Already in 1990 I wrote that Russia could desire the union of only the three Slavic republics [Russia, Ukraine, Belarus] and Kazakhstan, while all the other republics should be let go. It would be desirable if [a resulting Russian Union] could be formed into a unitary state, not into a fragile, artificial confederation with a huge supra-national bureaucracy. - Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
There is a good chance that the coming week will either see the culmination of the biggest and most expensive military bluff in world history, or a speed run towards Russian Empire 2.0, with Putin launching a multi-pronged assault invasion of Ukraine to take back Kiev (“the mother of Russian cities”) and the historical provinces of Novorossiya.
There is debate over which of these two scenarios will pan out. The Metaculus predictions market has given the war scenario a 50/50 probability since around mid-January, spiking to 60-70% in the past few days. This happens to coincide with the public assessments of several military analysts: Michael Kofman and Rob Lee were notably early on the ball, as were some of this blog’s commenters, e.g. Annatar. The chorus of skeptics is diverse, but includes Western journalists and Russian liberals who tend to believe Putin’s Russia is too much of a cynical kleptocracy to dare go against the West so brazenly (e.g. Oliver Carroll, Leonid Volkov); Western Russophiles who are all too aware of and disillusioned with hysterical media fabrications about Russia, and are applying faulty pattern matching (e.g. Michael Tracey); and Ukrainian activists who have spent the last eight years hyperventilating about “Russian aggression” and have been reduced to shock and disbelief now that the real thing is staring in their face.
For the record, my own position is that the war scenario was ~50% probable since early January, might be as high as 85% now, and it will likely happen soon (detailed Predictions at the end).
My reasons for these bold calls can be sorted into four major bins:
Troops Tell the Story: What we have observed over the past few months are all completely consistent with invasion planning.
Game Theory: Russia’s impossible ultimatums to NATO have pre-committed it to military operations in Ukraine.
Window of Opportunity: The economic, political, and world strategic conjuncture for permanently solving the Ukraine Question has never been as favorable since at least 2014, and may never materialize again.
The Nationalist Turn: “Gathering the Russian Lands’ is consistent with opinions and values that Putin has voiced since at least the late 2000s, with the philosophers, writers, and statesmen whom he has cited most often and enthusiastically (e.g. Ilyin, Solzhenitsyn, Denikin), and more broadly, with the “Nationalist Turn” that I have identified the Russian state as having taken from the late 2010s.
I will discuss each of these separately.
“News reports from within Belarus have shown local officials flanked by Belarusian women in traditional dress, greeting Russian military commanders with loaves of bread and salt, a traditional welcome.” Eternal truism, people love winners, Russia decided to be a winner.
Troops Tell the Story
On the domestic front, the Russian government is reported to have held discussions with large corporations on their vulnerability to sanctions. Last year, the political field had been cleared up of any meaningful “anti-systemic” opposition, with Navalny imprisoned, and his organizations declared “extremist.” Putin has evidently taken heed of historical lessons to heart - sealed train in 1917, sealed airplane in 2021 - and concluded that Russia has no need to tolerate FBK “soviets” in the event of a national emergency. One of the main counter-arguments is that Russia has invested scant resources into war propaganda. The obvious rejoinder is that any casus belli - be it a false flag, or kindly provisioned by the Ukrainians themselves - will only appear towards the tail end of prewar preparations, and that a propaganda campaign preceding it would only serve to discredit it.
But it is troop movements that tell the story most clearly. Over the past couple of months, amateur footage has chronicled a stream of military hardware from all across Russia trundling towards military bases close to Ukraine, augmenting stockpiles already in place from the last war scare in spring 2021. Over the past two weeks, troops were reunited with their equipment and moved to staging areas near the Ukrainian border. This, along with attack helicopters being moved in, are often considered to be the final preparatory stages for large-scale military operations.
