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. Prof Devereaux:
    While it is certainly true that Hitler had right-wing American supporters, from the Bund (which was covertly funded by Berlin)* to old-school reactionaries like Coughlin and dupes like Lindbergh, do not overlook the fact that up until June 1941 Hitler was loudly backed, and the peace drums vigorously beaten, by the American and British hard Left as well: the Comintern ordered it and they did it, because from the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact Stalin and Hitler were bestest buddies. Orwell wrote absolutely scathing pieces about his one-time colleagues’ shameless pimping for one bloodthirsty dictator at the behest of another. See, also, (CPUSA member) Dalton Trumbo’s “miraculous” volte-face in mid-41.

    *Fun Fact: the House Un-American Activities Committee, notorious for its anti-Communist hearings in the 1950s, was formed in 1934 at FDR’s request to keep tabs on the Bund and other American Nazis.

    1. Hi Sir Godefroy. Unrelated to your comments but I like your nickname. I’m.from Boulogne sur mer, the city where Godefroy was borned. Nice to meet you ! 🙂

    2. You make no mention of the wealth of raw materials and large agri lands that Putin would love to get his hands on. Pu

  2. The no-fly zone or similar (basically, entering the war with airforce only, even if under some disguise) does not have that risk of escalation, if you accept the increased losses by not targetting inside of Russia. Of course, the political considerations are still there but it is theoretically possible avenue and would affect situation on the ground considerably.

    On the political front, Putin does not have absolute power. Popular support is irrelevant for him, but other power actors are important and what happens there, nobody knows. Most likely not everyone in Russia’s power circles is Great Rus nationalist like Putin and doesn’t share his calculation of costs and benefits.

    As for the insurgency, demographic structure of Ukraine is vastly different from that of Iraq, and it is less conductive to insurgency.

    Putin is not making a mistake here from his viewpoint. His mistake was made in 2014, or even 2004, by not invading and puppeting Ukraine back then. Wars happen not when the instigating power has the best opportunity, but when it feels the tide is starting to going against it, and that’s what happened here. He is making a gamble, and will likely fail, that’s true. But that’s like Barbarossa-style gamble (which was also a rational choice, and also very likely to fail, and also depending on the other side collapsing. The same thing happened here and the air assault on Kyiv airport – or the ‘killist’ – was most likely trying to decapitate Ukrainian leadership. That it failed, coupled with fierce Ukrainian army resistance means the whole operation is utter disaster).

    From what i know, Russian economy at this moment is impervious to sanctions (they actually prepared for this for a decade), neither will whole world join the west (most crucially, China and India won’t). I am more hopeful of internal dissent at the top. In any case, i think the most important help is material help on the ground. Given the determination of Ukrainians to fight, fast and significant material help can be decisive.

    On a lighter and more blog-themed note, i notice many, many similarities to IX’1939, including three directions of attack, dilemma whether to defend the perimeter, the false flag justifications, etc, etc. Down to instigator motivations, actually.

    1. Popular support is always relevant. It may have more or less influence, but the people can never be discounted completely.

    2. I too was curious about Bret’s thoughts on a no-fly zone. It was disappointing to see it mentioned, but then never explicitly addressed, as distinct from ground forces as it is.

      > 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.

      Specifically, I’m curious about thoughts on a preemptive, partial no-fly zone.

      Preemptive, in that this would have been declared before Russian forces crossed Ukrainian borders. Which is to say, outside of rebel areas.

      Partial, e.g. declaring everything west of the Dnieper River closed to military aircraft, under protection of whatever NATO countries wanted to participate.

      Given the disparity in air assets, this would have seemed like a huge boost to Ukraine’s military effectiveness in protection and certainty.

      > Strategically, the issue here is the potential for escalation and in particular the threat of nuclear escalation.

      This calculus seems substantially different for a no-fly zone, and doesn’t seem to follow logically.

      If NATO declared a no-fly zone over an area Russia was *not* currently present in, it would have forced Russia to be the aggressor against NATO.

      And in all the attacks on this option, they mentioned nuclear escalation cuts only one way: Russia escalating from NATO action.

      That cuts equally the other way. Presumably Russia would have thought very seriously about choosing to engage NATO air assets if (a) those assets were geographically limited and (b) their rules of engagement were explicitly stated and limited (no-fly only, ground-agnostic).

      Would love to hear an actual treatment of a no-fly option.

      1. I didn’t break it out further because it has all of the same problems.

        To do a no-fly zone, you need to be able to put your own aircraft in the airspace. That potentially means exchanging fire with Russian aircraft, but it also exposes you to Russian AA. Because of the shape of Ukraine, those AA systems might be in the combat zone, but they may well be in Russia or Belarus. So to maintain your air presence without losing your very expensive jets, you need to take out that AA – as the Russians themselves keep learning over the past few hours as they’ve lost at least two very large, expensive transport planes to Ukrainian AA that was still operational.

        That in turn means you need to make airstrikes both in the combat area and also into Belarus and Russia. Airstrikes into Russia trigger the same multi-use weapon-system problem and the same blind-the-enemy AirLand Battle doctrine problems as ground forces and thus the same escalation problems. The logic ends up the same because a no-fly zone is not entirely a thing that exists in the air, it requires also silencing anti-air fires from the ground.

        1. Is the onus of de-escalation always on the “responding” side? I get possible reasons for that understand that, but it seems like a surefire way to get to full nuclear proliferation. And then, of course, the rules will probably change unless we get full proliferation peace which seems unlikely.

          Is there way to do a “no attacking AA” etc. until they fire first without just loosing your aircraft?

          Also, you mention

          > 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

          Is that not a bad doctrine when the point of NATO is to defend against Nuclear armed adversaries? Sure there is the “don’t test us, who knows what happens” deterrence aspects, but such an all-or-nothing approach seems to invite actions like Putin is taking: seize everything you can short of NATO itself, with the knowledge you can act in impunity

          Anyways, agreed the best response options are not reactive but proactive. I hope in a later blog post you can discuss

          1. how the hell NATO members were allowed to import so much Russian fossil fuel in the first place.

          2. Thee travesty that is Germany shutting down its nuclear power plants — surely something that emboldens Putin when energy prices are rising.

          Also, I hope there can be broader reckoning on the US’s “end of history” dalliances with pointless things like the war on terror, and how basically the 30 years were a strategically rudderless waste on things that actually matter (global warming, greater powers security situation).

          1. 1 Since when need NATO members a permission from whom with which they`re allowed to trade?
            2 Fukushima put the nail into the coffins

          2. Becoming energy dependent on nato’s opponent seems like a strange move for a member state.

          3. >Is there way to do a “no attacking AA” etc. until they fire first without just loosing your aircraft?

            Well you could fly interceptors through the airspace and threaten to/actually shoot down planes but not strike AA unless AA fires on you, but I’d expect that to cause Russia to call NATO’s bluff, regardless of whether or not NATO is in fact bluffing. And if NATO fires, the planes they’re intercepting will fire back and it’s very likely the AA will get involved. Even if Putin doesn’t plan to do that it’s pretty likely some air defense operator on the ground will jump in with or without orders. So it’s not something to go into without being prepared to engage the air defenses, and if you’re ready to do that you might as well do it right away.

            >Is that not a bad doctrine when the point of NATO is to defend against Nuclear armed adversaries? Sure there is the “don’t test us, who knows what happens” deterrence aspects, but such an all-or-nothing approach seems to invite actions like Putin is taking: seize everything you can short of NATO itself, with the knowledge you can act in impunity

            Well, it’s a good doctrine for winning the conventional war, which is a positive for nuclear safety because NATO does not have a no first use policy; they have deliberately left open the possibility they will employ nukes against Russian armies pushing into Germany, a policy that dates back to the Cold War when it was believed Russia would easily overrun Europe with an armored offensive.

            As for acting with impunity in non-NATO countries, well, that’s the way it is. NATO is committed to defending its members and subgroups of its membership have collectively taken offensive action, but NATO has never committed regular forces to engage Soviet/Russian regular forces. It has regularly engaged Russian-backed forces and has regularly provided armaments to other groups engaging Russia as it’s doing in Ukraine, but there’s no real expectation they’ll commit to a ground war to protect a non-member.

            >1. how the hell NATO members were allowed to import so much Russian fossil fuel in the first place.

            Because we spent a while not being concerned about Russia after the Soviet Union fell apart and they had cheap fossil fuels

            >Thee travesty that is Germany shutting down its nuclear power plants — surely something that emboldens Putin when energy prices are rising.

            Fukushima made them politically unsupportable in many European countries

          4. Fukashima harmed almost no one. I implore you all to remember that there was a massive tsunami that caused orders of magnitude more damage.

            Given the complete lack of long term storage or huge continent-spanning grids able to mitigate Renewable’s unreliability, nuclear power and geothermal is the only existing sources of energy stability. It is simply too dangerous not to use them.

            > Well, it’s a good doctrine for winning the conventional war…

            I get that, but there is a dual mandate of winning and not escalating. Post USSR, Russia should not have the capability of running over Europe in a conventional offensive (because Russia is much weaker, and Europe should have its own conventional armies!) so NATO should be able to adopt no first strike.

            With NATO’s clear productive superiority, it should be possible to wage a less confusion oriented warefare? If you only blow up the AAs that fire at you, seems possible?

            Also the rogue AA fires without orders situation seems like it would be just a few isolated instances with Russian Army moral not that high? I can’t really imagine, but if I were some Russian grunt saw a bunch of Western planes in the air I would be sure as hell not excited to fire at them.

            I have no idea whether it is possible to broadcast “no fly zone rules” direct to the troops as has to bypass higher ups hiding stuff to sow fear uncertainty and doubt in the ranks.

            > Because we spent a while not being concerned about Russia after the Soviet Union fell apart and they had cheap fossil fuels

            I understand that in the early days, but by Crimea this should have become untenable. By Georgia some doubts too.

            —–

            Anyways it seems this whole episode, together with the pandemic, will finally lurch us out of the 1991-2021 era of complacency and stupidity.

            Sanctions could be the only politically viable route for accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels.

          5. >Fukashima harmed almost no one. I implore you all to remember that there was a massive tsunami that caused orders of magnitude more damage.

            Well, yeah, but it resulted in a lot of public sentiment against nuclear power that made it politically unsupportable.

            >Also the rogue AA fires without orders situation seems like it would be just a few isolated instances with Russian Army moral not that high?

            Once NATO starts firing on AA positions other AA positions may well fire back. Also, as I understand it current anti-air doctrine involves targeting the radar and communication arrays used to coordinate targeting rather than blowing up each individual SAM, many of which are mobile and will hit the gas the moment they fire. Radar arrays have to shut down to hide or missiles can track in on their radar emissions.

          6. Makes sense, we can’t just change the doctrine in a whim now I guess cause training and stuff. And I hope this really does reorient european politics to be less stupid.

            Things I want to see are:

            1. No more Germany running budget surpluses, being useless

            2. No more Decomissioning nuclear power unless it’s the replacement modern design plant is built first.

            3. No more Ordoliberal euro bullshit, big overhaul of the Maastricht treaty. End of European austerity tendancies.

            4. European parliament gains power, end of “inter-governmentalism”

            5. European Army, NATO gradually becoming less important as a bilateral US-EU agreement rather than multilateral with EU member states.

            Ultimately I completely do not trust the US where I live long term, but also don’t trust a weak and divided EU that too easily becomes dependent on things outside its control (US military, Russian Gas, etc.). EU has chance to be very great if it gets it shit together and overcomes these obvious mistakes.

            This was quite a wish-list even months ago, but is starting to appears within the realm of possibility over the next decade or so.

            May Putin in fact end the “Decline of the West” that is his favorite rhetorical cudgel! The wonderful irony!

          7. “pointless things like the war on terror”? 3000 people were killed in New York City. There is no way a democracy could have failed to respond massively to an event like that.

          8. Currently in the UK we’re paying the equivalent of between $7.50 and $9 a gallon for petrol (gasoline?) in the car. My heating and hot water runs on heating oil (kerosene) for which I’m currently being quoted around $7 a gallon. Both are going up about 5p a litre each day at the moment. Cutting off supplies from Russia will mean the price shoots up to, frankly, who knows where. I agree it’s the right thing to do, but it’s going to hurt. A lot.

            It’s really easy to criticse the decision to buy Russian oil when you’re not going to be impacted by the financial load of not doing so.

        2. Bret, I was thinking it might be worthwhile to throw out some numbers here, since the word “AA” conjures mental images of WW2 era flak guns in many peoples’ minds. Although those still exist, they’re a weapon of desperate last resort (actually they were so even in WW2 but towards the end of that conflict the Luftwaffe was so decimated that AA weapons of desperate last resort were about all the Germans had). At any rate, for reference, some ranges for modern Russian AA weapons:

          Surface to air missiles:

          R-77M Adder 120 miles
          R-27EM Alamo 100 miles
          9K37BUK 27 miles
          S-400. (40N6E missile) 250 miles
          S-400. (9M96 missile) 75 miles

          Air to air missiles:

          R-37 124 miles

          Although in actual use, the above are maximum ranges, at which the kill probability would be relatively small (since the missile is almost out of fuel at that point), still… all of these missile systems (with the exception of the BUK) have the ability to target, track, and kill enemy air assets from distances considerably beyond the horizon.

          For comparison, the distance from Kiev to the Belarusian border is only 60 miles.

          The distance from Karkiv to the Russian border is half that.

          The distance from Melitopol to the Crimean border is only 50 miles.

          etc…

          The only area of Ukraine over which one could conceivably establish a no fly zone without coming in range of Soviet AA weapons systems firing from OUTSIDE of Ukraine, is a tiny area of land in the central west of the country around Ivano-Frankivsk, which is of NO strategic significance to Russia’s war aims. So yeah, MAYBE you could get away with that (though probably not), but even if you did, that wouldn’t really be of any use to anyone.

          Also, it’s worth pointing one of the things that contributes to “fog of war” when using missile based AA systems like these. The Russian’s radars can’t definitively tell them WHOSE planes they are seeing. IFF systems can only distinguish “one of our planes” from “not one of our planes” (a contributing factor to the shoot down of MH17 over Ukraine in 2014).

          It’s not reasonable to think that Russians firing from over the horizon at air assets over Ukraine would somehow be able to withhold firing on NATO planes. All they see is “planes that aren’t ours”, which in a live combat environment would generally get translated (in the minds of the AA operators) to “planes we should probably shoot at if we don’t want to possibly be killed by said planes”. If they don’t do shoot, sooner or later they end up effectively committing suicide.

          To ask NATO planes to fly over Ukraine, and get shot down (which they inevitably would be), and insist that they not be allowed to engage Russian AA assets firing from outside of Ukrainian territory, would also be suicide.

          TLDR, it’s not a question of if combat related to any NATO no fly zone would “leak out” of Ukraine onto Russian (or Russian allied) territory, it’s only a question of how long it would take before that happened, and in actual fact it would probably not take very long at all. Not a matter of weeks or months, but days (or maybe even less).

          1. Combat radii of Russian AA systems and IFF specificity are both good points. I’m swayed but still questioning the “Russian / Belorussian AA from outside of Ukrainian territory” argument.

            Accepting that AA is incapable of distinguishing NATO assets from Ukrainian assets, the initial no-fly proclamation would have meant *no* non-NATO combat air assets west of the Dnieper. This includes Ukrainian combat air assets.

            Consequently, targeting of any air assets over that region would have clearly meant targeting NATO air assets.

            Which brings in a related question: how geographically-correlated are modern AA radars? I.e. is it possible or impossible for them to say “That contact is on the other side of the Dnieper, while this one has crossed it”?

            My guess is this would have to be be fixed geographically via AEW assets, rather than SAM radars, but I don’t know. Nor do I know the extent of Russian AEW-SAM integration in forward-deployed air defense networks.

            If it’s impossible to discriminate, obviously a no-fly becomes completely impractical.

            If it is possible to discriminate, I’m unconvinced it’s impractical. The fact that NATO air assets *could* be shot down does not mean that Russia *would* choose to shoot them down. Specifically if their involvement were limited (e.g. no ground attack), known (they will not fire unless fired upon), and backed by a threat of escalation.

          2. My main concern with a no-fly zone, and I think this gets worse with a limited area instead of total coverage, is that Putin might very well decide it’s a bluff and call it by ordering an airstrike within it. If NATO is in fact bluffing, that discredits any further warnings and critically undermines faith they’ll protect members. If NATO is not bluffing, they’ve fired on Russian aircraft, and I am by no means confident every Russian air defense operator and interceptor will stand by during a dogfight. So I don’t think NATO should declare a no-fly zone unless they’re willing to escalate to a full air war. Which has good odds of escalating to a ground war, which may well go nuclear.

        3. FWIW, this HypOps video is REALLY good at conveying how the extreme speed and range of modern weapons systems leaves so little margin of time and error, that even in cases where the two “opposing” sides have no desire to end up in a shooting scrape, things go from “bad”, to “very bad”, to “catastrophic” before anyone on either side really has time to step back and de-escalate the situation (while it’s still in fact possible to do that).

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJXWJ-Px5tU

          I don’t think it’s possible to watch this and come away still thinking that somehow, some way, NATO could establish a no fly zone over Ukraine (where there are plenty of people already shooting at each other with bad intentions) without things getting fatally out of hand.

