This is a long and boring discussion of the war in Ukraine. If you’re a military geek like me, you might find it interesting. Otherwise, skip it or just look at the pictures. It is really a series of essays not in any particular order. Just my opinions.
Sweden and Finland May Abandon Armed Neutrality
Sweden and Finland have said that they want to join NATO. The Russian Federation (RF) has threatened to install nuclear weapons and missiles in Kaliningrad if Sweden and Finland joined NATO. It sounds horrific but I don’t think anyone familiar with Kaliningrad ever had the slightest doubt they were there already.
First, let’s look at Kaliningrad. It is a part of Russia that was once the easternmost section of Germany. It used to be named Königsberg but the Russians renamed it after Mikhail Kalinin, a Russian revolutionary. After WWII they didn’t incorporate it into Poland like they did most of Prussia. (Thank you, Potsdam Conference.) They kept it as a war prize for themselves because it has a year-round port. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia kept it as a discontinuous area of Russia. It is the most economically successful city in the Russian Federation and was voted “Best City to Live In” in the RF.
Well… it happens to be the base for the Russian Baltic Sea fleet. It is a little bit harder to seal up than St. Petersburg and stays unfrozen all winter. Other military forces include Russian aviation and a full motorized rifle infantry division.
Ten nuclear Iskander-M hypersonic missiles have been there since 2013. There is no point in just ten such missiles if they are conventional. There’s a story behind them.
We wanted to install an antimissile system of ten launchers in Poland and put the radar in Czechia. Those countries were ecstatic. They wanted American boots and systems on their turf to guarantee we’d come running if they were invaded. The new members of NATO live in fear they’ll be sacrificed by the old guard. They fear being NATO’s buffer states.
NATO was worried about a bad actor (Iran. Maybe Pakistan?) blackmailing the West if it developed a nuke and a delivery method. And maybe a nutcase actually launching it. We even offered to base the part of it cooperatively in Russia so they could see it was no threat to them.
Russia wasn’t really worried about the missile interceptors. It didn’t want the eastern members of NATO to have such an affirmative tripwire. Something NATO wouldn’t sacrifice to avoid a greater war.
The most that the antimissile system could do is shoot down ten incoming warheads with kinetic hit-to-kill warheads. No nukes or even conventional explosives. That many targets could come from just one MIRVed missile. It has no strategic offensive capabilities. The Russian arsenal is in the thousands of ICBM warheads and is by far the biggest missile force in the world. But they took great umbrage and threatened to put Iskandars in Kaliningrad if we did. President Obama said in 2009 he’d reevaluated the idea and that we wouldn’t do it. But in 2013, the Iskandars were installed anyhow.
According to Global Security, Russia has “three cruisers, two destroyers, eighteen frigates, sixty-five patrol boats, and 195 combat aircraft, together with one brigade of naval infantry and two regiments of coastal defense artillery” based there. The larger ships all carry nuclear capable Kalibr cruise missiles. Like the US, Russia refuses to confirm or deny that a given vessel has nuclear warheads on it. Defense planners have had to assume the presence of nuclear weapons in Kailiningrad all along. Even if we take them at their word, they have at least a hundred thousand military personnel there. It is the most heavily militarized land in the world.
Russia’s threats of introducing nukes are rhetoric. We assume they are already there. They do not enter into Sweden and Finland’s calculations.
Russia’s Defense Priorities
By treaty with Lithuania, Russia gets a corridor through to resupply by land. When Lithuania entered NATO, they wanted support in rescinding the treaty as an intolerable security threat. It would be a trivial effort to use the Russian right-of-way and the Suwalki corridor to sever the Baltic republics from the rest of NATO. The Lithuanian army was tiny in comparison to just the forces in Kaliningrad, never mind what could be poured through Belarus. Two percent of Lithuania’s GDP doesn’t get you much.
Given the Russian Baltic Sea fleet’s proximity and massive air power, resupply and support efforts by sea or air by in time of war is not practical.
