Russia

What to expect in Russia’s winter offensive in Ukraine

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Wading through the 18,000-word transcript of an hours-long meeting that President Vladimir Putin took with the “soldiers’ mothers” last Friday in Moscow, one gets the impression that the fighting in Ukraine may continue well into 2023 — and even beyond. 

In a most revealing remark, Putin acknowledged that Moscow blundered in 2014 by leaving Donbass an unfinished business — unlike Crimea — by allowing itself to be lured into the ceasefire brokered by Germany and France and the Minsk agreements. 

Moscow took some time to realise that Germany and France connived with then leadership in Kiev to scuttle the implementation of Minsk accord. Then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko admitted in a series of interviews with western news outlets in recent months, including on Germany’s Deutsche Welle television and Radio Free Europe’s Ukrainian unit, that the 2015 ceasefire was  a distraction intended to buy time for Kiev to rebuild its military. 

In his words, “We had achieved everything we wanted, our goal was to, first, stop the [Russian] threat, or at least to delay the war –- to secure eight years to restore economic growth and create powerful armed forces.”  

The so-called Steinmeier Formula (proposed by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier back in 2016 when he was foreign minister) on the sequencing of the Minsk agreement, had called for elections to be held in the separatist-held Donbass territories under Ukrainian legislation and the supervision of the OSCE; and, if the OSCE judged  the balloting to be free and fair, then a special self-governing status for the Donbass territories would be initiated and Ukraine’s control of its easternmost border with Russia restored.   

Putin admitted that Russia accepted the Minsk agreements ignoring the wishes of the Russian population in Donbass. To quote him, “We sincerely went to this. But we didn’t fully feel the mood of the people, it was impossible to fully understand what was going on there. But now it has probably become obvious that this reunion [of Donbass] should have happened earlier. Maybe there wouldn’t have been so many losses among civilians, there wouldn’t have been so many dead children under shelling…” 

For the first time, perhaps, an incumbent Kremlin leader admitted making mistakes. The above poignant passage, therefore,  becomes a touchstone for Putin’s future decisions, as the Russian mobilisation approaches the final stage and by end-December, an estimated 4 lakh additional Russian troops will have been deployed in forward positions. 

The bottom line is that Putin slammed the door shut on another Minsk-like hodgepodge of modern furniture and antiques. How does this translate as political reality? 

First and foremost, much as Moscow is open for dialogue without preconditions, Russian negotiators will be bound by the recent amendments to the country’s Constitution, which incorporated Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson, and Zaporozhye regions as part of the Russian Federation. 

Second, Friday’s meeting has been, by any reckoning, an audacious initiative by Putin — risky, politically speaking. His interlocutors included mothers drawn from far-flung regions, whose sons are either actively fighting on the warfront, or have experienced the tragedy of sons having been killed in the fighting, or seriously wounded and need prolonged rehabilitation. 

They were strong-willed women, for sure, and yet, as one of them from the small town of Kirovsk in Luhansk told Putin while recalling the death of her son Konstantin Pshenichkin on the frontline, “My heart bleeds, my soul freezes, gloomy memories cloud my mind, tears, tears, and suddenly my son asks me: “Mom, don’t be sad, I’ll see you – you just have to wait. You will go through this life for me, and in that life, we will be together again.”

Putin claimed openly — highly unusual for a Kremlin leader — that he went prepared for the meeting. But he still had surprises in store. Such meetings are impossible to be choreographed as pent-up emotions are in play in front of TV cameras. 

Thus, Marina Bakhilina from Sakha Republic,mother of three sons (one of whom is a highly decorated soldier from the elite Airborne Forces, 83rd Brigade and recipient of the Order of Courage) complained that there’s no hot food on the frontline. She told Putin: “Do you understand what’s going on? If our people can’t provide our soldiers with hot meals, I, as a master of sports and a shooting CMC, would love to go there, to the front line to cook.” 

Putin replied gently, “It would seem that the issues have already been mostly resolved… it means that not everything is normal…” 

What stands out in such frank exchanges is Putin’s massive political capital, derived out of the great consolidation he has mustered in getting the nation to rally behind him. The overall mood at the meeting was one of commitment to Russia’s cause and the confidence in ultimate victory. Of course, this strengthens Putin’s hands.

This is where the analogy of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis comes unstuck. Public opinion wasn’t a key factor 60 years ago. In a nutshell,  common sense prevailed in 1962 as realisation dawned that any failure to take into account the rival power’s security interests could have an apocalyptic outcome. 

The difference today is that while President Joe Biden has insulated  himself and is not accountable for his dogged pursuit of a Russian defeat on the battlefield in Ukraine and an ensuing “regime change” in Moscow, Putin insists on holding himself accountable to his people. Will any western “liberal” politician in power dare emulate Putin’s extraordinary meeting with the “soldiers’ mothers”? 

If economic hardships lead to social unrest and political turmoil in western Europe, the politicians in power will be at a disadvantage. Putin is fighting a “People’s War,” while western politicians cannot even admit that they are fighting Russia. But how long can it be hidden from the public view in Poland or France that their nationals are getting killed in Ukraine’s steppe? Can the western politicians pledge that their “volunteers” didn’t die in vain? What happens if a refugee flow out of Ukraine into western Europe begins as winter advances? 

In military terms, Russia enjoys escalation dominance — a markedly superior position over its NATO rival, across a range of rungs as the conflict progresses. The accelerating Russian operation in Bakhmut is a case in point. The deployment of regular troops in the recent days shows that Russia is on the escalation ladder to wrap up the 4-month old “grind” in Bakhmut city in Donetsk, which military analysts often describe as a lynchpin of Kiev’s defence in the eastern Donbass region. 

New York Times report on Sunday highlighted the enormous scale of losses Ukrainian forces suffered in recent weeks. Evidently, the Wagner Group of Russian military contractors who were doing the fighting pinned down the Ukrainian forces in defensive position, estimated in the region of 30000 troops including crack units “that have been worn down by nonstop Russian assaults.” 

The Times report admits, citing a US defence official, that the Russian intention could have been to make Bakhmut city “a resource-intensive black hole for Kyiv.” This paradigm will repeat elsewhere, too, except that the Russian forces will be much stronger, far superior in numbers and vastly better equipped and will be fighting from heavily fortified positions. 

Putin made it clear at Friday’s meeting that vanquishing the neo-Nazi Banderites will remain a firm objective. Although regime change in Kiev is not a stated purpose, Putin will not settle for a repetition of the ceasefire and peace as in 2015, which left an anti-Russian, proxy regime of the US in power.  

That said, Putin underscored that “despite all the issues related to the special military operation, we do not change our plans for the development of the state, for the development of the country, for the development of the economy, its social sphere, for national projects. We have huge, big plans…” 

Taken together, all these elements define Russia’s so-called winter offensive. Putin’s hand-picked theatre commander in Ukraine General Sergei Surovikin is not in the mould of Patton or MacArthur. Basically, he holds the compass of the special military operations, while incorporating the experience accruing through the past 8 months of NATO involvement in the fighting. But never once did Putin use the expression “war” to characterise the conflict. 

Russia strategises with Iran for the long haul in Ukraine

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Ignoring the hype in the US media about White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s Kissingerian diplomacy over Ukraine, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, former KGB counterintelligence officer and longstanding associate of President Putin, travelled to Tehran last Wednesday in the equivalent of a knockout punch in geopolitics. 

Patrushev called on President Ebrahim Raisi and held detailed discussions with Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the representative of the Supreme leader and secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. The visit marks a defining moment in the Russia-China partnership and plants a signpost on the trajectory of the war in Ukraine. 

