With PTC1/Alex on the prowl I didn’t have a chance to comment on this, but the City of Savannah posted this photograph last week to signal the start of Pride Month. Notice anything? Yep. The Ukrainian Flag is backwards.
Sadly, ignorance/incompetence isn’t just limited to the City of Savannah … here’s a screen capture from a Pentagon briefing a week or so ago. The fact this briefing was for Defense Industry contractors looking to cash in on the $40 Billion windfall masquerading as aid puts this firmly in the “you can’t make this stuff up” realm …
The Savannah thing is absurd. The Progress Pride flag I understand (it’s a domestic policy issue, the City has an advocacy office and well known positions, etc.), but why is the City displaying the Ukrainian Flag? Did the City put together a policy justification for why the City Government, as representatives of the Citizens of Savannah, should be signalling its support for either side of this war? Does the Mayor, anyone on the City Council, or anyone in City Government have the necessary background and expertise to understand the situation, or are they just jumping on a popular bandwagon? And even if this was a carefully thought through policy, didn’t anybody bother to look up how to properly display the Ukrainian Flag? Ten seconds on Wikipedia would have done the trick. The blue band is on top if flown as a flag, and on the left if displayed as a banner.
As any reader of this blog knows, I strongly feel the situation in Ukraine is a tragic mess, one we bear significant responsibility for starting and inflaming. I think that sending weapons in to this conflict is dangerous, and ultimately causing more harm than good. Expressing support for the present Government of Ukraine by flying its flag is not as simple as some might think. I have to wonder if the Mayor of Savannah is aware of what senior officials of the Ukrainian Government have said about people of color (much less, given the Progress Pride flag now displayed in the rotunda, the LGBTQ community). Almost certainly not.
But that’s not really the point of this post. If you do feel that support of the Ukrainian Government is justified, at least fly their flag right side up.
As for the Pentagon, I don’t even know where to start. Whenever I have been involved in activities at this level annoying but essential protocol officers were scurrying around making sure flags were right side up, seating was correct, and that I didn’t cause yet another international incident by asking for ketchup at a state dinner thrown by the President of France like that first time. That the DoD official responsible for Ukraine didn’t instantly recognize the problem is simply unbelievable, and for the SECDEF to be seen surrounded by upside-down flags is a major national embarrassment.
This is sadly yet another symptom of how US Diplomacy has collapsed over the last thirty years. This 2020 RAND corporation study (link) describes elements of that decline, but I think there is a deeper problem with the overall level of education in the US, ignorance about the rest of the world, and the self-centered, “exceptionalist” view of that world. Fẹmi Akọmọlafẹ, a journalist from Ghana, wrote the following recently comparing the competence of foreign diplomats from the major powers:
Western officials, on the other hand, attack the world as haughty, naughty, ill-mannered, ill-educated, uncultured, provincial, and narcissistic imbeciles. They lack the elementary decorum necessary to engage peers in respectful manners. Ok, superciliousness, fueled by racist arrogance, might partly explain why they behave so, but we cannot discount the possibilities that they simply lack the education, the culture, and the home training required for civilized behavior, especially in encounters with other cultures. The question needs to be asked how the Collective West ended up with the current gaggle of clowns holding positions of responsibility? … It didn’t use to be like this. The West was once great. I should know; I studied there.
Harsh, but an interesting perspective. A key difference between the US and some major countries is that in the US the top levels of the State Department are political appointees. Having watched career US diplomats first hand, there are some fantastically knowledgeable people working in that field, able to balance US interests with an understanding of history and a concern for the legitimate interests of other peoples. But unfortunately that does not extend to political appointees, who by and large lack those skills and tend to view everything through the lens of domestic politics. It’s a complex problem (yeah, I say that a lot), and one a serious President and Congress would try to address and find a better balance between political accountability, the ability of a President to direct foreign policy, the long term interests of the US, and the essential skills, knowledge, and experience that only comes from years – even decades – of experience.
PS – Please don’t use this space to debate the Progress Pride or Pride flags and domestic policy issues. Such posts will be deleted unless they are respectful and relevant to the Ukraine/Foreign Policy realms.
This Washington Post article (via msn) captures a lot of what is not just wrong, but completely bonkers about US foreign policy. The headline: “US gambles on Russia’s Empty Threats” (link goes to article). I don’t even know where to start on this. Over the last 20 years Russia has on multiple occasions told the US “if you do X we will do Y.” Not taking them seriously, the US goes ahead with “X”, and Russia then does”Y.” Here’s just a few of the most obvious examples:
2008: if Georgia continues to attack South Ossetia we will intervene. 2014: if Ukraine threatens our bases in Crimea we will intervene. 2016: if the US continues to support the SDF/AQIL in Syria we will intervene. 2021: if Ukraine does not implement Minsk II agreement we will intervene.
In each case, Russia drew a bright line and said “if you cross it here is how we will respond” and in each case the West, led by the US, dismissed it as an empty threat. And in each case Russia did pretty much exactly what they said they would.
