Streetwise Professor

February 24, 2022

The Missiles are Flying and the Tanks are Moving

Filed under: History,Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 12:35 pm

So he’s done gone and done it. I can’t say that I believed this was the likely outcome, for reasons set out in previous posts. But there was enough uncertainty about Putin’s preferences and beliefs that it was always a possibility. And that possibility has become a reality.

Putin has appeared particular unhinged in his two most recent speeches. A combination of paranoia, grandiosity, and megalomania. The most bizarre aspect of his remarks is his portrayal of Ukraine as some existential threat, and in particular some existential military threat to Russia. It is hard to choose which would be worse: he believes it, or he doesn’t. The former would imply a paranoid man completely out of touch with reality, the latter a complete cynic willing to camouflage his covetous, irredentist, and history changing ambitions with transparently false justifications. (Similarly it is a no win situation in a choice between he is really unhinged or he is just playing it on TV.)

The recriminations in the West (and in the US in particular) are already underway. To be honest, Putin’s action suggests that there would have been little that anyone could have done to deter him. For reasons I’ve discussed, the action should have been self-deterring.

The only thing that could (not necessarily would) have made a difference would have been a concession by the US and Nato not to incorporate Ukraine now or in the future. It was stupid even to have contemplated Ukraine membership in Nato, so such a concession would have actually benefitted Nato and the US. Further, it would have deprived Putin of his pretext, and his reaction would have revealed more about his true agenda.

That said, such a concession was a necessary condition for avoiding the invasion, not a sufficient one: if Putin’s ambitions were truly larger, he would have proceeded regardless. But an invasion after a concession would have provided far more precise information about Putin’s goals than we have now. We are still in the dark as to whether seizing Ukraine will achieve Putin’s objectives, or whether those objectives are more expansive.

As my previous post indicated, Putin’s pre-invasion demands strongly suggest that his objectives are indeed more ambitious, and involve nothing short of rolling back Nato to its pre-1997 state. If that is indeed the case, the capitulation of Kiev would represent only a beginning and not an end. And that is a very disturbing prospect as it increases the odds of a Russia-Nato conflict in the near future.

Operationally, things are proceeding exactly as one would expect. The main outstanding question is how much opposition Ukraine’s armed forces will be able to mount.

I am also curious about what fraction of the invading forces are conscripts, and where they are in the conscription cycle. Those could influence how the campaign will proceed.

Back to Putin’s mental state. Recently he has been reprising what I referred to as “a man in a hurry” more than a decade ago. His haste seemed to have been in abeyance in recent years. So why has it returned?

A couple of possibilities come to mind. The first is that he just saw this as an opportunity. A weak and divided west, with a feckless and obviously mentally and physically limited American president. Germany compromised by its energy dependence on Russia, and its general Daimler über alles attitude. (BTW, Angela Merkel is probably grateful she left office–but she must called out on this mercilessly.)

A second possibility is that he is seriously ill. There have been rumors to this effect circulating recently–but there almost always are regarding strongmen. (There are rumors about Erdoğan’s health too.) But this precipitous, not to say maniacal, rush to war is something that a man on a mission would do if he believes the window to accomplish it is closing.

More later, as more information becomes available, and on what the options are available to the US and Europe, and what impediments may foreclose those options. (Re the latter, think of a country that begins with “G” and ends with “Y”.)

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  1. NATO hasn’t been much more than the US for 40 years, with the exception of the UK until about 10 years ago.

    These days NATO is a hollow man because it doesn’t even have a functional US.

    Maybe that’s the window Putin sees hanging open.

    Comment by Pat Frank — February 24, 2022 @ 5:24 pm

  2. Will the Baltic states be his next target? Or Kazakhstan? Anyway we will now return to hysterical discussions of what an ogre J K Rowling is. The West is too decadent to do much else.

