The Thucydides Trap - II
by Michael Brenner on 03 Jul 2022 0 Comment

Addendum Ukraine: Target Russia


This is an attempt to construct a narrative of the Ukraine crisis over the course of 2021 and early 2022. It combines straightforward description with interpretation of the decisions made and the actions taken. The latter is based on the public record supplemented by communications with some persons who have had more direct knowledge of events. Context is important as discussed in the preceding essay.


This analysis is not presented as the definitive account nor does it claim to be the exclusive strategic assessment possible. I do believe that it is much closer to the truth, and more credible, than the official narrative that is near universally accepted by the political class in the United States and Europe.  That line, in all its minor variations, is little more than a mélange of dogmas, misrepresentations and pure delusion.


Furthermore, one can accept the validity of this account (or most of it) while rejecting the criticisms of American policy. In other words. a judgment that what Washington did made sense, its objectives laudable, and its diplomacy sound does not require buying into the imaginative script composed by the administration and faithfully accepted as Gospel truth by its audience.




The key elements to bear in mind are these:


One, the immediate combat in Ukraine is the climax of a crisis that began shortly after the inauguration of the Biden administration. That crisis in turn was a renewed flareup of the simmering embers of the initial conflagration dating from the Washington instigated coup of March 2014. Two, the successive phases of that fraught situation must be understood in the context of the growing hostility in Russo-American relations. Its points of punctuation were Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, the repeated actions of successive American administrations in breaking or withdrawing from a series of arms control agreements dating from the Cold War which raised Moscow’s concerns about Washington’s military capabilities and intentions (the placing of ballistic missile defence systems in Poland and Romania being a particular source of worry – easily convertible into offensive missile launcher platforms), NATO’s progressive enlargement eastwards, the sponsored ‘colour revolutions’ around Russia’s periphery, and the emotional anti-Russia sentiment aroused by the manipulated ‘Russiagate’ affair. Three, Ukraine has been the occasion – not the cause – of the ultimate breakdown in relations between Moscow and Washington.


From April of 2021 onwards, the contours of the unfolding American strategy toward Ukraine cum Russia rapidly gained clarity.  Arrange a provocative incidence around the Donbass that sparks a Russian reaction which then could be used to confirm the specious claims of pre-existing Russian plans for invasion. The marked build-up of Ukraine forces along the contact line, supplied with an abundance of Javelin anti-armour weapons and Sprint anti-missile weapons, foretold preparations for offensive military operations.

That means doing exactly what we had been accusing Moscow of planning – a calculated ‘projection’ tactic. It was expected that the ensuing crisis would force the West Europeans to go along with comprehensive economic sanctions package (including NORDSTROM II’s annulment. That was the centrepiece of the plan. There was complete agreement among Biden’s foreign policy team that the draconian sanctions would produce a collapse of the fragile, one-dimensional Russian economy. Any ancillary benefit for the U.S. being greater European dependence on America for its energy resources. Implicitly, obedience to Washington’s policy preferences reinforced by economic dependence would confirm and perpetuate indefinitely their vassal status as conferred 75 years ago.  


Hence, the main target of what Washington did about Ukraine was Russia – with European deepening allied obedience to Washington a collateral gain. A widespread, hopefully global, boycott of Russian natural gas and oil exports was seen as draining the financial lifeblood from of the country’s economy as revenue from exports dwindled. Together with the planned move to cut Russia out of the SWIFT financial transaction mechanism, the shock to the economy would cause it to implode.


The ruble would collapse, inflation would skyrocket, living standards would tumble, popular discontent would so weaken Putin that he either would be forced to resign or be displaced by a cabal of discontented oligarchs. The outcome would be a weaker Russia beholden to the West or one isolated and impotent.  As President Biden would say: “For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power.” The Heavenly Father’s benediction was taken for granted, of course.


A full understanding of the tactics employed by the U.S. should take account of this cardinal fact that very few in official Washington cared very much what it meant for the stability of Ukraine or the welfare of the Ukrainian people. Their eyes were fixed on Moscow. Ukraine was prominent in the minds of Washington strategists as providing a unique opportunity for justifying the imposition of crippling sanctions that would put paid to Putin’s supposed ambitions in Europe – and beyond. 


Moreover, the deepening ties between Russian and the powers of Europe would be severed – probably irreparably. A new Iron Curtain would divide the continent, one marked by a line of blood – Ukrainian blood. That geostrategic reality would free the West to devote its full energies to dealing with China. Everything the United States has done vis-à-vis Ukraine over the past year has been dictated by that overarching goal.


Common to these optimistic scenarios was the hope that the budding Sino-Russian partnership would be fatally weakened – thereby, shifting the balance in favour of the United States in the forthcoming battle with China for global supremacy.


