Gazing into the Fog of War Surrounding Ukraine
The Russian regime’s invasion of Ukraine has shocked and horrified the world, in no small part because it is the first war of this scale in Europe since the end of the Second World War and also because it is the first large-scale war to be fought with contemporary and high-tech armaments. The situation is changing rapidly, but the amount of devastation, death, and suffering this war has inflicted is already immense and will only grow larger as the war continues.
It goes without saying that the people who make up the Russian regime are agents with free will who bear moral responsibility for instigating this unjust and evil war. However, we live in a fallen world, where people do many evil things. Morality requires that our actions comport not with how we wish the world were but with how it actually is. For years, realist thinkers such as John Mearsheimer have been sounding the alarm that Western efforts to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the borders of Russia will cause an immense amount of trouble.
Background to the War
In brief, in 2008, NATO announced that it welcomed Ukraine and Georgia eventually joining NATO. Vladimir Putin hit the roof and declared that Russia (in this article meaning the Russian regime) would find such a move unacceptable. However, the West did not really pay attention. As a result of this action, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 to secure two breakaway provinces (because NATO will not accept any members with territorial disputes). Later, in 2014, as a result of a pro-Western coup in Ukraine, Putin swiftly moved to take over Crimea (to secure the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet based at Sevastopol and prevent NATO naval vessels from securing a port so close to Russia) and supported two breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine, thus ensuring that Ukraine would also be mired in territorial disputes and be unable to join NATO.
The Western reaction to these events has largely been driven by moral condemnation and proclamations that as a sovereign state, Ukraine has the right to decide its future for itself. Unfortunately, when it comes to international relations, might makes right. In the words of Thucydides’s Melian Dialogue, “The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.” To acknowledge this fact about reality is not to condone it, but recognizing it to be true allows one to better prepare to reduce the amount of conflict and suffering that takes place. The failure to acknowledge this has contributed a great deal to the current crisis.
To understand more of the background to this conflict, it would be wise to consult John Mearsheimer’s 2014 essay “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault” and his related 2015 speech on the same subject. The key takeaway is that Russia considers the alignment of Ukraine to be an issue of extreme importance. In contrast, the Western states have very little to no national interest in Ukraine. Thus, Russia is willing to go to much more effort and pain to secure these goals than the West is. That is why no Western states have declared war on Russia and come to the military assistance of Ukraine. Russia has nuclear weapons, and the costs of war would far outweigh any potential benefits.
I must admit that until recently, I was not expecting Russia to undertake this drastic of a move; however, once the troop buildup began and diplomatic efforts seemed to make clear that Western states did not seem to even comprehend Russia’s security demands, let alone be willing to compromise to find a solution, I began to fear that war was more likely.
What Does This Invasion Mean?
It is still too early to know what Russia’s specific end goal is. It may be to annex large amounts of Ukrainian territory and turn the rest into a rump buffer state. It may be something less extreme than that. And circumstances on the ground will, of course, affect the outcome as well.
I cannot peer into Putin’s mind, but the realist understanding of the world lends an interpretive and predictive framework from which to try and understand what is going on. Firstly, I find the widespread claims that Putin is simply a crazy person to not be credible. While the claim is in the realm of possibility, usually it is a simplistic and convenient way to explain away any role that the West has had in bringing about this tragedy and to avoid doing the hard work of putting oneself in one’s adversaries’ shoes. I find it extremely unlikely that Putin had no idea of the immense costs that he and Russia as a whole would incur in undertaking this war; he likely believed the alternative would have been more costly.
It may be that Putin believed that the West was preparing to retake the breakaway regions by force or that Ukrainian military cooperation with the West heralded greater challenges down the road. Understand that this need not be true: Putin and the Russian regime may only have believed it to be true. There are also other potential contributing factors, such as Russian nationalism. The Russian nationalist writer Anatoly Karlin accurately predicted the invasion would be taking place, and this essay is a good intro to the Russian nationalist perspective and its implications for the conflict.
The exact causes and end goals are still unclear. However, I believe it is clear that Putin has crossed the Rubicon and that this has some very large implications for what we can expect to happen. Simply put, Putin must conquer or die, and he will likely not stop until victory (in some form) is achieved. The longer the war drags out, the more brutality and simple mass slaughter we can expect to see, and I suspect that Putin would rather turn Ukraine into a desolate and ravaged wasteland than see it aligned with the West.
