Bonus Post: Ukraine on the edge of war
The largest European conflict since WW2 is about to start.
Today I will write a post about Ukraine and the very likely possibility of a military escalation. I will do my best to cover the why’s, the what’s and the what to expect.
It may be surprising, since the name of the newsletter is Casual Cyber Security, not Casual Foreign Policy nor Casual Military Policy. I do however have an interest in Foreign Policy in general and this topic in particular.
There has been no shortage of Op-Eds from more experienced political analysts that reduced the threat of the Russian build-up to saber-rattling and coercive diplomacy. I believe this reading of this situation is wrong (I will maintain that this type of reading is wrong even if there will be no war).
I believe the political analysts are wrong here because I see them as having the singular Maslow’s hammer in their toolset.
If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.
Before I dig into the situation further. I need to clarify something. Foreign Policy, Diplomacy and War are very pragmatic and intensely utilitarian affairs. A rather famous quote from a Prussian military theorist goes as such :
War is a continuation of policy by other means.
Put it another way: Russia will aim to achieve it’s goals through war if they are unable to do so through diplomacy. The method will change, the goals do not.
What is Russia’s goal ?
First, please notice that I said “Russia”. Not “Putin”. I may, during the course of this writing, use Russia, the Russians, Putin, the Russian Federation interchangeably, but make no mistake: Putin is a monster, but he is not an irrational actor. His goals make sense and are rational. Because Putin is a monster and an autocrat, his methods may seem irrational, but they are not.
Russia views Ukraine as part of their ‘natural’ sphere of influence, therefore a more ‘independent minded’ Ukraine is seen as a loss of Russian influence.
Furthermore, Ukraine joining NATO and/or the EU is a MAJOR national security concern for Russia.
Why is Ukraine so important for Russian national security ?
Because a strong military offensive launched from Ukraine can very easily cut-off Russian oil production (which represents 40% of the Russian economy) and bring the country to it’s knees regardless of how bad the winter is that year.
Access and control of the Black Sea is also essential to Russia’s commerce and power projection efforts in the Middle East. A hypothetical hostile Ukraine could, with NATO’s help, blockade Russian ports and more easily neutralize their Black Sea Fleet.
You might be thinking that this reasoning is preposterous. And you’d be correct.
Joining NATO and EU is elective. If Ukraine decides to take a pro-west approach they absolutely have the right to do so.
NATO is a defensive alliance, so even if a hypothetical Ukrainian state that is part of NATO decides to attack Russia, they would be on their own. In fact, because Russia has the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world, I can promise you that NATO will not join that war because it would lead to nuclear annihilation.
It’s also worth noting that The West is very war weary. Democratic nations might be more inclined to military offensives under certain circumstances but a huge, costly and possibly world-ending war with Russia is all but impossible.
So why would the Russians be concerned about their national security if, as we just discussed, there is no risk of facing a military threat from NATO. Surely they will not start a war just over their bruised ego, right ?
Correct. Putin is without a doubt aware of these realities, although I assume he’s less inclined to respect Ukrainian sovereignty the way you or I might do.
But Putin is also keenly aware that this is how the situation is TODAY. Foreign Policy requires long term thinking. The future is impossible to predict, but any number of things could change that can modify this calculus, therefore keeping Ukraine under the Russian wing is the prudent thing to do.
Allowing Ukraine to become part of the West is a line that Russia is not willing to cross and they have shown in the past how much they believe this.
Like I said, Putin is a monster and an autocrat. He would rather go to war and protect the geopolitical status-quo rather than making concessions to Ukraine that would incentivize them to remain on Russia’s side.
War is a continuation of policy by other means.
In 2014, something scary happened. Scary for Russia.
A Russophile Ukrainian government was toppled by the people and it was replaced by a pro-western one. As a response to this event some men who had Russian military uniforms, Russian weapons, Russian military training (but they were totally not Russian soldiers, you guys) took over government institutions in the Crimean peninsula. A very quick and not at all suspicious referendum was held and Crimea voted to become part of the Russian Federation.
Soon after, pro-Russian protests started to emerge in Donbass which quickly devolved into an outright civil war. Again … Russia said it had nothing to do with it, but most of us have our doubts about all that.
That war is still being fought to this day. An estimated 14000 Ukrainian soldiers have died in that confect since it started in 2014. I say this to emphasize that Ukraine is at war today and Ukraine cannot join NATO as long as it is at war.
So what’s Russia afraid of ?
2 things have changed since the start of the Donbass war.
Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine. Zelensky is pro-west, anti corruption and has taken steps to cut down on the influence of pro-Russian Oligarchs in Ukraine. Zelensky is not only positioning Ukraine in a more Pro-West direction but in a less-deferent-to-Russian one as well.
The Ukrainian army has been improving. Both in terms of getting better organized and in terms of equipment and training (with help from a West that is happy to inflict pain on Russia). As things stand, there is the possibility that the Ukrainian army could eventually push back the Donbass front and end the war.
These 2 points are very concerning for Russia. If the Ukrainians are able to end the war, it means that they are closer to joining NATO and tripping over the Russian red line.
