SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) – High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our Ts&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email email@example.com to buy additional rights. A key security adviser to Russian president Vladimir Putin has accused the US of seeking to drag Russia directly into war in Ukraine through a possible plan to arm Kiev, underlining the seriousness with which Moscow would greet such a move.
“The Americans are trying to draw the Russian Federation into an interstate military conflict, to achieve regime change through the events in Ukraine and to ultimately dismember our country,” said Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Kremlin’s security council.
The warning represented Moscow’s first high-level comments on the intensifying debate in Washington about supplying lethal weapons to a Ukrainian military at war with Russia-backed separatists.
The start of such arms supplies would be “one more confirmation that the US is a direct participant in the conflict,” Mr Patrushev added, warning that if Washington took this step, the conflict would “escalate only further”.
Mr Patrushev is one of Mr Putin’s closest associates — a former head of the FSB intelligence agency that succeeded the KGB, and one of the security officials with whose help the president runs the country.
His comments add to an accelerating drumbeat of bellicose warnings that have convinced many in Moscow the Russian leadership is preparing the country for a wider war. But others interpret the ratcheting up of rhetoric as a bluff to strengthen Moscow’s hand in ongoing peace talks.
Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, an arm of the US think-tank, is in the former camp. A move by the US to supply the Ukrainian army with lethal weapons would be viewed as “a real game changer” by the Russian government, he said.
Last weekend, Dmitry Kiselev, one of Mr Putin’s chief propaganda managers, once again invoked the threat of nuclear warfare. Commenting on the US debate about arming Ukraine on his news show on state television, Mr Kiselev read out the paragraph in Russia’s military doctrine which states that the country reserves the right to use nuclear weapons not only in response to a nuclear weapons attack but also if in a conventional weapons conflict “the very existence of the state is under threat.”
Mr Kiselev shocked the world 11 months ago when he warned that Russia was still the only country capable of “turning the US into radioactive dust”. Since then, dire warnings about war have become standard fare in Moscow. As relations with the west have soured during the Ukraine crisis, foreign policy officials have repeatedly asked western counterparts if they really wanted to risk a third world war, or “the unthinkable” event of a nuclear stand-off.
At the same time, Russia has increased the frequency of what foreign military officials call “nuclear signalling’” – testing missiles and the readiness of its nuclear arsenal infrastructure. “It is a fact that any theoretical conflict between Russia and Nato would have to turn nuclear very quickly, because that’s the only sphere where they can still match Nato,” said one foreign defence official in Moscow.
The Moscow Times, an English-language independent newspaper, on Tuesday quoted an unnamed adviser to the defence ministry as saying that US weapons supplies to Ukraine could provoke Russia to take its stand-off with the west beyond the region.
Yet even as Moscow toughens its rhetoric, it is still pursuing a deal with Kiev to stop the fighting. At a summit in Minsk on Wednesday with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande, Mr Putin will try to revive the collapsed ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk last September.
“The most important thing that supplying Ukraine with lethal arms would do is make the war more bloody,” said a Russian defence expert who asked not to be named. “You cannot turn the battle around because no matter how many weapons you put in there for Kiev, Russia can put in more, and faster,” he said.
The government defence adviser said that Washington’s calculus was to drive up the number of dead Russian soldiers and thus make it harder for Mr Putin to secure political backing for his course at home.
Defence experts said the main difficulty for Moscow would be that a drawn-out, larger war in Ukraine makes it more vulnerable on other flanks, such as the restive North Caucasus and Central Asia. “There are just not enough Russian soldiers to fight a war of attrition in Ukraine,” said one foreign defence expert in Moscow.
At the same time, Russian analysts also warn that western guns for Ukrainian soldiers would give Mr Putin a new weapon. “It would help him win his propaganda war, because finally the US would indeed be what he has claimed it to be: a party in the conflict,” says Alexander Golts, an independent defence analyst.
Russian analysts add that Washington would have to send military officers along to train Ukrainian soldiers on the weapons. “Otherwise it will be just a waste,” said Ruslan Pukhov, head of the defence think-tank CAST.