At some point in the next month, the simmering Donbass War between Russia and Ukraine may boil over into a new round of major conflict.
Major military units are on the move across Russia, massing close to Ukraine’s borders. Belarus, the post-Soviet nation north of Ukraine, was placed under effective Russian control after the failed democratic uprising against that country’s dictator last year and has also dispatched military forces to Ukraine’s borders. NATO is on high alert, with multiple world leaders having contacted Russian President Vladimir Putin to demand the units pull back.
On the Russian side, nationalist media there is screaming about the danger of a Ukraine blitzkrieg to reclaim Crimea and Donbass, lost to Russia and Russian-backed separatists in 2014–2015. They warn of an imminent defensive war that will break Ukraine if it happens.
The question being debated in intelligence communities across the world right now:
What Putin is really up to?
Some argue that he is making very public moves in order to extract concessions from Europe and America. Only a few believe a major invasion is imminent, based on the fact that the troop movements are being done out in the open.
The hell of it is that both and neither may be right. As crises develop, mis-steps are made and opportunities emerge that alter calculations made by all parties. What Putin wanted on April 1 and wants on May 1 could be very different things.
Yet there is in Putin’s patterns over the years a level of continuity that makes it pretty clear what he’s after.
But first, several myths now being widely touted by foreign policy “experts” (who, like economists, have been generally incapable of spotting major developments ahead of time in what should be a crushing condemnation of their disciplines, but I digress) deserve to be dispelled. These include conventional wisdom pieces such as:
- Putin fears the costs of a major conflict with Ukraine or NATO
- You don’t prepare for a major military attack in the open
- Projecting strength and unity with Ukraine will deter a Russian attack
- Ukraine’s military is stronger than it was last time
These four assertions show up in most mainstream news analysis, and are deeply harmful to understanding the true nature of the situation. They create a public misperception about what is happening and why.
It is vitally important to fully understanding the true nature of the Russia-Ukraine fight.
All powerful countries develop a distinct Geostrategy, a habitual way of perceiving threats to their own security that animate their actions. It is partly based on a country’s leaders’ appraisal of their own history, and partly a function of physical geography.
Foreign relations in the British Empire and even United Kingdom today have generally been driven by a historical tradition that recognizes the relative security of watery borders but also the genesis of modern Britain as a result of a series of successful invasions from the Continent culminating in the Norman Conquest of 1066. British leaders have always tended towards cultivating a balance of power in Europe that prevents any one country from dominating the whole region, which in large part explains their implacable opposition to one European Great Power after another from Spain through France, Germany, and the Soviet Union.
China’s leaders, by contraast, are deeply moved by China’s Century of Humiliation” and partial colonization at the hands of the European Powers and later Japan in the 19th and 20th Centuries — as well as the succession of long-lasting dynasties that ruled China for much of its recorded history. China demands control over any place its leaders view as historically Chinese, and beyond this frontier its leaders seek to enter into bilateral relationships with other powers for their mutual benefit and security — but if sufficient respect for China’s concerns are not shown this relationship can become very hostile.
The United States too, has developed its own geostrategy — though as with most mainstream, Northeast-dominated American cultural paradigms it is simply a warped adaptation of the British model. American foreign policy experts seek to prevent any power from consolidating anywhere capable of resisting U.S. demands and where one threatens to emerge a policy of containment is implemented to protect American interests — usually financial, to some degree.
Foreign policy is a function of natural consequences of geography paired with the ambitions of national leaders. This does not mean that violent conflict is inevitable by any means, but it does mean that violence between countries is ultimately bound to domestic politics within.
Russia is perhaps the weakest country on the Earth with a claim to international relevance. It has degenerated into a nationalist shell of Russian-majority regions of the Soviet Union whose leaders — Putin, at this point — view their security as being steadily compromised by a United States led NATO bent on encircling and containing Russia.
They have invested heavily in a masculine, religious, self-consciously “tough” national narrative obsessed with victimhood. Putin leverages the results of this enhanced Russian nationalism to stay in power.
Leaders, whether they come to power through authoritarian or democratic means, keep that power only so long as they are perceived as credible by their own people. This creates a perpetual need to justify all their actions as part of the public interest, and ultimately to expectations management.