The Iranian state media quoted Raisi as saying, “The development of the extent and expansion of the scale of war [in Ukraine] causes concern for all countries.” That said, Raisi also remarked that Tehran and Moscow are upgrading relations to a “strategic” level, which is “the most decisive response to the policy of sanctions and destabilisation by the United States and its allies.” 

The US State Department reacted swiftly on the very next day with spokesman Ned Price warning that “This is a deepening alliance that the entire world should view as a profound threat… this is a relationship that would have implications, could have implications beyond any single country.” Price said Washington will work with allies to counter Russian-Iranian military ties. 

Patrushev’s talks in Tehran touched on highly sensitive issues that prompted President Vladimir Putin to follow up with Raisi on Saturday. The Kremlin readout said the two leaders “discussed a number of current issues on the bilateral agenda with an emphasis on the continued building up of interaction in politics, trade and the economy, including transport and logistics. They agreed to step up contacts between respective Russian and Iranian agencies.” 

In this connection, Patrushev’s exceptionally strong support for Iran over the current disturbances in that country must be understood properly. Patrushev stated: “We note the key role of Western secret services in organising mass riots in Iran and the subsequent spread of disinformation about the situation in the country via Persian-language Western media existing under their control. We see this as overt interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.” 

Russian security agencies share information with Iranian counterparts on hostile activities of western intelligence agencies. Notably, Patrushev sidestepped Iran’s suspicions regarding involvement of Saudi Arabia. Separately, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also publicly offered to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh. 

All this is driving Washington insane. On the one hand, it is not getting anywhere, including at President Biden’s level, to raise the spectre of Iran threat and rally the Arab regimes of the Persian Gulf all over again. 

Most recently, Washington resorted to theatrics following up an unsubstantiated report by Wall Street Journal about an imminent Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia in the coming days. The US forces in the West Asian region increased their alert level and Washington vowed to be ready for any eventuality. But, curiously, Riyadh was unmoved and showed no interest in the US offer of protection to ward off threat from Iran.

Clearly, Saudi-Iranian normalisation process, which has been front-loaded with sensitive exchanges on their mutual security concerns, has gained traction neither side gets provoked into knee-jerk reaction.

This paradigm shift works to Russia’s advantage. Alongside its highly strategic oil alliance with Saudi Arabia, Russia is now deepening its strategic partnership with Iran.

The panic in spokesman Price’s remarks suggests that Washington has inferred that the cooperation between the security and defence agencies of Russia and Iran is set to intensify.  

What alarms Washington most is that Tehran is adopting a joint strategy with Moscow to go on the offensive and defeat the weaponisation of sanctions by the collective West. Despite decades of sanctions, Iran has built up a world class defence industry on its own steam that will put countries like India or Israel to shame. 

Shamkhani underscored the creation of “joint and synergistic institutions to deal with sanctions and the activation of the capacity of international institutions against sanctions and sanctioning countries.” Patrushev concurred by recalling the earlier agreements between the national security agencies of the two countries to chart out the roadmap for strategic cooperation, especially in regard of countering western economic and technological sanctions.

Shamkhani added that Tehran regards the expansion of bilateral and regional cooperation with Russia in the economic field as one of its strategic priorities in the conditions of US sanctions, which both countries are facing. Patrushev responded, “The most important goal of mine and my delegation in traveling to Tehran is to exchange opinions to speed up the implementation of joint projects along with providing dynamic mechanisms to start new activities in the economic, commercial, energy and technology fields.” 

Patrushev noted, “Creating synergy in transit capacities, especially the rapid completion of the North-South corridor, is an effective step to improve the quality of bilateral and international economic and commercial cooperation.” 

Patrushev and Shamkhani discussed a joint plan by Russia and Iran “to establish a friendship group of defenders of the United Nations Charter” comprising countries that bear the brunt of illegal western sanctions. 

With regard to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Shamkhani said the two countries should “intelligently use the exchangeable capacities” of the member countries. He said the danger of terrorism and extremism continues to threaten the security of the region and stressed the need to increase regional and international cooperation. 

Patrushev’s visit to Tehran was scheduled in the run-up to the conference on Afghanistan being hosted by Moscow on November 16. Iran and Russia have common concerns over Afghanistan. They are concerned over the western attempts to (re)fuel the civil war in Afghanistan. 

In a recent op-Ed in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov alleged that Britain is financing a so-called “Afghan resistance”  against the Taliban (which is reportedly operating out of Panjshir.) Kabulov wrote that the US is baiting two Central Asian states by offering them helicopters and aircraft in lieu of cooperation in covert activities against the Taliban. 

Kabulov made a sensational disclosure that the US is blackmailing the Taliban leaders by threatening them with a drone attack unless they broke off contacts with Russia and China. He said, specifically, that the US and Britain are demanding that Kabul should refrain from restricting the activities of Afghanistan-based Uyghur terrorists. 

Interestingly, Moscow is exploring the creation of a compact group of five regional states who are stakeholders in Afghanistan’s stabilisation and could work together. Kabulov mentioned Iran, Pakistan, India and China as Russia’s partners. 

Iran is a “force multiplier” for Russia in a way no other country — except China, perhaps — can be in the present difficult conditions of sanctions. Patrushev’s visit to Tehran at the present juncture, on the day after the midterms in the US, can only mean that the Kremlin has seen through the Biden administration’s dissimulation of peacemaking in Ukraine to actually derail the momentum of the Russian mobilisation and creation of new defence lines in the Kherson-Zaporozhya-Donbass direction. 

Indeed, it is no secret that the Americans are literally scratching the bottom of the barrel to deliver weapons to Ukraine as their inventory is drying up and several months or a few years are needed to replenish depleted stocks. (herehere  ,here and here

Suffice to say, from the geopolitical angle, Patrushev’s talks in Tehran — and Putin’s call soon after with Raisi — have messaged in no unmistaken terms that Russia is strategising for the long haul in Ukraine. 

Biden nods to compromise in Ukraine

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The midterm elections in the US witnessed razor-thin races as Senate and House control hangs in the balance. But that didn’t discourage President Biden from holding a press conference on Wednesday to stake claim that the “giant red wave” didn’t happen. 

Biden said: “Democrats had a strong night.  And we lost fewer seats in the House of Representatives than any Democratic President’s first midterm election in the last 40 years.  And we had the best midterms for governors since 1986.” 

Biden, however, eschewed triumphalist rhetoric and committed “to continue to work across the aisle… (although) it’s not always easy.” 

For the world capitals, Biden’s remarks relating to Ukraine were the most keenly awaited segment. Succinctly put, Biden was far from emphatic that Republicans in control of the House now would be cooperative. 

He said: “I’m prepared to work with my Republican colleagues.  The American people have made clear, I think, that they expect Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well. In the area of foreign policy, I hope we’ll continue this bipartisan approach of confronting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.” 

When asked whether US military aid to Ukraine will continue uninterrupted, Biden merely replied, “That is my expectation.” He contended that the US hasn’t given Ukraine “a black check” and only equipped Kiev to have “the rational ability to defend themselves.”

Biden had an impressive record as senator in coalition building in the Congress. But today, his bid for a second term as president comes in the way.  If he chooses to be a candidate in 2024, that would leave Republicans with no choice but oppose him viscerally — personally and politically.

Biden had some interesting comments on the announcement in Moscow earlier on Wednesday regarding Russian troop withdrawal in Kherson city. Biden said the Russian move was on expected lines and the interesting part is that Moscow waited till the midterms got over.

