Monday, May 23, 2022
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Ukraine: Biden’s watershed moment

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IN 1920, the Red Army attacked a much weaker Poland and suffered a defeat that became known as the Miracle on the Vistula. Ukraine is in a similar position today after Vladimir Putin’s invasion but there is no miracle on the horizon despite an infusion of high-tech Nato weaponry to defend itself.

Russia has captured swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine against determined Ukrainian opposition. This week, Putin’s generals began a new offensive to take the Donbas region, the outcome of which may be decisive in terms of what is militarily achievable for Russia. So far, this push has gone as slowly as its predecessors.

After nearly two months of fighting, two things have become evident. Firstly, Ukraine on its own is almost certainly doomed to defeat and the permanent loss of the territory the Russians have gained.

Secondly, the Russian army’s inability to overcome Ukraine’s defences has proved it could be beaten if Nato joined the fight with troops and air power. That temptation is now surfacing with an astonishing 35 per cent of Americans prepared to take a chance on nuclear war. 

With public revulsion over the indiscriminate killing of civilians unabated, pressure for Nato to become an open belligerent is making headway in Washington, this despite Putin’s nuclear veto which dictated the current non-intervention policy.

Senator Chris Coons, who has been tipped as the next secretary of state, all but demanded that President Biden deploy US forces to fight in a CBS television interview at the weekend.

‘This is a critical moment,’ Coons said. ‘If Vladimir Putin, who has shown us how brutal he can be, is allowed to continue to massacre civilians, to commit war crimes throughout Ukraine without Nato, without the West, coming more forcefully to its aid, I deeply worry that what is going to happen next is that we will see Ukraine turn into Syria . . . The American people cannot turn away from this tragedy in Ukraine. I think the history of the 21st century turns on how fiercely we defend freedom in Ukraine and that Putin will only stop when we stop him.’

Hawks like Coons have been emboldened not just by the bloodshed but by the weakness of the Russian army on the battlefield. As the war loomed, General Michael Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted that the Russians would sweep into Kiev within four days. In the event, the attack towards the Ukrainian capital became a chaotic slog which ended with the Russians being driven back. So much for the quality of US intelligence.

The way the war has unfolded presents Biden with the dilemma of changing course as Coons urges or seeing Ukraine gradually forced into surrender at the expense not only of its own lost territory but of Nato’s heavily invested credibility.

Opting to fight and expel the Russians back across their border would be to risk an unpredictable escalation against a nuclear power fighting what it has for years described as an ‘existential threat’ from Nato’s post-Soviet expansion into eastern Europe. The latter is a crucial factor ignored by the hawks who forget the origins of the war in their haste to condemn the casualties.

There seems no doubt that Biden faces a watershed moment in a war where he has used Ukraine as a proxy in Washington’s long struggle to neutralise Russia which is as much a hindrance to US foreign policy under Putin as the Soviet Union was after WW2.

Nato faces the choice of intervening on the ground or seeing Putin prevailing in his war aims, albeit it at the cost of crippling Western economic sanctions that will hurt Russia for years to come. Intervention would also risk abandoning hopes of containing the war within Ukraine.

Biden, who could have prevented the war at any time beforehand by withdrawing the US invitation to Ukraine to join Nato and discussing Russia’s security concerns, is as much trapped by the vagaries of the situation as Putin. Ukraine will not become a Nato country whatever the war’s outcome.

It’s worth recalling that Nato completely misjudged Putin’s intentions before the war began when he spent three months building an invasion army on the Ukrainian border. Washington and European governments thought it was a bluff.

Western leaders cannot afford a second misjudgment. No one needs reminding that Russia, regardless of its army’s failings, is a superpower by virtue of its nuclear arsenal. Russia at bay from Nato ground forces would be a threat to the whole of the West including the United States itself.

Anti-war activist Professor Noam Chomsky criticising US policy in an interview with Current Affairs magazine said Biden had two option, the first being talks ‘offering Putin an escape, an ugly settlement. Is it within reach? We don’t know; you can only find out by trying and we’re refusing to try’.

The alternative would be to warn Putin and his advisers that the West would do everything to ensure that they faced trial for war crimes and that sanctions would continue against Russia. This option would lead to Ukraine’s obliteration ‘and go on to lay the basis for a terminal war’.

Chomsky added: ‘Those are the two options and we’re picking the second and praising ourselves for heroism and doing it: fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian.’

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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