    Comment by dearieme — February 24, 2022 @ 5:40 pm

  3. Joe said Putin didn’t want him to be President because Joe could go toe-to-toe with Vladimir. More like Putin’s toes, Joe’s heels and Joe bent over to be Vlad’s bitch. They’ll putting “I did this” stickers all over Kiev

    Comment by The Pilot — February 24, 2022 @ 6:17 pm

  4. I’m mystified by the common assertion that Putin is acting “unhinged” or in an irrational manner, but agree with most else you write. Putin has been very consistent in his views on Ukraine and NATO. Yes, the announcement of “special military operations” had more than the usual melodrama and hyperbole, but that has to be understood in the context of playing to the domestic audience. And his language does not portray Ukraine ITSELF as an existential threat; the nuance is that the threat comes FROM Ukraine, i.e. he sees it as a platform for the USA/NATO to threaten Russia. That’s consistent with his beliefs, and there’s some merit to those given the encroachment of NATO since the 1990s and blatant US involvement in the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. You know there is a hard core of anti-Russia hawks in US policy circles who follow the Brzezinski line that separating Ukraine from Russia somehow suppresses Russia as a great power, without acknowledging that bringing Ukraine under the Western umbrella stokes Russian paranoia like nothing else. This hangover from the Cold War has not only created the crisis in Ukraine but driven Russia into the arms of the USA’s true adversary, China.

    Nothing I’ve seen from the guy suggests anything other than cold calculation, and the timing is perfect: Biden has proven himself to be grossly incompetent and spineless, and the combination of the Covid pandemic and bone-headed energy policy in the EU and USA has delivered Russia with enormous economic leverage over Europe that will fade eventually. If Putin ever wanted to forcibly finlandise Ukraine, now is the time.

    The West has absolutely bungled this situation. Granted, Putin’s demands of NATO were unrealistic, undoubtedly intentionally. However, as you say conceding on Ukraine – that is, agreeing to block Ukraine from NATO entry – would have addressed directly Putin’s principal casus belli and provided room for negotiation. Unfortunately, successive US administrations have held out false promises to Ukraine, totally ignoring the vocal objections of Russia, and can’t walk them back. I think Mearsheimer was right: the most realistic, best-case outcome for Ukraine was finlandisation as a neutral buffer state between Russia and Western Europe. That’s impossible now, with the most likely outcome IMO Ukraine explicitly subordinated to Russia, possibly with partition (e.g. Donbass, left-bank of the Dnieper and the Black Sea coast annexed by Russia) so that Russia’s strategic dominance over rump Ruthenia is permanently reinforced. There’s more than a dozen years of US/NATO bungling behind the catastrophe unfolding in Ukraine.

    Comment by Fyodor — February 24, 2022 @ 6:50 pm

  5. “such a concession was a necessary condition for avoiding the invasion, not a sufficient one”

    Nope, it’s a third category: unnecessary condition. Would have solved no problems either for Ukraine or for NATO, but would have been a shameful Chamberlain moment to further embolden Putin.

    It would have provided no information about Putin’s goals (those change depending on feedback), but would have provided information to Putin to set his next goals. Just like the (lack of) reaction to Georgia and Crimea provided information to set the current ones. As in “choose Shame, and then have War thrown in a little later”: some people understood it more than 80 years ago.

    Comment by Ivan — February 24, 2022 @ 10:26 pm

  6. I have to agree with Ivan: Putin would have just made up some other bullshit, like the NATO guarantee was being secretly undermined by Nazis and therefore was worthless… I mean, they’re not even trying to be plausible anymore.

    I’m very interested to hear the Prof’s views on what can be done. Not much, I suspect, but some mobile SAM systems and more Javelin rockets would be a very good start…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — February 25, 2022 @ 4:49 am

  7. Three thoughts:

    1. Will Biden cut Russia out of SWIFT? Can they afford to? Not doing so is a significant indicator as to what the US is really worried about.

    2. What will happen to Germany’s defence budget? No change likely indicates they really do not see Russia as a threat, and no amount of US jawboning will change their mind.

    3. With fertiliser prices already high, will the world dare boycott Russia’s potash exports? Same with its exports of platinum and palladium, and all of the energy products (also used to produce fertiliser).

    Revealed preference FTW!

