The West is being stress tested. Multiple crises across the world are going down.
First and foremost, we have Ukraine. Putin sees Russia in decline. Russia’s population is falling. Their economy is in freefall. Soon Russia will lose its position as the number 2 military in the world to China. Eventually even down to number 4 behind India. Once that happens they are at risk of becoming a Chinese client state.
Putin yearns for the glory days of the old Soviet Union. But he is even at odds with his own people. I saw some recent polling that indicated a majority of Russians do not care if they are a world power. They want to join the EU. They want security and a better life. Something like 20% of Russians want to emigrate. (However, Putin’s approval ratings are still high overall.) Political freedom is not high on the list but a better standard of living is. Being a global superpower is way down in priority.
Russia is now receiving the attention Putin craves. NATO is showing a few cracks. Some countries are firming up while others are running for cover. The people at home are being distracted from the abysmal economy. Patriotic fervor is replacing financial misery.
It’s a big gamble. I don’t see a good outcome if Russia launches a full-blown invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine shows no signs of knuckling under and it is a huge country. That size makes for a long border to defend but it also makes for a vast area to try to control. Russia could do it – but at what price?
The biggest war in Europe in 75 years.
NATO is pumping defensive arms and ammunition into Ukraine as fast as it can absorb them – anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and small arms ammunition. Training their troops as quickly as we can but not sending in combat units. They will get the best battlefield intelligence US satellites can supply. Ukraine is taking a low-profile approach, not increasing its offensive capabilities or undertaking large maneuvers to avoid giving the Russians a pretext. Their president still does not think an attack is likely.
The Ukrainian voice is drowned out in all of this.
The nonsense of Ukraine being culturally bonded to Russia does not fly. The “historic bonds” the Ukrainians remember are millions starved to death and another million shipped off to death in gulags by Lenin and Stalin. The war to re-subdue Ukraine following World War II. The nuclear catastrophe of Chernyoble was visited upon them by Russian incompetence. The taking of Donbas and Luhansk and Crimea by force. There is no love lost there.
He makes a good point.
On the other hand, we cannot assume Russia is a rational actor in all this. Two World Wars and tens of millions of deaths have left a deep distrust of the West. Even tho NATO’s forces are weak and divided, Russia can’t shake the past. Putin thinks we are far more threatening than we are. I agree with him that Ukraine probably should not be in NATO but he needs to give security guarantees that Ukraine accepts.
I disagree that they shouldn’t be part of the EU. Hell, Russia should be in the EU.
I’d be happy to write off the lost territories, offer the Russians a guaranteed land bridge to Crimea, and no NATO membership. It would be predicated on a guarantee of no further incursions and no more support for insurgencies. But I’m not the leader of an angry nation full of people who feel recently violated.
There is still bitter memory in Russia of how effective US small arms aid was to the mujahadeen in Afghanistan. How will Russian families react once the boys start coming back in body bags in the thousands? How would they replace all that equipment and ammunition that would be lost? They could take Kiev and install a puppet government but they would then face a long-term, NATO supplied, guerilla war.
What will happen to the Russian economy when sanctions turn into total isolation?
NATO is no threat to Russia. Much of NATO’s miltary is sleepwalking. Token forces in its eastern member states and pacifist sentiment in western members rendered any kind of offensive operations impossible. The tension over Ukraine has woke them up and reversed this trend and an invasion would accelerate this process. It could even stimulate more countries to join NATO. Finland and Sweden have started making noises in that direction.
I don’t see any gain from a full-blown invasion. What Russia might try is to take away the remaining Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine. It would be bloody but quick and the local ethnic Russians would be unlikely to resist. Ukraine cannot defend itself everywhere, Russia can attack anywhere.
The remainder of the Donbas and Luhansk regions are a given but forcing a land bridge to the Crimea would be a big strategic gain. The Black Sea Fleet and Russian Marines would be able to support the action. (Ukraine is already effectively blockaded by sea.) The Sea of Azov would be a Russian lake and their military assets on Crimea would be more secure. He might be thinking about how much can he bite off without triggering maximum blowback.
Russia did just send troops into Kazakstan to keep a friendly government in power. Can’t have them go the way of Ukraine. Kazakstan is part of the crumple zone between Russia and China.
Or maybe the whole point is a probe to see if we are really as weak and indecisive as Putin hoped. Biden is not the doddering fool that he’d expected. France and Britain have not surrendered their military significance in Europe. The former Soviet satellites remember the hell of life under the Soviet Union and instead of cowering, they are stiffening.
