Washington is seeking to avoid a direct confrontation with Moscow. It wants to bleed Russia dry and render it useless to China; it does not want to become a tool for the Ukrainians. The real clash is with Beijing and the Pentagon wants to conserve resources for that duel.
by Federico PETRONI
1. Vladimir Putin has raised the stakes. In particular, he has raised a wall to protect the territorial conquests in Ukraine, to avoid a collapse. This is the meaning of the triple announcement made in September: mobilisation to garrison the front with hundreds of thousands of men; annexation through a farcical referendum; extension of the nuclear umbrella to the new lands of Russia accompanied by the threat of using atomic devices.
It would be too hasty to say that Putin aims to frighten, and too vulgar to say he aims to dissuade. His raise plays on US inconsistencies, or rather on what he perceives as such. His objective: to confront the Americans with the choice between freezing the conflict (by endorsing the annexations) and risking real war with the Russian Federation. It’s a reckless stunt aimed to close the Ukrainian game ‘Russian style’, driven more by China’s wrath and the need to save face at home than by a precise strategy.
Meanwhile, Washington feels Russia’s defeat is imminent and accepts the challenge. But it faces a dilemma: to what extent should it defeat Russia? And, most importantly, at what price? For the US, the centre of gravity of the Ukraine war is not in Ukraine but in Europe.
2. To understand what inconsistencies Putin is aiming at, let us rewind the tape.
October 2021. A highly confidential meeting takes place in the Oval Office at the White House. US intelligence has determined that Russia intends to invade Ukraine. President Joe Biden’s cabinet deliberates the key interests to be protected. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, takes notes. To this day, he carries them around in a clipboard, as if they were a compass. Central question: ‘How to defend the international order against a country with extraordinary nuclear capabilities without triggering World War III?’ One, do not trigger a direct US-NATO-Russia conflict. Two, contain the fighting within Ukraine’s borders. Three, strengthen NATO unity. Four, give the Ukrainians the means to fight.
In those notes, there is much of the US position. America is not ready to use direct force, the issue at stake is not Ukraine itself but the control of Europe, and the evil to be avoided at all costs is not so much the invasion as a nuclear war with Russia.
So far, this approach has served the US very well. The US has not fired a single shot and has used its allies, seizing the opportunity to disengage them from dependence on Russia, particularly the Germans and the Italians.
The Kremlin’s propaganda tries to turn these strengths into vulnerabilities. If Washington’s public priority is not to go to war with Russia, it is clear that it would be willing to stop much sooner than the Ukrainians want. If the obsession is to avert an atomic escalation, Moscow can afford to flaunt the absolute weapon to seek concessions. And if the US centre of gravity is not on the Dnepr but in the heart of the European continent, then economic warfare must be turned against the hegemon’s satellites to induce a breakthrough within the Western front.
Let us take the US point of view. So far, Moscow’s hopes have been largely dashed on all three fronts. First of all, it is clear that Washington’s and Kiev’s interests are not identical and that the Americans are exerting pressure on the Ukrainians to moderate the scope of their war ambitions. However, so far, Russia’s military might has not been enough to decisively widen the gap between the two governments.
Thus, overseas intelligence believes the likelihood is growing of Russia resorting to tactical nuclear power. However, the options available to Moscow are not sufficiently frightening: not even a detonation in the seas or, more concretely, on remote locations such as Serpent Island meant to demonstrate power, would upset the perception that Russia is losing. If anything, the threat serves to convey the message not to bring the war to Russia and not to work towards regime change, both of which are red lines that Washington has no intention of crossing.
Finally, it is clear that the Europeans differ deeply on what to do about Russia and (Ukrainians excluded) are paying the highest price for a war that drastically increases their cost of living and accelerates their deindustrialisation. Yet continental elites still consider it more dangerous to break ranks than to stay in the coalition – it is unclear whether out of fear of Moscow’s advance or Washington’s retaliation. Probably, it is a combination of both.
None of this is written in stone, and Putin knows this. He is waiting for winter to test America’s limits. He is playing on three factors: demographic mass, fear of the Bomb, and Russian tolerance for adversity, which is greater than in Europe. The tactical objective is the classic one of the weaker side: to achieve far from the front what you cannot achieve on the battlefield, to cross the lines to divide the allies.
3. The US obviously disowned the annexation. It gave the Ukrainians the green light to keep gaining ground. It has reiterated that it is ready for the long war. But it has also somehow limited the support given to Kiev.
Washington wants to let Moscow know it has some degree of control over the Ukrainian army. Kiev denies it and that is understandable. But a tough negotiation took place in the summer, with a few crucial twists coming to the fore. First, US apparatchiks complained that they knew more about Russian than about Ukrainian operations. Then, the White House let it leak out that it was sceptical about the possibility of regaining the territories conquered by the invader. The implicit American threat was: if you do not prove to us that you can turn the war around at an acceptable cost, it will be time to deal with the Kremlin.
