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.

498 thoughts on “Miscellanea: Understanding the War in Ukraine

  1. Some people push so hard to dodge kremlin propaganda they fall straight to anti-kremlin propaganda. When it comes to democracy and fascism, Ru and Uk are about the same, pretty low and pretty high level respectively. We are not watching Nazi Germany preying on democratic France, it’s more like militaristic Iraq attacking theocratic Iran. The finishing quote seems too idealistic for me.

    1. Ukraine has had free and fair elections, followed by peaceful transfers of power, since the 2014 revolution. Russia has had neither since 2000.

      Russia’s government funds far-right movements abroad, and its state-owned media platforms far-right ideologues domestically. Ukraine’s far right languishes in media obscurity, it has vanished as a parliamentary force in said free and fair elections, and its institutional power is limited to (a minority of the) volunteer auxiliaries of the National Guard.

      1. > Ukraine has had free and fair elections, followed by peaceful transfers of power, since the 2014 revolution.

        Depending on your point of view, you could say 2014 “coup”.

        I recommend the documentary Ukraine on Fire.

        1. And yet, whatever you call those events, it’s indisputable that they installed a democratic regime.

    2. That is a bizarre statement, considering that Ukraine just had a peaceful transition of power between different parties and leaders three years ago, in a way that never has happened under Russia. Ukraine has much more democratic legitimacy than Russia, and your trying to draw an equivalence between them should make you feel bad that you are carrying the water for Putin.

    3. Freedom of the Press index: Ukraine, 96 (problematic), Russia 150 (Bad)
      Democracy Matrix: Ukraine, 92 (Hybrid), Russia 144 (Authoritarian)

      We do not live in a world where “when it comes to democracy and fascism, Ru and Uk are about the same.” Russia is fascist authoritarian dictatorship. Ukraine is transitioning from the fascist Russian-installed dictatorships of the 2000s to a (flawed) democracy.

      While of course we shouldn’t be fooled by “anti-Kremlin” propaganda, some people still can’t avoid falling for Kremlin propagand.

  2. You can oppose Russia’s current escalation without whitewashing the hell out of Ukraine’s large, influential, and militarily powerful far-right that’s overthrown multiple governments that the people of Donbass voted for. The people living there deserve better than getting terrorized by neo-nazi thugs turned into national guard members and loyal US allies, and both states have (despite western complaints) held multiple elections since independence.

    I wish these states (and South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well) could go without their current levels of reliance on Russia, but as long as the international community refuses to recognize the outcomes of frozen conflicts it’s hard for them to become anything more; diplomacy with their leaders and populace would, I suspect, be far more fruitful than treating them as extensions of their protector and ensuring they can never act as anything else.

    I’ll note that Ukraine’s first post-Maidan “election” was “won” by a billionaire oligarch (how wonderful a system “democracy” is!) and while I’m glad Poroshenko’s gone, I’m not convinced Zelensky exercises any more meaningful control over Ukraine’s military than civilian politicians did over, say, Imperial Japan’s or Pre-Erdogan Turkey’s.

    1. “Ukraine’s large, influential, and militarily powerful far-right that’s overthrown multiple governments that the people of Donbass voted for.”

      That’s an odd way to describe what happened between 2004 and 2014. In any event, a clear majority of Ukrainian voters have supported the Ukrainian government since 2014. Whatever Putin is doing in Ukraine, he is NOT saving Ukrainians from a fascist dictatorship.

  3. I believe that the “Concessions from NATO” was actually a viable way to proceed, but it would need a real support for an independent Ukraine agreed upon with Russia. I also believe that independent Ukraine would be the best course of Ukrainians, since it was the only chance to leave them independent and democratic. Non-Western-aligned Ukraine might be acceptable for Russia as well. Of course, it is a hard sell to Ukraine herself after 2014.

    As I see it, the West and Russia were doubling down on Ukraine (West by providing additional moral and military support, Russia by threatening invasion) in the past few months until finally Russia called the bluff. I am afraid that the increasing pressure from the West only reaffirmed the Russian belief that the West is trying to integrate Ukraine. This is the typical spiral of escalation, however, the West never had an intention to actually help Ukraine in case of Russian aggression. This is what strategists call a “dick move” by the West. On one hand, they provoke Russia by supporting Ukraine, on the other hand, they let them get conquered when it gets real.


    I also kinda disagree with the analysis of what Putin wants. I think that ultimately this is the question of Russian state security, not of Putin’s beliefs about Ukrainian statehood. Ukraine is a wedge in the Russian heartland and letting NATO — anti-Russian alliance of the most powerful militaries in the world — just get there would be a huge decline in the security of the Russian state. It was imperative for Russia to react to this threat and they are obviously willing to spend any costs to prevent this. I am surprised that such an astute fan of Clausewitz as Bret has not mentioned this aspect. I believe that this is a very 19th century conflict.

    1. You have, I fear, been suckered by Putin’s propaganda. It was already determined by NATO years ago that Ukraine would not be invited to join (which meant, naturally, that NATO would not defend Ukraine). And that decision was taken precisely because an eventual Russian invasion was considered likely.

      Putin, threatened? Only a rube would buy that line.

      1. I’ve tried but failed to find a source saying that NATO decided that Ukraine would not be allowed to join. Could you give us a link or two about this? Thanks!

        1. NATO doesn’t invite countries without secure internationally recognized borders. Which Ukraine hasn’t had since 2014

          1. I mean, that’s what I thought, but a similar policy didn’t stop the EU from admitting Cyprus.

            More seriously, there a case to be made that the initial invasion in 2014 was because Ukraine was talking about NATO and the Obama administration got too friendly with it. If so, it seems that this lesson was not fully learned, which might explain the current invasion.

      2. Yup, this is why Ukraine is regularly holding joint military exercises with NATO since “Sea Breeze” 2010. And why those exercises are becoming more and more ostentatious, especially in the last few years.
        2020 was for example the first time that US flew its B-52s in Ukraine next to the Russian border, 2021 saw more exercises than ever before….
        But this is in no way a rapprochement and coordination of those *specific* militaries, of course! As can be witnessed by the number of all those military exercises that Ukraine did with Russia since Bucharest 2008. Of which there were… were…. ummm, I forgot, can you help me there?

    2. Serious question: What actions has NATO taken that could reasonably be perceived as agression against Russia?

  4. You leave unanswered the big question.

    “Why should the proverbial man in the street in Peoria care if Kiev is under the Tzar again?”

    1. “Why should anyone care what happens to other people?” is one of those questions that doesn’t have an answer. You either do or you don’t.

      If one absolutely needs a selfish reason to care about this, though, here’s my best shot: the current US-led world order has been pretty good for Americans. It’s given us favorable economic relations with every country we care to trade with, and rendered us effectively immune to conventional military attack. It would be ultimately be to our loss to replace that order with an international anarchy in which any country may invade its smaller neighbors. The free, open world with which Americans can beneficially co-exist will gradually shrink, as pieces either get conquered or destroyed by rival powers.

      Our first line of defense against this was the de-legitimization of wars of conquest; conquering ones’ neighbors was seen as normal behavior for most of human history, but has become increasingly taboo over the past century, and as a result war has become less common. That defense has failed here, so our next best hope is that conquest turns out to be ineffective as a tool of statecraft, for the reasons discussed in the original post. If Russia wins this war (in the narrow sense of successfully occupying Ukraine and emerging stronger militarily than it would have been otherwise), that success will encourage imitators.

      Sooner or later, this will probably escalate to the point where America is unable or unwilling to remain neutral any more- we know this from experience, because it’s how we got dragged, despite our best efforts at neutrality, into both world wars.

    2. The answer is both implied and obvious. Any citizen of the United States of America worthy of the name should care about democracy and human rights being under that anywhere in the world. If he does not, that is a stain on his character in particular and on contemporary America in general.

    3. Why should you care if your neighbor puts his garbage in your bin, or has his fence 5 inches into your property?

      If they get away with this, what will they get away with next? What will your other neighbor (e.g. China) think they can get away with?

    4. Aside from the humanitarian reason, you probably should care if there’s a major refugee and political crisis in Europe, a major economic and political partner region to the US. One of the reasons why the Biden Administration left a giant loophole in the sanctions for energy is because they were afraid (probably not without reason) that hitting on energy could cause gas prices to spike elsewhere.

    5. To quote Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

      You can see that in the way that Putin and other autocrats influenced the 2016 American election, seizing Ukraine is not the only malign work that he is doing.

    6. No he doesn’t, it’s the closing thought of the piece.

      “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.” – John Stuart Mill

      You’re free to ask the question here anyway; but you’re not so much asking a question, as telling us who you are.

    7. Why should US citizens care if Putin demands the return of all former Russian territories?

      Most of them probably are unaware that includes Alaska.

      But Putin knows. His favorite Russian rock band Lube has a song about returning Alaska to Russia.

    8. Tumbleweed is native to Ukraine. It’s called “Perekotypole” using Polish transliteration. Without Ukraine, there will be no more Westerns.

  5. “A survey, which was conducted for my research project by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) in Ukraine, except Crimea, from April 29 to May 11, shows that the representation of separatism in Donbas by the Ukrainian and the Western governments and the media as small groups of Russian military intelligence agents and local “terrorists” or “rebels” who lack popular backing in this region and, therefore, can be easily defeated by force is unfounded. Most residents of Donbas supported different forms of separatism (54 percent).”

    Breaking down the data shows that, yes, most of the people in these regions aren’t in favor of outright succession, but that the majority at least aren’t happy with the previous status quo; I won’t argue that Russia didn’t support the secessionist movements, they certainly did, but pretending that the eastern oblasts didn’t have very real grievances with the the rest of Ukraine, particularly after Viktor Yanukovych, a popular president in the eastern oblasts, was voted out of office after revolutionaries seized the capital, e.g. a coup, (which I would like to point out is similar to how Trump would have liked Jan 6th to have played out) does no one on any sides any favors. Too often these problems occur because we refuse to see how other people could have real grievances against “our side.”

    “The tumult in Ukraine is not only a civil war but also a major international conflict between Western countries, particularly the United States, and Russia. The Western governments supported the “anti-terrorist operation” in Donbas and showed little interest in international investigations of previous mass killings in Donbas, Odessa and on the Maidan in Kiev.” –From the same link.

    1. The overthrowing of Yanukovytch was indeed a shameful display and one of the causes for what’s happening now. As are things like ignoring the Odessa killings.

      That said, none of that justifies the present Russian aggression.

    2. There are lots of close secessionist movements in lots of countries. For comparison, take Scotland and England – bound together but effectively often at odds, not just culturally but politically. If a strongly Scotland-backed PM was elected and then quickly ousted (with more or less legal means) to replace it with another more liked by the more populous England, I could see that causing a lot of discontent, and another attempt at separatism, which may even succeed. I can see the rationale for that. But the moment in which that sort of thing becomes a lockpick for a foreign power to pry open the country, honestly, it begins losing a lot of sympathy. At this point all of that just looks like a tool used by Putin to justify what he always wanted to do anyway.

      1. And there’s the NATO/western understanding of democracy for ya. If “our” preferred candidate doesn’t win, we’ll just call the elections falsified, and bam! the target is not a democracy anymore. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. Except it’s bollocks.

        For the record, Yanukovich’s term in 2014 was based on his electoral victory in 2010 (not 2004), which even the west recognized were fair and square.

  6. Thank you Bret! And let’s hope that our Western leaders can see that a weak economic response that does not harm their / our own economies is not enough in this dark hour. I am willing to endure some hardship – and am sure many think the same – to protect our way of life and values; and those of the Ukrainians who chose the same values and endure so much worse at the moment.

  7. I found this to be a very informed and erudite analysis. I always enjoy reading this column. All I would want to toss out for further discussion or readings are a few random thoughts, formed by my own lifetime of reading and research and following of current events:

    — Not discussed here are the actions of the US in the 1990s and 2000s that expanded NATO eastward in defiance of pledges not to do so by other US statesmen, and how these actions fueled Russian paranoia and suspicion (whether or not these are regarded as legitimate by Americans now) — consider the lead-up to the Peloponnesian War, for example. How far do you push an antagonist before he lashes out in fear or cold calculation?

    — Putin is a passing era. Be careful of what one pursues now without thought of what comes next. Thank the gods we didn’t annihilate the world over Cuba in 1962! Wouldn’t we feel stupid now? So let’s not freak out and destroy the world now over Ukraine.

