Keep Up the Pressure on the Kremlin
And space exploration news gives us a break from war, inflation, and disease
At the end of his visit to Ukraine with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin created a minor tempest in a teapot when he declared that America aimed to see Moscow “weakened the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine” as a result of its unprovoked war against Ukraine. Otherwise sober reporters have asserted that Austin’s statement amounts to a significant shift in administration policy, while some commentators have wrung their hands about the potential for direct conflict between the United States and Russia.
But Austin’s statement is as much a recognition of reality as it is a signal of an American policy shift. Ukrainian forces have mauled the Russian military in roughly two months of fighting, with over 500 Russian tanks and another 500-plus armored vehicles either destroyed or captured according to the online tracking service Oryx. In addition, the Ukrainian military sank the destroyer Moskva and put some 23 Russian combat aircraft out of action. Thanks to U.S. and international sanctions, moreover, the Russian military won’t be able to replace this equipment quickly or easily. Russia’s defense industry builds 250 tanks a year, meaning it would take the Russian army two years to make good its tank losses in Ukraine – and that’s assuming normal production in the absence of sanctions.
Sanctions also look set to cripple other parts of the Russian war machine. Moscow has dipped deeply into its stockpiles of precision-guided weapons – smart bombs, cruise missiles, and the like – that its arms industry can’t produce without imported high-tech parts like microchips and specialized components able to stand up to the rigors of combat. As a pair of British military analysts at the Royal United Services Institute recently noted, “Almost all of Russia’s modern military hardware is dependent upon complex electronics imported from the US, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Israel, China, and further afield."
To be clear, sanctions will not stop Moscow’s offensive in eastern Ukraine. Nor will they weaken the Russian military to the point where it cannot carry out aggression against neighboring countries on their own. But a combination of sanctions and high rates of attrition in combat against Ukrainian forces can hollow out both the Russian military itself and the Russian defense industry that supports and supplies it. It’s an inversion of the World War II-era Lend Lease program, where the United States does its best to prevent Moscow from replacing its material losses on the battlefield.
Secretary Austin didn’t just describe the logical consequences of sanctions and Russian losses in Ukraine, however. After all, it’s one thing to clearly lay out these repercussions and quite another to make weakening Russia’s ability to bully, threaten, or invade its neighbors the main thrust of U.S. policy in Ukraine. It inevitably leads to the question of whether or not this goal makes sense and is the right one to pursue.
To make things short, the goal set out by Austin makes sense and the United States would do well to pursue it. Over the past decade and a half, the Putin regime has paid little price for aggression against its neighbors – whether Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine since 2014 – and predictions from the likes of President Obama that the Kremlin’s 2015 intervention in Syria would turn into a quagmire proved terribly wrong. Indeed, the absence of consequences for and the perceived success of these repeated bouts of aggression likely convinced Putin and his regime that they could quickly and easily move against Ukraine without paying much in the way of a lasting price.
Here, it’s important to recognize that massive U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine and its military won’t automatically lead to open and direct armed conflict between the trans-Atlantic alliance and Russia. Ironically enough, that’s the Kremlin’s own fault – the United States and its allies are in fact working within the boundaries Putin and his lackeys have laid out. Putin’s own nuclear threats at the start of the war, recently reiterated by his foreign minister, made his own redlines clear: no direct military intervention in Ukraine by the United States or NATO. But in leveling these threats and drawing these specific limitations, Putin opened the door to American and NATO support for Ukraine up to the threshold of direct military intervention. In effect, the Kremlin gave the United States and its allies enormous space and leeway to provide arms, intelligence, and other forms of military support to Kyiv that did not entail American and NATO forces opening fire on their Russian equivalents.
What’s more, Putin’s nuclear threats and redlines make his regime’s diplomatic protestations and ominous warnings from high-ranking regime officials about World War III less credible. To begin with, Moscow trots out the specter of global thermonuclear war almost every time it faces opposition to its foreign policy – and in particular whenever it uses military force. It’s an old reflex for the Kremlin, one that shouldn’t be taken seriously by responsible officials or the wider public debate in the United States and Europe. Unfortunately, it does give the current German government a ready excuse refrain from providing weapons to Ukraine, albeit one that makes no sense when the United States and a number of other NATO member nations are already supplying Ukraine with these weapons.
Nor does weakening the Russian military stand in the way of serious negotiations to end the war; indeed, by giving Ukraine the tools to impose severe costs on the Russian military while preventing Moscow’s defense industry from rebuilding it can help facilitate successful negotiations. For too many self-proclaimed peace activists who claim that American military support for Ukraine merely prolongs the war, “peace” effectively means capitulation to virtually all of the Kremlin’s absurd and extravagant demands without a fight – never mind that this “peace” would never be stable and almost certainly involve massive violence by Russian security services against ordinary Ukrainians.
In helping Ukraine’s military resist and repulse Russian aggression, the United States and its allies only improve Kyiv’s position in any potential negotiations to end the conflict. After all, an exhausted and demoralized Russian military unable to re-equip and resupply itself – much less fight effectively against better-motivated Ukrainian troops equipped and supplied by the United States and its allies – leaves Putin unable to dictate terms to Ukraine or anyone else. Though the Kremlin’s awful track record of negotiating in good faith gives little reason for optimism on the diplomatic front, a clear Russian defeat on the battlefield could also lead to real talks that might end the war.
