Small Wars Journal

West Front Ukraine 2024? Thinking about NATO intervention

Sat, 09/02/2023 - 9:43pm


West Front Ukraine 2024?

Thinking about NATO intervention

By Martin N. Stanton


Going nowhere fast:  Ukraine, summer of 2023

            Since early June the Ukrainian’s summer offensive has enmeshed itself in the Russian’s defensive belts and has made little headway.  Observing the scene from afar, if I had to guess as to whether the Ukrainians will (a) be able to break through all the Russians defensive belts and conduct grand sweeping maneuver warfare that will reach Melitipol and eventually liberate Crimea. Or (b) they will continue to be stymied like General Model’s forces were in their attack on the Russian defensive belts in the northern part of the Kursk salient eighty years ago, my money would be on the latter, with the Russians being able to contain the Ukrainian’s offensive.

            The issue is that while the Russians may be able to hold off the Ukrainians, that’s not the same thing as defeating them.  The Russian army has been savaged in the Ukraine with much of its offensive capability wasted in badly conceived and executed operations during the first few months of the war.  So don’t look for any far-ranging Operational Maneuver Groups of Red Army lore from them either.  Instead, what we find is a high-tech version of the Western front in the first world war.  An eastern European Passchendaele – with drones.

            Stalemates of this nature should (logically) produce negotiations.  Unfortunately, like WW1, the Ukraine war has turned into a “grudge match”.  Neither side seems inclined to compromise.  Neither does either side look close to collapse (no matter how much we may wish-cast weakness and internal discord on the Russians, they do seem to be “muddling through”).  So -barring the use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW) by Putin - the prospect of the war dragging on into 2024 gets better with each passing day.

The Ukraine War 2024: “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because……….”

            Following the WW1 script, in 2024 each side will be looking for an advantage to achieve a “breakthrough”.  For the Ukrainians this will be more material and increased capabilities (F-16s, Patriot missiles, more of everything) from their NATO and other international patrons.  For the Russians it will be reconstituted units and restored stockpiles of ammunition from ramped up production.  The impact of this acquisition / reconstitution race will largely be self-canceling and most likely result in more indecisive attrition (think Verdun or the Somme).  While the operational stalemate on the battlefield continues, drone and cruise/ballistic missile attacks on each other’s cities will substitute for Zeppelin raids, but their strategic effect will be much the same.   In the meantime, both sides will continue to look for a way to break the deadlock.

Breaking the deadlock

            Of the two combatants, only Russia has the potential to break the deadlock with resources available organically.  Russia can conduct further mobilization and increase production / refurbishment to rebuild shattered units.  In short, Russia can build another Army between now and next summer.  It won’t be as good as their first one in terms of equipment, but it will be marginally more effective due to the learning curve of battle.  This will give them an expanded capacity like that of the Germans in early 1918 when the western front was reinforced by all the units transferred from the eastern front after the Russians signed the Treaty of Brest Litovsk following the Czar’s abdication.  A 2024 Russian version of the Kaiser’s Spring Offensive of 1918 could still knock the Ukrainians out of the war.

            The Ukrainians however are not likely to be capable of breaking the deadlock using the current construct of Ukrainian units supported by foreign resource contributions.  Continued stalemate under these conditions will be the best they can reasonably hope for.   To achieve “Victory” and restore Ukraine to its pre-February 2022 borders, the Ukrainians are going to need direct foreign military intervention.  Like the exhausted Entente allies of 1918, their eyes are focused across the ocean.

The Yanks are coming (?)

            The intervention of NATO (mainly US) forces into Ukraine conflict could tip the balance much the same way the arrival of US forces tipped the scales in WW1.  Unfortunately, the introduction of NATO forces into the Ukraine conflict would also bring nations with strategic nuclear arsenals into direct conflict with one another, something the world has avoided so far.   However, a lot of powerful people are bandying the idea about.  Therefore, it would behoove us to think about if we should intervene, as well as when and how we should intervene.   FOR THE RECORD:  I am against direct NATO military intervention in the Ukraine Conflict.

“If” we should intervene.

            The case for intervention is far from a “slam-dunk”.  If the Ukrainians can contain the Russians next year without direct foreign military intervention it may be enough to force the Russians to a negotiated settlement or cause a change of leadership in Russia.  The problem is that even in the best case the Ukrainian’s leadership would likely have to settle for less than the restoration of their pre-Feb 2022 borders.  If on the other hand, the Ukrainians were joined by NATO nations while the broader stalemate was on-going then they (the Ukrainians) would be less likely to settle for something less than complete victory.   Thus, it is possible that foreign intervention during an on-going stalemate could make the Ukrainians less likely to negotiate, prolong the war and risk unforeseen escalation between strategic nuclear powers.

