The Russia-Ukrainian War and the Behind-the-Scenes Stance of the United States

Tsuneo Watanabe


Anchored in the war-torn Ukrainian capital, President Zelensky is incessantly sending online messages to foreign governments and parliamentary bodies, including those of the United States, Europe, and Japan. The presidential communications, alongside vivid images of the ongoing war dispatched from the Ukrainian front, have played a decisive role in rallying international support for Ukraine --- a new reality in the global online society. The digitalization and globalization of information empower Ukraine to evolve a new form of defensive campaign against the Russian invasion by tanks, referred to jokingly as a 19th-century model of invasion.

This trend is changing not just the way of disseminating information but also Ukrainian military operations. Ukrainians invaded by Russian troops share information with the Ukrainian military on their smartphones, thereby supporting the Ukrainian forces in their robust resistance against Russian forces. Meanwhile, military aid to Ukraine by the United States and European countries and the US provision of intelligence about Russian military operations are pivotal for Ukraine to fight against Russia. In the past, technological innovations caused shifts in world history; the ongoing war appears to witness another historical shift due to recent technological innovation.

The behind-the-scenes stance of the United States and its provision of military aid to Ukraine will affect the future of the rules-based international order. Such a US position will affect China's moves concerning Taiwan receiving US military assistance. This paper will consider the behind-the-scenes stance of the United States in the Russia-Ukraine war and the Biden administration's relevant strategy.

Direct military engagement --- off the table for the United States

On December 7, 2021, US President Biden and Russian President Putin had a two-hour online meeting as Russian troops had been massing on the Ukrainian border. On the following day, December 8, President Biden stated that the United States would not unilaterally use military force in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. On the other hand, President Putin did not rule out the possibility of an invasion, saying that he was responding to a "creeping threat" from NATO. 1

The ongoing Russian offensive against Ukraine is an extension of its actions in 2014 --- Russia intervened in the Ukrainian civil war and unilaterally annexed the Crimean Peninsula, which was then Ukrainian territory, through what is now known as "hybrid warfare" or the combined use of conventional military force, cyber warfare, and information warfare. The Russian reasoning may be that the ongoing invasion is part of its "self-defense" measures to oust US/NATO forces from its sphere of influence --- long-cherished designs since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The question is why the time is now. Supposedly, President Putin has been acutely aware of the divisions within the United States and the consequent weakness of American society, as evidenced by the January 6, 2021 incident: disappointed with the results of the previous month's presidential election, pro-Trump supporters stormed into Congress, in the belief that Trump's loss was due to election rigging by the Biden camp, causing deaths and injuries. American divisions had reached their peak. What is worse, in August 2021, President Biden enforced the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, ignoring advice from his aides and the military. His domestic approval ratings continued to decline and his decision also displeased European allies who had deployed to Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, former President Trump still retains immense popularity and influence among members of the opposition Republican Party. The Republicans will most likely win back their majority in the House and Senate in the November 2022 midterm elections; the Biden administration's falling into lame-duck status and the rise of the Republican Party supported by the Trump faction are almost beyond doubt. 2 Former President Trump is known for his "strange" affinity with President Putin; at the G7 summits, he repeatedly called for reinstating Russia, ousted from the G8 due to its annexation of Crimea in violation of international rules. 3 Supposedly, President Putin knew the reason for Trump's strange affinity with him and was optimistic that the return of Trump or a pro-Trump presidency in 2024 would facilitate repairing relations with the United States.

The US domestic political situation at this time was far from allowing the Biden administration direct intervention in Ukraine --- as the midterm elections approached.

Preemptive disclosure of intelligence by the United States

As Russia's threat to take Ukraine hostage jolted the United States and Europe, the Biden administration announced that the US government had clear evidence of Russian plans to invade Ukraine and warned Russia to withdraw troops from the Ukrainian border. This move was called a "preemptive disclosure of intelligence information" --- a historically unprecedented move. 4

On January 14, 2022, White House press secretary Psaki stated, "We are concerned that the Russian government is preparing for an invasion in Ukraine that may result in widespread human rights violations and war crimes should diplomacy fail to meet their objectives", adding that "Russia is also laying the groundwork through a social media disinformation campaign that frames Ukraine as an aggressor that has been preparing an imminent attack against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine." Psaki expressed concern about a so-called "false-flag operation." The White House also released an estimate based on intelligence findings that the Russian military would launch such an operation several weeks before a military invasion; that a Russian military invasion "could begin between mid-January and mid-February."

