Game of Chicken Kiev

The United States and its NATO allies are in a dangerous standoff.

A Financial Times op-ed signed by former CIA director and defense secretary Bob Gates over the weekend declares “Putin has overplayed his hand on Ukraine.”

As to what motivates the Russian strongman:

I believe his actions, however deplorable, are understandable. Almost everything Putin does at home and abroad is rooted in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which for him marked the collapse of the four-century-old Russian empire and Russia’s position as a great power.


He has no desire to recreate the Soviet Union — he does not want to be responsible for the problems of former Soviet republics. What Putin wants is subservience, and for those now-independent states to bend the knee to Moscow — and to be a bulwark against the west and democracy.

Former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski observed that without Ukraine, there can be no Russian empire. Putin fears a Ukraine that is economically and politically orientated towards the west with an ever-closer security relationship with the US and other members of Nato — even if it is not a member of the alliance. He regards that as a critical security risk and, just as bad, an alternative economic and political model likely to be increasingly attractive to Russians — a dagger pointed at the heart of Russia.

Putin seems determined, therefore, to take whatever measures he deems necessary either to destabilise and bring down the current western-orientated government of Ukraine or to try to seize the country by military force.

I think that’s exactly right.

Ditto his assessment of the standoff:

Because of Russia’s stunted economy, demographic challenges and other weaknesses at home, Putin has dealt himself a poor hand — but until now he has played it rather skilfully. He has received a great deal of unintended help from the US. Our domestic divisions and near-paralysis in Congress, our perceived withdrawal from the Middle East and, more broadly, from our six-decade-long global leadership role, and ignominious scuttling out of Afghanistan — together these have led many countries to hedge their bets and develop closer economic, political and security ties with both Russia and China.

Putin’s problem is that, as dictators are wont to do, he has overplayed his hand. His aggressive threats against Ukraine have galvanised Nato and reaffirmed its clarity of purpose. His menacing policies have made Ukrainians even more anti-Russian and driven the country further into the arms of the west. Any Russian military action will result in Ukrainian resistance as well as larger Nato military deployments on Russia’s western border, potential suspension of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and painful economic sanctions.

Moscow has deployed some 100,000 troops to the borders of Ukraine. What now? Putin finds himself in a situation where Russian success is defined as either a change of government in Kyiv (with the successor aligned with Moscow) or conquest of the country. The 18th-century French diplomat Talleyrand is meant to have said: “You can do anything you like with bayonets except sit on them.” Putin must use those troops soon or face the humiliation of withdrawing them without achieving anything except pushing Ukraine closer to the west. In either case, he has placed himself in a difficult position at home and abroad. The US and its allies must do what they can to exacerbate his difficulties.

Alas, what we’re actually doing is a mixed bag.

On the one hand, as WaPo (“U.S. threatens use of novel export control to damage Russia’s strategic industries if Moscow invades Ukraine“) reports, we’re playing our economic instruments like a veritable symphony:

The Biden administration is threatening to use a novel export control to damage strategic Russian industries, from artificial intelligence and quantum computing to civilian aerospace, if Moscow invades Ukraine, administration officials say.

The administration may also decide to apply the control more broadly in a way that would potentially deprive Russian citizens of some smartphones, tablets and video game consoles, said the officials.

Such moves would expand the reach of U.S. sanctions beyond financial targets to the deployment of a weapon used only once before — to nearly cripple the Chinese tech giant Huawei.

The weapon, known as the foreign direct product rule, contributed to Huawei suffering its first-ever annual revenue drop, a stunning collapse of nearly 30 percent last year.

The attraction of using the foreign direct product rule derives from the fact that virtually anything electronic these days includes semiconductors, the tiny components on which all modern technology depends, from smartphones to jets to quantum computers — and that there is hardly a semiconductor on the planet that is not made with U.S. tools or designed with U.S. software. And the administration could try to force companies in other countries to stop exporting these types of goods to Russia through this rule.

“This is a slow strangulation by the U.S. government,” Dan Wang, a Shanghai-based technology analyst with research firm Gavekal Dragonomics, said of Huawei. The rule cut the firm’s supply of needed microchips, which were made outside the United States but with U.S. software or tools.

Now officials in Washington say they are working with European and Asian allies to craft a version of the rule that would aim to stop flows of crucial components to industries for which Russian President Vladimir Putin has high ambitions, such as civil aviation, maritime and high technology.

“The power of these export controls is we can degrade and atrophy the capacity of these sectors to become a key source of growth for the Russian economy,” said a senior Biden administration official, who, like others in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

This hits Putin where it hurts. Not only does it degrade his power but it cripples the oligarchs on whose forbearance he depends to stay in power. Alas, we’re also rattling our sabres in a way that strikes me as playing into Putin’s hands.

Another WaPo report (“NATO sends more ships, fighter jets to Eastern Europe as Russia masses troops on Ukraine border”):

NATO said Monday it would send additional ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe as Britain ordered some diplomats and their families to leave Ukraine, amid growing alarm that Russia may invade as it masses tens of thousands of troops near the border.

The moves came after the United States on Sunday ordered families of diplomats to leave Kyiv and authorized nonessential diplomatic staff to leave. The State Department also cautioned American citizens to consider leaving Ukraine, with U.S. officials warning that an attack could happen “at any time.”

NATO said Monday its members are “putting forces on standby and sending additional ships and fighter jets to NATO deployments in eastern Europe, reinforcing Allied deterrence and defence as Russia continues its military build-up in and around Ukraine.”

