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 US involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war.
First, The New York 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 US 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 US officials, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, the leaks were not part of any thought-out strategy and President Joe Biden was livid about them. I’m told that he called the director of national intelligence, the director of the CIA and the secretary of defence to make clear in the strongest and most colourful 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 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 US and Nato are arming Ukraine with material 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 US in deeper than it wants to be.
It is doubly dangerous, senior US officials say, because it is increasingly obvious to them that Putin’s behaviour 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 also 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.
But that is why US officials are quite concerned about what Putin might do or announce at the Victory Day celebration in Moscow on Monday, which marks the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany.
It is traditionally a day of military parades and celebration of the prowess of the Russian army. Putin could mobilise even more soldiers, make some other provocation or do nothing at all. But no one knows.
Alas, 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 Zelensky 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 Zelensky’s heroism and leadership. If I were him, I’d be trying to get the US as enmeshed on my side as he is.
But I’m an American citizen, and I want us to be careful. 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 Zelensky 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 why Kyiv is not calling the shots and so we’ll not be embarrassed by messy Ukrainian politics in the war’s aftermath.
— The New York Times