Above Photo: Vladimir Putin (2022-06-02). Presidential Executive Office of Russia.
As the war drags on, delusions mount, with no end, or victory, in sight.
Let’s take a look at recent events in the Ukraine war from the point of view of those in the American intelligence community who don’t feel they have the ear of President Joe Biden but should.
On July 17 Ukraine attacked for a second time one of Russian President Vladimir’s proudest achievements: the 11.25-mile Kerch Bridge linking Crimea to Russia. The 3.7 billion dollar bridge, with separate spans for auto and train traffic, was opened for auto traffic in May of 2018 and for trucks five months later, with Putin himself driving the first one to make the crossing.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made it clear before the Russian invasion early last year that he considered the bridge a legitimate military target. Ukraine initially attacked the bridge last October, using a submersible drone, but it was fully repaired within seven months. The most recent attack, by a pair of submersible drones, killed a couple who were driving across when the explosion occurred and injured their child. Damage to one of the auto spans was severe.
The Biden administration’s role in both attacks was vital. “Of course it was our technology,” one American official told me. “The drone was remotely guided and half submerged—like a torpedo.” I asked if there was any thought before the bridge attack about the possibility of retaliation. “What will Putin do? We don’t think that far,” the official said. “Our national strategy is that Zelensky can do whatever he wants to do. There’s no adult supervision.”
Putin responded to the second attack on the bridge by ending an agreement that enabled Ukrainian wheat and other vital food crops, stymied by the ongoing war, to be shipped from blocked ports on the Black Sea. (Before the war Ukraine exported more grain than the entire European Union and nearly half of the world’s sunflower seeds.) And Russia began steadily intensifying missile and rocket attacks in Odessa, whose initial target list has expanded from port areas to inner city sites.
The official said there was a lot more than grain and sunflower seeds flowing into Europe from Odessa and other Black Sea ports: “Odessa’s exports included illegal stuff like drugs and the oil that Ukraine was getting from Russia.”
At this point, with the Ukraine counteroffensive against Russia thwarted, the official said, “Zelensky has no plan, except to hang on. It’s as if he’s an orphan—a poor waif in his underwear—and we have no real idea of what Zelensky and his crowd are thinking. Ukraine is the most corrupt and dumbest government in the world, outside of Nigeria, and Biden’s support of Zelensky can only come from Zelensky’s knowledge of Biden, and not just because he was taking care of Biden’s son.”
There are some in the American intelligence community, the official said, who worry about Putin’s response to the recent Ukrainian drone attacks in central Moscow. “Will Kiev be next?”
The official depicted the American position on the war in Ukraine as confounding and unrealistic. “The president and [Secretary of State] Tony Blinken keep on saying, ‘We are going to do what it takes for as long as it takes’ to win the war.” He added that the administration has been negotiating for months for the purchase of what may amount to as much as a ten-year supply of 155-mm artillery shells from the Pakistani army that could, ironically, extend the life of a losing war effort.
“More people are going to die in this war, and what for?” the official asked. “The American and Ukrainian military are no longer making any predictions” about future success in the current counteroffensive. “The Ukrainian army has not gotten past the first of three Russian defense lines. Every mine the Ukrainians dig up is replenished at night by the Russians.
“The reality,” the official said, “is that the balance of power in the war is settled. Putin has what he wants”: access to Crimea and the four Ukrainian oblasts—Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia—that were annexed by Russia last September 30. “Ukraine does not have them and cannot get them back.” Meanwhile, Putin’s end game in Odessa, if there is one, is not known.
Despite all the unknowns, the official said, President Biden “should have told Zelensky that he was on his own when it came to the counteroffensive. The balance of power”—against the out-gunned, out-trained, and out-manned Ukrainian forces—“was a settled issue.”
Last week at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Secretary Blinken, who publicly dismissed any talk of ceasefire negotiations before the current counteroffensive, accused Russia, according to a New York Times report, of “weaponizing food supplies.” He similarly accused Russia of “weaponizing” its vast supply of natural gas before President Biden authorized the destruction last fall of Russia’s two Nord Stream gas pipelines to Germany.
On Sunday during a televised interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Blinken turned recent history on its head, declaring that in terms of what Putin “sought to achieve” in the war with Ukraine, he had “already lost.” “The objective was to erase Ukraine from the map, to eliminate its independence, its sovereignty, to subsume it into Russia. That failed a long time ago. Now Ukraine is in a battle to get back more of the land that Russia seized from it. . . . It is tough. The Russians have put in place strong defenses. . . . The Ukrainians are fighting for their land, for their future, for their country, for their freedom. I think that is the decisive element and that’s going to play out.” In fact, any future settlement with Russia, if one is negotiated, will almost certainly include new leadership in Kiev and also acknowledge Russian control over the four annexed oblasts. Zelensky, if he survives, is known to own a house in Forte di Marmi, a beach town in Tuscany, which he purchased for $4.2 million in 2015, four years before he became president.
The noisy public split in late June between Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the paramilitary Wagner Group, and Putin captured the hearts and minds of many American newspaper editors and reporters who viewed it as a serious challenge to Putin’s leadership. I have not been able to learn whether there was a formal CIA assessment of the event, but there are serious intelligence experts on Russia who concluded that it was much more than the undoing of a difficult leader who seemed to be at odds with Putin.
“Putin is a Russian fundamentalist but he was aware that the Wagner Group was full of potential dissidents who did not consider him to be enough of a fundamentalist for them,” the official said. “They wanted him to take Ukraine and Western Europe and drive all the way to the English Channel. Putin was not into it.
“How would President Biden react if China had established a base in Tijuana, Mexico, and met there with all the left-leaning governments of South America? That’s how Putin would be expected to react to the meeting earlier this month of all the NATO chiefs in Vilnius, close to the Russian border.”
The official added: “Don’t think it”—Putin’s exposure and entrapment of the failed Wagner Group counter-terrorists—“wasn’t planned. Not a chance.”
Russian history teems with such entrapments. Just ask Leon Trotsky.