US plays its Ukraine ‘hand’: Overt NATO war. Will Putin Retaliate?

This is a key moment. The pressure is on President Putin to respond to the transformation of a limited proxy affair into overt NATO war is increasing.

On Thursday of last week, there gathered in the Ramstein NATO air base in Germany a flotilla of European, British and American officials —  ostensibly to lay claim to a PR success for the role that western weapons have played in Ukraine’s war against Russia. Yet, the meeting had the second, deeper objective of assessing the ability of Kiev to continue sustained warfare, which is to say, not only briefly to take territory, but to keep it.

This latter aspect has taken on added urgency as there is a little more than one month left until winter turns the Ukrainian terrain on the plains into mud, leaving tanks and heavy vehicles floundering. Furthermore, Ukraine’s public finances are in freefall, with external aid amounting to only $1.5 billion — leaving a hole of some $7 billion per month that is being filled by Ukraine printing fresh money.

The reality is that Europe’s cost-of-living crisis and the war on Ukraine are inextricably linked.  As commentator Adam Tooze put it: “There is little doubt that Ukraine is living on borrowed time. To put it simply, Ukraine cannot afford the war it is fighting” — and as the crisis in Europe worsens with winter, public patience with its governments’ spending on Ukraine is likely to evaporate. Kiev faces a grave financial crisis, one “which in coming months could produce misery and tear apart the home front”.

The Ramstein meeting reshuffled the deck on Western military and financial assistance to Ukraine, raising contributions to the ongoing NATO campaign against Russia from still more nations, whilst adding new, still more advanced precision strike weapons, to the mix of deliveries to Kiev.

From his lightening side-trip to Kiev, Secretary of State Blinken, escorted by Victoria Nuland, announced a new $675 million package of US military equipment, as well as a $2.2 billion “long-term” investment to bolster the security of Ukraine and 17 of its neighbour countries (plainly intended to convey the notion of a coalition of the willing being assembled). Weeks earlier Biden had unveiled a $3 billion aid package, the largest yet. Though it is not so easy to distinguish between fresh monetary pledges and re-packaged repetitions of existing commitments, some analysts estimate the true figure of the US commitment to Ukraine at up to $40 billion in security assistance; or $110 million per day over the last year.

Ramstein plainly was intended as an exercise in showcasing the prospect of some Ukrainian military success, to bolster waning European support. The Kherson and Kharkov offensives clearly were timed with an eye to the Ramstein confab.

The latter amounts to a NATO challenge to Russia. It challenges Moscow similarly to escalate its side of the war. The message of aid — running to billions of dollars, training and weapons — was reinforced by virtue of the nature of the weapons systems announced for delivery, such as missiles with accuracy of 1-2 meters when fired from distances of 20 or 30 kilometres, thanks to their GPS-guided flight, in contrast to the laser-guided missiles delivered to Ukraine up till now. In the same category, there are weapons designed to destroy the Russians’ radar systems used for directing artillery fire.

The test firing, on the same day, of a new intercontinental rocket, the Minuteman III, from Vandenberg air base in California, was the cherry on the cake.

All-in-all, Ramstein marked a new stage in the conflict. The US has incrementally been edging towards a NATO war against Russia. The meeting in Germany made this fully overt.  There has been a current in the West that has read Russia’s reactions to the sinking of its naval vessels; the delivery of HIMARS rocket systems; the western ‘Ho Chi Min trail’ of daily weapons supplies to Kiev – as ‘green light’ for the West to go ‘fully NATO’ — thinking that Russia will likely acquiesce to the stepped up paradigm.

But will it?

Unsurprisingly, the Ramstein ‘challenge’; the ‘psyops war’ centred on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant; and the Kiev offensives — particularly taken in the context of Russia’s tactical military redeployment out of the Kharkov region to the West of the Oskil river, to reinforce the Donbas militia — have catalysed a heated debate in Moscow about how to respond.

Many are recalling President Putin’s statement: “We hear today that they want us to be defeated on the battlefield. Well, what can I say? Let them try. You ain’t seen nothing, yet. We barely started”. They are urging either a shift to full war, or at the least the ‘gloves coming off’ in respect to the western arms supply train.

This is a key moment. The pressure is on President Putin to respond to the transformation of a limited proxy affair into overt NATO war is increasing. Yet, he knows that that Europe’s cost-of-living crisis, and the war on Ukraine are inextricably linked.  Kiev is living on borrowed time: in respect to Europe’s cost-living-crisis and the putative end to its’ subsidy. And in respect too, to Ukraine’s own financial crisis tearing apart its society. And in respect finally, to the coming wet season and mud (with Ukraine unlikely to make military progress for months ahead).

All these factors have a life of a month, or a little more. Will Putin wait it out, or will he bare Russia’s teeth?

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