They use rhetoric, coded phrases with a particular appeal to some group, to set expectations among their backers they know can be met. This is why you can’t simply discard what leaders say to their people, even if you know they’re lying. The words matter, forming a bond that the leader must sustain — especially if you are a dictator like Putin.
In Ukraine, Putin is not simply taking easy actions intended to extract a few concessions. He is demonstrating to his own people that he and Russia are ready for a fight — even if there is a severe cost.
And it is that act of demonstration that is what makes the current crisis so potentially deadly.
Ukraine’s President has baldly stated that he wants Ukraine to join NATO. To Putin, this would represent an unacceptable humiliation. NATO’s eastward expansion since the end of the Cold War has been seen by Russians as a gross betrayal of agreements made to keep the Soviet Union’s disintegration peaceful back in the 1990s. His personal credibility as a leader depends on making sure NATO cannot advance any further.
In 2008, a Georgian attack on Russian-backed separatists came at a moment when its leaders too were moving towards NATO membership. Russian peacekeepers were killed — and in response, Putin ordered an invasion of Georgia. It didn’t go perfectly well — Russia’s Armed Forces were only beginning a decade-long reconstruction effort — but Georgia lost, because it is tiny and shares a border with Russia, even if mountainous.
In 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea, it appeared that a pro-Western regime would be installed after what Russia viewed as a NATO-backed coup in Ukraine. The invasion of Donbass resulted after Ukraine’s government sent military forces into a Russian-majority region to quell an uprising backed by Moscow.
Over and over, Putin acts to preserve a basic Red Line — and in doing so he has built a reputation with his supporters he cannot set aside.
It is not merely moving a lot of tanks, troops, and jets to Ukraine’s border that is so dangerous. It’s this coupled to the escalating Russian media warnings of “another Srebenica” that means something major is about to happen. Russia’s people are being prepared for the possibility of a fight with casualties, and laying the grounds for presenting it as necessary.
Putin is making a deliberate, controlled escalation in the way he’s doing it as a demonstration to prove a simple point to Ukraine:
NATO can’t save you.
Putin and the Russian Armed Forces don’t care if the preparations for a conflict are made out in the open. In this case, it enhances their credibility.
NATO is in the process of launching its annual exercises in Europe intended to show members that the alliance would come to their aid in the event of a military attack.
Russia is demonstrating to Ukraine that if push comes to shove any war will be over long before NATO arrives in force. And everyone knows that NATO is in no shape to mount a counteroffensive in Ukraine when the Baltic States are at risk too. Kaliningrad and Crimea act as the teeth of Mordor, outflanking any NATO intervention into territory last held by a force hostile to Moscow in 1944.
This was the fundamental stupidity of NATO enlargement — in fact, the basic flaw in the entire American doctrine of containment. It never made any sense, and very nearly triggered a third world war against the Soviet Union.
Russia’s leaders stay in power by projecting strength in the face of outside pressure and selling arms and fossil fuels to anyone affected by western sanctions. Putting NATO on Russia’s border actually served to strengthen Putin’s regime and give him the power he has today.
When Joe Biden says America stands “shoulder to shoulder” with Ukraine, he’s lying and being a fool. Unless he truly is senile he knows full well this is just talk, pandering to a domestic audience, another Cold-War era Democrat obsessed with looking tough because Republicans say they aren’t. He’s an old hand in the foreign policy game, well-trained in the rhetoric of containment and deterrence — and a total disaster for the United States, second only to Trump.
Containment and deterrence only work if your promises have credibility. And anyone who believes that a United States leader will sacrifice American lives over the Ukraine-Russia border is an utter fool. Americans are tired of endless wars that have produced nothing but bodies and a mountain of debt. That is why the media doesn’t talk about alternatives in foreign policy — if Americans are encouraged to express their real preferences on defense matters, the logic of massive Pentagon subsidies collapses. It is dead easy to protect a country like the United States — without spending upwards of a trillion dollars each year.
Putin is most likely not planning to attack and destroy Ukraine. He is making a deliberate, deadly serious show of force But that doesn’t mean he won’t decide Ukraine’s annihilation is the best-case outcome he can hope for depending on how things go — really, how much the United States chooses to provoke him.
