Saturday 30 March 2024

The mutually incompatible universes of Ukraine war pundits

russian tanks

"The first casualty of war is truth."

– Hiram W. Johnson

Popular political pundits are pushing mutually incompatible narratives on the Ukraine war, making it difficult to understand what is really going on. Further complicating matters are active (dis)information operations being conducted by all sides in the conflict, which may feed into, pay for, or undermine pundit commentary.  


On one side of the pundit debate is Offensive Realism heavyweight John Mearsheimer and retired US Colonel MacGregor. On the other is… well, pretty much everyone else, including: ISW, former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, Timothy Snyder, Peter Zeihan, Ben Hodges, David Petraeus, and Sir Richard Shirreff.


Let’s look at MacGregor’s universe first, because it’s the simplest: 


• Russia is victorious on all fronts, Ukraine is on the verge of defeat having suffered catastrophic casualties, and will collapse in a matter of days. MacGregor has been saying this since the first week of the war. If he is ever right, it won’t be with any more foresight than a broken clock.


Mearsheimer is a well regarded academic who’s most famous for his book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. I read this when it first came out and have a good deal of respect for Professor Mearsheimer. Every society has gadflies who go against popular wisdom and the collective narrative. Mearsheimer is one such (albeit quite affable) gadfly. 

In Mearsheimer’s universe:
• Spheres of influence are exerted by regional hegemonic powers, and Ukraine, the Baltic States, Finland, and even Poland fall within Russia’s, just as Canada, Mexico, and Cuba fall within the USA’s. If rival powers want to avoid conflict, they should avoid impinging upon a hegemon’s influence sphere. 
• The United States should normalize relations with Russia and form an alliance against China; Russia is not a peer competitor to the United States, while China is. 
• Alliances with both Ukraine and Israel are political albatrosses which do not advance the geopolitical interests of the USA.
• The USA floated accepting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, which crossed a red line with Russia.
• The USA has led Ukraine down the primrose path, holding out membership in NATO and the EU. The USA knew this was unacceptable to Russia and would lead to military conflict and occupation, but did it anyway. 
• The CIA orchestrated a coup in Ukraine in 2014 (popularly known as the Maidan Revolution), overthrowing the legitimately elected (Russian puppet) leader Yanukovych, and driving him out of the country. CIA interference directly resulted in the Russian annexation of Crimea and separatists. 
• Russia is doing everything it can to avoid civilian casualties, and Western media are misrepresenting what is happening. This is an extraordinary claim, but he offers no support. 
• Western media are lying about Ukrainian and Russian military casualties. Russia has up to a 10:1 advantage in artillery, and in a war of attrition, artillery accounts for the vast proportion of battlefield casualties; therefore, Ukraine must be suffering significantly more. This is a good point. 
• The USA is using Ukraine to exhaust and bog down the Russian army in an ongoing conflict, but Ukraine is doomed and this will be a serious defeat for The West and damage the USA’s international credibility.
• Vladimir Putin is a savvy and well informed leader.
• Colonel MacGregor is right; Mearsheimer has also praised Tucker Carlson’s interview with Putin.
• Ukraine cannot win a war of attrition against Russia, which has almost four times the population. 
• There is a substantial Neo-Nazi presence in Ukraine.
• Russian minorities see themselves as Russian and therefore there is no risk of civil unrest or secessionist insurgencies.
• There is no risk of Russia attacking the Baltic States, Finland or Moldova and any such warnings are delusional.
• Ideally, Ukraine should come to an immediate settlement with Russia and cede territory in order to avoid further destruction.
• A settlement is unlikely as neither side is willing to back down.
• There is no evidence that Putin wishes to restore the Soviet Union or a Greater Russia, nor any evidence it seeks to occupy all of Ukraine.
• Putin was forced into the Ukraine war and did everything possible to avoid it.
On the other side is The Institute for Study of War. Let’s take a look at their version of reality:


In recent posts, ISW addressed Russian disinformation campaigns, which address several of Mearsheimer’s points. These operations are based on Soviet mathematician Vladimir Lefebvre theory of ‘Reflexive Control’, which uses information operations to frame geopolitical situations, leading enemies to pre-determined decisions in Russia’s favour: 


A key example: Putin takes the false assertion that discussions of Ukraine’s NATO accession posed a clear and imminent danger to Russia along with the false assertion that Ukraine is not a real country and builds them into a false conclusion that he was justified in launching a war of conquest.