How was the plan designed and decided? In truth, the overall goals had been in place since the Obama administration. The President himself had given his approval to the Maiden coup, it was overseen directly by then Vice-President Joe Biden who acted as the (usually) absentee prefect for Ukraine between March 2014 and January 2016. The administration moved strenuously to block implementation of the Minsk II accord, remonstrating with Merkel and Macron for agreeing to be its underwriters.


That is why both Berlin and Paris never made the slightest move to persuade Kiev to live up to its obligations. The specific operation to provoke a crisis in the Donbass was marinating among influential persons (including Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan) in neo-con circles during the Trump presidency – whose incoherence and disjointedness prevented the fashioning of any calibrated policy toward Ukraine or Russia (although the weight of sanctions imposed increased over those four years).


The strategy was to ratchet up pressure on Russia so as to nip in the bud Putin/Moscow’s aspiration to become once again a major player – one dedicated to denying the United States its privileges as global hegemon and sole master of Europe. The driving force came from the ardent Victoria Nuland and her neo-Con comrades ensconced in the power agencies, in Congress and in the MSM. Since Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan were themselves partisans of this confrontational strategy, the outcome of whatever modicum of debate occurred was preordained.


Specifically as to Ukraine, the plan was ready and waiting for a decision by a White House under the sway of reborn Cold Warriors in State, the NSC, the CIA and the Pentagon. The triumph of their will in a government bereft of contrarian voices and headed by a passive, pliable President was a sure thing. The Ukraine anti-Russia plan operation took shape with the above-noted build-up of Ukrainian military forces along the Donbass Contact Line, belligerent talk of the need for heavier economic sanctions, and not least a chorus of shrill rhetoric from all quarters in Washington and Brussels.


The Kremlin leadership seems to have been well aware of what was going on. The American objective of putting Russia back in its subordinate place was taken as an obvious given by the Kremlin. Some uncertainty did exist on the question of what initiatives on the ground to expect: a major assault on the Donbass or lesser provocative acts to force a Russian reaction that could be used as a pretext for imposing sanctions (above all, the cancelling of NORDSTROM II). 


It is likely that senior policymakers in Washington themselves had not made a definitive judgment on the tactical issue. Divisions among individual players and a wavering President could very well have left important matters unresolved within a soft, cloudy consensus. There was visible evidence of this in the repeated juxtaposition, and alternation, of bellicose rhetoric and Biden’s mollifying words in public along with the “let’s not go to war” telephone conversations he initiated to Putin and reaffirmed in press statements.


In the end, the red light for a full-blown assault was given. One element of circumstantial evidence in support of this assertion is the absolutely surety with which the President, Tony Blinken and CIA Director publicly forecast the imminent Russian “offensive.” They could state that with certainty only because they knew the date set for the Ukrainian military operation to begin – along with the recognition that Moscow was by then committed to respond in kind.


That understanding was not based on inside information acquired electronically or via a mole; Washington lacks that capability as evinced by its record of having missed every other Russian initiative of significance, e.g., the large-scale military intervention into Syria in 2015.


The countdown was punctuated by the 30-fold increase in Ukraine shelling across the Donbass (including residential districts) between February 16 and February 23, 2022 – as reported by OSCE observers. The exact form and magnitude of the Kremlin’s reaction was unpredictable, but that in itself was not a key variable since it was the military response per se that served Washington’s grand scheme. Furthermore, Washington was confident that the ambitious program of training and equipping the Ukrainian military in place since 2018 (complemented by formidable layered defences anchored by a network of fortifications constituting a miniature Maginot line) would prevent a rout by Russian forces and, thereby, create space for the expected corrosive effects on the Russian economy and body politique to register.


Biden indirectly did call attention to this issue in press conference remarks made early in the month. He stated that a strong Russian reaction would ensure total NATO unity in support of the entire sanctions package. A more minor reaction, he said probably would prompt a “fight” among allied governments as to whether to include expelling Russia from SWIFT and shutting down the NORDSTROM II project. In the event, the large-scale Russian preemptive attack on February 24 ensured that the preferred American sanctions option would prevail.


What of Biden’s repeated claim that Zelensky in Kiev disputed the President’s “warning” that Russia was preparing to take military action? Well, we have seen the print-out of that notorious telephone conservation wherein the former expressed skepticism while the latter loudly insisted that there was no doubt at all. There are only two logical explanations for this puzzle. The first is that Zelensky (and his staff of diplomatic amateurs borrowed from his old TV production team) was getting cold feet as the fateful day loomed and, therefore, trying to get some wiggle room.


The other is that he had been kept in the dark about the precise date when the provocation across the Contact Line would be taken. His own military commanders, and senior security people might have worked that out with the Americans (who were long active at key decision nodes) without taking Zelensky into their confidence. His penchant for speaking off-the-cuff could have been the proximate reason; the reality that he has been a figurehead president rather than an active chief executive since his 2019 election creating the permissive conditions.


Far-fetched? No – just odd. As Sherlock Holmes counselled us: “Once you’ve eliminated all other possibilities, whatever is left – however strange – is the truth.”



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