The Americans materially shaped the Kharkiv counteroffensive. Initially, the Ukrainians wanted to concentrate it in the south, between Kherson and Mariupol’, to break the territorial continuity between Russia and Crimea. Washington opposed this. Officially because following internal simulations, it became certain of its failure, but probably also for fear of triggering a reaction from the Kremlin. Thus, it demanded its ally to change direction, from south to north, in an area far less strategic because far from Crimea.
The Ukrainians’ main tactical success in this war could not have happened without the direction given by the Americans. This is not to say, as Russian propaganda claims, that Washington is guiding Kiev by remote control. The latter maintains its own theory of victory, different from America’s. Doubtlessly, more tug-of-war between the two chancelleries will follow. But America’s message to the Russians is equally clear: we continue the war with our formidable vanguard, but we know your red lines and if necessary we will use our levers on Kiev (weapons, intelligence) to restrain the Ukrainians. Or to unleash them against you.
The US then wants to show that it is ready for the long war. The massive supply of armaments, however, has an important new feature. The Ukrainians will receive 18 new Himars artillery systems; these will be decisive at this stage. However, these will no longer be drawn from the US arsenal, but manufactured from scratch, moreover by a supplier yet to be identified.
For the first time, the United States is putting a brake on arms shipments, not out of sensitivity towards the Russians, as on other occasions, but because it has a serious industrial problem and different priorities (a potential war with China). It has sent 8,500 Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine and the manufacturer only churns out 800 a year. The same goes for Himars ammunition: 9,000 pieces a year are produced, but at the war’s current pace they are barely enough for two months. This is why the Americans are calling on the allies to strengthen the arms industry in all the satellite countries, describing it as a way of preparing to supply weapons also to states outside NATO – a clear reference to a possible war over Taiwan.
So the message is: just as it does not want to fight directly, Washington will not deplete its arsenals, thus avoiding the risk of remaining uncovered in the Indo-Pacific region. If anything, it will draw on the sophisticated manufactures of Western customers to exhaust Russia’s production capacity in the long run, a capacity which is already limited by sanctions, the real iron curtain of the 21st century.
4. The bottom line on nuclear deterrence is much more uncertain.
Russia is convinced – or, to be more precise, wants to convince the Ukrainians and the Europeans – that the US would not react massively to the use of tactical atomic weapons. Moscow is not only playing on the ambiguity Washington has historically shown in NATO – everyone knew that if the Cold War turned hot, Europe would be the first to be devastated by nuclear weapons. It is also playing on the (il)logic of America’s position. If the US says it does not want a direct confrontation and wants to avert nuclear escalation, there is no clear red line.
The US has tried to correct this perception but seems intent on taking precautions. The government speaks of ‘catastrophic’ but conventional retaliation, without any reference to a nuclear response. Biden has limited himself to an embarrassing ‘don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it’, promising a total embargo against Russia and to turn Moscow into a pariah should it cross the fateful nuclear threshold. To compound matters, intelligence warns that it is not certain of detecting Russian tactical weapons before they are detonated, given the plurality of deployment devices (23, almost all dual-use in nature) and the size of the arsenal (about 2,000 low-yield warheads, some well below one kiloton – the Hiroshima bomb was between 15 and 20 kilotons).
It looks a lot like the failed pre-war communication, when the US took it for granted that the Russians would invade. On Taiwan, the elderly president has been very clear, so the point is not the senescence of the leader. It is his country’s position that is ambiguous.
The Americans would refrain from more massive attacks also in order not to prove Putin right. Putin keeps trying hard (in America’s eyes without any particular success) to demonstrate to his citizens that Moscow is not on the attack but on the defence, a strategy that could allow him to pass off aggression as a patriotic war and thus really mobilise the population.
But is this enough? The military and part of the services think not. So they ignore the White House and send different messages to the Russians. For example, Generals Ben Hodges and David Petraeus – who, though retired, still serve as mouthpieces for what the army really thinks deep down – would like to wipe out the Black Sea fleet, destroy the entire Russian contingent in Ukraine, or attack key bases such as Sevastopol in Crimea. It is normal for the US to speak with several voices. Sometimes it confuses the adversary, sometimes it pushes him to dare. In this case, since atomic warfare is at stake, it might induce caution.
The United States seems unwilling to allow the Russians the luxury of considering the use of a tactical nuclear weapon likely. To do so would automatically imply opening negotiations. It believes that before entering this scenario, Putin would first issue threats more concrete than those he made in his September speeches, which were comparable to what had been said in the first months of the war. Specifically, the US expects visible signs of the intention to use those devices.
Above all, the Americans assess that Russia’s best deterrence is still Russia itself. A nuclear attack, albeit a tactical one, would draw the ire of an already furious China, which would further complicate its attempt to shield itself from the consequences of war. Moreover, Putin is counting on achieving his goal of freezing the conflict with the economic war in Europe, which he will intensify before changing tactics. Finally, for the moment, the Kremlin portrays the West at war with Russia to legitimise itself on the domestic front; there is no sign that it is really willing to confront the West in the open. For now, the Russians have reacted with particular caution each time the West raised the bar, for instance the attacks in Crimea.
