Your one-stop shop for everything related to the Peace of Westphalia

I read an interesting article recently arguing that Putin may be planning a major offensive of some sort leading up to May 9th, when Russia celebrates Victory Day commemorating its victory over Germany in World War II. The idea is that the Russian people expect some show of strength on that day, and recent comments from the Kremlin have hinted at a some moves to bring the war to a close.

Any attempt to predict the future without inside information on discussions in the Russian government are basically speculation, of course. The article does cite at least two experts on Russian policy (whose credentials I have no tried to verify), and one of them thinks Putin is planning a “massive” escalation with potentially “catastrophic” consequences. She mentions the possibility of an amphibious invasion of Odessa, which would indeed be a major blow to Ukraine since it is their only remaining major port on the Black Sea. However, this seems exceedingly unlikely to me. If Russia was unable to seize Kyiv overland, then an amphibious assault on Odessa would be risky and much more likely to lead to a humiliating defeat than a great victory. Moreover, even if the attempt did succeed in the short run, it would create an isolated Russian enclave that Ukraine would be well positioned to counterattack. Unless Ukraine became so demoralized by the loss that they suddenly conceded key peace points that the Russians are demanding, which seems unlikely, even a victory would be unlikely to bring the war to a close by May 9th. And that assumes a victory, which is questionable at best.

I wonder if Putin really does feel compelled to achieve something by May 9th. If he does, it seems likely that he could obtain some local victory such as the capture of Mariupol, which is mostly complete now. Putin could announce the complete expulsion of Ukrainian forces at a later date and use that to placate whatever sentiment there is requiring a Russian victory. The general problem with a “major escalation” in a conventional sense is that the Russian army probably doesn’t have reserve capacity for a decisive strike. If they did, they would have used it already. You don’t win a war by holding back your offensive capability until a convenient holiday. Exaggerating a local victory is too readily available as an alternative if they really feel a need to have something to announce.

We are at an interesting point, with negotiations started but no ceasefire announced, that one begins to wonder how military operations will affect negotiations. My research on Westphalia indicated that it was a lot less direct of a correlation than one would expect. In disputed areas, such as the Donbas, it might make a difference in that the newly independent republics (if they are so recognized) will probably have territory closely aligned with what Russia actually occupies at the time. Don’t assume that they will be identical, though; Peter Sahlin’s book on the Peace of the Pyrenees (Amazon link), and the border that was drawn between France and Spain, shows that a lot more goes into these things that military possession.

For non-territorial matters, such as Ukraine’s security guarantee, it is even more complicated. Early modern governments, especially monarchies, were obsessed with “reputation.” The idea of making peace when they had just suffered a military defeat was humiliating and therefore difficult to accept. What they really wanted was a military victory, after which they could offer generous terms (even embarrassing ones) and exit the war with honour. How much this applies to modern politics, I am uncertain. However, Putin is an autocrat whose personal credibility is closely tied up with Russia’s military power. He is therefore more dependent on “reputation” that democratic governments are, so he may be subject to some of the same logic as 17th century kings.

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