No one, not even a hardcore skeptic of the conventional wisdom like myself, believed the fighting could ever last this long.
Yet here we are, watching thousands of people get slaughtered every week in the kind of conflict people of a certain age were taught in school to believe was simply impossible in the modern age.
*sigh* yeah, about that…
As the dramatic escalation of Putin’s genocidal war to destroy Ukraine enters its second full year, it is worth looking back at how the world came to this awful place.
But that, as well as the lingering question of where this is all heading, must wait for the final section of this piece.
Fair warning: it’s a long one. But you won’t find a lot of early histories like it, because unlike too many writers, I’m on Ukraine’s side, not NATO’s or, obviously, Russia’s.
The End Of The Beginning
The only way to really get what has happened is to start with the moment everything fundamentally changed: February 24, 2022.
When I woke up that morning, one year ago, like all the others that week I expected to learn that Russia had launched an open attack on Ukraine. Having monitored Putin’s military buildup and escalating rhetoric, I couldn’t help but recall the runup to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
When a country moves a third or more of its entire military to the borders of a neighbor, fighting will almost certainly break out in the near future. The investment of time and energy required to conduct a buildup like this, not to mention the damage it does to international relationships, ultimately has to amount to something in the eyes of the people who order it.
But when I opened BBC to see images of Russian helicopters bringing airborne troops to Hostomel airport in Kyiv, I was astonished. Not only because US media had been talking up the power of US-made Stinger surface to air missiles, which ought to have smacked down such a stupidly bold helicopter assault in minutes, but because of what Putin launching attacks across the whole of Ukraine meant for the world.
As anyone who reads some of my older pieces, now mostly on Substack, can see, I expected Russia’s attack to be fierce, but mostly limited to Ukraine’s east at first. My evaluation was, as I later discovered, virtual identical to the one made by Ukraine’s Armed Forces.
Western intelligence agencies spent two months insisting that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent and would capture Kyiv in a matter of days, but after the WMD debacle in Iraq few believed them. The idea of a Russian blitz into Kyiv was also, in purely military terms, an objectively insane idea.
Russia may have amassed upwards of 180,000 soldiers and militia troops conscripted from occupied Donbas, but this was nowhere near enough to fully control a country of 40 million, let alone suppress an insurgency. As it turns out, the regime in Moscow and Kyiv’s partners abroad completely failed to realize that Ukraine would, in fact, fight back.
This assumption all but doomed Russia’s operation from the start. Yet it was only the ferocious and well executed defensive efforts by Ukrainian soldiers, territorial guard personnel, and regular civilians that truly saved the day, because Russia began to adapt its approach as soon as the early effort to take down Zelensky’s government in a Prague-style putsch had clearly failed.
Russia’s nationwide assault began with hundreds of missiles landing all across Ukraine. Columns of troops led by tanks streamed across the border in the north, south, and east simultaneously. Aircraft roamed Ukraine’s skies, with only a few Ukrainian pilots and surface to air missile systems ready to oppose them.
On Zmiinyi island, a tiny rock some forty kilometers from the Ukraine-Romania border, a small garrison just a few dozen soldiers strong met a strike force led by the cruiser Moskva, which in Russian means Moscow. Though pounded by air strikes and gunfire from the ships, the defenders met an order to surrender with the now epic reply: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!”
Early reports that these gutsy soldiers had all died turned out to be thankfully false. After running out of ammunition and cut off from aid, they were forced to surrender, most later returning from Russian captivity.
But as it turns out, they spoke for their nation. In formerly quiet towns across Ukraine people in uniform and out of it stepped up to do whatever they could to stop the invaders. Outnumbered and outgunned, Ukraine’s defenders still obeyed the order President Zelensky reportedly gave upon learning that Russian forces had crossed the border: inflict maximum losses.
They did this by adopting hit and run tactics that targeted Russian supply lines. The thousands of armored vehicles Putin ordered into Ukraine have a critical weak point: they require vast quantities of fuel that has to be delivered to them by trucks.
Vehicles that lack heavy armor and can be destroyed by light infantry equipped with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars. Spotters located trucks, tanks, and clusters of personnel then fed the coordinates to the Ukrainian Army, which deployed its artillery to deliver lethal blows from a safe distance.
