US Diplomacy In The Lead-Up To Russia’s War On Ukraine

In its excellent article on the lead-up to the war, the Washington Post describes some of the diplomatic contacts in the attempt to avert the war. The bottom line is that Russia wasn’t having any.

June 16, 2021: Biden meets with Putin. No indication that Putin plans a war, but two weeks later, his screed on Ukraine’s rightful place in the Russian Empire is released.

End of October: Biden meets leaders of Britain, France, and Germany at the side of the G20 meeting.

November 2: CIA Director William Burns meets with Putin, Yuri Ushakov, and Nikolai Patrushev (Putin advisors).

There seemed to be no room for meaningful engagement, and it left the CIA director to wonder if Putin and his tight circle of aides had formed their own echo chamber. Putin had not made an irreversible decision to go to war, but his views on Ukraine had hardened, his appetite for risk had grown, and the Russian leader believed his moment of opportunity would soon pass.

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Information Warfare – March 14, 2022

The US information war slowed down a couple of weeks ago, and Russia hastened to fill the space with claims about Ukrainian laboratories developing chemical and biological weapons. This dovetailed with some of the many claims made by the Q cult and also those pushing the idea that SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from a laboratory. All that was needed was to transferthe claim from China to Ukraine.

It was a good choice for Russia and almost took off. Glenn Greenwald and Tulsi Gabbard are still pushing it. But it’s been refuted a number of times, including in the United Nations Security Council, and seems to be dying down.

US government sources are speculating that Russia was pumping the biolabs story in preparation for a chemical weapons attack of their own that they would attribute to the Ukrainians, which may well be true. But chemical weapons are marginally useful in war; biological weapons have never been developed to that point. Speaking of them, however, can damage civilian morale.

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The Information Offensive Continues

Russia has shelled a kindergarten in Donbas.

A certain amount of shelling is not unusual in Donbas, but given current tensions, this is ominous. In 2008, Russian shelling provoked a response from the Georgian army, which Russia then claimed as a justification for war. The Ukrainian army has been strictly instructed not to respond to Russian shelling.

Ukrainian President Zelensky is visiting the front.

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Controlling The Narrative

Last week, AP diplomatic reporter Matt Lee badgered State Department spokesman Ned Price about sources for intelligence information. I’m seeing others make similar points to Matt’s on Twitter and in the comments on my latest post at Lawyers, Guns & Money.

The concern is whether the intelligence is accurate, often expressed in a context of the runup to the Iraq war of 2003, implying that the US government might be lying to achieve a particular point. This misses the point of releasing the intelligence and the structure of the situation.

Colin Powell’s testimony to the United Nations was intended to justify an incipient attack by the United States on Iraq. The US intelligence releases are intended to delay or avoid a Russian attack on Ukraine.

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Gendering War And Diplomacy

Anne Applebaum wants to school American and European diplomats in Russian thinking. Her short op-ed gets a number of things wrong and provides an opportunity to point out how gendered thinking about diplomacy and war can undermine analysis.

The headline and subhead are probably not Applebaum’s, but they are of a piece with the text. “Why the West’s Diplomacy With Russia Keeps Failing: A profound failure of the Western imagination has brought Europe to the brink of war.”

In fact, what has brought Europe to the brink of war are Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine and their demands for, among other things, a radical restructuring of NATO. None of this has to do with the “Western imagination.” The headline places the blame squarely upon the failures of failing diplomacy.

War and diplomacy have long been gendered masculine and feminine, respectively. War is physically active, destructive, a display of strength in which one side will dominate the other. Diplomacy has to do with words and has little public display of its actions, which are physical primarily in body language. Masculinity is valued over femininity and thus war over diplomacy. It’s easy, then, to say that diplomacy is a loser and at fault.

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No Butterflies For You, Kid!

The Q people have developed a fantasy that children are being sex trafficked by the hundreds of thousands, and they must find ways to save them. This fits tactically with Republican goals of fear and disruption. I’ll leave most of the psychological side to others, but there’s an outcome to this alleged concern for children that I haven’t seen noted before.

The loonies have focused on the National Butterfly Center in their zeal to end their imagined evil, and it has had to close down because of their threats of violence.

One of the great joys a child can learn is the close observation of nature. It’s one of my great joys to find a new tiny cactus in my yard, the kind of observation I learned from my mother from the time I was a toddler. The Butterfly Center was a destination for school trips, where kids could see butterflies up close and personal.

In the name of protection, Q and their Republican allies deprive kids of growing up with joy. Teaching them that the world is a horrible place with no relief, just as they believe for themselves.

