As of this writing (Friday, February 25), the Russian campaign in Ukraine looks like a model of maneuver warfare, a direct follow-on to the Soviet campaign against the Japanese in Manchuria in 1945. But the year is not 1945, and the results may be an operational victory but a strategic defeat for Russia.
Why is that a likely outcome? Not because of Western economic sanctions, which Russia has prepared for. The strategic question for which I suspect the Kremlin has no answer is, once you have taken Ukraine, what do you do with it? Any government installed in Kiev by Russia will have no legitimacy. The U.S. just found out in Afghanistan what happens when the foreign troops backing such a government go home. If Russia keeps substantial forces in Ukraine to buttress its puppet government, those Russian soldiers will be targets for Ukrainian resistance forces. How will a constant, if low-level stream of Russian casualties play on the home front?
How does Russia get a strategic win out of all this? By annexing Ukraine? That also runs into the problem of endless Ukrainian partisan warfare. It is difficult to see a positive ending for Russia here.
I did not expect President Putin to take the risk of invading Ukraine. It’s more than a risk, it is a gamble, throwing the iron dice of war and hoping for a win. As the old saying goes, hope makes a good breakfast but a poor supper.
Why did Putin do it? My guess – Zeppelin reconnaissance only reveals so much – is that he expected a diplomatic solution. But NATO, led by Washington, offered him nothing, dismissing Russian security concerns and stressing that Ukraine had every right to join NATO.
Why did the American foreign policy establishment, aka the Blob, take a position that almost forced Russia to go to war? Maybe the answer is just the Blob’s usual combination of hubris and incompetence. But it is also possible it wanted Russia to get into what may prove a strategically unwinnable war. With the rest of the American Establishment, it hates Russia because Russia rejects cultural Marxism, as do most of the former Soviet bloc countries. It seems they know a thing or two about Marxism and are not so eager to get another dose of it. In looking at the Blob’s motives, remember that the U.S. has no real interests at stake in Ukraine. Our involvement is strategically gratuitous. Ideological motivation, in Washington, not Moscow, may be at least a partial explanation for the unhelpful role the U.S. has played.
On the Russian side, President Putin began with a brilliant move (only former President Trump, among American leaders, acknowledged its brilliance). By recognizing the independence of Ukraine’s two eastern provinces, he put the Ukrainian government on the horns of a dilemma. If it accepted the loss of those provinces, it was finished politically. If Ukraine invaded them, Russia could present its attack on Ukraine as a defensive response. Russia would have been in a relatively strong position at the moral level of war. But Putin jumped the gun, with the result that Russia is now universally seen as the aggressor. There are times when inaction is a form of action, and Mr. Putin did not grasp that this was such a time.
Perhaps the most important question at this point in the conflict is, will it expand to include NATO? I do not expect NATO to change its position and intervene in Ukraine. But there are at least two scenarios that lead to NATO involvement in the fighting. The first is if, in response to Russian moves toward western Ukraine, Poland sends troops in to secure territory that was, between the wars, Polish, including the important city of Lemberg (now Lviv). The other is similar: if Russia decides to take Moldova en passant, Romania, which also claims Moldova, could intervene. In both cases, the armed forces of NATO countries would have taken the offensive, so NATO would not be obligated to come to their aid. But the hawkish mood in Washington might lead it to do so, with incalculable results.
What does this state vs. state war mean for Fourth Generation war theory, and vice versa? Those who reject the 4GW concept will say it proves their case that Great Power rivalry will continue to determine international affairs. But breaks between generations of war are not clean. If they were, today’s U.S. military would still be modeling itself on the Second Generation French Army of the 1930s, a model that went down to defeat in six weeks in 1940 when hit by the Third Generation Wehrmacht. Institutional change takes time, often too much time for contemporary Great Powers to maintain their positions.
4GW theory makes another point: if Russia fails strategically, there may be serious danger that the Russian state, not just its current government, falls apart. That was a real possibility during the Yeltsin years, and the reason President Putin is popular in Russia is that he has strengthened the state. The Blob would see Russia’s disintegration with delight, at least until the implications of a vast, stateless region with nuclear weapons hits home – possibly with a mushroom cloud or two.
As someone who recognizes Russia’s importance in the defense of Christendom, holding as she does its whole right flank from the Black Sea to Vladivostok, I am not delighted by the potential the war in Ukraine holds for a delegitimizing Russian strategic defeat. But Russia seems to have fallen into the same trap Japan jumped into in the 1930s, the trap of acting out of time. Japan saw itself as merely doing what the European powers did before World War I, invading other countries and subjecting them to its empire. But the post-war world was a different place, and what was legitimate in 1880 was not legitimate in 1937. President Putin’s apparent goal, restoring the Russian Empire, would have been acceptable in the 19th century, maybe in most of the 20th. But today, it is not, unless it is accomplished peacefully. Let us pray that the consequences of Russia acting out of time do not engulf us all.