Within days, Ukraine had proven the main assumption of the Russian attack false. Captured documents revealed the general plan for subjugating Ukraine, involving the select destruction of key sites to try and isolate the government from the military and efforts to surround Ukrainian defenders and cut them off from support.
Putin wanted to capture Ukraine as intact as he could, and was planning to install a puppet leader whose strings, like those of Belarus’ President, were pulled from Moscow. As his rhetoric revealed months before the conflict, Putin’s strategic goal was and remains to restore a version of the Soviet Union that resembles the late Russian Empire, which held sway over modern-day Finland and Poland.
Instead of using Russia’s vast arsenal of precision missiles in an overwhelming wave to take out every military and infrastructure site of value, as US military doctrine prefer, Putin tried to perform a limited shock and awe style attack to decapitate and replace the government and seize vital national assets. Essentially, Putin tried to be too clever by half and wound up tripping himself. In the process he triggered a war that even most of Russia’s elites apparently did not see coming and were dismayed to learn was real.
While Ukraine’s military was surprised by the scope of the assault and took several days to fully recover from the shock, resistance by Ukrainians on the ground gave it time to get organized and mobilize. Before the attack, Ukraine had taken the precaution of dispersing much of its military equipment, resulting in many Russian attacks hitting empty facilities.
Russian troops were not at all prepared for serious resistance, aside from those landing at Hostomel or operating in the east, where Russia’s advances still studiously avoided the heavily fortified central portion of the Line of Contact in Donbas, which remains mostly static to this day. Intercepted calls back to families in Russia have revealed that most regular soldiers did not believe they were going to war and were terrified to discover people shooting at them.
It appears that Putin deceived his own people to go to war, trusting that Kyiv would be secure and his plan deemed genius long before international opposition could solidify. On the eve of the invasion, clear differences between NATO members had emerged over how far to back Ukraine if war broke out.
Failure to reckon with the spirit of the Ukrainian people doomed this plan to fail, sending tens of thousands of unprepared Russian soldiers to their deaths. Even experienced troops can be destroyed by unexpected resistance if they have not been properly trained for the fighting they will face. This is why Western armies generally make their troops go through highly realistic exercises for weeks before sending them to a warzone.
Once there, soldiers spend a large amount of their time rehearsing upcoming operations to minimize risk. These would, of course, have given away Putin’s true intentions and induced Ukraine to mobilize sooner. Russia tried to achieve surprise, and in doing so shocked itself as much as its enemies.
The Bum Rush Stalls
Once the plan began to unravel, Russian officers lacked the ability to adapt quickly enough to deal with Ukraine’s efforts at battlefield innovation. Much has been made of Western arms supplies, however the truth is that more than eighty percent of Ukraine’s anti-tank and surface to air missiles and all its jets and armored vehicles at the start of the war were of ultimate Soviet origin.
A big part of why Russian vehicles are painted with giant Zs, Vs, or Os, and troops on both sides wear colored arm bands over their camouflage, is recognition. Battlefields are confusing enough, but when your enemy uses basically the same gear, telling friend from foe is even tougher in a fight.
About three days into the assault, right about the beginning of March, the conflict took its first major turn. Given time to reorganize and evaluate the character of its opposition, Ukraine’s military adopted a solid approach to wearing down and ultimately defeating their foe.
Russia, however, shifted to more standard military tactics, giving up the flying column approach that had led to so many units driving into ambushes on the outskirts of major cities. Instead, in the north Russia focused on surrounding Kyiv and placing it under siege while in the south and east its forces attempted to envelop Ukraine’s main fighting forces.
This was the operation I had expected Russia to launch from the outset, because the most logical way to achieve regime change in Kyiv was to defeat Ukraine’s army, then lay siege to Kyiv. As its main fighting forces were mostly in and around Donbas, fixed in place by the threat of a push from Donetsk City towards the western border of that oblast, A Russian push north from Melitopol and south from Izium, once both were secured, was the obvious choice.
At this point, Western commentators shifted their rhetoric to spread the dangerous myth of Russia’s total and perpetual incompetence, overcompensating for their prior gross underestimation of Ukraine’s ability to resist. This emerging narrative played a vital hidden role in delaying the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine in the following months, which in turn forced it to limit the scope of its counteroffensives last year, and in this served as a natural adjunct to Putin’s nuclear blackmail.