NYT (“Biden Weighs Deploying Thousands of Troops to Eastern Europe and Baltics”) adds:

President Biden is considering deploying several thousand U.S. troops, as well as warships and aircraft, to NATO allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, an expansion of American military involvement amid mounting fears of a Russian incursion into Ukraine, according to administration officials.

The move would signal a major pivot for the Biden administration, which up until recently was taking a restrained stance on Ukraine, out of fear of provoking Russia into invading. But as President Vladimir V. Putin has ramped up his threatening actions toward Ukraine, and talks between American and Russian officials have failed to discourage him, the administration is now moving away from its do-not-provoke strategy.

In a meeting on Saturday at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, senior Pentagon officials presented Mr. Biden with several options that would shift American military assets much closer to Mr. Putin’s doorstep, the administration officials said. The options include sending 1,000 to 5,000 troops to Eastern European countries, with the potential to increase that number tenfold if things deteriorate.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about internal deliberations.

Mr. Biden is expected to make a decision as early as this week, they said. He is weighing the buildup as Russia has escalated its menacing posture against Ukraine, including massing more than 100,000 troops and weaponry on the border and stationing Russian forces in Belarus. On Saturday, Britain accused Moscow of developing plans to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine.

“Even as we’re engaged in diplomacy, we are very much focused on building up defense, building up deterrence,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “NATO itself will continue to be reinforced in a significant way if Russia commits renewed acts of aggression. All of that is on the table.”

So far, none of the military options being considered include deploying additional American troops to Ukraine itself, and Mr. Biden has made clear that he is loath to enter another conflict following America’s painful exit from Afghanistan last summer after 20 years.

So here’s the thing. A massive buildup of US and NATO forces around Ukraine certainly reassures allies most concerned with Russian aggression. But it’s also a provocative move that potentially plays into Russian propaganda. Further, as with President Obama’s infamous “red line” on Syrian chemical weapons, this is a bluff that could well get called.

The bottom line is that Ukraine is infinitely more important to Putin and Russia than it is to the United States and Putin damn well knows it. Are we really going to war if a non-ally gets invaded? We didn’t take military action when Putin invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea in 2014. Or when Putin* invaded Georgian territory and seized South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

A Western show of force might well make Putin feel he has no choice but to be aggressive, lest he be seen as weak. And then what?


*As a technical matter, the invasion happened three months after Putin stepped down as President and became Prime Minister and ostensibly subordinate to Dmitry Medvedev. Nobody serious actually believes the latter was calling the shots.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Democracy, Middle East, National Security, Science & Technology, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Thanks for this piece, James, very helpful.

    If we’re massing troops in response, why not around Kaliningrad rather than in Ukraine or on other borders? If Ukraine is Putin’s near abroad, Kaliningrad is Poland’s and thus, NATO’s near abroad, with the advantage that we can bring a whole hell of a lot of naval power to bear there. We can certainly cut the oblast off from supplies that come through NATO countries or NATO waters.

    Not coincidentally, I think, the US and Japan just put on an impressive display near Taiwan, two aircraft carriers, plus, to which the Chinese have responded with a major air incursion against Taiwan. If things kick off in Ukraine I suppose we can expect China to offer a diversion to help their little Russian poodle.

  2. CSK says:

    Good piece.

  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    Even if Putin is planning to invade, isn’t it more likely to happen in the spring on account of “invading Ukraine in the middle of winter” being number one on the list of stupid military strategies?

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I’m getting mixed messages on that front. The problem apparently is that, when the weather warms, then it’s months of muddy ground that’s less than ideal for tanks and other heavy vehicles.

    UPDATE: Here’s Seth Jones at CSIS:

    An invasion that begins in January or February would have the advantage of frozen ground to support the cross-country movement of a large mechanized force. It would also mean operating in conditions of freezing cold and limited visibility. January is usually the coldest and snowiest month of the year in Ukraine, averaging 8.5 hours of daylight during the month and increasing to 10 hours by February.8 This would put a premium on night fighting capabilities to keep an advance moving forward. 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.

    So, all times suck but fall and spring may suck most.

  5. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    “the defenders only have to hold out until the thaw and then things get even worse for the invaders” aspect is part of why I thought starting the invasion now would be a bad idea.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Yes. If he’s going to take advantage of the frozen ground, time’s a wasting because resupply and reinforcement gets really tough come the thaw. But that’s pretty much always the case: if he waits until May, then he faces the same problem come October.

    I still think Putin is merely threatening invasion to flex his muscles, hoping to get some concessions from NATO and Ukraine that thus far seem not to be forthcoming. But he’s been aggressive more than once before. and been rewarded for it.

  7. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    It’s way past time to put this petulant child his place.
    And the fact that the Republican Party has become rabidly pro-Putin only makes answering his aggression that much more attractive.
    We spend a shit-ton of money on our military. Let’s take it out for a spin.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    A minor quibble, but there’s a thing about fighting the last war, and the last war was 80 years ago. “ Rasputitsa” is sometimes rendered as “time of bad roads”, and in 1941-42 it largely was a matter of roads. How many major roads in Ukraine are now unpaved? Cross country travel would still be a problem, but is road travel, even for heavy vehicles, going to be a problem as it thaws? I expect Russian and Ukrainian military officials know in detail.

