Biden pledges: We won't fight a war against Russia in Ukraine

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

A leftover from Friday. Hawks are complaining about this statement on grounds that it implicitly invites Putin to grab any non-NATO country he likes and to pummel Ukraine into submission using whatever conventional means he can muster.

I take those points, but I read that tweet in the context of Russian saber-rattling about NATO weapons convoys. The implicit deal Biden is offering is that we won’t put boots on the ground so long as Russia doesn’t interfere with NATO’s efforts to supply the Ukrainians.

Which is a good deal for the U.S. if Putin accepts it. It’s a nod to deescalation during an uncertain moment. But it also reflects the sense that Russia won’t win this war so long as Ukraine remains well supplied. The Russian army can and will pound Ukrainian cities in the short term…

…but the Ukrainian army won’t break. The Russian army might. In fact, one way to look at the conflict is as a race between the two sides to keep their troops fed, fueled, and armed. Given the logistical nightmares the Russians have faced and the fact that it’s only week three and already Putin is begging China for weapons, there’s a good chance that Ukraine will win that race — so long as we can scare Putin into leaving NATO’s convoys alone.

Maybe we can’t. I argued yesterday that the more desperate Putin gets, paradoxically the more likely he might be to take a pot shot at NATO. But drawing a red line around the convoys with a pledge not to intervene militarily otherwise is a sound offer if you believe the Ukrainians can win on their own.

As for the idea that Biden is inviting Putin to grab Moldova or some other neighboring non-NATO country, is the Russian military capable of doing that right now? They have their hands so full in Ukraine that they’re looking for reinforcements from Syria and Belarus. No one knows how long the Russian war machine will be able to go on before it’s hampered by the country’s massive economic crisis. Some observers aren’t sure that Russia’s air force can even effectively target a NATO convoy inside Ukraine at the moment:

If Russia had rolled over Ukraine as easily as the Kremlin believed it would, the west would rightly be panicked about Putin trying to expand the war regionally to Moldova or Georgia. And maybe he will; it’s an open question whether he’s thinking rationally and what sort of information he has access to. But expanding the war now would further burden a shambolic Russian effort in Ukraine by stretching it thinner, complicating Russia’s already complex logistical problems.

Plus, how many more troops can they realistically stand to lose before their combat effectiveness begins to deteriorate?

The bodies of Russian soldiers killed in battle in Ukraine are filling up morgues in Belarus, local residents told RFE/RL.

Russian soldiers killed in battle are being brought by truck to the morgues and then sent back to Russia by train or plane, residents said.

Residents described the horror of seeing the bodies loaded on a train at Mazyr for transfer back to Russia.

“The number of bodies was unbelievably large. People at the Mazyr station were simply shocked by the number of bodies being put on the train,” a local resident in Mazyr told RFE/RL.

Maybe that’s propaganda, but for what it’s worth, the Telegraph is hearing the same thing. And it jibes with the reports of shocking numbers of Russian KIA coming out of western intelligence agencies.

This weekend I was talking about the war with pro-Trump relatives and they complained that Biden looked weak because Putin was “dictating terms” to us. How so, I asked? They couldn’t say. We’ve given the Ukrainians tons of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, we helped train their army, we’re sharing battlefield intelligence with them, and we dropped the economic equivalent of a 50-megaton nuke on them, leading to surreal developments like this:

The idea that Putin is pushing us around just because we’re not involved in a hot war is goofy. Eventually my relatives pointed to the MiGs that the White House has held up, which has become a sore point for hawks in Congress from both parties and which is fair enough. But I have yet to see any military expert argue that the MiGs would be a battlefield gamechanger for Ukraine or that they’d even be as effective in deterring Russian airstrikes as the surface-to-air missiles we’re supplying. It seems to me that the U.S. has momentarily found a “sweet spot” in supplying the Ukrainians, giving them enough to mount a highly effective defense without giving them so much as to draw a Russian reprisal that might touch off a world war. Every additional step we take in escalating risks pushing us out of that sweet spot. That might be worth doing if there’s a weapon out there that would change the direction of the war decisively in Ukraine’s favor, but if there isn’t then I can see the point of Biden’s tweet. He’s trying to firm up our position in the “sweet spot” by incentivizing Russia not to intercept our weapons shipments.

I’ll leave you with this fascinating thread by Kamil Galeev about why the Russian military looks so weak, which is long but worth your time. The short version: Putin and the “deep state” he commands prefer a weak, undertrained, demoralized military because a stronger military might threaten their hold on power. The kleptocracy has “coup-proofed” Russia by hollowing out its one conceivable rival for power. Normally Russia pays no price for that since it typically only faces small countries or ragtag forces like Syrian jihadis on the battlefield. In the case of Ukraine, though, Putin somehow got it into his head that a large-ish population with a military that’s been preparing for this fight would roll over for him, sparing his army from having to show what it’s truly made of. Oops.