        4. That’s what made the Al-Qaeda plan so genius. It goaded the US into doing all sorts of stupid stuff in rashness./

          That the neocons were already itching for war makes for interesting alt history. I am sure Gore would have done something stupid too, but hopefully less of it.

          At the very least, no war in Iraq.

          1. it goaded the United States into doing some stupid things, but the fundamental goal of getting to the US to engage in sufficient numbers of stupid things that it caved in like the Soviet Union was not met

          2. And Al-Qaeda, or the cause of Islamic fundamentalism generally, is stronger as a result in what way? A “genius” strategy is supposed to leave you better off.

        5. > To do a no-fly zone, you need to be able to put your own aircraft in the airspace. That potentially means exchanging fire with Russian aircraft, but it also exposes you to Russian AA. Because of the shape of Ukraine, those AA systems might be in the combat zone, but they may well be in Russia or Belarus.

          Hold on, you’re contradicting yourself here. If Russia can threaten planes over Ukraine from outside its borders, then the US can too. AFAIK, the US can deny airspace over western Ukraine without crossing the border from Poland and Romania, and over eastern Ukraine without crossing the Dnieper.

          That doesn’t mean the US can send planes in there without risk, but the US doesn’t want to do so, as long as the Russians ALSO cannot send planes there without risk. Talking denial, not control.

          So I guess my point is – the US certainly can do that, but doesn’t care to get involved. Which is fine, but pedantry demands that things be called what they are.

          1. I don’t think this is correct. First, NATO doesn’t have an air defense system in place to protect Ukraine, because Ukraine is not part of NATO. Now, it might (or might not, I’m unsure on technical specifications) be possible to build an air defense network which could defend Ukraine from Poland/Romania/etc. but:

            1) That would be a major construction project, not something you can do in a week.
            2) That would involve shooting down Russian planes, which risks exactly the same escalation problems we’ve been discussing.
            3) Again, not an expert, but I don’t think air defense systems are like missile towers in Starcraft, I think you need actual planes in the air as well as ground structures if you want to interdict low-flying (or very high flying) craft.

          2. There’s existing NATO air defenses in the bordering countries and mobile or easily set up defenses for protecting offensive operations, so providing limited anti-air coverage over western portions of Ukraine wouldn’t be impossible. However, that probably wouldn’t cover the main combat zones. It also raises the odds Putin would think NATO was bluffing, although admittedly it’s much less likely to immediately devolve into a large-scale exchange of fire and instead result in a single strike mission being shot down and then Russia backing down.

          3. Well, and also, that requires you to be willing to shoot down Russian planes, which is the escalation we’re trying to avoid. NATO shooting down Russian planes is actually an act of aggressive war, which has major consequences.

          4. >that requires you to be willing to shoot down Russian planes, which is the escalation we’re trying to avoid

            Ukraine seems quite willing to shoot down Russian planes and has not been nuked, although (and this is important) *they no longer have nukes because they gave those up and relied on the US to defend them from the Russians*.

            And yet, the Ukraine has not been nuked, while they are literally shooting down Russian planes, blowing up Russian tanks and killing Russian soldiers. The Ukraine does not have a nuclear retaliation force. Why would the Russians be more willing to nuke countries that do have one? I’m pretty sure the Russians, too, enjoy having, you know, cities and stuff.

            >I don’t think air defense systems are like missile towers in Starcraft, I think you need actual planes in the air as well as ground structures if you want to interdict low-flying (or very high flying) craft

            The point was this: if Russians can shoot down US planes over Ukraine from beyond the border, then I’m pretty confident the US can too, from beyond the other border. If the US can’t, then the Russians probably can’t either, so send those CAP F-22s already.

            >NATO shooting down Russian planes is actually an act of aggressive war, which has major consequences.

            The Russians won’t launch nukes over a bunch of downed planes in the Ukraine, any more than the US did over a (significantly bigger) bunch of downed planes in Vietnam. There’s more than one kind of war. Clausewitz (!) knew his stuff.

          5. Ukraine is an active combatant. NATO is not. Deciding to shoot down a bunch of Russian planes is an act of war, regardless of where we do it from.

            Arming enemies of another power is very standard (though usually more hidden than this). Shooting uniformed members of another power’s military is not, because it runs a massive risk of escalation. We shoot down their planes from Poland. They respond by destroying the AA defenses which destroyed those planes and now we’ve got an attack by Russia on NATO soil, with dead NATO soldiers…

            The assumption here is that they’ll let us blow up their planes and won’t counter attack which seems wildly optimistic. Or that the counter-attack will stop at the level of proportionate responses and not escalate, which seems equally optimistic.

          6. Sorry, skipped this part:

            “And yet, the Ukraine has not been nuked, while they are literally shooting down Russian planes, blowing up Russian tanks and killing Russian soldiers. The Ukraine does not have a nuclear retaliation force. Why would the Russians be more willing to nuke countries that do have one? I’m pretty sure the Russians, too, enjoy having, you know, cities and stuff.”

            The concern isn’t that they’ll go straight from a fighter jet getting shot down to ‘let’s nuke Krakow’ it’s that it’s a massive escalation that shifts NATO from a supplier and economic pressurer into an active combatant. Now, hopefully that doesn’t escalate to nuclear war, but it actually can, unlike the Ukraine-Russia conflict which can’t because Ukraine doesn’t have nukes. It’s an entirely different level of risk, which no, NATO is not willing to take on for a non-member state (and shouldn’t, the point of NATO is protection of members, not preventing Russian military action generally).

          7. As a nitpick, Russia-Ukraine can 100% escalate to a nuclear war, if the Russians nuke Ukraine. The fact that it hasn’t imo suggests the Russians are just as reluctant to go nuclear as everyone else.

            While NATO would certainly have no business intervening, the US and/or EU countries definitely could. They won’t, because they don’t care to, and that’s fine. But that’s not the topic being discussed here.

            Our host was saying that, even if some Western countries were willing to shoot down Russian planes, they would find this impossible without also attacking Russian AA in Russian territory. Which makes no sense, for reasons I’ve already laid out twice.

          8. >> The point was this: if Russians can shoot down US planes over Ukraine from beyond the border, then I’m pretty confident the US can too, from beyond the other border. If the US can’t, then the Russians probably can’t either, so send those CAP F-22s already.

            Geography matters here. Ukraine’s total land borders are in the region of 5,500km, of which Russia and Belarus make up around 3,000km, including the entire northern and eastern borders and a significant proportion of the southern border. Moldova makes up about another 1,000km along the southern border, of which around a third is Transdniestria, and therefore effectively Russian.

            So NATO’s ability to put AA on the Ukrainian border is limited to the remaining less-than-a-third of the border, all of which is at the western end of the country where there is relatively little fighting. Given the shape of Ukraine, the northern border also gives you more bang for your buck than the western border does.

            The result is that NATO probably has the range to deter attack against Lviv, but not Kyiv or Kharkiv, to name only the major cities. Russia, meanwhile, can put its own AA along most of the remaining two-thirds (not even including the coastline, which Russia also controls a large chunk of) so it can project its own AA in a thick band right around the north and east, and much of the south, of Ukraine, an area which is much more strategically significant in the context of this war.

            In order to enforce a no-fly zone you need to be able to put your own planes in the air, and NATO can’t do that across the majority of the country without exposing itself to Russian AA. Russia, meanwhile, can operate with impunity across most of the country without significant exposure to NATO AA in Poland, Romania etc. For NATO to declare a no-fly zone without putting its own planes in the air would merely escalate things without having any tangible effect on the conduct of the war itself.

          9. Re: “If Russia can threaten planes over Ukraine from outside its borders, then the US can too.”

            Bret never said that they couldn’t. But that scenario plays out ever more badly than the “putting our planes in Ukrainian airspace”, hence, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Bret didn’t mention it because he didn’t think it worthy of mention (and I would agree with him).

            Look, AA systems in the real world don’t work the way they do in video games. A primary component of a modern AA weapon is its IFF subsystem. But IFF is really a misnomer. The acronym should really be IFU (“identify friend, or unknown”). All an IFF system can really tell you is whether a plane is “definitely friendly”. Everything else is just “unknown”

            The operating assumption in a combat zone is that anything that shows up as “unknown” is most likely not friendly, and on balance you should shoot at it rather than not if it’s in a position to threaten your own assets.

            But that doesn’t always work out the way one might hope.

            Hence the shoot down of MH17 by Russian separatists over Ukraine in 2014, the shoot down of Iran Air 655 by the United States over the Persian Gulf in 1988, and the shoot down of Korean Airlines flight 007 just west of Sakhalin in 1983.

            ex-Soviet block planes and helicopters use an entirely different ISS system than NATO planes do, hence, ALL air assets currently operating over Ukraine would show up as “unknown” on American AA systems. There’s no magic button that would allow us to only shoot down Russian planes and not Ukrainian ones.

            But let’s roll with that, and say we decided to try and enforce a TRUE no fly zone, as in “nobody fly anything here, period. If you do we will shoot it down”.

            How exactly do you think that would help? Remember, Ukraine still has its own air assets, and it is using them to support its own ground forces. It’s not at all self-evident that if you just tried to ensure that nothing was flying over Ukraine at all, that that would swing the balance to Ukraine’s side in any meaningful way, and certainly not in any way significant enough to justify the HUGE risk of escalation that would accompany any such effort.

          10. Turkey essentially introduced partial no-fly zone over part of Syria (they called sth like “security zone”) going with shooting one russian bomber. After that Putin accepted the reality keeps it his forces out of it.

            Limited no-fly zone, supported by ground-based AA (Patriot and similar systems, based within NATO border) that would provide security over 50 km from the NATO (Poland) border would be huge improvement.

        6. > To do a no-fly zone, you need to be able to put your own aircraft in the airspace. That potentially means exchanging fire with Russian aircraft, but it also exposes you to Russian AA. Because of the shape of Ukraine, those AA systems might be in the combat zone, but they may well be in Russia or Belarus.

          Granted.

          > So to maintain your air presence without losing your very expensive jets, you need to take out that AA. […] That in turn means you need to make airstrikes both in the combat area and also into Belarus and Russia. Airstrikes into Russia trigger the same [problems.] The logic ends up the same because a no-fly zone is not entirely a thing that exists in the air, it requires also silencing anti-air fires from the ground.

          This is where I think we diverge on thinking. *Guaranteeing* the safety of NATO air assets in a hypothetical Ukrainian no-fly zone requires silencing in-range AA. However, guarantees are not required for effectiveness. (See also, below reply where I clarified that the hypothetical was over an *absolute* no-fly zone for non-NATO combat aircraft over west-of-Dnieper Ukraine. Including both Ukrainian and Russian / Belorussian combat aircraft. And the excellent point about IFF interrogatory specificity)

          Granted, this means *tremendous* risk to the NATO pilots flying air policing missions.

          But I think the difficulty I have in coming to the “It’s impossible” conclusion is that it feels like assuming that Russia is the only actor able to make demands from a game theory perspective. In reality, NATO can also choose to make whatever demands, and attach whatever consequences, it desires.

          So, hypothetically, sometime before hostilities break out…

          NATO: “We are declaring a complete no-fly zone for any non-NATO combat aircraft over Ukraine, west of the Dnieper river. Any combat aircraft or missiles which cross the river or a border into Ukrainian airspace are subject to immediate interdiction.

          Commiserate with this, NATO is also publicly stating its rules of engagement: (1) Any NATO aircraft over Ukraine, west of the Dnieper river, will engage anti-aircraft systems (airborne or ground) only after being launched upon, and only retaliating against the systems which committed aggressive action against it. (2) No NATO aircraft over Ukraine, west of the Dnieper river, or other NATO assets (airborne or ground) will take offensive action against any ground targets anywhere in Ukraine, or against ground or airborne targets in Ukraine, east of the Dnieper river, or outside of NATO’s borders, subject only to (1).”

          At that point, I don’t believe Russia’s calculus clearly favors an escalation into attacking NATO air forces over Ukraine, within that geographic area.

          If they do, they seriously escalate the battle, as the aggressor, after having publicly declared that this was actually about eastern Ukraine to the international community.

          If they do not, they lose battlefield ISR, CAS, and potentially the ability to strike Ukrainian assets within those bounds with cruise missiles. But! They retain the ability to act with ground forces, with which they believe they can already win.

          Broadly, IMHO, NATO and the US are treating this like it’s Iraq and Afghanistan, when in reality it’s Bosnia. When you declare a *defensive* no-fly zone, especially in ostensible support of civilians, over a supportive populace, you don’t look like the asshole. When an aggressor violates that, they look like even more of an asshole.

          1. I think you’re underrating the fog of war as it applies to people on the ground and the extent to which the decision to engage is not made by Putin but some scared conscript on his third cup of coffee staring at an air defense radar screen. When you’ve got two hostile forces in close proximity, especially when one is engaging in combat, you get fights the planners did not intend.

      2. I don’t think it really serves your arguments to say that “real war isn’t like a videogame”. It’s a bit insulting toward your reader’s intelligence. Of course real war is not like a videogame, and “where firing a nuclear weapon is accompanied by a big loud siren everyone can hear”. I have a hard time imagining anyone would seriously think that.

        1. I mean, saying “real war isn’t like a videogame” is rhetorically brilliant. It makes the speaker appear wise, experienced and fashionably world-weary, while anyone who disagrees is labeled infantile, inexperienced and generally divorced from reality.

          Even better, the statement conveys zero actual information (a remarcable achievement in its own right) thus it is 100% safe from counter-argument. It’s Sun Tzu-level formlessness. Pure genius.

          Twitter debating tactics 101.

      1. Russia took Chernobyl on the first day, and anyways there’d be a lot of Ukranians still living in the contaminated area. It’d also damage relations with NATO, it’d likely be considered a war crime and I think the radiation plume from the initial meltdown drifted into current NATO countries.

        They’re probably going to sabotage the pipeline, possibly as their conventional forces retreat, otherwise by insurgents, but that’s an obvious move and if Russia has prepared for it they could quickly repair it. Though CNN is reporting they had to pause their advance just two days in and 50 miles from the border due to logistics issues at the front, which speaks shockingly poorly of Russia’s preparations.

  3. I find this mostly informative, but the biggest question I have, the biggest question I have, the one you pose first, and the one I think this blog is probably the only one I can trust to answer, is unanswered: why is he doing this?

    You summarize it as “because he wants to” and recognize that isn’t a useful answer. You say you are going into more detail about what he wants, but you just describe what he’s doing, not what he wants. He is using a large military force to attempt to enact regime change in Ukraine, either absorbing it or installing a puppet government. That’s a method, not a goal. Why does Putin believe he needs to use a large military force to enact regime change in Ukraine? What is the objective? What makes it worth the cost? Is it resources, access to trade routes, internal politicking, inevitable outcome of previous bad decisions that can’t be walked back, a stronger defensible position, what does he get from this? Why do this now and not earlier? Has something changed to make this more pressing or has something changed to make him better able to get away with it?

    For a layperson like me, like almost everyone, it is impossible to obtain any useful information about the Ukraine crisis. Even when we know who is the aggressor (that bit is pretty damn obvious), every bit of information we get comes from credentialed experts who have shown time and time again that they cannot figure out what the truth is and don’t care about telling it. Anything you hear a political analyst say about the specifics of the situation, about why things are happening, about WHAT is happening, can only inform you of what that analyst wishes were true in order to confirm their existing worldview.

    You are the only analyst I know of who actually cares about, who actually PERCEIVES actual on-the-ground situations and resources and strategy and actual reasons why militaries want to do things and why they want to do them in a certain way, instead of making everything grand sweeping narratives about what they want to think anyway. So you’re the only person who can answer that question: what is the objective Putin seeks to accomplish by invading and enacting regime change in Ukraine?

    1. I believe Putin’s objective is a nationalist and imperialist project to reassert Russian imperial control over what he defines as its ‘near abroad.’ Putin is on record in multiple places stating that the disbanding of the Soviet Union was a mistake. I believe he sincerely believes that Russia has a ‘right’ to rule over the ‘lesser’ Slavic peoples on his borders and is attempting to make that a reality be violently reincorporating the most vulnerable of those states.

      Back in the Helm’s Deep series, I noted that strategic aims often contain an ‘ideological project’ in addition to the direct pursuit of power. This, I think, is Putin’s ideological project that he is pursuing.

      1. Yep, this is also where I think the NATO expansion might have a tangible effect: It basically puts a deadline on Putin bringing the rest of the former USSR back into the fold, since once they’re in NATO they are essentially out of that. But it’s more a matter of accelerating timeline than anything else.

        1. The baltic states are part of NATO and thus are a way bigger gamble. NATO abandoning them would mean the end of NATO. After all, how can you trust NATO if they are willing to give up member states? So NATO those states would get reinforced with US, French and German troops as soon as Russia builds up forces on the border. And if Russia pulls the trigger they will inflict casualties on those countries. At that point they made NATO very angry.

          1. But will Putin be afraid of NATO after getting away with swallowing the Ukraine? Hitler didn’t hesitate to attack Poland after Chamberlain showed his spinelessness at Munich.

          2. I think this is simply wrong. The fact that NATO won’t defend non-NATO members tells you nothing about what NATO will do if you attack a NATO member.

