Putin’s Spring Offensive, Russian ‘Reeducation’ Camps, and What’s Next for War in Ukraine

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Next Friday will mark one year since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a war against Ukraine, a war that many anticipated would end in a matter of days after the invasion. Yet, Ukraine, with the support of America and its European allies, has succeeded in significantly weakening Russia and preventing its victory. 

For Putin, the current military campaign in Ukraine is “one of greatly reduced expectations,” Victoria Coates, a senior research fellow in international affairs and national security at The Heritage Foundation, says. “He has gone from wanting to capture the entire country to just trying to capture some small chunks of eastern Ukraine, so that is in and of itself something of a victory, for a starter.”

Although U.S. support for Ukraine is necessary, Coates says, the Biden administration owes it to the Americans to ensure that the billions of dollars in aid sent to Ukraine is being used as intended, and that a plan exists for how the U.S. will provide assistance moving forward. 

Coates joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the situation on the ground in Ukraine, how long the war that began last Feb. 24 likely will go on, and reports of Russia’s stealing Ukrainian children and placing them in “reeducation camps.” 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript: 

Virginia Allen: Victoria Coates, welcome to the show. We really appreciate you taking the time to join us today.

Victoria Coates: Virginia, it’s always good to be with you.

Allen: Victoria, you worked for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. You served as a senior adviser for national security in Sen. Ted Cruz’s office. You also served in the Trump administration. Given your experience on national security issues, are you surprised that we are one year into this war between Russia and Ukraine and still, there’s no end in sight?

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Coates: Well, Virginia, I would say that February 2022 Victoria would be completely shocked that we’ve made it to one year in Ukraine because the administration, and I think they did this in good faith, I think this is what they were seeing, and in some ways it was based on Russian propaganda, that this would be a three-day war, the government would fall, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin would move into Kyiv, install his government, and then there would be a public government in Kyiv and then an exile government that we would support.

But April 2022 Victoria would say, “I don’t think that’s the case,” and maybe there is a path for victory for the Ukrainians, and what does that look like?

I think the problem most Americans would have with where we are now in February of 2023 is we’ve never heard from the administration how they got from February to April, now to a year in, and what they think is the path to resolving this war. That’s where I think you’re starting to get some unease from the American people and some very necessary questions for the administration.

Allen: I want to get in in just a moment to talking really in detail about what aid America has given to Ukraine and how much more we plan to give, what we know about that, but I do want to talk a little bit first about what exactly the situation is on the ground in Ukraine at this present moment. We’re hearing reports that Russia is launching or has launched it’s spring offensive as the weather’s getting warmer. What exactly does that entail? What is the fighting looking like on the ground right now?

Coates: Certainly the campaign right now is, for Putin, one of greatly reduced expectations. He has gone from wanting to capture the entire country to just trying to capture some small chunks of eastern Ukraine. So that is in and of itself something of a victory for a starter. He is throwing a great deal of both ammunition and humans at eastern Ukraine right now. It is likely to be extremely bloody and destructive.

The Ukrainians are holding their ground. The new weaponry that the Biden administration and some of our European allies finally decided was a good idea to send is coming into country, so hopefully they will be able to defend themselves and then push back against Putin, who, it has to be said, is weakened every day by this war. He is not growing stronger, he is not getting more ammunition. As we all talk about our supplies being depleted, his are being depleted even faster.

That is a reality, but at the same time, one wonders how long the Ukrainians can endure this kind of grinding, destructive war, and at what point do they need to just save their country.

Allen: Belarus is interesting, to be watching them and see what they’re doing. They’re obviously a friend, they’re an ally of Russia. On Thursday, the president of Belarus said that he had no plans of sending troops to Ukraine, but that he would if Ukrainian soldiers attacked Belarus. What’s the likelihood of Belarus getting involved and joining up with Russia to attack Ukraine?

Coates: I would see that as, in a way, a kind of a last-ditch effort. [Alexander] Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, is going to want to preserve himself at all costs. Right now, Putin is his best path to remaining in power in Belarus, but he’s shown in the past an openness to other options if he feels like Russia is letting him down. That is always something the West needs to keep an eye on.

We should have no fantasies that Lukashenko is in any way a reformer or a good person or a good leader for Belarus. But if he’s willing to peel away from Russia, that’s going to be a material loss for Putin, and that should never be discounted.

You’re looking at some very interesting times for these countries that exist between Russia and the EU. I put Belarus in that category, also Moldova, where we have significant political turmoil going on right now. These pieces are also on the table.

Allen: All right, let’s go ahead and get into a little bit of the materials and the support that America has sent over and is in the process of sending to Ukraine. America announced that it would send the Patriot air defense system to Ukraine and America is training Ukrainian soldiers on this defense system. Does Russia not see this aid from America as a threat?

