WAR IN EUROPE
While Russian advance in Ukraine stalls, Biden’s nine wayward words stir up a hornet’s nest
The fighting in Ukraine continues even as the Russian military seems to have declared that its real objective is out east rather than the capital, Kyiv. US President Joe Biden travelled to Brussels and Poland to bolster the Nato alliance and the country that is on the border of the fighting. And provoked a hornet’s nest with nine simple words.
It has been quite a week for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and not just on the battlefield. In battle, the Russians have largely been held off from occupying any new territory, although the dire, besieged circumstances of places like Mariupol remain unrelieved by Ukrainian forces so far. Still, the Ukrainians have become increasingly successful at using those deadly Javelin and Stinger missiles and similar armament to attack Russian aircraft and ground armour, significantly rebalancing the vast notional imbalance in the two sides’ forces on the ground.
Accordingly, convoys that had been heading towards Kyiv were stopped and were digging in rather than trying to advance any further. US military observers, discussing this, have noted Russian forces are now effectively out of ground artillery range of Kyiv.
Nevertheless, the Russians are obviously not packing up their toys and riding out of Dodge. Not yet, anyway. What the Russians are doing, however, is making more extensive and intensive use of aerial attacks, not generally on obvious military targets, but often on hospitals, schools, theatres being used as air-raid shelters, shopping malls, and now, most recently, with missile attacks on infrastructure sites like large fuel storage tank fields and a radio repair facility in Lviv.
Lviv is the most westerly large city in the country. It had, until now, been seen by most people as almost outside of the battle, not least because much of the international news cohort is based out of there, a number of foreign embassies have set up temporary quarters there, and because of its historical and architectural importance.
Still, the terror of attacks on civilians and their urban existence continues across the country. The besieged city of Mariupol has been reduced to rubble. Pictures of the damage recall the circumstances of so many European cities after the fighting and bombing in World War 2. Whether or not it’s a campaign specifically designed to attack civilians (and thus generate further panic, refugees and chaos), the net effect has been to generate something like 10 million refugees — internally and externally. But it has not, importantly, created a decline in the will to resist.
On the ground, the Russian military has performed poorly. And it shows. It is being widely reported that seven officers at the level of general have died in combat, indicating significant battlefield management gaps have necessitated generals moving much closer to the action to direct operations in detail, in the absence of a strong, self-reliant non-commissioned officer cohort as well as a lacuna of lower-ranking commissioned officers able to take charge in the swirling confusion of fighting. It also indicates the Ukrainian forces have become increasingly adept at locating command and control sites through direct visual observation or from electronic transmissions and then making effective use of their own firepower to decapitate the Russian military leadership.
The net result of this, it seems, was that a senior Russian general announced — almost without any signalling in advance — that Russian war aims had been achieved and that henceforth they would ‘concentrate on redeeming the protection of the Russian ethnic minority in the Donbas region’. Aesop’s fable about the fox and those supposedly sour grapes comes to mind right about now, or perhaps the old nursery rhyme:
Oh, the grand old Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again
And when they were up, they were up
And when they were down, they were down
And when they were only halfway up
They were neither up nor down
Of course, the destruction and suffering from Russian aerial attacks has not been reduced or eliminated, even as the ground fighting continues, but the latter is increasingly taking place at the Ukrainian forces’ initiative.
Just perhaps, that statement was a signal that the Russians want to move away from the maximal goals they had originally set out in Putin’s early, near-hallucinogenic statements about “denazifying” a nation with its Jewish president, and removing the drug-selling, thug government in Kyiv bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, and manufacturing biowarfare materials, along with other assorted fairy tales. Or, just maybe, it was an indication of dissension in the serried ranks of the Russians’ top leadership, with the military trying in some way to distance itself just a bit from the political goals of its president.
Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden made a quickly scheduled trip to Europe that included a face-to-face meeting with Nato heads of government to keep up morale and bolster unanimity among the many Nato member nations that had come together to produce an extraordinary sense of a solid front, and one that is continuing to send a wide and growing range of military supplies to Ukraine, although not yet those MiG-29s the Poles had offered to transfer to their embattled neighbour. (All this was occurring as a massive, previously scheduled military exercise in northern Norway, among many Nato members and neutral Sweden and Finland, was also taking place.)
Then there also was a meeting in eastern Poland with US military personnel stationed there as part of the ramped-up military presence of Nato partner forces on the eastern flank of the alliance.
That part of the visit also included a meeting with some recently arrived Ukrainian refugees now in Poland (including a particularly poignant video moment with a little girl hoping to see her father again).