          3. NATO has deployed additional forces to bordering countries and activated its quick reaction force, which sends a pretty unambiguous message that it’s prepared to defend them

        2. While Estonia is clearly on Putin’s shopping list, going after one of the Baltics directly would be a massive ramp up in terms of escalation and risk, as they are members of both NATO and the EU. Not to say that he won’t try it eventually but it probably won’t take a great deal of talk from the west to keep Russian tanks out of Estonia for the time being. Of course that is dependent on western (and particularly American) leadership holding the line, and this can’t be guaranteed into 2025. Assuming that Russia rolls over Ukraine quickly – which the present evidence suggests it won’t – in the short term Putin would probably be looking elsewhere.

          Georgia and Ukraine occupy a similar kind of space, as they are both former Soviet countries on the candidacy register for both organisations, but some way off actually joining, so their prospective memberships can be taken as a threat requiring a response at any time, but can be kicked around with minimal military risk.

          Georgia is not a full Russian puppet in the manner of Belarus but its politics have taken on a much less anti-Russian slant since 2008. The dominant political party is widely suspected of shilling for Russia, and the prosecution of Saakashvili clearly has an element of political signalling to Putin even if the charges have some legitimacy. So it is probably safe from Russian aggression for the moment.

          The third country in that liminal space is Moldova, a formerly Soviet prospective EU/NATO candidate, with its very own Russian-backed breakaway republic. Given the geography, Ukraine probably needs to be reduced before Moldova becomes a fully viable target, but I gather that Moldovans are concerned.

      2. Not a very grand Grand Strategy, TBH. Russia gets a bunch of little useless puppet states, earns the enmity of the world including China this time, gets cut off from world financial markets, and gets jack shit in return. And then Putin dies, his cronies slaughter each other in the resulting power vacuum, and the puppet states get their puppet rulers kicked out by the angry citizens the instant Russia is distracted. This is not a good strategy for the long term.

        1. You mean Putin gets remembered (by the Russians) as the man who rebuilt Russia after its humiliation, even though the gains were subsequently lost by lesser men who could not match his greatness. Certainly when if you do one-line precis’ of historical leaders, we rarely consider whether their successors who inevitably dropped the ball were set up to fail. We just consider them failures compared to the great one who set things up.

          If you are sufficiently narcissistic, the purpose of a nation is to idolize you. The idea of being seen (by Russians) as a latter day Peter the Great, that no subsequent ruler could match might be very attractive to him.

          He’s certainly old, rich and secure enough that he might be concerned about his legacy a century after his death rather than what tomorrow brings.

      3. I humbly submit that this is a naked attempt to corner a large part of the agricultural commodities market at a time of major supply issues. As you are likely aware Ukraine and Russia together are close to 40% of global wheat exports and something like 20% of corn. I believe 80% of sunflower oil. Both are large fertilizer producers.

        This is the thesis of Ice Age Farmer and it fits the picture well.

        1. Interesting. In a world that is increasingly trying to cut down on its reliance on fossil fuels, a petrochemical-heavy economy like Russia is going to find the future quite turbulent. Absorbing a significant proportion of the world’s current agricultural production could be seen to help shore up Russia’s economic future, and give it a bargaining chip with the West in a world that’s reducing its reliance on Russia’s primary export.

      4. I think there’s a distinction to be drawn between the “basically Russians” and the other bordering peoples.

        There is a pretty solid argument that Belarus and Ukraine make sense as part of Russia, in a way the other post-Soviet states don’t. Historically Russia for ages, speaking languages that are basically Russian, heavily culturally linked, virtually no natural borders, etc etc. Estonia going its own way is not an existential attack on Russia the way Ukraine or Belarus doing so would be.

        In Putin’s big manifesto he put out where he justified all this shortly before the invasion, that seems to be the major breakdown. The Ukrainians are misguided Russians, in Putin’s view. Which means they get to be part of Russia, whether they like it or not. He speaks of Belarus much the same way, to an extent that I’d be nervous if I were Belarussian.

        I think the Ukrainians not wanting to be part of Russia trumps this, but I can see his point of view. Much as if Ireland were to invade Northern Ireland I’d disagree with it, but completely understand why they were doing it. Whereas if they invaded Wales I’d consider them to be imperialist jerks.

        1. Yeah, pretty much this, IMO.
          There’s been commentary on how Russia, with 140 million people, makes a poor Great Power – and how perhaps, romantically speaking, if the Slavs “stood together” (by way of Russian conquest of Belarus and the Ukraine), they could make a go of it.
          It’s a “slavs together stronk” meme, and it will end badly and has serious ethical issues (certainly a gross understatement!), but the romanticism is clear here.

        2. “He speaks of Belarus much the same way, to an extent that I’d be nervous if I were Belarussian.”

          Given that the regime in Belarus seems to be willing to act pretty openly as a Russian vassal I don’t think “nervous” is really right one way or another.

          1. Even accounting for that, he seems pretty clear that he wants Belarus as Russian in all senses that matter and a few that don’t.

        3. Belarus and Russia already have something called “Union State of Russia and Belarus”, and it’s been around since 1990s. In practice, it’s mostly about free trade and movement, but the ultimate goal from the get-go was an actual federation.

          (If Putin succeeds, I would expect that Ukraine would be forced to also join said union, which could then be renamed “SlabiUnion” or something like that.)

          Which is to say – Russia has already achieved dominance over Belarus a long time ago, so it doesn’t need to invade. Unless, that is, Belarusians kick their current government out, which is also a possibility.

      5. I was hoping you’d delve a bit into the Orange Revolution and especially Euromaidan – I don’t understand them that well but they seem key to understanding why Putin would feel it necessary to escalate to this degree, and perhaps Yanukovych++ is his desired endstate.

        Pro-Russian sources and Putin himself frame Euromaidan as a Wester-instigated coup. While this obviously seems dubious, I have no idea if it’s half-true, pure propaganda, or false, but genuinely believed by Putin. So I was hoping for your take.

        1. Putin sees massed people power as an existential threat to his government. It’s what brought down the Soviet Union and has brought down most Russian allied governments in his near abroad.

        2. My take on Euromaidan is that the presence of far right elements in the literal crowds caused a massive destabilisation of Ukraine, possibly up to contributing to the current crisis. Those elements weren’t the majority, and don’t seem to have actually benefited from Euromaidan at all, but their simple existence created a negative impression of the mood of the crowd, leading to Yanukovych having likely quite sincere concerns for his safety. This meant he clung on, then fled, rather than simply resigning (or calling an election/referendum, which, with a less threatening seeming protest, could have diffused a situation that started essentially as a single-issue protest).
          Essentially, from the political situation after Euromaidan, the assessment that it was an intentional western-sponsored coup is mostly false. But Yanukovych does seem to have believed it was going to be a coup at the time, and because he behaved as if it was a coup, he barred the way for it to resolve through normal democratic means (which was presumably deemed too personally risky by Yanukovych).
          While this probably isn’t much to do with the reasoning behind Putin’s decision to invade, it a) created the circumstances under which it could happen and b) probably decreased Putin’s willingness to try to achieve his goals through diplomatic means (because he tried to get a neighbouring country to become a political ally through old fashioned diplomacy, and it did not in any way work).

          1. The Maidan was a CIA coup, financed by the USA, the street thugs were the Nazi element. It was USA regime change, plain and simple and the CIA imported LOTS of Nazis, starting with Operation Paperclip. Allan Dulles, when he was OSS, got himself transferred to Switzerland, so he could stay in touch with all his Nazi buddies. IBM provided the punch card machines that kept track of all the incarcerated Jews, and collected them “no questions asked”. If you want an objective back ground, I highly recommend this,

            The USA didn’t give a Millimeter on Russia’s legitimate security concerns and Zelensky announced at a Munich conference, he was going to make nuclear warheads for his aged but NOT obsolete missiles, that could reach Moscow! That was the straw that broke the camel’s back! “The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter.” Mr. Ritter was the first American inspector inside Russia to monitor the Intermediate Range Missile Ban. He was Chief Weapons Inspector with UNSCOM in Iraq. He’s married to a Georgian, who has no love for Putin or Russia, Major Ritter is also NOT a Putin fan. Western and Ukrainian media have launched a full on PsyOps campaign. If you want some keen insights, I suggest it’s an hour very well spent! The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IexFtDCJNsM You are being subjected to a no holds barred CIA Psyop propaganda campaign, from the same CIA that had a coup, called the Maidan, in 2014. You think they’re telling the truth now? Remember Iraqi WMD?

          2. @solarsavestheplanetSET

            > The USA FORCED this, while arming Ukraine, goading the Russians to attack, by leaving ZERO other options!

            poor Putin, USA and Ukraine took over his army and ordered it to attack

            > The USA didn’t give a Millimeter on Russia’s legitimate security concerns and

            Which ones you consider as legitimate? Because many requests were insane

            > Zelensky announced at a Munich conference, he was going to make nuclear warheads for his aged but NOT obsolete missiles

            [citation needed]

            Ukraine definitely regrets giving up leftover nukes in return for Russia promising to honor its borders. But that is a different thing.

            Also, even if Zelensky would stupidly say it, that is still ridiculous fantasy and far below what Putin did, suggested, can do and threatened to do. See war games that included launch of ICBM at Warsaw, ones that they actually have.

        3. Short answer from an uncredentialed opinion-haver: it’s mostly false. Western agencies were caught somewhat by surprise, and hopped on the bandwagon once it was already rolling. I honestly think Putin might struggle to believe in bottom-up action, though, and so overestimate their role.

          1. This is useful, The USA didn’t give a Millimeter on Russia’s legitimate security concerns and Zelensky announced at a Munich conference, he was going to make nuclear warheads for his aged but NOT obsolete missiles, that could reach Moscow! That was the straw that broke the camel’s back! “The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter.” Mr. Ritter was the first American inspector inside Russia to monitor the Intermediate Range Missile Ban. He was Chief Weapons Inspector with UNSCOM in Iraq. He’s married to a Georgian, who has no love for Putin or Russia, Major Ritter is also NOT a Putin fan. Western and Ukrainian media have launched a full on PsyOps campaign. If you want some keen insights, I suggest it’s an hour very well spent! The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IexFtDCJNsM You are being subjected to a no holds barred CIA Psyop propaganda campaign, from the same CIA that had a coup, called the Maidan, in 2014. You think they’re telling the truth now? Remember Iraqi WMD?

    2. In more lower level terms, controlling Ukrainian territory would let Russia to put troops on a very long border with Poland (from Ukraine, Belarus, Kaliningrad Oblast exclave). Poland would have very a hard time defending from many directions, especially sea. It would have to rely on allies, and US is not willing to commit LOTS of troops to Europe just to defend Poland. Then it wouldn’t have resources left to deal with China. So, as some Polish experts speculate, US might then have to make a deal with Russia, sell Poland and Europe ends up in Russian sphere of influence.

      There are also more obvious reasons: lots of sea access, controlling Ukraine allows to attack in many directions, about 25% global grain exports come from Ukraine, over 90% of America’s semiconductor-grade neon gas comes from Ukraine.

  4. You say that Russia’s initial demands were to roll NATO back to 1997 positions and that was plainly unacceptable to NATO, and demonstrates bad faith negotiations. I understand why that would be unacceptable, but initially asking for more than you realistically expect is a common negotiation tactic. Do you know if a NATO guarantee to exclude only Ukraine was ever offered as a compromise? If it wasn’t, why was that an unacceptable offer?

    I’m not arguing against your positions, but genuinely curious about what the terms of the negotiation were that proceeded this war.

    1. The initial ask was simply so far beyond what NATO might agree to it’s not even a useful opening ask.It’s like pitching a startup to Warren Buffet and asking for half his net worth. He’s not going to cut that offer in half, he’s going to tell you to make a serious offer or stop wasting his time. If Putin wanted to genuinely negotiate he might have started by asking for a withdrawal of ballistic missiles that could carry nukes. NATO probably wouldn’t go for that, but they might actually make a counter offer.

      Furthermore, Putin made a public point of saying he wasn’t open to counter-offers; he said he’d only accept having his demands fully met and would not negotiate.

      1. Also, I think Ukraine promising to stay out of NATO in return for Russia promising not to invade wouldn’t really go anywhere because neither side would really trust that would hold long-term. Putin would think NATO might change its mind and NATO would think Putin would arrange for “local separatists” who are “acting independantly” and “supported by sympathetic foreigners” who are “definitely not members of the Russian Army” to overthrow Ukraine.

        Realistically I think both could plausibly happen within the decade if such an agreement was reached depending on election cycles in NATO members.

    2. Note that Crimea + Dontesk were both triggered by a trade treaty with the EU, rather than by anything to do with NATO. I don’t think NATO was really the issue at all.

  5. “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.”

    There are actually two further problems here.

    First, this argument, by its own success, destroys NATO. Keep in mind that deterrence almost requires an immediate “Fuck yeah, let’s do this!” response. And that Ukraine desired NATO membership, and received some assurances in return for giving up its inherited nuclear weapons. Now, what happens if Russia destabilizes and invades Estonia or one of the other minor NATO countries? The cost/benefit for any of the major countries is all downside, just as it is in Ukraine. The balance may have been different back when NATO and the Warsaw Pact were two buffer zones sharing a common border, but at this point, every NATO country and Russia have to have the unacceptable escalation risks in their minds, which weakens the deterrent effect, which in turn raises more of that kind of doubt.

    Second, there is the nuclear proliferation situation, which you didn’t address. (I’d imagine there’s a considerable number of people in Ukraine’s government asking, “Who thought that was a good idea?” right now.) Every non-nuclear-capable country in the world has to be thinking that any nuclear-capable country could annex them without significant consequence, and any of them that still think, “We don’t need nukes; X will protect us.” probably really does need their heads examined.

    Sanctions are great and lovely, but I’m already seeing the “sanctions only hurt the poorest people in the country” argument, and I am unaware of sanctions ever resulting in more-or-less peaceful regime change (except for South Africa, where “sanctions” became a significant political and social issue). (Oh, there’s Japan, but I don’t think anyone really wants to go there.) Further, sanctions or no, at this point there is no way Ukraine comes out of this situation intact.

    P.s. I’m sorry Estonia. I keep picking on you in these examples. I’m sure you are a great and lovely country and I’d really like to visit.

    1. The first point is a big part of why NATO is deploying more garrison forces into Estonia; if Putin invades Estonia conventionally he’s very likely to end up fighting those garrisons. Even if they’re not able to meaningfully impact the situation on the ground (and they might) that means Putin is in a conventional war with NATO. Which means there’s a credible threat the nuclear-armed NATO members will get in a spiral of escalation.

      1. The point of garrisoning Estonia is to guarantee that any Russian invasion of Estonia would send a number of Americans (and others) back home in boxes. This would in turn generate war fever in America and elsewhere. A “perfect” Russian invasion of Estonia would result in no American casualties. A “perfect” NATO defense would create many non-Estonian NATO casualties. The Russians can work backward from these points: deterrence.

    2. There’s more to the story of Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal than that. Basically, they wouldn’t have been able to maintain the things and had no operational control of them. Doing what they did earned a lot of good will but they honestly didn’t have much choice. Arms Control Wink covered this pretty well last night (which I was glad for, since my memories of college International Relations left me thinking it played out differently).

      https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/1215097/deterrence-in-ukraine/

      1. Thanks for that. The Budapest Memorandum is one of my online bugbears right now and I feel like punching someone every time I see it get brought up. If I were a more conspiratorial person, I’d say it was deliberately promoted to undermine American guarantees.

    3. I worked with an Estonian back when the Soviet empire came unstuck. I remember how thrilled he was that his homeland was an independent nation again. I don’t believe for a minute that either the EU or the US will take any risks to keep it that way. Love to be proved wrong by the way.

          1. the bounds between EU members are much stronger and tighterthan between NATO states.
            The only case NATO states sent their troops into war to defend a member was after 9/11.
            If our soldiers fought and died for NO OTHER reason than to honour their nations pledge to the US, what do you believe we will do if members of our family are threatened.

          2. Did not NATO make aggressive war on Serbia and carve a new territory called Kosovo? How about aggressive actions in Afghanistan, or is that what you mean post 9/11? Libya? How was any of that “defensive”?

          3. The “war” on serbia was not one to defend a member of the alliance but to stop massacres like Srebrenicza.
            Afghanistan was defensive, it was to disable an Aggressor to use Afghanistan as base for future aggression

      1. I think this is to underestimate the EU, at least as it presently stands. It has obvious problems, but the departure of its most annoying member has, while in some ways weakened the organisation, in other ways has reinvigorated it. External threats against an EU member are also the sort of thing that can help to reinforce its bonds (especially since remaining “problem members” like Poland are leading voices in favour of European cooperation in the face of Russian aggression).

        In Macron, the EU also has a de facto leader who appears to have the magic combination of energy, arrogance and belief in the project to actually drive an EU policy independent of Washington if necessary. He will have been infuriated by Putin’s response to his efforts in Ukraine and it’s hard to see him tolerating being treated like that again. Militarily, France is not an enemy Putin would want to tangle with even if America and Britain sit on their hands.

