By Aditya Bhan
After a Ukrainian air defence missile crashed in the village of Przewodów in eastern Poland’s Lublin Voivodeship close to the border with Ukraine last month, killing two people, the Russian Ambassador to the United States (US) had accused Kyiv of not only soliciting greater military assistance from Washington but also attempting to incite a direct military conflict between Russia and NATO.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba had earlier dismissed as a “conspiracy theory”, the idea that the missile was Ukrainian. The Russian defence ministry, on the other hand, had correctly claimed that Russian military experts had unambiguously identified the fragments as belonging to a “guided anti-aircraft missile of a Ukrainian S-300 air defence system”.
Drone strikes on military airbases in Russian territory
Earlier this month, in what may be viewed as a major escalation, Ukrainian drones struck two military airbases deep inside Russia in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy Russian long-range bombers constituting part of the aerial arm of the country’s nuclear triad. The unprecedented strikes were the first time Ukraine attacked this far into Russia. Hours after the Ukrainian attacks, Russia had launched a new barrage of missile strikes against Ukraine, including from strategic bombers, again targeting the latter’s energy infrastructure. Given the grave provocation by Kyiv, the Kremlin’s tempered response demonstrated significant restraint and acumen in avoiding Kyiv’s escalatory bait.
According to former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Officer, Philip Giraldi, the drone attacks constituted a clear attempt by Kyiv, to escalate the conflict. Speaking to Judge Andrew Napolitano on the ‘Judging Freedom’ podcast, Giraldi accused that “he (Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky) tried to do that with the missile that was misdirected, possibly, and wound up in Poland and killed two people. He (President Zelensky) even pushed it and said NATO has to intervene now. This could be another attempt to, shall we say, promote an escalation on part of the Russians that could possibly be construed as a danger to Poland, danger to troops in Poland, that sort of thing. This is the game that’s being played”.
Charging that Ukraine’s drone attacks were politically motivated, Giraldi added that “it’s to escalate the process so that Russia – at least in the hopes of Zelensky and his advisers, many of whom are probably American – does something that is really stupid and provocative in return, and this will provoke the NATO-US reaction that Zelensky wants to see”.
Kyiv’s esperation and Western war fatigue
Ukraine is shivering in darkness because of relentless barrages of Russian missiles and loitering munitions having destroyed large parts of the country’s energy grid. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Ukraine was bringing hardship upon itself by not ceding to Russian demands. The effectiveness of the attacks can be gauged from Kyiv’s desperate appeals to NATO countries for air defence systems to counter Russian airstrikes. On the other hand, Ukraine’s audacious attacks in Russia proper are also motivated at least partially due to these recent reversals.
Moreover, Kyiv seems to have gauged the onset of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ in the West, with Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska saying her nation could perish if the world gives in to fatigue with the war sparked by Russia’s invasion. Further disturbing Kyiv’s strategic calculus is the fact that the US has been advising Ukraine to negotiate with Russia to end the war, possibly without any preconditions.
Tellingly, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has clarified that the US had “neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia”. The clarification was provided amid accusations that Ukraine had used Soviet-era drones to strike Russian airfields over the last two days, and is therefore not using the billions of dollars’ worth of military assistance received from the US and other Western allies in attacks on Russian territory, which Washington fears could induce an escalation.
Washington had similarly contradicted Kyiv’s claims of Russia having deliberately attacked the village of Przewodow in Poland, with President Zelensky having stated that he had no doubt that the missile did not belong to Ukraine, and that he believed that “this was a Russian missile, based on our (Ukrainian) military reports”. Subsequently, US President Joe Biden had himself challenged President Zelensky’s claims by saying that it was “unlikely” that the missile that landed in Poland was fired by Russian forces, and that the missile’s trajectory did not support such a version of events.
Washington has been engaging with Moscow to reduce the risk of nuclear escalation in Ukraine, with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reportedly having held talks with aides to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. That the Pentagon is serious about avoiding a direct confrontation with Moscow, was amply demonstrated by Washington’s decision to secretly modify the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) it supplied to Ukraine, to render them incapable of firing projectiles over longer ranges. The Kremlin has also demonstrated similar intent to avert catastrophe by attesting to the fact that Ukraine did not use Western weapons in its drone strikes on the two Russian airfields, in addition to its muted response to the attacks. Communication channels enabling such exchanges are likely to be continued.
Therefore, ongoing US efforts to pressurie Ukraine to consider negotiations with Russia should come as no surprise, especially given that the probability of Kyiv managing a complete military victory—defined as evicting the Russians out of all of Ukraine including Crimea—is close to nil. On the other hand, US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley has expressed hope that “there may be a political solution where, politically, the Russians withdraw, that’s possible”. Hence, Washington’s attempts to push Kyiv to signal it is still open to diplomatic discussions with Russia, are likely to not only continue but intensify over the coming months.
However, Kyiv’s intransigence regarding its stance against engaging with Moscow is particularly worrying, with Ukraine’s presidency describing the West’s attempts to cajole it into negotiations as “bizarre”. Thus, the possibility of further provocative assaults by Ukrainians on Russian territory, designed to incite a wider armed conflict between the West and Russia, poses a clear and present danger.