An important but little-discussed result of Russia’s war against Ukraine has been to “jump-start” a change in Ukrainians’ thinking “about everything from corruption to national identity and the way Ukraine thinks about the world, including Israel.” So said Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, during a July 20 Jewish Policy Center webinar about the war and its implications.
One element of that change affects Ukrainians’ view of antisemitism. Historically widespread in the country, it now is increasingly discounted as “Russian,” he said.
Berman noted that corruption in government long has plagued Ukraine, but actions including removal of a bribe-taking Supreme Court justice point in the right direction. The issue matters to foreign countries, including the United States, backing the administration of President Volodymyr Zelensky with arms and money, especially if “Ukraine fatigue” sets in as Russia attempts to prolong the fighting.
Another result of the war, according to Berman, has been a “fundamental inversion of the relationship between Russia and Iran for the past quarter century.” Russia “had been running interference for Iran” at the United Nations and elsewhere, but since Moscow invaded Ukraine in February, 2022, “Iran has been the senior partner” by, among other things, supplying drones important to Moscow’s military effort.
Berman, who specializes in regional security in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia, has consulted for the Central Intelligence Agency, State and Defense Departments. His latest book is Wars of Ideology: Theology, Interpretations and Power in the Muslim World.
Berman asked webinar participants to focus on “three big-ticket items” regarding the Russian-Ukraine war. These were the Ukrainians’ counter-offensive, the June “almost coup, sort of coup” attempt by Yevgeniy Prigozhin and elements of his Wagner mercenary force against Russia’s military leadership, and the state of American strategy regarding the conflict.
Delayed from spring to nearly the start of summer, Ukraine’s counter-offensive against Russian troops occupying the Crimean peninsula and eastern provinces “is moving more slowly than many predicted but it’s not out of steam yet,” Berman said. While Western support for Kyiv has been “robust in the aggregate … in specifics it’s been very slow.”
From Ukrainians’ viewpoint, they “simply couldn’t move until they had the requisite military hardware.” According to Berman, “Ukrainian officials are enormously frustrated at not getting equipment fast enough.”
As for Russian President Vladimir Putin and those around him, “the clock works for Russia” with fighting “settling into what they want to be a long-haul conflict.” One indication of that, Berman said, is construction of “dozens of new penal colonies Russia has set up to house thousands of Ukrainians captured or repatriated” from their homeland. “And Russia is busy building more.”
Meanwhile, the “shock and awe” the West expected Moscow to feel with the imposition of numerous economic sanctions appears to have fallen short. Sanction have hurt, Berman said, but Putin seems to have concluded that Russia can outlast them.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, drawing out the war increases the possibility of “war fatigue” among Ukraine’s backers, Berman said. Foremost among them is the United States, with divisions over Ukraine support evident in the Republican Party and, for both the GOP and Democratic Party, the 2024 presidential election on the horizon.
Not that all is well in Russia. Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, after seizing two Russian cities with little resistance from the regular military, “raised lots of questions,” Berman acknowledged.
In the West, the mercenary leader “is perceived as a meaner Vladimir Putin,” he said. It’s still not clear whether Prigozhin intended to carry out a coup against Putin himself, but the Russian military in effect sat on the sidelines early on. That had to be very worrying for Putin, Berman said.
Though Russia is dragging out the war, its military has not succeeded. Propaganda that portrayed the Russian army “as 10 feet tall” previously induced Western policy makers to act conciliatorily toward the Kremlin, Berman noted. But with an estimated 47,000 dead and 125,000 severely wounded, Russia in Ukraine has suffered nearly 10 times its losses taken over a decade of occupying Afghanistan.
American strategy has shown “a lot of ambiguities,” Berman said. “Some are intentional, some are not. … I’m enormously concerned that we haven’t set strategic objectives for our aid.” Assertions by President Biden and other officials that the United States is committed for “as long as it takes” do not answer the question, “as long as it takes to do what?”