Coates: Well, they’ve said from the very beginning, the Russians have, that they see this as a threat. The administration made the strategic decision that it was going to aid Ukraine militarily and we’ve laid out in various publications that The Heritage Foundation understands the desirability of countering Putin here because we do not want him to be doing this again.

I’m old enough to remember when he went into Georgia in 2008, his previous incursions into Ukraine. I think we have to give up the fantasy that if we allow Putin what some people interpret as his legitimate sphere of interest in Eastern Europe, he will play nicely with others. He won’t, he’ll just keep going.

And so God forbid, Virginia, we’re having this conversation in five years’ time because he has gone into a NATO ally. There’s a long and unsavory history of Russia invading and dominating Poland. What if that’s next?

Poland is a very strong ally to the United States, perhaps our strongest right now in Europe, and a NATO ally. So what happens if Putin goes in there? Could we take actions now that would prevent that from happening and creating a conflict to which the United States would almost certainly be party? That would be a top priority for me.

What I think is confusing to a lot of Americans has been not the decision to help the Ukrainians militarily, but the kind of dribbly way that it’s been executed. It seems to me that [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians have been asking for Patriots since last summer. Why didn’t you put that thing in there in July and start the training then so that the Ukrainians were prepared for the spring offensive, not kind of doing a pickup job as it was going on?

I wonder why, once the intelligence was clear that the Ukrainians could resist and they could win, why we didn’t do a more aggressive arming program in last July, August, September time frame, when there were still time for the Ukrainians to make more advances before winter.

Allen: Have we sent any offensive weapons to Ukraine or has it only been defensive?

Coates: They’ve tried to couch them as defensive. I don’t understand. I admit maybe I’m not the most sophisticated military mind, but how can a missile ever be purely defensive? I mean, they do advance Ukrainian interests. I guess it’s in how you parse it. But in my mind, Putin has already made his decisions about what he’s willing to spend, what he’s willing to do to try to capture Ukraine, and that would go up to including a nuclear weapon.

He assumed from the beginnings some degree of Western support for Ukraine. I don’t think he would be particularly concerned about a Patriot versus whatever attack, versus a Javelin. Whatever it may be, he sees it all as part of the same effort to thwart his ambitions to put back some version of the Russian Empire. So the notion that we are somehow escalating this intolerably when he’s the one who’s rampaging around a sovereign country dealing out death and misery is a little disingenuous to my reading.

Allen: I want to loop back and ask you about what you mentioned about Poland because I found that interesting. Given the fact that this war has certainly not gone how Putin thought it would go and that Ukraine has held him off and has weakened Russia, do you think that Putin would be bold enough to, within the next year or two, aim at Poland?

Coates: Well, I think we have to be very cautious about predicting what he will or will not do. If he can count this as a victory, however he wants to wrap that up and run it through his propaganda machine, if he continues to be an attractive partner to Communist China, to the Islamic Republic of Iran, to the countries that don’t have many friends and so they can see Russia as an attractive partner for various activities, the Chinese in particular can continue to bolster his economy, he can recover and start rearming.

I mean, who knows where we’ll be in five years, particularly if the United States is distracted by some sort of direct confrontation with China at that point, would he see an opportunity to take the other piece that he really wants? He said that he really wants it, but at a moment when we were not prepared to try to really shut him down and prevent him from doing this sort of thing again.

That would be my concern going forward, is that unless it is impressed very clearly upon him that he has lost this, that it was incredibly expensive, it was destructive to his prospects, it threatened him at home, he should not do this again if he wishes to remain in power in Russia, unless we can impress that on him, I’m very concerned that he would simply buy his time and try to mount another offensive.

Allen: As it relates to the amount of money that America has sent over to Ukraine, where do we stand on that dollar amount right now? And do we know where exactly that money is going and that it’s being used for the purposes that we sent it over there to be used for?

Coates: This is a fascinating question because it was my understanding a week or so ago that we were right around the hundred-billion mark of money, both appropriated and actually deployed for Ukraine. But then suddenly, new numbers came out this week and it’s around $196 billion for the United States, looks like Germany’s clocking in around $172, and then suddenly there’s a big falloff until you get to the Brits around $28 billion. These are the top funders, and I think we fell into a trap.

I’m old enough, having worked for Secretary Rumsfeld, to remember when he was—actually, not that old. I don’t remember when he was ambassador to NATO, but I’ve read all of his papers from when he was ambassador to NATO in 1974, and he was cabling back to then-Secretary of State George Shultz.

The Europeans simply do not care about their defenses. They are not paying for their defenses because they know we will pay for them, and for … decades. And there was certainly an argument for it in the years after World War II. We are now more than 75 years out from World War II. Europe is prosperous. It is one of our great both security and economic partners, but we can’t care more about European security than they do.

I look at those numbers I just quoted to you and I think Germany should be at 172, France and Great Britain should be at 172, and the United States should be somewhere around 28. And all of the United States aid should be in military aid that we do best, coordinated through NATO, so all of this stuff is consistent. And then the Brits, the French, and the Germans, and the Italians to some extent, should be bearing the burden of what is an enormous civil society cost, to simply keep Ukraine functioning during a time of war.

