Analysis |

Putin Is Testing the West in Ukraine. Will Biden Draw a Red Line?

Almost three weeks into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Putin's propaganda machine is laying the groundwork for a chemical attack with false accusations that Kyiv is working on 'military biological programs'

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A Ukrainian army officer walking in front of a destroyed shoe factory after an airstrike in Dnipro, Ukraine, on Friday.
A Ukrainian army officer walking in front of a destroyed shoe factory after an airstrike in Dnipro, Ukraine, on Friday. Credit: Emre Caylak/AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

An all-out conventional war between two large modern armies has become a rare occurrence in our lifetimes. So far in the 21st century, the two major examples are the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and now the attack on Ukraine.

The Russians and before them the Soviet Union haven’t been in such a conflict since the end of World War II. In the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979, the armies on the other side barely put up a fight.

The last time Russia confronted a regular army was in its invasion of Georgia in 2008, but despite the Georgians’ attempts to modernize their military, with American and Israeli assistance, the disparity with the Russians was so vast they were blown away on the battlefield.

Military experts around the world are already busy gathering insight on the two and a half weeks of conventional warfare in Ukraine, but the Russians themselves have little time. President Vladimir Putin is showing no signs of giving up on his ambition to liquidate Ukraine as an independent identity. His army is faltering in the face of determined opposition from the Ukrainian army and finding it difficult to encircle Kyiv or make much progress along the Black Sea toward the strategic port city of Odessa.

So the Russians are shifting to a different type of warfare in which they’ve gained much experience in recent years: war against a civilian population.

Ukrainian soldiers helping an elderly woman cross a destroyed bridge in Irpin near Kyiv on Tuesday. Credit: Sergei Supinsky/AFP

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For these kinds of attacks, Russia has a tried and trusted playbook it has been using for nearly three decades, from the civil wars in Chechnya to the fighting in the Donbass region and all the way to the rebel areas in Syria. The tactics are mass bombardment from the air and rocket launchers on the ground. Some targets are just random civilian areas, but there are also more directed attacks on government buildings, hospitals, food distribution facilities and bakeries.

Unlike the classic military use of artillery, this firepower isn’t meant to open the way for ground forces. Its aim is to send hundreds of thousands fleeing the killing grounds and put unbearable pressure on the other side, breaking its fighting spirit.

The bombardments are accompanied by an unrelenting barrage of propaganda insisting that only “terrorist” targets were hit by Russia and that any civilians harmed were intentionally bombed by the other side. Russia then offers to open “humanitarian corridors” in tactically convenient directions, which are often bombarded as well to create even more panic and chaos. It has worked in Chechnya, Donbas and Syria.

So far Russia is using these tactics mainly on the cities of Mariupol and Kharkiv, and on a number of suburbs around Kyiv. On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed that patients and medical staff had been “forced” out of a maternity hospital in Mariupol that was then used as a “firing site.” Hours later the hospital was bombed. Videos of the aftermath clearly show patients including heavily pregnant women being evacuated. At least three civilians were killed.

But while Russia has clearly transitioned to targeting civilians in its war on Ukraine, it has two main problems in using these tactics now. The first is that in Chechnya, Donbas and Syria, the Russians also had local units of collaborators ready to take over the devastated towns once most of the civilians had fled. (And in Syria the Russians also had Shi’ite mercenaries organized and financed by Iran.)

Damaged buildings of a children's hospital after a Russian airstrike on Mariupol on Wednesday. Credit: National Police of Ukraine/Handout/AFP

In most of Ukraine, with the exception of the “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk, there are no pro-Russia militias prepared to do the dirty work on the ground for the Russian army. At some point Moscow will still have to send in its own soldiers, suffering from low morale, and expose them to more Ukrainian ambushes.

The other major problem for the Russians is that the area is saturated with cameras and the images are being streamed in near real time while both the mainstream media and independent journalists are swiftly debunking the Russian propaganda.

This doesn’t seem to be bothering Putin too much, but it’s having an effect in the West, where support for Ukraine, and for more sanctions on Russia, is solidifying. International attention is also focused on Russia’s next expected move, which could include another page from its Syrian playbook – fabricating a chemical warfare incident against civilians that would dramatically boost the panic level and be blamed on the other side.

On Thursday both CIA Director William Burns and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson publicly warned of the possibility that Russia would use chemical weapons. The propaganda groundwork has already been laid in the shape of Russian accusations that the United States has been working with the Ukrainians on “military biological programs.”

Just as in Syria, where Moscow accused the rebels of responsibility for the chemical attacks by the Assad regime against Syrian civilians, the Russians are establishing a narrative. A similar one has been prepared for a nuclear incident: Russia’s accusations, repeated many times by Putin himself, that Ukraine is preparing a “dirty bomb.”

Kharkiv residents resting in a metro station as they shelter from attacks on Thursday.Credit: Emre Caylak/AFP

He’s saying these things even though Ukraine voluntarily gave up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union back in 1994. This has also played into the pessimistic predictions by some military analysts in the West that Russia could use a “tactical” nuclear weapon in Ukraine.

The dark assessments of Putin’s intention to continue escalating in Ukraine, despite the sanctions and military failures so far, are partly based on the impressions of Western leaders who have spoken to him in recent days. This includes Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who both met with him last Saturday in Moscow and has spoken to him since at least twice over the phone. Both Bennett and French President Emmanuel Macron were left with little doubt that Putin is fully aware of the price Russia is paying and is nevertheless prepared to continue paying it.

Unlike the Obama administration back in 2013 with Syria, the United States and its Western allies have yet to draw a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. Barack Obama did that only to back down from retaliating against Bashar Assad when hundreds were murdered in Ghouta in southwest Syria. Instead the Americans accepted a Russian-brokered agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal (though Assad retained some capabilities).

Now it’s the Russians who may be using these weapons, and Joe Biden is determined not to get into a direct confrontation for fear of setting off World War III. The Americans are ruling out any consideration of a no-fly zone over parts of Ukraine to protect civilians. If Putin does use chemical or nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the West may be forced to change its position. But by then it may be too late.

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