Austin’s claim that the United States wants to ‘weaken’ Russia underscores the Biden strategy shift

A spokesman for the National Security Council said Austin’s comments were in line with what the United States’ goal has been for several months – to “make this invasion a strategic failure for Russia.”

“We want Ukraine to win,” the spokesman added. “One of our goals has been to limit Russia’s ability to do such a thing again, as Minister Austin said. That is why we are arming the Ukrainians with weapons and equipment to defend themselves against Russian attacks, and that is why we are using sanctions. and exports controls aimed directly at Russia’s defense industry to undermine Russia’s economic and military power to threaten and attack its neighbors. ”

U.S. officials who traveled with Austin said the message is one he planned to repeat, according to a senior administration official. Russia, coming out of the conflict weaker than before, is an idea that other officials in the Biden administration have referred to. However, US officials had previously been reluctant to say so clearly that the US goal is to see Russia fail and be militarily castrated in the long run, while remaining cautiously optimistic that some sort of negotiated solution could be reached.

An Eastern European official told CNN that the mentality was incredibly frustrating. “The only solution to this is for Ukraine to win,” he said.

The change in strategy has taken place over the last few weeks, evidenced by a growing tolerance for increased risk with the more complex Western weapons being sent in, and is a reflection of the belief that Putin’s goals in Ukraine would not end, if he manages to conquer part of Ukraine, which they did not do after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, a British diplomat said.

“Even if they come up with a solution where (Putin) gets some of the Donbas and it all goes to sleep, logic would dictate that there is more way to run in this. So therefore that is what you can take from the battlefield in this window, not only a short-term victory, it is also a long-term strategy. “

Now there is a growing recognition among American and Western officials – especially after the Russian massacre of civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha – that Russia must be wounded so economically and on the battlefield that its aggression is stopped forever. , US and Western officials told CNN.

“So it has already lost a lot of military capability,” Austin said. “And a lot of its troops, quite frankly. And we want to see that they do not have the capacity to reproduce that capacity very quickly.”

Biden administration officials are optimistic that this is an achievable goal, sources told CNN. Administration officials and congressional sources said they believe continued military support for Ukraine could result in significant battles against Russia, which would impair their long-term military capabilities, strategically benefiting the United States.

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Already, the United States has begun sending heavier and more sophisticated equipment to Ukraine, which it had refrained from in the past, including 72 howitzers and Phoenix Ghost tactical drones.

“The way we look at this is that it is making an investment to sterilize the Russian army and navy in the next decade,” said a congressional source familiar with ongoing military assistance to Ukraine.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday that although “the war is clearly in Ukraine right now,” the United States and its allies are also seeking to “prevent (Russia) from expanding their efforts and President Putin’s goals beyond that. . “

A delicate ‘balancing’

Officials noted, however, that the United States and its allies carefully need a needle when it comes to punishing Russia – both because of the parallel damage that severe sanctions can have on the global economy and because of the risk that Putin may knock out if he is backed too far into a corner.

A source familiar with U.S. intelligence assessments of Russia said, “there is certainly a balancing act that needs to be taken into account” when punishing the country, “whether it is in the area of ​​sanctions or in the area of ​​military and intelligence support.”

This person added that while the United States still considers that Putin’s red lines for the use of nuclear weapons have not changed, “one of those red lines is regime stability,” they said – meaning Putin could strike out if he felt , that his rule is seriously threatened.

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A US official said separately that he believes Austin’s comments were not helpful for that reason and because it could play into the Russian propaganda line that NATO and US support for Ukraine is a game of power.

The goal is not to tell the Russians that “no matter what, the United States and NATO will weaken you,” this official said, but rather that the West will aim to punish Russia as long as it is at war with Ukraine.

A State Department spokesman said the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies were “all in response to Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine. They are aimed at preventing Putin from buying more ammunition, weapons, missiles – to stop him. “from funding its war machine, to stopping the killing. They also aim to punish those who actively support Putin’s unprovoked, brutal war. This is not about harming the Russian people.”

It is still unclear what the United States would do about the sanctions if Russia reached a meaningful peace agreement with Ukraine and withdrew its forces. Several sources told CNN that in that scenario, the United States would likely consider lifting some sanctions, in good faith, while retaining others. The United States and its allies, including Britain, have also considered the feasibility of a “snapback” mechanism that would allow them to quickly reintroduce sanctions if Moscow violates agreements reached with Kiev, the sources said.

But with the conflict still raging and the prospects for a peace deal looking increasingly bleak, these options are very far from being implemented, officials said. Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said in March that Russia’s behavior change must be “irreversible” before the United States considers lifting sanctions.

“They want to make sure that everything that is being done is in fact irreversible, that this can not happen again, that Russia will not take action and do exactly what it is doing in a year or two years or three years, “Blinken said in an interview with NPR.

Changing concerns about escalation

Russia’s poor performance and significant losses on the battlefield have contributed significantly to the United States’ increasingly courageous stance, officials said.

While Washington had previously been concerned that the launch of heavy artillery could be seen as a provocation, Biden has announced billions of dollars in new shipments of tanks, missiles and ammunition over the past month, an indication that some initial concerns about to escalate the conflict has subsided.

The United States is also preparing to train Ukraine’s armed forces on more state-of-the-art, NATO-compatible weapons systems, Austin told reporters on Monday – a move that will allow the United States and its allies to supply more powerful weapons to Ukraine. faster, as these systems are more readily available than the Soviet equipment that the West has had to search for to date.

“There are a number of shifts happening at the same time,” the British diplomat said. “One looks at future capabilities, and that’s related to artillery and more modern weapons. Second, let’s take out what’s on the battlefield.”

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Biden himself has steadily turned up the rhetoric in describing Putin – from calling him a war criminal to saying he can not remain in power to accusing him of genocide – despite concerns among some of his advisers , the language can make Putin whip. out.

But the president has downplayed those concerns privately, according to people familiar with the talks, and says it is more important to articulate what is clear than to risk a possible escalation. And he has stressed that Russia’s military capabilities are not as strong as the United States once thought.

Ambassador Nathan Sales, who until 2021 served as Secretary of State for Civil Security, Democracy and Human Rights, said that the “bottom line” is that “a weaker Russia means a more stable world” and that the United States should prepare its Russia policy

“As long as Putin hits the shot, Russia will be a malicious actor,” he said. “And so we can not hope that Russia will become a constructive and responsible player in Europe or in the wider international system.” Sales added that the United States should therefore prepare for “a longer period” of its Russia policy, which aims to limit its ability to “cause harm around the world.”

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