Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was “a catastrophic strategic disaster,” Colin H. Kahl, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told the Defense Writers’ Group yesterday.
Kahl informed the group of the National Defense Strategy and said the document lists China as the threat to the United States, but Russia poses an acute threat. “This term acute was chosen very intentionally to mean both immediate and acute,” he said.
China has the will and the resources to challenge the United States and the rules-based international order that has kept the peace since the end of World War II. But Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine shows that it is a dangerous and reckless state.
Speaking on Election Day, reporters asked Kahl whether US support for Ukraine had bipartisan support. “I think there’s a broad recognition that the stakes in Ukraine are just higher than Ukraine,” he said.
He said elected officials from both parties understand that Ukraine is not only fighting to defend its independence and democracy, but also for a principle. “We don’t want to live in a world where big countries believe they can swallow up their smaller neighbors,” Kahl said. “It’s a recipe for global disorder and big nations on the move. We’ve lived in a world like this before: it was called the 1930s. And it ended in the most catastrophic global conflict of the history of mankind.”
The rules-based order is in place to prevent this naked seizure of resources and power. “We don’t want to live in a world where the rules of the international system are torn, because the strong do what they want and the weak have to suffer what they have to,” he said.
Kahl described the progress made by Ukraine. The Ukrainian army defeated Russia’s initial campaign to capture the capital of Kyiv and forced the Russians to retreat east.
More recently, the Ukrainian army launched a counter-offensive against Russian troops in the northeast of the country, outside Kharkiv. The Ukrainian army has also stabilized the lines in the Donbass and the army continues to advance methodically around Kherson.
“There are indications that the Russians intend to withdraw to the eastern bank of the Dnieper,” he said. “They are repositioning their forces in a way that could be interpreted as a cover for an orderly withdrawal so that they don’t have the kind of disorderly withdrawal they had in Kharkiv.”
He remains cautious in noting that there are still tens of thousands of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. “We’ll have to see how it goes,” he said.
Winter may or may not end the fighting in the country. The “mud season” has already started in Ukraine, making operations more difficult.
“But one thing I can say with confidence is that Russia has already suffered a massive strategic failure,” he said. “That’s not going to change.”
Putin’s goal was to extinguish Ukraine as an independent and sovereign democratic country, the undersecretary said. “It failed, and that’s not going to change. A sovereign, independent and democratic Ukraine will endure,” he said.
Putin wanted to prove that Russia was still a world power with an extraordinarily overwhelming military, Kahl said. A victory over Ukraine would allow Russia to coerce and intimidate its neighbors. “Putin has failed,” he said. “Russia will emerge from this war weaker than it entered it.”
The Russian army lost tens of thousands of people to Ukrainian guns and bombs. “They…probably lost half of their main battle tanks,” he said.
And the Russians have spent the majority of their precision-guided munitions with no chance of replenishing stocks due to sanctions and export controls imposed on the nation for the invasion. “They’re not going to come out of this war stronger; they’re going to come out of this war much weaker than they did,” Kahl said.
Putin also thought the war would divide the West. “It produced the exact opposite,” he said. “NATO is more united than ever. We’re on the precipice of Sweden and Finland, probably joining the alliance, which…makes the alliance much stronger vis-a-vis Russia.”
“I don’t know what winning looks like,” he continued. “But I know that Russia will not have achieved the goals set by Vladimir Putin. And that’s pretty much a guarantee.”
The United States and like-minded countries will continue to provide the appropriate level of assistance to Ukraine. The United States will also work with like-minded nations to counter and deter Russia.
“Whatever that appropriate level of assistance is, we are committed to ensuring it continues, if only because…Vladimir Putin has a victory theory here,” Kahl said. “And his theory of victory is that he will wait for all of us.”
Putin thinks the West will grow tired of war, the inflation it causes and high energy prices. “I think it’s incumbent on all of us to signal to him that it’s not going to work,” Kahl said.