Invading Ukraine is a really bad idea
Putin should just say no to pointless blunders
I have a more sympathetic view of Russian nationalism than your average centrist shill pundit.
Slow Boring proudly ran Natalie Shure’s piece on why the alleged Russian attacks behind “Havana Syndrome” are almost certainly fake and Lee Harris’ case that the U.S. should attempt a serious diplomatic rapprochement with Russia. I think a lot of the officials who’ve been running America’s Russia policy for years are irrationally invested in trying to reduce Russian geopolitical power and overthrow Putin’s regime when this has been counterproductive from the standpoint of other, more important objectives. And I think most Americans, correctly recognizing that Russia is not that important, don’t pay much attention to the extent to which U.S. policy has been anti-Russia over the longer run and also lack the cognitive empathy to imagine how the world looks through the eyes of Russian officials.
All that being said, it is clearly Vladimir Putin who has provoked the current acute crisis with Ukraine and thus with the west.
And having done so, I can imagine that he and his advisors may feel that the best course is to go through with an invasion — the west might get mad, but realistically, the Europeans still need natural gas and the Biden administration doesn’t want to disrupt the global economy.
But it would be a very bad idea. After Napoleon killed the Duc D’Enghein, Talleyrand remarked that “it’s worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.”
Invading Ukraine would be a mistake. Defeating the Ukrainian military would be relatively easy, but actually governing Ukraine would be challenging and risks a prolonged occupation that would destroy Russian national strength and discredit the Russia-sympathetic political figures that Putin has cultivated in Europe and the United States. It would cement a Russian alliance with China in which Beijing would be the dominant partner. And it could create a much more serious threat to the stability of Putin’s regime than a pro-western government in Kyiv ever could.
The Russians should keep their own cynical view of American policymakers in mind: U.S. officialdom doesn’t really care about Ukraine or the welfare of the Ukrainian people but would welcome the opportunity to see Russia mired in an endless conflict. Just say no.
Russia can probably defeat Ukraine easily
Russia is a middling economic power (between South Korea and Brazil in nominal gross domestic product, and between Germany and Indonesia with purchasing power parity adjustments) but it’s a major military power.
Once upon a time that was down to their large nuclear arsenal, but over the past 20 years, Putin has made major investments in upgrading the quality of the Russian military and spending money on equipment and training, but also, critically, gaining real-world fighting experience. The idea that Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War was a “strategic success” is overblown, but it was certainly a tactical success and it demonstrated that Russia can actually pull off power projection at a distance.
The Ukrainian military, by contrast, has a lot of problems. For a very long time, Ukraine was led by pro-Russian authoritarian regimes with no real interest in conducting an independent foreign policy and who used the military mostly for domestic repression.
The regime that’s been in place since 2014 has been under constant pressure from Russia and has attempted to switch from Russian-provided to western-provided equipment while fighting an ongoing low-level war in Donbas. There’s been a lot of corruption and instability over the years, and while some western countries have suddenly surged in weapons and supplies, that hasn’t generally been the case for the past eight years.
Russia also has Ukraine more or less surrounded. Because Russia already took over the Crimean Peninsula and has troops stationed in both Belarus and the little strip of Moldova called Transnistria, Ukraine is in a very weak position.
Probably the best thing the Ukrainians have going for them is military drones from Turkey. Turkey joined NATO decades ago, and while it has drawn closer to Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and Turkey are involved in proxy conflicts across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caucuses. Back in 2020, Azerbaijan defeated Armenia in a quick war, with drones provided by Israel and Turkey providing the decisive advantage over Armenia’s Russian-supplied military.
Nobody thinks drone magic will put Ukraine over the top. But this is a pretty new form of warfare, and there’s at least some downside risk to the Russian military in terms of unexpected losses.
Of course, the real downside risk when great powers invade other countries is what happens next.