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — February 25, 2022 @ 5:11 am

  8. Putin’s complaints about NATO wielding Ukraine as a weapon against Russia, and his claim that he must deny them the opportunity, could be called the Putin Doctrine – an equivalent to the Monroe Doctrine.

    There are lots of historical analogies between the two great land-based empires built in the 18th and 19th centuries. I suspect that the reason is that humans are humans.

    Comment by dearieme — February 25, 2022 @ 7:18 am

  9. @7 Ex-Global — Germany has a defense budget?

    Comment by Pat Frank — February 25, 2022 @ 9:25 am

  10. Touché Pat.

    But those regimental musicians won’t play Die Wacht am Rhein for nothing.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — February 25, 2022 @ 9:39 am

  11. Well it’s beyond doubt that Vlad was never interested in Ukraine’s neutrality, what with all this denazification crap. He wants his dominion back. Finlandization my ass (talking of which, I see ROC – that’s Russian Olympic Cheats – got Finlandized in the hockey gold medal match, no doubt the final straw).

    Also, it’s evident NATO has absolutely nothing to fear from Russia’s conventional forces, despite all their S400 Su57 blah blah bluster. WTF was that air assault all about yesterday?? You’ll recall I half-joked that Vlad wouldn’t hesitate to nuke somewhere if NATO air power got involved. Seems I was right..again.

    It’s heartening to see that the good Russian people are getting tired of his dead-hand bollocks. Tick tock…

    Comment by David Mercer — February 25, 2022 @ 10:56 am

  12. Professor, as your Russian reader I want to share my observations about people’s reaction to recent war. Among people, who I know, nobody is happy about this situation. Many people are terrified that this will end badly. There is very different reaction than to the Crimea’s annexation. In 2014 majority of Russians were happy and optimistic.

    Comment by mmt — February 25, 2022 @ 11:12 am

  13. @mmmt would love to read more about the Russian view if you can share

    Comment by [email protected] — February 25, 2022 @ 2:15 pm

  14. Russia had an embassy in Ukraine, so at least in principle they recognised Ukrainian independence.

    China has never had an embassy in Taiwan because the CCP does not recognise Taiwan as a state.

    So in terms of international law Vlad is a blood soaked tyrant illegally invading a sovereign nation, while Xi is just recovering what is rightfully Chinese sovereign territory.

    I do not doubt that Vlad and Xi are coordinating their moves. Let’s hope Ukraine proves a tough nut to crack and gives Xi some thinking to do before he invades Taiwan, which would be a much greater loss to the West.

    Comment by philip — February 25, 2022 @ 2:16 pm

  15. @[email protected] I didn’t have the long discussions with many people, but it seems to me that few people are happy about this situation. In 2014 Putin was able to take Crimea without bloody conflict. Now there will be many casualties on both sides and quality of life in Russia will decrease much stronger. Moreover, Putin’s popularity radically decreased even before this lunatic war because of unpopular pension reform.

    Comment by mmt — February 25, 2022 @ 3:35 pm

  16. “I do not doubt that Vlad and Xi are coordinating their moves.” US foreign policy for the last 30 years (perhaps excluding the Trump period) seems to have been to push Russia into China’s arms.

    Nixon’s great initiative was thereby reversed. To what end?

    Comment by dearieme — February 25, 2022 @ 5:09 pm

  17. Here is a primary source:

    Comment by Richard Whitney — February 25, 2022 @ 6:40 pm

  18. Any info on the purported US intelligence listening post established on the new Ukrainian naval base in Mariupol? (Word is that the base has now been destroyed.)

    If NSA/CIA did set up a post there, it’s easy to understand how enraged Putin might feel. Not a good idea to poke a bear in its privates.

    Comment by Simple Simon — February 27, 2022 @ 11:03 am

  19. Germany knows that the Vatican Army would take about twenty-four hours to steamroller them. Their defense strategy is Ima tell muh dad. But dad is oddly unwilling to protect his kids. A couple of aircraft carriers on station in the Eastern Med would have scuppered the invasion.

    Comment by Southerner — February 28, 2022 @ 4:16 am

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