Where We Are Now

Helmuth von Moltke is right again. His quote that “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy” holds true. Russia underestimated Ukrainian resistance. It also hasn’t displayed much logistic finesse. But the West also made some bad assumptions. First, it overestimated the Russian military. A month ago we all engaged in speculation whether Russia would form a land bridge to Crimea, or perhaps take Ukraine right up to the Dnieper, and any of that seemed more or less plausible.

Something else the West got wrong. It underestimated its own populations. The West prepared sanctions to punish Russia but the various countries’ individual populations, in a synergy with and admiration of Ukraine’s population, got out ahead of Western politicians and showed they wanted steps taken, not just to punish Russia, but to win the war.

Tentative early bets: Russian military leadership is replaced for lack of logistic finesse (traffic jams), failure to motivate troops. Still unclear is whether they’ll be cleaned out by the current or future political leadership. Russian military hardware itself may be non-trivially degraded too. Surely shoulder mounted weaponry must be pouring across Ukraine’s open western border to jam up that extraordinarily long column of Russia hdardware northeast of Kyiv. Leaving that west border so open may thus be seen as a further tactical error by Russian military leadership.

Finally, there is a Vladimir Lenin quote, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” The very idea that Germany ever even considered it would be all right to build a pipeline around Ukraine for itself, with all of seven days of hindsight, looks utterly self-centered and wildly haughty. The realization that that’s so apparent now is one measure of how much the world has changed.

It’s a very dynamic situation after week one with the West far more deeply engaged that they’d thought. Precedents have been set – the EU sending arms, dramatic German engagement, sanctioning of the Russian central bank. This one in particular wasn’t even on the agenda. Central banks are institutions that until now had been thought of as sovereign, like embassies are on foreign soil. 

Tonight it looks like we’re approaching a siege of Kyiv. I think it’s a good time to pull back from the blow by blow for a couple of days and listen to smart people (there are brilliant podcasts out there. One I recommend right now in particular is Ukr World). Meanwhile I’ll continue to curate the Assault on Ukraine Twitter list of Ukrainians, Officials, Ambassadors, OSINT, Think Tanks, Neighboring Countries, Reporters and others. It provides constant updates from actively engaged actors.

It’s here: https://twitter.com/i/lists/1467909429534380034

Live Ukraine War Coverage

I’ve assembled a Twitter list you can follow for constantly updated news from Russia’s war on Ukraine. Click see the latest news, and if you’re on Twitter, please retweet the list.

New 3QD Column about Ukraine and Eastern Europe

Here’s my most recent monthly column at 3QD, as it ran on January 31, 2022. Please read it through and let me know what you think.

On the Road: Crunch Time

Kyiv, Ukraine

Ukraine is surrounded by 100,000-plus miserable, freezing, foot-stamping Russian soldiers who are Chekov’s gun on the table in Act One of our new post-Cold War epic. We’ve moved from “surely he wouldn’t?” to “he’s really going to, isn’t he?” It’s the moment when Wile E. Coyote has run off the cliff but not yet begun to fall. 

Two years ago Covid crowded out every thing but the most immediate, every body but family. Shocked by the viral invader’s audacity, we scrambled around in a new, unfamiliar world. Everything was frightening. We had precious little time to reflect. 

Now comes the malign intent of a real-life invader. Unlike Covid, Ukraine isn’t exactly appearing out of nowhere. Russia has been moving toward military aggression for months. The US president has had time to commit high profile gaffes about any U.S. response. Russian landing craft have moved clear around Europe from the Baltic Sea to threaten Ukraine in the Black Sea. We’ve had ample opportunity to reflect.

So far the west has performed a pretty nifty feat – defying physics. Specifically Newton’s third law, the one about for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Only now, at last, comes a grudging rumble from the big American reaction machine.

If a Quisling-in-waiting sleeps in Russkiy Mir tonight, if Russia installs a Minsk-style puppet in Kyiv, if Russian military hardware further enters and remains in Ukraine, it will be the design of a violent nationalist leader. Threatening sanctions is the response of a technocrat, but at least it’s a response.