        So if the EU can maintain its current course, I think the Estonian border may be safe (although cyber-attacks and the like remain a constant risk, obviously). There’s a French election this year, mind, and while he looks likely to win, if he doesn’t it’s not clear that his successor will follow his lead on this issue. Nor is it clear that if Scholz would, if forced to step into the shoes of the French leadership. So Putin may consider that he can just sit back and wait for EU resolve to burn itself out, since he’s not going anywhere.

        1. He can just use Germany’s dependancy on Russian gas to keep EU paralysed, all the while Macron looses more and more popularity at home.

          1. Macron is on course to win the election later this year, which would keep him in power until 2027. Obviously there’s still time for that to change, but while I haven’t seen any polls conducted in the last few days I haven’t seen any evidence that his handling of the crisis to date has hurt his poll ratings, while the invasion on the 24th will hurt those of his opponents who are seen to be soft on Russia.

            Germany’s dependence on Russian gas and its general pacifism is one of the reasons I’m not looking to it. or Scholz, to lead the EU response. But Germany seems to be coming round to the idea that it can live without Nord Stream 2, and while he can pull the plug on German gas and that would be painful in the short term, it’s also a card he can only play once so if Germany can ride out the initial hardship, the longer-term outcome is likely to be a more independent and Russophobic Germany, which isn’t exactly great for Putin.

        2. Except that all the moves over the last days have been in the opposite direction. The EU is a profoundly liberal democratic experiment, and Putin has just spat in its face. Sweden has sent weapons to Ukraine – as have just about every European state, von Leyden has said Ukraine can apply to join the EU, Germany has doubled its defence budget, borders have been opened to refugees…Putin has given the EU a mighty push towards greater solidarity and effective defence.

    4. Except this assumes that the only available move is for one side (and always the same one) to always back down from confrontation, which has not proven to be correct. Instead, what tends to happen is a lot of posturing and backroom dealing to come to a ‘let’s not blow up the world’ compromise.

      But the risk is so high that most of the time, all parties try to avoid direct conflict between nuclear powers.

      What happens if Russia decides ‘fuck it, let’s invade Estonia?’ Almost certainly war between NATO and Russia, which Russia does not want anymore than we do. So they don’t invade. Deterrence does sometimes work.

  6. I read this blog from some time, and really enjoy it, and also I like this “cold” analysis in the hot times.

    However I disagree with the “Preemptive Sanctions” conclusion. These sanctions would have much sense, but not for deterring Russia.

    As you noted the Russia’s attack long prepared, and Putin cannot resign without heavy blow on his reputation. Therefore any sanctions have no deterred value, regardless of their preemptiveness. But they much improve the America’s image across the world. So far, America’s response looks a bit clumsy. There was much talking, the initial sanctions were weak, the next were also under expectation, so finally Ukrainian President announced “we’re fighting alone”.

    I’m from Poland, thus I’m writing from the Polish perspective. Currently all are focused to be against Russia and on support for Ukraine, but I deem, when dust will settle, there will appear a question: “Will NATO save us for sure?”. Honestly, vision of USA acting when Russia armies are already in the middle of Poland is not very comforting. How does America want to compete with China having reputation of ally which cannot operate effectively?

    The sanctions therefore could be helpful, but not in deterring Russia (what was impossible anyway) but in building image of America actually having plan and acting proactively.

    1. Tucker Carlson explicitly prefers fighting his own country’s ‘culture war’ and getting internal political advantage over the lives of foreigners. That’s the one thing Tucker doesn’t lie about.

      Many liberal professors know that the Biden administration’s policy grasp is very poor – Right now, the admin’s constant PR is literally undermining Ukrainian resistance (give lots of press statements about how Ukraine will sure lose and watch the morale effects).

      This admin can change, if it is criticized from within. However, criticizing the admin will come with political costs to their own faction. So they prefer to reserve their criticism to the people out of power and not to the obvious people in power – regardless of the cost to foreigners. That’s not very different from Tucker Carlson, just with added hypocrisy.

    2. “Will NATO save us for sure?”. Honestly, vision of USA acting when Russia armies are already in the middle of Poland is not very comforting.

      Speaking as an American, both non-American NATO countries and the EU should absolutely be developing their own ability to defend themselves from Russia without relying on us to do the heavy lifting, because we’ve become EXTREMELY unreliable.

      This can’t be done overnight but it ultimately shouldn’t be a big deal, given that even without the US, Europe has an enormous population, a huge economy, a nuclear deterrent, and some of the best tech in the world.

      1. Yeah there should be an EU army, controlled by EU parliament, and NATO should be gone or reduced to a US EU bilateral treaty.

        Oh, and more nuclear power all around, so no one is screwed over by exporters shutting off the gas.

        1. NATO can’t be abolished or reduced to an EU-US bilateral without removing both Britain and Turkey, which are two of the most important members (probably two of the top four, together with the USA and France). Cutting them out of the deal doesn’t seem sensible for Europe, to say nothing of the two countries themselves.

          I agree that the EU should have an army, but am wary of “control by EU Parliament”. Legislatures – especially consensus-building coalition-dominated legislatures like the EP – are generally not nimble enough to deal competently with emergencies, and deployment of troops is almost always an emergency. This is why armed forces are in most countries (or at least countries with effective armed forces) under immediate control of the executive.

          And while the EP is fond of claiming to be the EU’s most democratic element whenever it tries an internal power grab, its democratic credentials are weaker than it might appear. Its members are directly elected, which is what its arguments are based on, but voter engagement with the Parliament is much lower than for national politics, both in terms of interest in (and knowledge of) its activities and turnout at elections. There is a good argument to be made that the Council still represents the voters of Europe more effectively than the Parliament does.

          1. I note that, in the abstract, giving it more power might make voting for its candidates more urgent.

        2. Whether there should be an EU army or not, building one will be a multi-decade feat. It needs to overcome the military neutrality of several members (all of whom have vetoes), require the movement of much foreign affairs policy from member states to the EU, the building of command and control mechanisms, and the building of a executive to actually take day to day control of those things (notionally the commission could do this, but it’d be a gigantic expansion of its power, and the commission is in many ways, the least democratic EU institution). That ignores pork barrel questions, which are also important, and non-trivial.

          That also ignores the more boring questions like “what language should the army speak”, and how to get all the existing gear to interoperate.

          1. This might be a little easier than you’d think, because NATO has been working together for decades. They’ve got standardization on some stuff, like the NATO rifle calibers, some centralized leadership, and experience in combined deployments. It’s true that the only Article 5 invocation was Afghanistan, but collections of NATO members have jointly participated in other wars.

            That said, I think any near-term European army would basically be the current national armies with a unified command structure. You’d have French and German regiments rather than combined ones. But raising regional armies which speak different languages is hardly unprecedented.

            The real obstacle is that the EU members do not all want to become the United States Of Europe and the structure is not designed such that members who do can force it that way.

          2. “But raising regional armies which speak different languages is hardly unprecedented.”

            Austria-Hungary has entered the chat to explain why that ends badly for everyone involved.

          3. <<<why that ends badly for everyone involved.

            the wallies do not agree

      2. I mean part of the reason the US is ambivalent about defending the EU is that most EU nations seem pretty ambivalent about maintaining the ability to defend themselves, let alone provide meaningful assistance to the US.

  7. I feel like we probably COULD’VE prevented this through deploying forces and demonstrating a will to use military force. If the justification is we’re not going to end the world over Ukraine then will we end the world over Poland or Taiwan? If Russia or China think otherwise we’ll have to prove them wrong. Conventional forces are going to come into play if we’re going to maintain a democratic hegemony over the world. Although some would argue we’re degrading our own democracy to the point of instability.

    1. The US has maintained a very complicated ambiguity over whether or not it actually will defend Taiwan. It’s fascinating. The US has carefully avoided actually entering any obligation to defend Taiwan.

      Poland, OTOH, is a different matter, there the US *has* agreed that it will end the world if neccessary, that’s what NATO is.

    2. I agree with you. Why should nuclear deterrence only go one way? Brinkmanship is dangerous, but so is peace at any price.

    3. Amongst other problems, that would actually endanger NATO. The US unilaterally stationing troops in Ukraine as a ‘come start a new world war, if you dare’ is the sort of thing that makes alliance partners go ‘nope, not sticking with this side, they’re not prioritizing our interests.’

      We very definitely don’t have to prove we will go to war over an invasion of a country which we have not promised to defend. We do have to maintain our credibility that we will go to war if NATO countries are attacked, but despite what’s being suggested, I don’t think the invasion of Ukraine affects that credibility.

      1. Yes that’s it. The normal thing to do would be put in a peacekeeping force first so it’s the *invading* side risking escalation. But the rest of NATO / EU did not want anything like this.

        Instead, the invasion was needed to shore up Europe’s resolve. Sad, but true.

        (Also, it should be an EU not US army stationed there, but I digress.

  8. Thank you for your well reasoned analysis of the crisis. You encapsulate and communicate the issues neatly and clearly, while exposing the various red-herrings that are intended to confuse and misdirect. And I appreciate the reminder of our moral and humanitarian responsibilities to this ongoing crisis.

  9. “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.”

    Just to add a note of cheerful optimism, if the Russian offensive does fail, there is always the possibility that Putin might resort to the use of nuclear weapons.

    1. I think that’s fairly unlikely. If a nuke goes off NATO will proceed to spend about twenty minutes deciding whether that’s part of an attack aimed at them and they should fire back and there’s a chance they’ll miscalculate, and Putin knows this. I doubt he’d roll those dice unless Ukraine credibly threatens to counter-invade Russia and I doubt they have the logistical capacity to support that even if they push Russia back.

      1. Since nuclear deterrence only work one way Putin will probably assume NATO wouldn’t respond except to retire cowed. Like now.

        1. Except there’s a small but still significant chance NATO will erroneously believe this means there’s nukes inbound on Washington and its nuclear siloes and attack subs are about to fire on the boomers, and under the time pressure of a phantom attack they make the call to return fire.

          Putin can reduce that risk by warning NATO days in advance but it’d still be there and I don’t think it’s likely he’d take that risk if his alternative is the status quo ante. If the alternative is Ukranian tanks in Moscow that’d be a different story but no one expects that.

        2. This: “Since nuclear deterrence only work one way” seems to be underlying a lot of the comments here, and I’m not sure why anyone would believe it to be true?

          More generally, the notion that if he starts to lose, Putin would nuke…what? Kiev? The city that he just claimed is part of Russia? I think the odds of that are incredibly tiny, barring the, as mentioned, remote possibility of a Ukranian counter-invasion threatening Russia.

          1. Decades of watching the west back down in the face of Russia and the old USSR is why I believe the deterrent only works one way.

          2. I think it’s important to not conflate the USSR and Today’s Russia. The USSR never did anything remotely like this post WW2.

            (The USSR expansion after WWII had much greater support in Warsaw pact countries. And two my knowledge the Red Army was already there from WWII so no need to invade, just terms of “retreating”.)

            I don’t have a lot of ill-will towards the USSR. It actually stood for something and developed places. Nothing like the Russian state since which is a kleptocracy without redeeming characteristics.

          3. Uh…no? The notion that the cold war was one long stream of the west backing down and letting the USSR get whatever they want seems…wildly ahistorical? From the Berlin Airlift to the Cuban Missile Crisis to Afghanistan it very much wasn’t that.

            The Russian Federation is a different situation, but mainly because they’ve very carefully not directly confronted ‘the West’ if by ‘the West’ we mean NATO.

          4. Yeah the US has gone soft on right wing kleptocrats for years because it was drinking its own 1990s cool aide and also there is no ideological conflict.

            Putin was doing so well with the worldwide right wing it boggles the mind to see why he would risk it all with something like this.

        3. You mean , like not bowing down even if war would have meant the near extermination of my people at best

    2. I’m having trouble seeing how Putin using nuclear weapons against Ukraine* would help. How would that work? Possibilities:

      A) Destroying a large concentration of Ukrainian troops or other military assets. Given Russia’s advantages, they could destroy any likely concentration with artillery, missiles, bombing, etc. The unlikely counter invasion idea guy mentions would be a case of this.

      B) Morale bombing, persuading the Ukrainian government to give up from fear, or the Ukrainian people to overthrow their government from fear of bombing. As OGP has noted, this never works, except maybe in the case of Japan in WWII. Which did involve nukes, of course.

      C) Intimidating the West into withdrawing material support from the Ukraine. Even less likely than morale bombing to work, and creating a real danger of escalation.

      D) A stretch here, but using dirty bombs to create a radioactive zone blocking transport of military aid and supplies. Maybe, but making a region radioactive enough to stop people fighting a war from moving through will be an awful lot. Just increased cancer risk isn’t going to stop people in wartime.

      E) Creating a desert and calling it peace, i.e. making some or all of Ukraine into a uninhabited radioactive wasteland as a buffer zone, rather than a puppet state as a buffer zone. Quite extreme, and good luck doing that without dumping a lot of fallout all over Europe.

      Using nuclear weapons would almost certainly have severe international consequences, with many supporting Putin backing off because of it, and those opposing him doing so more strongly. So what advantage could using nuclear weapons in Ukraine give Putin that would be great enough to justify that reaction? Besides the escalation risk, too?

      Of course, just because something won’t work doesn’t mean someone won’t try it anyway.

      *If the war doesn’t stay confined to Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, that’s another and more frightening matter.

      1. What material support are we giving the Ukraine? Ineffective sanctions? As far as I can tell were just talking tough but actually abandoning the Ukraine to Russia.

          1. Yes, I’ve seen how the Ukraine’s sturdy defense is shaming the US administration and NATO into further support. The Ukrainians are not going gentle into that good night as predicted and hoped. And news media are making sure we see every bloody minute.

          2. We heavily armed the Ukranians in advance and are continuing to arm them now. I’m not seeing any ‘shaming’ being needed.

      2. Putin using nukes is one of the few scenarios where I COULD see the West getting involved.

        It’s bad enough we’re destabilizing the world by making it clear that if you ever get nukes, hold onto them with both hands, because any guarantees of your borders made by other nations will not be backed.

        If it becomes “get nukes and keep them because otherwise you will be invaded and nuked and no one else will do anything” the world will become a terrifying place very, very quickly.

    3. The Russian offensive would have to fail pretty catastrophically for that to happen. The use of nuclear weapons in modern warfare is risking a potentially apocalyptic global thermonuclear war (unless you can find a target without meaningful diplomatic ties to any nuclear power in the world—good luck with that). Hence, if a nuclear strike is to be ordered, a political actor must stand to either gain something through that strike or lose something without that strike that counterbalances the end of the world (where all known political actors live, and hold power).

      In less-purple prose: For anyone to shoot a nuke at anyone else, the shooter needs a reason worth potentially destroying the world (and whatever institutions invested them with the power to shoot nukes). I’m not sure anyone would risk that unless they had a serious reason to expect a total or near-total loss of power if they didn’t shoot. So unless Ukrainian soldiers are marching towards St. Petersburg threatening to execute Putin, I don’t think he’d be crazy or desperate enough to try nukes.

      (And at that point, what is a nuke gonna do that his nuclear delivery systems couldn’t do with conventional weapons?)

      1. It’s also important to keep in mind that Putin and other leaders have internal political coalitions they need to maintain. In order to use nuclear weapons, Putin needs to have people in his governing and military apparatus believe that he’s not just willing to roll the dice on them all dying within the next year – I don’t know that these sorts of internal controls on weapons choice have really been tested (although I have heard that US generals were warned Nixon might try something stupid when he was impaired) so we don’t have a good historical reference for how strong they might be.

        It might be enough for Putin to put off such a decision though – hard to imagine how long he would survive if he orders his generals to drop a nuke, and they confer with each other and confront him with the response ‘no’

      2. “The Russian offensive would have to fail pretty catastrophically for that to happen.”

        True. But since our host brought it up as being at the far end of possibilities, I thought it worth considering what might happen if that possibility transpired.

        It might be unwise for Putin to use a nuke or two hundred, in those circumstances. But people sometimes do unwise things. For example; I think this whole invasion unwise, for the reasons given above, but Putin has obviously launched it. His ideas of what is unwise clearly differ from mine, and might differ from yours.

        BTW – If the invasion does fail, it can only be because the people drafted into Putin’s army lack motivation, not unlike the failure of the Afghan Army last year. So a failed invasion would almost certainly lead to questions about the loyalty of that army to Putin. Global thermonuclear war would not leave him any more dead than any number of people who were at the wrong end of a coup.

        1. In addition to the morale issue, there is also the competence issue. Are Russian officers capable of implementing the “modern system” which Bret has described? We have seen numerous countries (e.g., Iraq) acquire the trappings of the system without the ability to actually implement it.

          In this regard, a modern army is not supposed to develop logistical problems four days into a planned operation, as the Russians are reported to have done.

          1. The logistics issues, which apparently forced an operation pause as early as the end of the second day, show a shocking degree of incompetence by any state-on-state warfare standards. Even in the rosiest scenario where the Ukranian army collapses shortly after contact is made they can’t have seriously expected to secure complete control of the country and withdraw their forces in two days. More realistically even if they’d dominated the airspace and brought in much heavier bombardments digging the Ukranian forces out of the cities could easily take a week, and it’d probably take at least as long to reach the western cities with their main forces in the first place. And if they were expecting to push well past Kyiv in the first day of the offensive, you’d expect them to have planned to supply units a hundred miles further away and thus have no trouble supplying them where they are now.

