Putin Can't Get Lucky Enough to Win
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Seth Abramson gives us what he calls ten hard truths about the war. It’s a really long essay and there’s no way to excerpt it properly. So I’m going to give you a rough summary of his arguments:
We are already engaged in a world war.
Trump’s election in 2024 would mean the end of NATO and Russian victory.
Russia is in a stronger position than we think.
Biden is ignorant of the true stakes.
Read the whole thing in order to get the real sweep of Abramson’s thinking.
It’s smart but—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—too pessimistic?
You can see how events could break in such a manner as to help Russia’s cause in the near terms. If you want to go dark, here’s a plausible scenario:
Russia escalates in some manner—a nuke, chemical weapons, a strike on Poland—and NATO fractures in its response. Some members take a hard line others aren’t willing to adopt.
NATO resolve weakens. Weapons shipments to Ukraine become more difficult.
Ukrainian cities are eventually occupied.
Putin declares victory and an “end” to the conflict.
Some of the partners in the global sanctions regime go wobbly and move to ratchet back the pain.
That’s probably the very best outcome Putin could hope for, and even this would be terrible for Russia. There would be a Ukrainian insurgency that would chew up the Russian military for months/years. The bulk of sanctions would not lift. The Russian economy would come to resemble a failed state. NATO would harden the defenses of member states and possibly admit new members.
Maybe Putin could survive this. But maybe not. And this is his best-case scenario.
You’ll note that I’m leaving Donald Trump out of this discussion entirely. I don’t disagree with Abramson that Trump’s re-election would be helpful to Putin and potentially disastrous for NATO.
But Putin has to get from here to there. No one knows what the Russian economy is going to look like six months from now, let alone in three years. Even if we do get a Trump restoration—a real possibility—it might be too late for Putin.
I never thought we’d need a refresher course on nuclear terminology, but here we are. Tom Nichols has it for you:
States usually categorize nuclear weapons, especially in arms-control agreements, by the distances they travel and their intended uses.
Strategic nuclear weapons are meant to travel long distances—by treaty, we once agreed with the Soviets and the Russians that long meant more than 5,500 kilometers—and to strike targets of “strategic” importance: enemy nuclear forces, leadership, and even cities and infrastructure.
Theater nuclear weapons are meant to be used in a “theater,” such as Europe or Asia, as a means of affecting the outcome of a war in that region. Targets in this category would include assets such as airbases, regional command centers, and, in some cases, even cities. Theater-range weapons were seen by both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. as highly destabilizing because they could provide the fateful bridge between a regional nuclear conflict and all-out nuclear war, and were banned by both parties in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Trump administration exited that treaty in 2019.
Tactical nuclear weapons are also called “battlefield” nuclear weapons. They are smaller nuclear arms—but remember, this is “small” in the context of “a small nuclear weapon”—meant to affect the course of a particular battle. Such weapons (defined by the now-defunct INF treaty as those that cannot travel more than 500 kilometers) might be aimed at tank formations, for example, to blunt a massive attack.
Nichols notes the irony that Putin has now adopted the strategy NATO came up with in the 1960s: Flexible response.
During the Cold War, NATO was outgunned. It could not win a major conventional war in Europe against the U.S.S.R. Instead, the U.S. and NATO promised high risks of escalation. If you invade us, we told the Soviets, we’ll hold you off as long as we can with any number of conventional options. But we reserve the right to escalate the conflict—and even to use nuclear weapons first, if that’s what it takes to save ourselves and our allies. . . .
It was, and remains, a threat to drag out a war so long and at such a price that the situation becomes unstable and thus far more dangerous to Moscow, whose “allies” during the Cold War hated the U.S.S.R. and whose entire war plan for any conflict in Europe was to conquer quickly and without the risk of either internal political opposition or a nuclear exchange.
Flexible response was, in effect, a warning that no Soviet military leader could promise a quick and nonnuclear victory in Europe.
Note the sick irony here that Putin launched a war of aggression, but is relying on the NATO defensive flexible response doctrine to prevent his own collapse.
Anyway, if you want to remind yourself as to why NATO policy is to give Ukraine maximum assistance while limiting the risk of the conflict spreading, here’s Uncle Tom’s Cold War story time:
Both the Soviets and the Americans over the years were faced with false alarms. In one case in 1983, war was averted when a Soviet air-defense officer refused to believe an attack warning. (It was indeed erroneous.) In another case, in 1979, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was roused from bed in the middle of the night and told that a massive Soviet strike was incoming; he was about to wake up President Jimmy Carter when NORAD officials realized that they were looking at a training tape instead of a war.
Read the whole thing and subscribe.
3. About the MiGs
Last week I argued that the cocked-up attempt to give Polish MiG-29s to Ukraine was probably not worth the risks of escalation. Part of this had to do with the cost part of the equation. But a lot had to do with the benefit side: Are MiG-29s really what Ukraine needs?
This piece in the Drive—not a newsletter, but worth your time—argues that what the Ukrainians need most (aside from anti-tank weapons; more on that in a minute) are SAMs:
The presence of medium to higher-tier SAM threats keeps Russia's combat aircraft from operating at medium altitudes or above, in effect pressing them right into the shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile (man-portable air defense systems or MANPADS) engagement envelope, which is roughly defined as anything under 15,000 feet. Thousands of MANPADS of different types have flooded into Ukraine and have been dispersed among troops across the country — and more are on the way. They have been brutally effective so far, but without the threat presented by more capable air defense systems, the opportunities to engage the enemy at lower altitudes will decline.
We’re able to get cheap, shoulder-fired SAMs into Ukraine pretty easily. But in order for these to be effective, we have to keep the Ukrainians supplied with mobile SAM batteries to threaten Russian air assets at higher altitudes:
[T]he major sticking point here is that Ukraine needs systems it can operate, employ successfully, and maintain in the field immediately, not western designs that will take months or even years to train on, field, and create a logistical train in a war zone to support.
So what fits that bill? Essentially, a bunch of old Soviet systems. (This piece gives the rundown and specifics for each.) Where would we get them? From the more recent NATO countries, like Greece, Poland, and Romania. (As well as our future NATO ally, Finland.) It’s the same principal as the MiG-29 deal: NATO countries give Ukraine their back-stock mobile SAM systems and then the U.S. makes them whole with modern tech.
Read the whole piece. It’ll make you smarter.
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These are all great and I subscribed.
As a total amateur SAMs discussion makes sense. Assumes they are still operational and Ukraine has the know how? Should be well worth the effort. Putin reaction seems irrelevant since if he is intending to escalate he will do it regardless.