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And Still It Continues

It is always hazardous to suggest when a war might end, as experience shows that people have been extraordinarily bad in their estimates, especially early in wars. And yet, I thought I saw a reasonable end to the Russia-Ukraine war just a month or so after it started. Russia’s progress was slow and its military performance embarrassing, yet Zelensky had agreed in principle to neutralize Ukraine and not join NATO, which was Putin’s goal with the invasion. (I’m sure he had other goals, including removing Ukrainian politicians who strongly opposed Russia, which he would have liked to obtain; but the most immediate reason for the invasion appears to have been the threat that Ukraine would join NATO.) Zelensky also agreed in principle to cede Crimea and the Donbas regions formally. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for Putin to make peace, declare victory, and spend time reorganizing the disappointing Russian army and getting the economy back on track after the sanctions imposed by the West.

And yet, here we are, two months later, and there is no sign of peace. In fact, I read an article earlier today (which I am unable to find at the moment) in which Russia said that there had been no progress in the talks and that Ukraine had practically withdrawn from them. Meanwhile, Russia has withdrawn from Kiev and Kharkov but has relaunched its offensive and, it appears, has all but captured Mariupol after a long resistance. What is going on here?

First, I should give myself credit for predicting that Russia would not attack Odessa or do any other precipitate moves in conjunction with the “Day of Victory” holiday on May 9th. I thought the continued Russian offensive was an attempt by Putin to see if the Russian army coulud pull off some major breakthrough that might give him a stronger hand in the negotiations, but I really did not think that he wanted to continue fighting for long, especially in the absence of any sign of major improvements in the army’s performance.

Today I read that Putin himself is getting involved in very low-level military decisions. If this is true, it is a very bad sign. I can’t think of any example of a head of state’s taking an active role in military affairs, especially below the grand strategic level, that led to anything good (at least, not since monarchs ceased being generals in the 19th century). It has me questioning Putin’s mental acuity, because it is the kind of thing that a leader does when he becomes desperate at the lack of results (cf. Hitler in WWII). There was an opportunity, and there may still be one, for Russia to exit this war with a substantial victory in spite of the shockingly bad performance of its military. However, whatever window there is for this outcome is closing. By letting the war drag on, Putin has convinced Sweden and Finland to completely reverse their foreign policy and seek NATO membership, which Russia is in no position to oppose because its army is tied down in the fruitless campaign in Ukraine. It is impossible to know at this point how much damage is being done to the Russian economy by sanctions, but I presume it is not trivial, and effects of this sort tend to intensify over time as short-term expedients are exhausted. Putin has even undermined his own authority at home by continuing a war that he didn’t really prepare Russians for and which he has been denying is actually a war (it is instead a “special military action”).

It is easy to criticize leaders when we are not faced with the same pressures (e.g., Paul Sonnino’s assessment of virtually all statesmen at Westphalia), and I like to temper every criticism with an acknowledgment that I am very far from the Kremlin and in no position to know many of the problems that Putin is facing. What I can say is that his decisions seem to have put Russia in a significantly more isolated position, and, even if he ultimately does prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, he has precipitated a neighbour on Russia’s northern flank to do precisely that. Years from now, historians will be in a better position to judge how this war has affected Russia’s international position; at this stage, however, the answer seems to be that it is not an improvement and may be a considerable worsening.

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