Fortunately, countries across Europe, the east and north in particular, began sending heavy military aid, including tanks and disassembled jet aircraft, right away, if often covertly. And the initial trickle of Western lethal aid began to steadily grow as leaders realized their intelligence services had once again been dead wrong, and Russia was not liable to prevail in a matter of days.
Ukraine’s resistance efforts were much aided by the crashing morale among the unprepared and badly supplied Russian troops, most of whom were contract soldiers who could refuse to fight in Ukraine — and after a few months, many did. Russia continued to push units into Ukraine, but quickly began to have trouble replacing losses.
Ukraine, meanwhile, was mobilizing at breakneck speed. Drones large and small, many donated thanks to international crowdsourcing efforts, helped Ukraine make the most of its artillery to take a steady toll on the invaders. Around Kyiv Russian forces bogged down completely, in Kharkiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv they also failed to advance.
Only in rural Luhansk and the strip of land between the wide Dnipro and the Black and Azov seas did Russian forces make rapid progress, aided by Ukrainian forces being too stretched with the defense of Kyiv to form solid lines. In Mariupol, thousands were cut off and surrounded, slowly ground to bits and finally forced to surrender after a valiant struggle lasting almost three months.
During all of March, 2022, the campaign hung in the balance. Here Putin made another critical mistake. Instead of cutting his losses in the north, where Russian forces were taking a very public and humiliating beating, to refocus all efforts on the southern front where Russia was actually taking ground, Putin maintained the offensive well past the point it had culminated, requiring more offensive power to maintain its positions than it had available to advance.
It took Ukraine a month of hard fighting, but as April dawned successful counterattacks in Sumy and Kharkiv made it clear that Russia had bitten off way more than it could chew, much less swallow whole. A big reason that Russia failed was a total inability to operate aircraft over hostile territory thanks to Ukraine adopting a smart strategy of air denial to slowly bleed Russia of aircraft and trained aircrews.
Air superiority is nearly impossible to achieve if your opponent has dozens of dispersed, mobile surface to air missile systems. And as a big country, Ukraine has the advantage of lots of places for air defense systems to hide. It made excellent use of them, finally forcing Russian aircraft to operate mostly behind the front lines and inflicting egregious casualties on the Russian attack helicopter fleet.
The second phase of the war ended when Russia finally accepted the inevitable and pulled its troops out of northern Ukraine, leaving behind hundreds of tanks and other pieces of military gear that ran out of gas. In a matter of days Ukraine restored the integrity of its northern borders — and then the world realized the kind of evil Putin had unleashed.
Early in the conflict locals began referring to Russian soldiers as orcs, the monstrous soldiers of the dark lord Sauron in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And documented cases of horrific violations of human rights and the laws of war have revealed that Putin’s soldiers have more than earned the moniker.
The true character of Russia’s war on Ukraine was revealed by the genocidal atrocities in Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, and so many other crime scenes. Angry at civilians for helping their armed forces defend their besieged communities, Russian soldiers engaged in a nonstop campaign of terror wherever they stayed.
As someone who served in the US Army during the War on Terror, even though I never went abroad myself I worked closely with people who did. Many confessed to witnessing or even committing atrocities, and the world knows all about Abu Ghraib and the other filthy prisons where suspected insurgents were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.
Most of these incidents were never reported and will never be investigated. They weren’t even really covered up — people just knew not to see certain things happening or ever talk about them to non-veterans.
However: where the vast majority of atrocities committed by American forces in the War on Terror were a direct result of command neglect, soldiers violating their code of honor with officers and American politicians turning a blind eye, Russia’s atrocities are on a whole other level.
It is now clear that the widespread violent suppression of Ukrainian civil society and expressions of national identity were part of the plan. Russian troops were supposed to arrest and disappear individuals of importance, replacing officials with Moscow-approved cronies. Torture, looting, and murder were all to be tolerated under the new regime. That’s what denazification really meant.
This is not war in the traditional sense, this is outright genocide. And the emergence of that hard truth changed everything, ruling out a negotiated settlement that does not restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including Crimea.
The alternative is to allow genocidal actions and nuclear blackmail to reap material rewards. If this happens, the future is bleak for us all, a third world war virtually assured in the next decade that will make the climate crisis look like a spot of bad weather.
