On June 2, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a speech in Helsinki to celebrate the end of "[t]he era of military nonalignment in Finland" and the "strategic failure" of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Blinken "set out . . . the many . . . ways Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine has been a strategic failure," while making many statements about the beginnings of the war, the nature of the war and the pathway to the end of the war. Many of the ways he set out and the statements he made deserve a closer look.
Perhaps the most insensitive statement that Blinken made was his first. Blinken took the stage in Finland and opened with a joke about being welcomed by the happiest people in the world, saying, "Thank you very much. And yes, I feel a greater sense of happiness today than I’ve felt in a long time," a remarkably inappropriate comment for the chief American diplomat to make when diplomacy has been AWOL while a war that has killed hundreds of thousands and devastated millions more rages on, escalating every day and growing more and more dangerous.
Blinken then turned to the days and events leading up to the war. He said that "over the course of 2021, . . . Russia ratcheted up its threats against Kyiv and amassed more and more troops, tanks, and planes on Ukraine’s borders." What is questionable about Blinken’s claim is not his story but where he starts his story. Russia did amass troops on its border with Donbas. But the Russian build up came after Ukraine had massed 60,000 elite troops, accompanied by drones, along its eastern border with Donbas. That build up was accompanied by a dramatic increase in Ukrainian artillery shelling into the Donbas, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Though Russia’s troop movement threatened Ukraine, Ukraine’s prior troop movement threatened an invasion of the largely ethnic Russian Donbas region.
Blinken then asserts that the US response was to make "every effort to get Moscow to de-escalate its manufactured crisis and resolve its issues through diplomacy." He then adds that "President Biden told President Putin that we were prepared to discuss our mutual security concerns" and that Blinken, himself, repeatedly reaffirmed that message.
The crisis was not manufactured: it was very real to Russia. NATO was expanding east, in violation of its well documented promise to Russia, right to Russia’s most sensitive border. And the ethnic Russians of the Donbas region were facing both official discrimination and the threat of violence.
And the US did not make every effort to resolve the crisis diplomatically. Though Biden may have told Putin that the US was "prepared to discuss our mutual security concerns," they were not. On December 17, 2021, when Russia delivered proposals on security guarantees to the US and NATO, the US rejected Russia’s essential demands for a written guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO and that NATO wouldn’t arm Ukraine to capacity with weapons, making it a NATO bridgehead on Russia’s border. The US didn’t just reject it: contrary to Blinken’s claim, they were not prepared to discuss it. Derek Chollet, counselor to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has admitted that the US told Moscow that negotiating NATO expansion into Ukraine was never even on the table, leading Putin to conclude "that fundamental Russian concerns were ignored." Moscow responded with the assessment that the US and NATO had offered "no constructive answer" to Russia’s key security concerns.
Though Biden insists that he repeatedly affirmed Biden’s message that the US was prepared to discuss Russia’s security concerns, the true message that he reaffirmed was that "there is no change in the U.S. and NATO position" and that "there will be no change."
The US did not "make every effort" to prevent the war through diplomacy. And once the war began, they did not make every effort to stop the war through diplomacy. Twice in the early weeks of the war there were promising negotiations; twice they were stopped by the US. In April 2022, Turkish mediated talks produced a “tentatively agreed” upon settlement. But, though the agreement satisfied Kiev’s goals, it did not satisfy Washington’s. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Numan Kurtulmus, the deputy chairman of Erdogan’s ruling party, have both said that “Zelensky was going to sign,” but “the United States…want[s] this war to continue.” A second round of talks also had “a good chance of reaching a ceasefire,” according to then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett who mediated them, before the US, once again, "blocked it."
Blinken insists "that no amount of diplomatic effort was going to change President Putin’s mind. He would choose war." He offers no evidence for that insistence, saying only that "it became clear." But it is not at all clear in the documentary evidence. Putin passed a message to Zelensky through Bennet, promising, "Tell me you’re not joining NATO, I won’t invade," a concession Zelensky was willing to make, according to Bennett, even if the US wasn’t.
Having chosen war, according to Blinken, Putin then invaded with the aim of "erasing Ukraine from the map as an independent country." He declares that "Putin’s primary goal" is making Ukraine part of Russia. There is, as John Mearsheimer has pointed out, "no evidence of Putin saying that what he wants to do is actually make Ukraine part of Russia." Geoffrey Roberts, professor emeritus of history at University College Cork, has said of claims like Blinken’s, that, in the face of a "lack of definite documentary evidence" they "attribute reasons for Putin’s actions for which there is no proof except a perceived pattern of events that is deemed to fit the assumed motivation."
Far from erasing Ukraine and coveting its territory, Putin has resisted making Ukraine part of Russia. In 2014, Putin asked the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Donbas to delay their referendums, and, when they went ahead with them in May and voted for autonomy, Putin did not recognize their results. Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent and author of Frontline Ukraine, says that Putin "repeatedly reject[ed] requests to accept the territory as part of Russia.” In 2014, Putin resisted pressure from Russian nationalists to annex the Donbas and instead remained committed the Minsk Agreement’s plan to keep the Donbas a part of Ukraine.