Everybody is playing the Vladimir Putin ‘will he or won’t he’ parlor game and opinion is genuinely divided. Those who think this is all elaborate Russian respect-seeking may be right, but I’m skeptical, and here’s why. Watching battle gear arriving from as far away as Khabarovsk (on the Amur River border with China), Ulan Ude (east of Lake Baikal) and Primorski Krai (which is eight time zones from Kyiv and borders North Korea), and then a perfectly timed and well scripted further deployment across Belarus for ‘exercises’ involving 200 trains moving hardware day and night,persuades me that going to all this trouble is more than just saber rattlingIf all this is just standing shaking a fist and shouting stay off of my lawn, what’s at stake could turn out to be one mighty costly lawn.

Russia has been moving hardware for weeks. Those hoping this is all a great feint say what’s lacking, if they really mean t0 do it, is field hospitals. During a pandemic, even an autocrat may find it hard to pull medical personnel from civilian hospitals for a training exercise, they say. But over the weekend it was widely reported that the military buildup now includes “supplies of blood along with other medical materials that would allow it to treat casualties.” That sounds real.

After weighing Talleyrand’s advice to Napolean that “My Lord, you can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them,” the U.S. president, who has plenty of bayonets, having taken his precious time surveying his options, has begun to fulfill the basic Leader of the West job description, maintaining dialogue, mustering allies, bolstering defenses, polishing strategies.

(And oh lordy don’t you know Jens Stoltenberg is the most relieved man in the house. The NATO chief’s number one mission has to be, don’t be the hapless Nordic fellow who lost Europe. And the most relieved woman must be Ursula von der Layen, the face of the thoroughly sidelined E.U., who as German Defense Minister never met a crisis she couldn’t evade.)

Germany’s new coalition has yet to declare quite how much of a Putinversteher it wants to be, but the answer looks like pretty much. Sympathy is due to new Prime Minister Olaf Scholz, whose government is only fifty days old. His SDP party’s greatest hit is ‘Ostpolitik,’ working with Russia, after all.

Signs are not good. Last week von der Layen’s successor, the new German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, declared that Germany “will deliver 5,000 helmets to Ukraine, as a very clear signal, we stand by your side.” As full of élan and camaraderie as it may have looked on the minister’s keyboard, Ms. Lambrecht’s tweet hasn’t exactly been taken as a token of undying solidarity. Yet even that was too much for some German politicians: 

Translated, that’s roughly “Delivering 5,000 safety helmets to Ukraine is a bad sign. Germany must play the role of mediator and must not side with one another in a biased manner. The federal government is wandering around aimlessly in terms of foreign policy – stop this saber-rattling!”

With chalk poised above a blank slate, Scholz’s government has so far squandered the opportunity to set the table for its leadership role in a 2020s Europe. The UK disdainfully shook its metaphorical head and simply flew around Germany to deliver anti-tank weapons to Kyiv rather than be held up by paperwork.

•••••

Memories of the Soviet Union are aging but they’re not gone yet. Americans of a certain age will remember civil defense markings on the AM radios in their cars. In the event of, say, a Cuban missile crisis, children would duck and cover and drivers would tune to the triangle on their car radio for guidance. When my wife and I spend summers in Finland, we still hear the civil defense test sirens, sounded at noon on the first Monday of every month.

Civil preparedness is mostly a memory for many of us. But consider lived experience in the new NATO Baltic states. Because Estonia, Latvia and Lithuana were Soviet republics into the 1990s, much of the population speaks Russian and watches Russian TV.

Latvian journalist Kristaps Andrejsonssays while “clowns such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky—the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and a well-known figure in Russia’s ‘controlled opposition’ who has called for the immediate bombing of Kyiv—might be ignored in the Western media, in the Baltics, he and people like him are watched closely.” In the same way that even Donald Trump finds supporters, Russia finds support in the Baltics, because if you live in the Baltics, the threat of war is already in your house.

