Reuel Marc Gerecht
If the West isn’t willing to watch Vladimir Putin win in Ukraine yet also aren’t willing to intervene directly to stop him, then they will likely need to devise extensive clandestine means to supply a nationwide insurgency.
So far, the West has had it easy.
With little planning or concern about Russian attacks, the Europeans and Americans have moved a lot of weaponry over the borders. The Russian advance has been ill-planned, poorly executed, and costly in materiel, soldiers, and surrounding civilian populations. Put another way, it has been more or less a typical Russian military campaign. Putin’s army may soon unravel. Its logistical lameness and ineptitude with combined-arms action have been stunning even for those who suspected that Moscow’s revamped, “professional” military wasn’t even close to U.S. standards. But Russian commanders will learn from their mistakes.
With heavy artillery and missiles clearing the way, they may grind forward. Russia’s formidable helicopter gunships, which almost neutralized the Afghan resistance, could become decisive quickly if the Ukrainians lack the means to shoot them down. The Russians could leave Kyiv surrounded and attack western Ukraine in massed numbers. In a long war, the delivery of military supplies and humanitarian aid could become vastly more difficult. A sensible American strategist would assume the worst-case scenario.
Are the CIA and the Pentagon ready for an unrelenting Russian advance?
Beyond the enormous covert task that would be required, the U.S. would need to position forces at the Polish and Romanian borders, the key staging grounds for clandestine routes, in case Russian planes, cruise missiles, or drones cross the border. On occasion, the Red Army blew up depots in Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan war. U.S. forces will be essential to convince Putin that any attack on the Poles or Romanians will be treated as an attack on Americans — the sine qua non for effective deterrence. It’s been a while since the CIA undertook such a massive “covert” effort.
During the Soviet-Afghan war, most of the heavy lifting was done by the Pakistani army and the Afghan Mujahideen. A similar situation would happen with Ukraine, where the Ukrainian army or insurgents, if the army’s command structure collapses, would have to do the most dangerous work getting arms and humanitarian aid where it’s needed. The serious difficulties the Ukrainian forces have had in receiving targeting intelligence from the West will surely get worse if the Russians slowly crush larger units of the Ukrainian army. Ukrainian insurgents may well need lots of secure, high-speed devices that can communicate with Western intelligence services. Devices that aren’t compromising when they fall into Russian hands. We might also discover that Ukrainian units could operate more lethally and efficiently if they had European or American paramilitary intelligence officers embedded with them. Their capture is highly unlikely to provoke a wider war; are we prepared to deploy them if the Russians envelop most of the country?
If most of Ukraine is in rubble, if millions more have fled west, what happens then? The pressure in the West will surely grow on both the Left and Right for concessions to Putin. The French and the Germans, who have complicated and conflicted histories with Moscow, will likely be the first Europeans to pressure Kyiv to give up more ground to permanent Russian control as a means to stop the war. It will take resolve in the West to withstand the humanitarian ceasefire appeals, made by well-meaning Westerners and Russian propaganda, to ensure that Putin sustains a mortal battlefield defeat. It’s one thing to realize that no more “resets” are possible with this dictator; it’s another to realize that the only Western objective should be his fall.
A wounded Putin will undoubtedly seek revenge. As important, Xi Jinping needs to see that adventurism can topple autocracy. The Chinese overlord so far hasn’t broken significantly with Moscow. The cost to the U.S. for supporting Ukraine will be peanuts compared to what would happen if Xi made a move on Taiwan. If we don’t have the courage to support the Ukrainians, who are the ones dying, and our democratic European allies, to whom we are intimately intertwined, we won’t defend a much more distant Taiwan.
There never has been a plausible pivot to Asia. The two-war doctrine that dominated American thinking throughout the Cold War realistically assessed the threats in both Europe and the Far East. That assessment is no less true today: Fascist China is vastly more powerful and potentially aggressive than its communist predecessor; Putin’s revanchism has led to major war in Europe.
To avoid even worse, the White House should tell the CIA to start mapping out every conceivable way to bring lethal aid to Ukrainians, wherever they are fighting.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former case officer in the CIA, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @ReuelMGerecht. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.