Despite the complete lack of documentary evidence, Blinken claims, not only that Putin wants to erase Ukraine from the map, but that "President Putin’s core aim – indeed, his obsession – has been to erase the very idea of Ukraine – its identity, its people, its culture, its agency, its territory.” Blinken provides no evidence that this annihilation of the identity and culture of Ukraine is Putin’s aim, let alone his "core aim," because there is none. Sakwa told me that "Blinken, as usual, is way over the top – pushing Kiev’s ‘talking points.’ The key point is to destroy Ukraine as an ‘anti-Russia’, but that by no means implies the destruction of Ukraine as a state – only the element of its identity that is virulently anti-Russian – precisely the element that is fostered and supported by the US." Blinken’s claim is misleading and fuels the conflict. His account substitutes real concerns with imagined ones; "thus marginalizing the security concerns that fueled the conflict and which remain at its core," in the words of Sakwa.
Having gone to war, Blinken argues, "Russia is significantly worse off today than it was before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine – militarily, economically, geopolitically." Not one part of that three part claim is true.
Russia has suffered losses of men and equipment. But it is not worse off militarily. According to testimony given to Congress by General Christopher Cavoli, the commander of United States European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, "The Russian ground force has been degenerated somewhat by this conflict; although it is bigger today than it was at the beginning of the conflict.” At the time, he testified that “The air force has lost very little: they’ve lost eighty planes. They have another one thousand fighters and fighter bombers. The navy has lost one ship.” As for the larger Russian armed forces beyond Ukraine, Cavoli said that “Much of the Russian military has not been affected negatively by this conflict . . . despite all of the efforts they’ve undertaken inside Ukraine.”
They are not worse off economically. Though Blinken insists that, because of the war, "Russia’s economy is a shadow of what it was, and a fraction of what it could have become," the Russian economy has survived and even thrived better than threatened. According to the IMF, Russia’s economy contracted by only 2.2% in 2022 and is projected to actually expand by 0.3% in 2023 and by 2.1% in 2024. In comparison, Germany is expected to grow by 0.1% while the UK contracts by 0.6%. Nine of the ten most powerful economies will shrink in 2023 while Russia’s expands. Neither sanctions nor military spending are crippling the Russian economy. According to an analysis conducted by The Economist, Russia is spending only 3% of GDP on the war. By "historical standards," The Economist says, that’s "a puny amount."
Russia is also not worse off geopolitically. Most of the world has declined the US call to sanction and isolate Russia. Russia’s relations with the two largest countries in the world have strengthened. Russia’s "no limits" relationship with China has only grown and entered "a new era," creating "changes that have not happened for 100 years.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that “Relations between Russia and India have significantly improved.” And India’s foreign minister has declared it to now be “among the steadiest of the major relationships of the world in the contemporary era.” Brazil and Latin America, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East and South Africa and most of Africa have refused to sanction or abandon Russia. Many have remained nonaligned and some have moved closer to Russia. Few have abandoned it. Countries have lined up to join the Russian and Chinese led international multipolar organizations BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Building on his claim that Russia is worse off militarily, Blinken then goes on to mock Russia, saying that "The Kremlin often claimed it had the second-strongest military in the world, and many believed it. Today, many see Russia’s military as the second-strongest in Ukraine. Its equipment, technology, leadership, troops, strategy, tactics, and morale [are] a case study in failure."
It’s a clever line. But if Russia is only the second strongest military in Ukraine, it is only because that is the same as being the second strongest military in the world. Ukraine is less the military Russia is fighting than the territory upon which it is fighting the military of the US and NATO. The Russian military is facing, not the Ukrainian military—which would have collapsed without US and NATO aid—but the US and NATO. The only thing that is not NATO or American is the Ukrainian soldiers being used, and even they are receiving full NATO training. Bloated with weapons that are supplied and maintained by NATO, provided with intelligence on troop locations and targeting, and benefiting from war games and strategies, Ukraine has become a de facto member of NATO.
And yet, if Russia is the second strongest military in Ukraine, they may not be second by much as they hold the line against Ukraine’s counteroffensive while inflicting massive losses on Ukraine in terms of lives and heavy equipment.
Blinken mocks Russia’s strategies and tactics. But, though Russia may have deserved that mockery in the first stages of the war, in which it made many mistakes and suffered many casualties, Alexander Hill, professor of military history at the University of Calgary, says that Russia adjusted and they "began to pursue a more methodical battlefield strategy and lowered their losses." Roberts told me that "the Russian military has shown itself to be a resilient, adaptable, creative and highly effective learning organization."
The Russian military has managed to neutralize the best equipment the US and NATO have to offer. Russian hypersonic Kinzhal missiles quickly demonstrated their ability to penetrate and strike the Patriot air defense system, the most sophisticated air defense system the US and NATO have. Exploded Leopard tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles litter the counteroffensive’s battlefield.
