The Obama administration has removed all operational combat tanks from Europe and key strike aircraft, limiting the options for a show of force to bolster eastern NATO allies as Russia contemplates invading Ukraine.
Most analysts, and President Obama, say direct military aid to Kiev in the form of weapons, air power or ground troops is off the table.
That makes it a top priority to show Russian President Vladimir Putin that Washington stands militarily behind NATO members such as the Baltic states, Poland and other countries once under Soviet domination.
The problem is, the U.S. shelf is a bit bare. In the past two years, the Obama administration has deactivated the only two armored combat brigade teams in Europe equipped with the Army’s main M1 battle tanks. It also disbanded a squadron of A-10 ground-attack jets that proved effective over Libya.
While Mr. Putin is flexing his muscle in the east, Washington is tilting military away from Europe and toward Asia.
“Ten thousand American troops have moved west out of Europe,” said Mr. Coffey, an analyst at The Heritage Foundation. “Ten thousand British soldiers have moved west out of Germany, while thousands of Russian soldiers have moved west to the Ukraine.”
On Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced an increase in air policing missions over the Baltic member countries. More allied warships will be sent to the Baltic Sea and eastern Mediterranean, Mr. Fogh Rasmussen said.
Tensions reached new levels Tuesday as Ukraine launched its first military strike against pro-Russian militias that had gained control of an airport near the eastern border. Mr. Putin declared that Ukraine was on the brink of civil war, a statement that could be construed as pretext to invade.
“We call on Russia to be part of the solution,” he said. “To stop destabilizing Ukraine, pull back its troops from the borders and make clear it doesn’t support the violent actions of well-armed militias of pro-Russian separatists.”
Mr. Coffey said there are steps the White House can take. For example, it sent older aircraft — F-15 fighters — from England to Lithuania for policing missions.
“If we’re going to take this threat seriously, why not send F-22s?” he said, referring to the Raptor, the Air Force’s most modern ground-attack stealth fighter. “Why are we sending planes that had their heyday in the 1980s? The F-22 is the most advanced fighter plane we have in the inventory, and it would send a message to Russia that we mean business. It’s not business as usual when you send F-22s.”
“There really aren’t any military options,” said James Russell, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “The truth of the matter — the Russian army is there and ours isn’t, and the Europeans have mostly disarmed, so you can forget about them. It isn’t much more complicated than that.”