    — Most Americans have NO CLUE where Ukraine is, what it is, have never met a Ukrainian, know nothing about the history of this region (which truthfully has been part of a greater Russian empire for centuries until only recently). is this the hill we’re all to die on? Or is this a fight between two former Soviet republics that we have no vital interest in? Get realpolitik for a moment. You can either be an isolationist and think, “This is not my concern, wake me when something happens that IS my concern,” or you can smile and think, “Let the Russkies bleed in Ukraine, less work for me!” Either way, a pragmatist might conclude that the West could sit back and watch Putin come to grief and then build on the next generation of leadership.

    — Did the world go nuts when the US invaded Iraq, based on lies, greed, and Junior’s daddy issues? We killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis over many years. Where was the UN? What did millions of street demonstrators accomplish? It’s pretty rich for Americans in particular to act outraged when another country follows our bad example.

    — I don’t like to bring up Israel’s actions, because I’m sympathetic to Israel, but so many people keep ragging on about Hitler and Munich and appeasement, like this is still 1938, so I have to speak up and say that we seem to have a double standard at work in what we accept from some countries and what we condemn in others. Need I say more? And that wars rage across the globe, but the Western media only chooses to amplify certain ones, and it often takes sides.

    So, grist for the mill. I don’t have answers, but I do want to be a gadfly. Nothing about this crisis is as simplistic as so often made out to be, and I’m not alone in saying so.

    1. I can understand that the expansion of NATO westward has Putin nervous. Even if the purpose of NATO is supposed to be « defend its members », it’s still an organisation led by the USA. And that is used by them to defend their interests, who aren’t the same as Russia ´s. Not that I’m not glad for the protection the US give us (although the EU shouldn’t have to rely on it), but that’s still a factor to account for. The invasion of Ukraine is of course unacceptable, but I don’t think Putin did it for shit and giggles.

      Concerning your point about Irak, a Belgian media mentioned a theory saying that one of the reasons many people didn’t believe the US warnings about an invasion was because of the lies spread by the Bush administration about WMD in Irak. I don’t know to which degree it is true, but it sounds fairly plausible to me.

      1. I’m just a random citizen of an European state, so I cannot really speak for “people”, but I can say for myself that at least after the 2003 WMD thing, I don’t believe a single thing that comes from the US administration and trust them about as much as Kreml (which is to say, not at all). Maybe something to work on instead of dropping smug “told you so” proclamations.

        1. It is entirely reasonable to distrust claims made by the US military-intelligence complex. If you’ve been lied to before, you have reason to expect to be lied to again.

          The fact remains, they publicly predicted that certain things would happen, and those things then happened.

          Which is, as Dr. Devereaux noted, in some ways surprising given how many inaccurate predictions (and outright lies) the US has made regarding the War on Terror.

          And yet, here we are.

    2. Ukraine being a part of “a greater Russian empire” is a very unfavourable view of the Ukrainian history. While there was no independent Ukrainian state until the 20th century, in my view a distinct Ukrainian polity goes back AT LEAST to 17th century Zaporozhian cossack states, and has mostly been semi-independent or autonomous in some form.

    3. How is it relevant that what is now Ukraine used to be part of a larger empire? The people there chose independence from Russia (with good reason; look at the Holodomor — the government enacted a famine that killed millions and so forfeited any claim on them). The people there now do not wish to be subject to Russia. Britain once ruled India, by bloody conquest; does that mean Britain would be within its rights to attack India now? Or the United States?

      Furthermore, empathy for people being unjustly attacked is a human trait, and it’s hardly ahistorical for such moral rulings to prevail over cold realpolitik— look at our host’s essay on Thucydides for an example.

    4. The problem with the NATO expansion argument is that it completely ignores the interests and agency of the countries who participated in it. The former Warsaw Pact countries and former Soviet republics that have joined weren’t somehow conned or forced into it. They were desperate to join, because they were afraid of Russian aggression. And they were afraid of Russian aggression because Russia kept aggressively intervening in conflicts around its borders. Off the top of my head I count 7 major incidents, including the current conflict, where Russia used military force to break off territory or otherwise force favorable political results in neighboring countries over the last 30 years, and that’s not even considering the much longer history of Soviet repression and Imperial Russian expansionism.

      You might make a Realpolitik argument that NATO would have been better off not expanding, but to argue that this shifts the moral responsibility of the current conflict onto NATO is completely obtuse. It’s the moral logic of the violently abusive spouse: “I wouldn’t have to beat you so hard if you didn’t talk back when I beat you.”

      1. >Get realpolitik for a moment. You can either be an isolationist and think, “This is not my concern, wake me when something happens that IS my concern,” or you can smile and think, “Let the Russkies bleed in Ukraine, less work for me!” Either way, a pragmatist might conclude that the West could sit back and watch Putin come to grief and then build on the next generation of leadership.

        Or you could put your big boy hat on and actually start thinking. For instance, a Ukraine overrun by Russia is likely to get a lot of regional powers looking back to the Budapest Memorandum and thinking that it was damn stupid for Ukraine to give up their nukes. And that in turn, means they’re going to accelerate nuclear programs if they have one or start developing ones if they don’t. In case you haven’t noticed, realpolitik establishes pretty conclusively that it’s in America’s interest to keep the number of nuclear states to a minimum, not encourage further proliferation.

        Allowing Russia to gobble up Ukraine is in no way in America’s pragmatic interests.

      2. > somehow conned or forced into it

        That’s more or less what happened, though. Not sure about Poland or Baltics, but as far as I know, for nearly every other Warsaw pact country, military neutrality or Finlandization was the most popular geopolitical strategy, often by a large margin. Joining NATO wasn’t a democratic decision – it was done by the elites against the will of the population, often grotesquely so

        Few examples: North Macedonian accession was preceded by a referendum – on NATO membership, EU association and country’s name change. The catch – all 3 were bundled in a single question, the voters couldn’t say yes to EU and no to NATO. The referendum failed – it didn’t pass the 50% turnout required for a valid referendum, but the ruling coalition rammed it through anyway. Estonia and Latvia used to have 30-40% Russian/Belorussian minority who were and still are politically disenfranchised and had no say on the subject. NATO approval is usually at or below 50% in Czechia, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Montenegro, Bulgaria (at least until this week, that is)

        1. We can go back and forth on how democratic the accession process of every single NATO member was. (You cite North Macedonia, I cite Hungary where it got 87% support when it was actually put to a vote).

          But even if I concede that, Lord of the Rings style, they were all deceived into joining, we’re still in a land of moral lunacy where NATO manipulating the democratic processes (or lack thereof) of these countries justifies Russia invading these same countries and killing their soldiers and civilians in order to reverse that result. I have yet to see anyone make even the attempt at a convincing argument (beyond bare assertion) that Russia’s actions are necessary, or justified, or morally right.

          To return to the abusive spouse metaphor, if my partner announced that they were leaving me, the question of whether they were somehow coerced or deceived into making that decision might be an important one. But there is no possible answer to that question that would justify me beating the crap out of my partner to make them stay.

        2. > … military neutrality or Finlandization was the most popular geopolitical strategy.

          That strategy can work only if all the relevant heavy-weight actors all decide to respect such decision. Belgium also declared neutrality before WW2 and how it ended. Finland could do that because it is located where it is, geographically it’s on a very periphery of Europe: Even from Russian paranoid point of view, no huge invading force could ever come from that direction. And it’s very debatable whether Finland could do so without first having to show its extraordinary and blood-expensive willpower to defend itself in the Winter War and/or without losing Karelia which Soviet Union saw as an important asset for its defense (buffer zone for Leningrad).

          Also when speaking of Finland, it’s very hard not to notice that Russia is now so much more aggressive in rhetoric towards it that they are having increasingly more of their own national debate whether joining NATO isn’t better option…

          Realistic neutrality option never really was on the table for Ukraine. I can’t see how any such attempt could have any bigger capacity to protect Ukraine than e.g. Budapest Memorandum or any other piece of paper, with Russian signature or without it.

          > Joining NATO wasn’t a democratic decision.

          I don’t want to talk for other countries, but here in the Czech Republic, there actually had been very hot, yet at the same time quite deep public discussion about joining NATO and I only wish to have public discussions of such quality about important issues today instead of populist shouts on Twitter from all camps.

          Huge argument for entering NATO was exactly the history of Czechoslovakia in the 20th century (Munich 1939; Prague 1968 and then-after the 20-year presence of Red Army) and the question how to guarantee our statehood in the international order in (what at that time was potential) case the international situation would go downhill again in a few decades.

          As far as I can remember, the no-camp had two main arguments: “What are allies for? They did not help us much in 1939. Why they should behave differently in the future?” or “How is it different from being in Warsaw Pact — as a small country we would have no substantial word in it and could be dragged into conflicts we are not happy with”. Yet, sadly, in my eyes none of those were able to offer any viable alternative strategy.

          I have exactly the same problem with the polls about NATO today. Any yes/no question does not make people _think_ what it would really mean and how differently we could or could not make our country safe. Hence too many people answer in the fashion of a 5-old girl when asked whether she wants a pony for a pet. Of course she does: Even if she lives on the 8th floor in the center of a huge city, never seen any animal bigger than a cat and does not know that it can also sometimes stink and fart.

          Therefore in the “no” bucket you can find anything from “I would prefer such and such different defensive policy” (with different people having different incompatible ideas about such strategy) over “There’s no need, we’re in the 21st century, nothing can go wrong, right?” to any expression of discontent with the most recent action/decision NATO made without thinking about security at all, or even to a rainbow nonsense like “No country should have any army. And all people should be nice to each other. And there should be unicorns in all city parks.” This nature of the anti-NATO camp also makes me think that there would be no better consensus on any other strategy you can come up with even if it could potentially work.

          I do have huge moral troubles with many NATO decisions and actions made in the last two decades or so. Yet the painful question is still there: What alternative is there now or in near future for all all the not-so-large countries between Germany and the Russian Federation?

          IDK where you’re from, but assuming you’re also from this geographical region, are you really willing to bet the very existence of your country or at least its independence on a promise of Russia it won’t meddle into your internal affairs and would never ever send little green men where you would not like them, even when your internal affairs in some particular case are not in line with Kremlin?

          Personally I would then be afraid to wake up in a country as independent, safe and democratic as Belarus. And the current development makes those concerns of mine higher, not lesser.

        3. “Finlandization”

          Do you realize that when we talk about Finlandization, we talking about cold war era Finland? Here is a summary of negative aspects:

          * A three decades of rule by a president-until-near-life Kekkonen who got extensive support from Kremlin in everyday internal politics moves, such as ordered presidential elections to skipped or to be nominated as “candidate for all parties” on whim.

          * Following the example of the said president, near all major and practically all minor politicians regularly maintained backchannel contacts KGB agents to exchange information, vouch their support to Kremlin and further their own political career in the hopes KGB would consider them trustworthy. This is widely attested and confessed in memoirs and literature. In some other countries, some other time, I believe such unofficial, out of ordinary contacts with foreign power would have rightly called treasonous.

          * There was extensive informal press and book censorship due to politicians’ fear of Soviet Union finding their pro-Soviet enthusiasm unconvincing, thus “provoking” them the same treatment as Hungary got in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Ukraine, 2014-2022 and counting.

          * On positive side, aside all that above, parliamentary elections were relatively free. And the Finnish politicians were able to manouver Finland into European economic integration. But all that freedom was of the conditional kind: conditional on restricting parliamentary parties’ ability to have effect on the important policy items if Kremlin found them not to their liking. Opposition parties Kremlin didn’t like were never allowed into government during Kekkonen reign.

          Finlandization is the policy of becoming puppet voluntary to avoid outright invasion.

        4. The Polish vote took place in Sejm (parliament). 409 MPs were for, 7 against. It happened on 11 February 1999.

    5. Honestly your reply sounds like polite and disguised Russian propaganda.

      > in the 1990s and 2000s that expanded NATO eastward in defiance of pledges not to do so by other US statesmen

      At the risk of sounding a bit cynical, there’s literally no physical proof it happened. They were verbal assurances along the lines “we don’t currently have plans to expand NATO”. But even if it were true, it would be in violation of *written* Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, 5 December 1994. Which, incidentally, Russia also signed.

      > Putin is a passing era.