Another assertion: Russia has the right to a self-defined sphere of influence, and, therefore, a right to do whatever it wants to those within this sphere – including invading, killing, raping, and ethnic cleansing – with no repercussions.


Further assertions: a) Ukraine cannot win this war; supporting Ukraine is a distraction from ‘real’ US problems; Ukraine will be forced to settle; the United States is at risk of being stuck in another “forever” war; and b) the risks in helping Ukraine defend itself, let alone win, are higher than the risks of failure in Ukraine for the United States - it is too costly, too risky, and that Ukraine is not worth it. 


The degree to which Western discourse includes serious consideration of these falsehoods marks the success of long-running Russian information operations.


In the ISW universe:


• Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an unprovoked war of aggression. 


• Russia deliberately targets civilian homes and infrastructure, hoping to freeze Ukrainians en masse during winters. 


• Russia has engaged in widespread rape, torture, and atrocities against civilians. 


• Russia has kidnapped and deported Ukrainian children and deported them to Russia.


• Russia has conducted sham referendums in occupied territories at gun point and formally annexed Ukrainian oblasts. 


• The Maidan Revolution was a Ukrainian led movement to overthrow a Russian imposed puppet government. 


 The Ukrainian military with Western support has destroyed nearly 90% of the Russian army that invaded in February 2022 according to US intelligence sources.


 A victorious Russian army at the end of this war will be combat experienced and considerably larger than the pre-2022 Russian land forces. 


• NATO would be unable to defend against an attack by an experienced post-Ukraine war Russian army with the forces currently in Europe.


 “Freezing” the conflict is worse than continuing to help Ukraine fight—that would simply give Russia time and space to prepare for a renewed war to conquer Ukraine and confront NATO.


• The current war in Ukraine is not attritional, but ‘positional’: “Positional war is characterized by relatively static frontlines and regular combat that produces little movement, but the aim of such combat is generally either to create forward progress through steady if small advances or to create conditions to restore maneuver to the battlefield.” This was put forward by Former Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi in an article in The Economist.


• “Several Russian financial, economic, and military indicators suggest that Russia is preparing for a large-scale conventional conflict with NATO, not imminently but likely on a shorter timeline than what some Western analysts have initially posited.


• "Polish President Andrzej Duda emphasized in a March 20 interview with CNBC that Putin is intensifying efforts to shift Russia to a war economy with the intention of being able to attack NATO as early as 2026 or 2027, citing unspecified German research."


• “Danish Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen stated on February 9 that new intelligence indicates that Russia may attempt to attack a NATO country within three to five years, an accelerated timeline from NATO’s reported assessment in 2023."


• The timeline for the reconstitution of a significant Russian conventional military threat depends heavily on the financial resources Putin is willing to put against military efforts. In the absence of other explanations for Putin’s apparent preparations to risk damaging his relationship with wealthy Russian clients and in the context of continuing announcements of plans to expand the Russian military considered below, Putin’s attempts to set conditions to stabilize Russia’s economy and finances are most likely part of Russian financial and domestic preparations for a potential future large-scale conflict with NATO and not just for a protracted war in Ukraine."


Mearsheimer, according to The Institute, is echoing Kremlin propaganda. Or is it The Institute framing things? Oh, pesky questions!


