Putin’s Ukraine problem

So, Ukraine. Kind of a big deal, huh?

I have no special expertise here, so I’m heavily relying on those who do:

Destroyed Russian tanks in Ukraine. (Reuters)

Another caution: the fog of war is heavy. We know the basics, but we don’t have solid numbers and precise maps. Putin of course does not want honest reporting, and in the kind of war Ukraine is fighting, it’s hardly going to say exactly where its forces are. All those omnisicient military retellings (“General Daring had two options available…”) will be written far in the future.

What did Putin want?

It seems pretty clear that Putin expected a walkover. He thought the Ukrainians would be overwhelmed or wouldn’t fight; he sent in riot police to secure Kyiv; three squads were sent to murder Zelenskyy. The model was probably the 2014 invasion of Crimea. It would be so fast that, confronted with a fait accompli and a quickly installed puppet regime, the West wouldn’t bother to apply major sanctions. All this failed.

There was a good deal of Russian bullshit in the air in February. Tucker Carlson is the most famous Putin apologist, but many others gravely opined that NATO expansion had somehow been too much for Putin. Sadly, the DSA has also decided to repeat this fascist excuse and blame the war on US “imperialism”.

This is easy enough to refute. You don’t mount a 200,000-man invasion in order to keep the status quo happening. Ukraine was not and is not a member of NATO. It’s been talked about as far back as 2008, and nothing has happened. If that was what Putin wanted, he’d have got it by simply doing nothing. The invasion was not precipitated by any Ukrainian or Western moves. The NATO stuff was a smokescreen, dropped to confuse some useful idiots.

In November of last year NATO commander Jens Stoltenberg was quite clear about why Ukraine wasn’t accepted: “30 allies have to agree, and we don’t have consensus agreement in NATO now on inviting Ukraine into becoming a full member.” That means someone is vetoing the idea for some reason. So membership isn’t just slowed down, it’s halted. Putin’s supposed fear was not about anything real.

You also don’t demonstrate that there’s nothing to fear from Russia by invading your neighbor, sending murder squads after its president, and levelling its cities. That in fact demonstrates that Russia is a very real threat and small countries are very vulnerable. Thanks to Putin, countries like Sweden and Finland, which sat out the entire Cold War, are considering joining NATO. Putin accomplished in one week what US presidents for the last 20 years were unable to do: get Germany to spend more than 2% of its GNP on defense, and export weapons.

Why did Putin want Ukraine? He thought it was low-lying fruit, and he’d be a hero in Russia for reversing a little bit of the Soviet collapse. And he’d already got away with slicing off Crimea, with minimal blowback. In two decades he’s issued a long string of provocations which were never successfully resisted; he thought he could pull off one more. A war is also his go-to move when he’s losing popularity.

A few pundits have mentioned that since Putin closed down Russian access to Twitter, trolls in their mentions have plummeted. This is just one bit of a culture war Putin has been waging for a decade: support extremists and sow confusion in the West, at little cost to himself. Russian money has been deeply involved in Tory Britain, and of course Russian TV openly gloated in 2017 that Trump was theirs. Trump didn’t care about Russia invading and stealing Crimea, and actually held up military aid to Zelenskyy in hopes of getting some dirt on Hunter Biden.

Fox is still showcasing the pro-Putin Carlson, but it looks like Putin has lost a lot of his right-wing support. In a Pew poll, 85% of Americans favor maintaining strong sanctions against Russia; 74% think the US is providing enough or not enough aid to Ukraine, as opposed to just 7% who think it’s too much.

A bit more on the Democratic Socialists, because they disappointed me so much. They’ve fallen into one of the oldest traps, the one most ideologues and conspiracy theorists fall into: the single-villain ideology. For them the only agent in the world is the US government; everything it does is bad, and no one else has any moral agency at all. Confronted with a murderous despot actively trying to reinstate the Russian empire, their brains just cannot compute. “Imperialism… that… isn’t… American? Inconceivable!” Instead they actually take the position that a defensive alliance against fascist Russia is bad, and that Ukrainian resistance should not be encouraged (i.e. by giving them arms so the Russian conquest fails). It’s not surprising at this point that fascist elements in the GOP support Putin, but it’s absolutely vile when so-called leftists are parroting fascist talking points.

Why did it go wrong?

  • Military failures, as described in the links above. Almost unbelievable logistic incompetence, leading to thousands of Russian troops dead. In three weeks Russia suffered 1/3 or 1/2 of the combat deaths it suffered in ten years in Afghanistan.
  • It turned out Ukraine doesn’t consider itself Russian and is willing to fight to prove it. In addition to uniting Europe against Russian aggression, Putin managed to de-Russify eastern Ukraine. Handing over the separatist bits of Donbass to criminal gangs, and bombing the rest to rubble, turns out not to make people want to join Russia.
  • It turned out Zelenskyy is brave as fuck and is a master of inspiring Ukrainians and the world.
  • Ukraine won the info war. Maybe easy to do when you just have to underline that a fascist dictator is invading you for no reason, but once the invasion started no one outside the horseshoe far right and far left believed in Putin’s pre-war bullshit. Ukraine has been exposing Russian criminality and showcasing Ukrainian resilience, while Putin has basically given up on making any case for himself to the outside world.
  • The West was unified, and applied devastating sanctions immediately.

All of this is important, but perhaps the biggest factor: Putin was living in a dream world. Comparisons with The Death of Stalin are in order… Putin has a created a massive machine for enriching himself and ruling Russia, but to do it he’s surrounded himself with terrified yes-men. So when he decided that Ukraine loved him as much as Russians have to pretend they love him, no one could tell him he was wrong, no one could tell him the army wasn’t up to it, no one could tell him he was going to tank the economy, no one could tell him that he’ll be lucky to last out the year.

Recent pictures of him are almost comic: why is no one allowed to be within 20 feet of him? What sort of fear does he have of these people, the very ones he handpicked to work for him?

As the military guys point out, occupying a country is hard work, destructive not only to the invaded but to the invaders. And to prepare his troops to do this, Putin… lied to them. They were told they were just on a training mission. Apparently Russian military structure is intensely top-down: lower-level units have no autonomy, which is part of why the invasion has stalled. Low-level troops are stuck, out of gas, eating expired food or raiding grocery stores, attacked by the locals they were told would welcome them. How the fuck does Putin think treating his own army that way will work out for him?

Why we’re not fighting Russia

To a lot of people– including Zelenskyy– the next step seems obvious: get involved directly. But Biden refuses to send US troops; according to Pew, 62% of Americans agree with him.

And they’re right. If it was a matter of conventional weapons– yeah, if Russia is having trouble with Ukraine they’d sure as hell have trouble with NATO. But Russia has nuclear weapons, and having Russians and Americans directly fighting would greatly increase the chance of nuclear war. And let’s not get stupid: we all lose a nuclear war.

For 40 years, the Cold War ran on the somewhat cynical principle that direct conflict was out, but indirect was OK. The Russians helped the Vietnamese; we helped the Afghans. Both sides let themselves get embroiled in things they should have stayed out of– but they also avoided direct conflicts that could easily have escalated.

Perhaps it’s not obvious: a no-fly zone is sending US (or NATO) troops to Ukraine, albeit sending them in planes. A no-fly zone means shooting down enemy planes, and facing enemy attempts to shoot back. We are not at war with Russia, but if we tried that we soon would be. Besides, Russia’s bombs are not mainly from planes, but from missiles fired from Russia.

What happens next?

Who knows, except that it’ll be enormous suffering for the Ukrainians. In frustration, the Russians are using the same tactic they used in Chechnya and Syria: attack civilians with indiscriminate bombing. Any pretense of “these people are really Russians” has been abandoned; they’re just destroying as much as they can.

At the same time, the West is sending more anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. I’m not a military dude, so I don’t know if that will work or not. At least it should devastate those Russian convoys, and hopefully shoot down more and more planes and missiles.

There’s been some talk of Russia’s “peace” conditions. One of them is handing over the Donbass; this is probably a non-starter. For one thing, to Westerners it probably implies recognizing the little slivers of rebel territory; to Putin it almost certainly means the entire Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, 8% of Ukraine’s territory. Only 1/3 of this territory is held by the rebels now, and Kamil Galeev does a great job here explaining how Putin destroyed the economy of the very area he occupied and handed it over to gangsters, and how this so disgusted the rest of Donbass, as well as all of Russophone Ukraine, that they want nothing to do with him.

Ukraine faces some tricky decisions here. It’s easy for outsiders to say it should keep resisting, and to point out that Putin has zero credibility in anything he proposes or agrees to. On the other hand, it’s questionable whether Russia can keep up the fight. It’s very possible that a very large fraction of that 190,000-man army will be cut to pieces, and it’s not like Putin saved his best troops for later.

At this point it’s hard to think of an exit Putin can take. He could just admit it didn’t work and back out, but dictators don’t think that way, even when their life is on the line. Saddam Hussein simply could not admit that he had no nukes– even though continuing that particular Big Lie ended up with him surrendering in a ditch. Besides, there is just no button labeled “Go back to December 2021.” Europe and Ukraine now know, and will take into account, that Putin is an invasion-happy fascist.

Ukraine itself is suggesting “neutrality” in an interesting new sense: no NATO membership, but “in case of war signatories provide weapons and air defense immediately without bureaucratic procedures or conditions”. That’s an almost cheeky way of saying “We’ll do this all again if we have to.” But Putin could play it up as “no NATO membership” I guess? He’d be wise to take the deal; too bad he’s not wise.