After the Donbas Offensive: the Oldie-but-Goodie Putin Playbook of Bogus, Russia-Dependent, Breakaway Statelets

Ukraine ChernihivPutin can’t conquer Ukraine, but taking Donbas, creating another ‘frozen conflict,’ and ending the war before it all gets so much worse for Russia is a pretty good option.

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for 1945.com.

There was some chatter that Putin would try to end the war by V-E Day (May 9). That would be smart. The war is a disaster for Putin. His military has been revealed as much weaker than expected. China will never see Russia as a equal now. The sanctions are going to reduce Russia’s economy by 10% this year. Oligarchs are losing their assets, and the Russian people will sour on this if it turns into a long grind like Afghanistan in the 80s.

So why not go back Putin’s long-established playbook of ginning up frozen conflicts? Putin got quite good at stirring up local conflicts on Russia’s periphery, getting Russia invited in as peacekeepers, getting local stooges to depend autonomy, and then having the whole mess freeze in place so that Russia could project power into an area and inhibit consolidation of western-leaning states on his border.

It seemed like that was originally the plan with recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk, but then Putin – probably drinking his own kool-aid about Ukraine being a ‘fake country’ – decided to show what a tough guy he was with an invasion he clearly didn’t really prepare for. Now, if the Donbas offensive doesn’t generate a real breakthrough, Putin is stuck either with a war of attrition or establishing a ‘frozen conflict’ in Donbas in order to get out of the war before the costs in material, sanctions, and prestige get any worse. That’s the best way out for him now.

Here is that essay from 1945:

Putin’s Likely Ukraine Goal Now is Breakaway and Pseudo-Republics in Eastern Ukraine – The Battle of Kyiv is over, and Russia has suffered a surprising and significant defeat. A middle power has inflicted a stinging loss on an ostensible great power. Russia’s status as a world power is obviously in question now. Despite its size and weight, it cannot reduce a significantly smaller neighbor.

Russian President Vladimir Putin must now – if only to impress his Chinese backers and justify the war to his own people – win some kind of battlefield victory elsewhere in Ukraine.

It increasingly looks like the Russian effort will be a tank surge in the Donbas. Rumor suggests that Putin is looking to end the war quickly, ideally by May 9, which is VE (Victory in Europe) Day, the day the Nazis finally surrender to the Soviet Union.

This would be a wise choice. Putin pretty clearly cannot take over all of Ukraine at this point. And the sanctions will soon bite deeply into the Russian economy. This war is breaking Russian power and pushing its economy into a major contraction. Putin himself will become persona non grata, unable to travel or access his overseas assets.

Read the rest here.

Mearsheimer, NATO Expansion, and the Ukraine War – M Predicts Russia’s Desire to Dominate Ukraine, but also NATO Expanding to Fill a Vacuum

UkraineEveryone seems to have a take on Mearsheimer and Ukraine, so here’s mine: Mearsheimer’s offensive realism predicts Russian’s desire to dominate its borderlands, but ALSO a NATO effort thwart that via expansion. So its awkward that he blames NATO, because playing international politics toughly is what his offensive realist theory would predict NATO to do.

This is a re-post of an article I wrote a few days ago at 1945.com. I should say to start that I find damning Mearsheimer as some kind of Russian operative or stooge is wrong. He’s been predicting this for years, and he’s an academic with a reputation for integrity. He’s a far cry from embarrassing, pro-Putin hacks like Tulsi Gabbard or Glenn Greenwald.

Still, I think Mearsheimer gets Ukraine wrong, because he only looks at it from Russia’s perspective. His theoretical priors – offensive realism – do predict that Russia will try to control its borderlands. But offensive realism ALSO predicts that

1. those borderlands will try to escape Russian domination (which Ukraine is doing now and Eastern Europe did by joining NATO)

2. Russian competitors will try to help those borderlands escape (which NATO did by accepting Eastern European states)

3. Germany/EU/NATO, for which Eastern Europe is also a borderland, will also try to dominate it (which has indeed been the case historically – Germany and Russia have contested to dominate EE)

4. states with a window of opportunity for gain against an opponent (Russia’s post-Cold War weakness) will take it (which NATO and Eastern Europe did by consolidating expansion when Russian was weak)

In other words, Mearsheimer’s own theory does not predict Russian domination of Eastern Europe as a stable equilibrium but instead predicts a dynamic contest between Russia, the states it seeks to dominate (Ukraine included), and Germany/EU/NATO for whom Eastern Europe is also a borderland.