Let’s move on to Zeihan. Peter Zeihan’s made a name for himself, particularly within corporate circles, as The Prophet of Doom, predicting the imminent collapse of the existing globalized world order. His focus is on the intersection of geopolitics, natural resources and demographics.


• China is currently undergoing catastrophic demographic collapse and will break apart within ten years.


• Russia, which is also experiencing demographic collapse, is trying to plug the gaps around the Great Eurasian Plains in order to secure its periphery with a smaller army.


• Russian minorities are out reproducing ethnic Russians, which will give rise to further secessionist movements.


• The war in Ukraine will escalate, Russia WILL attack the Baltic States, and a nuclear exchange is practically inevitable.


• Globalization was a bribe to bring the world on-side of the United States against the Soviet Empire during The Cold War. Manufacturing went overseas as nations were allowed to trade freely within the US led system. With The Cold War over, the US no longer needs it.


• Contrary to popular belief, the US economy is not globalized; much of what is exported abroad goes to Canada and Mexico and exists within the NAFTA system. 


• The USA is a net exporter of oil, and is not dependent on the Middle East, but China is. Europe, particularly Germany, was dependent on cheap Russian oil and gas.


• The US navy made sealines safe for international just-in-time manufacturing for decades, but it is now contracting around aircraft carrier battlegroups. The USA can no longer field the number of destroyers necessary to keep the oceans safe for commerce. The Houthi attacks in the Red Sea disrupting Suez Canal shipping are just the beginning. 


With the possible exception of MacGregor, these are all smart and savvy people. 


Who is right, who is wrong?


It is important to remember that Russia does not view war as binary: it views war on a spectrum, from disinformation operations to sow chaos and division at one end, and combined arms operations and nuclear weapons at the other. Shoigu and Gerasimov are key figures behind modern Russian low intensity warfare, of viewing Russia as in an ongoing state of war with all her enemies. It's just a question of intensity. 


As Sun Tzu once said, the best victory is won without having to fight the battle. Undermine and confuse your enemies. 


For example, the FSB funded the German green movement in order to turn the German population against nuclear power and make German industry dependent on cheap Russian oil and gas; now German industry is in a very difficult situation, and they are bringing horribly inefficient lignite plants back online. Lignite is a form of dirty coal, and far from environmentally friendly.


More recently, Medvedev, Putin's frothing-at-the-mouth attack dog, has been threatening to nuke the UK; he also claims that Russia owns the Baltic States and that Poland is merely currently 'occupied' by foreign powers. Naturally, Ukraine also belongs to Russia. His extremism makes Putin look statesmanlike.


Russian media have also been blaming the UK for the recent terrorist attack outside Moscow. This helps set the information space, portraying NATO as an active belligerent and stoking public outrage. This would tie in to ISW’s assertion that Russia wants to set conditions for an attack on NATO territories in the near future.


The Russian state funds faux opposition parties, the better to control them. It seeds the information space with competing narratives, paralyzing populations into confusion and indecision. If you can't tell what the truth is, if it takes a great deal of effort to understand what is really going on, fewer people are going to resist. After all, what are you resisting? Who knows?  


Putin is 71, the average Russian male lifespan. He doesn't drink, does judo, and runs around with his shirt off, Captain Kirk style. He can likely last several more years, maybe even a decade. But that's not a lot of time to secure a legacy. 


As a big history buff (which I get), he often cites Peter the Great. He also invites comparisons to ole Petey (which I don't get so much). Putin dreams BIG.


My bet? Putin wants to take a big swing for history books by retaking not just Ukraine, but the Baltic States.


When Russia initially invaded Ukraine, Putin's Belarussian lackey Lukashenko mentioned Russian plans for occupying Moldova. That hasn't come to pass, but it shows that Russian plans were never limited to Ukraine. 


Issues that derailed Russia's overly ambitious initial invasion are being addressed, and Russia is getting militarily stronger, not weaker. Their tech may not be as advanced as that in The West, but it doesn't need to be: quantity has a quality of its own.

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