When the U.S. offered to rescue Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, his response was "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride." That must have been embarrassing for NATO members. In fact, Germany-- which had been blocking military aid from NATO-- has done an about-face and has now "authorized the Netherlands to send Ukraine 400 rocket-propelled grenade launchers to aid in the fight against Russian invaders, according to two EU officials-- marking an abrupt shift in Berlin’s military policy amid pressure from EU and NATO allies. Until Saturday, Germany had clung to a longstanding practice of not permitting lethal weapons that it controlled to be transferred into a conflict zone.... Germany’s shift comes as numerous Western allies are mobilizing to send Ukraine more guns, ammunition and even anti-aircraft defense systems as Russian forces bear down on major Ukrainian cities. The reversal could mean a rapid increase in European military assistance for Ukraine, as large portions of the Continent’s weapons and ammunition are at least in part German-manufactured, giving Berlin legal control over their transfer. Yet Berlin’s changing stance does not necessarily mean all requests for arms shipments will be approved, as each case is decided individually." Today, Biden authorized $350 million in "lethal defensive assistance" and even Germany announced it will send 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles. Putin is flipping out. There also is intense pressure for Turkey to close the Black Sea to Russian ships. (Be sure to follow Pres. Zelensky's tweets.)
Lawrence Freedman wrote yesterday that "We now know that the Ukrainians are serious about defending their country and are resilient. They have not been rolled over. A quick fait accompli would have helped Putin a lot. For example, the design and implementation of Western sanctions would have felt very different if it was against the backdrop of Russia apparently walking over Ukraine. It would have provided the opponents of anything too punitive with an argument that while what happened to Ukraine was a tragedy it was a situation about which little could be done, and so expensive gestures were pointless."
Evident Ukrainian resistance, and of the costs of war for both sides, also raise the stakes for Putin at home. As a number of analysts have noted as Russia runs out of stocks of precision-guided missiles and gets drawn into urban warfare, the fighting could get brutal. The Chechen capital Grozny and the Syrian city of Aleppo were battered in Russian led campaigns, with direct targeting of civilians. Yet the level of vocal opposition in Russia (and the lack of enthusiastic support) is striking. It was odd for Putin to insist that Ukraine should really be part of Russia and then expect people to tolerate fellow Slavs-- often their relations-- being bombed. Putin, like most autocrats, has a residual fear of his own people, and may start to be concerned about how they might react to even more casualties of their own, brutality in Ukraine, and international condemnation.
For those of us who have long wondered why Putin would embark on an aggressive war the core puzzle has been what he could hope to achieve politically. A limited campaign in Eastern Ukraine made some sense as it would carve out an area that could be sustained and defended over time. The current scale of operations makes less sense because it essentially requires regime change in Kyiv. In Iraq and Afghanistan the US and the UK learned through bitter experience how difficult this can be. Put simply even relatively authentic leaders with strong local roots (and it is not obvious that Russia has any of those available) that have been put in place by foreigners have limited legitimacy and will soon be relying on the occupying force to sustain them in power.
Before this, Russian forces needs to find and deal with President Zelensky. He has so far performed with dignity and bravery as an unexpected war leader. Putin will want him out of the way. Zelensky is insisting for the moment that he must stay in Kyiv and direct the war effort, even while reporting that Russian saboteurs are in the city. At some point a hard decision might have to be taken about either relocating to Western Ukraine or even establishing a government in exile. So long as he can continue to operate in Ukraine his leadership serves as a rebuke to Putin.
Even if the government loses control of the capital and is forced to flee, and the command systems for Ukrainian forces start to break down, that does not mean that Russia has won the war. It is only a mind-set that fails to understand the wellsprings of Ukraine’s national identity that could believe that a compliant figure could be installed as Ukrainian president and expect to last for very long without the backing of an occupation force. Russia simply does not have the numbers and capacity to sustain such a force for any length of time. One would have thought that with the memories of the Orange Revolution of 2004-5 and the Euromaidan of 2013-14 that Putin would have some appreciation of the role that ‘people power’ can play in this country, unless again he believes his own propaganda that these movements were manipulated into existence by the Americans and their allies. Ukraine shares a land border with NATO and equipment can pass through to Ukrainian regular forces so long as they are fighting - and then to an anti-Russian insurgency should this conflict move to that stage. This is why it is important not to focus solely on whether Russia achieves it military objectives. It is how it holds what it can seize against civilian resistance and insurgency.
Putin may have underestimated Ukraine, a country of 44 million people, and Zelensky, as we can see by the way Ukrainian troops are fighting back, according to Kyiv experienced, motivated soldiers who have "killed thousands of Russians, downed enemy planes and destroyed hundreds of armored vehicles and tanks."The Russian military is pounding Kyiv and other cities and hundreds of civilians have been reported dead. The NY Times is reporting that Ukrainian forces have slowed the Russians down and that the Russian offensive is facing stiff resistance and losing momentum.
Russia’s attack lines are bottlenecked, a second official said, as Ukrainian troops fiercely engage against the Russians. The resistance, the official said, is why the Russian troops massed at the border have not all crossed. But the official warned that more of those troops would flow quickly to the cities-- particularly Kyiv-- if the forward elements break the Ukrainian troops who have held them up.
“It’s not apparent to us that Russian forces over the past 24 hours have been able to execute their plans as they deemed they would,” John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said later Friday. “But it’s a dynamic situation.”
As some Russian troops entered a northern district of Kyiv, missile strikes hammered the city and rockets crashed into residential buildings. If Russian intelligence has figured out where Zelensky and the rest of the Ukrainian leadership are hiding, the Russian military will probably try to take them out with rockets and airstrikes, a senior Biden administration official said in an interview. But if that does not work, Russian forces might resort to urban combat, a more difficult endeavor.
