BOTTOM LINE UP FRONT – If President Joe Biden’s recent remarks in Poland and President Vladimir Putin’s in Moscow just a day later, are any indication of the path forward, the February 24 anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine may represent the beginning of a new and potentially much more dangerous phase of the conflict, which is increasingly looking like a conflict between NATO and the Russian Federation. Add to that, ominous signals from Beijing and Tehran that this conflict could get much bigger as the leaders of those autocracies start to understand the consequences of a Russian defeat for their own regimes.
Let’s start with the symbolism of President Biden reaching Kyiv before President Putin and where this conflict may be headed.
President Biden’s visit to Kiev is important for more than symbolic reasons. His remarks in Ukraine and during his visit to Poland reflect a deep commitment to supporting the Ukraine and send an important message to the U.S. public, political leadership, and to the leadership of U.S. allies in Europe and around the world that American support for Ukraine is “unwavering.”
According to a White House statement, the President’s visit was intended to reaffirm the U.S.’s commitment to Ukraine’s “democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” The President announced additional military support for Ukraine valued at over $450 million (the 32nd drawdown of U.S. arms and equipment for Ukraine since August 2021), including more ammunition for U.S. HIMARS and howitzers as well as additional Javelin anti-tank missiles, other anti-armor systems, and air surveillance radars.
Monday’s announcement of additional economic and military support comes after a recent announcement of the US decision to provide Stryker armored personnel carriers, Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, and the commitment to provide a limited number of M-1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks.
This equipment should strengthen the Ukrainian’s ability to resist current Russian offensive operations and give them valuable tools for potential counteroffensive operations in the spring. The support that the U.S. has provided Ukraine (financial, material, and intelligence) is meaningful and has without question, helped give Ukraine the tools it needed to be able to resist and in some areas reverse the territorial gains that Russia has made since its aggression began again in earnest in 2014. It’s unfortunate, however, that the level of support needed to prevent a war wasn’t provided in time.
In his remarks in Poland, President Biden justifiably celebrated the ongoing defense of Ukrainian democracy and the strengthening of NATO. Biden remarked, “what Putin wanted was the Finlandization of NATO, what he got was the NATOization of Finland—and Sweden.”
However, the President will face challenges both domestically and in Europe in keeping or increasing the current level of support for Ukraine. Not the least of his challenges will be maintaining sufficient stocks of weapons and material for the U.S. and its NATO allies to address any other threat which may emerge. What Biden still needs to do, is articulate clearly to the American people what’s at stake in Ukraine and why defending Ukraine is in the U.S.’s strategic interest. Biden should also articulate a definition of victory that can serve as a goal and a reassurance that defending Ukraine will not turn into a perpetual war.
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Putin’s remarks to the Russian Federal Assembly—the first time he has addressed that body in over two years—sounded quite divorced from reality. Putin laid the blame for the war’s start on the U.S. and said the U.S. is using Ukraine as both a “battering ram against Russia and a training ground.” He repeated previous Russian warnings that increased Western aid to Ukraine would result in a tougher response from Russia, “One circumstance should be clear to everyone – the more long-range Western systems [that] will come to Ukraine, the further we will be forced to push them from our borders.” He also noted that U.S.-Russian relations have degraded saying it is completely and utterly the U.S.’s fault. Putin’s remarks came a year to the day after Russia announced the illegal annexation of two provinces of Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk in one of the final political acts before the physical invasion began.
Both Biden and Putin’s speeches were intended to show resolve and commitment. Putin further escalated the stakes by announcing that Russia would suspend its observation of the New START nuclear weapons treaty—the only remaining arms control agreement between the U.S. and the Russian Federation. He also said Russia may resume nuclear testing—if the U.S. resumes testing, saying “Nobody should have any illusions that global strategic parity can be destroyed.”
This is yet another reminder by a Russian leader that Russia is a strategic nuclear state and escalation of the Ukraine conflict risks the use of nuclear weapons. Putin again reminded the Russian public that the conflict with Ukraine might take a long time to resolve. He also included a slap at Russia’s oligarchs and elite, saying “No ordinary citizens felt sorry for those who lost their foreign assets and invested in yachts and palaces. You’ll get sick of eating dust running around western courts to get sanctions overturned.”
Putin’s speech and commitment to victory do not reflect the facts on the ground in the Ukraine. He wanted to use the speech as an opportunity to brag about Russia’s military prowess. He could not.
Russia’s much-anticipated late winter offensive has been under way for over two weeks with little to show for the loss of men and material in the effort. Russia essentially lost the war in the first three weeks of the conflict. They failed to take Kyiv, failed to oust the Zelensky government and failed to establish a pro-Russian puppet regime.
