Will Putin Start A War?

Nobody knows. End of blogpost.

Or I could go on.

I follow a great many Russia experts on Twitter, and they don’t know. Some tilt one way or the other, but all emphasize that there are great uncertainties. That is how Vladimir Putin likes to play his hand – keep people guessing.

In mid-December, Putin presented two agreements, between Russia and NATO and between Russia and the United States. Basically, the agreements would make it safe for Russia to do what it wants in Europe and, particularly, Ukraine. To develop leverage for those proposals, he has massed something like 100,000 troops around eastern Ukraine with equipment in a way that looks like readying for war.

We don’t know what kind of war – Heating up things in the Donbas? Seizing a corridor to Crimea? Pressing to the Dneiper? More than that seems unlikely; it would stretch and entrench the Russian military, while the alert for Kazakhstan has gone up. Ukraine has a citizens’ reserve that is trained in insurgent tactics, a tradition in Ukraine from World War II and after.

Or perhaps the troop buildup is a very expensive feint, designed to accomplish what Putin wants at the conference table. We don’t know what that is either. The two documents describe what I might have written as a parody of Russian wishes and desires about geopolitics. That’s usually a cue to myself to reiterate Russian history – they have always wanted a neutral space around their borders. They have always wanted to be a very special nation – in Europe but not of it, because they are an Asian power too! But yes, with a veto on whatever those only in Europe want to do.

A country that has never lived up to its promise but punches above its weight because of its sheer land area and now nukes. I’ll leave the rest of it to Stephen Kotkin.

There’s a lot written about what Putin may be thinking, which goes into some of the same issues as Russian history. Given his statements and the two proposals, we know enough. Negotiations have started this week, mainly the laying out of positions. Some of what has come out of them looks more hopeful than a slide to war, some not.

Meanwhile, Bret Stephens recycles some of the oldies but goodies – The US has lost the confidence of its allies because of carefully chosen incidents in which it did nor exhibit the proper manly aggression and therefore must go to war with the other nuclear superpower! No, I’m not linking. More dangerously, Evelyn Farkas, a deputy assistant Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration wants us to get ready for war, using popular words like deter and rollback.


I’ve wanted to write something more substantive, but today I am dealing with a water outage because the main broke and the city is digging up the street. It’s been like that here for a while. If you want to read a strategic overview, you’ll never go wrong with Lawrence Freedman.

Portrait is of Peter the Great by Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche, 1838.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

One comment

  1. Sev · 4 Days Ago

    Three comments


    I have to wonder what the expected long term implications are on the Russian side if they do try to do something. What’s the desired end state? I’ve read Putin’s monograph; the underlying position seems to be ‘Ukraine is not a real country’, but what is the theory for the transition state between Ukraine today and Belarus II?

    Concretely, I wonder how long it will take Russia to rebuild expended fancy ordnance after any serious operations. Even though they aren’t paying GD/United Tech/LockMart prices, there’s got to be a difference between using up stocks of the new and fancy stuff versus a ton of old artillery shells. Are they planning on not being able to do much, conventionally, for a few years? Do they think that after they do something like that, there won’t be a conventional buildup in Europe that they can’t match? I am sure that internally in Russia there is a diversity of views, some smarter than others.


    I know commercial nuclear power isn’t a topic for this blog, but there seems to be some geopolitical relevance here – it can’t be total coincidence which Russia adjacent countries have kept links with the Russian civil nuclear industry and which have not – there’s lots to be said between Ignalina and Ostravets.

    I also wonder what relation Ukraine’s talking about building a fleet of new NPPs based on AP1000s and financed by the US ExIm bank has to do with the timing of all this. There’s an article today in World Nuclear News (https://www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Kotin-elaborates-Ukraine-s-AP1000-plans) and others in the past. The idea of taking 30 year old partially completed VVER plants and shoehorning leftover AP1000 parts from VC Summer seems pretty crazy, but the idea of Ukraine going out there with Western capital providing turnkey NPPs could be viewed as a threat.

    And this isn’t totally new or entirely a reaction to recent events; I believe over the last decade or so there have emerged non-Russian sources for VVER fuel, and that currently Ukraine is independent of Russian supply chains for their active plants.

    I’m very much looking forward to the 3rd volume of Kotkin’s Stalin biography – almost as much for the talks he’ll give promoting it as the book itself. (having said that, I don’t much like a lot of the places where he gives the talks, but the talks are good)


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