stock here: I did a “map article” on Ukraine a few weeks back. The whole Russia to invade Ukraine narrative was #FaF out of the gate. This article provides more context. Some are complicit, some are evil.
Putin’s stated vision for Russia and Ukraine is not absorption into a common state, but the sort of relationship that exists between the United States and Canada, in which people who share a common ancestry cooperate and profit from their relationship, while still having separate states. by David C. Hendrickson
What did we just witness? I refer to the two-month frenzy that seized the Western media, in which Vladimir Putin was massing 175,000 troops on Ukraine’s border for an invasion to begin right about now. The Washington Post led on December 3, 2021, with those big numbers and was duly followed by others. A gigantic massing of forces was taking place. Putin was threatening an invasion and had mobilized his forces to accomplish the final breakage of Ukraine. President Joe Biden was a believer, ordering evacuations from embassies in Ukraine and Belarus. He told Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in late January that blood would almost certainly flow in the streets of Kiev, the national capital; “prepare for impact” sometime soon, probably in February.
And then a surprising thing happened. The Ukrainian president, the guy whose lead we were apparently following, said, in effect, cut it out. Not true. You’re panicking people in Ukraine, hurting its economy, and besides the Russian troop movements were really nothing out of the ordinary.
The Ukraine Narrative wobbled with that development. The people of Ukraine, who were soon to be flattened, were nonchalant while the distant superpower was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Everyone involved among U.S. and Ukrainian officials then denied that the great rupture had happened, though of course, it did happen. It tells us something very revealing about the prospects for war.
Zelensky Acts Up
Biden made it clear in December that no U.S. forces were going to be deployed to Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion, ruling out U.S. participation in a war but touting the threat of devastating economic sanctions as a deterrent. Biden also distinguished between a minor and a major Russian incursion, in what was widely held by the commentariat to be a gaffe. Zelensky complained about this, tweeting, “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power.” After telling Biden to chill on the invasion-mongering, he taunted the administration at a press conference: “Tell us openly we will never get into NATO.” Zelensky had heard loud and clear the Washington message, as recalibrated by Biden in December: Accept an offer from Moscow? Politically impossible, morally reprehensible. Prepare to fight them? Are you mad?
It is as if American Maximalism, the neocon policy canonized by Stephen Sestanovich, had finally met its match in the “no more war” sentiment among the American people. These two imperatives, pointing toward a posture of total hostility that is also emphatically short of war, doubtless float in the president’s brain as basic parameters of policy. But Biden’s stance—super-aggressive but also super-cautious—did not sit well with the Ukrainians.
This contretemps between the leader of the Free World and the president of the Ukrainian “great power” was very disturbing to the Washington establishment. They thought that Zelensky had flubbed his performance. He was apparently unaware of his proper role. “We’re his most important ally and he’s poking us in the eye and creating daylight between Washington and Kyiv,” said a senior administration official. “It’s self-sabotage more than anything else.”
Why War is Off the Table, for Now
The most striking implication of Zelensky’s comments is that the war scare was made in the United States. To understand why Zelensky doesn’t think a war is imminent, we must go back to April when the first great scare of a Russian invasion occurred. The preceding year, Azerbaijan had demonstrated in its conflict with Armenia that Turkish and Israeli drones could smash entrenched positions and rout the defenders. The Atlantic Council, the eyrie of Washington’s Ukraine hawks, immediately noted the relevance of this demonstrated new capability to the frozen conflict in the Donbas.
The new team at the White House, closely following a script announced by the Atlantic Council, declared that Crimea and the Donbas must be put back on the table. That meant, explained a Biden official, a “very extensive and almost constant focus on Ukraine from day one.” In the view of Democrats, Donald Trump had been a shameless appeaser of Putin; indeed, he was Putin’s puppet. This narrative, to be sure, was dubious in the extreme, as Trump the ostensible appeaser surrounded himself with advisors—H.R. McMaster, Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley, James Mattis, and John Bolton—who regularly blasted Russia in scalding tones. But though the narrative may have been wrong, it was theirs. The Democrats believed it. Where Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken largely followed Trump’s line on China, they broke sharply with him over Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government hailed the new administration and set forth a platform for the return of Donbas and Crimea. Then on April 3, 2021, Ukraine’s military announced on Facebook that military exercises would be conducted with five NATO powers in Ukraine’s eastern regions later in the year. “In particular,” it said, “defensive actions will be worked out, followed by an offensive in order to restore the state border and territorial integrity of a state that has been subjected to aggression by one of the hostile neighboring countries.”
