How Putin Aims To Kill Ukraine
As of now, the world has to assume a major military conflict will break out between Russia and Ukraine this winter.
EDIT 2/28/2022: It’s happening.
Usually war scares like this don’t amount to much — but substantial evidence suggests that this time something is very different.
At the very least, Russian President Vladimir Putin is making it clear he is willing to go to war. The Ukrainian military recently published an analysis of the situation they face, and it is incredibly grim:
Where America takes months to build up a ground force of substantial size, along its own border Russia can mobilize in mere weeks. They’ve proven it three times this year alone — with the latest mobilization by far the most concerning.
In April of 2021 news broke of major Russian military formations moving west to the frontier with Ukraine. Fears of a conflict breaking out then were real and justified — in effect, this was Putin publicly setting a gun on the table.
In late summer, both NATO and Russia held major military exercises more or less rehearsing the initial stages of a conflict. Fewer concerns were raised this time around because Putin’s provocations in April convinced the Biden Administration to organize a summit that didn’t end tensions, but did seem to allay them.
In retrospect, it appears that this meeting involved some sort of quiet agreement between Russia and America designed to free the Biden Administration to focus on elite America’s last-ditch attempt at forcing a compliant national unity through demonizing China. It also may explain the rush to get out of Afghanistan, something Russia clearly wanted.
It also explains why America unexpectedly pulled back on its opposition to the Nord Stream 2 project that will further bind Western Europe to Russia’s natural gas industry. Biden appears to have tried to pull a Nixon goes to China moment that would drive a wedge between Russia and China, whose relationship is starting to mimic that between the UK and USA.
Biden is the kind of leader who likes to make personal connections and use those as a basis for negotiations — much like a used car salesman. Putin, however, is a classic strongman — every action is designed to burnish his public image as a tough guy, a valiant protector of his people.
So when after their mutual meeting seemed to calm tensions the UK and US made several military moves Russia interpreted as provocative — moving ships and aircraft close to Russia’s claimed borders in Crimea and elsewhere — Putin saw that as a violation of their mutual accord.
As I’ve written before, Russia’s position with respect to Ukraine has always been simple: it cannot join NATO or host NATO forces. Crimea was seized because it was historically a Russian province, not Ukrainian, at least in the eyes of most Russians. When separatists in Eastern Ukraine tried to break away after a coup in Kyiv Russia perceived as backed by the West, Russia supported them with weapons and troops.
This does not justify Russia’s actions, but it explains them. Once Ukraine was perceived to be moving too far into America’s orbit, it was in Putin’s interest to create a situation of long term instability, a frozen conflict he could escalate or tamp down as needed to get the attention of his rivals.
Deep down, Putin’s only real aim is to remain in power. He adopts rhetoric and takes actions in order to demonstrate to the clique he leads that he is a strong leader who will fight to secure their interests. Russia is an oligarchy much like the United States, with the Russian and American people both lied to by their leaders, who find it most convenient to have a foreign enemy to scapegoat.
This is what makes Putin predictable — the third war scare of 2021 is taking place now for three key reasons:
- The last ones benefited Putin, giving him easy and — to Russians — justifiable reason for acting tough. He got international attention and equal treatment from the leader of a country with an economy more than ten times bigger than Russia’s.
- America and NATO continue to deepen ties, giving Ukraine enhanced military capabilities against the separatists in the east like advanced drones and anti-tank missiles that could one day pose a problem if Russia felt an urgent need to invade.
- America and NATO are both at their weakest point in decades in terms of strength and diplomatic heft after Afghanistan. Both are trying to focus on Russia’s ally China but neither is truly prepared for a major conflict anywhere.
To put it bluntly, Putin is pushing now because he can — using the logic of hard power, he should. NATO and America are both in a uniquely vulnerable position, and it is entirely possible that a major humiliation would throw both into deep crisis. Military alliances hold together because members demonstrate the ability and will to accomplish key goals.
But American and too many Western European foreign policy wonks have an obsession with deterrence. They think that if you threaten to impose sufficient costs, broadly defined, that is sufficient to make an opponent reconsider hostile actions.
Trouble is, this only works if both sides are working from the same script, the same way of thinking. Deterrence relies on communication, and humans are notorious bluffers. If Putin doesn’t believe a threat by NATO or the US to intervene is credible, the threat becomes a liability to them.
An opportunity — especially if a threat isn’t truly credible, like most America makes these days because of its unending political crisis — to be exploited. Because no defeat comes as a greater shock than one you insisted wasn’t possible — Biden was taught that lesson both by Covid-19 and the Taliban this year.
Putin obviously doesn’t want America to fall apart — NATO, on the other hand, has become an irritant. What makes this war scare different than the others, the equivalent of Putin picking up his gun, loading it, and pointing it at Ukraine, is the shift in Putin’s rhetoric about Russia’s Red Lines.