  9. inhumans99 says:

    Kevin Drum agrees with Biden doing nothing (maybe some of what Biden will do regarding Russia is a dog and pony show for the media/cameras, such as saying he will bulk up assets in the region), as Putin finds himself going down a rat hole.

    Also, Senator Graham blew his load too early when he criticized Biden saying he is the worst President ever when it comes to Russia and his master Trump would have been seen as much more decisive by the American people when it comes to Russia, and Putin would fear Trump, or something like that.

    If Biden bulks up troops and beefs up sanctions, Graham can only say well, Trump would have deployed 102K troops instead of 101K troops to the region or something lame like that, and sanctions are sanctions, and again all Graham can now say is well Trump would have put 3 sanctions on Russia instead of 2 and they would be the bestest, toughest sanctions ever, or something lame like that.

    As Biden does the dog and pony and beefs up troops, sanctions, and deployment of other military assets in the regions all Graham can do is sound pissy if he complains. If Graham complains, you can ask him oh, so you do not want America to be seen as helping our European friends against possible hostile actions by Russia?

    If ever there was a Senator who has squandered the power and gravitas that being a member of Congress gives him it is Lindsey Graham. He spends most of his life in the Senate only to be thought of in the end as Trump’s submissive. Now when Graham passes (as we all eventually do), most of the stories about Graham will be about how he bent the knee to Trump and did nothing to re-acquire any agency he had as a Senator.

    That is beyond sad, MTG, Cawthorne, Boebert, those critters and others like them had no gravitas to begin with, but Graham, well, I feel that Graham could have been a contender.

  10. Chris says:

    @James Joyner: One decision point on whether to attack the Ukraine in a cold weather invasion may depend on any thermal targeting advantages the Russians may or may not think they have.

  11. Neil Hudelson says:


    Oof, phrasing my friend, phrasing. Bad mental images involving Sen. Graham.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Also, Putin’s big weapon is that he supplies gas to Germany, which, if he cuts it off, would be worse for Germany in winter than in spring or summer. He’s already screwed up letting December and January go by.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    Also, a thought occurs re: Putin’s delay. Might the Russian army be having some Covid issues?

  14. JohnSF says:

    Russian and Ukrainian road nets are still nowhere near western norms.
    And if the Russians met serious resistance, staying tied to the main roads could be problematic.
    Spread to suppress fire, and risk getting bogged down in both senses.

    Incidentally a big plus for the Russian in attacking Ukraine is that the rail net is Russian gauge.
    Russian still use rail rather than roads as their primary logistic support for heavy forces operations.

  15. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Could be. Coronavirus infections have reached an all-time high in Russia. I doubt Putin would be moved by any humanitarian considerations, but if half his troops are in sick bay, that could present a problem for him and any plans he might have for deploying them.

  16. Kathy says:


    “I talked to Putin, and he says those aren’t his troops massing at the border. I have the best borders, many people say that. Big, beautiful wall. Very big. Man, Woman, Camera, TV!”

  17. just nutha says:

    We spend a shit-ton of money on our military. Let’s take it out for a spin.

    Whomp! There it is. Whomp! There it is.

    Isn’t this the same basic argument we made for Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course, this situation is entirely different. /s

  18. just nutha says:

    @inhumans99: I think you’re underestimating the flexibility of Graham’s statement. He can respond to whatever Biden does by saying that FG would have been more courageous, wiser, less reckless, whatever and 40% of the nation and a significant portion of the traitorous socialistic lame-stream media will not their heads and say “Wow, that Lindsey is on to something this time.” And the moderates will ask for any steps taken to be bipartisan.

  19. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @just nutha:

    Isn’t this the same basic argument we made for Afghanistan and Iraq.

    I am not talking about nation building or training anyone else’s military.
    I’m saying if Putin puts one frigging toe over the line, we blow that frigging toe off.
    He has been fuqing with us for way too long.

  20. JohnSF says:

    Are we really going to war if a non-ally gets invaded?

    It’s a non-starter; and Putin know it.
    It would be ludicrous to place NATO units in the face of a Russian offensive without support systems for supply, communications, air defence etc etc.

    But as for deployments in Eastern Europe being “provocative”: well, Russia is being provocative.
    Being maneuvered into “we must be reasonable, and not annoy touchy Russian sensibilities” is a mistake.

    …this is a bluff that could well get called.

    Only really “called” if Russia attacks NATO. And NATO cannot allow Russia to dictate its defence deployments.

    That is part of all this that is going largely unremarked.
    The Russian demands are NOT just about Ukraine.
    Moscow has also demanded an end to NATO deployments in the states that joined NATO after 1997, and the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from NATO.

    To add insult to absurdity, Lavrov has stated:

    “NATO has become a purely geopolitical project aimed at taking over territories orphaned by the collapse of the Warsaw Treaty Organisation and the Soviet Union.”

    Polish politician Radek Sikorski sums up the opinion of a lot of Europeans in response:

    “Get this, RussianEmbassy, once and for all, in a language you can grasp.
    We were not orphaned by you because you were not our daddy. More of a serial rapist. Which is why you are not missed.
    And if you try it again, you’ll get a kick in the balls.”

  21. JohnSF says:

    @just nutha:
    And isn’t that the same basic argument made about Manchuria, Abyssinia, the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Danzig?
    If one analogy is applicable, why not the other?

    (N.B. this does require Russians to be Nazis)

  22. Sleeping Dog says:

    Putin will be the dog that catches the car. He invades and subjugates Ukraine and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

    In response NATO reinforces the Baltic’s and Poland, Sweden and Finland join NATO. Plus the EU and NATO are handed a cudgel over Orban. Putin’s position is worse.

