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US involvement in Ukraine tests Biden’s ‘no direct conflict’ message as Russia cries foul over missile strikes

The i 17/08/2022 Victoria-craw
A High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) in a training exercise. The US has supplied several of the systems to Ukraine and they have been used for successful attacks (Photo: Tony Overman/The Olympian via AP) © Provided by The i A High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) in a training exercise. The US has supplied several of the systems to Ukraine and they have been used for successful attacks (Photo: Tony Overman/The Olympian via AP)

The explosions that devastated Saky air base in Crimea on August 9 are officially a mystery, with no explanation from Ukraine as to how the audacious attack occurred.

But on the Russian side a clear narrative has emerged that Washington is responsible.

“Almost certainly co-ordinated sabotage” was the verdict of one of the most popular Russian pundits on social media, citing the glut of US satellite imagery of the base before and after the blasts.

A second attack on the peninsula on Tuesday prompted further speculation about the role of US intelligence.

The strikes on Crimea follow the discovery of wreckage from an anti-radar missile that the US had previously not acknowledged sending. The Russian Ministry of Defence had accused Washington of being “directly involved in the conflict” for the first time on August 2.

Joe Biden has consistently stated that the US will not fight Russia directly in Ukraine, and has refused Ukraine’s demands for a no-fly zone. “Direct conflict between Nato and Russia is World War Three, something we must strive to prevent,” he said in March.

What is not in dispute is that the US is leading one of the largest transfers of weapons since the Sedcond World War; that it is providing intelligence that has led to the destruction of Russian equipment and the deaths of generals; and that an unknown number of US fighters are on the ground with the Ukrainian army, with several casualties reported.

But while both US and Russian officials emphasise the risks of direct confrontation, their armed forces have clashed on several occasions during the long history of conflict between the two powers.

Shortly after the Soviet Union conducted its first successful nuclear test in 1949, Joseph Stalin covertly dispatched soldiers and jets to join the Korean War on the side of the North and China, against the US-backed South. Soviet pilots wore Chinese uniforms and flew jets with North Korean colours to conceal their involvement. They were ordered not to speak Russian on their radios and to avoid the frontline.

But Soviet involvement became clear during the aerial dogfights that came to define the war, transforming the air power of the North. Both powers sustained heavy losses – exact figures remain disputed but hundreds of aircraft were shot down on both sides – in intense combat over “MiG Alley” in North Korea, named after the flagship Soviet jet.

At the time, information was key to managing the terms of engagement and avoiding escalation, according to Professor Vladislav Zubok, a Cold War historian at the London School of Economics.

“The conflict was kept secret by the Soviets but the Americans did not advertise it because if it had become public knowledge, [it] would have made it difficult for the Truman adminstration to keep the war limited,” says Professor Zubok. The death of Stalin in 1953 then changed the political conditions enough to allow all parties to agree a truce shortly after, he adds.

In Vietnam, Leonid Brezhnev kept the USSR’s involvement covert once again, and limited the role of Soviet personnel, but supplied vast quantities of heavy weaponry to Ho Chi Minh’s army including tanks, artillery guns, fighter jets and anti-aircraft systems. Soviet “advisers” would later give accounts of their role in shooting down US planes.

Dangers were mitigated by the hotline that was established between the powers after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Still, the US risked escalation, bombing Soviet ships in Haiphong harbour in 1972 despite an intelligence assessment that stated “there could be drastic responses up to and including direct US-Soviet military confrontation both in the area as well as outside, such as in Berlin”.

Roles were reversed in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. The CIA played a covert but influential role in funding, arming, and training mujahideen fighters to resist the invaders and eventually overthrow the communist government. US stinger missiles allowed the insurgents to shoot down Soviet aircraft, and the drawn-out war contributed to the collapse of the USSR shortly after its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

There have been small-scale skirmishes since the fall of the Soviet Union, such as a clash between Russian state-affiliated mercenaries the Wagner Group and US troops in Syria. But the risk of escalation in Ukraine is more dangerous, given the proximity to Russia’s borders and nuclear plants in areas central to fighting. The US has deliberately refused Ukraine’s requests for long-range missiles for fear of equipping the country with arms that could strike into Russian territory.

Cold War caution is likely to still inform each side’s actions, suggests Professor Sergey Radchenko of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington.

“Red lines are constantly being tested [such as] the US providing military intelligence to the Ukrainians,” he says. “But a legacy of the Cold War is that there is a reserve of confidence in the other side’s actions. We know more about Russia’s nuclear posture today than during the Cuban Missile Crisis… so there is confidence that things will not go wrong inadvertently.”

Professor Zubok believes both sides will continue to rely on ambiguity to mitigate escalation, citing US reticence around the strikes on Crimea that Russia claims as part of its sovereign territory.

“The Americans are reluctant to admit there was an attack because if it’s true it involved US weaponry, US targeting, US intelligence to help a third party attack a nuclear superpower,” he says “And that brings it very close to the central risk.”

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