Streetwise Professor

January 20, 2022

Joe Biden Just Raised the Risks of the Wrong War, In the Wrong Place, at the Wrong Time

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 4:45 pm

In January, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech outlining the US’s security perimeter–and conspicuously excluded South Korea. Within 5 months, with Stalin’s blessing, North Korea invaded. The opening stages of the Korean War were an absolute military disaster for the US. The rest of it wasn’t great shakes.

Yesterday Biden sent a similarly equivocal signal to Putin on Ukraine, insinuating that Russia had Biden’s blessing to invade Ukraine. As long as the invasion isn’t too big! Whatever that means. The administration then attempted to clean up this shocking statement by saying that any incursion would bring a strong US response. (Cleaning up after Biden is akin to cleaning up after a Barnum and Bailey Circus parade.)

There are war hawks in the US who want to confront Russia militarily if Putin does cross the border, bigly or otherwise–as Biden arguably just invited him to do. This is absolutely insane.

Look at the “correlation of forces.” It decidedly favors Russia. This is especially true in the air, where absent Nato intervention Russia will have not just air superiority but air dominance from the get go.

Yes, the one realistic way that Nato could materially contest a Russian invasion would be by pitting its air forces against Russia’s. (It’s capability on the ground is essentially nil.) It could probably do so decisively. But for what? And assuming it did achieve control of he air, would Nato use air power against Russian ground forces? Logistic resources within Russia? If not, could they change the result on the ground, other than make Russia’s task bloodier and harder? Almost certainly not. When it becomes evident that putative control of the air would not likely change the end result on the ground absent further action, wouldn’t the inexorable logic of conflict push the US/Nato to attack Russian troops and logistics from the air?

Any of these alternatives would bring the US and Nato into direct conflict with Russia where the potential for escalation in many dimensions is high. And again, for what? What American interest (or Nato interest for that matter) is advanced by contesting Russia for Ukraine? Is there any benefit remotely worth the risk of a war, let alone one between nuclear powers that could escalate? I cannot think of any, and those advocating a military response to a Russian invasion have certainly not advanced any.

And it must be emphasized that this would be the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The main beneficiary of which would be China. A futile attempt to save Ukraine would expose the US and its allies to risks of bigger losses in Asia.

Ukraine’s operational situation is dire, and becoming more so. In particular, as if the overmatch wasn’t already severe enough, recent Russian movements in Belarus pose a severe threat. A movement into Ukraine from Belarus would outflank the country’s one major geographic obstacle–the Dnieper (defending which would already concede loss of a third of the country). Ukraine’s only real chance is to hold the Dnieper–and even that would probably require US/Nato involvement. An attack from Belarus would eliminate even that chance.

A Korea outcome is probably the best the US could gain. And again for what? And at what cost, in blood, treasure, and strategic compromise in other theater?

The latest brilliant idea is for Ukraine to wage a guerrilla war against Russian invaders. There are stories circulating that the CIA is helping train organize such resistance, and Canadian special forces who could also do that are in country.

Yes, it took the USSR a decade to restore full control of Ukraine after WWII. And the Russian Civil War in Ukraine was brutal and multi-sided, with Reds v. Whites v. Greens. So it is possible that a Russian occupation could be bloody and costly. Would Putin be deterred by that? Is it worth running the risk of turning Ukraine into Syria or Libya to find out? Would that be better than Russian domination of Ukraine? Yes, Putin is an autocrat, but he isn’t Hitler or Stalin, and Russia isn’t the USSR.

And again, for what?

This is a completely unforced error. Regardless of whether you think Putin is genuinely fearful of Nato incorporating Ukraine, or whether that is just a convenient excuse for him to advance his imperial project, there was never any reason to bring Ukraine into Nato and thereby increase greatly the risk of confrontation. As I’ve said before, its inclusion raises the risk of conflict and detracts from rather than adds to Nato capability.

By dangling this as a possibility, the US and Nato predictably triggered a reaction that leaves them with the unpalatable choice of fighting a war over a country that is not vital to their interests or looking feckless and duplicitous by dangling the prospect of protection and then shrinking from providing it. It also provides Putin with a pretext to challenge all of Nato’s earlier eastern expansion. This juncture would never had been reached had the US and Nato not made promises that were never in its interest to keep. But they did, and that has put them in this dilemma.

My main fear at present is that Biden (or those who are actually making the decisions) will feel compelled to be butch and commit the US to a conflict involving such a huge asymmetry between gains and losses. Hell, even “winning” would involve more loss than walking away would.

How will it play out? I don’t know. Games of chicken are always hard to predict. Especially when one of the players is politically desperate and mentally compromised. And that, alas, is fair description of the president of the US in 2022.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. If there was ever a time for Europe to get its shit together and start making NATO something other than a completely US-based project, then this would be it.

    Expecting the US to pick up the slack for countries that have the GDP of fucking Hungary is preposterous.

    Comment by JJK — January 20, 2022 @ 5:31 pm

  2. When I was a boy, many years ago, my father indoctrinated me with the idea that you can not make people free. His idea of helping the likes of Ukraine was not sending armies but parachuting arms in in large quantities so they can do their own fighting. See Afghanistan for a working example, complete with warlords. Always remember the ideal for any armed force is not to fight, but to commit murder. To ambush the opponent and shoot them all in the back, then offer the last half dozen a chance to surrender.

