I have been hesitant to write about the situation in Ukraine for the past week or so because of the conflicting news headlines and the lack of any apparent changes to the status quo over that time span.
Russia was said to be backing down, but then it turned out they were actually moving closer to the Ukrainian border. Ukraine’s President said Russian would invade on Wednesday (yesterday) but then bizarrely claimed he was just joking.
It’s a strange situation, with lots of smoke but no fire as of yet.
But while Americans were sleeping last night, apparently sporadic violence–characterized as “shelling”–broke out along the eastern border of Ukraine, which in my view is a fairly clear sign that things are about to pop off. The “shelling” is now over, but if Russia is looking for its opportunity to make its move, this could be it.
Zerohedge has the summary of the most recent developments:
—Reports overnight from both sides (Ukraine, Rebels) that shelling has begun, claiming ceasefire broken
—US envoy says evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving toward an “imminent invasion,” says “this is a crucial moment.”
—Russia expels US Deputy Ambassador Bartle Gorman from Moscow
—Russia says no invasion of Ukraine in plans
—Russia issues statement demanding all US troops leave Central and Eastern Europe
—Biden says probability of invasion is “very high”, says Russia “involved in false flag moves”
—Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov accused the West on Thursday of “information terrorism.”
—Blinken to speak at UN Security Council at 10amET
It certainly feels like things are on the brink right now.
I read a very thorough and informative article on the question of whether Russia will invade Ukraine and I wanted to share it here.
It’s entitled “Regathering of the Russian Lands” and it was written by a person named Anatoly Karlin, a self-described Russian repatriate. He seems to be very knowledgeable on the subject–far more than I am, obviously–but he ultimately makes the same point that I have been making on this site for a while now, which is that Putin seeks to reassemble the historic Russian Empire, which always included Ukraine. Putin views Ukraine as an inextricable part of Russia, and he’s correct in that view. Ukrainian independence was only granted in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union.
In late 1943, during World War 2, the New York Times noting the fall of Kiev to the Nazis in 1941 and commenting on the strategic importance of the city, described Kiev as the “holy mother” of all Russian cities, and the “oldest of Russian cities.” This is from the Times archive:
Russian, not Ukrainian. Ukraine has always been a part of Russia.
Thus, Putin views the past 30 years of Ukrainian independence as an aberration, a historical error that must be corrected.
Kiev is a massively important city in Russian history and culture, and I don’t think it’s possible for us in America to fully understand this. Which is why I think we ought to stay out of this matter.
I’m going to pull some quotes from Karlin’s article because I think it’s highly informative and worthwhile if you seek to understand what’s really going on right now–beyond the US government’s childish and inane “Putin = Hitler” narratives.
Karlin provides four core reasons why he believes Russia will invade and ultimately annex Ukraine, and they are as follows: the massive movement of Russian troops into a position to invade Ukraine, the fact that Putin has gone too far and no longer has the option of backing down, the fact that he may never have a better opportunity to retake Ukraine than right now, and finally the fact that such a move would be in line with the nationalist philosophy and ideology espoused by Putin.
We’ll start with point 1:
On the domestic front, the Russian government is reported to have held discussions with large corporations on their vulnerability to sanctions. Last year, the political field had been cleared up of any meaningful “anti-systemic” opposition, with Navalny imprisoned, and his organizations declared “extremist.”
One of the main counterarguments is that Russia has invested scant resources into war propaganda. The obvious rejoinder is that any casus belli – be it a false flag, or kindly [provided] by the Ukrainians themselves – will only appear towards the tail end of prewar preparations, and that a propaganda campaign preceding it would only serve to discredit it.
But it is troop movements that tell the story most clearly. Over the past couple of months, amateur footage has chronicled a stream of military hardware from all across Russia trundling towards military bases close to Ukraine, augmenting stockpiles already in place from the last war scare in spring 2021. Over the past two weeks, troops were reunited with their equipment and moved to staging areas near the Ukrainian border. This, along with attack helicopters being moved in, are often considered to be the final preparatory stages for large-scale military operations.
As of today, Russia has concentrated ~70% of its land and missile forces (105 out of 169 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs), with 14 more on the way even as the “exercises” wind down) and ~50% of its airpower in a ring of steel around Ukraine. In so doing, it has stripped its military presence in the Far Eastern MD to a level unseen even in the desperate last months of 1941. This includes support units such as mobile hospitals, military police, logistics personnel, and the National Guard. Garrisoning them in makeshift accommodations entails big costs and they can only stay there so long, separated from their training facilities, before morale and combat effectiveness begin to dissipate. Coupled with considerations about the onset of the mud season (rasputitsa), springtime foliage greening (easier camouflage for defending forces), and increasing inflows of Western weaponry, this creates huge, purely military incentives for getting it over with sooner rather than later.
