War it is. How much war remains to be seen.
So clearly there have been some developments since I thought I was signing off for a somewhat early evening a couple of hours ago. With the United Nations Security Council in an emergency session to try to wrangle at least a pause in the steady escalation in the Russia-Ukraine crisis over the past several days, Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the airwaves early Thursday morning (local time) announcing a “special military operation” to “protect” Ukraine’s separatist Donbas region. In effect this was a declaration of war in all but name. That speech was followed pretty quickly by reports of explosions near, if not in, several Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odessa. It seems now that Ukrainian officials are reporting Russian ground forces landing in Odessa and Mariupol and crossing the border near Kharkiv, all of which lie well outside the Donbas, but those reports remain unconfirmed as far as I know. The Ukrainian government has imposed martial law, a step up from the state of emergency it had already adopted. These things are all happening as I write this and details right now are not in abundance, so bear with me.
I say Putin “took to the airwaves” but there’s some reason to believe he recorded his speech on Monday and passed it off as live. If that’s true then Putin committed to this invasion two days ago and has been stringing the rest of the world along since then. Maybe he’s been stringing the world along for four months now and this war has been inevitable that entire time. Unfortunately the debate over whether this conflict could have been avoided is purely academic now. I still believe it could have been, but we’ll never know.
What’s left is the war, and I want to be clear that while most of my writing here has been focused on what the US might be able to do to ratchet down tensions, at the end of the day this is a Russian war of choice and the consequences that ensue will be largely of Russia’s making. In one of the more “up is down” passages of his speech, Putin demanded that the Ukrainian military preemptively surrender, and argued that if it failed to do so then “all responsibility for bloodshed will be on the conscience of the ruling regime in Ukraine.” That’s horse shit. This is Putin’s war and he’ll own the consequences, not that I expect that to matter to him.
What still remains to be seen is how much of a war it is. Putin’s speech laid out aims that were somewhat incoherent, at least going by how it’s been reported in the West. The main thrust seems to have been that the leaders of the Donestk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic have asked for Russian salvation from some sort of massive and even “genocidal” (using Putin’s terminology) Ukrainian military operation against them. There hasn’t been any evidence of such an operation and Ukraine would have been daft to attempt one. The DNR and LNR and their people have suffered tremendously over 8 years of a mostly frozen conflict, but then so have people living on the Ukrainian government side of their front line. That’s what happens in war. This “genocide” accusation is one of several that Putin has leveled at Ukraine as justification for the steps he’s taken to date, ranging from the somewhat understandable (Ukraine might join NATO) to the unsubstantiated (genocide) to the fanciful (Ukraine is trying to build nuclear weapons).
The “stopping genocide” rationale speaks to a limited war to secure the territory claimed by the DNR and LNR, something akin to the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. That conflict involved Russian attacks on Georgian miltary targets outside of the disputed separatist regions (in that case, Abkhazia and South Ossetia) but territorially it focused on those specific regions. That may still be what happens here. These explosions may be attacks meant to destroy Ukrainian airpower, such as it is, and military infrastructure in order to make an occupation of the DNR and LNR, and an expansion of the territory under their control, easier.
That said, other parts of Putin’s speech, coupled with the rant he delivered on Monday and the claims of Russian ground troops in places far afield from the Donbas, speak to potentially wider aims. On Monday Putin denied the very legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood, which is making the case for regime change or even regime destruction, while on Wednesday he declared that the Russian military “will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine.” Without denying the presence of extreme right Nazi and/or neo-Nazi groups within Ukraine, I have to say that denazifying a country with a Jewish president will be a neat trick. But the upshot is that it’s hard to see how Russia could achieve these aims without fully conquering and occupying Ukraine. Maybe Putin was just blowing smoke in that part of his speech, but clearly anything is possible.
This scenario, an Iraq War-esque scenario involving regime change and a potentially extended military occupation of Ukraine, strikes me as an act of insanity. Part of my hesitancy to believe the Biden administration’s constant warnings of a full-scale Russian invasion, warnings that may finally be proven accurate if a bit overdue, is that I can’t believe Putin actually believes his military can pull it off. The relative military-to-military comparison here is barely a comparison at all—if Russia is going all-in on an invasion it can probably defeat the Ukrainian military in short order. But the United States defeated the Iraqi military in about a month and a half, and that’s using the most generous estimates of that phase of the war. It lost the occupation that came after.
Ukraine is a country about the same size as Iraq and most of its people have spent the past eight years learning to despise Putin and, by extension, Russia. The occupation that would follow a full Russian invasion would likely be very long and very bloody. Maybe that’s not what Putin has in mind—maybe he’s intending to roll in, break the place, and roll back out. But if that’s the case then, again, it’s hard to see how he’ll achieve the aims of “demilitarisation and denazification.” If anything the Ukraine he would leave behind would be more hostile to Russia and would probably veer sharply toward the extreme right. So it has been (clearly) and remains a mystery to me what Putin’s goal is here. Hopefully he knows what it is, because the alternative actually seems even more troubling.
That’s all I have for the moment. I should add that Putin, in his Wednesday morning speech, obliquely threatened nuclear retaliation against any country that intervenes to stop this invasion. I don’t think there’s much need to dwell on this as the US and NATO have made it clear that they’re not going to intervene directly. More sanctions are I’m sure coming and perhaps more arms shipments, though within the next few days or weeks there may not be much of a Ukrainian military left to receive them. I think it’s also important, because they’ll inevitably be lost in discussions of Putin’s mindset and NATO and sanctions and military maneuvers, to note that it’s the Ukrainian people—most of whom, if it even needs to be said, are not Nazis, have nothing to do with NATO, and have done nothing to Russia nor to the people of the Donbas—who will bear the brunt of whatever comes next. Spare a thought for them.