NATO did not want to inflame the Russian bear and said the land bridge would stay. Furthermore, we agreed not to put any permanent troops in the Baltics or base any missiles or nuclear weapons. Intermittent exercises consisted of 1-2,000 NATO troops. Since 2022, there has been a small lightly-armed battalion-level presence permanently in each of the 3 Baltic states, a result of the invasion of Ukraine.
Putin doesn’t like anything that might tie those states more tightly to NATO, so he objected that we were “endangering his security.”
Back when the USSR was in the process of falling, US Secretary of State Baker said that NATO “would not expand one inch east.” Mikhail Gorbachev took this as a binding promise. However, Baker was later made to backpedal and in later treaties there was no wording to that effect. That particular diplomatic blunder led to hostility that has never been resolved. Later in 2008 G.W. Bush tried to float the idea again and France and Germany shot it down with extreme prejudice.
Of course, Ukraine wants to join NATO. But even if Europe agreed, Ukraine does not qualify. It’s in an active war zone. Plus there are serious corruption issues.
This brings up the concept that Russia feels it needs to block all the possible pathways of invasion as a matter of existential necessity. In the west, there are gaps through which massed armored columns could flow unimpeded by terrain. One of these is the northern European plain; Poland and the Baltics. Another set of plains in southern Europe passes through Poland and Ukraine. In the far north is Finland. Though it is difficult to traverse due to vast forests and marshland, it is close to St. Petersburg and Murmansk. Yet another route passes up from Turkey through Romania, Moldova, and southern Ukraine; the Bessarabian gap. There’s another route through the Caucasus mountains. Along with this there are gaps in central and eastern Asia.
Russia’s response to this is to insist that it must, as an existential necessity, plug all these gaps with puppet (or at least neutral and demilitarized) states to ensure the security of the Russian Federation. There is historical precedent of invasions though all of them. One of the demands he made when invading Ukraine was the complete withdrawal of all NATO forces from any new members added since 1991 and a prohibition on ever adding any new members. His invasions of Georgia and of Ukraine, and the coups in Belarus and Kazakhstan were all triggered by those states longingly gazing westward.
John Mearsheimer is the founder of the neo-realist school of international political science. He takes a contrarian view to most western leaders who wanted to make sure a Soviet Union style of power block never emerged again.. According to him, Russia’s need for security is so great we should have vigorously shot down any new members asking for membership in the EU and NATO. NATO and the RF should have kept them in a kind of enforced neutrality. The US should have instead embraced the Russians as a partner in keeping China in check.
I don’t agree with him. I believe that the Russians would inevitably have attempted an alliance with China regardless of our actions. Putin shares a political philosophy with China. Western liberalism is poisonous to both nations’ current governments. (Brings up memories of Molotov-Ribbentrop.)
I place a higher value on the liberty interests of the people in those countries and feel nothing good can come from a re-emergent Russian superpower. The world is quadrapolar with the EU being a “pole” we happen to share values with. India also offers the possibility of becoming a competing pole in Asia. He raises some interesting points, though.
Many people believe that the course of history is charted by great men and mighty empires and war. It is not. The real driving force behind history is the evolution of ideas and how man interacts with the changing environment those ideas create. Rulers and empires fall to ruin despite their best efforts to endure if they do not adapt to change, The ideas survive them and create a new world.
The transitions can be painful and messy.
It is easy to see why nations newly freed from the USSR want to look west and not east. The west offers economic growth, political and personal freedom, personal security, and a high degree of national sovereignty. Russia offered nothing but declining living standards and remote control of virtually every aspect of their foreign policy. I am unwilling to allow Russia a “heckler’s veto” over their desires.
The world changed but Russian thinking did not. Nuclear weapons make it impossible to invade the Russian homeland without triggering the end of civilization. NATO was in a long term decline. Before 2014, it was incapable of executing a large scale offensive operation against Russia. No significant forces had been stationed in any of the new member states. It was believed that diplomacy, free trade, and free movement would bind the nations together, making war impossible and large defensive establishments unnecessary.