“The easy part is attacking with missiles and hitting airfields,” said retired Col. David Lapan, a 30-year veteran of the Marine Corps. “But the narrative that they’ve overrun Ukraine is very premature. We’re just a couple of days into this, and it could go on a long time.”
Senior Pentagon officials echoed that view. Russian troops are surrounding Kyiv with an aim to isolate and possibly lay siege to the capital, the senior Biden official said. He said the Russian forces had a list of Zelensky’s leadership team, and would seek to kill or capture those officials if targeted airstrikes did not accomplish Putin’s aim of eliminating the government. But Ukrainian troops and citizens are fighting back, he said, which means that Russia, for all of its military might, may not have an easy time reaching its objectives. It would get bloody, he said.
It already has. In an exchange captured in an audio recording that has been shared and tweeted around the world, a Russian warship ordered 13 soldiers protecting tiny Snake Island in the country’s south to “surrender” or “be bombed.” A Ukrainian border guard defiantly responded: “Russian warship, Fuck You!” to reject the demand.
The 13 soldiers were all killed, which may inspire Ukrainian street fighters, Ukrainian army units who have been beating back Russian assaults in Kyiv-- and Russian anti-war demonstrators and whatever there is of independent-minded media. The Economist reported yesterday that "The sombre, shamed mood in Moscow could hardly be more different from the euphoria that gripped it in 2014 when Putin seized and annexed Crimea. Then Russian society swelled with pride. Even those who recognised that the annexation was illegal admitted that the bloodless operation had been well executed. Putin’s sagging popularity rating soared. This time opinion polls by Levada, an independent pollster, show that the country is divided, with less than half of the population supporting Putin’s recognition of two Potemkin republics in Ukraine–a precursor to the war. There are no public displays of support for Putin’s invasion."
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (Ret.), former the director of European affairs on Trump’s National Security Council, told Vice that Trump’s decision to withhold badly needed military aid hurt the country’s ability to defend itself-- and emboldened Putin. He puts much of the blame for Putin’s invasion squarely on Trump. "It’s because of Trump’s corruption that we have a less capable, less prepared Ukraine," Vindman said. He continued:
Based on Trump’s temperature toward Ukraine, I think Vladimir Putin believed that in a second Trump term [Putin] could have just waltzed in, NATO potentially would have been destroyed, and Ukraine would have been handed on a silver platter.
But that didn't turn out. Instead, you had the American public reject Trump and Trumpism at least in sufficient numbers [for President Biden] to win the legal, lawful, proper election. And then the former president attempted to launch a coup and drive hyperpartisanship toward extremism and weaken the United States.
To the people who don't necessarily follow it, it could seem far-fetched; they might tie these events to Joe Biden. But look at the timing of when this [Russian military] buildup first started. It started in the spring of 2021, just weeks after the [Jan. 6 Capitol] insurrection. Donald Trump didn’t recede into the history books, he didn’t go into quiet retirement. He continued to perpetuate this big lie and sow discord, and Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity in that.
This is 20 years building. But it was a slow creep until you get to the Trump administration, and there's a big lurch forward. We were almost at a point of no return at that point.
By the time President Biden comes into power, you have all these vulnerabilities and opportunities. From Putin’s perspective, there’s this distracted, enfeebled superpower that's casting its eyes further afield towards long term competition with China and the price to normalize and stabilize the relationship with Russia was a sphere of influence.
...Trump is the megaphone, but it’s Tucker Carlson playing on Russian airwaves. It’s Mike Pompeo cheerleading for Putin. It's these folks that suggest that there's a division not just within the American public but within the elites. That firm resolve for the traditional Republican Party about staking out a strong position on national security isn't there. Those are opportunities that these folks presented.
They have blood on their hands because if they weren’t acting against America’s interests in aiding and abetting our most belligerent aggressive enemy then we may not have ended up here.
I think this is about opportunity, the vulnerability that Donald Trump and his henchmen have offered Vladimir Putin.
Like my antecedents, Zelensky is a Ukrainian Jew. His family stayed even though the country was the scene of repeated pogroms while it was part of the Tsarist empire. My grandfather told me how his rural Pale village was raided by Cossacks and how he hid in a tree-- and then, a teenager, fled to America. Fascism and anti-Semitism have always been very real in Ukraine. But not all-pervasive the way Putin claims. And the ultranationalism, racism and homophobia infecting the country today, isn't any different than the premises behind Trumpism-- and also hardly all-pervasive, any more than Trumpism is all- pervasive here. "On a deeper level, Ukraine’s far-right problem is related to its failure to grapple with the dark side of its nationalist legacy. Thus, Stepan Bandera, the World War II-era militant nationalist and onetime Nazi collaborator whose movement was responsible for numerous atrocities against Jews-- and other groups, such as Poles and Russians-- is widely acclaimed as a hero in Ukraine’s national liberation struggle; the pro-Western leadership brought to power by the Orange Revolution in the 2000s posthumously gave him a Hero of Ukraine award, and Kyiv today has a Stepan Bandera Avenue. True, most of Bandera’s modern Ukrainian fans embrace a mythology that reinvents him as an unfairly maligned, Jewish-friendly victim of Soviets and Nazis alike; but such denialism is hardly benign, and it usually allows extremism to flourish in its shade... It is worth noting that despite these problems, there is no sense in which Ukraine’s post-2014 government can be regarded as fascist or pro-Nazi; if Ukraine has been run by a “neo-Nazi junta” as its detractors maintain, it would be the first such junta in history to give key posts to Jews (among them former prime minister Volodymyr Groysman) and to have strong support from the Jewish community."