Putin’s Next Moves In Ukraine
Welp, it’s on, folks — the Russia-Ukraine crisis is keeping scary close to the trajectory I’ve been expecting.
Putin appears to be putting elements of all eight stages I outline below into effect at once. Strikes are falling across the breadth of Ukraine and an airborne attack has secured a major airport outside of Kyiv.
It’s always difficult to assess what’s happening on the ground through public media sources, but it appears Russia is hitting Ukraine from all points of the compass yet less intensively than a shock and awe campaign designed to obliterate the entire Ukraine military in one blow would fall.
My suspicion is that the attacks on Odessa and Kyiv are meant to distract from the focus of the Russian attack in the east. By launching probing strikes from any angles Russia can tie down Ukrainian forces everywhere. Firepower can be directed at major points of resistance.
Russian forces could try a massive full-scale invasion on all fronts, but this would be much riskier than threatening an all-out thrust while picking apart Ukraine’s forces which have to deploy to meet all these attacks, leaving cover and becoming vulnerable.
All that can be said with absolute certainty now is that the Russian attacks will eventually run out of steam. But whether any of Ukraine is free after is an open question.
Biden and the West have failed utterly. The Postwar and post Cold War orders are dead and done. America has failed to deter Russia, and is no longer a superpower. Europe stands alone.
But it, once American influence is put in its proper place, can still win.
Vladimir Putin’s aggressive speech more or less denying Ukraine’s right to exist has codified Russia’s policy towards both Ukraine and NATO for the foreseeable future.
And the so-called “West” is letting him get away with it.
Sanctions — pah. They never work.
All that craven Anglo-American politicians like Joe Biden and Boris Johnson are after now is a way through the crisis that won’t further harm their already dismal political futures.
Deterrence is their favorite slogan, but this has clearly failed. Russia is willing to pay whatever costs for acting as it likes that the West tries to impose through sanctions. Putin knows that absent real military aid to Ukraine the Russian Armed Forces can pick apart Ukraine piece by piece.
Ukraine’s military is simply outmatched thanks to the failure of America or NATO to offer meaningful support. Stingers and Javelins, cool as they might be, are no match for the weight of firepower Russia has positioned around Ukraine right now.
Iskander tactical ballistic missiles, hundreds of capable combat aircraft, and around two thirds of Russia’s ground forces are just too much for Ukraine’s smaller, less sophisticated military to withstand with short-range missiles, however effective. Ukrainian soldiers and half-trained civilians are being told it’s up to them to shield the West from the Russian horde, but a blood sacrifice to the old gods will achieve nothing but send good people to Valhalla and Folkvangr.
Putin and his people have planned this crisis all too well. The recognition of the Donetsk and Lukhansk republics as independent was done to provide Russia a pseudo-legal justification to intervene.
America’s leaders have been insisting that Putin is about 48 hours from an all-out invasion for weeks now. This has aided Russia’s efforts immensely, damaging Ukraine’s economy and distracting the world from the fact an assault on Kyiv is probably the very last stage of Putin’s plan.
He has a much better way to take it without direct use of force after forcing Ukraine to crumble. And the so-called West will let him, happy to have an enemy to distract us from climate change and Covid and inflation.
As ever in power politics, millions of lives are in jeopardy because the elites who run most countries have different interests than the rest of us. NATO and America are desperately trying to maintain relevant in a world that has moved on, while Putin stays in power by play-acting the role of Russia’s Big Papa, a paternalistic national father figure.
Nobody in the English-speaking world wants to admit this out loud, but Russia has always been and will always be part of the so-called West.
Western Civilization is a euphemism for Christian Europe and the places it conquered. It is an inherently bigoted concept that has always been designed to separate a mythical East from the rest of humanity to justify military actions and social repression.
Russia is an Orthodox Christian country — part of the reason why American Evangelical Christians tend to like Putin is the fact his power derives from replacing Communism with Christianity.
