Streetwise Professor

January 30, 2022

Random Thoughts on Ukraine

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:36 pm

What’s a dog that hasn’t barked during the Ukraine situation? Think for a minute.

Answer: the UN.

Think back to Gulf Wars I and II. The UN was the cockpit of much diplomatic wrangling. The focal point of most negotiation. Further, the US, and other western countries in 1990/1991 and the UK in 2002/2003, went to considerable lengths to win UN approval. Remember the late Colin Powell’s infamous aluminum tubes presentation to the UN in 2003?

The refrain was that any action in Iraq would be illegitimate without UN approval. So the US repeatedly sought it.

Now, the UN is totally MIA with regards to Ukraine. Putin obviously feels no obligation to go to it, hat in hand as the US did. The US and others obviously believe that it is irrelevant, and any appeal to it futile, not least because Russia can veto any resolution. But most striking is the fact that those who preached about the vital importance of the UN as the determinant of the legitimacy of an international conflict are completely silent. Apparently they (and their intellectual successors) realize that it can only be manipulated against the West generally, and the US in particular. Or more pointedly, that they are only interested in manipulating it against the West generally, and the US in particular. For all their hosannas to the UN, they obviously only care about it when it can be enlisted against the US. Lilliputians to tie down Gulliver. Otherwise, it is an irrelevance.

Which is what conservatives have been saying forever.

Not a big deal, but worth noting.

Speaking of the Iraq wars, I wonder whether Putin is weighing their biggest lesson (especially the 2003 war). Overwhelming military advantage and a lightning conventional operational victory do not necessarily translate into strategic gain, and indeed, may create a strategic ulcer that ends in if not ultimate defeat, a hollow and costly triumph.

One of the contemporary criticisms of US strategy in Iraq was an alleged failure to commit enough troops to the occupation, which allowed anti-US elements (Islamists, former regime personnel, Shiite militias) to consolidate and gain control of parts of Iraq. That was at least a choice for the US. At the time it had the resources to do it, but deliberately chose otherwise.

Russia, in contrast, almost certainly lacks the manpower and fiscal wherewithal for an occupation of even a large portion of Ukraine, let alone all of it, especially if there is even a modicum of organized resistance. You don’t need an entire nation in arms, a la Spain v. Napoleonic France. Just enough of it.

Ukraine is not Iraq, and in particular it is unlikely that there are elements as numerous, vicious, and determined as those in Iraq (or in Spain circa 1812). But even if resistance does not reach that level, it is doubtful that Russia has the resources to crush it. This would leave it in a situation analogous to the US in Iraq. “Mission accomplished,” but actually not, and saddled with occupation of a corrupt and dysfunctional country. Look at Donetsk and Luhansk, and then extend that to any other portions of Ukraine that Putin might decide to absorb.

If Putin is a realist he will recognize this. But he may not be. He may believe that Russia can avoid the mistakes of the US in Iraq, or that Ukraine will be so inert that a long commitment will be unnecessary.

Not knowing what he thinks about this is one reason we cannot know what he will do with any confidence.

A last note on Ukraine. Last week Biden spoke with Zelensky, and the Ukrainians said the call “did not go well.”

Color me shocked!


The post-call media coverage was bizarre. CNN reported that Biden had told Zelensky that invasion was imminent and Kiev would be “sacked.” (A la the Mongols in 1240?) Then that story was pulled and denied. Zelensky basically said “chill, bro. WTF are you talking about?” Then he made more pointed criticisms, saying that he was president of Ukraine so he kinda knows more of what is going on in Ukraine that anybody else (where the clear implication was that “anybody else” is commonly known as “Brandon”).

What a farce. The US (and to some degree) the UK is playing Chicken Little and those upon whom the sky is supposed to fall are not nearly so alarmed. If they are alarmed but playing it cool, well good for them. The US would do well to imitate.

