Urging regime change in Russia, Biden exposes US aims in Ukraine
Biden's declaration that Putin "cannot remain in power" was not an error, but a clear expression of entrenched US policy: using Ukraine for a proxy war against Russia.
"Laying the groundwork for regime change in Russia"
President Biden's declaration in Warsaw that Vladimir Putin "cannot remain in power" has forced the White House into damage control, insisting that he was not calling for the Russian leader's ouster.
No amount of spin can obscure the obvious: Just like when he blurted out the truth that the US and its allies supported an Al Qaeda-dominated insurgency in Syria, Biden has laid bare the United States government's longstanding regime change aims in Russia, with Ukraine used as the tip of the spear.
Months before the US-backed Maidan coup that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, the head of the National Endowment for Democracy, a US intelligence cutout, dubbed Ukraine "the biggest prize" in the new Cold War with Russia. Pulling Ukraine into the Western orbit, Carl Gershman wrote, could leave Putin "on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself."
The message was heard within Russia. "The Kremlin is convinced the United States is laying the groundwork for regime change in Russia, a conviction further reinforced by the events in Ukraine," the Defense Intelligence Agency reported in 2017. "Moscow views the United States as the critical driver behind the crisis in Ukraine and believes that the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych is the latest move in a long-established pattern of U.S.-orchestrated regime change efforts, including the Kosovo campaign, Iraq, Libya, and the 2003–05 'color revolutions' in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan."
The "events in Ukraine" that "reinforced" the Kremlin's perception included not just the 2014 coup but the proxy war that erupted in the eastern Donbas region as a result. Unwilling to live under a US-backed far-right government that banned the Russian language, venerated Nazis, and committed atrocities like the Odessa massacre, rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk took up arms in the spring of 2014 with Russia's support. The Ukrainian government responded with an "Anti-Terrorist Operation" backed by US weapons and military trainers.
When it became undeniable that US-backed shock troops for the Ukrainian counteroffensive included the "openly neo-Nazi" Azov battalion, President Obama began getting cold feet. Obama worried that sending more arms to a Nazi-infested military "would only escalate the bloodshed," in Ukraine and possibly "[end] up in the hands of thugs," the New York Times reported in 2015.
Inside the White House, Obama was virtually alone. His concern that flooding Ukraine with weapons "would escalate the crisis" and give "Putin a pretext to go further and invade all of Ukraine," Senior Pentagon official Derek Chollet later recalled, marked a rare situation "in which just about every senior official was for doing something that the president opposed."
Obama's misgivings about arming Ukraine helped yield the 2015 Minsk II accords, in which an outmatched Kiev accepted limited autonomy for the Donbas in exchange for the Russian-backed rebels' demilitarization. While this bargain would end the war, it would also grant the Donbas region an effective veto over Ukraine's NATO ambitions. The Ukrainian far-right, empowered by the 2014 Maidan coup and in no mood for an accommodation with Russian-speakers in the east, successfully undermined the Minsk accords with violent protests.
With Obama's exit from the White House, the DC foreign policy establishment — also opposed to an accommodation with Russia — seized the opportunity to permanently sabotage Minsk and escalate the Ukraine proxy war that the outgoing president had tepidly waged. Their goal was made clear by two of the Senate's leading hawks, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, during a visit to Ukraine in December 2016.
"Your fight is our fight. 2017 will be the year of offense," Graham declared to a group of Ukrainian soldiers at a military base. "All of us will go back to Washington and we will push the case against Russia… It is time for them to pay a heavier price."
"We are with you, your fight is our fight and we will win together," McCain told Ukrainian state media. "In 2017 we will defeat the invaders and send them back where they came from."
When Donald Trump took office weeks later, Washington neoconservatives capitalized on Russiagate mania to achieve their desired "year of offense." Heavy bipartisan lobbying, coupled with his own incentive to disprove the frenzied allegations that he was beholden to the Kremlin, swayed Trump to reverse the Obama policy and approve the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.
