But the risks of an escalating war remain real and terrifying
Nice piece Matt. I've been worried about Russia for a long time. I'm old enough that I grew up during the Cold War, but my larger concern has always been the psychological warfare that the KGB, then FSB, now IRA conducts on us and other Western countries. I'm not sure people really understand just how prevalent this is and how much damage it does. I've seen the NYTIMES report on this several times now (most recently here: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/18/us/womens-march-russia-trump.html?searchResultPosition=1) - but it still seems to be low in the proverbial collective consciousness.
I'd love for Matt to put together something on this. The Russians have always seen the West as a threat and they work constantly to undermine us. The primary way they do this is that they stoke division in our increasingly multicultural societies. They also promote class dissension and focus on Western inequality. They use social media - I'm at least partially convinced that this is why so many young people are openly socialists today. Whenever someone brings this up, the response is always something to the effect that "the problems are real, not made up by Russia" - which is absolutely true. But if our enemy (and enemy is not too light a term for Russia) spends lots of resources promulgating propaganda that is designed to divide and highlight differences in America, shouldn't we at least consider the idea that countering this narrative is important? How? By telling an American story (also propaganda) that is positive, unifying, and that focuses on the merits of our systems/society - rather than always on their failings.
The Right tries to do this (America F Yeah!) - but somewhat ineffectively in that it always feels like they are talking about an America that doesn't include everyone. But it doesn't have to be this way. We could have a strong national culture that prizes and rewards the multitudes that make up our country but still does so from a position of strength and inclusivity - rather than something that continues to foster division.
China (our other rival/enemy) is getting more into this same game of stoking divisions in America and their somewhat state-ownership of Tik Tok is one of my bigger fears. They also have strong reasons to sew dissension and they own an apparatus that provides the opportunity to dictate the memes pumped directly into young American minds.
It also looks like Putin’s position is weakening, both with his international allies and at home in Russia.
China’s Xi raised issues with the Ukrainian conflict at the recent SCO summit and Putin publicly acknowledged these concerns.  It seems clear that China does not want to see any further escalation and will not be providing material support to aid in Putin’s war.
Further, Putin is getting significant criticism at home on multiple fronts, including opposition to the war and advocates that think more needs to be done. 
> On Sunday, Alla Pugacheva, a much-loved pop singer who has been a household name for Russians for decades, posted a message criticizing “illusory aims” in Ukraine that have made Russia “a pariah” that weighs “heavily on the lives of its citizens.” On the other side, nationalists are furious at inept military leadership, forcing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to warn that criticism would be fine — until it wasn’t: “The line is extremely thin. One should be very careful here.”
And Putin’s recent escalation with “partial mobilization” risks waking the apathetic masses.
> As Yuval Weber of Texas A&M's Bush School of Government and Public Service in Washington, DC put it to me, these masses in the middle are the real risk for the Kremlin, far more than the nationalist right. They are the ones on whom the regime has long relied, men and women who have been lulled into apathy but would now need to be whipped into a frenzy. More involved (and sending their own kin to war), they may well start asking awkward questions about Putin’s effectiveness.
It was difficult to understand German decision making in the last few years. It appears there was a lot of infiltration by Russian spies into the German government's decision making. I read somewhere that Angela Merkle seemed to devote herself to total mediocrity. Tying Germany to Russian gas in such a big way even after the 2014 issues in Ukraine was a disaster.
"The United States eventually left Vietnam and the USSR eventually left Afghanistan because in both cases, they reached the correct conclusion that it’s just not worth it."
Strong agree. NATO also got out of Afghanistan. The West has forgotten about Afghanistan, and Afghanistan has forgotten about the West as it slips into tribal warfare. Nature is healing.
Good summary of the situation, Matt, but I still remain skeptical that the Europeans will be able to hold it together through the winter. And, even with Ukraine's latest advances, I'm still expecting a Russian "win" in the sense that, when a ceasefire is eventually reached, the Russians will end up controlling more territory than they had at the start of the present war. The Kharkiv area victories are great, but I anticipate the Russians will pour everything they can into keeping the corridor to the Crimea open and, unless the Russian air force completely evaporates and its nuclear arsenal is verifiably taken offline, I can't see how the Ukrainians will be able to break that before Russia is able to sufficiently retool its armaments industry to at least be able to keep up with equipment losses and expenditures of "dumb" munitions. (Note: I would be very happy to be proven wrong on this, but I just keep thinking that Americans are way, WAY too used to wars ending in "unconditional victory," and Russian advantages in manpower and industrial production are too great to permit that.)
