By the end of the first week of the war, Russia’s underperformance was clear. Vladimir Putin was less a strategic mastermind like Bismarck and more a cosplayer who had a string of good fortune for 20 years. And yet, I still managed to overestimate Russian abilities. Mariupol might have fallen, completing Russia’s conquest of the Sea of Azov’s coastline and its land bridge to Crimea, but that is likely Russia’s maximum extent. After losing the Kiev campaign, Russia now looks like it has or will soon culminate in the eastern theater, while losing ground on the Kharkhov front. It is therefore not too early to discuss what the United States should want out of a peace arrangement. How weak should Russia get?
This isn’t advice on what policymakers should do. This is just my informal assessment of how I would look at the situation from an American/Western standpoint, based on what we know.
Before negotiating a peace deal, one must assess the strength of the two parties. Russia is currently in a weak position, to say the least. Its failed Kiev campaign revealed the poor state of its military, especially in its logistics and power projection. Here is an excellent overview of that first phase of the war.
On the larger scale, Caspian Report puts it nicely when he says that Russia is headed for strategic defeat.
The key question in my mind, then, is how weak should America and its allies be willing for Russia to get? Do we want it to be in a completely weakened state, or do we want it to not get too weak that it wouldn’t be able to balance against China sometime in the future? That question depends on how the war ends and whether the West will let the Russians back into the world economy once peace arrives.
For now, it seems unlikely that Ukraine will be able to regain its pre-2014 territory, particularly Crimea, although Ukraine has done nothing but exceed expectations so far. Still, any attempt to restore the pre-2014 status quo would surely lead to many more people getting killed. Putin seems mostly secure in the territory he has since acquired, but he can’t go much further, either.
Now that Mariupol has fallen, where else can Russia go in Ukraine? The notion some people have about Russia taking Odessa and closing Ukraine off from the Black Sea is increasingly fanciful. Its supply lines couldn’t make it to Kiev and seem incapable of making it to the Dnieper River, let alone further. Russia also still lacks air dominance. It is hard to imagine how it would be able to sustain such an offensive under these conditions. It also appears unlikely that Russia will even be able to annex the Donbas region. Russian progress there has been slow, minimal, and costly.
In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt informed Nicholas II that Russia had reached its limit and that no matter how hard it fought, it would not be able to reverse the losses that Japan dealt it. One gets similar feelings today when looking at the state of the Russian military. Japan was on the offensive then. Its gains were far more spectacular than Ukraine’s are now, but Russian exhaustion seems clear, just like it was clear in 1905.
So again, how weak should America want Russia to get?
With Vladimir Putin in power, the answer would seem to be “as weak as possible.” This would entail at least a return to the status quo antebellum as far as Ukraine goes, but also Sweden and Finland joining NATO. In the past, I would have opposed further NATO expansion, but the Swedes and especially the Finns would actually contribute to the alliance, as opposed to some of the more questionable recent members. Sweden and Finland’s accession would make the Baltic a NATO lake, seriously impede Russia’s power projection, and make its border far more difficult to defend.
It’s provocative, but the situation has changed. War has a way of doing that. The Ukrainian conflict feels almost like a Suez moment, the point at which Russia ends its career as a great power. If the sanctions continue, Russia will be dependent on China to survive. That means Chinese influence will go through Russia much more than before, which means that it is in America’s interest to contain that influence from spreading further into Europe, which Sweden and Finland could help with by joining NATO.
If Russia is going to become a Chinese vassal state, America should want it as weak as possible. This outcome unfortunately seems inescapable for as long as Putin is in power. In the past, my ideal would have been to play the two off against each other. They have a lot of animosity in their past. In particular, Russia was a useful partner in keeping China out of the arctic, a region it desperately wants to expand in. Yet, the “die is cast,” to borrow a popular phrase.
Deescalating the conflict back to just the pre-war status quo would be ideal, but it is not possible. Too much blood has been shed. Ukraine is growing increasingly confident and eager for revenge, while Vladimir Putin can’t accept such a settlement, as it would mean a loss of his and Russia’s honor. The capture of Mariupol and the Sea of Azov might seem to be enough for him to exit the war without losing face, but the gain isn’t grand enough for such a costly endeavor, and it is unlikely that the West would let Russia keep any of its gains in this war in a peace deal. The sanctions would remain and Putin would thus feel pressured to keep the fighting going.
Unfortunately, the likeliest scenario at this point is that Ukraine turns into the Syria of Europe. There will be a violent initial phase of some length and then a bloody stalemate, where Ukraine is partitioned in fact if not in law, and where endemic conflict rages.
In the cynical game of great power politics, this would not be entirely disadvantageous for America. It would prevent the so-called “Dragon Bear” from attempting to push west for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Strengthening NATO in Europe to keep a now-avowedly hostile Russia (and its puppetmaster China) contained would free the United States to deploy most of its resources to the Indo-Pacific region, the real strategic battleground of the 21st century.
The key objection in my mind is whether we would want NATO to border Russia more than it already does. It usually isn’t a good idea for two great powers to share a border, especially when nuclear weapons are involved. I’ve proposed the idea that Ukraine could prove to be Russia’s Suez moment, the moment which ends its status as a great power, but the Muscovite Empire has bounced back from weakness and humiliation more than once. It has demographic problems that it didn’t have back then, but even that might prove only temporary in the grand scale of time.
The goal then, should be to contain Russian power until Vladimir Putin is off his throne. Once he is, a new round of diplomacy might be able to improve the situation.
Ukraine has proven its mettle on the battlefield, where it matters most. Pre-war geopolitical calculations are out the window.
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Read Lives of the Luminaries to see many more instances of how wars have ruined would-be emperors. The same character flaws always seem to be in play. You can find it here.