In the Donbas, the heaviest price was paid by residents living under Ukrainian military shelling, who, according to UN figures, have accounted for 81% of the civilian casualties since 2018.
Although billed by proxy war champions like McCain as a fight against Russian "invaders", the US has long known that the rebels are in fact a local insurgency. In the Donbas, "Ukraine has mainly not been fighting Russia’s armed forces," two senior analysts with the Pentagon-tied RAND corporation recently observed. Instead, "the vast majority of rebel forces consist of locals—not soldiers of the regular Russian military." Up until the invasion last month, the Russian military "never used more than a tiny fraction of its capabilities against the Ukrainians."
A 2019 study by the same think tank offers strong evidence that turning Russia into "invaders" -- rather than just expending a "tiny fraction" of its military power to support the rebels -- has been the US goal.
The RAND study, "Overextending and Unbalancing Russia," found that arming Ukraine stands the highest chance of success of "exploit[ing] Russia’s greatest point of external vulnerability."
"Expanding U.S. assistance to Ukraine, including lethal military assistance, would likely increase the costs to Russia, in both blood and treasure, of holding the Donbass region," the study said. "…The Ukrainian military already is bleeding Russia in the Donbass region (and vice versa). Providing more U.S. military equipment and advice could lead Russia to increase its direct involvement in the conflict and the price it pays for it. Russia might respond by mounting a new offensive and seizing more Ukrainian territory."
According to the RAND authors, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the former general of U.S. Army Europe, "argued against giving Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine for precisely this reason."
While serving in Obama's State Department, the current Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, publicly advocated the same position. "If you’re playing on the military terrain in Ukraine, you’re playing to Russia’s strength, because Russia is right next door," Blinken told a Berlin audience in March 2015. "It has a huge amount of military equipment and military force right on the border. Anything we did as countries in terms of military support for Ukraine is likely to be matched and then doubled and tripled and quadrupled by Russia."
Since taking office as Biden's Secretary of State, Blinken and his colleagues have adopted the reverse position, flooding Ukraine with weapons and undermining diplomatic opportunities that could have avoided war.
"The doors will remain open" to provocation
An early signal that Biden would continue the proxy war in Ukraine came with his appointment of Victoria Nuland as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. A former aide to Dick Cheney, Nuland is the neoconservative State Department official who was caught plotting the installation of a Washington-friendly government weeks before the Maidan coup in 2014. In an intercepted phone call with US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, Nuland stressed that she would need Joe Biden and Jake Sullivan to ensure the plan’s success.
Biden signed on to Nuland's plan, positioning himself as the key US official in the post-coup Ukrainian government that soon came to power. "No one in the U.S. government has wielded more influence over Ukraine than Vice President Joe Biden," Foreign Policy noted in late 2016. The scale of Biden's influence in Ukraine was made plain when the energy giant Burisma deemed it prudent to hand Biden's son, Hunter Biden, a lucrative board seat.
With the boost of a US media that refused, in the final weeks of the 2020 presidential campaign, to report on the contents of Hunter Biden's laptop on the laughable (and newly re-debunked) grounds that it was "Russian disinformation", Joe Biden as president has picked up where he left off. Biden, Sullivan, Nuland, and Blinken have done nothing to support the Mink accords while simultaneously provoking Russia's red line against NATO expansion into Ukraine.
In August 2021, Washington and Kiev signed the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Defense Framework, which calls for collaboration "to advance the military capabilities and readiness of Ukraine to preserve the country’s territorial integrity, progress toward NATO interoperability, and promote regional security." The plan also calls for a "closer partnership of defense intelligence communities in support of military planning and defensive operations."
This was followed in November by the U.S.-Ukrainian Charter on Strategic Partnership, which declared U.S. support for "Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO." The agreement also touted "Ukraine’s efforts to maximize its status as a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner," a special status for a small number of NATO allies, and a green light for increased NATO weapons shipments and integration.
