U.S. intelligence has focused laser-like on the course and objectives of a Russian invasion, but what they have ignored, as they did in 2003 (Iraq) and 2011 (Libya), is what comes after Mission Accomplished. They are thinking about the forces required for an invasion like that which the United States undertook in Iraq, but the real numbers game, as we subsequently discovered in that now dimly remembered war, must take into account the forces required for an occupation. In sizing such forces, military historians identify ratios of one soldier for sixty people in unfriendly terrain, and a one to 100 ratio in friendlier environs. As Ukraine would be more like the former than the latter for Russia, that generates a force requirement of 721,000, way beyond existing Russian capabilities. Even the lesser number of 430,000 would require stripping the rest of the country of its defenses and imposing onerous new requirements for conscripts, a veritable mass mobilization. One does wonder if the U.S. officials predicting the imminent ingurgitation of this indigestible mass ever look beyond the first fifteen days of the plan they have implanted in the mind of the Russian military. On the surface, at least, U.S. “intelligence” appears not too bright, because it posits a complete disconnection between the ends foreseen and the means available. Putin, it is reasonable to assume, is not so blind.
The problem with conquering Ukraine is not primarily a function of the Ukrainian willingness to fight a guerilla war, but the impossibility of making any positive and profitable use of the territory after a big invasion. It is like asking the Russians whether they want to repeat the Holodomor. No, they don’t. The high-end numbers provided by “senior administration officials,” even if given a credence they do not deserve, are still totally inadequate if seen in relation to the political goals they say that Putin has in mind. Forgotten is that Putin’s central critique of both the Iraq invasion of 2003 and the Libyan invasion of 2011 is that the Americans proclaimed a victory and left anarchy. Why would he want to repeat those fiascos?
Ukraine is Not a Country
It is now said repeatedly by our talking heads that Putin denies that Ukraine is even a country. In their reconstruction, Putin thinks it is totally illegitimate and therefore ripe for takeover. “When you say things like, ‘Ukraine does not now and has never had a right to exist as a sovereign state, there is no such thing as the Ukrainian people,’ where does your rhetoric go from there?” asked a senior Western intelligence officer. The media cite Putin’s 5,000-word essay in July 2021 detailing the history of Russia’s relations with Ukraine. But Putin’s argument in that essay is totally different from what it has been represented to be by our media parrots, who in this case have definitely learned to speak but cannot read. In brief, Putin’s pitch was this:
Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus share a common history. For long stretches of time, their inhabitants considered themselves “a triune people comprising Velikorussians, Malorussians and Belorussians” rather than separate Slavic peoples. The Ukrainians, however, declared their independence and opted for separation rather than common nationhood. How do you treat such a people, Putin asked, and said there was only one answer: “with respect!” His essay explicitly acknowledged the right of the Ukrainians to form a separate and independent state. His language was that of a husband pleading with his wife not to leave him, while acknowledging that she has the right to do so and even some reason to do so. At least she shouldn’t hate him.
The nub of Putin’s argument concerned the terms of the divorce. He wrote that the Ukrainians, in deciding to leave, could not take out of the partnership more than they’d brought in the first place. The critical year was 1922, when the Ukrainian communists joined with the Russian communists and others to make the treaty that formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. At that time, Crimea was not part of Ukraine, though the Donbas was. Nor were the territories in the west that Stalin annexed in 1940 in the aftermath of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
Putin’s discussion of the 1924 Soviet constitution and the right of secession it conferred is very revealing. He insists that this provision of the constitution was real and had to be respected, though it was also written at a time when the source of cohesion lay in central party control, so was effectively meaningless during the party’s reign. His conclusion, however, is clear: the Soviet Constitution, however defectively, did indeed provide a right of secession in 1924, reaffirmed in 1936, and on this basis, Ukraine had a right to secede. Far from making a claim for all Ukraine, he didn’t even make a claim to the Donbas. He pointed out that the Donbas and some surrounding areas were included in Ukraine at Lenin’s insistence, as part of the Bolshevik scheme for managing the minorities question, but acknowledged that Ukraine came into the union with those territories. There was, he wrote, still no alternative to the Minsk agreements, which explicitly recognize the Donbas as part of Ukraine.
Putin’s stated vision for Russia and Ukraine is not absorption into a common state, but the sort of relationship that exists between the United States and Canada, in which people who share a common ancestry cooperate and profit from their relationship, while still having separate states.
The reader will at this point object that I am making Putin seem very reasonable. Could it be? Don’t you know he’s a liar? That you can’t trust anything he says and therefore you can make him say anything you want? What is most objectionable about these objections is that they aren’t really about Putin at all, but about Russia and Russians. It is the Russian viewpoint, not Putin’s viewpoint as such, that is destitute of legitimacy in the eyes of America’s officialdom and commentariat.
The real guarantee of these views is not Putin’s bona fides but the nature and character of the people he rules. The biggest thing that our imaginative Russia experts miss is that Putin is constrained by Russian public opinion. By repeatedly chanting “autocracy,” they make it seem as if Putin is entirely disjoined from his nation, which is not so. The Russian nation sees the obvious point that the conquest of Ukraine would inevitably come at the expense of the Russian people. The hawks actually twist themselves into contradictions here, because they say that Putin is in fact deeply unpopular and yet he’s going to do the thing for which there is very little support in Russian opinion, and which would further rouse the Ukrainian nation against him. It’s like they expect him to commit hari-kari.
The Russian steps to increase readiness on Ukraine’s frontier give the impression that Russia will fight if the Ukrainians attempt to drive them from Crimea or the Donbas. Their determination, and that of the Russian public, is rock solid on the point of Crimea but much more ambivalent about the Donbas. It is unlikely that Putin would have difficulty rallying public support for a Russian intervention if the Ukrainians tried an Azerbaijani-type operation to reclaim the Donbas and that should certainly be taken as a red line by the United States. The critical point for Russia is not that it wants to annex these territories—on that point, public opinion is divided—but that it will not allow the Ukrainians to conduct a “cleansing” of Russophones from the area. The people of the Donbas want annexation by Russia, but the formula of the Minsk Accords—federal autonomy for the Donbas within Ukraine—is perfectly acceptable to Putin. The United States, by contrast, says that Minsk is the right formula but gives complete support to the Ukrainian refusal to do what is required of it under the accords. Blinken says that it is Russia who is not fulfilling Minsk. The record says otherwise. The Ukrainian government has rejected for some years the critical provision of the accords mandating autonomy for the Donbas.
The main argument against my thesis that Putin does not want or intend to invade Ukraine is that he might feel forced to intervene in part of it in response to the ongoing repression of the Russian interest by the Ukrainian government. Ukraine has done a lot of things in the last year—implementing a language law that is discriminatory against Russian-speaking Ukrainians, shutting down the TV networks, and seizing the assets and charging with treason Victor Medvedchuk, a long-time Putin friend and the voice of Russophones in the east—those certainly look like serious oppressions to Putin and the Russians. The Russians have a declared interest in the rights of the Russophone population of Ukraine. I admit that this constitutes a potentially compelling motive for them. That it could constitute such a motive is a telling commentary on the utter indifference that U.S. policy has displayed for thirty years toward the rights of Russian speakers in the protectorates it has embraced along Russia’s western border.