      The new era is Russia being pulled into Chinese orbit, becoming – as Polish PM Radosław Sikorski said – “a Chinese resource base”. Russia has no more credibility in the West. Just like Russia made Belarus its puppet, so is China making Russia. Democratic Russia was the fad.

      Speaking of which, why no new sanctions against Belarus? Belarussian army participates in the invasion. Ballistic missiles were fired from its territory. Russian army attacked from Belarussian territory.

      > Most Americans have NO CLUE where Ukraine is
      You will be learning from history books. You can try the US historian Timothy Snyder. Ukraine accounts for about 25% *global* grain exports – forget oil! The territory gives Russia sea access and ability to strike all around. Ukraine supplies over 90% of US semiconductor-grade neon gas. It arrived there through Cold War, because USSR wanted to have space lasers.

      If sanctions don’t cripple Russian economy, it will be in a very strong position. In video game (RTS) terms, NATO/West is turtling while Russian Federation expands. So Russian Federation wins by default.

      > which truthfully has been part of a greater Russian empire for centuries until only recently
      it was also a part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for centuries. People in the region were generally mistreated and this caused them to resent both sides, so no surprise they wanted to have their own country. For a lot of time they ruled themselves with no external influence (Cossacks) and raided PLC, Russia and Ottomans until they became too troublesome.

      But even before then, Novgorod was a cradle of Ruthenian civilization. The city dates back to 9th century CE and was known for its democratic rule and liberty. A Polish king failed to protect Novgorod from Muscovites. Russian state that is now attacking Ukraine is partially an offshoot of Mongolian rule, they gained independence from the Mongols.

      Americans often don’t know that “Rus” was a huge region of Eastern Europe, not a state. It contained many peoples and states, before Russia emerged. Nowadays the concept can be approximated as “Ruthenian”

      So Russian Federation attacking Ukraine is a bit like Canada attacking UK in an attempt to unite all its “former territories” and “defend Canadians”. It’s not a perfect analogy but the only perfect analogy is Ukraine and Russia.

    6. The promise not to expand NATO eastward is disputed. In particular, this promise was allegedly made in 1990 in the context of German reunification, and Gorbachev (who would have been the ultimate recipient of such a promise) has denied that it was ever made. If he was mistaken or lying, then the NATO expansion would indeed be naughty, but invading a non-NATO nation in response would be a crazy response.

      I agree with not destroying the world.

      Yes, Ukraine has frequently been part of a Russian empire. That doesn’t mean they’ve wanted to be. If nothing else, the Holodomor would be a pretty convincing reason to GTFO. This doesn’t mean hat the US has a vital interest here – you can tell, because the US isn’t joining the war – but it’s clear where the morality is. The US can and should say so, and engage in non-vital responses to this sort of immorality.

      The world kinda went nuts over Iraq, yes. Some of it was justified in the end (and I say that as someone who was a strong pro-war believer in 2003), but there was definitely a huge reaction from all over.

      As for Israel, they’ve proven a willingness to trade land back to their adversaries once the hostility ends. If I trusted Russia to do the same, I’d have fewer worries here. (Not zero, but fewer.)

      1. “Yes, Ukraine has frequently been part of a Russian empire. That doesn’t mean they’ve wanted to be.”

        Interestingly enough, they did initially (Khmyelnitsky’s uprising being supported by the Russian empire. But it’s pretty clear they don’t want to anymore, at least some of them. As Mirradin pointed out quite correctly above (and I intended to as well but forgot xD), what they want NOW is what should matter.

        Not that I particularly trust Bret’s assertion (based on a Kievan survey, no less) that people in Luhansk and Donetsk don’t want to join Russia either. Although I could imagine that some of them have changed their mind now – I know I would’ve!

    7. Serious question: What actions has NATO taken that could reasonably be interpreted as agression against Russia?

    8. ” the actions of the US in the 1990s and 2000s that expanded NATO eastward in defiance of pledges not to do so”–That is simply not true. There is a recent book, Not One Inch, rather sympathetic to Russia in some respects, but which reports the facts accurately. (It was summarized in the Atlantic or the New Yorker recently, if you don’t want to read the whole book.) The US considered pledging not to expand NATO eastward, but the Russians weren’t interested–they wanted other things–and no pledge was made.

      I would like to buy Tesla at the price available two years ago. For that matter, I would like to sell my entire stock portfolio at January 2 prices. But I didn’t accept those offers when they were made, and the offerors are not bound by them now.

    9. “expanded NATO eastward in defiance of pledges not to do so by other US statesmen,”

      Pledges between nations are signed into treaty commitments. Point to the treaty commitment.

      For that matter, I seem to remember that when Ukraine agreed to give its nukes over to Russia it received security guarantees from Russia and the US. Do you think those guarantees should be kept?

  8. Can you name some pro-Putin politicians and media personalities in the US? Or rather politicians and media personalities that support Russia’s aggression on Ukraine. Sorry for my skepticism but this is a bit shocking to me.

    1. Some guy named Trump called Putin’s invasion “genius” and “pretty savvy,” and speculated that if he’s ever president again he might do the same to Mexico.

      1. If you look at his actual press releases, they’re mostly mockery of Biden for being weak enough that this could happen. https://www.donaldjtrump.com/news/news-zqgasfgfbd1614 and https://www.donaldjtrump.com/news/news-fnnby9eb9j1616, for example.

        Trump is going to be very Trump-y, of course. But the implied view there is “the US was too weak to stop Putin”, not “Putin was right to attack”. Perhaps, at worst, “Putin is getting what he wants because he’s smart enough to attack when Biden is in charge”. Those arguments are about as dignified and laudable as Trump usually is, but they’re not actually pro-Putin.

        1. Which is a truly laughable line of attack, considering that Trump abandoned the Syrian Kurds because Erdogan in Turkey asked over the phone and Trump didn’t have any recognition that he’d just handed over a Big Deal. Or moving the US embassy to Jerusalem without extracting anything from the Israeli government. The epitome of standing up to the rest of the world.

          1. Again, Trump is going to be very Trump-y. I’m a pretty conservative guy politically, and opposed him both times, because of exactly this sort of nonsense.

            But the way I figure it, there’s enough real things to attack the guy for that I don’t need to invent any fake ones.

        2. Trump being Trump, there isn’t really a coherent argument behind his statements on this. He’ll say it’s bad and Biden’s fault, and also that Putin is a clever guy who he likes, and also that it’s smart for people to do whatever evil shit they’re pretty sure they can get away with, and also did you know the election was rigged, and by the way his inauguration was the biggest and his golf courses are the best. So it’s fair to say that he’s not *unambiguously* pro-Putin, because he’s rarely unambiguously anything, but the tone of his comments is still remarkably favorable to the dictator launching an unprovoked invasion of a friendly democracy.

          (Not to mention that, pre-Trump, it was pretty rare for former presidents to criticize an incumbent on foreign policy, regardless of party, because doing so could undermine the current president and it was presumed that all Americans had a common interest vis a vis the rest of the world. Simpler times, I guess.)

      2. Please. Observing that one’s opponent is “savvy” and had completely run mental rings around the feckless leaders of the West is not an endorsement. “Evil” and “Genius” are not mutually contradictory.

        Are we supposed to pretend that Putin is an idiot because it makes us feel better? One has to respect a skilled adversary, not imagine that he’s unskilled.

        1. He didn’t phrase it as in “he’s evil but skilled and must not be underestimated”. He phrased it as “what a great guy!” and then literally said he would like to take inspiration and do the same to Mexico.

          If to you a former POTUS and probable future candidate joking about invading Mexico isn’t insane I don’t know what to say.

        1. More correctly, Biden was accepting that he couldn’t *stop* Germany from opening the pipeline if they wanted to and trying to do so was imposing diplomatic costs with no benefits.

          Note that the moment that changed, he pushed the Germans to kill Nordstream2 and they did.

          1. If we could make the French and British withdraw from Suez, we could make the Germans abandon a gas pipeline.

          2. “If we could make the French and British withdraw from Suez, we could make the Germans abandon a gas pipeline.”

            The world has changed a bit since ’56, and the circumstances are also rather different. Something nobody in either Britain or the US likes to acknowledge is the American role in the destruction of Britain’s role as a great power, and that this was both intentional and desirable on the American part. Roosevelt and his successors valued Britain and France as allies in the fights against Hitler and communism but were not prepared to tolerate any rivals for de facto leadership of the free world.

            While America had pulled ahead of Britain economically before 1945 (some time in the 20s, I think), come 1956 relative levels of power (both military and diplomatic) and influence on the world stage between the US and Britain were a lot closer then than they are now. A buoyant, solid Anglo-French alliance (or even a full political union, which had been mooted a couple of times including in ’56) had the potential to be, if not an outright threat, at any rate a significant obstacle to American ambitions.

            So the opportunity to visibly “break” the great power status of Britain and France and thereby affirm American dominance in the west was worth taking irrespective of any wider strategic or ideological considerations, especially since it didn’t really require much expenditure of diplomatic or financial capital to do so.

            In comparison, while the Americans would rather Germany didn’t rely on Nord Stream 2, it would have required a lot of juice to get them to surrender it, for a prize of questionable value.

    2. The entire Murdoch empire in the USA — Fox News, you probably have heard of — has on personalities, celebrities, ‘pundits’ and republican party politicians bleating support 24/7. Not to mention the billions of dollars of financing that came out of Russia for facebook and twitter, etc.

  9. Not sure whether the chances that Putin will fall are overblown. The Russians do love a revolution every now and then.
    Wild theory: Putin wanted Trump in his 2nd term for precisely this.

    1. Wild Theory putin invaded crimea in obama’s term and ukrain in biden’s term, also biden is re-instituting trumps sanctions which he got rid of. Makes me think he explicitly avoided this in trumps term because he decided trump would militarily support ukrain.

      1. I’d bet good money that Putin has had more Russians killed than that. There were, for example, those famous exploding tower blocks that preceded the Second Chechen War, and were used to justify it.

  10. From the news we have quite interesting view which is not spoken about: As a country so big as Russia invades the neighbor country, they behave similarly like a surrounded animal. They see the NATO forces with their rockets put around closer and closer, so the ring is smaller and smaller, finally making the animal fight or run. The “fight” here is attacking the tightening loop to obtain the same or better position.
    The difference is that Russia achieves their positions with war, while NATO does it by puppet governments in countries, so when Russia comes with full military occupation, for example Poland comes with its government “politely inviting” Americans for the silent occupation.
    The problem is that many countries, let me point this Poland, love their puppet governments and want the foreign forces. I see it in Poland every day – when in 2003 Polish military came to invade Iraq, there were almost no protests.

    1. You had me going, but you rather gave the game away with “The problem is that many countries, let me point this Poland, love their puppet governments”. What decides legitimacy if not consent of the governed? Force? That’s certainly what Putin thinks, but most of the world outgrew that way of thinking last century.

    2. > The problem is that many countries, let me point this Poland, love their puppet governments and want the foreign forces. I see it in Poland every day – when in 2003 Polish military came to invade Iraq, there were almost no protests.

      Why is it a problem? I’m from Poland, and can share with you a bit of history: before being under American’s puppet government, we were under Russia (well, then USSR) puppet government. And believe me or not, being under American’s occupation is a waaaaaaaaaaaaaay better than under Russia’s.

    3. What is the difference between a puppet government of big country X that is loved by its people, and a democratic government, that is an ally of big country X. Your dislike of big country X?

    4. My dear, Polish people are very well versed in what puppet government means – they did have one till 1989/1991. After that, they had maybe more or less traditionalist-nationalistic, post-communist and con-liberal governments and until recently they all pursued the same international relations goals. What goals? Run from Russia as far as you can! Because they didn’t want any more puppet government 🙂

      You are totally right about no Iraq protest. But I think it’s more a weak civil society than anything else.

  11. > the policy has always been to avoid any situation in which two nuclear powers are trading conventional fire whenever possible

    On this subject: I was in India some time ago during one of the India-Pakistan crises that looked like it could have been imminent war, and read an editorial in a newspaper by a retired Indian general. His argument was that India would win the early stages of an all-out conventional war easily – it was a while ago but iirc the phrase was “an armoured division on the banks of the Indus within two days”. At which point Pakistani leaders would inevitably see an existential threat and contemplate a nuclear response, probably initially “tactically” against said armoured division. To which Indian leaders would feel bound to retaliate. Etc. Ergo: can’t fight.