  23. JohnSF says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    Also in response:
    – the rest of NATO finally get a stick to beat the obstinate “Handel durch Wandel” nonsense out of Berlin
    – a reconfiguration of European energy policy on a Western strategic basis
    – massive economic sanctions
    – a purge of Russian “dark money” from London
    – a purge of Russian /lobbying/intelligence/compromat and media/subversion operations in both Europe and the US

    Interestingly, the ruble and the Russian stock exchange are currently in crisis over such fears.

    Rusia can undoubtedly win militarily in Ukraine; but it crucial that it be plain and enforced that the autocracy will pay in blood and treasure for their ambitions.

  24. Gustopher says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: I’m not so sure a war with a nuclear armed adversary is a good idea. Or that the Republican Pro-Putin Party would rally around our president and not just divide and cripple our country, even if it was a good idea.

  25. wr says:

    @just nutha: “Isn’t this the same basic argument we made for Afghanistan and Iraq”

    But didn’t you see Gates’ argument that the reason we’re in this position is because the world sees us as weak since Biden wasn’t willing to spend another 20 years accomplishing nothing in Afghanistan?

    War today, war tomorrow, war forever.

  26. wr says:

    @JohnSF: “(N.B. this does require Russians to be Nazis)”

    Hey, if it works for Republicans, why not Russians?

  27. Gustopher says:


    Rusia can undoubtedly win militarily in Ukraine

    I think that depends on the definition of winning. They can crush Ukraine’s regular army pretty decisively, but I don’t know how well they can hold the country. We were winning in Afghanistan for 20 years or so.

    There are obvious differences between Ukraine and Afghanistan (one has pierogis, the other has mountainous regions; the hats worn by their religious leaders are different, etc), but it’s a mistake to assume that a quick military victory can be held and consolidated.

    Russia would likely be better off waging a soft war, and going for a pro-Russian political movement, like they are doing in the US.

  28. wr says:

    @Gustopher: “Or that the Republican Pro-Putin Party would rally around our president and not just divide and cripple our country, even if it was a good idea.”

    I do look forward to the Putin is my President T-shirts from the Fuck Your Feelings crowd.

  29. Gustopher says:

    @Gustopher: Where is the edit? Potatoes vs Poppies would have made a better difference… Thought of it right after posting, so sad.

  30. gVOR08 says:

    @JohnSF: @JohnSF:

    Spread to suppress fire, and risk getting bogged down in both senses.
    Incidentally a big plus for the Russian in attacking Ukraine is that the rail net is Russian gauge.

    True. But for the Germans the issue wasn’t so much attack as the logistics train.

    I saw an author a month or two ago say Russia would be unable to do a quick, deep invasion of the Baltic states because the Russian Army is heavily dependent on rail transport and rail gauge in the Baltics didn’t match Russia’s. So when Ukraine got hot I checked and discovered Ukraine, unsurprisingly, is indeed Russian wide gauge. As, it turns out, WIKI says the Baltics are.

  31. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Yes, let’s threaten Putin. That’ll work.

    Serious question: how many decades ago was it when we actually won a war? Desert Storm? 30 years? And then before that? Even saying Korea was a draw, and that’s nowhere near a consensus, we’re really looking back at the big WWII. Which we’ve been desperate to re-enact ever since.

  32. JohnSF says:

    Which is why a lot of Ukrainians are regretting the surrender of their nuclear weapons under the terms of the Budapest Memorandum.
    In which Russia, the UK and the US guaranteed the sovereignty and borders of Ukraine in exchange for it’s nuclear disarmament.

    ‘Covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.’

  33. JohnSF says:

    Yes, Baltics are Russian gauge. And Finland IIRC.
    But you can bet NATO has plans to render them unusable in short order in event of an attack.
    It does make a Russian offensive on Poland impracticable .

  34. Sleeping Dog says:


    Russia would likely be better off waging a soft war, and going for a pro-Russian political movement, like they are doing in the US.

    For Putin, that ship has sailed. His desire is to return to the days of imperial Russia and a minorly reduced USSR. He can’t achieve that through a soft war. Except for the Donbas region, Ukraine is turning to the west by popular demand, that can’t be stemmed via a soft war either.

  35. JohnSF says:

    Most likely try to install a “compromise” government in Kiev, and “regional” governments in “Russian” areas (Donbas, south coast, Odessa, trans-Dnepr areas)
    Try for a federal puppet state with Russian-ethnic areas holding veto powers, and Russian troops in those areas for “security” due to “popular demand”.

    Workable? Dunno.

    But The Putin autocracy has a very low opinion of popular opposition, even armed.
    The Chechens were bloodily reduced to submission; the Kremlin may well bet what worked, and still works, in Caucasia can work in Ukraine.

  36. JohnSF says:

    Bloody hell.
    Teach me to read before posting.
    Should say:

    N.B. this does NOT require Russians to be Nazis.

    For that matter, until later in the war, few realized how Nazi the Nazis were.
    Britain did not declare war primarily for ideological reasons.

  37. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Excuse me, where’s my comment?

  38. Not the IT Dept. says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: Ah, never mind, there it is. I had to refresh. Where’s the edit button?

  39. Sleeping Dog says:


    – the rest of NATO finally get a stick to beat the obstinate “Handel durch Wandel” nonsense out of Berlin

    Since it had a new government, I wondered what the German reaction would be and it has followed post-war practice and maybe even more timidity. But I do wonder what the reaction on the German street is, when Ukraine is invaded.

  40. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @wr: Absolutely–war is and will be part of a natural human condition (barring some mass evolution in consciousness). We have to deal with the humanity we have–not the one we want.

  41. Jim Brown 32 says:

    I wouldn’t invest alot into stopping Putin in the initial invasion. The play is to make them sorry they did invade in the aftermath. Our pro-insurgency chops could use brushing up. No better Country to refresh our skills against.

  42. Michael Cain says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    Which we’ve been desperate to re-enact ever since.

    So, invade under massive air superiority, and hammer the opponent behind their home border? An acquaintance who is a retired USAF bomber pilot says he would not be particularly eager to test the S-400 air defense system operated by people who really know it no matter what he was flying. And of course, the opponent has ICBMs with nukes deployed on the other side of the continent that we would have to worry about.

    Any of the generals on our side who are eager to try that should be cashiered, immediately.

  43. JohnSF says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    The Germans, more than any other country (Japan also maybe? need an expert on Japan on this) have internalised the concept that military power is futile, might is pointless, force is never a solution to any problem.
    Therefore anything relating to force is counter-productive, even to arm and support a victim to deter a potential aggressor.

    Also, that Germany has a historic burden of guilt relating to Russia; and oddly enough, Ukraine for some reason somehow does NOT count as a victim in the same way.

    Plus commercial self interest, plus a tendency to romantic extensions of German historical experience, plus confidence that they are secure, plus a nasty pit under the wonderful rectitude of the energiewiende plus a conviction that all should come to good ordnung, plus just being bloody smug.

    Also, another strain is sometimes, in some cases: “we must learn to live with modern Russia, both Trump, and the pivot-to-Asia, have shown America can’t be relied on in the longer term”.
    But then they equally refuse to heed French calls to construct a European pillar of power.

  44. JohnSF says:

    @Jim Brown 32:
    That is a factor.
    The siloviki tend to belive their own BS about Americans acting against them, and their prowess in supressing rebels.
    They forget that the West studiously walked wide of the Chechens (for very good reasons).
    A US supported insurgency in Ukraine would be a nightmare; especially as a lot of Ukrainians would be willing to go after targets in Russia.
    Ukrainian spetsnaz hitting oligarchs in St Petersburg: shit gets real.

  45. Scott says:

    Does anybody have any insight on the professionalism of Russian armed forces? They are conscripts, no? Any assessment on their reliability, etc?

  46. gVOR08 says:


    Russia would likely be better off waging a soft war, and going for a pro-Russian political movement, like they are doing in the US.

    Russia’s been doing that for some time. It’s not going well for them. But, yea, they’d still be better off continuing that than the morass they’ll likely get themselves into if they invade.

  47. Gustopher says:


    Which is why a lot of Ukrainians are regretting the surrender of their nuclear weapons under the terms of the Budapest Memorandum.

    Ukraine never actually had control of the weapons — no access codes, etc. They were sitting on their territory, but they couldn’t use them.

    Here’s a thread by Cheryl Rofer

  48. just nutha says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: I thought I’d been clear on acknowledging that this time was completely different from all the past “We spend a shit-ton of money on our military. Let’s take it out for a spin.” arguments that have been made before. 🙁 My apologies.

  49. just nutha says:

    @wr: Please accept the apology the I made to Daryl and his brother above as extending to you and former Secretary Gates. I really need to brush up on my communication skillz.

  50. just nutha says:

    @Gustopher: I think that the difference is that Putin is okay with occupying The Ukraine as an invading army for as long as doing so is necessary. Secretary Gates would be impressed knowing that Putin is strong in comparison to Biden on this matter. Putin won’t fold like some guys would do.

  51. dazedandconfused says:

    They aren’t the sad sacks of the post Soviet Russia anymore. They have professionalism in their command structure, and are plenty competent in the area of infantry. Their ops in Syria is a remarkable tale of economy of force. I wouldn’t mess around with insurgency against them either. They’ve had recent experience in Syria and did a very good job of it.

    The deployments seem most likely to be a classic “gunboat diplomacy” move. He’s got NATO to the table and taking Russia seriously again. The main question is what he wants, and it seems probably the goals are a resolution to the on-going civil war in eastern Ukraine and for other nations to think hard about supporting and fomenting “color” revolutions, like the one Vicky Nuland waged in Ukraine, in the Russian economic sphere in the future. An op that the US public knew little about, so from Russia’s perspective, it may appear the problem is ideologue bureaucrats running the show, and leaders idly signing off on it thinking nothing bad could happen.

    Russia has an ingrained sense to entitlement to greatness not all that different from our own, and fighters in the Russian-speaking eastern parts of Ukraine are not just Russian puppets. They are fighting to stay independent of that government in Kyiv.

    Saw a few talking heads mention that Kyiv has not yet called up their reserves or mobilized their civilians for war. Interesting if true.

  52. JohnSF says:

    Well, what is wired can be unwired, given an experienced technician and facilities.

    Codes aren’t magic spells; whether linked in to detonators, fissile material, or for missiles propulsion and guidance, they can be removed, replaced or bypassed.

    Besides, the wider point is that on the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was both the legal and de facto possessor of said weapons, as a joint legatee of the USSR, with similar standing to the Russian Republic, and agreed voluntarily to surrender them.

    It received in return certain guarantees, from Russia, he USA and the UK, which Russia under Putin has violated.

  53. Not the IT Dept. says:

    @Michael Cain:

    So you agree with me that going to war is a dumb idea. Thanks.

  54. JohnSF says:


    “…the Russian economic sphere.”

    As determined by Moscow, of course.
    (For clarifications as to its extent and degree from time to time, please contact V. Putin, c/o the Kremlin)

    …think hard about supporting and fomenting “color” revolutions

    Think about doing more of them, more often?
    Now there’s an idea.

    Russia has an ingrained sense to entitlement to greatness not all that different from our own…

    More like, some Russians, primarily the autocracy, the oligarchic elites, and their state servants, have an ingrained sense of their right to an unchallenged rule over Russia, and never mind the opinions of the Russian people; what counts to them are the rights of the Russian state to imperial power.

    As to

    “not all that different from (Americans)”

    You might try enquiring among the Finns, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Georgians, Moldovans, Romanians, Chechens, Turkmen, etc etc on the comparisons between having the Russian Empire/Soviet Union as a neighbour, versus the USA.
    Or as I quoted Radek Sikorski earlier:

    “Get this, RussianEmbassy, once and for all, in a language you can grasp.
    We were not orphaned by you because you were not our daddy. More of a serial rapist. Which is why you are not missed.”

    As to the Russian “revolt against Ukraine”:

    Russian-speaking eastern parts of Ukraine…are fighting to stay independent of that government in Kyiv.

    That would be the Donbas oblasts of Lukhansk and Donetsk that voted for separation from Russia by Luhansk 84% in 1991?
    Being Russian speaking does not necessarily entail being non-Ukrainian. As I’ve mentioned before, I have persoanlly met Russian speakers who consider themselves wholly Ukrainian nationals NOT Russians. A cousin is married to one.
    Odessas is both primarily Russian speaking, traditionally, but also overwhelmingly Ukrainian nationalist.
    The divide is NOT between a Russian east and a former Austrian west.

  55. CSK says:

    Breaking: The U.S. has put 8500 troops on heightened alert.

  56. dazedandconfused says:


    I think suggesting Kyiv and Georgia have not historically been part of Russia is naïve. As to that post-Soviet vote by Lukhansk and Donetsk being meaningful, whom are they fighting now??

    Russia can no more be expected to be fine with NATO expansion than we were with the arming of Cuba.

  57. Sleeping Dog says:


    To put it another way, they haven’t learned anything from their own history of being appeased?

    And before points out how Germany got to its current state, imagine if Hitler hadn’t been greedy and chose not to attack Russia, France, the Low Countries and then extend the battle to Britain. Alternately, hadn’t attacked Britain and France.

  58. Gustopher says:

    @JohnSF: gaining control of live nuclear weapons by reverse engineering and hacking seems somewhat fraught with risk.

    The “Ukraine gave up their nuclear weapons” argument is a gross oversimplification, to the point of not being accurate to the implication that they had a deterrent.

    There was no point at which Ukraine could have nuked Russia. They probably could have created a dirty bomb, provided they didn’t blow themselves up in the process.

  59. Andy says:

    Too many in the national security community have become too accustomed to a unipolar world where the US is in the position to be able to:
    – dictate terms, even to adversaries
    – not have to consider serious tradeoffs
    – do what we want without serious geostrategic consequences.

    Those days are over when it comes to Russia and China. The idea that we mold Ukraine into a pro-western democracy that also politically aligns with the west and NATO (even if not a NATO member) and that Russia will just accept it is a delusion. The reality is that the US and NATO have been consistently shitting on Russian strategic interests for three decades and now we are shocked that they are finally pushing back on an issue that is clearly and obviously of fundamental strategic importance to them.

    And this isn’t even really about Putin. Not Russian leader would accept Ukraine going into the orbit of a military alliance that was created to offset the USSR and has now become a de facto anti-Russian alliance.

    And just to do some throat-clearing – this is analysis, not advocacy. This isn’t a defense of Russian interests or Putin, but a plea for the west to consider strategic realities. Russia will go to war over Ukraine if they are forced to and I don’t want to see a war, much less over Ukraine, erupt because US and NATO leaders still think it’s the 1990’s.

  60. James Joyner says:

    @Andy: Agree 100%. You’ve written a sharper, pithier, version of my thoughts than I managed in the OP.

  61. JohnSF says:

    Kiev is certainly linked historically to Russia; at any rate since the the 17th century, after an interlude of some 500 years from the later Kievan Rus period.
    Though arguably almost as much to Poland.
    As for Georgia, that was not absorbed by the Russian Empire until the 19th century.

    If “historic links” are the trump card: Germany is justified in the Austrian anschluss?
    Britain would be justified in subjugating Ireland to its will?
    France has a right to rule Belgian Flanders, the historic heartland of the Franks?
    Germany to East Prussia and Silesia?
    Finland to Karelia?

    Or maybe Russia should ask Kiev for permission as to how it should conduct it’s foreign and economic policy?
    Ridiculous? Why? Because Russia is more populous, more powerful?
    Is the rule just “might makes right”?

    Europe has learnt by long. painful and exceedingly bloody experience that revising border at asserted claims of ethnicity or historic right, let alone pure machtpolitik or outright aggression is NOT a good idea.