That’s why Russia hates the idea of LGBTQ+ rights and suppresses Muslim minorities —these similarities are why American Evangelicals use much the same rhetoric as he does anymore, and many actively seek to make America the same kind of country as the one he’s built out of post-Soviet Russia.
It also explains why he’s so obsessed with Ukraine, as Kyiv is seen as the birthplace of modern Russia and a semi-holy place in Russian Orthodox Christianity. What Putin’s Russia-centric view of history — no less inherently bigoted than America’s own self-narratives — fails to admit is the inconvenient fact that Russia is an artificial construct too.
All countries are to some extent, and the bigger they get the more imperialist they tend to become. Russia and Ukraine’s deep origins lie in the same Indo-European migrations that defined all of Europe, and their more recent past was defined by the interaction between Vikings from Scandinavia and the Slavic peoples who emerged in Eastern Europe.
Rus was a tribe led by Viking chieftains, and Kyiv as a city started out as a kind of way station for Norse traders utilizing the rivers of Eastern Europe to reach the Middle East. The city-states of Novgorod and Kyiv later merged to form what Putin recognizes as early Russia, but then as now Russia and Ukraine have always been more like composite city-states than defined monolithic cultures with clear national boundaries.
Russia never used to have borders reaching the Pacific — this was purely a product of Russian imperialism. Nothing east of the Ural Mountains was historically Russian — Russia’s Far East became Moscow’s mirror of the American West, which some Russian explorers even reached back in the heyday of Russian expansion across Asia and into North America.
Putin play-acts the role of the Orthodox Christian emperor of Russia, a stern father figure who protects his nation — the people in it loyal to him, anyway — and defines its history and values. Paternalism at a national level of the sort Republicans in Texas dream of, so long as they are interfering with womens bodies and not gun ownership.
The irony is that Russians and Ukrainians aren’t that different — or at least, they weren’t until Putin made them that way through eight years of invasion and threats.
But he is investing in this conflict because it’s one that Russia can control and therefore win. By doing so he humiliates NATO, threatens the European Union, and takes advantage of America’s foreign policy myopia and Joe Biden’s comically inept leadership.
Russia’s new close ally China is cool with this because it distracts Washington D.C. from its racist pivot to Asia obsession while proving how little America can actually do to protect Taiwan in the face of modern military weaponry. American fossil fuel executives are cool with the situation because they are drooling at the thought of selling dirty fracked natural gas to Germany at exorbitant rates, as are America’s arms dealers, dreaming of a new burst of NATO military spending.
So the stage is set for continued escalations and a drawn-out conflict that kills tens of thousands of people so leaders can keep acting tough while the world burns. The same stupid scam that has afflicted humanity for its entire history and is in fact far more likely to destroy us in the end than climate change.
Americans are trained to think war consists of a series of big battles won or lost by the skill of the commanders involved, but the strange truth is that war is nothing more than politics carried on through violent means.
American politicians and pundits hate this fact, much preferring to pretend morality matters in politics, but cry all they like the simple fact is that the powerful eventually do whatever they can get away with. And they often can’t be deterred from acting, because they don’t perceive the costs and benefits the same way less powerful people do.
Power is the primary evil in human affairs. Power disparities self-generate new conflicts no matter how moral, ethical, or right a powerful party claims to be.
Putin is teaching the world a cruel lesson in hard power right now. He’s deliberately shredding the entire artifice of the liberal international system tenured PhDs at major universities — like Berkeley, where I earned my first degree focusing on International Relations — have spent decades teaching as the only global system imaginable.
This doesn’t mean he’s unpredictable — the opposite is true. Real military operations are always exercises in creating asymmetries that your forces can exploit in order to win a fight with few or no casualties. Grey warfare, hybrid warfare — it’s all the same.
Logistics and terrain control the conduct of military operations because they are the bones and sinews of the military effort, which is ultimately policy made real, given life. Armies have a physical presence on a landscape, they must occupy space and so are vulnerable to detection and destruction once spotted.