That’s not to take sides with Russia, but to point out that the attitude displayed in the article is delusional. It is vital to keep in mind that this conflict didn’t start overnight. Originally Russia was only insisting that their basing rights and the rights of ethnic Russians, be respected within the Ukrainian state, as well as that Ukraine not be turned into a base to threaten Russia. Only when those demands (many of which were reasonable, or at least a basis for negotiation) were ignored did they begin to take action. You can’t really argue they weren’t very clear this was going to happen, and that we didn’t really try to avoid it. Worse, if you read the articles written by several top administration officials, you will see key people in the US foreign policy establishment actually thought this conflict would be a good thing for the US, so rather than respond to Russian demands the US simply doubled down on the most inflammatory behavior. Rather perverse and heartless, considering the suffering it has inflicted on the people of Ukraine and increasingly elsewhere.
Whatever you may think about Russia or the present situation in Ukraine, Russia has been very clear about both “red lines” and paths forward. In each case the US has either not responded at all to the proposed paths forward, responded with ultimatums, or been otherwise dismissive. These previous gambles that Russia was bluffing have not paid off, so you would think by now that when Russia delivers a formal démarche demanding we stop supplying weapons to Ukraine, we would take it seriously. Yet the US continues to roll the bones … with very little chance of a “positive” outcome, the mostly likely outcome at best being more suffering in Ukraine, and the price if we really miscalculate the potential for nuclear war. It’s insanity.
I couldn’t decide on an appropriate image to accompany this depressing post, so here’s a picture of one of the вежливые люди (“Polite People”) of the DPR Militia and a rescue…
It’s amazing how many pictures there are of soldiers on all sides of this thing with cats. Except for one particularly noxious regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard – which makes sense, animals can tell. Speaking of which, the story that the Ukrainians are using cats to detect Russian sniper lasers is false.
Important note: the above images are not to make light of this situation, but to further highlight the madness of this whole situation and point out that humans are capable of such compassion, and yet such stupidity and cruelty. I’ve seen many cases where hardened soldiers melt over animals caught up in wars, just as I’ve seen the same inflict horrors on their fellow humans. As I often repeat, wars are sometimes unavoidable, but this one was almost certainly avoidable without compromising our beliefs or world standing. Very definition of tragedy.
“Cannot say. Saying, I would know. Do not know, so cannot say.” – Zathras, Babylon 5.
Zathras was one of the many fascinating characters in the mid/late 1990’s science fiction series “Babylon 5.” A lot of the series revolved around the diplomatic/military relationships between various races and their star empires. Although like most series it has some slow episodes, the arc of the story and characters are interesting and worth the effort. In looking at several of the disasters facing humanity, an awful lot of people should take Zarthras’ advice and resort to “not saying.”
The first crisis is of course Ukraine. I haven’t posted a lot on it lately for a couple of reasons. First, it’s become almost impossible to have a rational discussion about it given the near unprecedented level of propaganda and emotion-laden narratives flooding the media. Second, while I think I’ve got a fairly good grasp of what is going on, it is a slowly evolving situation that just isn’t really conducive to rapid, day by day reporting. Truly, the Tao this is perceived is not the true Tao. For what it’s worth, I don’t have much to add to my post from April 3rd other than to say the time line is perhaps a bit slower than the original “90 day” plan. If by mid/late June major combat operations have not ended with Russia in control of “novorossiya” then we can start to talk about a failure of the operation. I suspect we are about to see a rapid shift in the situation in the coming 7-14 days (and not what you might think from the US media) but we shall see. There are lots of nuances and details over all this, and we are living in a time where the risk of civilization changing events are literally moments away, but the information space is so contaminated I think resorting to “not saying” is probably the smartest move at this point.
The pandemic is another of these slow moving disasters that isn’t really conducive to day by day, even week by week reporting. There is a lot of data about the new variants, and it seems that a combination of vaccination, decreased virulence (mortality) of the circulating virus, and sad to say the deaths of those most vulnerable to the virus and its secondary effects means we are likely reaching a stable situation where the virus will continue to circulate and like a predator attack those most vulnerable. With respect to the global response, there are a lot of lessons learned, and I’m working on an article on that I hope to post in a couple of weeks (waiting on the final data from the Omicron surge to settle down). China seems to be freaking out again, but may be relaxing the draconian lock downs in places like Shanghai. Was that justified? Time will tell (even if it doesn’t make the news).
Climate change is of course another background, slow moving crisis. Hurricane season is approaching, and we should have better seasonal forecasts as we move deeper into spring and the “spring barrier” is behind us. That’s another post coming up in the next week or so.
Time and patience are in short supply in our sound bite, tweet driven society, so here is one final bit of wisdom from Zathras: “Can not run out of time. There is infinite time. You are finite. Zathras is finite. — This is wrong tool. No. No. Not good. No. No. Never use this.“
One of the things that needs repeating given 24/7 news channels, the social media treadmill, tweets and so forth is that the pace of events in the real world isn’t governed by the news or social media cycle. Unfortunately, that doesn’t feed the media beast, so events and information are distorted to fit the cycle, and it results in the average person focusing on isolated, emotionally engaging, easily digestible bits rather than the much more complex big picture. The ridiculous “real time” COVID death counters were a classic example. We see this again with the Ukraine special operation/invasion. Things are moving at their own pace, and most of the “breaking news” banners are unjustified: they are more about keeping you engaged and enraged than informed.
