All posts by Robert Rasmussen

Applying Interagency Concepts from Domestic Disaster Response to Foreign HA/DR

Naval HA/DR Topic Week

By Robert C. Rasmussen

A Warm Sunny Day

It is a warm and sunny October evening in Cilegon, Indonesia. As the city of 416,000 moves through its afternoon rush, a strong shake is felt.  It stops after two minutes, and then a loud explosion is heard coming from the west, with a large mushroom cloud enveloping the sky. Traffic on National Highway 3 is at a standstill.  People are getting out of their cars trying to determine what has just happened. Some of them, realizing that the explosion has come from the Sunda Strait, abandon their vehicles, and start running south up a hill, as a thirty meter tsunami appears on the horizon heading towards the coast. Those who survive the tsunami are then enveloped in a cloud of burning ash.

Cilegon, Indonesia. Source: City of Cilegon

Several hours later, local authorities are helpless, and the Indonesian military is completely overwhelmed.  Reinforcements are being flown in from other parts of the country. The low-lying areas of Cilegon are completely destroyed, along with more than 1,500 towns and villages in both Banten and Lampung Provinces. At least five million people are estimated to be dead. The Prime Minister accepts an offer of aid from the Ambassador of the United States. At this point, the close to ten million more people who survived the disaster lack access to food, clean water, or housing.  Furthermore, weather reports are showing that the first storm of the monsoon season will reach the affected area within the next 72 hours. Meanwhile, an Amphibious Ready Group transiting the Malacca Straits receives orders to sail to Cilegon. Its orders also indicate that the ARG Commander is to assume command of the Joint Task Force being formed from U.S. military personnel.

1888 Lithograph of 1883 Eruption of Krakatoa: Parker & Coward. Source: Wikipedia.

This disaster has happened before. The last major explosion of Krakatoa, a volcanic island situated in the Sunda Strait, occurred in 1883, causing a pyroclastic flow with a 50 km radius, and sent a thirty meter high tsunami across the Sunda Strait in all directions. The noise of the explosion was heard as far away as Alice Springs, Australia, and Mauritius.  Skeletons found laying on pumice were found washing ashore in East Africa for several years afterwards. The official death toll was around thirty-six thousand. The area around Krakatoa has a significantly higher population today, and major eruptions of the mountain have been recorded as occurring between every 100-250 years.[1] It is not uncommon for disasters of a large magnitude to be followed by a subsequent event that exacerbate the conditions for survival, such as monsoon events, like Winter Storm Athena that followed a month after Hurricane Sandy.[2]


In the scenario described above it is very likely that the assistance of the United States will be requested by the host nation, and it is very likely that in an archipelagic nation, such as Indonesia, naval forces will be the first to arrive. It is also distinctly possible that a Naval or Marine officer will be appointed as Joint Task Force Commander. The doctrine on how to respond to disasters or provide humanitarian assistance depends on where a Joint Task Force is responding and whether or not it is inside or outside the United States. 

For Domestic Disaster Response/Humanitarian Assistance missions there is a set framework in the form of the Incident Command System (ICS), the National Incident Management System (NIMS), Multiagency Coordination System (MACS), and National Response Framework (NRF). These include a common operating language and procedures that allow for integration of responding agencies and unity of effort.[3] The major proponent of doctrine for domestic response within the Department of Defense is U.S. Northern Command.[4] The military forces that most commonly exercise these missions are within state military forces such as the Army & Air National Guard, as well as State Defense Forces[5] and Naval Militias in those states that have such organizations.[6]

When it comes to Foreign Disaster Response and Humanitarian Assistance, there is no common operating language, procedures, and organizational structures.  Instead, the doctrine that is put forward for foreign response displays the common organizational structures needed for integration – namely where a commander should deploy Liaison Officers. However, this doctrine does not integrate common operating language and procedures to better facilitate the mission. Meanwhile, other agencies of the Federal Government, especially U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, not only utilize ICS and MACS in their response doctrine, but teach that doctrine to host nation response forces.[7]

Current Doctrine on Defense Support to Civil Authorities

During a domestic disaster response/humanitarian assistance operation, utilized doctrine focuses on Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA) that is largely controlled by U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM).  The design of the DSCA mission is largely built around supporting the United States’ federalist system. The most important laws relating to this doctrine are the Stafford Act of 1988, the Insurrection Act of 1807, and the Posse Comitatus Act of 1869. 

