Observations of an Expat: Crossing the Ukrainian Rubicon

America this week crossed its Ukrainian Rubicon.

It took a while. And with good reason. US foreign policy was badly burned by operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. It could not afford another expensive failure.

That’s not to say that the Biden Administration failed to support Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion. It froze the oligarchs’ assets, imposed sanctions, dispatched 100,000 US troops to Europe and provided $14 billion in military and humanitarian aid.

But at the same time, President Biden, was ultra-careful not to prod the Russian bear into a World War Three. There were to be no NATO boots on Ukrainian soil and a close watch was kept on any weapons provided to the Ukrainian military.

NATO forces will still keep out of Ukraine, but the flow and type of weapons is being substantially upgraded. On Thursday the president announced that he wants Congressional approval for a further $33 billion for Ukraine. $20 billion in the form of military aid; $8.5 billion in economic aid and $3 billion in humanitarian aid. A pro-Ukraine Congress will almost certainly approve the package.

The president also wants to liquidate the $1 billion-plus in oligarchs’ frozen assets to help offset the cost of the Ukraine war. This may not be much in comparison to the global total, but if Europe follows suit they will add an estimated $30 billion to the pot.

Biden’s announcement followed a trip to Kyiv by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, which in turn was followed by a meeting at America’s Ramstein Air Base in Germany of more than 40 countries who pledged to support Ukraine. The usually soft-spoken low profile Lloyd Austin was loud in his condemnation of Vladimir Putin and his support for Volodomyr Zelensky.

“We will not allow Putin to win,” said Austin, and it was clear from his comments and those of Antony Blinken that in supporting Ukraine the US believed it was backing good against evil and was on the right side of history. “Russia,” said the American Defence Secretary, “is waging a war of choice to indulge the ambitions of one man. Ukraine is fighting a war of necessity to defend its democracy, its sovereignty and its citizens.”

Blinken added: “Russia has already failed. Ukraine has already succeeded.”

America’s shift to a full-throated and committed support can be directly attributed to two causes: The united EU and NATO response to the Russian invasion and Ukraine’s staunch defence of its territory, especially the latter.

It is important to America to be not only on the side of the angels but to be on the side that wins. And it looks as if Ukraine is winning and will continue to do so. So far the UN estimates that 21,900 Russian troops have died in Putin’s war.  One year’s production of aircraft—150—has been shot down and two years’ production of tanks—500—has been destroyed. It is estimated that the Russian artillery have used 70 percent of their entire inventory of short, medium and long-range missiles.

The Russian shift to the south and east has resulted in some gains for Moscow, but not as much as Putin hoped and the Ukrainians are ensuring that each gain is a costly one in lives and equipment.

Moscow’s ability to replace losses has also been seriously hampered by sanctions. The IMF has predicted that the Russian economy will shrink by at least 12.5 percent this year. On top of that, a large part of Russian defence systems include Western parts which manufacturers are now banned from exporting.

The danger now is that Putin will conclude that he cannot afford to lose and will resort to nuclear weapons to prevent that outcome. After Biden’s announcement of increased support, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called a press conference to condemn US and NATO “aggression” and added: “There is now a considerable risk of nuclear war.”

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • Good piece, Tom.

    Liquidating oligarch assets like that looks like a legal bunfight in 2-3 years’ time.

    But Biden has the issue that maintaining $70m of confiscated gin palace could cost $10m per annum.

  • Steve Trevethan 1st May '22 - 1:30pm

    Might any account of the terrible troubles in Ukraine be significantly incomplete without clear reference to the Western backed usurpation of the previous government and the failure of the “West” to facilitate and encourage a negotiated settlement?

  • Steve Trevethan 1st May '22 - 1:36pm

    Here is an article relevant to my previous post.

  • Peter Hirst 1st May '22 - 1:59pm

    These are scary times. How necessary is it to offer Putin something that will allow him to accept defeat in Ukraine? Security guarantees seem one such offering. If the result of Russia losing is trials in The Hague then the outlook for peace is not great.

  • I would like to think diplomatic efforts are being aimed at Lavrov. He has had to echo the ludicrous things coming out of the Russian propaganda machine, but he knows they are lies, and it must be hurting him to have to keep supporting Putin. He obviously can’t easily switch to telling the truth, and indeed may be fearful of the consequences, but he is an intelligent man, and one we ought to be able to influence.
    We all seem to be scared to talk of regime change after the awful mess in Iraq, but a palace coup is the best hope for us, and for the Russian people. One way to help it happen would be to talk of how rapidly the post-Putin era would see reversal of the sanctions and of Russia’s pariah status. The Russian people have a proud history in many fields, not least the sacrifices they made to stop Hitler. Our admiration for the people should be given more prominence; it is in stark contrast to our view of their current despotic leader.

  • @Peter Hirst. If there is a way to make sure Putin is ousted, and Russia returns to normality, that would be my choice, but you are probably right to suggest it is more realistic to hope there is a way to let him halt the killing and destruction of Ukranian property by ensuring he has a way to accept defeat with honour, even if that honour is an illusion.
    Either way, I feel very sorry for the Russian people, who don’t deserve the damage he is doing to his country.

  • There was a glimmer of light in this trough of despair over the weekend with the UN and International red cross being able to facilitate the evacuation of some civilians from the area of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.
    It would seem an obvious propaganda win for Russia to allow the safe passage of the remaining civilians and injured Ukranian forces holed up in the besieged plant as happened with East Aleppo in Syria The harrowing evacuation of east Aleppo.
    The Ukrainian army forces may have to surrender their arms, but if a prisoner exchange could be negotiated in the near future, at least this siege could be brought to an end without further loss of lives on both sides.

  • Andy Daer,

    I don’t see much hope in relying on Lavrov to try and bring any reality to the thinking of the Putin regime. His response to the UN General assembly denouncing Russia’s invasion by a vote of 141 to 5 was that Western governments had put pressure on diplomats whose children were studying in the West, to vote against Russia.
    Israel has today denounced Lavrov for suggesting that Adolf Hitler had Jewish origins, accusing Lavrov of spreading anti-Semitism and belittling the Holocaust Israel demands apology after Russia says Hitler had Jewish roots

  • @Steve. An article from 8 years ago may help those who echo the Kremlin’s line about ‘it’s all the fault of the West’. But nothing, absolutely nothing, comes faintly close to justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Or the destruction and loss of life and war crimes since.
    If you want to dig out history, and others interfering in Ukraine’s politics, how about the 2004 poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko?

  • Liberal Democrats will have a natural tendency to advocate for an anti-war and anti-imperialist policy stance. This is how it should be and was most recently evident in the principled opposition of the party to the 2003 Iraq war. That should not, however, be interpreted as pacifism or appeasement of tyranny.
    “Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor never the tormentor” – Elie Wiesel, Romanian born American Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Noble Laureate and holocaust survivor.

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