Miscellanea: Understanding the War in Ukraine

This week, I want to break from our usual format and respond to the fairly unusual global events. I expect a lot of my readers are trying to get a grasp on what is happening right now in Ukraine and in my own experience the traditional news media often struggles to adequately explain complex issues that go beyond simply describing events. So I thought that, as a professional thing-explainer (also known as a teacher) who also, as a military historian makes an effort to follow these events as closely as I can, I might try to explain some of the elements of the conflict, particularly questions I’ve seen pop up on social media.

(Thanks to AGreatDivorce, our kind reader-narrator, this post is now available in audio-format here.)

I should note of course that I am not a Ukraine or Russia expert, though as a military historian I am at least a little familiar with both the history of the region and also the IR and military theory that guides a lot of the decision-making. And of course, since I teach on warfare, I try to stay well read on current conflicts. While I am not an expert here, I will reference people who are.

If you just want to tune this out…well, I’d ask you not to. This is important, even if it is painful to watch. But if you’d rather be reading something else, my analytics tell me that y’all still mostly haven’t read my analysis of Thucydides’ Fear, Honor and Interest (which is actually quite relevant here) or the three primary source analyses on medieval military aristocrats: Dhuoda, ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad, and Bertan de Born (which are much less relevant here).

And finally, if you want to support what I’m doing here – well, this week, support something else. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is almost certain to create a refugee crisis both within Ukraine and in neighboring countries. Consider donating to Ukrainian aid organizations like Razom for Ukraine. You could also donate to the UNHCR or other international aid groups and charities that support refugees. There are going to be a lot more refugees that need help and they will need your money more than me. For those who instead want to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine itself, ArmySOS raises funds to supply Ukrainian soldiers with much needed equipment and the Ukrainian army itself has a crowd-funding page.

I also must note that I wrote this during the day on the 24th of February 2022, with some light editing in the very early hours of the 25th, so it reflects what I knew as of then. I have tried, where applicable here to indicate where there are points of real uncertainty in unfolding events, especially when it comes to the course future events may take. Confidence about outcomes in war is mere delusion, but some outcomes are more probable than others.

Alright? Onward.

I am not going to pretend to be neutral here. I am on the side of the nascent democracy which was ruthlessly and lawlessly attacked without provocation by a larger and more powerful foreign power.

First, we need to clarify some terms:

  • NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a mutual defense alliance between the United States, Canada and 28 European countries. NATO members commit to mutual defense (but not mutual aggression). Neither Ukraine nor Russia is a member of NATO. The government of Ukraine has expressed some interest joining NATO, but was, even before this conflict, unlikely to do so any time in the foreseeable future. Joining NATO is quite intentionally a slow and careful process, so it is not possible to ‘crash-join’ a country into NATO in an emergency (nor, for reasons below, would you generally want to).
  • The Donbas is a region of Ukraine north and east of Crimea, which borders Russia. It contains two major regions, Donetsk and Luhansk. Russian-backed separatists in these regions attempted to secede from Ukraine in 2014 with substantial Russian encouragement; when they proved unable to gain full control, Russia supported them directly. Russia has continued to maintain these two breakaway republics, though the majority in both regions oppose secession. There has been an active frontline and continued fighting there since 2014, the fighting kept going almost entirely through Russian support.

Why is this happening?

The short version is “because Vladimir Putin wanted it to happen.” The long version requires us to ask a different question:

What Does Vladimir Putin Want?

This can be a confusing question in this context because Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Foreign Ministry have given multiple conflicting and in some cases mutually contradictory answers for why they are proceeding as they are. Indeed, just 10 days ago, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the Russians were standing down and leaving the Ukrainian border, a statement that is now a quite transparent lie. Moreover, the Russian government also engages in different communications to different people: an ethnocentric, nationalist message in Russian to Russians (‘Ukraine isn’t a real country’) but a softer, diplomatic message to westerners (‘we’re concerned about NATO’), mixed with lies and manufactured ‘attacks’ on Russians.

