Analysis: The Russia Ukraine Conflict
By Lee Slusher
March 01, 2022
It is the afternoon of February 28, 2022 (EST). Four days earlier, Russian forces invaded Ukraine after a months-long military buildup along Ukraine’s borders. The United Nations General Assembly currently is in an emergency meeting to discuss the war. The following is my response to several questions from Poligage. In the interest of keeping this to a tolerable length, I mostly limited the historical context of my responses to post-Soviet Russia, more specifically Putin’s time at the helm.
First, though, I must address the nature of information flow during crises in general, and during this crisis in particular. As any complex situation unfolds, first reports are often unreliable and later proven incorrect. The supply of vetted information simply cannot meet the demand of our own curiosity in real-time. This is a frustrating but completely normal dynamic in any genuine crisis.
The information environment of this war is, arguably, among the most complex in the history of warfare. We are awash in information from individuals, private entities, governments, and the press. Yet, we lack the means to verify all but a slim minority of reports. Much of the public discussion of the war, thus far, has amounted to unrestrained speculation, to put it politely. Those who purport to know exactly what is happening in Ukraine and how the crisis will resolve are, at best, supremely overconfident in their own abilities. I say this as both caution and reassurance—we are all viewing this situation through a kaleidoscope, of sorts. Indeed, even the general staffs of both Russia and Ukraine certainly have hazy views of the situation across the front. Such is the nature of war.
Questions and topic areas include:
- Please explain what is happening and what is the context for Russia’s attack on Ukraine?
- Russia and Turkey
- How much support does Putin have for what he’s doing? Are the majority of the Russian people behind him on this?
- What is your best guess of what happens in the coming weeks? Will Russia continue to move west or is Ukraine their only focus?
- Did Ukraine make a mistake giving up their nuclear weapons program without NATO membership? Why is Ukraine not in NATO?
- What cards do President Biden and other western leaders still have to play?
- Beyond Ukraine
The situation in Ukraine is only confusing if viewed as an aberration, instead of as the latest chapter in a very long-running saga. The fundamentals of Moscow’s position have not changed in years. Russia is pursuing, at least generally, the same goals it has had since the mid-2000s. That was when Putin had effectively consolidated power domestically. He put an end to the “wild west” of the 90s era and reigned in the oligarchs who tested his authority. Flush with cash from oil and natural gas sales, Putin turned his attention to rebuilding the country’s foreign and national security policies.
U.S. leaders reacted with surprise to the 2008 Russia/Georgia War and everything that’s happened in Crimea and Donbas since 2014. They should not have been surprised. Russia publicly produces voluminous national security documents. Russian leaders detail their intentions in public speeches. Moreover, Russia’s investments, particularly in military modernization, demonstrate that the country is putting its money where its mouth is, so to speak. Russia tells us what it wants and thinks, we’re simply inattentive and dismissive.
None of this is to say the U.S. ought to kowtow to Russia, only that our leaders have no business getting caught off guard. Here’s the trouble. The U.S. doesn’t really have an effective Russia policy—we just want to maintain the status quo without Russia causing problems. That sounds simplistic, perhaps even flippant, but it’s true. Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country! Russia’s economy is the size of New York’s! Russia has a declining birthrate! Our attention is trained elsewhere. This lack of appropriate policy leads to bad outcomes.
Many people compare Russia and China in terms of the threat each poses to the U.S. The typical conclusion is that the long-term trajectories of both countries prove China to be the larger threat, and not by a little. This is simply how the math adds up. The only hiccup in this view is that Russia is much more likely to manufacture or reanimate crises to draw in the U.S., to force Washington’s attention on Moscow’s agenda. Russia does this routinely as a matter of policy. Why? Because it works. This does not mean Russia is the greater threat, only that Russia deserves serious attention as a potential adversary. The typical thinking in the U.S. goes like this—China is the greater threat; therefore, the U.S. ought not focus on Russia. Russia is a distraction from the “real” problem. Whenever the U.S. pursues such a policy, Russia interjects (such as with an invasion or threat of invasion.)
