The Ukraine Catastrophe

Question: “What will Putin do next?”
Answer: “Putin will continue to escalate. He has superior resources and options.” – The Lonely Realist

Ukraine and Russia are wrestling back-and-forth in a test of resources and wills. That contest is unlikely to end in a stalemate, a ceasefire and a treaty. On the contrary. There is significant risk that their conflict will continue to escalate, sucking in global wealth and growing to catastrophic proportions. No one questions that Vladimir Putin will not accept defeat. Defeat would be fatal to his power and wealth. He will not allow it to happen. Ukraine also will not accept defeat. How will this end?

Don’t place too much hope on Ukraine’s recent Kharkiv victory. It was a resounding success that liberated 6,000 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory and led to the seizure of tanks, guns and ammunition abandoned by fleeing Russian soldiers and the capture of two crucial transportation hubs, Izyum and Kupyansk. The offensive accomplished in a few weeks what had taken Russian forces five months to achieve but, even so, it was only a single engagement. The war is far from over. Media have been speculating on next steps. Headlines include whether Russia’s military setbacks will push Putin to use nuclear weapons, whether Putin’s “Grand Plan” will decimate the EU’s economy and tip over its democracies, and whether America will decide to become even more aggressive in its military support for Ukraine.

Putin’s immediate response to the Kharkiv defeat was to demonstrate that Russia can wipe out Ukraine’s infrastructure and plunge the country into the Dark Ages. Russia launched long-range missiles – which Ukraine does not have and would be unable to use even if it did – that destroyed power generation and transportation facilities and further terrorized Ukraine’s civilian population. It was a potent warning of what Putin might do in the face of Ukraine resistance. But that’s not all. Putin has additional military and economic weapons that he has only begun to deploy. Russia’s advantage is in manpower. A war of attrition therefore favors Russia’s larger population. Russia’s initial commitment of ~200,000 troops was the principal cause of its Ukrainian setbacks. Being outgunned by superior NATO and American weaponry (which, by the way, is being rapidly depleted despite a rising Chinese threat to America (and to Taiwan) – for how much longer can the quantity of such weaponry and ammunition continue to flow?) requires Russia to bring overwhelming numbers to the frontlines, a conclusion that Putin reached this week. As a consequence, the Russian army is calling up 300,000 Russian army reservists (in a “partial mobilization”) and training new recruits to deploy in Ukraine. Russia can afford to send large numbers of minimally-prepared soldiers to Ukraine because heavy casualties are inevitable in this conflict … and that’s true on both sides. Russia can more easily afford such losses. Meanwhile, Putin is tightening the economic screws on Western Europe by cutting off its energy supply, including by shutting down the pipeline that supplies it with natural gas. EU governments have found alternatives for some, but not all, of the energy that will be needed to heat homes and generate electricity this Winter and will be subsidizing energy costs to limit the damage, but damage there will be. Pressures will increase once Winter sets in. Few energy experts believe that EU countries will be able to cover all their energy needs. Although the Russian economy will suffer as well – Russia has nowhere else to sell its gas –, Putin is betting (with the support of his friends in Hungary and Serbia) that EU protests, unrest and economic pain will lead European leaders to rethink their support for U.S policy in Ukraine. The EU in turn has banned Russian coal and soon will ban Russian crude oil in the hope that ratcheting up sanctions will bring Putin to his knees.

The Ukraine War is a test of both logistics and will. There has to be a winner … and a loser. There is little more the West can do to Russia, which is protected by political and military reality and insulated from economic catastrophe by China. Since losing is not an option for Putin, the world is likely to learn how much “will” Russia has and how far Putin is willing to go.

Putin has not yet escalated the war in a way that violates accepted Rules of Engagement between Russia and the West, meaning that Russia will not attack NATO/America, NATO/America will not attack Russia, neither side will use nuclear weapons, and Ukraine (as a NATO proxy) will not take offensive action within Russian territory. Putin held to those Rules even after Ukraine targeted Crimea, which Russia claims as its own. The fact is that, to date, neither side wants to cross the line and risk a direct war. With that said, however, each side is stepping closer and closer to that line. Precisely what would constitute an “act of war” in this environment is not entirely clear. The EU is set to ban Russian seaborne exports by December 5th, the same date on which Europe will place a price cap on Russian oil. Putin, in turn, has said that no Russian oil will be sold to anyone complying with a price cap. When might economic conflict tip over into military action?

One option for Putin would be to use tactical nuclear weapons to seal off Ukrainian forces from their Western supply lines. Although Russian officials have repeatedly dismissed suggestions that the country might resort to using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the temptation to do so has been increasing. Putin this week again threatened that Russia “has many types of weapons of destruction … to protect Russia and our people.” President Biden has said that, should Russia resort to the use of unconventional weapons, the U.S. response would be “consequential.” Russia’s use of such weapons would be problematic for nonaligned nations like India and Turkey, countries that Putin would be disinclined to alienate. Yet, as long as Putin is Russia’s President, the nuclear option remains on the table.

But what if Putin no longer is Russia’s President? What if he is deposed? Would that be a good outcome for the West? Would the ensuing instability then lead to peace talks? Or would there be further escalations? Putin’s successors most certainly would not be inclined to sue for peace. Showing weakness is fatal in Russia. They quite likely would blame their takeover on Putin’s failures and the consequent need for stronger leadership. They would emphasize Putin’s ineffectiveness in executing his “special military operation” as opposed to waging an all-out war of liberation and annexation, which they most likely would pledge to pursue.

Putin’s War therefore will continue … and with increasing risks. Escalation over time is more likely than negotiated settlement. This does not bode well for Europe, for stretched American military resources, or for a global economy fighting inflation, threatened recession, tangled supply chains, rising U.S.-China tensions, currency conflicts, climate change and simmering COVID flare-ups.

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Finally (from a good friend)

Aphorism:  A short, pointed sentence that expresses a wise or clever observation.

  1. The nicest thing about the future is that it always starts tomorrow.
  2. Money will buy a fine dog, but only kindness will make him wag his tail.
  3. If you don’t have a sense of humor, you probably don’t have any sense at all.
  4. Seat belts are not as confining as wheelchairs.
  5. A good time to keep your mouth shut is when you’re in deep water.
  6. How come it takes so little time for a child who is afraid of the dark to become a teenager who wants to stay out all night?
  7. Business conventions are important because they demonstrate how many people a company can operate without.
  8. Why is it that at class reunions you feel younger than everyone else looks?
  9. Stroke a cat and you will have a permanent job.
  10. No one has more driving ambition than the teenage boy who wants to buy a car.
  11. There are no new sins; the old ones just get more publicity.
  12. There are worse things than getting a call for a wrong number at 4 am – for example, it could be the right number.  (Think about this one!)
  13. No one ever says “It’s only a game” when their team is winning.
  14. I’ve reached the age where “happy hour” is a nap.
  15. Be careful about reading the fine print – there’s no way you’re going to like it.
  16. The trouble with bucket seats is that not everybody has the same size bucket.
  17. Do you realize that, in about 40 years, we’ll have thousands of old ladies running around with tattoos?
  18. Money can’t buy happiness, but somehow it’s more comfortable to cry in a Mercedes than in a Chevy.
  19. After 70, if you don’t wake up aching in every joint, you’re probably dead.
  20. Always be yourself because the people that matter don’t mind, and the ones that mind don’t matter.
  21. Life isn’t tied with a bow, but it’s still a gift.
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