So look big and threatening, put on a show, and watch the west dance. Maybe get whatever concessions that the west can live with, avoid big sanctions, walk away as a hero to his people, and chalk everything up to large-scale maneuvers for training purposes. I really hope that’s his end game. But even if it is, events can have their own momentum independent of the actors who generate them.
Let’s get conspiriatorial here.
Maybe the US is greasing the skids for an invasion of Ukraine? It would greatly strengthen NATO and mire Russia in an ongoing insurgency as bad as Vietnam and Afghanistan combined. It could lead to the fall of Putin and his replacement with a more western-tolerant leader.
I have no doubt the US/NATO is capable of attempting such a Machiavelian move. But are we so clever as to trick a smooth operator like Putin into falling for it? What do you think?
February 12, 2022 at 07:44
These are some interesting thoughts on the situation. I agree with a lot of what you say here. Certainly Ukraine wouldn’t be easy for Putin to roll over, even if they have a far larger military. I haven’t heard anyone bring it up here in the US but for a country that went through anything like the Holodomor, even though it was nearly a century ago now — I can’t see them just lying down and taking it. As much as he might want to, Putin can’t erase the Ukrainian national identity if even a man as ruthless and bloody as Stalin couldn’t.
I also agree that Putin would be smarter and more rational to just try to carve off the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as he did with Crimea than to invade and occupy Kyiv, but also that he may not be acting rationally here. I’m surprised he waited this long, in fact — it would have been far smarter for him to do this when Trump was still president. Unless there were some other factors preventing him from taking this step until now, I don’t get why he waited, since he apparently had Trump in his pocket.
Of course I hope this doesn’t turn into a full-scale war, but if it does, I don’t know who’s going to have Russia’s back. Maybe the PRC, especially if they’re planning something similar for Taiwan soon and want Russia’s back on that as well, but these both seem like extremely risky moves considering the certain blowback.
February 12, 2022 at 13:39
I’m hoping this is just an old-fashioned chest-pounding ritual. Putin gets to look threatening, we get to look defiant, both sides declare victory, and everybody goes home and congratulates themself on how brave they were.
However they may act, Putin knows that China is the real threat to Russia. They had a war over the border back in ’69, and China recently proclaimed that Vladivostock really belongs to them. Half of China’s air force is illegal copies of Russian designs. A declining Russia could end up as a Chinese client state without a shot fired. If Russia has an independent future, it is with the West. It would be ok to have Russia be the tsundere partner in the relationship.
NATO is no threat at all. Shipping 3K troops to the Baltics is purely symbolic. Given the location of Kaliningrad and Belarus, protecting the Baltics is a lost cause with even ten times as many troops without the threat of going nuclear.
I pray that this is just a Kabuki dance.
February 12, 2022 at 16:41
Now I’m imagining Russia as a tsundere girlfriend. What a thought. I’m sure some artist has come up with that concept before.
And yeah, I share your hopes completely. Didn’t know about China’s recent claim over Vladivostok, though I know that was a massive issue in the past. Hopefully that’s enough for Putin to reconsider his current position.
February 11, 2022 at 17:28
I didn’t know that “Much of NATO’s miltary is sleepwalking”. I thought I’d just talked to some ex US Army folks but realized that was over 10 years ago.
I also hadn’t thought of Ukraine being a trap for Putin. That’s interesting. Given the previous US administration’s inappropriately friendly relations with the ex-KGB operative (is there really such a thing?), and given that one of the two major US political parties seems to have a case of hero worship for Putin, I was under the impression that if anything, we’d probably sit this one out, if not covertly help Russia.
I’d prefer there to be no conflict. I even endorse your idea of somehow figuring out how to get Russia as part of the EU. There’s enough wealth to go around, and we know how well large-scale investment pays off.
But the Nazi advance on Russia wasn’t that long ago, and it’s not like the West has given Russia any reason to trust us.
It’s particularly sad in light of what our cooperation has achieved with the ISS. Based on what at least some of the astronauts are saying, the relationship has been productive.
To answer your last question: Are we smart enough? Yes. And you know what? After Russia’s gleeful funding of QAnon, maybe our intelligence services have just had enough. QAnon’s attack on the fabric of democracy has been so effective, it merits a powerful response. Ukraine might qualify.
February 11, 2022 at 19:53
That’s for Germany but it is an example of what happened for most countries. Defense as a % of GDP dropped to very low levels with a blip upward after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Britain has fallen from the 6th best military in the world to the 10th. France has maintained it’s place at number 4. Nobody else in NATO is anywhere near the top. Most countries are below 2% of GDP expenditure which was once the expectation for every country.
The countries that have really upped their game are the former Soviet republics but they didn’t have big budgets to start with.