Biden avoided giving a direct answer when asked whether the Russian evacuation would give Kiev the leverage to begin peace negotiations with Moscow. But he didn’t refute such a line of thinking, either. Instead, Biden added that “at a minimum, it (evacuation) will lead to time for everyone to recalibrate their positions over the winter period. And it remainsto be seen whether or not there’ll be a judgment made as to whether or not Ukraine is prepared to compromise with Russia.” (Emphasis added.) 

Biden said that on the sidelines of the G20 summit at Bali (November 15-16), there there might be consultations with world leaders, although Putin himself was not going to be there. Indeed, some sort of diplomatic messaging is going on. In fact, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Tass on Thursday that “It was decided that Russia will be represented by (foreign minister) Sergey Lavrov at the G20 summit.” 

Biden took a second question on Kherson developments to say furthermore that the Russian evacuation will not only help the sides to “lick their wounds” but “decide whether — what they’re going to do over the winter, and decide whether or not they’re going to compromise.” (Emphasis added.) 

Notably, Biden has spoken twice about “compromise” (read territorial concessions) by Kiev, which is a major shift from the US stance that the Russian forces should get out of Ukraine. Biden concluded: “That’s — that’s what’s going to happen, whether or not. I don’t know what they’re going to do.  And — but I do know one thing: We’re not going to tell them what they have to do.” 

Taken together, Biden’s remarks are consistent with the “scoop” by NBC News on Wednesday, citing informed sources, that during the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s unannounced visit to Kiev last week, he studied Ukraine’s readiness for a diplomatic solution to the conflict. 

The NBC channel reported that Sullivan was exploring options for ending the conflict and the chance of starting negotiations and raised the need for a diplomatic settlement during meetings with Ukrainian authorities. It said some US and Western officials increasingly believe that neither Kiev nor Moscow can achieve all of their goals, and the winter slowdown in hostilities could provide a window of opportunity to start negotiations.

Interestingly, Kremlin-funded RT promptly picked up the NBC report and highlighted it. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova also chipped in commenting, “We are still open to negotiations, we have never refused them, we are ready to conduct them – taking, of course, into account the realities being established at the moment.”

The Russian authorities continue to maintain that the evacuation of their forces in Kherson stems purely out of security considerations. The onus has been put on the recommendation by Army General Sergey Surovikin, the commander of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. The general claimed in a televised speech that the evacuation from Kherson  creates stronger defensive lines for the troops and will save the lives of soldiers and civilians. 

Suffice to say, Lavrov’s presence in Bali will be of pivotal importance. Presumably, he will have contacts with western counterparts. Indeed, Biden’s remarks about territorial compromise signal a sea change in the calculus. 

Also, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while opening a discussion with the Economic Club of New York on Wednesday about the possibility of peace between Ukraine and Russia, confirmed that there is indeed “a window of opportunity for negotiation” moving forward. 

The general urged, “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment.” To be sure, he spoke with an eye on the Russian military command. 

The backdrop is that the Democrats’ loss of control of the House of Representatives makes it difficult for them to freely promote the foreign policy line of the Biden administration, including assistance to Ukraine. Henceforth, Biden will have to negotiate decisions on Ukraine with the Republicans. This is one thing. 

Second, the cascading economic crisis in Europe holds explosive potential for political turmoil, especially if there is another refugee flow from Ukraine in the harsh winter conditions, which is a real possibility.

The blowback from sanctions against Russia has lethally wounded Europe, and bluster aside, there is really no replacement for the inexpensive, reliable, abundant Russian energy supplies via pipelines.

All this is becoming hugely consequential for western unity. The recent visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to China shows that dissent is brewing.

Above all, the massive Russian mobilisation threatens to give a knockout blow to the Ukrainian military, but there is no appetite among Europeans for a confrontation with Russia.

The UK, Washington’s steadfast ally in Ukraine, also is under immense pressure to disengage and concentrate on the domestic crisis as the new government tackles a funding hole of the order of £50bn in the budget.

Going ahead, the notions of regime change in Moscow that Biden had once espoused publicly and the neocon project to “cancel” Russia has hit the wall and crumpled. That said, the US can draw comfort that the Russian pullout from the west of Dnieper implies that Moscow is not intending to make any move on Nikolaev, leave alone Odessa — at least, in the near term.

On the other hand, if the Ukrainian forces surge and occupy Kherson and threaten Crimea, it will pose a big challenge for the Biden Administration. From Biden’s remarks, the is confident that it has enough leverage in Kiev to ensure that there is no escalation.

For the present, it is premature to estimate that Moscow only took the bitter decision to abandon Kherson city, which was founded by a decree of Catherine the Great and is etched deeply in the Russian collective consciousness, with a reasonable certainty that Washington will restrain Kiev from “hot pursuit” of the retreating Russian army to the eastern banks of the Dnieper river.

No end in view for Ukraine war

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The US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s meetings with Ukrainian leaders, including President Vladimir Zelensky, in Kiev has created a lot of confusion and misperceptions. One one side, the White House maintains that the trip aimed “to underscore the United States’ steadfast support to Ukraine and its people.” The readout stated that Sullivan also affirmed “the continued provision of economic and humanitarian assistance, as well as ongoing efforts with partners to hold Russia accountable for its aggression.” 

However, unnamed US officials gave the spin that Sullivan’s real mission was to “nudge” Zelensky to negotiate with Moscow and urge that “Kyiv must show its willingness to end the war reasonably and peacefully.” Politico later reported that Zelensky indeed heeded Sullivan’s “soft nudging”. The US media also reported that the US officials have been nudging the Ukrainians for sometime. 

The Washington Post reported last week that the Biden administration privately encouraged Ukrainian officials to show they are willing to engage in dialogue with Russia, in an acknowledgment of the growing frustration in the US and some of its allies at the cost and duration of the war. But, apparently, the Ukrainians pushed back.  

Sullivan also added some spice to the media speculation by claiming on Monday that the US has channels to communicate with Russia at senior levels. The Wall Street Journal had earlier reported, citing unnamed US and Western officials, that Sullivan had allegedly held a series of confidential meetings recently with Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev on the conflict in Ukraine. (Moscow has not reacted to these reports.) 

The heart of the matter is that Sullivan has been on a PR exercise in the run-up to the midterms in the US (November 8) in a concerted strategy aimed at countering the growing criticism among the Democrats and Republicans that the Biden Administration is avoiding the diplomatic track to try to end the war in Ukraine. That apart, Sullivan’s theatrics also achieved the purpose of distorting the perception that it is Zelensky who is recalcitrant about dialogue and peace talks — not Biden.

In fact, all indications are that the Biden Administration is preparing for the long haul in Ukraine. Stars and Stripes reported on Wednesday that a three-star general will lead a new Army headquarters in Germany called the Security Assistance Group Ukraine, or SAGU, that will include about 300 US service members responsible for coordinating security assistance for Ukraine. On Sunday, The New York Times had reported last Friday that Lt. Gen. Antonio Aguto Jr., head of the First US Army headquarters at Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, was a leading candidate for the new job. 

The SAGU will be based out of US Army Europe and Africa headquarters in Wiesbaden. Sabrina Singh, the deputy Pentagon press secretary, told reporters the new command will “ensure we are postured to continue supporting Ukraine over the long term.” She added the US remains “committed to Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

It is improbable that Moscow has fallen for Sullivan’s dissimulation. There is reason to believe that Sullivan who is a thoroughbred neocon from the Clinton clan would only have urged Zelensky to expedite the planned Ukrainian offensive on Kherson, which has been in the making for quite a while as a decisive battle for the Crimea and control of the Black Sea/Azov Sea ports and is critical for Ukraine’s long-term viability as a prosperous nation and of vital interest to the US and NATO for the encirclement of Russia.