What does Russia want? The general themes are well known and covered in many publications of recent years. So, I’ll list some but not address them at length:
- Respect—Russia is a great nation and demands to be treated as such
- The creation of a “multipolar” world (as opposed to a U.S.-dominated one)
- The need for strategic depth and a “sphere of privileged influence” along the country’s periphery
- Opposition to future NATO/EU enlargement (and anger that enlargement has gone this far)
- Regime survival—Russian leaders obsess over the possibility of a decapitation strike against the regime (think Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc., as well as “color revolutions”)
- Domestic politics—Putin is a dictator whose rule rests on a patronage network and repressive tactics. He initiated another sweeping crackdown, including constitutional changes, over the past year or so. Any distraction that produces patriotism among Russian citizens is helpful
There has been some debate in recent days over the extent to which the current war in Ukraine is about NATO enlargement versus Putin’s desire to reconstitute some form of the Soviet Union or Imperial Russia. This is a distinction without a difference. The Putin regime opposes NATO (and European Union) enlargement because it wishes to be the hegemon in the nations along its periphery. In addition, one must consider the West’s insistence on the “rules-based international order.” Moscow’s view of this concept is much different than Washington’s. For instance, this “order” prohibits the establishment of new states. Yet, the U.S. and NATO created Kosovo. This “order” decries the invasion of sovereign nations. Yet, for example, the U.S. invaded numerous countries, deposing their leaders. Moscow’s disagreements persist along similar lines on a range of issues.
In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. It also fueled a separatist insurrection in an area known as Donbas, which consists of Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian-speaking areas that are pretty much Ukrainian in name only. Russian-backed separatists have occupied both since spring 2014 when they declared their independence from Ukraine as “people’s republics.” They claimed the names Donetskaya Narodnaya Respublika (DNR) and Luganskaya Narodnaya Respublika (LNR). On February 21, 2022, Russia recognized both DNR and LNR as independent states. Immediately thereafter, Putin announced Russian forces would deploy to DNR and LNR to protect these allies. Three days later, Russia invaded Ukraine.
History enabled Russia to do this. The former Soviet Union consisted of fifteen republics, all of which are now independent states. These states have over one hundred ethnicities. The Soviets engaged in forced migrations to distill ethnic strongholds that might (and sometimes did) contest Soviet rule. Locals were forced out, Russians were forced in. When the Soviet Union collapsed, all fifteen republics had both Russians and Russian-speaking peoples. Russia uses these populations as a pretext to intrude in the affairs of other former republics. For example, Russia issues passports to these populations, thereby enabling Moscow to intervene on their behalf whenever it needs a reason (e.g., Georgia). This dynamic is at play in Ukraine, but there is so much more. Ukraine is special to Russia for historical, cultural, linguistic, and military reasons, such as the Black Sea fleet and access to a warm water port. Russia cannot allow Ukraine to be lost to the West. If Russia is first among equals in the former Soviet Union, then Ukraine is second.
There’s another wrinkle in this story and it gets far too little attention. Russia and Turkey are engaged in an ambivalent game of cooperation and competition. It played out initially in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect is the development and use of advanced UAVs and loitering munitions (as well as the sensors and artificial intelligence/machine learning that make these weapons so potent.) Turkey’s TB2 Bayraktar is the best known. With a combination of TB2s, Israeli Harop loitering munitions, and effective EW, Turkey destroyed several Russian-made Pantsir S-1 and Buk air defense systems in Syria in early 2020. A similar episode unfolded months later in Libya. Then, during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Turkey’s technologies and know-how enabled its ally, Azerbaijan, to defeat Armenia. Turkey was quick to exploit these successes in the form of worldwide arms sales to at least nine countries, including Ukraine. Turkey and Ukraine then agreed to establish a joint operations/training facility for TB2s (in Ukraine). Ukraine ordered the TB2 in early 2021 and first used it in combat against separatists in Donbas in October 2021. It is likely no coincidence that Russia began to deploy tens of thousands of troops with heavy equipment to its border with Ukraine shortly thereafter. Until Ukraine got hold of this technology, Russia was able to rely on its separatist allies in Donbas to keep Ukraine bogged down. Russia could not afford to have potentially game-changing weapons systems in full use across the front in Donbas.