Everything depends on how violent the Donbass region gets in the coming month. As of April, the seasonal spring muddy season is in full swing across the steppe. Doesn’t mean you can’t drive tanks around, but it does mean a higher reliance on roads.
This doesn’t stop shelling and small-arms actions along the front lines, though, and skirmishes that escalate into major casualty events tend to escalate conflicts quickly as each side is pulled into a situation where they must respond to each escalation with one of their own. If major fighting breaks out between militia and Ukraine Army forces, even without further meddling by Putin or Biden the situation could fast spiral.
Whatever he does, Putin must preserve his ability to credibly claim military superiority over Ukraine and NATO. And there are Russian forces mixed in with the militias. So a likely evolution of the crisis will see Ukrainian soldiers killed in one ambush and bombardment after another, and if Ukraine responds in kind, Russians get killed too.
If Biden pushes back or Russian casualties run too high, Putin will be in the perfect political position to order a devastating Russian Army intervention in the Donbass area with artillery and airstrikes, intended to destroy Ukraine’s ability to withstand an assault by pro-Russian militia forces to enlarge the existing separatist republics. They will take the ground casualties, but be able to call down rocket, artillery, and missile strikes launched from Russian territory and covered by Russian air defenses.
Having Russian forces basically encircling Ukraine means that its military has to be prepared for an attack coming from any of three directions. The simple fact that Russia could invade on multiple fronts means Ukraine’s military cannot focus all its efforts on Donbass — or if it does, it risks inviting a Russian operation to crush it in a bloody cauldron fight.
So Ukraine is stuck: a counterattack in the event of a militia push would be prohibitively costly, and it can’t hope to knock out Russian missile launchers or air bases in Russian territory. If it tries to fight back, Russia could expand its military operations to launch air and missile strikes on Ukraine military bases all across its territory.
This is something defense analysts routinely fail to mention: Russia can defeat Ukraine without an invasion. Just like China is exhausting Taiwan’s military by flying jets and sailing ships around it all the time, so Russia could pick apart Ukraine’s defenses without risking the danger of a ground invasion. Overt violence is rarely as productive as demonstrations — but sometimes, demonstrations serve a powerful purpose.
How long would Ukraine’s government hold out? The recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan shows how a technologically superior force can simply bombard its opponent into paralysis then use a few pushes by ground troops to cause resistance to collapse. Ukraine has been badly damaged by the conflict, and the West isn’t exactly rushing in with a Marshall Plan to save it.
All this is why the Biden Administration’s approach has been all wrong from the get-go. To Russia, and increasingly China too.
Taking a hard line with Russia on this issue, just like with China and Taiwan, puts the United States and its allies at a fundamental disadvantage. American leaders too have based their credibility on a lie: that the USA can intervene and win anywhere.
It is this myth that prompts the inevitable cries by foreign policy experts to “stand firm” or “be tough” or “put dictators on notice” or whatever they come up with next. It’s cheap domestic political posturing that shouldn’t matter, except these days, it does.
Because American domestic politics is so broken that foreign leaders now have the ability to impact internal policy simply by calling American leaders’ bluffs wherever possible. Both Russia and China have realized how fragile the United States of America really is. There’s a reason China is being aggressive over the South China Sea and Taiwan at the same time Russia is making moves around Ukraine.
Pull Biden into a series of brutal crises he can’t possibly handle at once, and let toxic partisanship do its work. By 2022, America will once again be utterly paralyzed, both parties fighting the upcoming Midterm elections to the last. Without substantial policy wins at home — nearly impossible now that the Democrats are claiming to be the only party in America committed to democracy, creating a nearly unified Republican opposition — Biden’t Presidency is dead.
By making sure Biden never has a crisis-free moment, China and Russia can more or less push the United States to tear itself apart. Divided government will be back by 2023, and the 2024 Presidential Election is guaranteed to be bitterly fought — the most likely outcome being a Republican victory if the two-party system holds.
America’s poor foreign policy leadership across a generation has placed the entire world in a position where crises that should remain localized have the potential to spiral into a global confrontation where every player sees opportunities to benefit from the chaos. This threatens to badly exacerbate the collapse of the Postwar Order and send it spiraling down unpredictable paths.
Perhaps worst of all, the future of the United States now probably rests in the hands of the countries it openly calls its adversaries.
This is not optimal.