Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 26 May 2024


In spiking Kyiv’s guns, Biden has given a gift to Putin

He’s stubborn, the old man in the White House. For example, Joe Biden has, while insisting that he will do “whatever it takes” in support of Ukraine’s attempt to repel President Putin’s invading army, consistently refused to allow Kyiv to use US weaponry on or over Russian territory.

This policy is now proving lethal — to the Ukrainians. Russian forces are pulverising Kharkiv, with weaponry placed just across the border, and, if they make further territorial gains, will bring Ukraine’s second city within the range of their artillery. Then, total demolition will ensue. Yet Ukraine is still prevented from using its US weapons systems to attack the depots and bases that are laying waste to it.

As Olexsandra Ustinova, the head of Ukraine’s parliamentary commission on arms and ammunition, put it: “We saw their military sitting one or two kilometres from the border inside Russia and there was nothing we could do about that.”

The point is not just that Washington has led a policy of demanding guarantees from Kyiv that western-provided weaponry is not used within Russia itself: most of these modern systems, as a British defence minister explained to me, have “geo-fencing”. What this means is that the GPS in the weapons can be programmed to prevent their operation in a defined geographical area — in this case, the territory of the Russian Federation. Britain, in fact, has been the most helpful to Ukraine in this respect, being the only nation that has enabled Storm Shadow missiles to be used in Crimea, with successful results in terms of forcing the Russian navy back from Sevastopol (and not a peep from Putin afterwards).

Yet in the northeast of the country, now the focal point of Russia’s attempt to shatter Ukraine’s forces and morale, Kyiv has no such capability, being able to use only its own manufactured drones for this purpose. These are the weapons it has employed to destroy an estimated 15 per cent of Russia’s oil refining and storage capacity, which, arguably, has allowed it to have some of the effect that western sanctions were designed to achieve, but failed. Yet this has also made Biden unhappy.


The administration has been pressurising Kyiv to desist from these operations, with the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, warning Ukraine that “those attacks could have a knock-on effect in terms of the global energy situation”. Moscow was so enchanted with this rebuke that it promoted Austin’s criticism heavily via the Tass news agency.

Given the way that the US, in the Second World War, regarded the targeting of the Nazi invader’s oil facilities as a fundamental strategic objective, this may appear astounding. But Austin’s words were at least honest: he was saying that the Ukrainians should not do anything which would drive up the price of gasoline. Yes, it’s an election year in the US, and as Bob McNally, a former White House energy adviser told the Financial Times by way of final elucidation: “Nothing terrifies a sitting American president more than a surge in pump prices during an election year.”

But it seems the other thing that terrifies Biden is the prospect of Russia actually “losing” its war to subjugate Ukraine. This is on the basis that such a defeat would lead, somehow, not merely to the fall of President Putin but the disintegration of the Russian Federation, with unforeseeable consequences.

On January 14 this column had the headline: “Does Joe Biden actually want Ukraine to win?” And I quoted a former director at the US National Security Council who wrote of the “alarm [in Washington] that a decisive Russian defeat in Ukraine would lead to Putin’s overthrow, with chaos likely to follow…[and] the belief that Russia must be preserved as a major player and crucial element in the international system”. (Although as the author of those remarks observed, Putin is the most determined enemy of this “system”, which he regards as a western plot.)

It was the same mindset, applied to the disintegrating USSR rather than to Russia, which led the then US president, George HW Bush, to argue against Ukrainian independence (which it later voted in favour of, by overwhelming majorities in every one of its regions, including Crimea). And his successor, Bill Clinton, alarmed at the prospect of Ukraine controlling the Soviet nuclear weapons on its territory, forced Kyiv to hand them over to Russia.


In return, the US — and the UK — gave assurances in respect of the inviolability of Ukraine’s borders: known as the Budapest memorandum. This provides a special moral imperative for the US and the UK to do whatever we can to assist Kyiv.

And as the Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski observed at the London Defence Conference last week, the consequence of Russian victory would not just mark a triumph by Moscow, in Europe, for “the reintroduction of state violence on a massive scale as way to exert control over a population” — “millions of Ukrainians would seek refuge from this new ‘Russian order’… provoking another migrant crisis.” If you want a more detailed assessment of the dire practical consequences of a Ukrainian defeat, not least in terms of Russia seizing control of the world’s “bread basket”, read the paper by Ian Bond (an old Moscow hand from our diplomatic service and former ambassador to Latvia) published by the Centre for European Reform. It is called Does it Matter if Ukraine Loses?.

But, as an exasperated President Zelensky told reporters on May 18, during the visit to Kyiv of the US secretary of state Antony Blinken: “Ukraine’s partners are afraid of Russia losing the war and would like Kyiv to win in a way that Russia does not lose. They fear unpredictable geopolitics.” One of those unpredictables is: would Putin unleash his “tactical nuclear weapons” on the battlefield in Ukraine? That is what the Russian president wants Biden to think, and he has succeeded. But Putin’s threats of this nature pretty much dried up after China publicly warned Russia to stop making them — a warning backed up by India, whose tacit support is also vital to Moscow. (Or, as Sikorski put it to me, “China and India have read Putin the riot act on this”).

Above all, the denial to Ukraine of the ability to target the source of the onslaught on Kharkiv — and Ukraine’s infrastructure as a whole — confounds even the implied objective of US policy; which is that there should be some sort of negotiated peace deal between Moscow and Kyiv. For not only does Putin have zero interest in any settlement that leaves Ukraine fully sovereign: the only thing that could possibly bring him to negotiate is the thought that he might, actually, be defeated militarily, or, at least, be unable to achieve what he wants by terror and bombardment.

So, Joe, how about it?

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