Here’s that essay on 1945.com:

The debate over the causes of the Ukraine War is intense. In the West, there has been much contention over whether the expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union provoked the invasion. The most famous proponent of that claim has been John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago professor of international relations. Mearsheimer’s core argument is made here and here, and he has recently re-stated it here and here. Others have made this argument as well (here, here, here). The Russian government has even deployed Mearsheimer’s talks to defend its war.

Please read the rest here.

Should We Support a Ukrainian Insurgency if Russia Wins the War?

UkraineThis is a re-post of a column I wrote a few days ago for 1945.com. I think almost everybody’s working assumption is that, yes, we should support an insurgency – assuming the Ukrainians lose the battlefield conflict which still seems likely

The reasons seem pretty obvious: Russia is clearly the aggressor. The Ukrainians are putting up a tough fight. It’s hard not to sympathize with their plight and want to help them as much as possible. A non-fly zone would be super risky, so support for their war effort, including after a battlefield defeat is a good choice.

All that is persuasive to me too, but I would add a few points:

1. The Ukrainians need to make the choice to launch an insurgency themselves. It will be brutal and likely long. We should not egg them on. They need to decide on their own.

2. The Ukrainians can’t use across-the-border safe-havens in NATO territory. A common tactic in insurgencies is to slip into a neighboring country to re-group and avoid the counter-insurgent. The VC/NVA did this in Vietnam, as did the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. But in Ukraine, we can’t have Russian forces chasing Ukrainian rebels on NATO territory. The escalation threat is too great.

3. What if the Russian COIN is extremely vicious and the Ukrainians can’t win? There is a humanitarian argument for surrender if a) you can’t win, and b) the other side is massacring your people in response. I don’t know just how harsh the Russians will be as counter-insurgents, but their tactics in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Syria, and now in Ukraine suggest a future COIN in Ukraine would be harsh.

Here’s that 1945 essay:

Ukrainian resistance is inspiring. Almost overnight, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has become a global celebrity. Stories of Ukrainian grandmothers standing up to the Russians are all over social media (however exaggerated). Ukraine’s chances of winning the war – or more accurately, fighting the Russians to a standstill – are improving with every day it is not defeated. Time is on Ukraine’s side, particularly given Russia’s growing logistical problems.

Can Ukraine Hang On Another Month?

If Ukraine can hang on for another month, Russia is in serious trouble. By then, the NATO operation to send weapons, ammunition, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine will be running at full speed. Also at that point, the sanctions on Russia will be sinking deep into the crevices of its economy. Most industries and firms will have spare parts and reserves for a few weeks. So for the rest of March, Russians might still be able to have their foreign car repaired, or find a replacement battery for their foreign cell phone. By April that will be unlikely, and small failures throughout Russia’s economy will be cascading into a major crisis.

Read the rest here.

Reflexively Applying the 1938 Munich Analogy to Ukraine – and Every Other Conflict – Just Shows You Need to Read More History and Watch Less TV

MunichThis is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for 1945.com.

I find it intellectually exhausting how often we use WWII analogies to analyze military conflicts. Particularly Americans seem to be obsessed with re-playing 1938 and the Munich conference again and again, with a foreign opponent – communists, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, Putin – as Hitler and a ‘weak’ US president as Neville Chamberlain.

I have long suspected that the commonplace use of Munich is because:

a) Everybody knows some basic history of WWII, if only from the movies

b) Linking anything to the Nazis automatically raises the stakes and demands attention for your argument

c) the Munich Analogy abets laziness by Americanizing foreign conflicts. The entire discussion devolves into  a debate about whether the US president is weak/Chamberlain or strong/Churchill. So you don’t need to learn anything about the conflict, and all these reporters with no training in strategic studies can still talk about these conflicts like they know what they’re talking about.

But there are lots of conflicts out there which might serve as better models of the current Ukraine war, such as Soviet-Finnish War or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. So before you start in with the worn-out Hitler Channel WWII analogies, go read more.

