The Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022 is now nearly 200 days old. Happy anniversary.
Well into the fighting, this war is now almost twice the length of the next closest war that mirrors it – the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland, where the newly-purged Red Army invaded Finland with over twice the strength, and performed so poorly that it sustained nearly half a million casualties and suffered a humiliation that would pave the way to Nazi Germany’s invasion one year later. Today’s war is the event that most defines the current state of global geopolitics. It may prove to be one of the most significant of the 2020s decade, and nearly everyone who made dramatic predictions about the way it would play out one way or another has been proven a fool for it.
Wars have consequences and ripple effects that extend far beyond how they are perceived in the moment. It may be of use to us to pause and consider how we got here and what may happen next.
The Green Energy Antebellum
Vladimir Putin had been escalating tensions with Eastern Europe since before his invasion of Georgia in 2008. Our responses have largely faltered. The one from President Bush 43 was entirely defensive and unimpressive to Putin. One of the first overseas actions by the Obama Administration was the pushing of the “Reset” button by Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Less than six months later, President Obama halted the planning of a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Then, after Obama promised President Dmitry Medvedev post-reelection “flexibility” during disarmament talks in 2012, Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. The response he got from the West was a lecturer’s reminder that he was on “the wrong side of history.” President Obama knew in 2014 that Putin violated the INF Treaty with its cruise missile testing. He did not act to stop him. Nor did it affect Obama’s charging to sign the JCPOA Iran appeasement deal. With Iran now obligated to export all of its “excess” uranium to Russia, no one was happier about that agreement than Putin.
But contrary to popular belief, the arrival of Donald Trump into the presidency was the worst thing that ever happened to Vladimir Putin and his ambitions to become Vladimir the Great. All of Russia’s geopolitical and economic gains ground to a halt during a four-year term from 2017 to 2021 where Putin suffered setback after setback from the guy who kept singing his praises to a bewildered American public. Trump withdrew from the JCPOA Iran Deal and the INF Treaty in the same year. He expanded the sanctions on Russia to make them the toughest since the Cold War. He ordered his forces in Syria to directly engage the Russians in a battle that killed 200 of them – more than had ever been killed in any singular moment in the entire Cold War. He impressed Putin with his shows of force by ordering an airstrike against General Qasem Soleimani and a MOAB he dropped on ISIS, as well as the raid that killed the terrorist Abu al-Baghdadi. His increased fracking and domestic oil drilling at home, and his exports of such independent energy to Europe crashed oil prices in Russia and Iran and destroyed its leverage against Europe. To add insult to Putin’s financial injuries, he diplomatically intervened to stop the construction of the Nord Stream Pipeline. Actions speak louder than words, and the soft and sweet words of love to his ear conceal the ways in which Trump’s policies twisted one knife after another into Putin’s organs.
Trump would not have felt the need to do any of these things had America been able to more appreciably rely on NATO the way it used to. But NATO has not been the same since the Cold War. The 21st century history of NATO has been that of an increasingly flimsy alliance speaking loudly with a shrinking stick. When he took office, of the 28 members only four other nations were paying their dues. Whereas Obama merely lamented that there were holdouts, Trump threatened to blow up NATO entirely, and withdrew a contingent of troops from Germany to prove his sincerity, unless the dues were paid. That incentivized Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to apply the pressure downwards upon the holdouts. Trump’s bellicose bluff saw a revival of the other members’ contractual commitment to pay 2% of their respective annual GDP to its defense budget. By 2020, they had caved. NATO was $100B richer, and Putin noticed.
To Putin, one of the casualties of this bolstering of NATO and halting of Nord Stream was the disrupted cultural and political ties between Russia and two of our “allies” Germany and Turkey. Both countries have steadily polled increasingly in favor of Russia over the United States year by year throughout the 2010s. Turkey is the second-largest member of NATO. Its people hate America. Germany meanwhile, under the leadership of Angela Merkel, destroyed its energy industry in order to acquiesce to the Paris Climate Accords. Germany’s shift from nuclear and coal-based energy to reliance on wind and solar, and utter denuclearization, put that country directly into Putin’s lap as a new buyer for Russian oil, which was why Nord Stream was created in the first place. If you have not already figured out one of the crucial lessons here, when your country goes green, it goes to Russia.
