The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dragged on far beyond the timeline projected by political scientists, but it may be drawing to a close. What that end might be is yet to be seen, but there are fewer and fewer ways out of this conflict as Russia commits more and more resources and troops to the ‘special military exercise’ that has resulted in at least 10,000 casualties and many more missing, as well as over 10% of the population of Ukraine currently displaced. With American troops part of the forward placement on the East of the NATO Alliance and nuclear threats renewed, Putin may soon force American intervention.
The latest development that has brought up the topic of Ukraine in DC were combined events of Friday night, September 30th. First, Putin announced the official annexation of four regions of Eastern Ukraine to the Russian Federation. He was accompanied by four regional heads representing the newly annexed people. Second, Putin reasserted Russian willingness to use any variety of resources to finish what was begun in February. This has been interpreted by the US and NATO as a thinly veiled threat to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine.
How is the US responding to this update? President Biden has already made a statement that reciprocal action would be taken without much specification. Thus far, the US has stayed out of the conflict directly even while sympathizing with Ukraine and supporting them via arms and munitions. The only action taken against Russia have been heavy economic sanctions, which did result in direct impact against Russian citizens and a depreciation in the Russian Ruble. While protests in Russia have increased both in response to inflation and the invasion, the Russian elite have felt little of the repercussions of their actions.
However,it has been expected from the beginning of this conflict that if the conflict turned nuclear, the US would step in and take a more active role on behalf of Ukraine. There are no specific stipulations for US action in agreements such as the Trilateral Statement by the Presidents of the United States, Russian Federation and Ukraine of 1996. Similarly, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons has no promises of defense of non-nuclear states against nuclear neighbors. Yet nuclear action on the part of Russia would invite an American nuclear response, or indeed a response from any other nuclear body in Europe.
NATO as an organization is looking into the veracity of these threats that Putin insists is not a bluff. Nuclear fallout would certainly render Ground Zero radioactive. But the nuclear fallout would affect the rest of Ukraine, parts of Southwestern Russia and certainly surrounding countries, many of which are NATO members. Therefore, it stands in NATO interests to not allow a nuclear war to begin on its doorstep. Further detterment of Russia most likely will include strongly worded declarations and threats against nuclear strikes.
Options for NATO and the US, as the leading nuclear nation, are few. The state of Russian weapons and systems are such that there would be sufficient warning to respond and protect NATO interests against nuclear strikes to a certain degree. But is America and the greater NATO group prepared to become much more invested in the defense of Ukraine? Forward placed troops along NATO’s Eastern front, in the Baltics and Poland especially. These 8 battle groups suggest that NATO anticipates and is prepared to defend against Russia if the time comes. There is no indication that these troops would defend Ukraine, but certainly would defend NATO countries if Russia made any threat to their sovereignty. The battle groups are mixed troops from different NATO countries. Currently, American troops are in the nations of Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. All of these countries were satellite states of the former Soviet Union, although only Romania borders Ukraine. Bulgaria is the only Slavic nation of the three. If this push into Ukraine is part of a larger plan Putin has to recreate the Soviet Union or unite the Slavic people, then there is potential danger for the American troops. However, with how the Ukrainian Eastern front is pushing forward and Putin is growing more desperate, it does not seem that the threat to NATO nations is immediate.
The responses to the most recent attacks of multiple cities in Ukraine by drone and missile can optimistically be interpreted as extending support to Ukraine. A G7 summit will take place October 10 to discuss Western support to Ukraine. The EU, while not a military alliance, debates what more can and should be done for Ukraine. The US Secretary of State promises “We will continue to provide unwavering economic, humanitarian, and security assistance so Ukraine can defend itself and take care of its people” in a tweet. How much cost are Americans willing to bear on behalf of a nation we merely maintain friendly relations with? For now, domestic support continues, but it may crumble as winter approaches and the war has no end in sight.