In watching the news here in the US, I still haven’t decided to what extent this is one of the best propaganda campaigns in history, or a frightening example of the worst group-think exercise of all time. Of course, the truth is somewhere in the middle and it is a mixture of both with the occasional element of truth thrown in when convenient. (No, Russian Media isn’t any better, just a different biased perspective.) But that’s a different and more complex rant. This post is about the progress and pace of the conflict, which is on the order of weeks and months rather than days (much less hours), where things might be headed, and another caution about being manipulated by the horror of war.
It is disappointing to see the amateurish attempts at analyzing Russian strategy in the US media. They are almost uniformly based on several key assumptions that are most likely wrong. I hope internally the US Government has a better picture, but I have concerns over that. In any event, the public misconceptions are clear. First, the assumption behind much of the commentary is that Russia intended to occupy most or all of Ukraine and overthrow the government, and has been stymied. Second, that the Russians had numerical superiority. Third, they are assuming Russian forces are being used and deployed in a similar way that US forces have been in recent US military operations. As Russian forces are re-positioning from the two salients threatening Kiev and shifting east and south, two new narratives are being pushed: retreat and atrocities. What is really going on? It’s hard to say for sure, but here’s a shot at a coherent picture.
First let’s look at the overall Russian strategy. As noted in previous posts, based on both public and private statements from Russian sources,it seems the primary goals of the operation were to stop the civil war and ongoing ethnic cleansing, destroy the ultra-nationalist (and, yes, Nazi affiliated) elements especially in eastern Ukraine, and delay or prevent Ukraine from becoming a member of NATO with NATO bases moving in to that strategic area. Secondary goals were to force the US/NATO/EU in to negotiating a more stable European security environment, further disrupt the US stranglehold on the global financial system, and disrupt US efforts at “regime change” directed at Russia itself. That still seems to be the case.
I was surprised and thrown off a bit by the sharp initial advances towards Kiev in the early days. However, it has became clearer after the second week that the number of Russian troops involved in the push towards Kiev was in fact pretty limited, and this was likely a classic (if expensive) feint designed to pin down Ukrainian forces and test their resolve. All the while Phase I was under way, the elimination of Ukrainian command/control, logistics and air defenses was underway, along with consolidation and isolation of the units in the East. The same for the amphibious forces roving offshore from Odessa: to keep forces that could move east pinned down as their logistics and air defense assets were depleted. Those of you familiar with military strategy and tactics are aware that, in general, you want a significant local superiority before attacking – generally 3:1 is a minimum. Of course a lot goes in to that calculation, including the technical advantages of your hardware, not just raw numbers of troops engaged. Overall, it seems Russia is conducting this operation using an economy of force – they are outnumbered in Ukraine roughly 2:1. They have been successful (using their metrics, not ours) in the sense of destroying much of the ability of the Ukrainian military to maneuver, while, with a numerically inferior force, encircling the majority of the combat potential of Ukraine. This was Phase I. Phase II will be the ultimate destruction and consolidation of the bulk of the Ukrainian forces arrayed against Donbas. Phase III? Don’t know for sure – for whatever reason, Vladimir Vladimirovich isn’t in the habit of sharing his plans with me.
So for what it’s worth, it is my impression is that Operation Z is moving forward more or less on the planned (if not hoped for) pace. What I mean by that is there was hope by the Russians that the Ukrainian military would collapse. There is disappointment over that, but I don’t think it was entirely unexpected. It seems that the plan from the beginning was for a longer term (90 day by some Russian sources) operation and that is what we are seeing playing out. We are now entering Phase II: the final destruction of the offensive combat potential of the Ukrainian military in the east, the destruction of the remaining NATO infrastructure, and the establishment of a “buffer” in eastern Ukraine. Luhansk and Donets have already said they will vote on asking entry into the Russian Federation (also, lost in the noise over all this, South Ossetia, the disputed region from the 2008 Georgia-Russia conflict, is also scheduling a vote on admission into the RF). In the map below the orange areas should see the bulk of this next phase on the ground – but I expect air and missile attacks will continue, and likely intensify, in other areas especially the resupply corridors in the west.
As I have been saying for some time, I think the Russian end game is a partition of Ukraine along its somewhat “natural” fault lines of east and west. Exactly where those lines “could” or “should” lie has shifted since the 2008/2010 time frame due to the massive anti-Russian campaign leading up to and subsequent to the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in 2014, not to mention the ethnic cleansing during the last eight years of civil war. I’m not entirely sure that Russia has appreciated the demographic shift in Ukraine, and the changes in some areas. That said I still suspect that by summer the situation will look something like the following map. I don’t know if that area in purple (I’m calling it a “Z Phase III”) is going to be occupied. The argument for it is to complete the land bridge to Russian friendly and affiliated Transnistria, “liberate” the traditionally Russian area of Odessa (how Russian it is after all this is in question), and isolate the remainder of Ukraine and inevitable subsequent NATO buildup from the Black Sea. The argument against is leaving those areas in Ukraine would be a good bargaining chip to ensure neutrality and improve the economic viability and independence of a new “reduced” neutral state of Ukraine. Hard to say, and I suspect the plans are in place to go either way, and the choice is awaiting events.