The reaction to him by the American media and his political opponents did not deter Trump from deterring Putin. But after the maelstrom year of 2020, Trump’s defeat by Obama’s Vice President paved the way for Putin’s elevation back into the center of the global stage. The stories that are written about Trump and his supposed collusion with Russia or subservience to Putin always omit the actual policies and actions that the rhetoric led to or accompanied. Biden was the worst possible opposite. He talked tough and called Putin a “killer,” but his policies couldn’t have been more favorable if Putin had actually planted a puppet in Washington. Biden returned America to the Climate Accords, shut down the Keystone Pipeline and activity in ANWR, revoked federal permits for domestic oil drilling, and all but eliminated fracking. He has intentionally and single-handedly destroyed the ability of our country to be energy independent. It has become just another beggar for Russian oil like Germany. Very few sellers who become buyers don’t regret that decision.
Biden commanded a military that Putin observed to no longer be prioritizing lethality. It has a new focus on equity and inclusion, gender pronouns, climate change, checking “white privilege,” and stamping out “white rage.” Putin noticed that public confidence in this new socially experimental military was at a historic low. When 13 Americans were killed in an ISIS suicide attack, the President’s retaliatory drone strike hit the wrong vehicle and killed 10 civilians including 7 children. And when Russian cyberattacks targeted hundreds of U.S. based companies and their computer system, Biden’s response was to politely ask the Kremlin to stop. And of course, President Biden now operates with a new playbook of flight, shame, and abandonment as evident by a withdrawal from Afghanistan by midnight (AFT) of the 20-year 9/11 anniversary that left thousands of Americans, allies, and Afghan civilians stranded amid a total Taliban takeover and $80B worth of equipment for the taking. Forget for a second how low a moment this was for all of us as Americans. What would you think if you saw your enemy country, on the anniversary of an utterly unprovoked terrorist attack against its people, make such a profound declaration of its cowardice, sorrow, and apologia for the way it responded to it, and prioritize that declaration over the safety of its own people and millions of others?
It is no wonder, then, that by February 20, 2022, Vladimir Putin, undeterred, stood ready to take what he has long believed to be his and Mother Russia’s. What stood in his way was a freshly boosted but still lackluster NATO. But as we learned a hundred years ago, alliances created or expanded beyond the natural and logical geographic and political connections between, and strategic interests of, their members can see the effects of such an alliance reversed. By tying war-reluctant nations to a powder keg, they begin to waver in their commitments to one another or to proceed with greater caution and hesitation in their assertions and postures abroad. Putin’s own posture against NATO has its own effect of reminding them that even if they were to try to help Ukraine, the last thing they should want is to see their youth wasted in a war defending one of the states that used to serve as a buffer between Europe and Russia. Article V has turned from a source of unity into a liability.
His position against NATO could therefore be strengthened further if he attacked Ukraine quickly, took Kiev out of play, and set his hungry eyes on an even riper set of targets the alliance might find itself increasingly more reluctant to protect from him. This was the Putin cost/benefit calculus. The benefits of a knockout – a kind of five-day war in Georgia he thought he could repeat, and the chance to restore as much former-Soviet glory and territory as Emperor Vladimir the Great, God King of Russia and Might of the Kremlin – outweighed the cost of risking a long war with a “decadent” western nuclear alliance now led by its impotent, self-destructed American benefactor that left its men, its friends, and commitments at the mercy of a militant Islamist horde and threw away the one guy who knew how to make his antebellum period a living hell.
As we have now seen, that calculus was wildly misestimated in nearly every way. The other thing Putin didn’t anticipate was the enthralling factor of his enemy’s leader.
Call of Duty: Zelenskyy
Putin looked at Volodymyr Zelenskyy and saw a flamboyant actor and comedian, a soft, effeminate pretender, and a political novice. Who Zelenskyy actually is remains to be seen. He certainly wasn’t, as President Biden mistakenly believed, eager to flee his country. “I need ammunition, not a ride” may be the best wartime retort since General Anthony McCaullife’s “Nuts!” to the German Army at the Battle of the Bulge. A courageous and charismatic moment of defiance, a kind unseen in a generation; it instantly rallied the entire West to the side of Ukraine in this war. Within days, Western Europe and the United States leapt up from its therapeutic slumber like a sleeping giant. Suddenly Ukraine had enough NLAWs, Javelin anti-tank missiles, combat drones, weapons systems, armor, ammo, intelligence, and tens of billions of dollars to fight a ground war, and it took even less time after that to see the results. Everyone from bear hunters to street grandmas picked up a weapon and inflicted hell upon Russian soldiers. By one month’s time, the Russian advance into Ukraine from the north, southeast, and east, had ground to a halt, and Ukrainians began pushing them back valiantly.
