Could America end up in a shooting war with Russia over Ukraine? It's unlikely, but there are precedents that would support such an action.
One of the jobs of geopolitical strategists is to "game out" possible scenarios -- however unlikely -- to help prepare national security officials and the National Command Authority for possible weaknesses in our security and attacks that might come from unexpected quarters.
Russia and the Ukraine are one such scenario. Speaking of unlikely, one of the earliest people to speak of Vladimir Putin's possible invasion of Ukraine was Sarah Palin back in the 2008 presidential campaign. She made the statement as part of one of her many seemingly over-the-top criticisms of then-Senator Obama.
Now, of course, such an invasion is taking place. Russian troops have already taken hold of Crimea and Putin's puppet parliament voted unanimously to deploy troops in the rest of Ukraine.
A matter of precedent
Here we have a case of a stronger, strongman-led country invading a weaker neighbor for the strategic benefits it can provide. Do we have another example of such an invasion -- along with an American response -- that we can use as a precedent? If so, we might be able to predict one way America might respond to Russia's act of aggression.
As it turns out, we do. It was August 2, 1990 at 2am local time that Iraqi tanks rolled across the border into Kuwait, beginning both the occupation of the smaller neighbor country and what would come to be known as the first Gulf War.
Shortly after the invasion, the UN Security Council met and passed Resolution 660, which condemned the invasion. Two other resolutions followed, one authorizing economic sanctions and another authorizing a naval blockade of Iraq.
After four months, when Iraq still did not remove its troops, the UN passed Resolution 678, which set a deadline of January 15, 1991 where, if troops were not removed, a coalition of troops from 12 countries and the UN would invade. Of course, of the 956,600 troops overall, 697,000 were from the United States. So while the US made up 1/13th of the coalition, almost 75 percent of the troops (and presumably money and materiel) came from the US and US taxpayers.
Operation Desert Storm began on January 17, 1991 and ended famously in Iraq, 150 miles from Baghdad.
So there we have precedent. A large, belligerent country invaded its neighbor, the UN condemned it, the invader did not withdraw, and eventually the UN (made up mostly by US troops) got into a shooting war to force withdrawal.
Differences between Iraq and Russia
Given this precedent, it is possible to postulate that a similar course of action might (and I stress "might" rather than "will") happen with Russia and its invasion of Ukraine.
There are, of course, considerable differences in these two situations. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was far more isolated on the world stage than Putin's Russia. After all, the Olympics just took place in Sochi. Russia has embraced an international trade and both exports and imports products actively. Putin has also been a much more deft international figure than Saddam, creating something of a cult of personality outside his nation, rather than abusing the vast majority his citizens within it. Of course, if you're in Russia, it's probably prudent not to get Putin peeved at you.
Further, while Saddam's 1991 Iraq was very well armed, it still wasn't Russia, with its far greater armament and years of Cold War experience staring down Western allies. The bottom line is simply this: going to war with Putin's 2014 Russia is vastly more dangerous and substantially less likely to succeed than going to war with Saddam's 1991 Iraq.
That said, let's say it happened. Let's say the UN repeated its 1990-1991 pattern and passed a series of resolutions that were summarily ignored by Putin. Let's then say that a coalition of forces (mostly the US, of course) was deployed to push back against Putin's troops.
For the purpose of this discussion, I'll leave the ground, sea, and air war to the admirals and generals to plot out. Let's, instead, look at the cyberwar.
First, there wasn't much of a cyber force back in 1990 and 1991. The Internet was around, but only barely, and it certainly didn't underpin everything we do in society and it most certainly didn't connect virtually everyone on the planet.
The technological difference between the cyberwar arena now and the Gulf War of 1991 can be compared to the technological difference between the Civil War and World War II when it came to air battles. In the Civil War, there were no air battles. In the Gulf War, there were no cyber battles. In World War II, there were many famous and deadly air battles. In our as-yet-unnamed Ukraine war, there would most definitely be cyber battles.
Next up: Digital WMDs and Putin...