The concept here is that all disasters are local disasters first. Under the Stafford Act and other supporting state legislation, when local governments are responding to a disaster and their resources become overwhelmed, they must first request assistance from surrounding counties under Emergency Mutual Assistance Compacts (EMAC).  If those resources become overwhelmed, a County Executive may request the Governor to declare a State of Emergency, which then allows the Governor to allocate funding and deploy resources to support the affected area. In turn, if a state’s resources become overwhelmed, then the Governor will request EMAC resources from other states. If those resources become overwhelmed, a Governor may request the President to declare a Federal State of Emergency, which allows federal resources to be allocated to the response. During a State of Emergency declared by a Governor, State Military Forces may be utilized in the response – during a Federal State of Emergency, National Guard forces operating under Title 32 USC (Militia of the United States) orders may be utilized.[8]

TF Blackheart Team 5 (Joint NY ARNG/NY State Guard Platoon) at the end of Operation Hurricane Sandy Phase IV, 16 December 2012). Photo taken at FOB Floyd (Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, NY), Source: Author.

Under the Posse Comitatus Act of 1869, there are limits to how the Armed Forces of the United States operating under Title 10 USC may be utilized for domestic response missions. [9]  Title 10 forces cannot be used for direct response or humanitarian assistance, but can be used for various support activities.   For example, during the response to Hurricane Sandy, Marines from the Wasp Amphibious Ready Group conducted an amphibious landing at Breezy Point, Far Rockaway, Queens, and began distributing meals and heater packs.[10] However, they were later withdrawn due to issues with the Posse Comitatus Act.  Around the same time Joint Task Force Sandy (New York Army National Guard 53rd Troop Command) troops began arriving.[11] Meanwhile, the U.S. Army 19th Engineer Battalion’s Headquarters Company and two Engineer Companies deployed from Fort Knox, Kentucky, where they conducted pumping operations to mitigate flooding of twenty-seven stories of subterranean infrastructure across New York City, and the 249th Engineer Battalion provided prime power services, along with general support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ New York District.[12] 

A Regular Army soldier from the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, turns on a generator in Lakehurst, NJ, after Hurricane Sandy. Source: U.S. Army.
Marines from the 26th MEU conduct an amphibious landing in the Breezy Point neighborhood of Far Rockaway, Queens, NY. Source: Department of Defense.

The provisions of the Insurrection Act of 1807 allow for the exceptions where Title 10 troops may be used for response to a disaster.  In these provisions a disaster would have to lead to law and order to break down.  Since all disasters are local, first Title 32 troops- both in the state of disaster, as well as those called in under EMAC must be unable to enforce order, and then federal troops can be utilized after the President has declared a Federal State of Emergency.[13] A great example of Title 10 troops being deployed to enforce law and order after a natural disaster was when the 82nd Airborne Division was deployed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  This occurred primarily due to the failures of the initial response, and the fact that half of the Louisiana Army National Guard (256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team), was deployed to Iraq at the time.[14]

Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division conducting Search & Rescue Operations in flooded sections of New Orleans. Source: Department of Defense.

In order to facilitate the integration of military forces at all levels, the common operating language of ICS, MACS, and NRF, are taught to National Guard troops, and troops assigned to U.S. Northern Command.  Incident Command System is organization at the tactical and operational level that allows for personnel from multiple agencies to integrate into mission-specific organizations to facilitate unity of effort- led by an Incident Commander.  For example, during the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, an ICS organization was created utilizing all agencies of the U.S. Government and the Incident Commander was Admiral Thad Allen, USCG (Ret).[15] 

ICS Organization Chart. Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Multiagency Coordination System (MACS) is the policy working group of the response. Such a group is facilitated by an Emergency Operations Center, and consists of policymakers with the ability to make strategic decisions.  Their mission is to implement policies that assist the ICS organization responding to the disaster to better accomplish their mission. Conversely the National Response Framework (NRF) is a document that establishes agency responsibilities and roles in a variety of disaster responses.[16]  

Current Doctrine for Foreign Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response            

The doctrine for Foreign Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response is similar to the doctrine for Defense Support to Civil Authorities, but there is no common operating language or framework. The doctrine first looks at how a host nation requests assistance and how a mission is assigned to military forces in an area.  When a disaster occurs, the host nation government requests assistance from the United States through the Ambassador. The Ambassador, through the Department of State, provides that request to the President, who approves or denies it. From that point the lead agency for coordination is the U.S. Agency for International Development through its Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which is similar to the role FEMA plays in domestic response. 

