Russia Escalates Attacks in Ukraine
As Russian forces struggle to gain ground, civilians are increasingly under fire. More than 4 million people have fled. Follow our latest coverage.
Ukraine Wants NATO’s Help Against Russia’s WMDs
Ukraine is calling out Russia’s “state nuclear terrorism.”
Ukrainian officials are preparing to ask the NATO alliance to do more to deter possible Russian chemical and nuclear attacks amid Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as the 30-nation alliance holds a summit meeting in Spain this week, according to a draft document provided to Foreign Policy.
With Ukraine still lacking a clear path into NATO in the near term, officials in Kyiv are instead asking the alliance to extend cooperation with non-NATO states by deterring Russia against launching chemical or nuclear weapons attacks. Also on the menu are Ukrainian requests for protection against Russian cyberattacks and possible Kremlin targeting of critical nuclear infrastructure. Those fears have grown after Russian troops seized the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest, on the banks of the Dnipro River in March.
Ukrainian officials are worried that Russia’s seizure of nuclear power plants could give them a springboard for new attacks—which they dub “state nuclear terrorism”—or increase the risk of a meltdown. “The possible nuclear accident that could result either from reckless actions of occupying forces on the territory of the seized nuclear facilities or from hostilities taking place on their territory or in close proximity to them will have severe devastating repercussions for the entire continent,” the statement, provided by a Ukrainian military official, read.
Ukrainian officials are also asking for the “establishment of effective measures of deterrence” should Russia resort to a chemical or nuclear weapons attack against Ukraine during the course of the war. And Ukraine wants those pledges written into NATO’s so-called Strategic Concept, a decennial document that is set to emerge from the Madrid summit. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has not left Ukraine since the start of the war in February, is set to make a virtual address at the NATO gathering. On Monday, the European Union agreed to supply Ukraine with $12 million worth of medical equipment and protective gear to deal with possible chemical, biological, and nuclear threats.
It was not immediately clear if the list of requests represented the war-torn country’s final list of petitions to NATO. But it comes as both Ukrainian and Western officials are increasingly uneasy about Russia’s seizure of nuclear power plants, such as Zaporizhzhya, which has been occupied by Russian forces since March, leading to international condemnation and concerns of a Chernobyl-like radiation fallout. Ukraine has 15 Russian-designed nuclear power plants on its soil.
In recent weeks, Russia has begun hunting spies inside the facility, shooting Ukrainian employees suspected of passing intelligence to the government in Kyiv. And Ukrainian officials worry that the foothold at Europe’s largest nuclear facility could give Russian troops another shot to make a run at Kyiv from a city straddling the banks of the Dnipro River. Zelensky has also urged the United States to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism after a wave of missile attacks hit civilian targets last week, including a missile strike on a shopping center in Kremenchuk, hundreds of miles west of the front lines in the Donbas, with hundreds of civilian shoppers inside.
European officials remain concerned that Russia’s track record of using chemical weapons to break out of entrenched urban combat in Syria shows that they could do the same in Ukraine. Further fears were raised about this over the weekend when Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to move nuclear-capable missiles into Belarus, a close Kremlin ally that borders Ukraine to the north—a pledge that a senior U.S. defense official said was “irresponsible” on Monday.
But with the Donbas war increasingly tilting toward an attritional battle of artillery with only incremental Russian advances, there is fear in Kyiv that the Kremlin sees the possibility of opening up a second front with the help of allied Belarus. “People are concerned about this—not only the missiles but also that Belarus can actually open another front,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, an advisor to the Zelensky administration. “They have to change the strategic situation.”
Raising alarms further, Russian military doctrine gives commanders the right to use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield, something that has crossed the minds of Western policymakers as a possible worst-case scenario in Ukraine.
“At some point, we have to add that into our possible scenarios,” said one European official, speaking on background on the condition of anonymity regarding the use of nuclear weapons. “Having seen what the Russians did in Idlib and elsewhere in Syria, I would add in [the] use of chemical weapons because they will need to clear people from some of these cities [where] they are dug in.”
NATO is still discussing Western responses to a Russian chemical or nuclear attack and has not reached a decision, the European official added. But former top officials don’t believe that the United States and Western powers have a lot of options to stop a Russian attack outside of drawing red lines—unless U.S. President Joe Biden were to reverse course and authorize a strike that could target Russian troops launching an attack.
“Threats and red lines are about the only thing in the kit that we have unless you want to go to the left of the kill chain,” said James Foggo, a retired admiral who commanded the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet, responsible for Europe and Africa, and now leads the Center for Maritime Strategy think tank at the Navy League of the United States. “You can’t wave a magic wand and say, ‘We’re going to make you immune from chemical weapons or the potential use of chemical weapons.’”
Meanwhile, Kyiv has been offered a pathway into NATO through an April 2008 declaration by the alliance that also included Georgia, but Kyiv has yet to reach the second step in NATO membership. Ukraine shelved those plans after the election of Russia-friendly leader Viktor Yanukovych in 2010. But as the country has leaned further toward the West since Yanukovych’s ouster in 2014 and Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine, officials have hoped to see the so-called Bucharest Summit Declaration that promises eventual membership in NATO included in the alliance’s strategic plan.
Ukraine also will ask the alliance to come up with a comprehensive Black Sea strategy, including joint patrols of the region that link up the information-sharing capabilities of the Baltic countries, Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Turkey, and Ukraine. The push comes as the United Nations has tried to broker a deal between Western powers and Russia to open up Ukraine’s sealed ports to break a four-month blockade of grain shipments out of the country—and Turkey has shut off access to the Black Sea to any nation without a coastline that borders it. Ukraine has also recently asked for a demined corridor out of the port city of Odesa to get out the grain. But the prospect of a NATO flotilla could also lay down a tripwire that could spark a wider war. Russian naval vessels could target international ships escorting grain shipments.
“It wouldn’t be that hard to hit them from far away, and that would create a real problem,” Foggo said. “There’s a slippery slope there to war.”
But NATO member or not, Ukraine wants the alliance to get its act together more quickly to respond to Russian provocations. U.S. and European officials are moving Ukraine more rapidly onto Western-standard weapons, such as M777 howitzer artillery pieces and NATO-level multiple launch rocket systems. But Kyiv, in turn, wants Brussels to move more quickly with anemic decision-making within NATO, such as improving coordination, timing, and logistics and procurement procedures after last-minute Eastern flank deployments failed to change Putin’s calculus about the February invasion.
“Allies should do their utmost to prevent the Russian intention to impose ‘spheres of influence’ and to limit Moscow’s ability to establish strategic, energy, trade or political control over countries and regions,” the document provided to Foreign Policy stated. “NATO should be able, willing and ready to defend the principles of the democratic and rules-based world order, not only with words, but through deeds.”
Congress Seeks to Declare Putin’s War Genocide
A bipartisan resolution will underscore that Russian war crimes in Ukraine have constituted a genocide.
A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a resolution characterizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine as an act of genocide on Friday.
A draft of the resolution, seen by Foreign Policy, argues that atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians, the direct targeting of maternity hospitals and medical facilities, and the forcible transfer of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia and Russian-held territory meet the criteria laid out in Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Congressional resolutions are commonly used by lawmakers to express strongly held sentiments by members of the House of Representatives or Senate. Although the resolution is not legally binding, it sends a strong message of condemnation of Russia’s actions and indicates ongoing efforts by members of Congress to provide continued support to Ukraine beyond military aid.
In April, U.S. President Joe Biden characterized Russian atrocities in Ukraine as an act of genocide. “We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me,” he said, speaking to reporters in Iowa. Biden’s remarks were echoed by the Canadian and British prime ministers while French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declined to use the term, underscoring long-standing differences within the international community as to what constitutes genocide.
As a crime, genocide is distinct from other mass atrocities, and it is defined in the United Nation Genocide Convention as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Since 1989, the U.S. State Department has recognized eight genocides, most recently declaring attacks on the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar as genocide. U.S. designations of genocide can take years of gathering and analyzing evidence, and senior Biden administration officials noted that the president’s remarks in April did not constitute a formal U.S. policy shift.
Arguing that events in Ukraine could constitute genocide, the resolution points to statements made in Russian state media and by senior officials, including by Russian President Vladimir Putin, that undermine Ukrainian statehood and sovereignty; the congressional resolution alleges that the atrocities were carried out with a specific purpose. Proving that the crimes are carried out with deliberate genocidal intent can often be difficult to prove in law.
A number of Russian soldiers and units—which were accused of committing war crimes in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, specifically torture, rape, and summary executions of civilians—were awarded in April by Putin, who designated the 64th Motor Rifle Brigade as Guards and praised them for their “mass heroism and valor, tenacity, and courage.”
The resolution is set to be introduced by Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen and is expected to be co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of House members who sit on the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency tasked with promoting human rights and security in Europe. In April, the commission wrote to the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to endorse a declaration passed by the Ukrainian parliament characterizing Russia’s actions as genocide and urging the assembly to pass a similar resolution.
The Fall and Fall of Dmitry Medvedev
How the former Russian president went from geeky technocrat to deranged war hawk.
In the summer of 2010, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev set off on a tour of Silicon Valley in search of investors and ideas on how to modernize his country’s resource-dependent economy. The young president, known for his love of technology, paid visits to Google, Apple, and Twitter in what the social media platform’s co-founder Biz Stone described as “one of the most special days in the history of Twitter.”
It was there that Medvedev sent out his first ever tweet. “Hello everyone, I’m now on Twitter and this is my6 first message,” he wrote in Russian, complete with a typo. These days, Medvedev tends to use Twitter and other social media platforms for shitposting about U.S. and European officials as well as making thinly veiled threats to attack the United States and wipe Ukraine from the map. In a post on Telegram on Monday, he said the United States should beg for Russia to restart arms control negotiations. “Let them run or crawl back themselves and ask for it,” he wrote.
Despite tweeting his bellicose Mad Libs in a number of languages, Medvedev’s audience is most likely domestic, analysts say, as he looks to cover his back and shore up his political future as the domestic turmoil brought by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine begins to unfurl and speculation about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s health continues to mount.
“There’s a lot of worry among the elite, even among those who are considered to be under Putin’s krysha [protection],” said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “For some, it means keeping a low profile. For some, it’s posing as a hawk. But it all stems from this general sense that winter is coming and no one knows how it’s going to be.”
In October of last year, shortly before Russia began building up its troop presence along its border with Ukraine, Medvedev published an essay in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, which seethed with conspiracy theories and contempt for Ukraine’s leaders. In a passage laced with antisemitic overtones, he accused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, of being beholden to Nazis.
Threats of fire and brimstone have become the norm from senior Russian officials and hosts on Russian state television. But even by these standards, the remarks from the once mild-mannered Medvedev have raised eyebrows. The former president’s descent into a barely intelligible rage against the Western machine mirrors Russia’s broader shift from annoying neighbor to an existential threat to Europe—and maybe worse.
“It’s one of the [bigger] intrigues of current domestic policy,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst and founder of the R.Politik consultancy. Cognizant of circling hawks, Medvedev’s outbursts are likely an attempt to curry favor in Russia’s new political climate, which has become markedly more nationalist and intolerant of dissent since the invasion of Ukraine in February.
“Russia has changed. And Medvedev has to show that he belongs to this Russia,” Stanovaya said.
Scorned by liberals for his willingness to please Putin and regarded with suspicion by the strongmen of Russia’s security services for his overtures on the United States, Medvedev has grown increasingly isolated in recent years as his allies have been arrested or driven into exile, leaving him dependent on Putin’s good graces.
“Medvedev is one of the most vulnerable figures in the Russian political elite,” Stanovaya said.
In a post on Telegram this month, Medvedev sought to address some of the speculation around his newfound jingoism. “People often ask me why my Telegram posts are so harsh. The answer is that I hate them. They are bastards and scum,” he wrote, presumably about Ukraine. “And as long as I’m alive, I’ll do anything I can to make them disappear.”
When Medvedev was inaugurated as president in 2008, after Putin’s first two presidential terms in office, it reinvigorated hopes in Russia and the West that reform was still possible. Medvedev cut a markedly different figure from his predecessors. At just 42 years old, he was largely untainted by the Soviet political system, having graduated from law school just a few years before the fall of the Berlin wall. He talked the talk, calling out the country’s “weak democracy” and “ineffective economy,” and he appeared to embrace the tech optimism sweeping the world.
Sensing an opening, the United States’ own reform-minded then-president, Barack Obama, pursued a “reset” in the country’s relationship with Russia, traveling to Moscow during his first year in office. “Together, we can build a world where people are protected, prosperity is enlarged, and our power truly serves progress,” Obama said in his commencement address at Moscow’s New Economic School in 2009.
But the very traits that were the cause of optimism among Western officials drew derision and suspicion from conservative political circles in Russia. Medvedev’s avid iPad use garnered the nickname “iPedik,” which tacked Apple’s signature prefix onto a Russian homophobic slur. In 2011, a video of Medvedev dancing to the 1990’s Russian pop hit “American Boy” at a university reunion was leaked online and quickly went viral. “We’re rocking out last year at a reunion with my (university) class,” tweeted Medvedev, confirming the video’s authenticity.
Despite Medvedev’s rhetoric, it gradually became clear that he was little more than a placeholder for Putin, who was paying lip service to the constitutionally imposed term limits. The pair ruled as a tandem or, as the U.S. ambassador to Russia put it in a 2010 cable later leaked by Wikileaks, a “bicephalous ruling format.” After flirting with running for a second term in 2011, Medvedev quickly stepped aside to allow Putin to return to the presidency, humiliating himself in the process.
“Since then, he’s basically been in retreat as an independent political figure,” said Eugene Rumer, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia program.
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny capitalized on the widespread contempt for Medvedev, making him the target of an extensive and highly embarrassing anti-corruption investigation released in 2017, which prompted tens of thousands of Russians to take to the streets across the country, outraged by the corruption underpinning Medvedev’s luxurious lifestyle. Russian teenagers who don’t know a country without Putin, brandished yellow rubber ducks as a symbol of protest, a nod to the duck house at Medvedev’s luxurious summer home uncovered by the Navalny investigation, complete with a marina, ski slopes, and trio of helipads.
In 2020, Medvedev abruptly resigned as prime minister, with his approval ratings in the doldrums—by Russian standards—at 38 percent. While he was down, the former president was not out and was appointed to the newly created post of deputy chair of the Russian Security Council, though it’s unclear what the role actually entails. “He has a job, which no one really knows what it is supposed to be,” Galeotti said.
Despite his unpopularity, Medvedev’s survival is a testament to Putin’s loyalty to his obedient foot soldiers. “Putin doesn’t like change. He doesn’t like churn. He doesn’t like to see people go out of his circle,” Galeotti added.
Speculation about Putin’s health has electrified tabloids in the West, as the Russian president continues to keep his distance from crowds and even his own senior officials two years into the pandemic. These rumors have not gone unnoticed in Moscow either. Although Putin’s health is a closely guarded secret, it has underscored the political and physical mortality of Medvedev’s long-standing patron.
“He’s fighting for his future place in post-Putin Russia,” Stanovaya said.
Ukraine’s Bomb Squads Have a New Top Dog
Move over, mine-sniffing pups. Robots are taking your job.
The U.S. Army has agreed to provide one of its two robotic dogs to help an American nonprofit clean up mines and other ordnance in Ukraine, according to a person familiar with the decision, as the war-torn nation faces a World War II-level cleanup from unexploded Russian munitions.
HALO Trust, a demining enterprise with multiple U.S. government contracts to work in Ukraine, will use “Spot,” a Boston Dynamics-made robot dog, to remove mortar shells and cluster munitions in formerly Russian-controlled areas near the capital of Kyiv, said Chris Whatley, the group’s executive director.
In a test session last year, Spot worked well with small, volatile rounds, similar to those that have been seen throughout Ukraine. Whatley is hoping that will translate into dealing with cluster munitions that Russia has used indiscriminately in Ukraine, leaving behind bomblets that scatter all across the country.
Deploying a robotic arm in place of its head, Spot could help drag unexploded munitions—such as cluster bombs—to pits containing other munitions, allowing them to be safely exploded far from civilians in batches of up to 50 to 100 shells, and without endangering any of HALO’s 10 teams that have been deployed in Bucha and Brovary.
While deminers can be trained in six weeks, many Ukrainian employees have scattered since the invasion; some are stuck in Russian-occupied areas, and others enlisted in the military, including those in Mariupol and in the Donbas. That puts a premium on robotic help. “If you can just move something without endangering a human and move it far enough that you can take it to a place where it can be safely detonated with other items, you move up the curve massively,” Whatley said.
Boston Dynamics did not comment on the specific transfer of the robot dog to HALO Trust. “In general, Spot is an effective tool for keeping people out of harm’s way, and the robot is often used to inspect potentially hazardous materials from a safe distance,” Nikolas Noel, the company’s marketing and communications director, told Foreign Policy in an email. The company’s terms and conditions prevent the robot “from being weaponized or used for purposes of harm or intimidation,” he added. The U.S. Army’s Futures Command, which approved the transfer of the dog, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Spot can be trained to automatically do repetitive tasks without human help, like turning switches on and off. But because the robot dog would be operating in less predictable environments, such as minefields and contaminated roads and fields, its human owners operated the dog manually in the training sessions last year. “I would say within 10 or 15 minutes, we were able to regularly, safely pick up rounds, and not have them drop out of the dog’s mouth,” Whatley said.
It has become increasingly common for deminers to use robots in the field, such as wire-cutting machines and ground-penetrating radars, to extend their productivity and mitigate the risk of getting blown up in the field. Massachusetts State Police units were loaned the Spot robot in 2019 to remotely observe suspicious areas or locations. The U.S. Army is funding the so-called Common Robotic System, a 25-pound tracked robot that can clear buildings of bombs and identify enemies for infantry squads before close combat, while other units favor the six-wheeled Man Transportable Robotic System Increment II that can be operated by a handheld controller.
The State Department provided funding for one group, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, to purchase seven-ton MV-4 robots that can traverse mine-contaminated areas to clear vegetation that could conceal unexploded ordnance left behind from the fighting.
“The operator can sit back, about 50-odd meters, a hundred meters back,” said Anthony Connell, the country director for Ukraine at the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action. “It can be fitted with a video camera system. So you can see pretty much to the front and the sides of the thing, and that’s one way to deal with the tripwires.” But the MV-4 is not nearly as nimble as Spot: More than 6 feet wide, it can’t fit between trees in heavily forested areas, for instance. HALO also received a remote-controlled Robocut vegetation cutter—think of a super high-tech lawn mower—from the U.S. Army to support its work in the Donbas ahead of Russia’s invasion, Whatley said.
The need to field more sophisticated demining robots has picked up as Russia’s use of cluster munitions has expanded across the Ukrainian battlefield. Russian troops have even packed cluster bomblets inside of ballistic missiles, allowing them to spray at random when they hit the ground. Cluster munitions have been particularly lethal to operators in the field and to children, who can pick up the bomblets by accident.
“Kids are naturally curious,” Connell said. “They want to go looking and they find stuff and they touch it—and bang.” The independent weapons investigation outfit Airwars found that Russia likely used cluster bombs in a February strike on a children’s hospital and a blood donation center.
Robots could also help fetch Russian POM-3 anti-personnel mines, which can be seismically triggered on the ground from nearly 70 feet away, and which deminers believe is a novel weapon first unveiled on the Ukrainian battlefield after the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24. “Really the only way to deal with it is using machines,” Connell said. Larger weapons, such as anti-tank belts, that have been left over from Russia’s failed siege of Kyiv will likely need to be hauled away by teams or larger machines.
Groups like HALO Trust have only just begun demining areas outside of Kyiv, with ongoing fighting in the Donbas far beyond their reach. But Ukrainian civilians displaced by the conflict are already eager to come home. The United Nations refugee agency has registered some 2.8 million border crossings back into Ukraine since Feb. 28. Deminers are worried that Russian troops have left booby traps and bombs in the rubble of homes caught up in the fighting—an effort to terrorize the Ukrainian population and deny them the ability to return home—that can be found in anything from household appliances like washing machines to children’s toys. “It’s really just to say this is my visiting card, thank you for having us,” Connell. said “It’s straight terrorism. There’s no other way to describe it.”
For Whatley, HALO Trust’s executive director who hopes to expand to 50 mine clearance teams in Ukraine by the end of 2022, that makes the need for mine clearance robots like Spot all the more urgent. He said he could easily see his deminers fielding a pack of up to a dozen robot dogs.
“There are Ukrainian lives that could be saved yesterday,” Whatley said. Speaking of the demining effort, he said, “it’s on a scale like nothing since World War II.”
‘It’s Not Afghanistan’: Ukrainian Pilots Push Back on U.S.-Provided Drones
Both the Biden administration and Ukraine are worried that American strike drones would get shot down quickly.
Ukrainian military officials are enmeshed in a hotly contested debate over whether U.S.-provided Gray Eagle strike drones can be effective against increasingly resilient Russian air defenses, while the Biden administration considers providing Kyiv with the systems that became ubiquitous in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The risk of operating drones in Ukraine, which saw cheap strike drones like the Turkish Bayraktar have significant impact against the Russian military in the first days of the war, has increased as the fight has moved east to the Donbas region, which abuts Russia’s Western Military District and larger clusters of advanced air defense systems, such as S-300 and S-400 missile batteries.
But there is a split between front-line airmen and Ukraine’s chief of staff on the drones, according to multiple Ukrainian military officials, who recently spoke to Foreign Policy and other media outlets on condition of anonymity, identified only by their military call signs.
“We are not advocating for the Gray Eagles,” said one pilot, referred to as Moonfish. The Ukrainian military’s general staff, he said, are advocating for the drones. “There’s no good Air Force mind next to our chief of staff or commander who would say, speak up and say, hey, that’s B.S.”
“It’s very dangerous to use such expensive drones in our case, because of the enemy’s air defense,” he added. “It’s not Afghanistan here.”
Both Ukrainian and American officials are increasingly concerned that Gray Eagles could be shot down by advanced Russian air defense systems. The attack drones are armed with Hellfire missiles that can hit targets only up to about 5 miles away, far less than the one-way kamikaze drones that the United States has provided to Ukraine. In just the past several weeks, Russia has beefed up air defenses on the border and inside Ukraine, said Samuel Bendett, an advisor with the CNA think tank.
“Their systems are working on a more massive scale,” he said. “Their early warning radars are working. Their air defenses are working. So losing Gray Eagles is a real possibility to such a layered defense.”
There are some situations in which the drones could find use, such as in direct action on the front lines, the pilots said. “It could be useful,” said an active-duty Ukrainian fighter pilot who asked to be identified by his call sign, Juice. “It could widen our strike capabilities on the front lines.” But they also doubted that the Gray Eagles would be likely to survive more than a mission or two, making them not worth the cost of using the $10 million unmanned vehicles.
The Ukrainian pilots said that their Air Force has mostly pulled back strikes using Turkish Bayraktar drones, also known as TB-2s, which proved effective at stopping Russian armored advances during the battle of Kyiv. “They were very useful and important in the very first days, stopping those columns, but now that they’ve built up good air defenses, they’re almost useless,” said Moonfish, the Ukrainian fighter pilot. Ukrainian troops are limiting the use of Bayraktars to rare special operations and attack missions, the pilots said.
One Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that commanders on the ground see equal utility between Gray Eagle drones and loitering munitions, such as the Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost drones, for destroying Russian tanks and military positions. Ukrainian officials are advocating for the United States to quickly send American air defenses and advanced fighter aircraft to the front lines, though those weapons typically take years to reach U.S. allies and require in most cases specialized training out of the country.
But unlike in the early days of the war, Ukraine has dialed back its air operations to between 20 to 30 sorties per day. “We have a lot more pilots than jets right now,” Moonfish said. They argue for taking more Ukrainian pilots off the flight lines for training on advanced U.S. fighter jets, such as F-15s and F-16s, in hopes of obtaining the new platforms. About 70 percent of Ukraine’s air missions are now close air support to help advancing troops, a role that both U.S. jets can perform. The pilots said that bringing in advanced U.S. fighter aircraft could help suppress increasingly active Russian air defenses.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has managed to keep its air defenses mostly intact nearly four months into the war with a shoot-and-move strategy and more decentralized tactics than Russia, said Denys Smazhnyi, a Ukrainian lieutenant colonel who specializes in training anti-aircraft units. Smazhnyi added that Ukraine’s anti-aircraft batteries had destroyed 500 targets, including 150 Russian helicopters and a similar number of cruise missiles, since the start of the war, though the figures were not independently verified.
But back in Washington, few officials are optimistic the deal for Gray Eagles will move ahead quickly. Russian officials had been collecting intelligence on American long-range drones for years prior to this conflict, said Bendett, the CNA drone expert. And those concerns are beginning to bubble up within the Biden administration. Reuters reported last week that American officials are concerned that sensitive equipment onboard could fall into Russian hands, leading to yet more hand-wringing from an administration that, while ultimately generous in its military support for Ukraine, has drawn criticism for being too sluggish in its response.
“They’re hemming and hawing again,” said a congressional aide familiar with the debate, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s like pulling teeth.”
Ukraine Still Wants Heavy Metal
Kyiv remains frustrated with Western arms deliveries, despite a surge of support.
The United States has approved a plan to send an additional $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine following a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday, but the promised delivery falls well short of what Ukrainian officials say they will need to roll back the Russian invasion.
The new military aid, announced by the White House, includes two truck-mounted anti-ship Harpoon missile launchers, 18 howitzer artillery systems, 36,000 artillery rounds, and additional ammunition for its donated High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). The announcement is likely to be met with a mixture of enthusiasm and disappointment in Kyiv, as Washington signals that it will continue to deliver sorely needed military aid to Ukraine’s embattled forces but not at the level that they say they need to evenly match Russia on the battlefield.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a top advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, outlined on Twitter what Ukraine would need to win the war against Russia, which has been raging since Moscow invaded in late February.
“Being straightforward—to end the war we need heavy weapons parity: 1000 howitzers caliber 155 mm; 300 MLRS [Multiple Launch Rocket Systems]; 500 tanks; 2000 armored vehicles; 1000 drones,” he tweeted. So far the United States and its allies have pledged to send 10 rocket systems to Ukraine—far short of the 300 that Podolyak says his country needs.
“What the Ukrainians need most is long-range artillery and rockets and endless ammunition to counter Russia because that’s what Russia has so much of and that’s what’s causing all the damage now,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe.
Hodges said the United States should dramatically increase the number of heavy weapons it sends Ukraine to help tip the scales of the war in Kyiv’s favor, particularly since Russia has a dramatic advantage in terms of the number of troops and artillery systems it can put into the field—even if those troops are poorly trained and equipped.
“Unless we can help Ukraine destroy or at least disrupt all of this artillery and rockets pounding away at Ukrainian positions, then it simply becomes a matter of math,” he said.
Ukrainian officials are also voicing frustration that the delivery timetables for heavy weapons systems aren’t moving as quickly as they need. The United States and its allies face steep logistical hurdles in rapidly delivering such equipment—and it will take weeks or months to train Ukrainian forces on such systems.
“The assistance and support of the United States is the most strong from our partners and is absolutely vital to resist and to fight,” said Andriy Kostin, a member of the Ukrainian parliament who is part of the country’s delegation to negotiations with Russia. “However, for this support to be most effective, delivery of critical weapons systems should be accelerated.”
The United States has been the single biggest provider of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, committing $54 billion to support Ukraine and the wider region since the war began. U.S. assistance has played a decisive role on the battlefield but has struggled to keep pace with Kyiv’s voracious appetite for heavy weapons and ammunition, leading to tensions that have periodically played out in public.
“If I’m a Ukrainian, I want to receive as much as I can as rapidly as I can. But you have to remember to hold a balance of urgency, without panic, and pushing without denigrating,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland. “The Ukrainians also live in fear that we will cut a deal over their heads. They shouldn’t, but they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t.”
The timetable for providing Kyiv with two different systems—HIMARS launchers and a possible delivery of Gray Eagle drones—underscores the challenges in keeping up with Ukraine’s needs.
“We will get HIMARs in six to eight weeks, maybe the Gray Eagles in six to eight weeks, and that’s not good for us,” one Ukrainian military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about ongoing weapons transfers.
Officials in Washington are still debating the efficacy of providing the drones, which would add another Western system to an already backlogged training pipeline for the Ukrainians. The United States has trained more than 1,000 Ukrainian troops on NATO-level equipment flowing onto the battlefield since Russia’s full-scale invasion. Ukraine has also repeatedly asked the United States for more precision weapons in an effort to “de-populate” cities that Russia has occupied since the start of the conflict, where the Kremlin’s command posts are often intermingled with civilian areas to make targeting more difficult.
And Washington and Kyiv have been in an ongoing tit-for-tat debate over provisions of more weapons. Ukraine has repeatedly asked for the extended-range Army Tactical Missile System that can hit targets up to 168 miles away, known in Pentagon parlance as ATACMS, which would allow Ukrainian troops to knock out Russian batteries from beyond artillery range. The Biden administration has held off on providing those missiles for fear of provoking Russia, a view that has caused heartburn in Washington as Ukraine takes a beating in the Donbas.
