Revisiting my pre-war look at the looming Russian invasion. Let’s see how it held up

Ukraine crisis Russia


No one can pretend to really know what is going on in Putin’s head. Some things are clear, like his desire to revive the Soviet empire and his aggrieved feelings over NATO expansion to its borders. This Washington Post map offers an interesting perspective, and explains Russia’s paranoia. NATO wraps around half of its massive landmass:

Ukraine crisis Russia
The NATO alliance borders Russia on two of its four sides.

Already feeling threatened, one of Russia’s key demands is that NATO promise to never allow Ukraine and Georgia join the alliance, leaving Russia with more of a buffer between it and the alliance. Meanwhile, Ukraine is so invested in NATO membership that it is literally written into Ukraine’s constitution. (Look at Finland and Sweden on the map and remember them, because we’ll come back to them.)

In a further bid to keep its neighboring states weak and distracted, Russia is encouraging civil war in breakaway regions in Ukraine and Georgia, as well as Moldova and Azerbaijan. Again, from The Washington Post:

Ukraine crisis Russia

Remember that NATO was created specifically to counter Russia and its influence in the region, so it’s a bit funny to think back to the 1990s when after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there was talk of Russia joining NATO! Indeed, President Mikkail Gorbachev even said in 1990, “You say that NATO is not directed against us, that it is simply a security structure that is adapting to new realities … therefore, we propose to join NATO.” Those days are long past.

These days, Putin is busy gaslighting Ukraine and the world, claiming that the United States promised to never expand the NATO alliance to its borders, and that Ukraine really doesn’t have a right to self-determination. In a 2021 essay explaining his position on Ukraine, Putin wrote that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” Very convenient, right? You are only free if you agree to be ruled by me. Writing in The Washington Post, Kathryn Davis, a professor of Russian and East European studies at Vanderbilt University, better summarized Putin’s overarching argument:

The vision of history outlined in the 2021 essay supports a path for Ukraine to remain independent, as long as it accepts becoming a partner with Russia — albeit a subservient one. Russia’s continued presence in Ukraine, in this way, can be justified not as an occupation but as liberation.

Just as with the facade of democracy in Russia, the natural question that arises is why bother with the illusion of “managed independence”? Because Russian imperial power has long depended on Ukrainian subservience. Ultimately, it is not desirable for Ukraine to become “Russian,” but instead to maintain its distinctiveness so that Ukraine can be a partner that has chosen Russia as a leader. In this role, Russia can present itself as the protector of Ukrainian culture, a culture that Russia insists is shared between them.

Ukraine wasn’t just a key economic and agricultural powerhouse during Soviet days, but also the birthplaces or childhood homes of three Soviet leaders: Konstantin Chernenko, Leonid Brezhnev, and Nikita Khrushchev. Leon Trotsky was Ukrainian. By land mass, Ukraine is second only to Russia in Europe. It’s freakin’ huge. Ukraine looking towards the West is a dagger in the heart of Russian pride, and Putin is lashing out in return. But how could Ukraine desire otherwise? Ranked by GDP growth rate, Russia’s biggest ally and client state, Belarus, is 47th of out 48 in Europe. Last place is Ukraine. (See? Fomenting civil wars keeps countries weak.) 46th? Russia. Meanwhile, former Russian client states are thriving—Romania is 10th, Poland 13th, Armenia 15th, Hungary 18th, Georgia 20th. Oligarchic Russia has never proven itself capable of responsible economic stewardship. Its client states do even worse.

Ukraine’s pro-Western resolve has even survived the best Russian mis- and disinformation tactics. Russians themselves are seemingly rolling their eyes at the anti-NATO and anti-Ukrainian hysteria. Ukraine is unified against the Russians. Seemingly, Russia’s biggest propaganda success has been co-opting Tucker Carlson. Fox News is always happy to be Russia’s lackey. We wonder if Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson will spend yet another Fourth of July in Moscow. He probably will.