Above all, the Biden Administration is badly in need of a success story from Ukraine as the newly-elected Congress convenes in January with a likely  Republican Party majority in the House of Representatives. 

No doubt, the Russians are taking the Ukrainian offensive in Kherson seriously. In a stunning announcement in Moscow on Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu ordered a troop pullout from the western side of the Dnieper River in the Kherson Region. The fact that the Kremlin is risking criticism from the Russian public opinion for ordering such a retreat (from a region that Putin decreed is an integral part of Russia) underscores the gravity of the Ukrainian military threat and the imperative needs to strengthen the defence line.

Zelensky is forcing Moscow to literally eat its words about the “demilitarisation” of Ukraine! He continues to be in a belligerent mood. On Monday, Zelensky did make a peace offer but with five conditions for a settlement:  

  • Restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity; 
  • Russia respecting UN Charter on sovereignty and territorial integrity;
  • Russia paying off all war reparations; 
  • Punishing each war criminal; and,  
  • Guarantees that such an invasion and atrocities will not happen again.

The only “concession” Zelensky made is that he didn’t mention his earlier precondition that President Vladimir Putin should relinquish office before any negotiations. It is a non-starter. 

There is no end in view for the war in Ukraine. By the way, although the midterm elections are typically the point in a US presidential cycle where one expects to see top Cabinet members being replaced, but there is no sign of that happening to Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. 

Austin, 69, being a critical voice in the Ukraine conflict, who mobilised billions of dollars worth of military aid from around the world for Kiev, Biden anticipates that the war effort may only become more entrenched and this is not the time to change the top ranks of the Pentagon.

Indeed, the ground situation shows that the ongoing Russian operations in the areas of Ugledar and Bakhmut in Donetsk have run into strong resistance from Ukrainian forces, contrary to the Russian narrative that Kiev’s military is in a shambles and is a demoralised lot. 

In particular, the advance of the Russians around Ugledar got stuck in the mud in the village of Pavlovka, located on the important crossroads, and in a fierce battle three days ago, reportedly, there were heavy casualties on both sides. Putin’s decision to retreat in Kherson was probably with the hope of avoiding a similar fate, as the Russians are experiencing logistical difficulties to supply their forces on the western side of Dnieper river. 

Of course, this seamy picture is not the whole picture insofar as the phase of regrouping and resupplying following the Russian mobilisation is still a work in progress and the ongoing fighting in Donbass and Kherson is at the tactical level and does not involve large movements of troops. 

Equally, the intensive Russian strikes on Ukrainian depots, command centres and artillery and air-defence systems plus the destruction of Ukraine’s military-industrial facilities and energy system are yet to impact Kiev’s capacity to wage the war.  

Meanwhile, the situation on the front lines in Kherson region remains extremely tense for the Russians. The Ukrainian forces are on the prowl poking the Russian defence line incessantly to break through to advance toward the city of Kherson. A large-scale Ukrainian offensive backed by western advisors and mercenaries is to be expected any day. So far, Russian are holding their positions, repelling the ongoing Ukrainian attacks and fortifying their defences. 

From Kherson city, Ukrainian artillery can threaten Crimea. In the prognosis of Moscow’s close ally, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, “Challenging times are ahead of us. Next winter will be even harsher than this one because we’re facing the Battle of Stalingrad, the decisive battle in the conflict in Ukraine, the battle for Kherson.” He predicted that both sides are likely to deploy thousands of tanks, aircraft and artillery pieces in the struggle for the key city.

Vucic said, “The West thinks it’ll be able to ruin Russia that way, while Russia believes it’ll be able to defend what it secured at the start of the war and bring it to an end.” 

A Biden-Putin meeting in Bali cannot be ruled out

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The Russian-American summit meetings have a history of calibrated foreplay. As the G20 summit in Bali on November 15-16 draws closer, the big question is still hanging in the air: Will there be a meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the event? 

From the look of it, a meeting cannot be ruled out. It increasingly seems that the scheduling of such a meeting may even be under discussion between Washington and Moscow.   

On Wednesday afternoon, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that Putin had a call with Indonesian President Joko Widodo (who is hosting the G20 summit.) 

Parrying questions, Peskov cryptically added that “we are currently working on a statement” and declined to answer if Putin and Widodo had discussed the Russian president’s possible participation in the G20 summit. Instead, he simply told reporters to wait for an official statement on the phone call. 

The Russian-American meetings at the highest level are customarily announced simultaneously in the two capitals. The delay in the release of the statement that Peskov referred to can only be taken to mean that consultations are still going on. 

A readout drafted by a Kremlin official would have served the purpose in the normal course on the phone conversation between Putin and Widodo, but in this case, there has been an undue delay while a statement is still under preparation. Given the state of relations between the US and Russia, a unilateral announcement of a Biden-Putin meeting by either side is simply inconceivable. 

Then there are discernible signs that both sides are striving to lower the tensions as much as they can so as to create a “cordial” enough atmosphere. Thus, from the American side, the White House spokesman John Kirby went on record yesterday to categorically state that the US does not see any signs that Russia is making preparations to use nuclear weapons. 

From the Russian side too, it is apparent that Moscow has virtually ignored the media leaks in the US that American military personnel are on Ukrainian soil on a mission to audit the weaponry given to Kiev to fight the war with the Russian forces. The US has a record of staying put in foreign countries and Moscow is in all likelihood conscious of that. Yet, it is keeping mum. 

Again, on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Ministry issued an important statement proposing out of the blue that the atomic powers should “demonstrate in practice” their own commitment to the principle that a nuclear war can never be won and should never be fought as well as “abandon dangerous attempts to infringe on each other’s vital interests, balancing on the brink of direct armed conflict and encouraging provocations with WMD, which can lead to catastrophic consequences.” 

The statement reaffirmed categorically that “Use of nuclear weapons by Russia is hypothetically allowed only in response to aggression carried out with the use of WMDs, or aggression with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened.” 

Interestingly, the IAEA inspectors on a mission to Ukraine have given a clean chit to Kiev on Wednesday regrading the latter’s “undeclared nuclear activities and materials.” This followed Moscow’s recent allegation that Kiev was working on a “dirty bomb.” 

Clearly, there will be no need now for Biden and Putin to squander away their time discussing the spectre of Armageddon if they meet in Bali.

Today, again, Moscow and Kiev conducted a second major prisoner swap in under a week. 

Meanwhile, Russia has returned to the UN-brokered grain deal to facilitate the transportation of Ukraine’s produce to the world market. Of course, this followed written guarantee from Kiev that the humanitarian corridor will not be used for military purposes. Foreign Minister Lavrov, in turn, expressed appreciation that such an assurance has been held out by Kiev. 

Neither Moscow nor Washington has shown any inclination to dial up tensions over the Russian allegation regarding the involvement of British intelligence in the sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines and the drone attack on the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. 

Curiously, Washington has been somewhat indifferent washing its hands off the entire unsavoury episode involving Britain, while the Russian demarche with the UK ambassador today suggested good behaviour by the British intelligence in future and hinted at a desire to move on. Indeed, Russia is not contemplating any retaliation against the UK. 