What distinguished Zelenskyy from anyone else was his unique ability to understand the paradox of western attitudes about war and imperialism. The West loves nothing more than the idea of fighting a righteous war, but it recoils at the thought that it might be, or might ever have been, an empire. If nothing else, what unites western liberals and conservatives is the occasion to humiliate a superpower or kick a dictator right where it hurts. Just as the western world answered Saddam Hussain’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait with a decisive and overwhelming retaliation that destroyed Iraq’s ability to ever wage an offensive war again, Zelenskyy saw an opportunity to evoke the same response against post-communist Russia. His perception was accompanied by a natural gift in marketing and media. Zelenskyy knew how to sell Ukraine as a noble underdog against an irredeemably evil empire in a way that he knew would put the war into public households all over the western world. He knew how to put the blue and yellow colors of his country into people’s social media profile pictures, and to get elites and pundits to change the way they spell and pronounce Ukrainian proper nouns like they were the new Freedom Fries.
It should be noteworthy that every president from Bush 43 to Obama to Trump to Biden has never quite succeeded at making a modern conflict anywhere nearly as compelling to the appetites of Americans as Zelenskyy did. Bush could never make warring in Iraq as palatable for his country as his father could. Obama, likewise, gained little political capital from intervening in the Arab Spring. Trump’s military adjustments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria did not change the public’s attitude towards him or the country’s foreign policy. Biden’s air strike against Ayman al-Zawahiri does not appear to have saved him from possibly the worst poll numbers of any first-term president in history. Putin thought a blitzkrieg and swift decapitation of the Ukrainian government to be a painless endeavor that would further his prestige in the annals of Russian history. He thought that Russian splinter groups within Ukraine would do the work for him in undermining its sovereignty further like the Vichy French. Zelenskyy evaded him constantly, while seemingly always chiming into the social media airwaves to let the world know where he was and what he was doing. He wasn’t just an underdog, but a rousing and glamorous one. Against all expectations, he got the United Nations to levy tougher sanctions against Russia, and he got NATO to re-arm and re-assert itself in a way it had not since 9/11. Zelenskiy was so charismatic that the West overlooked things about his regime it would normally deride. He purged and ethnically cleansed the Ukrainian government of Russians like Woodrow Wilson did to blacks, and we largely shrugged our shoulders as if it was a standard cost of war because we liked him so much.
But merely excelling beyond anyone’s expectation in the first 100 days has not been enough. Understandably, Zelenskyy favored any escalation of the war that benefited his country. But it did not happen the way he hoped it would. One of the most fascinating social and political trends in America right now is the public’s sense of war fatigue. Americans are overwhelmingly on the side of Ukraine against Russia, but just as vociferous is the desire not to commit any direct military action. To Zelenskiy’s chagrin, calls from politicians for a no-fly zone over Ukraine went nowhere. While the aid his country is receiving has not wavered, as the war rages on the question to continue lending it becomes bigger and bigger. To complicate this is the fact that polling responses are just as performative as they are truly reflective (something political scientists always seem to forget) and American political demographics and party characteristics may be changing in ways that will not be fully measured or understood until another 100 days from now. For Ukraine, that means that Americans generally divide on supporting Ukraine both by generation and by class (the elderly and members of the upper-income tax brackets tend to support the war effort more, while the younger and poorer go the other way). Add rampant inflation and three seasons of record-high gas prices into this picture; the moral of the story is that Americans have other things on their mind.
It is not clear that Zelenskyy has adapted to this problem. If he assumed that looking good for the cameras, being featured on the cover of Time Magazine, and getting morale boosts from visiting celebrities was going to keep the West on his side forever, he is sorely mistaken. But that’s also what happens when wars do not end as quickly as they begin.
21st Century Attrition
Most people in this new era have never seen a real, honest-to-god war of attrition.
The kind of fighting we’re used to seeing is swift, sudden, and then followed by an occupation far worse than the conflict itself. Public shorthand and discourse tends to oversimplify this reality by just calling it a long war. The war in Ukraine could end tomorrow, and it would still be the first attritious conflict we’ve seen in this era. It is also a warning sign and potential harbinger of a new dawn of war that could eclipse it.