How do we untangle the lies and try to get at the truth? First, it is important to note that declaring war and invading a country in the real world is not like in a video game – in video games, you declare war with a button press and immediately move forward. You can make the decision to attack and be attacking in moments. In the real world, the kind of military operation Russia is engaging in requires months of preparation and planning. Thus while the ‘go’ or ‘no go’ decision may be contingent on events that occur after planning begins, the conditions which would have resulted in a Russian invasion of Ukraine were likely decided on weeks or months ago.

What were those conditions? Well, the best way to get at Putin’s war aims is to look at his statement of war aims. This past Monday, Putin claimed in a speech that “Ukraine actually never had stable traditions of real statehood” and that its creation was a mistake dating back to the organization of the Soviet Union in 1917. This claim is nonsense; Ukrainians had attempted to gain independence before being violently forced back into the Soviet Union, but Putin (and many other irredentist Russians) appear to believe it.

That view – that Ukraine isn’t a real country and doesn’t deserve independence, but is rather something like a wayward Russian province, thus informs Putin’s stated war aims, given in a speech on Wednesday as the initial assault began. Putin claimed the objectives of the “special military operation” were the “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.” It is of course necessary to note that the idea that Ukraine has a Nazi government is a farce; for all of its considerable problems with corruption, Ukraine’s current government was democratically elected and while Ukraine has historically had a problem with anti-semitism, its current president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish.

But to demilitarize a country means the complete destruction of its armed forces – which would of course then render that country perfectly vulnerable to further military coercion – while claiming to ‘denazify’ the government essentially requires dismantling the current system of government and replacing it. In short then, “demilitarization and denazification” is a deceptive, round-about way of saying “conquer.” Putin’s state goal is the conquest of Ukraine and the installation of a pro-Russian government there (or perhaps integration into the Russian Federation, something that, during a televised meeting of Russia’s security council, Putin’s own security minister suggested was on the table.)

Which, to back up, means that Putin decided, probably months ago, that he was willing to use armed force to install a pro-Russian government in Ukraine, toppling its democracy. Given that goal, it seems profoundly unlikely that any diplomatic solution offered by the West or Ukraine could have avoided this conflict.

It also means that many of the other offered pretexts, while they may speak to Putin’s frame of mind, seem to have been secondary if not entirely red-herrings. In particular, Putin’s offensive operation is utterly and absurdly excessive for what would be necessary if his goal was only to secure the separatist regions in the Donbas; instead his offensive seems aimed at the Ukrainian capital in Kyiv, c. 300 miles away, with an airborne assault on Kyiv’s main airport in the first 24 hours of his offensive (which failed). More broadly, of course, the claim to be protecting people in those regions is nonsense; as noted, while there is some support for secession there, it is not a majority view and prior to Putin’s (lawless) annexation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent decision to back separatists there (and support them with un-uniformed Russian troops and weapons) the area was peaceful. The Donetsk and Luhansk ‘republics,’ one is left to assume, were manufactured entirely for this purpose: to be used as an excuse to attack the rest of Ukraine (must the way Putin has also used South Ossetia against Georgia). Indeed, Ukranian forces were sufficiently restrained, even now when there has been a hot war in the Donbas for eight years that Russian forces found it necessary to manufacture fairly transparently false ‘attacks’ to justify further intervention.

The other such pretext was Ukraine’s supposed failure to hew to the precise conditions of the Minsk Protocols, two ceasefire agreements negotiated in 2014 and 2015 which were ostensibly to stop the fighting in the Donbas. The Russian-backed separatists there have not honored any ceasefire so negotiated, despite the fact that, as formulated the Minsk Protocols are extremely favorable to them (because they were negotiated with Ukraine under the threat of an ongoing direct and quite illegal Russian intervention). It is also the case that Ukrainian implementation of some of the provisions of the Minsk Protocols has been uneven (but not entirely absent). However, late in this crisis Ukraine indicated that it was willing to go back to the Minsk Protocols; Russia responded by recognizing the ‘independence’ of Donetsk and Luhansk in a blatant violation of the agreement before invading. Once again, if the Russian concern was legitimately Donetsk and Luhansk, an invasion of the rest of Ukraine would be fairly obviously unnecessary and indeed counter-productive. It is thus now quite obvious that Putin had no intention of keeping to Minsk during this crisis, if he ever did.

