Don’t bet on Russia in Ukraine

So parts of eastern Ukraine now belong to Russia, forever, or so Vladimir Putin tells us.

Nice expanded country you have there, Russia. Now let’s see if you can keep it.

It’s perfectly okay for these new areas to be part of Russia though because the citizens there voted to join. Of course, about two thirds of them left when the war started, mostly westward. The Russian army’s main task this week has been to force residents there, sometimes at gunpoint, to “vote”. So it’s not surprising that they did. Who knows whether 98% of them actually voted to join Russia or not but it clearly wasn’t a fair election. These areas are unlikely to be recognized as part of Russia by many countries.

No vote was held in Kharkiv though because Ukraine forces routed the Russians from the area in a surprise offensive they easily won. Now reportedly Ukraine also controls the city of Lyman in Donetsk, supposedly now part of Russia.

Russia’s hold on these territories is fragile at best. Thanks to the courage of Ukrainians and tons of western armaments, Ukraine has shown it has the determination and ability to retake its country through a grinding war of attrition. Russian forces have proven inept for the most part, and succeeded only in pulverizing urban regions with artillery. Oh, I guess they’re also good at war crimes, according to many reports. You don’t want to be a woman in an area of Ukraine occupied by the Russians.

Here’s a good bet: this war is already lost and the Russians have lost it. Whoever has the most will and money wins these things. It’s why the United States was doomed in Vietnam. The best Russia can hope for is that in some nebulous future “peace talks” they keep a sliver of the area they occupy now.

Putin thinks that by mobilizing 300,000 new reservists he can turn this thing around. He threw his best forces at the Ukrainians when the conflict started. These new “forces” will be draftees for the most part and will likely be sent in with minimal training and arms. Much of the arms there have been destroyed, and withdrawing Russian forces have left lots of what remained behind when they hastily withdrew.

The news is reasonably censored in Russia, but it’s not completely censored. YouTube and the Telegram app is available, and they provided Russians who wanted to know the real story with the information they needed. Many of these men are beating hastily retreats outside of Russia if they can. They know if drafted they will just be fodder for Putin’s slaughter machine.

Naturally, Putin is busy raising the threat levels, threatening to use nuclear weapons if necessary. It’s not clear how he could “win” such a war with nuclear weapons. It would kill a lot of people and most of the animals in the area, even if only low yield weapons were used. The radiation levels would likely be toxic to his own forces nearby, or will be when the wind shifts. It’s unclear what value a devastated and depopulated land would be to anyone, even Russia.

Ukraine’s latest tactic is to apply for NATO membership. It’s unclear if they would be admitted, but they’ve proved to be tenacious fighters. Since Russia started this war, Finland and Sweden are likely to be admitted to NATO, making them effectively unconquerable by Russia. Ukraine is sort of part of NATO already, in that they are getting tons of aid and guidance from NATO countries. NATO forces just aren’t actually engaged in any combat.

Effectively, Russia’s worst enemy has turned out to be Vladimir Putin. His tactics have completely backfired and his latest bluster looks more like the actions of someone backed into a corner. At this point, most of his own people aren’t fooled by how badly he botched his invasion.

The one area where he may change some minds is by cutting off supplies of gas and oil to Europe. We’ll see after one winter after a lot of people are freezing if they will endure a second one, with Russia’s pipelines so conveniently nearby. Largely due to the war, inflation is going through the roof in most European countries, and efforts to get new energy supplies from elsewhere may take years to affect. When spring happens, we’ll have a better idea of how effective this policy has been.

But Putin’s 300,000 soldiers will mostly be on paper. There simply isn’t the capacity to quickly replace the lost armaments needed to wage a war. It’s unclear if these new soldiers can even be properly fed. Many of these soldiers are highly vulnerable. There are only a few bridges from Russia into the region still standing. They could be easily be taken out by long range artillery or fighter jets, effectively trapping Russian forces inside of it. That’s probably part of Ukraine’s strategy to route the Russians. They are waiting for the opportune moment. Most likely though with mud season beginning, we can expect little change until the ground hardens again.

We do know that in the interim the Ukraine army can be resupplied and that Western commitment to provide the funds and expertise needed for them to keep going seems endless. It’s the Russians who will have the serious logistical problems.

Putin though appears to prefer to live in his surreal fantasies instead. Real life should have informed him of his real options. His choice to ignore reality will only continue to draw Russia deeper into debacle and folly.

Russia isn’t a superpower and won’t be one again

Russia’s war in Ukraine has been ghastly but also illuminating. It’s illuminated just how broke and dysfunctional its military is and how endemic the corruption is within it. But it’s also illuminating that the country is no longer a superpower, and likely won’t ever be one again.

There are a number of reasons for this.

First, it’s a corrupt state. If oligarchs can siphon off much of the money that would otherwise go to the state, it deprives the state of the resources it needs to be effective. This is evident in the condition of Russia’s military in the Ukraine war, where much of it equipment is breaking down. Their hardware is generally shoddy because a whole chain of people got kickbacks instead of insisting the stuff they were buying was of quality. Much of their military is corrupt too, but even if they wanted to be otherwise, senior leadership won’t allow them not to be corrupt. You succeed in Russia’s military by being a toady but remaining far enough down in the hierarchy where you won’t be held accountable.

Second, its military is badly managed. Its recruits are for the most part of low caliber and they don’t get the training they need to effectively do their jobs. There is little delegation of authority, meaning local commanders can’t adapt to changing conditions. The pay is poor too and conscripts are rarely of high quality. They also haven’t figured out how to run a military logistics chain properly. And their troops seem to lack many of the basics needed to be effective, like gas for their tanks, regular resupplies and secure phones for communications.