            I’m having trouble understanding how they could have screwed up so badly. It’s been eight years since Ukraine’s uprising put it definitely on the list of potential adversaries and they’ve got a lot of people to draw up war plans. If they didn’t have one already on file you’d expect them to start then. That’s plenty of time to draw up a supply plan or at least calculate that a given offensive is logistically impossible. Did Ukraine score some kind of major unexpected success in destroying critical routes or supply dumps? Did the weather wreck the roads? Were they planning to overrun key airfields and supply almost exclusively by air?

          2. Aside from raw incompetence I can only think of two likely explanations:

            1. They actually did intend an operational pause two days in to resupply, committing a larger force than they could keep supplied continuously in the hopes of shattering the Ukrainian army with overwhelming force. Possibly they would have sent smaller mechanized forces deeper with heavy air support to keep Ukraine off balance.

            2. The weather did in fact fail to cooperate (I did hear that the winter wasn’t freezing the ground as much as expected) but Putin was politically committed to launching the offensive and that superseded operational concerns.

  10. Did anyone else catch the massive mistake Laura Ingraham made before she corrected Trump’s failure to understand?
    https://www.mediamatters.org/media/3985137/embed/embed
    I suppose I should not be surprised by by a Fox presenter not having a clue what they are talking about but Ukrainian President Zelenskyy not liking speaking Russian!? For eff sake its his first language, he’s a native Russian speaker, Ukrainian is actually his second language.
    (He speaks fluent English as well)

    Before he went into politics most of his work in the entertainment industry was in Russian. He’s a member of Ukraine’s Russian speaking minority. He was a noted activist promoting Russian artists and culture, against local government bans. He actually appeared, for 5 years, on Russia’s Top rated TV show. Quite ironically Vladimir Putin has also had a guest presenter’s spot. (KVN is something of a phenomena in Russia, and the expatriate community.)

    Someone at Fox needs to do some bloody research.

    1. Someone at Fox needs to do some bloody research.

      Why? They’ve done perfectly well for themselves by telling people the lies they want to hear for decades.

      Whether or not someone should do something has depressingly little bearing on whether or not they need to do so.

    2. My interpretation of that line is that Zelensky now strongly prefers to speak Ukrainian over Russian, despite Russian being his native language. to appeal to the anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalists who now make up a large majority of the Ukrainian population. It fits with general Putin/Fox talking points about the Ukrainian government trying to destroy Russian language/culture in Ukraine. I don’t know Zelensky actually dislikes speaking Russian, but it seems likely.

      1. This is a very different take on the situation. The USA didn’t give a Millimeter on Russia’s legitimate security concerns and Zelensky announced at a Munich conference, he was going to make nuclear warheads for his aged but NOT obsolete missiles, that could reach Moscow! That was the straw that broke the camel’s back! “The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter.” Mr. Ritter was the first American inspector inside Russia to monitor the Intermediate Range Missile Ban. He was Chief Weapons Inspector with UNSCOM in Iraq. He’s married to a Georgian, who has no love for Putin or Russia, Major Ritter is also NOT a Putin fan. Western and Ukrainian media have launched a full on PsyOps campaign. If you want some keen insights, I suggest it’s an hour very well spent! The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IexFtDCJNsM You are being subjected to a no holds barred CIA Psyop propaganda campaign, from the same CIA that had a coup, called the Maidan, in 2014. You think they’re telling the truth now? Remember Iraqi WMD?

  11. 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.

    Nobody ever expects the Jewish Nazi conspiracy!

    …there might be a reason for that.

    Concessions from NATO

    Speaking of the Nazis, who still thinks that this strategy is effective after such a high-profile case of it failing not even a full century ago? There are still people alive who lived through Hitler accepting concessions and invading wherever anyways.

    [W]hile 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.

    …in retrospect, it sounds really obvious when you phrase it that way.

  12. 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

    Are… are you saying Tom Clancy LIED to me?

    I don’t believe in anything anymore!

  13. >Now on the one hand, NATO is a purely defensive alliance
    I’m intrigued that you’re writing down such a statement after having introduced yourself as “a military historian [who] makes an effort to follow these events as closely as I can”.
    I’m not sure which periods did your interest in military history cover, but that statement fact-checks to “pants on fire”.
    (Unless you maybe wished to stretch the meaning of “defensive” to “attacking whomever one pleases, _in defense of_ one’s own interests?”)

    To be clear, Putin’s incursion this week into actual Ukrainian territory is lawless, brutal, and foolish. That you are wrong about NATO, does not make Putin’s incursion lawful. Neither does the incursion being lawless mean you are right about NATO. It does mean that your take on the situation is incorrect.
    (“Actual Ukrainian territory” not meaning Crimea. Russia has a completely rightful claim to Crimea, Putin or no Putin. I suggest reading up some history, and getting acquainted with the true situation among Crimean citizens)

    >the initial demands, which amounted to rolling back NATO positions to pre-1997 status; such demands would be utterly unacceptable
    https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/deal-or-no-deal-end-cold-war-and-us-offer-limit-nato-expansion
    A Harvard centre for Science and International Affairs page – not “Putin TV”.
    When NATO’s 1990 *promises* somehow become *utterly unacceptable demands*, then you know that you’re dealing with a truly special kind of “purely defensive alliance” (which incidentally also attacks country after country after country), no?

    >But the [NATO] demands themselves were never serious, as Putin’s actions this week prove.
    So what would be the method by which, according to what happened this week, you’d be able to tell the difference between “Putin was never serious about his NATO demands,” and “Putin was *deadly* serious about his NATO demands?”
    I see Putin as a frog. A frog who wishes to be boiled no more. Replay the last three decades while taking off the horse blinders, and you will see it too.
    The frog-boilers seem to never have had a plan what to do if the frog refuses to stay within the confines of the cauldron they’d been heating, and it’s the Ukrainian people who are paying the price.

    1. The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union, nor does it have some sort of right to everything the Soviet Union had. While the Russian Federation is generally regarded as the successor state of the USSR, it did not inherit the USSR’s interests in Eastern Europe because of course those interests were largely inherited by the *other* post-Soviet states (e.g. the USSR’s interest in Ukraine became Ukraine’s interest in Ukraine, not Russia’s interest in Ukraine). There’s no reason assurances – informal and unwritten assurances, as Shifrinson admits – offered to Soviet diplomats would be meaningful in the context of the Russian Federation, a different state with different borders and different security arrangements, thirty years later.

      “Informal” and unwritten non-expansion assurances sure mean a whole lot less than the Russian Federation’s signed treaty obligations to respect the full territorial integrity of Ukraine – an agreement that quite clearly includes Crimea (so no, Russia does not have a ‘completely rightful claim” to Crimea, they gave that up in Budapest in 1994). The phrasing, by the way, at Budapest was “the existing borders” of Ukraine, so there’s no wiggle room – the Russian Federation made written promises on this point and signed them.

      1. Putin’s argument against this, btw, is that the euromaidan protests dismantled the ukrainian state and thus any treaties signed with them are void; It’s a new (criminal nazi) entity.

        This is obviously bollocks, but that’s the argument he’s been making.

      2. The obvious counter was that Russia had just lost the Cold War, it was in geopolitical freefall, and that these treaties were thus “unequal” and “signed under duress”.
        It’s also obviously a revanchist and non-legalistic interpretation of what those treaties were, and does not justify the naked conquest of Ukraine, but that’s how a revanchist would think, and that’s probably what Putin is thinking.

        1. It’s also simply false. If treaties signed under duress were invalid than literally no peace treaty ever would be valid. That’s a model for never accepting any surrender.

          Now, nothing lasts forever and countries do have the authority to withdraw from treaties (including NATO, which makes some of the complaints above about how allegedly undemocratic the entrance was sort of besides the point). But you usually have to actually do that, not just ignore them.

          1. France gave up Alsace Lorraine at Frankfurt, China signed off Port Arthur, and endless wars were fought over revanchist claims.

            While you can say that this is legally wrong, lawyers tend not to survive massed political violence, e.g. war. Politically, this happens all the time. Heck, JCPOA was torn up not so long ago…

          2. I’m not sure how your comment responds to mine?

            Peace treaties don’t literally end all wars for all time between the belligerents. They also aren’t presumptively invalid due to being entered into under duress.

    2. (Starts laughing uncontrollably)

      Yeah, no. Go look up “Moldova” for why your narrative about how NATO has been “boiling the Russian frog” is a farrago of lies and half-truths.

    3. Bret, I would really like your reply to this part:

      >But the [NATO] demands themselves were never serious, as Putin’s actions this week prove.
      So what would be the method by which, according to what happened this week, you’d be able to tell the difference between “Putin was never serious about his NATO demands,” and “Putin was *deadly* serious about his NATO demands?”
      I see Putin as a frog. A frog who wishes to be boiled no more. Replay the last three decades while taking off the horse blinders, and you will see it too.
      The frog-boilers seem to never have had a plan what to do if the frog refuses to stay within the confines of the cauldron they’d been heating, and it’s the Ukrainian people who are paying the price.

  14. Professor, you’ve written a very interesting and cogent analysis, as always. A few things:

    (1) There seems to be a general tendency to overstate Russian geopolitical concerns when analyzing Putin’s motivation. Mostly Putin is concerned with staying in power, both because he likes the wealth from looting the Russian economy and because he expects to be jailed or shot by his replacement if he loses power. And the sole threat to his power is domestic, not foreign. So he has to maintain legitimacy for a domestic audience at all costs. Putin’s staked his legitimacy on appealing to Russian nationalism, lacking anything else he can offer, and looking the part requires some military action. Putin came to power in 2000, and was fairly popular at that time because he brought — or at least was perceived to bring, some stability and predictability to Russian life following the Yeltsin 90s. This he achieved by replacing the free-for-all looting of the Russian economy by oligarchs under Yeltsin, with a measured looting under his chosen oligarchs, whom he installed in key economic and political posts. By 2010 or thereabouts most Russians were no quite so supportive of this regulated corruption.

    A modern government has effectively three sources of authority: will of the people through elections; economic prosperity; (ethno-)nationalism. Putin cannot win elections, as evidenced by the results of the last Russian election, where he had to resort to blatant cheating to get a nominal majority. He cannot offer prosperity to ordinary Russians, because the surplus value created by Russian workers gets stolen by himself or by his co-dependent oligarchs and mini-oligarchs and funneled into real estate in western cities like New York and London or into off-shore accounts in western tax havens. So he is stuck with appealing to Russian ethno-nationalism.

    His actions in Ukraine so far have been entirely about maintaining his ethno-nationalist bona fides on the cheap. In 2014 he grabbed Crimea using a major Russian naval base there as a staging point, in an area predominantly Russian albeit not particularly supportive of being annexed by Russia, against virtually no opposition. In eastern Ukraine he astro-turfed a “local uprising” of ethnic Russian “insurgents”, then moved in Russian forces when those alleged insurgents got rolled back by the Ukrainian military almost to the Russian border. The Russian invasion of that time was stopped by Ukrainian forces, which despite every disadvantage inflicted unacceptable casualties and materiel losses. Nonetheless, Putin claimed at the time that he achieved a great victory in defense of Russians living in Ukraine. The current Russian invasion of Ukraine involves apparently the vast majority of combat-capable Russian armed forces precisely because Russia requires a massive quantitative disparity to make any gains in Ukraine, despite full control of the air. If the Russian armed forces meet any significant resistance, Putin will fold and declare victory, because he neither needs Ukrainian territory not will be willing to risk the appearance of loss that cannot be concealed by propaganda.

    (2) Putin’s willingness to escalate any armed conflict seems to be grossly overblown. So far every encounter between Russian and western technology (and western-trained soldiers) has ended with a Russian loss, and with Putin refusing to escalate to an armed response. For example, in 2015 Russia repeatedly violated Turkish airspace, and Russian state propaganda threatened massive retaliation if its planes were shot down. Turkey shot down a Russian SU25 in November 2015; this resulted in some half-measure sanctions by Russia against Turkey. In 2018 American forces in Syria on several occasions encountered Russian “mercenaries”; each time ended in an overwhelming Russian loss or withdrawal, with Putin disavowing that they were Russian or under Russian control. When Ukrainian resistance proved heavier than expected in 2014, Putin stopped his invasion rather than risk embarrassing losses. Since past behavior is the best predictor of the future, it is safe to predict that a show of force will be the most effective deterrent against any Russian aggression. Analytically, Putin has no need to escalate, doing so will be against his interest, and so far Russia has demonstrated that its armed forces cannot win a conflict against a near-peer force. For a historical analogy, Mussolini deterring Hitler from annexing Austria in 1934 seems appropriate.

    (3) Russian armed forces are also grossly overestimated. So far every recent encounter between Russian and western (mostly American) technology has been quite lopsided in favor of the west. The current Russian invasion of Ukraine has proven no different, with Russian forces performing quite below popular expectations. Today (02/25) Russian state channels for example announced triumphantly a great victory Russian forces took Antonov Airport north of Kyiv. Left unsaid was that the initial airborne attack on that airport was a disaster, and the Russian VDV had to be rescued by a force of 200 helicopters and an armored relief column advancing from Belarus. The drive from Kyiv to the Belarus border takes two hours in peacetime; Russian forces have been victoriously advancing down that highway for two days, despite effectively complete air superiority, numerical superiority, and superiority in number of tanks and soldiers.

    In general, the Russian economy is incapable of producing modern military hardware, and likely is incapable of replacing some Soviet-era materiel. Allegedly some Russian military hardware is effectively irreplaceable because advanced components can only be sourced from Ukrainian Soviet-era manufacturers, which have refused to supply such parts for obvious reasons. For example, before 2014 Russia imported advanced naval powerplants from Ukraine, which cut off supply in 2014; the M55R, Russia’s replacement diesel-turbine naval power plant, which it plans to use in its new frigates is by all accounts very flammable scrap, and Russian industry can only build one of these every four years. The T-14 Armata, Russia’s alleged new tank, has been in development hell for almost a decade. Russia in 2015 ordered over 2000 tanks for delivery by 2020; in 2016 it ordered 100 test tanks by 2020; no tanks were delivered in 2020; in August 2021 allegedly a test batch of tanks were finally delivered. Russia has likewise been incapable of replacing its obsolescent fighter fleet. The SU-57 has been in development for almost thirty years; so far Russia has produced 10 test airframes and 4 combat-capable ones. It has been unable to find any buyers abroad; India, the much-touted foreign partner on the project, withdrew from it because it was incapable of achieving the advertised goals. No notable Russian weapon project has delivered meaningful results. Because these projects are a method for funneling money to Russian oligarchs, and delivering a product interferes with that grift.

    (4) If a country openly refuses to use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear strike, then its deterrent is worthless and it might as well dump all of its warheads into a deep pit. The correct response to nuclear blackmail is a polite reminder that we, too have nuclear weapons and will respond in kind to a nuclear first strike.

    (5) Putin and Russian oligarchs in general don’t care about Russian citizens, and so analyzing sanction effectiveness in terms of harm done to Russia collectively is useless. These are people who banned Russian citizens from buying western-manufactured medicine, which Russia is incapable of producing itself or sourcing from elsewhere, while themselves traveling to Europe and the US for medical treatment. They demonstrably do not care about damage to the Russian economy from their actions, because so far they have been able to use their money to evade sanctions by simply traveling abroad. They do care about sanctions on their own assets, and their own persons, which they now launder through friends and family, but so far for whatever reason western politicians have been reluctant to go after their assets and ability to travel in any meaningful way. Prospective sanctions against these people would serve as excellent deterrent because, like all thugs and bullies they do not believe that they will ever face consequences. Immediate pre-emptive sanctions demonstrate to them that this belief is false.

  15. I think you’re underselling the importance of Ukraine’s possible eventual NATO membership. Russia has been freaking out about NATO expansion for more than two decades, loudly and publicly, sometimes making threats in the process. Now they’re following through.

    Their motives don’t seem terribly mysterious.

    And it’s not like Russia’s tantrum is particularly weird behaviour for a would-be empire. America’s not exactly reasonable about foreign spheres of influence in the Western hemisphere, either.

    William Burns, the current head of the CIA, is a former ambassador to Russia. Apparently when he was ambassador, back in 2008, he wrote…

    “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”

    But Bush pushed for Ukrainian NATO membership anyway. And now here we are. Could be a coincidence, but I’m inclined to doubt it.

    Critics of NATO policy have been warning us for years that something along these lines might happen. I recently saw an old talk by John Mearsheimer, warning that Russia would likely try to “ruin” Ukraine. That Putin and company would lay waste to it in “retaliation” for Western intrusion into the Russian sphere of influence. He’s looking pretty prescient right now.

    1. The obvious response here is that Ukraine is not a member of NATO and has not made significant progress towards becoming a member of NATO.

    2. I mean, this basically seems like saying “Russia wished to preserve its right to do whatever it wanted to Ukraine, whenever it wanted, and NATO membership would make that impossible for them, so they made NATO membership for Ukraine a foreign policy red line.”

      This would seem to be the entire reason things like defensive alliances exist, no? Ukraine isn’t capable of preventing Russia from ruining it any time Russia likes. Therefore, its choices are to either submit to that ruination, to bend the knee, or to seek help. It just so happens there is a longstanding, durable, defensive alliance created for the express purpose of preventing Russia from ruining you any time it likes.