Members of USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team loading aid boxes onto a U.S. Navy Seahawk Helicopter at Tacloban Airport on 17 November 2013. Source: U.S. Agency for International Development.

From this point it is determined if defense support will be needed for the mission- if so it is requested through the Department of Defense, who in turn tasks the mission to the appropriate Geographic Combatant Command.  In turn, the Geographic Combatant Commander will appoint a JTF Commander, who will provide resources.  Once the Joint Task Force arrives on site, it must integrate with other agencies of the U.S. Government, host nation forces, and any International/NGO forces.  How that integration occurs is completely up to ad-hocracy, coming up with an organizational structure on the fly.[17] 

The doctrine primarily focuses on where to deploy Liaison Officers.  It recommends deployment to a series of coordination centers for: the host nation Government, the U.S. Embassy, UN Country Team/Mission Headquarters, Information Centers, Intelligence Centers, and the list goes on.  Most importantly, the focus is that the U.S. Government Joint/Interagency Task Force responding to this disaster has to respond immediately, but go through the entire process of integration and develop a common operating language simultaneously. 

Marines in Manila, Philippines, loading pallets of USAID relief boxes onto a KC-130 to be delivered to victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban on 15 November 2013. Source: U.S. Agency for International Development.

Recommendations for ICS Doctrine in Foreign Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response

ICS doctrine should be adapted to Foreign Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response, in order to help increase the efficiency of U.S. Armed Services response to foreign disasters.  ICS is already being utilized by civilian U.S. Government agencies for their response doctrine, especially the USAID, which is the federal coordinating agency for foreign disaster response. The federalist system of disaster response currently utilized in statutes and doctrine is similar to foreign response. The United States is after all a supranational organization of fifty sovereign states (who have given up little chunks of their sovereignty).  Each state has its own government structure and security forces (including military forces) that operate under the orders of a Governor, and the United States Government cannot intervene without the request of that Governor (except for limited circumstances). Such a system can be in place for international response.

A basic ICS education should be taught to all service members who may be deployed on a foreign HA/DR mission. This is a very simple syllabus, and could be taught over short periods of time, and would include curriculum already available through the FEMA Independent Study Program. The various centers where LNOs can be deployed can simply be defined as Emergency Operations Centers, and JTF Commanders can integrate at a minimum with other U.S. Government Agencies in an ICS Organizational HQ. The Ambassador, USAID Response Team, and Global Combatant Command Response Team can serve as a MAC Group for U.S. Government Response, and integrate with the Host Nation’s policymaking group. A Joint Interagency Task Force at the Global Combatant Command can serve as a reach back center for the MAC Group, and in turn reach back to National Command Authority in Washington. 

In order to facilitate an integrated doctrine for both Defense Support to Civil Authorities and foreign HA/DR, it would be important to centralize proponency for that doctrine. The best place to do so would be within the Political-Military Affairs Branch of the J-5 Directorate (Strategic Plans & Policy) of the Joint Staff. At a minimum, integrating this common operating language and structure into the doctrine for Foreign HA/DR will allow U.S. Military Forces to integrate with other U.S. Government agencies.  Domestic and foreign disaster assistance should utilize doctrine that is built around integrating military forces into a whole of government response, whether or not they are forces from the National Guard under state control integrating with state and federal agencies or federal troops integrating with host nation response agencies during a disaster.


Both domestic and foreign Disaster Response/Humanitarian Assistance missions are essentially the same mission, but simply occur in different spaces. Both missions should have the same doctrine, in order to help U.S. military forces integrate with other response forces quickly in order to more efficiently respond to disasters. Integrating the ICS, MACS, and NRF doctrine from FEMA into the training for active duty forces that may perform HA/DR abroad will help achieve the goals of that mission. 

Robert C. Rasmussen is a Second Lieutenant in the New York State Guard, and currently serves as the Aide-de-Camp to the Commanding General of the New York State Guard.  He holds a MA in International Relations and a CAS in Security Studies from Syracuse University, and BA in International Relations & Geography from SUNY Geneseo. He served on State Active Duty in support of Operation Hurricane Sandy from November 2012-January 2013.  His views are his own and do not reflect those of the New York State Division of Military & Naval Affairs.

