A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 31, 2022

Why It's Now Difficult For Russia To Claim Success In Ukraine

Putin's rash action in Ukraine, based on his coterie of yes-men telling him what he wanted to hear, has awakened a sleeping giant in NATO - and the Ukrainian people. 

The EU, previously more interested in creature comforts than ideological confrontation now sees the threat for what it is and is raising defense budgets. The Russian military has been exposed and weakened. Rather than attaining even limited goals, Putin has instead united the once indifferent western world against him - which is making him pay a price in lives, treasure and reputation. JL 

Josh Marshall reports in Talking Points Memo:

Ukraine is deeply, deeply anti-Russian in a way that it was not before. Russia set itself back substantially in the world since it’s military looks much less capable than thought. NATO has moved from being an afterthought to one of extreme unity and purpose. All European states will now raise their defense spending. Ukraine is on the path to deep integration with Europe and ‘the West’ and one that is heavily armed. Ukraine has mauled Russia badly this time and it will be stronger militarily next time. Will Russia want a rematch? I’m skeptical.

For years I’ve been corresponding with TPM Reader BF. He’s in the national security world, whereas I’m just an outside observer. He’s prone to intense responses to events whereas I’m characterologically more cautious. But this is his field not mine. So in recent days I was struck to see that he thinks I have the Ukraine situation totally wrong and that notwithstanding its battlefield embarrassments and mishaps Putin is on the verge of getting everything he wants and Ukraine is on the verge of what amounts to surrender.

I would start by saying that I don’t see these as my opinions. I think I’m largely following the analyses of people who seem to have the best handle on the situation. But as I told BF in our correspondence I had great difficulty squaring his take with what I was seeing unfold. I bring this up because I wanted to share his take on the situation and share my reply and reaction with you since perhaps others have similar thoughts …

I think you’re missing the key dynamic. Zelensky is negotiating a surrender that will allow Russia to keep Donbas and recognize the seizure of Crimea, while also renouncing any moves toward NATO membership. This is basically a complete capitulation to all Russian demands. Russian troops are pulling back because they’ve won the war despite their horrible operational performance. Zelensky’s public offer is already a complete acceptance of basically all pre-war Russian demands. He’ll likely have to sweeten the pot somehow, meaning that Russia will likely end up with more than they were even asking for pre-war. 

And then …

Much of the coverage of the war is treating it like WW2, following the advance and retreat of forces as if that were the decisive factor. It isn’t. People need to think through the logic of war termination. The conflict won’t end when the Russians plant their flag on the presidential residence in Kyiv. It’ll end when the Ukrainians decide the costs in terms of human suffering become too high. And they’ve reached that point, more or less, especially given the lack of serious support from the US/NATO. Zelensky’s opening offer in the current negotiations is basically accepting the core Russian demands. That’s a simple empirical fact. Just compare his position in the negotiations to Russian demands: No NATO membership, check. No foreign troops on Ukrainian soil, check. Accept Russian dominance and possible secession of Donbas following a “referendum,” check. Recognize Russian claims to Crimea, that’s the one thing not made clear. And what is the Russian concession for all of this? Reparations? No. Just an empty “security guarantee” that literally adds nothing to the Budapest Memorandum.

We certainly agree that the issue is not military performance but the basis on which the conflict is concluded. I think Russia has set itself back pretty substantially in many parts of the world since it’s military now looks much less capable than people thought. See recent events in Central Asia and the Caucasus. But for this conflict that’s not the main thing.

Some minor points first. I’ve already argued that I don’t think ‘total victory’ is in the cards or is even something we necessarily want. Russia and its nuclear weapons aren’t going anywhere. A crushed and flailing Russia is in some ways as dangerous as a powerful Russia. Also, I don’t think we can really analyze any peace deal until we see it.

I hadn’t heard about an offer of a referendum over the future of the Donbas region. But when I talked to Josh Kovensky about this he noted that Zelensky had vaguely proposed a referendum on the future of Donbas and Crimea together. Josh notes that Russia now sees Crimea as an integral part of Russia. So on their reading they can no more hold a referendum on its future than they can St. Petersburg. The point is that Zelensky likely suggested this – again without details – knowing that it was a nonstarter for the Russians because it was joined to the fate of Crimea. In any case, point being, we’re hearing so many vague and contradictory leaks about the elements of peace deals that it’s possible to interpret them in ways that simply affirm our preconceptions and assumptions.

But with all this aside, what I see at least is dramatically, dramatically different from what BF does.