“They really need fucking help right now. All of the stuff they’ve been foot-dragging on is now extremely urgent,” said a U.S. source familiar with the debate. “We’re pulling our punches to such an extent that it’s only emboldening [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
A senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Tuesday that the United States believes it has given Ukraine multiple rocket launch systems with enough range—more than 40 miles—to target Russian command nodes and interrupt supplies flowing onto the battlefield. The United States is also taking steps to increase real-time intelligence-sharing with Ukraine to help battlefield awareness, the official said.
At a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Brussels on Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with counterparts from some 50 countries to source more military equipment. Milley said the United States would begin transferring the first HIMARS to Ukraine at the end of the month, one platoon at a time. Some 60 Ukrainian troops have been trained on the system.
“We and other countries are building a platoon at a time to certify the Ukrainians can properly employ and maintain this system,” Milley said at a press conference after the meeting. “This immediate assistance had exceptional impact on the battlefield. Russia halted and turned back their initial advances in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance.”
Putin’s Lies About the War Hobble Russia’s Offensive
Pretending the invasion of Ukraine is a “special operation” has limited the Kremlin’s ability to win it.
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military strategy in Ukraine is being increasingly boxed in by the Kremlin’s reluctance to formally declare war against Kyiv, U.S. officials believe, a move that would allow Russia to potentially surge thousands more troops onto the battlefield.
Nearly four months into the war, Putin is still conducting the fight in Ukraine—Russia’s largest conflict in more than a decade—as a self-styled “special military operation,” allowing the Kremlin to hide the true scale of the conflict from the Russian public. Western officials have assessed that at least 15,000 Russian troops have died in Ukraine, though Ukraine’s estimates are more than double that.
And almost four months in, Russia is still waging war on the pretenses of protecting Russian speakers in the self-declared separatist provinces of Ukraine, even though the war has extended farther from the start.
U.S. officials increasingly believe that Putin’s reluctance to bear the political cost of acknowledging a wider and bloodier war in Ukraine after expecting to seize Kyiv, the capital, with little Ukrainian opposition in a matter of days is limiting the Kremlin’s ability to call for a general mobilization of troops from the Russian population that could overwhelm beleaguered defenders in the Donbas region.
Russian troops have frequently outnumbered Ukrainian forces in the monthslong fight in the Donbas at ratios of more than three-to-one, where the Kremlin has seized much of the Luhansk area in a seeming momentum shift in the war. But reluctance to put more troops in the field, drawn from the general population, is mitigating Russian advantages, officials said.
“Right now, the Russian leadership is lying to its people about what’s going on,” a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the U.S. Defense Department, told reporters on the way to Brussels, where U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is set to host a 50-nation meeting to source new military aid for Ukraine. “Russian leadership is constrained in its ability to sustain high levels of personnel [in Ukraine] because they don’t want the truth to come back to the Russian people about what’s going on, and Putin has avoided general mobilization of the population.”
Although the Kremlin appears unwilling to bear the political weight of wider mobilization, Russia has conducted recruitment drives to backfill the ranks of thousands of conscripts who have already been killed in the grinding war. A European security official recently told Foreign Policy that Russia had launched an unsuccessful recruitment campaign near Murmansk, Russia.
The Ukrainian military also believes that Russia is making continued efforts to replenish weapons and military equipment. Near Slovyansk, in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Russia has replaced more than 100 damaged armored vehicles in the past 24 hours, according to the Ukrainian general staff’s daily battlefield assessment, which was provided to Foreign Policy. Russia also moved more than 80 weapons, including heavy armored vehicles and artillery, into the occupied settlements of Kreminna and Starobilsk, Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said Ukraine is now losing between 100 to 200 troops per day, numbers that U.S. officials said are not out of line with expectations for a pitched artillery battle.
Despite recent Russian gains, which have seen Russian troops take over most of Sieverodonetsk, a key Donbas city, the Biden administration has sought to look beyond the day-to-day snapshot of the battlefield to focus on bringing Ukraine more NATO-standard weapons, the U.S. defense official said.
“They’re using very flexible tactics. They’re slowly trading territory and exacting an enormous price on every city block,” a U.S. source briefed on battlefield intelligence said of Ukraine’s tactics. “I still think in the long term the Russians are fucked. If this is what the fighting is like for Sieverodonetsk, can you imagine what it would be like in Kyiv?”
And although Russia has limited the scope of the battlefield to the Donbas region—roughly double the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut—after the failure to seize Kyiv and several northern Ukrainian cities in a lightning offensive in the first days of the war, problems with military leadership, morale, and supply issues continue to persist, officials said.
U.S. officials have sought to downplay Russia’s gains in recent weeks. Speaking at a conference in Washington on Tuesday, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said Russia’s daily gains can be “measured in blocks” and are not “large, sweeping breakthroughs” of Ukrainian defenses. “The Ukrainians are taking casualties,” Kahl said. “The Russians are taking a lot of casualties, as well, and the front lines are not moving very much.”
The Kremlin’s strategy is also getting boxed in by Western sanctions in addition to politics, U.S. officials believe. Russia’s shift to an artillery war in the Donbas has been driven by the depletion of the Kremlin’s precision-strike weapons stockpile from a high burn rate and Western sanctions. “A lot of their high-end, most modern Russian equipment has been already destroyed,” the U.S. senior defense official said. “They are beginning to rely on older models, more limited capabilities. They simply cannot resupply themselves.” Ukraine also has supply chain advantages over Russia because of the continued influx of military equipment, the official added.
Austin, the Pentagon chief, has repeatedly stated that the U.S. goal in backing Ukraine, to the tune of $4.6 billion in American weapons since Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, is to help Ukraine win the war and weaken Russia militarily in the future. But the switch to NATO-level equipment coming from the West, requiring far more training than Soviet-era equipment sent to Ukraine in the early days of the war, has led to increasing complaints about a lack of munitions as the war drags on.
“The Ukrainians against all of the odds are still hanging in there, but they’re taking a pounding,” said the U.S. source familiar with battlefield intelligence. “And it’s the precise kind of pounding that we knew they were going to be taking, and we’ve known for months, and just not having the will to do anything about it.”
The drumbeat has grown after Ukraine received just 48 rockets and four batteries for the U.S.-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket System—and none of the long-range missiles that can hit Russian forces nearly 200 miles away. The United States has hundreds of the system in its stockpiles.
“It’s pathetic,” the U.S. source said. “That will last like an hour—if that.” But Biden administration officials are still confident that Ukraine can hang tough.
“I don’t think that they’re losing the war,” the senior U.S. defense official said. “Remember that the Russian objective was a rapid envelopment. They thought they were going to achieve it within weeks, and now they’ve switched to a grinding war.”
“It’s far from settled that the Russians will achieve the kind of dominance in eastern Ukraine that was the goal of this operation,” the U.S. defense official added.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister: Russia Might Not Lose
Gabrielius Landsbergis weighs in on why Russia needs to be defeated, why Eastern European states were and are nervous, and why the West needs to step up.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the small Baltic nation of Lithuania has been one of Kyiv’s most steadfast supporters. In May, Lithuania became the first country to designate Russia as a terrorist state. It has sought a solution to Moscow’s naval blockade of grain exports from the Black Sea, which imperils the lives of millions, especially in the developing world. Lithuanian citizens even crowdfunded over $5 million to purchase a Turkish-made drone for the Ukrainian military.
At the same time, Lithuania, which was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 as a coda to the Soviet Union’s pact with Adolf Hitler, then was kept under the Soviet boot for more than 40 years, has sought to bolster NATO’s presence in the country, amid fears that Russia’s revanchist appetite may not stop with Ukraine.
Foreign Policy spoke with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis about the need for greater clarity about the West’s goals in Ukraine, Russian threats against Lithuania, and what happens if Russia is not defeated.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Foreign Policy: Ukrainian officials say that the country is outgunned in the east and running out of ammunition. Are Europe, the United States doing enough to support Ukraine at this critical stage in the war?
Gabrielius Landsbergis: It should not come as a surprise. Ukrainian factories are not working. They can’t produce the ammunition that is needed for the Ukrainians to have their own armory. So they are truly running out of their weapons, and now they’re fully dependent on the weapons that the West is sending. That’s the first thing. The second thing is, even though countries like Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, even bigger countries like Poland, we’re doing everything that we can, but it basically boils down to what the big industrial powers of the world can and should do. Because this is where the main firepower comes from in terms of delivery.
Going back to your question, is enough being done? I think that what we don’t currently see, at least what I would like to see, is a very clear commitment by the major powers, the industrial powers, that they will be able to sustain the Ukrainian war effort until Ukraine reaches victory and Russia faces a strategic defeat. There still needs a lot of political and diplomatic effort in order to achieve this commitment.
FP: In his op-ed for the New York Times, U.S. President Joe Biden said that the United States is supporting Ukraine so that it would be in the strongest position at the negotiating table. But you’re saying you want real ammo, not ammunition for talks.
GL: Yes. Because it’s not rhetorical, it’s very specific. How many rocket launching systems the Ukrainians have defines how much territory can they take back. How much ammunition is sent every day and sustainably every day means that they are able to at least hold Russian forces in place or, again, push them back.
FP: The United States and others have given some big guns, but they’ve held off giving the Ukrainians the really long-range ammunition that they’ve been asking for. It seems that there are still lingering fears within the Biden administration about provoking Russia. Do you think it is prudent to be cautious about escalating with Russia, or should we be giving Ukraine everything that we have?
GL: I would look from the strategic standpoint, not from the tactical, because for three and a half months most of the time we’ve been involved in from the tactical point of view. That means that we’re looking at what the Ukrainians are achieving on the battlefield, we give them weapons, and then we decide what kind of weapons systems we should give them. But now, the thing is that if we set a goal that Russia has to be strategically defeated in that it would be forbidden to continue to wage the war in Ukraine, one, but, two, also would be unable to repeat attacking its neighbors in the future. So if that’s the strategic goal, then we have to ask ourselves the question: How do we achieve that goal? And what kind of weapons systems are needed in order to achieve that goal? And I think that this is the question that still is not answered.
Going back to the tactical, the war is far from won. At least some of the information that we’re seeing is quite discouraging, and Russians are still progressing, or the Ukrainians are unable to keep the contact line intact. So there is quite a high chance still that Russia will not face defeat. Yes, they are wounded obviously with sanctions and enormous losses on the battlefield, but they are able to sustain this, and if they will be able to sustain this long-term, then again, we are then in a very, very dangerous stage of geopolitical reality.
FP: But there still seems to be great disagreement on that issue, whether to strengthen Ukraine at the negotiating table or defeat Russia.
GL: Yes, and that actually weakens our hand, the disagreement. Because we’re as strong as we’re able to have a united position. Preferably a strong united position, not being weak and united. So definitely, a time has to come where some sort of a coalition has to set a goal of what needs to be achieved. And I think that you mentioned President Biden’s op-ed, and it lays out several strategic goals quite strongly, and I think that could be followed.
FP: The Russian parliament this week considered withdrawing Russia’s recognition of Lithuania’s independence. What was your reaction to that?
GL: I would call this a threat, a direct threat to Lithuania, and we are taking all these threats seriously, even if the person [who made the proposal] is not known for political seriousness in Russian political circles. Nonetheless, Russia is a very dangerous neighbor, and that’s why we are taking everything that comes from Moscow very seriously.
FP: Not long after the war began, I met with a Lithuanian politician here in Washington, who described Central and Eastern Europe as the Cassandras of Europe. What do you make of that? Because for a long time, politicians in the region, officials in the region were warning about Russia, about its capabilities, its intentions, and were brushed off by your counterparts in the West. How does that make you feel now?
GL: We’re already in the second stage of this Cassandra moment. Because the first month of the war was truly a very interesting experience, I have to tell you. So many journalists and representatives from several NGOs would ask, “So you were right all this time, you were right. And how does that make you feel?” My point was always: Don’t reject the notions that are coming from the Baltics. For a month, it was okay. And now what we’re saying, and many in the Baltics would agree with this, is that if Russia is not defeated, it’s just a delay of the next war. Because the system is built that way. And again, I think it’s an excellent metaphor, saying that again, we are not believed.
FP: Do you think the current security architecture in Europe is sufficient to protect Lithuania and others on the continent?
GL: Ukraine is a litmus paper. If with Western assistance Ukraine wins the war, if the commitment that we spoke about at the beginning of our conversation is given and allows Ukraine to win, and Russia to lose, then I think that this new system … Ukraine will be part of it, it’s inevitable. It might be part of NATO, it might not be a part of NATO in the short term, but it will be part of the European security system after the war. That would give a lot of confidence to everybody that we have a new system, and it’s working. If Russia fails to lose, then it’s a worrying scenario for everybody. The most interesting thing—I’ve just returned from Japan—and many conversations that I had there were about the security architecture, because it’s universal.
If we allow a country like Ukraine to lose its territories—we built the system around this principle of territorial integrity—then everybody is in danger, and no country will be big enough to be completely safe.
Ukraine’s ‘Nuremberg Moment’ Amid Flood of Alleged Russian War Crimes
So many crimes are being documented that they need a new court.
As Russia continues its assault on Ukraine, top Biden administration officials are working behind the scenes with the Ukrainian government and European allies to document a tsunami of war crimes allegedly committed by Russian forces.
But the sheer volume of the documented war crime cases could be too overwhelming for Ukraine’s justice system as well as for the International Criminal Court (ICC), raising questions of how many cases will be brought to trial and how many accused Russian war criminals could ultimately face justice.
“This is a Nuremberg moment in terms of just the sheer scale of the breach of the rules-based international order that has been perpetrated by Russia in this invasion,” said Beth Van Schaack, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice. “Even the most well-resourced prosecutorial office would have a hard time grappling with the sheer scale of the criminality that’s been on display.”
The United States joined a slew of other Western countries and international institutions in devoting resources to help Ukraine document and collect evidence on as many alleged war crimes as possible, from Russian soldiers torturing, raping, and executing Ukrainian civilians to Russian armored units and air forces indiscriminately shelling civilian targets.
When Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv region in early April, they left in their wake nightmarish scenes of bodies strewn along the roads of Bucha. The massacres came to symbolize Moscow’s savage disregard for civilian life and raised fears about what awaits investigators in cities such as Mariupol, which endured months under siege by Russian forces.
The efforts to document and eventually prosecute these war crimes is largely without precedent, veteran human rights activists say, both because of the sheer amount of documented cases flooding into Ukraine’s central government—the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office has 15,000 possible cases to investigate by the latest tally—and the fact that the government managing these cases is still battling the Russian invasion.
“The national legal system, even with an effective prosecutor’s office, couldn’t cope with 15,000 cases,” Oleksandra Matviichuk, a leading Ukrainian human rights lawyer and the head of the Ukraine-based Center for Civil Liberties, told Foreign Policy during a recent visit to Washington. “And remember, we are a country still at war. We have limited resources.”
There are so many alleged Russian war crimes that the investigative response is also unprecedented. The ICC, the premier intergovernmental body tasked with prosecutions of war crimes, has dispatched 42 investigators to probe possible war crimes in Ukraine, its “largest-ever” team of experts to carry out such a task. Other European countries, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Poland, joined Ukraine in setting up a so-called Joint Investigation Team to cooperate on war crimes investigations, while the U.S. government is funding complementary efforts to document war crimes and support Ukrainian organizations dedicated to doing so. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a leading multilateral organization, has also established an expert mission to document human rights abuses. In Ukraine, meanwhile, the prosecutor general’s office has brought forward several war crimes trials against captured Russian soldiers and is investigating thousands more, while civil society groups are training volunteers on how to properly document evidence of possible war crimes, effectively crowdsourcing the early stages of investigations for future cases.
There’s a growing concern among some U.S. officials and Ukrainian activists that all these concurrent efforts could eventually trip over one another and may start doing more harm than good—that is, unless there’s a central hub set up to coordinate all the work. “It’s been a little bit chaotic,” conceded one U.S. official working on supporting efforts to document war crimes in Ukraine, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media. (Van Schaack, for her part, insisted that these efforts are “decentralized,” but not chaotic, because each group is in constant contact with one another to coordinate their work.)
Matviichuk and other Ukrainian civil society groups are advocating for the international community to establish a special “hybrid” international tribunal court to centralize and absorb all the investigations into possible war crimes and human rights violations committed during the war.
The proposal is not without precedent. These types of so-called hybrid courts, backed by both international and domestic laws and staffed by a combination of local and international experts, have been established to handle war crimes cases in Cambodia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda and could be modeled in part after the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
However, there’s another major hurdle: Many of those international tribunals were established by (and gained their legitimacy through) the U.N. Security Council. Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, would undoubtedly veto any effort to set up a tribunal documenting war crimes against its own soldiers and leaders, meaning that Ukraine and its allies in the West would have to find a workaround for establishing an international court that doesn’t require U.N. Security Council approval.
One option would be to gain backing from the U.N. General Assembly instead, but doing so would require a two-thirds majority vote of members, which is by no means guaranteed. Another challenge with a global forum such as the United Nations is that it could be open to allegations of selectivity, said Tom Dannenbaum, an assistant professor of international law at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
“The fact that the United Nations responds in some cases and not others can affect the politics around the tribunals it backs,” Dannenbaum said. One way around that could be to have a European institution, such as the European Union or the Council of Europe, lend its backing to the tribunal, he said.
The idea of a special tribunal has already gained traction in the European Parliament, where a group of EU parliamentarians formally endorsed the idea in May. Washington has yet to back such a plan, but Van Schaack said the administration is actively reviewing a series of proposals on how to bring to justice accused Russian war criminals. “Our focus at the moment has been on maximizing the effectiveness of existing accountability mechanisms,” she said.
Another option is for other states to try accused Russian war criminals within their own domestic systems under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Offenses such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity are perceived to pose such a grave threat to the international system that they can be tried in any country regardless of whether they have a direct tie to the case. In an interview on Friday, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said his country was exploring the possibility of trying some of Ukraine’s war crimes cases in Lithuanian courts.
In Congress, meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are clamoring to help in the effort with new legislation and funding for documenting war crimes.
“As the United States keeps its focus on Ukraine and helping its population defend its land and protect its people today, we should also be prepared to work in the same synchronized manner so that the Kremlin is forced to face its own reckoning for this unprovoked, bloody war,” U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Foreign Policy in a statement.
Shaheen was one of 13 senators from both parties to sponsor a bill last month aimed at ensuring the U.S. government is allocating resources to documenting war crimes in Ukraine. Among the tens of billions of dollars that the Biden administration has requested to aid Ukraine in the war, some $80 million is devoted to accountability on war crimes.
Still, documenting the war crimes is only part of the legal battle. There are also hurdles to preserve evidence and track down witnesses for cases that could be tried years down the road—a difficult task, let alone in an active war zone. Launching cases in international courts, including the ICC, can be a costly and lengthy process. The ICC has historically only handled a select few cases, emblematic of wider human rights abuses in a specific conflict.
“I think it’s important to temper expectations. Not every perpetrator will have their day in court—it’s not realistic. We have not seen that historically in lots of other countries around the world,” said Kelebogile Zvobgo, an assistant professor of government at William & Mary and founder of the International Justice Lab.
Then there’s the matter of getting custody of the accused war criminals—another steep hurdle for the current war, beyond the limited number of cases where the accused Russian war criminals have been captured by Ukrainian forces during the war. The ICC has sought to avoid trying people in absentia.
“Most of the architects of violence remain in Russia,” Van Schaack said. “And of course, Russia will be unwilling to extradite or conduct their own process internally, which they are obliged to do under the laws of war.”
In many instances, it can be easier to prosecute the low-ranking soldiers who are responsible for committing the crime than the commanders who may have instructed them to do it. “Do we have communications, do we have evidence of that? Was there a letter, or was there a recording of the order?” Zvobgo said.
And then there’s the question of whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would ever see the inside of a courtroom. Russia’s most senior officials, such as Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, are offered immunity under international law, but even that has its limits.
“As soon as a head of state or foreign minister leaves office, their status immunity elapses. And these crimes don’t have any statute of limitations, so Putin or Lavrov could be prosecuted 30 years down the line, longevity permitting,” Dannenbaum said. There is also precedent for the ICC to indict a sitting head of state.
“I think that there would be a significant risk for Putin or Lavrov to travel to any state party to the ICC and any state that recognizes the international status of any hybrid tribunal that is created,” he said.
Despite all these hurdles, Matviichuk said she has confidence that Russians who committed war crimes will be brought to justice, eventually. “History has shown that sooner or later authoritarian regimes collapse and war crime perpetrators face justice. War crimes have no limited deadline. If they are alive, they will be caught,” she said.
Ukraine has already begun prosecuting war crimes cases against Russian soldiers in its custody, sentencing 21-year-old Russian Army Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin to life imprisonment for shooting a civilian. It is highly unusual to try a war crimes case while the conflict still rages, but Zvobgo said it was in Ukraine’s interest to ensure the alleged war criminals received free and fair trials.
“I am optimistic about Russian personnel getting due process,” she said. “Ukraine has been juxtaposing itself against Russia as being lawful, law-abiding, and a respected member of the international community and doing things by the letter of the law.”
Zelensky Wants Asia to Stop Enabling Putin’s War
“If you cover half of the river, what difference does it make?” one Ukrainian official said of the evasion of sanctions on Russia.
SINGAPORE—Ukrainian officials are concerned about Russia finding end arounds in Asia to avoid Western sanctions, including limits to purchases of Russian oil, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky scheduled to address the Shangri-La Dialogue virtually on Saturday.
Ukraine has been worried in recent weeks that many Asian nations have been bypassing Western sanctions, including the European Union’s embargo against seaborne Russian oil exports, and permitting Russian companies to do business in their countries. While the United States and nearly all of the EU have closed ranks and ratcheted up pressure on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in February, many countries in Africa and Asia have continued to carry on business as usual with the Kremlin.
“We want to make it impossible for Russia to sustain military operations, and that can be done through both imports and exports,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, an advisor to the Zelensky administration. “It’s like a river. If you cover half of the river, what difference does it make?”
Mylovanov said Ukraine is trying to make it more difficult for Russia to gain critical imports or transport them, adding that hundreds of companies that have not exited Russia since the invasion are based in Asia or owned by Asian nationals. Cutting Russia out of the regional supply chain also remains tricky, as Moscow remains a prolific miner of gold, nickel, and aluminum, a major steel producer, and a provider of rare earths.
According to an updated analysis conducted by the Kyiv School of Economics in June and provided to Foreign Policy, 182 Asian companies of 332 doing business in Russia—more than half—are staying put more than three months into the war, despite almost a thousand major multinationals from around the world, from McDonald’s to Mastercard, announcing plans to leave or curtailing operations there.
“While companies exit Russia en masse following the invasion of Ukraine, Asian brands have been conspicuously absent from the corporate exodus,” the report stated. “By offering its growing Asian clientele competitive prices for vital resources, Russia is hoping that much of the international community looks the other way as it attempts to expand its energy empire in Ukraine.”
Japan is likely the only Asian country with a significant number of businesses that have left, while Indian and Chinese companies have done the least to cut ties, instead increasing their imports of oil and gas. Russian liquefied natural gas projects are still “substantially” dependent on South Korean ships after Western sanctions, researchers from the Kyiv School of Economics assessed.
Zelensky’s comments are set to come as Southeast Asia has been mostly slow to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and few have signed on to sanctions. Many countries in the region, including India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, have large arsenals full of old Russian military equipment and could be vulnerable to sanctions, such as recently enacted U.S. laws that penalize big-budget purchasers of Russian arms.
“The Russians are pretty savvy at bypassing [sanctions],” Mylovanov said.
After Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the United States and Western Europe imposed stiff, but not devastating, sanctions. Even so, Mylovanov said, Russia managed to gain access to Western technologies critical to manufacturing Russian weapons after 2014. The latest batch of Western sanctions explicitly tightens the noose on the critical materials, many of which are imported, that are key to Russia’s production of precision-guided munitions, advanced fighter jets, naval platforms, and space-based capabilities.
But it’s not just South and Southeast Asia. Current and former U.S. officials have also worried about China potentially flouting those rules to provide Russia some of those critical technologies through back doors. “We’re very, very interested in them not weakening secondary sanctions,” Mylovanov said.
Among the strategies that Russia has used are parallel imports, where key goods are sold to an Asian or European country before being reexported to Russia. The United States has imposed export controls that are intended to deny semiconductors and computer chips to Russia that are necessary to produce weapons and high-tech products, impacting microelectronics, telecommunications, information security items, sensors, navigation equipment, avionics, marine equipment, and civil aircraft components. But the rules also extend to almost everything produced by U.S. software. Many Asian countries back those export bans, such as Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan. But enforcement remains tricky because there are only a handful of U.S. officials to police the rules around the world.
Western officials believe that China has remained hesitant to provide material support for Russia’s invasion three months in. Experts believe that Southeast Asia has been spared the worst of the economic impacts from the invasion but has concerns about the integrity of international law and higher food prices, as well as how to handle Russian involvement in multilateral groupings in the region. But both officials and experts believe that Russia has also received a propaganda boost from China that has prevented Southeast Asian nations from calling out the invasion of Ukraine or fully adhering to the sanctions regime.
“The Chinese have been parroting—with Asian characteristics—Russian propaganda for quite some time,” said Brent Sadler, a military expert at the Heritage Foundation. “It’s been effective. The Russian narrative is in the ascendancy of what’s going on in Ukraine and not the American or the Western one. And that’s because the Chinese have been facilitating and parroting Russian propaganda.”
A senior U.S. defense official told reporters traveling with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this week that the Pentagon boss, on the heels of meeting with his Chinese counterpart, would warn of the “dangers of destabilization” stemming from the Russia-Ukraine conflict. But some experts in the region expect the message to fall flat. Austin also warned Wei Fenghe, his rough equivalent in China’s defense ministry, that providing material support to Russia would be “deeply destabilizing,” the official said after the nearly hourlong meeting.
“I doubt whatever [U.S. President Joe] Biden says or whatever Zelensky says will move the needle at all,” said William Choong, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Southeast Asian “countries don’t have any skin in the game. Ukraine is thousands of miles away from Southeast Asia. They don’t see it in that lens” of protecting human rights and upholding the rules-based international order, he said.
Civilians on Ukraine’s Front Lines Face Food and Water Shortages and Worse—Lack of Medication
The battle for the Donbas could well be the deadliest phase of the war.
VUHLEDAR, Ukraine—Oleg Tkachenko gets up at dawn and, as the sky begins to fill with color, packs his van with at least a ton of supplies and heads straight into a battle zone—the front-line city of Vuhledar in eastern Ukraine.
A Protestant priest, Tkachenko makes the journey several times a week, knowing he could be killed. A few weeks ago, a shell landed just 160 feet from his van.
But with the battle for the Donbas region becoming the deadliest phase of Russia’s war on Ukraine so far, the situation for civilians caught in the middle is quickly becoming untenable.
Many in the region are living under sustained Russian fire with no access to water or electricity. They cook what little food they have on open flames, outdoors, in the gaps between the shelling. For older, poor, and sick people, the circumstances are particularly dire.
Tkachenko, who is willing to go where Ukrainian officials or international aid workers are not, brings food and other supplies to some of the most vulnerable Ukrainians on the front lines of the conflict. For many of them, he and other volunteers have become a critical lifeline.
“It was dangerous in 2014. It’s even more dangerous now. But my mission is to help people,” said Tkachenko, 52, a father of seven who has been making journeys like this since the conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Along with bread, potatoes, and benzine, he sometimes brings insulin and other much-needed medications.
“You can survive without water for three days or food for two weeks, but if you don’t have medicine, it might be hours,” he told Foreign Policy.
In the more than 100 days since the invasion, Russia has seized about a fifth of Ukraine’s territory—three times the size of the land taken in 2014. The fiercest fighting is centered in Sievierodonetsk, the most easterly Ukrainian-controlled city and an industrial hub. Half of the city was recaptured over the weekend during a counteroffensive, but 95 percent of the Luhansk region is now under Russian control.
Moscow’s forces have been making slow but steady progress, and if the last few settlements in the region fall, the Russian soldiers are expected to turn south to Donetsk and cities like Vuhledar. Sitting precariously adjacent to territory that has already fallen to the enemy, this settlement of just 17,000 people has been under attack since the first day of the war. The town hospital was hit with cluster munitions—which are banned according to international law—on Feb. 24, killing four people. Human Rights Watch called the strike “callous.”
Residents say the artillery attacks have been so incessant since early April that they have been living in basements under their buildings around the clock. In a complex of boxy residential apartment blocks, Tatyana, 64, points to a hole where her apartment used to be on the second floor. The building’s facade is charred, one entrance walkway has been completely ripped away, and the empty pipes of Soviet-era rockets lie on the ground.
“They shell every evening. They shelled last night and this morning. Every day. On Sundays, it is all day long. We can’t even make a fire outside to cook. We can no longer bear it,” said Tatyana, who did not want her full name disclosed.
She showed Foreign Policy an improvised graveyard that residents had made in a quiet seating area under the shade of some lush trees. Three mounds of earth sat in a row marked with crosses cobbled together from plastic and wooden dowels. “They died just because they were old, and we had to bury them under incoming fire,” she said. “They will be buried properly later.”
As the crack-boom of shelling begins to draw dangerously close, Tkachenko jumps back in his van and speeds off. At his next stop, another complex of residential blocks, people appear from every direction to line up, desperate for what they say is the only food supply they have. They grab at loaves of bread and become aggressive.