In other words, Putin is all-in right now. He has funneled the bulk of his military might to the Ukrainian border, and logic would indicate that he is not doing this as part of a mere “exercise.”
The next point Karlin makes considers the “Game Theory” aspect:
Even as the military buildup proceeded apace, Russia forwarded demands to NATO to disavow further expansion (including Ukraine), and to withdraw foreign military forces from the ex-Warsaw Pact states. Regardless of one’s stance on NATO expansion, this is an objectively and patently impossible ultimatum, and the Kremlin clearly designed it to be so (even leaving aside the minor matter of their intended recipient being a country it has labeled as “agreement-incapable”).
However, by mere dint of having advanced these audacious demands – and gotten not only curtly rejected but pressed with counter-demands to withdraw from Crimea and the Donbass – Russia has effectively committed itself to military operations in Ukraine. Should it fail to follow up, it will be recognized as an unironic troll country, one that scores cheap “owns” against Western “war propaganda” but can be expected to do nothing but puff out its cheeks if/when its bluff is called. Western politicians will have cause to believe that any future Russian buildups will also be bluffs, and that increasing weapons supplies to Ukraine works. Atlantic Council activists who insist that Russians “only understand the language of strength” will be validated, with subsequent responses likely to include acceleration of NATO integration and more “preventative sanctions.”
It’s not merely a matter of Putin wanting to look tough. If he backs down now, then that will only encourage the US to continue funneling arms and aid to Ukraine and expanding the borders of NATO eastward. Putin would suffer a serious geopolitical defeat by backing down.
The next point is that this is Russia’s golden opportunity:
Although Russia still has a window of opportunity to reintegrate Ukraine, it is steadily closing over the years, as Ukraine phases out Russian language instruction in its schools and rebuilds its identity as an “Anti-Russia”. This year might well be Russia’s last good opportunity to do so after it missed 2014, when it opted for the dubious strategy (if only in retrospect) of “shoving back the Donbass” into Ukraine and using it as a hook to promote federalization and a pro-Russian course.
Perhaps the single most important change since 2014 is that “Chimerica”, the Chinese-American economic relationship, once the central pillar of the world economy, is now in rapid disintegration, in line with growing Chinese power and assertiveness as the West’s share of global GDP continues its unremitting decline. Consequently, in stark contrast to its studious neutrality back in 2014, China is now outspoken in its support for Russia’s security demands of NATO. For its part, Russia has unambiguously affirmed Taiwan as part of China and criticized the AUKUS alliance against China. (Of course, Ukraine itself did itself no favors when it blocked the sale of jet engine company Motor Sich to China under American pressure). Either way, Russia can be reasonably sure that China – the world’s second superpower, and far more technologically advanced and autonomous than eight years earlier – will have its back in the event of serious Western sanctions.
But sanctions are unlikely to really put the squeeze on Russia:
More broadly, the economic environment has perhaps never been more favorable for Russian irredentism. Russia has spent the past eight years insulating its economy from sanctions through import substitution and pursuing tight fiscal and monetary policies, which allowed it to build up a formidable war chest of $600 billion in foreign currency reserves. In any case, most of the sanctions that could be imposed on Russia cheaply have either already been implemented or are simply absurd (Russian vatniks will be very sad if Navalny-supporting hipsters were to lose access to the latest iPhone models… maybe not), or are downright impractical, like cutting off its oil exports or cutting it off from the Internet (a popular Reddit fantasy). Even SWIFT is ultimately just a financial messaging system, and its removal will just be an inconvenience. Ultimately, Russia has a 2x bigger population, much bigger GDP, and far more developed technological base than Iran, and as Iran mostly gets by, it’s unclear why Russia should be expected to do worse.
Furthermore, it’s not like Russia has no capacity to retaliate. European “green energy” boondoggles have resulted in spiking gas prices this winter, so their capacity to sanction Russia are limited (though, tellingly, Russia has parked LNG vessels in the Baltic Sea in the event that Kaliningrad is cut off). Now that the coronavirus era is ending, so too is the easy money that accompanied it, now that inflation is rearing its ugly head across the developed world. In tandem with record high stock capitalization/GDP ratios, the world seems primed for a sharp deleveraging event that will negatively impact living standards most everywhere. Would be nice for Putin to be able to ascribe that to Western sanctions (much like the post-Crimea sanctions diverted attention away from a recession made inevitable by the end of the 2000-2014 commodities supercycle).