The Russian army failed to capture Kharkiv despite the city’s population being largely ethnic Russian and it being located only a few kilometers from the Russian border. Putin’s invasion began the process of NATO’s re-invigoration and commitment to rebuilding its military capabilities. It has also led to NATO’s expansion with Sweden and Finland now on a path to membership.
Russian intelligence networks—particularly in western Europe—are being rolled up at an astonishing and unprecedented pace. Putin’s invasion created a nation and an inspirational leader in a country that was once divided and plagued with corruption, rogue oligarchs and ineffectual political leaders.
Now, Ukraine is united behind an effective wartime leader who is taking necessary steps to address corruption and the remaining pockets of Russian influence in the government. In the meantime, Ukraine has turned into a formidable military power and arguably, the balance of military power in NATO has now shifted from central to eastern Europe. Whatever the path forward for Ukraine’s formal induction into western economic and military organizations, it will almost certainly remain a capable military power with which Russia will have to reckon.
Much remains to be done.
Few in the west realize how existential this conflict has become for Putin and the Russian Federation. As well as for Russia’s allies, principally China and Iran—but also dangerously on the margin, North Korea.
In Moscow the mood is gloomy. Despite the upbeat pronouncements Putin has made about the resilience of the Russian economy in the face of significant and increasing sanctions, in private, most Russian economic policy officials say they know the war is crazy and that the Russian economy is suffering catastrophic damage.
Almost a year after the beginning of the invasion, polling and informal “man on the street interviews” show a solid majority of the Russian population supports the decision to invade and the direction to continue the war no matter the cost. The problem is not disinformation or misinformation; Russian society more or less knows, or understands the extent of the horrors they are inflicting on Ukraine. They just don’t care. There is nothing remaining in the Russian Federation of what we in the west would consider a functioning civil society (if such a thing ever existed) capable of influencing the country’s leadership.
Support for Putin remains solid despite the incompetence in his management of the war to this point. There are no credible threats to his rule. There was much speculation over the past few months about Yevgeniy Prigozhin positioning himself and his Wagner mercenary group as rivals to Putin and the Russian Ministry of Defense, respectively. Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov’s name was also mentioned in part because he publicly criticized Russian military leadership and has his own mercenaries on the front lines in Ukraine. Prigozhin and Wagner have now been marginalized and Kadyrov—a Chechen—never had a chance of being accepted as a leader by Russian elites, much less the Russian public. Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev (or his son Dimitri) have also been mentioned as potential successors to Putin. Patrushev is deeply loyal to Putin personally and even if by some fluke he were to end up in charge, he is as anti-west in his orientation as Putin, if not more so. Ascension to the corridors of power in the Kremlin by a rival of Putin as a first step toward ending the conflict in Ukraine has been and remains, wishful thinking by the West. Absent some unforeseen event, Putin is going to be around for a while. He turned 70 last October and there is no credible evidence to support the contention that he has serious health issues.
Not to be lost in the focus on Biden’s visit and Putin’s speech, is the recent escalation in rhetoric between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China seen by the U.S. shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon and stark warnings being given about China providing military aid to Russia. The Chinese response was to accuse the U.S. of “hysteria” over the balloon and firmly rejecting that Beijing’s relationship with Russia will be dictated by Washington. One can reasonably assume that Putin has made a strong request to Chinese President Xi Jinping to provide military equipment to replace what has been lost by Russia thus far in the invasion.
Closer to the conflict zone itself, IAEA inspectors have detected Iranian enrichment of Uranium to 84%—only six degrees short of weapons-grade. Iran is a major supporter and enabler of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. When he lasted visited Tehran in 2022, Nikolay Patrushev may have discussed forms of Russian assistance to Iran’s nuclear program. It may not be coincidental that Iran tested an intercontinental ballistic rocket (allegedly for a satellite launch) around the time of Patrushev’s visit.
Could we be witnessing the gathering clouds of the expansion of the Ukraine conflict to something bordering a global conflict if President Xi and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi or Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decide that now is the time for Iranian nuclear breakout and a Chinese military effort to re-incorporate Taiwan with the mainland?
President Raisi just concluded a visit to Beijing. It’s not difficult to imagine that Putin is messaging Xi and Raisi that the west cannot be allowed to win and if the west does win, that means decades more U.S. and Western military and economic world hegemony.
Understanding that mindset puts today’s events into even sharper focus. It’s not difficult to believe that the leadership in Beijing and Tehran would not be eager to live in that type of world.
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