[1] Dunk, Marcus,  “Will Krakatoa Rock the World Again?  Last Time It Killed Thousands and Changed the Weather for Five Years, Now It Could Be Even More Deadlier…”  Daily Mail Online,  31 July 2009,

[2] Author participated in disaster relief operations attached to Task Force Blackheart (642nd Aviation Support Battalion, NY ARNG) and Team Sandy (Joint Task Force Empire Shield) from 19 November 2012-22 January 2013.

[3] Federal Emergency Management Agency, “National Incident Management System,”

[4] Department of Defense, “Joint Publication 3-28: Defense Support to Civil Authorities,”, 31 July 2013.

[5] Department of Defense Inspector General, “Evaluation of Department of Defense Interaction with State Defense Forces,” 30 April 2014,

[6] McNeil, Deano, “Naval Militia: an Overlooked Domestic Emergency Response Option,” In Homeland Security, 30 April 2015,

[7] U.S. Agency for International Development, “Disaster Risk Reduction- East Asia & the Pacific,” 30 September 2012,

[8] Federal Emergency Management Agency, “IS-700: Introduction to the National Incident Management System,”  31 October 2013,

[9] National Guard Association of the United States, “NGAUS Fact Sheet: Understanding the Guard’s Duty Status,”

[10] II Marine Expeditionary Force, “Marines Land at Breezy Point,” 9 November 2012,

[11] Author served with the New York State Guard Element of Headquarters, Joint Task Force Sandy from 3-19 November 2012.

[12] U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New York District, “Army Corps Responds to Hurricane Sandy,” New York District Times, January 2013,

[13] Brinkerhoff, John, “Understanding the Posse Comitatus Act and the Insurrection Act,” Defense Technical Information Center, 2008,

[14] Department of the Army, “The Army Responds to Hurricane Katrina,” 10 September 2010,

[15] Marine Log, “Thad Allen Named National Incident Commander for Deepwater Horizon Spill,” 1 May 2010,

[16] Federal Emergency Management Agency, “IS-701: NIMS Multiagency Coordination System,”  12 October 2010,

[17] Department of Defense, “Joint Publication 3-29: Foreign Humanitarian Assistance,” 3 January 2014,

Featured Image: Soldiers assist residents displaced by Hurricane Sandy in Hoboken, N.J., Oct. 31, 2012. The soldiers are assigned to the New Jersey National Guard. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Joseph Davis.

Kiev Calling

“I saw the ravages of the famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine- hordes of families in rags begging at the railway stations, the women lifting up to the compartment windows their starving brats, which, with dumbstruck limbs, big cadaverous heads and puffed bellies, looked like embryos out of alcohol bottles.”- Arthur Koestler (The God that Failed)

Background and History

Ukraine has enjoyed true independence from Russia for only a short period of time in its history with the establishment of a republic after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991.  For its entire history prior, it has been a vassal of Russian imperialists.  Even the etymology of Ukraine translates roughly to Borderlands.[1]  Through Russian and Soviet history, Ukrainian plains and farmland have served as a strategic breadbasket, with wars for control of the territory being fought not only by the Russians/Soviets, but Cossacks, Ruthenians (ancestors of modern Ukrainians), Poles, Lithuanians, Turks, Tartars, Swedes, Austro-Hungarians, and Germans.

The boundaries of the region of Ukraine through history are exactly what can be expected for a borderland… they are fuzzy.  They have shifted east and west, north and south, with populations shifting over centuries, but with a center of gravity focused on a Ukrainian people.  It was in the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 that Ukraine got its first glimpse of independence.  Three powers emerged in the territory- the Organization for the Ukrainian Nation (OUN), the Cossack Hetmanate of Ukraine with the mandate of an imperial fiefdom, and the Bolshevik-associated Directorate of Ukraine.  Ultimately in the Russian Civil War it was the Directorate that won the fight in Ukraine, establishing the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1919, and was formally admitted to the USSR in 1922.[2]