In other words, a global recession is coming anyway, and it might actually be favorable for Putin if he’s able to blame the economic pain on Western sanctions.
Russia also enjoys overwhelming military superiority over Ukraine, meaning this will be a quick and easy war for Russia to win:
The Russian military is not a militia which will considerately engage the Ukrainians in infantry vs. infantry battles, as in the Donbass. Nor will it even be a war of tanks, infantry, and artillery as in World War II. This war will be defined by precision-guided Russian rocket and tube artillery, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and fighter jets pummeling any enemy concentrations that offer up resistance, breaking them and subsequently sweeping them up, in an environment in which Russia enjoys total air and electronic warfare (EW) supremacy. Any military force that is not either strongly ideological (e.g. the various Neo-Nazi battalions) or held together by draconian discipline (spoiler: Ukraine is not a totalitarian state with shtrafbaty and zagradotryady) will disintegrate within hours, if not minutes.
In other words, Ukraine will surrender rather quickly.
The translations of those two words, shtrafbaty and zagradotryady, if you were curious:
- Shtrafbaty: Refers to the penal battalions of prisoners and convicts within the Soviet military. These troops are often sent directly to the front lines and put in the most danger.
- Zagradotryady: Blocking detachments. These were the troops in the Red Army who were positioned behind the front-line units and instructed to shoot any soldiers who turned back or tried to flee. Stalin wanted to send a message to his troops that surrender and desertion were not options.
Now yes, conquering Ukraine would have been much easier back in 2014, when the Ukrainian Army had virtually ceased to exist as a coherent force for a few months. Conversely, it is much easier now than it likely will be in another eight years, in 2030. Due to nationalist pressure in domestic politics, any hypothetical Ukrainian regime will remain committed to recovering the Donbass, and the growth of its military potential will force Russia to commit more and more of its own military power to safeguard the Donbass over the next decade or two. This is not a pleasant situation in a world in which Russia’s own relative military capabilities are likely to decline vis-a-vis the two leading superpowers.
Strike while the iron’s hot. And it is hot:
It’s already clear that Ukrainians are smart enough to recognize that their prospects in a war with the “country-aggressor” are quite hopeless. Their oligarchs are fleeing in private planes. If the Ukrainians were serious about preparing for a Russian invasion, they would be dispersing their air defense assets, and moving their units to more defensible positions. None of this is happening.
It’s probably for the best. Why fight back when fighting back will just get you slaughtered? The Russian military is about to steamroll straight to Kiev, encountering little if any resistance in the process. This war, assuming it actually happens, is over before it even starts.
For the last point, Karlin gets into the motivation for the invasion of Ukraine–why is Putin doing this?
But what is the point it all? Is Putin going senile? Isn’t he worrying that his oligarchs will have their yachts and football clubs confiscated? (Spoiler: That’s feature, not bug).
As it happens, Putin laid it all out in detail in his seminal July 2021 article, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”
Here is my summary of it from The Nationalist Turn:
“The capstone to the Nationalist Turn was laid by Putin in his seminal July 2021 article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians“, in which [he] affirmed that the Ukrainians are a colorful and distinct, but nonetheless inseparable, part of the All-Russian nation, drew a straight line between Ukraine as a de facto colony of Germany following Russia’s exit from World War I and its relation to the West today, repeated his long-standing view that the Bolsheviks laid a time bomb by including the right of secession in the 1924 USSR Constitution, and noted the coercive nature of “Ukrainization” as an ideological project aimed against “so-called” Great Russian chauvinism, thus securing at the state level “three separate Slavic Peoples” – the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians – as opposed to the “large Russian nation, a triune people comprising Great Russians, Malorossiyans, and Belorussians.”
The article ends on an affirmation that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, inextricably bound to each other, and that opinion polls suggest that this is a point on which many millions of Ukrainians agree. He furthermore notes that the Ukrainians themselves do not benefit from allowing foreigners to make an “anti-Russia” out of the Ukraine, citing the economic failures of its post-Maidan years, and never have benefited from such experiments historically. He ends the article on a warning that Ukraine’s “path of forced assimilation” towards Russians within Ukraine is “comparable in its consequences to the use of WMDs against us.”