Quite obviously, if a Biden-Putin meeting indeed takes place, the discussion will be largely devoted to the Ukraine situation. Significantly, the deputy head of the Russian presidential administration Magomedsalam Magomedov said today at a public function in Moscow that Putin’s decision to launch the special military operation in Ukraine was not an easy one but he had no other choice given existing dangers.  

That said, if a meeting between Biden and Putin were to take place, that would create a piquant situation insofar as the stated American position all along has been that the US will not discuss Ukraine with Russia without President Zelensky’s participation. 

However, on his part, Zelensky said today that Ukraine will not participate in the upcoming G20 summit if Putin also attends the event. He sounded wary of being left out. One possible way out of the labyrinth would be that Putin also meets Zelensky at Bali. Perhaps, that is precisely what the wily TV actor himself has in mind.  

Who’s afraid of US troops in Ukraine?

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Very innocuously, the Biden Administration has ‘sensitised’ the world opinion that American troops are indeed present on Ukrainian soil in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood. Washington made a “soft landing” with an unnamed senior Pentagon official making the disclosure to the Associated Press and the Washington Post. 

The official gave an ingenious explanation that the US troops “have recently begun doing onsite inspections to ensure” that Ukraine is “properly accounting” for the Western weapons it received. He claimed that this was part of a broader US campaign, announced last week by the State Department, “meant to make sure that weapons provided to Ukraine don’t end up in the hands of Russian troops, their proxies or other extremist groups.” 

In effect, though, President Biden is eating his own word not to have ‘boots on the ground’ in Ukraine under any circumstances.  There is always the real danger that the clutch of Americans on tour in Ukraine may come under fire from the Russian forces. In fact, the US deployment comes against the backdrop of intense Russian missile and drone attacks currently on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. 

Plainly put, wittingly or unwittingly, the US is going up the escalation ladder. So far, the US intervention involved deployment of military advisors to the Ukrainian military command, supply of intelligence in real time, planning and execution of operations against Russian forces and allowing American mercenaries to do the fighting, apart from steady supply of tens of billions of dollars worth weaponry. 

The qualitative difference now is that the proxy war may turn into a hot war between the NATO and Russia. The Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu said today at a joint board meeting of the Russian and Belarusian defence ministries that the number of NATO forces in Eastern and Central Europe had risen by two and a half times since February and might increase further in the near future.

Shoigu underscored that Moscow understands fully well that the West is pursuing a concerted strategy to destroy Russia’s economy and military potential, making it impossible for the country to pursue an independent foreign policy. 

He flagged that NATO’s new strategic concept suggested moving from containing Russia “through forward presence” to creating “a full-scale system of collective defence on the eastern flank,” with the bloc’s non-regional members deploying troops to the Baltic countries, Eastern and Central Europe, and new multinational battalion tactical groups being formed in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. 

It may not be a coincidence that Washington acknowledged the presence of its military personnel in Ukraine at a point when the Russians have alleged the participation of British intelligence in the recent sabotage act on the Nord Stream pipelines and the drone strikes on Saturday at the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.

There are grey areas, historically speaking, in the so-called “special relationship” between the US and the UK. The chronicle of that relationship is replete with instances of the tail wagging the dog at critical moments. The point is, interestingly enough, on the attack on Sevastopol, Moscow is pointing the finger more at the MI6 operatives than at Kiev. (here and here)

The US-UK calculus was originally to get the Russians bogged down in a quagmire in Ukraine and to incite an insurrection within Russia opposing ‘Putin’s war.’ But it failed. The US sees that over 300,000 trained ex-military personnel from Russia are being deployed to Ukraine for launching a major offensive to end the war in the coming 3-4 months. 

That is to say, the roof is coming down on the entire edifice of lies and deceptive propaganda that formed the western narrative on Ukraine. The defeat in Ukraine could have disastrous consequences for the US’ image and credibility as a superpower not only in Europe but on the global stage, undermine its leadership of the transatlantic  alliance and even disable NATO. 

Curiously, however, it cannot be lost on Washington that even at this juncture, Moscow is nudging Kiev to resume the negotiation process. In fact, in a significant development on Tuesday, Ukraine gave written guarantees to the joint coordination centre in Istanbul (comprising Turkey, Russia and the UN) that the humanitarian corridor and Ukrainian ports designated for the export of agricultural products for military operations will not be used henceforth against the Russian Federation. Kiev assured that “the maritime humanitarian corridor will be used only in accordance with the provisions of the Black Sea Initiative and the related JCC regulation.”

In retrospect, the Biden Administration made a terrible mistake in its estimation that the war would lead to a regime change in Russia following a collapse of the Russian economy under the weight of western sanctions. On the contrary, even the IMF admits that the Russian economy has stabilised. 

The Russian economy is expected to register growth by next year. The comparison with the western economies that are sinking into high inflation and recession is far too glaring to be missed by the world audience. 

Suffice to say, the US and its allies have run out of sanctions to hit Russia. The Russian leadership, on the other hand, is consolidating by pushing ahead with the shift to a multipolar world order challenging the US’ century-old global dominance.

Fundamentally, it is the capitalist system itself which is responsible for this crisis. We are currently suffering under the effect of the longest and deepest crisis the system has known since the redivision of the world that took place in World War II. The imperialist powers are once again preparing for war to redivide the world in the hopes of getting out of their crisis, much as they prepared prior to World War II. 

The big question is what Russia’s response is going to be. It is all but certain that Moscow hasn’t been caught by surprise at the revelation in Washington regarding the presence of US troops in Ukraine. It is highly unlikely that Russia will resort to knee-jerk reaction. 

The so-called ‘counter-offensive’ by Ukraine has fizzled out. It made no territorial gains or any significant breakthrough. But the Ukrainian military suffered heavy casualties in the thousands and huge losses in military  equipment. Russia has gained the upper hand and it is conscious of that. All along the frontline, it is becoming evident that the Russian forces are steadily seizing the initiative.  

Neither the US nor its NATO allies are in a position to fight a continental war. Therefore, it will be entirely up to the American troops moving around in the steppes of Ukraine auditing the US-made weaponry to stay out of trouble and keep their body and soul together. Who knows, the Pentagon may even decide to work out a ‘deconfliction’ mechanism with Moscow, as in Syria!  

That said, seriously, from the Russian perspective, the auditing of US weaponry on Ukrainian soil per se may not be a bad thing. There is real danger that the weapons supplied by the US may reach Europe and turn that beautiful manicured garden into a jungle (like Ukraine or America) — to borrow the stunning metaphor used by Josep Borrell, EU’s foreign policy chief, recently.  

US gets a nasty surprise in Ukraine

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Something has got to change in Ukraine, for sure. The plea by 30 left-wing US lawmakers from President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party on Monday seeking a negotiated settlement with Russia to end the Ukraine war is an extraordinary event. 

In the US Congress, they form part of a nearly 100-member block called the Congressional Progressive Caucus – chaired by Pramila Jayapal, a representative from Washington state. They are a motley crowd of democratic socialists and self-styled “progressive capitalists,” but what the party bosses cannot ignore is that they stand in the way of the Trumpist juggernaut and their potential to defeat Trumpism can be crucial in 2024. 

Therefore, the Biden administration’s low-key initial response to their plea on Ukraine cannot be taken as the last word. In the past 48 hours at least, there has been no tirade against them in the US commentariat. 