[Reaction: Ron Johnson did not spend another Fourth of July in Moscow, and unfortunately is still around to bedevil us. Tucker Carlson, on the other hand, is Russian state propaganda’s favorite American.]

Meanwhile, any legitimate concerns Russia has toward NATO expansion could easily be remedied by treaty. A Ukraine in NATO would theoretically allow the alliance to position nuclear missiles just minutes from Moscow (thought it can already do that from the Baltic states if the alliance were so inclined). Furthermore, Russia fears that Ukraine would use NATO membership to try and recapture lost territory, like the breakaway Donbas region and the strategically important Crimea peninsula on the Black Sea, which Russia invaded and annexed in 2014. (See map above.) The thinking is that Russia would be unable to defend those regions without literally sparking a new world war. (Of course, why would Russia defend regions that belong to other countries? Hmmm …)

But this conflict isn’t about those issues—again, solvable through diplomacy. This is about wounded pride. And wounded pride cannot be negotiated away without complete acquiescence to Russia’s ridiculous demands. And if Russia actually wants to do something about it, it is in a race against time.

The 2014 version of Ukraine, which Russia easily steamrolled, barely had any military worth talking about. Things have dramatically changed in the eight years since. Ukraine’s armed forces have grown to around 250,000, and the country has one of the highest defense budgets as a percentage of its GDP. As Russian pressure has mounted, the nation has received an influx of modern weaponry like American-made anti-aircraft Stinger missiles and anti-tank Javelin missiles.

Small arms munitions have flooded in, replenishing bare cupboards. And most terrifying to Russia, Turkey has been equipping Ukraine with cheap drones that can dramatically and cheaply offset billions of dollars of Russian equipment (a problem that all military superpowers, including the United States, will face in the coming decades). In fact, Ukraine has already deployed at least one of these drones against separatist forces to great effect. And not only is Turkey delivering a steady stream of drones, but they’re setting up a factory in Ukraine proper to crank them out at even greater scale.

Russia is thus faced with a dilemma: Wait it out and Ukraine could build a modernized defense force that can inflict heavy casualties on any Russian invaders, if not outright repel them. And that’s before it even joins NATO.

Putin has invested a great deal into modernizing its own armed forces in the aftermath of a humiliating Chechnya campaign as he took power. Yet what was once a mighty force of over 3 million during the height of the Cold War is barely 1 million today. The 150,000 Russian troops camped out around Ukraine’s border (in Crimea on its eastern border, and on its northern border in Belarus) account for 60% of its total combat forces (which in any army is a small percentage of the overall force, which includes things like truck drivers, mechanics, finance clerks, chaplains, and cooks—in other words, support troops). War isn’t as simple as counting the number of troops. Russia would pummel Ukrainian ground forces with missiles and artillery before any ground invasion, degrading Ukraine’s military capabilities and softening defenses, but this isn’t a small separatist region with ragtag militia anymore. And the longer Russia waits, the better equipped the Ukrainians become.

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And a sobering look at the range of Russia’s Iskander missile brigades, which have the capacity to fire more than 400 missiles in an hour and reach 95 percent of Ukraine’s territory. pic.twitter.com/zAvWhy5GzB

— Amy Mackinnon (@ak_mack) February 14, 2022

[Update: Russia did pummel Ukraine with thousands of rockets and missiles the first few weeks of the war, but their number was far less than expected, and they were unable to deliver knockout blows to Ukraine’s air defenses, air force, or other key military infrastructure. While Ukraine did not heed American warnings of imminent invasion to set up defensive entrenchments on the Russian border, it did empty out barracks and hangars, saving its combat power to meet the Russian invasion.]