Once the truth of what Russia was attempting to do to Ukraine had been revealed, the entire nature of the conflict utterly changed. This was the point that dozens of countries began to fully commit to defending Ukraine.
Russia’s withdrawal from northern Ukraine did not end the second phase of the war, it merely intensified it. Ukraine was forced to commit its troops to holding off the redoubled Russian assaults in the east and contain the bridgehead across the Dnipro at Kherson that threatened the supply lines leading to Donbas.
Over the course of April and May Ukraine parried and defeated every effort Russian forces made to close the jaws of the trap. Fairly soon the southern advances petered out completely, leaving Ukraine able to hold off the powerful Russian armored forces trying to strike south from Izium across the Siverski Donets river.
Finally, Russia managed to find a part of the front in Luhansk where Ukrainian forces were weak enough that it could slowly push them back. Russia’s grand encirclement of the entire Donbas front was ultimately reduced to the annihilation of the cities of Sievierdonetsk and Lysychansk along the Siverski Donets downstream from Izium.
There Russia concentrated its artillery and literally blasted the cities apart to clear the way for infantry moving up behind. Ukraine’s defenders were simultaneously faced with another crisis: they were fast running out of Soviet caliber ammunition for their own artillery. They fought as long as they could for the two cities, but were forced to retreat and dig in to the east.
Ukraine’s story might have become extremely grim at this point, because without artillery support they would have been unable to hold ground anywhere for long. Fortunately, here Kyiv’s international partners finally began to send the kind of kit the country required to survive. Himars and M270 rocket launchers along with a veritable zoo of 155mm howitzers gave Ukraine actual fire superiority in many situations, as these weapons generally have longer ranges and better accuracy than their Russian counterparts.
The Tide Turns
To a certain degree, the second and third phases of the war overlap, if the latter is taken to begin when Ukraine’s major counteroffensives could rely on long-range precision fires. Phase three could even be said to begin when the Moskva was struck by a pair of Ukrainian-made anti-ship missiles when its main air defense radar was stowed.
The ship Ukrainian defenders had told to go fuck itself literally did, the flagship of Russia’s vaunted Black Sea fleet soon lost to the depths. If you ever wanted living proof that the gods of war favor Ukraine and have a wicked sense of humor, Ukraine says you’re welcome.
Throughout summer, Ukraine began to take apart Russian supply bases with long-range GPS guided rockets. Videos of spectacular explosions on Russian territory filled the internet, and then attacks began to rain down even farther behind the front, as Ukraine began using repurposed drones to hit Russian targets Moscow thought was secure, like vital airfields in Crimea.
Russia constantly tried to attack Ukrainian forces, and eventually reached the outskirts of the key city of Sloviansk. But Russia’s inability to secure recruits absent a national mobilization effort meant that warehouses full of modern tanks sat in Izium, lacking the personnel to put them to good use.
Russia’s air force, meanwhile, could still not safely operate far behind the lines and so were unable to hinder the rocket attacks. Because the launch vehicles can shoot and drive off in a matter of minutes, air power is required to swiftly respond and hunt them down.
This put Russian forces in a bind they were unable to resolve. Ukraine’s slowly escalating counterattacks finally wore Russian troops down to the point that, in September, along a vital section of the front, a probing attack by two brigades over the Siverski Donets west of Izium snowballed into the liberation of all but a sliver of occupied Kharkiv oblast, cutting a major Russian supply line at Kupiansk.
Russia’s last major reserve force was destroyed, the threat to Ukrainian defenders around Sloviansk soon removed. Up to a dozen Ukrainian brigades threw the Russians out of Kupiansk, Lyman, and Yampil and fought their way to the outskirts of Svatove and Kreminna.
The shock this delivered to Putin’s regime cannot be overstated. A fourth phase of the war clearly began in September, as Russia initiated a total reboot of its approach to the conflict.
Nuclear rhetoric, always trotted out when Russia is facing difficulties, ratcheted up to new peaks. Moscow began accusing Kyiv of plotting a dirty bomb attack and Putin began to cast his war as, perversely, an anti-colonial effort forced on Russia by an aggressive NATO run by decadent elites.