Incidentally, I strongly recommend you read Putin’s article in its entirety. It is as clear and unequivocal a manifesto of the “White Guardist” worldview that Putin seems to have developed over the past decade as anything else I ever saw, and as such, possibly the single most important article to understanding Putinism as it has developed into ethno-aware nationalism by the 2020s (having been previously defined by unideological technocracy and conservative retrenchment in the 2000s and 2010s, respectively).
Furthermore, note that Putin’s article was made required reading for Russian soldiers as part of political-military preparation. Wait, what was that about WMDs?
“There may be an argument: if you are talking about a single large nation, a triune nation, then what difference does it make who people consider themselves to be – Russians, Ukrainians, or Belarusians. I completely agree with this. Especially since the determination of nationality, particularly in mixed families, is the right of every individual, free to make his or her own choice.
But the fact is that the situation in Ukraine today is completely different because it involves a forced change of identity. And the most despicable thing is that the Russians in Ukraine are being forced not only to deny their roots, generations of their ancestors but also to believe that Russia is their enemy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the path of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us. As a result of such a harsh and artificial division of Russians and Ukrainians, the Russian people in all may decrease by hundreds of thousands or even millions.“
So the answer to your uncomprehending questions is simple and literally right there in the text. “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the path of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.” The pieces really are sliding into place. Laugh if you want, but at least these WMDs are more real than the Iraqi ones that G.W. Bush used as a pretext to attack Iraq, at any rate. Any responsible Commander-in-Chief would be dutybound to spare no effort to confront such an existential threat to his nation.
Putin feels Ukraine slipping away–its leaders, installed by the West, are attempting to instill an anti-Russian culture in the country and eventually sever its link from Russia altogether.
Putin cannot and will not allow this to happen–Russians and Ukrainians are one people, one and the same. And they must be reunited–and freed from the yoke of Western influence and subversion.
This brings us to something more in the realm of speculation as opposed to something that Putin definitely thinks. But here goes. The value of Ukraine is not in its territory, nor less its sovok rustbelt industries, nor even less its position on the invasion route to Moscow (spoiler: We live in the ICBM age). Ukraine’s value is, forgive the triteness, in its people, or its human capital – namely, 35 million 95+ IQ people who are very close to and compatible with Russians, who are indeed an intrinsic part of the All-Russian nation. Now if Russia was prepared to expend a rather high cost in welfare funds and knock-on effects on integrating 1.5 million genuinely quite “alien” Chechens, then paying a drastically more modest price (per capita) for 35 million of its own kith and kin is eminently rational. Although Russia’s 145 million people can still generate sufficient economies of scale to maintain political sovereignty and to run a largely self-contained technological civilization, complete with its own IT ecosystem (read: sovereign memetic space, “socially distanced” from the Woke nihilism of the West), space program, and technological visions. But creating and then sustaining such a world-civilization will certainly be considerably easier in a restored “Russian World” that unites Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians under one banner in a Slavic superpower of 200 million people stretching from Brest to Vladivostok.
This is why I say America, no matter how hard its foreign policy elite tries, is ultimately powerless to stop this process. This is about reuniting a fractured empire. This is about taking the next step in the process of picking up the pieces and rebuilding in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union–and also healing the deep wounds suffered in the nearly 75 years spent under the iron fist of Soviet Communism.
This is about so much more than just a land-grab and sticking a thumb in the eye of NATO.
I understand the US foreign policy “elite” want to keep all potential rivals and threats at arm’s length and firmly inferior to America in terms of power and influence, but we are so far outmatched here in terms of motivation and national interest.
Russia is driven by its desire to reclaim its ancestral motherland.
America’s decisionmakers are driven by… what, exactly? An outdated and frankly irrational desire to constantly antagonize and demonize “THE GODDAMN RUSSIANS”?
This is not our fight at all. We–the American people–have no dog in this fight. Our lives are no different if Ukraine is part of Russia or independent.
The only thing that can affect our actual wellbeing–yours and mine, I mean–is a needless war with a nuclear-armed superpower caused by our evil and stupid ruling class’ insatiable hunger for permanent, unchecked global hegemony.
Final thoughts from Karlin:
It is pretty amusing to observe Western commenters who have been ranting and railing for years about dezinformatsiya and maskirovka suddenly go into denier mode. I mean, I don’t exclude that this is a bluff 100%, and would have to eat a big L if it is. But the L the Kremlin would have to eat would be incomparably bigger; imagine torpedoing your international credibility and your markets just to “humiliate” and “destroy” “Western war propaganda”. But I think the likelier explanation is that many observers, possibly including Zelensky’s entourage, are in “shock and disbelief.” As one acquaintance put it, “seeing how people are still dismissing this as a bluff makes one understand Stalin in June 1941 more.” Saddam in 2003 would be a similar story.