Kyiv, Ukraine

Consider lived experience in Ukraine right now. American former soldier and Kyiv resident Nolan Petersonwrites:

“If an attack is imminent, Kyiv’s air raid sirens will alert residents to tune in to emergency service announcements. Cars equipped with loudspeakers will also patrol the streets to announce important information.

“The Kyiv City Council has posted an interactive online map, which shows the locations of the roughly 5,000 official locations where residents can shelter from a military attack.

“(For example) From ground level, a nondescript metal door opens into a staircase that descends multiple stories underground. The shelter has a special air ventilation room (originally intended to protect against radioactive fallout) and is connected to the city’s water main…. Daily deliveries of food and medical supplies would sustain occupants in the event of a drawn-out Russian bombardment or siege.

“Known as dual-use facilities, the remaining 4,500 shelters include basements, underground parking lots and passageways, as well as Kyiv’s 47 metro stations.

“Should Russian forces target Kyiv … city officials will order a mass evacuation. To that end, a citywide evacuation commission has already been established, as well as regional evacuation commissions in each of Kyiv’s administrative districts.

“Each citizen should prepare an “emergency suitcase” ahead of time…. This should be a backpack with a capacity of at least 25 liters, a little more than 6.5 gallons, containing ‘clothing, hygiene items, medicines, tools, personal protective equipment, and food.’ The service also recommends carrying important documents and cash in the backpack.”

•••••

Kyiv, Ukraine

Russia is forcing a conversation the US doesn’t want to have, at least not right now and not on Russia’s terms. If Russia strikes further into Ukraine, one way or another, as with Covid, the world will change. The first day of renewed conflict will be a fateful, life-changing day for entire nations. Its effects will last the rest of many peoples’ lives. When we look back here from two years on, today may look less complicated, even quaint. I invite you to pause and enjoy the good old days.

Should conflict come, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania could, like Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, become frontline border states. Russian malign intent will have to be be assumed.

Russian troops already occupy Moldova’s border with Ukraine in a region called Transnistria. Depending on Russian intent, Moldova may face existential questions, but in any case it will acquire a newly threatening neighbor. Any military move in Transnistria will be meant to intimidate not only Moldova but neighboring NATO member Romania as well.

A fundamental geopolitical realignment is hurtling our way that won’t simmer down for years. By spring, tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees – or more – could be storming the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, and how can those countries, how could they hold them back? Across those borders Russia, or it’s newly installed Ukrainian puppet, will try to stare down four new NATO neighbors. 

Current NATO borders in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Norway will be reinforced, and depending on the depth of the next couple of months’ ill will, Finland’s Russian border may be too. With sudden new face-to-face NATO/Russia exposure, all sides will want substantial, fortified borders. Each country will surely want its own sovereign border backed by its own conventional forces. Here come concrete barriers, anti-vehicle trenches, mesh fencing, electronics, guard towers, barbed wire, electronic and other defenses. Suddenly, it’s a good bet that Schengen’s best days are behind it.

Once we’ve had time enough to consider the longer term, we may find ourselves in a new, raw standoff across conflict-embittered battlefields. Russia v NATO eye-to-eye across borders bristling with weapons and evil intent will be a sight to see. Once again.

Doomsday warnings are cheap for hand-wringing punditry, that’s true. But if some of this stuff does come to pass, world changing ramifications follow. As Sweden’s FM Ann Linde says, “it can still go completely to hell.”

As Covid darkness drew across the world in the early weeks of 2020, I thought, ‘remember this, hold on to this moment, the way things are right now, how good you have it, in case this thing gets out of hand.’ 

The last two years haven’t been years to love. But now I wonder if we might stop to appreciate even early 2022 the same way. Here we may be, in the twilight moments just before the great mid-twenty-twenties European realignment. Remember these fleeting good old days, while our grasping at the remnants of democracy is not quite yet a wry memory.

•••••

[Radio dial image from Auto Universum, used with permission]

Crunch Time

The U.S. embassy in Kyiv ordered American family members to leave the country on Sunday. 