Occupying foreign countries is hard
Operation Enduring Freedom launched on October 7, 2001, with American and British warplanes targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda targets with assistance from cruise missiles launched from warships. Logistically speaking, it was very difficult for the United States of America to attack Afghanistan, which is nowhere near the United States and also not near any oceans or major U.S. military installations. Nonetheless, the Taliban evacuated Kabul by November 13, and previously hard-pressed Northern Alliance fighters swiftly defeated their enemies once they were assisted by NATO airpower and relatively small numbers of American special forces.
The logistics of the 2003 invasion of Iraq were more favorable, and from the first day of “shock and awe,” bombing took about 26 days. Fewer than 300 of the coalition forces who participated in the invasion were killed during these major combat operations.
In both cases, of course, the problem proved to be not defeating the enemy army but establishing durable control over the newly conquered territory. And this is not a uniquely American problem. The Soviet Union had its own experience in Afghanistan, which also featured a logistically impressive initial takeover followed by a long-running catastrophe.
Back when counterinsurgency was a hot topic in the mid-aughts, a lot of leading experts said that a successful occupation requires one occupying soldier for every 40 civilians in the occupied country. I’m not sure that’s right, but among people who don’t think occupations are inevitably doomed, it seems to be the leading theory as to why they fail so frequently. And on this score, Russia looks set for a big problem. Ukraine’s formal military capacity is a lot weaker than Russia’s, but compared to other small countries that big countries have failed to successfully occupy, it’s quite strong.
Applying the 40:1 formula to Ukraine, Russia would need an occupying army of one million soldiers to secure the country effectively. That is the total size of Russia’s active-duty military, and of course, many of those personnel are in the Navy or deal with strategic nuclear weapons. Russia does have two million reservists and 500,000 paramilitary forces at their disposal, so I’m not saying it’s impossible. But it would be a huge strain, so I assume they’d try to get away with fewer people.
Ukrainians keep rejecting Russian rule
Russia already has small occupying forces in parts of Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia), Ukraine (Crimea and Donbas), and Moldova (Transnistria).
The United States rejects all of that as illegitimate and declares that the administrative subdivisions of the USSR should be treated as sacrosanct for the purposes of international relations. That Russia has pulled this off without breaking much of a sweat has created a sense in both Moscow and Washington that they might be able to do the same in Ukraine. But despite American protestations, the reality of those “frozen conflicts” seems to be that most of the people in the places in question actually do want to be under Russian suzerainty. The ethnic politics of both the Russian Empire and the USSR were complicated and not perfectly captured by the maps of Soviet fake federalism. Taking over Crimea works because it’s full of Russian people who don’t really want to be citizens of an independent Ukraine.
But by the same token, we’ve seen consistently over the past 20 years that most Ukrainians (especially outside Crimea) sincerely do not want to be governed by a Russian puppet regime. Mass street protests overthrew a pro-Russian regime in 2004 and then again in 2014 after Moscow-friendly forces regained power.
Some of this is nationalistic sentiment. And some of it is the fact that Putin-era Russia is a corrupt, authoritarian petro-state, and that makes Russia a bit of a tough hang as an ally, particularly from an economic development standpoint. The post-Soviet Ukrainian economy has been a basket case. On its western flank, Ukraine shares borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, four post-communist countries that are all now members of the European Union. These countries are not only richer than Ukraine, but the gap is growing.
Poor countries that have deep economic ties to Germany and other Western European countries can get rich as low-cost suppliers of manufactured goods to the richer countries of Europe.
The top export of Poland is car parts (followed by cars), and the top destination is Germany. For Romania, it’s also car parts followed by cars, with Germany as the top destination. Hungary and Slovakia shake things up: there it’s cars followed by car parts, again with Germany as the top destination. Ukraine’s top export is seed oil, and its top trade partner is Russia. And the problem with being part of a Russia-centric economic system is that the Russian economy is based on fossil fuel extraction. Germany’s manufacturing economy can send supply-chain tendrils out to its neighbors, who start out manufacturing the lowest-value components and then move up. But there’s no value chain that Russia can export.
Ukrainians have a strong motive to seek economic integration with the west, and since Russia-aligned regimes in Kyiv keep trying to prevent that, they keep provoking popular dissent. If Russia wants to actually keep control of Ukraine, they’re going to need to invest significant resources in doing so. And for what?
