Now that Russia has launched its massive invasion of Ukraine, it might be useful to look back at some of the discussion in the West prior to this event, and to think ahead to what may come next.
Looking backward. The Russian troop build-up brought many of the early critics of NATO expansion out of the woodwork, who argued that the United States and its allies were in part responsible for Russian behavior. They were joined by people on the left and realists like John Mearsheimer who argued that Russia has legitimate interests in a sphere of influence in the territories of the former USSR, and that the crisis might be solved diplomatically by formally forswearing NATO membership for Ukraine.
Russia’s invasion makes these arguments look pretty hollow now. If you really worry about a security threat posed by Kyiv, you don’t then launch a massive invasion that risks getting bogged down in guerrilla warfare, or escalation to open conflict with NATO. The pictures of destruction coming out of Kyiv, Kherson, Kharkiv, and other Ukrainian cities illustrate what it means to live in a Russian sphere of influence. What looks like a chess move to a grand strategist or IR theorist is a moral disaster for actual people on the ground. The Russians themselves seem to have given up trying to pretend that the war was about NATO membership: in the days immediately preceding the attack, they moved to increasingly absurd justifications, such as claims that Ukraine was a fascist, neo-Nazi state, that it was committing genocide, or that it was planning a massive attack on Russia.
There seems to be no broad buy-in from the Russian people to this narrative. There have been large street protests of the war in many Russian cities, and many of Moscow's shills have themselves been taken aback by the actual invasion.
Neutralizing a security threat from Ukraine and NATO was never the issue. Removing Ukraine’s democratically elected government and replacing it with a puppet state was the real plan from the beginning. And this would be a prelude to overturning the entire post-1991 European order that had freed Eastern Europe and the former USSR from Moscow’s yoke.
Looking forward. Prior to the war, I attended a number of briefings by very senior military commanders who all felt Putin did not have sufficient forces to occupy the whole of Ukraine, or even to control the city of Kyiv with its 2.8 million inhabitants. It seemed more logical for Moscow to systematically destroy Ukraine’s armed forces, and occupy enough territory that the country would be strangled slowly economically. But going straight for Kyiv is precisely what Russia chose to do.
This seems like an incredibly risky gamble for Putin, far greater than any of the other gambles he’s taken previously. The war, strangely, did not start with the kind of “shock and awe” that the United States employed at the beginning of the 2003 Iraq invasion. Destructive as they were, the Russians launched a relatively small number of cruise and ballistic missiles, and have held back more than half of their land forces. Right now they are in the process of surrounding Kyiv, and risk getting drawn into a street-by-street battle for control of the city. They will continue to add new forces and increase the level of violence to get their way.
As the Russians run out of precision-guided munitions, they will be strongly tempted to use conventional artillery, Grads, and dumb bombs to attack the Ukrainians. This will lead to big civilian casualties and physical destruction. The worst scenario is that the Russians ultimately succeed, and turn Kyiv into Grozny during the Chechen war. This would be an unbelievable tragedy for Ukraine. A somewhat better scenario is that Kyiv becomes Putin’s Stalingrad. Russian logistical lines from Belarus depend on a small number of roads winding through forests, which will be very vulnerable to partisan disruption.
I think that many observers have failed to note the importance of Turkey in this conflict. President Zelensky said that it will be blocking the passage of Russian warships through the Straits.
This appears not to be true; such a move on Turkey's part would have grave consequences. However, Ankara's backing for Ukraine is manifest. There has been considerable Turkish-Ukrainian military and technological cooperation and a bilateral trade agreement signed just before the start of the invasion. Erdogan seems to have decided some time ago to bolster Ukraine as a counterweight to Russian power in the Black Sea, and Turkish drones are apparently being used to good effect:
The south of Ukraine will be an important theater to watch, as I argued in my previous post. A lot of countries including China and Egypt will suffer from the cutoff of Ukrainian grain; a Japanese bulk carrier was hit yesterday and the Russians have effectively blocked Ukraine’s access to the outside world. While we can celebrate what looks like a sustained defense of Kyiv, we need to pay attention to Russian gains on the Black Sea coast.
I don’t wish for a new Grozny to emerge in Ukraine, not too far from the original Stalingrad (now the Russian city of Volgograd). But I can’t help thinking that Putin has bit off way more than he can chew. Tough Western sanctions are a good thing, but in the end it is military failure that will really force Putin to back down.
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