Every country has Red Lines that if crossed will entail a powerful counter-response. America bluffs about where its Red Lines truly lie in order to keep its fragile alliances together, but in truth its politicians are so deeply casualty averse everyone around the world knows it is usually bluffing.
Most of the time, nobody wants to call it, not even Russia and China, whose regimes gain much by portraying America as a threat to their citizens. But in certain situations, Taiwan and Ukraine being the two key flashpoints right now, they do have hard Red Lines and will — must — go to war over them even if it costs their people dearly.
This summer, Putin published an eye-raising essay that all but declared Ukraine a fake country, a creation of Western interests fundamentally hostile to Russian sovereignty. In it, he actually equates Ukraine allying with the West to the use of weapons of mass destruction against Russia itself.
The importance of this piece of rhetoric cannot be understated, as it became required military reading. It functions as a unique form of policy statement, a detailed assertion that Ukrainians are actually Russians, and the country’s existence in its present borders is a direct threat to Russia’s security.
This argument was quite deliberately driven home the other day as Putin warned of the consequences of NATO missiles in Ukraine, just a few minutes’ flight time to Moscow. Russia’s Red Line in Ukraine is now not NATO accession, but further NATO integration or the presence of NATO national forces on Ukraine’s soil.
Basically, Putin is pointing a loaded gun at Kyiv — the only question now is whether or not he chooses to fire. He’s certainly telling his people to expect him to.
In the English speaking media the usual tripe is bandied about by the so-called “experts” who have gotten America into this rotten situation in the first place. America’s Secretary of State Blinken is predictably promising America will stand behind Ukraine, threatening Russia with economic sanctions even more severe than those already in place.
Yeah, because, those have worked so well in the past.
Anti-Russian bigotry is one of the last forms of public bias you are allowed to voice in America — that and anti-Rural hate. Oddly, some of the strongest Anti-Racist voices these days can be found denigrating Russians, further proof that rich white people can colonize anything and make it serve their interests.
So Americans, as usual, aren’t getting the full picture of what’s happening, how dangerous the situation really is, or how badly their elected officials are performing. Neutral analysis of the conflict over Ukraine is submerged under a tidal wave of propaganda that paints Putin as the source of all the world’s ills.
This is why in nearly every article published about the conflict you can spot either the writer or someone they quote making the point that if Russia invades Ukraine, it won’t find it as easy as it did in 2014 and 2015. They will point out that Ukraine has received large numbers of Javelin anti-tank missiles and is deploying Turkish drones that proved their worth in the recent Armenia-Azerbaijan war as evidence Russia won’t find Ukraine easy pickings it if chooses to invade.
This narrative paints a simplified picture of the crisis as one where America and NATO need only ship more of the same kit to Ukraine and threaten Russia with sanctions and Russia will be adequately deterred. Media types rarely question claims made about whatever expensive toy is the new wonder weapon of the week. But I’ve actually trained on Javelin anti-tank missiles, and though it’s been fifteen years since those days the principles of the weapon remain the same.
Portable anti-tank missiles make an individual positively deadly to tanks, it’s true. You use a video game like screen with joysticks on a digital command module to tell the missile what its target looks like. Missile memorizes the profile, and once fired does the rest, trying to plant its warhead right in the middle of the shape you trained it to lock on to.
Autonomous killer robots aren’t a new thing in war, people. They’ve been around since World War 2. That’s what a guided missile is.
But individual weapons do not win wars. Real high intensity military conflict involves lots of different types of weapons working together.
Javelin missiles can only kill a tank in line of sight of the shooter and within a range of a few miles. When one fires, there’s a blast visible from a long way away.
And in real military operations in the modern world, the instant you are spotted you become a target. Russia has drones too — a whole lot more than Ukraine, as Russia spends ten times as much on its military as Ukraine does.
A couple minutes after a Javelin operator shoots, artillery and rockets will pulverize everything within a mile of their position. Russia loves artillery, and theirs can shoot at targets over twenty miles away, well behind the front lines. If a poor Ukrainian soldier tries running away to escape the steel rain, Russian attack jets and drones will be there watching, and a moving target is easy to spot and bomb.
Yes, Ukraine can fight back with drones and artillery of its own — but again, the country is outnumbered and almost surrounded. Half its army is deployed near the line of contact in Donbass. The forces Russia has moved into position could easily be doubled in a few weeks.
This forces Ukraine’s military to make some very hard choices. Defending everywhere means Russia can concentrate its attacks and break through sectors one at a time. Concentrating anywhere means its forces could be overwhelmed on every other front. Unless America or NATO come to Ukraine’s aid with military power of their own, Ukraine cannot last long against an all-out attack.
This is why another trope being pushed by nearly everyone is that Russia would find an occupation of Ukraine costly because of the insurgency that would rise up.The people who use this to aid their case that Russia will back down if if fears the costs of a fight are making two critical assumptions.
- That locals will support active fighting in their neighborhoods to defend a country they feel is rife with corruption
- Russia bothers to actually invade substantial amounts of Ukrainian territory at all.