    Comment by Peewhit — January 20, 2022 @ 7:30 pm

  3. The US combat readiness is a joke, but that of our ‘NATO allies’ is even more risible. Decades of dedicating less than a tithe of their mandated contributions, Germany had perhaps 10 functional warplanes. The only one that would (not ‘might’, but WOULD) stand with the US is Poland. They’ve learned from history. In terms of bad-assedness, I suspect that the Finns might join the fight just to give Ivan another bloody nose, but they aren’t NATO, more’s the pity. ‘Is this a private fight, or can anyone join in?’
    It would take decades for most NATO countries to build up to the point of controlling their own borders. (Spit)

    Comment by JC — January 20, 2022 @ 8:22 pm

  4. “could they change the result on the ground, other than make Russia’s task bloodier and harder?”

    Making Russia’s task that much bloodier and harder would also make it impossible. Unless Putin puts zagradotryad behind Russian soldiers and takes their families hostage. But that would contradict your assumption that he is no Stalin.

    “The main beneficiary of which would be China. ”

    Why worry? Xi is no Hitler and China is not the USSR.

    “A movement into Ukraine from Belarus would outflank the country’s one major geographic obstacle–the Dnieper”

    Such a movement would not be a walk in the park: lots of smaller geographic obstacles on that flank.

    “it took the USSR a decade to restore full control of Ukraine after WWII”

    Technically the USSR never had full control of Ukraine until a decade after WWII. Some Russians blame the collapse of the USSR on having bitten more than they could chew there.

    “and Russia isn’t the USSR”

    Right, to become the USSR, Russia would need to subjugate Ukraine… Oh, wait, isn’t that what it’s trying to do?

    “there was never any reason to bring Ukraine into Nato and thereby increase greatly the risk of confrontation”

    That’s why Ukraine never was brought into NATO, and so luckily there is no risk of confrontation. What was it we were discussing here?

    “By dangling this as a possibility, the US and Nato predictably triggered a reaction”

    Does that mean you already dismissed the hypothesis from a few sentences back that “that is just a convenient excuse for him to advance his imperial project” rather than a reaction to anything? Because as far as excuses go, Putin can produce a dozen before lunch on any given day.

    Comment by Ivan — January 20, 2022 @ 8:53 pm

  5. Korea is a false analogy because Ukrainians, at least in the Western two-thirds of the country, perceive themselves to be a different nation than Russia. NATO is not going to
    fight, so if fighting is done it will be done by Ukrainians who believe they are fighting to keep their country free from a foreign yoke. Tempting Putin to invade is in the US interest because the Russian population, who are quite well educated and not completely happy about their standard of living, will not support Russians and their “Ukrainian brethren” killing each other just as Chinese will not support “Chinese killing Chinese” in Taiwan. An invasion that doesn’t go well could be the one thing that topples Putin. This is why the US is calling Putin’s bluff on invasion. More likely, he is planning some inside job that falls short of war. But Poroshenko and Ukrainian nationalists in the west of Ukraine won’t make that easy

    Comment by Mike — January 20, 2022 @ 9:47 pm

  6. @Ivan

    ‘Some Russians blame the collapse of the USSR on having bitten more than they could chew there.’

    I’d like hear more about this, if you have the time and inclination. All we heard about was Chernobyl, economic malaise, concern about demographic developments adverse for the Russian majority, and a general weariness and loss of belief.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — January 20, 2022 @ 10:04 pm

  7. I would dearly love to know what you all think Trump would have done differently in this situation. Maybe a side deal with Vlad for hotels in Kiev and Odessa in exchange for the all clear?

    On which note, I didn’t realise you were all still so committed to NATO and the defense of Europe. I thought that troop-ship had sailed years ago. To be honest even I’m questioning its existence given the fact the vast majority of Member States are either uncommitted lefties or knuckle-dragging right-wing autocracies. The fact that both France and Germany are comprehensively failing to give a collective f*ck makes me think that Ukraine is a lost cause.

    As for your analysis of any theoretical intervention by NATO air power, given how comprehensively this would tilt the fight in the favour of Ukraine, I honestly believe Vlad wouldn’t hesitate to detonate a tactical nuke over eastern Ukraine in such a situation.

    @Ivan: Because as far as excuses go, Putin can produce a dozen before lunch on any given day He can just as easily turn on any western news channel and glean any number of over-ready excuses from all those talking heads.

    Comment by David Mercer — January 21, 2022 @ 3:46 am

  8. Is Putin a Bismarck or a Bonaparte? If the former, let him be. If the latter he’ll have to be fought one day, but even then on better ground, at a better time, and for a better reason.

    I’ve not seen any evidence that he’s The Corsican. But if he is, what would be his equivalent of marching on Moscow? An attack on Berlin?

    Comment by dearieme — January 21, 2022 @ 9:43 am

  9. I know! Let’s ask ourselves “What would President Wilson recommend?”

    Comment by dearieme — January 21, 2022 @ 5:08 pm

  10. 2 articles from the Daily Mail

    One covers the supposed “severe sanctions that are going to be imposed on Putler

    The other describes the personal effects of madman Putler’s shit fits in Ukraine

    I would like to see before and after pictures of Crimea, or for that matter, Abkhazia and Ossetia – B{ amd AP – Before Putler and After Putler

    Comment by elmer — January 23, 2022 @ 11:32 am

  11. the US is buying massive amounts of oil from Rasha – why????????????

    The most recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that in May, the U.S. imported 844,000 barrels per day of crude oil and petroleum products from Russia. That’s almost 10% of all the U.S. imports for that month.

    Historically speaking, this is a large amount, setting a new monthly record for Russian oil imports.

    Comment by elmer — January 23, 2022 @ 11:36 am


    peace with Hitler

    Comment by elmer — January 23, 2022 @ 1:15 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress