The war heats up with bold nuclear rhetoric

The war heats up with bold nuclear rhetoric

CIUS weekly report on media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 17 October 2022

Three North American magazines (National Review, The Conversation, and Politico) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in the media during the past week (1–7 October 2022). The sample of magazines was created based on their impact on public opinion as well as their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. These three magazines represent the conservative, centrist, and liberal political spectrums.

This report covers only the most-read articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective magazines themselves in the past week. It also covers promoted texts on home pages, texts from special sections on Ukraine, texts from paper editions of magazines, texts with the hashtag #Ukraine, and texts about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.

Topics featured in the selected articles:

  • Ukraine’s current affairs: the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive is discrediting Putin’s reputation in Russia; Ukraine needs more and better air defence systems to protect its national infrastructure; the return of Azovstal defenders is another sign of Russia’s uncertainty and inconsistency in its war effort;
  • The world and Ukraine: US response to the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail should be bold, unequivocal, but cautious; Washington’s designation of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism may lead to burdensome outcomes for the US; the West is working to convince hesitant UN members to support Ukraine against Russia; China has ever fewer reasons to remain Russia’s major partner; Australia is counting on Ukraine’s victory to reinforce its own stance against China; 
  • Russia and Ukraine: Russian oil revenues are to be capped to limit the Kremlin’s military expenditures; Putin’s unwillingness to face bitter reality may lead to his downfall; the mobilization in Russia may trigger the biggest problem for the Kremlin in this war so far.

The most common arguments:

Ukraine’s capture of Lyman is a serious blow to Putin. Lara Seligman (Politico) writes that US officials highly appraise Ukraine’s war successes against Russia last week, but the fighting will likely intensify in future. With the liberation of the city of Lyman, a developed railway hub, Ukrainians cut off a powerful supply line to Russian troops in the Donbas. With the advances in Kherson oblast, Ukrainians have rendered any attack on the port city of Odesa almost impossible. These successes happened a few days after President Putin announced the incorporation of the occupied territories into the Russian Federation; thus, they came as insults to his reputation. Furthermore, in light of the widespread resistance against the mobilization in Russia, Ukrainian advances may lead to the collapse of the invading army. That being said, Seligman cites the Pentagon officials and concludes that the major fighting still lies ahead: “Russian forces are holding steady in other areas such as nearby Bakhmut, in Donetsk [oblast]. In the north, Russian forces are shelling the town of Kupiansk, which Ukraine continues to defend…The fight in the Donbas will be particularly grueling, as Russian forces are fighting from existing trenches and shelters they’ve held for years.” 

Ukraine is in dire need of advanced air defence systems. Paul McLeary (Politico) writes that the current counteroffensive war, being conducted as winter approaches, is making Ukraine revise the list of requested ammunition from the West. In particular, its new priority is advanced air defence systems, as the Russians will likely resort to massive missile bombardments of civilian targets due to their failures on the front. The latest US$625 m military aid package, announced on 4 October, is predominantly focused on precision artillery and rocket systems and does not include air defence equipment. However, according to prior agreement, Ukraine is to receive two NASAMS (National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems) by November, allowing it to combat Russian drones, helicopters, and missiles. McLeary believes that some of the Western states are reluctant to share their newest technologies with Ukraine which may explain why only two NASAMS are on the agenda and why their delivery is so late. Apart from this, “the U.S. is also holding quiet talks with Ukraine and the defence industry about whether to eventually acquire capabilities such as Patriot batteries and F-16 fighter planes.” McLeary concludes that Ukraine is in dire need of advanced air defence systems as Russia will likely continue indiscriminate long-range bombardments of civilian infrastructure. These bombardments will be especially destructive as Russia is running low on high-precision missiles and will likely use ones with a big lesion radius. 

Ukraine got its PoWs back. David Turns (The Conversation) outlines the historical and contemporary frameworks of international law that allow fighting sides to exchange PoWs in due course and after the war. Examining the major exchange between Ukraine and Russia in September 2022, Turns notices a few peculiarities. Primarily, that it was conducted in consistency with the legal provisions. Secondly, “the Russian side lacks the serious will or capacity to conduct mass trials of PoWs on charges that would not withstand legal scrutiny.” Thirdly, the massive exchange of prisoners took place alongside the announcement of mobilization in Russia as well as a new wave of Putin’s threats to deploy nuclear weaponry. This timing “suggests a degree of strategic uncertainty on Russia’s part that could be a pointer to possible dissent within the regime or impatience with the duration of the conflict.”

