Is America in a shadow war with Russia?

Putin, Biden and Zelenskyy
Putin, Biden and Zelenskyy Illustrated / Getty Images

Ukraine is taking the war to Russia. U.S. officials say they believe a drone attack on the Kremlin earlier this month was the work of Ukrainian operatives, CNN reported, although it's unlikely that senior officials "ordered the attack or knew about it beforehand." The newly revealed intelligence makes it unlikely that the attack was a "false flag" operation by Russia to escalate its attacks on Ukraine.

But Ukraine's increasing aggressiveness on Russian territory is clearly making American officials nervous. They're now investigating reports that U.S. military vehicles were used by pro-Ukrainian Russian paramilitary groups during an attack Monday on the Belgorod region, Politico reported. "We've been pretty darn clear: We don't support the use of U.S.-made equipment for attacks inside Russia … we've been clear about that with the Ukrainians," U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.

The United States has provided ample military assistance to Ukraine since the war began early in 2022. The White House has been cautious about sending advanced equipment like tanks and fighter jets to Kyiv, however, for fear of getting more directly drawn into war with a nuclear-armed Russia. The attacks, along with America's recent decision to begin F-16 training for Ukrainian pilots, have renewed questions about that kind of escalation, Mediaite reported. Kirby's response: "We have made it clear that we're not going to encourage or enable Ukraine to strike inside Russian territory."

A 'deadly three-way shadow war'

The recent Discord leaks offered a picture of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy mulling attacks inside Russia, Zeeshan Aleem wrote at MSNBC. That's potentially dangerous to the United States: "If Zelenskyy were to lead an offensive operation in Russia while armed with weapons from NATO, there's a good chance Russia would interpret it as a U.S.-backed action." That, in turn, could raise the odds of a "catastrophic nuclear exchange" between the two powers. While Ukraine's desire to strike Russian targets is understandable, the intelligence leaks suggest America should offer a restraining hand: That's not "weakness, but wisdom."

There is a "deadly three-way shadow war between Russia, Ukraine, and the United States," James Bamford wrote for The Nation. The Kremlin drone attack was one sign of escalation in that war, as were assassination attempts — one successful — on Russian pro-war bloggers. Because Ukraine receives vast amounts of both U.S. equipment and intelligence assistance in its war against Russia, that campaign means "the risk of dragging the US deeper and deeper into an endless quagmire will continue to grow."

But the attacks may be accomplishing something, Anna Nemstova noted for The Washington Post: "If the Ukrainians and their allies wanted to rattle the Russian leadership, it's working." There are hints of "chaos and disarray" inside the political establishment: Russia's recent Victory Day celebration was relatively subdued, Wagner Group leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin is talking about a possible revolution, and some "political insiders" are more openly questioning the war. Those are signs of success. "Kyiv is doing its best to keep the Russians off balance once again."

"The Biden administration should continue to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian invasion," Anatol Lieven argued for Responsible Statecraft. But it should do so cautiously, remembering that protecting American lives means "keeping the U.S. out of direct involvement in the war."

'Drawing the appropriate conclusions'

Russia has warned about the U.S.-Ukraine connection from the start of its war. So it goes with recent developments, Reuters reported. "It is no secret" that U.S. equipment is being used against the Russian military, a Kremlin spokesman said following the Belgorod attack. "And it is no secret for us that the direct and indirect involvement of Western countries in this conflict is growing by the day. We are drawing the appropriate conclusions."

Russian officials made similar comments amidst recent reports that Western countries will furnish F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, Al-Jazeera reports. "We see that Western countries are still adhering to the escalation scenario," said Alexander Grushko, a Russian deputy foreign minister. "It involves colossal risks for themselves."

For their part, American officials are sending public signals that they intend to keep treading cautiously. "Nobody," Kirby said, "wants to see World War III."

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