    There are mechanisms for adjustments of borders by consent, if that is the issue. Which it is not.
    It is just a typically cynical ploy of Putin to insert his “little green men” and throw up a smokescreen of “justification”.

    Perhaps the 1.3 million refugees from the Donbas in Ukraine were just so carried away at the joy of liberation by Mother Russia they just got confused and ran in the wrong direction by mistake?

  62. JohnSF says:


    There was no point at which Ukraine could have nuked Russia.

    In 1994 they certainly had no interest, cause, or intent to do so.
    That’s why they disarmed; they did not consider they had need of them, and were offered guarantees to give them up.

    At that point I doubt anyone in Kiev expected a revivalist Russian imperialism to become an issue.
    Especially as the dominant reformers in Moscow, including those around Yeltsin, generally welcomed the removal of Ukraine as ending the basis of Russian Empire and opening a path to a modernised Russia as “normal nation” no longer haunted by the spectres of Tsardom of All the Russias and the Third Rome.

    As to “reverse engineering and hacking” a warhead; not necessarily.
    If it’s the detonator that is code locked, then just a technician modifying a circuit that is in the system.
    It’s not nuclear physics, just electrical circuits for the control.
    But if it is a physical lock built into the fissile core assembly, that would be a whole different thing.
    That would require messing with the warhead itself.
    Not advisable unless you really, really know exactly what you are doing.

    But, that said, it might well be that Ukraine had experienced warhead specialists to call on. Frankly, I’ve no idea.

  63. Gustopher says:


    At that point I doubt anyone in Kiev expected a revivalist Russian imperialism to become an issue.

    I think we had already seen some Russian saber rattling when the Baltics split off, and anyone who didn’t think that Russian nationalism and imperialism was a possibility was never paying attention. That’s why Ukraine negotiated for security guarantees.

    The myth that Ukraine had an effective nuclear deterrent has been mostly fiction since before they negotiated it away. Popularized by the Tom Friedmans of the world (if not specifically him, people like him), and by Ukraine itself (first as a negotiating position, and then as bitterness over losing the Crimea took hold).

    Skim over the wikipedia article on the subject:

  64. JohnSF says:

    @James Joyner:
    The problem is not that NATO is going to go to war for Ukraine.
    It is an operational impossibility, logistically untenable, politically fraught and strategically far more important to Putin than it is to the West.

    The problem is, maybe Russia feels bound to assert an imperial hegemony over Ukraine.
    This is no longer acceptable to Ukrainians.

    It might be worth Moscow asking some western nations what happens when those you think you have a prescriptive right to order as you please disagree.

    As to no Russian leader accepting it, maybe.
    Or maybe not.
    A Russia that stopped dreaming of the Imperium of the Third Rome and was content to just be Russia might find it acceptable.
    Empires do tend to end, one way or another.

    A good deal of the Putin regime dislike for Ukraine is the potential for a kindred Orthodox Slav state that may end up, perhaps, after a prolonged period, not being the plaything of self-serving, self-regarding autocrats and kleptocrats.

    The problem is, Ukrainians are in no mood to submit to the rule of Russian nominated oligarchs to satisfy the amour propre of the Kremlin.
    Russian actions since 2014 has turbo-charged Ukrainian nationalism.

    And this continues to ignore the other parts of the Russian demands as presented to the US:
    – end of NATO “third country” deployments in the states that joined NATO after 1997
    – withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe

    Unless it is to be assumed think Putin is not serious about those?
    Maybe we’d best hope so.

  65. JohnSF says:


    …saber rattling when the Baltics split off…

    Yes, there had been
    But that was when Gorbachev was ruling in Moscow, and linked to the attempts by “hardliners” to reverse his policies.

    By 1994 the situation was different.
    The Soviet Union ended; and it was widely thought the Yeltsin’s Russia would be content with a relationship of equality as per the Belovezha Accords of December 1991; albeit with safeguards for ethnic Russians.

    The Putinist revival of Russian Empire ideology was not forseen; though perhaps more might have considered the possibility.

    Maybe the West should have incorporated Ukraine into NATO, nukes and all, in 1994, and committed to upgrading the Ukrainian nukes to full effectiveness under NATO control?

    Maybe. Or maybe not.

    Moral of the story might be: don’t trust the assurances of the Kremlin overmuch.

  66. Michael Reynolds says:


    Those days are over when it comes to Russia and China. The idea that we mold Ukraine into a pro-western democracy that also politically aligns with the west and NATO (even if not a NATO member) and that Russia will just accept it is a delusion.

    So far our molding has involved embarrassing the Ukrainians with the corrupt demands of our then idiot president.

    The Ukrainian people have the same rights as the people of any other country, including the eternally-ignored Russian people. No Ukrainian should have to think about what Putin wants. Putin is a thug with delusions of grandeur, and very little good comes of lying down for thugs.

    To be clear, I’m not suggesting we roll tanks into Ukraine. But we can raise the price for Putin, and we can set the table for a long-term bleeding of Russian troops, and we can use this opportunity to solidify what appears to be the strengthening resolve of NATO.

  67. John430 says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: It is the Democrats who have ass-kissed Putin into this face-off. Witness that senile old man, Biden, who blathered on about being OK with a “Minor Russian excursion”.

  68. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    The problem is not that NATO is going to go to war for Ukraine.
    It is an operational impossibility, logistically untenable, politically fraught and strategically far more important to Putin than it is to the West.

