What Can the U.S. Do If Russia Attacks Ukraine?
by Joe Pappalardo - March 14, 2014
by Joe Pappalardo - March 14, 2014
U.S. and Ukrainian special operations forces climb into a rigid hull inflatable boat from the ROS Midia (LSNS 283) as a part of Exercise Jackal Stone 2011, on Sept. 14, 2011, in Romania.
U.S. Navy photo by MJC1 Kim McLendon
If there is a war in the Ukraine next week—an unthinkable scenario just a few months ago, but now a frightening possibility with Russian forces massing on the border and a contentious independence vote in Crimea looming—what could the United States do about it? If Russia or Ukrainian forces clash, direct NATO or American intervention would be risky, and highly unlikely. Could the West still assist Ukraine without sending in its own warplanes or armored columns? Here are three options that don't widen the conflict—or spark World War III.
The United States is already providing military rations to the Ukrainian military, a symbolic show of support that could accelerate. The Ukrainian government in Kiev has asked for military items and intelligence, but the United States has so far refused to provide it, according to the Wall Street Journal. "It's not a forever 'no,' it's a 'no for now,'" a senior U.S. official told the newspaper.
Items on Ukraine's military wish list reportedly include communications gear, ammunition, aviation fuel, and night-vision goggles. But the biggest support would be intelligence assets, including imagery from satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles. There would also be a premium on intercepted communications, or signals intelligence, from the Russian side. Knowing where to deploy to counter an attack is a vital edge in any defensive fight when the defenders are outnumbered. Russian paratroopers could launch an unexpected attack if not spotted ahead of time—or they could be massacred if the surprise is foiled. That's how intercepted radio communications become lethal aid.
Russia would decry the shipment of lethal aid, but would not disrupt the shipments militarily. They could respond with economic warfare (shutting off gas supplies to Europe) but that's likely to happen during a conflict anyway.
Deploy Special Operations Units
Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, the Special Operations Command commander, has discussed in public his dream of a network of special operations forces from various nations, ready to work together in an emergency. If Russia moves deeper into the Ukraine, could this network be activated?
The Ukrainian Special Forces took part in U.S. and European Special Forces exercises in 2010 and 2011, but then stopped coming. Other former Soviet states—Poland, Romania, Hungary—still attended. These exercises, called Jackal Stone, were meant to create bonds and partnerships between spec ops professionals so they can better coordinate during future operations. But the scenarios they practiced were against imaginary insurgents, so would they be of any use in a fight with Russia?
In 2012, Popular Mechanics attended live-fire training with a Special Operations A-Team preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. "We are trained to be guerrillas," a SpecOps major told us then. "Who'd be better at being counter-guerrillas?" It was a vivid reminder that these units are trained to be placed behind enemy lines to harass foes. The Pentagon calls them force multipliers for a reason. "Every guy [in his 12-man team] is expected to lead one company-size element, up to 100 guys," the major said. "I'm supposed to lead a battalion, or 600 guys."
Imagine several A teams, from Turkey, Poland, or the United States, placed in the eastern Ukraine to harass the advancing Russians with sabotage, mines, or sniper attacks. Or imagine a team organizing the Tartars in the Crimea to do the same, attacking and then retreating into the mountains and hills. The key to containment here is for the American teams to not get caught in the act. They'd have to resist the urge to take too many risks, while at the same time demonstrate battlefield leadership. Even if they were caught, its unlikely that this would spark a wider war. A diplomatic and media crisis, yes, but a shooting war, no.
Cyber warfare is more than a 21st century catchphrase. In recent Senate testimony, Vice Adm. Michael Rogers,a nominee to run the National Security Agency, said that the United States is spending billions of dollars to develop an offensive military capability with cyberweapons. Cyberwar is already being waged against the Ukrainian government, he said, without going into specifics. "Clearly, cyber will be an element of almost any crisis we're going to see in the future," he told the senators.
Inserting malware into Russian military systems could disable air defense radar, disrupt communications, and tap into video from unmanned aircraft. And the Pentagon certainly think it could work. In March, Gen. Keith Alexander told Congress that "When authorized to deliver offensive cyber effects, our technological and operational superiority delivers unparalleled effects against our adversaries' systems."
The best part about these kinds of cyberattacks is that it is hard to prove who launched them. This is the part that often vexes the United States, which is frequently the victim of cyberwarfare. As the potential attacker, the U.S. would benefit. Such plausible deniability could help keep the United States from being sucked into the conflict, while still doing something to shape its outcome.
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