I am confident that honest diplomacy could have avoided all this conflict but diplomacy is all too often treated as war by other means and not a way to reach mutual trust and compromise. And Putin still has dreams of resurrecting a simulacrum of the old USSR and recapturing some of that greatness.
Mutually Beneficial Trade With An Insecure Czar Does Not Guarantee Peace.
We have two different sets of assertions. NATO says it only wants peace with Russia. There was a strong belief that if we were nice to them, the Russians would play nice in return. Germany and the Benelux countries were moving towards pacifism. Military spending was seen as a waste. The West wanted Russia to become another member of the Happy European Family – even if possibly the black sheep of it. They’re mostly white, Christian, folks like us. (Rolling my eyes. Shouldn’t matter – but to some it does.) They have resources, we have money. Through sufficient mutually beneficial trade, it will be impossible to think of making war on each other because it would hurt too much.
That’s not how Putin thinks. He doesn’t want to cooperate, he doesn’t want to be one of several powerful members of a European community, he wants to be number one in his own sphere of influence. He doesn’t value the comfort of Russian citizens anywhere near as much as the West values its own. Liberal democracy and affluence only breed weakness and decadence.
The Source of Russian Insecurity and Aggression.
Russia is weakening as a state, yet Putin has dreams of reclaiming the superpower mantle in a multi-polar world. Their economy was still the 2nd poorest per capita in Europe (Thank you, oligarchs.)
Moldova, dealing with yet another Russian astroturf rebellion in Transnistria, is the per capita poorest. Since the 2022 invasion, it has desperately wanted EU and NATO membership. The EU looks like it will accommodate. Most people do not realize that the EU treaty also has a clause for mutual defense.
Mutual defense clause (Article 42.7 TEU) If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
NATO has a requirement that there be no border disputes in a new member country, so that’s not going to happen.
Russia’s population is collapsing due to its reproduction rate being way below replacement. Its economy is wasting away – about the same size as Canada with 5 times the population – due to corrupt oligarchs controlling everything. He refuses to rein them in because they are a part of his power base. That is, unless they become opponents and then he takes everything away from them, jails them, and gives it to more supportive oligarchs.
It suffers because they publicly spend something like 4.3% of a weak GDP on the military and secretly a lot more. Intellectual talent is fleeing the country in droves. China is probably now in the number 2 slot in military power, if you don’t count nuclear bombs.
There is a poll that indicates a majority of Russians between 18 and 24 want to leave the country any way they can. They see no future. No wonder morale in the military is so crappy. Unfortunately, the older the population is, the more they support Putin. There are lots of older people in Russia. They are proportionately the largest group, all longing for the security and power of the Soviet era. Their government is run by old people.
Putin wants Russia to assert its power while it still has some. He wants Russia to dictate terms to the world without having to compromise. To be a superpower and not just a strong country among equals.
The requirement for a NATO member is 2% of GDP in defense spending. It seems that nobody really cares. Two percent seems exceptional. Britain has dropped to the 8th most powerful military in the world according to Global Security and France has dropped to 7th, with Russia and China at 2 and 3 respectively. Even as late as Feb. 24, 2022, NATO was still sleepwalking.
Some countries, including its biggest member Germany, had their military spending at only 1.5% of GDP or less and that was even after the Russians annexed Crimea and part of the Donbas. They based much of their economy on buying materials from Russia and exporting technology to them in return. (The “trade equals peace” theory – but that only works with other liberal democracies.) And then even POTUS Trump came along and wanted to abolish NATO altogether.
The Western States Wanted to Appease Russia, Not Fight.
Putin saw his chance. He’d previously murdered an entire city in Grozny and nothing happened. He supported astroturf rebellions in Donbas and Crimea with minor sanctions. Invaded Georgia and seized provinces. Murdered another city in Aleppo. Set up coups in Kazakhstan and Belarus. No important response. Why not go for it?
