BY GEN. (RET.) KEITH B. ALEXANDER AND JAMIL N. JAFFER, OPINION CONTRIBUTORS
Mar 16, 2022
We have seen the brutal reality of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. We have watched Russian troops target civilians and massacre families. We’ve also witnessed the heroism of the Ukrainian military and its people as they bravely push back, defending their nation and their freedom. Unfortunately, the situation is likely to get significantly worse as Russian military failures force Putin to double down on targeting civilians, and his stretched supply lines result in a long-term siege of Kyiv. Enough is enough. The time has come for the United States and our allies to act.
As pressure within Russia increases, Putin’s own long-term prospects are likely to impact his calculus as well, driving him to make dangerous choices. The question for the United States and our allies is, therefore, not how we ought to respond to Putin’s next move, but how we can get ahead of it and deter him from further expanding the conflict.
We recommend Plan B: Taking back the initiative. We should tell Putin to stop the senseless killing of the Ukrainian people and to pull his forces out of Ukraine immediately. We should make clear that, while we don’t want a war, we no longer can stand by and watch him kill innocent civilians. We should deploy the U.S. Air Force – and hopefully those of our allies – over Ukraine to stop the killing and enforce Russia’s withdrawal by establishing a no-fly zone. We should explain to Putin that we will not put ground troops into Ukraine, unless Russia attacks our forces, and that our aircraft will not fire on the Russian military while it withdraws and will respond only if attacked.
We should also make clear that we will treat Ukraine as a truly neutral state and will provide massive humanitarian support and military equipment solely to allow for Ukraine’s own defense.
It should be clear, however, that if Russia continues to massacre civilians, we will enforce the no-fly zone. If Russia’s air defense system shoots down one of our aircraft, we will take out its air defense system in Ukraine. If missiles are launched against us or our allies, we will take out those missiles. And any use of unconventional weapons in Ukraine – whether nuclear, chemical or biological – in Ukraine will result in a massive response.
We have stood by long enough. The Biden administration has built a solid consensus with our allies on strong sanctions, creating real unity of effort on the economic front. They have begun to get the flow of weapons moving to Ukraine, and increasingly our allies have been convinced to support this effort. But as the administration acknowledges, these economic sanctions and limited supplies of weaponry will not stop the fighting in the near term. Indeed, with Putin facing a longer, more intense battle for control of Ukraine than expected and Russian forces suffering significant setbacks, accompanied by a very real loss of prestige and a weakening base of support at home, the likelihood that Putin lashes out aggressively – both against civilians in Ukraine and against the United States and our European allies – significantly increases.
The surprisingly bold efforts by the United States and our allies to disconnect key Russian banks from the international financial system and the recent imposition of a U.S. ban on Russian oil also were strong moves to increase the pressure on Putin. As these actions take hold, the ruble will continue to suffer, as will the overall Russian economy and the fortunes of Putin’s oligarchs. This makes it more likely that Putin will feel the need to demonstrate strength, both at home to suppress dissent – as he has with recent arrests in Moscow – as well as abroad. Indeed, to save himself and to shift the Ukraine crisis back in Russia’s direction, Putin likely believes he must demonstrate that Russia remains a great power and that he can extract major concessions from the West.
To do so, Putin has a few options at his disposal:
- He could get massively more aggressive with conventional weapons, targeting even more civilian targets within Ukraine;
- He could use cyber attacks against Ukraine, the United States and our allies;
- He could employ unconventional weapons, including chemical and biological weapons or tactical nuclear devices in theater; or
- He could ally with others in the region and lash out against yet another country, including potentially NATO allies.
From our perspective, some of these options are more likely than others. First, the idea that Putin would use tactical nuclear weapons or a significant deployment of chemical or biological weapons in Europe seems unlikely because it would be well-near impossible for the allies to allow Russian use of unconventional weapons without a direct military response. Likewise, given that President Biden has made clear that an attack on a NATO country would provoke a military response, and given that Putin’s army is already stretched thin in Ukraine, it seems unlikely that he would expand the conflict beyond Ukraine at this time.
On our current path, this leaves a massive expansion of the conventional conflict in Ukraine and a new expansion into the cyber domain, whether against Ukraine or the U.S. and our allies, as the likely next steps for Putin. In our view, both scenarios are likely. Putin has made clear that he is willing to go after civilian targets in Ukraine and, thus far, has paid little price for doing so. Indeed, he very well may see our current decision to publicly eschew the deployment of military forces in Ukraine as carte blanche to triple down on killing civilians and destroying Ukrainian cities. In doing so, Putin will more aggressively seek to impose the costs of resistance on the Ukrainian people and break their will, and therefore, in addition to brutally employing conventional forces, will likely expand these efforts with targeted cyber campaigns against critical sectors in Ukraine, including the banking and energy sectors.
Likewise, Putin likely feels the need to go after Western nations directly in response to ongoing sanctions and to gain back prestige at home. To that end, he likely will employ his own forces, as well as proxies, to conduct cyber hacks and attacks against the U.S. government and our private sector, as well as our allies. Putin likely assesses that if he can calibrate such attacks to stay below the level of major disruptions to key sectors, we will limit our response. After all, we have taken significant punishment in the cyber domain, including from Russia and Russian-backed criminal actors, without a major response for many years. And he also likely assesses that he would gain significant prestige at home by publicly demonstrating (once again) that Russia can hit the U.S. and our allies with relative impunity in cyberspace.
We cannot allow this to happen.
Instead, there are additional concrete and immediate steps that we should take now. First, in order to stop the bombing of civilian targets, in addition to establishing air superiority over Ukraine and seeking Putin’s immediate withdrawal as described above, we must also massively increase the flow of weapons, material and actionable intelligence to the Ukrainians to give them every advantage possible on the ground. Likewise, we must be prepared to support massive airlifts to resupply medical gear, food and other humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian people as Putin seeks to bomb and starve them into submission.
When it comes to the cyber domain, we must be prepared to protect and defend the small- and medium-sized businesses that are the core economic engine and key components of the supply chain, including the defense industrial base, in both the U.S. and allied nations. This will require government and industry working together here and abroad. It will require multiple players across multiple industries to share cyber threat information and collaborate in real-time to divide and conquer against common cyber threats. Perhaps most importantly, we should make clear to Putin that any massive attack against the U.S. or our allies in the cyber domain, including against the private sector, will provoke a serious military response just as an attack in the physical domain would.
While maintaining the coalition is a top priority, the time has come to fundamentally change our tactics. Just as one man started World War II in Europe, Putin has started a conflict with eerily similar parallels. We no longer can stand by as he seeks to massively expand this conflict, killing innocents and destroying cities. If being a superpower means anything, it means acting when it matters. Now is just such a time. Enough is enough.
Gen. (Ret) Keith B. Alexander is the former director of the National Security Agency and founding commander of United States Cyber Command. He currently is chairman, president and co-CEO of IronNet Cybersecurity and serves on the advisory board of the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.
Jamil N. Jaffer is the former chief counsel and senior adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and served in senior national security roles in the Bush Justice Department and White House and on Capitol Hill. He currently is founder and executive director of GMU’s National Security Institute and serves on the advisory boards of IronNet Cybersecurity and U.S. Strategic Metals.