Thursday 24 February 2022

Russia update - the road to war

I thought it would be worth penning a few further thoughts on the current Russo-Ukrainian situation, as my thoughts have evolved somewhat in recent days, coincident with recent events which are changing rapidly. While the situation in the Donbass has now been (somewhat) resolved - though the potential for disputes about the resultant borders remain a potential source of near term conflict - the longer term issues have not yet been resolved, and indeed there is a growing risk of an escalation into an all out Russo-NATO hot war. These issues may or may not lead to a major short term escalation extending up to the point of a nationwide Ukrainian invasion, but irrespective of that, they will continue to linger and lead to potentially longer term escalation and conflict. Given the graveness of the situation, it believe it is important the issues are properly understood. (please read footnote)* 

Many have argued that Putin is attempting to recreate the USSR and seize territory, but that is not his ambition. Instead, Putin's ambition and bottom line is that Ukraine not become a member of NATO, and perhaps also not a de facto member that is armed, funded, and backed by NATO, irrespective of formal membership (the latter is a much riskier situation in the short term, as that is already increasingly the status quo). I recognized this in past comments, but may have underestimated the degree and urgency with which Putin feels the need to address these issues - particularly now that Ukraine has recently floated the idea of acquiring nuclear weapons. It appears increasingly clear that Putin is willing to go to war to prevent the aforementioned from happening.

Putin has made larger demands of NATO, but I think this reflects the classic negotiating strategy of asking for more than you are willing to settle for, granting you room to compromise. I am persuaded that Putin would be willing to settle for a guarantee of Ukraine not becoming part of NATO and its permanent neutrality, and perhaps also recognition of Crimea (though this is less important if the Ukraine does not become part of NATO). In exchange, Russia could guarantee Ukraine and other states' territorial integrity. The problem that emerges is that the the West is not willing to negotiate with Russia and grant them any concessions, which makes the probability of a diplomatic solution relatively low.

Why does Putin care so much? For several reasons. Firstly, Russia sees NATO as a potentially offensive military alliance, not a merely defensive one. As I tweeted recently, when you see a spider (Russia) you may feel fear, but amidst the surge of emotion and adrenaline it is easy to forget that the spider also fears you. Secondly, the Ukraine has previously stated an intention to retake Crimea by force and its pursuit of NATO alignment is partly aimed at facilitating that goal. Russia is not willing to relinquish Crimea as it is a militarily strategic peninsula for them, and if a NATO-backed Ukraine were to attempt to do so, it could lead to a Russia-NATO war. Putin does not want this, but he is also unwilling to put Russia in a situation where they would be forced to relinquish Crimea to avoid war.

Thirdly, Putin has made reference to the historical cultural affinities of the two countries. This is not because Putin wants to reconstruct the USSR, but because it is a particularly sore spot to see one of its historically closest friends becoming influenced by and allied with what it sees as an offensive enemy military alliance. They don't like it any more than the US would like Canada becoming allied with an expansionist Russo-China led military alliance. The West's willingness to expend efforts to go as far as intervening in Ukrainian politics, arming, funding, and training the Ukraine military and pushing for its incorporation into NATO, is seen by Russia - to use a Commonwealth colloquialism - as "taking the piss", and has made Putin angry. Putin can tolerate it in other countries, but in its closest historical ally, it is seen as intolerably aggressive and disrespectful - contemptuous even, of Russia. 

The other relevant factor is that Russia has now amassed a large and powerful army with advanced weaponry, to the point where it is not obvious that NATO would be able to win a NATO-Russia war fought in Europe, as Scott Ritter discusses here. This increased military strength is not being respected by the West or translating into an increased willingness to negotiate/compromise, and this is forcing Putin into considering military escalation. As Scott Ritter said in the above interview, Putin has been saying "hey I'm talking over here, pay attention" for some time, and if you continue to ignore it and say "Putin, we don't care what you want", at some point you get punched in the face. And to some degree, the West has left Putin with no other options besides sitting idly by while Ukraine militarizes and allies with NATO. The problem, as I pointed out in my past piece, is that both sides see the other as the aggressor, and this is a recipe for run-away escalation that can eventually boil over into outright conflict.

There are three ways in which you can resolve a conflict. The first is compromise; the second is one party submitting to the other's demands; and the third is conflict. It has been said that historically, whenever you have moved from a unipolar to a multipolar world, there has been war. The likely reason is that the prior unipole grows accustomed to forcing the other party to submit to their demands and never felt any need to compromise. However, if the other party becomes strong enough to resist such submission, they may no longer be willing to tolerate it and insist on compromise. But it is often politically difficult to move towards a willingness to compromise. The outcome is conflict.

