I have not been overly concerned about the situation In Ukraine until the last 48 hours. Concerned as in believing it really was more than it should be. The rapid move to remove Russia from SWIFT and deny Russian flagged commercial carriers (air and maritime) access over the weekend along with when the EU committed to delivering military aircraft to Ukraine yesterday, the stakes greatly rose.
Nobody is acting rationally in this. By that I am not saying war itself is irrational, that would be naive. I mean there are rational ways that nations deal with these sorts of things.
Russia’s plan for Ukraine has appeared irrational – too slow, not decisive enough, perhaps it relied upon the idea that Ukraine would crumble. We cannot know, but we know it looks irrational at this point, it makes no sense. But we do not have the full picture.
NATO’s reaction before and since Russia crossed the border has been irrational – better stated it appears irrational. Threats and hardlines with no chance for de-escalation absent Russia simply backing down. That is a sophies choice, it is a hardline negotiating tactic. Considering the stakes, it is irrational.
But we must consider. Almost everything Western leaders have done over the last two years appears irrational, but I suspect all of that too was only an appearance. They cannot all just be idiots, something else is going on.
I woke up last night, struck with the thought that this is the first time in my entire life that the possibility, the very notion, that nuclear weapons could be used is a possibility. I joined the military at the very tail end of the Cold War and even then I thought the idea impossible. If we look at the corner Putin is in, the apparent pickle of a sticky situation with no way out but through, and then understand what “through” means then the notion that a nuclear exchange is possible, actually gains traction. I have never had such a thought in my entire life.
I do not, however, believe that all of the actors in this are being nearly as irrational as they appear. I believe each side has calculated, rationally, outcomes, actions, and reactions. One or both sides may be wrong, but they are not just incompetent or irrational. If what I just said is true, then it means what is occurring has significantly more meaning to each side than all the analysts and experts on social media understand. Something is at play; something is in a conflict that is much larger than Ukraine. Some of us might suspect we know what that something is.
I suspect that Putin knew these sanctions, financial exclusion and all the others were possible, perhaps even NATO direct “covert” action such as the delivery of airframes yesterday (with pilots we assume). What is his ace card? What was his plan to mitigate what was likely? Was it just the threat of nuclear weapons? I do not think so.
Is China his hold card? Will they come through for him, or will they Kazakhstan him? It is a bad thing to get into a scuffle and watch your erstwhile allies stand to the side. Must their help be of the kinetic sort or does he perhaps believe that his economy and theirs is enough to stand alone? I do not think economically it is enough, so he must be relying upon and expecting more.
There are many indicators China is playing both sides, waiting to see which faction will best serve its self-interest. What China does in the near-term likely determines the outcome of all this. And strangely, their decision will likely set the path of what mankind's future will look like and what struggles we face, and the obstacles we have to overcome. It is all just not as simple as we have wanted to believe.
I think we can only say, with any degree of certainty, what is going on is more important than just Ukraine to both sides, they have each determined that something is in play that is existential in nature to their interests and agendas. We can also assume that both sides considered all the actions and counter-reactions and believed as they executed their strategy that they had the capability to mitigate the threat of the other.
We have to wait and see. As Russia now sends in the varsity team, full first-rate BTGs, and are now using proper air-land battle doctrine they face NATO aircraft and more. Putin cannot stop, he has been given no quarter and no avenue to escape this without complete destruction of the Russian economy. The US and NATO will not stop. This will have to play out now.
Russia can and will take and hold Ukraine eventually, and the US and NATO are determined to not allow him to hold it. All of that, too, seems irrational from a historical perspective. Even in winning Putin cannot win, not in a traditional sense, and he had to know that too. So what comes after. Both sides have considered that too and are making current decisions with that in mind.
It was always wrong to simply see this in geopolitical terms just related to geography, culture, and fault-lines in Ukraine. I made this mistake, thinking it would play out at a lower intensity. These factors were inputs, the friction points, but at this stage, the apparent irrationality (which is not at all irrational) is indicative of something else. Those that predicted “WWIII” over Ukraine in the two months leading to this point were also wrong, they assumed escalation based upon Cold War mentality. It is something else. This outcome is irrational and inexplicable unless one accepts that this conflict is about something else entirely. Neither Russia nor the US/NATO would risk so much just over land or even nebulous principles.
Update 1224pm 28 FEB
I received a text from a buddy chiding me with “how do you know the Russians are not just a bad Army with bad planners”.
There are three things in that question. 1) I hate text conversations, so I am going to tell him here is his answer. 2) I do not KNOW, 3) that question could be confused with the sort of thing that some idiot poser said on Tweeter just before I decided social media is a hot mess. Of course, it is not at all the same as #3, but it is in the area code! ( I jest man!)
Maybe the Russian General staff violated the golden rule of the orders process and did not tell operational units the specified tasks until very late – perhaps they have an OPSEC issue, maybe.
And maybe corruption, a one-dimensional economy and all that have resulted in an Army that cannot fight – maybe.
But we do not know. It is plausible that Putin used second-rate units and VDV assets because he believes this is a long-game conflict and he is not fighting Ukraine, but the West. What looks reckless and irrational might have been Russia using troops that will have no valid purpose in such a conflict in the hope of achieving a quick, fast victory that left the BTGs untouched. I have believed from the beginning that the Russian army has one good campaign in it, I do not think they wanted to expend that round on the Ukrainian army.
No American officer would draft an operational plan like that. To hang highly trained and motivated airborne troops out on a thin rope in the hope that their success would end it all, that is not reckless, it is doctrine in Russia. Russian commanders have done that sort of thing, it is in the genetics. It is not immoral, perhaps, we cannot add value judgments to that because frankly, the US has never been involved in a conflict for survival. Russia has. They learned to think in terms that seem reckless and bloody a long time ago.
Those airborne troops would have very little practical use in a campaign against NATO. Their transports could not move them anywhere, they are not equipped to engage heavy western brigades and they are redundant in a rearguard flying column because no commander in the West has the dropdowns to order an airborne assault for them to counter.
So Russia expended their blood and sweat and lives on various airfields in Ukraine, in a hail Mary that could have ended it all quickly, and if not, those formations were not of practical use later anyway.
Those second-line units, the riot police, and all the others that have taken casualties, these too, were expendable.
These are difficult concepts to the American mind. Some want to attach labels to them, value judgments. But these calculations, these decisions, this tells me Putin sees this as an expanded conflict and has made calculations of cost versus benefit, within the framework of how Russian commanders have come to think. This tells me Putin sees this all much more existentially than most have analyzed.
If it turns out, that the Russian army is a hollow shell, with no EW capability, no ability to conduct Air-land battle much less operate in the full spectrum - if that turns out to be true then a lot of people have a lot of things to answer for. The US has spent billions over decades based upon specific premises. Politics and foreign policy have been driven by these claims. We have developed weapon systems to counter capabilities we were assured existed. Nobody would ever be tried and convicted for that level of lying and profiteering but they sure as hell ought to be.
I am not ready to buy the hollow legions theories yet.