5. It is not in the interests of the US to give Putin a break. The US does not intend to bring war to Russia, actively work for regime change, or play with the risk of nuclear war. But it does intend to exploit the Kremlin’s difficulties on the domestic front, on the military front in Ukraine, and on the Asian front with China.
From Washington’s point of view, mass mobilisation broke the unwritten pact between Putin and ethnic Russians: the special military operation was legitimate as long as they did not have to fight. Humiliation on the battlefield costs Russian rulers dearly, as long as foreign armies do not invade the heartland of the Sarmatian lowlands. If the system were to get out of control, a section of the ruling class might be tempted to remove the leader. Putin would easily be succeeded by a more ideologically extreme figure. But this would not necessarily mean more war. At that point his task would be to prevent the country’s collapse.
Moreover, the US appreciates that Moscow and Beijing have publicly distanced themselves from each other. It harbours no illusions that one is ready to abandon the other, if only because neither has a better alternative: Russia’s subalternity to the Chinese was manifest at the Samarkand summit and the Chinese need the Russians as cover from the north in case of war over Taiwan. However, the US has picked up on Moscow’s growing disappointment at Beijing’s lack of support, as well as Xi’s annoyance with Putin. To give respite to the latter is to give respite to the former. If Russia squanders its military capital, which is needed for that cover from the north mentioned above, it would become a dead weight. Indeed it would become toxic, by delegitimising Xi in front of his domestic opponents, further tarnishing Beijing’s international image, and bogging down the country when it is already mired by many problems.
China does not currently seem so dangerous that the US government should ease up on Russia. Intelligence estimates that Xi has ordered the army to prepare to wage war on the island by 2027, but not before two years, due to a lack of means for an amphibious operation. Chinese caution could vanish if the US gets so entangled in Ukraine that a rapid reaction in the Pacific would be ruled out. And if the conflict were to last so long that the window of opportunity would open for Beijing while decisively weakening the Russians, Washington would undoubtedly grant Moscow a reprieve. Conversely, if Beijing were to come up with an offer to ease tensions with Washington in exchange for an effort to convince Putin to end the war in Ukraine, the Americans might seriously consider it.
6. Two other factors that could temper America’s approach are the domestic front and the European front.
The former shows no signs of immediately giving in, but neither do Americans want to die for Kiev. There is much anticipation, probably also in the Kremlin, for the mid-term elections. But the Trump wing is more united in denying the legitimacy of the 2020 elections than in wanting a deal with Putin. Two-thirds of voters support the current approach, or even it were heightened; although a slight majority look favourably on negotiations, even at the price of territorial concessions to Russia. This is an indication that direct intervention lacks support. This split in the electorate is reflected in the real debate that could be triggered on Capitol Hill after the November vote, namely on spending priorities: wouldn’t all the money allocated to Europe and against Russia be better spent against China? The purse strings are unlikely to suddenly tighten, but they are not likely to loosen in the absence of dramatic leaps either.
The other, European front is far more decisive. The Euro-Atlantic system is showing signs of severe stress. It will not collapse, but rules and power relations are being redefined. An Anglo-Baltic-driven Super-NATO is forming, an anti-Russian core determined to inflict a strategic defeat on Moscow. Germany is showing impatience with the Americans: the allocation of EUR 200 billion to shield Germans from rising energy prices is a warning to the US. A self-centred Germany is a frightening prospect, hence the growing anti-German rhetoric coming from the Polish government and its incoming Italian counterpart – a rhetoric much appreciated in Washington. Moreover, the economic war is accelerating trends towards a loss of competitiveness for European industry. And the crisis of legitimacy plaguing several European states threatens serious social unrest.
A prosperous Europe, united enough to contain the Russians in semi-autonomy but disunited enough not to be led by Germany, is in America’s interests. A Europe in depression is not. Washington may want economic decoupling between Europe (Germany in particular) and Russia. It cannot want its sphere of influence to split, the Europeans to turn against each other and the continent to drag the North American economy into a great recession. The US may want Germany’s neighbours to press Berlin to pay for everyone, not just for itself. But it cannot wish for a permanent rupture in their system, because NATO still serves to keep the Germans down.
For now, the Europeans are venting pressure from the war in Ukraine against each other, without questioning the sanctions or the (all said and done, few) weapons given to Kiev. But this outlet may not be enough if the economic crisis and social unrest deepen, and if the Russians attack strategic (especially digital) infrastructure. If this were to happen, the US would have to intensify its requests for discipline aimed at allies to whom it has little to give, increasing the quarrelsomeness in a sphere of influence no longer oiled by Cold War consensus.
The Americans will not want to jeopardise control over Europe – the real stake of this war – to win at all costs in Ukraine. Only if this choice is made, would they be able to ease the pressure on Putin.
(translated by Mark A. Sammut Sassi)