Is the United States Losing Its Control of Ukraine?

by | May 31, 2023

Is the United States Losing Its Control of Ukraine?

by | May 31, 2023

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In the very early days of the war in Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was open to negotiating a peace. A proposed peace could have ended the war before tens of thousands of Ukrainians died and Ukraine’s infrastructure was devastated, on terms that satisfied Kiev’s goals. But the United States pressured Ukraine to go on fighting in pursuit, not of Ukraine’s goals, but of larger American ones.

Putting an end to Ukraine’s negotiations with Russia, State Department spokesperson Ned Price remarkably said, “This is a war that is in many ways bigger than Russia, it’s bigger than Ukraine,” and insisted that Ukrainians go on fighting and dying for “core principles.”

The United States got its way. Now a year later, with the war not going well for Ukraine and the country getting more and more desperate, Ukraine is forced to retreat to pursuing its own goals. Ironically, that is increasingly taking the form of escalating the war in a way that now endangers American goals.

Ukraine is now pursing its own security interests in a way that is extraordinarily dangerous to U.S. security interests. And they seem to be disregarding U.S. restrictions in pursuing them. Months of American permissiveness and failure to say no to Ukraine at each crossing of a red line has seemingly emboldened Ukraine to ignore U.S. limits and conditions on the use of American-supplied weapons.

One of the key goals of the Biden administration is to stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity. That is Joe Biden’s promise to Ukraine. But a second key goal is to avoid being drawn into a direct war between NATO and Russia. That is Joe Biden’s promise to Americans. A recent wave of Ukrainian attacks on the territory of Russia—not Donbas or Crimea, but the internationally recognized territory of Russia—threatens that promise and threatens the security of Americans.

Ukraine has long promised “not to target Russian territory with weapons provided by the West.” They recently reiterated that promise, saying British supplied long range Storm Shadow cruise missiles “will be used only within Ukrainian sovereign territory and not inside Russia,” and when they provided the United States “flat assurances” that F-16 fighter-bombers won’t be used inside Russian territory.

But Ukraine did not keep those promises. In pursuit of their goals—understandably, since the U.S. insisted they postpone those goals and go on fighting the Russian military in pursuit of American goals—they have crossed the red line of U.S. limits and conditions on the use of American-supplied weapons and struck inside Russian territory. This defiantly independent military strategy is increasing the danger that the United States and NATO could get drawn into a war with Russia.

On May 3, two drones were disabled over the Kremlin in what Russia views as an attack on Russia and an attempt to assassinate President Vladimir Putin. Ukraine denied involvement, insisting, “Ukraine wages an exclusively defensive war and does not attack targets on the territory of the Russian Federation.” Zelensky said categorically, “We don’t attack Putin or Moscow. We fight on our territory. We are defending our villages and cities.”

But Kiev’s insistence that it kept its promise not to strike inside “the territory of the Russian Federation” was disingenuous. The New York Times has reported that U.S. intelligence agencies now believe that the drone attack was carried out by “one of Ukraine’s special military or intelligence units.”

And that strike was only the boldest in a series of recent strikes inside Russia’s borders. In the same month, Ukraine has struck a military training ground and an oil refinery in Russian territory. In December, Ukraine carried out two attacks on Russia’s Engels air base.

On May 23, a raid was carried out from Ukrainian territory into the Russian region of Belgorod. For two days, the Russian military fought them back across the border. Pictures of the attack suggest that U.S. armored vehicles were used in the raid.

Ukraine has denied any involvement in the attack. Denis Nikitin, who also goes by the name Denis Kapustin, is the head of the group that claims responsibility for the raid. His group carried out an earlier excursion on two towns in the Bryansk region of Russia on the Ukrainian border on March 2. At that time, he said, despite similar Ukrainian denials of support or involvement, that the “cross-border raid he’d conducted from Ukraine into Russia had the endorsement of Kyiv.” He told The Financial Times that Ukrainian authorities signed off on the attack. “Yes, of course, this action was agreed,” he said, “otherwise it couldn’t have happened.” He went on to say, “If I did not co-ordinate it with anyone [in Ukraine’s military]…I think we would simply be destroyed.”

Despite the public disavowal, a Ukrainian military official has privately acknowledged “co-operating” with the attackers.

Washington seems to be expressing frustration with its apparent loss of control over Kiev. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said that while he “can’t say with definitive accuracy…whether that’s U.S. supplied equipment or not…I can say that we have asked the Ukrainians not to use U.S.-supplied equipment for direct attacks into Russia.” The State Department complained that “We have made very clear to the Ukrainians that we don’t enable or encourage attacks outside Ukrainians’ borders.” And U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby “hinted at frustration in Washington,” saying, “We’ve been pretty darn clear: We don’t support the use of U.S.-made equipment for attacks inside Russia…we’ve been clear about that with the Ukrainians.”

Nonetheless, the Associated Press reports that on May 27, despite the multiple very public reminders from Washington, Ukrainian attacks inside Russia’s went on. Several drones were reportedly shot down en route to the Ilsky oil refinery in Russia’s southern Krasnodar region. Two people were reportedly killed by Ukrainian shelling of the town of Almaznaya. And local officials said that, once again, Belgorad “came under attack from Ukrainian forces on Saturday.”

At the beginning of the war, the United States pushed aside Ukrainian interests and insisted that Ukrainians fight and die in pursuit of American goals. The ironic blowback from that is, fourteen months later, Ukraine is pursuing security concerns created by that insistence in a way that is in direct contradiction to U.S. security concerns. The United States seems to have lost control of Kiev, and Ukraine is now pursuing its own goals in a way that ignores American goals by increasing the danger that NATO could get drawn into a war with Russia.

About Ted Snider

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at tedsnider@bell.net

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