I don’t think Russia ever had the overthrow of Zelenskii, much less entering western Ukraine, as a specific goal unless Ukraine totally collapsed. If the Zelenskii government is willing (and able – a different question) to move towards stopping the civil war and becoming neutral Russia would be fine with that – in fact, Russian sources have said Zelenskii remaining is preferred to confer some level of legitimacy on the outcome. If not, then, yes, replacement of the current government of Ukraine becomes a goal. However I’m not sure Zelenskii or his government can survive this. I think the ultra-nationalistic forces (who have apparently already assassinated a number of officials who have tried to advocate compromise) will not permit compromise. They are not a majority in Ukraine, but they control the majority of the guns.
This does bring up a related issue – the Nazi factor. While Russia has certainly been exaggerating them as a reason/justification for the invasion since it plays well in Russia …
those who say they are not a factor are either lying or ignorant …
As I have often said, the question of the Nazi/neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalism in post-communist eastern Europe is complex. Unlike Germany and Western Europe (which, to be fair, still struggles with fascistic extremism, as does the US and even Russia), Eastern Europe never really came to terms with their complicity with Nazi Germany. So don’t fall in to either of these traps, denying they exist and underestimating their impact, or exaggerating their influence.
So how does this end? Hard to say – whatever happens, it may not be quick unless there is a breakthrough of some kind or collapse by one of the parties. The key now is to bring this conflict to an end in a way that contributes to future stability – not lays the groundwork for ongoing instability or a worse conflict in the near future. I think the least bad outcome is a partition something like the above. To be clear, as I have said many times, we’re well beyond any hope of “best” by now (“Best” would have been allowing Ukraine to chart a neutral path as a bridge between Russia and Europe without forcing it to take sides, but that opportunity has passed).
On atrocities and war crimes: war is always horrific on civilians. I’ve always thought the very term “war crime” was intellectually dishonest: almost all wars are a crime, usually by both sides – and of course you almost never see the crimes perpetrated by your side. War may sometimes become necessary at some point (usually due hubris and failures of diplomacy), but they are never fully “good” or “just.” The line between deliberate targeting and just caught in the crossfire is often a matter of perspective and propaganda. Given the incredible toll on civilians of recent US conflicts (including the unbelievable harm inflicted on innocent children by embargoes, sanctions, and “regime change” operations since 1991), it is an incredible level of hypocrisy for the US media to focus on the humanitarian impacts of the Russian operations in Ukraine without some perspective.
I have no doubt horrible things are being perpetrated by both sides in this conflict. Certainly Russia uses calculated brutality to try to bring operations to a conclusion in a way the US hesitates to do directly (but often does indirectly). It is also apparent that, using US standards applied in other circumstances, Ukrainian forces have been using civilians as “human shields” precisely to make Russia look as bad as possible. Is one side worse than the other? That is an open question at the moment and for history to decide – one which should take in to account the broader picture in the context of the civil war in Ukraine that has caused thousands of direct and indirect casualties. As near as I can tell, this operation is not significantly more harmful than some US inspired operations, and is nowhere near the worst the world has seen in the last few decades.
That’s not a criticism, endorsement, or justification: that’s just a perspective on how horrible wars are. If you haven’t been in one, you just can’t know. It’s only different levels of horror, not “good” or “bad.”
Wars are an ugly business. But something else is true: both sides are playing up atrocities (including several that are almost certainly fake) to gin up support and justify their actions. So be very cautious about the carefully crafted views of this conflict that are designed to sway your emotions and bum-rush you into supporting otherwise unwise policies and agendas not in the best interests of world peace and stability (much less your own well being).
For someone who came of age in the 1980’s and studied nuclear war professionally this poll is nearly unbelievable. I am afraid that both the general public and our leadership have forgotten what the consequences of a nuclear war might be, and how one might start. Sadly this is not a uniquely American phenomena. Even the German Green Party, founded in large part as peace party opposing nuclear weapons, has essentially abandoned their opposition to nuclear weapons. Green Party co-leader (and now German Foreign Minister) Annalena Baerbock said last December “We stand by our responsibility within the framework of NATO and the EU and also for nuclear participation;” the removal of nuclear weapons from Germany is no longer a key demand.
In America I suspect three main forces are at work that have mitigated concerns over conflicts escalating into a nuclear exchange, and obscured the potential impacts of a nuclear war:
Americans have been insulated from war, and are seeing the war in Ukraine as they haven’t seen recent wars, especially the impact on civilians of urban warfare. Such imagery was deliberately downplayed during US interventions in Iraq and recent wars such as Libya, Syria, Yugoslavia, or the nearly daily slaughter in Yemen taking place even today, much less the ongoing carnage of the eight year long civil war in Donbas that, according to Russia, this “Special Military Operation” is trying to bring to an end. These heartbreaking images are provoking an emotional reaction and pressure to “do something” without fully considering if that “something” is making things worse, or potentially leading to catastrophe.
I suspect the leadership of this country is wrongly thinking that nuclear weapons are more manageable, and that the nuclear threshold is not a bright line, but that a nuclear exchange can be kept tactical or even limited without becoming strategic (tactical, limited, and strategic are terms of art described below). This is primarily due to the availability of lower, selectable yield weapons (even sub-kiloton devices) in concert with precision delivery systems. That, in concert with doctrines (plans) for their use, has lowered the threshold and, in the minds of US planners, created multiple thresholds that can be managed.
