Counterintuitive Hotness: Actually Putin Is Winning?
Some conservatives (and Glenn Greenwald) now think Putin is playing 5-D chess.
TNB this week is going to be me, Tim Miller, Amanda Carpenter, and Will Saletan talking Ginni Ginny Ginnie, the Jan. 6th Committee, the collapse of Trump Social, and more. Basically a Bulwark Dunk Contest.
And I am ready to bring it.
Here’s the link for the show: Thursday night, 8:00 p.m.
Only for members of Bulwark+.
1. Who Wins a Negotiated Settlement?
Don’t get Glenn Greenwald wrong. He isn’t rooting for Putin—he’s just against the corrupt mainstream media!
But is he wrong?
Suppose for a moment that Putin never intended to conquer all of Ukraine: that, from the beginning, his real targets were the energy riches of Ukraine’s east, which contain Europe’s second-largest known reserves of natural gas (after Norway’s).
Combine that with Russia’s previous territorial seizures in Crimea (which has huge offshore energy fields) and the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk (which contain part of an enormous shale-gas field), as well as Putin’s bid to control most or all of Ukraine’s coastline, and the shape of Putin’s ambitions become clear. He’s less interested in reuniting the Russian-speaking world than he is in securing Russia’s energy dominance.
There’s a lot in Stephens’s piece and it’s worth reading in full. Because the final answer is that Putin can “win” only if the West blinks.
But we’ll get to that in a minute.
First things first: We don’t have a settlement. You can see Russia trying to edge toward one with its “repositioning” of troops into the southeast corner of Ukraine. But first they have to take Mariupol. Once (if?) Mariupol falls, Russia will have the land bridge it needs to consolidate Crimea and the Donbas.
At which point you can understand why they’d want to GTFO. They’ve lost a lot of soldiers, several general officers, and a great deal of materiel. Sanctions are going to drop the national GDP by something like 15 percent this year.
Are there conditions to a ceasefire that could count as some sort of victory for Putin? I think so. If both Ukraine and the E.U./NATO agreed to:
No membership for Ukraine in either NATO or the E.U.
No nuclear weapons for Ukraine.
Ukraine formally cedes all claims to Crimea and the Donbas.
The West drops all or most of the sanctions regime.
But here’s the thing: Why would Ukraine agree to all of the above conditions? A couple of them, maybe. It could promise not to join NATO, but it really couldn’t promise “neutrality” and almost certainly wouldn’t take E.U. membership off the table.2
Maybe it could say that it wouldn’t pursue nuclear weapons. But it couldn’t promise not to re-arm. The minute this war is over, the first order of business for the Ukrainians is going to be turning their country into a fortress.
Could Ukraine cede claims to the conquered territories? I suppose. But practically speaking, that wouldn’t do much. There are people in those places who now hate Russia, even if they speak Russian. Ukraine pretend-renouncing claims to Ukrainian land isn’t going to help Putin hold it.
Which brings us to the big item: The sanctions.
The only way Putin walks out of this box capable of going the distance is if he reaches some sort of settlement and the West then decides to cut sanctions and revert to the status quo.
That could be plausibly seen as a victory. Because Putin would have traded some blood and treasure for territorial gains. And that might be a good trade if the amount of treasure is finite.
It’s up to the West to make sure that the economic pain is perpetual, with compounding interest.
For my money, this is Biden’s big task right now: Not establishing a No Fly Zone or getting planes to the Ukrainians, but buttressing the alliance so that if a settlement is reached, the sanctions stay locked in place and the allies remain focused on increasing the pressure on Russia.
2. The Price of “Victory”
While Putin could view the above scenario as a tactical victory, I’d argue that if the West is resolute, even with all of those favorable terms, he’d still be facing a strategic defeat because:
NATO has been reinvigorated and any attempt to break the alliance by forcing an Article V confrontation is now a dead-letter.
The alliance may well expand to include Sweden and Finland.
Germany is rearming.
Ukraine has been pushed further into integration with Europe.
The Russian military has been exposed as dangerously weak and disorganized.
Here’s the counterargument from Bret Stephens, which I teased above:
“Under the guise of an invasion, Putin is executing an enormous heist,” said Canadian energy expert David Knight Legg. As for what’s left of a mostly landlocked Ukraine, it will likely become a welfare case for the West, which will help pick up the tab for resettling Ukraine’s refugees to new homes outside of Russian control. In time, a Viktor Orban-like figure could take Ukraine’s presidency, imitating the strongman-style of politics that Putin prefers in his neighbors. . . .
It also makes sense of his strategy of targeting civilians. More than simply a way of compensating for the incompetence of Russian troops, the mass killing of civilians puts immense pressure on Zelensky to agree to the very things Putin has demanded all along: territorial concessions and Ukrainian neutrality. The West will also look for any opportunity to de-escalate, especially as we convince ourselves that a mentally unstable Putin is prepared to use nuclear weapons.
Within Russia, the war has already served Putin’s political purposes. Many in the professional middle class — the people most sympathetic to dissidents like Aleksei Navalny — have gone into self-imposed exile. The remnants of a free press have been shuttered, probably for good. To the extent that Russia’s military has embarrassed itself, it is more likely to lead to a well-aimed purge from above than a broad revolution from below. Russia’s new energy riches could eventually help it shake loose the grip of sanctions.
This isn’t a crazy view. Until eight weeks ago, I would have thought that Stephens was describing a likely outcome.
But over the last two months, America and Europe have come together and their response has been truly impressive. Ukraine has proven itself to be a sturdy and capable state. Putin is, right now, losing. And has been losing since Day 2 of this war.
In order for him to find his way to even a Pyrrhic victory, something—or several somethings—would have to change.
And America and Europe would have to lose their nerve when they’re holding a winning hand.
Maybe they will.
Putin is often portrayed as a poker player and at this moment, the river card has turned, he’s bet his entire stack on a pair of 3’s, the West has the nuts, and Putin is stuck hoping that his opponents will simply decide to fold.
Hoping that the other side volunteers to lose a war is not the same things as being in a position to win it.
3. Joey Votto Has a New Bat
Some baseball porn for you as we get closer to Opening Day:
In every one of Joey Votto’s 8,128 plate appearances in the big leagues, he came to the plate with a 34-inch, 32-ounce model M356 ash bat, double dipped in black lacquer. The M356 was a model designed for Mariners Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez, the “M” denoting his surname and “356” signifying his .356 batting average in 1995, the second of his two batting titles.
According to Louisville Slugger, Martinez ordered 3,352 model bats from the company and it has remained one of its more popular models. Votto used a Louisville Slugger M356 until last season, when he switched to a bat made by Marucci. The manufacturer changed, but the dimensions did not; it was still 34 inches and 32 ounces and made in the exact same shape.
“Pretty damn good, too,” Votto noted.
Now, as Votto readies for his 16th season in Major League Baseball, he’s making a dramatic change, and will come to the plate wielding a 36-inch model JV19HP-LDM bat with a distinctive “hockey puck” knob on the end, one specifically tailored to not only his swing, but also his goal — which is to lead the majors in barrels. Barrels are a statistic measuring a combination of exit velocity and launch angle, leading to the optimal outcome in terms of balls in play. Votto wants to have more than anyone else.
To do that, Votto visited Baton Rouge, La., on Feb. 10 to visit the Baseball Performance Lab at Marucci Sports.
Also, Russia wouldn’t just need Ukraine pledging not to join the European Union. Putin probably needs the E.U. signing some piece of paper agreeing not to accept any future Ukrainian membership. Good luck with that.