With 580 U.S. boots on the ground in Ukraine, what’s Vladimir Putin’s next move?

April 23, 2015
A serviceman of 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army and Ukrainian National Guard attend an opening ceremony of joint military exercise "Fearless Guardian 2015" at the International Peacekeeping Security Center near the village of Starychy

A serviceman of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army looks on as Ukrainian National Guard line up before an opening ceremony of joint military exercise “Fearless Guardian 2015″ at the International Peacekeeping Security Center near the village of Starychy western Ukraine, April 20, 2015. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

As the crisis in Ukraine drags on, U.S.-Russia relations continue to deteriorate. The United States has just taken a step that risks bringing that relationship to a new low.

As part of its effort to support Ukraine, the U.S. military recently sent 290 troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Vicenza, Italy, to train the Ukrainian National Guard. In doing so, President Barack Obama is responding to widespread political pressure to “do something,” choosing a middle ground between doing nothing on the one hand — or, on the other, embroiling the United States more deeply in the conflict by sending billions of dollars of lethal weaponry to Ukraine.

But while the administration’s decision is understandable, it is likely to result in retaliation by the Kremlin in a variety of ways that are not in America’s best interests.

To understand why, consider the historical context. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has watched as the NATO alliance has expanded across Central and Eastern Europe to the Russian border. As a result of this expansion, when the Maidan revolution in Ukraine overthrew former President Viktor Yanukovych, who had close ties to Russia, President Vladimir Putin and his advisers were convinced that this was a precursor to bringing Ukraine into NATO — a step the Western alliance had introduced  previously.

For Putin and the Russian establishment, however, preventing Ukraine from turning decisively West is an existential issue. U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock once told me that the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine, for Putin, was and is something equivalent to Soviet missiles on Cuba for Kennedy.

As a result of Russia’s sensitivity toward Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation, we can expect that the introduction of American combat troops into Ukraine — even in a training role — will lead the Kremlin to retaliate against American interests in a number of possible ways.

First, Russia will likely become even more brazen in its support for its separatist proxies in Eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region. This support could involve the introduction of additional troops and weaponry, or even a possible spring offensive to capture the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol as part of a “land bridge to Crimea” from southern Russia across Ukraine. This aggression would be the end of the already tenuous Minsk II cease-fire, which was designed to end the conflict in Ukraine. Put simply, Putin enjoys “escalation dominance” at every level of the conflict in Ukraine — any move the United States makes, Putin can match and surpass — and the Obama administration needs to be prepared to see Moscow double-down in the Donbass.

Second, we will likely see further nuclear saber rattling by the Russians in the upcoming weeks. Due to its weakness vis-à-vis the United States in conventional weaponry, Russia’s nuclear doctrine has recently changed to consider the use of nuclear weapons as a way to “de-escalate” a conflict. As if to emphasize its status as a nuclear power, in a March documentary that aired on Russian state-owned television, timed for the one-year anniversary of its annexation of Crimea, Putin startled viewers by stating that he had been prepared to put Russia’s nuclear forces on full alert at the beginning of Moscow’s operation in Crimea.

To back this up, recent Russian military exercises have included nuclear-capable weapons, such as the TU-95 nuclear bomber fleet, which in the past year has engaged in fly-by missions near Guam, the Alaskan coast, the Baltic region and the UK. These actions increase the risk that each party will misunderstand the other’s intentions. In 1979 and twice in 1983, the United States and Soviet Union had frightening incidents where each side believed that a drill by the other was the precursor to a real nuclear attack.

Last year Russian missile testing allegedly violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a 1987 pact that eliminated all of the United States’ and former Soviet Union’s nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Russia recently moved 10 nuclear-capable Iskander missiles with a range of 400 kilometers into Kaliningrad, an exclave that borders Poland and Lithuania. It also terminated an agreement with Lithuania to provide information to Vilnius about Russian weaponry in Kaliningrad. None of this is in America’s interests.