His reference to Stalin in 1941 is the story about how Stalin was in a state of utter disbelief when, during World War II, Hitler turned on him and launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive attack on the Soviet Union.
The Nazi Wehrmacht absolutely blitzed the Red Army, scoring victory after victory until finally overruning Minsk (capital of present-day Belarus) on June 28, 1941. After Minsk fell, the Nazis had an open road straight to Moscow, some 400 or so miles to the East.
Stalin was despondent. Absolutely lost it, legend says. He fell into a state of deep depression and disorientation. He stole away to his dacha on the outskirts of Moscow and shut off all contact with the Politburo.
For a week, the Soviet Union was leaderless. Stalin was simply gone, suffering an apparent nervous breakdown. He was convinced that he had lost the Russian motherland–and the whole worldwide communist movement that the Soviet Union was at the vanguard of. Moscow would be conquered for the first time since Napoleon in 1812.
And it happened on his watch, because he had been fooled and outfoxed by Hitler. You can understand why he would be despondent.
Eventually, Stalin came to his senses after being visited personally by members of the Politburo, who were concerned about his wellbeing. He returned to the Kremlin and rallied the Red Army to turn back the Nazis with a massive counteroffensive at the Battle of Moscow. The rest is obviously history.
At least that’s how the story goes. There are other theories that Stalin didn’t suffer a nervous breakdown, but in fact was playing mind games with his top officials to see which ones would remain loyal to him.
Whatever the real story is, the point is that Hitler’s betrayal of the Molotov-Ribentropp Pact and subsequent invasion of the Soviet Union took Stalin completely by surprise. He never saw it coming, just as Ukraine’s leadership apparently refuses face the music today.
Karlin’s final predictions for how things will play out:
Russia’s goals seem to be maximalist. It is possible we see the occupation of most or all of Ukraine, and the subsequent annexation of probably most or all of historical Novorossiya, forming a corridor to Transnistria; possibly Kiev and the central regions up to the Soviet borders before World War II; but perhaps not Volhynia, and probably not Galicia. It will almost certainly not involve limiting the intervention to the Donbass, because a frontal and inevitably bloody assault on the main concentration of Ukrainian military power makes no sense; instead, it will likely consist of a multi-pronged assault from Belarus to Kiev, from Belgorod to Kharkov, from Crimea to Mariupol and Dnepropetrovsk, and perhaps an amphibious assault on Odessa.
The duration of the conflict will depend on the extent to which Ukrainian soldiers are prepared to fight. In conventional models, it will take several weeks, with a few thousand Russian casualties and several 10,000’s of Ukrainian casualties. However, given those very disparities – inevitable given Russia’s vast preponderance in materiel, mobility, and technology – I suspect there’s a very good chance that the collapse might happen much quicker. By moving its Embassy to Lvov [Lviv], the US has already implicitly acknowledged that Russia will win, so the correct game theory move for Ukrainian soldiers is to follow their own oligarchs into defection and accept the 2-3x salary increase from joining the Russian Army. In this scenario, which is both my hope and intuition, Russian and Ukrainian military casualties will be limited to the hundreds and thousands, respectively.
Let’s hope it’s over quickly and with minimal casualties.
Russia hopes for that, too. After all, if Russia believes Ukrainians and Russians are one and the same, and that Kiev the mother of all Russian cities, this will certainly not be a terror campaign featuring pillaging, wanton slaughter of the men, and rape of the women.
Russia hopes this will be as bloodless as possible.
But they do mean business here.
To me, the most convincing argument that Putin really will go through with this is that he will suffer real, genuine consequences if he does not. NATO will ramp up its arms sales to Ukraine, and, sensing Russian weakness, renew the NATO alliance’s push Eastward.
It also feels like now or never. Karlin didn’t mention the Biden aspect to the whole situation, but Putin clearly knows that Biden is weak and decrepit and does not have anywhere near the level of public support needed to respond militarily here. Notice how Putin took Crimea in 2014, when Obama and Biden were in power, then did nothing while Trump was in office, and now with Biden in office, Putin is looking to finish the job he started in 2014.
Putin knows Biden will in all likelihood be gone in 2024.
This is it. This is his golden opportunity to retake Ukraine and bring it back into the Russian fold.
I don’t think he’ll let this opportunity go to waste.