NEW YORK: If you just followed news reports on Ukraine, you might think that the war has settled into a long, grinding and somewhat boring slog. You would be wrong. Things are actually getting more dangerous by the day.
For starters, the longer this war goes on, the more opportunity for catastrophic miscalculations — and the raw material for that is piling up fast and furious. Take the two high-profile leaks from American officials this past week about U.S. involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war:
First, The Times disclosed that “the United States has provided intelligence about Russian units that has allowed Ukrainians to target and kill many of the Russian generals who have died in action in the Ukraine war, according to senior American officials.”
Second, The Times, following a report by NBC News and citing U.S. officials, reported that America has “provided intelligence that helped Ukrainian forces locate and strike” the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. This targeting assistance “contributed to the eventual sinking” of the Moskva by two Ukrainian cruise missiles.
As a journalist, I love a good leak story, and the reporters who broke those stories did powerful digging. At the same time, from everything I have been able to glean from senior U.S. officials, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, the leaks were not part of any thought-out strategy, and President Biden was livid about them.
I’m told that he called the director of national intelligence, the director of the C.I.A. and the secretary of defense to make clear in the strongest and most colorful language that this kind of loose talk is reckless and has got to stop immediately — before we end up in an unintended war with Russia. The staggering takeaway from these leaks is that they suggest we are no longer in an indirect war with Russia but rather are edging toward a direct war — and no one has prepared the American people or Congress for that. Vladimir Putin surely has no illusions about how much the U.S. and NATO are arming Ukraine with matériel and intelligence, but when American officials start to brag in public about playing a role in killing Russian generals and sinking the Russian flagship, killing many sailors, we could be creating an opening for Putin to respond in ways that could dangerously widen this conflict — and drag the U.S. in deeper than it wants to be.
It is doubly dangerous, senior U.S. officials say, because it is increasingly obvious to them that Putin’s behavior is not as predictable as it has been in the past. And Putin is running out of options for some kind of face-saving success on the ground — or even a face-saving off ramp.
It is hard to exaggerate what a catastrophe this war has been for Putin so far. Indeed, Biden pointed out to his team that Putin was trying to push back on NATO expansion, and he’s ended up laying the groundwork for the expansion of NATO. Both Finland and Sweden are now taking steps toward joining an alliance they’ve stayed out of for seven decades. We have to be alive to the fact that it’s not only the Russians who would like to involve us more deeply. Have no illusions, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine has been trying to do the same thing from the start — to make Ukraine an immediate member of NATO or get Washington to forge a bilateral security pact with Kyiv. I am in awe of Zelenskyy’s heroism and leadership. If I were him, I’d be trying to get the U.S. as enmeshed on my side as he is.
Ukraine was, and still is, a country marbled with corruption. That doesn’t mean we should not be helping it. I am glad we are. I insist we do. But my sense is that the Biden team is walking much more of a tightrope with Zelenskyy than it would appear to the eye — wanting to do everything possible to make sure he wins this war but doing so in a way that still keeps some distance between us and Ukraine’s leadership. That’s so Kyiv is not calling the shots and so we’ll not be embarrassed by messy Ukrainian politics in the war’s aftermath.
The view of Biden and his team, according to my reporting, is that America needs to help Ukraine restore its sovereignty and beat the Russians back — but not let Ukraine turn itself into an American protectorate on the border of Russia. We need to stay laser-focused on what is our national interest and not stray in ways that lead to exposures and risks we don’t want.
One thing I know about Biden — with whom I travelled to Afghanistan in 2002 when he was a senator heading the Foreign Relations Committee — is that he is not easily romanced by world leaders. He has dealt with too many of them over his career. He’s got a pretty good sense of where U.S. interests stop and start. Ask the Afghans. So where are we now? Putin’s Plan A — taking Kyiv and installing his own leader — has failed. And his Plan B — trying just to take full control of Ukraine’s old industrial heartland, known as the Donbas, which is largely Russian speaking — is still in doubt. Putin’s freshly reinforced ground forces have made some progress, but it’s still limited. It is springtime in the Donbas, meaning the ground is still sometimes muddy and wet, so Russian armour still has to stay on roads and highways in many areas, making them vulnerable. As America navigates Ukraine and Russia and tries to avoid being ensnared, one bright spot in the effort to avoid a wider war is the administration’s success at keeping China from providing military aid to Russia. This has been huge.
After all, it was just Feb. 4 when China’s president, Xi Jinping, hosted Putin at the opening of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, where they unveiled all sorts of trade and energy agreements, and then issued a joint declaration asserting that the friendship between Russia and China “has no limits.”
That was then. After the war started, Biden personally explained to Xi in a lengthy phone call that China’s economic future rests on access to the American and European markets — its two largest trading partners — and should China provide military aid to Putin, it would have very negative consequences for China’s trade with both markets. Xi did the math and has been deterred from helping Russia in any military way, which has also made Putin weaker. The Western restrictions on shipping microchips to Russia have begun to really hobble some of his factories — and China has not stepped in, so far.
We need to stick as tightly as possible to our original limited and clearly defined aim of helping Ukraine expel Russian forces as much as possible or negotiate for their withdrawal whenever Ukraine’s leaders feel the time is right. But we are dealing with some incredibly unstable elements, particularly a politically wounded Putin. Boasting about killing his generals and sinking his ships, or falling in love with Ukraine in ways that will get us enmeshed there forever, is the height of folly.