[Reader note: this post launched just before 7:00 EST but was not complete because reasons. Please come back at 8:00, or you can start to speculate in comments and see if you beat me to the punch time-wise!]
Russia embarked on a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, catching just about everyone by surprise.1 Despite Western politicians and the press attempting to depict Russia as going slowly and/or doing poorly, it’s already clear a mere week in Russia will prevail. Russia had only deployed a small portion of its available forces. It appears to have been taking more casualties to reduce civilian deaths. It has left the power, the Internet, and even the cell phone system up even though that helped the Ukrainian army, presumably to reduce civilian panic and hardship. So far, it has also avoided civilian targets and infrastructure (“avoided” does not mean “completely spared”; something that surgical isn’t feasible).
Russia still has to subdue important population centers, such as Kiev, Mariupol, Odessa. While the exact conditions on the ground are disputed, Russia appears to have encircled or at least terminally tied down the bulk of the Ukrainian army in Donbass, making it impossible to relieve Kiev. Depending on who you trust, Kiev is largely or entirely encircled. Ditto Mariupol and Odessa. Russia is also reported to be staging an amphibious assault on Odessa.
We are now hitting the point where Putin will be forced to make tradeoffs among his stated aims, and those will play a significant role in whether Russia can win the peace. Remember Russia does not want to have to occupy or control Ukraine; that’s a big motivator in trying to leave it as intact as possible. The less that is broken in a war, the more feasible it is to restore a reasonable approximation of status quo ante from the perspective of ordinary people. The US of course hopes for the reverse: for Russia to become bogged down militarily, such as not being able to leave because there are enough nasty insurgents to be able to pose a threat to Russia.
Recall Putin’s stated aims:2
“We will seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine.”
“It is not our plan to occupy the Ukrainian territory. We do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force.”
You probably worked out that those are actually three objectives.
The demilitarize part presumably means at least taking out airbases, large weapons systems, large weapons caches. There are additional not verified claims that Ukraine had 12 Level 4 bioweapons labs that Russia has secured. Russia has also secured most and perhaps all of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors.
It might seem impossible or impractical to keep dual-use assets, like the reactors that can provide fissionable materiel, “demilitarized”. But the Ukrainians and Russians already established a joint operation at Chernobyl.
Russell Bentley, a Texan who is fighting in Donbass with the independence forces (don’t even ask) and a shameless Russia booster, nevertheless provides on the ground intel and does appear to take care to sort out what he has seen, what he has heard from Russian units elsewhere and informed rumors. One informed rumor has it that Russia will cede Ukraine in the northwest (ex of course Kiev) to help the US maintain that it has successfully held off a full Russian takeover.
Denazify also seems like a tall order even though the hard core Nazis are estimated to represent a maximum of 2% of the population. However, they are working hard at and will likely have at least some success in denying Russia a win that is relatively low cost to civilians. Given the Russian desire to minimize civilian deaths so as not to produce a resentful neighbor and make an easy case for insurgents, the Ukrainian army is reported to be have moved large weapons into residential areas, making it hard for Russians to eliminate them without also killing civilians and wrecking housing. Bentley and others report that that tactic has been taken further in Mariupol, where civilians who attempt to flee the city are allegedly being killed by the Azov Battalion.
In other words, even before you get to the question of how to identify and round up the neoNazis, there’s an even more immediate problem of how to wrest control of Ukraine from the key pockets they control without creating the conditions for engineering a buffer state government that knows its place.
Putin has every reason to be willing to let Zelensky stay if he accepts that Ukraine needs to stay defanged and not hostile to Russia. Even if Zelensky were that, erm, flexible, he’d have to know that the West would regard that as unacceptable and his days would likely be numbered.
While it may seem a bridge too far to believe that Russia can have elections in the south-eastern 2/3 of Ukraine go more or less its way without interference, our Brexit brain trust, which has more feel in their bones for the way European borders have shifted over time regard it as possible, even if not seeming likely at this juncture. As PlutoniumKun:
From what I can see, Russia is slowly but surely winning. The absence of Russian drone or gun cam footage means we can’t get a real handle on Ukraine losses, but I suspect that they are unsustainable. No amount of Javelins3 can make up for the loss of armour, artillery and air support. This is still an old fashioned sort of war. Its not impossible that the Ukrainian military high command may make the decision for the government that it can’t keep fighting. Most of Ukraine is not suitable for guerrilla warfare, its too flat and open. Once the main Ukrainian army is encircled east of the Dneiper, its curtains for them, their only resort would be urban warfare. And unless they’ve been asleep the last decade, they would know that the Russians are very good at urban warfare. Bear in mind that the wide open boulevards of former Soviet Cities were designed specifically to make urban guerrilla defence difficult (which shows of course that Stalin feared his own people more than invaders).
Europe will then have a choice to make. It can continue to try to support Kviv, and risk having a Yugoslavia on its doorstep with millions of refugees (I’m pretty sure the Washington neocons would see this as a success) along with the prospect of massive power shortages in 2023, or it can take the pragmatic route and go for a face saving deal, which I suspect would be fine by Putin. With the exception of the UK, I suspect that nearly all European leaders would prefer the latter. As usual, the retreat will be covered in all sorts of fudge and smoke and mirrors.
As I said, I’m not sure that the Russians want Ukrainian territory as such. A demilitarised Ukraine would suit them very well, even if Russian troops would probably be stationed there under some pretext in small numbers. But there would be no point in a guerilla war, because the targets would not be there, and the West would be obliged to try to stir Ukrainians up against each other.
So then the question is what the US will accept. I’m not sure how it can back down. But Biden completely undercut his ability to push Europeans around by stating the US would not provide troops to support ground combat in Eastern Europe. So the French and Germans are supposed to serve as cannon fodder when they tried to avoid confrontation with Russia, such as opposing the NATO enlargement in 2008 to include Georgia and Ukraine, and by their repeated failed efforts to implement the Minsk Protocol.
As we’ve pointed out, Russia has held back from economic retaliation, such as seizing Western assets in Russia, choking commodities supplies, and violating patents. But the current sanctions are inflicting pain and weakening Putin’s position, although not necessarily in the way the Western press portrays. Readers closer to Russia report that citizens, particularly now the pretty large middle class, are freaked out by the collapse of the rouble. But even more important, many have been directly whacked by the increase in interest rates to 20%. Many if not most mortgages are floating rate. And vlade reports that new mortgages are not being written, so home sales are presumably frozen.
So if Western economic sanctions aren’t unwound soon, which seems extremely unlikely, Putin will lose backing among the more prosperous segments of Russian society. How that plays out remains to be seen.
1 Despite the Western press crying “wolf” twice about date-certain Russian invasion, the fact that the Russians established control of airspace quickly, knocked out the military’s communications infrastructure, and even moved rapidly to secure Chernobyl, among other things, says that even though the West gave all the appearances of expecting a serious attack, they managed not to prepare adequately for it. Or to put it more cynically, the US may not have cared if the Ukrainians did badly in the face of a full bore assault. They may have assumed the Russians would get mired either during the campaign or its aftermath.
2 Not a confident look for the West that access to en.kremlin.ru is still blocked. Am embedding the two key Putin speeches, on the evening of February 21 (which I have mistakenly been referring to as February 22 since that’s when it was reported here, and February 24).
3 Not only has there been some doubt about how useful the Javelins sent in during January could be, given the need for training, they could be counterproductive. Given conditions on the ground, Russia may wind up seizing them.00 Putin Address 2-21
00 Putin Address 2-24