Zelensky’s put down of Biden clearly got the White House’s panties in a wad. The pissy little bitches replied thus:

In other words: “Zelensky is a hypocrite for downplaying the threat and asking for weapons. How dare he break ranks with us and make us look bad in public, the ingrate.”

Perhaps somebody should get the National Security staff some Keep Calm and Carry On mugs. And some decaf to put in them.

Also, somebody should tell presidents not to have phone calls with Ukrainian presidents. They don’t end well.

The hysterical American rhetoric cannot be constructive. It is not unreasonable to conjecture that the administration wants the conflict to go hot. They are telling the Ukrainians: “Let’s you and him fight,” and are getting irritated that the Ukrainians are not obliging.

What could be the motive for such actions? There are many. One is evoked by a passage from Henry IV Part 2, in which Henry IV reconciles with Prince Hal and gives him advice:

My Harry

Be it thy course to busy giddy minds

With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,

May waste the memory of the former days.

The “former days” that Henry IV was referring to were the troubled times of his reign, which were beset by domestic struggles and division–due to his dubious legitimacy (wink wink, nudge nudge). Wag the Dog predates 1998, and Biden is beset by domestic struggles and division.

Although the idea may be tempting (not so much to Biden, in his current mental state, but to his minions), it would be an immense mistake that would inevitably multiply his troubles rather than calm them. So just as if Putin is thinking that an adventure in Ukraine would bolster his status at home but well could be disappointed, Biden (or his minions who actually make the decisions) would almost certainly face a similar fate.

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  1. Zelensky might have told Brandon that he was “bought and paid for “, so why aren’t you doing my bidding.

    “There is a tide in the affairs of men
    Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
    Omitted, all the voyage of their life
    Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
    On such a full sea are we now afloat;
    And we must take the current when it serves,
    Or lose our ventures.”

    Hey Joe, how’s the shallows doin’?

    Comment by The Pilot — January 30, 2022 @ 6:27 pm

  2. Back up to Turkey, did you catch that Erdo fired his statistics chief who keeps trying to report inflation where there isn’t any?

    Comment by The Pilot — January 30, 2022 @ 6:28 pm

  3. Here is Vlad’s view of this:

    Comment by Richard Whitney — January 30, 2022 @ 6:45 pm

  4. The thing that I only really got a hook on in the past 3-4 years is just how stupid our politicians and media are. They really do not grasp anything much, and in particular, the economics differences with the Middle East or Russia and the West, and how that affects government and incentives.

    Like the Blair/Bush plan to democratise the Middle East did not understand the shift in incentives required to bring about democracy. It isn’t just “here, have democracy”. You need some industrialisation. It’s why all those old parts of empire had democracy, and then a coup. It’s why countries like Taiwan eventually replaced dictatorship with democracy.

    And I believe that the more that we industrialise and privatise in the west, and the safer the world generally becomes, and how generally richer we become, the worse our politicians are. Generally people stop being engaged with politics. They quite reasonably don’t see any benefit to investing time and money in it. So we get people who are generally clownish entertainers and empty suits. PM is no longer the big deal job it was. You’re a smart ambitious person, you’ll probably go into hedge funds or dotcoms.

    The reason I assume people like Putin aren’t as stupid as Boris or Biden is that it is a competitive, serious job in Russia. Top people really want to be there. So, he had to fight off a lot of contenders and internal threats. And I don’t think that the average UK politician or chucklehead in the media actually understands the game he’s playing. I’m not sure I do, either. When I hear people saying things like “Biden called Putin’s bluff by refusing to rule out Ukraine joining”, do they think Putin expected Biden to do anything else? So what’s it about? I think it’s mostly just about getting NATO arguing with each other. He knows it’s fragile, so do things to put it out of its misery.

    Comment by Bloke on M4 — January 30, 2022 @ 7:51 pm

  5. Aww, c’mon, you yanks haven’t been doing too bad. Your written response was comedy gold (a precis for those who didn’t see it: “Dear Vlad, Please arrange the following words into a well known phrase or saying: f*ck go yourself. Cheers Joe et al”)

    Gotta love Zelensky though. He’s da man. It’s no wonder Vlad is so vexed over Ukraine, it being led by a young, charismatic and principled (ish) leader with actual ideas on how to take the country forward. Makes him look bad, a territory formerly under his dead hand actually doing alright for itself – heaven help him if the Russian citizens cotton on to this.

