The Russian Bear at the Crossroads
The people in Putin’s clique are at a crossroads: cut a deal for a durable peace or cut a deal with the Devil. We live in dangerous times.
A friend of mine was bombing down a Colorado backroad on his mountain bike. Far ahead, straight down the dusty road, he could see a “funny-looking dog” running along the road in his direction. Both he and the dog converged on the crossroads.
It was at the crossroads that my friend realized that the funny-looking dog was a bear—a big, running bear. The bear realized that it had encountered one of those goddamn mountain bikers. They each took a right. My friend took his right. The bear took its respective right. They end up parting ways, and it was all so seamless as if each had nonchalantly intended to go right all along. “I meant to do that,” the bear seemed to say. “I am not afraid of a biker …” “And I am not of a bear,” the biker joked to himself.
This vignette keeps coming to mind as I come across pieces that argue that the Russians meant to do that. The Russians always intended to withdraw from the north, east and west of Kiev, because their purpose had been served. That’s a narrative floating around out there. The Russian troops there had effectively frozen the bulk of the Ukrainian armed forces in place while other Russian forces invested southeastern Ukraine along the Black Sea. True, it was, that the Ukrainians did not crumble in the opening days in the face of the initial shock-and-awe campaign, but it was worth at least one effort to make them stand down. Bets were made. Rounds of vodka shared. The Russians then flew tight formations of bombers and fighters over Kiev as if to say, “We fly at will over your capital. Resistance is futile. Give up now and spare yourselves some very bad consequences.” The Ukrainians did not stand down, so the Russians merely shifted their campaign to an advanced stage. Russian forces are regrouping in the southeast. The Ukrainians may not have rolled over in the opening days, but, not to worry. The Russian Bear will simply have to resort to doing things the Old School way by slowly squeezing the vitality out of the remaining Ukrainian forces. This contingency was not unforeseen and was even understood to be likely.
An alternative narrative, of course, is that the Russians really were hoping that they could bluff their way into Kiev. Indeed, was it all just a bluff? Or, if not a bluff, did the Russians over-estimate their own capabilities? Bluff or not, all parties—the Russians, the Ukrainians, the Americans, the Europeans—have come to believe that the Ukrainians can expel the Russians. They just need adequate supplies and support. They can do the rest. Expelling the Russians will amount to such an ignominious defeat that Putin’s clique could not expect to survive. But then what?
An interesting aspect of these competing narratives, is that the narrators work out of the same data. They both observe the same redeployment of Russian forces but press competing conclusions. A piece in El Pais titled “The Ukraine war in maps” lays out the Russia-is-handily-winning narrative, albeit in less strident terms than those of other observers. (https://english.elpais.com/international/2022-05-13/the-ukraine-war-in-maps-ukrainian-forces-battle-to-recover-snake-island.html) Meanwhile, one can find highly-produced video on YouTube that makes the case that Russia is being handily beaten back by tracking the same redeployments on the same maps.
I’d like to refer the reader to a presentation George Friedman gave in late April to a small group in Santa Fe. The video of the presentation has been posted on various sites. The video I first viewed had itself been viewed over a quarter-of-a-million times. This one, not so much, but my larger point is this: George is a serious fellow and makes a big effort to pose serious arguments. One can agree or disagree with him, but he has interesting perspective.
In the presentation, George makes plain something that seems obvious once someone says it: It may be hard for anyone to discern what is really going on, but it seems that no party has really understood what has been going on. The Americans really did expect Ukraine to give up after about three days. The Russians really did think they’d prevail after about five days. Everyone is surprised—perhaps the Ukrainians most of all. By the middle of April, the Americans came to believe that the Ukrainians really could expel the Russians. One can only wonder if the Russians do not understand that themselves. They have demonstrated so much incompetence. They have demonstrated that, in the thick of combat, the Russian military really is a giant with feet of clay. Back in February, even I had posed the idea that “the Russians may have opened a can of worms, … and may be forced to eat them.”
What we are not hearing—and this is the point of this short note as well as my February essay—is how anyone expects the war in Ukraine to wrap up. A peaceful settlement would allow the Russians to at least pretend to save face. At this stage, what could such a settlement look like?
The United States would seem to be in a position to force the parties to cut a deal. George Friedman has even observed that an American official and a Russian official just happened to be passing through the airport in Baku (Azerbaijan) at the same time. Are parties talking, and is there some effort of the United States to mediate talks? Are we now in a coin-flipping stage by which hostilities could wrap up on any given day?
But, will the United States allow talks to proceed? And what are we to make of statements from the American Secretary of Defense that the object of the war has become harming Russia to the point that it would not endeavor to do such a thing again. But, what does that mean? The Putin clique may not survive this mess, but Russia will remain. The United State and Europe will still have to maintain relationships with Russia. How do the best-and-brightest in the diplomatic corps understand that the relationship will evolve going forward? Or, does the leadership in the West really perceive things in chiliastic terms: After Putin is gone, all will be well … or, at least, we will sort issues out when we get there. Right now, we just press for war.
Glenn Greenwald posted a piece today, “The Bizarre, Unanimous Dem Support for the $40b War Package to Raytheon and CIA: ‘For Ukraine’.” He is just as puzzled about the rush to war as any one of us might be. More puzzling, he notes, is the fact that all the talk by the usually anti-American, “anti-war Left” has turned to fervor for war. The people in Putin’s clique, meanwhile, really are at a crossroads: cut a deal or escalate? We live in dangerous times.
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