Here’s the 1945.com essay:

The world is rallying around Ukraine in the war. Indeed, it is remarkable just how much the Ukrainian side has dominated the battle for global public opinion. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, seemingly trapped in an autocrat’s information bubble, appears to realize that now. Because the war is so overtly aggressivetanks rolling across borders in Europe – the media’s analogies to Adolf Hitler’s aggressive war in Europe were probably inevitable.

Please read the rest here.

Ukraine: We Won’t Put Up a No-Fly Zone, but We do have Other Options: Sanctions, Weapons/Ammo Assistance, Humanitarian Aid, even Foreign Volunteers

Russia T-80 TanksSorry for not posting for awhile. I have commented heavily on the war on Twitter. Please follow me there. I have also been writing a lot of columns on the war for 1945.com this week. Go here.

This post is a re-up of something I wrote for 1945 this week. Basically I argue that we should stop focusing on whether or not to establish a non-fly zone (NFZ). We are not going to do that. It is way to dangerous. I know the Ukrainians want an NFZ, and we want to help them, but risks of spiraling, kinetic exchanges between NATO and Russia are just too great.

Enforcing an NFZ would require NATO to shoot down Russian planes and helicopters, or at minimum target air defense on the ground. Russian operators would die. NATO pilots would too as the Russians shot back. Pressure would rise on both sides to respond elsewhere and with greater force. That escalation risk is scary. Both are nuclear-armed with large militaries. That constrains us.

Perhaps if the behavior of Russian forces in Ukraine really becomes terrible and extreme, we will reconsider. But that strikes me as a unlikely at the moment. Putin is a gangster, but he’s not Hitler. He also has a strategic interest in not levelling Ukraine and igniting an insurgency in response to occupier brutality.

I would also point out that NATO publics do not want to risk a war with Russia even if you do.

But we can, and are, sending lots of weapons, ammunition, and humanitarian aid, effectively funding and equipping the Ukrainian war effort as the Ukrainians themselves fight it. Sanctions will push up the price of the war for Russia. Even foreign volunteers are now going there.

Here’s that 1945 essay:

Ukraine’s resistance to Russia is genuinely heroic. People around the world have been moved by the inspiring imagery on social media. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has become a global celebrity overnight. In this passionate moment, there have been widespread calls for the West to do more.

This is tempting of course. The NATO alliance sits right across the border. Ukraine borders three NATO members. That enormous convoy of Russian armored vehicles north of Kyiv is an attractive target, and Ukraine does not appear to have enough assets to strike it. Zelensky has asked for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Strategically, this makes sense for the Ukrainians. Russian airpower substantially outguns the Ukrainian side. The incompetence displayed on the Russian side this week will likely slowly give way. The sheer weight of Russian power will likely be brought to bear in the coming month. Ukraine will still probably lose the conflict – even if the likelihood of that is lower than we thought last week.

Read the rest here.

Why Hasn’t the ‘Imminent’ Russian Invasion of Ukraine Happened? Likely bc Putin – and the Russian Military especially – Fear a Quagmire, Worsened by Decades of Putin’s Own Misrule

UkraineThis is a re-post of an essay I recently wrote for 1945.com. Putin still hasn’t pulled the trigger on a Ukraine invasion, almost two months into this ‘imminent’ crisis. That increasingly prompts the question, why? What’s the delay?

The answer, I bet, is that Russia just can’t afford a quagmire war like it (barely) could in the 1980s in Afghanistan, in great part because of how badly Putin himself has misgoverned the country. To stay in power, he has run down Russian power, turning the country into a hugely corrupt, stagnant petro-dictatorship.

A country like that just can’t handle the stresses or costs of a ‘forever war.’ Stupid, unwinnable wars are expensive and generate lots of domestic stress. The US struggled to contain the dislocations generated by the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan Wars. The USSR’s disastrous counter-insurgency in Afghanistan in the 1980s helped brought the country down. Putin – with far less national power at his disposal, ironically because of his own catastrophic misrule of Russia – now faces a war which could shake his regime at home if it turns into a quagmire.

To be sure, it still seems like Putin will invade. If I had to guess, he will. Staging all those force in the cold is costing him a fortune. If he backs down know, he’ll think he looks like a wimp. And Putin loves macho posturing, so he’ll probably just invade to prove what a tough guy he is after getting trolled so much by the Biden administration.