    Comment by David Mercer — January 31, 2022 @ 4:25 am

  6. @Bloke: But you’re not really comparing like with like, are you? Russia is effectively a criminal enterprise, unlike the UK and US. So you have to be ruthless in your early years to get the top job, but when you’re in place and the competition has been eliminated, it’s happy days. No one would dare challenge him now, especially given the mood he’s likely in, him having bet the house on this one final hurrah.

    Comment by David Mercer — January 31, 2022 @ 4:38 am

  7. This one is funny, the theory is that their’s got no proper word to translate “imminent”:

    Comment by Konstantin — January 31, 2022 @ 6:11 am

  8. It is not difficult to understand what is going on.

    1) Russia is not a country – it is a territory held together by force via a Putler mafia, and Putler is the mafia don – Meyer Lansky or pick anyone else you like

    2) in order to prop up his mafia-dom, Putler not only rattles his sabres, but actually invades other countries under various mythological pretexts, including trying to portray Russia as a “victim.” Reminds one of this – “help, help, I’m beating somebody up.”

    see, for example, this by Prof. Timothy Snyder –

    3) Ukraine was a nation in search of a state – it has now found its state, and is still working on it.

    Russia ia a state in search of a nation – and has found only a mafia state.

    4) As pointed out in a previous comment, Putler’s greatest fear is that Russian will catch on that they don’t have to have Putler in power for over 24 years, and watch him score 10 goals in every hockey game he plays in.

    5) Putler has had to choose between guns and butter – he has clearly chosen guns, and damn everyone else in his mafia-dom.

    6) However, he does need to weaken his “enemies” – hence, NordStream 2 and other tricks to destabilize his “enemies.”

    7) I highly recommend this panel discussion – it’s 40 minutes, but you can fast forward, paying particular attention to Craig Copetas and Anastasia Shapochkina – concise and fact-based with good analysis of Yurrupian positions

    8) Zelensky was telling Zhou Bai-din not to sow panic – it didn’t and doesn’t help anything; Bai-din had already bullied Ukraine once by – son-of-a-bitch – forcing the firing of its Prosecutor General; Zhou, a 50-year corrupt political parasite, was trying to bully Ukraine again

    9) foreign policy malpractice –

    Comment by elmer — January 31, 2022 @ 8:34 am

  9. UN Security Council meeting today

    part of Putler’s game has already been achieved – he has drawn massive attention to himself

    “look, Putler eez beeg man, everyone paying attention to Putler”

    thus apparently enhancing his “status” in his mafia-dom

    by the say, as is pointed out in the France 24 panel discussion, popular opinion in Russia does not count – only the opinion of those who are part of Putler’s mafia

    ironically, Putler and his Kremlinoids have already dismissed the UN meeting as an American PR stunt

    Comment by elmer — January 31, 2022 @ 9:12 am

  10. David Mercer,

    “@Bloke: But you’re not really comparing like with like, are you? Russia is effectively a criminal enterprise, unlike the UK and US. So you have to be ruthless in your early years to get the top job, but when you’re in place and the competition has been eliminated, it’s happy days. No one would dare challenge him now, especially given the mood he’s likely in, him having bet the house on this one final hurrah.”

    Competition has been eliminated? Eh? You might eliminate the people who you see as threatening power in a moment, but there’s always competition. Always someone who wants Putin’s job.

    Comment by Bloke on M4 — January 31, 2022 @ 9:41 am

  11. @David Mercer – Boris Nemtsov was killed in sight of the Kremlin; Navalny is in prison; many, many journalists were killed; political opposition is stifled by murder and other methrods

    These people didn’t and don’t want Putler’s job – they wanted to get out from under mafia-dom

    I still remember one of Putler’s annual “why are you so wonderful, Vlad” TV national broadcasts.

