.

The three said what Ukraine needs immediately is anti-ship missiles from the United States or the United Kingdom, mines, and anti-armor weapons like the FGM-148 Javelin. Access to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets with U.S. assistance likely, from special forces, would help counter Russian ground forces and armor.

The Kremlin is “trying to make the perception [that the Black Sea] is a Russian lake,” Clark said. The ways Russia is showing that is its “episodic deployments” to the Black Sea. To threaten merchant ships and ward off naval vessels from other nations, Russia is arming new patrol craft with missiles.

Clark added that Romania and Bulgaria, both NATO members, “are probably our main avenues” to the Black Sea. To bolster their maritime effectiveness, he suggested sending necessary anti-ship cruise missiles and ISR assets for targeting to both countries.

Billingslea said Washington should be working with Turkey now to allow passage of additional U.S. warships from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea. While passage of merchant shipping through the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles is unrestricted, the 1936 Montreux Convention allows Turkey to control the movement of other nations’ naval vessels through the straits.

On the economic front, Billingslea added that “publicly laying out many, not all,” the targets of severe sanctions “might just give Putin pause” in invading Ukraine. While it would be “hugely helpful to have the European Union aboard” in applying those sanctions, he noted one nation’s objections could block any action. The U.K., now out of the EU and a global financial center, could be an effective partner with the U.S. in punishing Moscow economically.

“We’ve got opportunities; we’re just not exploiting them,” said Clark.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox