Russian Geostrategy And Ukraine
Once again, the risk of a major conflict between Ukraine and Russia is on the rise. It’s time to set aside the propaganda and assess what’s really going on.
This April, international media reported major military units on the move across Russia, massing close to Ukraine’s borders. Now, in November, it’s happening again — and this time there’s no upcoming military exercise to explain the activity.
The question being debated in intelligence communities across the world right now:
What is Putin really up to?
Putin’s patterns over the years show a level of continuity that makes it pretty clear what he’s after.
All countries develop a distinct Geostrategy, a habitual way of perceiving their national security that guides their actions. It is partly based on the leaderships’ appraisal of history, partly a simple function of physical geography.
As one example, foreign relations in the British Empire through to the United Kingdom today are driven by a historical tradition that sees the genesis of modern Britain in a series of successful invasions launched from the Continent, the most successful being the Norman Conquest of 1066.
British leaders have thus tended to cultivate a balance of power in Europe that prevents any one country from dominating the whole region — and, ultimately, Britain itself. This largely explains Britain’s implacable opposition to one European Great Power after another from Spain through France, Germany, and the Soviet Union. Even Brexit should be seen as a continuation of this tradition, Britain’s conservative elite attempting to cozy up to the United States to hedge against the economic competition from the European Union’s member states.
China’s leaders are deeply moved by China’s Century of Humiliation that saw its partial colonization by European Powers and later Japan. They see this as a diversion from the succession of long-lasting dynasties central dynasties that ruled China for much of history.
So China’s leaders demand control over any place viewed as historically Chinese, particularly Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Beyond China’s “natural” frontier are nations with it has a distinct relationship, often beneficial — but if sufficient respect for China’s particular concerns are not shown, deliberately hostile.
The United States too has developed its own form of geostrategy — though as with most mainstream, Northeast-dominated American cultural paradigms it is just a derivative of the British model. American foreign policy experts seek to prevent any power from consolidating anywhere that might be capable of resisting U.S. demands. Where one threatens to emerge a policy of diplomatic, economic, and even military containment is implemented.
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-speaking regions of the Soviet Union whose leaders — Putin alone at this point — view their security as being compromised by a United States dominated NATO bent on encircling and containing Russia.
Its military spending is about a tenth of America’s, only a fifth if you accept numbers corrected for purchasing power differences. California alone has a bigger economy. The nuclear arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union and a robust military-industrial complex are the foundation of Russia’s remaining power — those, and enormous deposits of natural gas.
In history, Russia has been invaded a lot. Russia’s borders only extend to the Pacific because the Russian Empire of the 19th Century wanted Pacific colonies, and nobody has ever bothered to contest Moscow’s control over Siberia. In truth it’s a European nation that like Britain was founded by Vikings but like China has spent much of its history dealing with invasions from nomadic peoples.
The Soviet Union’s collapse marked the end of the Russian Empire, and it is entirely possible that Russia itself will fragment in the coming years. Putin and his nationalist allies are no fools, and have invested heavily in a hyper-masculine, orthodox Christian, self-consciously “tough” national narrative positively obsessed with historical slights. Putin, an adept chess player, leverages these feelings to stay in power as perhaps the most successful Russian leader since the Tsars.
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 their actions in such a way that they can always claim to be fulfilling their unspoken promise to their supporters: that the leader is a manifestation of them and their will to power.
These leaders use rhetoric, coded phrases with a particular appeal to set expectations among their backers they know can be met. Trump, like Putin, does this all the time — hence his foreshadowing his false claims of electoral fraud months in advance. He set the stage to be proven right — an old con-artist’s trick.
This is why you can’t simply discard what fascist-minted leaders say to their people, even if you know they’re lying to them. The words matter, forming a bond that the leader must sustain with promises that must be fulfilled. Even when they and their supporters know they’re lying, maintaining the bluff of honesty keeps the bond alive.
With respect Ukraine, Putin is playing a deliberate, well-defined game. He is actively demonstrating to his own people that he and Russia are ready for a fight — even if one incurs a severe cost.
And it is that act of demonstration that is what makes the current crisis so potentially deadly. Putin likely doesn’t want a war right now, not with Covid ravaging Russia because too many people distrust their government and so refuse the vaccine.
But he’ll absolutely take a war if an opportunity arises to wage one on terms of his choosing. With respect to Ukraine, Russia has several red lines in place that would trigger a conflict it clearly, given its steady military buildup around Ukraine, is ready to prosecute at any time.
Not to conquer the whole country or march on Kiev. That would be futile and counter-productive to Putin’s designs — he needs a frozen conflict in Ukraine to leverage for domestic and international gain, on grounds far easier for Russia to sustain operations than in, say, Syria.
