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Leaked papers reveal proxy war in Ukraine


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Niraj Srivastava

Former Ambassador

ON April 7, The New York Times reported that a trove of around 100 highly classified US military documents, containing details of the US strategy in the Ukraine war and other sensitive information, had been released on social media sites, including Twitter and Telegram. The American media has described the release as the biggest security breach since the Edward Snowden episode of 2013.

The documents contain important military information, such as the number of casualties on both sides and the performance and quantity of weapons supplied to Ukraine by the US and other NATO countries, which could adversely affect Ukraine’s ability to fight Russia.

Reports in the western media indicate that photographs of the documents had been circulating for over a month on Discord, a messaging platform popular with video gamers. Some of them were marked ‘Top Secret’ and ‘NOFORN’ (not for foreign eyes), indicating the sensitivity of the information, which spilt over to the mainstream media when it could no longer be kept under wraps.

On April 13, the FBI arrested a 21-year-old member of the US Air National Guard for leaking the documents. However, some commentators have asked questions about the arrest, wondering how a junior operative could get his hands on such highly classified documents.

The leak of the documents, which have the imprint of the Pentagon and other US agencies all over them, demonstrates conclusively the proxy nature of the Ukraine war, with the US and its NATO allies on one side, and Russia on the other. The planning, supply of weapons and political cover to Ukraine in the UN are being provided by the West. The aims of the war include the recovery of Crimea by Ukraine and the overthrow of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in yet another episode of regime change.

The leak has also put a question mark on the ‘spring offensive’ of the Ukrainian army, aimed at recovering territories lost to Russia — currently adding up to around 20 per cent of the country’s area. It is also being seen, much to the consternation of the US, as an indication of fissures in NATO, which could be one of the possible sources of the leak. Though some US officials have blamed Russia, many observers believe that the source of the leak is either the US or NATO.

Lately, the war has not been going too well for Ukraine, with its military under constant shelling and bombing by the Russian forces and fighters from the Wagner mercenary group, a private Russian militia. Russia has made significant gains in the town of Bakhmut, which is a key logistical, supply and transport hub, crucial to the control of the eastern province of Donetsk. Russia has been trying to wrest it from Ukraine for several months. There are reports that Russia has deployed its most modern tank, the T-14 Armata, in the area.

On the other hand, Ukrainian forces are reportedly facing a shortage of ammunition for artillery and air defence systems. As a result, the Russian Air Force has reportedly been bombing Ukrainian targets with relative ease. This is primarily a land-based war, driven by artillery, tanks and manpower, in all of which Russia enjoys a significant advantage over Ukraine. In trench wars, like the one in Ukraine, some 75 per cent of the casualties are caused by the artillery, in which Russia has a 10:1 advantage, according to Spanish newspaper El Pais.

Western efforts to replenish the Ukrainian war machine have been hampered by low stocks in their own arsenals. Russian forces, on the other hand, are not facing such constraints. To make up for these disadvantages, the US, the UK, Germany and other NATO members have been upping the ante by introducing more lethal weapons to the conflict. Thus, the UK recently announced the supply of depleted uranium shells to Ukraine.

Responding to the above announcement, Putin said, “Russia has hundreds of thousands of such shells which have not been used yet.” In June 2022, he had announced that Russia would deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, and would help that country convert its Su-25 aircraft to carry nuclear weapons and train its crews. He also said Russia would transfer 500-km-range nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Belarus. In December 2022, Russia announced that 10 Belarusian Su-25 aircraft had been converted to nuclear capability, and in April, the two sides announced that Belarusian pilots had completed training for the nuclear mission.

The inclusion of Finland in NATO may elicit a similar Russian response because Russia is fighting not just Ukraine, but also 31 NATO members, whose combined manpower and weaponry easily exceed those of Russia. To make up for its deficiencies vis-a-vis NATO, Russia might be tempted to resort to an asymmetrical nuclear response.

That should provide food for thought to new aspirants for NATO membership: does the NATO umbrella result in an increase or a decrease in their security? Russia has signalled more than once that it could use nuclear weapons if faced with an existential threat. The road from tactical to strategic nuclear weapons could be a short one, exemplified by the recent movement of the hands of the Doomsday Clock from 100 seconds to 90 seconds (to midnight) by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Such a war could spell the end of the world. There is, therefore, a growing sentiment in the international community that negotiations are the only way to end the war in Ukraine. Moreover, negotiations must be conducted in good faith, not in bad, as in the case of the doomed Minsk I and Minsk II agreements, according to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The next few months would be crucial to assess the contours of this devastating war, in which there would be few winners. The biggest loser would be Ukraine, which would be torn between Russia and the West. Russia is highly unlikely to return the areas controlled by its forces to Ukraine. Its future strategic orientation would be to the East, not the West, in which it has lost all confidence. The biggest winner, of course, would be China, courted by both Russia and Europe.

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