In February, the White House also pointed out that the Russian government had created a fake propaganda video to fabricate Ukrainian attacks, stating that a Russian invasion could happen "before the closing of the Beijing Winter Olympics" or even "tomorrow." 5

On February 17, Secretary of State Blinken presented a "Russian invasion scenario" at the UN Security Council: the gravest warning he had ever given. The scenario suggests that Russia could conduct a "false-flag operation" to create a crisis that would serve as a pretext for launching attacks against Ukraine; and that Russia could fabricate bomb terror threats and drone attacks against pro-Russian civilians or cause chemical weapons attacks to frame Ukraine and the United States as "perpetrators." Blinken predicted that under the pretext of a response to those "fabricated" crises, the Russian government would hold an emergency security meeting at the highest level and launch a military invasion under the guise of "the necessity of responding to protect the Russian population in Ukraine." 6

The United States revealed details of Russia's invasion plan: the invasion will begin with missile strikes and airstrikes, which will be followed by sabotaging communications and crippling key institutions with cyberattacks; then ground troops and tanks will march into major Ukrainian cities; target sites specified in the detailed plan include the capital city of Kyiv. 7

These disclosures are extraordinary because, ordinarily, such actions would expose the spy networks the United States had built in Russia, endanger the lives of its agents, and risk being stigmatized as a "boy crying wolf" and undermining US credibility once Russia changed its behavior. However, the Biden administration appears to have understood all of these risks associated with its preemptive disclosure of intelligence information. According to Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, "Mr. Putin likes surprises. He did so when he annexed Crimea." She referred to her attempt to remove the elements of surprise attractive to Putin. She also said, "We deprive Mr. Putin of his tools and encourage Ukraine and our allies to make preparations. We will show the world the despicable means the Kremlin has been employing." 8

The reasons for the difficulties that Russia has faced in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine include that Ukraine had been ready for war and that the preemptive disclosure by the United States of intelligence information discouraged the Russian government from information sharing on its military operations for fear of spying. Although the preemptive disclosures did not prevent the Russian invasion, it was still effective.

High hurdles for US military intervention

The Biden administration has done everything in its capability except direct military deployment to Ukraine --- the preemptive disclosure of intelligence information; the deployment of additional troops to NATO member countries; the strengthening of economic sanctions against Russia; and military aid for Ukraine.

In the United States, hurdles for military intervention are high, as the public perception of foreign affairs has turned dramatically "inward" --- the country has drifted irretrievably away from that of the pre-G.W. Bush eras. A CBS News poll conducted on February 8-11 shows that 53% of respondents chose "stay out" as the US stance to take over the Russia-Ukraine conflict, while 41% said that the United States should be engaged in it. Looking at age groups, 61% of those 65 and older said that the United States should be engaged in Ukraine, whereas 61% of a younger generation (18-29 of age) chose "stay out." A majority of those 30-62 years old (55%) also chose the same. 9

The number of Republican respondents who chose "stay out" is greater than that of Democrat respondents who answered the same. Fifty-eight percent of Democrat respondents approve of US engagement in Ukraine, whereas 55% of Republicans and 61% of Independents said that the United States should not be involved. 10 For two reasons, direct military intervention was not an option for the Biden administration: first, direct military intervention could ignite a World War III that must be prevented by all means; secondly, political calculations that took into account the midterm elections did not allow the Biden administration to choose a military intervention.

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine strengthened the US-European solidarity

On February 24, 2022, the Russian military unleashed a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, beginning with missile attacks on Ukrainian military facilities. A few days later, however, it was clear that the resistance of the Ukrainian military was more robust than anticipated, and it became apparent that Russia could not advance as planned. On February 26, the Biden administration asked Congress to approve a $6.4 billion budget to help Ukraine and Eastern European countries; it also announced a new $350 million arms aid package for Ukraine containing the provision of "Javelin" anti-tank missiles. In addition, Germany, which had been cautious about providing offensive weapons to other countries, announced that it would provide Ukraine with anti-tank guns and the "Stinger" surface-to-air missile. France, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Belgium, etc. have also announced the provision of arms to Ukraine. 11

The self-imposed constraints on military intervention in Ukraine --- with inward-looking constituencies, Democrat and Republican, in mind --- prevented the Biden administration from adopting such military action or diplomacy of a high-risk/high-return nature as the G.W. Bush administration did. On the other hand, the Biden administration has succeeded in urging European countries to action, as they feel a sense of crisis about their security and the future stability of the international order. Germany, in particular, heavily dependent on Russia for energy supply, has frozen the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline project and aligned itself with the United States and other European nations in excluding leading Russian banks from SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications). Supposedly, these developments are more than expected by both Biden and Putin.

On March 12, the EU prohibited SWIFT and other service providers from providing financial messaging services for international interbank transfers and payments to seven leading Russian banks designated by the EU.

US support vital to Ukrainian resistance

On April 2, more than a month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces began a withdrawal from the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv; the Ukrainian Defense Ministry declared that the entire Kyiv province was "liberated." Initial Russian military operations aimed at capturing the Ukrainian capital failed, and the focus has shifted to fighting in eastern Ukraine.

This points to the failure of President Putin's initial strategy to bring down the Zelensky administration with a blitzkrieg seizure of Kyiv and to create a pro-Russian government --- a remarkable result of the courageous resistance of the Ukrainian military, led by President Zelensky, but at the cost of significant civilian casualties. Unquestionably, the feat could not have been achieved without liberal support from the United States, including pre-war military assistance, training of Ukrainian forces by the US military, intelligence sharing of Russian military activities, and cooperation in the cyber domain.