Meanwhile, Putin’s glory days of 2017-2021 are over, when his American puppet (or puppy dog, same thing) Donald Trump did his bidding while undermining NATO. That would’ve been the perfect time for Putin to press any advantage in Ukraine. Biden has instead worked tirelessly to shore up the alliance, and rather than split the usual squabbling NATO members, they’ve come together to reinforce its eastern flank. British forces are being deployed to Estonia, and the the country signed a bilateral security agreement with Poland and Ukraine. Both France and the U.S. are deploying troops to Romania. Spain and Denmark have deployed naval forces in the Black Sea under NATO command. The Dutch have sent warplanes to Bulgaria. NATO is planning four new additional battlegroups in southeastern Europe in Bulgaria, Romania, (possibly) Slovakia, and Hungary.

Get this: Turkish F-16s are joining NATO exercises hosted by Greece. What’s next, cats and dogs start getting along? (Probably not.) Rather than prevent another member of NATO on it borders, Putin seems to have emboldened NATO to increase its presence within Russia’s sphere of influence. NATO is discussing creating entirely new defense infrastructure and troop deployments in its eastern flank, where before there was very little.

[Update: NATO unity has been one of the underplayed stories of the war. Still, Turkish-Greek tensions are near all-time highs, so whatever goodwill might’ve been earned by taking place in joint military exercises is long gone. Luckily it hasn’t affected either country’s help for Ukraine.]

And you know how I told you to remember Finland and Sweden? Those countries remained studiously neutral during the Cold War. In fact, some have argued for the “Finlandization” of Ukraine—a neutral but independent state on Russia’s borders. Despite that history of neutrality, Russia’s aggressive moves against its neighbors have spooked both those Scandinavian countries into considering their own membership in NATO.

Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers met Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels on Monday, the latest in a series of diplomatic conversations that have included Finnish president Sauli Niinisto speaking to both his US and Russian counterparts in recent days.

“Nato’s door remains open … Sweden and Finland are our closest partners,” Stoltenberg said after the meeting.

Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s foreign minister, said: “Finland is not a member of Nato, but maintaining the national room to manoeuvre and freedom of choice are also integral parts of Finland’s foreign, security and defence policy.”

Indeed, just six European Union members aren’t in NATO: Finland, Sweden, Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, and Malta. And while no one seriously expects the two Nordic countries to join anytime soon, that block quote above is diplomatic speak for, “Hey Russia, don’t force us to have to do this!” And earlier this week, Swedish reconnaissance aircraft joined NATO intelligence flights in the region, peering into Belarus and Russia. Rather than protect its flanks from NATO encroachment, Putin’s belligerence might very well strengthen and expand the alliance, giving it new purpose just a couple of years after Trump questioned its very existence.

[Update: While I expected Finnish and Swedish moves toward NATO, I clearly didn’t expect any of it to move this quickly. All we’re waiting on is Turkish approval now, which may or may not be easy depending on some complicated diplomatic matters between those nations.]

Meanwhile, the French are actively working to build a separate European Army and is specifically citing the Russian threat as justification. The biggest stumbling block to that proposal has been Germany, which remains suspicious of overt militarization given its historical guilt over World War II. But Russia’s aggression could soften that opposition.

[Update: The French blew their historic opportunity to push along their European army project by being so wishy-washy on Russia. President Emmanuel Macron’s obsession with giving Russia some off-ramp with talks about giving Putin “security guarantees” has alienated Eastern European nations, while Germany remains a major stumbling block. Macron brought up the idea last week for the first time in months and the response was crickets. The moment clearly has passed.]

Russia doesn’t just face a resurgent military threat on its western flank, its economy is suddenly at risk. Remember, Russian GDP growth ranks 46th out of Europe’s 48 nations. Europe is heavily dependent on Russian fossil fuels. Its Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline into Germany is often cited as a strategic chip with which it can threaten Germany and the rest of Europe. But Russia’s belligerence and a new government that includes the Green Party in its coalition is pushing Germany to look at greener alternatives. Biden has explicitly told Russia that any Ukrainian invasion would end the $11 billion pipeline, which is finished and merely awaiting regulatory approval. Putin is clearly rattled: “This is one of Europe’s largest infrastructure projects, aimed at significantly strengthening energy security on the continent. I have said more than once that this project is purely commercial, and that there are no politics, nor any political tinge, here.” No one believes him. And even if they did, this is exactly the point: Military adventurism has economic consequences.