They made four key elements in their letter addressed to President Biden

  • Washington should explore “vigorous diplomatic efforts in support of a negotiated settlement and ceasefire” in the war in which the US has spent tens of billions of US taxpayer dollars in military assistance. 
  • Such efforts should be front-loaded with “direct talks with Russia.” 
  • A framework for peace should include “incentives to end hostilities, including some form of sanctions relief, and bring together the international community to establish security guarantees for a free and independent Ukraine that are acceptable for all parties, particularly Ukrainians.” [Emphasis added.]
  • The war is wide open, the western narrative notwithstanding. “The alternative to diplomacy is protracted war, with both its attendant certainties and catastrophic and unknowable risks.”

The signatories would have been aware that although the Biden Administration is pursuing a hardline policy, things can change if the midterms hand down a crushing defeat to the Democrats. 

Several extraneous factors are also at work. For a start, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s planned visit to China comes so soon after the unveiling of the US National Security Strategy in Washington which visualised China as the enemy. Europeans are dissenting.

The French President Emmanuel Macron called on the US to take the lead to engage with the Kremlin, echoing what Hungarian PM Viktor Orban has been demanding. There is discontent in Europe, hit hard by the economic crisis, that the American oil companies are “war profiteering.”

Lurking below the radar is the hidden truth that Ukraine is a basket case with a non-functioning economy. The US cannot expect the European allies to keep that economy afloat. 

Meanwhile, a massive military Russian build-up signals plans to launch a major offensive in a few weeks from now aiming to end the war on Moscow’s terms.

However, dovetailing with all this is an unthinkable development casting shadows on the US-UK tandem navigating the Ukraine war, which may turn out to be the ultimate clincher. 

What emerges is that the UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace’s secretive visit last week to Washington was more in response to a summons from the White House than a British initiative. Wallace said in a dark tone as he was leaving that there were things to be discussed that were far too sensitive.  

At any rate, following the flurry of phone calls on Saturday by Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu with his French, British and US counterparts regarding the possibility of Ukraine using a “dirty bomb” in the war, the foreign ministers of France, the US and the UK promptly issued a joint statement rejecting “Russia’s transparently false allegations” and called it “a pretext for escalation.” 

Nonetheless, acting on the Russian allegation, the IAEA has been told to undertake an investigation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Rafael Grossi, the agency’s Director-General on Monday and “welcomed the IAEA’s readiness to visit Ukraine.” 

Blinken also spoke with Stoltenberg on Monday and, strangely enough, “called for continued Western unity and support for Ukraine.” But, interestingly, the State Department quietly removed from its website the US-UK-France joint statement.

This was when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov disclosed on Monday that “Detailed information indicating the institutions that may be commissioned for this purpose was conveyed through the defence minister [Sergey Shoigu] during his contacts with his counterparts in the United States, Britain, France and Turkey. More contacts are planned between our defence ministries.” 

Lavrov added: “Some of our partners have really suggested a discussion of the information we have at a professional military level. This is a kind of approach that we supported.” 

Could elements in Kiev be having their own Plan B to escalate the war and drag the US and NATO into it? There are no easy answers. 

The bottomline is that “constructive engagement” has begun between Moscow on one side and Washington, London and Paris on the other. But it’s really touch-and-go. The Moscow daily Izvestia quoted the noted Russian military expert Vladislav Shurygin on Monday: “What is a dirty bomb? To create it, all that is necessary is to dig up a barrel with nuclear waste from some power plant, put them in a capsule and then jerk 100 kg of TNT.” 

Shurygin explained: “Even in this case, the infection will be in a radius of maybe 500 metres, maybe a kilometre. And then it all starts to sink into the soil… If it is torn in the water or infect the water, then it will all sweep downstream, lie on the bottom and gradually go away. To make the waters of the Dnieper radioactive, I do not even know how much [water] would need to be drained out. Remember, Fukushima poisoned the sea for six months and no one even noticed it. The intention of the Ukrainian authorities is not very clear. If they want to blame it on us, it won’t be easy; when we have “clean” bombs, why we would need “dirty” ones is completely unclear.” 

It is no secret that MI6 and SAS are in the driving seat in the Ukrainian military command in Kiev and in the front lines. The paradigm is something like the tail wagging the dog. MI6 calibrates the dynamics of the war while the CIA and Pentagon claim success for Biden’s Russia strategy. MI6 has a whole history of that sort — be it in Iran or the Suez crisis — even in Hong Kong.

The current regime change in Westminster absolves the MI6 of accountability. Of course, Boris Johnson — Zelensky’s best friend, guru and guardian — becomes a burnt-out case. He has discreetly withdrawn his hat from the ring and slunk away.

Kiev has been deprived of its last hurrah, as Russia nips the “dirty bomb” in its buds, clearing the pathway for its grand offensive to end the war. Whether the planned Russian offensive will go ahead would depend on any meeting between Biden and President Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali on Nov, 15-16.  

The big question is whether this is a wake-up call for the one-dimensional men in the Biden Team. Perhaps, that is too much to expect. But there is no question that the 30 lawmakers stand vindicated. 

Click here to read the writer’s personal blog

Stop World War III – Now

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In 1799, Marshall Alexander Suvorov led a Russian army and all its cannons across the Alps in the dead of winter.  A plaque near Gotthard still commemorates this epic military feat.

In March 1814, Russia’s emperor Alexander I entered Paris at the head of his Imperial Guard, ending Napoleon’s rule.

In 1945, Russian forces under Marshalls Zhukov and Konev fought their way into Berlin. The Red Army destroyed 75% of all German and Axis forces.

Russians are great warriors.  They are courageous, often heedless of death, and masters of the art of war. 

So, what has happened to the Russian Army in Ukraine?  It has fought poorly, moved at the speed of ox carts, blundered around and suffered heavy casualties and heavy loss of armored and air forces.

Start with Russia’s military hierarchy. It’s led by a civilian, Sergei Shoigu, a crony of Putin and a man without any military training or experience. But he’s loyal to Putin.

He reminds me of poor, old Egyptian field marshal, Abdel Hakim Amer, Nasser’s buddy, who misled his nation’s armed forces into the 1967 catastrophe.  When Israeli warplanes attacked, using US satellite data, Amer was smoking dope in his airplane.

Putin was a KGB officer. He had no military background beyond ruthlessly crushing the second Chechen uprising – with US help.  Chechen chief Ramzan Kadyrov has blasted Shoigu and called for his head.  There has been far too much political interference with Russia’s military. 

Putin wanted a limited ‘military action,’ not a full-scale war against what was not so long ago an integral part of Russia.  Hence the once formidable Red Army was kept on a leash, deprived of Russia’s most modern weapons, and ordered to go easy on the rebellious Ukrainians.

Russia’s artillery, the Queen of battle, ran out of ammunition.  The Red Air Force was ordered not to risk its expensive Sukhoi fighter-bombers.  Its space-based targeting was jammed or degraded by the US and NATO.

Equally important, the conflict in Ukraine has already turned into a mini-World War Three as the US and its key allies struggle to deliver the coup de grace to the Russian federation.

This war is not about freedom for Ukraine – as potent western propaganda incessantly tells us.  It’s about crushing the last remnants of former Soviet power and turning the fragments into docile mini states dominated by Washington and London.

Since CIA overthrew Ukraine’s pro-Russian regime in 2014 – which cost an estimated $50 billion – Moscow and Kiev have been at daggers drawn.  Putin’s Russia refuses to recognize Ukraine as an independent state.  Kiev, backed by tens of billions of dollars and a massive arsenal of arms from the west, rejects Russian hegemony.

The US wants to see the Balkanization of Mother Russia. The next targets may be Russia’s Far East or the Russian Urals.  The war party in Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike, appears determined to crush the life out of what’s left of Russia and achieve the strategic goal of America’s neocons of eradicating any potential military opponent of absolute worldwide US power.  Once Russia is laid low, China will be the next target – in fact, it likely already is.

