In the rather prescient 1998 film The Siege, CIA agent Elise Craft (Annette Benning) – speaking about counter-terrorism – lectures her FBI colleague Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington) that: "In this game, the most committed wins." Well, that truism couldn’t apply better to the current situation in Ukraine, and the very real – if generally misunderstood – possibility of armed conflict between Russia and the US/NATO. To wit, there is an enormous and decisive gap – Biden and media rhetoric aside – between Moscow’s intensive, and Washington’s/Brussel’s minimal, commitment regarding Ukraine and the east end of Eastern Europe writ large.
In other words, Russia has demonstrated a will, and deployed military capacity, to win – and win fast – if this thing goes hot, that America and its divided, and oft-impotent, NATO allies simply can’t match. Therefore, the West would lose – full stop – to say nothing of the reality that it shouldn’t even consider fighting in the first place. That makes the whole matter pure madness, and the fact that Biden and Blinken won’t admit this inconvenient truth, well, blatantly criminal.
See, first off, without delving too deeply into this subject – which Scott Horton and this author have covered extensively – it bears mentioning that the US is at least as responsible for the current crisis as ole Vlad Putin. It is cold and well-worn story, even if it somehow hasn’t caught on in mainstream media or among average (kept-ignorant-by-design) Americans. While Moscow hasn’t exactly been innocent every step of the way, the U.S.-NATO track record of deceit and provocation has been a long and nefarious one ever since the last pieces of the Berlin Wall crumbled.
The highlights include: expanding the distinctly anti-Russian NATO alliance eastward – in contravention of verbal promises – since the mid-1990s, eventually reaching Moscow’s very borders, including the former Soviet Baltic republics; unilaterally bombing Russia’s ally, Slavic Serbia, and recognizing not-so-liberal Kosovo’s independence; fostering various “color revolutions” in formerly Soviet states that often resemble regime change coups rather than democracy promotion; arming, training, and disingenuously hinting at support for an unhinged President Saakashvili, who single-handedly started the 2008 Russo-Georgian War (which even an EU investigation concluded), then blaming the thing on Moscow. And truthfully, that ain’t the half of it.
Nonetheless, here we are in the world as it is – even if Washington largely made it so – seemingly on the brink of crisis, with more than 100,000 Russian troops poised on three sides of Ukraine, all diplomatic efforts thus far failing, 8,500 US troops now placed on "high alert” for possible deployment, and NATO streaming more ships and fighter planes to the region. Look, no one – neither pundits, politicians, nor the Pentagon – really knows whether Putin will invade Ukraine, or if so with what objectives or level of intensity. They just don’t, and neither do I. What is almost certain is that the U.S.-NATO block – which our obtuse, orientalist "experts" and policymakers just love to call "The West" – lacks the necessary unity, urgency, capacity, or will to win a war that shouldn’t be fought…but frankly might.
Let us begin with the lethal bit of lunacy: the undeniable and immutable military mismatch – particularly in the early weeks or months of combat (which may be all it takes for Ukraine to disintegrate) – between U.S.-NATO and Russian forces in far Eastern Europe. On the ground, where the rubber (tank-tread) meets the road, Moscow has mustered far more troops – with crucial advantages in artillery and armor in particular – and is far more prepared and willing to fight.
NATO, on the other hand, would likely take some six-to-nine months to mobilize just 30,000 military personnel in the region. Worse yet, the US currently maintains just one rotational heavy (armored/mechanized infantry) brigade, plus a permanent wheeled cavalry regiment and artillery brigade in Europe. Assuming Biden’s promised 8,500 reinforcements – only some of whom would be combat soldiers – could arrive in time, that’s at best 20,000 infantrymen, tankers, scouts, and artilleryman to Uncle Sam’s name. None of us should like those odds.
If one points out this profound military mismatch in Washington or on a primetime cable news program, the ready establishment response is – as always – "sanctions!" Only such American economic pressure – as plenty of even traditionally conservative reports illustrate – are rarely effective. This has, and likely will, be especially true when wielded against Russia – which has weathered "severe" sanctions since at least 2014, barely batting a geopolitical eye. Besides, Moscow holds some serious sanction-survival cards, such as a less politically responsive electorate, significant foreign exchange reserves, and the potential energy chokehold of European (meaning much of NATO) reliance on Russian natural gas. That last bit fuels – no pun intended – another factor diminishing NATO’s commitment for real war: European disunity.
