War for Ukraine?

I remarked back in 2014 that “good old-fashioned war, with great powers involved and tank columns rolling across the steppe,” was “an exciting subject for pundits to speculate about,” and that’s been amply confirmed in recent days. Many people who should know better continue to talk up the chances of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Today, however, a note of realism seems to be creeping into some of the reports. Joe Biden pointed out that a Russian attack “would be the largest invasion since World War II. It would change the world.” Which immediately raises the question, does Vladimir Putin really want to change the world?

I don’t think so. I think Putin has done rather well for himself out of the world as it is. He wants to make gains at the margin where he can, but he is no revolutionary; his whole record shows him to be a canny and cautious player. And invasion would be an extraordinarily risky venture.

Ukrainian officials and other experts have argued that the Russian military buildup is insufficient for the task of conquering and holding Ukraine. While 100,000 (125,000 on some accounts) is a lot of troops, Ukraine is a big country: it took the Germans half a million men to conquer it in 1941. The American-led coalition in 2003 used maybe 300,000 to conquer Iraq, a somewhat smaller country.

The Iraq invasion, of course, ended poorly for the Americans, and it’s likely that Putin will have that example in mind. He may even be subject to the same sort of illusions that the Americans were, believing that he will be welcomed in Ukraine with open arms. But that seems unlikely; Ukraine doesn’t pose the same obstacles to intelligence-gathering that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did, and Putin has given no previous sign of being prone to illusions. He is a realist through and through.

In other words, the buildup still looks, as I said last week, more like a diplomatic manoeuvre than an invasion force. So far, Putin is not being offered much in diplomatic terms, but negotiations are continuing, and while the American approach may be insular and short-sighted – indeed I think it is – it is unlikely to be so foolish as to give Russia a clear casus belli. Eventually Putin will have to take whatever he can get and present it to his people as a victory.

My view that the west should be willing to concede Ukrainian neutrality (or “Finlandisation”) puts me, according to Peter Beinart, on the far side of a generation gap in American policymakers. I’m less than happy with the reflection on my age, but more unhappy about being on the same side as Henry Kissinger, whom I have regarded for the whole of my adult life as a villain.

While I agree with Beinart about Ukraine, I would tell a different causal story about how American policy got to this point. It was the realists of Kissinger’s (and Beinart’s) school who laid the groundwork by thinking of NATO, and the Cold War more generally, purely in terms of power politics: not an ideological struggle, but a clash between morally indifferent great powers.

With that intellectual framework, it was natural for policymakers in the 1990s to just substitute “Russia” for “Soviet Union” and carry on as before, instead of realising that the advent of democracy (flawed, but real) in Russia had changed the game completely. Safeguarding that democracy should have been the top priority – but the realists don’t think that way. To them, a foreign power is just a black box; its internal workings are of no interest.

So the dominant strand of thinking in Washington now is neither truly realist nor idealist, but a sort of fusion of the worst features of both – worshipping power, but divorced from any sense of its limitations. That’s the mindset that produced the invasion of Iraq as well as the eastward extension of NATO. Putin’s paranoia is not entirely unfounded.

That said, however, there is still enough realism in both Washington and Brussels to ensure that NATO membership for Ukraine, while it will probably not be ruled out, will not actually appear on the agenda for a long time to come. And in terms of his geopolitical objectives, I suspect that Putin will have to be content with that.

(I haven’t dealt with the question of whether Putin may have a more limited objective of annexing or otherwise neutralising just the eastern tip of Ukraine, but this post is long enough already. That will have to be a discussion for next week.)


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