Russia Sets To Invade Ukraine
If Putin succeeds in annexing a part of Ukraine, one thing might lead to another to another to another and bring about morning in America. Or it could break NATO.
In the spring, Russian armed forces began mobilization on the Ukrainian border that began to raise alarms. After over a month, they withdrew. At the time, it appeared that President Joe Biden managed to end the crisis by bribing Vladimir Putin with a summit—a second possible concession made by Putin was allowing Alexei Navalny to see a doctor and end his life-threatening illness. It turns out that Putin fooled Biden.
A large portion of the forces mobilized were logistical units. During the mobilization period, the armed forces brought in equipments to the border area and built logistical infrastructure like telecommunications centers and field hospitals which they left there after the withdrawal. I would bet that they have also significantly increased their electronic warfare capabilities to intercept and disrupt Ukrainian command and control, and I wonder whether they have built any field command and control centers beyond the telecom ones. (If anybody has any information on either of these, please shoot me an email by simply hitting reply on this email or commenting below on the webpage.)
The forces deployed this time are more heavily combat units, much of them armored units. So one should not think of the two mobilizations differently. In the spring, they prepared for combat, and now they are preparing to cash out.
For seven years, the Russians have been fighting a stealth war in Ukraine. It is obvious that they are involved, and Russian forces disguised as Ukrainian separatists or mercenaries are regularly spotted, but there have not been any massive Russian units under the Russian flag there, and Russia has been losing by not winning. The result has thus far been a constant stalemate wherein neither side is making progress, but Ukraine’s capacity to continue to fight a war of attrition might prove to be greater because of two reasons: 1. sanctions on Russia are exhausting its economy, while Ukraine is receiving foreign aid, and 2. Ukraine is fighting a defensive war with a greater support of its citizens, willing to make sacrifices for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, unlike Russians who are increasingly turning against imperialism. A Levada Center poll recently showed that two-thirds of Russians prioritize living standards over great power status. The problem with this is that Russia is not a democracy. There is a saying that they asked somebody how he went bankrupt. The fellow responded, “slowly and then suddenly.” Policy change as a result of domestic dissatisfaction in Russia will arrive the same way, it will brew slowly, and then it will be implemented suddenly. Two famous historical examples are both embedded in Russian history, which are Russia’s termination of its involvement in World War I and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, both correlating with regime change.
The war in Ukraine has been causing financial pain on Russia as a result of sanctions—despite her many faults, the European Union sanctions remain intact in large part due to Angela Merkel’s leadership—and the war has been sucking the limited resources left. Putin might want to resolve the second problem by invading Ukraine to bring about a quick end to the war but also get a boost of popularity like he did after the anschluss of Crimea. This doesn’t mean that he will get such a boost, and there are scholars whom I respect a lot who say it’s a folly, but, if true, it doesn’t mean that Putin is aware of the problem. Last, Ukraine has restarted its pleas to join NATO, and a full-fledged invasion will permanently end the debate until Ukraine concedes half of its occupied territory to Russia, both somewhat desirable to Putin.
I cannot explain why Putin has decided to act at this moment—and that he acts is far from a fait accompli, yet a probability, in my judgment—as the current circumstances are the same as a year ago. Maybe the budgetary problems make change a necessity, and maybe it is a response to the NATO talks. Who knows? One other explanation is the Biden administration’s focus on China. The administration has sent every signal that it wants nothing to do with the rest of the world, and Russia is taking Biden on his word. The White House and the Department of State have been increasingly at odds, and one source of friction, based on what I have heard, is Russia. Based on insider chatters, Secretary of State Antony Blinken wants a greater focus on Russia, which the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Jake Sullivan opposes, an argument he’s been winning. This would be the second time that Blinken would lose an argument over Russia. The first time was when he, with the overwhelming support of senior administration officials, called for a tough response to Russia’s Crimean anschluss and involvement in the war in Donbas in 2014. At the time, he was President Obama’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs. The only two senior figures opposed were President Barack Obama and Blinken’s immediate superior, Susan Rice. Obama was pre-determined not to do anything more than sending MREs to Ukraine, and Merkel pleaded with him to do nothing, which added to Obama’s permission structure. If Russia invades Ukraine with an overwhelming force, with a new German government with possibly an even softer posture toward Russia, a redux might be on the horizon.
Doing nothing will, however, be far more dangerous this time. The United States didn’t act against the Russian invasion of Georgia with an overwhelming force. A moderate use of force against Ukraine over the last seven years has been painful. What Russia might learn is that proxy war will be more costly than an overwhelming invasion, and the only thing standing in the way of invading the Baltics will be NATO’s mutual defense clause.
The risk for Russia is that this will be a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan moment. At a time when the United States was trying to have a friendlier posture toward the Soviet Union, the invasion was a wake-up call that led to the ascension of Ronald Reagan (or Saint Ronald of California, as I like to call him). And Soviet/Russian leaders have a special talent in stepping on their toes. In the early years of NATO, twice, NATO was facing internal crises, once over Charles de Gaulle’s withdrawal from the integrated command, and the other time over the war in Vietnam and disputes between the United States and European members over military expenditure. Both times, the Soviets saved the alliance by deploying their military to Hungary and Czechoslovakia, respectively, to end the uprisings. The rolling of the Soviet tanks into Europe was a sober reminder of what could happen if the tensions within NATO continued. Now, NATO members are again at odds, much due to America’s abdication of leadership. A Russian invasion of Ukraine is as likely to break NATO as it is to solidify comradery.
It would be great if Putin invades Ukraine, causing solidarity within NATO and the ascension of Liz Cheney to the Presidency, followed by the collapse of Putin’s regime some years later, but I am not going to bet the house that such results follow. I prefer the devil I know, which is having the Russian military on the Russian side of the border (or, better yet, shot into the sun). If I were the Biden administration, I would be giving away tanks, fighter jets, and munitions to Ukraine like they are stimulus checks, and I would definitely make it clear to Putin that an invasion of Ukraine will result in the kind of sanctions imposed on Iran, zeroing Russia’s energy exports and cutting off Russia’s central bank from the international monetary system and dollar. (Zeroing Russia’s energy export will inevitably face strong condemnations in many European capitals, but c'est la vie. The cost of allowing Russia to annex Ukraine is far greater.)
To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, Biden might be interested in China, but Russia is interested in Biden.