There’s very little upside to conquering Ukraine
A few years before the outbreak of World War I, Norman Angell famously argued in his book “The Great Illusion” that great power conflict would be so economically costly with so little upside that it was impossible to imagine it actually happening.
Well, he was wrong. But his analysis was correct on one level: “winning” World War I still left Britain and Italy and especially France worse off than they’d been before the war. Not just because the war itself was costly, but because there’s very little that an advanced market economy can actually achieve by conquering other people’s land. There are exceptions if the land in question happens to hold valuable natural resources, hence Trump’s mantra “we should have taken the oil.” And you can even think of Putin’s conquest of Crimea in those terms — post-Soviet Russia inherited the old Soviet naval base at Sevastopol, a base that provides Russia with access to the Black and Mediterranean Seas that it would otherwise lack. A pro-Western Ukraine might have jeopardized that base deal, and seizing it arguably helped secure Russia’s access to the ocean.
But there’s nothing of particular value in Ukraine. Which is not a bad thing! Poland and Hungary and Slovakia and Romania are in the same boat, as are most places on the globe. But that’s just to say that for most of the world, the way to get rich is to participate in complicated international supply chains starting with low-level manufacturing and moving up to higher-end manufacturing and tradable services.
A peaceful, stable Ukraine that successfully fights corruption and that builds commercial ties to central and western Europe could become rich; Ukraine has pretty good educational attainment and decent prospects. But it’s not rich currently. It doesn’t have any riches to conquer. And its prospects as a country under quasi-occupation by the Russian military, wracked by constant political instability and with tons of people fleeing, are not good at all.
Russia would be, at potentially great cost, picking up something essentially worthless to them.
Biden should stand tall, but give Russia an out
I have two big concerns about the way the Ukraine issue is currently framed in much of the international press:
It seems like Joe Biden (and like-minded administrations in Europe) really, really don’t want Russia to invade Ukraine, as if we might potentially be willing to make concessions of large value in order to secure that outcome.
It seems like it would be a big win for the west if Putin stopped threatening to invade Ukraine, which makes it seem like something he probably wouldn’t want to do.
The fact is that nothing particularly bad happens to the United States (or to the UK or to France or to Germany) if Russia takes over Ukraine. So while we can and will put some sanctions on Russia if they do it, the amount of real-world economic sacrifice that we are going to make for the sake of Ukraine is pretty small. But if Putin thinks of backing down as a big loss for him and of seizing Ukraine as a big win, he’s going to be pretty tempted to do it.
If I had a chance to mediate here, I would emphasize that western leaders genuinely would prefer to avoid a war and are happy to find a way to help Putin save face. They don’t want to make him face a binary choice of war or humiliating climbdown, because nobody likes a humiliating climbdown. But by the same token, if Putin really wants to spend his twilight years battling a guerrilla insurgency in Ukraine, that is much more of a problem for him than it is for the United States of America. America has a big firearms manufacturing industry, and Joe Biden is happy to do bipartisan bills to buy those guns and send them into western Ukraine via Poland and Romania. Compared to funding an anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, it’s logistically quite easy and doesn’t involve cutting deals with jihadists. It’s genuinely Russia’s choice, and they should not feel like we are terrified of the prospects of a Russian-dominated Ukraine or prepared to pay a huge ransom for it.
What I do think we should put on the table is that America sincerely wants a better relationship with Russia, and if that requires formally acknowledging that Ukraine and Georgia aren’t going to join NATO, that’s fine.
But the biggest reason we want a better relationship with Russia is that we are trying to reorient our foreign policy around containing China. If U.S.-Russian relations go into a tailspin, that inevitably turns Russia into the junior partner in a firm Sino-Russian alliance. That’s bad for the United States but it’s really bad for Russia. Putin should get smart and hedge and accept a face-saving compromise on Ukraine.