It is also quite possible that Moscow will make additional efforts to undermine America’s NATO allies, particularly the three Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Indeed, Moscow just initiated new criminal charges against an Estonian intelligence officer in Russian captivity. The fact that this was announced on April 20 — the same day that American troops began training exercises with their Ukrainian counterparts — is probably not a coincidence.

Russia also just took a small, but provocative step against NATO member Norway. Russian Deputy Prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is banned from entering Norway due to international sanctions against him over Ukraine, stopped on the Norwegian island of Svalbard on a trip to the North Pole — an action that infuriated Norway.

Russia’s actions against both Estonia and Norway are right out of the Kremlin playbook. They are small, seemingly insignificant steps that are over and done before the West even realizes they’re happening — but which nevertheless send a threatening message to American allies.

Finally, Russia can take any number of actions to cause further disruption in the Middle East, especially vis-à-vis Iran. Russia has just announced plans to move forward with the sale of its lethal S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Iran, a step that the Council on Foreign Relations says will “shift military balance across the Middle East.” Not surprisingly, the impending sale is causing concern in Washington as well as among U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration objects to any action by Moscow that could destabilize its P5+1 negotiations with Tehran.

While sending fewer than 300 American troops to Ukraine may seem insignificant, Moscow does not see it that way. The ride is about to get rockier.








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Ukraine— another US occupied territory.

Posted by Slaphead666 | Report as abusive

What is left for Russia is full support for Novorossiya , reignite the Balkan conflicts, give North Korea Hydrogen Bomb technology, sell Iran couple of Nukes , give weapons to all warlords in Africa , help all the independence movements across Europe etc etc

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Macedonian isn’t part of the human race.

Posted by al43 | Report as abusive

There is a bit of inconsistency between ‘any move the United States makes, Putin can match and surpass’ and ‘Due to its weakness vis-à-vis the United States in conventional weaponry,’. This flavor of article consistently avoids two fundamental points: 1) Europe with NATO is increasing its defence funding and posture because of Russian threats and aggression and the combined economic and military potential of the EU and US dwarfs Russia by 10 to 20 times. 2) Nuclear weapons are not used because their use would immediately cause nuclear retaliation.

The idea that NATO is an existential threat to Russia is rather the opposite and until recently of declining military capability in the Europe. NATO has provided a very stable environment for Europe and Russia by avoiding and ending where necessary all internal European conflicts that were essentially continuous for many centuries until the end of WWII.

Russia, by its threats and aggression, is merely building up an unbeatable alliance and military force in the West while isolating itself and reducing its economic capability through sanctions, the shifting of economic relations away from Russia, and reducing economic growth by increased military spending. Russia is using an international relations ideology quite common a century ago but which is now obsolete. It is committing international relations and economic suicide.

Neil Nelson

Posted by Neil_Nelson | Report as abusive

I know Al43, only Westerners are human, no one else, right?.

This article was very insightful and the only honest article I have read about the Ukrainian situation.

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

What right does Russia have to dictate to Ukraine its foreign policy? This is a decision for the people of Ukraine.

I am heartily sick of commentators indulging Russia’s revanchism and justifying Russian military aggression on the basis that Russia supposedly has ” interests” in Ukraine. Ukraine is no threat to Russia.

It is time to stop indulging Russian paranoia.

Posted by havryliv | Report as abusive

Military aid to Ukraine is essential to raise the material and human costs to Putin of waging his Ukraine war.

It is not a question of escalating the war of defeating Putin’s armies. The issue is to make the costs so high that Putin abandons his military aggression against Ukraine. Putin cannot forever conceal the significant Russian troop casualties in east Ukraine. He will be forced to admit to the people of Russia that he is, despite previous denials, waging war in east Ukraine.

Russia’s resources are not unlimited and there are signs that Russia is already overreached in the Donbas, and has very little support from the local population.

Posted by havryliv | Report as abusive

“With 580 U.S. boots on the ground in Ukraine, what’s Vladimir Putin’s next move?”
Uncontrolled giggling? Guffaws?
The US military has never won a war, and has lost the last 4 in a row – wars of its own choosing, against civilians. Imagine what will happen if they go up against the world’s greatest fighting nation.