Ukraine started to move away from Russia in 2013=2014 when the Russian puppet Yanukovich refused to join the EU. The people of Ukraine saw a chance at prosperity and western relations slipping away. They marched in the streets during the EuroMaidan revolution, also called the “Revolution of Dignity.” Yanukovich was deposed and set packing to Russia. Pro-western leaders were elected. Putin wanted Ukraine to remain a puppet state, part of his buffer between Russia and NATO. He would not wait long to strike back.
When Putin supported astroturf rebellions in the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces of Ukraine, NATO did little. A few minor sanctions and started shipping a few light arms.
Despite this, the Russians were going nowhere until they sent in disguised regular army units to support the functional equivalent of the “Michigan Militia” of the Donbas. The little green men that made any success at all possible while offering a fig leaf of deniability. They took tiny slivers of the Donbas next to the Russian border and were stalemated when most of the Ukrainian army showed up with little but determination. It was a mistake that unified Ukraine as nothing else could. Local support in the Donbas – which might have favored political action towards autonomy like Crimea already had – was almost nonexistent for war. It quickly turned against the Russian-supported separatists when bullets started flying.
Crimea went quietly. Ukraine had already allowed it autonomous republic status within Ukraine and kept almost no military forces in it. Russia sent in Wagner Group mercenaries disguised in – you guessed it – plain green uniforms. There is a bridge from the Russian mainland (at Kerch) with a guaranteed route across Crimea to the port Russia was leasing at Sebastopol. Once the northern land bridges to the rest of Ukraine were occupied, taking them back was impossible. Ukraine responded by blocking the water supply from the Dneiper river. Russia had to spend millions on bringing in water by truck. Crimea’s agriculture zeroed out so food had to be brought in as well. And a thriving tourist industry was ruined.
There was a Budapest Memorandum, back in 1994 after the USSR dissolved. The memorandum on security assurances in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was signed. Ukraine voluntarily gave its nuclear weapons to Russia if their security was assured. It was signed by the US, the UK, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation. The US, UK, and RF would all agree to support the sovereignty and security of Ukraine as it was constituted at that time.
Still, the West did little about the Russian invasion. I guess signed memoranda don’t count for much. Wasn’t a big enough event to risk the comfort of inexpensive gas and oil. Imposed minor sanctions. We started shipping defensive weapons in a desultory manner. A few Javelins here, some bullets there, helped train the Ukrainian troops. Obama did a little and Trump did less. But hell, at least we didn’t invade.
Biden started to ramp things up a bit. Biden grew up in the Cold War. Hell, I grew up in the Cold War and it shaped my outlook on the world. He served in the Senate for the final 18 years of the Cold War. He is 13 years older than I and a real Cold Warrior. Putin is also a Cold Warrior, so I think Biden understood his logic. Not saying his response was anywhere near adequate until the actual invasion but it was an improvement. He, like every other leader in the West, bought into the idea that not offending Russia was the key to preventing a war in Europe. I think he has buyer’s remorse now.
The Botched War Plan
With a huge initial huge disparity in troop strength and weapons, Putin invaded 4 locations along an 800-mile front in what has to be the most inept and badly planned invasion in history. Were it not so, Ukraine’s government would have been decapitated, the military would have collapsed instantly, and the people would have thrown flowers at tank columns while NATO nervously wrang its hands in futility.
Now, why was it was so badly planned?
There was no unified military command. Initially, four different thrusts, four land commanders with no overall command. After the humiliating retreat from Kyiv, the butcher of Aleppo was put in overall charge of the Army. The Navy and Air Force are still commanded separately.
Putin is blind by self-infliction. It is an occupational hazard of dictators and czars and emperors that they self-isolate. When you wield supreme power there are many who would destroy you. So you destroy them first and intimidate everyone who is left to fawn on you. Nobody dares deliver bad news, nobody dares disagree. Once you start to believe in your own legend, you select only those sources that reflect your legend back at you.
There is an Emperor in China and a tinpot dictator in North Korea who feel the same way. Syria and Belarus too. (NATO has a couple of wannabe authoritarians too but they don’t measure up to those standards.) So you have cronies and you set them up as Oligarchs with vast resources and no accountability except that they slavishly endorse your vision. Management attitude slides downhill. Pretty soon every level of management and many worker bees are taking grift any way they can.