The severity of the situation in the front-line settlements of the Donbas has led to fears that Russia will employ the same playbook used in Mariupol, where months of siege killed as many as 50,000 people, according to reporting by the Guardian. Neither side has shown a willingness to make concessions, with Ukraine pushing for victory and Russia pledging to keep going until it has achieved its goals—which remain largely undefined.
“We’ve had no electricity since March 15 and no gas since April 10,” said another resident, 62, who gave his name as Vyacheslav. He takes me down a set of concrete stairs into the cold, damp underground storage room where five members of his family sleep. Wooden pallets are made up as beds. He said the only light at night comes from candles and an oil lamp. His 11-year-old granddaughter, Katya, said the walls shake every time there is an explosion. She was clutching her beloved cat.
“On March 19, the shops were destroyed. I don’t even know how—they just disappeared. The water went out because of shelling even before the war,” Vyacheslav said.
“Nobody takes the rubbish. Now it’s starting to get warm, the smell will be worse every day. There are a lot of flies, and we’re worried about diseases,” Vyacheslav said.
Residents say the only water they have is what they can filter from technical water, usually used by industry and unsuitable for human use.
Despite the risks Tkachenko takes, he says he is not always welcome. As a Protestant in a majority Orthodox country, he’s often eyed suspiciously.
Protestants in Ukraine make up only about 2 percent of the total population. Tkachenko’s Vuhledar church had a congregation of just 33 before he fled to the evacuee hub of Pokrovsk two months ago. His charity bakery was hit by a missile, leaving a hole in the roof, and he has been living in a shelter ever since.
To make matters more complicated, years of exposure to Russian propaganda have left their mark on the majority Russian-speaking east. The remaining residents of Vuhledar I spoke to—every one of them—said they believed they were under attack from the Ukrainian military, not Russia, a common refrain from the Kremlin-controlled media.
I ask Tkachenko how he can continue to risk his life to help people who have sympathies toward Russia. “How can you hold it against someone if they’re sick?” he said, referring to what he termed as brainwashing.
“I am 100 percent sure we will win the war, and then we will work to fix these deep-rooted ways of thinking,” he said.
“For now, my main worry is that if Russia takes control of the road to Vuhledar, we will no longer be able to supply food or insulin. What will people do then?”
Finnish President: Putin Took NATO Application News ‘Very, Very Calmly’
Sauli Niinisto tells FP about his country’s decision to join the alliance—and the Russian president’s response.
War with Russia is no abstract concept for Finland. The country declared its independence from Moscow in 1917 and fought two wars against the Soviet Union during the period of World II. Finland remained militarily nonaligned during the Cold War, joined the European Union in 1995, and gradually deepened its cooperation with NATO.
Still, the country’s decision to apply for NATO membership last month came as a surprise to many people around the world. Sauli Niinisto has been in office as Finland’s president for a decade and has clocked more hours with Russian President Vladimir Putin, either by phone or in person, than most European leaders.
In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, Niinisto said he called Putin last month to tell him Finland would be joining NATO. Putin’s response was surprisingly subdued.
Niinisto also discussed with Foreign Policy the historic shifts underway in his country and what Finns have learned from their long history with Russia. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Foreign Policy: In your 10 years as president, what have you learned about how Putin operates?
Sauli Niinisto: It’s difficult to say whether I know him very well, I mean, as a human being. But during these years, I would say that it has been very straightforward going, our discussions. I know their position, they know our position, and that is a very clear situation, actually. You don’t try to go over what you know. This is how they think, and they know how we think. So it’s in a way very easy.
FP: Have you seen a change in him, in your conversations with Putin recently?
SN: If you follow his public speeches … it’s very obvious, in my opinion, that he is quite frustrated with what happened to the Soviet Union, what happened in the 1990s in Russia. And this kind of frustration, in a way, has developed into anger and maybe even hatred. And the Ukrainian situation is clearly one of the targets in this development. I don’t mean to say Ukraine or Ukrainians, but the situation in Ukraine has clearly been the target when this kind of development has happened. … It’s an open question, in his mind, the Ukrainian situation is an open question. Which he now tried to solve in a very cruel way.
FP: When you say that Putin’s frustrations have turned into a kind of anger, who is he angry at?
SN: It seems to date back to the ’90s. He often says also in public, that somehow Russia was mishandled when it was weak in the ’90s. And I think that this sentiment started then, but it’s a very overall wide position toward the West, but specifically now it is the Ukraine situation, like I said.
FP: I’ve heard you say in previous interviews that there is a Finnish saying that Cossacks will take everything that is loose. That is, that they will push until there are red lines.
SN: That dates back to our history. Several times Cossacks have come here and people have learned, that’s the wisdom of people.
FP: Do you think that we did a good job after 2014 of showing the Russians where the red lines were?
SN: I think that with sanctions that were put on at the time, I think that we believed, now I mean the so-called Western world, that sanctions had a sufficient impact. And, well, the situation stayed open nine years actually. During that time, many—including me—surely understood that it’s an open question.
FP: That what is an open question?
SN: The Ukrainian situation is an open question, at least in Russian minds. And what we saw is that actually, during the cease-fire [struck in 2015], a lot of ammunition was used during all that eight years. So sanctions didn’t work in the way we thought that they would solve the Russian-made problem.
FP: Given your experience with Putin, what do you make of these calls from French President Emmanuel Macron for some kind of compromise to end the conflict to avoid “humiliating” Putin. Do you think that is something that would work, even?
SN: There are two alternatives: to try something to work for peace, or silence. And how I understand President Macron and [German] Chancellor [Olaf] Scholz is that they try to work for peace. The other alternative is to have total silence. If people see that the contacts of Macron and Scholz [with Putin] are problematic, it would also be problematic to have total silence. Not to know at all what is going on. So it’s a complicated issue. But, well, I’m a man of peace, and someday we have to have peace here.
FP: But isn’t there a third option here, aside from a dichotomy of peace or silence, isn’t there a third option of trying to help Ukraine win?
SN: That is what, actually, we are doing, by helping Ukraine with armaments and with all kinds of civil aid so that Ukraine could defend herself. Even the model that you ask, whether Ukraine will win, even in that case, we need a peace. Which is, in my thinking, the headline.
FP: When it comes to that moment of there being renewed negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, would Finland be willing, would you be willing, to play a role in that process, given your history of being on good working terms with both Russia and Europe?
SN: I have been discussing several times also with [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelensky, and I have tried to deliver his wishes further. For example, he has said several times, President Zelensky to me, that he’s prepared to discuss straight, eye to eye, with President Putin. And this is something I have been discussing also with President Putin, who refuses to meet. Time after time. But otherwise it seems that Turkey is now doing its best, trying to negotiate, and I think that there’s actually no room or need for any other mediators here. But like I said, Finland is always prepared to [offer] its good diplomatic services if needed.
FP: When you called the Russian president to let him know that Finland was going to apply to join NATO, I understand that that did not provoke a strong reaction from him. Were you surprised by that?
SN: I wanted to call him just to say that this is now the situation, because I’m not a person who sneaks away around the corner. So it was very clear. I just said that we are now applying for membership in NATO, and he clearly was well aware of our discussions and the process here and said that “you make a mistake,” in his opinion. But it was like our discussions always, very straightforward going. We are here. You are here. Clear. But I was a bit astonished that he took it very, very calmly.
FP: How do you expect Finland and Sweden joining NATO is going to affect the security situation in the Arctic, given that both are Arctic nations, and that Russia has been building up its military presence in the region?
SN: I would say that it’s stabilizing and it’s actually a deed of peacekeeping here. You know that the Nordic countries, we have a kind of brand of being very democratic. And I would add to that in the future security, too, when Finland and Sweden become members.
FP: So an expansion of that “Nordic brand” to include security as well as democracy?
SN: In a way, yes. Understanding at the same time that as members of NATO we, like all the other members, have responsibilities to all the NATO area and to all our partners.
FP: You have visited Washington, I believe, twice since the war in Ukraine began, with your first visit coming in the very first weeks after it began. And I understand that it was your office that initiated the idea of that visit to the White House in early March. Why did you feel it was critical at that moment to come to Washington and to meet with [U.S. President Joe] Biden in March?
SN: Well, you have to keep in mind that I met President Biden in October in Glasgow[, Scotland, at the United Nations climate conference]. I had telephone contact with him in December, in January. Even then we discussed that it would be very useful to have a longer meeting, not just a phone call or the meeting in Glasgow. And, well, that happened in March, early March. It was surely a very important meeting for us.
FP: Did the Biden administration ask you for any advice on how to deal with Russia, or how to deal with the Russian president?
SN: I would estimate that after each contact [I have had with Putin], whether it has been a meeting or a telephone discussion, we have a lot of requests and people around the world asking what’s going on. And in a similar way, when somebody else has contact with Putin, we ask, was there anything interesting. So this is, I would say, normal diplomacy. And on those limits, surely, it’s good to have these kinds of discussions also with the United States.
FP: Going back to Finland’s application to join NATO, obviously this was spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the surge in support for the move in opinion polls was still remarkable. What specifically do you think it was about the invasion that prompted so many Finns to change their minds?
SN: Maybe I have to describe how I felt, and many others. When Putin, Russia, said in early December last year that NATO should not enlarge, and NATO should not take any new members—that included Finland and Sweden. During these years we have understood our position [in] Sweden and Finland, that militarily nonalignment helps, in a way, stability in the Baltic area. And we have underlined that this is our own will to stay militarily unaligned. So when Russia says that NATO can’t take new members, after that, it was very difficult for us to [say] that, yes, it’s our own will to stay as we are, as we are used to, because everybody could very well, and correctly, think that [we] don’t have any alternative because Russia has denied. So this was the first element actually in my mind, and I know very many other Finns felt the same way already in December.
FP: It sounds like what you’re saying is that many Finns felt the need to be defiant in the face of what Russia had said about NATO not expanding. To defy that demand.
SN: Well, it was not only being against their opinion, in a way it was hurting our sovereignty, which is a [much] deeper feeling than just to have an opposite opinion than Russia’s. And when you asked about Finnish mindset in the issue, surely the 24th of February changed a lot. That Russia really was ready to attack, totally, a neighboring country, it changed a lot of people’s minds.
Ukraine Wants Longer-Range Ammunition for Donbas Gunfight
“We’re still not giving them what they want,” one U.S. source told Foreign Policy.
The Biden administration is under pressure from Ukrainian officials and some in Washington to provide longer-range missiles to Ukraine after announcing a plan to send four multiple launch rocket systems to Kyiv earlier this week.
Pressure on the White House has steadily increased over the past two months, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky began demanding the U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which can fire up to six rounds off the back of a truck. The new $700 million military aid package also includes 1,000 more Javelin anti-tank missiles, 6,000 anti-armor weapons, and four more Soviet-era Mi-17 helicopters.
The U.S. decision to send precision-guided Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) pods along with the systems, which only reach up to 40 miles, comes after weeks of Ukrainian officials insisting to American counterparts in official calls that they would not fire the weapons into Russia, which the Biden administration fears could provoke a wider war. Two Ukrainian officials told Foreign Policy that Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov sent an official letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin indicating that Ukraine would not fire on Russia, a pledge that was backed up in a subsequent phone call between the two defense leaders. Ukraine also made the pledge in a conversation between Dmytro Kuleba and Antony Blinken, the top Ukrainian and U.S. diplomats, and between Gens. Valerii Zaluzhnyi and Mark Milley, both nations’ defense chiefs. Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s top policy official, told reporters yesterday that Zelensky also made assurances to Biden the system would not be used against Russian soil.
“We’re not seeing the Ukrainian defenses buckle. They’re hanging on, but it is a grinding fight,” Kahl said on Wednesday. “And we believe that these additional capabilities will arrive in a time frame that’s relevant and allow the Ukrainians to very precisely target the types of things they need for the current fight.”
But the purpose of Ukraine’s commitments, U.S. sources and Ukrainian officials told Foreign Policy, was to get longer-range weapons, not the fanciest new system. Despite the weeks’ worth of back-and-forth wrangling over the system, Ukrainian officials said that they were in the dark about the exact weapons that would be sent almost up until Biden announced the move in a New York Times op-ed on Tuesday night.
As Russia’s focus in the war shifted from the Kyiv region, dense in forests and urban sprawl, to the flatter terrain of the Donbas, Ukraine’s weapons needs have also evolved, with its forces coming under a barrage of Russian artillery fire. “These longer-range weapons are more important now than they were in the beginning,” said William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, speaking at an event hosted by the United States Institute of Peace on Wednesday. “The current phase is wide-open territory … you can’t sneak up like you could in the forest.”
The decision not to send the highest-caliber munitions along with the system, which the Ukrainians will train on for three weeks in Eastern Europe before it is shipped to the front lines, has rankled some officials in Washington and in Kyiv.
“We are knowingly providing a less capable system despite the fact that they pledged they wouldn’t use the more capable system in ways we didn’t like,” one U.S. source briefed on the aid package told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing weapons transfers. “We’re still not giving them what they want.”
A source close to the Ukrainian government, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that there was “frustration” and “disappointment” at the decision not to arm the country with longer-range weapons. “Each hour, let alone each day and week, is critical for Ukraine,” they said.
HIMARS, which other NATO allies in Eastern Europe have also pursued to stave off Russian attacks, can also fire so-called ATACMS—short for Army Tactical Missile System—rounds that can hit targets up to 186 miles away, enabling Ukrainian soldiers to outduel Russian artillery without getting hit themselves. The guided MLRS rounds that the United States sent only have a range of 40 miles, which Kahl, the Pentagon official, said would be enough to hit Russian targets on Ukraine’s soil that Kyiv had identified to American officials.
“The point of HIMARS is not the launchers, it is the munition—and for HIMARS this is either a rocket or missile,” one Ukrainian official told Foreign Policy in a text message, who also requested anonymity to discuss ongoing weapons transfers. “Only the munition matters, the launcher is not that important whether it is HIMARS or M270, no one buys a pack of cookies to eat the cardboard box.”
As the fight in the Donbas has turned into an artillery duel, with Russia overrunning much of Luhansk oblast in a bid to overtake the key city of Severodonetsk, Ukrainian officials increasingly worry that they could be outmanned and outgunned. In an interview with Sky News earlier this week, Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader, said that Ukraine was losing 60 to 100 troops in the Donbas each day, with potentially hundreds more injured. Ukrainian officials complained for weeks that long-range weapons needed to fight Russia were not pouring into the country fast enough.
“This is unfortunately a chronic problem that we have in the U.S. government that somehow something we might do might provoke Russia,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington think tank. “They don’t need any provocation for what they’re doing. It’s probably well intended, but it is misguided to not provide the longer-range ATACMS.”
But the announcement of HIMARS, which the Biden administration had held back on for fear of Russia escalating the conflict into a wider war, may also prompt the United States and Western allies to begin sending higher-grade weapons into Ukraine. Politico reported on Wednesday that the British government is set to send another multiple rocket launch system—the M270—to Ukraine, which has a launcher that is mounted on a tracked Bradley armored fighting vehicle chassis. And Reuters reported that the Pentagon is likely to send Ukraine a variant of the MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone that can be outfitted with Hellfire missiles, once the U.S. weapon of choice in targeting terrorist groups.
And after the dispatch of U.S. aid packages worth about $4.6 billion since the start of the war just over three months ago, some experts believe that Russia won’t be able to sustain the offensive, despite major advantages in troop levels. A British Defence Intelligence assessment released Thursday said that Russia would likely need a short tactical pause in the Donbas to attempt more contested river crossings in an effort to seize parts of Donetsk oblast. And experts believe Ukraine is still waiting for some of the most effective Western systems to arrive.
“We’re probably about at least another two or three weeks away before the full effect of all the stuff we have been providing really begins to be felt,” said Hodges, the former U.S. lieutenant general. “Imagine how much better Ukraine is going to be once all the stuff we were providing—us, the U.K., Czechs, and Poles—begins to really show up in force.”
Finland Is Set for NATO—if Turkey Plays Ball
Turkey’s objections to new NATO members are a speed bump, not a roadblock, says Finnish Foreign Minister.
Finland’s bid to join NATO, despite Turkey’s objections, is more likely to be resolved in a matter of “weeks than days,” Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said Friday.
Officials from Helsinki and Stockholm were in Ankara on Wednesday in a bid to resolve Turkey’s objections to their accession to the military alliance. Turkey has thrown up objections based on the Nordic countries’ alleged support of Kurdish militants and other groups deemed a potential threat by Ankara. Turkey’s demands pose the biggest obstacle to what is otherwise expected to be a smooth accession process for two historically neutral countries that have edged closer to NATO thanks to Russia’s unchecked aggression.
In an interview with Foreign Policy in Washington, Haavisto said it was unclear whether the matter would be resolved before the NATO summit in Madrid in June but noted that conversations were ongoing and he was optimistic that a solution would be reached. A senior aide to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week that the country wanted to see “concrete steps” from the two Nordic countries to address Ankara’s concerns.
Haavisto declined to go into detail about the discussions but said Turkey had raised concerns about specific individuals who they alleged have ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known as the PKK, as well as Erdogan foe Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania.
Turkish media has reported that the country requested the extradition of 33 people from Finland and Sweden alleged to have ties to the groups. Haavisto acknowledged that the issue would be difficult to address. “We have a judicial system in our country,” he said. “Politicians cannot even decide those issues.”
Finland and Sweden formally submitted NATO membership applications last week, after Russia’s invasion in Ukraine prompted a sea change in public opinion in both countries, bringing an end to their decades of military nonalignment. Before the war, around one-fifth of Finns supported the idea of joining the military alliance. By early May, public support for the move had skyrocketed to 76 percent.
While NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has vowed to “fast-track” Helsinki’s and Stockholm’s applications, new members to the alliance first need to be approved by its decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, before being ratified by the parliaments of each of the 30 member states. Haavisto said there was a growing competition of “who will ratify it first.”
Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly previously said the country could approve Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership within days. On Tuesday, 82 members of the U.S. Senate wrote to U.S. President Joe Biden, urging his administration to ensure quick ratification of the new NATO members.
Haavisto said Helsinki had not seen any “major negative reaction” from Moscow to Finland’s application to join NATO. Finland and Russia share 830 miles of border, and the country’s accession to NATO will double the military alliance’s shared frontier with Russia.
Analysts had voiced concern that Russia may seek to try to destabilize Finland and Sweden during the NATO accession period, before the countries are covered by the bloc’s mutual defense obligations under NATO’s Article 5, which obliges each member state to come to the aid of any NATO state under threat.
”In the beginning, we were very concerned that some hiccups might happen along the way, and that was also the reason why we had a lot of bilateral discussions with the U.S., the U.K., and with other NATO countries about what kind of support could be given during this [accession] period,” said Haavisto, who said Finland had been reassured by security guarantees offered by individual NATO members. This month, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave written assurances to both Sweden and Finland, pledging support to their militaries in the event of an attack. The United States, France, Germany, and Poland have also made similar assurances.
Putin Hasn’t Gone Far Enough for Russia’s Hawks
There’s dissent—but not from peaceniks.
Discontent about the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine is growing inside Russia—but it’s not coming from dissidents, who have been jailed or forced into exile. Instead, it’s coming from hawkish veterans groups and military bloggers in Russia, who are expressing growing agitation with the slow pace of the war, with some calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to institute national mobilization.
The rumblings from staunchly nationalist figures offer a glimpse at the corner into which Putin has painted himself into as he contends with a public hungry for much-promised victory and a military too exhausted to deliver one. British defense intelligence reported this week that Russia is estimated to have lost more troops in the first three months of the war in Ukraine than during the Soviet Union’s nine-year war in Afghanistan.
A rapid crackdown at the outset of the war made it all but impossible for independent media and opposition figures to openly critique the war, while thousands of street protesters were quickly arrested. But Russian military bloggers have been given a free hand on the social media app Telegram, offering a rare avenue of dissent.
While these groups are far from the inner sanctum of Kremlin politics, the rumblings underscore the fact that if Putin is to face any real challenge over the war in Ukraine, it will likely come from hawks who feel it hasn’t gone far enough.
“These people are not calling for Russia to stop the war,” said Kateryna Stepanenko, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. “All of the military channels that I follow, they are explicitly saying that ‘we are criticizing the Russian government and military command for the sole purpose of Russian victory.’”
In an open letter sent last week to Putin and other senior officials, a Russian veterans group described the inability to capture Kyiv as a “failure” and condemned the army’s shortages of drones, ammunition, and thermal imaging. The letter from the All-Russian Officers Assembly was deeply infused with ethnonationalist language and conspiracy theories, describing the battle as a battle for the “preservation a white and Christian Europe.”
One of the most vocal critics of the war is former FSB officer Igor Girkin, better known by his nom de guerre Strelkov, who helped initiate the war in the Donbas in the spring of 2014 when he led a group of militants to seize the city of Sloviansk before rising to briefly become the minister of defense of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic. This week, Girkin amplified reports that fighters from the Donetsk region were allegedly forced to mobilize at the beginning of war and were pushed into battle poorly equipped with little training, sustaining high losses. While unable to independently verify the claims, the Institute for the Study of War noted in its daily report on Wednesday that such critiques of the war would not have gained such traction earlier in the campaign, “demonstrat[ing] the strong resonance anti-Kremlin narratives can now have.”
Telegram channels have offered a new and unique platform for analysis and discussion about Russia’s highly secretive military. “In three months of the war, something completely unprecedented has emerged—a space for debate within the Russian army, uncensored, and beyond the control of the Ministry of Defense,” Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan wrote in a blog post for the think tank the Center for European Policy Analysis. “Don’t be misled—these are not peaceniks in the making. If they criticize the army and the Kremlin, they do so from more radical positions,” the wrote.
The last straw for many appears to have been Russia’s catastrophic attempts to cross the Siverskyi Donets River in early May, which is thought to be one of the single deadliest episodes in the war so far. Russia is estimated to have lost almost 500 troops and some 80 pieces of equipment, which were closely arrayed like sitting ducks on the riverbank. A Telegram user who goes by the name Rybar posted a scathing critique of Russian commanders, which began to gain traction among other military bloggers on the platform, who until then had been championing the war effort, said Stepanenko, who monitors the accounts. It opened the floodgates as users began to question the pace of the war, comparing the Russian and Ukrainian military operations, reposting images from Western sources, and questioning Russian propaganda.
“It seems to me to be a clear indication that they need to be worried about this,” said Fred Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. “They’re engaged in a whole process of trying to talk these bloggers down,” said Kagan, who noted that the bloggers could have a potent impact on the already flagging morale of Russian troops.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu this week acknowledged for the first time that the war was behind schedule, which analysts interpreted as an attempt to manage public expectations about the war.
Other analysts are more skeptical about the impact of the military bloggers. “They do not have an important political influence,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The real risk, Stanovaya said, comes from dashed expectations as promises by Russian officials and state television of a rapid victory look ever more elusive.
“In this way we can talk about some kind of political danger, because they heat the society, and it creates political pressure on Putin that he must finish this war, to win, to go to the end,” she said.
Pentagon Deputy: Russia’s Defense Industry ‘Will Feel’ Pain of Ukraine War
Russia’s vaunted defense modernization depends on precisely the Western gear it can no longer acquire.
STUTTGART, Germany—U.S. and international economic sanctions and export controls are likely to significantly hamper Russia’s ability to produce advanced fighter jets, naval platforms, and space capabilities essential to the Kremlin’s efforts to modernize its military, the U.S. Defense Department’s No. 2 official said.
The Pentagon and Western governments have indicated for weeks that Russia is struggling to restock precision-guided munitions that use foreign-made computer chips and guidance systems to help them hit targets, which has an immediate impact on Russia’s war in Ukraine. But U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who is in Europe on her first international trip after a year on the job, told reporters on Tuesday that the Kremlin’s deep reliance on foreign-produced microelectronics that are now under harsh economic controls is expected to hamper a much wider range of platforms.
“The economic costs of Putin’s decision to undertake this war are going to be significant for Russia, and Russia’s defense industry will feel that,” Hicks told reporters during a press conference at U.S. European Command headquarters, where she traveled to visit U.S. and European troops helping to oversee the transit of military aid to Ukraine. “I do anticipate you’ll see that across the breadth of their major modernization areas.”
“Whether it’s advanced fighter aircraft, whether it’s in their advanced munitions, whether it’s in their naval platforms, microelectronics are central,” Hicks added.
Russia’s current military modernization plan, set to conclude in 2027, is focused on backing up the Kremlin’s ground forces with a bevy of long-range weapons systems that could hold NATO nations at bay, including two varieties of hypersonic missiles, sea- and air-launched Kalibr cruise missiles, and short- and intermediate-range Iskander missiles—all of which have been used in combat in Ukraine. A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the Pentagon, said Russia has aimed to perfect “non-contact” warfare against the NATO alliance, using standoff strikes if it were to come to blows with European nations in a wider regional war—areas of military modernization where Russia could now face significant headwinds.
But even before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, eight years of fighting in the country’s Donbas region had helped sever vital links with Ukrainian aerospace industries and shipbuilders, delaying the rollout of new ships and submarines and forcing the Kremlin to turn to Soviet-era designs for some aircraft. Dating back to the 2002 U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Putin has sought to concentrate the Kremlin’s focus on developing the nuclear triad and emerging technologies, highlighted by six novel nuclear weapons systems unveiled in 2018 that are not covered by arms control treaties.
And Russia has long struggled to get its fifth-generation Sukhoi Su-57 fighter jet program running, with just four aircraft entering service since the program was inaugurated in 2020. The modern fighter was missing in action during Russia’s “Victory Day” parade in Moscow at the beginning of the month, and three months into the war, Russian forces still have not achieved air superiority.
The microelectronics that Russia is struggling to get ahold of “form the backbone of modern military capabilities,” said Jesse Salazar, who was the Pentagon’s top official for industrial policy until earlier this year. He said the coronavirus pandemic has also stressed the defense industry, forcing some product lead times from six months to two years with digitization moving forward rapidly.
“The sanctions on Russia will likely exacerbate this supply chain challenge and make production of advanced technology systems much harder and longer, especially in defense,” he said.
The senior U.S. defense official said Russia’s game plan for a wider regional war, known as “active defense,” envisions using preemptive strikes to bloody the nose of NATO forces and deter them from attack. U.S. officials are still trying to understand how Russian military aspirations to field high-grade weapons compare with their actual capabilities on the battlefield, where Russian forces have struggled to ensure basic logistics and have incurred disastrous troop losses in just a few months of fighting.
The economic impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine is also taxing the Kremlin’s weapons sales abroad, officials said. Russia is responsible for about a fifth of global arms sales around the world since 2016, including to India, which the United States has been trying to dissuade from buying Russian weapons. “What we’re seeing is a significant challenge for them on arms sales because of all the economic effects that they’re experiencing from their decision to pursue this war in Ukraine,” said Hicks, the Pentagon’s No. 2 official. She called arms sales one of Russia’s “major levers” of influence in Africa.
Russia has increasingly sought to try to insulate itself from international supply chains, boosting state spending to fund the electronics industry by 800 percent in 2021 alone. “This was likely to have been used to finance the development of electronics to replace those banned by Western sanctions imposed in 2014,” wrote Richard Connolly, an expert on the Russian economy who leads the Eastern Advisory Group consultancy, in a recent report commissioned by the Pentagon. Connolly said Chinese firms could also help Russia with the production of components and with designs for advanced missiles.
Russian pilots have already struggled to navigate the skies over the battlefield, and their obstacles go beyond just Ukraine’s air defenses. In a speech this month, British defense secretary Ben Wallace said crashed Russian SU-34 jets in Ukraine had been found with GPS receivers taped to their instrument panels “so that the pilots knew where they were because of the poor quality of their own systems.” Experts expect that semiconductor and computer chip sanctions will force the Kremlin to put more Soviet-era equipment onto the battlefield. (Russia is reportedly preparing to deploy old T-62 tanks, first deployed in the early 1960s, to the fight in Ukraine due to ongoing losses of more advanced equipment.)
“They’ll not lack for basic platforms in storage that they can bring into use to replace losses, but advanced navigation, sighting, stabilization, and weapon seeker components won’t be available due to sanctions, so the quality will be lower,” said Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London focused on air power and technology. “They’ll struggle to produce modern cockpit displays, navigation equipment, radars, and weapon seekers for their combat aircraft.”
Inside a Major Nerve Center for Shipping Military Aid to Ukraine
In just a few weeks, U.S. and British officials have turned an ad hoc operation into a pipeline.
STUTTGART, Germany—Inside a reconfigured conference room not much bigger than a high school basketball gym, more than a hundred troops from 30 different countries are planning, plotting, and tracking almost every Western bullet heading to Ukraine.
In just the past several weeks, British troops, with help from their American counterparts, have transformed a sleepy conference room here at Patch Barracks into one of the nerve centers within the NATO alliance for fielding Ukraine’s weapons requests. Their task is to get artillery, tanks, fighter aircraft, ammunition, and nonlethal aid like helmets from the heart of Europe into the fight in the Donbas, with the help of a handful of Ukrainian liaison officers in the room working the phones with soldiers on the front lines.
Foreign Policy was one of two media outlets with exclusive first-time access to the so-called International Donor Coordination Center, where 110 troops help track weapons deliveries around the clock. This reporter sat in on a briefing of the group’s activities on condition of anonymity, under ground rules set by the Pentagon.
The center has the distinct feel of a start-up—but hatched inside of a U.S. military base, in a room once reserved for orientation for newcomers to U.S. European Command. The room is crowned with concentric circles of laptops and filled with the low din of chatter in several languages as troops huddle to get military equipment from where it is to where it’s needed. Some parts of the room, like the blue carpet, are literally held together with duct tape.
