The defining moment in US President Joe Biden’s press conference at the White House last Wednesday, during President Zelensky’s visit, was his virtual admission that he is constrained in the proxy war in Ukraine, as European allies don’t want a war with Russia.
To quote Biden, “Now, you say, ‘Why don’t we just give Ukraine everything there is to give?’ Well, for two reasons. One, there’s an entire Alliance that is critical to stay with Ukraine. And the idea that we would give Ukraine material that is fundamentally different than is already going there would have a prospect of breaking up NATO and breaking up the European Union and the rest of the world… I’ve spent several hundred hours face-to-face with our European allies and the heads of state of those countries, and making the case as to why it was overwhelmingly in their interest that they continue to support Ukraine… They understand it fully, but they’re not looking to go to war with Russia. They’re not looking for a third World War.”
Biden realised at that point that “I probably already said too much” and abruptly ended the press conference. He probably forgot that he was dwelling on the fragility of Western unity.
The whole point is that the western commentariat largely forgets that Russia’s core agenda is not about territorial conquest — much as Ukraine is vital to Russian interests — but about NATO expansion. And that has not changed.
Every now and then President Putin revisits the fundamental theme that the US consistently aimed to weaken and dismember Russia. As recently as last Wednesday, Putin invoked the Chechen war in the 1990s — “the use of international terrorists in the Caucasus, to finish off Russia and to split the Russian Federation… They [US] claimed to condemn al-Qaeda and other criminals, yet they considered using them on the territory of Russia as acceptable and provided all kinds of assistance to them, including material, information, political and any other support, notably military support, to encourage them to continue fighting against Russia.”
Putin has a phenomenal memory and would have been alluding to Biden’s careful choice of William Burns as his CIA chief. Burns was Moscow Embassy’s point person for Chechnya in the 1990s! Putin has now ordered a nation-wide campaign to root out the vast tentacles that the US intelligence planted on Russian soil for internal subversion. Carnegie, once headed by Burns, has since shut down its Moscow office, and the Russian staff fled to the West!
The leitmotif of the expanded meeting of the Board of the Defence Ministry in Moscow on Wednesday, which Putin addressed, was the profound reality that Russia’s confrontation with the US is not going to end with Ukraine war. Putin exhorted the Russian top brass to “carefully analyse” the lessons of Ukraine and Syrian conflicts.
Importantly, Putin said, “We will continue maintaining and improving the combat readiness of the nuclear triad. It is the main guarantee that our sovereignty and territorial integrity, strategic parity and the general balance of forces in the world are preserved. This year, the level of modern armaments in the strategic nuclear forces has already exceeded 91 percent. We continue rearming the regiments of our strategic missile forces with modern missile systems with Avangard hypersonic warheads.”
Equally, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu proposed at Wednesday’s meeting a military build-up “to bolster Russia’s security,” including:
– Creation of a corresponding group of forces in Russia’s northwest to counter Finland and Sweden’s induction as NATO members;
– Creation of two new motorised infantry divisions in the Kherson and Zaporozhya regions, as well as an army corps in Karelia, facing Finnish border;
– Upgrade of 7 motorised infantry brigades into motorised infantry divisions in the Western, Central and Eastern military districts, and in the Northern Fleet;
– Addition of two more air assault divisions in the Airborne Forces;
– Provision of a composite aviation division and an army aviation brigade with 80-100 combat helicopters within each combined arms (tank) army;
– Creation of 3 additional air division commands, eight bomber aviation regiments, one fighter aviation regiment, and six army aviation brigades;
– Creation of 5 district artillery divisions, as well as super-heavy artillery brigades for building artillery reserves along the so-called strategic axis;
– Creation of 5 naval infantry brigades for the Navy’s coastal troops based on the existing naval infantry brigades;
– Increase in the size of the Armed Forces to 1.5 million service personnel, with 695,000 people serving under contract.
Putin summed up: “We will not repeat the mistakes of the past… We are not going to militarise our country or militarise the economy… and we will not do things we do not really need, to the detriment of our people and the economy, the social sphere. We will improve the Russian Armed Forces and the entire military component. We will do it calmly, routinely and consistently, without haste.”
If the neocons in the driving seat in the Beltway wanted an arms race, they have it now. The paradox, however, is that this is going to be different from the bipolar Cold War era arms race.
If the US intention was to weaken Russia before confronting China, things aren’t working that way. Instead, the US is getting locked into a confrontation with Russia and the ties between the two big powers are at a breaking point. Russia expects the US to roll back NATO’s expansion, as promised to the Soviet leadership in 1989.
The neocons had expected a “win-win” in Ukraine: Russian defeat and a disgraceful end to Putin presidency; a weakened Russia, as in the 1990s, groping for a new start; consolidation of western unity under a triumphant America; a massive boost in the upcoming struggle with China for supremacy in the world order; and a New American Century under the “rules-based world order”.
But instead, this is turning out to be a classic Zugzwang in the endgame — to borrow from German chess literature — where the US is under obligation to make a move on Ukraine but whichever move it makes will only worsen its geopolitical position.
Biden has understood that Russia cannot be defeated in Ukraine; nor are Russian people in any mood for an insurrection. Putin’s popularity is soaring high, as Russian objectives in Ukraine are being steadily realised. Thus, Biden is getting a vague sense, perhaps, that Russia isn’t exactly seeing things in Ukraine as a binary of victory and defeat, but is gearing up for the long haul to sort out NATO once and for all.
The transformation of Belarus as a “nuclear-capable” state carries a profound message from Moscow to Brussels and Washington. Biden cannot miss it. (See my blog NATO nuclear compass rendered unavailing, Indian Punchline, Dec. 21, 2022
Logically, the option open to the US at this point would be to disengage. But that becomes an abject admission of defeat and will mean the death knell for the NATO, and Washington’s transatlantic leadership goes kaput. And, worse still, major west European powers — Germany, France and Italy — may start looking for a modus vivendi with Russia. Above all, how can NATO possibly survive without an “enemy”?
Clearly, neither the US nor its allies are in a position to fight a continental war. But even if they are, what about the emerging scenario in the Asia-Pacific, where the “no limits” partnership between China and Russia has added an intriguing layer in the geopolitics?
The neocons in the Beltway have bitten more than what they could chew. Their last card will be to push for a direct US military intervention in the Ukraine war under the banner of a “coalition of the willing.”
Reprinted with permission from Indian Punchline.