Ukraine’s military forces are indeed stronger than they were eight years ago — but so are Russia’s. It has adopted small independent tactical formations equipped with drones and information technology, linking ground units to massed artillery and air support.
Russia has, like Germany did after the First World War, learned how to fight using modern arms after watching America’s military mishaps around the world and testing key lessons in Syria.
As a result the Ukraine-Russia military matchup resembles the one between Iraq and America in 2003. Russia has superior intelligence-gathering abilities, GPS satellites, and precision guided stand-off weapons that make it almost impossible for Ukrainian soldiers armed with short-range missiles to even fight back.
There remains a narrow window where a conflict could be averted, but at this point it appears nothing less than Ukraine giving up Donbas will stop a bloody fight.
Long term Putin would like to control all of Ukraine, but a direct invasion that seizes Kyiv is incredibly risky. So much could go wrong that this option makes the most sense held in Putin’s pocket as an ultimate threat, a bluff that could easily transform into something more in the right circumstances.
But Ukraine stands alone in all the ways that matter, and Putin has effectively declared war on the very idea of Ukraine. So he’d definitely like the country under Russian control, and his military power allows him to set the pace of any attack, moving faster or slower depending on Ukraine’s reactions.
I see this playing out in a series of stages, each serving as a decision point where Putin can evaluate his gains and press on or declare victory. What he decides will likely be most strongly influenced not by Biden’s threats, but by whether he meets any surprises as he proceeds.
Stage 1 is underway now — a movement of Russian forces positioned around Rostov into separatist controlled Donbas at the same time major forces deploy along the Ukrainian defenders’ flanks. This brings Russian personnel right up to the edge of the bombardments and lets them pick out targets and plan further moves.
Stage 2 will likely begin after any Russian military casualties, as was the case in Georgia in 2008. That will likely be the trigger for a focused shock and awe style bombardment of Ukrainian military positions in the separatist territories, but probably not the rest of the country — at least at first.
Stage 3 I expect to be a major flanking assault by forces deployed along the Russia-Ukraine border near Kharkiv. These might encircle that city or, as I suspect, flow just to the east to come down hard on the Ukrainian Army’s left flank. Russian air and missile strikes will expand in scope to isolate Ukraine’s east from Kyiv, but shouldn’t heavily target the capitol region.
Stage 4 is the breakout from Crimea to the Dnieper River accompanied by focused naval landings on the Azov coast. These will have to be accompanied by massive bombardments to cover the vulnerable helicopters and landing ships, and the port of Odessa will likely come under some degree of blockade though it being assaulted directly at this stage is unlikely.
Stage 5 will see Russian forces push to surround and annihilate Ukraine’s army in the east, comprising about half of its forces — and its best trained. This could mark the culmination of the first phase of the war, with Russian forces pausing to resupply and allow for renewed diplomacy. Or Putin’s efforts could proceed apace, with air strikes hitting the entire country, skipping past Stage 6.
Stage 6 under the baseline scenario would see the conflict turn inward as Russia consolidates gains and more or less dares the West to do something meaningful about it. A major military defeat could put Zelensky’s government in danger of a coup, and Putin will likely foment as much internal strife as he can before considering further actions in hopes Ukraine will collapse of its own accord.
Stage 7 would be the feared march to Kyiv from multiple lines of advance. It is doubtful that Putin would commit forces to seizing the city itself, but by splitting Ukraine’s major cities apart in an all-out invasion after Ukraine was badly weakened he could effectively break the country up into chunks, demonstrating the Zelensky government’s inability to rule and keeping open options for bringing regions into Russian control by force.
Stage 8 is the hardest to define, as it depends on how quickly and completely the prior stages are accomplished. If Zelensky’s government falls to a coup or decamps to Lviv near the Polish border, whatever regime rises in Kyiv will request that Russian “peacekeepers” proceed west. If an actual guerilla struggle begins, it will likely turn into a Syria-like situation develop where Russian forces conquer and pacify one portion of Ukraine at a time, inflicting horrific casualties.
