Cold and Cloudy with a Chance of War

A Russian army service member on a BTR-82 armored personnel carrier during drills at the Kuzminsky Range in southern Rostov Region, Russia, January 26, 2022.
(Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters)

On the menu today: Big week ahead! Today is Valentine’s Day, but the real action comes Wednesday, when the Producer Price Index Numbers give us another look at inflation; the Senate Banking Committee votes on another term of Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell Tuesday; and . . . oh yeah, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is reportedly scheduled for Wednesday, according to leaks of U.S. intelligence in the New York Times. Then again, who knows, maybe Russia knows our signals-intercept operations are listening in and they’re messing with us.

The U.S. Seems Convinced a Russian Invasion Is Imminent

Perhaps by the time you read this, some sort of Russian military incursion into Ukraine will have started. But all weekend, the region battened down the hatches, like the townsfolk in a Western closing up shop and hiding before the big gunfight:

Rob Lee observes that night illumination — that is, moonlight — peaks on February 16 and gradually decreases through March 1. If the Russians want to conduct night operations with minimal visibility, they may want to wait until the darkest night.

As this newsletter laid out on January 24, once the cyberattacks begin and the bombs start dropping, the safety of any given location in the Ukrainian capital will be dependent upon the precision of Russian weapons. This paper by Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is a good, detailed study of what to expect:

Once there is a casus belli, cyberattacks will likely follow to degrade Ukraine’s military command and control systems and public communications and electrical grids. Next, kinetic operations will likely begin with air and missile strikes against Ukraine’s air force and air defense systems. Once air superiority is established, Russian ground forces would move forward, slightly preceded by special operations to degrade further command and control capabilities and delay the mobilization of reserves by conducting bombings, assassinations, and sabotage operations.

Other details in that report worth noting: “Figure 2 highlights possible invasion routes. All of these routes, except the coastal one, parallel existing rail lines. This is essential since Russian army logistics forces are not designed for large-scale ground offensives far from railroads.” I read that and wonder if retreating Ukrainian forces would blow up their own rail lines and transportation hubs to slow the Russian advance.

There may not be a particularly good “fighting season” for a while: “Should fighting continue into March, mechanized forces would have to deal with the infamous Rasputitsa, or thaw. In October, Rasputitsa turns firm ground into mud. In March, the frozen steppes thaw, and the land again becomes at best a bog, and at worst a sea of mud. Winter weather is also less than optimal for reliable close air support operations.”

On paper, Russia has a lot more forces and they would be able to wear down the Ukrainians. But this paper raises the question of whether time would be on the Ukrainians’ side:

The longer the Ukrainian army resists the Russians, the greater its confidence may grow as well as its institutional knowledge of how to fight this enemy. In addition, the longer the war continues, the greater may be the level of international support and the greater the chance of increased arms transfers to help turn the tide on the battlefield.

For Russia, the longer the war continues and the greater the casualties, the greater the chance of undermining Russian morale from the level of the basic soldier to Russian society writ large. Approximately one-third of Russian ground forces consist of one-year conscripts. . . . The question for the Kremlin will be: the longer the war grinds on and society reacts to casualties and economic duress, how much are their initial objectives worth to them?

And while the size of Russia’s forces is considerable — the U.S. estimates them to be more than 130,000, while an Ukrainian estimate puts them at 147,000 — the independent Ukrainian Center for Defense Strategies contends that, “The accumulated forces on the border are insufficient for a large-scale operation aimed at capturing all or a significant part of Ukraine,” and that achieving that mission would require hundreds of thousands of troops.

As my dad quotes Admiral Thomas Moorer, “Are they bending their knees?” If Russia hasn’t even put its reserve units on standby, is that a sign that whatever offensive is planned is small-scale? Say, a “minor incursion”?

One other reason to wonder how convinced the White House is that Russia really will invade on Wednesday — here’s President Biden’s schedule for Thursday: “The President will travel to Cleveland and Lorain, Ohio, and deliver remarks on how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law delivers for the American people by rebuilding roads and bridges, upgrading water systems, cleaning up the environment, and creating good-paying, union jobs.”

What ‘Rules-Based International Order’ Is That Again?

I keep coming back to the conclusion that Joe Biden wants to preserve the world order — or, as he and his team insist upon calling it, the “rules-based international order” — on the cheap, and keeps getting surprised at how expensive and difficult it is to achieve what his administration wants.

The U.S. enjoyed enormous leverage in geopolitics at the end of the Cold War. For the past generation, that leverage has steadily eroded, and some would argue that it has now largely been squandered. Russia is more powerful than it was in the 1990s, as are China and Iran. When it comes to deterring aggression, international institutions such as the United Nations are a joke. The U.N. can’t even take any meaningful action on recent cases of ethnic cleansing such as the Uyghurs in China, the Tigrayans in Ethopia, and the Rohinga in Myanmar. When it comes to crises, by the time the U.N. builds a consensus, everybody is either dead or driven from their homes across a border.

From the International Olympic Committee to the World Health Organization, international institutions are proving to be even worse than useless at standing up to powerful autocratic regimes such as China and Russia. All too often, they end up enabling those powerful autocratic regimes, terrified of upsetting the apple cart or calling out blatant dishonestly.

What’s more, Biden is the fourth straight American president who took office convinced that he could get Putin to see reason and talk the Russian autocrat into acting in a manner less hostile to American interests. From the beginning, Biden, Blinken, and the rest perceived Putin as being much more interested in “strategic stability” than he was. Or more specifically, they failed to grasp that Putin’s idea of “strategic stability” is a sphere of influence with a ring of client states or satellite states between Russia and NATO members.

Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s 520-page updated 2015 biography of Putin, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, summarized, “In Vladimir Putin and his team’s conception of the new twenty-first century warfare, there are no real declarations of war, and thus no real peace settlements — only partial ceasefires.”

Add it all up, and it is a formula for a more dangerous world. Problems don’t stay within national borders; international institutions are less influential than we think; and Putin, Xi Jinping, the Iranian mullahs, and even Kim Jong-un feel emboldened. And how did Biden respond, besides declaring that “America is back” and managing the disastrous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan?

Biden’s initial defense-budget request last year was a 1.6 percent increase, functionally “flat.” Lawmakers in both parties deemed it too small and passed a 5 percent increase. Congress is still waiting for the Biden administration’s defense-budget proposal for this year, and it may not arrive until mid April. (Remember all that talk that the “grown-ups” were “back in charge”?)

If you want a safer and more stable world, you must pay for it — by demonstrating the ability to project overwhelming force wherever you need it, whenever you need it, at a speed and volume that hostile rogue states cannot match.

Apparently, the Biden approach is to invert Teddy Roosevelt’s famous statement: Speak loudly, put down the big stick, pick up a smaller stick, and hope for the best.

ADDENDUM: A detail from last week: “French President Emmanuel Macron refused a Kremlin request that he take a Russian COVID-19 test when he arrived to see President Vladimir Putin this week, to prevent Russia getting hold of Macron’s DNA, two sources in Macron’s entourage told Reuters.”

If you read Hunting Four Horsemen, you have some ideas of what the Russian government and its security agencies could do if they had access to the genetic code of Macron or any other world leader.

But don’t take my word for it. Way back in 2012, Andrew Hessel, Marc Goodman, and Steven Kotler, wrote in The Atlantic that: “The U.S. government is surreptitiously collecting the DNA of world leaders, and is reportedly protecting that of Barack Obama. Decoded, these genetic blueprints could provide compromising information. In the not-too-distant future, they may provide something more as well — the basis for the creation of personalized bioweapons that could take down a president and leave no trace.”