3. How much support does Putin have for what he’s doing? Are the majority of the Russian people behind him on this?
Let us examine both foreign and domestic support.
At such an early date, the nearest proxy we have for official international sentiment is the February 25 U.N. Security Council resolution to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Russia, which currently occupies the Council’s Presidency, vetoed the resolution. China, India, and the United Arab Emirates all abstained. Abstention by the governments of the world’s two most populous nations does not amount to overt support for the war, but it is significant. We in the West ought to remember this fact, especially given the overwhelming opposition to the war in our own governments and societies. In other words, official global opposition to the war is far from monolithic.
Concerning domestic support, polling is notoriously difficult in autocratic societies, such as Russia. Respondents are often suspicious of pollsters’ actual identities and motives. Might pollsters be agents or informants of the state? Will one be punished for providing the “wrong” answer? There’s good reason for individuals to be cautious in such situations. Similarly, we ought to exercise prudence and restraint when viewing such information. In the absence of reliable data, we must consider what little we do know. Protests against the war occurred in many Russian cities, even though the Kremlin’s response to such dissent is often brutal. Consider the renewed domestic crackdown of the last year or so and the dismantlement of Navalny’s nationwide network within Russia. We also know that in similar past situations, such as the 2008 Georgia war and the 2014 Ukrainian war, patriotic sentiment buoyed the Kremlin’s efforts. There’s also the issue of anti-Russian sentiment. Many Russians, even those who do not consider themselves nationalistic, believe anti-Russian attitudes are prevalent in the West and beyond. This often translates into a defensive attitude toward any criticism of Russia, particularly during times of crisis.
It is impossible to discern domestic support for the war in anything but an entirely speculative fashion. The real question is the extent to which domestic public sentiment matters in this case. We simply do not know the answer at this point. For example, a Russian defeat might create an opening for Putin’s would-be successors. The role of public sentiment will rest on how Russia fares throughout the remainder of the conflict.
4. What is your best guess of what happens in the coming weeks? Will Russia continue to move west or is Ukraine their only focus?
My analytical approach, almost always, is to begin by sketching out the full range of potential scenarios, usually in ascending order of severity. Prior to the invasion of February 24, it looked something like this:
- Russia/Belarus withdrawal from the border, eliminating the crisis
- Russia and the West achieve a diplomatic agreement, forces withdraw
- Russia/Belarus maintain their positions but take no action
- Russia moves forces into Donetsk and Luhansk (Donbas), but only in those areas in which Russian-backed separatists are in control
- Russia takes all of Donbas
- Russia takes all or part of Donbas, but also takes the remaining coastline of the Sea of Azov between Crimea and Donbas (including the city of Mariupol)
- Russia does the option above and takes northeastern areas, including Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv
- Russia takes most of Ukraine east of the Dnieper River, exclusion Kyiv, generally approximating the areas in which Russian is the primary language spoken
- Russia does the option above, but also takes Kyiv
- Russia takes all or most of Ukraine
- War between Russia and NATO (regardless of how)
As you see, many scenarios were possible. After recognizing the independence of DNR and LNR, Putin’s next move was to skip the more restrained options and instead launch a general invasion of Ukraine. To be clear, Russia does have the means to capture all of Ukraine, even using only conventional forces. Russia could unleash its army of old and employ mass artillery, followed by mass infantry and mass armor (tanks). Such an approach would exponentially increase military and civilian casualties and would destroy most, if not all, of Ukraine’s infrastructure. The general hope, at least in the West, is that Russia would not do this with the world watching. But the fact remains Russia could do this.
No one knows how the situation will resolve. War, like other political activities, is interactive. Each step in one in a broader continuum—we cannot fast forward to the end. However, we can sift through the current discussion and broadly categorize several things.