When we learn about wars in our history classes, we tend to focus mainly on the battles and on the figureheads we can point to. In reality, the outcome of a war is determined by things before, during, after, and in between the most intense moments of fighting as much as they are by the battles themselves. No side today truly wants “a battle.” They want to be able to safely take and occupy territory and real estate, and to have an efficient means of taking out whoever or whatever is necessary to force the enemy into surrender or retreat. No one who can do that without losing one man would choose not to. But when one side’s efforts to achieve an objective meets massive resistance, the resulting conflict becomes known as a battle. To even launch such a mission, a side must choose an advantageous terrain or path as well as what to bring to it. To do that, it must get its assets there. To do that, it must have a system of production, recruitment, training, rationing, and support for all of the above. And while all of that is going on, it has to keep an eye on the enemy, anticipate its movements, positions, and strategies, and to keep the enemy from doing the same.
One feature of attrition can be understood by the basic nature of weaponry in use at the time of a war. The tools of warfare can change the way that war is fought, and history tells us stories of offensive and defensive cycles – catapults vs walls. The reason the Civil War and World War I devolved into slugfests in the trenches is because the accurate rifles, Napoleon cannons, and eventual prototype machine guns of the age largely took away the abilities of armies to charge with men and cavalry the way they used to. World War II, on the other hand, was largely an offensive war with the most efficient internal combustion engine ever developed, radio communications, tank corps and air cavalry, napalm, V-2 rockets, the B-29 bomber, and then nuclear fission. The modern tools of warfare are largely defensive: body armor, combat drones, RPGs, etc. Though in Russia’s case, their helmets and plates clearly need some work.
As wars become attritious, each side must adapt. The Peloponnesian War dragged on for over a generation because Athens could not defeat Sparta on the land and Sparta could not defeat Athens in the sea. It took Athens’s suicidal invasion of Sicily, Sparta’s gain of a Persian ally, and the creation of General Lysander’s Spartan navy for one side to finally win after 27 years. The Civil War lasted four years because although the Union had the advantage of railroads, the navy, industrial production, strength in numbers, and an unbreakable army in the western theater, it could not defeat Generals Lee and Stonewall Jackson in the east. Even after Jackson was killed by friendly fire and Lee’s army was shattered at Gettysburg, General Grant’s Army of the Potomac could not defeat the Confederacy until Sherman came from behind, captured Atlanta, and set Georgia and the Carolinas on fire. And in World War I, the entrenchment of troops and military stalemates within them created so horrific another four-year war of attrition that every side resorted to desperate alternative means and fronts to win. The Germans used gas at Ypres in 1915, the British tried (and failed) to find a soft underbelly at Gallipoli and incited the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, the German U-boat campaign escalated against the British blockade in the North Sea and then the North Atlantic, and Russia courted Romania as an ally against Austria-Hungary. And finally, after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and given the incoming fresh two million Americans in the west, Germany secretly dispatched Vladimir Lenin by train through northern Europe into St. Petersburg to have him take control of the Revolution and bring Russia to surrender.
Today’s war of attrition doesn’t have events quite so dramatic quite yet. But these are the things to consider, in addition to the raw brutality that has already been demonstrated by Russia in order to bait the Ukrainians into running headfirst with blind rage into their fields of fire. After a month of Russian successful territorial capture, Ukraine began to push back. One month later, it seemed as though the tide had turned entirely, with Russia’s retreat from the northeast and its comparable casualties. Ukraine had prevented the capture of Kiev and kicked the Russians out of the northeast at least as an occupation, but the reality was more complex. Putin still had a very powerful country – a superpower with thrice the population and fifteen times the economy of Ukraine. As such, just like the Civil War under Grant and the Winter War of 1940, this war became, and has since remained, an endurance contest of mass and weight.
Russia responded to its defeats by ramping up its shelling in the Donbas region in the east. Throughout the summer, Putin systematically pummeled the landscape and townships into charred rubble and slowly captured it inch by inch. It has laid a distant siege against Kharkiv and Mariupol, killing and displacing tens of thousands. The shelling has recently abated thanks to the increased activity in the south. But now, all eyes are on Kherson, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, and the newly closed down Nord Stream 1 Pipeline. Russia’s air bases and outposts in Crimea have been so devastated by strikes that they have withdrawn its fighter jets from the front. They’ve lost men to friendly fire, and they’ve seen numerous generals and high-ranking individuals assassinated. The Ukrainians have been effective in shooting down Russian SU-35s. They took out the Antonivskyi Bridge cutting off a key supply route for the Russians in Kherson. And to put it mildly, Russia has bled financially for every setback.
