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Understanding the Logic of War
Why Russia is likely to invade Ukraine, no matter what.
1. Cry Havoc
Let’s talk about the looming Russian war against Ukraine by looking at another Russian war.
The hinge-point of the Great Patriotic War with France was Russia’s abandonment of Moscow to the French following the Battle of Borodino. After Napoleon
won “won” at Borodino, the Russian commander General Mikhail Kutuzov began pulling back and eventually abandoned Moscow to the French.
How could Kutuzov decide on this course? What thought process leads a commander to choose to abandon his nation’s capital?
Tolstoy examines this question at some length in Book 11 of War and Peace and it might be my favorite section of my favorite novel. If you’ll forgive me a summation, Tolstoy’s verdict is that Kutuzov never “chose” to abandon Moscow because war imposes its own logic:
For people accustomed to think that plans of campaign and battles are made by generals—as any one of us sitting over a map in his study may imagine how he would have arranged things in this or that battle—the questions present themselves: Why did Kutuzov during the retreat not do this or that? Why did he not take up a position before reaching Fili? Why did he not retire at once by the Kaluga road, abandoning Moscow? and so on. People accustomed to think in that way forget, or do not know, the inevitable conditions which always limit the activities of any commander in chief. The activity of a commander in chief does not all resemble the activity we imagine to ourselves when we sit at ease in our studies examining some campaign on the map, with a certain number of troops on this and that side in a certain known locality, and begin our plans from some given moment.
And here’s the part I want you to really focus in on:
A commander in chief is never dealing with the beginning of any event—the position from which we always contemplate it. The commander in chief is always in the midst of a series of shifting events and so he never can at any moment consider the whole import of an event that is occurring. Moment by moment the event is imperceptibly shaping itself, and at every moment of this continuous, uninterrupted shaping of events the commander in chief is in the midst of a most complex play of intrigues, worries, contingencies, authorities, projects, counsels, threats, and deceptions and is continually obliged to reply to innumerable questions addressed to him, which constantly conflict with one another.
The bold there is mine, obviously.
Keep Tolstoy in mind as you read the following passages by Michael Kofman making the case as to why Putin will invade Ukraine and why the invasion will be large scale:
It is doubtful that the Russian leadership can back down without external and internal audience costs. Over the past month, the West has also been arming Ukraine in anticipation of a Russian attack, hardly a policy success for Moscow. If Putin backs down with nothing, the domestic and international perception will be that he was either bluffing or, even worse, was successfully deterred. Putin will end up with the worst of both worlds, seen as simultaneously aggressive and resistible. Also, while an authoritarian state may care less about domestic audience perceptions, the elites, or the so-called “selectorate,” are another matter. Authoritarian leaders like Putin can find their ability to manage political coalitions diminished if elites perceive them as reckless, incompetent, and increasingly unfit to rule. Putin certainly has options, but this is not a contest in which he can afford to back down cost-free. . . .
The question is not what Russia can do militarily in Ukraine, since the answer is almost anything, but what kind of operation might attain lasting political gains. Consequently, most scenarios seem illogical and politically counterproductive.
Given the stakes, and likely costs, any Russian military operation would have to attain political gains that give Moscow the ability to enforce implementation. In short, just hurting Ukraine is not enough to achieve anything that Russia wants. While some believe that Russia intends to compel Ukraine into a new Minsk-like agreement, the reality is that nobody in Moscow thinks that a Ukrainian government can be made to implement any document they sign. Such a settlement would be political suicide for the Zelensky administration, or any other. Russia has no way to enforce compliance with its preferences once the operation is over. This is, at least, the lesson that Moscow seems to have taken from Minsk I and Minsk II. Why would Minsk III prove any different? Russia has not struggled in getting Ukraine to sign deals at gunpoint, but all of these have resulted in Ukraine’s continued westward march and a decline of Russian influence in the country. It’s not clear how Moscow achieves its goals without conducting regime change, or a partitioning of the state, and committing to some form of occupation to retain leverage.