It was under the rule of the USSR and Joseph Stalin from 1932-1933 that this breadbasket faced the extreme measures that Russians would go to in order to ensure political domination.  During the Holodomor (Death by Hunger), the Soviet government diverted food deemed “surplus” to other parts of the USSR, causing the deaths of somewhere between seven and twelve million Ukrainians.[3]  The official Soviet census in 1926 showed a population of 29,018,817, with an estimated growth rate of 2.65%.  By the time the next census was taken in 1939, there should have been a population of 40,770,506, however there was only a population of 30,946,218.  That is a loss of over nine million people.[4]

Photo Credit: Connecticut Holodomor Awareness Committee
Photo Credit: Connecticut Holodomor Awareness Committee

After the Holodomor the USSR pursued a policy of encouraging the migration of Russians into Ukraine.  In 1926, Russians accounted for 9.2% of the Ukrainian population, while in 1939 Russians accounted for 13.4% of the Ukrainian population.  After the transfer of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic from the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, the 1959 census showed Russians accounting for 16.9% of the Ukrainian population.  By 1989, Russians accounted for 22.1% of Ukrainian population, and the Ukrainian census of 2001 showed Russians at 17.2% of the population, with political domination in the east of the country, and in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.[5]   Since the Holodomor, the Russian population in Ukraine has doubled through the effects of the famine and Soviet migration policies.

Ukrainians continued to vie for independence throughout the Soviet era.  Labeled as counter-revolutionaries and agents of the Bourgeoisie as a cover for continued domination,[6] the OUN in exile to Western Ukraine/Galicia (then part of Poland) continued to organize a fight for independence.  That fight came with World War II when Poland was invaded.  First, the USSR annexed Western Ukraine/Galicia into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (which remains part of Ukraine today), and then the German Wehrmacht Heer invaded the USSR.  First were the Germans and their puppet government, then there were Ukrainian Soviet partisans, and then there was the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA)- militant wing of the OUN.[7]  These entities fought a three-sided war.  Later, with the formation of the United Nations (UN) in 1945, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic were included as separate founding nations, but their policies were controlled by Moscow, giving the USSR three votes in the General Assembly.[8]

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine declared its independence, but remained a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).  The question since that time was if Ukrainians would remain vassals to the Russian Federation, or would they begin to look west?  Since independence, the Russian Federation has pursued a policy of ensuring Ukraine remains in their sphere.  Of the four Presidents to serve in office, two of them were elected from the regions of Ukraine dominated by ethnic Russians.  The first president, Dr. Leonid Kravchuk was a Western Ukrainian, and pursued policies that minimized Russian influence on newly independent Ukraine.[9]  Both Leonid Kuchma[10] and Viktor Yanukovych[11] pursued policies bringing Ukraine closer to Russia, while the majority of Ukraine’s population supported joining the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Orange Revolution, 2004. Photo Credit: Kyiv Post
Orange Revolution, 2004. Photo Credit: Kyiv Post

This clash reached critical mass for the first time during the 2004 Orange Revolution, which saw ethnic Ukrainian Viktor Yushchenko take the Presidency,[12] along with Yulia Tymoshenko as Prime Minister.[13]  It was the poisoning of Yushchenko in particular that helped rally Ukrainians to the Ukrainian opposition coalition focused on breaking from Russian influence.[14]  However, after years of administrative mismanagement and political infighting, Yanukovych and his Party of Regions regained power in 2010.[15]  Tymoshenko, who ran for President in 2010 and was considered Yanukovych’s strongest potential opponent for the Presidency, was imprisoned on corruption charges in 2011.[16]  This historical question of Russian influence on Ukraine and Ukrainian politics sets the stage for current events.

Euromaidan 2014

Photo Credit: Global Voices Online
Photo Credit: Global Voices Online

It was in 2013 that protests began when a widely supported political association and free trade agreement with the EU was not signed by President Yanukovych, after the Russian Federation offered Ukraine a 15 billion USD loan.[17]  Those protests reached critical mass and became full riots in February 2014 at State Regional Administrative centers across Ukraine.  The Kievan Maidan became a warzone, seeing Ukrainian Police Forces fighting an armed camp of protestors, with dozens of casualties and fatalities on both sides.[18]

On 22 February, the Yanukovych administration collapsed.  Parliament turned on the ruling Party of Regions, impeaching and issuing arrest warrants for the President and Parliamentary leadership, with former Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Oleksandr Turchynov taking over as Acting President, [19] and former Foreign Minister Aresniy Yatsenyuk taking over as Acting Prime Minister.[20]  Yanukovych has since fled to Rostov-on-Don, the administrative center of the Southern Federal District of the Russian Federation, with his security detail.[21]  The new government also purged officials from the Party of Regions, as well as dissolved the Berkut (Riot Police).[22]

