Britain’s King Charles (L) welcomed US President Joe Biden to Windsor Castle with pomp and pageantry, UK, July 10, 2023
The trajectory of the Ukraine war hangs in the balance. All eyes are on the US President Joe Biden’s arrival in Vilnius for the NATO summit meeting (June 11-12.) Biden got a big boost already from Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s commitment to transmit the Accession Protocol for Sweden to Türkiye’s Grand National Assembly for swift ratification.
That this commitment was forthcoming ahead of Biden’s one-on-one meeting with Erdogan in Vilnius has great optics too, which will inevitably strengthen his hands to forge a NATO consensus on the way forward in the Ukraine war.
Biden’s statement said, “I stand ready to work with President Erdogan and Turkiye on enhancing defence and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area.” The wording skirts the Ukraine war specifically, but is indicative of Erdogan returning to the NATO fold like a prodigal son having struck a far-reaching deal for his country — Erdogan had mentioned the resumption of Turkiye’s accession process with the EU as the West’s price to pay. Indeed, Turkey’s course correction (away from the SCO and BRICS) will impact the balance of forces in the Black Sea, which is critical to future Russian military offensives.
However, the big picture is to be sought in the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s press gaggle on Sunday en route to London, the first leg of Biden’s European tour that will take him to Vilnius and Helsinki. In atmospherics, simply put, Sullivan eschewed any form of a belligerent tone toward Russia — no threats, no challenging propositions, no defaming of Russia or demonising President Vladimir Putin personally. In fact, it is no longer “Putin’s war”! Even on the vexed issue of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, Sullivan simply shrugged off saying he had “no update” on it.
Of course, the White House had already got wind of the meeting that Putin took in the Kremlin on June 29 with the Wagner commanders and Prigozhin. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed yesterday that a meeting did take place, saying, “He [Putin] invited 35 people — all the squad commanders and the leadership of the [Wagner] company, including Prigozhin. The meeting took place in the Kremlin on June 29 and lasted for nearly three hours.
“We are unaware of the details, but the one thing we can say is that the president gave his assessment of the [Wagner] company’s actions on the frontline during the special military operation and the June 24 events.
“Putin listened to explanations from [Wagner] commanders and offered them further options for employment and further use in combat. The commanders themselves shared their version of what happened, they emphasised that they are staunch supporters and soldiers of the head of state and the supreme commander-in-chief, and also said that they are ready to continue fighting for the Fatherland.”
Peskov concluded meaningfully, ”This is all we can say about this meeting.” Presumably, much more would have transpired at that 3-hour closed-door Kremlin meeting, which assumes the nature of an epilogue to the epic story of the daylong failed coup attempt in Russia on June 24.
Conceivably, Washington would deduce that it was a “truth and reconciliation” meeting that Putin presided over. And some important decisions would have been taken so that the Kremlin can keep both its eyes fully and optimally on the ball on the Ukraine front.
Now, this will virtually put out the flicker of hope among the NATO Allies about political uncertainties within Russia hampering the Kremlin’s war effort. Quite obviously, there are no “cracks” to be seen anywhere on the Kremlin wall. Putin remains firmly in charge and the military operations to scatter the month-long Ukrainian offensive are succeeding beyond expectations.
Correspondingly, there is bound to be a greater sense of realism amongst the NATO Allies. Alas, momentous political decisions concerning European security were riveted on flawed intelligence.
The Americans had no idea about the capability of Russian weaponry or of the country’s defence industry, its seamless capacity to mobilise for a continental war, the mood of the Russian people, Putin’s strong power base with a consistent rating at 80% (more than double that of Biden), the Russian economy’s resilience to withstand sanctions, or the blowback from sanctions that eventually would devastate the European economies.
Kremlin took Beijing into confidence
Again, to digress somewhat, all available indications are that China was in the loop as to what the Wagner affair was about. Probably, China was the only country that the Kremlin took into confidence. This will also not have gone unnoticed in the NATO capitals.
To recap, when asked by the AFP at the Chinese foreign ministry press briefing on June 26 whether President Xi Jinping had the opportunity yet to speak personally with Putin regarding the Wagner incident, Mao Ning, spokesperson, responded as follows:
“The Wagner Group incident is Russia’s internal affair. As Russia’s friendly neighbour and comprehensive strategic partner of coordination for the new era, China supports Russia in maintaining national stability and achieving development and prosperity, and we believe in Russia’s ability to do so. Our two countries have stayed in close and sound communication at various levels. As to your question about specific telephone conversations, I have nothing to share. [Emphasis added.]
Curiously, a commentary in the Global Times on June 26 had already drawn the conclusion within forty-eight hours of the dramatic happenings in Russia that the US officials were simply “badmouthing the Russian government” as usual with the agenda to “to amplify some of the internal problems in Russia to achieve a goal of continuing weakening the country and causing damage to the military morale of Russian soldiers, as part of the cognitive warfare launched by the US-led West against Russia.”