I do not believe there is anything the Biden administration or NATO can do to forestall Putin’s aggression at this point. So the questions shifts from “How do we stop it” to “How do we thwart Russia’s strategic aims and impose the largest possible strategic cost on Putin’s regime?”
That’s what I’d like you to discuss in the comments today.
But keep in mind that this war will impose its own logic, too. So the key is to think in terms of flexible frameworks that allow us to exploit circumstances as they are presented.
It seems to me that the broad outlines of our response should involve a few general precepts:
Stopping the “pivot to Asia” and committing to being fully engaged in both Europe and Asia.
Making the revivification of NATO—and America’s leadership of NATO—top strategic priorities.
Reorienting our economic policies around these two precepts.
None of that speaks to the imposition of pain on Putin. For that, the opening position is permanent sanctions large enough in scale to cause a global downturn as European energy prices spike. The bidding increases from there.
There seems to be a sense among people that all of this is just noise happening over there. That none of it matters to America. Why should we be on Ukraine’s side? Etc.
And the answer is that we have no choice. An expansionist, authoritarian Russia that seeks to dominate Europe will have large-scale economic and political consequences for America. Not the least of which is that it will accelerate China’s expansion in the Pacific, which in turn will have even more large-scale economic and political consequences.
2. It’s Always the Ones You Most Expect
Projection has always been the sincerest form of Trumpism.
The most corrupt people in recent political history complained that everyone else was corrupt. The pathological liars accused everyone else of being fake news. The people going on and on about how everyone else is a “cuck” were the ones . . . um . . .
Hey! It’s Jerry Falwell Jr. in Vanity Fair!
Gabe Sherman put on his HAZMAT suit and took the deep dive.
A former Miami pool boy named Giancarlo Granda claimed he had a nearly seven-year affair with Falwell’s wife, Becki—and that Falwell often liked to watch them have sex. Granda went on a national media tour—he gave interviews to ABC News, CNN, Reuters, Politico, and The Washington Post—and said the Falwells began “grooming” him when he was 20 and bought his silence with luxury vacations, rides on Liberty’s private jet, and an ownership stake managing a Miami Beach hostel. To bolster his claims, Granda released screenshots of Facetime calls and text conversations with Becki (“I’m not wearing any panties,” she allegedly wrote Granda in one message). Falwell released a statement that acknowledged Becki and Granda’s relationship, but he vehemently denied watching the trysts.
Also, all these guys thumping their Bibles and talking about “traditional morality” and the “highest good”?
“Because of my last name, people think I’m a religious person. But I’m not. My goal was to make them realize I was not my dad.”
And the people always guffawing about silly little snowflakes and their feelings are . . .
[Jerry’s] anxieties only grew that summer. “It was the worst three months of my life. There was so much pressure on me to become somebody I wasn’t,” Jerry remembered. “I’d wake up each day saying, ‘How am I going to do this?’ ” As Liberty’s first family, Jerry and Becki became Christian celebrities overnight. “We had to put on an act,” Becki said.
It goes on and on and on in this piece—basically every bit of hypocrisy you could imagine, right down to Becki Falwell—whose husband ran an institution which discouraged women from reporting sexual assaults—alleging that the time she banged it out with her former lover in her daughter’s bedroom was not entirely consensual.
But maybe the best part is when the man who ran a fundamentalist school comes out against organized religion:
Jerry said that being on the receiving end of evangelicals’ moral opprobrium has fundamentally turned him away from the movement. He believes in Christ, he said, but not the church. “Nothing in history has done more to turn people away from Christianity than organized religion,” he said.
3. The Peacemaker
I’ve been watching the new series based on the DC Comics villain the Peacemaker on HBO Max. I do not expect this to appeal to
most any of you. But the opening credits sequence is so weird and goofy and . . . amazing? . . . that I can’t get it out of my head.
And I think it’ll make every last one of you smile.
You have to stay until the very end, because that’s the best part.