“Two months ago, you didn’t exist,” a senior U.S. military official said to the group, with a plasma television screen detailing weapons moving to Ukraine from hubs across Europe. The effort has gotten more organized. For instance, when the United States sent speedboats to Ukraine in November 2021, “it was just a series of 5,000 phone calls,” the official said.
Now, some $4 billion dollars of U.S. military aid later, instead of thousands for phone calls, there’s an app for that. In the first days of the war, U.S. officials and British troops worked separately. But the British military—headed by the 104 Theater Sustainment Brigade—set up a software system with a Ukrainian code name akin to Craigslist, where Ukrainians can post weapons requests and countries can pull down separate cases. By the beginning of April, the U.S. and British efforts had merged into one unit.
It’s gotten busier since the Pentagon started hosting a monthly weapons pledge conference for Ukraine in late April. Now, a huddle of mixed-and-matched uniforms convenes here every day at 11 a.m. Operations officers tracking the battlefield in real time give updates on the tug-of-war battle in the Donbas, which U.S. officials have characterized as a “gunfight.” In the past week, Russia has taken control of Mariupol—besieged for nearly three months—and the Donbas towns of Popasna and villages south of Izyum, prompting Ukrainian withdrawals and raising fears of a Russian breakout.
Now, as soon as a donor is identified for a weapon Ukraine needs, troops inside the coordinating center figure out how to get it into the country by ground, air, or rail through one of several hubs in Europe—whichever is the most effective. The weapons can be delivered by contractors or collected by the armed forces of Ukraine, one British military official said. But the work has gotten more difficult as Ukraine’s needs have evolved from small arms and handheld weapons like Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that helped stop Russia’s assault on Kyiv to planes, tanks, and artillery, such as 108 U.S.-provided M777 howitzers.
Training needs to be coordinated, too. Other nations are ferrying Ukrainians back and forth to training in Eastern Europe, such as Canadians training Ukrainian troops on U.S.-provided artillery, and to help pick up the weapons. A team in the field in Eastern Europe connected to European Command has helped disassemble Soviet-era Su-25 “Frogfoot” aircraft and Mi-17 helicopters so they can be shipped to Ukraine. The Ukrainians are showing single-mindedness in training sessions, officials said. “They don’t want to take tea breaks,” the British military official said. “They just want to carry on learning and get back into [the] country.”
“There are some moments where it’s a bit tight, [but] we get it across,” the British official added. A second British official said the cell discovered rifles in a warehouse that could be given to Ukraine that they weren’t using; they just lacked sights and ammunition. That was sourced and sent in. A third British official said that units training in Eastern Europe have been able to move around equipment during the recent U.S. Army-led Defender exercise that spanned nine counties with more than 3,400 U.S. and 5,100 multinational troops.
And Ukraine needs to figure out how to keep those new weapons systems flying and firing, too. Officials inside the planning cell developed a checklist for training and sustaining those weapons, including making sure that ammunition was ready. And after getting tougher-to-sustain weapons, like armored vehicles, Ukrainians are aware that the more urgent the request is, the more difficult it becomes.
“If you use kit that’s out of their scope, it will break,” the first British military official said. “There’s a political will to have a rapid effect” that’s behind a desire to push weapons into the field that aren’t always the most reliable, the official added.
But Ukraine is pressing the West to go still further. At the top of Kyiv’s wish list are multiple rocket launch systems that can fire up to a dozen rockets up to 80 miles away, which Ukrainian officials said the United States has refrained from sending, for fear of escalating the conflict further.
The United States and NATO countries are still figuring out whether this will become a formal operation, akin to the Berlin airlift that brought millions of tons of food and other supplies into the allied area of the German city blockaded by the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who attended the briefing, said that the United States is already preparing the first batch of military aid to Ukraine from President Joe Biden’s $40 billion assistance package that cleared Congress last week.
But Washington isn’t ready to define victory just yet. “The U.S. aim is fundamentally about support to Ukraine, and the end state goal will be decided primarily between Ukraine and Russia,” Hicks told reporters after the briefing. “We want to be supportive of an approach that protects Ukraine’s statehood and understands that beyond that, it’s going to be between those two parties.”
Putin Wants to Keep Fighting. Who Will Fill the Ranks?
Moscow has to figure out how to replenish unprecedented losses in just under three months of fighting.
As Russian forces continue to take significant battlefield losses in Ukraine, the Kremlin is struggling to plug the gap as Russian President Vladimir Putin remains reluctant to call for a full-scale military mobilization.
British military intelligence estimates that Russia has lost one-third of the ground combat forces it had gathered ahead of its invasion as Moscow’s forces have been bedeviled by both their own operational shortcomings and a fierce Ukrainian resistance, backed by sophisticated Western weapons. The U.S. Defense Department has not seen evidence of a mass Russian mobilization so far, officials said. But as Russia is trying to throw more forces into the fight, it is sometimes bringing in combat groups at less than full strength, including units that took losses in their failed effort to capture the capital, Kyiv.
Swedish Defense Minister: ‘In Our Part of Europe, NATO Will Be Much Stronger’
Peter Hultqvist talks about Sweden’s bid for NATO, the Turkish roadblock, and what to do in the meantime.
On Wednesday, Sweden and Finland formally submitted their applications to join NATO at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, ending their long-standing policies of military nonalignment as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a cascade of strategic shifts across Europe.
Both countries have cooperated closely with the alliance in recent years, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said he expects the accession process to be “quick and swift,” but it may not all be plain sailing as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to block the membership bids, accusing Finland and Sweden of accommodating Kurdish militants. (Croatia is also now throwing a wrench in the works.)
Foreign Policy sat down with Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist on Wednesday to discuss Stockholm’s change of heart, the accession process, and how the country was preparing to fend off efforts by Moscow to sow chaos.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Foreign Policy: To start with the most obvious question, why now, after decades of military nonalignment, has the Swedish government decided to join NATO?
Peter Hultqvist: Because of the war in Ukraine that started [on the] 24th of February, [it] created a new situation. It’s the first big war since the Second World War. And Russia broke international law very deeply. And they do not respect democratic countries’ right to sovereignty, and they also delivered the message to the European countries that they want some sort of new security order, that they want to have some sort of influence over the security decisions in the countries in their so-called neighborhood. And all this is totally unacceptable. And for us, it’s now important to build a higher level of threshold against Russia because they have no respect for other states. They only see it through their own demands.
FP: To what extent did the war in Ukraine underscore the vulnerability of countries that are partners but not members of NATO? Did that drive some of the considerations on this?
PH: I think that we tried during more than seven years, nearly eight years, Finland and Sweden. We built a security network at the same time as we were non-allied. We tried to reduce tension. We tried to reduce the risk for conflict together. And at the same time, we upgraded our national military capability and also deepened cooperation with other countries. [Sweden has] signed 20 defense agreements, and we have in exercises developed interoperability. All this changed when the Russians started the war in February because then it started a process in Finland to join NATO. The result of our security analysis is that we cannot, as the Swedish state, be alone. We must be in the group of countries we normally cooperate with. And if we are alone, we will have a weaker position also in all of our cooperation with others. We will not have the highest level of priority.
FP: What is your estimated timeline of how long the NATO accession process will take?
PH: We want to do it as fast as possible. How long it will take I cannot say because it’s 30 parliaments involved, so I cannot say. And when I met people from the United States in the House of Representatives and the Senate, all of them have told me that they want to do it as fast as possible.
FP: I think Montenegro’s accession took around 18 months; presumably things will be a little bit quicker for Sweden and Finland. But do you have a ballpark that you’re working to in your own defense planning?
PH: We want to do it as soon as possible; that’s the only thing that I can say. Some people say it will take months. Others say one year. Others say more than one year. We will see in the future how long it will take, but we want it as soon as possible.
FP: Do you expect that Russia will try and destabilize Sweden during that accession period, and how are you preparing for any actions by Russia?
PH: I talked today with [U.S. Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin about these questions, and we have talked about naval presence, air presence with [the U.S.] Air Force, [U.S.] Army, how to handle cyberattacks together. So we have talked about the broad scenario of activities, and we have already planned to have exercises, to have a naval presence. So there is a schedule for that, that we are upgrading day by day.
FP: What about protecting against gray zone, hybrid attacks, be it cyber or disinformation?
PH: It is these sort of activities that I talked about from the last question that if you have a naval presence very close to Swedish territory, that is one way to show that we are here and we also—
FP: An American naval presence?
PH: Yes. And we have a lot of power here. And if [the United States flies] with strategic flights, that’s also a way to show something. And if we have exercises together, that shows also capability together. And we also planned to do things together with other countries, so it’s not just the United States. But I am very grateful to have positive messages from the American side on this today.
FP: How concerned are you about remarks from the Turkish president that he may not approve Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO?
PH: I think we will have to solve this in a dialogue with other countries, and that is our ambition: to solve it in a dialogue with Turkey but also with other partners.
FP: Is the Swedish government talking with the Turks on a bilateral level?
PH: I think it is a combination. We are very interested to talk with the Turks about this.
FP: But how do you think that Finland and Sweden’s accession will change the alliance more broadly? One of the things that comes to my mind is that you’re both Arctic nations. That’s an area where Russia is building up very heavily right now. How does this change the defense posture of NATO?
PH: It will raise the threshold for conflicts in the Nordic environment, in Scandinavia. We get the strategic depth—Finland, Sweden, Norway—it’s a huge area, and we can make a combination, complementary, between these defense forces. We can also build planning together and use the military resources in a more effective way all over this area. So I think that in our part of Europe, NATO will be much stronger.
FP: Nonmilitary alignment is something that has run very deep in Sweden as part of its national identity for a very long time. How do you think that joining NATO is going to change that?
PH: We have had broad support for nonmilitary alignment. Now we see in the polls that we have around 60 percent support for joining NATO. And I think that this war in Ukraine had a great impact on public opinion.
FP: Do you think that will last? Public opinion is fickle.
PH: I think it will. I think when we become a real member of NATO, then it will be very broadly accepted.
‘The War Is 24/7’: Russia Is Launching Night Raids in the Donbas
Ukraine wants night vision tools to fight back.
Russia is trying to overrun Ukrainian positions in the contested Donbas region by conducting night raids, two Ukrainian sources told Foreign Policy, leaving Ukraine in desperate need of night vision drones to launch counterattacks.
The use of more night raids—sometimes including Russian special forces, the sources said—is a sign that the Kremlin is increasingly trying to use its numbers advantage over Kyiv as losses pile up for both sides on the flatter terrain in the eastern part of the country. A senior U.S. defense official speaking to reporters on Monday described the battle in the Donbas as “a real gunfight” that has already seen Ukraine deploy 74 of the 90 M777 howitzer artillery units provided by the United States.
Ukraine Still Wants More Help to Win the War
Kyiv pleads for advanced gear as the Donbas fighting drags on, but advocates fear there’s “not enough political will.”
Ukrainian lawmakers and anti-corruption activists are concerned that the United States remains too worried about possible military escalation with Russia to send fighter aircraft and heavy weapons to Kyiv that they say are needed to win the fight in the Donbas.
A group of Ukrainian members of parliament and advocates who came to Washington this week led by Oleksandra Ustinova, a Ukrainian lawmaker, is pushing members of Congress and the Biden administration to provide Ukraine with American-made F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, multiple rocket launch systems, and advanced air defenses. The visit came as U.S. lawmakers are expected to forge ahead with a $40 billion aid package for the war-torn country shortly. Republican Sen. Rand Paul objected Thursday to a vote on the aid, which has already passed the House, delaying the package until next week.
As the battle for Ukraine’s Donbas region has intensified, with scores of American-provided howitzer artillery units reaching the front lines, U.S. and Western officials have continued to insist that Ukraine has made progress in pushing back Russian troops. Ukraine has used artillery to shell Russian units and prevent them from massing across the Donets River, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Friday.
But the Ukrainian lawmakers and activists are presenting a darker picture of the conflict in the Donbas that has seen Russia and Ukraine going back and forth in fighting over small towns and villages. The region’s flatter terrain is increasing the urgency for NATO-standard weapons, from armed drones to sophisticated Abrams tanks, to push Russia out of the country, as Ukraine is losing larger numbers of troops in the toe-to-toe fighting.
“Everyone thinks because it’s not on TV 24/7 that it’s kind of getting better, that the war is not there,” said Ustinova, the Ukrainian lawmaker. “Unfortunately, we keep losing many more men now than at the beginning of the war. It’s much worse on the battlefield now.”
She hinted that Western media is not picking up the severity of the combat in the Donbas because outlets are reluctant to send reporters into the fray. “You are not going to send them to the front line now, because it is hell there,” she said. The senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity under attribution rules set down by the Pentagon, said that Russia had 105 battalion tactical groups inside of Ukraine as of Friday, with the ground forces entirely focused on the Donbas and in the south.
Among the top Ukrainian requests for the new $40 billion aid package, of which the Pentagon initially earmarked half for military assistance for Ukraine and NATO’s eastern flank nations, also include self-propelled Paladin artillery systems and precision weapons that could help Ukraine clear occupied cities of Russian troops without inflicting civilian casualties. The senior U.S. defense official said on Friday that there was no specific timeline in the West for transitioning Ukraine to NATO gear.
The Pentagon said it is still working closely with Ukraine on weapons requests. “We continue to consult closely with the Government of Ukraine on their defense needs,” said Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, a Defense Department spokesperson. “The Department of Defense will continue to consider providing Ukraine with key capabilities on an as-needed basis.”
The Ukrainian delegation was insistent that the country needs to upgrade as quickly as possible to NATO-level equipment to defeat Russia, which has a numerical advantage on the battlefield in Donbas. Ukraine is also unable to supply Slovakian-provided S-300 air defense units with enough ammunition, because there is limited production of rounds for the system, and many of the Soviet-era T-72 tanks provided to Ukraine by Poland and the Czech Republic are still in need of maintenance to begin functioning. Ustinova said that the shift to the flatter Donbas has limited the need for more Soviet-era MiG fighter jets, and instead, the country would like surplus U.S. F-15s and F-16s that can perform ground attack missions—but that could take two to three months to train Ukrainian pilots on.
But the Ukrainian delegation expressed frustration that the United States still acted fearful of escalation with Russia and had not clearly defined what victory looked like. If howitzers had arrived in Ukraine earlier, the delegation said, it might have prevented the besieged city of Mariupol from being encircled by Russian forces.
“There’s still [the question] of what is escalatory and what is not,” said Daria Kaleniuk, the co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, who has become an informal advocate for more Western arms provisions to Ukraine during the war. “And we’re saying, ‘Listen, guys, how do you define and differentiate what is escalatory and what is not?’ We’re not asking for your troops, we’re asking for modern, advanced weapons, enough to win the war.”
“There is not enough political will to make Ukraine win,” Kaleniuk said.
Western Sanctions Are ‘Beginning to Bite’ Into Russia’s Military
But not quite enough to check Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
U.S. and British officials believe that damaging international sanctions slapped on Russia over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine are hampering its ability to restock high-tech weapons, such as precision-guided munitions, though Russia still has plenty of conventional ammunition stocks at its disposal to continue to wage war.
The impact of Russia’s sanctions-induced high-tech military shortages have been spotted by Western governments, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops into the besieged steel factory in the city of Mariupol, Ukraine, while Russian pilots have rained down “dumb bombs” without advanced precision guidance kits into the city. The Russian military burned through much of its stockpile of advanced weapons in the early days of the war; the United States believes Russia may have fired as many as 12 hypersonic missiles into Ukraine. U.S.-led export controls announced in late February sought to starve Russia of computer chips and semiconductors that could be used in advanced military equipment.
U.K.: China Views Russia’s War as ‘Bad for Business’
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Beijing views Moscow as an increasingly “inconvenient friend” as the war in Ukraine is further bogged down.
China appears to be increasingly embarrassed by Russia’s conduct of its war in Ukraine, Britain’s defense secretary told reporters on Tuesday, underlining a growing split in the once-budding relationship between the two powers that has dissuaded Beijing from providing material support to Moscow over the course of the ongoing conflict.
In more than two months of war, while China has refused to condemn Russia’s full-scale invasion and has helped parrot Russian disinformation, it has also stopped short of providing real support for the Kremlin’s war effort. There was speculation that China could supply rations for hard-pressed Russian troops or backfill Russian arms needs, but that hasn’t come to pass. China’s top drone-maker, DJI, suspended operations in Russia and Ukraine in late April, depriving ill-supplied Russian units of additional capability to send off-the-shelf intelligence into Ukraine’s skies. China has also balked at providing Russia with spare parts for its sanctioned civilian airliner fleet, underscoring Moscow’s isolation under an array of economic and financial sanctions. One Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments, said that there was no indication that Beijing was supplying anything of scale.
Putin’s Next Power Play Is a Parade
The Russian leader is expected to use his country’s upcoming World War II Victory Day celebration to stir up support for the bungled war in Ukraine.
On May 9, Russia will mark the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II as it does every year: with military parades across the country, the grandest of which is set to take place in Moscow’s Red Square. Only this year, Ukrainian and Western officials expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to seize the opportunity of a day steeped in patriotic fervor to escalate the war in Ukraine.
Western officials have been warning for several weeks that Moscow is under self-imposed pressure to chalk up some kind of victory to announce on Victory Day, as Russia’s 10-week campaign in Ukraine has floundered and fallen far short of the Kremlin’s initial goals to swiftly capture Kyiv. Putin has hinged much of his power and framed Russia’s identity around the Soviet Union’s experiences in World War II, known in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War.” He has sought to portray the war in Ukraine as a new chapter in the fight against fascism, based on flagrant falsehoods that Ukraine is overrun with Nazis controlled by the West and needs liberation. (From 1939 to 1941, the Soviet Union was in cahoots with Nazi Germany and supplied it with oil, grain, and arms up until the very day Germany invaded.)
That “liberation” has come at a dire humanitarian cost, as the Russian military’s offensives under the guise of “denazification” have killed thousands of Ukrainian civilians and forced millions from their homes.
Moscow’s constant invocation of World War II and claims that it is fighting Nazism once again have also backfired on the world stage, as Russian forces commit mass atrocities against Ukrainian civilians and have shelled areas near Holocaust memorial sites. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov enraged Israel and other Western countries by falsely asserting that Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood” and claiming that the “most ardent antisemites are usually Jews” in comments attempting to justify how Russia could be “denazifying” a country whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is himself Jewish. (Putin later reportedly issued a rare apology to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett over the remarks.)
Despite the steep cost in lives on both the Ukrainian and Russian sides, the Kremlin has doubled down on invoking historical parallels to World War II to justify its invasion of Ukraine. It is invoking a slogan that has gained traction since Russia’s initial invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014: “We can do it again.”
“It’s a great opportunity for Putin to play on nationalist sentiments, and the Kremlin is very good at the theatrics of events like this,” said Timothy Frye, a scholar on post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University. “In the short run, there will be a continuation of this rally-around-the-flag effect likely after May 9.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the May 9 commemoration for Russia. The Soviet Union is estimated to have lost some 24 million people during World War II. Reverence for those who perished and served in the Soviet Red Army runs deep in Russian culture and is central to Russia’s national identity. War memorials are the centerpiece of many Russian cities, often serving as the backdrop for wedding photos of newly married Russian couples.
“The celebration under Putin has become increasingly politicized,” said Jade McGlynn, a scholar in Russian studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and the author of the forthcoming book The Kremlin’s Memory Makers.
“Paradoxically, it’s something deeply personal and emotional and powerful, but also in recognition of that power, it’s something that the state tries to use for its own benefit.”
Some Western officials say they anticipate Putin will use the Victory Day parade to up the ante on the invasion by calling for a mass mobilization of its army to pour more troops into Ukraine. About one-quarter of the Russian formations sent into the first phase of the war have been battered so hard that they are now out of action, Western officials have said. Ukrainian defense officials estimate that Russia has lost close to 25,000 troops in two months of fighting, an unprecedented level of attrition in modern warfare.
“I think he will try to move from his ‘special operation,’” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told LBC Radio last week. “He’s been rolling the pitch, laying the ground for being able to say, ‘Look, this is now a war against Nazis, and what I need is more people. I need more Russian cannon fodder.’”
In another symbolic move, U.S. President Joe Biden plans to sign the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act into law on May 9, reviving a World War II-era authority to loan defense articles to the besieged country.
One data point they cite: Russia appears to be stepping up its military mobilization in recent weeks, as retired Russian troops have reportedly been summoned for conscription as potential contract employees to administer occupied areas of Ukraine. Other European officials expect the Russian military to step up its offensive in eastern Ukraine in the days leading up the commemoration so Putin can declare some form of victory and claim he has “liberated” the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
One Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive government assessments of war told Foreign Policy on Thursday that Russia has a possible menu of options for its World War II anniversary, including a declaration of victories in Ukrainian territories that haven’t yet been conquered by the Russian military, holding parades on captured areas of Ukraine, or announcing moving the war to a new phase, such as a greater mobilization.
The diplomat also said Russia is likely to announce on or around May 9 phony elections in the occupied territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kherson, which the Kremlin is seeking to annex from Ukraine by means of a trumped-up referendum. Such a move would mirror similar declarations of sovereignty in Ukrainian breakaway territories that preceded Putin’s full-scale invasion in February.
Ukrainian officials fear that Moscow may look to hold a victory parade amid the rubble of Mariupol, a strategic Ukrainian port city that has been under siege by Russian troops for nearly two months. (Russia has denied reports that it plans to hold a victory parade in Mariupol.) An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers are holding out in Mariupol, taking shelter in a sprawling steel factory while Russia consolidates control over other parts of the city. Russia began an all-out assault on the Azovstal steel plant on Thursday.
Britain’s defense ministry assessed on Friday that Russia’s storming of the plant was connected to Putin’s desire to have a symbolic victory in Ukraine in time for the May 9 parade but added that Russia would likely take losses in the attack on the mazelike facility and the resources it would use to snuff out Ukrainian resistance could slow down Russian gains elsewhere in eastern Ukraine.
But U.S. Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby said on Thursday that the United States saw no correlation between the Victory Day celebrations and the Kremlin’s tactical approach to the war, adding that Russia’s military progress in the Donbas remained “uneven.” Other experts believe Putin isn’t under pressure to produce a clear victory by the May 9 commemoration simply because he commands so much control over the country and the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has kept a tight lid on Russia’s embarrassing military failures at home.
“I’m not sure Putin is under so much pressure that it seems to us,” said Middlebury’s McGlynn. “We all know how badly the Russian military is doing, but obviously most Russians don’t, and even if they did, the control [Putin has] is so total that I don’t think he’s under the same level of pressure” as the leader of a democratic country would be, she added.
Open-source intelligence analysts who have been tracking Russia’s preparations for the parade in Moscow’s Red Square expect it to be significantly scaled down from recent years, a possible sign of the setbacks Russia has faced in its war in Ukraine. Gone are the artillery pieces and long-range fires paraded in Moscow in 2021, which Russia has sent into the Donbas; they are expected to be replaced with Soviet-era Grad rockets.
Just 131 vehicles are expected to take part in the procession, considerably fewer than the Kremlin rolled out last year. And Russia’s planned flyover of the parade with jets in a “Z” formation, Russia’s symbol for victory, will be done with outmoded MiG-29 fighters, not the country’s state-of-the-art Sukhoi fighter jets. Internet sleuths also spotted some of the Russian vehicles deployed in Ukraine decorated with the Cross of St. George—a sign that they might’ve been originally dedicated for the World War II anniversary.
“If I was Putin, I’d want to make a bigger parade this year than normal,” said Oliver Alexander, an independent open-source analyst who has been following Russia’s preparations for the parade. “It being significantly scaled down isn’t really a sign that things are going great.”
Switzerland Flirts With NATO
Russia’s war in Ukraine has some Swiss considering closer cooperation with the alliance—but not membership.
“Flirten ja, heiraten nein!” (“Flirting yes, marrying no!”)
This is what the president of one of the largest associations of Swiss soldiers, Stefan Holenstein, recently said about Switzerland’s relationship with NATO. It may sound frivolous, but Holenstein was serious: His point, prompted by Russia’s war in Ukraine, was that Switzerland should work more closely with NATO but stop short of membership.
This is a ground-breaking suggestion in a country in the heart of Europe that is not a member of NATO or the European Union, only joined the United Nations in 2002, and—apart from sending some officers—has never joined full military exercises with surrounding NATO countries, believing the strict policy of military neutrality enshrined in Switzerland’s constitution prohibits it. Because of the war in Ukraine, Holenstein wants Switzerland to finally become part of, and start shouldering some responsibility for, Europe’s security and military architecture.
Suddenly, Swiss politics and media are alight with the neutrality issue. Last week, Damien Cottier, a liberal member of the Swiss parliament, said the Swiss have thought for too long that being surrounded by NATO countries automatically meant they would be protected too. This, he wrote in Le Temps, is “a dangerous pipe dream. Our country cannot be a free rider when it comes to European security.”
Belarus Is the Other Loser in Putin’s War
Minsk enabled Moscow in its Ukraine war. Now, Belarusians are paying the price.
When Russia launched an attempted lightning assault on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in February, neighboring Belarus served as a staging area for Russian forces, making the country an accomplice in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.
In the early phases of the war, thousands of Russian troops swarmed over Belarus’s border with Ukraine, just a few hundred miles from Kyiv. As the Russians quickly racked up deaths, their soldiers filled Belarus’s hospitals and morgues. When the Russians withdrew from the Kyiv region, having been beaten back by fierce Ukrainian resistance and their own operational shortcomings, they did so through Belarus.
Long a close ally of Moscow, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko was left wholly dependent on the Kremlin, which came to his rescue after mass protests in 2020 threatened his decadeslong grip on power. This dependence helped make Moscow’s assault on Kyiv possible. It has also indelibly tied Belarus’s fate to that of Ukraine.
“We see Belarus as deeply tied to the outcome in Ukraine. It is among the many reasons that what happens in Ukraine is going to reverberate well beyond its own borders,” said Julie Fisher, U.S. special envoy for Belarus. “It is an immediate and direct link when it comes to Belarus.”
Leaders of the Belarusian opposition movement in exile have argued that the war underscored the illegitimacy of Lukashenko, who began a fifth term in office in 2020 following elections widely regarded as having been falsified. Western countries imposed sanctions on Belarus and the Lukashenko regime for the violent crackdown that followed the elections and for facilitating the attack on Ukraine.
“He allowed our lands to be used as an aircraft carrier for Putin,” said Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. “It was a cold shower for Belarusian people, how our country could be used to launch missiles on Ukrainian territory,” she said in an interview in Washington last week.
While Belarus is awash with Russian propaganda and an intense crackdown on civil society has made it hard to gauge public sentiment, a survey conducted by the British think tank Chatham House in March found that 67 percent of respondents were opposed to Russian troops shelling Ukraine from Belarus, whereas just 3 percent supported the idea of Belarus’s direct participation in the conflict.
“There is this very ingrained pacifism in Belarusian society,” said Joerg Forbrig, director for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. Forbrig attributed this to Belarus’s experiences during World War II, when a quarter of its prewar population was killed.
Since the start of the war, networks of Belarusian saboteurs have worked in secret to disrupt the country’s rail system to undermine Moscow’s beleaguered logistics networks; a substantial amount of Russia’s military supplies have been brought into Ukraine via Belarus. In February, the hacker group Cyber Partisans, which was founded by Belarusian information technology workers forced into exile, claimed to have targeted the Belarusian state railway company, disrupting and slowing railways around the capital, Minsk, and the eastern city of Orsha.
The Belarusian interior ministry has recorded at least 80 acts of sabotage, including efforts to set fire to signaling systems, forcing trains to slow to a crawl. Belarusian authorities have branded the efforts as acts of terrorism, and last week, the lower house of the country’s parliament approved changes to expand the use of the death penalty to potentially include those involved in railway sabotage efforts.
“Apparently, this has had a much bigger impact than we initially thought,” Forbrig said. Hundreds of Belarusians have also signed up as volunteers to fight alongside Ukraine, forming the Belarusian Kalinouski battalion, named after the 19th-century writer and Belarusian national hero Kastus Kalinouski.
The war has reenergized the Belarusian pro-democracy forces who were driven into exile following the violent crackdown in 2020. “It’s important for us, for democratic forces, for civil society, to be strong and healthy at the moment when it will be evident that we can uprise again,” Tsikhanouskaya said. She added that members of her team are routinely in Kyiv, where they plan to open an office to support Belarusians in Ukraine and facilitate ties with the Ukrainian government.
Despite decades of authoritarian rule, which led Lukashenko to come to be known as Europe’s last dictator, Belarus had a small but robust civil society and independent media, much of which has now decamped to Poland and Lithuania.
“In my opinion, Belarus could develop very successfully and quickly if it was freed of this domestic occupation of power by Lukashenko and the external occupation of power by Russia,” Forbrig said.
The war has also hardened the opposition’s stance on Russia. Prior to the war, Tsikhanouskaya tread a careful line, cognizant of Moscow’s influence and the fact that many Belarusians still had warm attitudes to their eastern neighbor. “We didn’t want to participate in these geopolitical games. It was our internal fight against Lukashenko,” she said. “But now when we see that Russian troops occupied Belarusian territory as well, our fight became geopolitical as well, and we are fighting not only against Lukashenko but against the invasion of the Kremlin.”
