A certain amount of caution is recommended about reporting and commenting on the Ukraine War, mostly because solid facts are hard to come by (the “fog of war” and all that), and judgment about what to do is in equally short supply, especially inside the head of our president.
A few things appear certain. First, the Ukrainians have fought with great skill and effectiveness, and surprised the world with their resilience and ability to land counterblows, including, apparently, an attack on an oil storage facility inside Russia. They may yet hold off Russia’s army, or convert the war into a stalemate. But as I look at the reliable maps of the order of battle, while Ukraine has more manpower, Russian forces outgun Ukrainian forces by a wide margin and enjoy superiority in maneuver. Even if poorly or corruptly led, with low morale among troops, and short of fuel and spare parts, this material advantage may yet suffice to wear down Ukraine and/or destroy the country, which is likely Putin’s backup plan. It is possible, by the way, that Putin never intended to take Kyiv, but was surrounding it to pin down Ukrainian forces while Russia extends and consolidates control of eastern Ukraine and the Black Sea coast, where the bulk of Ukraine’s energy resources (especially natural gas) are located.
Second, the reports of war crimes against civilians on a large scale appear to be well founded. Which brings us to President Biden’s remark yesterday that Putin should be put on trial for war crimes. Maybe this is correct in the abstract, but it is a foolish thing for a president of the United States to say out loud the way he did. Better if the Europeans took the lead on this.
What is the only condition under which Putin could be put on trial for war crimes? He’d have to be captured by a foreign power. In other words, outside of an unlikely outcome that a coup inside Russia led to his own people handing him over, the only way Putin is put on trial is if Russia is defeated, just as the Nuremberg trials for the Nazis were only possible because we imposed unconditional surrender on Germany. The one more recent precedent is not encouraging: Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević was extradited to the custody of the International Criminal Court only after his own government arrested him failed to prosecute him and then handed him over for international prosecution, but this only took place, recall, after a sustained bombing campaign by the United States to blunt the Serbian aggression Croatia.
You can see why people are suspicious that Biden wants to get the United States directly engaged on the battlefield in Ukraine.
What does Putin want? Did he miscalculate? Above all, how is it possible that we are seeing an old-fashioned total war of conquest in this postmodern age? I keep going back to some classic treatments of the fundamental reasons behind grand strategy that long ago fell out of fashion, but become suddenly relevant when the world surprises us.
Start with Halford Mackinder (d. 1947), considered one of the founders of modern geopolitics. He believed in the importance of old-fashioned geography, for which the coming of air power changed little. His famous 1904 paper, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” makes the case that the Eurasian region is the key spot on the planet, and therefore the most important bastion of global power:
Is not the pivot region of world’s politics that vast area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessable to ships, but in antiquity lay open to the horse-riding nomads, and is today about to be covered with a network of railways? There have been and are here the conditions of mobility of military and economic power of a far-reaching and yet limited character. Russia replaces the Mongol Empire. Her pressure on Finland, on Scandinavia, on Poland, on Turkey, on Persia, on India, and on China replaces the centrifugal raids of the steppe-men. In the world she occupies the central strategical position held by Germany in Europe. She can strike on all sides and be struck from all sides, save the north.
Mackinder did note in passing the possibility that China could be the ultimate hegemon, raising the prospect of another Sino-Russia split:
Were the Chinese, for instance, organized by the Japanese, to overthrow the Russian Empire and conquer its territory, they might constitute the yellow peril to the world’s freedom just because they would add an oceanic frontage to the resources of the great continent, an advantage as yet denied to the Russian tenant of the pivot region.
Separately I’ll treat some of the questions surrounding Russia’s supposed “Slavic ideology” and figures like Dugan, but for the moment I want to draw attention to the thoughts of my late professor of strategic studies that I have mentioned many times before: Harold Rood. Writing a few years after Rood died in 2011, J.C. Crouch and Patrick Garrity summed up Rood’s view of Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union:
The enduring Russian Problem, Rood believed, cannot be considered “solved” for the same reason that the German Problem had not been solved in 1918. Germany had not been defeated on German soil, just as Russia has not been defeated on Russian soil. The German Problem, as it manifested itself from 1871 to 1945, was only solved when the Allies met in Berlin and dictated a peace that included the division of Germany and the change of regime. Rood did not argue for the defeat of Russia (the Soviet Union) on Russian soil, unless that became necessary as the result of a war begun by Moscow. But the fact that Russia, like Germany after 1918, had not been occupied meant that, in the minds of its leaders and people, it had not been truly defeated [in the Cold War]. It had been cheated out of its rightful place in the sun by traitors and scheming foreign agents.
If that were the case, then the Kremlin most likely began to take covert steps to recover its position almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, just as democratic Germany had done after the armistice of 1918. If so, Russia has been on the path to strategic recovery for over two decades now.
Change “two decades” to “three decades” in this last sentence, and you have a tolerably accurate description of Putin’s long-term ambition and current disposition.