Thus, the war happened because Vladimir Putin wanted it to happen and he wanted it to happen to overthrow the democratically elected government of Ukraine; it is as yet unclear if he then intends to annex the country or place a puppet government in charge of it (which given the diminished independence of Belarus, might amount to the same thing in the end).

Could NATO have stopped this?

No, probably not. But right now there are a lot of Monday-morning-quarterbacks suggesting all of the ways they would have avoided the war, so let’s go ahead and discuss them to make the point.

Concessions from NATO – some of Putin’s western enablers (particularly on the far-right, though in some cases also on the far-left) have suggested that NATO could have avoided this by making some sort of concessions to Putin, like agreeing to never permit Ukraine to enter the alliance. Often this is couched in terms of NATO being ‘threatening’ to Russia. Now on the one hand, NATO is a purely defensive alliance, nevertheless it is not hard to imagine that Putin, a repressive dictator, felt threatened by a strong alliance of (mostly) free and democratic states to his West. But given that Putin’s goal was, as above, regime change (at least) in Ukraine, it is hard to see how permanently barring Ukraine from NATO would have prevented his actions.

Instead, the clearest understanding of Putin’s complaints about NATO is that they are reflections of his real fears, but that as diplomatic negotiating tools, they were red herrings, designed to create exactly the sort of smokescreen that some media personalities worked to create and exploit domestically. The ‘tell’ here in many ways were the initial demands, which amounted to rolling back NATO positions to pre-1997 status; such demands would be utterly unacceptable to NATO countries (like Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland) who would thus be left outside NATO’s line of protection. Putin – and the Russian Foreign Ministry – knew those demands were obvious non-starters, that’s why they made them – presumably to generate that smokescreen and to try to divide NATO internally. But the demands themselves were never serious, as Putin’s actions this week prove.

Preemptive Sanctions – suggested by US Senator Lindsay Graham among others, the idea here is that the USA or NATO should have put in place sanctions immediately, weeks ago, and promised to remove them only if Russia withdrew from the border. At least by the normal logic of deterrence, this position was nonsense. Deterrence is, after all, all about using the threat of retaliation to deter a state from doing something you don’t want them to do. But if you impose those penalties in advance they lose their deterrent power. Worse yet, you surrender ambiguity, the possibility that your retaliation much be much larger than your opponent anticipated. Moreover, even sanctions inflict costs immediately: seized assets and frozen funds mean lost revenue right away (along with domestic market freakouts in Russia), so much of the pain you’ve inflicted cannot be undone if your opponent complies, which lowers the value of compliance. Finally, there is a political will issue: imposing sanctions requires – as we’re seeing – getting a lot of reluctant political actors to accept lower economic growth themselves in order to send a message. It is harder to convince people to do that over an invasion that might happen then over an invasion that has happened, meaning preemptive sanctions would likely be very weak and thus even less effective.

This was never a serious suggestion, I strongly suspect Lindsay Graham or his staffers know that, so I assume this was just domestic political hawkier-than-thou posturing on the assumption that the average voter does not understand these things.

Direct NATO Intervention! Sometimes this is suggested in terms of forward-positioning ground troops, or in the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’ over Ukraine. Dramatic actions like these were never possible, either politically or strategically. Politically, the same will problems with preemptive sanctions apply here and for reasons we’ll get into for a second, bluffing is a bad plan here as well.

Strategically, the issue here is the potential for escalation and in particular the threat of nuclear escalation. A conventional war between two nuclear armed powers has generally unacceptable escalation risks. The key thing to understand here is that real war is not like in video games where one can clearly see what units the enemy is using and where firing a nuclear weapon is accompanied by a big loud siren everyone can hear. In practice, many of the same systems NATO uses for conventional warfare can also potentially be used to deliver nuclear weapons – the Tomahawk cruise missile was designed to carry nuclear payloads, for instance, and while those particular nuclear weapons have been retired (the payloads, not the tomahawk), the capability to mount them still exists (and if you were a Russian commander, would you assume the United States was entirely honest about the nuclear capabilities of its cruise missiles?).