Russian Flag is Raised in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Photo Credit: Doctrine Man
Russian Flag is Raised in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Photo Credit: Doctrine Man

As political power shifted in Kiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin began to take a firmer tone on the turmoil in Ukraine.  He ordered 150,000 Russian troops to begin exercises along Ukraine’s border.[23]  Furthermore, Russian Naval Infantry troops began taking up positions outside of the Cossack Bay Naval Base, and an armed militia calling itself the Crimean People’s Brigade occupied strategic points around the Crimean Peninsula, raising the Russian flag over the Crimean Parliament in Sifremepol and two airports.[24]

Crimean People’s Brigade paramilitary holding positions outside Simferapol Airport.  Photo Credit: CNN,

Crimean People’s Brigade paramilitary holding positions outside Simferapol Airport. Photo Credit: CNN
Crimean People’s Brigade paramilitary holding positions outside Simferapol Airport. Photo Credit: CNN

The Current Situation

As of today escalation of the conflict is distinctly possible.  The Ukrainian government announced that they had retaken airports and Parliament of Crimea with no casualties, and that the Armed Forces stands ready to defend Ukrainian territorial sovereignty.  The Ukrainian government has also accused the Russian Armed Forces of already placing approximately 6,000 troops in Ukrainian territory.  Later in the day, President Putin requested the Russian State Duma authorize the use of force in Ukraine for the purpose of restoring order and protecting Russian citizens, which is similar to the authorization for force in the Republic of Georgia in 2008.  The United States and NATO in turn have warned the Russian Federation that interference with Ukraine would have consequences- although it is unclear if those consequences are diplomatic, economic, or military.[25]

Photo Credit: Contemporary Issues & Geography
Photo Credit: Contemporary Issues & Geography

Mr. Putin Does Not See Alaska from His House

In Russia… President Assassinate You! Photo Credit: Funny or Die
In Russia… President Assassinate You! Photo Credit: Funny or Die

President Putin has been quoted as saying that Ukraine is not an independent state, and for all intents and purposes,[26] except for some brief periods of time (1991-1994, and 2005-2011), he has been correct.  Ukraine has had a voice, but that voice was controlled by Moscow.  In his viewpoint, Ukraine is no different from any autonomous republic that is a subject of the Russian Federation, and its “independence” is merely a formality, such as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s vote in the UN General Assembly.

Ukraine is in essence considered not only a satellite of the Russian Federation but part of its territorial integrity.  Any break with Moscow could therefore be seen as an existential threat to Russian sovereignty, let alone a break that sees Ukrainian membership in the EU and NATO.  The center of Vladimir Putin’s political power lies in his strength as an executive, and maintaining influence over Ukraine plays a critical role in maintaining that strength.

Furthermore, Ukraine plays a strategic role to the Russian Navy.  The Crimea hosts one of the Russian Navy’s few warmwater ports, and the Crimean Peninsula itself is a strategic pivot point for the entire Black Sea, and serves as the Russian Navy’s logistical hub for projecting power into the Mediterranean Sea.[27]

In this case, President Putin is not concerned with the ambitions of the Ukrainian people, or sanctions that can be imposed on his state.  The potential loss of Ukraine is an existential crisis both politically and militarily.  The Russian Federation could tolerate diplomatic and economic sanctions.  It has the largest territory of any independent state in the world, with 143 million people, and vast untapped natural resources.[28]  Just as the USSR was able to develop isolated from the rest of the world,[29] so too could Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation if it had to.

Policy Options: Do You Want the Rock or the Hard Place?