It was in September that the conflict began to escalate into something that now scarily resembles the start of a world war. Iranian drones began to fly into Ukrainian airspace, joining Russian bombers and submarines in launching massive waves of missiles at Ukrainian civil infrastructure.
Missiles meant to destroy American aircraft carriers locked onto shopping malls and residential towers, killing dozens of people in a single blast. Russia threatened to cut off power, heating, and water to Ukrainian civilians through a brutal winter, and began to play games with natural gas markets.
Then the Nord Stream pipelines that supplied Europe with Russian gas were sabotaged by parties still unknown. An explosion badly damaged Putin’s prized Kerch Strait bridge connecting Russia to occupied Crimea. Russian forces made as if they would defend Kherson to the last soldier and leave the city in ruins, only to withdraw their forces over two days in good order in a move that totally surprised NATO observers — and me too.
Most notably of all, Putin ordered a national mobilization, inducting at least 300,000 new soldiers into the Army and limiting their legal ability to refuse to fight. It appears that while some were sent straight to the front lines to fill the gaping holes in Russian personnel rosters, and tended to come from ethnic minority regions in the Russian Federation, others have been held back and put through rigorous training over the past four months.
Moscow also claimed to annex four districts of Ukraine, enabling it to make the case to its people that Russian territory is under direct attack by a NATO-backed country. This, as many observers have noted, opens up the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons against Ukraine if it continues to seek to reclaim its lost lands.
The Russian economy has unfortunately not been crippled by US-led sanctions because most of the world has not agreed to them. Russia has shifted its trade to China, India, and other parts of the formerly colonized world that remain deeply suspicious of the USA after the War on Terror and so many other international debacles.
And along the front lines, Ukrainian counterattacks have mostly ground to a halt. Russia has forced Ukraine to commit up to half its active brigades to a nonstop grind in the Bakhmut area, where in recent months Russia has almost surrounded the city. Ukraine is once again running short of ammunition, this time Soviet-era tank rounds, and Western supplies of artillery and shells are also starting to become harder to come by as allied stocks run low.
Another phase of the war appears to have begun, as Russian troops with better training concentrate for a major offensive effort in Ukraine’s east. Russia has for months now used Wagner irregulars in human-wave assaults to grind down Ukrainian troops and force them to expend copious amounts of ammunition, but extreme casualties have apparently ended that effort.
Russia’s next move is now a matter of hot debate. Western optimists believe Russia is on its last military legs, and that the recent failed attacks near Vuhledar imply that Russia’s entire war is on its last gasp. Russian optimists appear to believe that Ukraine’s foreign backers will give up any day now, emboldened by the ongoing refusal to give Ukraine modern fighter jets and long-range missiles.
The Western narrative of Russia holds that it is too incompetent and hapless to ever win. The Russian narrative of the West maintains that with enough pressure and time, Ukraine will lose support from its fair weather friends.
Both Russia and Ukraine are in a position where they pretty much have to launch attacks that take vital terrain and inflict a devastating defeat on their opponent’s military forces. Only once someone knows they can’t succeed through force of arms do they relent once the fighting has begun.
Back To The Past
So what comes next for Russia’s war on Ukraine? It is now time to finally step back and consider why this terrible war happened in the first place.
For the record, it began not in 2022, but in 2014, when Putin took advantage of a period of civil unrest in Ukraine to seize control of Crimea, a peninsula of extreme strategic importance. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has maintained major military units there, essentially renting space from Ukraine.
Yes, Crimea was part of Russia until Khruschev placed it under the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, but so what? It was Ottoman before that, Mongol before the Turks came, and occupied by various steppe peoples for thousands of years before the Russian language was even born.
In 1991, it became part of independent Ukraine. There was no call for that status to change. Putin’s sham referendum after annexation doesn’t count, because it was hardly a free and fair election.
In the 1990s, after the USSR dissolved, the dream of peace still burned brightly enough that Ukraine gave up all the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union in exchange for some cash and US security guarantees that, at the time, implied direct US military intervention in the event of a future war. Russia was good with this because in these days everyone assumed Russia would become part of NATO and the EU.
In those days, after the 1991 Gulf War, no one thought that the US would sit by and let a country get invaded by its neighbor. America put together a multi-national coalition to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, despite the threat of chemical warfare and predictions of thousands of US military casualties.