Americans have forgotten what a nuclear war might be like. The days of movies like “The Day After” or “War Games” are 40 years ago, much less the “duck and cover” exercises of the 50’s and 60’s, and after 1991 and the “end of history” and the fall of the Soviet Union, a general nuclear war became an abstract concept. When we think of nuclear weapons at all, it is as as one-off terrorist devices or a couple from a rogue state, not a peer-on-peer conflict.
I don’t want to start another argument on how we got here, and if or how responsible the West is or isn’t for the betrayal and tragedy of Ukraine. You can read my other blog posts on that if you haven’t already, starting at this link. The first point above, that this conflict is being played up in ways comparable or worse conflicts have not, is also way too complex to delve in to here. Let’s just look at points two and three because they are the most immediate issues. I have discussed the problem of the lowering of the nuclear threshold before, and the deployment of the W-76-2 warhead on our nuclear missile submarines (link). That post also discusses the schools of thought around nuclear weapons employment (MAD and NUTS) and a critical aspect that seems to be missing from the discussion: how Russia will react. One flaw I have seen repeatedly over the last two decades of dealing with Russia (as well as other countries) is the implicit assumption that their priorities and worldview are the same as ours. Often they aren’t.
Three terms of art need to be defined here. In simple terms, a “tactical” nuclear weapon (or use of a nuclear weapon in a tactical context) means battlefield use, targeting only direct combatants. It has the potential to change the battle space fairly radically; an adversary can no longer mass forces as those become a convenient target. It also can change the geography of the battlefield with cratering and residual radiation that makes movement difficult. A “limited” nuclear exchange is generally assumed to mean somewhat wider use – strikes deeper into an adversaries territory at key logistic sites, airfields, or ports, but avoiding (as much as possible) targets where large numbers of civilians might be directly harmed, but of course “indirect” harm becomes increasingly a factor. A general or strategic exchange is what most people think of as a nuclear war – with large, 200 kiloton or greater devices employed against entire cities, with the goal of destroying the target society.
The problem is, of course, that the lines between these three general levels are pretty gray in places, especially when it comes to a theoretical US(NATO) vs Russia conflict. Very few Russian aircraft, for example, have actually entered Ukrainian airspace; they are using standoff weapons and even artillery and surface to surface missiles are firing from inside Russia itself. Consider that in order to be effective any intervention in Ukraine by the US would require striking inside Russia itself. Some of these sites would be difficult to neutralize using conventional weapons, and the temptation to use one of the new generation kiloton or smaller weapons would become enormous as US casualties mounted. Even a conventional weapons strike inside Russia would, according to Russian doctrine, trigger strikes on US bases in the US in reply (it is unreasonable to think the US could hit Russian territory without them responding in kind, yet that is what some US planners assume!). And they have a number of weapons systems capable of doing that, either conventionally or nuclear.
Shortly after becoming President, the Reagan Administration conducted a highly classified exercise that has only recently become somewhat public. Known as “Proud Prophet 1983,” it had a profound impact on President Reagan and his team. What this war game discovered was that every scenario attempting to limit a nuclear conflict ended up in a general, strategic exchange at some point. In other words, tactical use led to limited use and from there a general nuclear war ensued. It so disturbed the administration that they changed their public rhetoric around the confrontation with the Soviet Union, and ultimately help lead to the INF treaty and a stable end to the Cold War. You can read more about “Proud Prophet” and its impact here on Wikipedia. It’s a fascinating story, one that is even today not well known or told in its entirety. The point here is that it is hubris to expect we can prevent a tactical nuclear exchange from escalating into a general exchange.
As for how bad a nuclear conflict might be, and why nuclear weapons are different, this summary by MIT is worth reading. Even a limited nuclear exchange would prove catastrophic for our societies, and potentially the entire planet. I fear the hard lessons of the Cold War with respect to both the impacts of nuclear wars, and how to manage conflicts in a bi-polar or multi-polar world, have been forgotten. No matter how terrible you think the situation in Ukraine has become (and make no mistake, the suffering of civilians in urban war zones is utterly horrific – I know, I’ve been in them), they pale in comparison to the impacts of even a tactical nuclear exchange. We must also consider that such an exchange would probably unravel what little stability is left in global supply chains, the financial system, international relations, and so forth. The consequences are to an extent unforeseeable – but almost certainly horrific.
In conclusion, even assuming that everything that is being said about Ukraine in the western narrative is true, our leaders should be acting in such a way as to avoid a nuclear confrontation. The consequences of even a limited nuclear exchange with Russia are just too extreme. I suspect that is why Biden has so far said a no-fly zone is off the table, but unfortunately he is playing a dangerous game by giving in to pressure (and prolonging the agony of Ukrainian civilians) by continuing to provide lower levels of weapons, support, and the hope of future intervention. If you fully accept the US version of events, or believe it is a bit more complex and nuanced doesn’t matter at this point: we have to deescalate and avoid a nuclear conflict.