That’s all the more reason for the United States and its allies around the world to keep up the pressure on Moscow. The emerging two-pronged strategy that aims to defang the Russian military through sanctions and attrition in Ukraine stands a good chance of success if all involved stick with it. Defeating Putin in Ukraine will show the world that naked aggression does not pay and, indeed, imposes severe costs on the aggressor.
From that perspective alone, weakening Russia represents an eminently reasonable and achievable goal for American and allied policy. Secretary Austin has done us a service by defining what a win might look like.
New ambitions in space
And now for something completely different:
Last week, the National Academies of Sciences released its decadal survey for planetary exploration – the roadmap that will guide NASA’s robotic exploration program over the next ten years. It’s a critical planning document that helps NASA to determine its long-term priorities, one that’s needed given the lengthy timeframe involved in building robotic explorers and, in some cases, sending them to the farthest reaches of the solar system. After all, it took nine-and-half-years for the relatively lightweight New Horizons probe to reach Pluto and Charon in July 2014.
The survey doesn’t lock NASA into any particular priorities, but merely offers the agency the consensus advice of scientists, engineers, and other technical experts as to the most important or interesting exploration opportunities and questions they see in the decade ahead. Nonetheless, the surveys carry enormous weight, and NASA and Congress generally stick to the overall framework it offers. It’s one of the few long-term planning exercises that actually affects how a U.S. government agency goes about its work in a real way.
In scoping out the robotic exploration plans over the coming decade, the report helps NASA and Congress set priorities for America’s space program in ways that will keep the United States and its allies at the forefront of space exploration and scientific discovery over the coming decade. It guides our national investments in a constructive and forward-looking sense of patriotism at home and American prestige abroad, in addition to providing material support for the aerospace industries of the United States and its allies. As NASA Administrator Bill Nelson observed recently, America is “really in a golden era of space exploration” - one that’s revived Florida’s Space Coast after the decade of doldrums that followed the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011.
So what does the survey recommend?
Keep Mars exploration as a top priority. First off, the report and its multitude of authors recommend that NASA continue its ongoing effort to return samples from Mars – a mission it argues should be the agency’s highest priority. Colleting these samples of rocks, soil, and dust has been one of the core missions of the rover Perseverance since it landed on the Red Planet over a year ago. It will deposit these samples in caches on the Martian surface, and a joint mission launched by NASA and the European Space Agency would aim to retrieve them sometime later this decade and return them to Earth in the 2030s. The report also calls on NASA to start work on a lander it dubs the Mars Life Explorer to ensure that its Mars Exploration Program keeps moving forward.
Head back to the outer solar system. The report’s major recommendation involves the two “Flagship” missions, the large-scale and ambitious projects akin to the twin Voyager probes of the late 1970s and 1980s or the Galileo and Cassini orbiters of the 1990s and 2000s. Here, the survey endorses a robotic expedition to orbit Uranus – the first such mission to the light blue ice giant since Voyager 2 sailed past it way back in 1986. The report also advises NASA to begin work on an “orbilander” – combination orbiter and lander – to explore Enceladus, a moon of Saturn with a subsurface ocean and the tantalizing potential for life.
Beyond these main priorities, the report outlined a variety of potential missions for NASA’s less expensive and less demanding New Frontiers program. These proposals ranged from a sample return from the dwarf planet Ceres to a lander that would investigate the hellish atmosphere and terrain of Venus.
Make policy choices clear. The report also looked into two budgetary scenarios: a “level program” that would see funding continue at current levels, and a “recommended program” that would invest in all the priorities the survey identified. The level program would cost less but also do less, with the proposed Uranus orbiter delayed and the Enceladus mission postponed indefinitely. While the report estimates its recommended program would cost 17.5 percent more than merely continuing existing funding, that added funding amounts to just over $6.1 billion over the next ten years – or a $610 million yearly increase. In the context of a trillion of dollars in annual federal spending, this sum is hardly a budget-buster.
The survey’s recommended program would let NASA get to work as soon as possible on the ambitious series of robotic exploration missions it proposes. The agency could start in on the Uranus orbiter four years earlier if given the additional funding, and it could add additional missions – the Enceladus orbilander and a second New Frontiers probe – later this decade as well.
These investments also ensure that the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia remain the world leaders in space exploration. In the 2010s, the United States faced the embarrassing reality that it could not send astronauts to and from the International Space Station on its own – and had to rely on Russia to do so. That’s not a situation we’re likely to find ourselves in again given the success NASA has had in returning human spaceflight to American soil, collaborating with companies like SpaceX and Boeing to launch astronauts from Cape Canaveral once again. But to maintain our edge in space exploration, the United States needs a robust program of robotic exploration to go along with its ambitions to return astronauts to the Moon by the end of this decade. This advantage is not one the United States should cede to China in the years and decades to come through neglect today.
Above all, however, investment in space exploration along the lines proposed by the survey represents an optimistic investment in the best of America – and our standing in the world. Though space exploration certainly instills a constructive sense of national pride and patriotism, it’s more than the exercise in chest-thumping that many of its critics and indeed some of its supporters believe it to be. Space exploration shows that we have more to offer the world than things that blow up, that the United States aims to push back the frontiers of discovery and expand the horizons of human knowledge farther and faster than any other nation. It’s not purely altruistic, of course, but America displays its better self when we pursue worthy goals for the benefit of humanity as a whole.
In short, if we don’t lead in space – if we don’t offer some hope for a better future, not just for ourselves but for the world as a whole – we won’t deserve to lead. Space exploration cannot solve all of our problems, but it provides a ray of light in dark times. That’s something worth investing in, especially now.