Russia’s callup of reserves—which both now and in April was interpreted by U.S. intelligence as reflecting plans for a gigantic invasion—was in direct response to these three important developments: a startling new demonstration of the effectiveness of drone-led offensive operations, a new U.S. posture toward Ukraine-related issues that was far more aggressive than Trump’s, and the declaration by Ukraine’s military that they were working on a plan to drive the Russians out of the occupied territories. When Biden said in December that the United States would not commit forces to Ukraine in the event of a war, it took the legs out from under this plan.
The United States now vehemently denies that there was any idea of retaking the Donbas by force and that this is an invention of Russian propagandists. From the outside, it is impossible to know how far these plans advanced and how seriously they were taken, but to say that the Russians had no basis for thinking that something was afoot is clearly absurd. What is the explanation for the April 3 Facebook post by Ukraine’s military? Were they the unfortunate victims, like Joy Reid, of a malicious hack? If the Azerbaijani war had no military significance for the Donbas, why did the Atlantic Council argue that it did?
It is obvious that Ukraine’s military has sought an Azerbaijani-like capability in the past year, and little doubt that the United States has facilitated the acquisition of one. But it is equally obvious that no such plan can be put in motion if the U.S. attitude is what Biden and Blinken said it was in December. The Ukrainians were optimistic about getting such a pledge from the Americans during the previous year—that is, getting an American backstop if they sought to regain their lost territories by force, replaying the Georgia option of 2008 but this time with American guarantees. Their hopes are now deflated. Hence Zelensky’s taunt: just tell straight out that that we cannot join NATO, that is, that you intend to leave us in the lurch with regard to our lost territories.
The View from Russia
The air is thick with wild interpretations of Russian motives. As portrayed in the Western press, it is Putin and the Russians who are thirsting to change the status quo. He wants to conquer and absorb Ukraine. He wants to restore the Soviet Union. He wants to bring Russia to the geopolitical position the Soviet Union had in 1945. He wants to evict the United States from Europe. Since our Russia experts proceed on the assumption that you cannot believe a word he says, they are freed from all evidentiary restraint in their explication of what Putin wants. Since they rule out by hypothesis that he could conceivably have defensive motives, we are left with the choice of aims ranging from the aggressively obnoxious to the insanely aggressive.
The hawks are not ashamed to make stuff up. Putin, they say, is daily threatening war to take over Ukraine. No, that is what the United States and its media sycophants are saying that Putin is saying and doing. He says the military deployments are nothing. The Russian Foreign Ministry reminds people just about every day that it is not threatening any such war.
On Putin’s putative desire to conquer and absorb Ukraine, consider that Ukraine, a nation of 43.3 million people, would be impossible to rule effectively and profitably from Moscow, while the attempt to do so would emphatically impose huge financial and political costs. One of the pristine memories of Soviet history is that when Josef Stalin ordered his mercilessly cruel and wholly irrational campaign of dekulakization and collectivized agriculture, the Ukrainian peasantry burned half its grain and killed half its livestock rather than surrender it to the commissars.
U.S. intelligence has focused laser-like on the course and objectives of a Russian invasion, but what they have ignored, as they did in 2003 (Iraq) and 2011 (Libya), is what comes after Mission Accomplished. They are thinking about the forces required for an invasion like that which the United States undertook in Iraq, but the real numbers game, as we subsequently discovered in that now dimly remembered war, must take into account the forces required for an occupation. In sizing such forces, military historians identify ratios of one soldier for sixty people in unfriendly terrain, and a one to 100 ratio in friendlier environs. As Ukraine would be more like the former than the latter for Russia, that generates a force requirement of 721,000, way beyond existing Russian capabilities. Even the lesser number of 430,000 would require stripping the rest of the country of its defenses and imposing onerous new requirements for conscripts, a veritable mass mobilization. One does wonder if the U.S. officials predicting the imminent ingurgitation of this indigestible mass ever look beyond the first fifteen days of the plan they have implanted in the mind of the Russian military. On the surface, at least, U.S. “intelligence” appears not too bright, because it posits a complete disconnection between the ends foreseen and the means available. Putin, it is reasonable to assume, is not so blind.