Europe gets 40% of its natural gas from Russia, which puts the continent at serious risk of its own economic disruption. Russia has levels to pull. (Interestingly, this was even true during the Cold War.) But on the flip side, Russia itself is heavily dependent on Europe for its primary economic driver—three-fourths of its fossil fuel exports go to Europe. Mongolia and Kazakhstan aren’t going to fill Russian coffers with treasure. In the short term, in a conflict, Europe would suffer along with Russia, a sort of economic mutually assured destruction. But in the long term, the continent will find alternate sources, including nonfossil fuel renewables. And really that’s probably going to now happen anyway, even if Nord Stream 2 opens.

[Update: Europe is managing nicely without Russian gas this winter, with new liquid natural gas terminals opening in Greece and Germany in record time and nuclear plants slated for closure in Germany extended indefinitely. There is a major new European push toward renewable energy that should pay dividends in just a handful of years. Meanwhile Russia’s economic team is actually competent and has done a masterful job of avoiding the worst consequences of Western sanctions. But their toolbox is running bare, the global price of fossil fuels has plummeted since earlier this year, and we’re finally starting to see cracks in the Russian economy.]

Then there’s Putin’s domestic situation, which has been precarious. What independent public polling exists in the country paints a picture of a restless populace unhappy with the country’s economic conditions.

Just four years ago, young Russians were some of the most loyal to the regime, but in 2018 the situation began to change. This reflects a broader shift in Russian public opinion at that time, as voters of all ages became disillusioned by falling real incomes, economic decline, and an unpopular move to raise the retirement age. Today, the young generation is more critical of the authorities than any other population segment.

Foreign investors, already leery of Russia’s corrupt government and economy, will be even less likely to set up shop in Russia. Existing investors are now incentivized to bail, and doubly so if there’s war. Putin can ill-afford expensive foreign adventurism, nor the body bags it would deliver back home.

[Update: All those restless Russians decided to leave the country rather than stay home and fight for change. It was a smart move by Putin—a pressure-release valve, so to speak. Those who remain live in a state of learned helplessness, unable to do something about their deteriorating situation and the steady stream of caskets returning from the front.]

For some time, observers had dismissed the Russian troop buildup. It was missing one key component: military field hospitals. That’s no longer the case as NATO has now shown the construction of such facilities. A pontoon bridge in Belarus near the Ukrainian border has gotten a ton of attention. An invasion from the north would place Russian forces just five hours from Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv. (Again, check out the map above for context.) U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said yesterday that Russia was stockpiling supplies of blood: “I was a soldier myself not that long ago, and I know firsthand that you don’t do these sorts of things for no reason. And you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home.”

Despite Putin’s claims that troops are withdrawing, the opposite is clearly in motion: It’s the establishment of support infrastructure for a looming invasion.

There is another deadline for any attack. Not the strategic problems I noted above—that any delay allows Ukraine to more effectively train and arm its armed forces, but a tactical one—heavy armor gets easily bogged down in spring mud, and even summer dirt can be hell on tracked vehicles (i.e., tanks). The ice-cold frozen grounds of a Ukrainian February are most ideal; that’s why its Crimea invasion was launched Feb. 20, 2014. If too much time passes, Putin loses a year or faces the prospect of even higher casualties.

So he faces a stark choice: Russia must invade now, or not at all. The problem is that both are fraught with more dangers than opportunities.

[Update: Hmmm, Russia didn’t invade Crimea until mid-February. We anxiously await the ground to freeze so that Ukraine can launch its winter offensive, but if history is any guide, we might need to wait a few months longer.]

Ukraine is ready to defend itself this time around. Not only are Ukraine’s armed forces better equipped and trained than in 2014, but Russia’s disastrous mishandling of the separatist region—now an economic basket case—has reportedly turned even Russian-speaking Ukrainians against Russia. It’s not as if Russia is interested in economically lifting any territory it holds, nor has it ever. Any ground Russia holds will face a low-grade partisan insurgency. The Ukrainian Army is specifically training to split itself into small resistance units in that eventuality.