Realization shifted last week from “surely he wouldn’t?” to “he’s really going to, isn’t he?” This is that moment when Wile E. has run off the cliff but not yet begun to fall. 

Two years ago Covid crowded out everything but the most immediate, everybody but family. The viral invader’s audacity shocked us. We scrambled to adjust to new facts, all unfamiliar. We couldn’t turn away from the ugly, daily blow-by-blow. Everything was frightening. Events gave us little time to reflect. 

This week we see the malign intent of a different, non-viral, real-life invader. Except unlike Covid, Ukraine is not exactly appearing out of nowhere. Russia has been moving toward military aggression for months, and today the majority of all Russian Battalion Tactical Groups surround or are nearing Ukraine. There’s been enough time for the US president to commit high profile gaffes about Ukraine. Russian landing craft are halfway around Europe en route from the Baltic to threaten Ukraine in the Black Sea. 

The moment we’re in this week, our current reactive moment, will pass. It won’t even last long. We’ll muster allies, defenses, polish our strategy, ready our readiness. Today the US is floating new troop deployments to Europe. We’ll react, and one way or another, as with Covid, the world will change. When we look back here from two years on, today may look less complicated, even quaint. I invite you to pause and enjoy the good old days.

If Russian military hardware enters and remains in Ukraine then Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania will join Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as frontline, newly hostile border states. Russian troops already occupy Moldova’s border with Ukraine, a region called Transnistria. Depending on Russian intent, Moldova may face existential questions, but in any case it will acquire a newly threatening border. 

A fundamental geopolitical realignment is hurtling our way that will not simmer down for years. By spring, tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees – or more – could be storming the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, and how can they, how could they hold them back? Across those borders Russia, or it’s newly installed Ukrainian puppet, will try to stare down four new NATO neighbors. 

Current NATO borders in Estonia, Latvia and Norway will be reinforced, and depending on the depth of the next couple of months’ ill will, Finland’s border may be too. With sudden new face-to-face NATO/Russia exposure, all sides will want substantial, fortified borders. Each country will surely want its own sovereign border backed by its own conventional forces. Here come concrete barriers, anti-vehicle trenches, mesh fencing, electronics, guard towers, barbed wire, electronic and other defenses. Suddenly, it’s a good bet that Schengen’s best days are behind it.

Once we’ve had time enough to consider the longer term, we may find ourselves in a new, raw standoff across war embittered battlefields. Russia v NATO eye-to-eye across borders bristling with weapons and evil intent will be a sight to see. Once again.

As the Covid darkness drew across the world in the early weeks of 2020, I thought, ‘remember this, remember how things are right now, hold on to this moment, to how good you have it, in case this thing gets out of hand.’ 

Now I wonder if we might not ought to stop and appreciate early 2022 in the same way. Here we are in the twilight moments just before the great mid-twenties European realignment. Remember these fleeting good old days, when our grasping at the remnants of democracy is not quite yet a wry memory.

People Need Maps

Trouble’s brewing around the borders of Ukraine. People who don’t make eastern Europe a daily concern need context, and maps help. It’s beginning to look like we’ll be talking about Ukraine for some time to come, so to help orient yourself, and get briefed up on what may be the coming storm, here are a few maps. First, Ukraine itself:

Ukraine borders Russia to its east, Belarus to its north, and to its west, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. Russian troops occupy the Donbass region in the east and Crimea in the south.

Here, Ukraine and its northern neighbors:

Note Kaliningrad, between Poland and Lithuania. It’s an exclave of Russia, a heavily armed artifact of WWII. The short border between Poland and Lithuania is called the Suwalki Gap, an area of vulnerability for NATO, as a Russian move to close that gap between Kaliningrad and Belarus would cut off the NATO Baltic states.

