In Age of Cyber Strikes & Sanctions, Will Only US Ground Forces Deter Putin?

US forces based in Vicenza, Italy, in February delivered electrical equipment to Slovenian authorities in Postojna. (Photo: US Embassy-Ljubljana via US European Command)

US forces based in Vicenza, Italy, in February delivered electrical equipment to Slovenian authorities in Postojna. (Photo: US Embassy-Ljubljana via US European Command)

Cyber strikes. Sophisticated sanctions. In an ever-more technologically and economically connected world, the US national security apparatus increasingly talks about and employs these “new” tools of conflict. But will either work against an adversary/irritant who still moves his forces via freight rail? One influential Washington think tank says no.

As Defense News noted in a March 3 article, Feb. 28 was the date Russia largely completed its invasion of what was then Ukraine’s Crimea region. As we wrote, it also was “the day the biggest congressional proponents of US military force turned into big fans of soft power.”

Typically hawkish US lawmakers suddenly had no interest in getting into a major armed conflict with Russia to push Vladimir Putin’s forces out of the the pro-Russia area.

As we reported:

“But amid powerful images of Russian military helicopters flying into Ukraine’s Crimea district and Russian troops with heavy machine guns occupying its soil, there’s something new in many US hawks’ rhetoric: restraint.

“One of Capitol Hill’s top proponents of using US military troops all over the world, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has no visions of a US-Russia conflict.

“‘Obviously, we’re not going to be sending troops anywhere [where there is] armed conflict,’ McCain said.”

To be sure, no US or Western leader is calling for a military conflict to take control of Crimea and hand it back to the government in Kiev.

But what about deterring future potential moves by Putin into the rest of Ukraine or other former Soviet Bloc nations? If sanctions fail to do the deterrence trick, are there any 21st century gadgets in the “soft power” or “smart power” tool boxes that will?

Thomas Donnelly and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think tank influential in Republican circles, say probably not. Instead, Donnelly says it might take a little “hard power” — which is a fancy Washington way of saying boots on the ground.

In a new piece, Donnelly says increasing America’s military footprint in Europe might be the “only means” that would be “militarily and strategically decisive” in stopping Putin at his Crimea annexation:

“It would be politically courageous to call [Putin’s] bluff and find out what cards [he] really holds, but no American — no Western — politician seems willing to cover that bet with boots on the ground. That is a crippling weakness as, after a generational vacation from history, post-Cold-War strategic competition begins in earnest, not just in Europe, but across the Middle East and throughout East Asia. Power abhors a vacuum, except when—as we see with Vladimir Putin, Ali Khamenei, and Xi Jinping—power covets it.”

“Putting boots on the ground is not merely a statement of American political commitment, but often the only means to be militarily and strategically decisive. … Preserving the peace on the Eurasian landmass demands land forces. These need not be very large … but they have to be there.”

Donnelly is not the first conservative to question the Obama administration’s plans to slash the number of US troops permanently stationed in Europe. But he is among the first to use Putin’s invasion, occupation and annexation of Crimea to call for their reversal.

As a Ukraine aid bill moves back to the House this week, will the AEI piece provide GOP hawks political cover to take to the chamber floor to push for more American troops on European soil to again stare down the bear?

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett