Rumors are making the rounds in Kiev that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will fire the head of his armed forces, General Valerii Zaluzhny.
Zelensky and Zaluzhny have been at odds for some time. The excuse is likely to be losses in and around Avdeevka, which is a Ukrainian military stronghold just north of Donetsk. The rumor says that Kyrylo Budanov, head of military intelligence, will replace Zaluzhny.
Field reports show that the Russians have advanced in the southern part of the town, knocking out numerous trenches and fortifications, with the Russian operation gaining momentum and strength as new troops are poured into the fight.
There is little doubt that Russia will be successful. While the Ukrainian army may be able to delay the Russians, it lacks any ability to stop them cold. If Ukraine tries to bring in extra forces to bolster its chances, it will open itself up to Russian threats elsewhere along the line of contact.
Avdeevka, no matter its importance, is just an excuse for Zelensky. He needs loyal people around him as his situation becomes more precarious. His European and American allies, who still say they want to give him what he wants in arms and financial aid, understand that Ukraine can’t stand up to Russian military pressure.
That is why Europe is now in a panic and Washington is searching for a new policy. Europe believes that if Russia wins in Ukraine, as now seems likely, then Europe will be threatened by Russia, for which it is not prepared.
NATO’s chiefs, as well as politicians in Germany, Sweden, Holland, Estonia, Poland and elsewhere, are clamoring for strengthening NATO’s defenses.
The nearly five-month-long NATO exercise, starting in late January, is an effort to demonstrate to Russia that NATO will stand and fight. But the exercise may also show the Russians just what they need to do if a conflict does come.
NATO’s alleged 90,000-soldier exercise has been given the lofty name Steadfast Defender and is supposed to reinforce the notion of NATO reliability. The Russians, meanwhile, have canceled their big military exercise, known as Zapad (West), a message understood by Europe. Russia says it must focus on training its new soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Europe has little to fall back on, as its security is acutely dependent on the United States. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and perhaps well before, the Europeans have focused on social spending and have invested little in defense programs.
Worse still, many of them have sent their strategic reserve war materials to Ukraine, leaving them with empty shelves and warehouses.
In Germany, which was supposed to rebuild its armed forces under the slogan Zeitenwende (Turning Point), the government has been raiding the US$108 billion fund to give money and arms to Ukraine.
While Russia appears to have ordered its defense manufacturing companies to work additional shifts to produce armaments, little has been done in Europe or the United States to substantially move forward production.
Instead, there are labor shortages, supply chain issues and slow procurement orders. Meanwhile, the US has unloaded most of its critical war-fighting supplies on Ukraine, leaving great uncertainty if America could rescue Europe, even if it wanted to do so.
Putting aside the credibility, or lack thereof, of any imminent Russian threat to Europe, the US is changing its policy and is recognizing that it cannot win a conventional war against Russia. (Which also means that it can’t win a conventional war against China, maybe not even Iran or the minuscule Houthis.)
All of this is clearly visible in Iraq where US bases and installations are regularly bombed by Iranian militias, following orders from Tehran. Their goal is for US troops to leave Iraq and Syria and, accomplishing that, demonstrate that the US is unreliable and unfit to depend upon.
The new Ukraine policy has been emerging over recent months. If understood correctly, the policy is designed to deal with the new reality that Ukraine will lose the war and Ukraine’s government may need to evacuate Kiev. Putting Budanov in effective control, including for the relocation of Ukraine’s capital, probably to Lviv, is the bedrock of the policy.
Operationally, the policy will likely be to use special operations, assassinations, bombings and any other means, including possibly blowing up a nuclear reactor, to punish the Russians and keep them off balance.
Zelensky is already setting the stage by saying Russia will blow up a nuclear reactor. The Russians are no doubt keenly aware that the target will be a reactor in western Russia and it will be Ukrainian saboteurs who undertake the mission.
For Washington, there are three imperatives. The first is to be able to keep the war going and to keep demanding money from Congress. This is a hard act because if Ukraine is collapsing it will be hard to get buy-in for a losing proposition.
The reality is likely to be that the Biden administration does not expect that Congress will fork over more billions, especially if it is all but certain to go down a rat hole. What they want to do is blame Congress and the Republicans for the loss of Ukraine.
The second imperative is to keep a pro-Western Ukrainian government functioning, even if it has to abandon Kiev. It also means that the current government has to survive politically: if a coup d’etat happens, then all bets are off.
So Washington needs to prevent a political breakdown. This is a tall order because Ukrainians are understandably unhappy, in fact miserable, as young and old men are forced to fight a losing war and many of them don’t come home.
The third imperative is to keep Russia out of Europe, meaning to keep European countries from cutting their own deals with Moscow. As Kiev goes, so goes Europe and NATO.
If the Russians can put a pro-Russian government in Kiev, the Europeans will need to find a practical solution to living with Moscow. The key actor is Germany and the current German government won’t talk to Russia, at least not now. But that may change in the near future.
If Ukraine falls, Germany will need to change its policy. The easiest way for its government to change direction is to blame the United States for something, such as the Nord Stream pipeline’s destruction. That would open the door to a conversation with Putin.
Stephen Bryen, who served as staff director of the Near East Subcommittee of the
US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as deputy undersecretary of defense
for policy, currently is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and Yorktown Institute.
This article was originally published on his Weapons and Security Substack and is republished with kind permission.