But Russia has also made gains far beyond what most would have expected. Turkey remains nominally with NATO, but it has solidified its ties with Russia to meet its energy needs. India is reviving old ties to Russia for energy and military refinement. Since 1989, the United States has blown countless opportunities to forge strong post-Cold War ties with India. And now that it has also abandoned the old Kissinger model of acting as the wedge between Russia and China, the two are now the closest they’ve been since 1958. China is both an oil buyer for its mainland and its empire, and an opportunity now exists for Russia to act as a mediator between it and India on matters of border disputes and trade. So we have the two most populous nations in the world – one of which is another superpower with imperial ambitions, and a penchant for genocide and forced assimilation – forging bonds with Russia as a result of the show of force and gains it accrued in eastern Ukraine.
Its greatest advantage, however, is time. Putin knows that the West is trapped in a geopolitical quandary. He can’t stop NATO from arming Ukraine, but he has puffed his chest outward with enough nuclear threats to make it reluctant to do much more than that. He knows that the West does not wish for a resolution that would make it look as though Putin won the war, but even the appeal of Zelenskiy isn’t inspiring a resolve to act directly against him. In other words, the West wants total victory in a war it won’t fight and will happily sacrifice every Ukrainian it deems necessary for such an outcome.
Some of the people on our side have already taken notice of this. America’s commitment to Ukraine may exceed the scope of its aid to the Mujahideen, but at most it preserves the stagnated status quo. The only way you can successfully half-ass a war is if your objective is to use the chaos of someone else’s war to weaken your enemies. That was Stalin’s strategy during the Chinese Civil War from 1927 to 1936 and the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. He armed the side he favored just enough for them to check the side he disfavored, but never enough to vanquish it. No one seriously thinks that America has anything to gain from this war dragging out. Our interests lie in Russia’s humiliating defeat, constituting a de facto deterrence against both its own future aggression and that of its new ally against Taiwan. The longer the war lingers, the more distant that objective gets.
Even if Russia cannot produce enough munitions, tanks, jets, and officers to make up for its losses, Putin sees that not only is this western model of patsy warfare unsustainable in and of itself; it will be all the more impossible for his enemies to maintain their posture when winter comes. Ukraine is built for the cold and will be fine, but the rest of us have never reckoned with it. This war began in the winter, but the cost of heat, the price at the pump, the devolution of currency, and the post-covid stagnation may see their real effects in the next one. And so we return to the opening theme. Everything derives from energy and energy policy. It is to the 21st century what tea, stamps, and sugar were during the American Revolution. It is to the 21st century what wool and fleece were to the British and French in the 14th century that led to the outbreak of the Hundred Years War. As the western world limps towards its utopian clean-energy fantasy and sabotages its own means of attaining power to rival the wolves beyond their border, those same wolves in Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran take notice.
Far be it from me to make any predictions about how it all plays out. Most who do so don’t end up well. What is clear, however, is that President Biden and his administration is as unfit for the moment as any leader in history ever has been. It’s bad enough for a president to talk tough while his policies give away everything. It’s worse when the “tough talk” is only intended while what actually comes out is irritated babble. His party’s unthinking, myopic assent to the tyranny of the Paris Climate Accords is as committed a response to the threat abroad as a suicide note to your cousin’s stalker. His desire to vindicate his political shepherd by returning to the Iran Deal may be even worse. Zelenskyy is a star, but he and his cause needed an American counterpart that could be both dependable and symbolic of a united West as Roosevelt was to Churchill or as Reagan was to Thatcher. He has nothing close to one with Biden.
So here we are – six months into a drawn contest of mass and weight with an enemy we failed to deter, bracing for a cold winter where Russia’s resolve will harden like ice and where the rest of our flimsy alliance will either fold like a bad hand of cards or find within itself a hidden strength it has failed to project against a truly formidable enemy in over a generation. Here we are led by the man whose ideological predecessor enabled and invited the very aggression we now pretend to vociferously oppose. And here we are, energy and fuel dependent upon the very superpower we impotently talk of overthrowing. Wars of that framework typically don’t work out in favor of those in our current position. We can only hope that this winter war will work out differently.