Washington’s threats to the Kremlin to respond decisively for a nuclear attack should be weighed carefully. Michael Brendan Dougherty (National Review) touches upon the consequences that a probable Russia’s nuclear attack on Ukraine would bring for the US and its citizens. US General David Petraeus stated in his recent interview that Washington “would respond by leading a NATO—a collective—effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea, and every ship in the Black Sea.” Dougherty finds such a response dangerous, as Russia would have even more reasons to escalate the war in light of the threats of Western nuclear powers to obliterate its troops. Russian propagandists will gain new arguments to feed the narrative of the necessity to fight the malicious West with all available power. Not to mention that a decisive NATO defence of the integrity of a non-NATO state makes the whole philosophy behind Article 5 ambiguous: “Ukraine is not a member of NATO…but NATO has staked its own credibility on the notion that it must not be forbidden by Russia from becoming one.” Dougherty also writes that if Washington resorts to obliterating Russia’s troops, US citizens will feel the reverberations of war as they have never before. The fact “that their lives had been directly gambled” may provoke an unprecedented political crisis in the US, not to mention the risk of being affected by the nuclear fallout. Dougherty concludes that “we’re rapidly approaching a point where [President Biden] may no longer be able to conduct this war as if it were a small conflict with a power incapable of reaching us.”

Christoph Bluth (The Conversation) also touches upon the probability of Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine and the US response to such use. The fundamental objective of Biden’s administration is to prevent the Third World War which may be triggered by Russia’s overly-brutal retaliation to Ukraine’s successful counterattacks. The US perceives the threat of nuclear escalation seriously. The Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared that Putin had no checks: “He made the irresponsible decision to invade Ukraine, and he could make another decision.” Mentioned above David Petreaus asserted that “You don’t want to, again, get into a nuclear escalation here [in the Russo-Ukrainian war]. But you have to show that this cannot be accepted in any way.” Petreaus considers that the nuclear pollution moving from Ukraine to a neighbouring NATO country will become a sufficient reason to activate Article 5. However, as of today, the US response to Russia’s launching nuclear missiles has not been communicated to the public. All that is known is that the US promised “catastrophic consequences” if the Kremlin resorts to nuclear weapons. 

In turn, Christopher Cadelago (Politico) highlights President Biden’s public acknowledgement that “the United States had not ‘faced the prospect of Armageddon’ since President John F. Kennedy was mired in the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago.”

US and Western states lobby for a resolution in the UN to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty. Nahal Toosi and Ryan Heath (Politico) argue that “the Biden administration and its international allies are hunting for votes at the United Nations this week in their quest to get as many countries as possible to support a historic resolution slamming Russia’s territorial claims in Ukraine.” The resolution, which is to be put to voting at the UN General Assembly soon, has been designed to strengthen the Western-initiated isolation of the Kremlin and personally Putin, undermine dominant Russian narratives that the invasion of Ukraine was necessary to liberate it, and convince the Kremlin strategists that “escalating the war will invite only more global backlash.” In order for the resolution to be passed, the US and its allies are using all available options to communicate with the national delegates to the UN General Assembly. The US and its allies hope that their lobbying effort will help them collect 141 or more votes in favour of the resolution, as well as encourage India, South Africa, and other often hesitant states to support the West. In response, Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, defined the draft resolution as a “sham” in private talks and urged the delegates to vote against it. 

US designation of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism may bring more harm than benefit. Michael Wahid Hanna and Delaney Simon (Politico) argue that while Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine definitely fall within the definition of war crimes, it may not be a good idea to emphasize the element of terrorism in them. Indeed, “a state sponsor of terrorism designation may seem fitting punishment for Russia’s attack on Ukraine, but for several reasons, it would likely backfire.” Wahid Hanna and Simon provide six justifications for the mentioned backfiring. First, designation of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism will prevent the whole Western world from cooperating with the Kremlin on other global problems, such as peace in Syria, Lybia, or Yemen. Second, a diplomatic solution to the Russo-Ukrainian war will become less probable even under the scenario that Putin disappears from the political stage; having been accused of sponsoring terrorism, it is not easy for any state and its elites to return their good name. Third, the difference between the terms “terrorist acts” and “war crimes” will become more obscure and this will trigger many complications for US lawmakers in the future. Fourth, because the mentioned designation makes it harder to negotiate humanitarian deals with Russia, the world’s poorest and least developed states will be unnecessarily victimized. Fifth, the designation may send a message to the Kremlin that the US is pursuing regime change in Russia and therefore may encourage the Kremlin to resort to even more violence. Finally, the designation has a comparatively small chance for success, considering the overall resilience of Russia to Western sanctions that have already been imposed. Wahid Hanna and Simon suggest that the US should help Ukraine to document and investigate Russia’s war crimes in order for justice to be served within the framework of international law. 

China is more interested in access to Western finance, trade, and technology than in supporting Russia. Min-Hua Chiang (National Review) writes that while the relations between Beijing and the Kremlin have grown closer since February 2022, many economic factors set limitations to Chinese support of the Russian invasion. Chiang argues that “Russia accounts for only a small proportion of Chinese trade (2 percent in 2021).” At the same time, “Beijing’s trade ties with the U.S. and Europe are much greater (26 percent in 2021).” In this light, Beijing will support the Kremlin in its war up to the point when China will not be directly hit by Western sanctions. Even today many of the flagship Chinese companies are leaving the Russian market or curtailing their operations to avoid potential sanctions. The biggest asset that Russia may offer to China as its minor trading partner is discounts on energy resources. Chiang concludes that a broadly understood access to the West “is more important to Beijing and its aspirations than Russia is” and that “the U.S. should continue developing tools—including trade sanctions and restrictions on technology transfer—to disincentivize Chinese economic support of Russia.”

