February 19, 2022

Ukraine: US Playing Weak Hand Well

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

By the time this column runs Sunday morning, Ukraine and Russia will either be at war, continuing a face-off at three Ukrainian borders, or taking steps to de-escalate a very dangerous situation. As I write this column, war seems the more likely outcome.

That said, the Biden Administration, following a disastrous press conference on the Ukraine crises a month ago, has actually been playing a weak hand rather well. Russian Federation President, Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has been playing a strong hand boorishly, and, rather clumsily. By comparison, Putin dismembered Crimea from Ukraine, in 2014, with remarkable ease while the West stood by flatfooted like spectators watching a mugging take place across the street.

Crimea, of course, was easy pickings for Putin. He had around 20,000 troops legally stationed at a Russian military base in Crimea, and no one was fooled when armed military men without any identifying insignia showed up and seized key Crimean infrastructure as soon as Ukraine’s Russian-proxy-president Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv for Moscow. It was over almost as fast as it began.

Russia has the wherewithal and muscle to take Ukraine, but not so effortlessly as it took Crimea. A war between Russia and any, or all, NATO nations is decidedly and publicly off the table. No western nation is obligated or inclined to go to war over Ukraine, and America, following our long and fruitless engagement in Afghanistan, is simply not about to send troops into an impending quagmire on Russia’s doorstep. However, while Ukraine is not a member of NATO, Biden has done an impressive job of rallying the NATO-bloc countries to recognize Russia’s aggression as threatening to the West. Biden, with Putin’s unintended help, has managed to consolidate NATO’s resolve to rethink its readiness to confront Russia.

Major NATO-member countries, with the exception of Germany, which does not export weapons, have begun supplying Kyiv with substantial defensive firepower, assuring that a Russian invasion will not be so bloodless for Russia as was the Kremlin’s Crimea grab. Tons of defensive weapons have been sent to Ukraine, including hundreds of deadly Javelin anti-tank missiles, which can also be used against a variety of targets. The Russian people, with long and bitter memories of body bags (post-marked Afghanistan) coming home from an unprovoked war, will have little patience for Russian casualties and body-bags coming home from yet another unnecessary and unprovoked war. 

Simultaneously, NATO has begun to aggressively reinforce its eastern flank, which rubs shoulders with Russia, with additional troops and military hardware. NATO, it seems, has now become far more energized in its determination to provide a bulwark against an aggressive and more assertive Russia. All of this military activity by NATO is a direct result of Russia’s unprovoked aggressive moves against Ukraine and will be seen as such by much of the Russian population. A Russian population embittered by the spectacle of an unnecessary war is the last thing Putin needs right now.

Biden, meanwhile, is deftly using US intelligence to checkmate any notion Putin may have had to make a Russian attack look like a defensive response to Ukrainian aggression. Biden has taken the false-flag option off the table by releasing an immense volume of remarkably detailed intelligence about Russian troop and material deployments and, apparently, secret Russian plans to create provocations. Because of US-released intelligence, the world knows what Putin is up to. No one, inside or outside of Russia, will really buy whatever Putin advances as his reason to attack Ukraine.

US-supplied satellite imagery is also telling the story. The entire world is watching the Russian encirclement of Ukraine on three sides from the East, the South, and, ominously, from Belarus to the North. Ominously, because Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, is but 90 kilometers from the border with Belarus. The graphic maps of growing Russian encirclement have been displayed in newspapers and on television screens all over the world. The world is watching, thanks to the massive US-supplied intelligence. The widely disseminated map illustrations of Russian troop movements threatening Ukraine are, in Europe, reminiscent of German troop movements threatening other cities and countries during World War Two.  

Putin considers Ukraine to be part-and-parcel of the Russian Motherland, just as Hitler considered the Sudetenland to be part-and-parcel of the German Fatherland. The difference, of course, is that 93 percent of Ukrainians voting in the 1991 referendum for or against independence, voted for independence. Even in Donetsk, the unofficial capital of the Donbas so-called pro-Russian region, 83% of the people voting voted for independence. So, no one should be confused. The 31-year-old Ukrainian Declaration of Independence is as significant to Ukrainians as the 246-year-old American Declaration of Independence is to us Americans. And a far higher percentage of Ukrainians supported independence from Russia than Americans supported independence from England.

While America has notified nearly 10,000 servicemen currently in the United States of possible redeployment to Europe, another 64,000 US troops are already stationed in Europe and could be quickly deployed to NATO countries bordering Russia. All of this possible recalibration of American manpower to bases closer to Ukraine has to be unsettling to Russian citizens, many of whom understand that this throwback to cold-war tension has been the result of Putin’s adventurism and Biden’s response to it.

Simultaneously, the Biden Administration is rallying crude-oil and gas suppliers from Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East to step in should fuel shipments from Russia to Europe be shut off.  Lost natural gas revenue would be a huge burden for Russia with its anemic one-dimensional economy.

Putin has concluded that political dissension in America gives him a decided advantage and an opportunity to remake the map in Eastern Europe, where Ukraine is second only to Russia in size. Biden has had his share of missteps since ascending to the Presidency. However, with respect to the Russia-Ukraine imbroglio, he is currently playing a weak hand quite well.

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7 responses to “Ukraine: US Playing Weak Hand Well”

  1. Jeff Vitali says:

    Excellent essay.

  2. Perry says:

    I totally disagree with the premise that Biden administration has been on the ball in reference to
    Ukraine.
    Biden’s weakness initially emboldened Putin to finish his Ukraine aggression. His acceptance of
    the Russian Pipeline to Western Europe and encouragement all the while he was shutting down our own independence on producing oil and gas. We today import Russian oil along with many other countries not aligned with the USA.
    I am convinced as is the intelligence community that Ukraine will be history and soon largely
    due to our inept administration.

    • May I ask why you put all the blame on a man who was not President when the whole problem started. This has been the culmination of the mistakes of many leaders. The biggest portion of blame should go to the aggressor himself.

  3. Shelly Weisberg says:

    Your essay was brilliant.

  4. Andrea says:

    Another great essay, Hal. I always appreciate your perspective. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Sandra Price says:

    Excellent analysis.

  6. Tom Bailey says:

    Suggest you read Alexander Vindman’s article in “THE ATLANTIC “. He blames Trump for the invasion, but is tough on what we have done under Biden. Trump is an idiot, and to quote Robert Gates “Biden has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades! We have traded the Devil for the Deep Blue Sea!

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