Posted by godfree | Report as abusive

Mr. Cohen is the biggest pro-Russian shill in mainstream media.

Him talking about things that are “Not in America’s best interest,” is the height of comedy. This apologetic blogpost on Kremlin’s behalf isn’t becoming of Reuters.

Posted by tknower | Report as abusive

Russia east will taken by China after NATO invades Russia

Posted by HISPANICVOTERS | Report as abusive

Oh come on, Mr. Cohen. We’re rather watching the West’s “moves”.

Posted by waggg | Report as abusive

Russians should ask themselves why so many baltic nations ran to Nato in the first place? The russian people should really step back and realize they’ve been drinking the kool-aid of their state-run media for far too many years.

Posted by dnuts | Report as abusive

So the message of the article is “don’t make the rapist mad by resisting or even mentioning that you don’t like to be penetrated by his forces against your will – just relax and enjoy”??

Posted by Alex1970 | Report as abusive

The headline says 580 boots on the ground, the article says 290. What’s up?

Posted by dkajut | Report as abusive

Why in the world would Obama unilaterally kill Minsk II with this idiotic deployment? This is a move that accomplishes no strategic, military, or political objective. It’s purely destructive/counterproductive. It even gives Putin a beautiful cover for deploying his own “trainers” in Ukraine.

Posted by WCTopp | Report as abusive

Wonderful! Let Putin follow the steps that led USSR to bancrupcy.

Posted by JaneRand | Report as abusive

Putin is very sensitive. Whatever USA does or doesn’t do will offend him. So sorry for Putin.

Posted by JaneRand | Report as abusive

Reuters: “The United States has just taken a step that risks…”
…173 Airborne Brigade of the US Army, that had become famous for its bloody deeds still in Vietnam, now reached the Eastern Ukraine, to teach killing people just because they speak in Russian.
In the Soviet Union, all people, including Ukrainians, held in contempt those Americans who fought in Vietnam. Now Ukrainians have to treat themselves and their own history with equal contempt – an unenviable share, especially with the filing of their latter-day “allies.”

Posted by VVS | Report as abusive

Obama could have found some alternative way.Such action is likely not to please EU members who have bigger stake in Russia than US.US has repeatedly has said they will take any action collective with EU members.
Now Russia has reason to openly send army personal and weapons to rebels
leading to something serious turn for Ukraine to suffer more economically.Obama must give some hint that sending boots is only symbolic.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Who know the best interests of people in Ukraine? Only people in Ukraine. Does they want to join EU, US and NATO? Does they want to kill their neighbors, brothers and sisters in Russia? NO!!! They want peace, freedom and piece of bread on their table. It is simple as that! Russia have rights to feel safe and protect their borders from NATO expansion and anti-Russian hate cultivated by some “western hawks”. Russian “military aggression” is nonsense and Kiew’s government paranoya, which is cultivated and supported by well known politicians.

Posted by johnsonson | Report as abusive

I wonder what the betting market odds are that the use of small tactical nukes from submarine launched torpedoes or missiles to fry aircraft carriers, or airfields and their squadrons, or naval bases and their ships, would lead to a full “strategic”/”city burning” exchange of arsenals.
No doubt the mullahs would be chanting praise to allah, and the caliph would have the last laugh.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

American trainers in Ukraine is a bad idea. This is looking more and more like the early 1960s South Vietnam, which started with American advisers and led to a disastrous, unnecessary war. This will conflict will end either with a nuclear exchange or a 1963 style showdown between the US and Russia.

The greatest irony is that the US is risking WW3 for a bad reason. This conflict has been started by Ukrainian nationalists who are arrogantly trying to impose their ideology and culture on Russophone east Ukraine. By any measure, that makes the west Ukrainians fascists. Their politics are so far right, in fact, that they make France’s National Front look like the ACLU by comparison.

Ukraine will turn out to be the biggest mistake made in American history.

Posted by sanders73 | Report as abusive

History shows and repeats itself, so fa wast only caused horrible crimes (mass murders on the scale not seen before), let see what west is going to accomplish thin time. Western countries greatness caused miscalculations as history shows, let see! I bet that if they really think that they can get away with murder of Russian speaking population, they will put themselves in the situation without exit. (send more weapons, more trainers and encourage western ukrainians this will help).

