Putin’s major speech and Biden’s arrival in Kyiv this week had one common factor- Russian attacks on civilians. Just as Biden walked from Kyiv’s Golden Dome monastery to the sounds of air syrens after the take-off of Russian bombers in Belarus, the next day Putin gave his long speech safe in his protected Kremlin bubble while Russia sent missiles to Kherson, hitting shops and a bus stop, with civilian casualties.
The visit of a sitting US President to a country at war, effectively a war zone, is an uncommon and a momentous occasion, made more so by the continued and growing commitment from the US and the wider western community to Ukrainian victory. Yet, it is worth remembering that this commitment is not a charity or a choice. Russia is challenging the international rules based order and threatening the west with destruction, Ukraine being the unfortunate vessel for delivering these threats while also serving the age old Russian chauvinistic tradition of seeing dominion over neighbouring states as a god given right.
That said, there is no question that the brunt of the Russian aggression and the fight is not being borne by the west but by Ukraine – it is paying the highest price many times over on a daily basis, with the western support costing only money, and money that it can afford to pay.
Biden came to Kyiv not on the anniversary day of the Russian 2022 invasion but on a no lesser occasion. On 20th February 2014, 60 people were killed during the Maidan protests after the pro-Russian Yanukovich government authorised the use of lethal force against protesters. Today, as Russia continues its war against Ukraine we are witnessing yet undisclosed losses by Ukraine and five hundred to a thousand Russian occupiers killed on a daily basis. Biden’s journey was made on the day the Crimean annexation started, at least according to the medal issued by the Russian government to mark the occasion.
While Biden’s speech in Ukraine, much like Zelenski’s speech in Westminster Hall, was full of hope and talk of ending the war through supporting Ukraine, a day later, Putin remained quiet – leaving ample room to deduce his readiness to continue the war in Ukraine to the last Russian, and even going out of his way to repeat the threat of nuclear attack on no less than three occasions – eventually ending on an ambiguous statement of freezing Russian participation in the New START treaty.
Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly on the 21st of February was littered with allusions to nuclear threats. Indeed, the nuclear option for Russia, the only card the Kremlin is able to play against the west frequently features in Russian rhetoric, both in official sources and on propaganda channels. However, is it a real threat?
Although reporting on 91% of the Russian nuclear arsenal as being up to modern standards, and claiming the majority of US weapons are outdated, the Kremlin’s occupant cannot be sure that Russian rockets actually fly. The much cheaper and mass-produced multiple rocket launcher weapons, as well as the S-300 and other missiles Russia is peppering civilians in Ukraine with, do not always hit the target and a few have even rerouted mid-air to hit launcher platforms. With the nuclear arsenal a higher priority but also with a much higher maintenance cost – it is unclear if Russia has looked after them at all.
Russian strategic missile forces, due to their secretive nature and lack of test fires, are less visible than other forces and thus much more prone to corrupt military officials syphoning off funds. There is simply no guarantee that any money, bar the little needed to prevent rockets exploding in storage, is getting to the Russian nuclear arsenal.
Facing a less than cooperative China, when it comes to nuclear weapons being used, and a decisive west – threatening to wipe out the Russian army in an instant should the Kremlin bunker decide to go for the nuclear option – Putin, instead, had to devote considerable time to galvanising the Russians and ensuring domestic support. With the ever-popular lines, dating to the “good old days” of the Soviet Union, on agricultural output increases (although not mentioning that this was achieved through grain theft from occupied territories in Ukraine), Putin also made a populist statement on those Russians benefitting from his kleptocratic rule but choosing to hide wealth abroad.
While not hiding the gleeful “I told you so” statement on the seizure of assets in western jurisdictions, he made sure to bolster morale with promises of near-hero status to those who will change their ways and live a righteous life in Russia, away from the trappings of western capitalism and free of western economic persecution. He was also quick to lay the blame on the west for seizing the private funds of thieving Russians, as if his decision to invade Ukraine had nothing to do with it. After all, he is famously in the same boat, after his yacht was seized in Italy.
Still, however tempting it may be to view this as a chance to engage with Russian “elites” in hope of bringing about a toppling of Putin, the west should think twice before doing so – for now. The higher echelons of Russian societal hierarchy are beholden to Putin for all they have – as all they have is illegally acquired wealth. For every one of them, there is, certainly, a detailed file with all their weaknesses and pressure points.
Also, lets not forget the killings that targeted Russian businessmen in 2022, sometimes with their entire families. And while the loss of millions is frustrating, the likely loss of life would be more so. Money is not the motivator needed to provoke Russian fat cats to bare their claws – at least not the promise of unfreezing the money they stole and placed in Western banks.
Speaking at a Henry Jackson Society event in the British Parliament on the same day as Biden’s visit, Dmytro Natalukha – Ukrainian MP, chair of the economic development committee and vice-chair of the UK-Ukraine parliamentary friendship group, reminded everyone of the decision by Lady Thatcher and President Regan to squeeze the USSR dry through military spending increases and a need to match the west in the arms race.
And while we cannot pretend that Russia has a chance of keeping up with western arms production of capabilities – already shown by Ukraine’s successful use of outdated western weapons against Russia, there is a wider argument for an iron clad regime of sanctions that can turn Russia into the economic equivalent of North Korea. Unable to enjoy western luxuries, Dubai trips, or anything but an irregular portion of potato soup – those calling themselves the Russian elite will be much more pliable to propositions of an internal regime change for a chance to escape the Gulag Putin is preparing for Russia.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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