What Putin wants, what he has maneuvered in position to achieve when and if the proper conditions arise, is a short and limited conflict that annihilates the parts of Ukraine’s military that might pose a threat to a future full-scale occupation. Further territorial gains along the Sea of Azov are clearly foreseen as well as an expansion of the Donetsk and Lukhansk breakaway regions, but little more than that.
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 viewed by most leading Russians as a gross betrayal of agreements made with NATO to keep the Soviet Union’s disintegration peaceful back in the 1990s. His personal credibility as a leader depends utterly on making sure NATO does not advance any closer to Moscow.
In 2008, a Georgian attack on Russian-backed separatists came at a moment when its leaders were also moving towards NATO membership. Russian peacekeepers were killed — which gave Putin an excuse to order an invasion of Georgia. It didn’t go perfectly well — Russia’s Armed Forces were only beginning a long period of reform — but Georgia lost badly, because it is tiny and shares a border with Russia.
In 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine, this move came when it appeared that a pro-Western regime was set to be installed after what Russia viewed as a NATO-backed coup against a Russian-friendly regime in Ukraine. This limited, opportunistic attack sent a signal to the Russian people that Russia would defend Russian speakers anywhere.
The broader invasion of Donbass resulted after Ukraine’s government sent military forces into a Russian-majority region to quell an uprising backed by Moscow. Because this part of Ukraine is majority Russian-speaking and the country was viewed as NATO-backed, Putin sent disguised forces in to defeat the Ukrainian Army.
Over and over, Putin has acted to preserve a basic Red Line with regard to NATO — and in doing so he has built a reputation with his supporters he cannot set aside. His moves in Belarus and Ukraine this past year offer further proof, as well as a promise: Russia will risk a broader war if pressed.
A war that neither America nor NATO can fight and win on Russia’s doorstep. It is not possible, given present and future troop deployments, for NATO to protect Ukraine. Russia has absolute military superiority along its borders, a function of military geography literally every would-be conqueror of Russia discovers to their dismay.
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.
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 defense of 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 ideology of containment. It never made any sense, and very nearly triggered a third world war against the Soviet Union. In the twenty-first century, it runs the real risk of pushing America into a fight it can’t win because its opponents are too well prepared.
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.
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.
Biden was essentially forced to meet with Putin to defuse tensions after the military buildup in April. Russia is unlikely to initiate hostilities, Putin will want to wait for fighting to escalate in Donbass to preserve his thin case for Russian intervention being defensive in nature.
Ukraine is in the same awful military position Poland was against Germany in 1939. From Belarus, Crimea, and Russia proper Russian forces are basically encircling Ukraine. This means that Ukraine’s military has to be prepared for an attack coming from any of three directions and cannot focus all its efforts on Donbass — or if it did go all in there, a Russian operation could move to surround and crush it in a bloody cauldron.
Ukraine’s military is nowhere near capable of holding off a major Russian attack. Javelin anti-tank missiles and Turkish drones can’t take down Iskander ballistic missile systems pounding key military sites or waves of air strikes raining down on Ukrainian forces in the field.
So Ukraine is stuck: it can’t hope to knock out Russian missile launchers or air bases in Russian territory, and if it does have any success at all in fighting back, Russia can simply expand operations to shatter Ukraine’s infrastructure in a shock-and-awe style campaign. Don’t think Putin is capable of this? You haven’t seen how Russia fought in Syria or Chechnya.
This is a hard fact defense analysts routinely fail to mention: Russia can defeat Ukraine without an invasion. Russia could pick apart Ukraine’s main defenses without risking the danger of a ground invasion, letting separatist forces push the Ukrainian army back and shed all the blood. Overt violence is rarely as productive as demonstrations — but sometimes, demonstrations serve a powerful purpose.
How long could 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.
There simply aren’t enough jets, tanks, and troops deployed in Europe to get to Ukraine in time to stop Putin from taking as much of the eastern parts of the country as he wants. Only by escalating a war could Russia’s enemies strike back, and once you’re in an all-out conflict between nuclear powers all bets are off.
Russia knows this, and is well aware America and NATO can’t do anything about it. Winter is here, and Europe is desperate for natural gas, so for the next few months Putin has another deterrent to utilize. Biden’s polls are a disaster, and few Americans would support going to war over Ukraine.
Hell of it is, if Putin truly did want to screw over America beyond belief, possibly breaking the country apart or at the least paving Trump’s path to re-election, he would provoke a direct fight with America right now. He would prove, possibly working with China and Iran, that the US can’t live up to its global commitments.
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.
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.
I doubt he wants to — America is too a useful scapegoat for Russia’s domestic decay. But Putin has the initiative right now, and this should give the world pause.
A good chess player recognizes their moment, and moves for checkmate. America’s fate is in its enemies’ hands thanks to its inept leadership caste.
This, folks, is very far from optimal.
And the solution?
As Winston Churchill put it — more jaw-jaw, less war-war. There’s not really any other option.