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Opinion Biden wants to turn Ukraine into a porcupine

Ukrainian service members patrol outside Popasna on Thursday. (Maksim Levin/Reuters)
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How can the United States and its allies help Ukraine become a porcupine — a prickly, stubborn nation that would be hard for an invading Russian army to digest? Top U.S. officials are mulling this question as they prepare for a crucial meeting with Russia on Monday.

Russia is heading to Geneva with what amounts to an ultimatum: Unless President Vladimir Putin gets security guarantees from the West, he’s prepared to invade. Biden administration officials say they want a diplomatic solution, but they’ve also been delivering warnings through public and private channels that an invasion would be bloody, protracted and extremely damaging for Russia.

“What you’re seeing is a concerted effort by the administration and its allies to make it clear to Putin that an invasion of Ukraine would be a very bad idea,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in an interview Thursday. The Air Force has flown B-52 bombers and RC-135 reconnaissance planes over eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, as part of its effort to deter Russia.

Ukraine was a pushover for Russia in its 2014 seizure of Crimea, but a lot has changed since then. The Ukrainian army is better trained and equipped; the population is more united against Russian interference; and the United States and NATO allies are ready to provide weapons and training for a long battle of resistance if Russian forces move across the border toward Kyiv.

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U.S. officials view Ukraine as potentially similar to Iraq, a country that the United States tried and failed to transform through military power after invading in 2003. The populations and land areas of the two nations are roughly equal; both are about 70 percent urbanized. Both have ethnic fractures and a streak of independence.

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The United States and its allies have begun thinking carefully about how they would support a Ukrainian insurgency with training and weapons, including Stinger antiaircraft missiles. Conquering such an insurgency would require a force of 20 Russian combatants for every 1,000 Ukrainians, according to a formula devised by Rand Corp. analyst James Quinlivan in 1995. That would translate to a Russian occupation force of about 886,000 — obviously unrealistic, but a measure of the difficulty of quelling an uprising.

To stiffen Ukraine’s ability to resist, the United States and NATO have dispatched teams in recent weeks to survey air defenses, logistics, communications and other essentials. The United States likely has also bolstered Ukraine’s defenses against Russian cyberattacks and electronic warfare. Once the terrain is frozen in February, Russia’s far larger army could surge toward Kyiv from the north, east and south. But the aftermath would probably be a long, arduous campaign.

Two U.S. commanders who can testify to the frustrations of counterinsurgency are Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve spoken to their Russian counterparts in recent days and probably warned that Ukraine won’t be easy to swallow.

Putin is telling Russians that an invasion may be necessary to stop NATO’s encroachment. The paradox is that a Russian attack would probably produce the very outcome Putin wants to avoid. NATO has discussed plans to move troops forward after an invasion, which would make Russia less secure.

A protracted war in Eastern Europe would have other consequences that are hard to predict. As in the Syrian civil war, millions of refugees would stream across the border, straining the European Union. But a war would stress Russia, too, as body bags arrive home in Moscow, adding to Putin’s domestic political problems. Ukrainian insurgents might seek havens in Poland and Romania, further complicating the situation.

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This showdown is a test of resolve, and Putin probably thinks he has a big advantage over President Biden, who is relatively unpopular and leads a sharply divided country. But stung by criticism of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden will resist any repeat in Ukraine. Another plus for Biden: His team has skillfully shared intelligence and conducted joint planning with NATO allies.

Russia’s border worries aren’t limited to Ukraine. Moscow and its allies from the former Soviet Union sent troops Thursday to quell an uprising in Kazakhstan. Post-Soviet life is getting messier, in Belarus, Ukraine and now Kazakhstan. Quelling rebellions on Russia’s periphery will stretch Putin’s resources.

Putin’s biggest disadvantage in Ukraine may be that he has lost the element of surprise that was so effective in 2014. The whole world is watching. When you try to make a “net assessment” of the Ukraine confrontation, an invasion looks very costly. But history is a recurring story of overconfident leaders making foolish mistakes.