As of today, Russia has concentrated ~70% of its land and missile forces (105 out of 169 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs), with 14 more on the way even as the “exercises” wind down) and ~50% of its airpower in a ring of steel around Ukraine. In so doing, it has stripped its military presence in the Far Eastern MD to a level unseen even in the desperate last months of 1941. This includes support units such as mobile hospitals, military police, logistics personnel, and the National Guard. Garrisoning them in makeshift accommodations entails big costs and they can only stay there so long, separated from their training facilities, before morale and combat effectiveness begin to dissipate. Coupled with considerations about the onset of the mud season (rasputitsa), springtime foliage greening (easier camouflage for defending forces), and increasing inflows of Western weaponry, this creates huge, purely military incentives for getting it over with sooner rather than later.
Even as the military buildup proceeded apace, Russia forwarded demands to NATO to disavow further expansion (including Ukraine), and to withdraw foreign military forces from the ex-Warsaw Pact states. Regardless of one’s stance on NATO expansion, this is an objectively and patently impossible ultimatum, and the Kremlin clearly designed it to be so (even leaving aside the minor matter of their intended recipient being a country it has labeled as “agreement-incapable”). Nor was there any salutary effect on Kiev. Although its UK ambassador mooted the possibility of Ukraine dropping its NATO bid, he reversed himself the very next day. Which is just as well so far as Russia is concerned, because such a commitment would have been incredible in any case.
However, by mere dint of having advanced these audacious demands - and gotten not only curtly rejected, but pressed with counter-demands to withdraw from Crimea and the Donbass - Russia has effectively committed itself to military operations in Ukraine. Should it fail to follow up, it will be recognized as an unironic troll country, one that scores cheap “owns” against Western “war propaganda” but can be expected to do nothing but puff out its cheeks if/when its bluff is called. Western politicians will have cause to believe that any future Russian buildups will also be bluffs, and that increasing weapons supplies to Ukraine works. Atlantic Council activists who insist that Russians “only understand the language of strength” will be validated, with subsequent responses likely to include acceleration of NATO integration and more “preventative sanctions.”
Window of Opportunity
Although Russia still has a window of opportunity to reintegrate Ukraine, it is steadily closing over the years, as Ukraine phases out Russian language instruction in its schools and rebuilds its identity as an “Anti-Russia”. This year might well be Russia’s last good opportunity to do so after it missed 2014, when it opted for the dubious strategy (if only in retrospect) of “shoving back the Donbass” into Ukraine and using it as a hook to promote federalization and a pro-Russian course.
Perhaps the single most important change since 2014 is that “Chimerica”, the Chinese-American economic relationship, once the central pillar of the world economy, is now in rapid disintegration, in line with growing Chinese power and assertiveness even as the West’s share of global GDP continues its unremitting decline. Consequently, in stark contrast to its studious neutrality back in 2014, China is now outspoken in its support for Russia’s security demands of NATO. For its part, Russia has unambiguously affirmed Taiwan as part of China and criticized the AUKUS alliance against China. (Of course, Ukraine itself did itself no favors when it blocked the sale of jet engine company Motor Sich to China under American pressure). Either way, Russia can be reasonably sure that China - the world’s second superpower, and far more technologically advanced and autonomous than eight years earlier - will have its back in the event of serious Western sanctions.
More broadly, the economic environment has perhaps never been more favorable for Russian irredentism. Russia has spent the past eight years insulating its economy from sanctions through import substitution and pursuing tight fiscal and monetary policies, which allowed it to build up a formidable war chest of $600 billion in foreign currency reserves. In any case, most of the sanctions that could be imposed on Russia cheaply have either already been implemented, or are simply absurd (Russian vatniks will be very sad if Navalny-supporting hipsters were to lose access to the latest iPhone models… maybe not), or are downright impractical, like cutting off its oil exports or cutting it off from the Internet (a popular Reddit fantasy). Even SWIFT is ultimately just a financial messaging system and its removal will just be an inconvenience. Ultimately, Russia has a 2x bigger population, much bigger GDP, and far more developed technological base than Iran, and as Iran mostly gets by, it’s unclear why Russia should be expected to do worse.