Deescalation does not mean “allowing further Russian aggression”. Assuming you accept the US position and “narrative”, it makes a lot more sense to do something we never actually did in Ukraine: draw a very bright line and say “no farther,” and putting substantial US forces on the line. Of course that line already exists: the existing NATO countries, and those deployments are underway. An “Iron Curtain 2.0” will descend, with a “Cold War 2.0” along with it, and it won’t be good for either side, but strategic stability would return with it.
So as upsetting as the imagery and narrative from Ukraine is, realize a nuclear conflict is nearly infinitely worse. Make sure our leaders know that must be the priority.
We’re seeing an increasing drumbeat of horrible stories out of the war zone, such as today’s “breaking news” of a bombing of a hospital in Mariupol. The stories you are seeing in the Western media blaming Russia are matched with stories in the Russian media showing atrocities being committed by the Ukrainian military and associated militias against their own people. Which are true? Probably elements of both. Which are lies? Yeah, you guessed it: probably elements of both.
There is only one truth of this: War is utterly horrific for those caught in the middle. Unfortunately, those horrors are often used as propaganda tools. Perhaps sometimes it’s justified, but you have to be very careful; in this case, it’s suicidal.
I’m not saying the hospital bombing story isn’t real (it certainly is, although who did it may be in some doubt), but I am about to say it doesn’t matter, because this isn’t Iraq, or even Nazi Germany in World War II. The stakes are far higher, and the situation more risky.
In short, DON’T BE STAMPEDED IN TO SUPPORTING DANGEROUS, POTENTIALLY CIVILIZATION ENDING POLICIES BASED ON HEARTBREAKING STORIES!
Even if the incident is what it appears, the harsh but vital question becomes, is intervention worth the risk of a global nuclear war? This is a massive policy failure no matter how you look at it. Despite the rhetoric, there were no red lines on our part that said to Russia “this and no further” like there are with the NATO countries. Our credibility on that isn’t on the line.
We can argue over past policy all day. It is well known that I think that had we not been interfering, pumping weapons in, and giving Ukraine reason to believe we would intervene so that they felt no need to compromise, while simultaneously creating enough strategic ambiguity that we would not intervene so that Russia made the calculation they did, things would have gone very differently (as in probably no war at all). But it’s too late for that now. All we can do is not make things worse. Given how bad it is, that’s a hard thing to say.
We simply cannot allow this to escalate into a direct US-Russia confrontation – there is just too much danger of a nuclear war. Then none of it matters. With this incident you’re hearing even more talk of a no-fly zone. And the warheads on TV are saying we can pull it off. They are wrong: a no-fly zone would be not just a step down the road to nuclear Armageddon, it would be a full-out sprint for the cliff. Even continuing to pump in military aid is only making the situation more dangerous, inflaming tensions, and getting innocent people killed. There is really only one thing we can do. Push Ukraine to negotiate, shut off the weapons flow, and rebuild the Iron Curtain 2.0.
Yes, that means sacrificing Ukraine.
I know what that means, but the alternatives at this point are worse, not only for the people of Ukraine, but the world, with an economic system on the verge of catastrophic collapse, much less the nuclear threat. Some will say we will be betraying the people of Ukraine, but really that betrayal happened a long time ago. We also betrayed the people of Russia, starting in the mid 1990’s – but nobody seems to want to talk about that. Again, from the standpoint of what to do in the next hours, days and months, it doesn’t matter at this point. We’ve got to stabilize this situation, fast, or it’s going to end in an outright US-Russia military confrontation, and no matter how you game it, that almost always goes nuclear.
A number of people online, not to mention the media, have questioned if Putin is rational, and the push-back against those who say he is has been intense. I think there is a lot of anger, propaganda, and more importantly a failure to understand how that term is used in various contexts that clouds the issue. Unfortunately a lot of people use the term “rational” to mean “agrees with or thinks like me.” Of course that’s not what it means. It may surprise you to know it doesn’t really even mean “makes good/optimal decisions.”
When I and other geopolitical/intelligence analysts use the term “rational”, we are mostly using it within the context of Rational Choice Theory as meaning a Rational Actor. Some of you may be familiar with the term as it is used in Economics (the basic underlying theory goes back to Adam Smith). Parallel related theories have emerged in political science and other fields such as international relations and military analysis. What follows is simplified, but hopefully introduces some background in the context of geopolitics. To be sure it is not a perfect analysis method for various human behaviors, and there are lots of variations such as bounded rationality, and folks get in to poo throwing contests over the details, but it’s a good start.
In short, a rational actor does a benefit/cost analysis of various options and selects the option that maximizes that benefit/cost ratio. However, hidden within that simple statement are a lot of factors such as the framework and values in which the calculations of “benefit” and “cost” are made, the amount and quality of information available to the actor, and so forth.
Rational Choice Theory, and the determination if someone is a Rational Actor within that theory, is extremely important. You can predict and potentially change the behavior of a rational actor by taking actions that change the factors the actor uses in their calculation. A non-rational actor is in contrast dangerous and unpredictable. Note there is no moral judgement involved here. Hitler pre circa 1942 or so was a “rational actor” (later not so much), especially if you factored in the importance of his ideology. Repugnant to be sure, but, within the context of Rational Choice Theory, rational. Likewise, Gandhi was a rational actor – yet you could not find two different individuals or moral systems.