Just supplementing the forces in the Donbass is also not a great option for Putin. Matching the Ukrainian capabilities will prolong the stalemate but does not solve the long-term problem of Ukraine getting closer to the West and further away from Russia.
So … in order to achieve their goal of keeping Ukraine in their fold, the Russians will have to change their approach.
Escalating the conflict.
As early as December it became clear that the Russian build-up was not only unprecedented, but likely leading to a massive invasion.
It is not atypical for the Russians to position troops more aggressively as an act of coercive diplomacy, but we are well beyond that point today.
Not only have the Russians positioned well over 100 BTGs (Battalion Tactical Groups) around the border with Ukraine (around 50% of their total military force) but they have also brought logistics, militarized police and their rather famous mercenaries to the Ukrainian border. If it was just the former, we could suspect that it was just about saber-rattling but adding the latter suggests they mean business. The Black Sea fleet has also seen reinforcements.
The possibility of a diplomatic solution is getting smaller and smaller by the day. All of these moves have costs for Russia so Putin is unlikely to back down unless he gets what he wants.
And what he wants is most likely some form of regime change in Ukraine as part of the eventual peace deal.
We can get a hint about what this peace deal might look like by looking at the Minsk Protocols.
The Minsk Protocols were signed in an effort to bring a ceasefire to the conflict in the Donbass. What the Russians were keen on getting was regional autonomy for Donetk and Luhansk, the two Russian-speaking territories in Ukraine where the conflict flared up. It is likely that these regional governments were to effectively act as a permanent Veto against any pro-West moves made by the government in Kiev and would further polarize and destabilize the country, thus putting an end to Ukraine’s pro-Western ambitions for the foreseeable future.
The likely end-goal of the military operations against Ukraine would be a similar one. A new constitution that would divide power in such a way to guarantee a stable pro-Russian regime in Kiev.
The military operations themselves would also focus on using superior Russian military capabilities to degrade Ukraine’s military. Without help from the West (which a pro-Russian regime would not accept) it could never re-arm and would be at the mercy of Russian demands.
What can and what should the West do ?
Let’s start with what not to do:
Sanctions won’t do much.
Russia has learned to live with sanctions for the past 8 years. Their ForEx reserves are historically high. US has announced some sanctions which may carry more bite, but we can expect retaliation from Russia if they come into effect, including cyberattacks targeting infrastructure in Europe.
Direct military aid (boots on the ground).
An announcement from the West that they will deploy forces to aid in a possible conflict would all but ensure the Russians commence military operations immediately, before anyone can meaningfully intervene.
What can be done :
Diplomacy - even if it’s just to stall for time. Every day that passes the Ukrainians get a little better prepared. It is unlikely that the Ukrainian military can outright defeat the Russian forces, but the better prepared they are and the more pain they can inflict on the Russian attackers the weaker Putin’s hand will be. A scenario in which Russia wins the war, but suffers considerable losses would put the Russians in a much weaker position so they may decide to scale down the attack.
Supply Ukraine with lethal weapons. Anti-tank is good, but the Russian air force is likely to dominate the Ukrainian skies in case the conflict escalates. Another concern is long-range missiles that can target strategic locations well outside the range of any Ukrainian retaliation.
Increase NATO readiness. Supplementing NATO forces especially in the Baltics, Poland and Romania is an unpleasant scenario for Putin. Russia wants less NATO in it’s hair not more.
Opening more “fronts”. With Russian forces busy in Ukraine, this will make it harder for Putin to pressure countries la Finland and Sweden to remain neutral. The question of joining NATO has certainly been reignited in these two countries.
Prepare a possible Ukrainian insurgency. It is extremely unlikely that there will be a long-term occupation of Ukraine as seen in Afghanistan. So why prepare the insurgency, then ? Specifically to guarantee that there won’t be a long-term occupation of Ukraine. The ideal scenario for Putin is a quick war with a quick peace-deal followed up by a quick withdrawal. Any hitch in this plan would weaken Putin’s hand and change his cost-benefit analysis of the entire situation.
What happens next ?
Reports came out that Russia could begin military operations as early as February 16th.
US has been very public with their predictions, most likely in an effort to give Russian planners cold feet, and due to the fact that nobody will blame them for too long if they get it wrong.
I’m still hoping for peace, but as I’ve explained it seems unlikely.
There are 3 main directions the conflict can take, depending mostly on what the internal calculations of the Kremlin are.
Russia will use it’s long-range capabilities (air, missile and other long range artillery) to engage Ukrainian targets, but the main military strength will only be deployed to the Donbass region. With the Donbass secured Russia will try to negotiate an upgraded version of Minsk 2.
Russia begins a multi-pronged invasion of Ukrainian territory focusing on degrading military capabilities, taking POWs and pushing towards Kiev.
Russia begins a multi-pronged invasion of Ukrainian territory focusing on occupation and begins the counterinsurgency. This will likely trigger an enormous refugee crisis.
1. seems like it achieves too little.
3. risks getting Russia bogged down in a long-term quagmire reminiscent of Afghanistan.
2. seems to be the sweet-spot in terms of risk/reward.
I wish I could leave you on a more positive note. Thanks for reading this depressing bonus edition.
If you’re in Ukraine, I’m keeping you in my thoughts.
Take care friends, for the hope of it all !