For many years Lukashenko sought to play Russia and the West off each other for his own political benefit. In April, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei called for reestablishing dialogue between Belarus and the European Union.
“So, on one hand, Belarus is affected by sanctions and is driven into stagnation and is pulled closer into Russian orbit. On the other hand, the Belarusian regime seeks once again to rebalance towards the West, trying to twist this crisis to its advantage,” said Katsiaryna Shmatsina, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund.
But after the uprisings in 2020 and the Kremlin’s intervention to shore up Lukashenko’s grip on power, viewing him as a problematic but essential vassal on Russia’s western flank, Lukashenko’s future is now tightly bound with that of Putin’s.
“When Ukraine wins this war, it means that the Kremlin is extremely weak and Lukashenko is extremely weak,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
Russian Troops Are Taking Putin’s Orders to Demilitarize Ukraine Literally
Russian strikes have hammered facilities that produce heavy gear the Ukrainian armed forces desperately need.
Russia’s massive missile barrage across Ukraine on Tuesday night, sending projectiles slamming into targets across the country—including a railway junction in the western city of Lviv, a key node for weapons shipments—comes amid increasing signs that the Kremlin is intensifying targeting of the country’s most important defense production areas, according to Ukrainian officials and experts.
Russian strikes have targeted major Ukrainian industrial bases and key sites of Ukraine’s defense industry in an effort to crush Kyiv’s homegrown military capabilities and give Moscow’s struggling forces an edge in the fight for control of eastern Ukraine. And it’s also increasing Ukraine’s desire for high-end weapons systems from the West as Russia ramps up attacks.
The West vs. the Rest
Welcome to the 21st-century Cold War.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made four major miscalculations before he launched his invasion of Ukraine. He overestimated Russian military competence and effectiveness and underestimated the Ukrainians’ will to resist and determination to fight back. He was also wrong in his assumption that a distracted West would be unable to unite politically in the face of the Russian attack and that the Europeans and the United States’ Asian allies would never support far-reaching financial, trade, and energy sanctions against Russia.
But he did get one thing right: He correctly estimated that what I call “the Rest”—the non-Western world—would not condemn Russia or impose sanctions. On the day the war broke out, U.S. President Joe Biden said the West would make sure that Putin became a “pariah on the international stage”—but for much of the world, Putin is not a pariah.
For the past decade, Russia has been cultivating ties with countries in the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and Africa—regions from which Russia withdrew after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. And the Kremlin has assiduously courted China since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. When the West sought to isolate Russia, Beijing stepped in to support Moscow, including by signing the massive “Power of Siberia” gas pipeline deal.
‘Stay Down Low’: Ukraine Fears Formidable Russian Air Defenses in the Donbas
Bolstered by the nearby border, Russia is making the fight in the east a no-go zone for Ukrainian air power.
The Ukrainian military is increasingly concerned that Russia is creating anti-access air zones in the contested Donbas region to keep Ukrainian aircraft from flying through the area, limiting Ukraine’s ability to support its ground forces. While U.S. officials believe that Russia’s progress in the region has been slow and uneven so far, with troops wary of fighting beyond their supply lines, the introduction of more Russian S-400 air defense batteries and drones, as well as low cloud cover in the region, has left Ukrainian pilots uniquely vulnerable.
“They created in the Donbas a powerful [anti-access/area denial] zone, and in these circumstances, it is really dangerous to fly over them,” one Ukrainian official told Foreign Policy in an interview, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. “In low altitude, the Russian air defense is waiting for us.”
President Zourabichvili: Georgia Should Not Be ‘Forgotten’
As the Ukraine war rages, Tbilisi leans West and hedges East.
For many in the small south Caucasus country of Georgia, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought back painful memories of its own war with Russia in 2008. Although that war lasted only five days, Russian troops have maintained a permanent presence in two breakaway regions in Georgia, accounting for around 20 percent of the country’s territory.
Yet, the current Georgian government has opted not to join ranks with Western countries imposing sanctions on Moscow in the wake of its brutal invasion of Ukraine; Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili argued that sanctioning Russia was not in his country’s best interests. The move sparked a diplomatic spat with Ukraine, which led Kyiv to recall its ambassador to Tbilisi.
Foreign Policy spoke with Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili about what the war in Ukraine means for Tbilisi, Georgia’s unrelenting NATO ambitions, and the country’s decision not to join Western sanctions on Russia.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Foreign Policy: What is the mood like right now in Georgia? How has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affected Georgia’s position, particularly with regards to its own security?
Salome Zourabichvili: We are very much aware of being the neighbor to Russia—and a Russia that has never changed from the time it was imperial Russia, to Soviet Russia, to today’s Russia. So what is different this time is the dimension of the conflict in Ukraine and the resistance and the resilience of Ukraine towards this aggression. So the Georgian public is both concerned but in an also resilient way and is showing a lot of solidarity with Ukraine because of the fact that we understand what it means when there is a direct threat to your sovereignty, to your independence.
FP: Do you feel like Georgia is getting enough support from the West, from Europe and the United States, at this moment?
SZ: It’s a mixed picture. We are getting support. It’s very clear in all the meetings. We just had a delegation from Congress visiting Georgia. We’ve had contacts and visits before the conflict from the European Union; [European Council President] Charles Michel was three times in Georgia last year. So there is support to Georgia, and we are now on the path toward this accelerated integration or whatever it will be.
At the same time, I think that it’s the time for Georgia to be more clearly in the mind of everyone. Because we are, together with Moldova, we are the two countries that are on the “front lines” close to Russia, and which are not protected by either the European Union security system nor by, of course, the NATO security guarantees. So that makes us more vulnerable in both scenarios, in fact: whether Russia wins and gets more ambitious or whether, as it seems now, Russia loses or doesn’t win in the way that they would wish, and then could be looking for compensation. So I’m not saying that it’s scenarios that we think are necessarily going to happen. But I think that we would need to be more frequently mentioned. Of course, the priority and the focus has been on Ukraine and should be on Ukraine. There is no doubt about that. And there’s no competition there. But that should not mean that Georgia is somehow forgotten because that might be sending the very wrong message to Moscow.
FP: What about material support? Is Georgia looking for further security assistance from your partners in the West? Do you have any concrete requests in that regard?
SZ: As a partner to NATO, there was an exercise with NATO just a month ago, and we have been doing all the things that would have been included in the [NATO] Membership Action Plan, if there was one. We could always get more support and assistance. I think that what will be very important in the time to come is going to be the Black Sea. And that’s where we need assistance in terms of intelligence sharing, so that we know better what’s happening, especially as Russia is now trying to control more of the shores of the Black Sea. Cybersecurity is a field in which we have been asking for more support and more cooperation. Defensive armaments are something that we need more of.
FP: I know that Georgia has applied for EU membership, and you’ve received a questionnaire from the EU. But on NATO, have you heard any positive signs from the alliance that they may extend an invitation to Georgia to apply to join?
SZ: I’ve not heard anything. What I hope is that the next summit in Madrid will allow for participation and where we’ll see whether NATO members are ready to offer something more that would parallel what the EU has been doing in terms of accelerated integration. But for the time being, I’ve not heard that discussion in such terms.
FP: Georgia can best understand, to some extent, what the Ukrainians are going through right now, having previously been invaded by Russia. But at the same time, Georgia has not joined with Western sanctions against Russia.
SZ: That’s factually absolutely not true. And I know where it comes from because the governmental authorities [in Georgia] have at certain times said that we’re not going to have sanctions. And that was [intended for] internal public opinion, explaining that we were not going to have national sanctions in addition [to international sanctions]. Because in fact, we are a part of all the international sanctions, SWIFT, all the financial sanctions. Not only are Georgian financial authorities and banks compliant, but they are over-compliant because they’re very worried to be in any way diverging from the rest. And that is the most important because that is what is really costing a lot to Georgia.
But the other thing is that, in fact, there is nothing much that Georgia can do in terms of individual sanctions. What we have with Russia is that we were importing wheat from Ukraine and Russian wheat; we are 90 percent dependent. Now it’s a problem of payments, so if we cannot pay, we’re not going to be importing. And there is some trade, of course, between Georgia and Russia, but that’s basically fruits, which are not sanctioned goods, so it’s really a mismanagement, I would say, of the presentation of what Georgia is doing rather than the difference in terms of applying or not applying sanctions.
FP: But the Ukrainians did withdraw their ambassador from Tbilisi. Are you saying they misunderstood Georgia’s position?
SZ: I think there are some political undertones to that, that are linked to internal Georgian politics and links of some of the [Georgian] opposition parties, with some of the Ukrainian leaders.
FP: What do you mean by that?
SZ: Well, I think that there are some opposition. … But that’s not something I would like to have really exposed because I think that, at this time, we need the relationship to be as close as possible between Ukraine and Georgia. And anything that is projecting any form of difference, and this is something that I told to Ukrainian leaders, about the expulsion of the ambassador, it’s something that is playing into the hands of Russia and nobody else. So that’s why it’s an issue that I don’t like to discuss, but it’s clear that there are some opposition leaders in Georgia, close to [former Georgian President and Odesa Gov. Mikheil] Saakashvili—who was in Ukraine and has his friends there—and he’s trying to pull strings between Georgia and Ukraine, which I don’t think is really the right moment to be played.
FP: You mentioned Saakashvili, who is obviously still imprisoned. I know you’ve said before that you wouldn’t consider pardoning him, but the decision to imprison him in the first place, do you think that was the right move?
SZ: That’s a very strange question. It’s the tribunals that have decided, and I don’t have to support or to be against. I pardoned a number of the leaders of Saakashvili’s party once they were sentenced. At that time, that was last year, I was thinking that this would help the process of internal reconciliation and depolarization. Here, we are in a completely reverse position, which is that pardoning Saakashvili would be a matter for intense polarization in Georgia because there is either half of the country that is as adamant on one side and probably more, a majority, against any form of pardon.
And as I’ve said, there is a different issue that if he’s really diagnosed for any serious illness, then I think that all the measures should be taken to protect his health. What is most important, given the security situation we are in, is to maintain unity. What we’ve seen in Ukraine is a demonstration of that, that you are resilient and you can resist anything if you’re united, and we have a fantastic example of real unity of the population around the leadership in Ukraine.
FP: Are you concerned about the message that Saakashvili’s arrest sends to the world?
SZ: I don’t think that Saakashvili is a very important issue today.
FP: It is seen as an important issue for the health of a democracy though. Going after former heads of state is often seen as a concerning sign.
SZ: [Former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy has been sentenced and is under house arrest. And there are many others, [including former Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi. So I don’t think it’s a measurement of any form of democracy. And I don’t think that given the very serious issues in and around Georgia today and [in] the region, I don’t think that it’s an actual very serious issue.
FP: I just wanted to quickly touch on your own relationship with the government of Georgia. There have been reports that they were going to take you to court accusing you of overstepping your remit as president. What do you make of these challenges?
SZ: I don’t think again that it’s an issue for an international news outlet because it’s an internal political issue.
FP: There has been a lot of attention to what has been described as democratic backsliding in Georgia.
SZ: But I think that, too, is a bit exaggerated. I think that there are, like in many other countries, problems. But I think that we have, for instance, an extremely free media. We have the problem of the reform of the judicial system that has not been going forward as fast as I would have wished and as we were expected to do, but it’s not a backsliding. It’s not going forward as fast as necessary.
And I think that the new path toward Euro integration is very welcome beyond the fact that it’s a more direct path because it will force us to do certain things that we need to be forced to do with more energy. So I’m an optimist. I think that we’re going in the very right direction. Anybody that comes to Georgia does not see the country as being a nondemocratic country or backsliding. And I think that the more attention we get, the more we will move in that direction in a more determined way.
Drones Have Come of Age in Russia-Ukraine War
“A child can operate these drones,” one expert said.
Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is flat, open, and streaked with cloudy skies, terrain that Western officials believe has already limited Russia from carrying out the withering air and missile strikes that characterized the first two months of the war in Ukraine. And as the battlefield shifts east, drones are becoming a dominant—if not the dominant—feature of the conflict, former U.S. officials and experts told Foreign Policy.
With persistent clouds likely to make flying Russian and Ukrainian fighter jets out of missile range more difficult, both sides are turning to a two-pronged drone strategy: using cheap, off-the-shelf drones to keep a watchful eye in the sky and to flag targets for artillery to take out tanks. Experts believe the U.S. provision of hundreds of kamikaze-like loitering drones that can hunt targets for hours before dropping down to detonate a deadly munition, complemented by a fleet of drones that can be bought off the internet as low-cost eyes in the sky, could give the Ukrainians a one-two punch from above.
“That would give them an ability to hunt Russian vehicles without having to get as close and expose their troops in the open,” said Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based think tank.
Yet the fighting could become stalemated in the Donbas. Ukraine has largely stopped posting footage from Turkish-made Bayraktar drones in recent weeks—and a few have been confirmed to be lost—a sign to some experts that Russia has begun to shut down that capability in the Donbas as it begins to try to centralize control over the region’s airspace. The provision of new drones could provide a respite for the Ukrainians. The United States is providing Switchblade drones and a close cousin, the Phoenix Ghost, which function as one-shot drones, hovering over the battlefield for hours before diving down to hit their targets. The Biden administration first provided the Phoenix Ghost as part of an $800 million military aid package to Ukraine announced last week.
“These new Phoenix Ghost drones are essentially a modified version of the Switchblade based on feedback from the battlefield,” said Mick Mulroy, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense and retired CIA paramilitary officer. Though there are limited details on the effectiveness of either system, the United States has deployed Switchblade drones in Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan used similar Israeli-made loitering munitions to attack Armenian troops in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.
A senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Monday that the Pentagon could also rush out similar systems that are still in development based on Kyiv’s military needs. The United States led a conference of about 40 nations on Tuesday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany to discuss Ukraine’s future defense needs, including moving the country onto more NATO-standard weapons systems.
“We don’t have thousands and thousands of them, and it’s a program that is still under development,” the senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, told reporters in Poland on Monday. “But when we looked at the development of it and how far along they would come, we realized that this could be valuable. So some of this stuff is literally being pushed into the field of battle, sometimes earlier than it normally would be, to try to help them in the fight they’re in right now.”
And some experts believe that Ukraine could put a chink in Russia’s armor—literally—with the new class of drones that can loiter over their targets for hours and detonate right over tanks and armored vehicles. It could “create a situation where the Russian military will have to expend its resources, conducting anti-drone warfare on a scale it probably hasn’t done before,” said Samuel Bendett, an advisor with the CNA think tank and a member of the organization’s Russia Studies Program. But the battlefield impact of the new capabilities isn’t yet clear. The United States will soon begin training small batches of Ukrainian forces on Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost drones at a remote location in Europe.
Western ammunition shortages could make Ukraine’s need for advanced drones more acute, given a looming shortage of Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, the weapon of choice in U.S. military aid packages to Kyiv until recently. The Stinger, a shoulder-launched anti-air rocket that the CIA handed over to Afghan mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s, hasn’t been purchased by the Pentagon in nearly 20 years. On an earnings call on Tuesday, Raytheon CEO Greg Hayes said the U.S. defense contractor will need more time to redesign components in the Stinger and its heat-seeking head before replenishing stocks of the missile being sent to Ukraine. And several other countries have privately or publicly indicated that they’re tapped out.
“We need everything, to be honest,” said one Ukrainian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media. “It’s war. If we don’t stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in Ukraine, he will come to Europe.” In a tweet on Tuesday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was in dire need of air defense, drones, artillery systems, and combat aircraft, among other weapons, from NATO countries. Ukrainian officials have also reportedly talked to U.S. defense contractor General Atomics about acquiring MQ-9 Reaper drones, the U.S. Air Force’s most capable strike drone.
But the Ukrainians aren’t the only ones putting more eyes in the sky. The Russian military has talked about fielding quadcopters since at least 2019, influenced by Syrian militants’ use of commercial drones nearly seven years ago. But Russia never made clear whether it was talking about acquiring drones from foreign providers or starting a defense industrial base of its own. The Ukrainian government has also suspected that Russia has used small drones to secretly strike at weapons depots; Moscow has denied these accusations. Russia has also sought to downsize its munitions to make them easier to load onto small drones.
But the bigger problem for the Russians has been the inability to shoot down drones fielded by the Ukrainians and to degrade Ukrainian air defenses, which Western officials expected them to suppress just days into the conflict. The British defense ministry’s intelligence arm assessed on April 27 that Ukraine still held control of a majority of its airspace 63 days into the conflict, with Russian forces mostly providing limited support to ground troops. Russia claims to have shot down 583 Ukrainian drones during the two-month war but has not provided any independent verification for this claim.
The impact of off-the-shelf commercial drones has also given most front-line units a pre-baked intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability. While the use of heavy combat-capable drones has tapered off, the Chinese-made DJI Mavic drone and its Polish and Turkish counterpart surveillance drones have become almost ubiquitous in footage from the Ukrainian battlefield, experts said, giving both sides a much clearer snapshot of the war and improving targeting to a point where neither side can make headway. DJI halted business in both Russia and Ukraine this week. Armed Ukrainian Punisher drones have also made an appearance alongside Turkish Bayraktars. Both sides are expected to use multicopters for spotting movement and directing artillery fire while attack drones, howitzers, and aircraft do the rest of the work.
“Particularly as [loitering drones] start being used in large numbers, there’s also a question of how much that impacts Russian freedom of action,” said Bronk, the RUSI expert. “But that may make them more vulnerable to artillery, for example, whereas if they disperse them, then it’s harder to provide short-range air defense cover against things like munitions. It’s partly about forcing unpleasant choices on the Russians as they try to gain ground.”
But even as the United States sends to Ukraine high-tech loitering drones that are barely out of development, the battlefield two months into Russia’s invasion has been characterized by ubiquitous use of off-the-shelf technology, experts said, even more than during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, which ushered in a new era of drone prominence. In that six-week conflict, Azerbaijan deployed Chinese-made unmanned aircraft to target Armenian ground forces in a decisive campaign. The lightning campaign that left Azerbaijan with a larger chunk of the disputed region saw the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drone—which has become an internet meme during the Russia-Ukraine war—first become famous and featured large doses of Israeli loitering munitions, similar to the U.S.-made Switchblades and Phoenix Ghosts.
Yet experts have been surprised by how the same drones that can be bought at big-box stores in the United States have become the go-to aircraft not just for Ukrainian defenders—where reserve units have struggled to get proper equipment—but also for a motley crew of Russian-aligned fighters in the Donbas, including soldiers from the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic and Chechen Rosgvardia units. Autopsies of Russian Orlan drones that have fallen out of the sky in Ukraine seemingly show the system using basic components: a Japanese Canon camera and a plastic water bottle for a fuel tank.
“They’re basically using a drone you can buy at Walmart,” said Bendett, the CNA expert who specializes in studying drone warfare. “These are not military-grade technologies at all. A child can operate these drones.”
The Fight for Ukraine Is Forging a New World
If Ukraine prevails against Russia, the global movement toward a more empowered and freer digital world will accelerate.
Ukraine’s fight for its right to have a future has accelerated a great shift in the global order of the 21st century. One can already see elements of the new world emerging from the fires of war in Ukraine. The unity between North America and the European Union has been restored and cemented, and the notion of the West has regained its original meaning, while Russia’s strategic decline weakens China’s system of alliances.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has set Europe in motion again. To the discomfort of some European states, Ukraine became central to the rise of the new Europe. For Europe to succeed in restoring peace and solidifying prosperity and security in the region, Ukraine must be part of the European Union and, broadly speaking, of the West, led by the United States. And it will.
The world of tomorrow will be tripolar. Two obvious poles will be the United States and China. India will be gaining force as a strong democratic power. But the third, less obvious pole will be the newly emerging, decentralized community of global internet users, and it will be defined by rapid technological development and disruptive innovation. This community will be largely centered on what some already call the “metaverse.”
The Real Reason the Russian Orthodox Church’s Leader Supports Putin’s War
Homophobia is at the heart of Patriarch Kirill’s endorsement.
This month in Russia, Kirill, a powerful bishop who has been the patriarch of Moscow and primate of the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009, came out once again in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s killing machine in Ukraine. Kirill’s view is that God is on Russia’s side, even as Putin’s forces bomb maternity hospitals and the bodies of mutilated men, women, and children are discovered in Ukrainian towns recently occupied by Russian troops, such as Bucha.
In many ways, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has become a holy war for Russia. His geopolitical ambitions are closely entwined with faith: Like former U.S. President Donald Trump, Putin has woven nationalism, faith, conservative values, and the restoration of the Russky mir (“Russian world”). And he has enlisted Kirill as his wingman, who shares his homophobic views. Freedom House, a democracy watchdog, calls Putin’s anti-LGBT rants “state-sponsored homophobia” used to control Russia and says, “Regulating gender and sexuality remains at the forefront of Russia’s domestic and international political agendas.”
Kirill’s latest warmongering comes at a holy time in the Julian calendar: Orthodox Easter. Indeed, this past Sunday was Ukrainian Easter, known as Velykden (“Great Day”) in Ukraine, an important holiday that celebrates Jesus Christ’s resurrection. For many, it is a day that commemorates rebirth. Around 70 percent of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christian.
Moldova Feels the Shock Waves of Putin’s War
Russia is now talking about driving toward Moldova’s border as part of its plan to redraw the map of the Black Sea region.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February sent shock waves around Europe, and nowhere more than in neighboring Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, which has long sought to balance its relationship with Russia and the West. On a per capita basis, the small country has taken in more Ukrainian refugees than any other European nation, and the war has spurred officials in the capital, Chisinau, to apply for membership to the European Union. At the same time, Moldova, which is wholly dependent on Russia for its gas supplies, has held off joining Western sanctions on Moscow amid fears that the Kremlin could seek to further destabilize the country.
Now, Chisinau has more cause for concern. On Friday, the acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District, Rustam Minnekaev, said that one of the goals of Russia’s renewed war in Ukraine was to create a corridor to Moldova’s Russian-backed separatist enclave of Trans-Dniester—a sliver of land between Moldova and Ukraine—to prevent the “oppression of the Russian-speaking population.”
In light of the struggles that have beset the Russian military campaign in Ukraine so far, analysts are skeptical that Moscow can push west along the Ukrainian coast to Trans-Dniester, which hugs Moldova’s eastern flank.
“I think where they go from here remains to be seen,” said U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “[T]hey are a long way from cities like Odesa and certainly from Moldova.”
But the remarks have highlighted Moldova’s precarious position. While Moscow may struggle to pose an imminent military threat, Russia’s ongoing efforts to destabilize the county politically could lay the groundwork for action.
“It was an intimidation and an attempt to destabilize Moldova in a way to drag it into the war in Ukraine,” said Alexandru Flenchea, a political analyst who previously served as Moldovan deputy prime minister for reintegration. “I tend to see this as part of the disinformation campaign and information war against Moldova in this case.”
Speaking to journalists in Washington last week, Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu acknowledged the country’s exposure to the war in Ukraine. “We’re the most fragile neighbor of Ukraine, we’re the country that is most affected by it, and we’re the country that has the fewest resources to deal with the situation and the fallout of the war,” he said. As of last week, Popescu said that there had been no change in the military situation in Trans-Dniester, which is home to 500 Russian peacekeepers and around 1,000 Russian military personnel. The Trans-Dniestrian military is thought to have around 4,000 active troops.
“There are very few people in that region who want to trade their existing situation for becoming part of a war zone. Having said that, we cannot predict how things will evolve,” Popescu said.
It’s unclear how long the relative quiet in the breakaway region will last. On April 26, tensions flared as Trans-Dniestrian authorities announced a “red level” terrorist threat for 15 days across the territory. The announcement came after alleged attacks on two communication towers and on a state building in the self-declared capital, Tiraspol, as well as an incident involving a military unit in the village of Parkany. It’s unclear who was responsible for the attacks. In response, Moldovan President Maia Sandu convened a security council meeting.
In a pattern replicated across the region, Moscow has retained a number of pressure points over Moldova, which, like Ukraine, has been increasingly looking to the West for its geopolitical future. Russian disinformation seeps into the country’s Russian-language media, while the country’s socialist party, which has deep ties to Moscow, held the presidency for four years until 2020, when pro-EU candidate Sandu was elected.
An annual foreign intelligence assessment released by Estonia this year noted that the Kremlin was actively working to oust Moldova’s pro-European leadership, noting that Moscow had a range of tools to undermine the Moldovan government, including the country’s energy dependence, the influence of the Orthodox Church, and Russian-language television.
As with other Russian-backed breakaway regions in Georgia and eastern Ukraine, Trans-Dniester offers Moscow a useful lever with which it can dial up the pressure on Moldova.
Trans-Dniester dates back to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. After Moldova declared independence in August 1991, Russian speakers in the east of the country pledged closer ties to Moscow, and they got military and economic support in return. When civil war briefly broke out in Moldova in 1992, the Kremlin backed those fighters in the east and later became part of the peacekeeping mission. Today the official goals of the Russian presence in Trans-Dniester are to prevent a return to conflict and protect 22,000 tons of Soviet-era military equipment in the tiny village of Cobasna.
While the Moldovan government has repeatedly called for the removal of Russian troops, Trans-Dniestrian authorities have sought not reunification with Moscow but rather international recognition—yet only the fellow breakaway states of South Ossetia, Artsakh, and Abkhazia have heeded this call.
“Trans-Dniester wants to have Russian support because they understand the region is incapable of surviving without it, but, at the same time, they want to have a margin of sovereignty from the decisions in Moscow,” said Dionis Cenusa, a visiting fellow at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre in Lithuania. “There are political actors that are close to the Kremlin, but there are actors like oligarchs who control everything and understand they need a degree of independence from Russia to make more money.”
Tiraspol has benefited greatly from Chisinau’s Association Agreement with the EU, which it signed in 2014 and which gave Moldova access to the EU market: Trans-Dniestrian companies can export goods to the EU once they register on the territory of Moldova. The breakaway region exports a lot more goods to the EU than it does to Russia, but it imports a lot more from Russia than from Europe.
Crucially, the authorities in Tiraspol receive free natural gas from Moscow, which has allowed them to exert an element of control over Chisinau, which is dependent on the breakaway region for electricity. However, last week, Moldova’s Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development Andrei Spinu said his government was looking into buying electricity from Ukraine when the contract with the Russian-owned company MoldGres expires next month.
Much like Moldova, Trans-Dniester is trying to walk a fine line, remaining coy on Russia’s war. “[They] have certainly been cautious, especially about calling the situation in Ukraine a war, they have actually been avoiding this word and avoiding putting the blame on Ukraine,” said Cristian Vlas, an independent political consultant. “If they changed their position, the EU could suspend the application of the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the region, since hypothetically such a corridor with the Russian Federation would ensure effective occupation of the territory.”
Meanwhile, the 5+2 diplomatic format putters away in the background, seeking a negotiated solution to the 30-year-old problem of Trans-Dniester. With Ukraine and Russia among the mediators, and with Russia’s view on the neighborhood clear, the future of the discussions is in flux.
“Russia will have to choose: It has to acknowledge that it is either a party in this conflict, or it withdraws from this format. That said, Russia will continue to drive pressure on Moldova,” Vlas said.
The complex nature of the conflict is spurring more Moldovans to support the recognition of Trans-Dniester as a means to pave the way to EU membership for Moldova. According to recent polls, 31 percent of people support the independence of the territory, up from 22 percent in February, the Eastern Europe Studies Centre’s Cenusa said.
“People think the region [Trans-Dniester] is an impediment to the advancement of the country [Moldova], that it is perceived as an extension of Russia’s militaristic foreign agenda. They want to decrease the insecurity coming from it,” Cenusa said. “I think this is an important signal coming from the population.”
Sanctioning Russia Won’t Stop Putin. Just Look at Iran.
Iran is a cautionary tale that stubborn autocracies can’t be disciplined with sanctions.
The atrocities in Bucha, Mariupol, and other Ukrainian cities have taken the severity of Russia’s war in Ukraine to a whole new level. Graphic footage emerging of bullet-riddled bodies with tied hands, charred corpses piled together dumped in the streets, and buildings and cars blown to pieces have exposed how an apparently unquenchable thirst for power and domination can be boundless. In response, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, Spain, the United States and a handful of other countries expelled more than 325 Russian diplomats from Moscow’s missions.
At the same time, the sanctions machinery of the United States and European Union is in full swing, and Russia is being targeted by layer upon layer of punitive measures. In a short span of time, Russia surpassed Iran as the world’s most-sanctioned country, and Western powers are brandishing further actions to squeeze the Russian economy to the point that the Kremlin capitulates and gives up its campaign of military aggression.
Sanctions have been utilized incrementally as a means of statecraft for decades, with the United States the foremost user of these coercive measures. At present, at least 24 countries are being targeted by U.S. sanctions, which are either partial—applying to certain aspects of trade and business with a country’s entities, as is the case with Nicaragua and Venezuela—or blacking out trade with a country entirely, as is happening with Iran.
Diplomatic Life Returns to Kyiv—Slowly
Some, but not all, of the embassies that fled Ukraine’s capital are coming back.
Foreign diplomats are slowly returning to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and reopening their embassies, a vote of confidence that the worst of Russia’s assault against the Ukrainian city may be over—for now at least.