This presidential foray effectively coincided with Russian air attacks on Ukraine’s westernmost city of Lviv, and so, perhaps, those air attacks were designed as a heads-up to the Nato allies to signal that the Russians have not given up entirely on the idea of rendering Ukraine impotent in the face of Russian military efforts. Parallel with the military, cyber, and disinformation campaigns, maybe there is a semiotic campaign under way as well, using real bombs rather than just signs and symbols…
For Biden, there was also a meeting with the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, and other senior Polish leaders. The US and Poland have, over the past several years, had something of a wary dance over Poland’s own increasingly less than democratic political tendencies.
But, as The Washington Post described it, “Biden’s two-day visit to Poland — which included stops in Rzeszow, in the southeast of the country, and Warsaw — underscores the rapidly changing nature of the U.S.-Poland relationship, which has transformed into a close partnership in the face of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.”
In the past year, the two nations have come together over the growing threat to Ukraine — and, by extension, the potential threat to the other nations of Nato’s eastern flank such as the Baltic nations, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.
While he was in Warsaw, Biden’s main public effort was a particularly bold, straightforward setting out of US — and Nato members’ — ideals, goals and objectives in the current conflict, and where it will and should end.
Or, as Biden said, “Let’s remember: The hammer blow that brought down the Berlin Wall, the might that lifted the Iron Curtain were not the words of a single leader; it was the people of Europe who, for decades, fought to free themselves.
“Their sheer bravery opened the border between Austria and Hungary for the Pan-European Picnic. They joined hands for the Baltic Way. They stood for Solidarity here in Poland. And together, it was an unmistakable and undeniable force of the people that the Soviet Union could not withstand. And we’re seeing it once again today with the brave Ukrainian people, showing that their power of many is greater than the will of any one dictator.
“So, in this hour, let the words of Pope John Paul burn as brightly today: ‘Never, ever give up hope, never doubt, never tire, never become discouraged. Be not afraid.’ A dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never erase a people’s love for liberty. Brutality will never grind down their will to be free. Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia — for free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness.
“We will have a different future — a brighter future rooted in democracy and principle, hope and light, of decency and dignity, of freedom and possibilities.”
That was a pretty good rhetorical statement of those US goals for the way forward out of the current crisis. And, if the president had not added an impromptu comment right at the end, the commentariat would be talking about — and largely cheering — the philosophical thread of the speech itself, rather than Biden’s final rhetorical flourish.
There were then the now-famous (or, infamous to some) nine words: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” To some, this was a call for a dreaded effort at “regime change”, summoning the ghosts of the past and implying Russia was somehow like Allende’s Chile had been.
White House officials hurried to clean up the record, almost falling over each other to say that Biden had not meant anything of that kind. Rather, he had meant a man like Putin (whom he had already called some particularly nasty names in the past several days) should never be allowed to dominate nations and regions, rather he should quickly pack his bags in his Kremlin apartment and go away.
By the time the phrase had ricocheted around for a day, however, another school of thought was beginning to emerge. Biden’s message in his speech, the argument went, was really intended for the Russian people, to call their attention to the West’s values in supporting Ukraine and that Russians themselves must come to the realisation that Putin’s regime was not just bad for the West, or for Ukraine, but for them as well.
As a result of his blind hubris, he’d cratered their economy, turned the nation into the polecat of much of the world, wrecked its international credit, and was now causing the flight of a growing number of the country’s best young professionals, cultural figures and intellectuals. And it was, therefore, the Russian people’s job to bring a halt to this disaster.
Just possibly, too, that Biden peroration was not as impromptu and spontaneous as it seemed at first. Rather, might it also be a subtle signal to the Russian senior political leadership — minus Putin — that they should place their collective courage to a sticking post and rein this wild man in before he destroys, not one, but two nations?
Keep in mind this has all come along as Putin, in one of the most bizarre broadcast messages of his recent career, compared the plight of Russia at the hands of those evil foreigners in their attempts to “cancel” him and his nation, just as they had done to children’s book author JK Rowling. For her part, Rowling shot back that Putin had no business talking about any of this while his military was busy killing women and children and destroying a neighbouring country. It should be noted that the Harry Potter series has been just as phenomenally popular in Russia as it has been elsewhere, so one has to wonder why Putin thought he could line himself and his actions with the boy magician and his creator.
Meanwhile, the sufferings of Ukraine and its people continue and Russian soldiers continue to die; all because one man decided that reconstituting Imperial Russia by force on the basis of his mystical feelings about the Third Rome had a perfectly logical place in the 21st century. DM