Sadly, terrible things sometimes happen
There really ought to be a win-win here where Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine, Ukraine disavows NATO membership, the western powers acknowledge the referendum that incorporated Crimea into Russia, Russia acknowledges that Ukraine can follow the footsteps of Sweden, Finland, and Austria into the EU without violating neutrality, and everyone goes back to buying and selling natural gas instead of killing each other.
The alternative is a bit worse for the U.S., worse than that for western Europe, even worse than that for Russia, and positively catastrophic for Ukraine.
Because everyone is better off with peace, I’m at least a little optimistic that war can be avoided. Unfortunately, as Angell learned, sometimes people make bad choices and launch destructive wars that leave everyone worse off. And I’m a little concerned that the media’s love of zero-sum competitive framings has obscured the extent to which invading Ukraine would be a genuinely terrible choice for Putin. If he does it, it will probably be portrayed as humiliating to various western leaders he dislikes. But it’s important to say that it really would be a disaster for him and his country more than for the west.
That guest column was pretty bad.
If you’re looking for a reason to feel sympathetic to Russia, the real one is that its current behavior is really rooted in some old and not entirely unwarranted pathologies.
If Prussia was an army with a state, modern Russia is a security apparatus with a state. And I mean “modern” in the sense of the latest iteration of the Russian nation to pull itself back together after the Mongols flattened its predecessor.
Russia’s history is basically an unending liturgy of other states attempting to conquer it and failing to do so or to hold it, but being repelled at the cost of vast numbers of its people and much of its wealth. The Mongols, Tatars, Turks, French, British, Germans, Germans…
That is the frame through which Russia’s policy makers view everything. No sooner had they genuinely neutralized the threat from the east, quite literally by conquering virtually all of the steppe not under “civilized” Chinese control than the Turks pose an existential threat from the south.
They mostly resolve that problem in their favor, again with much bloodshed and the repressed devastation of southern Russia and Ukraine, and then France appears to the west. 10% of the civilian population frozen to death later and they’ve repelled that threat, but the UK has decided they’re a threat and launched a limited invasion.
And on, and on, through the history of the 20th century, which is way worse than anything else since the Mongols.
The proximate issues at hand are clear enough; the Russian state is a manifestly untrustworthy actor when it comes to anything security-related, and it views the continued existence of a stable, prosperous US as a threat.
But understanding how it became this way in the first place is something we’re bad at, and that needs to inform our policy more.
I'm skeptical that there's really a "deal" to be had here. Yes, the 2008 Bucharest Declaration was a mistake, but what prompted Putin's 2014 intervention wasn't NATO but an EU association agreement. Putin does not want a neutral or "Finlandized" Ukraine. He wants Ukraine as Russian client state - ideally he likely wants Ukraine in the Eurasian Union and in CSTO.
I know the familiar narrative that the US and the west have been overly focused on denying Russia a sphere on influence. I think the reality is a lot more mixed. For all the condemnation it drew at the time, the west quickly moved on from the Georgia War. Nobody in the western world has pushed back on Russian intervention in Nagarno-Karabakh. The west has rarely sought to counter Russian influence in Central Asia. Even Ukraine spent most of the post-Soviet years as a Russian client state which few in the west really challenged.
What changed the equation for Ukraine was domestic pressure to align with Europe. (On that note, I think Matt is overly cynical about western intentions and underplays that there is a lot of genuine sympathy in official circles for Ukraine's western / European aspirations.)
Last point, I want to push back on Matt's dismissal about inviolability of post-Soviet borders. It's not that borders can't or shouldn't ever be changed - borders should not be changed by force. Obviously that hasn't always been true. (And all major powers - certainly the US, but also Russia - were offenders in the 19th Century and before.) But no changing borders by force really has been a central organizing feature of the post-WWII settlement, and has likely been a significant factor in the decline of global conflict, given how much historical conflict has been driven by conflict over land.
Crimeans probably want to be Russian, and that's fine. But the means matter. A reasonable rapprochement deal would be something like an interim UN administration, an internationally monitored referendum (which would likely confirm Russian sovereignty), and perhaps provisions like Northern Ireland whereby residents are eligible for Ukrainian passports as well.