The symbolism of this attack is obvious, coming on the same day that the Russian foreign ministry warned that western arms shipments to Ukraine were “legitimate targets.” The base is only 20 miles or so from the Polish border. The fact that American troops were there just last month to train Ukrainian soldiers is icing on the cake.
But there may be more to it. Some believe that the worse the war is going for Russia, the more likely Putin is to try to drag NATO into it. Which is counterintuitive: The last thing the Russian military needs when it’s struggling to defeat Ukraine is for western militaries to intervene. NATO would eat them alive. War with the west would, however, give Putin an opportunity to “escalate to deescalate” by using tactical nuclear weapons to shock NATO into suing for peace.
If he’s desperate for a way out of his misbegotten war and believes a limited nuclear exchange is the only way to end it in a manner that will let him save face, by displaying strength, then drawing NATO in might be the pretext he needs.
At least 35 people were killed and another 134 wounded in last night’s attack, per the Ukrainian government. The Pentagon says there were no American casualties, and a NATO source told WaPo that no personnel from allied countries are inside Ukraine at the moment. But our guys know this facility well:
The center in Western Ukraine had been home to a rotating presence of U.S. troops who were training and advising Ukrainian forces about a half-hour drive from the Polish border. The unit, Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine, most recently included about 150 members of the Florida National Guard, who were reassigned elsewhere in Europe.
Among the facilities on the base that appear to be hit are trailers where U.S. troops lived while deployed and a U.S.-funded simulation center used to train Ukrainian soldiers, said a member of the Illinois National Guard who was deployed there from June 2020 to April 2021 and reviewed available imagery Sunday.
An active-duty U.S. soldier who worked at the base on and off from 2014 through 2017 said it has been used for several training programs and was a likely Russian target. “I’m surprised it took them this long,” the soldier said. “Expected it much sooner.”
A reporter for Time magazine put it this way:
When Russia bombed the base near Lviv last night, it had to assume Americans were likely to be killed or injured. A coordinator of foreign volunteers in Ukraine told me the base was a hub for 1000s of them, coming from all over to help Ukraine. I met some from US, UK, Australia.
— Simon Shuster (@shustry) March 13, 2022
Jake Sullivan was asked this morning about the attack on the base and attributed it to “frustration”:
"Vladimir Putin is frustrated." National Security Adviser @JakeSullivan tells @DanaBashCNN why Russian forces attacked a Ukrainian military base near the border of NATO territory: https://t.co/JUxtTHEWOo pic.twitter.com/LtM0YYUGsJ
— CNN (@CNN) March 13, 2022
Putin is frustrated, no doubt. But if it’s true that the clock is running down on his army’s effectiveness, he’d understandably be desperate to stop the weapons shipments to Zelensky’s military. Last night was a shot across the bow at NATO. The next shot may be more direct.
Another benefit for Putin in dragging the west further into the conflict is that it would boost domestic support for the war as the economy begins to reel from western sanctions. Russians are destined to feel ambivalence about brutalizing their cousins across the border in Ukraine, something which Putin and his deputies are clearly worried about:
Across Russia, protesters holding blank signs have been arrested by police
— Stefan Simanowitz (@StefSimanowitz) March 13, 2022
Police in Nizhny Novgorod arrested a demonstrator today for protesting with a blank sign. Welcome to Russia in 2022. pic.twitter.com/YprwDqex8V
— Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) March 12, 2022
The anti-war protests aren’t the only ones in Moscow today.
Hours before the first Russian McDonald’s closes, Luka Safronov chains himself to the doors before police cart him off.
“Closing down is an act of hostility against me and my fellow citizens!” pic.twitter.com/YWT3SjSUMU
— max seddon (@maxseddon) March 13, 2022
They would be less ambivalent, at least at first, about a fight against NATO and the evil Americans. No doubt many Russians think we’ve got it coming after decades of propaganda about the United States being the font of all the world’s troubles and the Russian army being invincible.
In fact, I wonder if we might see an “escalate to deescalate” strategy play out with conventional weapons. One way for Putin to create a face-saving pretext for ending the conflict would be attacking NATO — bombing a weapons convoy, say — and then immediately announcing that, in the interest of preventing a terrible escalation between east and west, he’s magnanimously willing to end the conflict at once if Ukraine will pledge not to join NATO and concede all of the territory currently held by the Russian military. Those are the current Russian demands and represent a step back from Putin’s initial insistence that nothing short of toppling Ukraine’s government will do. If he hits NATO and then gives the west an off-ramp by pledging to withdraw if his terms are accepted, will Zelensky be able to say no?
I’m sure he’d like to. But would he, with leaders across the western world pressuring him to say yes and spare them a world war?
Unpopular opinion: The day Putin accepts a ceasefire in 🇺🇦 will be the worst day in Ukrainian history.
The entire world will pressure Kyiv (@ZelenskyyUa) to accept the offer, he must/will, and whatever is under Russian control at this moment will never be given back to Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/zDEzyPMFR3
— Julian Röpcke🇺🇦 (@JulianRoepcke) March 12, 2022
Putin’s pride requires that this war can’t end unless some degree of Russian prestige is intact and the only way that happens is with further escalation. God help us.