There is a risk of this template playing out in Ukraine/Europe. Russian demands are not that unreasonable - simply precluding Ukraine from joining NATO and securing its permanent *neutrality*, while they would also prefer the recognition of Crimea. We may not like it in the West and prefer Ukraine join NATO, but if we were to compromise and say, ok we will grant that, but that's where it ends, there would be a potentially permanent resolution to the tensions and peace. Unfortunately, the West is not willing to do that as it does not feel it justified to compromise with Russia to any degree - indeed it believes the very idea of it to be abhorrent. It is also increasingly difficult politically, and will become even more so as Western moderates are pushed out for merely suggesting such a possibility (witness the recent resignation of a senior Germany army general after suggesting as much).

The West is also persisting with its belief that sanctions are a way to "deter" Russia, but they are more likely to escalate the situation than de-escalate it. The reason is that they reflect an extension of the belief the West has that it is both able to and justified in bullying Russia, but Putin has already made it clear that he is unwilling to be bullied. Consequently, such measures are likely to have the opposite effect of deterrence and make Putin even more resentful and determined to take assertive action to demonstrate his unwillingness to bullied, and strengthen Russia's security interests.

I am concerned about how events could evolve from here - not necessarily just in the short term, but also over the medium to long term, because I now believe it is increasingly clear that *Putin is willing to go to war to prevent the Ukraine from becoming militarily allied with the West* - it is one of their *red lines*. Meanwhile, the West is not respecting that fact nor the strength of Russia's military, and seems determined to press ahead with the armament of the Ukraine. Is Putin justified in this approach? Probably not. But that is irrelevant. Wars are about conflicting interests and perspectives, not right and wrong. Taking a moralistic rather than pragmatic approach is very dangerous.

The risk in the short term is that Putin assesses that the longer he waits, the stronger the NATO-backed Ukraine military will become and that it is therefore necessary and desirable to act sooner rather than later to minimize the bloodshed. The intention would be to deal damage to Ukraine's military infrastructure and make it clear Russia will not tolerate Ukraine militarizing and allying with NATO; its preparedness to use military force to ensure that; and demand assurances they will not ally with NATO in the future in return for peace. This is particularly the case now that the Ukraine has floated the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons, which may act as a catalyst/final straw for Putin. I believe it is very unlikely Ukrainian territory would be seized/annexed, however - particularly if Ukraine acceded to Russia's demands, because territorial acquisition is not Russia's ambition.

I am concerned that the West's unwillingness to compromise with Russia and make some reasonable concessions for the sake of peace may lead to war. I understand that Ukraine's security needs to be guaranteed, but there are ways in which this can be done without arming the Ukraine in potentially offensive ways, or allying it with NATO. A diplomatic solution is still possible, but it will require a much greater degree of respect amongst the West for Russia's military capabilities and security interests, which seems unlikely to be forthcoming. A large part of what Russia is trying to do at present is command that respect and extract the said concessions/compromises, and Putin feels he has no alternative than to display that military strength in the furtherance of that ambition.

It is an unfortunate and dangerous situation. The current situation is not without hope for a peaceful resolution, but the room for optimism is declining. 


*This article was written on the morning of 24 February, Singapore time, and was nearing completion when the news wires flashed about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Further research had caused me to become more pessimistic about the risks, including Putin's menacing 21 February speech, though I did not expect something of this magnitude to erupt, and so soon. It should go without saying that Putin's actions in the Ukraine are horrific, and justify unequivocal condemnation. Events have also caused me to re-evaluation some of the conclusions/analysis outlined in my 28 January article. 

I derive only small solace from the fact that Putin's actions have surprised many people, including Ukraine itself, who were expressing skepticism about the likelihood of an invasion only days before it took place, as well as many/most people in Russia. The lack of domestic media "preparation" of Russian audiences for an action of this scale, coupled with Putin's apparent agitated emotional state on 21 February, suggests this may have been a rash decision (more limited military action in the Donbass may have previously been planned). It is also possible more sweeping action was long under contemplation, consistent with US intelligence; there appears to be more dissent than would be typical within the Kremlin, which is one reason US intelligence may have been unusually effective.  

Only time will tell, and more answers may come in time. In the meantime, we can only hope a swift end to the conflict can be achieved.