But somehow that burden has fallen on us, and I think it’s a mistake. It’s bad for Europe and it is particularly bad if Europe doesn’t understand the kind of commitments the United States may face in the Pacific with China. They’re going to expect us to take the lead there, and that’s probably appropriate because certainly they can’t stand up to the Communist Chinese, and they actually haven’t shown too many signs of trying, although some have. Different podcast.

But I think in Europe, for a European threat, for the entire purpose that NATO was founded, this should be a European war with U.S. support, but the numbers right now to my eye are severely skewed.

Allen: Well, I think a lot of Americans hold to that perspective. Of course, as the American people, we fully support Ukraine 100% and we also want to see its European allies stepping up and providing just as much, if not more, support. How long do you think that Americans are going to continue to support the funding of the war in Ukraine? It’s already been a year. How much longer will that support hold, do you think?

Coates: This is what really concerns me going into ’23, the Biden administration has really been politicizing this both through their, I think, real abuse of Zelenskyy, dragging him over in the final throes of the 117th Congress to try to ram through that $1.7 trillion omni legislation, only $46 billion of which was for Ukraine. But they made it all about Ukraine and wrapping themselves in the Ukraine flag, and if you voted against the omni, you were against the war in Ukraine.

And of course, Zelenskyy didn’t have a choice. He has to do at this point what the president of the United States says. They have been politicizing it. They’ve been saying that Republicans, particularly in the House, may pull the plug, making that all the more likely.

What they need to do is work with Republicans in the House, say they understand their issues. The bigger issue is with the profligate woke spending of the last two years that has to be addressed in the debt ceiling discussions, but that they understand concerns and then lay out a strategy for this thing.

The president’s been saying from the beginning, “As long as it takes, as much as it takes,” which is in essence a blank undated check for this and no indication to the American people of what may happen here. And just this week they started floating in The Washington Post that, well, maybe it isn’t as much as it takes, as long as it takes, and they might need to conditionalize that. Everyone could see that coming a mile away. It was a stupid thing to say 10 months ago and of course you’re going to have to walk it back.

What the president owes the American people is a clear accounting of what’s been sent, what he anticipates may need to be sent in the future, and why this is in their interests. Absent that, he is going to have resistance from Congress.

Allen: Victoria, I want to talk a little bit about some disturbing news that I learned this week, and it’s been getting quite a bit of attention in the press this week. We’re hearing reports of Ukrainian children being taken to reeducation camps in Russia. What do we know about this?

Coates: Oh, Virginia, this is just so horrific and it is a wake-up call to anybody who has any illusions that Vladimir Putin could be a partner, some kind of rational actor. Even I’ve heard him described as a Christian conservative. Those words should turn to ash in anybody’s mouth if they read about this.

It’s been going on since the early days of the war. The Russian soldiers have been charged to prey on vulnerable children. They go into orphanages, for example, halfway homes where children might be, and they literally capture them, confiscate their Ukrainian passports, issue them Russian passports, and then send them back to Russia to become Russians.

Bear in mind, one of the dirty little secrets about Russia is that their population is shrinking radically and this war certainly doesn’t help them, so they’ve got a bad demographic problem. One of the things they’re trying to do is literally steal the youth of Ukraine to try to bolster up their dying population.

What he has done is not only weaponized, for example, energy, he’s weaponized food, he’s now weaponizing children. This is no way a reasonable historically-based effort. This is the desperate act of a brutal dictator to try to reverse the failing fortunes of his country and this is just one really particularly ugly but revealing aspect of this war.

Allen: It’s tragic and it’s hard to comprehend just how completely evil this is at the end of the day, to be stealing children from their homes and taking them to another country and indoctrinating them. Victoria, as we look forward, as we’ve talked about it, it’s almost impossible to know, but if you were guessing, are we looking at another year, another five years in this war? What do you think?

Coates: Unfortunately, I would love to say that I saw a concerted strategic plan under U.S. leadership robustly supported by the Europeans to get this thing wrapped up by next summer, so we do not go into another winter with potential energy shortages, fuel crises, food crises, and being able to move on to the looming threat of China, which, as we’ve all experienced over the last two weeks with the incursions of our own airspace, is not something that’s going away. Unfortunately, I don’t see that materializing under the Biden administration.

I am worried that the American attention is very quickly going to be taken up with the upcoming presidential election and that we may be looking at some, at least months, but potentially years of a grinding stalemate.

Allen: Victoria Coates with The Heritage Foundation. Victoria, thank you. We really appreciate your expertise.

Coates: Anytime, Virginia. Thank you.

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The post Putin’s Spring Offensive, Russian ‘Reeducation’ Camps, and What’s Next for War in Ukraine appeared first on The Daily Signal.

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