What different times those were. And it isn’t as if Russia at the time had any fewer nuclear weapons ready to use than it does now.
Putin’s move in 2014, when little green men appeared outside Ukrainian bases across Crimea to demand their surrender, was an act of aggression, plain and simple. The United States responded with some harsh words and sanctions, then took the opportunity to sell some light weapons to Kyiv wile hyping the Russian threat to keep NATO alive, stuck as it was in the mire of Afghanistan.
Like most of the post-Soviet countries except the Baltics, Ukraine has been a deeply corrupt and only half-democratic nation since independence, its people struggling to keep the central government paying attention to their interests, and not the oligarchs. Russia, naturally, cultivated relationships with oligarchs and political leaders to maintain influence over Kyiv, especially as tensions rose in the early 2000s when the US hared off on its self-destructive War on Terror and so convinced half the world it was a serious threat.
The Crimean invasion was kicked off by Putin after Ukraine’s president at the time met anti-corruption demonstrators with gunfire in the Maidan protests, then was toppled as Ukrainians rose up in fury. While there were neo-Nazis present in the ranks of the pro-Western faction that came to power, the same is true of their pro-Russian counterparts and even in Russia itself.
After Crimea, as tensions continued to rise and Ukraine’s new government struggled to keep order, Russian intelligence agents prompted small groups of Russian-speaking opportunists in eastern Ukraine to rise up and seize control of local government buildings. Ukraine was forced to deploy its army to fight the Russia-backed rebels, which led to Putin escalating Russian involvement by sending volunteers from regular military formations to play-act as separatists.
This was when MH-17 was shot out of the sky by a Buk missile system operated by separatists. Russia wound up sending full armored columns into Donbas to stop a Ukrainian counteroffensive from winning the war in 2015, leading to a stalemate and the adoption of the Minsk Protocols, brokered by Western European leaders like Merkel of Germany, that were supposed to resolve the issue but never did.
Naturally, this deeper story always gets lost amid the cacophony of self-serving claims made by Russia and NATO sympathizers, each side pushing its own agenda in Ukraine that doesn’t always match up with the wishes of the Ukrainian people themselves. Ukraine is neither a perfect country nor one infested with Nazis — but it is an independent country whose borders must be respected, or the idea of a stable international order is totally shot.
Russia constantly cites NATO expansion as a cause of the war, and to be fair, a military alliance that incorporates your neighbors does automatically constitute a security threat, no matter how nice it proclaims itself to be. However, the main impact of NATO expansion was to give Putin’s rhetoric to his own people about the threat NATO poses a leg to stand on — from the Russian point of view.
NATO leaders, led by every US President since Clinton, share blame for losing the peace after the Cold War. If NATO truly believed that Russia posed a threat to Ukraine or any other country, it had an obligation to take the danger seriously and protect the target, even if that meant risking an open war after sending troops.
A single US airborne brigade arriving at Hostomel on February 20th, 2022, stops this horrible war from ever happening. This is a fact politicians of today will try to bury, but it is a vital one for historians of the future to understand and remember.
They didn’t, because they were afraid. But citing fears of nuclear war as an excuse to not resist a genocidal invasion only makes nuclear threats more attractive, which ultimately leads to someone making good on them someday.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine came as a shock to so many people because everyone thought Putin was playing the same game as the rest of the world’s mostly craven leaders. In it, you can bluff and bluster all you like, but latent in international relations since the end of the Cold War a basic assumption has always held: that big countries just don’t do wars like this anymore.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 shattered this illusion. But few in the West, notably academic scholars, were willing to admit the truth then or today.
I majored in political science while in college during the early 2000s, studying first at UC San Diego and later graduating from UC Berkeley. My focus, following longstanding interest, was international relations, specifically defense matters.
This was a time when Fukuyama’s silly End of History thesis was all the rage. Most debates about the future of geopolitics and conflict were entirely focused on terrorism or, on the outer fringes, a much-hyped future rivalry between America and China that is now turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It was impossible, so many insisted twenty years ago, in an age of such deep international connection, for a war like this to ever happen. Deterrence would hold, because deep down everyone knew any major war would eventually go nuclear, which would end everything — or so they chose to believe.