    A little guy with Asisatic eyes in a floppy hat who lived in a remote region asked Vlad for some help with fixing the notoriously bad roads (all over Russia) because the roads cause damage to the cars.

    Vlad Dracul’s response was: —– “why do you need cars”?

    Better to invade other countries, right?

    Comment by elmer — January 31, 2022 @ 9:48 am

  12. I was listening to war monger Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal, telling us, we must stop Russia in Ukraine or Europe democracy will be next?

    Europe Democracy?

    That’s laughable..

    Comment by Joel — January 31, 2022 @ 1:54 pm

  13. @6 David, the present US government is a criminal enterprise.

    Comment by Pat Frank — January 31, 2022 @ 3:08 pm

  14. They didn’t install the warmonger to have peace. There are no billion-dollar appropriations to skim in that. Here is your war machine making up the reason for war:

    Comment by Richard Whitney — February 3, 2022 @ 7:51 pm

  15. Can someone please explain to me what benefits Putin might derive from invading Ukraine?

    I mean, where’s the payoff?

    He’s spent all these years getting Nordstream through so Gazprom doesn’t have to drop piles of cash in the Ukraine. If he takes over, he’ll need to prop up a puppet regime which, er, will require dropping piles of cash in the Ukraine.

    What am I missing here, folks?

    Otherwise, it looks like the buildup of forces has a message to Kyiv: don’t try messing with the status quo in the Donbass. And no more Turkish drones, pleeze!

    Comment by Simple Simon — February 6, 2022 @ 10:49 am


    Opinion | Ukraine is not the only thing at stake in U.S.-Russia standoff

    Autocrats learn from one another to protect themselves and expand their power. The Ukraine crisis mustn’t give t…

    Feb. 2, 2022, 3:32 AM CST
    By Uriel Epshtein, executive director of the Renew Democracy Initiative

    The escalating crisis on the border of Ukraine isn’t just about Ukraine; it’s the new front line in the battle between freedom and autocracy.

    If Ukraine falls, what’s to stop Chinese ruler Xi Jinping from feeling sufficiently emboldened to seize Taiwan? Why would Iran give up its nuclear program?

    For all of his claims that he’s concerned about NATO enlargement, what Russian dictator Vladimir Putin likely fears most is any hint of democratization in surrounding countries. As Ukraine continues to develop as a democracy, it threatens Putin’s image as Russia’s savior and invites questions about Russia’s lack of freedom that he’d rather not hear. To defend his own rule, he has an interest in preventing democracy from taking root nearby.

    And Putin isn’t alone. He’s part of a network of tyrants who are united in their determination to see freedom fail. It’s clear that these autocrats and aspiring autocrats learn from one another to protect themselves and expand their power. Upon realizing that accusations of “fake news” are a great way to muddy the waters of what’s true, a steady stream of rulers with autocratic tendencies have cried “fake news” whenever their dirty deeds have come to light — from Bashar al-Assad in Syria to Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela to Viktor Orbán in Hungary.

    Such tactics, of course, are merely new manifestations of a long-standing effort to combat democracy. After all, even though branding the media as the “enemy of the people” was recently popularized in the U.S. by then-President Donald Trump, it has an illustrious history in none other than the Soviet Union, where it was a formal part of the penal code used to silence dissent. Aspiring autocrats have begun weakening the foundations of democracy with groundless claims of election fraud, while some rulers who have already consolidated their power are able to engage in old-fashioned election-rigging to stay in office.

    Communist, nationalist, Islamist and other authoritarian regimes often learn from and support one another not because they share an ideology, but because, in an inversion of the famous Martin Luther King Jr. quotation, the existence of freedom anywhere poses a threat to tyranny everywhere.