In his April 10 interview for CNN, Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to the President, responsible for foreign and security policy of the Biden administration, commended that the credit of the Russian defeat around Kyiv belongs to valiant and tenacious resistance by the Ukrainian citizens. He added that advanced weapons provided by the United States and Europe also helped beat back the Russians, saying "... we were proud to be able to support the Ukrainians." According to Sullivan, the United States will continue to support Ukraine at every possible stage, thereby giving Ukraine the upper hand in cease-fire negotiations with Russia while making the invasion costly for Russia through economic sanctions. 12

In the long-term outlook, Russia's strategic failure is apparent. The Biden administration has scored a great success by strengthening solidarity with its European allies and imposing biting economic sanctions on Russia, in tandem with Germany and other US allies who depend on Russia for energy supplies. Moreover, the Biden administration has accomplished these strategies without shedding a drop of American blood, avoiding the heavy financial burden of a direct US military intervention, which is unwanted by American voters who have grown weary of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and are increasingly inward-looking. These achievements will help make the US strategic position vis-à-vis Russia and China advantageous.

US strategy eyeing China

The Biden administration's strategy is not focused merely on Russia. In its longer perspective, its primary concern is China, a potentially more grave threat to the United States and to global stability. It is vital to frustrate this "military adventurism" of Russia to, among other things, make China aware of the weighty cost of its "military adventurism" of unifying Taiwan by force. To this end, it is significant for the United States to preserve its military power and to strengthen its relations with its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region and in Europe. It will constitute a crucial move in the US long-term strategy to force Russia to abandon the fulfillment of her strategic goals by making her aggression on Ukraine costly by facing brave resistance of the Ukrainian people and the heavy sanctions by the international community.

This strategic thinking is demonstrated in the National Defense Strategy (NDS) that the Biden administration transmitted to Congress on March 28, more than a month after the Russian invasion on February 23. The Pentagon outlined the classified document. The NDS positions China as a higher priority than dealing with Russia invading Ukraine. The document defines China as the most serious competitor for the United States and an ever-increasing challenge for the Pentagon. The NDS pledges action to maintain and strengthen deterrence against China, emphasizing the defense of the US mainland against the growing Chinese threat in multiple domains, including cyber and space. 13

To achieve its goals, the NDS stresses the importance of working not merely to improve US defense capabilities but also to upgrade the combat capabilities of its allies and partners. 14 Chinese support is the key for Russia to raise huge military expenditures for its campaign in Ukraine under the severe current economic sanctions. In this sense, checks against China are crucial as a medium- to short-term tactic. China factors are likewise important in the US long-term strategy. In response to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States is strengthening relations not only with European allies but also with Japan and other Asian allies and partners to make sanctions against Russia effective. This US move also aims to raise the hurdle for China's use of military force by highlighting the cost of military invasion, implicitly against Taiwan.

Russia is an "existential threat" to Eastern European countries, but it does not pose any direct threat to the United States as long as both superpowers avoid exchanging nuclear weapons mounted on ICBMs. The Russian economy is the world's 11th largest, one-tenth the size of China's. Given that the current economic sanctions will work in due course, it is understandable that Russia's ability to continue fighting in Ukraine will be more difficult. If Russia exhausts its national strength in the ongoing war with Ukraine, the situation will resemble the nightmare of some 40 years ago: the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent difficult military occupation continued to drain the Soviet Union's strength until its withdrawal in 1989, resulting in its final collapse.

Meanwhile, the United States withdrew its troops from Afghanistan last year and has preserved its military strength by not directly intervening in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thanks to this decision, the Biden administration has avoided risks on the domestic political front. There is no need to repeat that the feat of Ukrainian soldiers depends on the US provision of arms, financial support, intelligence information sharing, and cooperation in cyberspace. Thus, the Biden administration is driving home to the world that any country could defend itself against a superpower even if it is not a US ally, only if it can obtain US support. In the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, both of which caused significant American casualties, the United States invited criticism at home and from abroad. In the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, the United States is furnishing effective cooperation, instead of direct military intervention, that minimizes its own burden while gaining support and endorsement from the international community.

The development of the Russia-Ukraine war, continuation or ceasefire, will hinge upon the moves of China, Russia's partner country. The Russia-China joint statement of February 4 declared that friendship between the two States "has no limits." Yet, China has not given Russia its full support. 15 If China decides to provide its military support for Russia, which the Biden administration has repeatedly warned against, the war in Ukraine will be protracted. On the other hand, if China supports Russia's protracted military campaign, it would sap China of its strength, giving the United States an advantage in the long-term competition with China. For the United States, checks on China are, so to speak, "forking the rook while checking the king." This is the reason why China cannot easily move to help Russia.


Hurdles to US military intervention were so high that the United States was obliged to resort to the emergency measures of extraordinary intelligence disclosures, which could however not deter war between Russia and Ukraine. Since the outcome of the present war will depend on how it comes to an end, it is hard to come up with some judgment now. Nonetheless, the ongoing war will likely afford the United States, now working behind the scenes due to restrictions on military intervention, an opportunity to renew its strategy and to gain strategic advantages.

(Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation)

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