  12. This was a very good explanation of the situation right now! Since you mentioned them, will there be more instalments of the “A Trip Through” series? I think you have hinted in other posts that you might write more

  13. I don’t think the “neighboring NATO” rationale is so far-fetched, nor that NATO being purely defensive is all that reassuring. The US has based weapons and troops in NATO countries, and has held military exercises in NATO countries, and the US could (in theory) use weapons in NATO countries to attack Russia. It wouldn’t be “NATO” attacking, but the attack would be coming from “NATO”, if that makes sense. As to how likely it is that we (I’m American) do such a thing, I think it is unlikely, but lately I’ve been underestimating how likely it is that media and internet lunacy begin to infect our federal government’s policy. We’ve assassinated heads of state before. Is anyone here really willing to argue that the world is better off with Putin still alive and in charge of Russia? What if he just fell down the stairs and broke his neck?

    But also, it seems quite reasonable to me that Putin could worry that someone else would use his own tactics against him. Let’s say that Poland starts having problems with shady groups of armed “separatists”, who after investigation seem like they’re working for Russia. (Maybe they themselves even believe they’re working for Russia.) Do we ignore this? If so that gives Russia a free hand to destabilize a NATO member. If not, that gives NATO a casus belli and renders the “defensive” nature of the agreement void. Who is actually sponsoring those “separatists”? Maybe Russia, maybe Poland, maybe someone else in NATO, maybe some 3rd party.

    “Remember the Maine!”

    1. NATO has waged offensive wars in Serbia/Kosovo and Libya. I happen to think they were justified, but that weakens the argument that NATO is a purely defensive alliance, if the Russians ever believed that in the first place (can’t blame them if they didn’t).

      The frightening thing is, Putin is probably the least nationalistic and the most rational plausible leader of Russia. Any successor if he were assassinated would be likely to be even more hawkish and prone to gambles. When French President Macron went to try and broker a climb-down, he was treated to a 5 hour monologue of unhinged revanchist talking points. Whether Putin has some health condition that has changed his psychological outlook is unknowable, but other Russian leaders would likely not behave differently.

      1. > other Russian leaders would likely not behave differently

        This is the key point. The invasion is clearly meticulously planned – this isn’t something done over the weekend. Upper echelons of Russian politics, foreign relations and military must have been onboard with the plan, and see the situation in the same way as Putin

        Combine that with the seeming irrationality of it all, with the fact the invasion gives a vibe of “stand aside, we have some scores to settle”, it’s likely there are some crucial points factoring into their decision that are not public

    2. “NATO being purely defensive” is bollocks, a paper shield based on formality. Sure, NATO never committed a war of aggression, but a lot of its members (including the most important one) have, and in a few cases, the “coalition” engaging in such war was suspiciously identical to NATO. Its sadly one of many subtle twistings of truth in what could’ve been a great article.

      But that said, that doesn’t matter here anymore. “Encroaching NATO” might’ve been a valid argument in 2014, or maybe even for the buildup a month ago, I thought as much myself. But now I admit I was wrong, at least as concerns the latter. Now it is quite clear that this has nothing to do with NATO anymore, and quite possibly never had. Whatever the perspective and wishes of NATO, the USA and the pro-western part of Ukraine about Ukraine joining the NATO (and possible subsequent actions against Russia) were in the past, those wishes were thoroughly buried in 2014, and there was little to none further closing ranks between Ukraine and the west after that. The threat of NATO weapons and personnel in Ukraine was, in 2022, very low.

      So, whatever the buildup and the facts in the background, there is quite simply no excuse or rational explanation for this aggression right now. This is Putin’s fault and Putin’s fault alone, Bret is very much right about that. And it’s an illegal war of aggression.

      The only thing for which the US and NATO can even remotely be blamed in this situation is that they have squandered their trust and legitimacy through their own dubious actions in the past decades so much (the former quite a bit more than the latter), to the point that (in my opinion quite rightfully) no one believed them when they warned about upcoming Russian aggression for the past month. But it’s doubtful that the situation would’ve changed even if they were believed, so this matter is very much secondary.

      1. Yeah, I wish I could identify some good reasons for Putin to invade Ukraine, but I keep coming up blank. Stuff like “more population” and “more arable land” don’t seem realistic in the modern world. The scariest thing I’ve heard suggested is that Putin may have started ever-so-slightly believing his own rhetoric about dangerous political elements in neighboring countries.

        The most speculative thing I can pull out of my rear end, is that this is some sort of plan with China against the US. Russia distracts the US and gets us focusing on Russia and Ukraine, so the US can’t devote as much attention to China’s internal policies or China’s actions against Taiwan. Russia gets the prestige of once again being taken seriously as a world power, a dangerous menace to the free world. (“Make Russia Great Again”; if they can get some of American media’s twenty-four hours of hate to focus on Russia instead of Trump, that’s good PR, from a narcissistic point of view.) China gets to play the reasonable adult, calming tensions between the other great powers and brokering a peace. And the US winds up looking antagonistic, all bark and no bite, and no longer a global hegemon, but instead one of 3 great powers. But that seems a bit too implausible, and models Putin as being more like Trump than I think is likely.

        So I’m left with the boring generality that this is Russia’s Mexican-American War, and they don’t like having a hostile neighbor Ukraine any more than the US liked having a hostile neighbor Mexico. Or maybe a Spanish-American war, where we (also?) started by backing separatists in neighboring provinces, then claimed that we were attacked, and wound up biting off a nice chunk of territory for ourselves.

        1. I think it’s genuinely just that Putin thinks Russia should rule the entire area of the former USSR by right and he’s not motivated by coldblooded realpolitk except insofar as it constrains his strategies for accomplishing that.

          1. I don’t see Belarus having this problem. Or any of the -stans. Just Ukraine and Georgia. And was far as I’m aware, they also happen to be by far the most anti-Russian of the lot, and don’t suppress free speech (much).

          2. Belarus is a de-facto client state of Russia, hence Russia staging its military offensive through there. Putin also exerts considerable influence over the northern -stans and seems to desire more. Prior to the 2014 revolution he was heavily supporting the president of Ukraine and exerting influence over them, and when that changed he promptly annexed Crimea and sent forces into the Donbas.

            I think likely he would like to formally integrate Belarus and the other former Soviet states, since he’s on record as saying the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century (the 20th, mind) because it left tens of millions of Russians outside of Russian territory, but at least for the moment he’s content to control them indirectly and use military force against the ones he can’t control.

    3. Nobody was ever going to invade Russia, or assassinate their leader. We can’t because they have nukes. Putin’s fear of NATO isn’t that NATO might invade Russia; it’s that NATO interferes with his control of Russia’s neighbors.

      1. “First strike” is a thing. We worry about it. I’m sure Putin does, too. The more we invest in missile defense and hypersonic technology, the scarier we become.

        But more likely, I suspect that Putin is worried about us doing the same thing he does. Funding breakaway separatists in border regions, flooding them with pro-American propaganda about stuff like “free speech” and “democracy”, diminishing the Russian government’s perceived legitimacy, that sort of stuff. It doesn’t seem to work in establishing stable states, but it does cause a lot of chaos, and if that chaos is all bordering or inside the current boundaries of Russia, that’s a win for us.

      2. In some of the comments, where there was discussion of the dilemma NATO is in right now, someone posted that brilliant clip from Yes, Minister about nuclear deterrence and how tricky it actually is. Well, that goes both ways. Sure, NATO wouldn’t just send all its military might against Russia because of nukes, but it could, say, manufacture and then support civil or ethnic revolt, that’s it’s standard procedure.

        I wanted to avoid saying this because this is really not the proper time, now that people are dying in Ukraine due to Russian aggression, for which there is just no excuse. But however vile and insidious Russia’s attack is, it’s not much different from what NATO (and the USA separately) have been doing for over 20 years. Want to talk about the deterioration of international order? You’d need a time machine to go back to 1999 or 2003.

  14. Bret,

    You are overlooking the fact that Putin can entirely avoid the problem of occupation and insurgency by simply offering Zelensky peace terms:

    1) disarm
    2) maintain neutrality

    This accomplishes the Russian goal of keeping Ukraine out of NATO or the EU with a minimum of fuss.

    1. What does disarming mean? Does it mean there’s no military forces in the borders of Ukraine? That’s infeasible; part of the definition of a modern state is that it maintains a monopoly on the use of force within its borders and that’s impossible if you do not have the means to enforce that monopoly. With no military the govt of a disarmed Ukraine would not have any means to enforce such a monopoly and thus would not be a sovereign state. A totally disarmed Ukraine is a non starter.

      Okay, so a vastly scaled-back Ukrainian military, something in the manner of the Japanese Self-Defense Force. Except Japan gets back with a small military in part because they can rely on the much larger and more powerful military of the United States. So a Ukrainian Self-Defense Force would only be viable if Ukraine was within the alliance network of a more powerful neighbor. Why hello, NATO!

        1. For a country whose most realistic threat is China and that it’s the size of Japan it’s small, but that means ~250K active duty troops and ~50K reservists. Very small per-capita and very few reservists, but the active duty force is considerable and they’re fairly well-equipped.

        2. Costa Rica *also* relies on the US for its ultimate military defense, so my point remains unchanged. A “disarmed” Ukraine would by necessity have to join NATO or a resurgent Warsaw Pact.

  15. Thank you so much, Bret, for this concise, rational and informed article. I find myself in shock at what’s happening, and your analysis has helped to make some sense of this madness. And I very much appreciate your upfront statement that you are firmly on the side of the Ukrainean democracy, which is the victim of an unjust and unjustifiable invasion by a brutal tyrant. I feel that that’s the only defensible position for any reasonable person. The despicable politicians who show their true colors now deserve only scorn (like mr Baudet, the dutch politician for the Forum for Democracy, who is apparently a big fan of dictatorship).
    Tl:Dr Thanks, I appreciate your thoughts very much.

  16. Putin will find himself on the receiving end of the same tactics of plausible deniability he used in Donbass, like the downing of flight MH17 by Donbas separatists using implausibly advanced surface to air missiles. But Ukrainians will suffer a terrible price. Russian weaponry is less precise than American ones (which have proven themselves to be far less than surgical in practice), and Putin’s willingness to inflict mass civilian casualties as seen in Grozny is horrific.

  17. I’m far from an expert, but my take is that Putin has been softening up the west for a long time, analyzing and exploiting flaws and weaknesses to exploit. I think he is a true fascist, he believes might is right and that Russian people are superior to others (though of course the notion of a “people” is really a nonsense) and that the Soviet Union/Russian Empire should never have been broken up. As Brett has pointed out several times, “kingship” or its equivalent is the default organisation through history, and democracy the rarity. Putin believes in kingship, in the strong men ruling and I think has a genuine contempt for democracy, which he sees as weakness. Currently, the EU is fractured because of Brexit and the rancor surrounding it, and the US Senate is paralyzed by partisan politics, so he has chosen his moment well. While the west is quite capable of shooting itself in the foot, I am also quite sure that Putin’s propaganda services have been nudging popular opinion to fragment and divide whenever they can. People here have said why should the US care? Well, if he succeeds without significant opposition Ukraine is just the beginning, he will try to reclaim the whole of the Russian Empire and beyond. He sort of has to, regardless of how he thinks of himself, his legitimacy as a ruler is based on being the “Saviour” of Russia, a return to “greatness” etc. and if that glow fades, so does he.

  18. “the possibility that your retaliation much be much larger than your opponent anticipated” much -> might?

    1. Incidentally, I’m happy to see some snippets from your tweets repeated here, as I find twitter to be an utterly hostile environment in which to try to read anything resembling a paragraph. 🙂

        1. Pro tip I learned from sometimes browsing Twitter while not logged in: When it asks you to log in, you can click on the log in button and then X out of the login dialog, at which point it clears up the annoying splash thing, at least for a little while. That way, you don’t lose your place in whatever continuous scrolling Twitter has been loading in for you.

  19. You know, Putin has been basing a good part of his “Russia is under threat from the West and NATO” on the US (plus NATO) invasion of Iraq. Iraq was invaded for its oil in 2003; the Soviet Union was invaded for its oil in 1941. We needn’t go into all the propaganda behind both efforts; what we need to do is imagine how it is like to watch the sole remaining superpower take down a broken country with feeble excuses for its mineral resources, then picture the same thing happening to you. Dubbya handed a propaganda victory to Putin with his crime against peace of invading Iraq.