Russia went into this conflict with the goal of making Ukraine into a subject state of Russia, nominally independent but under Russian dominance and within the economic, military and ideological world of Russia and other post-Soviet states. This is simply putting right what, in the view of many Russian nationalists, got tragically out of whack with the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia also wanted to upend and divide NATO.

NATO membership was not actually in the offing when this invasion occurred and it didn’t look like it was anywhere on the horizon. What was on the horizon though was that despite the seizure of Crimea and de facto occupation of provinces in the east Ukraine has been steadily moving closer into the democratic, European orbit – both at the level of formal state relations and what we might call emerging or consolidating national identity. That is why I think this conflict was always more about EU membership than NATO.

As I noted above, we can’t evaluate winners and losers because this isn’t over. We don’t know what any deal would be. But I think what Ukraine is proposing to accept looks something like this.

  1. Armed neutrality. No membership in NATO and no foreign troops on Ukrainian territory. But also heavily armed. I cannot imagine a scenario where Ukraine doesn’t go on a military spending spree after this conflict is over unless it is specifically barred from doing so by some agreement. It also seems quite likely they’ll adopt a universal military service framework perhaps like Israel’s. Everyone serves in the Army and men are in the reserves into middle age.
  2. Punting the issue of Crimea into the future with the unstated recognition that it may not be possible ever to reclaim that territory.
  3. On Donbas, I don’t think we know what Ukraine is willing to do. They have said again and again they won’t part with any sovereign territory. But they may end up having no choice on those regions. I just don’t know. But I definitely do not think they’ve signaled they are resigned to losing that territory. Not at all.
  4. Ability to join the EU and rapid accession into the EU. And on top of this no limits on Ukrainian sovereignty behind the agreement not to join NATO or house foreign troops on its territory.

There are general discussions of Western security guarantees that are very similar to the ones through NATO. But I mostly discount those. Maybe they’re significant. But either you’re committing in advance to going to war on a country’s behalf or you’re not. Maybe these really will be binding. But for now I’d set them aside.

What this looks like to me is a situation where Russia will have a Ukraine that is on the path to deep integration with Europe and ‘the West’ generally and one that is heavily armed. It seems almost axiomatic to me that a post-war Ukraine, if there’s is a deal something like the above, will be stronger militarily than it was in February 2022. Probably much stronger. I assume it will be heavily armed by the US and other countries in Europe.

You also have a country which is deeply, deeply anti-Russian in a way that it simply was not before. I’m no expert on Ukraine or Ukrainian nationalism but it certainly seems that the emerging Ukrainian national identity is now heavily bound up with being part of Europe – strategically, economically, culturally, ideologically – and not being part of Russia – not historically, not ideologically, etc. National identity is a fluid thing. It could have ended up very differently. And of course tempers can cool. But that imprint – at least from a distance – now seems very, very enduring.

Next, over the last two months NATO has moved from being something of an afterthought or an organization without a mission to one of extreme unity and purpose. In a stroke, Putin has created a heavily militarized NATO he claims always to have feared. There’s little doubt most or all European states will now be raising their defense spending, in many cases by a lot.

I struggle to see how any of this is Russia achieving its war aims. When you add on the impact of sanctions, the exposure of the Russian military as far less robust than expected and more it’s hard to see it as anything but a geo-strategic catastrophe.

Now, the big unknown here is territory. There are some who argue that for the sake of European peace Russia has to suffer a categorical defeat. Specifically, for all the blood and treasure, they argue, if Russia emerges with seized territory then it will not only be able to portray the adventure as a win but be likely after a few years to do the whole thing over again. This might be going for more territory in Ukraine or perhaps punching a land route through to its enclave in Kaliningrad.

This strikes me as a real argument to contend with. Land is land. It’s the currency of predatory states. If you get more territory and everyone agrees that it’s now yours maybe nothing else does matter and you’ve learned you can do it and get away with it.

Here I think we just need to see a final deal. I don’t think we can make sense of that without seeing what if anything is agreed to. But even here I’m not sure it’s so clear cut. If it is more territory Russia wants to take from NATO I think the lesson here is that NATO will unquestionably fight and that NATO will in all likelihood beat Russia badly in a conventional battle. If it’s more territory from Ukraine, Ukraine has mauled Russia badly this time and I assume that it will be stronger militarily next time. So will Russia want a rematch? I’m skeptical.

But again, this is all hypothetical until we know the details.


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Will Kolson said...

Russia still claims Crimea is part of its territory. It can't quite make full-scale annexation stick, so now it goes with semi-sovereign status and the rouble is being changed.
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Russia continues to assert that Crimea is a part of its borders. Because it can't quite make full-scale annexation stick, it now operates under a semi-sovereign status and is changing the trouble. Take my online class for me

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