This has an ill effect on an otherwise overwhelming military. Money that ought to have been spent on training or equipment maintenance ends up in commanders’ pockets. Promotions are more based on bribes than military skills. Inferior – and therefore cheaper – parts get purchased and fail but the difference in price gets pocketed by the commander. Tanks get driven into muddy fields and get mired and abandoned because the tankers weren’t trained to think. Tires blow out. Vehicles fail from lack of maintenance. Ammunition, food, water, fuel, and spares never make it because a lot of it didn’t exist and the rest is caught up in a 40 km. traffic jam. A third of the entire 200K force was funneled down a few narrow roads with blown bridges, impassable mud, numerous villages, and forests. A mix of military, militia, and pissed-off civilians used their superior knowledge of the ground to pick them off and scoot.
Along the way, the Russians encountered determined resistance after being told how easy it would be. That is, the very few who were told anything at all. Most thought they were still on a training exercise. The West finally woke up to the fact there was a “real” war and started pumping “defensive” weapons into the country on a massive scale. I understand it is up to about 20K MANPADS and ATGMs now and bigger stuff has started to roll in.
Russian Air Force doesn’t want to fly because the Ukrainians actually have decent air defenses, so they often launch their missiles from inside Russian airspace to avoid them. They’ve never fought against a real air defense before and lacked training. It has previously always been a turkey shoot against weak opponents. There is an apparently extreme shortage of precision-guided munitions so attack fighters have to fly low to have any chance of hitting something. MANPADs and drones have taken their toll. The Navy stays far out at sea after having 4 or 5 vessels destroyed, including the flagship cruiser Moskva. We believe that over a quarter of the major ships in the Black Sea are damaged or sunk. Turkey refuses to let any new military ships in, only out.
Now, the interesting thing is the story the Russians are giving. A fire accidentally started onboard, spread to an ammo magazine, and blew up. The Ukrainians said that said fire was caused by two of their indigenous Neptune anti-ship missiles. If I were the Russians I’d rather go with the Neptune. If the flagship of the fleet just randomly catches fire and blows up, that speaks volumes to the defective nature of Russian ships in general.
The only Russian aircraft carrier has been in drydock for years and will probably stay there due to mechanical and electrical failures and physical damage. Ditto their biggest battle cruiser, the Kirov. The other carrier was sold to China.
Consider what this does to Russian military forces elsewhere. Their active army only numbers about 400K so they’ve put 50% of their land forces into this. They’ve stripped from the far east, the Caucasian region, and probably the Baltics to do it. They’ve brought in light troops from Rovsgardia, their domestic security service. If they want more they have to go into full war mobilization, call up the reserves, train them, call up conscripts, train them. Dig out the armor from deep storage and maintain it. Get the Belorussian army involved in direct combat. Try to get the military factories moving again. Pull in all the Syrian and Chechnyan troops they can scrape up. This is a months-long process. Additional pilots for older aircraft will take longer. The Black Sea Fleet is a lost cause.
Not saying they can’t or won’t do it. Russians are capable of immense efforts and incredible self-sacrifice, But it takes time. All that time the Ukrainians will be reconstituting their forces, backed by the limitless military-industrial complex of the West. Their reserves and militia units are being trained and their conscripts will be flooding in as well. I don’t think the Russians want to go that route.
What I think I am seeing is a violent thrust into the Donbas to encircle as many Ukrainian troops as possible. The Russians should have learned from their previous mistakes. They’ll push into south-eastern Ukraine as far as they can, probably stopping at the Dnieper river which is a natural defensive position to hold. Or maybe the Ukrainians stop them dead in their tracks. Either way, Putin declares victory and demands Ukraine agree to it. Ukraine tells him to go to hell. A bloody stalemate ensues with each side shelling the other and launching probing attacks to discover weak points in their defenses.
The alternative is capitulation and neither country is in the mood for that.
What About the Economic War?
How much pain is Russia willing to accept? How much can India and China replace the European markets?