    Now we get to the issue of Putin’s likely survival. I’m pleased to see that I’m not the only one who sees that Putin’s gambling here. It’d be weird if I was the only one, because it’s so obvious. And as far as I can see, it’s not likely to pay off. The Ukrainians are better fighters than Putin and the Russian High Command have been willing to accept – but then, anyone who gains even a limited knowledge of the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet experience of the Second World War, knows that. And it is very likely that they will bloody the Russian armed forces much the way the Afghanistani mujihadin bloodied the Soviets and the Taliban bloodied the US and NATO.

    Lastly. Putin doesn’t seem to have understood that a lot of what is regarded as Russian folklore originates in the Ukraine – Ilya Muromets for example, shot down with his bow and arrow, the golden crosses from the churches in Kiev, not Moscow. So there will be a lot of Russians who will be feeling “weird” shall we say, that one of the most ancient and “iconic” cities shall we say, that Russian folklore remembers, is being attacked by their own armed forces, on what any intelligent Russian will recognize as faked excuses.

    Russian leaders tend not to survive the Russian army being bloodied. Unless they have an absolute monopoly on information, and I doubt Putin has that. I don’t know how the Russian armed forces will take him down, but I’m certain it will happen.

    1. Putin understands the folklore part full well. That’s why he’s also waging a war on history. Disbanded the Memorial, rewrites history books, clings to ideas such as historical conquests. It will simply be told that Kiev was always Russian. The war doesn’t have to go into history books and if you claim otherwise you go into a labor camp.

      1. The idea is that the US government wasn’t going to seize the oil directly; it was allowing the US oil industry access to the (previously state-owned) Iraqi oilfields.

        See https://www.cnn.com/2013/03/19/opinion/iraq-war-oil-juhasz/index.html from which:

        > “Of course it’s about oil; we can’t really deny that,” said Gen. John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command and Military Operations in Iraq, in 2007. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan agreed, writing in his memoir, “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” Then-Sen. and now Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the same in 2007: “People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are.”

        It’s not clear that the USG and US multinationals capitalized on this as effectively as they’d hoped–I’ve seen some data suggesting the big winners were Chinese and Indian petrocompanies–but the argument that it was about oil isn’t easily dismissed, especially since it was subsequently made by many prominent members of the American establishment.

        1. But that too is kind of a ridiculous idea; through sanctions, the US already had near total control over the price and volume of Iraqi oil. Had the US oil industry wanted to ‘gain access to’ the state owned oil fields, all they needed to do was get a couple of their executives elected President and VP and then lobby them to adjust the sanctions or grant exclusive licenses for the ‘humanitarian’ oil exports.
          Of course, once the Hussein regime fell and we no longer had any control over the fields, *then* it was a war for oil 8 days a week, as your link establishes; but we didn’t start the war over oil, mostly we started it because of weird daddy issues.

    2. “Iraq was invaded for its oil in 2003;”
      Bullshit. Dorm bong-circle stupidity.

      ” the Soviet Union was invaded for its oil in 1941.”
      Bullshit. Could only have been penned by someone who knows absolutely nothing about Hitler and the Nazis

      1. To be fair, taking oil fields was one of the German’s objectives. But saying it was the only (or main) reason is far-fetched.

    3. As Bret noted, there are many things one could say about the invasion of Iraq, but that the US invaded to obtain oil is not one of the rational or defensible ones.

  20. As always, an erudite and academically sound analysis. However, I have one criticism, which I notice in your writings that probably stems from the focus on your strengths. Namely, reading the people.

    Now, reading dead people is different from reading the living. Arguably, it is not possible to read the psychological motivations of the dead just through what was written about them, or by them. An argument that I would support as true.

    But, Putin is a living person whose actions and speech can be analyzed. The caveat as always is that reading his intent is subject to the limitations imposed by real world constraints. I can’t take him into a room and do a psychological assessment of the Putin the man.

    But, it is possible to put the man in context of his time and world. Former KGB, brought up in the Soviet Union, his speeches and his actions.

    I believe that he believes that the Ukraine is a part of Russia. I believe that he believes that the West (and for that matter the East) will invade; if not now, then in the future. His belief may be based in paranoia, but it is not paranoia when historically Russia has been invaded, or that the Russian Empire once controlled the Ukraine.

    Arguably, in this instance, the only lasting resolution is through war. This is where I totally agree with the conclusion of the piece. The cost is of course paid in the blood of those who die to resolve the issue. It is the nature of the human condition that conflicts arise, will continue to arise, but we can show that though all this suffering occurs, things do improve — even if only for a short time.

    1. If there is a general nuclear exchange, there will not be anyone around to consider if things improve or not. And direct conflict between Russia and NATO/the US can only end in a general nuclear exchange (or one side capitulating relatively early in the fight).

      1. I don’t mean to pretend that a full on nuclear exchange won’t be absolutely horrific, or that it won’t be a human catastrophe of the likes never seen in history. But people claiming it would eradicate civilization vastly overestimate the (and I want to emphasize, HUGE) destructive potential of atomic weapons. Take at Alex Wellerstein’s “Nukemap” to get a sense of how big atomic blasts are. You would still need multiple bombs with megaton yields to blow up individual large cities. And a lot of nuclear war strategy focuses on counterforce instead of countervalue: the bombing of enemy’s bombs is one of the single biggest targets, and those are usually kept far away from population centers.

        People would still be around even after the U.S. and the Russians threw every single nuke they had at each other. It would be horrific. You’d probably have hundreds of millions if not at least a billion dead. But I very much doubt it would directly eradicate either country, let alone the rest of the world.

        1. It might not literally kill everyone in either country, but it would assuredly kill the countries themselves. The central governments would be heavily targeted by nuclear fire, and most major secondary centers of administration and logistics would be burning rubble populated by rapidly dwindling populations of radiation-sick victims. Disruption of distribution alone would be enough to ensure the collapse of much remaining industry and probable famines.

          If Russia fought a nuclear war with the US, there would still be living Russians afterwards. It is even remotely conceivable that Putin himself might survive, if he took the precaution of hiding under a very large mountain capable of laughing off whatever H-bombs the US Air Force and Navy tossed his way.

          But if Putin somehow survived, there is no realistic chance that he would emerge from his bomb shelter as the ‘ruler’ of a coherent, centralized state stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific, and capable of organized action for or against other surviving nations on its borders. And he would certainly be in no position either to sit in a chair in Moscow and exercise power over Kiev.

          1. I am far less confident about that appraisal. In certain circumstances, states can show astonishing resilience. Consider, for instance, the level of occupation and obliteration it took to remove Hitler from power during WW2. Or how autocrats can cling to power in states with endemic and massive civil war, despite the administrative centers being obliterated, and often in the middle of famines and industrial breakdown. And that’s just in the modern era. You look at things like the Black Death or the Plague of Justinian in pre-modern eras, and you can see 30-50% of individual states population being wiped out in very short order and the state itself surviving.

            Now yes, if Putin emerges from a shelter he’s going to be looking at a lot of radioactive cinders where there used to be a country. But my money is that unless this is followed up by a conventional occupation (doubtful) or that the internal political dynamic unseats him through being blamed for getting them into a nuclear war, I very much suspect that he would survive as a political force. A very reduced one, almost certainly not a threat to any neighbors, but one capable of clinging to power and operating a primitive state apparatus.

        2. It’s not about the size of bomb blast; a nuclear exchange would most certainly have a catastrophic affect on the rest of the world because nuclear winter and fallout *know no borders*, even if Russia and the US emptied their nuclear arsenals *solely* into each other. Pro: we’d IMMEDIATELY undo every bit of warming brought about over the past few hundred years! Con: we’d also overshoot it by quite a bit, plunging the entire globe into another Little Ice Age for potentially decades. (And who knows what kinds of weird and deadly weather might be generated in the short term from such an abrupt shock to the climate?) The drop in agricultural production from barely-visible sunlight would be enormous. A nuclear exchange might kill “only” a few hundred million people directly; *billions* more would starve in the next few months to years as crops failed. Plus, there’d now be orders-of-magnitude more (inescapable) radioactive material in the air, everywhere on the planet; the fraction of people contracting cancer would shoot to 100% for decades (if not centuries, as it settled on the land and into the water). I’m not sure it would eradicate humanity entirely, but the rest of the world would by no means escape unscathed. Not sure I’d want to survive a nuclear exchange, to be honest.

          1. The research involving nuclear winter is not anywhere close to clear to admit that it would even happen. A good summary of the weaknesses of the models can be found here. https://www.quora.com/Is-the-nuclear-winter-a-hoax

            Radioactive fallout, however, is more of a concern, but the notion that it would give everyone cancer is again a ridiculous overstatement. Consider our actual sites of nuclear strikes, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cancer rates in those cities compared to the baseline of surrounding areas are measurably higher, but “only” about 10% more likely. https://bioone.org/journals/radiation-research/volume-187/issue-5/RR14492.1/Solid-Cancer-Incidence-among-the-Life-Span-Study-of-Atomic/10.1667/RR14492.1.full#:~:text=The%20crude%20solid%20cancer%20incidence,in%20both%20cities%20(1.47).

            And don’t forget, fusion bombs actually produce less fallout than fission ones do. Now the slinging of whole arsensals are of course going to create more on pure volume than 2 bombs, but at the same time, it’s going to be spread out over a far wider area. Actual concentration of radioactivity over any given population center being substantially higher is an assumption, and not a particularly strong one.

  21. I mostly agree with what you have wrote (so I won’t comment on those points) and also on the point from other commenters, that “NATO is a defensive alliance” is not particularly reassuring[1]. But I don’t think you answered (maybe even didn’t attempt to) _why_ this is happening.

    Sure there is the whole “I reconstruct the Russian/Sowjet empire” narrative, which Putin might have fallen into. This isn’t even that uncommon. Sowjet leadership also tended to fall into a “but I need to implement real communism” frantic when they got old and felt that they were dying soon. But is there any evidence, that this applies to Putin? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t feel to line up.
    There are however two other components, that seem a bit neglected to me:

    The first one is what we in Germany call the “Energiewende”. Basically all of the world, but in particular Europe, has decided to phase out fossil fuels. Which just happens to represent most of the revenue of Russia. We (Germany) more or less intentionally introduced tighter economic bounds to the USSR back in the 60s and 70s (Brandt’s Ostpolitik). The stated intention was to have these codependencies act as stabilisers and making war too costly to contemplate (similar to what the EEG had been doing for Germany and France 20 years earlier). With the Energiewende we are essentially breaking up these entanglements. So from a Russian perspective: This may look like something we would do in preparation of war. It also roughly lines up timing wise: We started getting serious about this in the mid 10s and acceptance and preparation would take a couple of years.

    The other one is that NATO (but in particular the US) resigned a couple of weapons control treaties during the late Obama and the Trump years. This seems to change the strategic calculus for Russia (there was a nice warontherocks article about it). The treaty withdrawals were mostly motivated by counterbalancing China, but that is of very little comfort for the Russian, if it also makes Moscow far easier attackable.

    I’m uncertain in how far these components should be part of the analysis or whether it is okay to have them neglected. If our host (or anyone else for that matter) would like to comment on this, I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts.

    [1] From the Russian point of view NATO is advancing towards them, well at least it had. So really not the point for today, or a likely reason why this all started. But there are valid points in that whole mess (I wouldn’t go so far and say, justifying any Russian complaint about it, but still)

    1. I find the German example of “breaking up these entanglements” a bit odd, given that Germany just finished the second gas pipeline connecting them directly with Russia. Ironically, those pipelines allowed Russia to resign from transferring gas through Ukraine, effectively enabling the invasion.

      Ukraine protested, of course, but alas, nobody really cared.

      Therefore, at least in Germany vision, the Energienwiede would increase the economic bounds, so Putin would not be afraid of it.

    2. What Germany has achieved is in fact the opposite. By shutting down domestic coal and nuclear production, they have made themselves wholly dependent on Russian natural gas for their energy needs.
      Which is why IMO Berlin is dithering over imposing genuine economic sanctions on Russia, like an energy embargo.

    3. If Germany wanted a peaceful Russia, maybe it shouldn’t let Rheinmetall build world’s largest, most modern and sophisticated army training center in Russia? It’s very hypocritical to preach peace, arm a country well known for its aggressive behavior, and refuse to supply weapons to its victim.