    We saw this in 1980, when the Solidarity trade union formed in Poland, putting the country on the path toward democratization and inspiring citizens of nearby nations to challenge their communist dictatorships; the Soviet Union collapsed a decade thereafter. More recently, beginning in 2010, when the Arab Spring began, protests in Tunisia toppled the government, leading to widespread demonstrations and unrest in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria.

    Since Putin came to power two decades ago, he has done what he could to limit such change. When over 100,000 people last year rose up against the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, Russia propped him up. When similar protests erupted in Kazakhstan this winter, Russia sent in the troops. And in Syria, when Assad’s government was threatened, Russia (and Iran) came to its rescue.

    As autocrats win these battles and advance, they turn their attention to undermining foreign democracies and extending the front lines farther from home. Russia runs disinformation campaigns in free countries. Iran supports drug cartels in Mexico through its proxy Hezbollah and plots kidnapping and murder on U.S. soil. Belarus weaponizes refugees against Europe and hijacks an Irish airliner, contracted by Poland, as it flies from Greece to Lithuania — all members of the European Union.

    If Ukraine falls, what’s to stop Chinese ruler Xi Jinping from feeling sufficiently emboldened to seize Taiwan? Why would Iran give up its nuclear program when Ukraine’s predicament is a result, at least in part, of its having agreed to give up nuclear weapons in return for aid and security assurances? And what happens when Russia assesses that NATO won’t honor its treaty obligations to protect smaller members like the Baltic states?

    Garry Kasparov, the chairman of my organization, the Renew Democracy Initiative, and a former world chess champion, once told me that in the early 2000s, he and former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov warned that Putin might be their problem for now, but very soon he’d be the world’s. This proved prescient, though unfortunately Nemtsov was assassinated before he could say, “I told you so.”

    The free world didn’t listen back then. It failed to coordinate significant sanctions to stop Putin when the cost of doing so would have been less. Instead, Putin kept his seat in the G-8. His cronies were allowed to park embezzled Russian money in the West. And even former democratic leaders such as Germany’s Gerhard Schröder and France’s François Fillon joined Putin’s payroll.

    Now, with over 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border, we can still stop Putin, but interest has accrued, and the cost has gone up. We can’t afford to delay any further.

    If we truly believe, as President Joe Biden said at the Summit for Democracy in December, that the “defining challenge of our time” is autocracy versus democracy, then we must decide to actually fight! The free world must unite in defense of freedom in the same way that dictators have been uniting in support of authoritarianism.

    The Renew Democracy Initiative’s Frontlines of Freedom project is a call from those who have put their lives on the line for democracy to those living in the free world to join the fight. We must use the rights that those in unfree countries wish they had to combat disinformation, support democratic reforms and vote for those who believe in democracy.

    This also means demanding that our leaders stand firm against authoritarians. The Russia sanctions Congress is considering are a good start. The U.S. should also help its European allies meet their energy needs without giving Putin a Nord Stream 2-shaped knife that he can put to Europe’s throat.

    Most important, we should approach dictators in a way that allows us to engage when necessary but not confer any legitimacy they didn’t earn. The Biden administration, for instance, made the right choice by excluding Turkey and China from the Democracy Summit, and now it should make the same choice not to invite Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua to the Summit of the Americas, which the U.S. is hosting in June.

    This struggle is a time when morality and self-interest coincide. We must do the right thing not only because it is the right thing, but also because global freedom is at stake. The free world has every advantage, but to win, it must first decide to fight.

    Comment by elmer — February 6, 2022 @ 11:09 am

  17. @Simple Simon – where’s the payoff

    excellent, excellent question

    Putler is a sort of King Midas, except that everything he touches turns to excrement – look at Crimea, Moldova, Ossetia, Abkhazia, Kazakhsan – heck, look at Rasha

    the payoff is that Putler 1) gets to claim that he is beeg men on world stage, “saving” Mazer Rasha from —- something and 2) he gets to prop up his mafia-dom – again


    An Open Letter to the Russian Leadership
    Russian Congress of Intellectuals


    Comment by elmer — February 6, 2022 @ 11:15 am

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