A couple of quibbles:
To claim that Biden had the same opposition to Nord Stream 2 as Trump and Obama is incorrect. Biden, in fact, dropped Trump's sanctions and effectively approved the project to go forward. See NYTimes article here: https://tinyurl.com/ep9bwysh
I also disagree with the assessment that "...but short of a drastic regime change, nobody is ever going to go as all-in on Russian gas as the Germans did in the Nord Stream era..." Once this is over, memories will be short and Europeans will return to their old habits: stopping all domestic energy activity that isn't wind or solar while becoming ever-more-dependent on other regions to supply oil and gas. The moral superiority of the environmentalist movement in Europe requires the "bad" energy to be produced out-of-sight and out-of-mind.
Overall, though, great summary of the situation. Good luck to the Ukrainians.
Impressive timing of this article considering Putin's call for partial mobilization.
"...at the end of the day, Russia cares more about Ukraine than Europe does, and whatever the west does to back Ukraine, eventually Russia will do more."
This is probably true enough of Western Europe (and the US, tbh, but supporting Ukraine isn't nearly as painful for us) but I don't think it's true of the eastern flank of the NATO countries. They seem to care quite deeply about the fate of Ukraine and believe they're next on the chopping block if Ukraine falls. It history is a guide, they're not wrong to be concerned
I spent a fair percentage of my life reading on military history and military organization and military technology. I will die one day with a copy of Aviation Week close at hand. It was my considered opinon right up to the moment it happened that Russia would not invade. That was predicated on knowing their military capabilities and available combat capacity. I did assume, unlike the Russians, that they would would not be welcomed as brothers and I had years of conflict in the Donbas and elsewhere as evidence that this would be true. My argument was straightforward. They lacked the military capacity to take and occupy the Ukraine.
I also assumed that the Russian orbat was actually functional. This is not hard to obtain material. You can find it on Wikipedia. The Russian intention was to develop combined arms formations, larger than a brigade but smaller than a division. These were to have the capacity to act as independent formations. They would have armor, artillery, infantry, recon, close air support, and logistical ability. The works as it were. And they planned on having 45 or so such formations. They never got there. That is not their entire army to be sure but it was the pointy end of the spear. I think they got into the low thirties. But even then it was known that many of these formations were undermanned and lacked their full complement of weapons and support.
The Russians proceeded to prove that even that was all a sham. I will add one observation that I believe is not given sufficient consideration. (Any fans of Hoplology here?) For anyone below officer rank in the Russian military life sucks. They are poorly paid, housed and treated. In consequence they lack a large experienced corp of noncoms who are, in any army, your experts and trainers of soldiers. What they do have seem to be very bad at their jobs, and expert only at falsifying readiness reports and such and also selling off anything they can to supplement their incomes. This is not a good army.
I was completely wrong about the Russians invading of course. But the results have so far proven why I should have been right. Sweden and Finland can take comfort in the fact that Russia will not be deploying more forward troops to their borders. The Russians ain't got 'em.
This is a good write-up about what Russia should do if it was acting rationally in its own best material interests, but it's sort of beside the point: the guy running Russia clearly has some different goals in mind!
The hard question--and the more interesting one--is *given* the above, what should the West do? Stay on this path even if it increases the chances of escalation to nuclear warfare? For me, this is the debate that I'm interested in seeing, as there doesn't seem to be an obvious answers!
I like how Matt continues to logically lay out how starting this war made no sense, and it always makes me think, when does starting a war *ever* make sense?
“The problem is that he is permanently squandering Russia’s opportunity to be a major natural gas supplier to Europe.”
Ah, the fallacy of rationality. You are thinking about what you would do if you were Putin. Sadly, you are not.
This piece was very helpful. Prior to reading it, I was definitely confused about the purpose of the sanctions (buying gas from the Russians seemed like a failure to me) and confused about why Putin himself was cutting off gas supplies. This article explained both clearly.
Matthew left out one all-important factor, which was why Russians thought it was now or never. Right or wrong, the climate change alarmists have set the stopwatch ticking. If Russia does not act now its oil and gas leverage will eventually be lost. Excellent article, though!
The more I read MY, the more I realize that despite being knowledgeable and incisive in many ways, his analysis limited by apparently having a very narrow-materialistic worldview, and being seemingly unable to truly understand that others actually genuinely have other, deeply held, values. His last paragraph about Russia’s interests are exemplary of that. The Ukraine story is about nationalism and imperialism, and a certain view of History (as reflected in Putin’s speeches), and the trauma of the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s also most probably about Putin’s personal ambitions and legacy and megalomania. A comparison to Canada seriously falls flat.
Matt, Is your read that the Doomberg folks are just overstating how catastrophic this winter is going to be for Europe?
Great piece. Worth the price of subscription, for me. Love this economic lens on world events. Thank you!