“When” should we intervene.

            Intervention should be looked at in the context of what we (the US and NATO) expect to gain from it.  We can (a) intervene to prevent outright defeat of Ukrainian forces and restore the stalemate – ideally increasing the chances of a negotiated settlement or (b) intervene to facilitate outright victory over the Russians in Ukraine.  The first is less risky than the second but both have the potential for unexpected escalation.   Much will depend on how we (the US and NATO) choose to intervene.

“How” we should intervene.

            Direct support to the Ukraine will come in two main forms – support based outside of Ukrainian territory, support from NATO units based inside Ukraine proper.  In both cases however, before we start talking forces and operational design.  We need to define the battlespace.

The Arena:  In many ways the issue is similar to that which UN forces faced in Korea and US forces faced in Vietnam.  In both instances the battlespace was bordered by a hostile nation (China) whose territory US forces were prohibited from operating in (A restriction born of a political decision to keep the conflict from spreading).   In Korea, China projected military power into Korea and any Chinese forces south of the Yalu were fair game under the ROE. 

It is easy to envision similar restrictions placed upon NATO forces in any conflict with Russia in the Ukraine.  However, there are problems with the comparison.  To begin with, the Russians long range fires capability through drones, cruise and ballistic missiles, rocket artillery and aircraft dwarfs any capability the Communist Chinese possessed in the early 1950s.  Further, the Russians long range anti-aircraft missiles such as SS-20s can reach hundreds of kilometers over the Ukraine-Russia border.  Russian AWACs flying in Russian airspace can see far into Ukraine, Russian naval forces operating in the Black Sea offer a maritime complication that was lacking in Korea or Vietnam. 

Nor are we likely to lift restrictions on striking targets within Russia proper.  To do so would risk both widening the war and fracturing NATO unity.  Both of which we will fall over ourselves to keep.  Because of this the Ukraine theater has the potential to be the most hostile battlespace we’ve operated in generations. Anything in the air or on the ground in Ukraine or in the Black Sea littoral proximate to Ukraine coast or Crimea will be fair game.  The only up-side to this construct is that if we abide by our self-imposed restriction not to strike into Russia, the Russians will not likely conduct strikes outside of Ukraine.  Thus, both combatants will sit in their sanctuaries – NATO in the NATO bordering nations and the Russians in their own country and only engage each other’s forces inside the recognized combatant arena of Ukraine and its littoral seas.

Operational Design

Whatever we end up doing, a good rule of thumb for planning should be that we are less likely to end up in a cycle of spiraling escalation with the Russians if there are no NATO Forces actually on the ground in the Ukraine.  There’s a sliding scale of intervention with an associated risk increase with both the degree of force commitment and the overall objectives of the intervention depending on the course of action chosen.

COA 1: Air War Only: Intervention in this case would look much like the coalition air campaign over Serbia in 1999 – except against far more resilient and dangerous opposition which could safely engage our aircraft from deep inside Russian territory.  We would take more losses than we anticipate, but we would have a significant (perhaps decisive) impact on the battlefield.  Using this option to protect the Ukrainians from losing outright and forcing an armistice has the lowest risk of spiraling escalation between NATO and Russia.  However, if the intervention of NATO air forces was to support Ukrainian offensive operations that would restore the Ukraine-Russia border to its pre-February 2022 configuration (or even further than that) then the risk of escalation rises considerably.

COA-2:  Air + NATO Ground Forces west of the Dnieper River.  This would be Option 1 (above) plus the introduction of some NATO forces into Ukraine.  Forward airfield operations to shorten aircraft re-fit and re-arm turns, battlefield logistics supporters (repair organizations for NATO provided equipment – fix farther forward, increase Ukrainian OR rates) MI assets and enough air defense and ground combat units to provide security for the footprint.  This would make our air campaign more effective and increase the Ukrainians capabilities, but it would also open these NATO units to attack by Russian long-range fires.  The risks are broadly the same as those associated with COA-1 except for the significant political risk of a NATO mass casualty event starting the drumbeat for increased escalation on the NATO side.

COA-3:  Air + NATO ground forces East of the Dnieper River:   This would be the most dangerous COA because it would place NATO ground maneuver units into direct conflict with the Russians.  It would also be the least likely of the three to produce a stalemate and a negotiated peace, any more than the intervention of the US in WW1 led to a stalemate.  The Russians would have to assume that the end state objective of an intervention like this would be something akin to a 21st century treaty of Versailles – with them playing the part of the Germans.  They would act accordingly to avoid this.