At least 17 countries have sent their diplomats back to Kyiv, mostly European Union and NATO members that are supporting Ukraine in fighting off the Russian invasion. The return of foreign diplomats makes clear that there is a return to some semblance of safety in the Ukrainian capital after nearly two months of Russian bombardment that saw Moscow’s forces come within 15 miles of the city’s center. Their return also presents a symbolic victory for Kyiv and a show of solidarity from its allies in Europe, which have supplied the Ukrainian government with economic support and military assistance to help repel the Russian invasion, which entered a new phase on Tuesday with its long-awaited assault on the eastern provinces.
“For Ukrainians, it’s symbolically important, definitely, that foreign countries are with them and supporting Ukraine with military aid and humanitarian aid but also with trying to continue embassy work as normally as possible,” said one senior Eastern European diplomat.
Among the countries sending their diplomats back to Kyiv to reopen their embassies are: France, Italy, Turkey, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Belgium, and Austria. The European Union also reopened its diplomatic mission in Kyiv this month. Several major countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have kept their diplomatic missions out of the capital for now.
In another sign that the security situation in the Ukrainian capital has stabilized, Kyiv has received a flurry of visits from high-level European officials in recent weeks, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen; the presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who took a walk around central Kyiv, still eerily empty, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Although some countries are reopening their embassies in Kyiv, others are holding off to assess the security situation. Zelensky has warned that while Russia is shifting the thrust of its attack to eastern Ukraine, Moscow could look to launch a renewed assault on the capital in the future.
A German official said its diplomats had yet to return to Kyiv and Berlin was carefully assessing the security situation in Ukraine. A spokesperson for the U.K. government said they were looking to reopen the British Embassy “as soon as feasibly possible.” The spokesperson noted that security concerns dictate the pace of any diplomatic reopening. “The safety of our staff is always paramount,” the spokesperson said. A senior Israeli official said reopening the country’s embassy was not currently under consideration, but they were continuing to assess the situation.
U.S. diplomats are continuing to operate out of Rzeszow, Poland, near the Ukrainian border but are “not currently traveling over the border to Ukraine due to the unstable security situation,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said.
“We don’t have specifics on the timing of when our team will return, but our team is actively planning, and we very much look forward to resuming embassy operations in Ukraine to facilitate our support to the government and people of Ukraine as they bravely defend their country,” the U.S. spokesperson added. Still, some U.S. lawmakers are urging U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to reopen the embassy in Kyiv as a sign of support for Ukraine.
The United States was one of the first countries to begin drawing down its diplomatic footprint in Kyiv in January in anticipation of the coming Russian assault. At the time, the move drew the ire of Ukrainian officials who accused Washington of stoking panic and undermining the country’s economy.
Most foreign embassies evacuated their ambassadors and staff immediately prior to Russia launching its invasion or in the immediate aftermath of the war’s outbreak. A handful of countries—including Poland, Georgia, and Estonia—kept their diplomatic missions in Kyiv operational, even as Russian troops closed in on the Ukrainian capital, though they drew down the number of staff at their embassies. Estonia has yet to send its ambassador back to Kyiv but plans to do so in the coming weeks. Most embassies will still have a reduced presence in Kyiv and may not immediately restart routine diplomatic work, such as consular services.
Throughout all the diplomatic turmoil and exodus, there was one constant: The Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission to Ukraine, has remained in Kyiv for the duration of the war so far, along with its essential staff.
Russia Tries for a Do-Over of Ukraine Invasion in the Donbas
It’s going to be “very, very tough,” one European official said—but Ukrainians remain defiant.
Russia began a major new offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region on Tuesday, top Ukrainian officials said, marking the start of a new campaign and a clear effort by the Kremlin to regain the initiative in a 54-day war that was meant to last three.
The offensive began with widespread artillery shelling that extended from the Donbas, where Russian troops had already spent most of the weekend trying to break through Ukrainian lines, along the entire front of the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv, all the way to the southern city of Mykolaiv, another area where fighting has been deadlocked for weeks.
Russian forces have already notched one objective since the assault began, seizing the front-line town of Kreminna in the Luhansk region, but Ukrainian officials—who said they ceded the town to get to better defensive positions—insist they will repel the Russian offensive.
“We will defend ourselves. We will fight. We will not give away anything Ukrainian,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message that coincided with the start of the fighting. U.S. officials have been more circumspect, calling the uptick fighting a prelude to a larger Russian attack.
Why the World Isn’t Really United Against Russia
Global institutions have long relegated much of the world to second-class status.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army reduced one Ukrainian city after another to rubble, crushing civilians caught in apartment blocks and shopping malls under a rain of artillery and missile fire, many observers in the rich world bemoaned the dysfunction of the United Nations for not being able to overcome an obstacle written into its very charter: Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, is one of the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members and, as such, enjoys veto power—allowing it to block any measure it disapproves of.
The scattered calls for United Nations reform that this provoked came against the backdrop of another source of Western displeasure. After exuberant claims in Washington and European capitals that the world was united against Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of its neighbor, people who paused to take more careful stock of the situation began to note that in fact, much of the world was sitting on the sidelines in the dispute.
Putting China to the side because of its special relationship with Moscow, this included large nations, such as India, and small nations—and left no continent spared. In fact, a tally of their collective population would show that governments representing a majority of the human population were not taking a position one way or another in a conflict that many of them saw as having familiar echoes of a previous era’s contests between East and West.
Putin’s Gruesome Playbook
Russia’s indiscriminate bombing in Ukraine looks startlingly familiar.
All wars have a different stamp when it comes to atrocities.
The crimes of the 1970-1975 Cambodian war were different from the concentration camps in northwest Bosnia in 1992. The crimes of the 1983-2009 Sri Lankan Civil War were different from those in Sierra Leone in 1999. There, random civilians were chosen and amputated at the wrist or the elbow: the intent to leave their victims as human monuments of terror.
But although the origins of the wars are different, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless, indiscriminate bombing—a standard part of his playbook—in Ukraine has startling parallels to other Putin wars I have witnessed in my time as a reporter.
The Ukraine Crisis Offers a Rare Chance for Energy and Climate Cooperation
Russia’s war in Ukraine has exposed some difficult truths about the world’s energy needs.
As motorists make plans for the summer driving season, U.S. gasoline prices are near record highs. Yet some relief may be in sight: Falling oil prices mean pump prices should dip below $4 per gallon in the coming weeks—though the looming risk of further disruptions to Russian oil supply means the relief risks proving short lived.
A key reason for the lower oil prices was the Biden administration’s recent announcement of the largest release of oil in U.S. history from the nation’s strategic stockpiles, followed by a smaller, but still sizable, release from European countries. In explaining this move, U.S. President Joe Biden acknowledged a difficult truth: More fossil fuels are required at this time to meet the world’s current energy needs. But Biden also acknowledged another difficult truth: The world needs to move much more quickly toward a clean energy future.
This energy two-step is the only way the world can successfully navigate both the current crisis with Russia and ensure a cleaner energy future. Achieving both of these objectives will take forming a coalition that bridges the current divides in the energy debate as well as brings together climate scientists, environmentalists, national security hawks, and the oil and gas industry in support of meeting energy needs today but sharply reducing demand for fossil fuels tomorrow.
What Happens to the Homes Ukrainians Leave Behind?
Abandonment, destruction, or occupation of homes and property is a grim hallmark of modern conflicts.
More than 4.7 million people have already fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, and another 7.1 million are displaced internally, leaving behind their homes, livelihoods, and assets. Nearly 25 percent of the country’s population has been displaced, and that number grows each day.
What will happen to the properties that millions of Ukrainians are leaving behind, that have been stolen from them or shelled into rubble? When the day comes for Ukrainians to return and rebuild, how will they reclaim the homes still standing or receive compensation for the homes that have been destroyed or stolen?
Right now, Ukrainians are fighting for their homeland, and in many places their lives, and the most immediate needs are for military support and humanitarian assistance. Nonetheless, what happens with property now and after the fighting stops will impact the trajectory of Ukraine’s recovery and could spell the difference between manageable difficulties and decades of continued suffering.
Russia Flounders in Ukraine but Doubles Down in Mali
Russian mercenaries fill Mali vacuum as European powers pursue an exit.
On March 30, as Russian forces continued their struggle to conquer Ukrainian cities, Russian arms suppliers delivered a pair of menacing Mi-35M attack helicopters and an advanced air radar system thousands of miles away in West Africa to the Malian capital of Bamako.
Despite the Kremlin calling back an international network of national and foreign mercenaries to fight in Ukraine, some of whom are leaving battlefields in Syria and Africa to do so, Russia has largely maintained its presence in Mali, where a force of about 1,000 Russian officials and instructors from the Russian mercenary outfit, popularly known as the Wagner Group, is deployed, according to United Nations-based diplomats. Some 200 Malian service members and nine police officers are currently receiving training in Russia, a Russian diplomat recently told the U.N. Security Council.
The development suggests that despite its military reversals in Ukraine, Russia is seeking to preserve its growing diplomatic and military interests in Africa, where irregular Russian forces have been supplying training and fighting forces to governments and rebel movements from the Central African Republic to Libya. It is positioning itself to fill a political vacuum in Mali, as French and European forces and trainers begin withdrawing from the country, ending a nearly decadelong French effort in its former colony to contain the spread of terrorism and pave the way for a peace deal uniting the politically divided country. For Mali, the arrangement provides the military junta with a partner capable of battling the country’s anti-government Islamist movements, without having to endure demands from the West to respect human rights and pursue a democratic power-sharing arrangement with the country’s Tuareg minority in the north.
“Russia has considerable interests in Africa, which [Russian President Vladimir] Putin uses,” said J. Peter Pham, the former U.S. special envoy for the Sahel region during the Trump administration. “It’s not a major part of Russian foreign policy, but it’s like many things that Putin has done throughout his 20 years in power, which is to use things opportunistically.”
The Malian government entered into discussions with the Wagner Group late last year, triggering a warning to Mali’s military rulers from the French government to reconsider the partnership, according to an account from a U.N.-based diplomat familiar with Russia’s role in Mali. Paris, the diplomat noted, warned that France would have to reconsider its commitment to continue Operation Barkhane, the French military mission headquartered in Chad that has led the fight against Islamist extremists throughout the Sahel, if the Russians were invited. In late December 2021, Wagner Group military instructors began deploying in Mali.
In February, France announced that it would begin the process of winding down its presence and would be gone in six months. European military trainers, detached to the Takuba Task Force—which serves under French command and provides advice and assistance to the Malian Armed Forces and a regional counterterrorism force, known as the G5 Sahel—are also set to leave. Without the support of France, which serves as a kind of security guarantor for European and U.N. peacekeepers in Mali, the French-led anti-terror coalition risks unraveling.
Russia’s supply of attack helicopters and advanced radar risks undermining European control of the skies in Mali, exposing U.N. blue helmets to greater danger in the field. The United Nations has already been unsuccessfully trying to acquire attack helicopters. For the time being, France is prepared to fly aircraft from a base in neighboring Niger to deter attacks on U.N. peacekeepers, but it remains unclear whether Mali will continue to grant air access to the French after their troops withdraw from the country.
The Wagner Group defies conventional definitions of a private military contractor. As far as experts can tell, there is no single registered corporate entity called the Wagner Group. Rather, it has become a shorthand, bound up in mythology, to describe a network of companies and groups of mercenaries that Western governments regard to be closely enmeshed with the Russian state.
Having cut their teeth during the fighting in Ukraine in 2014, Wagner operatives have been dispatched to several countries around the world, often melding mercenary activity with natural resource extraction. Their shadowy nature has enabled the Kremlin to deny any connection to the group.
“Wagner is not a counterterrorism force. Wagner is a tool of the Russian government to try and advance its foreign-policy goals,” said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. “They’re there to keep the junta in power because the junta serves Moscow’s interests in displacing France and the EU.”
Although government officials in Mali have described the Russians as instructors, Western officials and human rights monitors fear that their activities will extend far beyond training. Hundreds of Russians associated with the Wagner Group were dispatched to the Central African Republic in 2017 under the guise of a training mission approved by the U.N. Security Council, alleging that they were unarmed. U.N. experts have documented a string of damning allegations against the group, including indiscriminate killings, rape, and sexual violence.
The prospect of a French withdrawal from Mali has alarmed the United States, which has sought to persuade the French to remain in Mali. But another Western diplomat said there is no sense of urgency that “we get Wagner out of Mali because of what is happening in Ukraine.” Alarmed by Russia’s presence, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michele Sison recently traveled to Mali to assess the viability of the U.N. mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, after the French leave.
“They came back from the mission very worried,” said one U.N.-based diplomat. The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States is concerned that the U.N. mission risks being inadvertently used to advance the aims of a military junta seeking to secure its future—and that of a Russian mercenary group expanding Moscow’s influence and seeking a payoff. Washington has also expressed concern that the U.N. mission, which has a mandate to support the Malian authorities, could be placed in the awkward position of supporting a government engaged in extensive atrocities or providing an inadvertent benefit to the Wagner Group, the diplomat said.
“Like others, the United States is deeply troubled by the developments in Mali,” Richard Mills Jr., deputy U.S. representative to the United Nations, told the U.N. Security Council on April 7. “The last three months have been marked by alarming accounts of human rights violations and abuses against civilians by terrorist armed groups and the Malian Armed Forces with individuals linked to the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group.”
A senior U.S. State Department official said the Malian regime’s decision to contract Wagner fighters was prompted by its own sense of regional and international isolation as well as the need to ensure its own security.
But the Russians hardly have the capacity to outperform tens of thousands of international troops and peacekeepers who have battled the region’s terrorists over the last decade.
“A thousand Wagner folks ain’t going to fill the security void in Mali,” the senior State Department official said, adding it has done an effective job of selling a “false narrative” that it is providing security to Mali. “They may be killing terrorists, but they are also killing so many civilians.”
“How many new terrorists do they create?” the official added.
Mali—once praised as a model for a fledgling democracy in Africa—emerged as a major terror hub in the years following NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya amid a revolution against the government of then-leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, which led to Qaddafi’s ouster and death and set the stage for the spread of weapons and extremists throughout the Sahel.
An Islamist terror group hijacked an insurgency by the Malian Tuareg minority, seized control of northern Mali, and began preparing for an assault on the capital of the former French colony. Alarmed by the development, France launched Operation Serval in January 2013 to crush the Islamists and pave the way for a political settlement between Mali’s southern governments and northern Tuaregs. In August of the following year, the French replaced that with Operation Barkhane, with a wider mandate to battle extremists throughout the region.
Over the years, France has tried to cobble together a coalition of West African and European special forces, working closely with a U.N. peacekeeping mission, to help it contain the terror threat in Mali, restore security in the country, and support African-led political negotiations aimed at ending the country’s political stalemate.
The West’s relationship with Mali has sharply deteriorated since August 2020, when Malian military leader Col. Assimi Goïta staged the first of two military coups, with the second in May 2021, and quickly reneged on pledges to restore civilian democratic rule to Mali.
Russia has taken advantage of the rift, offering to provide military support and training to the Malian army. Russia has positioned itself as a diplomatic champion of Mali’s military junta, praising Russian-backed Malian counterterrorism operations that the country’s critics say have resulted in large-scale violations of human rights.
Following the August 2020 coup, Russia’s ambassador to Mali, Igor Gromyko, the grandson of former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, became the first foreign dignitary to publicly meet with the new military junta, as U.S. and European diplomats scrambled to craft their own response. Gromyko emerged from the meeting to a small crowd of supporters waving Russian flags, leading Western diplomats to suspect the whole spectacle was a choreographed public relations stunt for Moscow to get a leg up in its influence with the new rulers.
“It’s hard to buy high-quality Malian flags in Bamako, much less high-quality Russian flags,” Pham said. “How do you find nicely made Russian flags in Bamako?”
Most recently, Moscow has provided diplomatic cover to Mali over the massacre of some 300 civilians in the town of Moura, Mali, last month, which human rights watchdogs say was carried out by Malian forces with possible help from Russian mercenaries. (Malian authorities said it was a counterterrorism operation that “neutralized” jihadi fighters.) Russia, backed by China, blocked a U.N. Security Council request for an independent investigation into the massacre.
“Cooperation between Russia and Mali has a long history and tradition,” Anna Evstigneeva, a deputy permanent representative to Russia, recently told the U.N. Security Council. “We are working to improve their capacity, train members of military and law enforcement.”
“We note the commitment of the Malian general staff to observing human rights and international humanitarian law,” she added. “We commend Bamako’s efforts in investigating the incidents of reported human rights violations. As for the information campaign about so-called Russian mercenaries, we regard it as part of a malevolent geopolitical game.”
France’s departure is raising deeper concerns about the West’s role in Mali and the viability of a U.N. peacekeeping mission whose best-trained and resourced peacekeepers come from Europe, including Germany and the United Kingdom. While French forces operate independently of the U.N. mission, the French provide vital services, including a hospital in the city of Gao, Mali, as well as close air support for peacekeepers under armed attack and medical evacuation services for wounded blue helmets. Key European powers are now reviewing their roles in Mali.
This month, the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said: “We are halting the training missions for the [Malian] Armed Force and national guard.” Borrell cited concerns about the presence of the Wagner Group, which he said may be “responsible for some very serious events, which have led to tens of people being killed in Mali in recent times.” He insisted, though, that the European Union remain committed to participating in counterterrorism efforts in the broader Sahel region.
For the moment, Britain and Germany continue to serve in the U.N. mission in Mali, but they may reconsider their commitment in light of Russia’s growing role, according to U.N.-based diplomats.
The United States and its European counterparts are also concerned about potentially deteriorating relations between Malian forces and the U.N. peacekeeping mission. On March 22, a Malian attack helicopter fired six rockets near a British reconnaissance unit in eastern Mali. The Malian government said it had mistaken the British forces, who are serving in the U.N. peacekeeping mission, for terrorists, who they claim have been operating in the area.
But one U.N.-based diplomat said the U.N. mission’s intelligence unit had not detected a terror presence in the area before the attack, and a European diplomat said the area may have been in territory controlled by the Malian army and Wagner Group, so they did not want U.N. peacekeepers in the area.
The attack, Mills said, is “an affront to all those who serve in U.N. peacekeeping missions.”
Mills raised particular concern about “the extremely disturbing accounts of hundreds of people killed last week in the village of Moura in the Mopti region of central Mali.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch, which conducted an investigation into the killings, cited several unnamed sources who claimed Malian forces and Russian soldiers executed several hundred people, committing the worst atrocity in Mali in a decade.
“The Malian people deserve answers to what happened in Moura this week of March 28 and what led to the gruesome, execution-style killing of over 35 people on March 2 in the Ségou region and who is responsible,” Mills said. He noted that Malian authorities have said it will launch an investigation as well as grant the U.N. mission access for its own inquiry.
“This increase in reports of human rights abuses is exactly why the United States continues to warn countries against partnering with the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group,” Mills said. “Wagner forces have been implicated in human rights abuses, including execution-style killings, in the Central African Republic and elsewhere.”
How Finland Could Tilt the Balance Against Putin
Helsinki joining NATO is his worst nightmare—apart from losing Ukraine.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin readies a new offensive in his stalled war with Ukraine, strategists still talk of some form of Ukraine’s “Finlandization”—a kind of cowed neutrality—as a possible negotiated solution. But Finland itself may be about to tilt the balance dramatically the other way—and perhaps hand Putin his biggest defeat yet.
On Wednesday, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin at a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said a decision whether to discard Finland’s post-Cold War policy of nonalignment and join NATO would be made in “weeks rather than months.” A new defense white paper detailing that prospect was sent to Finland’s parliament the same day, and at a news conference in Helsinki, Finnish Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen noted Finland already has “full interoperability with NATO.” Sweden, acting in concert with Finland, also took a notably bolder position this week in declaring it too is beginning an active debate about joining NATO.
Russia’s Make-or-Break Gambit in the Donbas
Putin is hungry for some sort of win by Russia’s May 9 Victory Day.
Having failed to achieve their initial goal of a lightning campaign to seize the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Russian forces are focusing their efforts on the Donbas region in the country’s east in what is likely to be a decisive—and bloody—next chapter of the war, Ukrainian and Western officials believe.
Despite their size advantage at the outset, Russian forces have been left battered and depleted by several weeks of fierce fighting, which has been compounded by poor coordination and a lack of basic supplies. With U.S. officials estimating that Moscow has lost almost 20 percent of the combat power it had amassed around Ukraine’s borders ahead of the invasion, Russian forces have been left scrambling to piece together combat-ready units as they seek to take swaths of eastern Ukraine.
“If the Ukrainians can withstand this coming offensive, the Russians are in a really dangerous position,” said Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based think tank.
Western officials expect to see a significant escalation in fighting in eastern Ukraine in the coming weeks as Russia continues to redeploy troops and equipment to the region. A senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Wednesday that Russia has established three major staging areas for the fight in the Donbas, in the Russian towns of Belgorod, Valuyki, and Rovenki. Russia is also trying to improve mobility and firepower south of the strategically important city of Izyum, near Kharkiv, in an effort to isolate Ukrainian troops in the Donbas, the official said, including by building a bridge over a local river.
But the official added that the United States continues to see signs of morale and command problems deep within the Russian ranks, including recent intelligence reporting that officers—not just conscripts—are frustrated with military performance and leadership. Still, Western officials expect Russia to launch the second phase imminently.
“We expect a huge assault in the coming days,” said a European official speaking on background on condition of anonymity.
Russia’s New Top Commander in Ukraine Is ‘Willing to Sell His Soul’
A veteran of Russia’s brutal campaign in Syria, Aleksandr Dvornikov will have his work cut out for him as Moscow doubles down in eastern Ukraine.
U.S. and European officials believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has appointed Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov as the country’s ground commander in Ukraine in an apparent bid to iron out logistical challenges and centralize command over its campaign as Moscow prepares for a renewed assault in eastern Ukraine.
An experienced senior officer who oversaw Russia’s intervention in Syria, notorious for its brutal tactics, Dvornikov was widely seen as a potential successor to Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. His appointment and Russia’s withdrawal from the Kyiv region, Ukraine’s capital, is tacit acknowledgement from Moscow that the invasion has not gone according to plan as Ukrainian and Western officials warn that coming battle in the Donbas could eclipse the kind of fighting seen in the conflict thus far.
“The battle for Donbas will remind you of the Second World War, with its large operations, maneuvers, involvement of thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, planes, artillery,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said following a meeting of NATO foreign ministers last week.
Dvornikov, who was commander of Russia’s Southern Military District, is believed to have been chosen in part because of Russian forces’ greater success in Ukraine’s south as opposed to the north, where efforts to take Kyiv were thwarted by fierce Ukrainian resistance, a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Monday.
“His forces have done relatively the least worst; let’s put it that way,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with CNA, a think tank. In the initial phase of the war, Russian forces attacked along three axes—from Crimea, from the Donbas, and from the north—with little central coordination. As Western officials struggled to identify a single theater commander, it was assumed much of the command and control of the operation was being run out of Moscow, a European official said, speaking on background on condition of anonymity.
“The creation of a theater commander role like this is clearly intended to bring greater coordination to bear,” the official said. “We will see how effective that proves to be, as—frankly—the Russians have not really trained for that sort of fighting and it doesn’t really fit with their doctrine.”
Dvornikov was born in Ussuriysk in the Russian far east in 1961, and after graduating from the town’s military academy as a teenager, he later attending the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow, one of the most prestigious military academies in the then-Soviet Union. As commander of a motor rifle regiment, he cut his teeth in the assault on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which began in 1999 and saw the city reduced to rubble.
After rising to become chief of staff of Russia’s Central Military District, Dvornikov was tapped as the first commander to oversee Putin’s military campaign in Syria in 2015, which is widely credited with helping turn the tide on the Syrian civil war in favor of the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the initial phase of the operation, poor coordination between Russian air forces and pro-regime Syrian troops on the ground left Assad unable to conquer any rebel-held territory for months, until Dvornikov turned the campaign into a siege.
“The initial phase of the intervention was actually kind of unsuccessful. There was a very heavy sort of wave of airstrikes, but there was no territorial change for months,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow and director of the Syria and countering terrorism and extremism programs at the Middle East Institute. “He had to adapt to a kind of old-fashioned style of warfare, a big, strong preference for standoff shelling [and] artillery. It was almost medieval in a way.”
His impact was also felt on command and control, as Dvornikov reshaped the beleaguered and demoralized Syrian forces backing Assad. He oversaw the relationship between Russian Spetsnaz units and Lebanese Hezbollah units that entered the war on Assad’s behalf, Lister said. Dvornikov cobbled together a mélange of units willing to fight for Assad, pairing Russian special operators with local units and mercenaries to devastating effect. Unlike the current top-down Russian campaign, Dvornikov favored a high degree of maneuver “by autonomous groups of forces,” he wrote in a 2015 military journal article.
“He’s regarded as an effective commander but also quite an imaginative one,” said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
In Syria, Dvornikov oversaw a brutal campaign of airstrikes that included the flattening of Aleppo, the bombing of United Nations aid convoys, and near-daily targeting of civilians in Idlib province with bombings of schools and hospitals. Dvornikov’s appointment is expected to coincide with an even more brutal phase of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, but that may have more to do with how Moscow wages war than with Dvornikov himself.
“It is how the Russians plan to fight these battles, rather than Dvornikov being some kind of sociopath,” Galeotti said.
But even as Russian forces regroup for an intense ground campaign to cut off Ukrainian troops in the Donbas, with some units relocating out of Ukraine to resupply and reequip in western Russia and Belarus, current and former U.S. and European officials do not expect Dvornikov’s appointment to immediately solve the command and logistical problems that have hamstrung the monthslong invasion.
“The biggest challenge is taking a bunch of units, badly mauled in the fighting, [and] integrating this disparate force into an offensive that will include several operational directions of where they’re going to attack,” Kofman said. “And what layer of command they’ve established for them to do that right now is unclear.”
According to one Western intelligence estimate, nearly a quarter of Russian battalion tactical groups fighting in Ukraine have been rendered unable to fight in little more than a month of combat. Russia’s northern grouping of forces in and around Ukraine’s Donbas region includes 20 battalion tactical groups, slightly more than half of which are now in-country, the senior U.S. defense official said on Monday.
“Our view is that even a changeover in personnel or leadership at the top is not going to erase the fact that this is a strategic failure for Russia,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a press briefing on Monday.
U.S. officials said the contours of that strategy are beginning to emerge with Russia’s ballistic missile attack on Friday against the railway hub of Kramatorsk, Ukraine, which killed 57 people on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the Donetsk region and where nearly several thousand people had gathered on train platforms to flee the region in expectation of intensified fighting in the coming days. On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia’s multi-week siege of the port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, had killed “tens of thousands” of civilians who have been cut off from humanitarian aid for days.
“What is clear is that the Russians continue to sink to new lows of depravity and brutality,” the senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Monday. “I think we’re certainly bracing ourselves here for some potentially really, really horrible outcomes.”
Experts think the increased Russian focus on the Donbas could also take hints from precedent, talking and fighting at once. In Syria, after Russia urged Assad’s forces to take back most of the country in a single, ultimately abortive, push, Dvornikov championed a divide-and-conquer approach that saw the Kremlin negotiate four de-escalation zones in the war-torn nation to freeze the conflict before helping the Syrians pick them off one at a time—often with chemical weapons. “It was a nationwide push and it catastrophically failed, and their adaptation was to create a kind of diplomatic geopolitical reality that allowed them to take one area at a time,” said Lister, the expert from the Middle East Institute.
And in Russia’s war in Ukraine, where putting civilians in harm’s way has not been an exception, Dvornikov could make it a norm, former U.S. officials familiar with his brute force style said.
“He could make it very consistent that the targeting of civilians is not only acceptable; it’s actually promoted,” said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East and a CIA paramilitary officer, in an interview. “[Putin] doesn’t need to go find another general who’s willing to sell his soul. This guy has already sold it.”
Why India Won’t Condemn Russia
The world’s largest democracy is under pressure to join the West in sanctioning Moscow. But New Delhi wants to keep its options open.
As much of the Western world has united to punish Russia over its unilateral invasion of Ukraine, India has recently come under the spotlight for refusing to formally condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions. Over the last several weeks, New Delhi has received high-level envoys from countries across the global political spectrum: Russia and China, for example, but also Austria, Germany, Mexico, Britain, the United States, and more. The spate of diplomatic activity is ostensibly aimed at trying to influence New Delhi’s stance.
India has been growing closer to the United States over the last two decades. This week, for example, its defense and foreign ministers are in Washington to meet their counterparts as part of a long-running dialogue between the two countries. But India also has a historic relationship with Russia going back to the days of the Soviet Union and to this day relies on Moscow for military weaponry and spare parts. India is also now purchasing Russian oil at steep discounts on global prices—an unpopular arrangement in global circles but perhaps a necessary bit of business given how much India relies on foreign sources of energy.
As Russia’s human rights atrocities in Ukraine come to light, will India come under more pressure to adapt its studied neutrality? To understand New Delhi’s stance and the pressures it faces, I spoke with Shivshankar Menon, India’s former national security advisor and former foreign secretary, and Suhasini Haidar, the national and diplomatic affairs editor of the Hindu. The following conversation was conducted for FP Live, Foreign Policy’s forum for live journalism, on Friday, April 8. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ukraine Exposed the True Danger of Chinese Censorship
The Chinese public has been inoculated against outside information.