The problem with conquering Ukraine is not primarily a function of the Ukrainian willingness to fight a guerilla war, but the impossibility of making any positive and profitable use of the territory after a big invasion. It is like asking the Russians whether they want to repeat the Holodomor. No, they don’t. The high-end numbers provided by “senior administration officials,” even if given a credence they do not deserve, are still totally inadequate if seen in relation to the political goals they say that Putin has in mind. Forgotten is that Putin’s central critique of both the Iraq invasion of 2003 and the Libyan invasion of 2011 is that the Americans proclaimed a victory and left anarchy. Why would he want to repeat those fiascos?
Ukraine is Not a Country
It is now said repeatedly by our talking heads that Putin denies that Ukraine is even a country. In their reconstruction, Putin thinks it is totally illegitimate and therefore ripe for takeover. “When you say things like, ‘Ukraine does not now and has never had a right to exist as a sovereign state, there is no such thing as the Ukrainian people,’ where does your rhetoric go from there?” asked a senior Western intelligence officer. The media cite Putin’s 5,000-word essay in July 2021 detailing the history of Russia’s relations with Ukraine. But Putin’s argument in that essay is totally different from what it has been represented to be by our media parrots, who in this case have definitely learned to speak but cannot read. In brief, Putin’s pitch was this:
Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus share a common history. For long stretches of time, their inhabitants considered themselves “a triune people comprising Velikorussians, Malorussians and Belorussians” rather than separate Slavic peoples. The Ukrainians, however, declared their independence and opted for separation rather than common nationhood. How do you treat such a people, Putin asked, and said there was only one answer: “with respect!” His essay explicitly acknowledged the right of the Ukrainians to form a separate and independent state. His language was that of a husband pleading with his wife not to leave him, while acknowledging that she has the right to do so and even some reason to do so. At least she shouldn’t hate him.
The nub of Putin’s argument concerned the terms of the divorce. He wrote that the Ukrainians, in deciding to leave, could not take out of the partnership more than they’d brought in the first place. The critical year was 1922, when the Ukrainian communists joined with the Russian communists and others to make the treaty that formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. At that time, Crimea was not part of Ukraine, though the Donbas was. Nor were the territories in the west that Stalin annexed in 1940 in the aftermath of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
Putin’s discussion of the 1924 Soviet constitution and the right of secession it conferred is very revealing. He insists that this provision of the constitution was real and had to be respected, though it was also written at a time when the source of cohesion lay in central party control, so was effectively meaningless during the party’s reign. His conclusion, however, is clear: the Soviet Constitution, however defectively, did indeed provide a right of secession in 1924, reaffirmed in 1936, and on this basis, Ukraine had a right to secede. Far from making a claim for all Ukraine, he didn’t even make a claim to the Donbas. He pointed out that the Donbas and some surrounding areas were included in Ukraine at Lenin’s insistence, as part of the Bolshevik scheme for managing the minorities question, but acknowledged that Ukraine came into the union with those territories. There was, he wrote, still no alternative to the Minsk agreements, which explicitly recognize the Donbas as part of Ukraine.
Putin’s stated vision for Russia and Ukraine is not absorption into a common state, but the sort of relationship that exists between the United States and Canada, in which people who share a common ancestry cooperate and profit from their relationship, while still having separate states.
The reader will at this point object that I am making Putin seem very reasonable. Could it be? Don’t you know he’s a liar? That you can’t trust anything he says and therefore you can make him say anything you want? What is most objectionable about these objections is that they aren’t really about Putin at all, but about Russia and Russians. It is the Russian viewpoint, not Putin’s viewpoint as such, that is destitute of legitimacy in the eyes of America’s officialdom and commentariat.
The real guarantee of these views is not Putin’s bona fides but the nature and character of the people he rules. The biggest thing that our imaginative Russia experts miss is that Putin is constrained by Russian public opinion. By repeatedly chanting “autocracy,” they make it seem as if Putin is entirely disjoined from his nation, which is not so. The Russian nation sees the obvious point that the conquest of Ukraine would inevitably come at the expense of the Russian people. The hawks actually twist themselves into contradictions here, because they say that Putin is in fact deeply unpopular and yet he’s going to do the thing for which there is very little support in Russian opinion, and which would further rouse the Ukrainian nation against him. It’s like they expect him to commit hari-kari.
