Endgame for Ukraine: America vs America

Bill Burns travelled (in secret) in mid-January to meet Zelensky. Was it to prepare Zelensky for a shift in the American stance?

Hysterics at the Chinese balloon overflying the U.S. – taken to volume 11 – through scrambling a hush-hush Raptor jet (F-22) to ‘pop’ it, and then bally-hooing the ‘pop’ as Raptor’s first ever ‘air-to-air kill’, may be a source for quiet derision around the world, yet paradoxically this seemingly trivial event may cast a long shadow over the U.S. war-timetable for Ukraine.

For it is the U.S. political calendar that may yet determine what happens next in Ukraine – from the western side.

Seemingly nothing important occurred – it was an instant of spy frenzy, leaving Biden’s ‘tough task’ unchanged: He needs to convince the American voter, facing collapsing standards of living, that they misread the ‘runes’; that rather than gloom, the economy – contrary to their lived experience – is ‘working well for them’.

Biden needs to perform this magic against polls that say only 16% of Americans feel better off since the start of his tenure, and 75% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters wish him to not stand in 2024. Significantly, this message is coming today from the Democratic-leaning media, suggesting thoughts of replacing him are already in circulation.

For now, Biden’s allies in the party establishment (the DNC) continue to clear the way for his candidature – postponing initial primaries (in which Biden could be expected to be trounced) for a later South Carolina primary election, where Black and Latino voters would reflect demographics in which Biden might (possibly) shine. It may work; it may not.

Simply put, against this highly sceptical Party backdrop, Biden will have to change American perceptions of the economy at a moment when many indicators signal further deterioration. It will be a ‘heavy lift’. The economic team, for sure, will be insisting: ‘Keep the focus on economic achievements! We don’t want distractions from any foreign policy débacles; We do not want the TV debates to centre on Balloons, or around Abrams tanks: ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’’.

The ‘Chinese balloon’ was popped, yes, but similarly popped was Team Biden’s hope to negotiate a limited understanding with a tetchy President Xi that could stop China tensions becoming a spoiler issue in the primary debates. The balloon incident obliged the U.S. to cancel Blinken’s appointment with Xi (even though such a meeting with the head of state would be a rare event).

The powerful ‘China hawk’ faction in the U.S. was ecstatic. The China balloon ‘kill’ inadvertently, and in an instant, elevated China to ‘Main Threat’. It was the chance for these hawks to ‘pivot’ foreign policy back from Ukraine and Russia – to fully focus on China.

They make the case that Ukraine was ‘eating’ too much of America’s arms inventory. It was leaving America vulnerable; already, it would take years for the U.S. to make up for this equipment loss by reinstating weapons supply-lines. And there is ‘no time to spare’. The military ‘deterrence fence’ around China has to be in place – ASAP.

Naturally, the tight neo-con circle around Biden – some of whom have invested in the ‘Destroy Russia’ project for decades – is not ready to ‘let go’ the Ukraine project, for China.

Yet, the Ukraine narrative ‘bubble’ has been punctured, and has been leaking helium for some time. The Beltway – and even the MSM narrative – has pirouetted from ‘Russia losing’ to an ‘Ukrainian defeat is inevitable’. Indeed, Kiev is defeated, and is hanging by the slenderest of threads.

Olexii Arestovich, Zelensky’s senior adviser and former ‘spin doctor’ in the Presidential office, speaking in late January this year, was candid in his assessment:

“If everyone thinks that we are guaranteed to win the war, then it is very unlikely. Since January 14, it has ceased to be like this. What do you think, that the assessment from the President of Poland, Duda, not only did he say this about the decisive months. That it is generally unknown whether Ukraine will survive …

“The war may not end as the Ukrainians expect, and as a result, Ukraine may not return all its territories, and the West is ready to follow such a scenario … What will happen to the society that raised its expectations too high, but will receive a conditional Minsk-3? This recoil of unfulfilled expectations will hit us so hard – morally and everything else – that we will simply be stunned.

“The way out of this war may not be at all what it seemed to us three months ago, after the success of the Kherson operation. And not because the insidious Americans do not give weapons or delay, but because success requires 400 thousand of perfectly trained soldiers with NATO weapons to grind it all up and liberate the territories. Do we have it? No. Will it be next year? Will not be. There will not be enough training facilities…

“We as a society are not ready for such an outcome. I decided to say it as the expectation of the Russian side. But the most unpleasant thing is that in the West they think the same way, and we are totally dependent on them. What should the West do? The scenario of two Koreas. Create South Korea with guarantees”, Arestovich said, adding that with this option, Ukraine can get a lot of bonuses.

Put bluntly, if Biden is to avoid a repeat of the humiliating Afghan débacle, America needs urgently to to move-on before the 2024 Presidential calendar kicks-off this summer – with Ukraine/Russia sucking all the oxygen out from the coming economic debates.

But that is not what is happening. Victoria Nuland – who has been ‘capo’ in Kiev for a decade – is overseeing a purge: Unreliables are ‘out’, and pro-American radical Ukrainian hawks are ‘in’. It is a make-over of the Kiev mafia, which leaves Zelensky without friends – and wholly dependent on Washington. It looks to be preparation for the U.S. to attempt a double-down in Ukraine.