But since he is still shilly-shallying, I’d say he is starting to realize that an invasion would a huge disaster for Russia. It does have the size and weight anymore for even a limited operation like this. That’s Gangster Putin’s own fault and a delicious irony we should all enjoy.

Here’s that 1945.com essay:

A Russian invasion of Ukraine has appeared imminent for almost two months now. Yet it has not happened, and the window for it is closing. When the spring rains hit in the next month or so, maneuver warfare on the Eurasian plain will be substantially harder. Armored and tracked vehicles will struggle in the mud. Also, maintaining a large force in staging locations at high readiness is expensive, especially in the cold. Russian troops must be fed and housed in the field in temporary facilities at cost. In short, if Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to invade Ukraine, it must be soon. And yet he has not.

Read the rest here.

If the EU Steps Up (which it won’t), then Ukraine Need Not Undermine the US Pivot to Asia

ChinaThis is a re-post of an essay I wrote for 1945.com a few days ago. My argument is an expansion of what I complained about a few days ago: Europe, not the US, should be leading on Ukraine.

Yes, the US can do it, but that Europe can’t take care of security issues of medium-range right on its own doorstep is just embarrassing. It raises the obvious opportunity cost that deeper US involvement in Europe undercuts the pivot.

I am little skeptical of this overrating this fear, as I say in the essay, because the US spends so much on national security – the Defense Department budget, plus all the other defense spending we don’t run through DoD in order to make its budget look smaller than it actually is. That aggregate number is around 1 trillion USD, which should be enough to confront both Russia and China (especially given Russian weakness), except for open war with both simultaneously.

So we shouldn’t get carried away that Ukraine will stop the American re-balance against China. Biden is pretty clearly avoiding a major commitment to Ukraine to prevent this outcome.

But still, it is long overdue for the Europeans to get organized on common defense, especially when they complain about the US ignoring their opinions on issues like Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s what happens when you don’t spend on defense and implicitly expect the Americans to do the heavy lifting.

In fact, the an ideal world would be an integrated European Union defense identity which acted as a second liberal superpower, confronting Russia and Islamic radicalism in its region, while the US confronted China. What a huge advancement of liberal and democratic values that would be! But that’s decades away if ever…

Anyway, here is that 1945 essay:

As the Ukraine crisis heats up, its impact on the US effort to re-balance to Asia, specifically against China, has arisen. The consensus is that, for the most part, a renewed US focus on European security will pull US resources and policy-maker attention away from Asia and back toward Europe. In a similar manner, the US has hitherto struggled to focus on East Asia, as China took off in the last two decades, because of the war on terror. Yet China is of far greater import to the US in the coming decades than either Eastern Europe or the greater Middle East. On that, there is near consensus in the foreign policy community now.

The rest is available here.

Yes, Ukraine is a Crisis, but Mostly Limited to Eastern Europe and EU Ineffectiveness; Don’t Read it onto East Asia

UkraineThis is a re-up of a column I wrote for 1945.com recently. I find the hyperbole in Western media on Ukraine exhausting. As with the Afghanistan withdrawal commentary last August, the usual suspects of blob neocons and hyperventilating journalists are going bananas that nothing less than world order is on the line in Ukraine! Did you know we even have to fight a war with Russia? Did you know that war has been ‘imminent’ for, um, the last six weeks? *sigh*

All this is wrong, just like it was wrong last summer when the ‘it’s always the 1930s!’ crowd engaged in the same histrionics over Biden’s Afghan withdrawal. Here are two Twitter threads by me – on Ukraine and Afghanistan – about the neocon-blob-industrial complex’ impulse to read every challenge to the US everywhere in the most apocalyptic terms possible.

So yes, Ukraine is a crisis, but a limited one. It’s not going to bring down NATO or the EU or democracy and so on. And no, it’s not going to encourage China to attack Taiwan. Deterrence doesn’t work that way. It’s far more nuanced and local than whether or not a US president is seen as ‘strong’ or ‘weak,’ which is such a flexible, subjective criterion anyway, that it is analytically pretty useless. Not everything is about the US president’s reputation for toughness, and that US analysts so often come back to this point just shows you their parochialism: they don’t know much about the rest of the world so they read everything through the US politics lens they know. Bleh.

