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How far would the United States go to back Ukraine?

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The risk of war in Europe is rising. A blitz of diplomacy has failed to defuse fears of a Russian invasion in Ukraine, whose pro-Western government is sounding the alarm that Moscow has “almost completed” a menacing troop buildup on the country’s eastern frontier. A strike would force Washington and European allies to move from deterrence to action.

But how far is the West willing to go to defend Ukraine?

U.S. officials have warned of a possible Russian invasion for weeks. Espousing a vision of Russia and Ukraine as “one nation,” Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding a promise that its neighbor will never join NATO. Defending the right to self-determination, the Biden administration has refused such a pledge. Russia continues to deny a pending assault. But on Wednesday, President Biden predicted Putin would “move in” on Ukraine because, after all of his saber-rattling, “he has to do something.”

Biden on Wednesday suggested the Western response would depend on the level of Russian intervention, before clarifying Thursday that the United States would not accept even a “minor incursion.” What a “war” could look like runs the gambit: Cyberattacks on Kyiv (which have already begun, though by actors as yet undetermined). Missile strikes. A limited occupation of the Donbas region — a part of Ukraine in the grips of Russian-backed separatists for years. The worst case scenario: A full-on march on Kyiv.

On Jan. 19, President Biden said he was “confident” that parts will be passed ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden has ruled out American troops going head to head with the Russians, a response that risks escalation between nuclear powers. Threats of reprisals have instead centered on sanctions. Yet, with Europe dependent on Russian gas, doubts linger about how far key partners, particularly Germany, would be willing to go. And even if Moscow were slapped with biting sanctions, they tend to inflict sustainable wounds. Just ask Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, whose regime has withstood some of the harshest possible U.S. sanctions and came out stronger by tapping a rogues gallery of alternative financial partners in Moscow, Tehran, Ankara and Beijing.

But talk is growing of a combined response in the event of an invasion that could mix economic pain with a higher cost for Putin on the battlefield in the form of a U.S.-backed, pro-Western Ukrainian insurgency. The roughly $2.5 billion in U.S. aid committed to Ukraine since 2014 has focused on defensive weaponry, including Javelin antitank missiles, retired Coast Guard cutters, armored Humvees, radios and communications equipment. The United States has also helped to train Ukrainian special forces.

But Washington is signaling that an invasion could be a game changer, potentially bringing a host of new assistance, resources and weaponry for guerilla-style warfare in parts of Ukraine the Russians seize, and turning Putin’s incursion there into an Afghanistan-like quagmire.

The Post’s David Ignatius wrote last month that the Biden administration was weighing “ways to provide weapons and other support to the Ukrainian military to resist invading Russian forces — and similar logistical support to insurgent groups if Russia topples the Ukrainian government and a guerrilla war begins.”

Last week, Helene Cooper of the New York Times reported that help could involve training in NATO eastern flank countries including Poland, Romania and Slovakia. Beyond logistical support and weapons, Cooper wrote, the United States and NATO allies could also supply medical equipment, services and even sanctuary during Russian offensives.

“In discussions with allies, senior Biden officials have also made clear that the CIA (covertly) and the Pentagon (overtly) would both seek to help any Ukrainian insurgency,” Cooper wrote.

As the specter of war grows, military aid to Ukraine is already ramping up. The Biden administration on Wednesday announced an additional $200 million in defensive military aid. That came after Britain this week said it had begun shipping antitank weapons to Ukraine to help it boost defenses. “They are not strategic weapons and pose no threat to Russia,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told Parliament. “They are to use in self-defense.”

But a Russian invasion appears set to compel the West to send more, and broader, firepower: “I think that we’re talking about trying to take the edge or deter a Russian mostly conventional ground offensive,” Peter Zwack, former U.S. Army brigadier general and former defense attache to the Russian Federation, told NPR this week. “And for that, the Ukrainians would need more Javelin antitank missiles.”

They would need surface-to-air missiles such as Stingers, he said: “They need to be able to knock down, threaten Russian air support.”

Going further requires a certain calculus.

Several European countries are unlikely to back an insurgency, stoking divisions among allies.

Moscow has also signaled an aggressive response, threatening military deployments to Cuba and Venezuela. U.S.-backed insurgencies also have no great track record — think Nicaragua, Syria and many more.

Yet the goal might not be victory but, rather, punishment: To ratchet up the cost to Putin of a Ukrainian adventure. Seth Jones, director of International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that punishment could be a prolonged insurgency that grinds away at the Russian military. To make that happen, he calls for a “Twenty-First Century Lend-Lease Act” led by the United States to provide Ukraine with war materiel at no cost. Priority items, he writes, would be the needs of a military involved in sustained combat, including air defense, antitank, and anti-ship systems; electronic warfare and cyber defense systems; small arms and artillery ammunition; spare vehicle parts; petroleum; rations and medical support.

James Nixey, director of the Russia-Eurasia program at London-based Chatham House, told me that the Ukrainians — better trained and equipped than when Russia’s “little green men” moved into Donbas nearly a decade ago — are likely to put up far more of a fight than the Russians encountered during their crushing blow to Georgia in 2008.

Western assistance in a guerilla-style war could amp up the pressure. Ukrainians would pay the highest price.

But Putin “will also not be able to hide all of those body bags,” Nixey said.

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