Most importantly, they’ve been priced out of the superpower field. This is essentially how we won the Cold War in the first place: we outspent the Soviet Union because our GDP allowed us to do it. To some extent Russia held on by being clever, such as by developing more effective tactical weapons. But with a GDP less than ten percent of the United States, they simply didn’t have the means to compete forever.

Effectively, China has replaced them as the world’s new superpower. They did it by embracing capitalism, utilizing its abundance of cheap labor and a growing highly skilled workforce that embraced education. This created double digit economic growth year over year, giving them a GDP that is now rivaling that of the United States. This also gave them the resources to expand their military, build aircraft carriers, improve their ballistic missiles and create the infrastructure needed to support a first class military.

Russia embraced corrupt capitalism after it lost the Cold War. It helped improve their dismal GDP, but not enormously. Capitalism was concentrated in assets it already had, like oil and gas, rather than in new and emerging technologies. It did not reinvest its profits in things that matter like China did: infrastructure and education. To the extent Russia can wield political power, it depends on aging technology. Its nuclear warheads are one of its biggest assets, but hardest to wield effectively.

All this is not to suggest the United States is home free. Our political polarization brings lack of unity, which adds to our own governmental dysfunction. We effectively have our own oligarchy in the United States too, and it is creating huge inequality and poverty. The Republican focus on taxes as being bad also means less investments in the future. With enough disunion, the United States can be broken apart. The same is true with many countries rife with sectarian struggles. Russia might succeed in a way through our failures. So far though we keep funding our defense establishment lavishly, and our military remains one that is highly trained and effective.

Obviously, Russia is still capable of causing a lot of conflict, misery and death. But its military mindset is still stuck in the 20th century. It can perhaps nuke Ukraine into submission, but it has forever lost the hearts and minds of its people. It can only succeed by brute force, if it can find the resources to do so, but it is doomed to eventually fail. The war has proven catastrophically unwinnable for them, and any victory would be pyrhhic at best. In the process, it is turning the country into an outlaw state, further depriving them of the resources they will need to thrive in the future.

This war, which is likely to drag on for years, will likely be seen as the biggest boondoggle of the 21st century, at least so far.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proves land wars are so 20th century and democracies are valuable

A week ago, when Russia invaded Ukraine, I remember going to bed feeling upset and morose. I didn’t sleep well. It was a strange reaction to events half a world away, but it’s good to know I was not alone. Lots of Americans are feeling the same way. The invasion of Ukraine has permeated American society the way few events do. It’s woken up pretty much all Americans and they don’t like what they are seeing.

So far Ukrainians have surprised the world by resisting the invasion extraordinarily well. Thankfully, the world is rallying to their side. Almost nobody is rooting for Vladimir Putin, with Donald Trump perhaps being the exception. A lot of Republicans are probably rooting in secret, but it quickly became toxic for Republicans not to support the Ukrainians.

I detected a bit of racism in Americans’ support. There was a lot less concern for the indiscriminate bombing by the Russians in Syria, likely because it’s not a predominantly White country. In Ukraine it’s a war of Whites against Whites.

Part of the reason I didn’t sleep well though was because I understood its magnitude. We thought we had won the Cold War in 1991 when the USSR fell, but this feels like it’s back on again. But the real reason for my disquiet was because this was the first major war in Europe since World War II. I literally was not alive during the last one. Like it or not, we’re in a whole new ballgame.

The world’s reaction to the invasion has been heartening. Russia is virtually alone because really there was no valid justification for it. The pretexts for the invasion were laughable: it was to go after Nazis in Ukraine. And Ukraine’s president is a Jew!

When even Switzerland is thinking of sanctioning Russia, you know just how upset most countries are at Putin’s action. It’s hard to see how Putin wins this. He may succeed in occupying the country for a while, but he can’t keep it. Ukrainians won’t allow it and the rest of the world will provide the resources to make sure they can keep at it. If their goal was to keep NATO in check, it’s much likelier now to expand it.

Moreover, the Russian Army has proven staggeringly inept. Their equipment is old, they can’t seem to maintain supply lines and the resources they need to keep it going are being cut off. Much of its army consists of conscripts and clearly many do not have even minimal training. The Russian Army has clearly degraded and is beginning to resemble a Potemkin village.

The invasion has also paradoxically breathed new life into flagging democracies. When they can see on their TV exactly what it means to be ruled by an autocrat, most people accept the systems of government they got. At least it’s familiar.

Until the invasion, Putin has projected the illusion of competence and tenacity. The invasion proves he is incompetent, as it was obviously a fool’s errand to invade in the first place. In the 21st century, it’s almost impossible to win a conflict through military means, and a win is almost always an illusion and temporary. It’s why we finally got out of Afghanistan last year and our war with Iraq proved such a debacle. You can’t win a conflict where you can’t win the vast majority of hearts and minds. The last conflict we won convincingly was World War II, in part because Japan was an autocracy, and the word of its emperor was enough to end the conflict. These conditions largely don’t exist anymore.

Democratic values are values increasingly not cherished here in the United States. But this horrible invasion may provide an opportunity for Americans to stay with democracy, despite its flaws. No system of government is more stable than one that represents the view of those who are governed. Through gerrymandering we’ve managed to turn our country into one that resembles Russia’s oligarchy. Unlike Russia though we have an opportunity to change course, if we are smart enough to learn from Putin’s unfolding debacle.