Seymour Hersh’s detailed article on the backdrop to the Nordstream pipeline sabotage by the U.S., on which Hersh worked for many months (though his assertions have been denied by the White House), tells us something highly significant.

All the familiar, anti-Russia neo-cons (Nuland, Sullivan and Blinken) were part of the Nordstream sabotage plot – but the impulse for it came from Biden. He led it. And just to be plain, Biden is just as emotionally invested in Ukraine as his team mates; it is likely that he too cannot ‘let go’ in Ukraine.

BUT, doubling down now, in Ukraine, won’t work for Biden. It would be highly reckless (although the Nordstream plot was nothing, if not reckless).

Doubling-down will not bring his hoped-for ‘win’, because its logic is based on an egregious mis-analysis.

Olexii Arestovich, Zelensky’s former ‘spin doctor’ and adviser, has described the circumstance of the Russian SMO first entry into Ukraine: It was conceived as a bloodless mission and should have passed without casualties, he says. “They tried to wage a smart war… Such an elegant, beautiful, lightning-fast special operation, where polite people, without causing any damage to either a kitten or a child, eliminated the few who resisted. They didn’t want to kill anyone: Just sign the renunciation”.

The point here is that what occurred was political miscalculation by Moscow – and not military failure. The initial aim of the SMO didn’t work. No negotiations resulted. Yet from it flowed two major consequences: NATO controllers pounced on this interpretation to trumpet their pre-conceived bias that Russia was militarily weak, backward and stumbling. That misreading underlay how NATO perceived Russia would prosecute the war.

It was wholly incorrect. Russia is strong and has military predominance.

On the presumption of weakness, however, NATO switched plans from a planned guerrilla insurgency, to conventional war along the ‘Zelensky Defence Lines’ – thus opening the path for Russia’s artillery domination to attrit Ukraine’s forces to the point of entropy. It is an error that cannot be rectified. And to try it might just lead to WW3.

The Abrams M1 tank will not save Biden from débacle in the lead-up to the U.S. election debates:

“It was designed for the kind of tank-on-tank combat that hasn’t happened since WW2. It’s huge, expensive, full of sorts of electronics. And powered by a repurposed jet engine. It breaks down quickly and needs its own army of mechanics, runs out of gas quickly and at almost 70 tonnes, it is too heavy to cross most bridges and needs specialized bridge crossing equipment. And it sinks in the mud. The Saudis used Abrams tanks in Yemen – and lost 20 to the Houthis, not exactly the most sophisticated military force”.

So, how does this all pan out? Well, the fight is on – in Washington. The China hawks will try to wrench the U.S.’ full attention back to China. The Biden neo-cons may try for some escalatory tactic in Ukraine that makes war with Russia unstoppable.

However, the reality is that the Ukraine ‘Balloon’ is popped. Military and civilian circles in Washington know it. The ‘elephant in the room’ of inevitable Russian success is acknowledged (albeit, with the compulsion to avoid seeming ‘defeatist’ – that persists in certain quarters). They know too that the NATO (as ‘formidable force’) ‘balloon’ has popped. They know that the balloon of western industrial capacity to manufacture weapons – in sufficient quantity and over a long duration – has popped also.

The consequences are the risk of severe U.S. reputational damage, the longer the war persists. These circles do not want that. Perhaps they will conclude that Biden is not the man to lead the U.S. out of this blind alley – that he is the part of the problem, and not the solution. If so, he must be gone in good time for the Democrats to work out who they want to lead them into the 2024 Presidential election (no easy prospect).

They may sense too, that the 2024 campaign lines already are coalescing for the Republican Party, which has its own reading of the Ukraine débacle – ‘Let’s exit from Ukraine to confront China’ (with full bi-partisan support). This means firstly, that the thread of U.S. financial support for Ukraine – as Bill Burns (CIA chief) reportedly told Zelensky on his last visit – likely will taper this summer. And secondly, it hints that any bi-partisan support for further arming Kiev may be over by the time the primary season will be in full swing.

Bill Burns travelled (in secret) in mid-January to meet Zelensky. Was it to prepare Zelensky for a shift in the American stance? Burns, the long-standing U.S. quiet negotiator, is not party to the Nuland programme. The former said at Georgetown Universityin early February that “China remains the biggest geopolitical challenge the U.S. faces in the decades ahead, and the biggest priority for CIA”. His framing, ‘was not a bug, but the substance’ in his address.

Nuland may be planting U.S.-aligned hawks around Zelensky in order to continue the war, but there are other, wider interests within Washington. Financial circles are worried about a market collapse that could lead to the dollar haemorrhaging value. There are worries too, that the Ukraine war is contributing to a serious weakening of America’s standing in the world. And there are concerns that a reckless Team Biden could lose control and take the U.S. into a wider war with Russia.

In any event, time is short. The Election Calendar looms. Is Biden to be the Democratic candidate? Whether or not he will be a candidate in 2024 needs to be resolved before the early primaries to allow any successor to demonstrate his or her paces in good time.

The views of individual contributors do not necessarily represent those of the Strategic Culture Foundation.

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