Will Biden Gamble on a Ukraine Coalition?

When Napoleon Bonaparte began his 1812 campaign to conquer Russia, he led the largest “coalition of the willing” in history. In addition to its French core, Bonaparte’s army of more than 400,000 consisted of Italian, Dutch, German, and Polish soldiers. They were at best unenthusiastic. Frankly, other than the French, only Napoleon’s Polish allies were truly eager to march on Moscow.

By the time Bonaparte’s multinational force reached Moscow, paralyzing cold, ruinous battles, exhaustion, disease, and poor logistical planning reduced the original invasion force to less than half of its original strength. It was not long before Prussia and its North German allies defected to the Russians while the remainder (minus the Poles) deserted or died on the march home.

Today, the Biden White House appears to be considering the use of a multinational force aimed at Russia. The NATO alliance is unable to reach a unanimous decision to intervene militarily in support of Ukraine in its war with Russia. But as signaled recently by David Petraeus, the president and his generals are evaluating their own “coalition of the willing.” The coalition would allegedly consist of primarily, but not exclusively, Polish and Romanian forces, with the U.S. Army at its core, for employment in Ukraine.

All military campaigns succeed or fail based on strategic assumptions that underpin operational planning and execution. Without knowing the details of the ongoing discussions, it is still possible to raise questions about the coalition’s proposed operational “purpose, method, and end state.”

First, what is the aim of the coalition? Is the aim to expel Russian forces from Ukrainian territory? Is the aim to reinforce Ukrainian defense lines and achieve a ceasefire for negotiations? Or is the coalition merely a device to drag the rest of the NATO alliance into a war with Russia that very few Europeans will support?

Second, what will U.S. air and ground forces do if they are decisively engaged from the moment they cross the Polish and Romanian Borders into western Ukraine? The Russian High Command will no doubt identify the U.S. military component as the coalition’s center of gravity. It follows that Russian military power will focus first and foremost on the destruction of the U.S. warfighting structure together with its space-based command, control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.

Third, is Washington building a “coalition of the willing” for political reasons or because it anticipates a resource-intensive commitment and needs regional allies to share the burden? Since it is unlikely that conventional U.S. military power would defeat conventional Russian military power on its own, can the U.S.-led coalition assemble the diverse military capabilities required to dominate Russian forces with enough striking power to compel a change in Russian behavior? Equally important, can U.S. and allied forces protect Europe’s numerous transportation networks, as well as air and naval bases, from Russian air and missile attack?

Fourth, will the coalition’s conduct of operations be subject to limitations deemed essential to allied partners? Differences of opinion always exist on questions of how to fight the opponent, how far to move, and just how much to risk. Lack of clarity about specific objectives can have serious consequences. In other words, how much unity of command can U.S. military commanders really expect from their allies in war and will the demand for unity of command outweigh purely national interests? It is useful to remember that Moscow enjoys complete authority over all its forces including those of its partners and allies. Russian unity of command is absolute. Moscow is not compelled to cope with diverging preferences and opinions from coalition members.

Finally, Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO insists that Ukraine’s failure to prevail in its war with Russia would be interpreted as a defeat for NATO. Would heavy losses inflicted on U.S. ground forces in a confrontation with Russian military power not also signal Washington’s defeat? How rapidly could U.S. and allied forces replace their losses? Would severe U.S. losses raise the specter of a U.S. nuclear response? When does support for Ukraine put NATO’s security and survival at risk?

Washington’s recently announced reiteration of strategic ambiguity regarding the “first use of nuclear weapons” raises additional questions. Spokesmen for the Biden administration indicate that the president will not follow through on his 2020 pledge and declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies.

Instead, President Biden approved a version of the policy from the Obama administration that permits the use of nuclear weapons not only in retaliation to a nuclear attack, but also to respond to non-nuclear threats. President Biden’s decision is at least as dangerous and destructive to American and Allied goals as was the Morgenthau Plan: a plan to deindustrialize Germany that, while rejected, probably lengthened the war against Nazi Germany by at least half a year. Does anyone in Washington, D.C., really believe that this new policy makes a nuclear war with Russia less likely?

Military strategy is about the relationship of means to ends. National political and military leaders are preoccupied with means and think too little about ends. It is not enough to be a good technician, today’s political and military leaders must be serious strategists, acutely sensitive to the limits which America’s strengths and weaknesses impose on strategic choices.

The cost to Americans and Europeans of escalating the conflict should not be underestimated. The president and his generals must appreciate how injurious military failure would be to an American society already weakened by 20 years of self-defeating deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. American military morale is at a low point. Recruiting for the U.S. Armed Forces, especially the ground forces, is harder than at any time since the 1970s. American economic performance is fragile. Europe’s economic outlook is bleaker still.

In his fight with Russia, Bonaparte not only badly misjudged his opponent, but he also grossly misjudged his allies. President Biden and his generals should not make the same mistakes in Ukraine.

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