The United States has two options for actions that it can take: leave the issue alone or stand and fight for Ukrainians’ right for self-determination.  Out of these two options there is a middle ground- mediating between the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

The first option is that the United States leaves Ukraine to fend for itself.  Under this option the Russian Federation would launch a full invasion of the Ukraine once it became clear the United States would not intervene, and the maintenance of territorial sovereignty would be up to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.  The Russian Armed Forces have 766 thousand personnel on active duty, and over two million in reserve; while the Ukrainians have 159 thousand personnel on active duty, and one million in reserve.  The Russian Federation spends 4.4% of its GDP with a budget of 90.7 billion USD (32,381.29 USD per service member), while Ukraine spends 1.1% of its GDP with a budget of 1.9 billion USD (1,639.34 USD per service member).[30]  In short, Russian troops will tend to have better quality training and equipment than their Ukrainian counterparts, and if Russian troops invade the Ukrainian Armed Forces may not be able to hold positions on the flat terrain that composes the majority of the country.  The exception is in the Carpathian Mountains in the west of the country.

Relief Map of Ukraine. Map Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Relief Map of Ukraine. Map Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The main reason why the United States would not intervene would be primarily due to a lack of political will- war weariness from Afghanistan and Iraq.  Such an action would have an effect on the American treasury and cost American lives if the Russian Federation does not decide to withdraw after American troops intervene.  There would also be concerns if American troops, having not fought a conventional war since the 1990s, and having a force that came to age learning counterinsurgency will not fight effectively against Russian troops.

The second option is that the United States and NATO intervene to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression.  In terms of ground forces, U.S. European Command  (EUCOM) has the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, and the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade at its immediate disposal, with the 3rd Infantry Division and 1st BCT, 1st Cavalry Division are Regionally Aligned Forces stationed in the Continental United States.  This adds up to a grand total of approximately 9,000 troops that can be used immediately, with an additional 21,000 that can be deployed shortly thereafter.[31]  The best deployment of these limited ground forces would be for the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment to be deployed to eastern Ukraine in order to serve as a deterrent for Russian ground forces.  The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team could be used to assist in isolating Russian forces on the Crimean Peninsula.  A small force could hold the only land link to the rest of Ukraine, the Isthmus of Perekop, which is only 7 km wide at its widest, while a larger force could hold the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s Main Supply Route over land, the Kerch Strait Bridge, a chokepoint that connects the Crimean Peninsula to the Russian Federation.  Aside from the American forces, the full weight of NATO’s military landpower can be focused on Ukraine.

Map Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Map Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The crux of support that EUCOM could provide to the Ukraine would be in terms of air and seapower.  Allied Air Forces could establish expeditionary air bases both in Ukraine and in Romania that could be used to both support defense of Ukrainian airspace and transportation.[32]  Additionally, the U.S. Army has one Patriot Missile battalion stationed in Germany to assist Ukrainian Air Defense Forces.[33]  A NATO combined task force could then theoretically blockade the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Cossack Bay.  The prospect or reality of the Russian Black Sea Fleet being humiliated by NATO naval and air forces, along with the possibility of a land invasion resulting in further escalation with a distinct possibility of a Russian military embarrassment after meeting NATO conventional forces of similar size, could hold a much worse political impact to Putin than not holding the Ukraine.

The third option is that the United States could focus on mediating between the Ukraine and the Russian Federation.  This is the option where Ukraine might have to cede territory to the Russian Federation.  Ethnic Russians get to maintain their ties to the Motherland, ethnic Ukrainians get to look westward, the Russian Federation maintains its naval installations, and avoids warfare that would prove economically devastating.  In short everyone saves face.  Such an option would involve negotiating either the direct transfer of territory or the offer of a referendum by administrative region.  In the case of a direct transfer of territory, the low end of the offer could be the Crimean Peninsula, with the high end being the Russian regions of Ukraine.  Under a referendum, Ukrainian Security Forces could ensure security of polling stations, with OSCE Observers validating results.  The likely results would have Ukraine losing about a third to half of its territory to the Russian Federation, but in turn Ukraine would be free to determine its own fate, and the Russian Federation would save face.

Map Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Map Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Recommendation and Conclusion: Negotiate

Misguided pride in former glory is a poor reason to start a war, and it is important that as a matter of policy that allowing a war to be fought is the last option.  It is also important to prevent Ukrainians from losing the independence they had sought for.  The best option is the one where a solution is negotiated.  Ukrainians want to break from the Russia Federation, but Russian Ukrainians want to remain with them.  The best solution is to let the Russian Ukrainians go, and let the Russian Federation feel that their interests have been best served, while ensuring the Ukrainians are able to join with the EU and NATO.  Using full force will only serve to harm American interests, while doing nothing will only encourage other actors to make bolder moves in the face of American power.

