Why are we taunting Russia?

Why are we taunting Russia?
AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

I feel moved to co-sign Ed’s post earlier about U.S. officials whispering that they’re helping Ukraine target Russia’s generals. For weeks, the White House’s growing confidence that Russia can’t win this war has led them to say things publicly that appear to have no strategic value. Rather to the contrary.

A month ago sources at the Pentagon did an end-zone dance for WaPo about Russia’s failures. “Who would you switch places with? Seriously, who would you switch places with?” said one, comparing the Russian military to America’s. The secretary of defense made a trip to Kiev and used it as an opportunity to admit that Washington’s goal in Ukraine was nothing short of “weakening” Russia. Then came the leaks to NBC that U.S. intelligence wasn’t just helping the Ukrainians avoid impending Russian attacks, it was helping them target Russian troops. Aiming their guns for them, so to speak.

Now comes the Times bombshell that among the Russian troops U.S. intel is targeting are the country’s highest military officers. (Except for Valery Gerasimov, whom sources told the Times is off-limits intelligence-wise because he’s a top government official.)

What is the point of this?

At a moment when Russian pride has been maimed and Putin may or may not be considering war on “the world’s Nazis,” why taunt him? I can’t think of anything more likely to invite a Russian reprisal than the U.S. flaunting its ability to act with impunity in targeting Russian generals. We all understand that Russia knows, or strongly suspects, that the U.S. is helping Ukraine do that, but the Kremlin knowing it is one thing and American officials high-fiving each other about it on the world stage is another. As Ed noted, at some point Putin’s restraint in retaliating will so offend the Russian military’s sense of honor that it’ll put his own security at risk.

The phrase “Putin’s restraint” lands awkwardly, I know, given how monstrously Russian soldiers have behaved in Ukraine. For instance, there’s a story on the wires this morning about them forcing Ukrainians to clear bodies and debris from around the theater in Mariupol that was bombed weeks ago, allegedly killing 600 people — many of them children. This is the same theater where the word “Children” was written on the ground outside in giant letters in hopes that the Russian air force would see it and spare the building. Why do the Russians want the area around the theater clear, you ask? Because, according to the city’s mayor, they’re planning to hold some sort of celebration there next week to celebrate “Victory Day.”

Read that again. They killed scores of children and they’re so proud of it that they’re apparently planning to parade past the ruins a few days from now, commemorating a “victory” in a city they’ve utterly destroyed. You can understand why some U.S. officials would be so disgusted with them that they’d want to taunt them over their battlefield failures.

But what officials want to do and what they should do for the good of the country are two different things.

Anyway, as strange as it may sound, Putin has shown restraint in Ukraine so far in certain important respects. And observers can’t figure out why.

Russia could be going after Ukrainian railways, roads and bridges more aggressively to try to stanch the flow of Western weapons to the front line. It could have bombed more of the infrastructure around the capital, Kyiv, to make it harder for Western leaders to visit President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in shows of unity and resolve. And it could be doing far more to inflict pain on the West, whether by cyberattack, sabotage or more cutoffs of energy exports to Europe…

“This is a strange, special kind of war,” Dmitry Trenin, until recently the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, said in a phone interview from outside Moscow. “Russia has set some rather strict limits for itself, and this is not being explained in any way — which raises a lot of questions, first of all, among Russian citizens.”…

“I find this strange, and I can’t explain it,” Trenin said.

Some speculate that Russia wants to attack Ukrainian supply lines but just can’t establish the air superiority needed to do so. Others think Putin might be sparing Ukrainian infrastructure because he still believes he can take the country, or at least advance significantly, and wants Ukrainian rail lines intact when he does so that Russia can use them. Either way, insofar as his restraint is voluntary, one would think that Americans all but daring him to retaliate against the U.S. for its intelligence assistance to Ukraine would soften it up. Which, uh, is something we shouldn’t want to do.

I mean, just listen to these maniacs:

Having Washington taunt Moscow about its dead generals might be a low-risk move if the war were going well for Russia. Putin could shrug it off in the belief that the Americans might have helped Ukraine win a few battles here and there but Russia was en route to winning the war. So much for American superiority. As it is, though, the evidence continues to mount that Russia’s offensive in the Donbas is close to culminating if it hasn’t already. And that would be very bad news for them at a moment when the military balance of power is beginning to shift towards Ukraine:

Ukraine has even announced that it’s going on offense in the east:

The odds of a devastating Russian defeat are rising while at the same time American officials are boasting that our fingerprints are all over it. Meanwhile, Russian nationalists and military veterans are demanding that Putin take the gloves off and deal the enemy a blow that’ll wipe that smug smile off its face and knock it back on its heels. In a situation like that, one would expect America’s leaders to do everything possible to reduce the risk of escalation and manage some sort of “soft landing” for the end of this war, to the extent that’s possible. Instead they’re spiking the football.

Is there any strategy to that at all or is it just reckless exuberant amateurism at work?

I think Ed’s theory is probably correct. Biden’s deputies are grumpy that his approval numbers on the war remain mediocre, deflated by perceptions that he’s not being tough enough on Russia. I don’t know how much tougher he could get realistically without sending in the Marines: He’s giving Ukraine treasure troves of intel and just called for a $33 billion aid package that’ll outfit them with some of America’s top gear. Maybe the White House, for its own selfish political reasons, thinks that leaking about the full extent of Uncle Sam’s role in Russia’s fiasco is the way to undo the perception that he’s not tough enough and get his and the Democrats’ numbers up before the midterms. If so, they’re putting the party’s interest over the country’s by risking a wider war that’s unimaginably dangerous.

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David Strom 5:21 PM on June 02, 2023