  22. Assume the West was to declare total war on the Russian economy as suggested, with the capacity to and intent of bankrupting Russia. Is there not a point where Russia could interpret these sanctions to be an existential threat and, being unable to respond in kind and in danger of losing control over their military for funding reasons, respond militarily?

    1. Yeah, I’m kind of surprised that Devereaux didn’t even mention the possible parallel with the 1941 US oil embargo on Japan. Maybe the situation is sufficiently different from 1941 that that won’t happen (nukes, for instance, completely change the calculations). However, I’m not sure.

    2. This was explicitly stated by Putin in 2014, when he threatened war with the EU if they shut Russia out of SWIFT in response to the Crimean invasion.

  23. One thing I’ve not seen talked about yet as much as it should is Putin’s habit of weaponising refugees to destabilise countries, and promote the agendas of his outriders in those countries – the Trumps, Farages and Orbans of the world. I worry that that will just be one more reason for him to unleash the military against the civilians in Ukraine.

    I imagine that the morale effects on Russian soldiers of such a campaign against people who are very familiar in both language and culture will be a restraining factor when compared to campaigns in Chechnya, but history doesn’t leave me very optimistic.

    1. It’s not just refugees. Gerasimov Doctrine assumes militarizing all tools available to the state.

      > The Gerasimov Doctrine builds a framework for these new tools, and declares that non-military tactics are not auxiliary to the use of force but the preferred way to win. That they are, in fact, the actual war. Chaos is the strategy the Kremlin pursues: Gerasimov specifies that the objective is to achieve an environment of permanent unrest and conflict within an enemy state.

      The author has since downplayed the importance of the so-called doctrine and of Gerasimov himself, but it seems to describe Russia’s methods quite accurately.

      As for Russian morale, one platoon already surrendered. They claim they were told they’re going for exercises, and were surprised to find themselves in a real war.

  24. What are the chances of an uprising in Russia? It is pretty authoritarian out there right now, but I suspect bodybags and a million Muscovites on the streets might tip the scales.

    1. Not exactly uprising, but Kaliningrad Oblast (the exclave) has a (forced) underground party that very recently threatened Putin with a secession referendum. They demanded not only peace, but that Ukraine should get Crimea and Doneck+Luhansk back.


      Until a couple years ago(Poland closed the border), it was common for people from KO to visit Poland for shopping. They saw a peaceful and mostly well off country, contrasting with state propaganda. Putin’s party was losing there even before Navalny.

      1. The conventional wisdom is that Putin is a risk-taker. Supposedly his KGB profile stated that he was too incautious and risk-loving. Do you have a reason to think the opposite?

        1. Imagine we play game of dice. Two sixes mean you lose; otherwise you win. If you win, I give you $10,000. If you lose, you are shot in the head.

          From my point of view, the chances of your losing are almost nil.

          From your point of view, how reckless would you have to be to take the bet?

  25. What Putin is doing is actually nothing new on the East of Europe. I wrote my own commentary, also comparing the events with those in Yugoslavia in 1990s. Overall, the “fairly stunning US intelligence coup” is far LESS stunning once you know that Putin is basically following a pre-written template:

    It would also be interesting to compare Putin’s actions to those previously taken by Russia. In particular, the continuity between the Russian Empire, Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia.

    That being said, democracy is mostly a lie, so I would not focus on the “democratically elected” Ukrainian government being under threat. Main issue here are the Ukrainian people: they definitely do not want to be occupied by Russia.

    1. We in Eastern Europe keep saying that, and just hear we’re rusophobic in return. What could people close by possibly know?

      Here’s a 2019 blog post predicting Russia will attack Europe or Middle East by 2022 (via Google Translate, so don’t be surprised images are not translated):


      He cites demographic data, elaborates on pipelines, trade deals, countries moving away from fossil fuels. He predicted Russia attacking from Belarus.

      1. Thanks! I just skimmed it for now, but it seems to have fairly accurately predicted not just Russia attacking, but even sequence of events that had happened.

        1. In a 2018 article about Smolensk Corridor (the gap between Kaliningrad Oblast and Belarus; how it would become irrelevant) he predicted Russia would invade:

          1. Belarus,
          2. Ukraine,
          3. Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia)
          4. Poland

          Based on a pretty simple cost/benefit analysis. 1) and 2) already happened.

          And if Ukraine falls, US will be faced with a choice: deploy a lot of troops at the Polish border, or make a deal with Russia to surrender Poland without a fight. And we know US is not keen on the first option… it won’t happen this year or the next year, but looks like the right call for US if it wants to counter China.

          Poland could have prevented that if the army was prepared to support Ukraine. It was caught pants down, thanks to a defense minister with lots of Russian friends. And very clumsy diplomatic efforts to turn Belarus away from Russia.

          Much of the article is a polemic with a charismatic Polish youtuber so it’s of little interest elsewhere.

          His qualifications: he’s a lawyer specializing in tax law. Geopolitics as a hobby. Trying to get into selling books.

  26. I’ve been frustrated in media coverage that responsibility is often placed exclusively on Mr Putin, which seems to oversimplify Russian internal politics. To what extent do you see the invasion as an individual authoritarian decision, versus a consensus among the political class?

  27. I have liked this blog for a long time, so I deeply regret my first comment is a negative one: When it comes to politics, the quality of Prof. Devereaux’s commenary takes a nosedive.

    I share the same assessment of Putin, but what the Professor write of preemptive sanctions is nonsense. The West’s strategy relied on economic coercion, yet it had a massive credibility problem. Putin has excellent cause to doubt the West’s resolve. Not long ago, Belgium was demanding an exception for diamonds and Italy for luxury goods[1]. Showing the ability to bear pain in advance was important if there was any chance for the strategy to work. Since that did not happen, there was no hope of it working.

    Second, the deterrence criticism is in bad faith. First, the suggestion was to use sanctions as _compellence_. One might as well criticize an arrow for being a bad melee weapon. Second, even as deterrence, the fact we’re laying sanctions does not mean we’ve laid _all_ your sanctions, so we’ve actually kept deterrent power so long as the sanctions package is total. There are good faith criticisms I can think of (Putin is far invested to care about economy; Taking a price in advance may force him to commit – so it was important to leave him a way out), but none of them are in this post.

    Third, I see no intelligence coup here. Russia has amassed a large army, made impossible demands, and said without those demands they’ll use the army. Putin has written long essays about what he really thinks about Ukraine. You don’t need to be a genius to see that maybe something will happen. The better question is whether the West has been blind all this time – or has Putin changed?

    Lastly, I dislike this, but Putin’s odds are far better than the US in Iraq. Ukraine isn’t a culturally foreign country. More importantly, controlling a potentially hostile population is exactly what dictatorships do as a normal course of affairs, they have way more experience at it and their structure is aligned with what they want to do (The US army was set up in a way it couldn’t have accomplished its own COIN strategy). Worse of all, External support is far from guaranteed – the West is already showing weak knees[2].

    (Replaced links since comment was stuck in the spam filter)

    [1] twitter/MatinaStevis/status/1496758467943866374

    [2] foreignpolicy/2022/02/24/biden-legal-ukraine-russia-resistance/

    1. >More importantly, controlling a potentially hostile population is exactly what dictatorships do as a normal course of affairs, they have way more experience at it and their structure is aligned with what they want to do (The US army was set up in a way it couldn’t have accomplished its own COIN strategy).

      The argument, while reasonable, doesn’t seem to be empirically supported. https://www.jasonlyall.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Rage_Final.pdf If you don’t have time to read the whole paper, jump to the tables starting on page 19. Regime type on counterinsurgency outcomes has basically 0 correlation.

      1. I wrote a longer response which appears stuck in the comment filter, I’ll try again with a shorter response: In page 91 the authors use the same data to show that dictatorships have a post-1945 advantage. That would not be a surprise (technical and administrative advancement allow modern dictatorships to do stuff earlier authoritarian regimes could only dream of). The authors try really hard and not convincingly to qualify their own data, but the result is statistically clear.

        Also, in general, statistical papers where the dataset is not public are not convincing. There are a lot of questions about how they define ‘democracy’ which would be relevant. According to some definitions, no pre-20th regime would be a democracy…

    2. Err.. should have been “so long as the sanctions package is _not_ complete”.

      In any event, I’d like to end on an optimistic note: Putin can win the war, he can even win against an insurgency, but he has already lost the peace. There’s too much Ukrainian resistance, while Russians are at most indifferent to Putin’s vision. Therefore Ukraine cannot be swallowed for long under the Kremlin’s orbit, the Russian will simply is not there. It will be Free again, at worst after Putin has given his soul back (does he have any?). The West will firm up, under this American administration or the next. Even if China defeats the West, this will not help Putin any – life in Russia is just too bleak. All Putin has done is guarantee Ukraine’s eventual EU membership.

  28. There is one point the narrative of the „aggressive NATO expansion“ always seem to ignores and I can’t figure out the live of me why: None of the eastern European NATO members were coerced to join NATO. They wanted and applied to join NATO out of there own free will, because they felt the need for mutual protection from a perceived – and as the current event shows very real – threat: Russia. Why anyone thinks NATOs acceptance of the security need of people who have been violently oppressed by the soviet regime for decades counts as an aggressive move seems so confuse cause and effect here. NATO didn’t expand to threaten Russia. NATO expanded because Russia threatened people who had the soviet domination and all it’s suffering still in living memory.

  29. As the author correctly noted the role of Preemptive Sanctions is not as a deterrent but his argumentation agains it is based on a nof far-sighted enough analysis of the consequences of sanctions.

    (1) Russia is a state on brink of bancrupcy. Deplatforming Russia from SWIFT, Visa, Mastercard, stopping gas pipelines, etc etc. cutting any trade swhatsover would degrade Russia’s finances enough to prevernt them from being able to finance a prolongued military offensive operations. Helicopters, tanks, planes are very expensive.

    (2) Russia is a also a very oligarchical state with regular people having zero power or assets. Therefore preemptive sanction should have been imposed on Russia’s oligarchs in order to “motivate” them into questioning their support of Putin himself.
    Again degrading his ability to order risky military missions, degrading his ability for prolongued war and perhaps the oligarchs would overthrow Putin altogether. With perhaps the war itseelf already being Putin’s preemptive tactic to escape being overthrown.

    Forthermore, again, preemprively NATO should have supplied Ukraine with vast amounts of defensive antitank and antihelicopter weapons which wold inflict very costly damage and perhaps stop the invasion altogether – there were ideas to supply these weapons but Germany opposed.

    NATO could also have ordered massive militaty training in Ukraine and again did have this idea but again Germany was against.

    It is very irresponsible to say the sanctions would not work. They do but their effect takes time to become painful. Cutting off USSR from western (global) economy eventually bancrupted them.

    1. No, Russia is not on the brink of bankruptcy – their national debt is negligible, they have massive sovereign oil fund, and large currency reserves. Not to mention providing sizable chunk of world’s gas and oil production, which are the bedrock of the modern world that societies cannot choose not to consume. US discourse often blames Europe for “financing Putin’s regime”, but it’s like blaming Greenlanders for importing their food – it’s not like there’s an option

      Russia is *manufacturing* their own military hardware, they don’t need money to buy it. To quote Keynes – everything we can do, we can afford. It’s like saying that doing laundry will take me half an hour, which at the market rate is $20 – and since I don’t have spare $20, I am unable to afford laundry. Alternatively, I can just roll up my sleeves and do it. Same principle with countries, just scaled up

      Sanctions and asset seizures won’t really achieve anything. Does the invasion look like it’s motivated by money? It’s not like Putin will send a command to withdraw the troops because Deripaska is now worth only $800M instead of $900M.

      The Achilles heel of USSR was the constant need to import food. That’s no longer a problem for Russia, especially with Ukraine annexed. If the endgame is turtling up and going autarkic, they very much can

  30. What strikes me in our host pieces is how helpless NATO feels. Basically the threat of nuclear escalation means that NATO has almost no option between economic sanctions – which the exemples of Iran, North Korea and so on shows are not so efficient, and which will become even less significant as NATO’s weight in the world economy decrease – and full blown war between nuclear power. This really raise the question of how much protection NATO offers to the Baltic countries which are likely to be Putin next target.

      1. I think this clip from yes minister is better at explaining the situation.


        That said, this argument of “well if we move in NATO troops then we can get a nuclear war” is rather crippling. Since Russia can move into any non-NATO country and nobody can do anything because moving in could end in a nuclear exchange. You could also turn it around. Move NATO troops into west Ukraine, and Russia would have a difficult choice. Push forward and engage NATO troops, or stand down.

