I did not expect Russia to invade Ukraine. I was quite definite about it several times: “Russia will not invade Ukraine” I said. I envisaged several possibilities but nothing like what we have seen in the last weeks. My argument was based on the assumption that Moscow did not want to take ownership of, in Åslund’s words, “the poorest country in Europe“. I still do not think that it does – I believe that Moscow wants a neutral and de-nazified Ukraine that is a buffer between it and NATO. I am also coming to believe that Novorossiya, more or less in its historical borders as formed by Katherine when recovered from the Ottomans, will be independent. The chance that it would remain part of Ukraine has probably passed. As I wrote in 2014 “In short, the West broke Ukraine, it now owns it. Or, to put it more precisely, it owns that part that Moscow doesn’t want. And what part that is is entirely up to Moscow to choose“. Moscow is choosing now.
So why was I wrong? What did I miss?
I believe I missed three things – two I didn’t know about and one that I did but did not properly weigh. These are: the nuclear weapons issue, the planned strike on LDNR and the biolabs.
At the Munich Conference, Ukraine President Zelensky alluded to the possibility that Ukraine might make nuclear weapons. There is a widespread belief that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons after the breakup of the USSR but that is nonsense. Yes, some of the USSR’s nuclear weapons were based in the Ukrainian SSR, but they were no more under Kiev’s control than the American ICBMs in Montana are controlled by the state government in Helena. The West was delighted when Moscow undertook responsibility for the USSR’s nuclear weapons just as it was delighted when Moscow undertook to give Russian citizenship to any Soviet citizen left over, to move all USSR weapons and troops out of Eastern Europe and take on the USSR’s debts. Imagine if Moscow had said that it would only take on the RSFSR’s share (about half) of these things and Moldova, for example, should be responsible for its share. It was later that Moscow’s acceptance was re-purposed into accusations – we (and I well remember it) were very relieved at the time: no abandoned nuclear bombs or missiles, leftover weapons, ownerless armed soldiers, unpaid debts, people without citizenship. So Ukraine never “had” nuclear weapons. But Zelensky’s raising the possibility was seen in Moscow as a real threat: if not a fully functioning nuclear weapon, then surely a dirty bomb could have been constructed – there’s plenty of radioactive material at Chernobyl after all and Ukraine inherited a stock of Tochka missiles. So that was a factor. Whether Azarov’s assertion that NATO was actually planning such a thing is true or not, Moscow could not afford the possibility. Putin himself mentioned this as a factor.
The second reason for the attack was the assessment– and some documents have been said to have been discovered – that Kiev was planning an assault on LDNR in March. Definite proof has not yet surfaced but the fact that the bulk of the Ukraine Armed Forces were positioned to attack LDNR rather than to defend Ukraine’s borders is suggestive. Observing this, Moscow evidently decided on a pre-emptive strike. Putin has mentioned this as a factor.
I knew there were a large number of US biolabs around the world – indeed the whole world is now aware of the one in Wuhan and I think I was generally aware that there were some in Ukraine. In this respect the investigative reporting of Dilyana Gaytandzhieva is essential reading. A “conspiracy theory” only a week or so ago, none other than Nuland herself has admitted their existence. The story has therefore morphed from conspiracy theory, through a few benign labs to the Russians might make an attack with dangerous materials from them. I remembered the revelation some years ago that the US military had been collecting DNA samples of Russians. But I didn’t put these fragments together. How big an issue this actually was we should find out: documents are said to have been captured. Putin has referred to this issue.
So there are three reasons for an attack now: a pre-emptive attack to stop the possibility of nuclear or biological attacks and to protect LDNR. It is now evident that the “ultimatum” was a last chance: had Washington, the actual power behind the scenes, seriously addressed Moscow’s concerns – NATO membership for Ukraine and forcing Kiev to follow the Minsk Agreements – there would be no war today. Moscow evidently decided on Plan B sometime towards the end of 2021 and began preparations.
Then, as the war progressed, I forgot Clausewitz’ famous dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means and over-estimated the speed of developments. At the start, Putin put out the aims: de-nazification, disarming and no NATO. The first to be accomplished by killing them and by trials and exposure of the survivors, the second aim is mostly completed and the third has not yet happened (although Zelensky periodically hints at it). These aims can be achieved by violence or by negotiation (aided by violence – the “other means”). The Russian operation will continue until all three are accomplished. I do not foresee Russian troops advancing much into Western Ukraine: let NATO, Poland especially, have the joy of dealing with Galicia.
But, at the end of the day, there will still be something called Ukraine and plenty of Ukrainians next door to Russia. Moscow prefers that these Ukrainians not hate them and that requires careful and cautious movement and the least number of widows and orphans. Therefore, the first week was fast moving but since then there have been many pauses for talks – without much result as far as we know – pauses for humanitarian corridors and local ceasefires. As Colonel Macgregor says, the Russians are trying to minimise civilian casualties.
Russian forces have a good deal of experience in this sort of thing from Syria and we see the slow encirclement of cities and military deployments always with exit routes to allow civilians (and combatants who have lost their will to fight) to get out of the way. The Chechens in particular are skilled at this. (And not least because of their experience of fighting Russia in the First Chechen War. And who would have expected that turn of events?) Larry Johnson puts Russia’s advances in context here.
Therefore the military operation is in service to the politics and is slower than it would be if only destruction were the aim.