First—Yes, history has shown Putin to be an unscrupulous autocrat. He likely ordered his security services to bomb apartment buildings in 1999 as a casus belli to launch the Second Chechen War, in which Russian forces destroyed the provincial capital, Grozny. He launched wars against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine, starting in 2014 (which had continued until the present via Russian-backed separatists in Donbas.) He has dissidents murdered, even in NATO countries and even using chemical and radiological weapons easily tracible back to Russian security services. He jails potential rivals on obviously bogus charges, and then has them retried and convicted when their initial sentences are ending. There are many more examples.
Second—We do not know what Putin thinking. The press is awash in a sea of speculative gossip. Putin is mentally ill! Putin is sick with COVID! Putin will invade the Baltics! Such hysteria is unhelpful, at least to any serious attempt to understand the matter.
Third—I have heard comparatively little discussion of more realistic influences on Putin’s decision-making, namely his advisors and patrons. Most in Washington D.C. know that the people “in the room” make policy. Those who participate in the process—particularly those with more forceful, persuasive personalities—tend to determine the outcome. Wonks enjoy lengthy, detailed debates, but the results often reflect the participants more than the ideas. The same is true elsewhere. Let’s consider who’s in the room with Putin. There are different factions within his network, all varying shades of hawkish. With such people in the room, I could more easily envision calls for boldness and action than one for prudence and restraint.
Fourth— Recent deployments by individual NATO member states to Central and Eastern European nations provide a deterrent to additional Russian invasions. The same is true for the first-ever activation of the NATO Response Force. However, such forces really are just that, a deterrent. NATO has not arrayed the forces necessary to repel a forceful incursion into its territory. Any further discussion along these lines gets into a NATO/Russia war scenario, which is outside the scope of this piece.
Fifth— Much depends on the lengths to which Putin presses the war. Absent a clear and overwhelming victory with his current approach, he has much to decide. Will he risk the destruction of Kyiv or other parts of Ukraine to achieve victory? Will he find some clever face-saving measure that allows him to disengage but still claim some sort of victory? Will Russian forces retreat in ignominy? Will some outside actor intervene and tip the scales? We simply do not know. (I intentionally did not address the brave efforts of Ukrainian leaders, soldiers, and citizens, because Russia has the capacity to continue the war and make it a much, much uglier conflict, should it choose to do so.)
5. Did Ukraine make a mistake giving up their nuclear weapons program without NATO membership? Why is Ukraine not in NATO?
I understand why the issue of Ukraine’s nuclear weapons is a hot topic at the moment. However, I approach this as I do all counterfactuals. They make for interesting conversation but have nothing to do with the realities of geopolitics.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was not only the end of the Cold War. It was also the end of the order that had existed in the region going back to the Russian Revolution and the end of Imperial Russia. For the most part, Ukraine had belonged to some other empire for centuries. When Ukraine gained its independence in the early 1990s, it had the world’s third largest nuclear weapons inventory. This is because the Soviet Union had placed these nuclear weapons in the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was an accident of history—Ukraine did not have its own nuclear weapons program. South Africa remains the only country to produce its own nuclear weapons and then voluntarily give them up in favor of non-proliferation.
We simply do not know how a newly independent but nuclear-armed Ukraine would have navigated such a world. Might Ukraine have used this status to become an aggressor? Might Ukraine and Russia had formed a new alliance? We just do not know. There are simply too many variables over the past few decades to make any sense of the matter.
Moving on to the next question, NATO. To explain why Ukraine is not in NATO, one must first understand how NATO came to be its current self. NATO was created to guard against the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, many questioned whether NATO ought to continue and, if so, what would be its purpose. In the new era, member countries cashed in on the “peace dividend” largely by shrinking their sizeable standing armies and instead investing in social services for their citizens. NATO shifted its focus from a potential war with the Soviet Union and refocused on other missions. For instance, NATO engaged in both peacekeeping and offensive operations in the Balkans later in the 1990s and, ultimately, in Afghanistan after the attacks of 9/11.