Moreover, as Caitlin Talmadge describes in the Taiwan/China context here, the very nature of the way modern militaries fight means that efforts by a NATO military to shield its own ground troops or fighters from enemy fire – essential for their survival – would involve strikes in Russia which might be effectively indistinguishable to Russian eyes from efforts to blind Russian eyes in preparation for a NATO nuclear first-strike. Some of those strikes would be using dual-purpose weapon-systems and the entire point of NATO doctrine in these sorts of instances is to paralyze and confuse enemy command and control, which of course makes a mistake more likely. The same would of course be true in the other direction, so both the tired, confused Russian commanders and the tired, confused NATO commanders would be squinting at their intelligence reports always wondering if the next missile might be the beginning of a nuclear war. The potential for catastrophic miscalculation leading to a nuclear exchange is far, far too high (and that is before one accounts for what one side in that fight might do if it became clear they were losing the conventional war but might salvage the issue by upgrading it to a ‘limited’ nuclear war).

Consequently, the policy has always been to avoid any situation in which two nuclear powers are trading conventional fire whenever possible; in my view that policy is wise and should be kept to (though doing so likely demands, in this case, extracting considerable non-military punishment on Putin to discourage further efforts that might require a NATO response)

Threaten Direct NATO Intervention – Essentially, ‘bluff!’ This doesn’t work for all of the reasons above: Putin understands the strategic logic as well as you do, so he knows it is a bluff. Instead, any promises made to Ukraine in terms of direct security assistance of this sort actually hand Russia a lever to pry open NATO. Countries in NATO like Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia rely on the security guarantee NATO offers them for their security, because they are much smaller and weaker than Russia. In particular, they rely on Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (which created NATO) which stipulates that an attack on any member of NATO is an attack on all of them, meaning that an attack on, say, Estonia, would be met with the full force of the French, British, German, American, Canadian, Polish, Italian (etc.) armies. In its extreme form, NATO is a promise by the nuclear powers of NATO – the United States, Britain and France – to use nuclear weapons to defend NATO members.

If you want to be blunt about it, NATO is a treaty that says that the United States is so committed to the independence of its members that it is willing to risk global thermonuclear war over it (and so are all of the other members). Needless to say, that commitment is so extreme that it always raises at least a little doubt, so no NATO state wants to add any more.

In essence then, what holds NATO together is a promise – you defend me, I will defend you and we’ll all defend each other. Consequently, it is essential that the largest states in NATO maintain credibility in that promise, both to assure allies but also to deter enemies. Bluffing, which might imply that NATO itself is also a bluff, is thus dangerous: it degrades deterrence and increases the chance of a much wider, more destructive war – either because an outside aggressor realizes they can pick off smaller NATO members and does so, collapsing the alliance and leading to a flurry of conventional wars in Europe OR because that outside aggressor miscalculates, Article 5 holds, NATO goes to war as the treaty stipulates and, well…if the world ends, it ends.

Welcome to nuclear deterrence, what Albert Wohlstetter termed “the delicate balance of terror.” If you are not at least a little scared, you haven’t been paying attention. Perhaps, it occurs to me, I should put the basic 101-level logic of deterrence on the ‘to blog about list’ or on the next ACOUP Senate vote. That said, and I want to be clear here, this is not WWIII nor is there an immediate risk of nuclear escalation. Unless you live in Ukraine, the chances you personally will be harmed by this conflict are practically zero. But for those who do live in Ukraine, well…

How Will This End?

Badly. Beyond that, no one really knows. Here I want to caution you: a lot of the information you will see over the next few days is coming through the fog of war. Some of it will be intentional disinformation. No one in the media or on social media really has any kind of precise view of what is going on. Even the intelligence agencies – for Russia, Ukraine but also NATO countries – are likely struggling to get a firm grasp on what is happening where.

Moreover, war is not the realm of certainties, but, as Clausewitz says (drink!) subject to “the play of probabilities and chance” (which is to say, ‘friction’). War is unpredictable by its very nature. No one knows what is going to happen, but we can venture some very general suggestions of the most likely course of events.