The hard truth is that if Putin does launch an operation it is less likely to be intended to occupy a broad swath of eastern Ukraine than it is to simply break the Ukrainian government. War is politics, and politics is war, with domestic and international systems ever more tightly linked. Modern warfare has proven how difficult subduing urban areas is, so the odds of Russian tanks rolling into Kyiv are roughly the same as a meteor striking Washington D.C.
Could happen, probably won’t — unless all resistance collapsed after a long war.
Critically, in Donbass in 2015 Russia intervened to back separatists who were already fighting their government. Certainly Russian forces were probably directly involved quite early on, but Putin’s min intervention came only when the separatists were facing defeat — and Ukraine’s army was exposed to attack.
If bad fighting flares up along the line of contact in Donbass between separatists and government forces, Russia can initiate a process of steady, deliberate escalation while claiming Ukraine is the one starting a fight. There won’t be a need for a sudden, dramatic invasion — the ideal scenario for Russia sees skirmishes that bring Ukrainian drones and artillery into the fight.
The first stages of an attack won’t look like an invasion. Drones will start getting shot down and artillery pieces struck by accurate counter-fire from Russian soil. Putin can deny any involvement at first, then claim he’s taking purely defensive actions and seeks dialogue. Then, if needed, separatist forces can make a few careful advances into government-held territory backed by heavy artillery and air power.
Ukraine then faces a wretched choice — counterattack into the teeth of a prepared Russian response, or pull back and demand real support from its supposed allies. Under these circumstances, with Russia pointing to the fact it isn’t invading from multiple points as evidence it is showing restraint, who will come to Ukraine’s aid in a meaningful way?
The hell of it is, by then it will be too late — in truth, from a military perspective, it already is. A credible show of support would involve several American Army brigades backed by a fighter wing or three deploying to the Baltic States, Poland, or Romania.
But if Russia viewed this as a dangerous escalation and chose to — and there is every reason to believe it will, Putin could raise the stakes and launch a broader invasion of Ukraine before these forces arrived. Russians would be told it’s a defensive move, and would hardly protest.
But any intervention short of that is unlikely to be decisive if Putin is serious — China is more than happy to offset the impact of any sanctions as this crisis would keep America and NATO preoccupied with European affairs again. But does anyone believe Joe Biden would authorize a bold move given the real risk that it would be both useless in a practical sense and possibly escalate the situation even more?
Is Biden willing to raise the stakes when that, according to Putin’s words, would be tantamount to starting a nuclear war? Is it ever rational to call a bluff when there is even a small chance of setting off a chain of events that results in a nuclear exchange?
I’m not being hyperbolic here — the era of Mutually Assured Destruction is long past, so it wouldn’t go down as a global apocalypse like nuclear war is portrayed in the media. Targeting cities isn’t seen as useful anymore, except as a last resort: they’re way more useful as hostages.
Nuclear weapons are instead meant to target the other side’s nuclear weapons, mostly the ones that represent the greatest threat to their own: land-based ICBMs like the 450 America maintains around Great Falls, Montana; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Minot, North Dakota. A major exchange would likely end with Russia and/or China and America blowing up each other’s ICBM fields then negotiating a ceasefire.
Ironically, this limited damage potential is part of what has made a nuclear exchange so much more likely since the end of the Cold War, along with the deployment of new types of nukes and anti-missile defenses. And a conflict over Ukraine or Taiwan now represents the major pathway to a large-scale intentional nuclear exchange.
So is Biden willing to play a dangerous game to save Eastern Ukraine?
I doubt Vladimir Putin thinks so, and there’s likely no way to change his mind now — though perhaps another summit will suffice. Biden’s performance and sagging polls have been carefully watched abroad — Russia and China both clearly feel the United States is a paper tiger and they’re acting like it.
Ukraine doesn’t deserve to be another bone in a geopolitical dogfight. Unfortunately there is now no way for anyone to protect Ukraine short of risking all-out war.
Putin may or may not choose to make this crisis the one that results in the annihilation of Ukraine’s military defenses. If Russia does seize more territory, it will most likely be in Ukraine’s south, cutting it off from the Azov sea forever. These regions have the most Russian-affiliated people, and are least likely to be able to sustain an insurgency.
What happens to Ukraine after that is hard to say. The government will likely fall, and substantial monetary aid will flow in from the west, but the basic situation with respect to Russia won’t change. Putin’s argument about Ukraine will remain the same, and if he wants more land in the future or sees a need to escalate the conflict again there will be little reason for him not to do so — unless Ukraine’s allies are willing to risk a war.
The only way this situation gets any better is if all sides sit down at the negotiating table and work out a solution that everyone can accept. This likely involves giving Russia ironclad guarantees about limiting NATO expansion and military aid to Russia’s non-NATO neighbors and making parts of present-day Ukraine either independent or permanently Russian.
There are no longer any other viable alternatives.