Perhaps most noteworthy of all, NATO did not envision its future as one of conflict with a major power, like Russia. Though its “Smart Defense” initiative, NATO allowed member nations to specialize in niche military capabilities instead of maintaining entire armies. Together with the European Union, NATO expanded eastward in the hopes of spreading Western-style liberal democracy, norms, and free markets. In other words, NATO became a vehicle to bring former Eastern Bloc nations into the Western-dominated order. This expansion continued gradually until it included not only many former Eastern Bloc nations, but also the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. However, Russia was opposed to the absorption of its previous allies and neighbors into the Western-dominated entities. Much like the U.S. during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Russia views NATO’s presence along its borders as a threat. The 2008 Russia/Georgia War and everything that has occurred in Ukraine since 2014 has been the result of Russia’s objection to further NATO and EU expansion. Might Georgia, Ukraine, and other countries have joined NATO absent Russia’s aggression? Possibly, but it is worth noting that NATO membership is a long, bureaucratic process with many important waypoints. It is not the result of a simple vote to admit new members (or, at least, it never has been to date.)
Once again, I view these things on a spectrum. On one end, the West does nothing. On the other end, the West launches a war against Russia to liberate Ukraine. Clearly, the real options are somewhere in between these two extremes.
Sadly, the best options are those that would have prevented a conflict altogether. We are past that point. For the most part, Western leaders are in a largely reactive mode. Understandably, none is willing to risk war with Russia by intervening militarily in Ukraine. In addition to Western sanctions, some NATO members have openly discussed and pledged additional military aid to Ukraine. However, Russia could view this as a provocation. For example, some Western leaders have advocated the U.S. enforce a no-fly zone in Ukraine, as it previously did in Iraq. This is ludicrous as the only way to enforce such a measure would be to shoot down Russian aircraft. Obviously, this would bring the U.S. into open conflict with Russia—and Russia is not Iraq.
It remains to be seen how bold NATO is willing to be under these circumstances. This degree of boldness likely will depend on how sensibly Russia pursues its goals in Ukraine. In terms of non-military options, Western leaders can look for or create “off-ramps,” or ways in which the conflict could deescalate or become more confined. Might there be a face-saving way for Putin to declare some sort of victory and back out?
The best remaining options are those aimed at preventing a replay of the current situation. Until several days ago, there was very well-established, recent history of NATO’s repeated “wake-up calls,” none of which caused any real change commensurate with the threat. After the Russia/Georgia War, the Alliance did nothing. After Russia invaded an annexed Crimea and began an insurgency in Donbas, NATO held various summits at which leaders declared a renewed focus on Russian aggression and pledged to shift military focus eastward. However, individual member nations essentially continued along their existing trajectories. Those who invested more heavily in defense and saw Russia as a threat, continued to do so. Those who had allowed their forces to slip into combat-ineffective decline, continued to do so. The past few days may have been the dawning of a new era in which NATO develops a threat perception that accurately reflects the environment, as well as the combat power and willingness to act accordingly.
Looking beyond Ukraine, we should consider the Western Balkans where Russia supports its Serbian allies, both in the Republic of Serbia and in Republika Srpska, the ethic Serb entity in neighboring Bosnia. Several things are in play. First, Russia was always furious about NATO intervention in the region, especially the 1999 air war against Serbia and the creation of Kosovo as an independent state. Second, Bosnia is coming apart at the seams. The Dayton Agreement of 1995 ended the war there by creating a bifurcated country and a tenuous peace, at best. Republika Srpska has long threatened to secede and is making another push for that now. Well, Putin just sent Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Security Council of Russia, to Serbia. Among Patrushev’s allegations is the claim that mercenaries from Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia are going to Ukraine to fight against pro-Russian elements. It’s too early to make a real assessment, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Russia and Serbia were to support, openly or otherwise, the secessionist wishes of Republika Srpska. Secession would be a major victory against the Western-established status quo in the region and against Western influence more broadly.
 Ukrainian spellings (instead of Russian ones) are currently en vogue throughout the West. It’s Kyiv, not Kiev; Kharkiv, not Kharkov; Luhansk, not Lugansk; and so on. I take no position on the matter but sought to use Ukrainian versions for simplicity. I apologize if any Russian spellings are present (old habits and all.)