The shock of what is underway in Ukraine cannot be overstated. After a high-visibility, months-long build-up, and in defiance of endless warnings from the West, a worst-case scenario is playing out.
Not only has combat started, but early indications are that it has commenced on a wider scale than what had been broadly predicted – which was a limited operation to seize Donbas.
Multiple analyses posted on these pages – including by this writer – have, at a stroke, been proven wrong. What is driving this tremendously dangerous situation?
Many analyses arguing against kinetic escalation were based on the apparent rationality of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now, the military operation he has unleashed in Ukraine is pushing risk off all charts.
Despite his blatantly obvious autocratic tendencies, Putin has proved a popular, as well as a populist, leader. This means he does not need a war to unify his population behind him and entrench his rule.
Moreover, compared with the deadly animosities that bubble under the surface in areas of the world such as the Balkans, there is no historical, religious or ethnic hatred dividing Russians and Ukrainians – ther’s not the kind of hatred that might make a war popular with the man in the Moscow street.
Granted, Putin is a hardcore nationalist and an obvious admirer of martial virtues. He believes in Russia’s Manifest Destiny and has spoken at length about the West’s refusal to acknowledge what he insists is Moscow’s sphere of influence.
His frustration is perhaps understandable, given that his austere worldview offers no effective counter to Western soft power – the attractive values and lifestyles that lured westward the states and people previously within the Warsaw Pact and the USSR.
However, he does possess military instruments that might be sufficient to halt the eastward advance of Western hard power – NATO’s expansion.
But all this was known before Thursday’s events. And before Thursday – and regardless of the morality of his decisions – his public behavior had always been chilled and rational rather than fiery and emotive. Risks were calibrated.
Now, his recourse to extreme violence has cast away whatever moral ground Russia may have been standing upon, in terms of its resistance to NATO expansionism, in the eyes of the world.
His current military moves, which are de facto overturning the accepted mores of the post-1945 world order, are pushing the elasticity of risk limits. This is doubly so as Washington has made clear from the start that a military attack upon Ukraine is a red line that Moscow will not be allowed to cross without penalties.
Russian strength vs Western weakness
It seems likely the Russian leader has been emboldened by a combination of prior experiences.
These include the success of his earlier ventures in the military sphere, including his conclusion of the war in Chechnya, his revanchist assault upon an assertive Georgia, his open annexation of Crimea, his deniable sponsorship of breakaway republics in Donbas and his low-casualty expedition in Syria.
He weathered the blowback from all the above – be it Chechen terrorism or Western sanctions – with his power unshaken.
Ukraine’s exclusion from NATO membership and lack of allies may also have predisposed him to flex his military muscles. And, of course, his own military is a very different beast indeed from the shambolic force he inherited from predecessor Boris Yeltsin. It looks to be a highly potent instrument, if not against NATO then against an outlier like Ukraine.
Moreover, while Russia has enjoyed recent military successes, Team Putin may well take comfort in recent US failures in its exercise of hard power.
America was humiliated in Somalia. Its national will to prevail in Iraq was eroded. And, most recently, a retreat from Afghanistan – engineered by one US president, implemented by another – closed the doors on a 20-year Western intervention and opened the gates to a near-immediate Taliban victory.
Putin may have personalized politics – taking comfort in Joe Biden’s lack of vigor, Boris Johnson’s buffoonery, Emanuel Macron’s ineffectualness and the departure of Angela Merkel from the political arena.
And matters may be even worse than the convergence of factors above suggest.
No rationality, lack of opposition
A deeply worrying, but educated, guess comes from a trusted Asia Times medical source who has analyzed recent photographs of Putin.
This source noted that the apparent puffiness of the president’s face is characteristic of the “moon face” seen in patients on steroids. The source further noted that psychiatric effects are associated with such medications, ranging from increased aggression and impaired judgment up to psychosis.
That speculation looks credible. Putin is given to macho behavior, such as displays of his chiseled torso. But, at age 69, he faces the inevitable effects of aging. Steroids are also strong immunosuppressants, which would explain Putin’s extremely stringent personal Covid isolation regime over the past two years.
The above is only speculation. What is beyond speculation – and is extremely worrisome for anyone used to the inevitable rises and falls of democratic polities – is that nobody in the Kremlin, the Duma or on the streets looks positioned to stand up to Putin, let alone force his standdown.
This factor was particularly visible when, during his midnight Security Council session in the Kremlin, Putin delivered a personal specialty – a humiliating dressing down – of his intelligence chief. The latter, quivering, fell behind his boss’s position.
All of this complicates the West’s countermoves – countermoves pre-crippled by repeated statements that NATO will not come to Ukraine’s aid.
Russia’s opening moves – massive cyber and precision missile strikes across Ukraine – look designed to take out military and supportive infrastructure, regarding the “demilitarization” of which Putin has spoken.
If successful, as seems likely, this will grant Russia immediate air superiority and enable large-scale airborne and heliborne operations over Ukraine.
At the time of writing, amid the chaos of war, the details of the ground assault are not clear.
The widely anticipated target was the eastern Donbas region, and this may, indeed, remain the objective.
However, there are already reports of marine operations, which would suggest a bigger move to grab a corridor along the Avoz coast connecting Crimea, Donbas and Russia proper. After all, multiple analyses have it that the viability of the Crimean peninsula, cut off from its adjacent landmass, is questionable in the long term.
Could the operation be an even bigger, bolder strike to seize key cities and establish puppet governance across Ukraine?
Or is this an outright, old-school conquest?
Whatever it may be: How will Ukraine resist? It is surrounded on three sides and is outgunned and out-teched.
Will the Ukrainians do what the Finns did in 1939 and fight like hell, generating massive casualties before a negotiated ceasefire? Will their standing military halt conventional resistance and go over to guerilla tactics, leading to a bleed of Russian youth? Or will national resistance collapse?
Whatever the response, this is a terrible situation for any nation – let alone one that sits on the frontier of prosperous, portly, middle-class Europe.
Russia hurls down a gauntlet
The biggest question now is what the West will do next. This is the greatest challenge Russia has placed before it since the Cold War concluded with a whimper.
One possible response is a non-kinetic hybrid war: finance, trade, commerce, cyber and electronic, energy – and perhaps a pipeline of weapons into Ukraine to fuel resistance.
But how will Europe cope with the Russian gas cut off? Will eastern NATO states be willing to take the risk of being arms conduits, or sanctuaries for Ukrainian guerillas?
And one can only hope that the NATO states in Eastern Europe – some of which have a poor record in their immigration policies in recent years, and are at odds with the EU over this very matter – will handle refugee flows with the utmost humanity.
Putin has clearly decided it is worth risking his economy on the altar of security. Some analyses have it that Russia will be able to resist even the harshest “game over” sanctions for a year. By the end of that period, Russia might well be spiraling down into a severe depression.
But by the same token, Ukraine could be a much-shrunken state, a satellite of Russia with a puppet in command – a vast buffer keeping the West at arm’s length from the Russian heartland. Or it might be a wasteland.
Putin has made his move. The world awaits Biden’s response.
Given what is at stake, and given the risk of a wider clash and the much-feared “spiral of escalation” that could exert a braking force on bold action, this is a mighty responsibility for the US president to shoulder.
Andrew Salmon, a published military historian, is Asia Times’ Northeast Asia editor. Follow him on Twitter: @Andrewcsalmon