The commentary titled China supports and believes Russia in maintaining national stability noted that the Wagner eruption “has been quelled in a short time with limited impact on Putin’s authority. Rather than defining it as a real rebellion, it should be seen as a power struggle, as Prigozhin has not brought up any anti-Putin slogans or targeted Putin’s authority.”
Indeed, the Kremlin meeting between Putin and the Wagner commanders and Prigozhin took place just 2 days later. The Chinese side knew exactly what was happening — and what was to be expected!
Meanwhile, the continuity of the strategic communication between Beijing and Moscow was remarkable. On June 25, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang met in Beijing with Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Rudenko Andrey Yurevich; on July 3, China’s defence minister Li Shangfu met with the head of the Russian navy, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, in Beijing; on July 10, President Xi received the visiting speaker of the Russian Senate Valentina Matviyenko at the Great Hall of the People.
In the context of the NATO Summit, Xi Jinping’s meeting with Matviyenko (a career diplomat by profession and No. 2 in the Russian political hierarchy after Putin) is timely and hugely significant. It made the top headline in People’s Daily today.
According to a Xinhua report, “During my state visit to Russia in March this year, President Putin and I reached new and important consensus on deepening bilateral comprehensive strategic coordination and practical cooperation in various fields,” Xi said, noting that the development of China-Russia relations is a strategic choice that the two countries have made based on the fundamental interests of their respective countries and peoples.
“China will continue to work with Russia to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era, featuring mutual assistance, in-depth integration, innovation and win-win outcomes for all, so as to boost the development and revitalisation of the two countries and promote the construction of a prosperous, stable, fair and just world, Xi said.”
A security guarantee for Ukraine
There couldn’t be a stronger affirmation of support for Putin’s leadership from Beijing. Suffice to say, the NATO summit will factor in the geopolitical reality, howsoever unpalatable, that the war in Ukraine has far from isolated Russia but on the contrary, helped invigorate and expand Moscow’s orbit of diplomatic and political influence in the vast majority of the world community.
At the same time, on the military front too, the delusional hopes of NATO countries defeating Russia have withered away and the Vilnius summit’s decisions will reckon with this ground reality.
Already, the Biden Administration admitted that the Pentagon has run out of ammunition to supply Ukraine and the industrial capacity will have to be strengthened. But that is a medium term objective whilst the war has its immediate requirements. And to meet the current requirements, Biden has decided to instead supply Ukraine with cluster bombs, a dirty weapon that is banned under international law by the UN.
Thus, it is slowly emerging that there shall not be a NATO membership for Ukraine — now or ever. Yesterday, Richard Haas, president of the council of Foreign Relations and a hugely influential opinion maker of the US foreign policy establishment, wrote in Project Syndicate (with an eye on the European audience) a forceful critique titled Ascending the Vilnius Summit: “Offering NATO membership in principle, as was done when NATO leaders met in Bucharest in 2008, seems hollow…”
Haas elaborated that the NATO countries can instead bilaterally “extend a security commitment to defend Ukraine’s right to exist… without reference to precise territory…comparable to what the US has long done for Israel.”
Haas believes that such a formal, open-ended commitment backed up with “the arms, intelligence, and training it requires” would signal that America “will not allow any entity to threaten” Ukraine’s existence, but without linking it “to any specific map” of the territory of Ukraine.
Interestingly, when asked about it during the press gaggle on Sunday, Sullivan also confirmed that such a concept is on the table whereby the US, its allies and partners “within a multilateral framework, will negotiate bilateral security commitments with Ukraine for the long term… to provide various forms of military assistance, intelligence and information sharing, cyber support and other forms of material support so that Ukraine can both defend itself and deter future aggression.”
The bottom line is that the Vilnius summit will sound the bugle to let the manor know that an orderly NATO pullback from Ukraine is in the cards. Unlike in Afghanistan, the US will no doubt keep the allies in the loop, since this primarily concerns European security — and importantly, it should not turn out to be another chaotic retreat that Kabul or Saigon witnessed in yesteryears. That, in turn, demands absolute NATO unity.
Thus, Biden thoughtfully touched down in London en route to Vilnius to mollify the UK that Ukraine cannot be the battleground of its “Global-Britain” dream. King Charles stepped in to smoothen the ruffled feathers in the US-UK “special relationship.” Biden had earlier vetoed Britain’s recommendation of Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, an inveterate hawk on Russia, as NATO’s next secretary-general.
Evidently, the nuts and bolts of an orderly withdrawal will need to be painstakingly worked out within the framework of a ceasefire in the war. This means engaging with Russia in a near future and discouraging it from pressing ahead forthwith with any major offensive to end the war conclusively in its favour.
Meanwhile, according to the grapevine in Kiev, the commander-in-chief of armed forces General Valeri Zaluzhny has recommended to his president Zelensky that the current month-old Ukrainian military offensive is simply not sustainable against the overwhelmingly powerful Russian forces and should be called off.