Furthermore, it’s not like Russia has no capacity to retaliate. European “green energy” boondoggles have resulted in spiking gas prices this winter, so their capacity to sanction Russia are limited (though, tellingly, Russia has parked LNG vessels in the Baltic Sea in the event that Kaliningrad is cut off). Now that the coronavirus era is ending, so too is the easy money that accompanied it, now that inflation is rearing its ugly head across the developed world. In tandem with record high stock capitalization/GDP ratios, the world seems primed for a sharp deleveraging event that will negatively impact living standards most everywhere. Would be nice for Putin to be able to ascribe that to Western sanctions (much like the post-Crimea sanctions diverted attention away from a recession made inevitable by the end of the 2000-2014 commodities supercycle).
From a military perspective, Russia still enjoys absolute superiority over Ukraine. Although the Ukrainians have made considerable progress, it has been primarily aimed at building up the capability to rapidly conquer the LDNR in their equivalent of “Operation Storm”. It is not built to refight the Third Battle of Kharkov. The Russian military is not a militia which will considerately engage the Ukrainians in infantry vs. infantry battles, as in the Donbass. Nor will it even be a war of tanks, infantry, and artillery as in World War II. This war will be defined by precision-guided Russian rocket and tube artillery, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and fighter jets pummeling any enemy concentrations that offer up resistance, breaking them and subsequently sweeping them up, in an environment in which Russia enjoys total air and electronic warfare (EW) supremacy. Any military force that is not either strongly ideological (e.g. the various Neo-Nazi battalions) or held together by draconian discipline (spoiler: Ukraine is not a totalitarian state with shtrafbaty and zagradotryady) will disintegrate within hours, if not minutes. Expect drone fanboi seethe as Ukraine’s Bayraktar fleet gets swept up by an actual Air Force in the space of an afternoon.
Now yes, conquering Ukraine would have been much easier back in 2014, when the Ukrainian Army had virtually ceased to exist as a coherent force for a few months. Conversely, it is much easier now than it likely will be in another eight years, in 2030. Due to nationalist pressure in domestic politics, any hypothetical Ukrainian regime will remain committed to recovering the Donbass, and the growth of its military potential will force Russia to commit more and more of its own military power to safeguard the Donbass over the next decade or two. This is not a pleasant situation in a world in which Russia’s own relative military capabilities are likely to decline vis-a-vis the two leading superpowers.
Finally, despite assiduous Ukrainization efforts, it must be noted that its results are as yet ambiguous. Even after a generation of “independence” and seven years of concentrated efforts to remake Ukraine into a schizo “anti-Russia” in which it proclaims itself to be the “real” Russia (the Ukraina-Rus’ concept) in contrast to the fake Russia that emerged out of the Finno-Muscovite swamp, a solid majority of Ukrainians use the Russian language in their daily life and 41% of Ukrainians agree with Putin’s claim that they and Russians are “one people.” In a recent poll, 33% of Ukrainians claimed they would put up armed resistance if Russia invades; remarkably, this would mean basically no change relative to a similar poll carried out in April 2014, which found it to be 21% in the more pro-Russian South-East (back when the LDNR didn’t yet exist!).
“Kyiv right now.” - Sean Walker. Have to give them credit, Ukrainians are second to none when it comes to larping, not everyday you encounter a literal homoBanderets.
But talk is cheap. Online bravado aside, it’s already clear that Ukrainians are smart enough to recognize that their prospects in a war with the “country-aggressor” are quite hopeless. Their oligarchs are fleeing in private planes. If the Ukrainians were serious about preparing for a Russian invasion, they would be dispersing their air defense assets, and moving their units to more defensible positions. None of this is happening. What is happening is larp photo op after larp photo op, featuring sturdy grannies being trained by Nazis, middle-aged women with rifles that cost several months’ worth of paychecks, pretty girls in makeup brandishing guns (airsoft guns, in Belarus, last year - to be specific), tacticool squares who are wearing masks outside which basically nobody in Eastern Europe does (will Russian soldiers social distance?), young kids with wooden toy guns… they even found a POC boy to showcase disassembling a gun for the intersectional part of their intended demographic i.e. Americans.