The Biden administration has promoted Ukraine's entry into NATO despite knowing that it could trigger a Russian response. Although now widely portrayed as a sacrosanct right that supersedes all else, the quest to incorporate Ukraine into NATO was so controversial that the president who first pledged it, George W. Bush, had to overrule his own advisers, including Fiona Hill. As Bush's Russia ambassador William Burns, now the Director of Biden's CIA, wrote in a 2008 cable: "Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin)… I have yet to find anyone who view Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests."
As Biden promoted Ukraine's entry into NATO, his administration also continued to fuel Ukraine’s civil war with US weapons shipments and a support for crackdowns on Ukraine’s Russia-aligned political forces. In a recent interview with Time magazine, Zelensky's first national security adviser, Oleksandr Danyliuk, revealed that the Zelensky deliberately targeted Ukraine's Russian-backed opposition in early 2021 to please the new regime in Washington. According to Danyliuk, when Zelensky shut down three pro-Russian opposition TV networks, the move was "conceived as a welcome gift to the Biden Administration, and "calculated to fit in with the U.S. agenda." The Biden administration signaled its appreciation by cheering the crackdown. Its silence on Zelensky's recent banning of 10 opposition parties suggests a similar reception.
Zelensky's DC-inspired hostility to the Russian-tied opposition also carried over to the peace accords that he was elected on implementing. At the final round of Minsk talks, which concluded just two weeks before Russia's invasion, a "key obstacle," the Washington Post reported, "was Kyiv’s opposition to negotiating with the pro-Russian separatists." And even as "the talks continue to stall and the threat of war grows more present," the Post added, "it’s unclear how much pressure the United States is placing on Ukraine to reach a compromise with Russia."
In a recent interview, Zelensky made clear that the only US pressure he received was to sabotage diplomacy. Speaking to CNN, Zelensky effectively admitted that Russia's core demand to avoid war – that Ukraine renounce NATO membership and commit to neutrality – was used to bait Russia instead.
"I requested them [NATO] personally to say directly that we are going to accept you into NATO in a year or two or five, just say it directly and clearly, or just say no," Zelensky said. "And the response was very clear, you're not going to be a NATO member, but publicly, the doors will remain open."
By insisting that the "doors will remain open" to a NATO pledge that they had no intention of fulfilling, the US and its NATO allies knowingly crossed a Russian red line that could trigger an invasion. The fact that Zelensky was willing to entertain this charade — and only casually acknowledge it weeks after it helped spark a catastrophic invasion of his country — raises questions about the heroic image that the US media and political establishment have cultivated for him.
"The end of the Putin regime"
With Zelensky admitting that NATO membership for Ukraine was the bait, Biden and other top officials continue to make clear that regime change in Moscow is the goal.
"The only end game now," a senior administration official reportedly told a private event earlier this month, according to Niall Ferguson in Bloomberg, "is the end of Putin regime. Until then, all the time Putin stays, [Russia] will be a pariah state that will never be welcomed back into the community of nations."
A British official likewise told Ferguson that the prevailing "No. 1 option" is for "the conflict to be extended and thereby bleed Putin."
"This war will not end easily or rapidly," Jake Sullivan declared shortly before Biden left for Europe last week. "[Biden’s trip] will send a powerful message that we are prepared and committed to this for as long as it takes."
The Biden administration has given every indication that it wants the proxy war in Ukraine to last a long while. The White House, the New York Times reports, "seeks to help Ukraine lock Russia in a quagmire without inciting a broader conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary", primarily by deploying the CIA "to ensure that crates of weapons are delivered into the hands of vetted Ukrainian military units." These weapons shipments, the Wall Street Journal reports, are "one of the largest and fastest arms transfers in history."
By choosing to invade Ukraine rather than exhaust all diplomatic options to resolve its grievances over the Donbas war and NATO expansion, Russia is legally and morally responsible for the carnage that it has caused. In opting to provoke Russia with NATO expansion, prolonging the Donbas war, and flooding Ukraine with weapons, the Biden administration is making clear that its goal of destabilization and regime change in Moscow far supersedes any Ukrainian lives lost as a result.