The Russian steps to increase readiness on Ukraine’s frontier give the impression that Russia will fight if the Ukrainians attempt to drive them from Crimea or the Donbas. Their determination, and that of the Russian public, is rock solid on the point of Crimea but much more ambivalent about the Donbas. It is unlikely that Putin would have difficulty rallying public support for a Russian intervention if the Ukrainians tried an Azerbaijani-type operation to reclaim the Donbas and that should certainly be taken as a red line by the United States. The critical point for Russia is not that it wants to annex these territories—on that point, public opinion is divided—but that it will not allow the Ukrainians to conduct a “cleansing” of Russophones from the area. The people of the Donbas want annexation by Russia, but the formula of the Minsk Accords—federal autonomy for the Donbas within Ukraine—is perfectly acceptable to Putin. The United States, by contrast, says that Minsk is the right formula but gives complete support to the Ukrainian refusal to do what is required of it under the accords. Blinken says that it is Russia who is not fulfilling Minsk. The record says otherwise. The Ukrainian government has rejected for some years the critical provision of the accords mandating autonomy for the Donbas.
The main argument against my thesis that Putin does not want or intend to invade Ukraine is that he might feel forced to intervene in part of it in response to the ongoing repression of the Russian interest by the Ukrainian government. Ukraine has done a lot of things in the last year—implementing a language law that is discriminatory against Russian-speaking Ukrainians, shutting down the TV networks, and seizing the assets and charging with treason Victor Medvedchuk, a long-time Putin friend and the voice of Russophones in the east—those certainly look like serious oppressions to Putin and the Russians. The Russians have a declared interest in the rights of the Russophone population of Ukraine. I admit that this constitutes a potentially compelling motive for them. That it could constitute such a motive is a telling commentary on the utter indifference that U.S. policy has displayed for thirty years toward the rights of Russian speakers in the protectorates it has embraced along Russia’s western border.
Granting, therefore, that the vigorous anti-Russian turn in Ukrainian policy is seen as a big problem by Putin, it remains very difficult to see how the use of force would solve it for him. There is talk about such a rescue operation by some Russophones, but not Russian officials or legislators. No way exists of getting a clear read on how the Russophone population outside Donbas would react to a Putin move to save them with a military invasion, but I don’t think it would be favorable even in the short term, for the simple reason that it could not be clean and would entail significant human and material losses. For the majority of Ukraine’s Russophones, I think that would look like a bad bargain and not something they would want. If they don’t want it, there would be minimal desire in Russia to give it to them.
Lessons Learned, Gains Consolidated
So, Biden was wrong and Zelensky was right. There will be no war. The one in the east, as a consequence of a Ukrainian reconquest of the Donbas or Crimea, has been put on extended hiatus. The one conjured up by U.S. intelligence is a fiction. That war is not imminent does not mean that it’s entirely foreclosed down the road, as the arms buildup and the war of venomous accusation is intrinsically dangerous. So, too, the probable motives of both Russia and the United States, which argue strongly against an imminent war, may change. The misperceptions which now rule the day in Washington, especially a view of the adversary which sees it as basically deranged, are not a good omen.
A lingering question remains. Did Washington’s alarmists really believe it themselves, or has consent been manufactured by a war scare whose utility they plainly saw, but the details of which they didn’t really believe? It’s a tough choice between the two, with alternative one telling us that they’ve been playing it straight and alternative two suggesting that we’ve all been the objects of a calculated plan by guys playing four-dimensional chess. The conclusion I reach, with some awkwardness, is that both alternatives, though seemingly contradictory, have been at play in Washington’s funhouse mirror, thick with distorted shapes and grotesque visages. What cannot be denied is that the war scare, with the media dutifully performing its stenographic role, has brought great advantages to the hawks. The LNG folks have made considerable progress in their campaign to prevent the opening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The increased deployments to Eastern Europe and arms sales to Ukraine gratify the interests of the military-industrial complex. The anti-Russia coalition, which draws as much from sheer ideological enmity as anything resembling self-interest, has advanced its campaign to gain legal authority from Congress to impose a total shutdown in relations with Russia. That looks to me like three wins for the hawks.
The cleverest feature of the administration’s approach is that, when there is no war, Biden and Blinken can claim that it was all due to them and their solid statesmanship. Deterrence has been successful! Our firm leadership made it so! We’re not quite at that part in the unraveling of the plot, but getting closer, as U.S. intelligence seems not to be getting its predicted 175,000 troops. At the last congressional briefing on February 5, the latest intelligence estimate was that 130,000 troops were mobilized, with only 62,000 combat forces deployed, scattered all around Ukraine’s periphery. Count on it, the reduction in future numbers (as the Russian exercises wind down) will be attributed to the wise leadership of the Biden administration.
David C. Hendrickson is President of the John Quincy Adams Society and the author of Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition (2018).