Analysis: The new discord between Ukraine and the United States plays into Putin’s hands

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Frustration in Kyiv has grown in recent days over escalating US rhetoric on the crisis, even as Moscow is dumping more troops into positions near the Ukrainian border. Washington and its allies have waged an unusually overt and vocal campaign of public relations warfare — an approach that appears mostly rooted in genuine fears of a major conflagration in Ukraine.

But there are clear signs that the strategy is also designed to pressure Putin and sharpen his strategic dilemma while forcing US allies in Europe into tougher stances. This may provide political cover for Biden by showing that he was not caught off guard if Russia invaded. The strategy also protects a president, who is teetering at home, from attacks by Republican hawks keen to portray him as weak appeasement ahead of the midterm elections.

Yet it also threatens to spark a clash between Biden’s broader interests and those of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is trying to maintain calm at home even as he tries to secure international arms and defense support. from his country.

A call between Zelensky and Biden on Thursday should have been used to get on the same page. But the Ukrainians made it known in advance that they would ask the US president to moderate his rhetoric. After the leaders’ speech, a senior Ukrainian official told CNN Kyiv’s Matthew Chance that the call “did not go well” and that Zelensky had asked his American counterpart to “quiet the messaging” while claiming that the Russian threat was always ambiguous.

According to the Ukrainian official, Biden warned that an invasion was now virtually certain once the ground freezes in February, making it more passable for military vehicles. National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne disputed the account of the call and said “anonymous sources are ‘leaking’ lies.” She noted that Biden had warned that an invasion in February was a possibility, a stance she said she took for months.

Zelensky’s spokesman also took issue with the Ukrainian official’s characterization of the call. The Ukrainian president himself tweeted that he and Biden had a long call and “discussed recent diplomatic efforts on de-escalation and agreed on joint actions moving forward.”

Regardless of the details of the private conversation, it’s no secret that the United States and Ukraine are publicly at odds over the magnitude of the threat. The Kyiv government, for example, was taken by surprise earlier this week when the State Department said it would downsize the US Embassy, ​​starting with the departure of non-essential staff and families of diplomats.
The disconnect is notable between two friendly governments and reflects the extremely high stakes of the moment. It is also a strange public drama because a nation under the seemingly imminent threat of invasion has a lower assessment of its own vulnerability than the United States, which has mobilized an international effort in its defence. Most damaging, signs of a public disagreement between Biden and Zelensky would play directly into Russian hands. Moscow has previously underlined Ukraine’s more moderate stance to argue that Washington is exploiting the country to escalate against Russia. In fact, the opposite is happening, with Putin holding Ukraine hostage in an effort to wrest concessions from Biden that would change post-Cold War Europe.

Suggestions that the US and Ukraine are on a different page when it comes to the likelihood of a Russian attack could also cause Biden political problems at home – from critics from the radical wings of both political parties who criticized his warmongering approach. After all, why should the United States be more concerned about the security of a country in Russia’s backyard than its own leader?

information warfare

As Russia has built its massive force around Ukraine, the United States has responded by deploying information warfare against a proven master of the genre, Putin. Biden and his aides did not plead with the Russian leader not to invade. Instead, they repeatedly said they thought he would and used the word “imminent.”

The Pentagon said Thursday that Russia had sent more troops to the region in the past 24 hours. Britain last week released intelligence it said showed Putin was trying to replace the Kiev government with a puppet regime, bolstering US warnings that Ukraine is in immediate danger. In another development Thursday, the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank released open-source satellite imagery and analysis on Russia’s rise. This type of information offensive from Washington is not the typical standoff approach with a foreign power. This therefore raised questions about the administration’s intentions.

The first explanation is that the United States actually believes what it says – that Russian tanks may soon begin rolling in one of the most serious threats to an independent nation in greater Europe since World War II. Although direct clashes between US and Russian forces are unlikely, such a conflict would have global implications. The principle would be established that powerful autocracies could swallow up smaller democracies. Repercussions between the United States and Russia, possibly including cyber exchanges, could follow. All of this would explain why the administration is working so hard to warn the world.

Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire co-led a bipartisan delegation to Kyiv last week. She told CNN on Thursday, “I think the threat is very real and could happen at any time based on the information I’ve seen.”

Pressure on Putin

Washington may also be driven by a desire to deprive the Russian leader of any element of surprise for his mobilization. If Moscow invades or bites off another piece of Ukrainian territory to add to its annexation of Crimea in 2014, the administration’s urgency will have been justified. If Putin does eventually back down, Biden can argue that his tough stance has worked and the Russian leader may appear diminished in the eyes of the world. But the strategy also risks putting the Russian leader in a bind and could force him to act to save his image as a strongman.

While praising Biden for refusing to accept Russian concessions, Thomas DiNanno, a former senior State Department arms control official in the Trump administration, said it might be wise to chill the language. .

“I would encourage the administration to come back to the notion of strategic ambiguity, you know, don’t bend your hand. And I think they may have done it a little too aggressively,” DiNanno said, now at the Hudson Institute. on CNN “Newsroom” Thursday.

One of the reasons Biden and Zelensky’s messages clash is that they are aimed at different audiences. Biden is addressing Russia, Europe and the American people. Zelensky tries to guard against panic at home. He responded to previous warnings from the United States that an invasion could be imminent by telling his people to breathe deeply and stay calm. Yet his aides may have gravely erred in their reading of Biden’s appeal. The American president has bent over backwards to support Ukraine. Embarrassing him is no kind of reward and Zelensky is risking his own stature in Washington.

More importantly, Russia will profit from these splits.

“I’m a little worried that releasing a lot of this to the public won’t help anything, it will only help Mr. Putin,” John Tefft, former US ambassador to Moscow, said on CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront.” Thursday.

Raise the temperature in Europe

The robust American rhetoric on the crisis also appears to have another purpose: to convince America’s less hawkish European allies that their own security is at risk.

To begin with, the US approach has only exposed transatlantic differences. Biden was criticized last week by Republicans for suggesting that allies may not support full implementation of sanctions in the event of a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine. But he was telling the truth. In another sign of contention, French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a channel from the European Union to Moscow. The head of the German navy had to resign after sympathetic remarks to Putin.
But Biden’s strong line now appears to be working. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday that “nothing was off the table”, including halting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project designed to bring Russian gas to Europe and Russia’s withdrawal from the SWIFT financial transfer system. And Germany’s new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, said Berlin was working on tough sanctions if Russia invaded Ukraine – including on Nord Stream, a change in an earlier German position. Biden announced on Thursday that Germany’s new Chancellor Olaf Scholz would visit him at the White House next month, in another sign of a converging stance.

Yet the US diplomatic effort also reflects Putin’s underlying advantage. He knows his own mind and few others do. We will soon begin to wonder how long the United States can continue to warn that an invasion that does not come is “imminent”. Prolonging the alert could potentially open new divisions between the United States and Ukraine and Washington and its European allies.

And Putin might spot an opening.

CNN’s Jeremy Herb, Matthew Chance and Jim Sciutto contributed reporting for this story

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