Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Rob has provided material to read in preparation for the Ukrainian offensive. This is more of a situation report.
The Ukrainian government holds its plans for the offensive very close. They apparently are not sharing them even with the US government. So nobody outside of Ukraine knows what is going to happen, no matter what any rando bluecheck may claim.
Russia has been expending missiles on Kyiv since the “attack” on the Kremlin of a hobbyist-type drone carrying a firecracker’s worth of explosives. Ukrainian air defense has been quite effective, and a Patriot took down a Russian Kinzhal missile, one of Russia’s supposedly super weapons introduced by Putin along with a couple of things that didn’t pan out. It looks like Russia’s supply of missiles is running down, along with other equipment.
The May 9 parade in Moscow is reported to have included one (1) tank, an antique. However, antiques are being mobilized to Ukraine. A number of military experts say that Russia will have to mobilize more men soon, but there aren’t many signs of that.
Public opinion in Russia seems to be softening on support for the war, but it hasn’t turned against Vladimir Putin.
Bill Clinton has joined the chorus of “If Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons, Russia would never have invaded.” Bill never was good at foreign policy. He was right in 1994, and he’s wrong now.
What people mean when they make that claim is “If Ukraine in January 2022 (or January 2014) had nuclear weapons that could be used against Russia, then Russia would never have invaded.” This claim is based on two big assumptions: that a Ukraine that retained the nuclear weapons on its territory in 1994 would have followed the same path as the Ukraine that signed the Budapest Memorandum, and that Ukraine could have repurposed those weapons into a defensive stand against Russia. I’ve written about this in the past.
For a history of what actually happened, check out Mariana Budjeryn’s “Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine.” It’s the most complete history of these events. Let’s consider how Ukraine might have developed if it had kept those nuclear weapons.
Vladimir Putin yesterday said that Russia is building a storage facility for nuclear weapons in Belarus, to be completed July 1. He was vague on when warheads would be delivered.
There’s a vigorous discussion on Twitter among experts trying to parse Putin’s meaning and intentions. There are a number of opinions, but I think some things are being left out. I won’t quote everyone who’s made a good point – I was more offline than on yesterday and couldn’t follow closely.
Some of the discussion centers around a sentence in the Putin-Xi statement released in conjunction with Xi’s visit to Moscow. That sentence urged avoiding nuclear threats and use in Russia’s war on Ukraine. Part of Putin’s and Xi’s normal rhetoric is a rejection of what they feel is US hegemony and a limit on their actions. That would include “the liberal international order” of treaties. They would like free rein to do whatever benefits their power. Conflicts with what has been said before are not an issue for them.
A couple of Twitter threads this morning point to the central problem of strategy in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Rob Farley’s argument with Emma Ashford starts here:
Ashford enters here:
The gist of the argument is how and when to end the war. Ukraine is being devastated, but nonetheless wants to continue. Its supporters see the devastation and also that their participation implies the possibility of the war widening, even to nuclear war. So it’s tempting to argue for a negotiated ending, with negotiations starting as soon as possible.
Russia controls one side of the Kakhovka Dam at the end of the Kakhovka Reservoir on the Dneiper River. Back when Russia was withdrawing to the east side of the Dneiper, they exploded a couple of mines at the dam.
The reservoir provides drinking water to many Ukrainians and is the main water supply to Crimea, where they have been filling reservoirs. It is also the only water supply to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. The reactors at ZNPP are shut down, but they still need cooling water. The intake pipe extends some way into the reservoir. A large supply of cooling water will be essential if the reactors are to be started up again.
Since November, the Russians have been draining the reservoir. Geoff Brumfiel of NPR has the story.
It’s easy to get down in the weeds of getting Leopard tanks to Ukraine or when the spring offensive will come, but I want to draw back to a bigger picture.
Vladimir Putin, or Russia, depending on how you look at it, is determined to bring Ukraine back into their sway. The shelling of civilians, a war crime, makes that point clear. The concern about NATO is not entirely rhetorical.
Putin and his cronies, particularly Dmitri Medvedev, dragged out the nuclear threats early. They have damped them down recently. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, has consistently clarified to something like “existential threats to Russia itself,” a phrase from Russian doctrine that has been parsed over the years. It is now more unclear with Putin’s ceremonial welcome of four Ukrainian districts in which the war continues.
It’s hard to see how Russia’s war on Ukraine ends. It could end today, with an edict from Vladimir Putin that the Russian military stand down and begin a withdrawal from all Ukrainian territories. Negotiation would be needed to assure safe passage back to Russia, but the shelling could end today.
It’s hard to see how the war ends because it has reversed so many of our expectations. That we had come to the end of imperial wars. That Russia was a competent military power. It would be good to make 2023 the year we recognize that much we believed no longer holds. That goes beyond the war.
Ruth Deyermond, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of War Studies in King’s College London, specializes in Russian foreign and security policy, US-Russia relations, and European security. She wrote an outstanding Twitter thread that I mostly agree with, so I’ll use it as the framework for a turn-of-the-year post on Russia’s war.
Kazakhstan is isolated from the world’s oceans, but borders the Caspian Sea on its west. The Soviet Union completed the Volga-Don Canal in 1952 to allow shipping between the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov, the northeastern arm of the Black Sea that connects through the Kerch Strait, across which Russia built a recently damaged bridge to occupied Crimea. From there, Kazakhstani ships can reach the Mediterranean.
Russia has recently granted Kazakhstan permission to use the Volga-Don Canal for its commercial ships, which will be carrying mainly Chinese goods. Those two countries now have an interest in keeping the Black Sea and the Kerch Strait open.
A shorter route has been proposed (red line on map), but it’s not clear when that could be built.
Sergei Prokofiev wrote the tone poem The Meeting of the Volga and the Don to celebrate its completion. The Wikipedia article is worth reading.
The header image is the Volga-Don Canal in Volgograd, from the Wikipedia article.
Vladimir Putin has made clear his ambition to reintegrate Ukraine into a Russian Empire. Russia expanded from the Ukraine-Moscow-Novgorod area across Asia over a period of centuries. By 1721, it was at its maximum extent, including colonies in North America. Like other empires, it indulged in various forms of genocide as it incorporated peoples of many languages and living conditions.
The Soviet Union grew out of the Russian Empire and continued its imperial characteristics, but its rhetoric denied those characteristics. It was the friend of oppressed people everywhere, and the members of the Union were happy to be part of it, so went the official line.