Belarus is increasingly a satrapy of Russia and as of the week of January 17, Russian troops have been moving into Belarus. The presence of Russian forces in Belarus is ominous not only for the Suwalki Gap, but also because Russian troops are taking positions along the Belarus/Ukraine border, ahead of coming war games with Belarusian troops promised for February 10 – 20.

Here is a map from the Belarusian Ministry of Defense showing the locations of the planned war games. Note in particular that the tank maneuvers anticipated in Belarus’s west (arrow) border the Suwalki Gap:

As you can see in the map below, the border area Russia occupies in Ukraine’s east, the Donbass, is much farther away from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv than is the Belarusian border. Kyiv (this is the spelling in the Ukrainian language. In Russian it’s Kiev) is mostly on the west bank of the Dnieper River, so an incursion from Belarus would allow Russia to avoid having to cross the river, although they’d likely to go around to the west of Chernobyl. Nevertheless, the travel time between Kyiv and Chernobyl is scarcely more than an hour.

Now here is Ukraine’s south and the Black Sea:

Russian landing craft recently set out from the Baltic Sea Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. These are now apparently en route to the Black Sea, having been escorted out of the Baltic Sea on Wednesday, January 19th. Transit time to the Black Sea, estimates are plus or minus eight days.

Besides in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region there are three so-called “frozen conflicts” around the Black Sea where Russia has troops:

Chances are we’ll refer back to these maps in the days to come.

Quotes: Sunday Protests in Minsk

First, I dress carefully, in case I end up spending a night or two in the detention centre. Second, I intensively water dozens of my plants. Third, we leave our cat enough food for a few days. (One of my friends says that her cat has become fat with all these Sunday rallies.) Fourth, we take passports and a bottle of water. It’s important, too, to clear the history of your mobile phone, as these are often checked in the detention centres.

– Quoted in FT.com

Belarus Today

The pace of events quickens as an air of crisis surrounds President Lukashenka, who was roundly booed while speaking in public yesterday, a previously unthinkable moment that recalls the final days of Nikolai Ceaucescu in Romania.

For English speakers, Meduza has opened a live blog this morning. The Moscow Times has a dedicated section, Unrest in Belarus. RFERL has one too, under the banner Crisis in Belarus. And the Baltic Times has a range of articles.

If you can speak Russian, try tut.by Belarusian portal, or if not, Google can roughly translate it for you.

Ain’t Gonna Happen

With their breathless talk of crisis, protests and turning points in Belarus, pro-democracy pundits are making their most common mistake, namely, prematurely declaring victory over authoritarianism because they want it to be so. In the Belarusian protests it’s particularly important to consider the position of Vladimir Putin, for whom a functioning democracy on Russia’s border is utterly impermissible.

Note that after he took in the fleeing Ukrainian Viktor Yanukovich (tour Mezhyhirya, Yanukovich’s former residence outside Kyiv here), as he doubtless would Lukashenka, Putin found it necessary to seize Crimea and disrupt the Donbas, in order to be able to upend the larger Ukrainian political situation as he sees fit, at a moment’s notice, until further notice.

Kudos to the Belarusian people, credit to their bravery, and a paean to the heart’s indomitable spirit. And apologies for my cynicism. I may be wrong, and it would be nice if it turns out that way, but in this case it’s hard to imagine the Russian president permitting free elections, leading to something close to democratic rule, in his fellow Slavic, White Russian buffer state.

Belarus Votes

The campaign toward elections next weekend in Belarus is giving Aleksandr Lukashenko more fits than usual as he “competes” for a sixth term as president. After authorities jailed one of the main opposition candidates, vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, for “committing actions to incite social hatred and the assault of law enforcement officers,” his 37 year old wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was allowed to register as an opposition candidate.

RFERL has a report. If you’re looking for coverage as the election approaches this week, watch RFERL, and a leading Belarussian opposition website, from the group Charter 97, for more on the story. See also the Riga-based site Meduza. The screen grab above comes from Meduza’s coverage of a Tsikhanouskaya campaign rally, which Meduza estimates drew some 63,000 people.

Personally, the Belarussian capital of Minsk gave me the creeps.