The real geopolitical take-away from the Ukraine mess is – besides the obvious looming  catastrophe for Ukraine and, somewhat also, for Russia – is the pathetic impotence of the Europeans on their own security even on their doorstep. Good grief. Anytime the Europeans want to step up and take responsibility for their own affairs would be great. Paul Poast and I have a piece coming in Foreign Affairs about US allies’ free-riding, and Ukraine is illustrating our argument every day.

Anyway, here is that 1945 essay:

Ukraine is a serious, but limited, crisis. For the Ukrainians living near Russia’s potential invasion points, the possibility of serious violence looms. And for Ukraine’s fledgling, unsteady democracy, such an invasion would be a disaster. Even Russia grey zone warfare – a mixed attempt at subversion and bullying without opening invading the country – would be terrible. It would set Ukrainian democracy back a decade or more, corrupt the government, and likely split the country. Russia clearly has the ability to enforce its will on Ukraine in the short-term, and there is little the West can do about it barring the risk of major escalation.

Read the rest here.

My Op-Ed for the Busan Ilbo on the Paris Attacks: Korea should Not Overreact like the West did

This is a re-print, in English, of an editorial I wrote last month in the Busan Daily newspaper. Here is that Korean version.

BI contacted me, because I teach a course on terrorism at Pusan National University. As far as I can tell, it is one of the only such courses in Korea. So when the global reaction to Paris arrived in Korea, they asked me for a few thoughts. The most important point is: Don’t go bananas.

After the Paris attack, the Korean government is talking seriously about passing counter-terrorism (CT) laws and developing a domestic CT capability. This is wise, but there is a lot for Korea to learn from all the mistakes the West has made in the GWOT. By now it is pretty widely accepted that the US wildly over-reacted to the 9/11. The Iraq war especially helped create a helluva lot more terrorists than we were facing before, and ISIS would not exist without the invasion. Remember:

1. Modern democratic societies are pretty safe.

2. Some domestic crime and violence is part of the cost we pay for freedom and our open societies.

3. Flipping out about Muslims in our countries does no good; they’ll just turtle, rather than helping the security services.

So the big post-9/11 lesson from the West for Korea on jihadist terrorism: Keep it all in perspective. You are far more likely to be killed by lightning or your HDTV falling off the wall than a jihadi.

The full essay follows the jump:

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The Contemporary China–Wilhelmine Germany Analogy, part 2: Differences

imagesHere is part one.

This is the second half of my series on the analogy of China today with Germany in 1914. This was originally written for the Lowy Institute in Sydney. China today = Wilhelmine Germany is a pretty common analogy in international relations writing, especially in the op-ed ‘literature’ on China. I thought it deserved a little more deconstruction given how much we use it. Here I argue that there are enough dissimilarities to undercut the predictive value of the analogy.

Once again, I can’t find a good image of Wilhelmine Germany and China. Someone please find me a pic that doesn’t use the modern Germany flag like this one. Here is that post:

“In my previous post, I noted that China today is often analogized to Wilhelmine Germany in the run-up to WWI. This is probably captured most famously in well-known argument observation, ‘will Europe’s past be Asia’s future?’ The basic idea is that intense nationalism, seething historical and territorial grievances, and rapid modernization might plunge Asia into a WWI-style general war, with China as the neo-wilhelmine villain provoking it all. Previously, I argued that there are four shared structural characteristics that drive the China today-Germany 1914 analogy: encirclement by suspicious powers, rapid economic expansion, grievance-driven nationalist ideology, and rapidly expanding military power upsetting the regional balance of power.

But many other, perhaps less hawkish observers, such as Timo Kivimäki, David Kang or Amitav Acahrya, have regularly noted that east Asia has enjoyed a robust peace since 1979, and that realist-hawkish predictions of Chinese aggression have been around since Tiananmen Square yet never come true. Predictions that never pass but are regularly re-warmed by saying that we should just wait a little longer, are theoretically weak and deserve re-evaluation. 1979 was the last time a serious inter-state war – between China and Vietnam – occurred in East Asia. And Kang has argued for awhile that declining military expenditures in East Asia belie the standard western op-ed page narrative of rising Chinese power and fear of it throughout Asia. Asian behavior seems not to support that contention of the ‘China threat’ school.

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