Espreso. Global

Destruction of Crimean bridge could push Putin to negotiate out of desperation — US diplomat Bryza

17 September, 2023 Sunday

Matthew Bryza, former US Assistant Secretary of State, former Director for European and Eurasian Affairs at the US National Security Council, discussed the new assistance provided by the US and its allies to Ukraine in an interview with Anton Borkovskyi for Espreso TV


The key story is the G20 summit meeting with a rather ambiguous outcome. In particular, we are talking about the final resolution. We hoped for a much clearer position from India and not only from India. On the other hand, we saw that the G20 is starting its own, alternative game not coinciding with Putin's or China's vision.

You raised many important points just now Mr. Borkovskyi. As far as the impact of the very weak statement about Russia's invasion of Ukraine will affect the peace process, I don't think it will have much of an impact. Those statements don't really mean anything in the end. We all know that the resolve of the United States and the US's European allies remains strong to support Ukraine as von der Leyen is said to give Ukraine everything it needs. The US is already provided around 73 billion dollars overall in assistance, the EU even a little bit more and another 23 billion is being requested by President Biden. So the statement was not substantively going to affect the peace process, but politically it shows that the Russian side has been able to use the risk of a failure to have a communique which means a lot to Narendra Modi as a threat to damage the G20 and therefore, as a way to squeeze out the sort of clear language of last year's communique that condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine. As Ukrainian government has said, this statement is nothing to be proud of, it's a big disappointment to me. But at the end of the day, I think the impact on the peace process will be zero.

We feel that Washington, in particular the Biden administration, may finally be ready to change its position on providing Ukraine with long-range ATACMS missile systems. We understand how much we need it - not even to storm Russian positions, but because ATACMS would save the lives of our soldiers who are forced to overcome Surovikin's defensive fortifications.

I sense that the mood is changing in Washington on the ATACMS. I sure hope so. We also need to provide Ukraine with better air defenses and aircraft. It's time for the F-16, is way past time because now Russia has adapted its tactics to allow it to launch bombs and drone attacks from behind the so-called Surovikin line. As you know now the Russians are using lots of dumb bombs, just gravity bombs that they've adapted with wings and GPS to allow the Russian aircraft to stay behind the Surovikin line, drop the bombs, and the bombs can then glide to hit the Ukrainian positions and cities. So the Biden administration had been saying that for Ukraine's counter offensive what you need is armor and artillery and ammunition and there's no real need for F-16. Well that changes now. If Russia is able to attack the Ukrainian counter offensive from far behind the Surovikin line using these gliding bombs, Russian aircraft need to be shot out of the sky and that's exactly what the F-16s can do from a distance. So it's time for the F-16s and the ATACMS, and I think it's really disingenuous and sort of ridiculous that in Washington some people are impatient with the pace of Ukraine's progress and its counteroffensive, at the same time as they're saying Ukraine doesn't need these capabilities like for air cover that every US military commander would demand before ever even imagining to attempt a counteroffensive like Ukraine is under right now.

I can't help but ask you about the US election cycles and how they can affect non-initiative negotiations. The US is currently going through an election campaign. It will be very tough, and we are talking about the position of Biden's administration, which has to work not only outside but also inside America. The war, especially given the American defeat in Afghanistan - we remember what happened a few years ago when the pro-American government was evacuated and not fully removed - requires certain additional decisions. Biden's administration cannot afford to reduce the degree of support for Ukraine. On the other hand, President Biden and his people need to demonstrate some victories.

For now the support among American voters to continue our cooperation and assistance to Ukraine is very strong. The American people know and believe that we have an obligation not only to Ukraine but to all of our NATO allies and ourselves to make sure Russia loses and Ukraine wins. So the American public understands that. What's worrisome is that in the Republican party on the more extreme right-wing though there are radical politicians that politicize everything. They politicized the Covid pandemic. They politicize cultural issues. They politicize now the US support for Ukraine. They politicize immigration and all sorts of issues. But now they're politicizing aid to Ukraine. President Trump as a presidential candidate has said if he is elected in November 2024, he would end the Russia's war against Ukraine within 24 hours. Of course, that's impossible. And I think that if he does win, he won't cut all the assistance to Ukraine, but he'll scale it back. If God forbid he's president again, he can't simply stop all the US assistance, but nonetheless the question of sustained US assistance to Ukraine has become politicized.

