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Putin in a Box
He has no way out.
1. How to Help the Ukrainian Military
On Thursday night I’ll be hosting Eliot Cohen on our livestream. I am very excited about this because he’s going to make us smarter about Ukraine. If you have questions I should ask him, put them in the comments below or—even better—come to the show and ask yourself.
Western strategy should rest on three pillars: vigorous and imaginative military support to Ukrainian regular and irregular forces; sanctions that will hobble the Russian economy; and construction of a militarily powerful European alliance that can secure the border with Russia as long as that country remains a menace.
Mind you, it’s the details that matter. Here’s Cohen discussing the military support component:
A country greater in size than France and only slightly smaller than Texas, with built-up areas, forests, and, in the west, mountains, hundreds of thousands of armed men and women, a potential supply of thousands of foreign veterans, and a will to fight born of patriotism and anger, is virtually unconquerable if adequately armed. The key is to think about that on the right scale.
Michael Vickers, who was the mastermind of the CIA program supporting the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, lays out the lessons of that campaign in his forthcoming memoir, By All Means Available. A well-armed and determined population, Vickers contends, can defeat even a brutal superpower—and Russia is no longer that. The important thing is to move at scale and with urgency in support of such an insurgency. . . .
The conditions in Ukraine are, if anything, more favorable than in Afghanistan. In Poland and several other frontline states, the West has allies infinitely more reliable than Pakistan was during the Afghan War. Poland’s border with Ukraine alone is 330 miles long and would be impossible for Russia to seal. In Ukraine, the West has a technically sophisticated population that can handle whatever advanced weapons are needed. And in the Russian army of this moment, it faces a force that has already been badly bloodied, proving itself logistically incompetent and poorly motivated. . . . The resources to equip the Ukrainians are there; the task is to do it on the largest possible scale, and fast. That is the lesson of Afghanistan: scale and urgency.
Carl von Clausewitz famously said that the maximum use of force is by no means incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect. That applies to Ukraine. Adapted civilian technologies (suicide drones, for example) and civilian computer-hacker militias have a role to play in its defense. The key is to give full rein to the creative covert operations and military talents that the United States and countries like Britain and Poland have in abundance.
Read the whole thing and bring your questions for Cohen to the Thursday Night Bulwark livestream at 8:00 p.m.
If you’re not already a member, this would be a good time to join Bulwark+ and join the conversation.
2. Putin’s End Game
For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that Vladimir Putin has a clear sense of battlefield realities and is gaming out the future in a rational way.
What is his exit strategy?
One option is to reduce Ukraine to rubble and see what happens.
This is not an especially attractive prospect. It doesn’t gain him much and it costs him quite a lot, in both blood and treasure. But maybe the the Ukrainian government gets decapitated. Maybe the flow of refugees hollows out the populace. Maybe he’s able to turn public sentiment at home into “us against the world.” (See the “Z” item below.)
The problem with this option is that there’s no endpoint. No moment at which the dynamic returns to a steady-state.
Another option is to reach a negotiated settlement.
It’s not hard to come up with ceasefire terms that might be acceptable to Putin:
Russia takes formal control of portions of southern and eastern Ukraine, either by redrawing the map to integrate them into Russia or establishing them as “independent” republics.
Ukraine pledges some combination of the following:
Not to re-arm
To remain neutral
Not to join the EU or NATO
While such terms would represent a retreat from Putin’s stated war aims from two weeks ago, they would still allow him to declare victory while adding to his territorial collection and giving him a buffer.
Why would Ukraine agree to such terms? We’ll get to that in a minute.
But here’s what jumps out at me: Even this best-case outcome for Putin is fraught with danger. War studies professor Phillip OBrien has a long Twitter thread on this scenario and the tl;dr is:
The Russian-speaking people in these regions may have had their Ukrainian identity awakened.
Meaning that they would have to be garrisoned.
Leading to something like an ongoing occupation
Further stressing an already depleted military.
While Western sanctions most likely remain in place.
In sum: Perma-war, but with a wrecked economy.
And why would the Ukrainians accept such an offer?
You could, in theory, make a case for them trading away the disputed territories in exchange for Russia not killing any more Ukrainians. That would be a hard pill to swallow, because it’s blackmail that rewards an aggressor.
Maybe the Ukrainians could force themselves to swallow it if they rationalized it by saying that they were buying a hundred thousand of their fellow citizens’ lives.
But even that rationalization1 only works if Ukraine is then free to join the EU/NATO in order to protect itself from future Russian aggression.
A deal in which Ukraine has to give up territory and then remain vulnerable to future Russian aggression is not going to work.
Reminder: Give me your questions for Eliot Cohen down below.
3. About That Russian “Z”
I’d been wondering. Masha Gessen explains:
The letter “Z” was spotted on some Russian military vehicles in the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24th. At least two other letters seemed to be in use as well: “V” and “O.” (Ukrainian and Russian both use a Cyrillic alphabet, which contains neither “Z” nor “V.”) On March 2nd, what appears to have been the first attempt at interpreting the symbol appeared in state-controlled Russian media: a military expert suggested that the letter “Z” stood for the last name of the Ukrainian President, Zelensky, and “V” and “O” stood for his first name and patronymic, Volodymyr Oleksandrovych. The following day, the Russian Defense Ministry’s Instagram account began publishing graphics with stylized letters “Z” and “V,” and captions offering different interpretations: “Z” could be read as the first letter of the Russian word “za” (“for”), so “Z” could mean “for victory,” “for peace,” “for truth,” and “for the children of Donbass.” “Z” could also be the first letter in the Russian “zakanchivaem”—“we end,” and so could stand for “We end wars.” It could also be the “Z” in “de-Nazification” (though this would require using the English word) and “demilitarizatsiya,” or demilitarization. (The war is framed in Russia in terms of forcing peace upon Ukraine.) Options offered for the “V” included the Russian preposition “v”—“in”—in the phrase “strength is in truth,” and an international symbol for victory, for which the Defense Ministry’s social-media managers offered the tagline “The task will be completed.”
And then the “Z” was everywhere. The governor of the Western Siberian region of Kuzbass, Sergei Tsivilyov, announced that he was changing the spelling of the name of his region, to incorporate a capital Latin “Z” in the middle. In Yalta, which is in Russian-occupied Crimea, and in the Siberian city of Surgut, cars were photographed lining up to form the letter “Z.” In Crimea, a poster picturing a soldier in full combat gear, captioned with “The Russian soldier is a liberator” and the letter “Z,” went up. The letter “Z” and the tagline “#WeDontAbandonOurOwn” were seen on a multimedia display in the St. Petersburg metro. . . .
The “Z” was no longer a mysterious symbol. Over the course of a few days, it had come to stand for loyalty, devotion to the state, murderous rage, and unchecked power.
Which I doubt the Ukrainians would be willing to make.