With new statements from the Pentagon’s leadership, the U.S. has signaled a strategic shift in Ukraine, forecasting a long-term contest of strength and influence with Russia.
During a news conference in Poland on April 25, just after a visit to Kyiv, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Washington wants to see Russia “weakened” and to be unable to rapidly restore its military. This statement clearly suggests a strategic shift in the U.S. regarding the conflict in Ukraine.
US Wants To Weaken Russia
When hostilities first broke out, President Joe Biden was consistent about not wanting the conflict to spread outside Ukraine or becoming a direct war between Russia and the U.S. “Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III, something we must strive to prevent,” he said in early March.
Biden pledged not to keep the U.S. military out of the war and opposed establishing a no-fly zone over Ukrainian territory, a move which would have risked a direct clash between U.S. and Russian forces. However, as fighting has grown more fierce and Ukraine’s demand for heavy armaments has increased, the limits stated by the U.S. government have grown murkier. At the same time, in both word and deed, the U.S. is gradually shifting course to weaken the Russian military.
The U.S. has imposed punitive sanctions clearly designed to prevent the Russian military from developing or producing new armaments. The U.S. has also blocked revenue from Russian oil and natural gas, although not yet entirely successfully. With regard to meeting the objective of weakening the Russian military, Austin and others in Biden’s administration are articulating the future they see more clearly: a contest of strength and influence with Moscow that will last for many years.
“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done” in Ukraine, Austin told reporters in Poland. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who accompanied Austin to Kyiv, agreed with the Pentagon chief. “I think the secretary [Austin] said it very well.”
A National Security Council spokesperson in the White House said Austin’s statement in Poland is consistent with U.S. goals that have been established over many months, which is to turn the “special military operation” in Ukraine into “a strategic failure for Russia,” CNN reported.
“We want Ukraine to win,” the spokesperson said. “One of our goals has been to limit Russia’s ability to do something like this again.”
America’s strategic shift has taken place over the past few weeks, demonstrated by the transfer of heavy weapons from the U.S. and many NATO nations to Ukraine despite the possibility Russia could interpret this as an act of war. As Austin and Blinken attended the press conference in Poland, the first howitzers from the United States’ most recent military aid package arrived in Ukraine, and the Biden administration also announced a supplementary military aid package of artillery munitions for Kyiv worth $165 million.
Biden administration officials told CNN they believe continuing to support Ukraine’s military could degrade Russia’s ability to fight, weaken Moscow’s long-term military capability, and give the U.S. a strategic advantage.
This shift also reflects the United States’ belief that Moscow will not stop in Ukraine after challenging the control of several regions there. On April 25, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that, although “[o]bviously, right now, the war is in Ukraine,” the U.S. and its allies “are also looking to prevent them (Russia) from expanding their efforts and President Putin’s objectives beyond that (Ukraine), too.”
NATO has discussed the prospect of hostilities spreading from Ukraine for some time, but has not yet reached any consensus on the issue. Now America’s public appeal could have a complex influence on the approach NATO takes. “The balance in NATO itself has shifted,” Rajan Menon, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University in the U.S., told The Guardian.* “The argument now seems to be this is not just about Ukraine; it’s about a larger problem, that is, the threat that Russia poses to Europe as a whole.
“Once Washington says it, those in NATO who want the war to be about that are empowered, because what the US says matters,” Menon added.
But America’s shift in strategy has many implicit risks.
The Prospect of World War III
“There is a very narrow line to tread here,” James Arroyo, a former high-level U.K. national security official, now director of the Ditchley Foundation, told The New York Times. “The risk is that ‘degrade Russian military power’ could easily shift into a degradation of Russia as a power generally — and that Putin will use that to stoke nationalism.”
The second risk is that if Russian President Vladimir Putin believes conventional Russian military forces are being stifled, he could shift to attacks on Western infrastructure, or shift to chemical weapons or tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. This is a possibility which was hard to imagine eight weeks ago but which is now under discussion.
“None of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” CIA Director William J. Burns said this month.
Burns said the possibility this will occur is low. However, in a number of possible scenarios U.S. authorities are now considering, there is one where Russian sets off a nuclear blast as a show of force in the Black Sea or in an unpopulated area as a warning shot for Western nations to back off.
One European diplomat says it’s unclear whether Austin’s statement reflects a strategic shift or if it’s “a clearer articulation” of the United States’ current position. But if this really is a new U.S. objective, publicly speaking about it is also controversial, since Moscow will have more reason to accuse NATO of fighting a proxy war in Ukraine.
In an interview on state television on April 25, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned the risk of nuclear war — that is, World War III — is “real” and no one should underestimate this danger. At the same time, he commented on Moscow’s position regarding NATO’s arms assistance to Kyiv.
“If NATO actually starts a proxy war against Russia and arms this proxy, then a war’s a war,” Lavrov warned the U.S. and Russia, according to Reuters.
*Editor’s Note: Rajan Menon is chair of the political science department at the City University of New York. He is a senior research scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
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