In the post-communist afterword of Roadside Picnic, the famous 1972 Soviet-era science fiction novel by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Boris goes to great lengths to detail the absurd limits imposed on the siblings’ work by their country’s obsessive censors.
The co-author insisted that the classic story they produced “contained nothing criminal; it was quite ideologically appropriate and certainly not dangerous” in any intentional or even readily discernible sense. But this did little to mollify the authorities who had firm and final say on what could and could not be published in the country and who insisted on repeated rounds of deletions, often aimed at what appeared to the authors to be mundane descriptive details.
When the Strugatskys complained, Boris said, it was explained to them that “science fiction necessarily has to be fantastic and on no account should have anything to do with crude, observable, and brutal reality.” It didn’t matter that the authors thought of themselves as writing an allegorical book about “decaying capitalism and triumphant bourgeois ideology” wrapped up in a tale about the hunt for artifacts left by mysterious visitors from outer space—the censors still insisted that the reader had to be “protected from reality.”
The Month That Changed a Century
Putin seeks to destroy not just Ukraine but the entire postwar global system. He may yet succeed.
In little more than a month, Russian President Vladimir Putin has changed the course of this young and already troubled century. He has resurrected the threat of territorial conquest and nuclear war. He has jolted Western Europe awake from its long postwar torpor, raising the prospect of rapid German rearmament. He has put the capstone on two decades of U.S. misdirection by defying American power and influence.
Above all, with his invasion of Ukraine, Putin is trying to complete work on a vast project of destruction implicitly supported by several other world leaders, especially Chinese President Xi Jinping. Together, these leaders want to break what they see as U.S. hegemony over the international system and undermine the notion that the world is bound by a common set of values embodied in international law and upheld by institutions such as the United Nations.
The new world order they are aiming to install is dominated by competing—and increasingly autocratic—civilizations, each controlling its own geopolitical space. Putin plainly intends that a greater Russia encompassing at least part of Ukraine will be one of these, giving brutal resonance to his 2020 declaration that “Russia is not just a country. It’s really a separate civilization.”
“This struggle should be viewed in civilizational, not just geopolitical, terms,” said Charles Kupchan, a former senior U.S. official and now scholar at Georgetown University. “It is at once and the same time sui generis, particular to Putin and Russia, but also is part of a broader increase in ethnonationalism and its role in global politics, as well as the backlash to globalization.”
Russia’s Ukraine Propaganda Has Turned Fully Genocidal
Egged on by the language of annihilation and extermination, Russian soldiers have become willing executioners.
On Feb. 26, only two days into the war, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti published an op-ed titled “The Coming of Russia and of the New World.” Its author, without a trace of irony, praises Russian President Vladimir Putin for the timely “solution of the Ukrainian question.” A few hours later, the article was removed and is now only available in web archives. It’s unclear why it was removed—whether because of its uncomfortable proximity to the lexicon of systematic mass murder or because it described a plan for dismantling Ukrainian statehood after a successful invasion presented itself as an accomplished fact when, in reality, Russian forces were being routed.
But this op-ed wasn’t a fluke or an editor’s oversight. Putin’s hatred of Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign state is well known: He reportedly complained that “Ukraine is not even a real country” to then-U.S. President George W. Bush back in 2008. The same conviction is evident in his later treatises and, finally, his bizarre televised speech three days before he launched the war. Since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine’s eastern regions, television rhetoric has followed Putin’s cues and been extremely derogatory toward Ukraine and its leadership—but not so much ordinary Ukrainians as a people.
That has dramatically changed. Since the failure of Putin’s apparent plan to rush into Kyiv, decapitate the Ukrainian government, and install a puppet regime became evident—and it became clear to him that ordinary Ukrainians weren’t waiting to be liberated by Russia—the language on Ukraine and Ukrainians has turned much more radical and toxic.
Europe Just Can’t Kick Russian Energy
Outrage is cheap in European capitals. Action comes dearer.
As the full scale of Russian atrocities in Ukraine becomes clearer, European countries are facing renewed pressure to hold Moscow accountable by targeting one of its economic lifelines: energy.
For weeks, European leaders have both agonized over Russia’s invasion and at the same time spared Russian energy from otherwise wide-ranging sanctions to avoid plunging their own countries—many of which are heavily reliant on Moscow’s supply—further into an energy crunch. But as calls for tougher measures grow, many European leaders are now facing a painful dilemma: How can they further hit back at Moscow and sever energy ties when doing so could push their countries into economic crisis?
“It’s not going to be an easy road for Europe,” said Samantha Gross, an energy security expert at the Brookings Institution. “From a moral point of view, they definitely want to be off of Russian oil and gas, but it’s easier said than done.”
Europe is Russia’s top energy customer, purchasing more than half of Russia’s crude oil exports and the bulk of its natural gas shipments. As the war continues into its second month, Ukrainian officials say continuing to purchase Russian energy is tantamount to funding the war in Ukraine. By buying Russian oil and gas, the West “is supporting Ukraine with one hand, while supporting Russia’s war machine with another,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.
But for many European countries, cutting off Russian energy is a double-edged sword. The European Union is deeply dependent on Moscow’s supply, getting around 40 percent of its natural gas imports and a quarter of its oil supply from Russia. Experts say securing enough alternative energy sources to replace Moscow’s supply would be exceedingly difficult, even impossible, in the short term, especially given measures taken in recent years by big countries such as Germany to phase out nuclear power and coal, both of which could be alternatives to Russian fuels. Even after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Germany went all-in on a second big Russian gas pipeline meant to redouble dependence on Siberian gas and cut Ukraine out of the energy trade.
On Thursday, the European Parliament passed a largely symbolic resolution to enact a full embargo on Russian gas, coal, and oil imports, a move that reflects growing momentum to finally target Russia’s energy sector. But few countries are completely slashing ties: The EU’s latest sanctions package only banned Russian coal imports, which are of less economic significance to Moscow (and to Europe). Japan, initially reluctant to cut energy ties with Russia, also banned coal imports on Friday.
“We’re straddling between symbolism and substance” by sanctioning coal imports, said Nikos Tsafos, an energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is the easiest way to hit energy without doing something that really messes up the system.”
Some countries are breaking the taboo: In early April, Lithuania became the first EU member country to fully cut off its supply of Russian natural gas. But Lithuania, which has a population of 2.8 million people, is considerably less reliant on Moscow’s supply after building its own offshore liquefied natural gas import terminal in 2014. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis urged the rest of Europe to follow suit. “Buying Russian oil and gas is financing war crimes,” he said. “Dear EU friends, pull the plug. Don’t be an accomplice.”
Other European nations that are more heavily dependent on Moscow’s supply, namely Germany and Austria, insist that these immediate measures would be impossible to adopt. Last year, Germany purchased roughly half of its natural gas and coal supply, and more than one-third of its oil, from Russia. Austria receives 80 percent of its natural gas supply from Russia.
Experts warn that the immediate loss of all Russian energy would be painful all over Europe. “If you were to cut off Russian gas supplies to Europe completely, I think you would see energy-intensive industries shutting down, you would see rationing of energy,” said Jason Bordoff, founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a former adviser to the White House under President Barack Obama. “There simply would not be enough molecules to meet energy needs immediately.”
Since Europe should now be refilling its gas storage for the upcoming winter, Bordoff said, the impact of a full embargo could also spill into the next year. “You’re just setting yourself up for an energy crisis come next winter,” he said.
In recent weeks, Moscow has weaponized Europe’s dependence on its supply, further exposing the continent’s precarious position. In late March, Putin threatened to cut off foreign buyers’ gas supply unless they paid for it in rubles, a decision that Germany denounced as “blackmail.”
The Kremlin is “pushing the buttons to see how Europe responds,” said James Henderson, an expert at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. “It knows full well that Europe is heavily reliant and can’t, without huge economic pain, basically stand up to the challenge.”
But as new reports of Russian atrocities come out—including a missile attack Friday on a train station packed with fleeing refugees, and revelations of a mass grave containing hundreds of dead Ukrainians in Chernihiv—mounting pressure could test how far European leaders are willing to go to hold Russia accountable.
“Things are sounding possible now that didn’t sound possible to me before the revelations of the weekend,” said Gross, the Brookings expert. “I think you are seeing an openness to things that didn’t quite seem possible a few days ago.”
Macron’s Vision for European Autonomy Crashed and Burned in Ukraine
A grand intellectual edifice has collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.
Five years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron was elected on the promise of revitalizing the European Union with new vigor and vision. Arriving at his victory rally with the EU anthem playing and EU flags flying behind him, he pledged to “defend Europe” and protect its “civilization.”
At the heart of Macron’s vision for Europe, which he has developed in great detail during his years in office, lies the notion of European strategic autonomy. What sounds sensible and practical at first—Europe should be able to assert its independence and ensure its own security—is part of a much bigger ideological edifice of Europe’s place in the world and pursued by other French leaders before Macron.
This elaborate vision for Europe just crashed and burned in Ukraine. Other than a flurry of failed attempts at personal diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Macron has been all but absent in mobilizing Europe’s response to the gravest threat to the continent since 1945.
West Seeks to Pierce Russia’s Digital Iron Curtain
Governments and media sites are finding creative ways to get the truth about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war to regular Russians.
As Russian forces lay siege to Ukrainian cities and Russian atrocities continue to mount—including a missile strike Friday targeting fleeing refugees in eastern Ukraine that killed at least 30 people—the Kremlin is waging an information war on the home front as it seeks to control the narrative about its invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
Russia’s last remaining independent media outlets in the country were forced into closure or exile and much of the foreign press corps decamped abroad as a new law signed last month effectively criminalized reporting on the conflict, banning the use of the words “war” or “invasion.”
As a digital iron curtain descends on Russia, Western governments and free press advocates are scrambling for ways to punch through it and reach average Russians with accurate reporting on the war—in methods that vary from the creative to the high tech to the antiquated.
The Fall and Rise of the Russian Ruble
Western sanctions ravaged the ruble after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. How did the currency bounce back?
The U.S. dollar was valued this week at about 80 Russian rubles, roughly the same exchange rate in effect before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Western sanctions had initially ravaged the Russian currency—but it has bounced back.
How did that happen? And what’s holding up additional economic penalties against Russia? Also, given the stickiness of sanctions, will they ever be lifted?
Those are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with FP columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze.
What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length. For the entire conversation, subscribe to Ones and Tooze on your preferred podcast app.
West Boots Out Hundreds of Russian Diplomats in Wake of Ukraine Invasion and War Crimes
But the U.S. and other countries are stopping short of kicking out Moscow’s ambassadors.
As reports filter out of Ukraine about gruesome atrocities committed by Russia’s military, Western countries are responding by expelling hundreds of Russian diplomats, many of whom use diplomatic cover to operate as spies.
At least 394 officials at Russia’s diplomatic missions have been expelled by Western countries since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February, according to a Foreign Policy analysis of statements and data released by dozens of ministries of foreign affairs across Europe and North America. Western governments have accused many of the Russian diplomats they ordered to leave of being spies operating under diplomatic cover.
The diplomatic freeze by Washington and European allies represents one of the largest collective expulsions of foreign officials from a single country in modern history, according to current and former veteran diplomats. It is rivaled only by a wave of expulsions of Russian diplomats from the West in 2018, after Russia poisoned a former double agent on British soil using a chemical weapon.
The mass expulsion is part of a broader campaign by the United States and European countries to ramp up pressure on Moscow diplomatically and economically in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, and amid gruesome new revelations about war crimes committed by Russia’s military against civilians in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns it has occupied.
“It’s an important continued signal of very grave concerns and disbelief at the Russian barbarism in Ukraine,” said Rose Gottemoeller, a scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former deputy secretary-general of NATO. “Governments have limited instruments or tools to express that really sharp concern; this is one way to go about it.”
Some politicians and lawmakers in Western countries have called for their governments to go as far as to expel Russia’s ambassadors, not just lower-level embassy officials or suspected spies. Lithuania, a NATO and European Union member, announced it was expelling Russia’s ambassador on Monday. But most countries have not taken that step, which would cut off a channel of communication with Moscow and could prompt the Kremlin to respond in kind by booting out Western diplomats.
Russia has repeatedly condemned the expulsion of its diplomats from Western countries, reciprocating with expulsions of its own.
For now, at least, the Russian ambassador in Washington is staying in place. “There is no intent by the U.S. government to expel [Russian Ambassador Anatoly] Antonov from the United States,” a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy. “The United States remains committed to open channels of communication with the Russian government, both to advance U.S. interests and to reduce the risk of miscalculation between our countries.”
The wave of expulsions also shed a rare public spotlight on the wide extent of suspected Russian intelligence operations in the West, operating under the guise of diplomatic cover.
“It’s a well-known fact that there is an intelligence component in Russian diplomatic missions,” said Mikko Hautala, Finland’s ambassador to the United States, who also previously served as ambassador to Russia before coming to Washington in 2020.
Germany expelled 40 Russian diplomats on suspicion of spying—out of a total of 104 Russian officials accredited to work in the country, as Reuters reported. A top counterintelligence official for Sweden’s security services, Daniel Stenling, said in an interview last year that 1 in 3 Russian diplomats in Sweden is likely a spy.
“Some of these Russian embassies in some European capitals were exceedingly large, and it wasn’t because they were strengthening bilateral relations,” said Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund think tank. “It’s clear most of these so-called diplomats are actually intelligence operatives.”
At least 24 of NATO’s 30 members joined in expelling Russian diplomats—including some of its largest members such as France and Italy and some of its smallest members such as Luxembourg, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. European countries that aren’t in NATO, including Ireland, Austria, and Sweden, have also expelled diplomats, alongside the EU, which announced it was kicking out 19 diplomats from the Russian mission to the bloc in Brussels.
Expelling foreign dignitaries from embassies isn’t a new phenomenon in diplomacy. The measure is permitted by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, granting receiving states the right to remove the head of a mission or any member of its diplomatic staff—deeming them persona non grata—without having to explain why. It’s used as a tool to register protests during disputes between countries or to kick out embassy officials suspected of spying.
“In our case, Finland has a long history of expelling diplomats who are being observed as conducting illegal intelligence activities,” Hautala said.
In February, during the first days of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, the United States announced it was kicking out a dozen Russian “intelligence operatives” who operated out of Russia’s mission at the United Nations in New York, an act that had been “in development for several months,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the U.N. said in a statement.
It comes as no surprise that Russian diplomats are engaging in espionage, said Gordon Duguid, a former senior U.S. diplomat and lecturer on public diplomacy at George Washington University. “What it does mean is that we are going to make it harder for you to gather intelligence,” he said.
The expulsions were a way for Western countries to directly show Russia that it should change course in Ukraine, he said. The risk is that channels of communication are progressively closed.
“[Y]ou’re pretty much breaking off diplomatic relations,” Duguid said. “[T]here’s fewer conversations going on, and the possibilities of misunderstanding increases.”
While NATO allies have put up a united front against Russia, with the latest batch of sanctions on Russian officials announced Wednesday, there have been a few notable holdouts who have yet to expel Russian diplomats since the beginning of the invasion.
Canada is one, at least so far. “If we exclude Russian diplomats, which we are considering, like other countries and our allies are doing, we know that will probably mean we lose diplomats in Moscow,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Wednesday.
In Washington, some current and former U.S. officials argue that President Joe Biden should keep Russia’s ambassador in place even if relations between the two countries deteriorate further. That would help ensure the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, can stay in his post to maintain contacts with the Kremlin and monitor the cases of American citizens such as Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan, and Trevor Reed who are detained in Russia on spurious charges.
“The presence of John Sullivan in Moscow is vital right now, because we don’t have many lines of communication open with the Russian government,” Gottemoeller said. “He is keeping an ear to the ground on behalf of the U.S. government to try to understand exactly what the thinking of the Kremlin is. That is the purpose of an embassy.”
Moscow has already dramatically cut the number of diplomats and local employees allowed at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia, leaving only a skeleton crew in place.
Other NATO and EU countries aren’t kicking out Russian diplomats for other reasons. Turkey, for instance, has avoided expelling Russian diplomats as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to position himself as a peace mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, viewed as one of the EU leaders friendliest with Putin, has also notably not announced any expulsion of Russian diplomats.
Still other countries have not announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats simply because there aren’t enough left in their country to kick out, as in the case of the United Kingdom.
“[They] basically don’t have anyone left in London,” a British official told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity. Following the assassination attempt on British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018, the Russian Embassy in London was cleared of alleged Russian intelligence operatives, setting the precedent for the most recent wave of diplomatic expulsions.
When asked about calls for the U.K. to expel Russia’s ambassador, which so far has not been up for consideration, the British official said: “There’s nothing that’s off the table.”
U.N. Kicks Russia Off Human Rights Council
In one way at least, so far, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has joined Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya.
The United Nations General Assembly voted Thursday to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, the first time a country has been bounced from the U.N.’s premier rights body since 2011, when the government of former Libyan strongman, Muammar al-Qaddafi, was pushed out.
The 193-member assembly adopted a U.S.-sponsored resolution suspending Russia’s membership in the rights council for the commission of “gross and systematic violations of human rights.” The resolution was adopted by a vote of 93 to 24, with 58 abstentions.
The measure constituted a stunning rebuke of Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that wields enormous diplomatic influence at the United Nations. It came days after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a chilling account to the U.N. Security Council of what he characterized as war crimes in the town of Bucha, Ukraine, following the withdrawal of Russian forces there. Following his talk, the Ukrainian delegation broadcast a brief video before the council documenting grisly scenes of civilian killings in cities across Ukraine.
The vote fell short of the overwhelming majority of U.N. members who ruled in March—by a vote of 141 to 5, with 35 abstentions—to condemn Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine and demand the withdrawal of its troops. But it still represented a significant outcome, contributing to Russia’s growing diplomatic isolation and denying it an opportunity to defend its activities in Ukraine as a member of the rights council.
Following the vote, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told journalist Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC that the vote was “historic” and “unprecedented” in that it was the first time a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council had been suspended from the rights council. “So many countries voted for the resolution, and we were successful in again isolating Russia, condemning Russia, and supporting the people of Ukraine,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
Still, the U.N. General Assembly’s vote underscored the continued ambivalence that many states—particularly in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—have about rallying behind the United States and Europe in ratcheting up economic, political, and military pressure on Russia. The overwhelming majority of co-sponsors of the resolution came from Western powers, particularly Europeans, as well as close U.S. allies in Asia, including South Korea, Japan, and Singapore.
Mexico, which abstained on the vote, said shunning a U.N. member was counterproductive. “To exclude, to suspend, is not the solution,” Mexico’s U.N. ambassador, Juan Ramón de la Fuente, told the U.N. General Assembly. “Even in the midst of war, all channels should be maintained for dialogue with Russia.”
China’s U.N. envoy, Zhang Jun, expressed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity but voted against the resolution, which was formally introduced by Ukraine. He warned the resolution would aggravate divisions among U.N. member states and “deprive” Russia of its legitimate seat on the rights council. It would simply “add fuel to the fire,” he said.
Although the United States secured the backing of Israel, which had previously declined to co-sponsor a U.S.-sponsored resolution in the days following the Russian invasion, its other allies in the Middle East—including Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—abstained. The vast majority of African nations—including Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Sudan—abstained on the vote, and nearly 10—including Algeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe—voted to block the initiative.
South Africa and Senegal expressed concern that suspending Russia’s membership in the council was premature, given that a Commission of Inquiry established by the U.N. Human Rights Council had yet to conclude its investigation into alleged atrocities.
After the vote, a Russian representative, Gennady Kuzmin, dismissed the resolution as an “illegitimate and politically motivated step with the aim of demonstrably punishing a sovereign member state of the U.N. conducting an independent domestic and foreign policy.”
Before today’s session, Russia on Wednesday issued a veiled threat to some member states: Failure to vote against Moscow’s ousting would be interpreted as a show of support for a U.S.-led campaign to isolate Russia.
The warning—which was expressed in a letter to select members obtained by Foreign Policy—raised concern among U.N. delegates that Moscow, which wields enormous diplomatic influence at the United Nations, may retaliate against states that back the U.S.-led initiative. The Russian letter—sent to African, Asian, Latin American, and Caribbean nations—was directed at smaller, developing countries seeking to avoid being drawn into the big-power fight over Ukraine. Those nations are typically more likely to cast an abstention or decline to show up for a controversial vote that pits big powers against one another.
According to the Russian letter, the move to expel Russia from the rights council is “another step to punish our country for [conducting an] independent internal and foreign policy.” (Ukraine is a sovereign nation and is in no way part of Russia’s internal policy.) Moreover, the letter says, the move “will allow a small group of Western countries to unimpededly dictate their vision of human rights and to use human rights issues as an instrument of political pressure and punishment of ‘unfavorable’ states.”
It went on to state, “an equidistant voting position (abstention or non-participation) will serve the goal of the United States and be considered accordingly by the Russian Federation.” The letter did not specify what the consequence of an abstention or non-vote would have on relations with Moscow, but one senior ambassador who read the letter said it signaled Russia’s intention to retaliate diplomatically against countries that did not support Moscow.
Washington moved toward the vote after seeing the evidence of Russian atrocities in Bucha, Ukraine, including the deliberate massacre of civilians by Russian troops. “Russia’s participation on the Human Rights Council is a farce,” Thomas-Greenfield said during a visit to Romania. “And it is wrong, which is why we believe it is time the U.N. General Assembly vote to remove them.”
Under the terms of a March 2006 resolution, the U.N. General Assembly can suspend a member of the Human Rights Council that “commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.”
“I have heard Russia has been lobbying member states and warning them that even abstentions would be considered as hostile acts,” said Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.
“Given the evidence of war crimes and serious human rights violations committed by Russian forces in Bucha and elsewhere in Ukraine, it is essential that the U.N. and International Criminal Court move swiftly with their investigations to gather and preserve evidence,” Charbonneau added. “Suspension of Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body it’s clearly unfit to be a member of, is an important step to holding Russian authorities accountable for their actions.”
In New York, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, also protested a separate decision by his British counterpart, Barbara Woodward—who is serving this month as president of the U.N. Security Council—to invite Zelensky to brief the U.N. Security Council by videoconference. Nebenzia argued that U.N. Security Council (UNSC) rules established after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic require member state representatives address the council in person.
Nebenzia also characterized Woodward’s decision to allow the Ukrainian delegation to play the video of alleged Russian atrocities in the council as a “grave abuse” of her role as council president. “[S]uch practice undermines the foundation and spirit of the work of the UNSC. In-person participation, diplomacy and negotiations are the core principles of the UNSC and its chamber,” he wrote in a letter to Woodward on Tuesday.
Nebenzia warned that further similar steps by the United Kingdom could risk having “implications on our future work and on the mood in the Council in general.”
‘We Can Stanch the Dying, but We Can’t Stop the Killing’
The International Rescue Committee’s David Miliband explains how humanitarian aid groups are managing a historic refugee crisis.
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine in late February, the humanitarian crisis there continues to worsen. Images of dead bodies lining the streets of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, have shocked the world and led to new and increased sanctions on Russia. But that hasn’t stopped the war, as reports suggest Russia may escalate fighting in parts of eastern Ukraine.
Millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee both internally and to neighboring countries in what the United Nations is calling the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.
To better understand the situation on the ground, and how aid agencies are trying to help civilians in trouble, I spoke with David Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. He’s also a former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. The following conversation was conducted for FP Live, Foreign Policy’s forum for live journalism, on Tuesday, April 5. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Finland May Finally Want In on NATO
Sweden is not far behind.
Just over two months ago, the prospect of Finland joining NATO was virtually unthinkable to most in the northern European country. It had grown closer to the military alliance over the last three decades but resisted the idea of becoming a full-fledged member.
That all changed when tens of thousands of Russian troops rolled across Ukraine’s border in late February.
Now, top Finnish leaders are edging closer to joining NATO, buoyed by a drastic turnaround in Finnish public opinion that went from opposing the move to supporting it virtually overnight.
“It has been a major change,” said Pete Piirainen, a visiting senior fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “We feel Russia broke the rules, broke the international system and security architecture.”
Finland’s sudden shift on NATO membership is a sea change in Europe’s security environment in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one that could drastically alter the map of the showdown between Russia and the West.
If Finland were to join the alliance, the total land border between NATO territory and Russia would more than double, from around 754 miles currently to nearly 1,600 miles. It would also extend NATO’s northern flank across the full length of the border with Russia’s strategically important Murmansk region and Kola Peninsula, where a sizable chunk of Russia’s navy is based.
A similar debate over NATO membership is playing out in neighboring Sweden, another longtime partner of the alliance that had spurned full membership for decades—until Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine. Of the two countries, it is the Swedish public that has historically been more open to membership of the military alliance than their Finnish neighbors. That is no longer the case. “The biggest momentum is in Finland, and that has been a bit surprising actually,” said Anna Wieslander, director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council.
In the days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, support for NATO membership in Finland surged into the majority for the first time, reaching 62 percent in a second survey conducted in mid-March by the Finnish public broadcaster. In Sweden, 51 percent now support NATO membership, according to a poll from early March, up from 42 percent in January.
Although Finland is edging closer to NATO membership than Sweden, most analysts and diplomats agree that the countries are a package deal. If one joins, the other is likely to follow suit. Given their shared geography on the Scandinavian Peninsula—along with NATO member Norway—the alliance would prefer if the two countries joined at the same time. “[With] that, you will have one new solution for the security arrangements,” Wieslander said.
“Finland is on a path toward membership. I think now it’s a question of when, not if,” said Erik Brattberg, an expert on trans-Atlantic security with the Albright Stonebridge Group, a consulting firm. “I think Sweden is still adjusting to the new geopolitical reality. It has been slower in that adjustment, but they are also moving in the same direction.”
NATO members seem universally ready to welcome Sweden and Finland with open arms. Diplomats from Germany, Britain, France, Canada, Lithuania, and Estonia all told Foreign Policy their governments would likely support Finland and Sweden’s membership bid.
Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said Washington would “welcome” the two new members but stressed it was up to the governments in Helsinki and Stockholm to make the first move. “They bring very capable militaries. They are some of our closest allies in Europe, and so I can’t imagine a situation where there would be tremendous resistance to this idea,” she told reporters in a briefing on Tuesday. “Quite the contrary, I think NATO allies would be generally enthusiastic.”
The Finnish government is working on a white paper on security due to be released this month, which will fuel conversation about NATO membership ahead of the security alliance’s summit in Madrid in June. The white paper will “clearly influence the debate here in Sweden as well,” Wieslander said.
Brattberg said the ruling party in Sweden, the center-left Swedish Social Democratic Party, appears to be starting to shift its foreign-policy platform in the wake of Russia’s war, prodded in part by the center-right parties in opposition to renewing a push for NATO membership. “The Social Democratic Party has traditionally, historically stood for Swedish neutrality … and military nonalignment,” Brattberg said. “But even amongst leading Social Democrats in Sweden, that stance is increasingly being seen as less and less relevant in a new era marked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
The question of NATO membership is likely to factor higher than ever before in debate ahead of the Swedish general election scheduled for September. The country’s Moderate Party has already announced that it would back membership of the military alliance.
The prospect of Finland and Sweden joining NATO is likely to further inflame tensions between Russia and the NATO alliance. The Kremlin has characterized the alliance, borne out of the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the West, as its top geopolitical foe and signaled that Ukraine’s prospective NATO membership played a major role in its decision to fully invade the country. A senior Russian diplomat warned last month that there would be “serious military and political consequences” if the two countries joined the alliance.
Finland’s ambassador to Washington, Mikko Hautala, told Foreign Policy in an interview that he expected a reaction from Moscow if Finland or Sweden were to move ahead with applying to NATO. “[At] a minimum, we will see information influencing … those kind of activities,” he said. “But it’s hard to say what the reaction would be.”
During the Cold War, as Europe was carved up into spheres of influence, Finland opted for neutrality, serving as an important buffer between the East and the West. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave Finland more room to maneuver in its foreign policy, joining the European Union in 1995 and deepening its cooperation with NATO. “We are basically as close to NATO as you can get without being a member,” Hautala said.
Smith, the U.S. NATO ambassador, said the Kremlin’s fierce opposition to NATO enlargement wouldn’t deter allies from welcoming new members, even in the face of a full-scale Russian war in Ukraine. “Russia tried its very best in recent months to try and get NATO allies to revisit that policy,” she said. “It sent a treaty requesting that NATO basically turn off the process of NATO enlargement, and the answer that came back in stereo surround sound from all 30 allies was: absolutely not. NATO’s door will remain open—full stop.”
NATO diplomats say Finland brings more advantages to the alliance than just military hardware. Few countries know how Russia works better than Finland—at least as well as foreign countries can in the shadowy and opaque power structure that Russian President Vladimir Putin has built. They say adding Finland’s expertise and experience in balancing relations with its larger eastern neighbor would add significant value to the alliance.
Other experts on trans-Atlantic security said while Russia would likely condemn Finland and Sweden’s membership, it doesn’t view those countries in the same light as other prospective members that used to be in the Soviet Union and, at least in the eyes of Putin, should fall under Moscow’s orbit.
“Russia would be furious, but I don’t think it would react the same way if, say, Georgia or Ukraine were on a clear track to NATO membership now,” said Rachel Rizzo, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.
Correction, April 7, 2022: Anna Wieslander’s job title and affiliation has been updated.
Why Most of the Indo-Pacific Tiptoes Around Russia
With Beijing and Moscow working so closely together, countries find it risky to support the West on Ukraine.
