Nuland leaves sense of foreboding in Kiev

While in Kiev, Nuland forecast Ukrainian military successes in 2024 and that Moscow “is going to get some nice surprises on the battlefield”.

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U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink welcomes U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland in Kyiv on Jan. 31, 2024 (U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink/X)

The commencement of political upheavals in world affairs sometimes lies with a seemingly obscure event. This is not to say that the shooting down of a Russian Ilyushin-76 military transport plane carrying dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war over the territory of Belgorod Region by two missiles fired from the area of Liptsy, in Kharkov Region (Ukraine) on January 24 is anything like the spark that set off World War I when a Serbian patriot shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the city of Sarajevo in 1914 and within a month, the Austrian army invaded Serbia.

That said, the downing of the Russian plane would have far-reaching consequences now that Russian investigators found irrefutable proof that the plane was shot down with a US-made Patriot surface-to-air system. President Vladimir Putin disclosed this himself. 

Russia sought an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in the matter but France as the president disallowed the request, which would have cast the West in bad light. The fact of the matter is that the US and Russia are not at war and the Americans would have no hesitation to call such an outrageous incident as an act of war if a Pentagon plane were to be shot down with a Russian missile in the US airspace. 

To be sure, Russia will draw appropriate conclusions and formulate a measured reaction. This is an escalation spiral as Russia’s election approaches.  

Indeed, all indications are that the US strategy through this year is to ‘hold, build and strike’ at Russia, as outlined in an article in the War on the Rocks co-authored by Michael Kofman, a leading American military analyst and the director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for a New American Security.  Basically, the strategy is predicated on the premise that Russia is still far from its official goal of seizing the entire Donbas and therefore, what happens in 2024 is likely to determine the future trajectory of the war. 

Kofman identified three elements as crucial: one, a well- fortified frontline in Ukraine which stalls Russian offensives; two, pressing ahead with reconstituting the battered Ukrainian military; and, three, most important, degrading the Russian advantages and creating challenges for Russian forces far behind the front lines”, while doubling down on rebuilding capacity to resume offensive operations. In a nutshell, the strategy is to reach a level of capability where Ukraine can absorb Russian offensives while minimising casualties and positioning itself to retake the advantage over time. [Emphasis added.] 

Russia is unlikely to remain passive without a counter-strategy. In fact, there is a perceptible acceleration of Russian operations lately. The factors of advantage largely lie with Russia which holds material,  industrial, and manpower advantages, and therefore, recreating another opportunity to deal Russia a battlefield defeat is virtually impossible. 

Washington should be aware that there is very little realistic chance of the West being able to outlast Russia and force it to accept peace on Ukrainian terms. Time is not on Ukraine’s side, either, militarily or economically. The noted American strategic thinker of the realist school and Harvard academic Prof. Stephen Walt is to the point when he wrote in FT recently, “Both [Biden and Trump] administrations will try to negotiate an end to the war after January 2025, and the resulting deal is likely to be a lot closer to Russia’s stated war aims than Kyiv’s.”

But that is the whole point. The new war strategy — which was outlined in a recent article in the Washington Post — takes into account the  possibility of Ukraine becoming a dysfunctional state. But so long as Ukraine remains a cauldron boiling with nationalism that lends itself as a base for hostile moves to destabilise Russia and lock it in permanently in a confrontation with the West, the purpose is served —from Washington’s viewpoint.  

The final act of the power struggle playing out in Kiev is, therefore, of decisive importance and is being supervised by none other than Biden’s agent in the administration ever since the Maidan coup in Ukraine in 2014 — Victoria Nuland, Undersecretary of State. Nuland’s two-fold mission has been, first, to put in place a calculus of power in Kiev that is firmly under US control and, second, to steer the transition from war to insurgency when the need arises.

The probability being talked about is that President Zelensky who has burnt his bridges with Moscow will remain in power while the army chief Valeri Zaluzhni may be replaced. That said, the outcome of high-stakes power struggles, as the one Kiev is witnessing, is also hard to predict. Gen. Zaluzhni’s nuanced op-ed in the CNN on the day after Nuland left Kiev leaves no one in doubt that the redoubtable general is in a defiant mood.

Budanov’s biggest qualification is that although a man of very limited military experience, his forte is intelligence and covert operations who did brilliantly well to create a network of field operatives within Russia for subversive work — just the man to navigate Ukraine’s transition from attritional war to a full-bodied insurgency against Russia. 

The US agenda to weaken Russia in a long-drawn out insurgency is very much in the cards. This agenda enjoys the support of the transatlantic alliance, is “cost-effective” and allows the US to focus on Asia-Pacific, while keeping Russia down for the foreseeable future. No doubt, Russia’s reaction to the downing of the IL-86 military plane by Patriot missiles in Russian air space was anything but an accident. 

Moscow’s best option would be to create a buffer that keeps Russian territories out of reach of game-changing western medium and long-range missiles that are capable of degrading Russian logistics and command and control nodes and make large swathes of territories in the east and south of Ukraine, including Crimea, untenable for Russian forces. 

But that necessitates a full-fledged Russian offensive to take control of the entire region to the east of Dnieper river. Russia may face the same dilemma that Americans faced in Vietnam stemming from the requirement to expand the theatre of operations into Laos and Cambodia (aside North Vietnam.) For Russia, that involves colossal drain of human and material resources and the erosion of its international standing. 

The only feasible alternative will be to end the war — through negotiations or militarily — in 2024. But Biden’s interest in negotiations is zero. That leaves the military option as the only choice. The strategy to degrade the Ukrainian military in the meat grinder was highly successful, but going forward, in reality, the US-led western alliance, especially key functionaries like Nuland (an ex-ambassador to NATO) with a long record of being Russophobic, are showing no signs of attrition.

Now that the US has broken the glass ceiling by enabling a military attack on Russian territory, Moscow should brace for more incidents like the downing of the IL-76 plane. The authorities will be keeping a beady eye. Nuland’s sudden appearance in Kiev as a psychopomp from Greek mythology at this inflection point needs to be factored in. 

While in Kiev, Nuland forecast Ukrainian military successes in 2024 and that Moscow “is going to get some nice surprises on the battlefield”. The day before Nuland’s arrival in Kiev, Budanov had said Ukrainian military is in “active defence” but somewhere in spring, Russia’s ongoing offensive “will be exhausted completely… and I think ours will start.” The tone of triumphalism is unmistakable, but how far it is rooted in reality time only can tell.

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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