Now might be an apt time to mention that there are jokers who believe Ukrainians are going to fight an insurgency against Russia. That’s right. They believe that Ukrainian hipsters in rainbow masks who use their cell phones every hour (i.e. will be monitored by SORM 24/7), in a country with a Total Fertility Rate of 1.3 children per woman, with de facto open borders with Poland, are going to fight an “urban war” against many of their own Russophile countrymen and siloviks. It’s too ridiculous to comment.
Gathering the Russian Lands
But what is the point it all? Is Putin going senile? Isn’t he worrying that his oligarchs will have their yachts and football clubs confiscated? (Spoiler: That’s feature, not bug).
As it happens, Putin laid it all out in detail in his seminal July 2021 article, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”
Here is my summary of it from The Nationalist Turn:
The capstone to the Nationalist Turn was laid by Putin in his seminal July 2021 article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians“, in which affirmed that the Ukrainians are a colorful and distinct, but nonetheless inseparable, part of the All-Russian nation, drew a straight line between Ukraine as a de facto colony of Germany following Russia’s exit from World War I and its relation to the West today, repeated his long-standing view that the Bolsheviks laid a time bomb by including the right of secession in the 1924 USSR Constitution, and noted the coercive nature of “Ukrainization” as an ideological project aimed against “so-called” Great Russian chauvinism, thus securing at the state level “three separate Slavic Peoples” – the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians – as opposed to the “large Russian nation, a triune people comprising Great Russians, Malorossiyans, and Belorussians.”
The article ends on an affirmation that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, inextricably bound to each other, and that opinion polls suggest that this is a point on which many millions of Ukrainians agree. He furthermore notes that the Ukrainians themselves do not benefit from allowing foreigners to make an “anti-Russia” out of the Ukraine, citing the economic failures of its post-Maidan years, and never have benefited from such experiments historically. He ends the article on a warning that Ukraine’s “path of forced assimilation” towards Russians within Ukraine is “comparable in its consequences to the use of WMDs against us.”
Incidentally, I strongly recommend you read Putin’s article in its entirety. It is as clear and unequivocal a manifesto of the “White Guardist” worldview that Putin seems to have developed over the past decade as anything else I ever saw, and as such, possibly the single most important article to understanding Putinism as it has developed into ethno-aware nationalism by the 2020s (having been previously defined by unideological technocracy and conservative retrenchment in the 2000s and 2010s, respectively).
Furthermore, note that Putin’s article was made required reading for Russian soldiers as part of political-military preparation. Wait, what was that about WMDs?
There may be an argument: if you are talking about a single large nation, a triune nation, then what difference does it make who people consider themselves to be – Russians, Ukrainians, or Belarusians. I completely agree with this. Especially since the determination of nationality, particularly in mixed families, is the right of every individual, free to make his or her own choice.
But the fact is that the situation in Ukraine today is completely different because it involves a forced change of identity. And the most despicable thing is that the Russians in Ukraine are being forced not only to deny their roots, generations of their ancestors but also to believe that Russia is their enemy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the path of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us. As a result of such a harsh and artificial division of Russians and Ukrainians, the Russian people in all may decrease by hundreds of thousands or even millions.
So the answer to your uncomprehending questions is simple and literally right there in the text. “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the path of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.” The pieces really are sliding into place. Laugh if you want, but at least these WMDs are more real than the Iraqi ones that G.W. Bush used as a pretext to attack Iraq, at any rate. Any responsible Commander-in-Chief would be dutybound to spare no effort to confront such an existential threat to his nation.
The other observation one can draw just from this brief extract is that Putin seems to really grok that population is power. His comments about the loss of Russian identities in their millions may be linked to his other comments on how Russia lost hundreds of millions of potential Russians due to the cascade of demographic catastrophes that befell the Bolshevik-ruled territories of the former Russian Empire from 1917 to 1947. In the Putinist reading, the “Anti-Russia” project pursued by the zombie post-UkSSR, a polity created in its current form by Lenin, can be viewed as a continuation of Ukrainization as an “ideological project aimed against “so-called” Great Russian chauvinism.”