Russia has put great effort into prepping for sanctions. They are completely self-sufficient in food and energy. They lack domestic high-tech manufacturing. Things like chips go into everything. Short term, there will be discomfort. Long term, alternate sources can be developed in China and India.
They heavily counted on the West continuing to buy Russian resources. Cut off the flow of fuel and several members of NATO will crumble. There’s a problem here. Other sources of fuel can be found. Conservation will kick in. Regulations that were delaying “green” power plants can be suspended. Germany can buy electricity from France. The US can start to redirect its LNG production to Europe.
A race begins between Russia’s ability to spool up its energy exports to China and India and Europe’s ability to break the dependence on Russian oil. Europe will win that race. Any hydrocarbons exported to China is a trickle for the foreseeable future.
It is my opinion that there is no possible sanction that the west could do that would affect the prosecution of the war in Ukraine. Impacts that would be adequate to weaken the Russian military machine won’t hit for years. Properly motivated Russians are capable of extraordinary sacrifice. Depending on support from China, it might never happen.
That doesn’t mean you don’t do sanctions. Just because you can’t shut the war down doesn’t mean you carry one with business as usual. The biggest risk is they will become a client state of China. Putin would not like that.
The Russians have started to make noses about unpredictable consequences if NATO continues to arm Ukraine. This is interpreted as increased bombing of supplies coming in from NATO, increased bombing of Kyiv and targeting of C&C locations, perhaps even bombing targets in Poland. The biggest threat is, of course, WMDs and particularly nuclear weapons to bring Ukraine to heel.
It has been alleged that they used chemical weapons in Mariupol. The symptoms looked and sounded right for tear gas or maybe phosgene but there’s no actual conformation. No way to get an observer into the besieged city. They’ve used chemical weapons in Syria with few consequences so they might do it again. Large scale chemical weapons would be a game changer. While the US army can work in chemical environments, the Ukrainian army isn’t so well equipped. How would we respond if it happened?
We might approve those Polish MIG 29s being transferred to Ukraine. A lot more T-72s could be sent.
The easiest thing to do is to send chemical warfare protective kits to the Ukrainians in advance. A day of training would be enough to be useful. If you wait until after the attack, that’s too late for those affected. Donbas would be rolled up and a done deal as far as Putin was concerned.
Other weapons – such as thermobaric bombs – that can produce local effects similar to small nuclear weapons without the radiation are an option. Some of these weapons are very large and if used in quantity could wipe out miles of defenses. There’s no real defense here except the threat of countering with something equivalent.
We’ve pretty much run out of additional sanctions and as we have seen, sanctions are both iffy and a long game. It would probably drive a few of the abstainers into the pro-Ukrainian camp. Most of Russia’s supporters don’t care about the Geneva Convention and the Law of War. The butchery in the occupied areas around Kyiv didn’t turn their stomachs and this wouldn’t either. Maybe NATO destruction of the unit responsible for delivering it would be as far as the west would go.
An attack on Polish territory would trigger NATO Article 5. I do not believe Russia would go so far. There would quickly be nothing left of Russian forces in Ukraine if NATO truly went to war. Putin might gamble that we’d be restrained by his nuclear weapons and limit the response. Not knowing your enemy’s “red line” can lead to miscalculations on both sides.
Bombing the crap out of Kyiv would be an obvious response and appears to be the chosen response to the sinking of the Moskva. Long ranged attacks on the city by missile and air power could do a lot of infrastructure damage but taking out the C3 structure isn’t likely. As part of their Cold War legacy, former Soviet properties are laced with bunkers and shelters designed to protect in the case of a nuclear war. It would take a proper bunker buster to have any chance of taking them out and even that is iffy. Might get lucky if they got intel about where Zelinskyy happened to be staying. OTOH, he’d become a martyr and those are tough to deal with. Weapons directed at Kyiv are weapons not available to actually affect the battle space. I’m thinking the effort most likely to be militarily futile but would be good PR for the Russians domestically.
