Putin Finds Scapegoat in U.S. HIMARS, Builds Case for War With West

Russian President Vladimir Putin has worked for months to build his case that the U.S. is fighting a "proxy war" in Ukraine, and now Moscow is saying the U.S.-made HIMARS rocket systems prove its point.

The long-range systems, which have better precision and a faster firing rate than Ukraine's dated artillery, have boosted its efforts and limited Russia's military advances. But as Ukraine touts the success of the weapon, experts say that has inadvertently bolstered Putin's propaganda among the Russian people and given the leader a scapegoat for Russia's failures on the battlefield.

Brian Taylor, a professor of Russian politics at Syracuse University, told Newsweek that Putin has used the success of HIMARS (an acronym for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems) to accuse the U.S. of being directly involved in the Ukraine war. This is part of his strategy to tap into a "deep-seated" domestic narrative that Russia is at war not just with Ukraine but with the West as well, Taylor said.

Responding to comments from Ukrainian intelligence officials about the sharing of information between the U.S. and Ukraine, Russia's Ministry of Defense said last week, "All this undeniably proves that Washington, contrary to White House and Pentagon claims, is directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine."

The ministry added, "It is the Biden administration that is directly responsible for all rocket attacks approved by Kyiv on residential areas and civilian infrastructure facilities in settlements of Donbas and other regions that have caused mass death of civilians."

Putin HIMARS Russia U.S.
Experts say the U.S.-supplied HIMARS rocket systems have bolstered Russian President Vladimir Putin's propaganda and given him a scapegoat for Russia's failures on the battlefield in Ukraine. Above, Putin during a press conference on June 29, 2022, in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Getty Images

The Pentagon has delivered a dozen of the rocket systems to Ukrainian forces, and an additional four are on the way. The weapon has been widely praised by top Ukrainian officials. On Monday, the mayor of the southeastern city of Melitopol said that Russia is "no longer able to resist HIMARS" in an announcement that said more than 100 Russian soldiers were killed by attacks involving the rocket systems.

"Since HIMARS started working in Ukraine, in Melitopol, we've destroyed many Russian positions," he told Newsweek.

Michael Kimmage, a former member of the U.S. secretary of state's policy planning staff, said that it's not "that far from the truth" to say the U.S. is directly involved in the war. Along with the sophisticated weaponry provided by the U.S., which has been credited with helping to turn the tide in the conflict, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remark that the goal of U.S. policy is to weaken Russia by helping Ukraine could easily be ready by Moscow as "forward-leaning," Kimmage told Newsweek.

He added that providing HIMARS to Ukraine not only advances the message that the war is Russia versus the West; it also helps Putin build the case that Russia was pushed into the conflict by Western powers. "That Russia was left no option and that the West uses Ukraine, as it historically has, according to Putin, to weaken Russia," Kimmage said.

In a statement sent to Newsweek, a senior defense official said, "The Department of Defense is in support of a whole-of-government approach to Russian aggressive actions toward Ukraine. We continue to reaffirm our unwavering support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

As Putin uses the effectiveness of American weaponry to justify his invasion, he has also relied on it to explain the strength of the Ukrainians' resistance.

Kimmage said that the more Russia points an accusatory finger at Washington, the easier it is for Putin to excuse why his troops have not won the war as swiftly as he had anticipated. Because he has said that Ukraine is not a real country, doing poorly in its war against such an allegedly weak nation is difficult for him to defend. So positioning Russia "toe to toe with the world's preeminent superpower" gives the Russian leader a way to explain why the conflict has gone the way it has, with less embarrassment, Kimmage said.

And as much as Putin wants to present the "Western boogeyman" narrative, the Russian public is ready to hear it, said Yuri Zhukov, an associate political science professor at the University of Michigan.

"It is far easier to believe that things aren't going well because of U.S. meddling rather than because of Ukrainian resolve," he said.

Lawrence Reardon, ​​a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said that despite Putin's messaging, complaints like those about HIMARS are proof that "Russian forces are now suffering."

"The Ukrainian government and military have a highly sophisticated understanding of Russian military tactics and have demonstrated an exceptional capability of engaging the invaders," Reardon said.

Update 08/08/22, 6:34 p.m. ET: This article was updated with additional information and background.