Robert C. Rasmussen is a graduate of the MA International Relations program at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, and the CAS Security Studies program with SU’s Institute for National Security & Counterterrorism.  He has served as a Fellow with the New York State Senate, and has interned with National Defense University’s Center for Complex Operations, and the U.S. Military Academy’s Network Science Center.  He also serves as a Sergeant with the New York State Guard.  The views in this article do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the New York State Senate, or the NYS Division of Military & Naval Affairs.

[1] “Ukraine,” Online Etymological Dictionary,

[2] “Ukrainian History: Chronological Table,” Guide to Ukraine,

[3] Davies, R.W., and S.G. Wheatcroft, “The Soviet Famine of 1932-33 and the Crisis in Agriculture,” Challenging Traditional Views of Russian History, ed. S.G. Wheatcroft, New York: MacMillan, 2002, 69-91.

[4] Figures based on estimated normal population growth rate compared with Census data.

[6] Lenin, Vladimir I., “Hanging Order,” Library of Congress,, 11 August 1918.

[7] Brooke, James, “Don’t Underestimate Ukraine,” Voice of America,, 29 January 2014.

[8] “Member States,” United Nations,

[9] “Leonid Kravchuk,” President of Ukraine,

[10] Eke, Steven, “Profile: Leonid Kuchma,” BBC News,, 26 September 2002.

[11] “Profile: Ukraine’s Ousted President Viktor Yanukovych,” BBC News,, 28 February 2014

[12] “Profile: Viktor Yushchenko,” BBC News,, 13 January 2010.

[13] Profile: Yulia Tymoshenko,” BBC News,, 22 February 2014.

[14] Rosenthal, Elisabeth, “Liberal Leader from Ukraine was Poisoned,” New York Times,, 12 December 2004.

[15] Harding, Luke, “Yanukovych set to become President as Observers say Ukraine Election was Fair,” The Guardian,, 8 February 2010.

[16] Karimi, Faith, “Yulia Tymoshenko Walks out of Prison, and Back Into Ukrainian Politics,” CNN,, 23 February 2014.

[17] Snyder, Timothy, “Don’t Let Putin Grab Ukraine,” New York Times,, 3 February 2014.

[18] “As It Happened: Ukrainian Police Storm Kiev Protest Camp,” BBC News,

[19] Urquhart, Conal, “Ukraine MPs Appoint Interim President as Yanukovych Allies Dismissed- 23 February as it Happened,”, 23 February 2014.

[20] Grytsenko, Oksana, “Arseniy Yatsenyuk Nominated to Lead New Government as Ukrainian Prime Minister,”, 27 February 2014.

[21] “Ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yankovych Appears at Russian Press Conference,” Wall Street Journal,!7DAD2A1D-7E35-4338-A838-CC5BB008D636, 28 February 2014.

[22] Urquhart, Conal, “Ukraine MPs Appoint Interim President as Yanukovych Allies Dismissed- 23 February as it Happened,”, 23 February 2014.

[23] Prentice, Alessandra, and Richard Balmforth, “New Ukrainian Ministers Proposed, Russian Troops on Alert,” Reuters,, 26 February 2014.

[24] Gumuchian, Marie-Louise, Laura Smith-Park and Ingrid Formanek, “Gunmen Seize Government Buildings in Ukraine’s Crimea, Raise Russian Flag,” CNN,, 27 February 2014.

[25] Herszenhorn, David M., Mark Lander and Alison Smale, “With Military Moves Seen in Ukraine, Obama Warns Russia,” New York Times,, 28 February 2014.

[26] Marson, James, “Putin to the West: Hands Off Ukraine,” Time,,8599,1900838,00.html, 25 May 2009.

[27] Lally, Kathy, “Russian Forces in Ukraine: What Does the Black Sea Fleet Look Like?”  Washington Post,, 1 March 2014.

[28] Central Intelligence Agency, “Russian Federation,” CIA World Factbook,

[29] Zickel, Raymond E., “The Russian Revolution & the Soviet Union,” The Soviet Union- a Country Study,” Ed. Raymond E. Zickel, Washington: Library of Congress, 1989,

[30] “IISS Military Balance 2013,” International Institute for Strategic Studies.

[31] “Units and Commands,” U.S. Army, Europe,

[32] U.S. European Command,

[33] “Units and Commands,” U.S. Army, Europe,