This brings us to something more in the realm of speculation as opposed to something that Putin definitely thinks. But here goes. The value of Ukraine is not in its territory, nor less its sovok rustbelt industries, nor even less its position on the invasion route to Moscow (spoiler: We live in the ICBM age). Ukraine’s value is, forgive the triteness, in its people, or its human capital - namely, 35 million 95+ IQ people who are very close to and compatible with Russians, who are indeed an intrinsic part of the All Russian nation. Now if Russia was prepared to expend a rather high cost in welfare funds and knock on effects on integrating 1.5 million genuinely quite “alien” Chechens, then paying a drastically more modest price (per capita) for 35 million of its own kith and kin is eminently rational. Although Russia’s 145 million people can still generate sufficient economies of scale to maintain political sovereignty and to run a largely self-contained technological civilization, complete with its own IT ecosystem (read: sovereign memetic space, “socially distanced” from the Woke nihilism of the West), space program, and technological visions. But creating and then sustaining such a world-civilization will certainly be considerably easier in a restored “Russian World” that unites Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians under one banner in a Slavic superpower of 200 million people stretching from Brest to Vladivostok
Shock and Disbelief
It is pretty amusing to observe Western commenters who have been ranting and railing for years about dezinformatsiya and maskirovka suddenly go into denier mode. I mean, I don’t exclude that this is a bluff 100%, and would have to eat a big L if it is. But the L the Kremlin would have to eat would be incomparably bigger, imagine torpedoing your international credibility and your markets just to “humiliate” and “destroy” “Western war propaganda”. But I think the likelier explanation is that many observers, possibly including Zelensky’s entourage, are in “shock and disbelief.” As one acquaintance put it, “seeing how people are still dismissing this as a bluff makes one understand Stalin in June 1941 more.” Saddam in 2003 would be a similar story.
At a deeper, world-historical level, one might even view the Ukraine Question as a Chekhov’s gun, just waiting to be fired off, even willed to, in the collective unconscious. In Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1996), a Russian general is quoted as saying that “Eastern Ukraine will come back in five, ten or fifteen years.” In the Deus Ex universe, “Ukraine's anti-separatist dissension” is “quelled once and for all” by mercenaries operating from Belgorod in 2016. They may have both… jumped the gun on timelines, but Putin finally has his finger on the trigger. The world will be very different in a month’s time.
Russia’s goals seem to be maximalist. It is possible we see the occupation of most or all of Ukraine, and the subsequent annexation of probably most or all of historical Novorossiya, forming a corridor to Transnistria; possibly Kiev and the central regions up to the Soviet borders before World War II; but perhaps not Volhynia, and probably not Galicia. It will almost certainly not involve limiting the intervention to the Donbass, because a frontal and inevitably bloody assault on the main concentration of Ukrainian military power makes no sense; instead, it will likely consist of a multi-pronged assault from Belarus to Kiev, from Belgorod to Kharkov, from Crimea to Mariupol and Dnepropetrovsk, and perhaps an amphibious assault on Odessa.
The duration of the conflict will depend on the extent to which Ukrainian soldiers are prepared to fight. In conventional models, it will take several weeks, with a few thousand Russian casualties and several 10,000’s of Ukrainian casualties. However, given those very disparities - inevitable given Russia’s vast preponderance in materiel, mobility, and technology - I suspect there’s a very good chance that the collapse might happen much quicker. By moving its Embassy to Lvov, the US has already implicitly acknowledged that Russia will win, so the correct game theory move for Ukrainian soldiers is to follow their own oligarchs into defection and accept the 2-3x salary increase from joining the Russian Army. In this scenario, which is both my hope and intuition, Russian and Ukrainian military casualties will be limited to the hundreds and thousands, respectively.