A rule of thumb in the theater is that if someone produces a pistol in the first act, it will be used by the end of the third. Vladimir Putin put the pistol on the table last April as he began deploying Russian forces to the Ukrainian border. And now he has used it.
Actually, Putin began lining up bullets on that table a while back, during Russia’s war in Georgia, in August 2008; its occupation of Crimea in February and March 2014; and its instigation of (and semi-covert participation in) civil war that same year in the Donbas region of Ukraine. An inattentive West, however, largely chose to ignore those precursors.
When I served as counselor of the State Department, I accompanied Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to a meeting with NATO foreign ministers in 2008, just before the end of the George W. Bush administration. Russia had invaded Georgia, nominally in support of South Ossetian separatists, but the situation had stabilized. Yet Rice warned the anxious-looking group in more or less these words: Next year I will be playing golf in Palo Alto. But if you do not take this seriously, next year you will be sitting here talking about Ukraine. Her timeline was off, but her warning was prescient.
This conflict does not result from a Western policy of breaking up the Soviet Union; Russian politicians did that. It is not about NATO expansion, which stopped almost two decades ago. It is not about a country that is an unnatural creation, a mere rebellious province of Russia that has no legitimate existence outside it. It is not about “a lack of respect” paid to a man who, like an underworld boss, has an unlimited appetite for obsequiousness.
Rather, this conflict is the product of a frustrated imperial power encountering the reality of national separation. Ukraine now has three decades of independent existence based on a distinctive language and culture, and an identity formed—like all national identities—by experience and choice rather than of primordial origin.
The conflict, moreover, is primarily the work of one man, Vladimir Putin, an aging autocrat who after 20 years of unquestioned power and increasing repression wants to make his final mark on Russian history. It is about a former KGB operative’s unassuageable grief at the loss of empire, and fear of democratic contamination.
After two decades of military rebuilding and experimentation, Putin believes he has the tools he needs to stitch Ukraine to Russia by force. He is probably not hearing many voices telling him that this is strategic folly. In particular, he is unlikely to realize that he has been driving Ukraine closer to the West, and that his soldiers will be regarded as invaders and predators, not liberators and uniters.
In the short term Russia can, if it wishes, occupy all of Ukraine. The steady buildup around Ukraine’s borders and the preparation for the invasion by subversion, cyberattacks, and political warfare have, for the moment, put the Russians in the stronger position. But Putin’s position is not what he or Western pessimists believe it to be.
The Russian military is very different from the massive Red Army of the Cold War. It is a fraction of the size (900,000 active-duty personnel, of whom perhaps 375,000 are in the army and airborne forces, together with several hundred thousand paramilitary troops and a large special-operations force). It relies on volunteers (kontraktniki), although it retains conscription. It makes extensive use of mercenaries, and in particular the Wagner Group, which operates in close partnership with Russian special forces. It is technologically advanced in many areas, if more narrowly and less formidably than its American counterparts. And it possesses robust capabilities for cyberattacks and information warfare. But it also has its weaknesses.
The Russian army is built around battalion tactical groups, which have a great deal of long-range firepower and rather little infantry. As became apparent during the last intense round of fighting, in 2014, they are vulnerable to enemy units that can get close in and maneuver quickly—what the Vietnamese used to call, in their war against the United States, “hanging on to the enemy’s belt.” These units will not do well in cities, unless they are prepared to administer to Kyiv the same treatment Russia doled out to Grozny in 1999 and 2000, killing thousands of civilians and leaving the city in ruins. But this is Europe, and unlike in the Chechen war, the videos of such slaughter and ruin will be ubiquitous, alienating Europeans and making even many Russians queasy. Meanwhile, as the United States discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how large, technologically advanced, and proficient an army is, motivated insurgents can still inflict casualties in the tens of thousands.
The Ukrainian army is far better trained and equipped than it was a decade ago. Most important, it, and the volunteers who will join it, are motivated. The Soviet Union took years to quell an insurgency in Ukraine after World War II, and Russia would take longer to do the same now. This is, moreover, an operation an order of magnitude greater than the Chechen or earlier Ukrainian campaign, one in which the mundane issues of casualty replacements, unit rotations, logistical support, and maintenance would become burdensome over time. After a year or two of occupation and guerrilla warfare, the magnitude of the strategic debacle would become clear.
Russia since the late 1980s is not the Russia of World War II. Some 10,000 combat deaths in Afghanistan were enough not only to bring the intervention there to an end, but to set the conditions for the collapse of the Soviet regime. Russia, with its low birth rate and yearning for middle-class comfort, is not in the mood for the heroic sacrifice of thousands of its young men, particularly if a bloody Ukrainian war forces the deployment of conscripts.
The key vulnerability of Russia does not lie in susceptibility to economic sanctions. Having made extensive use of these tools for decades now, the U.S. is in the position of a doctor who promiscuously prescribes antibiotics, thereby accelerating the appearance of medicine-resistant bugs. Sanctions will hurt, no doubt, but make little difference to the daily lives of those who run the country, who will exploit them for propaganda purposes at home and abroad. Only one thing, in fact, can cause Russia to rethink and even abandon its program of conquest: coffins.
And if Ukraine’s friends continue to support the Ukrainians who want to fight for their freedom, an abundant supply of those will be coming back to Russia.
That is why the United States and its Western partners must help nourish an insurgency that will cause the occupiers to bitterly regret, and then reverse, their attempt to crush Ukrainian independence. This strategy does not require sending troops, except to protect NATO allies; it does require providing weapons, training, and intelligence without stinting.
Such an effort will involve risk. Ukraine is bordered by four NATO members—Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania—through which such aid must flow, and Russia is sure to menace and perhaps even lash out at these weaker Western allies. Russia lacks the resources and capacity to invade them successfully and would hesitate before action that would invoke NATO’s Article V obligations for mutual defense. But it will go right up to the edge.
This war is a much greater threat to Western and specifically American interests than Russia’s previous interventions in Crimea and the Donbas, which were supported by largely Russian-speaking populations. As bad as those were, this involves the crushing of a large European country’s sovereignty in defiance of previous agreements, including the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. It may not involve an invasion of NATO territory, but if successful it would represent the final shredding of the post–Cold War settlement in Europe, and a fatal weakening of the American position in one of the three great centers of economic productivity in the world—and one that, however unevenly, shares its basic values of rule of law, and essential freedoms.
Pushing back will be a rough ride. The Biden administration initially based its European policy chiefly on the principle of showing that the old—read: nice—America is back, one that speaks in soothing tones about transatlantic partnership rather than in the harsh slogans of “America First.” It has, however, reacted strongly and effectively in mobilizing the alliance and keeping a more or less united front, and it must continue to do so under what will be difficult circumstances.
Others are watching. If Putin succeeds in annexing Ukraine cost-free, China’s Xi Jinping might take a chance on incorporating Taiwan by force, and Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei might make the final lunge for nuclear weapons. The world in 2022 is a dark enough place. Strength, and making Russia pay an unacceptably high price for its wanton aggression, is the course to follow.