Posted by wpotocki | Report as abusive

your censor does not like my story, you like story that fits party line

Posted by wpotocki | Report as abusive

havryliv: You mean like how US tried to dictate the policies of the entire Latin America during the Cold War by utilizing sanctions, coups, etc? Actually let me modify the last part of that question, We are *still* attempting to do same thing with respect to Venezuela and Bolivia. What right did the US have there?

This piece brought up a very important question that hasn’t been asked enough during this whole mess is; why is NATO still seeking to expand so aggressively? It is a military alliance born out of necessity during the Cold War but that’s been over for 25 years now. What purpose does NATO serve these days?

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

First the US superpower with its NATO/EU coalition have failed in two wars that have been going on for longer than a decade. Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of these two forays have cost the United States. 4,487 American lives, 32,223 wounded for Iraqi Operation Freedom, Operation New Dawn another 66 deaths, and 301 wounded. 2343 deaths in Afghanistan, and wounded 17,674. The financial cost is at about $5 Trillion, plus interest borrowed on the War debt is still to be calculated, and Afghanistan isn’t over in lives and cost. With a debt in the US approaching $18 Trillion. Don’t be conned by the EU. Using the US as its muscle.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

NATO countries to follow through on commitments to spend 2 percent of their nations’ gross domestic product on defense. Only four NATO nations meet that threshold: the U.S., Britain, Greece and Estonia.

So the other 24 Nations fail in this.

*At present, NATO has 28 members. In 1949, there were 12 founding members of the Alliance: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. The other member countries are: Greece and Turkey (1952), Germany (1955), Spain (1982), the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia (2004), and Albania and Croatia (2009).

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

NATO is now a threatening presence to world peace. By allowing the Western Ukrainians to shell civilian populations in the East the West has cast itself to the Hitler view of the world. But as the Russians say Hitler didn’t shell his own cities.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Of the three NATO nuclear powers (United Kingdom, France, United States), only the US has loaned out weapons to other countries, and they have even previously loaned out added ballistic weapons to the UK, up until the early 90’s, even though they were a nuclear power in their own right, with their own extensive arsenal of the weapons.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

The balance of power in today’s world is not measured by “Might”.The proof is why US could not succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan.Also how ISIS with limited might could not be defeated.US need to review their policy and long term interests before totally isolated.Look at any American national is not safe in any country! Why?
Now intellectual and analytical capacity of younger generation world over has greatly improved.They are no more like cattles to be driven.Internet has educated them constantly.People are becoming more patriotic and are willing to sacrifice their own country.
Powerful US can achieve more becoming elder brother rather than conflicts.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

My heart burns seeing how US is aggravating the Ukraine problem.US has been seeing the world with the view of “Might”. They have never tried to become elder brother to serve their interest.The result! Countries are swallowing the sanctions.New groups among countries are being created,even new world banks are created.New currencies are being evolved.Under fear and for defense more and more nuclear weapons are being created.
US will have to review their long term policies and interests.They will have to see the world themselves as one country among countries,not as a super power.”Might is not right” any more now.
I am afraid Ukraine will be the cause of another world war.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

For a better understanding of the numerous cease-fire violations committed by both sides, I suggest that objective observers read the reports of the OSCE’s SSM (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – Special Monitoring Mission).

I’ve followed these reports for just over one year and find that the U.S. media typically limits their reporting to the transgressions of the break-away Eastern Ukraine Oblasts. Since the media can whip-up entire nations, often leading to war, I believe that the so-called “free-press” should be held accountable by The International Court of Justice at the Hague. The same goes for politicians, who as a rule, have neither sons, daughters nor grand-children serving in the active military.

Posted by neilc23 | Report as abusive

boots on the ground, boots on the ground, lookin like a fool with your boots on the ground! that makes 9, count them 9, military engagements under obama, in 6 years, compared to bushes 6, in 8 years. 2 years left, whose next!

