The Russian Conundrum

The conflict in Ukraine confirms that understanding events and processes in world affairs requires an appreciation of two components: the variable factor of human will and the immutable factors of geographic reality.

Man has always sought to expand physical control over space and thus strengthen the power of his own tribe. Borders have never been fixed boundaries permanently separating sovereignties and legal authorities; rather, they are military-political arrangements subject to change. The shape and position of borders are not only, nor even primarily, the result of legal agreements. They reflect the states’ ability to conquer certain territories or their inability to preserve them. Subsequent legal and political arrangements merely verify outcomes.

That has been the case in the post-Soviet space, where internal borders between federal units which became sovereign entities were often drawn arbitrarily by Communist rulers with little regard for ethnic realities or history. The result is a series of frozen conflicts that occasionally turn hot, including the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.

Russia started the Russo-Ukrainian war, but its key underlying cause is the post-Cold War project of America’s full-spectrum dominance, which has resulted in an eternally expanding Western alliance under Washington’s supremacy. For the U.S.-led NATO, eastward expansion has been, and still is, an optional strategy without rational grounding in the security needs of the alliance. For Russia, preventing such expansion—especially into its southwestern flank, between the Carpathians in the west and the Sea of Azov in the east—is an existential issue.

The importance of the Ukrainian border for Russia harkens back to the 13th-century kernel of the modern Russian state, the Grand Duchy of Moscow. It started its rise with an unpromising position in the middle of a great plain exposed to invasion from all sides, which generated a lasting sense of insecurity. From the northwest to the south, it faced the basins of two seas whose coasts and wide hinterlands were under the control of hostile powers. One was toward the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic, held by the Swedes and Poles. The other was toward the Black Sea and the Danube Delta, held by the Crimean Tatars and the Ottomans. In Siberia, to the east, when the rivers were not frozen, they flowed towards the wastelands of the Arctic Ocean. Their sources led across the steppe to Central Asia and further east to Mongolia and China.

The destiny of Russia was geopolitically determined. Strategic imperatives dictated that Sweden, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire would be its enemies. Moscow was directly threatened by all of them in the three centuries before the Romanovs.

These four zones of geopolitical pressure formed a huge semicircle around Moscow. They also limited the attainable range of Russian ambitions, beyond which would appear the obstacles of difficult terrain, hostile native populations, and excessive distances from the central base of operations. Only in the east were such restrictions absent, where the steady expansion continued across Siberia to Alaska.

The Russian focus was on the western and southern theaters. The principles of steppe warfare became the basis of Russian geostrategy: directing superior forces at narrowly defined targets and achieving deep penetrations without necessarily waiting for the slow supply train. Already in the 18th century, the Russians used a strategy that would come to be known as Blitzkrieg (German for “lightning war”). The Russian version differed from the German doctrine of World War II in its technical means and the speed of daily advances but not in its strategic conception and operational deployment. Its full mastery was achieved from 1943 to 1945, when the Red Army perfected the art of “deep battle” and massive encirclement operations.

It is puzzling that Russia has violated practically all of these time-honored principles in Ukraine over the past year and a half. Its initial attack was launched on five fronts, but without a single, clearly defined target, a point of pressure against which the main force should be directed. It started its “special military operation” with scant reserves, and its logistics were soon in disarray. Instead of deep penetrations, we have witnessed World War I-style positional warfare—notably during the eight-month battle for Bakhmut, a strategically insignificant town. Even if one accepts that the war of attrition there suits Moscow in the long run because of its superior resources, it now looks like a mere correction of borders will be the limit of Russian abilities and ambitions: keeping the Donbas in the east and the Crimea in the south, and connecting them by a land bridge.

But Moscow settling for what it already controls would highlight the paradox of the war. Ukraine’s bid to join NATO was supposedly aimed at enhancing its security but actually undermined it by inviting a Russian attack. Russia’s decision to attack was supposedly aimed at enhancing its security by keeping Ukraine out of NATO, but this goal will likely be undermined by turning Ukraine into a Western spearhead even without Ukraine formally joining the NATO alliance.

To understand what went wrong with Russia’s strategic calculus, we must revisit the four pillars of state power. They have had different manifestations in various epochs and societies, but their essence remains unchanged. These are military force and readiness to use it; economic strength necessary for the creation and maintenance of military power; ideological agreement of the decision-making community on the desired strategic outcomes; and the existence of a functional mechanism of command and control over the state apparatus that implements that strategy.

Each of those pillars is problematic in today’s Russia. Its readiness to use military power is restrained by the lack of political will to mobilize all of its human and material potential in the contest with the “collective West.” President Vladimir V. Putin is apprehensive that the attainment of those two objectives he named on the first day of the “Special Military Operation”—demilitarization of Ukraine and regime change in Kiev—would require resources that cannot be deployed without putting Russia’s political and social system under intolerable strain. That is a risky, potentially disastrous decision because it places internal stability before external security.

On the economic front, Russia heavily depends on an array of imported components for some of its more complex weapons systems, most notably on Chinese-made electronics but also on Western-made microchips, which it imports through third-party countries to bypass sanctions. Without those components, Russians would find it hard to continue producing cruise missiles, fighter aircraft, advanced radars, and anti-missile defense systems. Shortages of modern weapons have already forced Russia to rely on models dating to the Soviet era, most of which are less accurate and reliable.

More seriously, the ruling elite has no ideological consensus on the war aims. The oligarchs and technocrats want it to end even with the merest pretense of success, while at the opposite end, the military siloviki (“strongmen”) advocate escalation and total victory. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu are somewhere in between.

Even the mechanism of command and control is problematic. The Wagner Group is a private mercenary force largely independent of the regular army and has borne the brunt of fighting for Bakhmut. Its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been scathing in his criticism of the top brass, accusing them of sabotaging the war effort, and launching an abortive coup attempt in June. It is a bizarre and unprecedented situation.

Putin seems content to keep different factions neatly balanced. He may be acting rationally from the standpoint of his grip on power within the Kremlin, but that is not statecraft. State power depends on the variables of human will and the capacity to turn resources into abilities. It is not too early to say that on this front, Putin has been found wanting. Russia has no clear strategy in Ukraine because its elite lacks internal agreement regarding the challenge it faces from the “collective West.” Putin has so far failed to provide the nation with firm guidance and clarity of purpose.

The quality of statesmanship enables successful leaders to anticipate crisis scenarios and to prepare models of response to them. Putin failed to do so during Ukraine’s Maidan crisis in the winter of 2013-2014, and his passivity has had dire consequences for both sides—and for Europe as a whole.

Putin must understand that the risk of an open-ended Korean-style ceasefire in Ukraine would be far greater for Russia’s security and global standing than the risk of domestic dissatisfaction stemming from serious mobilization to address a serious threat. For Russia, it is imperative to prevent the emergence of a permanently hostile Ukraine, Banderist in spirit and revanchist in intent, on its southwestern borders—even if those borders are moved a hundred miles to the west.

On the other hand, it is imperative for the U.S. to avoid escalation now that the long-heralded Ukrainian counteroffensive is failing, especially if the Russians gather strength to initiate a major advance of their own. As former Pentagon advisor Col. Douglas Macgregor warned last May, the real risk is that “fools in Washington will talk about direct intervention.” It is in the American interest to avoid that risk regardless of the course of the war, because neither the security nor the prosperity of the United States depends upon its outcome.

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