It’s not just the National Butterfly Center. The Comet Ping Pong attacked by a Q gunman in Washington, DC, was one of those silly places where kids can eat pizza and be entertained. Schools, of course, have become places of terror with regular physically enacted reminders that kids can be gunned down at any moment, now compounded with the fear of deadly disease. Some want to introduce constant surveillance in schools.

In the name of protecting children, they are destroying the joy and freedom of childhood so that children will grow up as twisted as they are.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Three Reads On Russia’s Threats

We continue not to know what Vladimir Putin intends nor wants with his massive military buildup around Ukraine, accompanied by diplomatic demands, primarily on the United States, that will not be satisfied.

Michael Kofman is one of the best military analysts around, and well able to extrapolate from the military to Putin’s objectives. His latest summary suggests that Putin will take major military action against Ukraine, perhaps to install a Russia-friendly regime in Kiev.

Given the stakes, and likely costs, any Russian military operation would have to attain political gains that give Moscow the ability to enforce implementation. In short, just hurting Ukraine is not enough to achieve anything that Russia wants. While some believe that Russia intends to compel Ukraine into a new Minsk-like agreement, the reality is that nobody in Moscow thinks that a Ukrainian government can be made to implement any document they sign. Such a settlement would be political suicide for the Zelensky administration, or any other. Russia has no way to enforce compliance with its preferences once the operation is over. This is, at least, the lesson that Moscow seems to have taken from Minsk I and Minsk II. Why would Minsk III prove any different? Russia has not struggled in getting Ukraine to sign deals at gunpoint, but all of these have resulted in Ukraine’s continued westward march and a decline of Russian influence in the country. It’s not clear how Moscow achieves its goals without conducting regime change, or a partitioning of the state, and committing to some form of occupation to retain leverage.

Fiona Hill has been looking at Russia for the United States government for more than two decades. She offers what may be Putin’s motivation.

In the 1990s, the United States and NATO forced Russia to withdraw the remnants of the Soviet military from their bases in Eastern Europe, Germany and the Baltic States. Mr. Putin wants the United States to suffer in a similar way. From Russia’s perspective, America’s domestic travails after four years of President Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, as well as the rifts he created with U.S. allies and then America’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, signal weakness. If Russia presses hard enough, Mr. Putin hopes he can strike a new security deal with NATO and Europe to avoid an open-ended conflict, and then it will be America’s turn to leave, taking its troops and missiles with it.

For a broader perspective on how to think about the crisis, Paul Musgrave considers how different parties with different priors look at it. (Image stolen from Paul)

What’s most striking about this isn’t that there are different opinions or interpretations. It’s that these narratives begin from such incompatible assumptions about everything from the responsibility for the crisis to the factors that matter for its resolution.

These are three good reads for understanding the crisis.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Will Russia Invade Ukraine?

Nobody knows. But Russia has been deploying troops around its border with Ukraine, particularly around the Donbas, the area where Russia has been carrying on a small war since late 2014. Earlier that year, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, part of Ukraine.

The latest buildup, according to military experts, looks like it could be in preparation for a major invasion of Ukraine. But why? A great deal of speculation is possible on the basis of official Russian statements and history. It’s hard not to be snarky about some of this – Vladimir Putin seems to live in a land all his own, part pre-1905, part World War II, part nuclear age. Living in a land of his own, however, doesn’t mean that he can’t precipitate a war, so I’ll avoid snark.

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How To Respond To The Russian Buildup?

Over the weekend, Samuel Charap, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, published his thoughts on the situation in Ukraine. Russia has been building up troops along the Ukraine border and making threatening noises. Dan Nexon outlined the situation.

Part of Charap’s argument is that the United States should pressure Ukraine to fulfill its commitments to the Minsk Accord, which slowed down military action in the eastern part of Ukraine but is unfavorable to Ukraine. That provoked heated argument from analysts of Russia.

I’ll post some of the better arguments here and leave my analysis for a later post. They are mostly Twitter threads, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see them expanded into articles. Sadly, some of the discussion has degenerated to “You’re being paid by Putin” and similar accusations. I won’t include that.

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The Biggest Bomb

Popular movements in the late 1950s pressed toward the Limited Test-Ban Treaty (LTBT), signed in 1963, which prohibited atmospheric testing. It was preceded by a voluntary test moratorium by the United States and the Soviet Union from 1958 through 1961. At the time, the development of nuclear weapons – and other things like a nuclear-powered airplane – was wild and woolly.

One of the points of competition was the size of explosion that a nuclear weapon could produce. This was a somewhat silly competition, because the amount of damage a bomb could wreak increases with the cube root of its energy. So ten 10-megaton (MT; that’s millions of tons of TNT equivalent) weapons would be much more damaging than one 100-MT weapon. But for some, size does matter.

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