My belief is that a settlement will be reached or Ukraine will collapse long before, but rational calculations have a way of going horribly wrong at this level of detail.
What I know for sure is this: America and NATO have all but set Ukraine up to be destroyed.
If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d be hard pressed to avoid drawing the conclusion this whole conflict was drawn up by America and Russia to re-start the Cold War. A bit of theater designed to shore up Washington and Moscow, both of whom have handled Covid poorly.
But sadly, this moment, I fear, marks a great turning of the wheel.
America’s unipolar moment, such as it was, is over. There will be no true Cold War, as this is the multipolar moment back in my undergrad days I predicted was coming sooner or later.
Ukraine’s fate now stands at a knife’s edge. Moscow has brutalized the region time and again through history, and in a world where countries are mostly fragmenting, not growing, Ukraine’s persistence is inevitable: there is now, thanks to Putin, a Ukrainian identity that will never fade.
The best course for the Zelensky government now is to recognize the hard truth: Ukraine stands alone, and the east cannot be defended.
There is no point in sacrificing thousands of lives on the principle of borders being fixed and permanent. Ukraine stands no chance of holding Donbas and it would be absolutely criminal to expect Ukrainian soldiers to hold the line there, outflanked and far from Kyiv as they are.
Successfully defending against a Russian attack depends on avoiding the initial blow by retreating to a new defensive line. Ukraine must not allow its army to be outflanked, surrounded, and battered to pieces. Russian forces will stand off at range, perhaps using separatists as cannon fodder to draw fire so that Ukrainian positions, infantry and artillery, can be picked off one at a time.
Kyiv must be ready to conduct a fighting retreat to a more defensible line, wrong-footing the Russian attack and letting its weight fall on abandoned ground. The Dnieper in the south and a defensive line stretching from Kharkiv to Dnipro should be possible to defend unless or until Russian forces attack from the north. At that point they have to pull back behind the Dnieper and hold what they can.
That, sadly, is all that can be done to avoid the worst of what’s coming. If Ukraine is successful, Putin will be forced to recalculate.
This might buy time for a settlement. If the east is taken by Russia the full spectrum of sanctions will likely fall. Ukraine can count on more direct military aid — possibly the kind that might matter, like truly effective anti-aircraft defenses.
Then begins the long fight to prepare Europe for what comes next. Ukraine is Europe’s bulwark, and we have to assume that Putin won’t stop with Ukraine if his plan succeeds.
Not now. Not after Biden has shown his belly so often Putin knows a few years of constant pressure will split Europe from America and break NATO apart.
Cracks are already apparent, if you know where to look. NATO has offered lots of big talk, but little action — and this is unlikely to change.
And by 2024 America will be so focused on its domestic collapse Putin will have a free hand to support his ally Trump by further demonstrating America’s weakness. Estonia, Lithuania, or Latvia can expect low-level provocations because Ukraine, as important as it is to Putin, is only a pawn in his broader fight against NATO.
And once America is completely broken, Europe will stand alone.
The important thing now is to recognize where this is all heading and start taking the necessary actions to maintain Europe’s security. Ukraine must avoid its army being annihilated, and the European Union has to begin building a dedicated defense force with Ukraine as an integral partner.
Soon enough, Europeans are set to have to defend Europe on their own.
And once they do, a path to freeing Russians from Putin and his elite cronies will open. His power relies on having America and NATO remain persistent threats.
Remove them from the board, and a pillar of his power is removed.
The time to prepare for the hard future ahead, Europe, is now.
And to the Australians, Canadians, Scots, Welsh, and New Zealanders out there, take note — America isn’t really your friend either, any more than England has become after Brexit.
It’s you guys, Europe, the middle countries of the world, and the fragments of fading America still willing to commit to the ideals of freedom and democracy against the rest, until China comes around.
You’ve been warned.