If Biden wins, then we'll see business as usual and these high levels of assistance will continue. But it's not even a foregone conclusion yet that Biden will be the candidate. The vast majority of Americans, over 70% of Americans don't want Joseph Biden to run because they think he's too old. And even the majority of people polled in his own political party the Democrats think he's too old to run. So the Democrats may need to scramble to find a substitute candidate unless he may insist on running anyway. But even though he was the one Democrat that could beat Donald Trump in the last election that no longer seems to be the case based on public opinion polling now that shows he is running equally with Donald Trump and may not beat him.

Who is Elon Musk within the current American reality? Is he just a billionaire or a billionaire with a direct impact not only on internal American processes but also on war scenarios?

Elon Musk is much more than what he was recently, the richest human being on planet Earth. He's much more than just a billionaire. He is a genius, a visionary who has come up with and accomplished some of the most amazing things in the history of US business. Because of essentially Elon Musk, we have widespread production and acceptance of electric vehicles. We have commercial space launch and satellite links, as you mentioned Starlinks. We have his tunneling project called the Boring Company that aims to revolutionize transportation by creating tunnels all over and and hyperlink for ultrafast travel on land. Just based on the portfolio of business ventures I just mentioned, you can see that he doesn't have any one vision or focus. He's way beyond geopolitics. He believes that humanity needs to prepare itself to be able to survive on another planet on Mars.

In the case of Starlink, we should be fair and first say he offered Starlink to Ukraine, and he was financing a lot of it himself or his own company was to enable Ukraine to fight the Russians. So I think sort of on a whim or randomly without any real geopolitical focus, he was worried about being tied to large scale death of Russian soldiers and sailors if Starlink enabled Ukraine to carry out that naval attack with naval drones that was being planned against the Russian Black Sea Fleet. What he didn't understand is that by not enabling Ukraine to do that, he cost the lives of many Ukrainian civilians and soldiers who then were the victims of attacks launched by the Black Sea Fleet when it launched its cruise missiles. I say all that because I don't think he has a focus geopolitically. He has influence which he used to help Ukraine and then he turned off when he got frightened about more deaths resulting from his technology. But I think that problem has been fixed now and the discussions between the Biden Administration and Elon Musk will prevent something like that from happening again

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken cannot give instructions to Elon Musk, but let's hope that Musk understands the historical responsibility falling on his company and him personally.

Mr. Ambassador, you mentioned the Black Sea basin. Now the level of escalation may increase significantly. And Ukraine, I really hope so, has very specific scenarios. How can we make sure that Russia understands that in response to the blockade of Ukrainian ports, there may be a symmetrical situation in Novorossiysk, and Putin will not be able to visit his residence in Sochi? When we talk about the grain corridors being bloked by Russia, it's not just about grain, it's about Russia wanting to get certain preferences for itself, including easing the sanctions regime. And the very strange correspondence of the UN Secretary General, Mr. Guterres, suggests that perhaps geopolitical "double accounting" is being conducted.

First of all, I think that Russia threats to close off the Black Sea maritime transit to any ships that it deems its military targets has failed. We've seen several ships now leave Odesa and the NATO coastlines of Romania and Bulgaria and make it to Turkey where I am and exit the Turkey straits. Russia knows that if it starts targeting ships flagged and owned by other countries, especially in NATO's maritime domain, it risks escalating this war to a level it does not want. Russia does not want to be at war with NATO. There's discussion within the alliance or among the individual member states about them possibly providing naval escorts to maritime traffic through the Black Sea because threatening to cut off the flow of commercial shipping is illegal under international law. Russia hasn't fulfilled those threats, and I think as each day passes, Ukraine's capabilities to destroy Russia's Black Sea Fleet increase, whether it be the naval maritime drones like we talked about in the case of the Starlink incident, or the Neptune shore to ship missiles that Ukraine has developed on its own or the Harpoon missiles that Ukraine has received from the United Kingdom.

The point is that Ukraine also has shown it's capability to strike Novorossiysk port where it hit a warship recently, where it hit an oil tanker sending a message to Russia. Things could get really difficult for you if you keep this up with the threats to Ukraine. I think the grain deal again, I'm here an Ankara in the capital, President Erdogan has expressed confidence that an agreement could be close, but he's also pressing for what you just said that Russia be allowed to export or at least that it's Agricultural Bank be reconnected to Swift system and that there be insurance for ships to move Russian agricultural products through the Black Sea. I think what Russia really wants is to move its ammonia through the pipeline that comes to Ukraine. Russia's just looking for any excuse to try to weaken the sanctions regime and so far the United States and its allies have not agreed to do that. But beneath the surface something not many people are talking about is that the grain deal is kind of a cover for a deal beneath the surface between Turkey, Russia and Bulgaria to move more Russian gas under the Black Sea via the Turk stream pipeline and then across Bulgaria, across the so-called Balkan stream to Serbia and to Hungary. This is all being done very quietly and in violation of EU regulations, and I believe the European Commission is about to investigate that.