[Update: Russian-occupied regions do face low-grade insurgencies. There was just never a need for the Ukrainian army to take care of that itself. It held its own conventionally.]

Meanwhile, Russia would be cut off from the global financial system while economic sanctions from the west would further batter its fragile economy. Russia would likely respond with crippling cyberattacks against western targets (like the shutting down of the East Coast oil pipeline last year), but Russia itself wouldn’t be immune from such attacks. Indeed, Belarus anti-government hackers shut down their nation’s rail system to disrupt Russian troop movement last month. Russia wouldn’t be immune.

[Update: Russia’s cyber capabilities turned out to be as ineffective as the rest of their armed forces.]

Putin’s other option is do nothing, withdraw, and then what? Look his people in the eye and say, “I tried but they didn’t bow to my demands”? Kremlinology isn’t my field, but Russian leaders who betray weakness historically don’t fare well. Meanwhile, a spooked yet energized NATO continues to upgrade Ukraine’s defenses while shoring up its eastern flank with new bases and permanent troop installations.

So is there an out? Biden has consistently offered Putin that very escape hatch—promising a new nuclear arms treaty to limit nuclear missiles within short reach of Moscow, limits on NATO troop deployments in the region, and advanced notice and full transparency of any military exercises. Putin has already rejected that olive branch as insufficient to alleviate its security concerns, but there may be a way to repackage them so they seem to be bigger concessions. Really, for NATO, it’s not giving up much. There’s no possible universe in which NATO countries invade Russia. There’s no need for massive (and expensive) troop deployments unless Russia forces its hand. But would that be enough for Putin to sell as a victory? So far, it doesn’t seem so, with Russia remaining ever belligerent over NATO proposals for security guarantees.

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This letter actually seems even more hardline than the already far-reaching demands Russia originally made in December.

Moscow hasn’t given any ground, but has made even more specific demands and threats while completely rejecting all US proposals unless those are met.

— max seddon (@maxseddon) February 17, 2022

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Full text here, in Russian. The general impression it gives is that if Russia is interested in a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis, then that’s only one where the US does everything it wants and Moscow doesn’t give an inchhttps://t.co/sf6S9MrAw2

— max seddon (@maxseddon) February 17, 2022

Oh boy.

[Update: Those tweets are a reminder that Russia lies about everything. “There is no Russian invasion of Ukraine, nor is one being planned.”]

Best case scenario, Putin’s declares a “win” by declaring Russia’s reascension into superpower status, one in which it must be taken into consideration when drawing up this new world’s security structures.

It is important to remember here that the likes of US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had earlier persuaded Biden to pivot to Asia and focus on the three Cs: Covid, Climate and China. Instead, this year it has been all about Russia. Putin has made clear that he is not just a footnote in US foreign policy but remains the first chapter and maybe an entire book to be written later this year.

At a time when the United States desperately wanted to refocus its post-”War on Terror” foreign and military policy countering an aggressive China, Russia and European security is back on the agenda, front and center. Regardless how this plays out, that’s already a loss for the United States and Europe.

Speaking yesterday, Biden remained convinced that Russia plans to invade:

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Biden told reporters this morning that “we have reason to believe that [Russia is] engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in [to Ukraine],” and that “my sense it will happen in the next several days.” pic.twitter.com/apAGA81SMY

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 17, 2022

All we can do now is wait and see if Putin gives himself an out or shoots himself in the foot to prove that his reckless Ukrainian moves weren’t a miscalculation.

[Update: All right, that held up incredibly well. I was expecting to poke fun at myself, but no—turns out the geopolitical factors played out mostly as expected. The biggest miss was misjudging Russia’s economic resilience and expecting its people to be more aggressively disenchanted. Instead they either fled or shrugged their shoulders at their misery.]





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