        1. In theory, yes, absolutely, you could do that and Russia would face a dilemma. Since nobody actually wants a nuclear war, it would become a game of chicken.

          In practice, Ukraine is vastly more important to Russia than it is to NATO, and both sides are perfectly aware of this. NATO would blink first, and both sides know it. As Bret said, bluffing is not a solid strategy, least of all when everybody can see through your bluff.

          1. True of most of NATO. Less true of Poland. I can see a scenario where Ukraine has lost its Eastern two-thirds, and is struggling to hold on to its Western third, and the Polish troops at the border are begging to get involved. And then somebody in the chain of command* snaps, and they are, and now Poland is in a unilateral war against Russia, with highly fun consequences for everyone.

            *This person can be expected to receive a strong talking to.

    1. Foreign policy theorists have considered the risk of a failure of American or European support for a specific small European state. The answer they all came to were ‘tripwire’ forces. Why was the first US response to Russian build up to please 4,500 American paratroopers in Estonia? That is nowhere near a sufficient force to defend the country. But what they do provide is this, the sure knowledge that a hostile power would need to kill or wound 4,500 Americans to invade Estonia.

      Now, with 4,500 dead Americans, what’s the American will to fight a war in defense of Estonia?

  31. I like this analysis, but I think it needs to be combined with Rachel Maddow’s analysis of why Putin wants to invade the Ukraine. Russia is poor – dirt poor. Its leaders are an incompetent clique who has ruined the country. So if there’s a country on your southern border which is a thriving democracy – and Ukraine has shown it might become that – your own citizens may wonder why they can’t have it like that. And that would threaten Putin’s claim to legitimacy. For Putin to succeed, Ukraine must fail

    1. With all my sympathy, this was/is unlikely. Ukraine had been quite a troubled state from its independence, and even the best examples of post-Soviet success (the Baltic states) aren’t too stellar, especially if we give credit to the EU for some of their achievements. The “role model” scenario is tempting, but hardly believable, IMHO.

    2. Ukraine is not thriving, the GDP per capita is barely coming back to 2013 levels. Russian GDP per capita is almost 3 times larger and Belarussian one is 2 times larger compared to Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia have almost the same level of oligarchies. Rule of law in Russia is a bit higher compared to Ukraine.

      1. Indeed, Ukraine suffered *very* badly from the post-soviet crash, much worse than Russia itself (which was no picnic) and never quite recovered) indeed at least part of what pro-russian sentiment existed in the east was simply that russians were noticeably better off economically.

      2. Ukraine is *markedly* less oligarchic and more democratic than Russia. Ukraine may be poorer, but then, Ukraine has also spent the last eight years fighting a constant war against the Donbass separatists, funded by a larger adversary who hates the Ukrainian government and wants them to fail.

        I think the core point that for Putin to succeed, Ukraine must be seen to fail, is correct. Insofar as Ukraine is failing, we must ask ourselves: How much of that failure is because Putin has known all along that he needs for Ukraine to fail, and taken steps to ensure that it does so?

  32. This is one of those cases where history is useful: you can’t understand the present situation without it.
    So some brief comments, some from my own experience.

    First, the western media and political system tends to personalise conflicts and enemies because it’s less work than trying to understand the actual dynamics, and it allows the West to believe that if can only get rid of X or Y then it can conjure a friendly regime into existence. No matter how many times we are disappointed, we never give up this delusion. If Putin died of a heart attack tonight, his replacement would have pretty much the same views. Anyone of Putin’s generation, who lived through the humiliations and disasters to the 90s, would feel the same way.

    I was around for some of these events. After the end of the Soviet Union there was an incredible triumphalist appetite in the West, especially in Washington, to destroy everything and humiliate the Russians. Let’s jump up and down on the bits was the motto of the two Bush administrations. Some European governments tried to moderate these attitudes, but the US was implacable, seeking every opportunity to humiliate the Russians. A number of us said that this was storing up trouble for the future, but nobody paid any attention. The same only more so with the inevitable eastward march of NATO. It’s perfectly true, as the Russians say, that in return for recognising a united Germany they were promised no NATO expansion (I was there). It’s also true that in the confused atmosphere of the early 90s this was what most people actually thought. NATO changed its mind later, partly as a result of pressure from eastern nations and partly simply as a way of keeping going. So the Russians weren’t deliberately lied to, but the incident was the beginning of what they see as a story of betrayal and duplicity by the West. A number of us pointed out that, if NATO continued to expand eastwards, one day it was going to hit the Russian frontier. “We’ll worry about that when it happens” we were told. “Anyway, they’ll just have to accept it.”

    Of course you can’t ignore Soviet and Russian history, either, although ever since 1989 we’ve tried our best to do so. Even trying to imagine what the Soviet people went through between 1941-45 is impossible for most of us, with its 25M+ dead, and ten thousand towns and cities wiped off the map. When the archives were opened in the 90s, experts were stunned to see just how far the Soviet regime saw NATO as a continuation of the German led genocidal assault on them. Anything was preferable to repetition, and Putin’s generation, which grew up with this frame of reference, has taken it through until today. Yes, the Nazi thing is exaggerated, but anyone with memories of Stepan Bandera will be feeling uncomfortable about the influence of extreme nationalists in the current government. (A number of decision-makers in Washington are the descendants of Ukrainian nationalists who had to run fast as the Germans retreated). Think of the way the western media goes apeshit at a photo of someone sporting what might be a swastika at some obscure demonstration, and multiply that by about a hundred million.

    Russian priorities have not changed. They are not prepared to have western troops, aircraft and nuclear weapons on their borders. They want a cordon sanitaire to prevent this, and tried to get it by negotiation. Their text of last year was not a serious proposal as such but an appeal for a proper US counter-proposal, which never came. But most analysts agree that the possibilities for this decreased a lot after the antics of last weekend at Munich. Moreover (and this is a lesson from history) NATO itself was as dragged along by events as anything else. Stopping the move to expansion, and halting the creation of closer and closer military contacts with Ukraine, would have been like trying to turn a supertanker around. I don’t think it’s fair to say, as many have, that NATO provoked the crisis. It was the victim itself of choices made decades ago under very different circumstances. So the Russians decided to create facts on the ground, and you can be for or against that, but it’s hard to say it was surprising. They will have had contingency plans to do this for a long time, and their plans are clear enough: a shock and awe operation to destroy Ukraine’s military capability, to carve out their cordon sanitaire and serve notice that Ukraine should do what it’s told in the future. They have no interest in occupying the country, and there would be no point in doing so. What they want is a government which is not US and European dominated, and behaves itself. They’d be happy to have Ukraine as the equivalent of Canada or Mexico. That’s not as strange as it may sound; when I was last in Ukraine fifteen years ago, relations with Russia were complicated, but peaceful and cooperative for the most part. Neither country saw the other as a threat.

    In the end, I think historians of the future will see this as a the beginning of an end-of-empire process. Unless you’re my age, what historians will probably call the Western Liberal Empire (EU, NATO, the IMF, the World Bank etc) probably doesn’t seem like the historical anomaly it really is. Its influence has grown very fast and has been very extensive but, as with all empires, there comes a moment when it hits the buffers and starts to go into reverse. I suspect we are there now, but this is going to be an almost impossible pill for western elites to swallow. It’s not a question of who’s right or who’s wrong, or who’s nice and who’s not. This is brute politics. It could have been avoided, of course, that would have required a level of knowledge and sophistication, as well as historical consciousness, which the enfeebled western political and intellectual classes no longer have. Against stupidity, as Schiller said, the gods themselves contend in vain.

    1. > Its influence has grown very fast and has been very extensive but, as with all empires, there comes a moment when it hits the buffers and starts to go into reverse.

      I think you need to reread OGH’s writing on the fall of the Roman Empire. Nation-states and empire are not people; they are not simply young and vigorous in youth, growing into power, and then fading into senescence and death. They can have cycles of decline and rebirth. Claiming that the fall of NATO and the “Western Liberal Empire” is inevitable — well yes, it will pass, as all thing pass and even this very planet we stand on will pass. But proclaiming that it’s past its peak and into some long, slow decline that is inexorable and unchanging and inevitable is folly.

    2. > It’s perfectly true, as the Russians say, that in return for recognising a united Germany they were promised no NATO expansion (I was there)

      Any reputable Source for that?

      1. No. The historical record is clear that it was on the table, but it wasn’t the item the Russian government wanted, so they closed on a different deal. Happens every day in this life.

      2. I was there. But more importantly documents from the time have now been published, and nobody seriously questions that the Russians were led to believe that there would be no NATO expansion. As I explained, this was because, at the time, NATO expansion was not seen as likely. So the Russians were not being deliberately lied to, but it’s not surprising that they later thought they’d been deceived.

        1. AFAIK, but i was not there, Genscher only promised not to garrison non german NATO troops in the territory of the former GDR

        2. Among advanced civilized peoples, “understandings” are reduced to signed writings, or else they are understood to be non-binding statements of current intent, subject to unilateral alteration at any time, which unilateral alteration has no effect on the validity of separate, written and signed agreements.

  33. Two notes here.

    Why are you dismissing out-of-hand the option of Ukraine committing not to join NATO? After all, the Finland-Russia border has been peaceful for almost 80 years, in spite of (or thanks to) Finland not being a NATO member.

    Also, you are taking at face value the findings of a Kyiv-based think-tank re the support of separatism in Donbas. The survey was carried out when Donbas was still under the Ukrainian control and in the former USSR you think twice before answering that you’d like your region want to secede. Considering that, 31% of Donbas residents who said they want the independence or secession is a huge number.

    1. Finland-Russia peace was also maintained by extreme prostration towards Moscow. Some of it self-inflicted, sure, but I have no desire to see anything like that ever again.

      Some examples:
      – The Commodore 64 game “Raid Over Moscow” was debated in the parliament as it’d be seen as hostility towards Moscow
      – The history/geography schoolbooks from that era were very one sided.
      – The translator of Lord Of The Rings has only recently admitted leaving some terms (westron, Westernesse) untranslated to avoid being overly West-oriented.

      It’s like living in an abusive relationship, “surely, if I change my behaviour he’ll stop the beating”. No thanks.

      1. Well, you have had a vibrant democracy and market economy all the time. I understand that it felt stifling but you can’t compare this to what other countries in the Eastern bloc had to endure

        1. The vibrant democracy is up for debate, but yes, it was surely preferable to the alternatives in the 70s. I missed the bulk of it by not being alive at the time.

          But I still have a hard time recommending it as an option in the 2020s. I’ve seen the better alternatives, and so have the Ukrainians.

        2. Vibrant, but with some special parameters.

          In 1973, an MP could give a speech in favor holding the presidential election as written in the constitution, instead of the current office-holder having their 3rd term extended for 4 years by emergency law … when no emergency was in sight. He wasn’t arrested, true, he could even continue as MP. On the other hand, many newspapers would call such MP either unreasonable, naive or outright fascist anti-progressive, and he would be kicked out of his party.

          The reason president cited for emergency extension? He had previously publicly announced he was too tired to run a campaign, because in the previous elections, a genuine opposition candidate had resorted to “demagogue tactics”. And he was the only person in the country a special relationship with Kremlin that would allow Finland joining EEC.

      2. Exactly. Bend the knee or burn. Ukraine did not bend the knee. (Democracies with free speech and the Internet seem almost incapable of this; see also Hong Kong.)

        If an independent Ukrainian state manages to come out of this, it’d be nice to think that their motto would be like the quote that inspired New Hampshire’s state motto: “Live free or die; death is not the worst of evils.”

    2. The invasion essentially proves that Putin had no intention of being happy with a neutral Ukraine. If that had been his goal, there were cheaper and less risky means of obtaining it. Putin wants breathing room and a commitment to not join NATO would have just left Ukraine exposed to more subtle forms of domination.

      Peace with Finland probably has more to do with geography (and maybe the modern Scandinavian taste for neutrality) than a lack of membership in NATO. I think Finland ranks near the bottom of Putin’s list of breakaway states to be reincorporated back into the Russian Empire.

      1. Surely it was planned months in advance but the military of any country makes all kinds of contingency plans, so I don’t think it proves anything.