    I see your point, but isn’t the “more important to Putin” part the reason why in a few weeks someone from some Western administration somewhere will note that “the Ukrainians will welcome us as liberators,” so we have a “duty to defend” or some such nonsense?

    I mean, that IS the script, right?

  69. Kathy says:

    You learn something new every day, and from the most unlikely sources.

    Today I learned Putin drives a Doc Brown DeLorean. I thought he’d go for a Soviet era limo.

  70. Andy says:

    @James Joyner:

    Thanks, I read your excellent post and felt the need to unload my own thoughts.


    The problem is not that NATO is going to go to war for Ukraine.

    I wasn’t suggesting that NATO would go to war with Russia but that NATO (mainly the US) could push Russia into a corner where it feels it must go to war with Ukraine to preserve its strategic interests.

    @Michael Reynolds:

    “We can raise the price for Putin.”

    To what end and at what risk?

    The strategic reality is that Russia will go to war to prevent Ukraine from becoming even minimally aligned with NATO. Raising the price for Putin doesn’t change that and those who think Putin or Russia can be bullied into submission on this topic are deluding themselves. This isn’t Libya, or Serbia, or the Baltics, or the former Warsaw Pact.

  71. Michael Reynolds says:

    No, it’s not Libya, Libya was an irrelevant sideshow, this is an aggressive bully doing his best to start a war in Europe. He is engaging in constant cyber-attacks against the US and undermining democracy. At what point do we push back?

    Apply every sanction we know how to apply. Give a few toys to the Ukrainian army and more to any guerrilla resistance movement. We should invite the Swedes and Finns to join NATO and place some serious muscle into the Baltics. None of that gives Vlad cause to start World War 3. What is vital is that we make this unprofitable for him. We can bleed him and bankrupt his country and we should enjoy every minute of it. Unless we wimp out this is an opportunity to chop his dick off, because IMO he’s biting off more than his economy can chew.

  72. Dude Kembro says:

    Nobody is doing more to make sure Ukraine becomes part of NATO than Russia itself. The idea America is living 1990s but Putin is some avatar of modernity does not comport with his paranoid delusions of nostalgic grandeur.

    Putin is a paranoid relic past retirement age. We’re far enough away Ukraine that US need not bully him into submission, we can wait his geriatric ass out if need be. Is the EU going to accept his encroachment? If so, that’s more their issue than ours. Are all the young Russian travelers I’ve met the past year in Croatia, Mexican resort towns, New York and Los Angeles going to accept being cut off from their vacations and their iPhones? Tick tock.

    Putin is washed up, outdated, out of time, fighting changes he can delay but cannot stop. And he knows it. Sorry to that man.

  73. JohnSF says:


    Russia will go to war to prevent Ukraine from becoming even minimally aligned with NATO

    That boat has sailed.
    Ukrainians are aligned with the West and against Russia due to Russian actions and their free choice.

    They are not in practice going to become NATO members; but nor will the NATO countries agree to a formal acknowledgement that the former Russian Empire territories and former Soviet Republics are a inferior grade of state subject to the hegemony of Russia.

    Putin’s choices are to accept the loss of Ukraine to the project of Great Russian imperial revivalism, or invade and try to impose a regime more to the liking of the autocracy.

    Russia is unlikely to enjoy the Ukrainian response; an insurgency that won’t limit it’s operations to Ukraine alone.

    If Russia desires to negotiate a treaty of neutrality or arms limitation regarding Ukraine, it needs to do so with Kiev, not brush the Ukrainians aside and try for a fait accompli with Washington (and Berlin).
    They have gone the wrong way about doing so, but trying to talk to Ukraine as equals, rather than wayward serfs wilfully defying their rightful masters, might get somewhere.
    Worth a try, for a change.

    Part of the problem is, it sticks in the Kremlin craw to regard the former imperial provinces as free agents. Or for that matter to allow their own people rights against those who rule.

    For internal consumption, and for self-esteem, it is preferable to talk over the heads of the “little people” to the supposed “peer Power”, the USA.
    And, not incidentally, to demonstrate that Germany remains cowed, and the other Western nations impotent. This is also a historic goal that matters to Moscow.

    …Russia (in) a corner where it feels it must go to war with Ukraine to preserve its strategic interests.

    Russia may find loss of empire hard to bear.

    But the UK had to accept not just the independence of Ireland but a a foreign policy of neutrality that seriously compromised British defence during the Second World War.
    We learnt to put up with it, and eventually, after much blood and sorrow, to negotiate as equals over Northern Ireland.

    If the UK was to now assert that the Irish Republic must subordinate itself to Britain economically and strategically, would you regard that as reasonable?
    (To avoid doubt, it would be absurd. Not that that stops some ultra-Loyalists from fantasising along those line. But phantasms are all they are)

    The US has certainly been prepared, at times, to curb the nostalgias or ambitions of its allies.
    It can surely refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of such projects by its opponents.

  74. Barry says:

    @Stormy Dragon: “Even if Putin is planning to invade, isn’t it more likely to happen in the spring on account of “invading Ukraine in the middle of winter” being number one on the list of stupid military strategies?”

    Presumably Russian military forces can deal with the weather of their native land.

  75. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @inhumans99: WRG my state’s senior senator, it was said of Lincoln that “his ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” Graham has that in spades.

  76. James Joyner says:

    @Dude Kembro:

    Putin is a paranoid relic past retirement age.

    He’s almost exactly a decade younger than President Biden.

  77. DK says:

    @James Joyner: No comment 🙂