First, Putin is likely to carry this war to its conclusion. The reputational cost of turning back now, with blood already shed, would be catastrophic. Putin’s only way out is through, unfortunately. I am not an expert on Russia’s internal politics, but the consensus of the experts is that popular opposition to this war, even if extreme, is unlikely to be able to force Putin to stop it, because Russia is an authoritarian state. So even if it is not in the interest of Russians to continue, it is in the interest of Putin to do so. Consequently I do not expect a peaceful solution to present itself any time soon.

Second, the balance of equipment and numbers suggests that Russian forces are very likely to win in the field. There is a range of possibilities within that statement, from a relatively quick victory with the Ukrainian Armed Forces simply collapsing, to a slogging campaign that morphs almost seamlessly into insurgency as it proceeds, to, of course, the small but non-zero chance that the balance of morale and ability surprises everyone and the Russian offensive fails. This last possibility has been judged by the experts as being very unlikely, and I tend to agree.

At the same time, as I am writing this (now late in the evening EST on the 24th) it is increasingly clear that ‘swift Russian victory’ is also a rapidly vanishing possibility. Ukrainian forces do not appear to have collapsed or melted away but are standing to fight and while Ukraine has comparatively little in the way of air assets and air defenses, what they do have seems to be at least somewhat operational, which is something of a surprise given Russian superiority in indirect fires. Consequently, while the chances of a clear Ukrainian victory remain small, the scenario in which Ukrainian resistance, transitioning from open-field combat to urban combat to insurgency as necessary, inflicts heavy or even crippling losses on Russian troops now seems increasingly plausible.

That said, the maximal nature of Russia’s goals – conquest and regime change – impose considerable challenges all on their own. Russian troops will need not only to seize the country but also hold it and support the administration of whatever government Putin puts in place, against what is likely to be intense popular resistance. They will also need to take Ukraine’s major cities, particularly Kyiv. Urban warfare is brutally difficult and has in the past not been a particular strength of the Russian Federation.

That does not mean Ukrainian resistance is pointless here. Instead, both the initial, conventional stage of resistance and the likely secondary insurgency phase push towards the same objectives: making Russian occupation so costly in blood and treasure that it cannot be maintained. Here the Ukrainians have a real chance of eventual success if they remain committed to the effort, while the challenges for Russia are immense. Consider the US experience: Ukraine is about 10% more populous and about a third larger than Iraq. Whereas the funds for Iraqi insurgents often had to come via limited dark money or relatively weak state sponsors (like Iran) Ukrainian resistance, meanwhile, is likely to be bankrolled and supplied by the richest countries in the world able to use the traditional banking and finance system to do it (either covertly or overtly) and move those supplies through transport routes in well-developed NATO countries whose airspace is effectively inviolate. And finally, Russia has less than half of the United States’ population and about a sixth of the US’ economic production (adjusted for purchasing power). The United States in Iraq also had allies, both in the region and also providing troops; Russia has no real allies in this fight, though China may seek to keep Russia from becoming entirely economically isolated.

Russia is thus embarking, with fewer friends and fewer resources, on a war that may prove to be far more difficult than the wars the United States struggled with in Afghanistan and Iraq. And of course the very fact that Ukraine can win this in the long run will serve to stiffen Ukrainian resistance. Meanwhile, it is not entirely clear that Putin’s war has widespread popular support in Russia, though of course getting any clear sense of the popular mood within an authoritarian state is extremely difficult. Nevertheless, flagging public support at home, even in an authoritarian state where there are no political channels for that opposition, can translate into morale problems at the front, as Russians learned in 1917.

Overall, my sense of the military-affairs/international relations community is that the general opinion is that Putin is making a mistake here even though he is likely to win on the ground at first: the costs of controlling Ukraine are likely to be high, the rewards likely to be low, and this aggression is likely to solidify, rather than weaken NATO. Long-term success seems very difficult to achieve. I tend to concur with that assessment, though I’ll admit there is a lot of room for unlikely or unexpected outcomes.