The Biden administration has already poured close to $100 billion of aid and huge amounts of arms into Ukraine, a staggering and risky sum for a nation with a $31 trillion deficit. Add billions more from Canada and US allies in Europe who would prefer to see this war end.

The current wave of high inflation has been ignited in large part by Washington’s reckless spending over Ukraine. This is money the US Treasury does not have, and must borrow, fueling roaring inflation.

A decade ago, President Putin proclaimed that Russia would cut conventional military spending and increasingly rely on nuclear arms. 

Yet we are surprised now that the Kremlin is rattling its nuclear weapons. We should not forget that before the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine held and produced substantial numbers of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. These were supposedly all junked, but Ukraine probably holds a few nukes in secret.

Meanwhile, western forces are openly operating in Ukraine against Russian forces.  The full panoply of US power is witnessed there:  space intelligence and air-born intelligence; naval operations blocking the Russian Black Sea Fleet; vast amounts of artillery, electronic warfare, conventional land warfare conducted by special units from Poland, the US, Britain and Germany. 

As this column has been saying for years, the prime duty of the United States, the world’s premier power, is to avert any possible nuclear confrontation in Eastern Europe.  Diplomacy, not more arms, is the answer.

The answer is clear: stop trying to draw Ukraine into NATO, stop trying to fragment Russia. Let the rebellious Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine join Russia if they so desire.  Pull western forces out of the region and resume quiet diplomacy.  Let France lead this sensible effort.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2022

West: Enemy of Peace between Ukraine and Russia

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Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. This war has been horrendous, though it does not compare with the terrible destruction wrought by the U.S. bombardment of Iraq (“shock and awe”) in 2003. In the Gomel region of Belarus that borders Ukraine, Russian and Ukrainian diplomats met on February 28 to begin negotiations toward a ceasefire. These talks fell apart. Then, in early March, the two sides met again in Belarus to hold a second and third round of talks. On March 10, the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia met in Antalya, Türkiye, and finally, at the end of March, senior officials from Ukraine and Russia met in Istanbul, Türkiye, thanks to the initiative of Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On March 29, Türkiye’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said, “We are pleased to see that the rapprochement between the parties has increased at every stage. Consensus and common understanding were reached on some issues.” By April, an agreement regarding a tentative interim deal was reached between Russia and Ukraine, according to an article in Foreign Affairs.

In early April, Russian forces began to withdraw from Ukraine’s northern Chernihiv Oblast, which meant that Russia halted military operations around Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. The United States and the United Kingdom claimed that this withdrawal was a consequence of military failure, while the Russians said it was due to the interim deal. It is impossible to ascertain, with the available facts, which of these two views was correct.

Before the deal could go forward, then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in Kyiv on April 9. A Ukrainian media outlet—Ukrainska Pravda—reported that Johnson carried two messages to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy: first, that Russian President Vladimir Putin “should be pressured, not negotiated with,” and second, that even if Ukraine signed agreements with the Kremlin, the West was not ready to do so. According to Ukrainska Pravda, soon after Johnson’s visit, “the bilateral negotiation process was paused.” A few weeks later, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv, and following the trip, Austin spoke at a news conference at an undisclosed location in Poland and said, “We want to see Russia weakened.” There is no direct evidence that Johnson, Blinken, and Austin directly pressured Zelenskyy to withdraw from the interim negotiations, but there is sufficient circumstantial evidence to suggest that this was the case.

The lack of willingness to allow Ukraine to negotiate with Russia predates these visits and was summarized in a March 10, 2022, article in the Washington Post where senior officials in U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration stated that the current U.S. strategy “is to ensure that the economic costs for Russia are severe and sustainable, as well as to continue supporting Ukraine militarily in its effort to inflict as many defeats on Russia as possible.”

Long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, since 2014, the United States has—through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative of the U.S. Department of Defense—spent more than $19 billion in providing training and equipment to the Ukrainian military ($17.6 billion since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022). The total annual budget of the United Nations for 2022 is $3.12 billion, far less than the amount spent by the U.S. on Ukraine today. The arming of Ukraine, the statements about weakening Russia by senior officials of the U.S. government, and the refusal to initiate any kind of arms control negotiations prolong a war that is ugly and unnecessary.

Ukraine Is Not in Iowa

Ukraine and Russia are neighbors. You cannot change the geographical location of Ukraine and move it to Iowa in the United States. This means that Ukraine and Russia have to come to an agreement and find a solution to end the conflict between them. In 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy won by a landslide (73 percent) in the Ukrainian presidential election against Petro Poroshenko, the preferred candidate of the West. “We will not be able to avoid negotiations between Russia and Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said on a TV panel, “Pravo Na Vladu,” TSN news service reported, before he became president. In December 2019, Zelenskyy and Putin met in Paris, alongside then-Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and France’s President Emmanuel Macron (known as the “Normandy Four”). This initiative was driven by Macron and Merkel. As early as 2019, France’s President Emmanuel Macron argued that it was time for Europe to “rethink… our relationship with Russia” because “pushing Russia away from Europe is a profound strategic error.”

In March 2020, Zelenskyy said that he and Putin could work out an agreement within a year based on the Minsk II agreements of February 2015. “There are points in Minsk. If we move them around a bit, then what bad can that lead to? As soon as there are no people with weapons, the shooting will stop. That’s important,” Zelenskyy told the Guardian. In a December 2019 press conference, Putin said, “there is nothing more important than the Minsk Agreements.” At this point, Putin said that all he expected was that the Donbas region would be given special status in the Ukrainian Constitution, and during the time of the expected Ukraine-Russia April 2020 meeting, the troops on both sides would have pulled back and agreed to “disengagement along the entire contact line.”

Role of Macron

It was clear to Macron by 2020 that the point of the negotiations was about more than just Minsk and Ukraine; it was about the creation of a “new security architecture” that did not isolate Russia—and was also not subservient to Washington. Macron developed these points in February 2021 in two directions and spoke about them during his interview with the Atlantic Council (a U.S. think tank). First, he said that NATO has “pushed our borders as far as possible to the eastern side,” but NATO’s expansion has “not succeeded in reducing the conflicts and threats there.” NATO’s eastward expansion, he made clear, was not going to increase Europe’s security. Second, Macron said that the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019—and Russia’s mirroring that—leaves Europe unprotected “against these Russian missiles.” He further said, “As a European, I want to open a discussion between the European Union and Russia.” Such a discussion would pioneer a post-Cold War understanding of security, which would leave the United States out of the conversation with Russia. None of these proposals from Macron could advance, not only because of hesitancy in Russia but also principally because they were not seen favorably by Washington.

Confusion existed about whether U.S. President Joe Biden would be welcomed into the Normandy Four. In late 2020, Zelenskyy said he wanted Biden at the table, but a year later it became clear that Russia was not interested in having the United States be part of the Normandy Four. Putin said that the Normandy Four was “self-sufficient.” Biden, meanwhile, chose to intensify threats and sanctions against Russia based on the claims of Kremlin interference in the United States 2016 and 2018 elections. By December 2021, there was no proper reciprocal dialogue between Biden and Putin. Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinistö that there was a “need to immediately launch negotiations with the United States and NATO” on security guarantees. In a video call between Biden and Putin on December 7, 2021, the Kremlin told the U.S. president that “Russia is seriously interested in obtaining reliable, legally fixed guarantees that rule out NATO expansion eastward and the deployment of offensive strike weapons systems in states adjacent to Russia.” No such guarantee was forthcoming from Washington. The talks fizzled out.