Australia’s preservation as a “middle power” depends on its support of Ukraine. William Partlett (The Conversation) opens his article with the statement that “Russia’s brutal invasion and claimed annexation is a clear breach of an international law rule that is critical to the security of smaller and middle powers like Australia.” Partlett devotes much attention to explaining the necessity of all global actors to abide by international law, especially in conflict situations. Australia is one of the states whose security directly depends on international law and, therefore, in the case of Ukraine, Canberra is motivated to keep this law intact. Partlett writes that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a daring violation of Article 2 of the UN Charter, which posits that “all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Article 2 is of supreme importance to Australia as it inherently protects the state against the strengthening of China’s presence in Asia. Therefore, if Russia succeeds in its invasion of Ukraine, the precedent will be set that the “strong countries [can] do what they want and the weak [should] suffer what they must.” Partlett concludes that “with its assertions of sovereignty over Ukrainian land through force, Russia’s actions in Ukraine are about more than a new Cold War. They now pose a fundamental threat to the stability of the international system and the national security of small and middle powers around the world.”

A new oil-targeting package of Western sanctions may render Russia’s war impossible. Amitrajeet A. Batabyal (The Conversation) scrutinizes the impact of a new package of Western sanctions on the Kremlin’s desire to continue its war. Amongst other things, these sanctions include capping the price of Russian oil and banning oil exports by sea. Batabyal believes that oil-targeting sanctions, if introduced correctly, will bring more good than bad: the international economy will have time to adjust to price volatility, while China and India will eventually join the Western camp and Russia will drastically diminish its energy revenues that are abundantly used to support fighting. Having conducted related research, Batabyal argues “that not many buyers will continue to do business with Russia when most seaports, ocean shipping lanes, and oil tankers are off-limits to Russian oil…Putin claims that he will not sell Russian oil to nations participating in the cap program. [However] this is difficult to believe given how dependent the Russian economy is on oil revenue.” Batabyal concludes that “oil sales are Russia’s principal revenue source. Perhaps the price cap will pressure Russia to choose selling oil over waging war.”

The difference between Putin’s triumphalism and reality risks bringing his regime to an end. Matthew Sussex (The Conversation) argues that Putin “has unequivocally bet his political survival on ‘victory’ over Ukraine and the West. Crucially, there are now definite signs his grip on power is starting to fray, even if Putin’s demise may still be some way off.” Sussex highlights that many dictators in history slipped as they overestimated their powers and importance in their chase for a legacy. Putin seems to have followed suit: he convinced Russians that enemies resided in Ukraine and the West and that they should be defeated. However, the army assembled by Putin for that particular goal is not fit for the task and he will eventually need to take responsibility. Sussex believes that Putin created his own existential threat by over-relying on external processes, which are beyond his control, to steer domestic policies. He also has failed to offer a vision of Russia that is based on clear political values relevant to its people; instead, Putin “has presided over a centralised authoritarian government, playing divide-and-rule with different Kremlin cliques, and elevating friends and cronies while also occasionally purging them.” In this light, if the Russian army continues its series of defeats in Ukraine, Putin will no longer have scapegoats to blame for his miscalculations and will eventually be abandoned by his cronies: “He has, for the first time, created an incentive for elites to unite against him.”

Army mobilization has always been a double-edged sword for political regimes in Russia. Eric Lohr (The Conversation) highlights that the recently announced mobilization has stirred widespread opposition in Russia, from attempts of the male population to flee the state to setting fire to recruitment offices. Looking into history, mobilization in Russia sometimes worked regardless of initial social resistance and led to “legitimizing conflict in the eyes of the public and instilling national unity.” However, it also backfired against leaders announcing it a couple of times. Lohr provides examples of the wars against Napoleon and the Second World War to demonstrate that mobilization may turn Russia’s fortunes, yet warns that it may also lead to the utter weakening of the government, as happened during the Russo-Japanese war and, later, the First World War. Speaking of the latter, Lohr writes that “on paper, the Russian army [in 1914] swelled to 10 million men, the largest it had been through the entire war to date…But after a couple weeks of advances, the unreliable recent recruits were the first to desert, starting an avalanche of 2 million desertions.” Lohr concludes that “larger armies are not necessarily stronger ones” in Russia, especially if deployed under ambiguous premises, and that “Putin appears to look toward World War II, missing the lessons of the earlier Great War.”

Media Monitoring Service

Media Monitoring Service (MMS) critically assess dominant narratives, including a special focus on disinformation, in selected key Canadian and US publications regarding contemporary Ukraine. The purpose of MMS is to inform experts and the general public about how Ukraine and Ukraine-related events are covered and reported on and to alert them to contentious ideas and claims that may be perpetuated in the media to Ukraine’s detriment. Read more

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