Finally, we can be pretty sure that the human toll here is going to be terrible. Modern, western-style armies – of the sort both Ukraine and especially Russia have – are incredibly destructive. This is because they rely heavily on indirect fires – artillery, airstrikes, cruise missiles, etc. – to support ground troop advances. Indirect fires can be very long range and very destructive and modern armies use a LOT of them, leveraging that massive modern-system firepower we’ve discussed before. But the result, especially in urban warfare where maneuver is less of an option, is that the attacker is left to blast out the defender, block by block, building by building, often using unguided artillery and rocket strikes to do it. The Russian sieges of the Chechen city of Grozny in both 1994/5 and 1999/2000 bogged down into this kind of warfare, leaving Grozny the “most destroyed city on earth” and thousands of civilians dead. I’m afraid to say that Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities are likely soon to find themselves receiving the same treatment.1

This fact, combined with the reasonable expectation that supporters of the current Ukrainian government – which is many, many Ukrainians – will not be safe under a Putin-backed regime, is already leading many Ukrainian civilians to flee westward. As Russian troops push further west across the country, many of those people will end up either internally displaced into Lviv (Ukraine’s west-most major city and the likely last redoubt if Kyiv falls) or as refugees in Poland, Romania or Moldova. The refugee crisis is thus very likely to be severe, compounding the already considerable human suffering Putin is causing with this (lawless, unprovoked) invasion. Poland has indicated, at least for now, a willingness to accept essentially any number of Ukrainian refugees, but Ukraine is a country of 44 million people and could create refugee flows that would tax the resources of the countries that border it.

What Can Other Countries Do?

As noted, direct military intervention is essentially off the table due to nuclear escalation concerns, but that doesn’t mean that other countries here are powerless. The main ‘weapon’ here is economic sanctions, in essentially two forms. The first set, which targets powerful supporters of Putin in Russia, is designed to drain away the elite support that sustains his rule. The second set are simply designed to damage the Russian economy itself. These serve a dual purpose – the first hope is that by ‘inflicting pain’ they might convince Putin to back down (seems unlikely), but the second is that by damaging or even collapsing the Russian economy, they will drain away the resources Putin needs to actually manage a long-term occupation of Ukraine.

Personally, I think hopes that Putin will be overthrown by any of this are wildly overblown, but bankrupting the Russian economy would put severe constraints on the ability to maintain an expensive occupation of a large country of 44 million people.

The issue here is political will among the major NATO countries. On the one hand, NATO and other US allies make up a large enough slice of the world economy that heavy sanctions by them could effectively cut Russia off from the world economy; since Russia relies on oil and natural gas exports to pay for imports, it is vulnerable to this tactic. However, sanctions like that would have global economic repercussions, particularly in Europe, where Russian oil and natural gas is an important component of the energy supply. Consequently, European leaders are already gun-shy about sanctions as extensive as what, say, the United States (which is far less exposed to the economic backlash, though not unexposed) would want.

The biggest sanction on the table, but one which will be difficult to get agreement on, is removing Russia from SWIFT, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications. While Russia has developed its own SWIFT competitor, in practice delisting Russia from SWIFT entirely would cut Russian financial institutions off from global money flows, with a likely debilitating result on the Russian economy. Smaller sanctions against Russian individuals (blocking their access to financial assets or seizing assets they hold outside of Russia) or against Russian companies (doing the same) or the Russian economy in general are more likely. Putin has worked to try to reinforce the Russian economy against western sanctions, in particular by building up his foreign currency reserves so he can do international business in cash and defend the value of the ruble, but my sense from experts is that if NATO and its friends truly showed determination here, they have the capacity to collapse the Russian economy anyway, but that marshaling the political will will to do that will be difficult.

As I write this, it is not yet entirely clear what the scale of Western sanctions on Russia will be or how effective they will be; harsh sanctions have been promised and are being implemented, but I lack the expertise to really assess just how effective those sanctions will be. The major variable here is political will; consequently if you are a citizen of one of those Western countries, one thing you can do here is signal to your representatives that you, in fact, are willing to accept a degree of economic pain in order to send the message to Russia that wars of conquest will not be tolerated.