      1. Pretty much, yeah. The US has a similar attitude where the Americas are concerned, and I hear China’s starting to treat their neighbours the same way. This sort of thing may be awful, but it’s also common.

        The way strong polities treat weak ones is usually horrifying. The Thucydides article linked in the OP has a lot to say on the matter; this is not a new problem. I don’t think it was new in 460 BC either, when Thucydides was born.

        To be clear, I’m not trying to justify Russia’s actions. I just think it’s a mistake to treat this as the mysterious product of one man’s depravity. It looks like a pretty standard example of the brutality of international relations.

        1. A normal person who was not a Putin shill might observe a slight difference between the way the US has treated Cuba and the way Putin is treating Ukraine.

          1. I always find the Cuba case enlightening, but more in the “that’s why Russia shouldn’t not behave that way” sense rather than the “This is the law of the jungle sense”

          2. The USA didn’t invade Cuba because the first attempt to orchestrate a coup failed, then a year later Cuba had nukes, and then once they were dismantled the USA had to pledge not to invade Cuba in exchange for Cuba not being used as a forward operating base in attacking the USA.

            I’m unconvinced that the USA wouldn’t have invaded Cuba, if they felt they could get away with it and it wouldn’t have meant escalating tensions with the USSR. There were high-ranking figures who wanted to invade as soon as the missiles had left anyway.

          3. I don’t know when it became public that there were Russian submarines with nuclear missiles in the vicinity of the blockade. One US Destroyer was being so aggressive, the Captain thought the war had started and called together the other two officers who had to agree to the launch, one said Da, the other Nyet. It is that officer that we owe the fact that we are alive! Kennedy was shot from the Grassy Knoll, small entrance wound in the throat, back of head on trunk of car, can mean only one thing ballistically. The names of the Cuban shooters are in the National Archives. It was retribution by the Bay of Pigs Cubans, the Mafia that wanted their casinos back and the CIA. Allen Dulles was fired and was the only person at the Warren Commission every single day, and he chose ALL the witnesses! The Warren Commission was run like a CIA cover up operation, very successfully. Of course the Hawks would have invaded if they thought they could get away with it. Perhaps after Kennedy was disposed of, the CIA learned about the presence of subs with nuclear missiles?

          4. @calivancouver
            February 27, 2022 at 3:49 am

            But the US should?
            Like provocating russia by stationing missiles in turkey

  16. What is a legal war? That’s right never do both sides court such a thing. Making war illegal is about as effective as making murder illegalER.

    Russia will act in its own interest. This is not surprising that it seeks energy, resources, and a bulwark against global snowflakery.

    Side with Russia against China.

    1. Why would the United States or NATO need to side with Russia? What would Russia even offer? A dwindling, aged population less than half as large as the United States? An petro-economy less than half the nominal size of Germany? Keep in mind, Russia is the economic equal of the fearsome power of ::checks notes:: Canada. Do we need their military prowess? The last two days have been a a train of unforced errors by Russian forces; they met yet win by dint of numbers and the fact that Ukraine is a much smaller and poorer country, but so far I am not impressed. Somehow the Russian manly-man army keeps being out-performed by the snowflakes.

      When the sort of people who complain about ‘global snowflakery’ bring up Russia, they imagine it as this strong alternative model, but Russia is a gas station with nuclear weapons. Poorer, per capita, than Poland or Romania despite its wealth of natural resources, with a crippled civil society. Putin’s Russia is a living, breathing rebuke of the very social model and ideals it stands for. Russia could be more than what it is, but not while its government stands for the very ideals that make it so attractive to its western admirers. No one is concerned about rising Russian power – everyone is concerned about the damage Russia might do as its power declines.

      1. I have never understood the tendency to build Russia up as a powerhouse we feeble Americans dare not challenge. I’m old enough to remember the cold war and the attitude was rampant then. The USSR was too big for us. Concessions must be made in order to coexist. Well we saw how that turned out. After some seventy unecessary years of oppression for the Russian people and some forty for the Warsaw pact.

        1. This seems to me to be a misread on both the history of the Cold War (which was very much not characterized by the US/NATO constantly backing down from the USSR, if it did, there wouldn’t have been a NATO by the end) and alternative history (the fact that it eventually collapsed does not mean we could have forced that to occur earlier).

          1. We remember the cold war differently I see. Possibly the Soviet apologists didn’t always get there way but they made loud noises in support of Russia and against the US. As I remember tensions were always our fault.

          2. I mean, yes, Soviet apologists, by definition argued that things were the fault of the US. But Soviet apologists held approximately 0 power in the US.

            I’m going to ask for literally any example of the US having to back down in fear of the might of the USSR. Because the examples I can think of where there were direct challenges, Berlin Airlift, Cuban Missile Crisis, Afghanistan, all did not go that way.

            Now, there were a bunch of minor incidents where agents on one side or another got caught, or carried out some espionage operation and either a big fuss was made or it wasn’t, but the actual political effect of those seems essentially nonexistent.

          3. I give you the Berlin airlift but in fact Kennedy traded American missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba. More a draw than of victory.

          4. Which were as threatening to USSR as those on cuba were to the US and they were first

          5. Yes, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended in a draw. Essentially all conflicts between nuclear powers (except the final war between them) are likely to end in some form of draw, which is my point and directly contrary to your position!

            You can’t beat another nuclear power the way Germany and Japan got beaten, because if you push too far, they’ve got the ‘kill everyone rather than surrender’ button.

      2. Because the West is falling apart from the inside as well. So people are desperately seeking an alternative, but the alternative died when we transitioned into modernism and absolutism.

        Something like Roman Republic or Holy Roman Empire would be ideal, but the modern world would not allow it, I think. So again, people are looking for an alternative, and Russia – being *seemingly* opposed to the Western model – *seems* like an alternative. But it isn’t.

        1. Off the top of my head I can’t think of two political systems more different than the Roman Republic and the Holy Roman Empire.

          1. I’ve disagreed with you a lot in this comment section, but this I agree with. I find the comment your responding to actively confusing.

          2. Really? Because they had massive similarities everywhere except the surface level. Most important similarity, and the one I was primarily referring to, was significant autonomy afforded to constituent elements of the state. In both systems, local government basically reigned supreme in most affairs, and only had to fulfill limited duties towards the central government – primarily in view of providing troops for war. In both systems, central government maintained authority mostly by consent of the local elements, but also through a number of indirect measures – such as different political entities making up the state having different political status in relation to the central government.

          3. Really? Because they had massive similarities everywhere except the surface level. Most important similarity, and the one I was primarily referring to, was significant autonomy afforded to constituent elements of the state. In both systems, local government basically reigned supreme in most affairs, and only had to fulfill limited duties towards the central government – primarily in view of providing troops for war. In both systems, central government maintained authority mostly by consent of the local elements, but also through a number of indirect measures – such as different political entities making up the state having different political status in relation to the central government.

            I agree that that would be a good form of government, but there’s at least one modern state I think of which is run in a similar way, namely Switzerland. So whilst I think that a move towards local autonomy and decentralisation would be highly desirable, I think the reasons why this isn’t happening are more nuanced than that the modern world wouldn’t allow it.

    2. ‘Side with Russia against China.’

      What makes you think this is even an available option? Russia and China seem generally inclined to side with each other against the West.

      1. Maybe they are siding against the West because the West is surrounding them with offensive weapons? Sanctions are an act of war as much as a blockade is, yes or no?

        Have you read this? Collections: A Trip Through Thucydides (Fear, Honor and Interest) 12.5.2019 https://acoup.blog/2019/12/05/collections-a-trip-through-thucydides-fear-honor-and-interest/ Unintentionally justifies Russian actions, although the author Mr. Devereaux points out in comments, that it’s highly relevant to the situation, he still says to vehemently hate the Russians and any westerners who point this stuff out and assert the Nazis play a role in government. Human nature hasn’t changed much 2,500+ years, has it?

        1. Maybe they find themselves surrounded by offensive weapons because they keep threatening and invading their neighbours. As Russia did on Wednesday. After months of saying they wouldn’t.

          Why would anyone want to place their faith in the hands of someone so utterly faithless?

          1. So, solarsavestheplanetSET, what treaty or written agreement with Russia has the west broken?

  17. My best (somewhat qualified) understanding of Putin’s statements about ‘denazifying’ Ukraine- they have very little to do with neo-nazi or far right movements in Ukraine, and lots to do with the importance of the mythology of the Great Patriotic War (WWII) to the Russian people, and the harkening to previous European incursion into Russian territory. He’s not talking about Ukraine, but rather *to* the Russian people, trying to popularise his invasion.

  18. I really want to thank you for the post and its lucidity.

    I see this as a crisis playing out in two different levels
    – on the ground, with humans being forced out of their lives, or maimed, or killed
    – in the network where information is exchanged, consensus is built and decisions are made

    For this, and the fact that it’s happening in the age of interconnection, I see it a parallel with COVID-19, and the difficulties in modeling causes and effects.

  19. Apart from today’s conflict between Ukraine and Russia, as a Chinese, I would like to say that the Chinese government is a big potential problem. I am not sure when it begins, but any form of hate speech is not uncommon in major Chinese social media.
    Such things could be traced back to a terrorist attack that happened in New Zealand in 2019. They didn’t want to show any mercy to the suffering families and would say that building the mosque in the city “Christchurch” was their fault.
    You might not believe, comments like this usually can get the most “likes” in a tweet, including hatred of blacks (black immigration in large Chinese cities), hatred of their own citizens (especially people studying and living in western countries), and also hatred of western countries (especially the United States).
    Today, they are also convinced in Putin’s speech, saying it is military sanctions to Nazi but not aggressive war. Brain-dead jokes like “unlimited receiving Ukraine women aged 18-30” are widespread. There are still people with the conscience, but you will be cyberbullied until death if you want to refute them.
    I guess it can be connected to how the Chinese government and media spread the news.

  20. Apart from today’s conflict between Ukraine and Russia, as a Chinese, I would like to say that the Chinese government is a big potential problem. I am not sure when it begins, but any form of hate speech is not uncommon in major Chinese social media.

    Such things could be traced back to a terrorist attack that happened in New Zealand in 2019. They didn’t want to show any mercy to the suffering families and would say that building the mosque in the city “Christchurch” was their fault.

    You might not believe, comments like this usually can get the most “likes” in a tweet, including hatred of blacks (black immigration in large Chinese cities), hatred of their own citizens (especially people studying and living in western countries), and also hatred of western countries (especially the United States).

    Today, they are also convinced in Putin’s speech, saying it is military sanctions to Nazi but not aggressive war. Brain-dead jokes like “unlimited receiving Ukraine women aged 18-30” are widespread. There are still people with the conscience, but if you want to refute them, you will be cyberbullied until death. I am sure it can be directly connected to how the Chinese government and media spread the news to their people.

    1. Sadly, cyberbullying seems to be the main preoccupation of frustrated losers all around the globe. Putin’s aggression on Ukraine is drawing support from the lowest dregs of society everywhere. The US is no exception – the more worthless the scum, the more dedicated they are to spewing online hatred, esp. against Blacks and minorities. I guess not having a paying job plays into it on many levels.

  21. I think you are misrepresenting the situation by saying the eastern provinces attempted to secede in 2014 without mentioning the Maidan revolution earlier that year. These provinces had voted heavily in support of the winner of the 2010 Presidential election, and they attempted to secede only after revolutionaries removed him from power.

  22. Hi Bret, just to say thank you, your post and the comments have helped me understand the situation much better. Western military intervention isn’t really possible given the risk of escalation. Funding Ukrainian or Russian resistance comes with a terrible price, not for us, but for the Ukrainians and Russians as Putin is completely ruthless, (though I think we should support Ukraine as much as we can). Just letting the invasion happen without consequence isn’t an option either – it makes the west look weak and will just encourage him to seize other states that used to be part of the Soviet Union/Russian Empire. So that leaves sanctions, and your previous post about Royal Courts and that power is maintained through an appearance of legitimacy is pertinent here. In Putin’s case, he provides largesse to his court of “counts ” and “barons”, and his legitimacy as a ruler of oligarchs depends on it. So I’m going to write (emails and actual written with a pen letters) to local MPs and others – the UK has imposed some sanctions, which is good, but they need to have actual bite: to do that they have to be extended from the people currently listed and include their immediate families, to exclude Russia from Swift, and to look at property ownership by offshore companies associated with with Russia and the sanctioned individuals. I can see it would create a tricky precedent, but I would also like to see assets being confiscated rather than simply frozen, since all his supporters have to do is hang in there until it is all over (one way or another) and they get their loot back. I will also ask to increase funding and investigative powers for the institutions that police sanctions, as they are woefully underfunded in the UK and this is something that the UK desperately needs anyway. So thanks for the conversation everyone, hopefully I can write a more effective letter because of it.

  23. Absolutely excellent write up, thank you. Thanks for some of the links and recommendations- I will absolutely be contacting my representatives soon.

    Maybe it’s just on my end, or because I’m on mobile, but the (I believe, from the thumbnail on the link) Ukrainian flag image isn’t showing up for me. The link may be broken.

  24. Putin should have read your blog. Then he might have learned about things like “morale advantage” and “logistics” before he wasted dozens of tanks and thousands of Russian lives on action film silliness.

  25. I actually think you’re underestimating social media and overestimating the fog of war a bit in this 21st millennium. So far, and you allude to this as well, the reports from social media (twitter especially) seem to be giving a very good sense of what’s actually going on. Namely – Russian frustration and stiffer than expected Ukrainian resistance.

    Of course we won’t know for sure for months, but I suspect we’ll be looking back on this time as one where the idea of having “fog of war” in modern military engagements in urban areas is completely dispelled.

    1. We’re getting a rough impression of the conflict, but social media is unreliable for specifics. Both combatants may well be providing disinformation for morale purposes or to mislead their opponents, and civilians on the ground will only see a tiny fragment of the conflict and are likely very unfamiliar with military deployments and equipment. They may also be providing disinformation on their own initiative.

      So we’re getting the general impression of Russian frustration, stiffer than expected Ukranian resistance, and Russia being unexpectedly unwilling to commit their most advanced equipment and a surprisingly light prepatory bombardment, but that’s quite different from knowing which Russian units are advancing on Kiev, what Ukranian units they’re engaged with, and where exactly they are.

    2. Completely dispelled? People will lie. And be mistaken. And other people will mistake what they say — getting them a couple streets off could create vast confusion.

  26. Hi Bret,

    I really enjoy reading your texts and I was your patreon for aproximately 2 years, but I closed my Patreon account in protest to Patreon closing Come Back Alive campaign.

    Please provide an alternative way to support you.
    Many Lithuanian campaigns and supporters are moving to Contribee.

  27. Hi there!
    Long-time reader and 30 yo Russian here.

    In short – I feel that losing this war (or atleast not-winning it) in the only chance the Russia has.
    Sanctions don’t really matter for Putin’s power, all they would do is turn Russia more akin to North Korea.

    Putin’s support among ordinary citizens, so-called “vatniks” is quite huge (much, much less so among middle class and intelligentsia), but the ordinary citizens, who lauded taking Crimea back and “sticking it to the west” would never forgive defeat in the war. Then the country as a whole might be open to change once again. (sometimes it takes two defeats in a row to learn a lesson, looking at you, Germany)

    If this war is won, generations of russians can say goodbye to their hopes and dreams and hello to Iran/N.Korea scenario.

    1. You haven’t defined what winning is. Does Russia have a right to NOT have nuclear missiles right on it’s border? If there are Nazis, as in Azov Battalion with Waffen SS Wolfsangels on their shoulder patches and painted on their tanks, is not De-Nazification a worthy goal? How about the Donbass borders going back to where they were before the Ukie assault? Ukraine walked away from Mink after signing it, how cool is that. Putin wants a NEUTRAL Ukraine, is that a worthy goal? Learn from history or be doomed to repeat it.

      The USA didn’t give a Millimeter on Russia’s legitimate security concerns and Zelensky announced at a Munich conference, he was going to make nuclear warheads for his aged but NOT obsolete missiles, that could reach Moscow! That was the straw that broke the camel’s back! “The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter.” Mr. Ritter was the first American inspector inside Russia to monitor the Intermediate Range Missile Ban. He was Chief Weapons Inspector with UNSCOM in Iraq. He’s married to a Georgian, who has no love for Putin or Russia, Major Ritter is also NOT a Putin fan. Western and Ukrainian media have launched a full on PsyOps campaign. If you want some keen insights, I suggest it’s an hour very well spent! The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IexFtDCJNsM You are being subjected to a no holds barred CIA Psyop propaganda campaign, from the same CIA that had a coup, called the Maidan, in 2014. You think they’re telling the truth now? Remember Iraqi WMD?

      1. “Does Russia have a right to NOT have nuclear missiles right on it’s border?”
        No.
        Next!
        (Also, please provide evidence that there was any realistic prospect of nuclear weapons being deployed in or by Ukraine by anybody other than Russia at any time in the foreseeable future.)

        “If there are Nazis, as in Azov Battalion with Waffen SS Wolfsangels on their shoulder patches and painted on their tanks, is not De-Nazification a worthy goal?”
        This is a militia, not part of the Ukrainian government or armed forces. Far-right organisations exist all over the place, including in Russia. Its existence is not a sufficient reason to overthrow the elected, very not-Nazi, government of Ukraine.