The record shows that Washington rejected Macron’s initiatives as well as entreaties from Putin and Zelenskyy to resolve issues through diplomatic dialogue. Up to four days before the Russian invasion, Macron continued his efforts to prevent an escalation of the conflict. By then, the appetite in Moscow for negotiations had dwindled, and Putin rejected Macron’s efforts.

An independent European foreign policy was simply not possible (as Macron had suggested and as the former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev had proposed in 1989 while talking about his vision for a “common European home” that would stretch from northern Asia to Europe). Nor was an agreement with Russia feasible if it meant that Russian concerns were to be taken seriously by the West.

Ukrainians have been paying a terrible price for the failure of ensuring sensible and reasonable negotiations from 2014 to February 2022—which could have prevented the invasion by Russia in the first place, and once the war started, could have led to the end of this war. All wars end in negotiations, but these negotiations to end wars should be permitted to restart.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

How Europe Has Navigated Its Energy Crises

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While European energy prices have eased slightly in recent months, stress continues to build across a continent that has long been dependent on access to cheap Russian energy.

Protests related to high energy costs have been held from Belgium to the Czech Republic in Europe. Fuel shortages have led to long queues to buy petrol at gas stations in France. The Don’t Pay UK movement has urged British citizens to enter a “bill strike” by refusing to pay energy bills until gas and electricity prices are reduced to an “affordable level.” Europe’s remarkably high energy prices have also fueled climate change protests across the continent.

European governments have resorted to diverse measures to manage the crisis. After the EU banned Russian coal imports, coal regulations were reduced in Poland, which has led to illegal coal mines being operated in the country. Aid packages, such as Austria’s 1.3 billion euro initiative, aim to help companies struggling with mounting energy costs. The UK “has capped the price of average household energy bills at 2,500 pounds ($2,770) a year for two years from October” and also announced a cap on energy per unit for businesses, charities, and NGOs in September.

Italy has shown considerable capability in diversifying its energy imports from Russia since the beginning of the year to reduce its dependence on the Kremlin. Under former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italy began to increase its reliance on Russian energy, a process that continued even after his election defeat in 2011 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

This reliance came to an abrupt end after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Italy signed natural gas deals with Egypt and Algeria in April and held additional talks with the Republic of Congo and Angola regarding energy supplies as well. In June, Italy also purchased two additional liquefied natural gas (LNG) vessels, adding to the three LNG terminals it already operates, to further diversify its natural gas (gas for short) supplies.

Not all countries, however, have matched Italy’s success of diversifying their energy imports. France declared it would cap power and gas price increases for households at 15 percent in 2023. But since more than half of France’s 56 nuclear reactors have been shut down for maintenance (Europe’s summer drought also prevented the water-based cooling systems of the French nuclear plants from functioning), France will struggle with mounting energy costs as well as upholding its traditional role as an electricity exporter to other European countries.

Like other European countries, Germany chose to nationalize some of its major energy companies, such as Uniper in September. In October, the German government proposed a 200 billion euro energy subsidies initiative. With gas storage projected to reach 95 percent capacity by November, Germany has also provided itself with significant protection.

But Germany lacks LNG infrastructure and remains vulnerable if Russia cuts off gas through pipelines completely. Currently, Germany is at level two of the country’s three-tier emergency gas plan, with the last stage introducing direct government intervention in gas distribution and rationing.

Because Germany makes the largest contributions of funds to the EU, its economic vulnerability poses concerning implications for the rest of the bloc. And in addition to suffering from gas shortages, Central European countries will “also suffer from the effects of gas rationing in the German industrial sector, given their integration into German supply chains.” Such uncertainty has blunted investment in the region, further compounding Europe’s economic issues.

These issues have underlined the perception that while Russian coal has been relatively easy to ban in Europe and Russian oil is slowly being phased out, Russian natural gas remains too important for much of the continent’s energy mix to be shunned completely.

Dozens of ships carrying LNG have been stuck off Europe’s coast, as the plants “that convert the seaborne fuel back to gas are operating at maximum limit.” High gas prices have meanwhile resulted in key industries across Europe that are reliant on the energy source to shut down, sparking fears of “uncontrolled deindustrialization.”

In addition to national strategies, European countries have pursued collective initiatives to confront the energy crisis. On September 27, Norway, Denmark, and Poland officially opened the Baltic Pipe to supply Poland with natural gas. On October 1, Greece and Bulgaria began commercial operation of the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) pipeline, which serves as another link in the Western-backed Southern Gas Corridor project to bring natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe.

On October 13, France began sending Germany natural gas for the first time, based on an agreement that “Germany would generate more electricity to supply France during times of peak consumption.” The European Council stated on September 30 that EU states will implement “a voluntary overall reduction target of 10 percent of gross electricity consumption and a mandatory reduction target of 5 percent of the electricity consumption in peak hours.”

Additionally, the EU continues to debate imposing a price cap on Russian gas to the EU, and the G7 countries and its allies agreed on September 2 to implement a price cap on Russian crude oil and oil products in December 2022 and February 2023, respectively.

Germany, however, has led criticism over the “proposal to cap the price on all gas imports to the EU,” stating that the EU lacks the authority to do so, alongside expressing concerns that gas providers will simply sell gas to other countries. Norway, traditionally Europe’s second-largest gas provider after Russia, also indicated it would not accept a cap on gas, and Russia stated it would not sell oil or gas to countries doing so either. The resulting restrictions in energy supply would likely further raise prices.

European countries also remain bound by their own interests, further undermining multilateral cooperation. Croatia, for example, announced it would ban natural gas exports in September. Many European countries have criticized Germany’s planned 200 billion euro subsidies plan for fear that it “could trigger economic imbalances in the bloc.” Germany, meanwhile, declared it would not support a joint EU debt issuance on October 11, only later agreeing to the measures out of pressure from its European allies.

In September, the UK accused the EU of pushing British energy prices higher by severing energy cooperation following Brexit. The U.S. and Norway have also been singled out by EU members for profiting off the current energy crisis.

Varying levels of vulnerability have resulted in some European countries breaking with the continental norm and negotiating with Russia. Serbia, which is not in NATO or part of the EU, signed its own natural gas deal with Russia in May, while Hungary drew the ire of Western allies by signing its own gas deal with Russia in August. Hungary was among the first European countries to agree to purchase Russian natural gas in rubles, stabilizing the Russian currency as sanctions were placed on the Russian economy. If the crisis worsens considerably, other countries may follow suit.

As Europe’s energy crisis has continued, many countries across the world have become increasingly wary. European demand for LNG and a willingness to pay premiums has meant suppliers are increasingly rerouting gas to the continent.

Though rich competitors like South Korea and Japan have been able to contend with European competition for LNG, it has caused shortages elsewhere. Bangladesh and Pakistan, for example, have struggled to secure their traditional LNG imports since the beginning of the Russian invasion. Blackouts in these countries have increased, causing them to resort to more carbon-intensive energy alternatives and prompting renewed talks with Russia over LNG imports and developing pipeline networks to supply natural gas to Asia.

Europe’s decades-long exposure to Russian energy means that its current energy crisis will persist for years. Even with predictions for a relatively mild upcoming winter, overcoming this energy crisis will require cooperation and sacrifice among European states—particularly if the war in Ukraine escalates further. While the West’s solidarity will be put to the test, poorer, energy-vulnerable countries will continue to fall victim as a result of the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

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