Russian Reactions

Against COA’s 1 + 2 the Russians would likely respond to us conventionally within the arena seeking to maximize our casualties while preserving their own forces from the effects of our strikes.  COA 3 however, is where it gets interesting.  In 1918, the Germans began their Spring offensive with the aim of driving the allies out of the war before the US Army could arrive in sufficient numbers to tip the balance.  The strategic calculation behind this was sound, unfortunately for them the US Army arrived and became effective more quickly than they anticipated.  The Russians would be in the same position facing the intervention of NATO ground combat units into the Ukraine conflict.  They would have to try to force a decision on the ground before the NATO forces could tip the balance.  Given the state of their forces, their only realistic option for doing this would be to use TNW.

This is the nightmare scenario from NATO ground intervention.  It would be especially dangerous if one of the newly introduced NATO units were struck by TNW (either deliberately or inadvertently) and suffered a three-or-four-digit number of casualties.  The pressure to expand strikes into Russian territory would be immense, with the commensurate risk to NATO bases involved in the campaign skyrocketing.  The terrible specter of spiraling escalation grins and beckons.

NATO unity?  Well…..

Hovering over all these COA is the reality of uneven enthusiasm within NATO for the Ukrainian war.  The number of NATO nations who would unreservedly participate in a NATO intervention into the Ukraine conflict would dwindle rapidly the greater the NATO commitment appeared to be.  COA 3 would likely see Uncle Sam standing with only a few of the NATO partner nations beside him.  Moreover, nations with specifically critical geographic placement would certainly exercise their vote.  For example - does Turkey acquiesce to the movement of NATO combatant vessels into the Black Sea and potentially make her own littoral a battlefront, or does she close the Bosporus to all combatants for the duration of the war?

Russia’s friends?  Yes, she has a few.

Belorussia will house Russian nukes (according to the news anyway) but is unlikely to allow actual Russian strikes (nuclear or conventional) from its territory if NATO intervenes in Ukraine (although some Russian strikes may transit its airspace without permission).  Expect them to share intel with the Kremlin though and possibly allow (deniable) special ops from their territory.    Iran can be depended upon to keep providing Russia with drones and other military assistance and to help the Russians in the middle east.  The North Koreans and the Chinese will provide intel, material and political support.  Plus, the Russians twin export pillars of food and energy give them more sway in the developing world than we care to admit.  NATO cannot take global consensus on Ukraine for granted.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world

What makes the prospect of NATO intervention in the Ukraine particularly awkward is that in other parts of world US and NATO forces will be in proximity with Russian forces on a regular basis.  NATO and Russian warships that would shoot at each other in the Black Sea will eye each other warily in the Baltic.  From Tallinn to the Kaliningrad Oblast, Russian and NATO troops will confront each other across the borders.  All over the world NATO and Russian military elements will be staring each other down, finger-on-the-trigger.  Miscues and false starts in this kind of situation can have drastic strategic consequences. 

The danger of open-ended commitment

            Another problem with NATO intervention in the Ukraine conflict is that the less risky scenarios (that is - those that have less risk of spiraling escalation into a nuclear war) have a greater risk of becoming open ended commitments.   The Kosovo air campaign was successful because it was fighting Serbs who were isolated and had limited means to resist.  Nonetheless, it still lasted over 2 ½ months.  The Russian’s capacity for sustained resistance is immeasurably greater.  We could see a COA -1 commitment devolve into a Ukrainian version of Operation SOUTHERN WATCH – which lasted over a decade.  Unlike SOUTHERN WATCH though, the threat environment will be far greater and would require the commitment of some of our best capabilities.  What would the impact of such a commitment be on the increasingly zero-sum-game of force allocation across the world?


            I have tried to just scratch the surface on some of the strategic and operational implications of a NATO intervention into the Ukrainian war.  Over the past few months, I have observed the drumbeat for NATO intervention getting louder in the media.  Senior leaders in politics, academia, and the military, both serving and retired are giving too many off-the-cuff opinions when they should be sitting down and really reviewing the implications of such an intervention.  Such a move would not be a replay of the Afghan and Iraq campaigns of the 21st century, it would not be Kosovo in 1999 nor would it be DESERT STORM.  This is very high stakes stuff.  We need to really think this through.

About the Author(s)

Martin Stanton is a retired Army officer currently residing in Florida.  The opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect any official DOD or USG position.