        “How about the Donbass borders going back to where they were before the Ukie assault?”
        Donbas is part of Ukraine, in parts of which separatists launched an armed rebellion against the government. Ukraine is entitled to try to impose order in the region. That Russia manufactured a conflict eight years ago in order to give it an excuse to launch an assault any time it later felt like it doesn’t justfiy that assault when it happens.

        “Ukraine walked away from Mink after signing it, how cool is that.”
        There is so much disinformation surrounding events in Donbas since 2014 that this is hard to address without more specifics, but at the very least the point should be made that Russia and its proxies have not respected Minsk any more than Ukraine has, so it is not a convincing casus belli.

        “Putin wants a NEUTRAL Ukraine, is that a worthy goal?”
        Invading a country is a strange way to turn it neutral, especially when it was already neutral.

        1. “This is a militia, not part of the Ukrainian government or armed forces. Far-right organisations exist all over the place, including in Russia. Its existence is not a sufficient reason to overthrow the elected, very not-Nazi, government of Ukraine.”

          They’re part of the National Guard of Ukraine. They are part of the armed forces of Ukraine.

          1. They originated as a militia. They were later incorporated into the National Guard after proving they were pretty good at National Guard stuff when they helped recapture Mariupol in 2014. Ukraine, unlike America, does not have the luxury of being able to turn down an organized group of dudes who are good at military operations and willing to serve them and become part of the chain of command in case Russia attacks.

            From what I can tell the Ukrainian government made efforts — maybe not strong enough, maybe as good as they could manage — to depoliticize Azov, kick out the far-right leaders, etc. They appear to have tortured prisoners of war, which is, uh, let’s say Not Great, but I can’t find any evidence of them committing hate crimes or terrorism or the kinds of things you expect hateful paramilitaries to get up to. The most they are tied to anyone DOING anything is “the Christchurch mosque shooter said he had been ‘all around the world’ and then in a big list of locations where his followers would find ‘no reprieve,’ he listed Ukraine.”

            It appears that Azov is not really so much a neo-Nazi battalion as it is a battalion that doesn’t particularly care if you are a neo-Nazi. And Ukraine isn’t endorsing neo-Nazis but not particularly caring if one of their battalions doesn’t particularly care if you are a neo-Nazi in your off time so long as the group isn’t actually involved. Is this good? No, it’s not, but for all you can talk about how not fighting fascism is the same as fascism, they are different things. And when you know Russia is salivating at the prospect of invading you, you don’t have the luxury of disbanding a unit because it isn’t sufficiently vigilant about its members political beliefs.

            And Russia doesn’t get to claim “we have to invade and de-Nazify Ukraine because they don’t particularly care that one of their units doesn’t particularly care if you’re a neo-Nazi” when, uh, the Russian military also doesn’t particularly care if you’re a far-right nationalist.

      2. “Does Russia have a right to NOT have nuclear missiles right on it’s border?”
        “Remember Iraqi WMD?”

        Man, you’re really committed to copy-pasting that block of text everywhere, even when it means contradicting yourself.

  28. Bret,

    One of the things that seems to be almost universally overlooked/underappreciated outside of professional military circles regarding combat in the era of high explosive ordinance, is that at the most basic level, the men and machines at a military’s disposal are just the means to and end, and that end is ordinance delivery.

    I’m reminded of this because I once read a military historian (sadly can’t remember which at this point), who pointed out that the true contribution of the Lend-Lease program to the outcome of WW2 is overlooked by almost everyone.

    As it turns out, the Germans had very good reason for thinking that the Russian military would necessarily collapse following their quick gains in the opening stages of the war. Although the Russians were able to move most of their equipment manufacturing capacity east to the Urals far beyond the reach of the Wehrmacht, the same did not happen with their chemical manufacturing capacity (lots of logistical impossibilities there).

    In a nutshell, the Germans had good reason to assume that the Russians would quickly run out of ordinance once the explosives manufacturing facilities were taken, and most of those WERE taken in the early stages of the war because they were heavily concentrated in the area that is now Ukraine.

    That this didn’t happen is in large part thanks to the allies shipping huge quantities of explosives to Russia to help make up for their lost domestic supply.

    It didn’t entirely make up the difference though, so, one of the things that was especially true in the opening stages of the eastern front conflict, and actually remained throughout most of the war, is that the Wehrmacht was able to “outshoot” the Russian Army, by as much as 10-1 early on, and still by as much as 2-1 even much later in the conflict when the Wehrmacht was in full retreat. This is one of the major contributing factors to why there was such a huge imbalance in Russian and German casualty numbers. (Incredible Neil Halloran video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwKPFT-RioU&t=111s). It’s also a part of the reason why the Russians never gave much consideration to strategic aerial bombing. Even if they had built a strategic bomber fleet, they wouldn’t have been able to use it effectively, as they had no explosives manufacturing capacity to spare. Everything they had was dedicated to meeting the tactical demands of the front.

    But how is any of this relevant to Ukraine today?

    Well, there’s been some very interesting observations made over the last 24 hours, to the effect that it seems like the Russians may have sent their army in with only enough ordinance to support 3 or 4 days of heavy fighting, under the assumption that Ukrainian resistance would quickly collapse and the fighting would be essentially over even before then. Further, it seems that they are already running into issues of logistics and resupply, which might mean that the amount of ordinance they had on hand, may actually be close the limit of what the Russian Army could easily muster and bring to the front.

    If what they brought to the front is the limit of what they could easily muster in all the months leading up to this invasion, that may be an indication that they are actually using up their ordinance faster than they can produce it.

    Now, that’s a whole lot of “ifs” and “maybes” in succession, and it may all be wishful thinking, but in thinking about this, it occurs to me that this pattern of lots of flashy hardware, married to insufficient ordinance and utter logistical incompetence, is a pattern one sees displayed by a LOT of kleptocratic autocracies.

    Shiny new weapons systems are “sexy” and play well to audiences at home. Importantly, investing money in this way helps conceal what the kleptocrats are really up to. “No… we’re not stealing all your money, if we were, could we afford to pay for all THIS stuff? I mean look at it. It’s beautiful and amazing, and it’s terrifying to our enemies!!”

    So, kleptocracies tend to invest disproportionate amounts of resources on these kinds of showpieces, and utterly neglect the kinds of bread and butter things that are actually fundamental to a modern system army’s ability to function effectively in extensive engagements (logistical expertise, logistical support capacity, ordinance supply and production capacity, etc).

    At any rate, there’s some interesting speculation going about that if Ukraine can continue to hold out through next week, they may actually be able to turn the tide, or at least fight things to a stalemate… particularly if we are able to support them with sufficient weapons and ordinance to keep the pressure on.

    Putin MAY have made a huge strategic miscalculation here.

    Which possibility seems equally parts exhilarating and terrifying.

    There’s no way Putin can admit to having made a mistake in this, AND hold on to power. If it does down this way, who’s he going to blame, and how is he going to “hold them accountable” in the eyes of his domestic audience?

    1. Your comments make sense logically but are seeming the result of information of the Psyops flying madly on both sides. The USA didn’t give a Millimeter on Russia’s legitimate security concerns and Zelensky announced at a Munich conference, he was going to make nuclear warheads for his aged but NOT obsolete missiles, that could reach Moscow! That was the straw that broke the camel’s back! “The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter.” Mr. Ritter was the first American inspector inside Russia to monitor the Intermediate Range Missile Ban. He was Chief Weapons Inspector with UNSCOM in Iraq. He’s married to a Georgian, who has no love for Putin or Russia, Major Ritter is also NOT a Putin fan. Western and Ukrainian media have launched a full on PsyOps campaign. If you want some keen insights, I suggest it’s an hour very well spent! The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IexFtDCJNsM You are being subjected to a no holds barred CIA Psyop propaganda campaign, from the same CIA that had a coup, called the Maidan, in 2014. You think they’re telling the truth now? Remember Iraqi WMD?

      1. You are saying that the Russian army is not having logistical problems? Maybe they have already taken Kyiv?

        1. How could I know for sure, how can you? It’s conjecture. Did you watch the interview with Scott Ritter? It might change your thinking. The Russians want the Ukie army to surrender and they don’t want civilian casualties, unlike the wholesale “collateral damage” that Team USA inflicts on brown people. He asserts that Russia is taking casualties to avoid civilian casualties, because they consider Ukrainians “brothers”. Watch the video and comment again. I personally consider Major Ritter, USMC highly credible!

          The USA didn’t give a Millimeter on Russia’s legitimate security concerns and Zelensky announced at a Munich conference, he was going to make nuclear warheads for his aged but NOT obsolete missiles, that could reach Moscow! That was the straw that broke the camel’s back! “The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter.” Mr. Ritter was the first American inspector inside Russia to monitor the Intermediate Range Missile Ban. He was Chief Weapons Inspector with UNSCOM in Iraq. He’s married to a Georgian, who has no love for Putin or Russia, Major Ritter is also NOT a Putin fan. Western and Ukrainian media have launched a full on PsyOps campaign. If you want some keen insights, I suggest it’s an hour very well spent! The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IexFtDCJNsM You are being subjected to a no holds barred CIA Psyop propaganda campaign, from the same CIA that had a coup, called the Maidan, in 2014. You think they’re telling the truth now? Remember Iraqi WMD?

          1. Call me crazy, Putinov, but I’m pretty sure if the Russians had taken Kyiv, they would be broadcasting the fact. “Fog of war” can only take you so far, my friend, before people go from quizzical to ROTFLMAO.

          2. If the Russian army didn’t want civilian casualties they wouldn’t be fighting in and around a city. That’s where you tend to find a lot of people living, after all, and where they get caught in the crossfire.

    2. Shiny new weapons systems are “sexy” and play well to audiences at home. Importantly, investing money in this way helps conceal what the kleptocrats are really up to. “No… we’re not stealing all your money, if we were, could we afford to pay for all THIS stuff? I mean look at it. It’s beautiful and amazing, and it’s terrifying to our enemies!!”

      Sounds the the Star Wars Empire with their Death Stars doesn’t it?

  29. Saw an interesting National Review article on Russia’s struggle:

    https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/why-the-russians-are-struggling/

    The big thing is that Russia’s army is largely one-year conscripts. Now, I don’t think it’d be a huge problem if their riflemen were one-year conscripts, though they’d have to work very hard on cohesion, but apparently even a large chunk of their NCOs are one-year conscripts. That’s pretty crippling; it seriously hinders them employing NATO’s tactics that rely on NCOs taking initative, it means you don’t have a veteran in the APC who can help inspire and motivate his squad of conscripts, and probably low-level NCOs are the ones actually physically watching supplies get loaded and a particular platoon has a fuel truck scheduled.

    1. The length of conscription is close to irrelevant if they do like the USA does. People who have served their time, are “on call” for quite a few years. This ain’t Afghanistan where corrupt Russian generals pocketed the pay of dead soldiers. You may find this informative and useful.

      The USA didn’t give a Millimeter on Russia’s legitimate security concerns and Zelensky announced at a Munich conference, he was going to make nuclear warheads for his aged but NOT obsolete missiles, that could reach Moscow! That was the straw that broke the camel’s back! “The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter.” Mr. Ritter was the first American inspector inside Russia to monitor the Intermediate Range Missile Ban. He was Chief Weapons Inspector with UNSCOM in Iraq. He’s married to a Georgian, who has no love for Putin or Russia, Major Ritter is also NOT a Putin fan. Western and Ukrainian media have launched a full on PsyOps campaign. If you want some keen insights, I suggest it’s an hour very well spent! The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IexFtDCJNsM You are being subjected to a no holds barred CIA Psyop propaganda campaign, from the same CIA that had a coup, called the Maidan, in 2014. You think they’re telling the truth now? Remember Iraqi WMD?

        1. It’s not spamming, it’s real information you apparently haven’t read/watched or acknowledge as reality. That denialism in the face of truth. If it’s incorrect refute it, I suggest with Scott Ritter.

          1. No, repeating the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over is in fact spamming.

    2. > The big thing is that Russia’s army is largely one-year conscripts.
      Not anymore, I believe. Last year their Defense Minister (should likely be renamed to Attack Minister now) stated that conscripts constitute to roughly one-third of Land Force Limit (sorry couldn’t resist EU4 reference in this blog) and nearly all NCO positions are filled by professionals.

  30. Woah. Looks like Mr. Devereaux can be proud – so many Russlandverstehern have assembled here, it is virtually like a proof that his blog was deemed to have a significant influence on public opinion.

    1. Have you watched this video? I’m kind of reality based, and have to ask, who has nuclear missiles on who’s borders? Being rational about historical facts, does not make one a Russian tool, it makes one NOT a tool of the Washington war blob. The USA abandoned diplomacy, not Putin. In his last 1 hour speech, he threw the paper copy away, ignored the teleprompter and spoke for an hour, from the heart, explaining to the Russian people what he was going to do and why. Read the transcripts. The USA FORCED this, while arming Ukraine, goading the Russians to attack, by leaving ZERO other options!

      The USA didn’t give a Millimeter on Russia’s legitimate security concerns and Zelensky announced at a Munich conference, he was going to make nuclear warheads for his aged but NOT obsolete missiles, that could reach Moscow! That was the straw that broke the camel’s back! “The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter.” Mr. Ritter was the first American inspector inside Russia to monitor the Intermediate Range Missile Ban. He was Chief Weapons Inspector with UNSCOM in Iraq. He’s married to a Georgian, who has no love for Putin or Russia, Major Ritter is also NOT a Putin fan. Western and Ukrainian media have launched a full on PsyOps campaign. If you want some keen insights, I suggest it’s an hour very well spent! The Ukraine Crisis With Dan Cohen and Scott Ritter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IexFtDCJNsM You are being subjected to a no holds barred CIA Psyop propaganda campaign, from the same CIA that had a coup, called the Maidan, in 2014. You think they’re telling the truth now? Remember Iraqi WMD?

        1. This is such a common talking point that usually goes unrefuted I assumed it was true, but I just checked and the only NATO nukes in the east are fighter-launched nukes in storage in Turkey. That’s not a threat to the Russian nuclear deterrant.

      1. > The USA FORCED this, while arming Ukraine, goading the Russians to attack, by leaving ZERO other options!

        poor Putin, USA and Ukraine took over his army and ordered it to attack

        > The USA didn’t give a Millimeter on Russia’s legitimate security concerns and

        Which ones you consider as legitimate? Because many requests were insane

        > Zelensky announced at a Munich conference, he was going to make nuclear warheads for his aged but NOT obsolete missiles

        [citation needed]

        Ukraine definitely regrets giving up leftover nukes in return for Russia promising to honor its borders. But that is a different thing.

        Also, even if Zelensky would stupidly say it, that is still ridiculous fantasy and far below what Putin did, suggested, can do and threatened to do. See war games that included launch of ICBM at Warsaw, ones that they actually have.

        1. You all seem extremely dedicated to continuing to argue with an obvious troll, who has already shitposted the same blather 7-8 times in one thread. If you ignore him, he might go away.

          1. That’s not how paid trolling works, though. A lack of engagement won’t lead to the boredom-based demotivation you sometimes see in bullies, a professional has to put in the hours even if they hate doing it.
            Trolling that isn’t for personal entertainment should be engaged with, because its primary function isn’t harassment but disinformation. Unanswered disinformation is so much worse for discourse than answered disinformation that even simple defamation of the troll is preferable to ignoring them.

  31. > And finally, if you want to support what I’m doing here – well, this week, support something else.

    Well, joke’s on you, now I’m gonna support both.

  32. Might I suggest that you take the step of inserting, at top, a survey of the way things have transpired since this was posted,

    which very much represent a series of coherent but low-probability (or so we would have said) departures from collective wisdom.

    IMO we are witnessing a lot of this war being waged online in global social media in a way that is taking most everyone but its partisans by surprise and still largely unaware. TL;DR: as a friend put it, we are seeing WWIII go down, just, in different spheres than past wars. That is of course hyperbolic and oversimplifying but it IMO it is also at core true.

    Two observations:
    • To an extent not previously seen, war involving the first world is being steered through public sentiment. Control public sentiment and you put (real) pressure on governments beholden to it in one fashion or another. Corporate private governmental and international body responses are all evolving more or less in real time in response to the perception of massive solidarity.
    • This is actual memetic warfare, actual info-war, being waged by state actors. Many myself included asked, did the US and UK and its allies learn nothing from the replication of GRU/proxy informational war in central Europe being applied to effect Brexit and cooption of the GOP and installation of a useful idiot in the US and to drive its culture wars? Answer: someone somewhere obviously learned a lot fast.

    IMO the pervasive evocation of pro-Ukraine sentiment suggests a very effective application of the contemporary tooling of propaganda, and serves multiple aligned strategic interests, not least providing cover for inviting but (absent a wave of public sentiment) politically risky actions such as: providing overt military aid; truly unprecedented financial isolation and the specter of financial collapse; rapid progression of NATO membership for other diplomatically historically delicate cases; etc.