It is telling that they only now got around to blowing up weapon manufacturing facilities, including the one that built the Neptune missiles that took the Moskva out. In any rational attack, those would have been targeted early on. I’m thinking a failure to achieve air superiority, a shortage of PGMs, and the belief that the war would be over before they’d matter.
The 800 pound gorilla in the room is the use of nuclear weapons. The stated Russian policy is that nukes would only be used if Russia faced an existential threat. Putin seems to have decided that Ukraine is an existential threat. He dances around their use, dropping hints and implications without saying anything definitive. Nuclear weapons would be a game changer, wrapping up the Donbas even faster than chemical weapons. Alternatively they could be used as terror weapons and for taking out large cities too big to be taken by the small forces available. Collapse would be instant.
Such an action would alienate India and possibly even China. Nuclear war is not a threshold anyone wants to be crossed. NATO would instantly go on highest alert. Should dangerous radiation drift over into NATO territory (probably Poland) it could be viewed as an article 5 activation.
The war can go either way or end in a bloody stalemate.
If Russia decides to go on a full war footing, Ukraine will lose. That will take much time, months to a year to power up, rather like Goku going Super Saiyan in slow motion. If it goes to nuclear or chemical warfare, Ukraine will lose very quickly. The Russians will face extremely serious long term consequences.
Putin still wants to keep this as a special military operation, not an officially declared war. (Like you know how the US hasn’t fought a war since WWII? It has all been “police actions.”) This keeps certain limitations on what he’s authorized to do under Russian law but benefits him by downplaying the seriousness of the struggle to the Russian people. As long as he keeps the profile as less than a war and the West continues to funnel in weapons, I don’t think he can win. Just as the US didn’t win in Vietnam or Afghanistan but rather walked away when we saw no future in the fight.
In many respects, by starting the war, Putin immediately lost the strategic global conflict. He badly miscalculated both Ukraine and the West. NATO is fired up, and likely to expand. He might be able to claim a marginal victory in Ukraine. Take the Donbas, reinstate water supply to Crimea, get his coveted land bridge. There are huge untapped gas resources in southeastern Ukraine but I think it unlikely he’ll ever turn a profit.
Ukraine gets a victory by just surviving as an independent state. By denying Russia its victory of inserting a puppet government and taking over Ukraine’s people, military, and resources, Ukraine has already won. The remainder of Ukraine will be a much tougher nut to crack. It is even possible for Ukraine to push the Russians back but that requires that the Russians stay incompetent and the West to start supplying armor and air power in much greater quantities.
In humanitarian terms it is an absolute loss to Ukraine. Tens of thousands of people dead, ten percent of the population forced out of country and great cities and many villages in ruins. It is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe in Europe since WWII. The economy will be in tatters. Only a modern day Marshall Plan can keep it from sinking into deep depression.
What price is a people willing to pay for freedom? For national soverignty? For a bright economic future? Many have thought it worth any sacrifice over the millenia.
The Russian economy will hurt but it will be delayed pain. There are lots of ways to prop up the ruble in the short term. Russia can feed itself and be energy self sufficient. Their infrastructure will be undamaged. But the economy will shrink, public morale will be low. Foreign investment will vanish. They don’t have pipelines to export more hydrocarbon to China and India and won’t get them for a long time. Anything they ship will be at a heavily discounted price because they will be over a barrel. Their energy industry was operating with assistance from western companies. New pipelines will take many years to design and build. And on and on.
The brain drain will only accelerate until another Iron Curtain goes up. I still wouldn’t underestimate their ability to devise ways to work around shortages and endure hardship. Remember how the Russians responded in WWII. They are a mighty people when their homeland is at risk. As are the Ukrainians. And the US.
Russia will not be on a path to reclaim superpower status. They may scrimp on their standard of living to pay for bullets. They may become a client state of China but China is not going to altruistically ride to Putin’s rescue. Xi Jinping wants control. This will rankle and be the source of future enmity between the two states.
Eventually Putin will die or leave or be deposed and it is anyone’s guess what happens next.
And those are my thoughts. The table is open for discussion.
Some other posts on the subject…