24 May 2022 17:23:36 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment. He lives with his wife and son in Texas. Rao has been a columnist for from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well. Twitter: @rajkamalrao

Media cracks are ominous for Biden’s Ukraine strategy

For Washington’s political class that thought that the support offered by the US for Ukraine was infinite and never-ending, the events of the last two weeks brought a rude awakening. Eleven Republicans in the Senate voted against the $40 billion Ukraine funding bill. Fifty-seven Republicans voted no in the House.

Over in England, the professional tennis tours — the men's ATP and the women's WTA — handed the prestigious Wimbledon tournament its worst rebuke. In a case of cancel culture canceling cancel culture, the tours decided against awarding any ranking points to Wimbledon's lush green lawn event, effectively reducing it to an exhibition spectacle.

The tennis universe had been protesting Wimbledon's unilateral decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players from competing, saying it is discriminatory against its athletes who compete as individuals and not under any flag.

Shifting goalpost

As the average American's interest in the war fades, Ukraine these days is no longer the only news item covered on the front pages of the western media. High on the average American's mind are the exceptionally high prices at the pump and grocery store, runaway illegal immigration, and a rapidly falling stock market.

This pattern is the same in Europe, too, as it reels from attempting to cut off its addiction to Russian energy. The UK registered its highest inflation rate in over 40 years. In Germany, petrol prices breached 2.20 euros a litre. Last week, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called for an urgent ceasefire in Ukraine to enable a negotiated end to the war.

The world to western media looked very different in March. Sensing that public support was solidly behind Ukraine, the New York Times beat the war drums the hardest. It excoriated the Biden administration to support Ukraine as though it was a NATO country deserving of Article 5 protections that an attack on one NATO country was an attack on all others. "Ukraine deserves support against Russia's unprovoked aggression, and the United States must lead its NATO allies in demonstrating to Vladimir Putin that the Atlantic alliance is willing and able to resist his revanchist ambitions."

To drive home this point, the Times and other media outlets also resorted to blatant Russian-style propaganda every week, embellishing Ukrainian victories and magnifying Russian defeats. Alexander Vindman, the Democrats' star witness in Trump's first impeachment, declared in Foreign Affairs magazine: America Must Embrace the Goal of Ukrainian Victory. Readers were often confused. Why are so many millions displaced if Ukraine successfully beat back Russian aggression?

The first hints that Russia may actually have been "making gains" came in an article in the Wall Street Journal in April when an op-ed argued that Putin was slowly consolidating control over Ukraine's vast energy assets in the east.

NBC News conceded thus after the fall of Mariupol, a port city of 4,00,000 people: "Capturing Mariupol is key because it would allow Russian forces in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Russia invaded and annexed in 2014, to link up with those in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has refocused its efforts." A BBC map shows that all of eastern Ukraine is now solidly under Russian military control.

On Sunday, the Times Editorial Board (EB) suddenly seemed unsure of its three-month-long advocacy. "A decisive military victory for Ukraine over Russia, in which Ukraine regains all the territory Russia has seized since 2014, is not a realistic goal. Though Russia's planning and fighting have been surprisingly sloppy, Russia remains too strong, and Mr Putin has invested too much personal prestige in the invasion to back down."

It was a remarkable U-turn for the newspaper of record, an outlet that often drives coverage in other newsrooms.

And in an even more ominous statement, the EB continued: "But as the war continues, Mr. Biden should also make clear to President Volodymyr Zelensky and his people that there is a limit to how far the United States and NATO will go to confront Russia, and limits to the arms, money and political support they can muster." Wasn't it the EB's position just two months ago that "No matter how long it takes, Ukraine will be free?"

Twists and turns

Trouble is brewing on the sanctions front also. Brahma Chellaney, a geo-strategist, and author of nine books, warned recently in The Hill that sanctions might not work against Russia. "Let's be clear: Sanctions historically have worked better against small, vulnerable states than large or powerful ones. But they have rarely produced timely change. The current Western sanctions could take years to seriously hurt the Russian economy."

Indeed, pragmatic considerations appear to be winning over western sanctions to promote the West's moral superiority. Reuters reported last week that China is slowly stepping up its purchases of Russian oil, the pariah nation's prized asset. India is doing it too, buying oil at huge discounts.

ISAB, Italy's largest refinery, continues to buy Russian oil even as Europe tries to disengage. Indonesian state energy firm PT Pertamina is also considering procuring Russian energy.

But some people never learn. At a press conference in Tokyo on Monday, President Biden became the first US leader to deviate from long-standing precedent to assert that he would order the US military to defend Taiwan if China attacked the island nation.

In fewer than four hours, the US secretary of defense walked Biden's bold and irresponsible statement back, something his advisers have done many times before, saying that the US policy towards Taiwan remains unchanged.

The public is in a bad mood already, having punished ruling parties in elections in the UK and Germany this month. The Times has always been good at reading tea leaves. The dramatic turnaround in their position regarding the war will create untold headaches for the White House as the US heads to the mid-term elections in November.