    Domestically in the US there is from my anecdotal perspective also a sharp roll-off in the creep of pro-Putin pro-Russia pro-Christofascist realignment stance of the Trump wing of the GOP. While there are exceptions especially among those who appear actually unhinged, or merely more idiotic than the standard useful idiot, the more amoral but politically savvy fair weather fascists appear to be quietly backpedaling. I understand that even Fox has pivoted on Putin this weekend.

    I myself would wager a good bit that this is not a chance windfall. I assume it is the counterblow being struck by US and allied IC who learned how to fight the GRU on its own favorite ground. That we own the ground in a material sense is not insignificant.

    Idle comment, sign me up.

    1. As a non Christian member of the right wing I cannot understand why people on the left keep claiming we’re pro-Putin.
      I certainly am not and neither are the columnists I’ve read.

      1. He very clearly indicated that “the more amoral but politically savvy fair weather fascists appear to be quietly backpedaling”. Even Trump, impeached for withholding military aid to Ukraine, came close to almost condemning Putin at CPAC.

        1. As near as I can tell Putin supporters are a tiny minority on both sides of the aisle. Generally everybody agrees Putin=Bad.

          1. It depends on how you define a Putin supporter. Outright pro-Putin types have always seemed to be tiny minority to me. However, there are more than a few right-wing equivocators, in this vein:

            “Yeah he’s a ruthless thug, but he did stabilize Russia after the misery of liberal democratic 90’s and bring them some degree of prosperity. Their society has many problems, but at least they’re not hostile to traditional family values, and woke craziness isn’t an issue. And do people like me really want to spill our blood to fight them? No Russian ever called us white supremacists.”

            That type might have gone somewhat silent now. There is no “but” on the invasion of Ukraine, even if some cranks and actual trolls try.

      2. Despite his efforts to backpedal now (and even those have been half-hearted), Tucker Carlson is on record supporting Russia in the Ukraine conflict. Support for Ukraine was removed from the 2016 GOP platform at Donald Trump’s request. Probably the reason why people on the left keep claiming you’re pro-Putin is because your most prominent pundits and politicians keep taking pro-Putin stances.

  33. Pro-Putin voices on the left are frustratingly naive to me. They just want to simplify geopolitics to “The US are the bad guys” and work backwards from there that anyone who opposes the US is de facto good. Some of them act like Putin is going to bring back the Soviet Union when his nationalistic signaling is a grab bag of Russian history leaning just as much if not more on Tsarist Russia.

    He’s clever enough to play into this too, the Ukrainian Azov battalion are absolutely Nazis, but they are a group of less than a thousand people in a country with a population of 44 million but Russia has very effectively painted them as representative of Ukrainian armed forces to certain corners of the internet. This also erases the fact that Russia is not a country devoid of Nazis either (Russia’s far right is big on ‘borealism’ a very weird form of esoteric fascism.)

  34. “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).”

    And one more factor – Ukraine is massively unified against Russia.

    There are probably two ways to win a counterinsurgency. One is monstrous bestiality on a Hitler or Stalin level, where you crush the resistance through outright genocide and routine torture. Putin is unlikely to get away with that – Lidice or the Holodomor are going to be beyondthe pale.

    The other, more reasonable one, is siding with the majority against a minority insurgence. This ultimately worked for the U.S. in Iraq, and for the British in Malaya and Kenya. This is a non-starter in Ukraine, though (although it would likely have worked had Putin settled for just the Donbass).

  35. “How does one cultivate power? The key factor is legitimacy.“ Would love to have you run Putin through that grist mill, Bret.

    1. As our host himself observed, Putin almost certainly thinks that Ukraine should rightfully be ruled by Russia, and therefore by himself. Probably no one wants to tell him the Ukrainians don’t agree with him.

      1. I was thinking more of how Putin has cultivated his power and legitimacy within Russia; how he’s made himself someone that Russians would want to follow and agree with. I’m guessing that he didn’t try to cultivate his legitimacy in the Ukraine at all. An invader probably doesn’t try to build a following within the people/country they try to invade.

        1. He portrays himself as a strong man willing to stand up to Western bullying. The strong man part can be literal, hence the number of pictures of Putin without his shirt. It’s also almost certainly why he preceded this war with demands of NATO he knew were unacceptable, so he could portray it as opposing NATO’s militarism.

          He’s also cultivated close ties with the Russian Orthodox church, which supports his regime. It also claims authority over the church in Ukraine, while the Ecumenical Patriarchate declared the Ukranian church autocephelous (self-headed) in 2019.

        2. “An invader probably doesn’t try to build a following within the people/country they try to invade.”

          An invader that desires to rule that country should do exactly that, for the same reasons as any other ruler. Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine should make that pretty clear. Afghanistan has shown it twice.

  36. Hello! Great blog, two questions (which may not be easily answerable):

    First of all, if Ukraine wins this war, either in the sense of the government of Ukraine winning in the field in the near term, or in the sense of an insurgency hanging on and fighting the occupiers until the Russians are no longer willing to sustain the occupation and leave (like the US left Afghanistan), what is the likelihood that the resulting Ukrainian state would pursue a nuclear weapons program?

    Secondly, how far can NATO go in supporting the Ukrainian army or a Ukrainian resistance before it would start to raise the same problems as NATO fighting Russia directly? I’m imagining a Ukrainian military using NATO supplied weapons and planes, flying out of NATO bases where those NATO planes get maintenance and those Ukrainian soldiers get training, support and medical treatment, using tactics that are heavily advised by NATO if not dictated by them. Can NATO basically wage a conventional war against Russia as long as triggers are only pulled within the borders of Ukraine and anyone within those borders who pulls a trigger, flies a drone, drives a vehicle or performs any other function of a military is Ukrainian?

    1. <flying out of NATO bases where those NATO planes get maintenance

      would be an act of war i think

    2. 1. I think if Ukraine wins there’s a 100% chance they’ll be wanting a nuclear deterrant. I think most likely they’ll want to join NATO and be credibly covered by its deterrant with enough troops in the country that people will believe NATO will step in if they’re attacked, but if they can’t get that they’ll start their own program. I think a very likely path is Ukraine announces the start of a nuclear program, then cuts a deal with NATO to dismantle it in return for joining.

      2. The line probably stops at sending military hardware through Russian blockades relying on a NATO flag to protect them.

  37. > 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.

    Scott Alexander at Astral Codex Ten wrote: > My very quick search didn’t find any pundit who successfully predicted both the Russian invasion and the strong Ukranian resistance. I couldn’t even really find anybody who predicted one correctly and was silent on the other (I think Clay Graubard of Global Guessing managed this, but he’s a superforecaster, not a pundit). If you know someone in this category, please let me know so I can give them an appropriate amount of glory. [https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/ukraine-warcasting]

    Can you link to some specific examples of people or publicly available information sources who have done particularly well in making predictions about this war?

    1. The effectiveness of the Ukranian opposition and Russia’s logistics issues seem to have surprised everyone except possibly Ukraine, though this was written early in the invasion when it wasn’t apparent. The general belief seemed to be that it’d go like Iraq; Russia would rapidly destroy or rout the Ukranian army then face a powerful insurrection. It can be pretty hard for even the generals of a force to know how it’ll perform in field conditions, though.

      The US publically predicted the invasion significantly in advance and was reporting the preparations underway in January. I wouldn’t say they predicted the exact date,¹ but in mid-Febuary Biden said Putin had made the decision to invade. Granted, it’s hard to hide three hundred thousand troops and their vehicles and the supplies for an invasion from orbital observation, so detecting the preparations is a fairly simple accomplishment.

      1. US forces entered Iraq on March 19, 2003, and had consolidated control of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. That’s three weeks on the dot. While the ferocity of Ukrainian resistance and the incompetence of the Russian attack are certainly surprising, the Ukraine-as-Iraq scenario is by no means off the table.

        1. While I was pretty young at the time, my understanding was that the Iraqi forces in the field offered very little effective resistance and the US quickly reached Baghdad, then engaged in a lengthy cityfight. Kiev is about 50 miles from Russia’s start point and aside from an unsuccessful airborne strike Russia wasn’t at the outskirts until day 5.

          I am by no means certain Ukraine will win this, but their formal armed forces have proven a significant obstacle.

        2. These two operations are hardly comparable. Different terrain, different relative power, different means of warfare. Obviously, Putin’s initial plan to simply walk-in, got some flowers from welcoming population and install puppet government has failed miserably. It seems now Russia has switched to different approach: encircle opponents at Donbas and blockade major cities without trying to siege them at any cost. If resistance is not too harsh, some street-level action may occur, but so far it’s mostly about targeted rocket attacks in the news.I guess idea is to make Zelenskyy more cooperative once military potential of Ukraine is destroyed. Afterwards, both sides can declare victory and settle on peace terms.

  38. “NATO is a purely defensive alliance”
    Tell that to the Libyans whom NATO bombed in 2012 before their oil companies took the oil.

    1. NATO members will often form offensive coalitions for various purposes but these are not triggered by NATO, do not include every NATO member, and include non-NATO members. Therefore, a nation joining NATO does not mean they would join an offensive coalition with the US if it attacks Russia and not being in NATO does not prevent them from joining.

      1. Also, they did it in response to massacres of unarmed demonstrators, not in order to get oil.

        1. This is naive. Western oil companies now control Libyan oil.
          If NATO’s actions really were a “response to massacres of unarmed demonstrators”, then why did they not intervene in the massacre of pro-Biafra protesters (2015/16), Myanmar protesters (2021), Egyptian protester in 2013 and the countless other peaceful protests that thugish regimes snuff out?

          1. You are approaching this a totally backward way. Do you believe the bombings would have happened without the protests? If not, it is very disingenuous to claim that the bombings happened for no other reason than oil. Also, they were not done by NATO, but by some countries that happened to be members of NATO. It was not a NATO operation, at least as far as I can remember.

  39. I see nowhere here any mention of the failed revolutions in Belarus and Kazakhstan just a few months ago.
    Both were put down with Russian intervention or the threat of it.
    Russian propaganda, at least publicly, makes a show of believing that every colour revolution is a CIA plot.
    I don’t know how many in the Russian government and security services actually believe that (foreign Putinists certainly do), but I would not be that surprised if they did, or if they needed to act and make policy as if they did.

    It may be that the Russian government, or at least a paranoid, isolated ruler, may -actually- think that to sit still now is to lose, and that he’s going to meet the end of Gaddafi.

  40. “In the two weeks prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Marine Corps University ran a four-day wargame to simulate the first several days of just such an invasion.”

    This is the opening line for an article at War On The Rocks that recounts that wargame.

    1. Interesting. I did think it curious that so many people assumed that one of the most populous countries in Europe, faced with an attempt to conquer it outright, would fall in days. Wargame and war seem to question that assumption.

      (Which is not to say Russia will not ultimately win: it is a richer, more populous country, after all. Whether it would benefit from such a victory is another matter.)

      https://warontherocks.com/2022/03/the-wargame-before-the-war-russia-attacks-ukraine/

  41. Can you comment on other possible motivations for Putin/Russia beside “nationalist and imperialist ideology”? Some things I’ve heard was:

    – Crimea water crisis (because of Ukranian dams)
    – Access to black sea ports
    – Access to Ukraine’s fertile lands

    Is it possible that Russia’s actions are motivated by the desire for survival in the system of “interstate anarchy”, as you call it? I know you’ve mentioned that all of these concepts went out the window past the industrial age, but is there anything there? Or is all of this just a misguided ethnonationalist ideological project and/or an attempt to stay in political power?

    1. So when it comes to port and land access the issue here is one I’ve touched on before – the industrial revolution has made war so crushingly destructive that there simply is no way to come out ‘ahead’ when trying to do conquest like this. Certainly not against the sort of stout resistance the Ukrainians are putting forward. Those burning tanks you see pictures of are $1-3 million a pop. Some of the heavier systems (particularly anti-air systems) the Russian army is losing cost tens of millions of dollars (or ::checks notes:: infinity rubles). Plus paying the soldiers, plus the cost of munitions and fuel, plus the cost of sanctions.

      No land is worth that much unless it is your sacred homeland you are defending with your lives.

      As for water issues in Crimea, well…the easy solution to that would have not to illegally seized Crimea.

      Russia has more to gain by trading with Ukraine (and the EU) than it has to gain by attacking them. But *Putin* thinks he has more to gain by spending other men’s sons fighting a war of choice. And that’s why we are where we are.

      1. When I took Russian history many moons ago the professor kept talking about an obsession with warm water ports. Of course ports on the Black Sea are trapped by the bottleneck of the Bosporus, hence the obsession with retaking Constantinople, partly religious but also very practical.

      2. Insofar as Putin is motivated by ports and grain it’s probably for military rather than economic reasons. Black sea ports gets him naval bases open year round, though they’d be inconviently trapped by Turkey in a war with NATO, he already got some when he annexed Crimea, and global warming is clearing the northern ice. Grain makes him less susceptible to blockade but I believe Russia is a net exporter anyways.

        Water crisis strikes me as thoroughly implausible. I know little about the situation, but if he wanted to have dams opened he could have moved his army into position then declared that Ukraine was employing unconventional warfare by restricting the water supply and if they refused to stop he’d be forced to launch an invasion. It’s very likely Ukraine would agree to open the dams simply from the threat, and if they didn’t having water supply as his offical causus belli would play better overseas and probably result in lower sanctions and less military support.

      3. Another bit I recently learned was that a large reservoir of oil and natural gas was discovered in the Crimean peninsula. Furthermore, many gas pipes for export are routed through Ukraine, who forces Russia to pay expensive tarriffs. Both these things threaten Russia as they rely heavily on petro exports – or at least Putin’s political position and/or his oligarchs wealth. Perhaps that could be another explanation? The war is profitable for the people in charge even though it’s bad for Russia and its citizens.

  42. I suppose the nuclear deterrance post will cover this, but it’s worth noting that the expansion of NATO isn’t really a security threat to Russia. Why? Well, the same reason we aren’t intervening in Ukraine with military force but moreso. Russia is in possession of nuclear weapons sufficent to effectively destroy NATO’s government and kill a large portion of their population directly and by critically disrupting food transportation. They also posess tactical nuclear weapons, which they could use to obliterate advancing armies, which could easily escalate to strategic weapons but might not, so it’s very likely Putin would use them and hope NATO opts to agree to a ceasefire rather than empty its silos. So invading Russia is a nonstarter, and positioning the combined armies of NATO on the Russian border wouldn’t change that.

    The only thing that poses a strategic threat is a threat to the logic of deterrance, something that would allow NATO to fire its arsenal and not have a nuke go off on its soil. That could come in two forms: antimissile defenses in such quantity that they could intercept all 6000 Russian nukes whatever they’re targeted on, or something that could destroy either the nukes or the ability to distribute the arming codes before Russia can launch. Or more strictly NATO believing it has one of those; they won’t find out they’re wrong until too late. The former is why Russia does not like US missile defense programs, which is a legitimate security concern and why they’re working on hypersonic weapons too fast for the interceptors. For the latter, it’s a good reason to be concerned about nukes in Estonia. However, there are not nukes in Estonia because NATO recognizes that’s a legitimate security concern and doesn’t want Russia to think they’ll launch a first strike lest Russia decide to preempt it in the hopes they’ll at least destroy some of NATO’s arsenal on the ground.

    Therefore, the only nukes east of Germany, not counting any nuclear missile subs deployed there, are twenty tactical nukes in storage in Turkey. That’s a deterrant to a land invasion; NATO has vowed not to use nukes offensively but conspiciously not vowed not to use tactical nukes in response to a conventional attack because it was widely believed the Red Army could overrun Europe in short order.

    1. I think this has a very narrow-minded view of what a “security threat is.” A security threat–at least, in the mind of a national government–can come from economic warfare; offering training, safe harbor, or supplies to armed dissidents; using deniable assets to carry out attacks; destabilizing a government by sneaking spies over the border, and so on.

      This is one reason countries (like the USA) dump troops all over the planet while saying they’re to defend its security (though that “defending our security as a nation” sounds better than “to create a world more amenable to our nation’s selfish interests” shouldn’t be discounted as a factor). It’s also why the USA would view it as a major threat if, say, Russia annexed Mexico, nukes be damned–wouldn’t matter if they knew Russia wasn’t putting nukes there.

      Now, you may be right in that nukes make all other forms of attack basically a nonstarter (though I don’t think you are, because as far as the USA’s security apparatus is concerned, Russia did compromise its security through electoral meddling, and no one’s been nuked over it), but I don’t think governments see it that way.

  43. Looking back on this on 3/28, it’s become clear that the Russian military’s equipment, command and control, and morale were all substantially worse than was believed before this war began. As such, there’s a very real chance that the Ukrainians will “win” through open war, and possibly even be able to retake Crimea and the eastern provinces.

  44. coming back to this analyses after almost 3 months, it’s exhilarating that we, Ukrainians, are winning in the open field

    1. The success of the Armed Forces of Ukraine at contesting the open field has been the biggest surprise of the war by far, I think. It is in part a failure by Russia to leverage its advantages (and a massive failure at that), but also a product of clever and stubborn fighting by Ukraine.

      I was thinking for the next fireside going back to this post and discussing what so far has surprised me and where I think I was right and wrong and this is the largest thing – I expected the Russian offensive to culminate in a series of urban sieges (that I thought they’d lose because urban fighting is hard) – I did not expect Russia to be largely incapable of encircling and then besieging key strategic cities (Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, etc).

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