Since the start of Russia’s increasingly brutal war in Ukraine, the West has ramped up pressure on the rest of the world to condemn Moscow’s belligerence and join sanctions against Russia and its regime. In the vast Indo-Pacific region, however, the West’s message has fallen flat. Only six staunch U.S. allies and partners there—Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan—have joined Western sanctions or initiated their own. The rest of the region has refused to join the West thus far. That’s in large part because most of these countries are already struggling to position themselves in the intensifying competition between the United States and China—and the emergence of an additional superpower conflict between the United States and Russia increases the perceived risks of aligning with the West, especially when Moscow and Beijing are working so closely together.
The most notable of the region’s abstainers, of course, are the two heavyweights: India and China. From a grand strategy perspective, they are leveraging the crisis to hasten the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar international order to reduce the West’s ability to dominate the system. Despite edging closer to Washington in recent years, New Delhi has notably refused to condemn Moscow, mainly because India continues to be highly dependent on Russian weapons to maintain its military—a close relationship that dates back to the Cold War and one that India doesn’t want to put at risk. Shortly before the Russian invasion, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised Russian President Vladimir Putin friendship with “no limits,” a manifestation of the two leaders’ common vision of pushing back against what they perceive as encroachment by the West. Both India and China have exploited the crisis to buy up Russian oil and other commodities at a heavy discount now that some Western countries are cutting imports (though Russian supplies still make up only a small share of their imports compared to most European countries). To facilitate these purchases and help Russia reduce its dependence on U.S. dollars, India is even reportedly devising a rupee-to-rubles currency swap arrangement.
War Crimes Trials Aren’t Enough
To protect civilians from war crimes, stop them from happening now.
Geolocated and forensically confirmed pictures trickled out this weekend from the Bucha suburb of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, after Russian troops withdrew: adult Ukrainian men executed with their hands behind their backs in the streets, women raped and burned, corpses dumped into sewers.
These atrocities—reminiscent of Rwanda, Kosovo, and Bosnia—cap off a month during which Russian crimes against civilians were already on full display: maternity hospitals being bombed, girls under age 10 being admitted to hospitals with clear signs of sexual trauma, and the encirclement and starvation of urban areas.
In addition, the panic set off by the images of Bucha will likely only reinvigorate refugee flows out of the country, which already number in the millions. All of this is made possible by the ultimate war crime: the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country, long outlawed under the United Nations Charter and now formally prosecutable under international criminal law.
That international institutions are refusing to look away and are calling these crimes what they are—aggression, war crimes, crimes against humanity, potentially even genocide—demonstrates an international justice system at work.
The International Court of Justice has called on Russia to cease and desist; the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has opened an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. The newly defined crime of aggression may be prosecuted in national courts under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction. And the United Nations has opened a Commission of Inquiry to gather evidence to fuel trials at these and any other tribunals that might be envisioned. Ukraine has asked the ICC to look at Bucha specifically. U.S. President Joe Biden has called for tribunals, and U.S. Congress has held a hearing.
These efforts are laudable. In the aftermath of war, international courts have real teeth. One of the greatest victories for humanity has been the indictment, trial, conviction, and punishment of generals and heads of state at The Hague.
Calls for war crimes trials while war crimes are ongoing can have two significant downsides.
Col. Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander who carried out the Srebrenica massacre, was indicted, tried, and convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). His civilian counterpart who ordered such atrocities, Radovan Karadzic, evaded justice for 13 years but was finally caught, extradited, and tried. Even former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who had bankrolled the Bosnian Serb genocide against Bosnian Muslims, was eventually deposed and turned over to The Hague, where he died disgraced while awaiting sentencing.
But calls for war crimes trials while war crimes are ongoing can have two significant downsides.
First, early indictments foreclose off-ramps, further backing authoritarian regimes into a politico-strategic corner. As the South African former judge Richard Goldstone has argued, trials during ongoing conflict can be counterproductive toward bringing about a cessation of hostilities.
This, in turn, is problematic not only for peace prospects but also for civilians in war because, as political scientist Alexander Downes has shown, the longer wars continue, the more war crimes violations on all sides increase in likelihood and severity. Political scientists Jack Snyder and Leslie Vinjamuri have argued that amnesties, not trials, are often required to bring about peace: “Justice does not lead,” they write, “it follows.”
Consider: If the ICC were to indict Russian President Vladimir Putin, the indictment itself would surely become a bargaining chip in any potential peace settlement. If the West stuck by its guns, insisting that the Russian people replace and extradite Putin in return for lifting sanctions, this would only raise the stakes for Putin in winning at any cost. It would make him less likely to cave, more likely to take drastic actions, and more paranoid domestically, tightening the noose around his own inner circle and the public.
On the other hand, if the ICC were to give in, after issuing an indictment, to a Russian demand for immunity in return for peace, it undermines the entire purpose of international justice. This is why war crimes indictments are arguably best left until after a war is concluded.
But there is a perhaps more insidious problem: Tribunals can get in the way of deterring war crimes by substituting them for genuine action. They can create the impression that the international community is holding an aggressor accountable while enabling the international community to avoid the hard choices that could actually save civilian lives and enforce the U.N. Charter.
It is useful to recall the origins of the best known and perhaps most effective of all war crimes tribunals: the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which began in 1993 as an effort by Western countries to avoid intervening to stop genocide and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia, a prospect for which there was little domestic support in the United States or Europe at the time due to the perceived debacle of U.S. intervention in Somalia around the same time.
Political scientist Christopher Rudolph shows how the court represented a “palatable compromise” between the ethical desire to intervene and the political (and tactical) challenges of doing more to end the war. As Aryeh Neier, former head of Human Rights Watch, stated, “It was a way to do something about Bosnia that would have no political cost domestically.”
The unavoidable truth is that the way to protect civilians from war crimes during ongoing war is not merely to threaten punishment for crimes sometime in the future but to put a stop to them now. And in Putin’s case, this stopping power can come only from military force, not solely from judges.
Political scientist Jacqueline McAllister’s work shows war crimes tribunals themselves deter crimes in war only in very specific circumstances and don’t work well when the perpetrating regime in question is beholden to an illiberal constituency. Indictments, she argues, do serve another important purpose: to rally the international community against an aggressor in ways that provide the military might to help bring the perpetrator to the table. But her analysis of the role the ICTY indictment played in Kosovo was predicated on a situation where indictment was combined with the willingness to back up judicial processes with a show of military force.
Consider: the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre was not stopped by the threat of a war crimes trial; it was stopped when U.S. helicopter pilot warrant officer Hugh Thompson Jr. turned his guns on his fellow Americans, Lt. William Calley Jr. and his platoon, and threatened to open fire if they didn’t stop killing unarmed South Vietnamese civilians. He then provided an airlift to the survivors.
The Bosnian War was not stopped when the U.N. Security Council created the ICTY; it was stopped (rather swiftly) when NATO established and enforced a no-fly zone. As for the crime of aggression, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was not reversed through the use of a war crimes court, real or imagined, but rather through a collective security operation to punish then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for invading and push his forces out of the country.
Some will say escalation even of the defensive sort is too dangerous and the stakes are much higher in this case. Indeed they are: At stake is the entire rules-based liberal international order and with it, the idea that territorial aggrandizement through aggression is a thing of the past. As political scientists Alexander Montgomery and Amy Nelson write, persistently signaling that the United States is afraid to escalate has only emboldened and enabled Putin’s crimes. Other options exist.
Article 5 of NATO’s charter may not apply, but the U.N. Charter’s Article 2 does, as does the right of states to undertake collective defense in an instance of aggression until and unless the U.N. Security Council can act. Similarly, the so-called Genocide Convention requires states to prevent acts that involve targeting and destroying a national group’s civilian population in whole or in part. Bucha arguably qualifies.
But even if none of the above were true, more than 3 million refugees have already passed into NATO countries, threatening to destabilize them. The U.N. Security Council has rightly treated war crimes as a threat to international peace and security when they create refugee flows and viewed such flows, when intentionally manufactured through atrocity, as a violation of the territorial integrity norm, warranting a military response. Viewed this way, one could argue Russia has already breached NATO territory.
Yes, it is scary to contemplate a shooting war with a nuclear power, but Russia wants a nuclear exchange no more than the West does. The United States cannot continue to allow its nuclear arsenal to deter itself from fighting: It should use the threat of its own unequaled military power to deter Russian crimes and provide Ukraine with the stick it needs. Moreover, escalation is already increasing with every massacre. Every millionth refugee that crosses into an already overstretched land, every passing news cycle that increases enmity, makes it easier for oligarchs to turn against Putin and further reduces his chances for an off-ramp.
NATO should stop casting about aimlessly for that off-ramp and create one forthwith by calling Putin’s bluff, demonstrating that Russia can only lose by continuing the war and signaling that the incontrovertible evidence that civilians are being willfully massacred and raped—to say nothing of the millions of refugees whose movement is already compromising NATO borders—has crossed a line.
Biden erred in signaling that a military attack on NATO territory was the only thing that would bring the West into the war. He can and should use the Bucha massacre and the refugee crisis as a rationale to adopt a more muscular position and force a settlement before things escalate further.
An all-out NATO assault to drive Russia back and enforce the U.N. Charter could, at this point, quite reasonably be threatened if Russia does not withdraw. As a shot across the bow, NATO could begin by sending troops to secure western Ukraine, freeing up the Ukrainian defense forces to hold the east, and establish the requested no-fly-zone to protect Ukrainian skies and humanitarian access.
Even more minimal initiatives would represent a step up from thoughts, prayers, and accusations of war crimes to actually begin saving lives: Even before the Bucha revelations, Montgomery and Nelson had suggested providing counterfire systems to Ukraine; aiding the evacuation of refugees; or organizing evacuations by sea in Mariupol, a Ukrainian port city.
Options abound: Political will is required. It’s all too easy to threaten war crimes tribunals. The promise of a later trial is a small solace to the families of those dead in the streets.
Reports of Russian Atrocities in Ukraine Are Just the Beginning
Hellish scenes from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha spark fears of what awaits in Mariupol.
Just over a month ago, the small city of Bucha was a leafy suburb like any other. Affluent and dotted with parks, it was the kind of place that drew in young families from nearby Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, looking for some space to stretch their legs and the promise of a yard. On Saturday, as the Ukrainian military retook control of the town, they found bodies and limbs strewn along the sides of the road, some with their hands bound behind their backs in a telltale sign of summary execution. Some 270 people have been buried in two mass graves, the town’s mayor, Anatoliy Fedoruk, told the Washington Post. In images, black body bags and ghostly white limbs can be seen protruding from the dirt.
Situated to the northwest of Kyiv, Bucha saw fierce fighting in the early days of the war, as Russian forces encountered fierce resistance as they tried and ultimately failed to advance on the capital. The city’s main thoroughfare, Vokzalnaya, is littered with burned out Russian tanks struck by a Ukrainian ambush in the early days of the war.
“It looks like movies about the Second World War,” said Kira Rudik, a Ukrainian member of parliament who was in Bucha on Sunday and Monday. In front of the wreckage of one home, its garden fence still standing, Rudik said she saw a homemade sign with the words, “We are peaceful people,” written carefully in black marker in an apparent bid to keep the Russian troops at bay. “It didn’t help them,” she said.
Russia’s Urban Warfare Predictably Struggles
Fighting in cities is hard for any military.
The Russian military’s abysmal performance is one of the major surprises of the Ukraine war. Rather than a near-peer competitor to the United States, this past month revealed Russia to be a poorly trained and demoralized force reliant on antiquated equipment and weighed down by corruption and failing leadership.
But in fixating on Russia’s failures without acknowledging the challenges all militaries face in urban warfare, U.S. policymakers and observers risk falling into the very same trap that tripped the Russians: overestimating their own capabilities while underestimating the difficulty of the fight ahead.
The complications Russia has encountered in urban conflict in Ukraine’s Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Kyiv are not simply a function of Russian incompetence. They’re a reflection of the difficulties any military would face in urban warfare.
Putin’s War Is an Existential Crisis for the United Nations
It needs to be replaced by an organization where one nation cannot escape accountability because it is in a special class.
On June 30, 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia appeared before an international body charged with maintaining world peace and providing a forum for resolving international disputes. In Geneva, Haile Selassie pleaded for his people before the world’s mightiest nations—collectively, the League of Nations—to prevent further destruction by a power bent on a war of conquest, Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy. Haile Selassie’s beleaguered forces continued to fight against a better armed, more powerful foe. The assembled nations listened and sympathized but ultimately took no action in collective security to stop the war. Some nations sympathetic to Italy, the aggressor, because of ideological alignment and opposition to the then-existing world order, balked at unified action to stop the war. Three years after Haile Selassie’s address, with the League of Nations proven incapable of preventing state aggression, the world was at war. The same sides that aligned in favor of and against Italy became pitted against each other. The cost in lives grew from tens of thousands in 1936 to tens of millions by 1945.
Nearly 86 years later, history is rhyming. The world, through 21st-century information technology, now views a war of conquest in Europe in near real time. Russia’s war in Ukraine has upended a world order established in the wake of a worldwide conflict and designed to prevent wars of conquest and to prevent one dictator from attempting to shift the boundaries of nations at his own whim. Again, factions are forming—either in support of the aggressor state, led by a despot who stands in opposition to basic human rights, or in favor of the established order that obligates nations to refrain from wars of conquest.
Russians Likely to Encounter Growing Guerrilla Warfare in Ukraine
Kyiv says it plans to launch a coordinated campaign.
If it’s not obvious by now: The Ukrainian Armed Forces aren’t following the expected playbook. They were supposed to be have been defeated within days of the Feb. 24 invasion, as an accidentally published Russian victory declaration suggests. On the day of the invasion, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner even told the Ukrainian ambassador begging for help that it would all to be over in a few hours. Instead, the war is well into its second month, and a Russian victory seems more remote than ever.
Once their country was occupied and a puppet regime established, the Ukrainians were then supposed to turn to partisan warfare that would transform the war into a long and bitter quagmire for Russia. Yet again, the Ukrainians didn’t listen. Instead of waiting for their defeat, they say they’re planning to launch a coordinated guerrilla campaign within the next few weeks—parallel to the regular war and just as spring turns forests green to provide cover. “The season of a total Ukrainian guerrilla safari will soon begin,” the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, announced in late March. “Then there will be one relevant scenario left for the Russians: how to survive.”
Judging from reports, irregular civilian resistance has already taken place, so the guerrilla campaign announced by Budanov will not be starting from scratch. In the northern part of Poltava province, according to a March 18 report, wild game hunters captured over 10 tanks and other vehicles and pursued retreating Russian troops. Earlier in March, guerrillas reportedly destroyed a convoy of trucks near Kharkiv. Elsewhere, on March 11, villagers reportedly helped police take 29 Russian soldiers prisoner.
Russia’s War Is the End of Magical Thinking
The Davos view of globalization is dead—and that’s a good thing.
In her co-authored 2018 book Political Risk, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tells the story of an hourlong negotiation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. For what were clearly protectionist reasons, Russia had banned U.S. pork products. To justify the ban, Putin claimed American pork posed an unacceptable risk of the parasitic disease trichinosis because Russians tended to cook their pork less. “You wouldn’t believe it,” Rice recalled. “We spent an hour, an entire hour, on pork. … And we had this long discussion of cooking habits in Russia compared to Alabama, where I’m from.”
In the three decades since the end of the Cold War, the world was mostly stable enough to allow leaders to concentrate on pursuing and preserving economic opportunities—not only for pork producers but for all kinds of companies, small and large. The U.S.-Japan trade disputes of the early 1990s, which were mostly about Japan’s reluctance to buy more U.S.-made cars, beef, rice, and semiconductors, were a top priority for U.S. President Bill Clinton. So was the conclusion of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, which was driven largely by corporations seeking lower wage costs. For decades, Berlin encouraged German companies to look the other way at Russia’s increasingly aggressive actions in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere; Germany is now Russia’s largest trading partner after China. World leaders made the annual trek to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum to discuss the future of a global economy that was highly integrated and seemed to be getting more so each year. Efficiency and seamless trade were top of mind for the world’s government and corporate decision-makers.
Russia Prepares Destructive Cyberattacks
So far, Moscow’s forays in cyberspace have been as ineffective as its frontal assaults—but that could change.
Russia is preparing disruptive cyberattacks that could target U.S. energy and financial industries to cause further pain to the Biden administration, in retaliation for heavy sanctions against the Kremlin for its invasion of Ukraine, several people familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.
The FBI warned five U.S. energy companies in mid-March that computers using Russian internet addresses had been scanning their networks, in a possible prelude to bigger cyberattacks. Top U.S. cybersecurity officials have warned that Russia is looking to conduct disruptive or destructive digital attacks, as opposed to conducting routine espionage.
The Russian handiwork could provide a means for poking the United States and other NATO countries for their support of Ukraine without provoking a wider conflict. Unlike the tit-for-tat ladder of escalation that U.S. military doctrine applies to a possible nuclear conflict with Russia or China, American officials over the last three administrations have struggled to draw clear rules of the road for cyberattacks. Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said last week that every U.S. sector is likely vulnerable to digital strikes.
The Problem With Coverage of Women in War
Stereotypes “permit and exacerbate conflict,” experts say.
What does Western media miss in covering conflicts, and how are women impacted as a result? To answer these questions, all the more urgent as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine enters its second month, I spoke to former Afghan ambassador to the United States Roya Rahmani and Xanthe Scharff, CEO of the Fuller Project.
Rahmani is a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. She was the first woman to serve as Afghan ambassador to the United States. She serves as a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security and is a global strategist at Equality Now. Scharff is the co-founder and executive director of the Fuller Project, and she holds a doctorate in international relations from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The conversation was conducted as part of an FP Live, Foreign Policy’s forum for live journalism, on March 28. FP subscribers can watch a recording of the full conversation here. What follows is an edited excerpt from that discussion.
Why NATO Should Worry About the Balkans
Moscow is creating a pretext for further meddling in Bosnia.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought flashbacks to millions of Bosniak Muslims who suffered immensely under the regime of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and his notorious proxy genocidaires, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.
Many of us Bosniaks fully identify with Ukrainians, including myself.
As a journalist, I am glued to my laptop and cellphone for most of the day, keeping track of news reports from Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities that are under relentless Russian bombardment. It wasn’t too long ago that my city, Sarajevo, was bombarded in a similar fashion.
I was 8 years old when Bosnian Serbs encircled Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1992, and I vividly remember hearing the very same propaganda preceding the attack that I hear now coming from the Kremlin about Ukraine. In fact, I came to realize that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ideology and justification for invading Ukraine are nothing but a pale copy of Milosevic’s “Greater Serbia” project from the early 1990s, which envisioned occupying and annexing at least half of Bosnia.
Why Is the Wartime Press Corps So Hawkish?
The United States’ most reputable media outlets have a long history of tilting toward military action.
Armed conflict has a way of bringing out both the best and the worst in U.S. journalism. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, war correspondents have courageously delivered battlefield news reports that lay bare Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutality. Yet many journalists and commentators—most of whom live comfortably removed from the front lines—have lately been calling on the United States to escalate its involvement in dangerous ways. Leading national security journalists have openly suggested that the U.S. military simply bomb Russian convoys or enact a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would require shooting down Russian planes. The White House press corps has barraged the White House press secretary with questions, practically goading the president to intervene. Some frame the war as a matter of existential importance for U.S. security, comparing failure to intervene with appeasing former Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
These calls for the United States to join the fight seem especially shocking and glib, considering the serious dangers of conflict between two nuclear-armed powers. As the Atlantic Council’s Damir Marusic explains, even minor skirmishes can escalate to nuclear exchanges terrifyingly fast. Given these risks, U.S. President Joe Biden has been understandably cautious—a trait that doesn’t always play well in a polarized news culture. Fox News invited a Ukrainian official to characterize the president making the no-fly zone decision as “afraid” and a Republican senator to call it “heartless.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board thinks Putin has “succeeded in intimidating Mr. Biden” with the threat of nuclear escalation. Meanwhile, the American people are not fully informed on the details or likely consequences of such an action. Polling finds Americans supportive of a no-fly zone at first glance, with support for the idea dropping like a rock once pollsters explain it would almost certainly result in an honest-to-goodness shooting war with Russia.
For India, Putin’s War Starts to Look Like a Gift
From cheap Russian oil to sudden overtures from China, India’s neutral stance on Ukraine has many benefits.
When Russia launched its full-scale war on Ukraine, India first appeared stuck in an unenviable corner. Having edged closer to the West in recent years as an insurance policy against its main adversary, China, New Delhi might have been expected to align with Washington and its allies in the conflict. Yet India has been reluctant to condemn Russia, on which it remains utterly dependent for the vast majority of its military equipment. At the same time, there is a deep reservoir of goodwill in India for Russia as a partner since the 1950s, when Moscow backed New Delhi as Western powers aligned with Islamabad. While India’s ties with the West grew rapidly in the last two decades, the empathy for Russia has endured. Little surprise, then, that India abstained on all the resolutions at the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly censuring the Russian invasion. That India found itself on the same side on this issue as China is a paradoxical effect of the war in Ukraine.
Now, it appears that the war may actually be a gift for New Delhi. Washington has muted its criticism—it knows that New Delhi is needed as a partner against Beijing and understands that India’s dependence on Russian military hardware requires it to play nice with Moscow. Just like China, resource-constrained India has also made good use of the crisis to snap up cheap Russian oil, which it is buying at a heavy discount to market prices as Western customers increasingly shun Russian deliveries.
Russia Claims It Is Open to Peace Negotiations. Few Are Convinced.
The Kremlin could be using talks to buy time and regroup on the battlefield, experts warn.
Russian and Ukrainian negotiators met in Istanbul on Tuesday for peace talks to bring an end to the deadly monthlong war in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion sparked the largest humanitarian and refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Although both sides signaled a willingness to make concessions—including Moscow announcing plans to scale back its assault on Kyiv—top Western officials and veteran diplomats cautioned against taking Russia’s pledges to negotiate peace seriously.
“There is what Russia says, and there is what Russia does,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters during a trip to Morocco on Tuesday. “I have not seen anything that suggests that this is moving forward.”
Ahead of the talks, a Russian strike destroyed a local government building in the city of Mykolaiv on Ukraine’s southern coast, killing 12 people and injuring at least 22, according to Ukrainian officials.
Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met for hours in talks hosted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul on Tuesday. Speaking at a press conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu characterized the talks as the “most meaningful progress since the start of negotiations,” though there were no major breakthroughs on ending the conflict.
4 Reasons Why Putin’s War Has Changed Big Tech Forever
The conflict has permanently upended how the major platforms do business.
Videos from the battlefield, leaked drone surveillance, and other forms of digital communications have made Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the most internet-accessible war in history, turning Twitter, TikTok, and other internet platforms into primary sources of news on the war. But that’s not the only way in which this is a watershed moment for internet companies. Russia’s war in Ukraine is forcing them to confront geopolitical realities they have largely managed to avoid. While digital platforms have long faced pressure from governments around the world to take down content, block political critics, and open local offices on which government control can be more easily exerted, Western pressure and Russia’s crackdown are accelerating a paradigm shift for how tech firms operate. Major fault lines have arisen, with far-reaching consequences for how internet platforms do business.
The reason for this shift is clear: In the digital age, internet platforms are inextricably linked to power. Governments use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok to spread propaganda, sow division, intimidate their critics, and otherwise further their political agendas. Likewise, civic movements and activists turn to the same platforms to mobilize their followers, call out despots, and organize mass actions against governments. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced a good portion of the world online, has accelerated the centrality of digital platforms in politics and society. These dynamics contribute to making Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the first major interstate conflict of the COVID-19 pandemic era—a signal moment for internet platforms.
In particular, four factors indicate how the war in Ukraine is fundamentally upending how platforms do business.
Russia Joins the Asian Club
Even if Russian President Vladimir Putin had never invaded Ukraine, Russia was tilting toward the Asian system.
We can imagine an end state to the Ukraine invasion: a territorial settlement in which Russian President Vladimir Putin cements his control over parts of eastern Ukraine, including a land bridge to Crimea, which Russia has not let go of for nearly a decade, while Ukraine retains control of the rest of the country. Ukrainian refugees may return en masse from European shelters to rebuild what remains of their broken but proud nation after this latest of history’s invasions of their motherland.
But if Putin survives, so does Putinism and the tradition of authoritarian strongmen violently settling disputes according to their whims. Although this is an abhorrent affront to the postwar European order, it is not without precedent in Asia, where Putin increasingly seeks inspiration and support.
Even if Putin had never invaded Ukraine, Russia was tilting ever more toward embedding itself in the Asian system. This decade will feature Russia becoming an anchor of it.
Russia has announced its exit from the Council of Europe, but at the United Nations, it has received either backing or abstentions from Asia’s most powerful nations, such as China and India, though liberal democracies Australia and Japan have been as forceful in condemning Russia’s actions as NATO members have. Although China and India are rivals with numerous outstanding border disputes among them, they share a de facto—and even de jure—support for Russia in their refusal to condemn the Ukraine invasion. They have their own reasons for doing so.
Where Does Putin’s War Go From Here?
Experts outline five ways Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine might end.
Shortly before dawn on Feb. 24, in an address to the nation peppered with falsehoods and grievances, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to invade neighboring Ukraine for the second time. Moments later, Russian missiles began raining down on Ukrainian cities, marking the opening to the largest land war in Europe since World War II.
Four weeks later, 10 million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes—including half of the country’s children—and Europe has been forever changed.
Already the war has taken a number of unexpected turns. Having banked on a lightning assault to seize the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, Russian forces have been bogged down by a lack of basic supplies and poor morale, with NATO officials estimating that as many as 40,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, wounded, or captured in a month of fighting. Seven Russian generals have been killed on the battlefield, Ukrainian officials say.
Despite being significantly outgunned, the Ukrainian armed forces have fought harder and smarter than many had anticipated, successfully stalling Russia’s advance on Kyiv. With a clear win becoming ever more elusive for either side, analysts and Western officials fear that the worst may be still yet to come as Putin shows little signs of backing down and Russia’s indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities and civilian targets ramps up.
Pentagon Rolls Out Defense Strategy Amid War in Europe
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced the Pentagon to tweak its China-focused approach.
The Biden administration is briefing lawmakers on the classified version of the National Defense Strategy, four people familiar with the effort told Foreign Policy, in a bid to provide additional justification for the increased $773 billion defense allocation in the White House budget request, released Monday.
The Biden administration has delayed rolling out its national security and defense strategies, as the U.S. Defense Department makes last-minute tweaks amid the monthlong war between Russia and Ukraine, suddenly shifting focus from a U.S. defense strategy that had eyes on China.
The decision to widely brief lawmakers and staff on the changes is atypical; usually, it would accompany the release of a publicly available unclassified strategy. But officials and experts said the move is important to help Congress understand how the Pentagon would spend the sized-up budget request and how it is changing U.S. military policy with war engulfing Europe.
Oksana Baulina, Fashion Editor-Turned-Kremlin Scourge, Killed in Kyiv
Russia loses a passionate voice against injustice.
Covering the war in Ukraine for Meduza, the Russian news site now banned by the Kremlin, I’ve been online virtually nonstop for more than a month. In the few hours of sleep I manage to get, I dream about the war—or my sudden new life in exile after fleeing from Russia to Latvia by foot just before a new law criminalizing my work as a journalist went into effect. I’ve immersed myself into accounts of individual tragedies and mass atrocities. I’ve come to terms with not talking to family members in Russia anytime soon, thanks to their indoctrination by the vile and grotesque war propaganda spewing from Russian television sets morning, noon, and night.
So I thought I’d be desensitized to bad news by now. But on Wednesday—one month into the war—I got a message on Telegram from a strange number. “I am a journalist from Kyiv,” the message said, asking if I knew any ways to contact the family of the Russian journalist Oksana Baulina. There are a few very specific reasons why someone would ask a stranger that, and my heart sank. Still, I called the number and sheepishly asked, “Why, what happened to Oksana?” She was dead, my Ukrainian fellow journalist said, killed by a Russian strike in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, a few hours earlier.
I’m no stranger to tragedy and have buried good friends, but the news of Baulina’s death floored me. Russia loses one of its most passionate voices against injustice, a journalist and activist with a clear-eyed view of the evil that lay at the root of Russia’s vicious and unprovoked attack on Ukraine. “I love my country so much but I hate the state,” she quoted a famous Russian rock anthem in a Facebook post on Feb. 10, shortly before the war started. Although she spent the last years of her life in exile, she remained part of Russia’s dwindling group of independent reporters not afraid of drawing the Kremlin’s ire.
‘An Absolute Effort to Strangle the People in the City’
FP’s Adam Tooze on the economics of Russia’s siege on Mariupol in Ukraine.
The Russian military has been bombarding and besieging the Ukrainian city of Mariupol for weeks. Approximately 100,000 people remain there—about a quarter of the normal population—under truly horrific conditions. There’s little food, no running water, and no way out as the Russian military continues to destroy much of the city’s housing and infrastructure.
Is it still accurate to describe this sort of indiscriminate siege as urban warfare? What sort of economic logic might be guiding Russia’s strategy? And should we expect Mariupol to ever get rebuilt—or might it instead disappear entirely? These are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with FP columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze.
What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length. For the entire conversation, subscribe to Ones and Tooze on your preferred podcast app.