It should be evident that a rational actor, working in a framework different from the analyst, may decide a given course of action is rational, whereas someone who has a different framework may see it as irrational (strictly speaking, if moral values are involved, distasteful or even evil are words often used in that case). Information also plays in to this. Time frame also matters; what is “rational” in the short term may be “irrational” or sub optimal in the long term, and vice versa. So “rational decisions” can easily be bad decisions, not just because of a flawed moral framework, or bad information, especially when they depend on the “rational” decisions of other actors.
So it is vital to realize that you can’t always assume other actors are working within the same framework, time frames, and with the same information that you are. IMNSHO this has been the greatest failure in US Foreign Policy over the last 30 years, be it in the Middle East or with Russia. We take actions that would result in a certain outcome by assuming that the other actors hold to our values, and we make assumptions as to their information space that are not valid.
It is far too complex to go in to detail a lot of detail here, but when you look at Putin’s actions within the framework of modern Russia and its environment, his actions thus far are “rational”. We may not like them, but they make sense to him and those around him. And this is my frustration, that we could have worked with him, within his worldview, to prevent the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine. By discounting his actions as irrational, we absolve ourselves of the need to negotiate or compromise, and that makes the world a lot more dangerous place.
Reducing these kinds of things to mathematics and logic, be they hurricanes or wars, isn’t always popular. I have been criticized for being “emotionless” about this stuff, and sadly neutrality in this case is often seen as siding with Russia given the tremendous bias present in the Western information space. Anyone who knows me, and what I have been through in my life, knows that nothing could be further from the truth. As noted in a previous post, I feel all this very deeply – I’ve seen war firsthand. But what is also true is that I have learned to try to use a careful mix of logic and empathy when analyzing these situations, and not let either get out of control. That is essential in trying to figure out policies that minimize human suffering while maximizing human dignity. It is simply not possible to do that while angry, in a politically charged environment, saturated by propaganda. And anyone who thinks there is always a good outcome is delusional. Sometimes there are no good outcomes. Trying too hard to change complex, dangerous situations for the “better” can be very risky. Noble sometimes, selfish more often than we would like to think, but risky.
Sadly, especially in geopolitics, all we can hope to do is try to make things less worse, while laying the groundwork for a better tomorrow. That is increasingly impossible in our complex world and flawed systems of governance that rely on manipulation through emotional triggers rather than rational analysis guided by empathy – but that’s a different post.
Of course, we communicate the same way, far more than we realize. If you’ve ever studied a foreign language you quickly learn (sometimes the hard way!) that every language has local idioms, phrases that have a figurative meaning far beyond their literal translation. In addition, we often communicate complex concepts by referencing some common cultural phenomena. The Bible used to be a key binding element in our society, today movies and TV are far more likely to be used. Saying “It’s not my fault!” in a certain tone of voice has a lot more meaning to someone who has seen the original Star Wars movie than someone not familiar with that film.
These metaphors can be a useful and fast way of conveying information. History is also used as a metaphor to quickly convey someone’s position or viewpoint on a subject. Invoking Munich, for example, conveys a flood of concepts: hubris, compromise with evil, etc. The problem is that used inappropriately or taken too literally, it can misrepresent a situation. The past isn’t always a good guide to the present, and the nuances of the situation matter, often a lot. Images like Munich and the Invasion of Poland, which has been invoked a lot in the last 72 hours, intentionally convey a lot of emotion along with meaning. But are they accurate depictions of the current crisis? Or are they designed more to manipulate than inform?
I highly recommend two books on the Cuban Missile Crisis for those interested in how decisions are made behind the scenes in a crisis (well, used to be; not so sure the process works so well with the last few Administrations.). The first (links to Amazon) is “One Hell of a Gamble“, the second is “The Kennedy Tapes,” which contains actual transcripts of the meetings in the White House during the crisis. One interesting thread is how the participants used metaphors and references to shared historical events like Munich, Pearl Harbor, and so forth, and how these events haunted the decision making. Would compromise with Khrushchev be seen as a new Munich? Would no-notice military action on Cuba to destroy the missiles be seen as a Pearl Harbor type sneak attack by the US, hurting our credibility? What was Khrushchev thinking? The participants struggle with all this, and discussed how much (or little) those events were similar to the crisis in which they found themselves.
If there is any common thread to this blog and the message I try to convey, it is this: the world is hideously complex, and it can be very dangerous to try to over simplify situations, or crowbar a difficult concept into a simple sound bite or 140 character Tweet. This is especially true when it comes to foreign policy.
Beware of those who try to make things black and white, or overly similar to the past. Metaphor only gets you so far. Make those who say Russia is wrong, and their actions unjustified, prove it, and treat them as skeptically as you should those who argue Russia is in the right. And realize the truth is probably somewhere in between … and that whatever the parties do, it should be always with an eye towards long term international stability and peace in the interests of all of the parties (including the innocent people caught in the middle), and not just expedient political measures based on domestic concerns.
