We used the phrase “Dancing through the raindrops” at the CIA when tackling a tough problem set. In my view, this perfectly describes the Biden administration’s approach to Ukraine at the eight-month-plus mark of Russia’s war. It’s important to give President Biden credit for coming to the aid of Ukraine without engaging directly with the Russian military and risking a potentially catastrophic escalation to nuclear exchange.
Since 2014, the U.S. has sent forward more than $20 billion worth of military aid and about $17.6 billion since the start of the war — a staggering number, considering the calls to do essentially nothing on Feb. 24. We have gone from words of regret for the invasion to shipments of evolving lethality, including Stinger missiles, howitzers, artillery rocket systems — and now even advanced air defense systems are en route. Yes, many of us have been frustrated at times that the process at the White House was not faster or more proactive. But the totality of the assistance is actually surprising, given the initial apparent handwringing at the National Security Council.
In essence, this is Biden’s finest hour as president, a far cry from the debacle of the August 2021 troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Lots of dangers lurk ahead — look at Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s recent, ridiculous warning of a Ukrainian false flag operation that in essence would blame Russia for the elease of a dirty bomb. It’s ludicrous, of course, but this is the hybrid warfare space in which the Russians like to play. My former colleagues in U.S. intelligence will need to be on their “A” game, battling the Russians in the information operations sphere; expose them, shame them, and most importantly, do not cede the information operations battleground to them.
The dangers of going wobbly may come from within our own house in the United States. The comment by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that additional aid to Ukraine may be more difficult with an anticipated GOP House majority come January was a geostrategic grenade. “What the hell?” was the collective gasp of my friends in the national security blob in Washington. Was McCarthy simply expressing the will of the more hard-right elements of his caucus, who are angry about all the things that Biden cares about? Or was McCarthy cleverly sending a bat signal to the administration to get a big package of aid through Congress now, or even during the lame-duck session?
Perhaps that’s the more rosy picture. The problem with this line of thinking is that we actually don’t know what types of weapons systems Ukraine will need six months from now, so this is anticipatory assistance. Also, will this message cause the Ukrainians to change their war strategy? Might they do things differently, fearing that assistance from the U.S. will dry up come January?
In any case, the comment was damaging, because one person who is listening is rather important to this equation: Vladimir Putin. Perhaps he believes that he just needs to hang on until January, when the GOP likely will take control of the House. Of concern, in my mind, is that McCarthy’s public comment could be a trigger for Russian intelligence to ramp up active measures campaigns, targeting GOP voters in particular. As they always do, the Russians will try to sow dissent within the U.S. They will use social media to fire up the GOP base, perhaps saying things like “money for the war is less money for crime, or the U.S. border.” McCarthy should have known better and made his remark privately to the administration.
But it’s not just those on the right who are getting wobbly on Ukraine. A group of 30 House progressive Democrats sent a letter to Biden demanding that he negotiate directly with Putin. The letter was later retracted, but the damage was done. In the face of what has been a huge U.S. foreign policy success for the Biden team, did they not realize they played right into Putin’s hands?
Finally, who would have thought Russia was so beaten down that their old client state would come to their rescue? Yes, Iran jumped into the fray with shipments and deployment of suicide drones, and now short-range ballistic missiles may be en route. One state sponsor helped another; what a surprise. Why is the U.S. not designating Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, too?
As for a potential nuclear deal with Iran, which already was on life support, Iran clearly cannot be trusted to be a responsible actor. Their support to Russia, along with the brutal crackdown on protesters in the streets of Iran, means a nuclear deal that provides an economic lifeline to the embattled Iranian regime must be tossed in the dust bin.
We need to do more to help Ukraine. We should provide Kyiv the long-range missiles required to hit the bases in Crimea, from where the Iranian drones are launched. It is good that air defense systems — like so many other military items that the West was initially reluctant to send forward — are now on their way to Ukraine. Long-range missile systems should follow. Putin’s actions always ensure what was not feasible only weeks earlier. What a strategist.
Moreover, Iranians on the ground in Ukraine should be considered valid military targets — and don’t think Ukrainians don’t know this. Of note, Iran’s entry into the war should have been the one move that triggered overt Israeli military assistance. But it doesn’t appear likely that Israel will supply weapons to Ukraine. For a country whose foundation is ethics and morality to help the downtrodden, this is wrong. I truly hope that Mossad is quietly providing assistance to Ukraine under the table.
Marc Polymeropoulos served 26 years at the CIA and retired from the Senior Intelligence Service in 2019. He is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, specializing in hybrid warfare, and an MSNBC national security and intelligence contributor.