A few days ago, Shahed drones were flying and exploding on the territory of Romania. The war is constantly dictating its terms. An extremely serious signal from the UK is the use of British aircraft to ensure the security of the so-called alternative grain corridor, which runs along the coastal strip of NATO member states, including Romania. So if Russia were to resort to a military provocation, is there a moral readiness on the part of NATO to respond?

There's no question about NATO's readiness to respond militarily if NATO territory is attacked. The Shahed example of one wandering into Romania, perhaps and crashing there that's not an attack on Romania, that really does seem to have been accidental just like the accidental flights of Ukrainian missiles into Polish territory a few months ago. If Russia launches an attack on NATO territory, it will be known that it is an attack and President Biden and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg have been unequivocally clear that the United States together with its NATO allies will defend every square meter of NATO territory if Russia attacks it, and Putin knows that. That's why he hasn't dared to target those cargo ships that left Odesa and then sailed along through NATO maritime territory in Romania and Bulgaria. So there's no question that if NATO territory is attacked then NATO will respond militarily against Russia, and I know that my former colleagues and the government have made that absolutely clear in Moscow including my former boss Bill Burns who now is the head of the CIA.

What worried me for years, especially when I was the director of a think tank in Estonia when Russia invaded Ukraine the first time in 2014 is that Russia could do with NATO territory what it did in Donbas and Crimea, which is have Russian soldiers without uniforms who can deny that they are Russian soldiers, seize territory, which doesn't prompt the NATO response and then suddenly they seize the significant amount of territory in then NATO has to decide now do we go to war in ambiguous situation where we're not sure whether or not these are Russian soldiers. That's a worrisome crisis management problem, but it's one that I think that's much less likely now that everybody now in the NATO alliance knows that Putin plays these tricks and has been threatening to attack NATO territory. If he attacks NATO territory, those Russian forces will be annihilated very quickly.

Putin has cornered himself. It's not just about Russian crimes - the killing of civilians, attacks on civilian objects, and the occupation of our territories. Putin's huge historical mistake was the inclusion of the temporarily occupied territories into the Russian Federation. Now the enemy has held fake elections in those territories and is trying to legitimize its occupation presence in Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk regions. We are likely to receive long-range missile systems and aircraft.  The Ukrainian Armed Forces will be tirelessly driving out the enemy. If the military logistics, including the Kerch bridge, are destroyed, the Russian group may face enormous problems. What are the horizons of the war and its duration?

It's going to be incredibly difficult for Ukraine to push all Russian troops out of Donbas, Crimea and other areas that Russian troops are occupying now. And the ATACMS and the F-16s are absolutely essential for that to be able to happen. But even with those weapons, it will be extremely difficult because President Putin obviously does not care how many Russian men are killed in battle. Russia has a big population. It has almost unlimited stocks of the bombs I was talking about earlier. So it will be very difficult simply to push Russia out militarily. The great hope then is logistics as you were saying. There's a cliche "Amateurs study strategy, experts study logistics". Logistics is everything in terms of securing a military victory. Yes, if Ukraine continues and can use its precision guided munitions, it's drones and it's other clever attacks to destroy the Kerch Bridge, and then to expand it's offensive, it's breaking through the first now starting the second line of defense of Russia north of Crimea and in northwest of Mariupol. If the Ukrainian counter offensive can cut off the logistics route also from Russia through Donetsk, Mariupol and down to Crimea, then Russia will face a very difficult situation finding itself not able to supply Crimea. And if you add to that Ukraine's Neptune missiles that we've talked about that will threaten the Black Sea Fleet, Putin could soon find himself in an unacceptable military and economic situation in Crimea. And at that point, I think he will have to come to the negotiating table, and he'll have no choice but to negotiate in a serious way.

That is , in my opinion, the way things are going to end up. Although possible, you've got 35- 40 days or so more of fighting weather in Ukraine for the counter offensive to keep board, and that's not a lot of time, so there needs to be a really significant progress clear to send a message to the American political system and European political systems that Ukraine needs to support critically right now because it's making progress and moving to a point to cut off Russia's logistics that will lead to an end of the war.


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