President Joe Biden will be traveling to Europe in the next few days, arriving in Brussels on Wednesday evening for a NATO summit, G-7 meeting, and still more meetings before visiting Poland for a Saturday meeting with that nation’s president. The Washington Post‘s writeup of the trip leans a bit too heavily on a NATO-in-disarray theme; In practice, the arguments are between two groups: 1) nations that intend to punish the Russian government and economy severely for their attack on Ukraine, and 2) nations that want to punish Russia even more severely than that.
The White House is necessarily being coy about what public appearances Biden might make during his trip, but the Poland trip’s agenda will likely include new American promises to assist with that nation’s refugee crisis. But Poland is among the most impatient of NATO members in wanting to push back Russian forces more directly, either with air power or sending their own troops into Ukraine to help in its defense. In private, Biden and President Andrzej Duda will almost certainly be hashing out whether Poland can send ground troops while not dragging the rest of NATO into automatic war if those troops are attacked by Russian forces.
There’s likely some technical means of achieving that, in theory. But whether NATO could truly wash its hands of involvement if Russia counterattacked is not so simple, no matter what might be pledged in advance.
If Poland or other NATO nations do pledge some of their own troops for Ukrainian operations, the most likely usage would be to park them in Ukraine’s northwest to act as an even-more-solid deterrent to keep Belarusian troops at home. That would free even more Ukrainian defenders to push east in an attempt to wipe out Russian supply lines—while well and truly foiling Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s continued demands that Belarus engage militarily.
While such “peacekeeping” forces would be kept very far from the combat zones, however, there’s more than a little chance that Putin would target them with airstrikes. Provoking attacks from NATO nations might be’s only remaining way to convince China to fork over more military goods, and could serve to reunite Russian kleptocratic leaders who have been getting dodgier and dodgier in their support for Putin’s war as their foreign-held Putin cash drains away .
More direct involvement from Poland or other nations, even if they are adamant in waiving NATO protections while doing so, would get complicated very fast. Biden and his government have been firm in discouraging the transfer of offensive weapons (jets) or other escalations. But some European nations who have long been terrorized by Russian threats may well see the exposure of the Russian military as incompetently led and pathetically supplied as a perfect opportunity to dish out at least a little long-simmering revenge.
Instinctively, there still appears to be very, very little chance that Poland goes through with the threat. It is useful as a threat—even contemplating it publicly keeps the Belarus military pinned down. That’s not to say there are not NATO special operations forces already in Ukraine assisting the war effort secretly, given the history of these things, but we’re not going to talk about that.
Biden’s more public tasks during his trip will be to highlight NATO’s newfound solidarity, especially after that last Guy spent four years belittling, goading, and mocking NATO nations in continued boutiques of uncontrolled narcissistic fervor. And Europe is still struggling with the most sequential sanctions decision of all: whether or not to cut off their purchases of Russian oil, a move that would wreak as much or more havoc on some of their own constraints as it would Putin’s. We should expect the status quo to remain on that one, too, unless Biden can come up with some as-of-yet unknown miracle ploy to alleviate those concerns.
Ukraine’s battlefield successes might even lessen the chance of bold European action, at this point. Putin is murdering Ukrainian civilians with near-impunity, but in military-to-military actions, Ukraine continues to inflict unsustainable damage on would-be Russian occupiers. Behind the scenes, Biden may well discourage NATO members from seeking more direct conflict with Russian troops with assurances that the United States is delivering even more Ukrainian assistance than is being publicly disclosed. The rapid evolution of Ukrainian defense tactics suggests either that they have weapons they didn’t have a few weeks ago, logistic support they didn’t have a few weeks ago, or something else.
But we’re not going to talk about that, either.
Foreign Policy looks at why Russia just keeps bleeding officers at the top of the command. “Russian generals,” writes FP, “have had to lead from the front because its amateur army can’t move otherwise.”
The tally of Russian generals killed in the nearly monthlong conflict—most of them one- and two-star commanders, including at least one lieutenant general—is likely the highest casualty rate among general officers in the Russian military since World War II.