        I agree that a neural Ukraine would have been dominated by Russia using more subtle means. Probably it’s worth asking the Ukrainians themselves whether they prefer that or the current not-so-subtle domination.

    3. Finland’s geopolitical position was… complicated. Basicalyl Finland was never in a position to join NATO, and was in fact geopolitcally far closer tied to the Warzaw pact. (though with much greater independence) this was also useful for the Soviets since it gave them a country they could use for various trading purposes with the west without doing so directly. And Finland, while it remained a democracy, had to accept pretty significant restrictions on internal and foreign politics.

      Finlandisation is a term for a reason.

      1. Also, because of the Winter War, Finland was stuck as de facto Nazi allies. So, when WW2 ended there wasn’t much reserve of good will to pry them from the Russians in the rest of the world.

    4. The anti-encroachment argument is hard to take seriously since a full occupation will more quickly contribute to it, with new NATO countries on the new border. It might have contributed to less support at home with no worse aftermath, though.

  34. A wonderful analysis.

    One typo – “I also must note that I wrote this during the day on the 24th of February 2020” – shouldn’t it be 2022?

  35. I don’t really have enough information to add much constructive, but I did very much enjoy this article.

  36. Putin’s game plan is uncannily similar to Hitler’s against Czechoslovakia. As you will recall Hitler claimed the Sudeten Germans were being mistreated and his only intent was to protect them. He then swallowed the whole of Czechoslovakia, which must be suffering flashbacks. So far Biden is playing Chamberlain to perfection.

    1. I’m not seeing the Chamberlain comparison? Maybe if Hitler had broken off talks at Munich and declared Sudetenland independent and started bombing Prague. The stakes of direct US involvement are drastically different to what Anglo-French involvement would have been.

      1. Like Chamberlain Biden has made it clear his goal is peace at any price.
        Curious how the nuclear deterrent only works one way isn’t it? We are terrified of Russia and China’s nukes and they aren’t at all worried by ours.

        1. Oh, Russia absolutely is worried about US nukes. Hence the fear of countries joining NATO (because that puts them under the US nuclear umbrella)

          Meanwhile RE: Taiwan the US has been for a long time playing a game of *very strongly* hinting they will go to war to defend Taiwan without actually committing to doing so. So there is more room for ambiguity than for NATO members.

  37. One thing that I have seen discussed elsewhere but not mentioned here is the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of 1994, where the UK and US (and Russia) promised security guarantees to Ukraine in exchange for dismantling its nuclear stockpile. Anything to say? Between Ukraine and Libya, and the different fates of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, it seems like the reward to nuclear weapons is rising and the benefit to disarming is dropping.

  38. Thanks for writing this, I’ve been frustrated by the lack of depth most of my news media has provided.

    One of the things I’ve noticed over the last few days is crowdfunding being used to raise money for the Ukrainian military effort. Is that a new thing in war?

    1. Insofar as crowdfunding is a new thing, yes. I’ve seen it likened to war bonds, but I’m not aware of situations where citizens of other nations bought bonds for a war that their nation or home wasn’t directly involved in.

    2. Generally it’s a thing you see with polities whose status as states is a little dubious, or outright disavowed. The Maquis, the IRA, Daesh…many organizations which aspire to form into Westphalian-style nation-states have historically relied on overseas donations to generate cash reserves, but it’s very strange to see an organization with legitimate access to taxing and minting do so.

      1. We’ll Ukrainian government bonds don’t exactly strike me, or probably anyone, as a sound investment at the moment.

  39. > I also must note that I wrote this during the day on the 24th of February 2020

    Pretty sure you mean 2022, though this wasn’t obvious to me until I got some way into the piece—given the situation it wouldn’t have been completely crazy for you to dust off something you’d written but not published a couple years ago and hastily clean it up for posting now.

  40. This is good analysis, and I am not at all anxious for there to be a direct American military commitment. The points on escalation risks are very good.

    The one thing I think is missing from this analysis (although it is alluded to) is that Russia is, essentially, a petrostate. Like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela it is dependent on oil revenues to maintain its economy and military capabilities. High oil prices support the Putin regime.

    The best way to attack Putin, then, is to do everything in our power to lower the price of oil. That means increasing production, running pipelines, and committing to alternate (nuclear!) sources of energy. There is no better way to undercut Russia than to reduce the price of oil. The fact that low oil prices are good for the American economy is a bonus.

    1. What everyone in Europe should do right now, but particularly if you heat with natural gas: turn down the thermostat to 18-19 C (it’s a better sleeping temperature, anyway), and toss on a sweater.

      Then email your feckless MPs and tell them to support cutting Russia off from SWIFT. And plan to call on Monday when it’s normal business hours again.

      This all goes doubly if, like me, you’re in Germany.

  41. I agree with everything you said, and you said it better than I could have.

    One little thing where you inadvertently understated Putin’s problems down the road. Iraq has a population of about 40 million now, but in 2003 their population was closer to 26 million. Which will make it proportionally that much harder for the Russians to maintain control.

    1. We shall see how it turns out but I think Russia won’t encounter Iraq style insurgency. First, there is much less culture difference, so the counter insurgency warfare would be much more effective. When you speak the same language you are much less likely to commit blunders which turn civilians en masse against you. Russia would have incomparably better intelligence about any potential insurgency.

      Second, Iraq had a lot of young males and former Iraq army officers who took part in the insurgency. Ukraine has the first-world age structure and probably won’t make the same unenforced error as the US did in Iraq.

      Historically, the insurgency against the Soviets after the ww2 was mostly limited to the Western Ukraine, which also conveniently has mountains, and hopefully Putin won’t try to go there.

      Finally, consider Donbas. The ethic Ukrainians form the majority there and there has been no insurgency whatsoever in the 8 years of DNR and LNR existing.

      1. There was no insurgency in the Donbas, but in large part that was because anyone who felt Ukrainian enough to want to fight could just move across the effective border (slightly tricky but definitely not impossible) and join the Ukrainian military directly, and there was constant low-level skirmishes and the like- the equivalent of an insurgency- all along the effective border.

        By invading the rest of the country, the Russians end up channeling all opposition into insurgency. Your points about the culture and age curve are still valid, though I would point out that there was the UPA into the 1950’s, even after 1/6th of the population had died during the Second World War.

  42. Putin’s worldview is a poignant example of why studying history can be harmful.

    It is usually assumed to be a good thing when leaders know a lot of history, despite the severe downsides of long historical memories. Yet it seems to me that the “misuse” or “flawed misunderstanding” of history is a feature, not a bug. The urge to come up with narratives we can make use of motivates people to investigate the past.

    Even the much-lauded example of Germany does not convince me: How could Germans live together with Jews if these Jews were not willing to forgive the past? Good relations would hardly be possible. Countries are expected to ignore past grievances, especially with regards to territorial demands, for a good reason. It would be very unhelpful if the French and Germans started weighing up past atrocities. Indeed, its leaders deliberately chose not to do that after WW2 and instead focused on measures like economic integration and student exchanges.

    Since you are a historian, I’d appreciate your thoughts on that.

    1. I think this is an interesting point, and something I genuinely struggle with sometimes. I’ve trained as a historian and like to think that giving people a humanities education is beneficial for the world; thus, I want to agree with Bret when he writes that the study of the past can improve political decision-making and promote social good. Yet when we look round the planet, it seems that many of the world leaders who are most invested in history end up using it to justify the unjustifiable. Take Putin; he is clearly a keen amateur historian (his recent lectures about Ukraine’s origins, and his earlier 9,000-word article about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, were far more detailed than the political circumstances required), but the conclusions he draws from his study are utterly warped and dangerous. As a less extreme example, in Britain our PM Boris Johnson had a world-class education in Classics at Oxford, and wrote an entire book of historical biography, yet he consistently promotes biased and inflammatory narratives about the past in order to promote his culture war agenda. I want to believe that teaching history is a bulwark against dictatorship and nationalist lies, but it haunts me that in Germany – the birthplace of modern academic history, and in the 1930s still home to lots of its most advanced practitioners – the historical profession utterly failed to prevent the Nazi takeover, and in many cases actively sided with Hitler’s distortions.

      Of course, one obvious response to this is to say that these individuals all clearly failed to understand history deeply enough (or chose not to), and that we need more and better historical education to make such things impossible in future. In general, I agree with this, but I still worry about how we get past the “a little learning is a dangerous thing” problem. It’s not feasible to educate everyone to a level where they achieve a perfectly nuanced and comprehensive critical understanding, and what if for every genuine scholar we train, we create half a dozen confident enthusiasts who have just enough knowledge to invent plausible-sounding narratives that confirm their own political biases? Yet what’s the alternative? Trying to limit opinions on history to a narrow group of experts seems elitist and impossible, and even if it worked, what reason would everyone else have to care about what they said? In the end, I’m probably being overly pessimistic; I think the general state of historical understanding does continue to slowly advance, and probably all we can do is keep on fighting the good fight by combatting each and every misconception where we find it (including within ourselves). Yet I can’t banish every doubt.

  43. So Russia is willing to use armed force to further its ambitions in Europe. Given the pitiful state of a lot of EU members’ armies, should the EU countries begin a rearmament program, just in case? Si vi pacem, para bellum and all that.

    And could NATO actually defend or reconquer the Baltic States should Russia try to invade them? Because I’m not sure the nuclear powers would go all the way to nuclear war for them.

  44. Your analysis omits one important factor: the Russian hackers, both state-organized and the many free-lance ones who have been polishing their skills at ransomware and deployment of botnets for years. Have we so quickly forgotten the Colonial Pipeline shutdown of only 10 months ago? Free-lance ransomware hackers almost by accident took a major piece of US infrastructure offline. When pressed by economic sanctions, Russia can retaliate by massive denial of service attacks against US and European ISPs, and individual attacks on corporations and utilities. I predict that any sanctions that really hurt, will incur just such retaliation and when your internet goes offline, your bank account can’t be reached, etc., the war will truly come home to the US public. A people denied their Instagram access may rise in fury and demand retaliation…

  45. my thought is simple. allowing a country to supply 33% of the worlds energy puts them in a very strong position. it is ironic that Biden gave up America energy independence the first day in office and instead now America purchases it from Russia. America empowered Russia. simple connection and i think all people need to ask “WHY”.

  46. I’m very grateful for your analysis. I feel grateful that this is happening now and not when Trump was president. I wonder if you can venture an educated guess about why DIDN’T Putin do this when Trump was president?

    1. Because Trump likely would have used military force rather than the impotent lip-service of the current administration.

      1. Why do you think that? Trump was willing to threaten to cut off military aid to pressure Ukraine’s government to get some B-grade dirt to use in his re-election campaign, let alone for the sake of his own personal safety.

        Ukrainian security or independence were clearly not among Trump’s main priorities as president. Nor did Trump show a consistent pattern of strongly backing other relatively weak and threatened US allies against enemies, as the Syrian Kurds could attest. Or we can consider that airstrike Trump called off during the confrontation with Iran in, I believe, 2019.

        What about Trump’s conduct in office suggests that he would have been willing to launch a military attack on Russia and accept a high risk of being personally vaporized by a Russian ICBM?

    2. I would guess it had more to do with considerations around confirming Russian command of Belarus’s army than any effect of Trump on the situation. Like the prof says, it’s not just a matter of pressing a button and then war. The overland advance on Kyiv is coming from deployments in Belarus, not Russia.
      But there is the consideration that an extended Trump presidency could credibly have ended the North Atlantic Treaty; he was generally extortionate towards NATO, and his rhetoric often veered into actual belligerence towards the allies. Putin may genuinely have wanted to give that a chance to play out, and therefore refrained from proving the necessity of the alliance.

      1. “he was generally extortionate towards NATO,”

        That’s an interesting way of saying “He told them to live up to their commitments to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense.” Bear in mind, Western Europe needed the USA’s help to overthrow Muammar Quaddafi of all people.

    3. Because Trump was giving him a free hand to do just about anything he wanted in exchange for a bit of flattery. Why take the risk of war?

    4. Because Trump was an unstable personality which was willing to allow the US army to bomb hundreds of Russians (search for “Battle of Khasham” in wikipedia). Difficult to predict what he’d do.

      I was happy when Trump was gone, because it meant a massive nuclear arsenal was in the hands of a more stable person. However, this administration must do much better, for all our sakes.

      1. Or because he was waiting to see if Trump could cause NATO to implode, which he might well have, absent an outside threat.

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