Thursday, January 29, 2015


Ukraine can defeat Russia as long as you don't stay so narrowly focused on Ukraine needing to win a large tank battle with Putin's legions and then march on Moscow to impose peace terms.

While a discussion of Russian objectives in Ukraine is welcome, I don't get this question:

Is it only a question of time before Russia will annex parts of Ukraine?

Excuse me for mentioning the obvious, but it a question of time since Russia annexed parts of Ukraine. Does anybody remember Crimea?

You know, the peninsula part of Ukraine that Russia stole from Ukraine almost a year ago? Ring a bell?

And while I'm in a "huh?" mood, what is this guy talking about?

Sorry, Ukraine, You Can't Beat Putin

That's the title.

No doubt, Ukraine has a bad hand. In part they dealt it to themselves while pro-Russian elements could hollow out the military.

But Russia doesn't have freedom to do anything it wants to. Russia's military power is still limited between the spectrum edges of special forces and nuclear war. Ukraine actually has the option--if they are willing to pay a steep price--to escalate the fight above the ability of Russia's military to cope with the war.

Russia can take and hold Crimea and Donbas. Russia cannot take and hold a resisting Ukraine. And somewhere in between is the dividing line between what Russia could do and what they can't do.

And then we get to the question of what Russia is willing to pay to do?

And not just the monetary cost and price in blood. Either or both might be too much for Russia to pay.

But Russia also has to worry about paying the price of winning by tarnishing the reputation of Russia's military.

I believe Russia's military is too small for a big and lengthy conflict. They got a good reputation from their near-bloodless conquest of Crimea. But a bigger fight risks that reputation because Putin will have to rely on troops much less professional than those Spetsnaz forces that carried out that mission.

Russia has some decent regular troops--and they've used them in Donbas in the Ukrainian east.

But Russia doesn't have that many decent troops unless they want to completely leave the defense of the rest of Russia to poor quality troops.

Nor would that small cadre of decent troops be enough to win in a large theater if the fight goes on and Russia needs to rotate troops. Russia will have to use even the second- and third-rate troops in Ukraine.

That will increase Russian casualties--which is being noticed by Russians even in the limited conflict in Donbas--and increase the rate of atrocities committed by Russian troops against Ukrainian forces and civilians. The latter will make it difficult for Westerners to justify going back to business as usual with the Russians.

The price Russia would pay for a lingering war that gets uglier over time will include countries in the "near abroad" that Russia would also like to control one day.

Belorus, which had long seemed to me to be the logical first target of Anschluss,  has shown signs of worrying about Russian intentions. And the fight in Ukraine is raising more questions:

Belarus has adopted legislation under which the appearance of armed foreign forces on the country's soil will be considered an act of aggression regardless of whether they are regular troops.

The amendments to the law on the state of war appear to be President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's latest warning to Russia not to have designs on Belarus.

Lukashenka may be a thug ruler running the last communist state in Europe, but that doesn't mean he is eager to be a provincial ruler taking orders from Putin.

Central Asian nations that escaped the Soviet Union could also take the opportunity to turn to China, taking advantage of China's New Silk Road project that seeks inroads in Central Asia as a trade route to Europe and the Middle East.

Heck, in extreme scenarios, could parts of Russia in the Far East decide they are tired of Putin's Viking funeral ride and try to pull away from Moscow, hoping for support from China to weaken central government control?

The idea that Ukraine can't defeat Russia is nonsense. It is simply not true that the larger country always defeats the smaller country.

You can argue that a larger country will defeat a smaller country if the larger country is willing to pay the price, but that's the real question isn't it? What is Russia willing to pay to win?

Ukraine can defeat Russia if Ukraine can increase the cost of Russia's victory beyond the level that Russia is willing to pay.

And I say "Russia" and not "Putin." It is surely possible that Putin's willingness to suffer to the last Russian conscript mother's anguish and the last imported ham will not be matched by others with power in Russia whose pain threshold is much lower.

The real question is what is Ukraine willing to pay to make Russia give up and go home?