This also means that the West must be very careful not to back Putin into a corner. In his declaration of war, he made a not-so-veiled threat to use nukes if the West interferes, and the move to put Russian nuclear forces on high alert is intended to back this up. Russia has both tactical (think for battlefield use) and strategic (think intercontinental missiles) nuclear weapons that could be brought into use if the Russian regime feels threatened enough. I think the current odds of that are very low, but higher than they were a month ago.
What Is Happening on the Ground?
The situation on the ground is shrouded in the fog of war and even the direct participants likely have no clue as to the true state of the situation. Be advised that both sides in this war are engaging in the widespread use of propaganda and that even people with no intent to misinform may have an incorrect understanding of the actual situation given how much chaos and confusion is currently reigning.
There is no doubt that Ukraine is winning the propaganda war. The Western public clearly sympathizes with Ukraine and is spreading the Ukrainian narrative with great gusto.
Unfortunately for Ukraine, it is my view that Russia is winning the actual war and doing so rather handily, and this is what will ultimately matter in the end. I believe that many Westerners are going to be shocked in the coming weeks when it turns out the invasion has not been crushed, as they have been led to believe is imminent, and Russia continues to make strategic gains. Wishful thinking about Ukraine’s chances is everywhere and sometimes verges on pure fantasy.
Steve Davies at the Institute for Economic Affairs summed this bizzarro situation up succinctly:
There is no question that there have been problems and screwups, but this is the norm in war. Russia has been especially plagued by logistic and supply troubles, in my understanding stemming in part from their advance units making such rapid progress. Ryan Baker has some useful historical insight into the snail’s pace of even the most successful offensive assaults.
However, while I strongly suspect that Russia will win the conventional phase of the war handily (though fully admit I could be wrong), I am less sure exactly what to expect after that. It has been widely anticipated that there would be widespread armed resistance by the Ukrainian populace, echoing America’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My initial expectations about the level of Ukrainian resistance, and those of others who correctly anticipated the invasion, such as Richard Hanania and Anatoly Karlin, have been wrong so far. But this does not necessarily mean that a grinding people’s war will be taking place.
The Ukrainian government has been excellent at making viral social media propaganda featuring attractive young Ukrainian women, nerdy programmers, and old grandmas wielding arms and making Molotov cocktails. The Ukrainian government has also handed out tens of thousands of rifles and opened the prisons. But the reality of the situation is that untrained masses of civilians with limited ammunition will not last long against concentrated Russian artillery and heavy armor. At the time of writing, Russia has begun heavy shelling, especially in the eastern city of Kharkiv, and the suffering of those who have been unable to flee will be catastrophic.
As a result of propaganda, Westerners have become hyped up at the idea of Ukraine turning into Russia’s Vietnam or Afghanistan. But if people stop and think about this for a moment, this is one of the worst possible outcomes for the people of Ukraine. Such a war would leave the country a smoldering wreck, displace millions and millions of people, and lead to brutal Russian repression. It is not clear what such destruction would achieve other than assuring a massive slaughter of Ukrainians and making Westerners feel good as they sit on the couch and contemplate Ukrainian heroics.
Is America at Risk?
It is my view that the risk of America getting dragged into this war is low but not negligible. There are those who openly call for the US to attack Russia, like NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engle, who tweeted that the West should attack the main Russian column advancing on Kyiv, while others use barely concealed euphemisms such as “no-fly zone,” which is code for “shoot down Russian planes and attack Russian air defenses within Russia.” Either of these risks a nuclear escalation.
Nuclear weapons usually have a sobering effect on even the most idiotic of people, so the fact that people, including former NATO commanders, are calling for this verges on the terrifying. Fortunately, the Biden administration has been uncharacteristically crystal clear that there is not even the possibility of a no-fly zone or troops entering Ukraine.
The greatest danger comes from the risk of accidents and misunderstandings. War is extremely chaotic, and the best-laid plans and precautions can quickly fall apart. Hopefully, sober heads will continue to prevail and limit risks as much as possible.
There is much more to discuss about this tragic situation, and things are evolving rapidly. While I am not sure how likely it is, we can hope and pray that the talks between Ukraine and Russia lead to a ceasefire as soon as possible.