A recent Associated Press article notes impressive improvements in Russian precision-guided glide missiles, in the ability to use and disable drones, in thermal camouflaging tanks, in electronic warfare systems and in the interception and decryption of Ukrainian communications and in the ability to intercept GPS-guided HIMARS missiles.
Blinken claims that the pain Russia has inflicted on the world extends beyond the battlefield. He says that the war has reminded the "developing world" that Russia is not "advancing the[ir] best interests." He accuses Putin of "imperial ambitions and weaponizing food and fuel." He points to the hardships of COVID and of cutting the world off from Ukraine’s grain. Perhaps most historically blindly, he says that Putin’s attempt at reconstituting empire have "reminded every nation that had endured colonial rule and repression of their own pain."
But much of the developing world has not aligned with the US against Russia. Much of the developing world, or what Russia calls "the world majority," has either remained nonaligned or even moved closer to Russia. Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia and more remember coups and colonialism, but it is not Russia they remember doing it. Africa has been poignant in their reminders that “Russia has no colonial heritage in Africa and no African country sees Russia as an enemy" and that "the colonizers are asking us to be enemies of Russia, who never colonized us."
Blinken might have thought better of reminding the developing world of COVID. The developing world has pointed out with bitterness that, while the West sat on vaccine stockpiles and threw out what it couldn’t use, Russia and China provided them with vaccines and aid.
And as for weaponizing resources, much of the world, even America’s European partners, may feel that it is the US who has weaponized fuel. The US has long weaponized the dollar, and developing countries know well who has the long history of sanctions and the weaponization of food. And as for Ukraine’s grain, thanks to Turkish mediation, Russia has consistently agreed to permit the safe export of grain from Ukraine’s ports. But, according to numerous reports, most of the grain under that Western plan has gone to Europe with little of it making it to the developing world. Russia, however, has sent millions of tons of grain to Africa. In November, 2022, Russia agreed to send grain to some African countries for free and has promised to ensure the continued delivery of grain to Africa.
Blinken asserts that the American response to Russia’s invasion has the noble purpose of "stand[ing] up for the international rules." But most of the world has had a hard time believing the US message of democracy versus autocracy and good versus evil. They have memories. They know there is a difference between international law and the rules based order. The US follows the rules based order where they make the rules that benefit them, but they flout international law when the law doesn’t benefit them. They remember American disregard of international law in Grenada, Panama, Libya, Kosovo and Iraq. They remember the multitude of US coups.
According to Blinken, standing up for international rules includes "not let[ting] President Putin impose his will on other nations." But prior to the war in Ukraine, Russia and Putin lacked a history of imposing their will on other nations. The US has a very different history. And if Putin is imposing his will on Ukraine, so, in a different way is the US. On at least three occasions in the early weeks of the war, Ukraine was ready to explore negotiations that would have ended the war in a way that satisfied their goals only to buckle under US pressure to abandon their goals, break off the talks and fight on in pursuit of American goals. Ukraine started fighting because Russia imposed its will on them, but it is still fighting, in part, because America imposed its will on them.
While discussing this generational battle between good and evil, democracy and autocracy, Blinken then turns from American democracy to Ukrainian democracy. He refers to Ukraine’s "vibrant, prosperous democracy" and to its "free and vibrant press."
But neither Ukraine’s democracy nor its free press is vibrant. Zelensky’s government has banned eleven opposition parties, including the second biggest party in the Ukrainian parliament. It has passed a law expanding its “regulatory power over the news media." It blocks internet resources and revokes licenses. And it reserves the right to ban or remove messages it deems undesirable.
In Blinken’s version of history, Ukraine voted for its democracy and borders "when they won their independence in 1991," and "they defended it in the Maidan in . . . 2013." But Blinken is only selectively respecting the democratic will of the Ukrainian people in 1991. While Ukraine voted for independence that year, 93% of Crimeans voted for Crimea to restore its autonomy in their referendum. And the Maidan was not the defense of democracy: it was a US sponsored and supported coup that violently removed a democratically elected leader from office.
And finally, Blinken poses the rhetorical questions "how would any country that lives near a bully, with a history of threats and aggression, feel secure within its own borders?" and "how often in history have aggressors who seize all or part of a neighboring country been satisfied and stopped there? When has that ever satisfied Vladimir Putin?"
But let’s answer those rhetorical questions. The first question about how any country would feel secure living next to a threatening, aggressive bully, we can just let Cuba, Venezuela, Honduras, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and their neighbors’ answer.
The answer to the second question is that, despite the implication that Putin has frequently seized other countries and neither been satisfied nor stopped, unlike America, prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has never seized or threatened to seize a neighboring country.
Blinken makes several important claims in his Helsinki speech. Many are made without providing any evidence. And several of them do not survive a closer look or a consideration of that evidence.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.