Militarily speaking, the Russian Federation fields a centralized, coherent force that answers to a single national leadership (or perhaps one man). NATO, it’s important to remember, is a hodgepodge of 30 odd countries, with different cultures, native languages, priorities, economic situations, and – critically – generally paltry, underfunded armed forces. In other words, beyond being untested – even once – in a conventional land war, the whole alliance is a mess, if not a mirage.
Only the disunity goes further, tacking towards decidedly uneven commitments to the American party-line on Ukraine. Already, in a reprise of the 2003 Iraq War, Germany and France – arguably two of the most powerful ground forces in NATO (outside the US) – are wavering and seemingly seeking de-escalation. Berlin still refuses to ship any weapons to Ukraine, and recently the German Navy’s top admiral had to resign after he embarrassingly – if somewhat accurately – stated publicly that talk of a Russian invasion was "nonsense" and Moscow merely seeks "respect" for its legitimate security concerns.
Then there’s the issue of American domestic trends – primarily, public support. As of January 21, polls showed that fewer than one-in-six Americans support the use of US soldiers in any Ukraine-Russia War. Furthermore, a range of surveys demonstrate that, in a broader sense, the public prefers diplomacy over war in Ukraine. Plus, widening the lens further still, a September 2021 Eurasia Group report titled, "Inflection Point: Americans’ Foreign Policy Views After Afghanistan," indicated that only about half of Americans would support US military action even if Moscow invaded an actual NATO ally (which, to be clear – once again – Ukraine is absolutely not).
As any military historian – and even more so a veteran practitioner/participant – can tell you, combat victory hinges on far more than troop numbers, technological sophistication, or even rear echelon logistics (an area where sheer distance – call it the revenge of geography – ensures America faces perhaps its most decisive disadvantage). Battles, campaigns, and even entire wars often turn on intangibles such as momentum, morale, and will. Mark my words, even if they’re a touch troubling: in any shooting war over Ukraine, the United States will be found wanting – weaker and exposed in each of these areas.
That’s because American mothers, fathers, and spouses – rightfully – won’t be willing to sign-up, ship-off, and possibly sacrifice sons, daughters, husbands, and wives, in the requisite numbers, to defend distant countries they can’t locate on a map and which they sense (rightfully, again) aren’t vital to national security. Whether politicians would risk the electoral fallout anyway remains a more open question, but the real rub is this – if some sort of Russo-American War does come, the blood-burden and sting of defeat will fall on our tiny Army-Marine Corps cohort of volunteers. Once again; and for shame!
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that there is a moral – or rather immoral – component to the Biden administration’s pronouncements, policy, and posture. It is no small sin to fan the flames of conflict (including with around 150 USmilitary advisors and several hundred tons of new weapons shipments), write promissory checks – to vague and weaker partners – that one can’t, and has no intention to cash, then almost inevitably leave them in the lurch. Just ask Georgia, the ex-government in Kabul, and a slew of other oft-problematic abandoned "allies." Yet it’s an even more wicked misdeed to risk a major – and inevitably blood-soaked – regional or potentially nuclear war in the saber-rattling process. (PS: it’s worth quick a admission that many of the "pro-Western" elements supporting Washington’s "partners" in Kiev are nothing short of Nazi-sympathizing neo-fascists…oops!)
The seriously sick part is that – deep down – Joe Biden seems to know all of this, or at least the impossibility of the U.S.-NATO situation (I’ll let a psychologist guess about the ethical elements). For example, President Biden sounds something less than presidential – if far more realistic – when he offers wishy-washy, flip-flopping recent statements that swing from the bombastic "[Putin] will be held accountable" and will "never have seen sanctions like the ones I promised will be imposed," to the hedging "It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not do." That’s a far cry from Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s repeated threats of "massive consequences" if Russia invades Ukraine. It seems the Biden administration is nearly as internally inconsistent and disunited as the NATO alliance itself – which hardly bodes well when the US Army’s own field manual lists "unity of command" as one of the nine principles of war.
Bottom line: it’s long past time to admit some hard truths about the Ukrainian crisis. America shouldn’t fight for this far flung, internally-divided, non-treaty ally that’s – like it or not – nestled deep in the Russian sphere of decisive interest; nor could NATO truly win if it tried. Pretending we would or could is a recipe for disaster.
So here’s a thought, for once: maybe the Biden – or any administration charged with national security and the lives of American sons and daughters – should be honest with the people they ostensibly represent. But don’t hold your breath…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, the director of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught history at West Point. He is the author of three books, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, and most recently A True History of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2021 Danny Sjursen