NATO states can also of course support the Ukrainian resistance and are likely to do so (though this poses escalation risks), providing safe-havens for Ukrainian fighters and leaders (for instance in Poland or Romania; as NATO states, they can house Ukrainian fighters effectively without fear of Russian retaliation) and providing funding, weapons and training as well. The existence of safe havens for insurgent fighters in Pakistan, Iran and Syria made the U.S.-led operations in those countries extremely difficult and in the end were a key factor in dooming the efforts of the United States to support a government in Afghanistan. Once again, the scale and durability of western assistance is likely to depend on political will – the more outraged the publics of the democracies of the world are, the stronger and more effective the response to Russian aggression will be.

So one thing you can do is contact your representatives and urge them to support sanctions and stand by Ukraine.

Why Didn’t We See This Coming?

Actually, we did. NATO – and especially US intelligence – was remarkably effective at predicting what Putin had planned before he did it, down to predicting the day the assault would begin. NATO intelligence agencies also warned in advance that Russian forces would stage false-flag attacks and shell Ukrainian positions trying to provoke Ukrainians into shooting back and the Russians did exactly that. Frankly, especially after the intelligence failures of the Global War on Terror, I was shocked by the degree to which US intelligence mostly nailed this; it goes to show that while organizations created to spy on the Soviet Union struggle to spy on terrorists and the Taliban, they are very good at spying on the Russian Federation. Frankly the entire thing has been a fairly stunning US intelligence coup and there are a whole lot of analysts and more than a few world leaders who woke up on the 24th owing US intelligence an apology.

So while the outbreak of hostilities has likely come as a surprise to a great many people for whom this issue has only recently gotten full attention, for specialists paying attention it has been clear something was coming for a while and the closer we’ve gotten the clearer it has been that it would be big. My first “this is going to be really bad” tweet thread was January 25th; I am not a Ukraine expert and in many ways was late to those realizations.

The mistaken assumption here is to assume that this conflict is really fundamentally about NATO or the United States, but it isn’t – it’s about Ukraine and Russia. Consequently, as noted, even forewarned, there was relatively little that NATO could do to stop this from happening.

What Should I Think of Pro-Putin Politicians and Media Personalities in the West?

You should despise them. This invasion has revealed, for the reasons discussed above, what Putin is in stark terms. No one now can claim they didn’t know.

It is often hard for people to believe, but as late as 1941, Adolf Hitler had real and influential supporters in the United States, even though he had invaded Poland in 1939, Denmark and Norway and France in 1940 and Russia earlier in 1941, even though he had used terror bombing against Poland and Britain, even though his regime was manifestly brutal and authoritarian. Men like Father Coughlin, a popular radio personality and Catholic priest, and Fritz Julius Kuhn, the leader of the German-American Bund, supported Hitler even after he revealed himself for all of the world to see as a bloodstained conqueror. They were hateful men, in both senses of the word. They were loathsome, but also they did this because Hitler hated the people they hated – mostly Jews.

Vladimir Putin has, in the West, his own Father Coughlins and Fritz Julius Kuhns, willing to sell out their democracies, the democracies of others, human rights, their own souls and whatever desiccated husk of their principles is left if it means they can carry water for someone who hates the same people they do.

This is not an indictment of any entire political wing, mind you. While there are a few far-left voices (mostly just isolated tankies on Twitter who think they’re being clever, as far as I can tell) that for some reason think it is 1956 and they have to defend the Soviet Union’s right to send in the tanks, many, many more on the left recognize Putin for what he is. And while voices on the right defending Putin’s brazen, lawless action are more common and have much bigger platforms, there are many voices on the right too who recognize Putin for the thug he is, and this war for the illegal, wicked war of aggression it is. Opposition to warmongering need not be a partisan affair.

And that’s what I have. I hope it has been useful. I know this moment feels dark, and that is because it is dark. War – and here I speak from within my professional expertise as a military historian – is bad, though it it sometimes necessary.

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes by John Stuart Mill, writing about the Union cause in the American Civil War:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice-is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.

Today the better men (and women) fight for Ukraine. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with them.

  1. Though of course at the same time, shelling urban centers in European capitals with lots of journalists around will also impose costs on Putin, in a way that Chechen or Syrian battlefields did not. This is a sad truth to how civilian casualties create reputational and strategic costs: the people with power care more about some civilians than others. It isn’t fair, it isn’t just, but it is.

500 thoughts on “Miscellanea: Understanding the War in Ukraine

Leave a Reply