Turns out, like so many other truths people my age were taught in school, it was all a load of horse manure pushed by people with tenure whose ideas never had to stand up to real world scrutiny. I always knew they were wrong, but until this conflict broke out was not entirely certain why.
Now I know: the people who study international relations don’t have a coherent scientific theory to guide them. All they’ve got is applied philosophy mated to methods that require poring through biased datasets, often historical tracts written by people who either lied or were sincere, but mistaken.
To understand what comes next in Ukraine, what you need to realize is this: everyone is too locked in to their position to change course now. Bets have been laid out on the table, and now regular people get to bleed to decide who comes out ahead.
If you want to end this cycle, follow my work. Taming war requires understanding it, as a science.
In any case, the future will be shaped by the fact that all the players are sticking to their strategy. Leaders in Western Europe and North America have committed to keeping Ukraine independent but not necessarily whole, justifying their reluctance to give Ukraine all the support it needs to win by pointing out the real and rising threat of nuclear war.
Russia’s leaders, now just Putin and his inner circle, know that they will fall to a coup in a matter of days if the war ends without Russia securing something Moscow can spin as a decisive victory. They are promoting the idea that Russia is fighting all of NATO, that its very survival depends on victory in Ukraine.
Ukraine and most of Eastern and Northern Europe are now trapped in the middle, faced with a Russian neighbor that could be hostile for a generation and dependency on an increasingly unreliable, fast fading America. They know that the best outcome is Russia’s swift defeat and collapse, because the longer the fighting continues the more entrenched everyone’s position will become.
As it stands, it appears likely that a year from today I’ll be writing a starkly similar piece to this one, albeit filled with a summary of even more terrible atrocities than have already come to pass. I suspect the odds of a nuclear weapon being used before the fighting ends are now 2:1 in favor, because these blasted things are like a fetish item for too many people.
Russia will continue to escalate its offensive efforts in eastern Ukraine as long as winter lasts. Putin may sacrifice a hundred thousand more soldiers in the month of March, but he will not accept retreat. At the very least, Russia will try to hurt Ukraine as much as it can ahead of Ukraine’s next counteroffensive, hoping that this pain will lead to it bogging down before reaching the Azov Sea and cutting off Crimea.
Ukraine’s big counterattack will likely come after the spring mud dries, as Western armored vehicles are very heavy and can’t use most of the bridges they will encounter. Once the ground is solid, Ukraine’s assault will be vicious, but how far it goes will depend on how rapidly Ukraine’s forces are armed up and trained over the next three months.
It seems very likely that summer will bring a point of decision where Ukraine will either have forced Russia to demonstrate if it is truly willing to countenance nuclear escalation to hold Crimea or, instead, Ukraine’s offensive bogs down on the road to the Azov Sea. Then, or so Russia hopes, America will be too distracted by domestic politics to continue giving as much aid to Ukraine as it has so far.
The world had better hope Ukraine proves Putin wrong again, because the alternative is war without end. If the conflict continues too long, eventually its broader impacts will trigger new and worse ones elsewhere.
Whether in East Asia or the Middle East, the planet is primed for another conflict to break out and merge with this one, like wildfires combining to form a gigantic inferno. In systems theory, one of the most important ideas of all is that at certain points in time, linear responses are insufficient to deal with exponentially multiplying problems.
War is a kind of pandemic, and it always spreads. This is why Ukraine must win, and the sooner the better.
The truth is that a limited nuclear exchange followed by a coup in Moscow or even just one that ends inconclusively but with Ukraine in control of its entire territory will be better than a bigger war breaking out three or five years down the line. This is one of the most important lessons in history — the earlier and quicker a conflict is terminated, the better for everyone.
Ukraine’s surrender won’t in fact end it, because the ultimate cause of the conflict is to be found in Moscow. Vladimir Putin’s regime has deliberately chosen to return to the bad old days because it thinks it can, and so it must be dealt with the bad old way: the same blood sacrifice each generation of combat veterans makes in the footsteps of their ancestors.
If Russia is not stopped now, it really will keep rolling west in one form or another. The war began in Crimea because Putin judged he could get away with it, and until 2022, he was right.
Ukraine finally gave the bully a bloody nose. Here’s hope it can finish him once and for all in 2023.
Because you do not want to witness the future that will come if Ukraine fails.