Posted by twise1975 | Report as abusive

It is the juncture when Putin was softening.Recently he said about common interest with US.His trade terms with Ukrain and EU members(France,Greeks) were improving.Sending boots to Ukraine is like to put oil in the abting fire.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

The fact of the matter is that with this saber rattling over Ukraine. Russia has no choice but to upgrade and modernize nuclear capability. The EU and US already have nuclear sharing, which basically allows the US to loan Nuclear weapons in NATO countries. If this is not nuclear proliferation then loaning is not spreading? The Federation of American Scientists estimates that between 150 and 200 borrowed nuclear warheads are currently being stored in Europe, and they are all loaned by the United States, to European nations, through a NATO-approved ‘Nuclear Sharing’ scheme, bringing the continents overall total to around 500.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

What should Putin do?

Here’s some ideas:

1. Follow the Chinese example. Don’t use your military. Take over the world one business at a time.

2. Get some lobbyists working for you and buy some political support in Washington D.C.

3. Sell stock in Russian tech companies that promise “the next big thing”.

Posted by nose2066 | Report as abusive

It’s not hard to see who are behind this escalation of threat and fear. The MIC in US is running out of potential third-world-warzones where their merchandise can be disposed of. The stores are filling up and the assembly lines must not stop. Remedy: create new threat and hope to sell more to the EU.

Posted by SvenBolin | Report as abusive

One more mess created by US with the years of workings of US intelligence fomenting conflicts around the world under the covers of operation of USAID – not acting so much as US-AID but more as – USA-ID – intelligence division, that depletes $30B/year of tax payer money through 1000’s of unaccountable organizations.

What a shame noble peace-prize awarded to current president while he backs these spineless fomenting of conflicts that have caused to-date, over a million deaths/injuries/displacements around Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine and neighboring countries – at the expense of over a trillion dollars of US tax payer money that depleted the nation’s competitiveness and robbed the future of next-generation. What a load of incompetence and lack of morality.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Putin lost this long ago. The territory was insignificant to begin with. It’s not 1924. Wars among the smart nations are electronic and economic now. You don’t need some muddy “buffer zone” near Poland any more. Putin did this to send a message, and the message he ended up sending is: He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He is ruining his economy over a nothing spot and the world is laughing at him.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

By doing something the US is actually stabilizing the situation. If we did nothing, than Russia would feel compelled to push forward. They fully expect us to respond militarily, in their mind that is rational. Why wouldn’t we? By being inactive, the US was confusing the situation. It was not logical in their view. The Russian propoganda calls these provocative actions but they know we had to do something.

Posted by pmangeri | Report as abusive

Nothing on earth dumber than a Washington DC warmonger. They are simply feral animals that care nothing about the complete destruction of all life on Earth.

Time to fill in the Pentagon shaped black hole that is threatening to suck all life into the abyss.

Posted by RealityBites | Report as abusive

Now Putin wants to befriend Greece, in an effort to build a coalition. Greece! That’s like picking up a hitch-hiker, and calling him your colleague in your new fake business.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Obama continues to do next to nothing, save empty talk and gestures such as this, while Putin keeps the West off balance by continually striking out in unexpected ways. Absolutely nothing new here.

Posted by SaigonQ2 | Report as abusive

Has anybody in Washington done any cost benefit analysis on Ukraine?

The article very well lays out the risks. What are the benefits of the US aiding an oligarch owned economically and politically corrupt country of very little consequence to the US?

Posted by Conradthebrave | Report as abusive

Whats Putin’s next move?
Easy. Humiliate Obama, and make him run with his tail between his legs.
Obama is a coward deathly afraid of being made to look like he’s lost, so he will run at the slightest hint of conflict. Putin the thug knows this.

Posted by LMP1979 | Report as abusive

What can Putin do? Oh, let’s see…

He can give up his dreams of power. Disarm and start building a nation based on the rule of law. Or he can resign and tend his rose garden.

Posted by AndreasJ | Report as abusive

who cares what Putins does? He’s almost busted. Squeeze him till he’s done.

Posted by babysnake | Report as abusive