As I write this (5:30am Tuesday) it seems Russian forces are moving into the areas of eastern Ukraine that declared independence in 2014. This is likely the prelude to the ultimate storm, depending on where these forces ultimately deploy, and how Ukrainian forces react. I suspect the more ultra-nationalist elements within the Ukrainian armed forces will open fire and trigger a violent “shock and awe” exercise by Russia. Domestically, the posturing is well underway, and before the military situation escalates further and dominates the discussions, I’d like to say a few words about patriotism.
I’ve written before about Civil War General (later Senator and Secretary of the Interior) Carl Schurz. His most famous remark is probably related to a toast by Commodore Stephen Decatur, and while often abbreviated, is vital to repeat in whole: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” On these pages are a lot of words that, to a politically biased or casual reader, might seem to support Russia in general and Putin specifically. I’ve spent my life as an analyst, and my primary role is to understand situations from an unbiased perspective. That is often uncomfortable – people love to hear about the flaws and mistakes of the “other,” but really don’t like looking in the mirror. It is especially difficult when the “other” isn’t the most savory of characters, and has some problematic aspects. But the truth is the truth, and we owe it to ourselves and the future to hold ourselves to fixed standards without regard to the actions of the “other.” Saying “they are worse” is a dangerous track – especially when it blinds you to just how bad your own actions are, and can lead you down a path where, to an objective observer, you’re not only not “better than the other,” you have become the same or worse. Sadly, I fear this is where we have gone.
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of comments accusing anyone who points out the legitimacy of some of Russia’s positions or actions in this crisis as Kremlin Apologists, Putin Fans, or other derogatory labels. Yes, there are some who seem to gravitate towards authoritarian figures, or reflexively support anyone who the “mainstream” seems to demonize. But there are solid reasons to be extremely disturbed by the actions of the Government of the United States that led us to this point (link to rant last year about this). It is no disservice to point out that much of the blame for the current situation lies with three decades of failed post cold war leadership provided by the current and previous five Presidents. Given the power the US wielded in that time frame, the catastrophic state of the global political situation largely lies at the door of the Congress and White House, and the middle finger of blame points equally at both political parties. Trying to smear those who think that the US is on the wrong track with the broad brush of the odious Tucker Carlsons or tRump MAGA fanatics is a political tactic to avoid facing responsibility for these failures, and paths to resolving the difficult problems created as a result.
It has become fashionable to imply that even trying to understand a contrary point of view is wrong. In today’s politically charged environment, it also invites the accusation of having sympathy for that point of view, especially if understanding the contrary point of view acknowledges the validity of some of the points they make. This is utterly absurd. The entire basis for negotiation is to seek out and find points of agreement and valid points of commonality. To fail to understand the “other” and demonize them is to destroy the negotiation process before it even starts. We see this domestically in discussions of race, economics, and other hot topic issues, and it is a point that Russia has made forcefully in the last two months – that the US fails to substantively respond to or acknowledge their concerns. Saying the “other” is illegitimate may be expedient politically, but it is toxic from the standpoint of getting things done.
There are dangerous times ahead. Please don’t fall into the trap of reflexively ignoring voices that are contrary to the mainstream (especially Government sponsored) narrative, or likewise agreeing with the leaders of your political tribe without critical thinking because their carefully crafted words fit your preconceptions. And be especially careful about projecting domestic political fights into this complex international crisis. This situation is messy enough without overlaying our woke vs. MAGA madness on it …
Watching President Putin’s speech (on both Russia-1 and CNN, until I cut off CNN in disgust) recognizing the independence of the Luhansk and Donets regions that broke away from Ukraine in 2014, and now he is signing mutual aid agreements with the LPR and DPR. That means that Russia now has the formal legal basis to intervene. Now, I’ll bet that isn’t how this will be spun in the US media. You will be told that it has been Russia that started this, but take a look at this map generated this weekend by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (who, if anything, are biased against Russia). These are artillery impact locations (explosions) and cease fire violations.
If you look at this and other reports recently, the vast majority of violations have been directed at the areas that declared independence. This is in violation of the Minsk II accords, and to be blunt clearly places the Government of Ukraine (and their backers) in the wrong. So the feces is about to hit the air moving device. Before jumping to conclusions, and buying in to the propaganda (especially, I’m sad to say, coming from the US/NATO side), please read up on the history of how we got here (link to long background post). As I’ve said elsewhere, I understand why the US wants Ukraine to commit “suicide by bear,” I just don’t understand why Ukraine (other than the minority of ultra-right, neo Nazi groups) wants to.
I was infuriated at the CNN coverage, that for a while I had on in the background. The real time translation was horrible, and the cutaway to a “reporter” halfway that called Putin’s review of history a “diatribe” was unprofessional. To be sure his view of history was biased, but it was an interesting and a not entirely wrong depiction. The reporting was typically shallow as well- but that’s the state of “journalism” in the US these days. And it’s helping to push us into yet another unnecessary war, only this time it isn’t with a fourth or fifth rate power like Iraq, it is with a peer military that may well have the edge in certain conventional systems – not to mention nukes. Hopefully the US/NATO has the sense to not make this worse by trying to intervene in a big way and turn it in to a general conflict, but wait for the Russian intervention to stabilize things. As I’ve said repeatedly I don’t expect Russia to conquer all of Ukraine, only the eastern areas (aka Novorossiya).