Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine because of empire, a bizarre historical reading that erases Ukraine’s nationhood in pursuit of a legacy equal to Peter the Great. Yet the tankies have latched on to the idea that the West goaded Russia to attack by expanding NATO to its borders, giving it no other choice but to prevent the same from happening in Ukraine. Putin has even given the notion lip service, saying he was fighting to keep Ukraine out of NATO.
Let’s assume, for the moment, that this notion is correct, that Russia had no choice but to attack to keep NATO from further encroachment. How has that worked out for Russia?
Pre-war, this is what NATO looked like from Russia’s perspective:
One might be vaguely sympathetic to the notion that Russia was surrounded by the alliance. Here’s the thing: There was nothing in NATO’s posture that threatened Russia’s territorial integrity. Canada and Denmark make up a great deal of that “encirclement,” yet neither was particularly concerned with Russia. The Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania)? Their militaries each were around 15,000 strong, and no other NATO countries had a presence. Russia was buffered from Poland by Belarus, and Poland wasn’t invading Russia anytime soon. No one had a problem with the rump Russian territory of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, or its major Russian naval and nuclear presence. Turkey was more concerned with the Kurds to its south, and Armenians to its east. Its increasingly autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was actually buying advanced air defenses systems from Russia.
As we’ve seen, European NATO militaries were hollowed out by complacency and a sense that Russia was more interesting as an economic partner (and energy supplier) than a military foe. Germany barely has a functioning army at this time. Europe has been happy to invest its resources in its people rather than arms suppliers. As the popular meme says, “Russia is finding out why the United States doesn’t have universal health care.” And speaking of, the U.S. was trying to disentangle itself from European affairs to better focus on a growing threat from an increasingly aggressive China.
The problem wasn’t that Russia was threatened by NATO, it was that NATO just wasn’t scared of Russia anymore, depriving it of the respect and deference Putin thought it deserved. A peaceful Russia would’ve been free to continue grifting to the benefit of its oligarchs, making Putin and his entourage fabulously wealthy by heating and cooling the European continent for decades more. But already worth hundreds of billions of dollars, Putin yearned for something more. He needed historical notoriety.
Now, four months into his failed blitzkrieg, NATO will soon be larger, accepting requests from historically neutral Finland and Sweden to join. What joy Putin, his supporters, and the tankies got from Turkey’s initial reticence (the alliance requires unanimous approval to accept new members) was hilariously snatched away yesterday as Turkey and the two Nordic nations signed a new treaty.
With an 830-mile border with Russia, Finland nearly completes NATO’s eastern encirclement of Russia. It, along with Sweden, boasts some of the most capable air and ground forces in Europe. Russia blustered and threatened, but in the end, what can it do? In fact, all that empty blustering just further underscores how pathetic Russia has become.
Meanwhile, NATO’s 30,000-soldier rapid reaction force, which was deployed to the Baltic countries, Poland, and Romania in response to Russia’s aggression, is about to become a 300,000-strong presence. Additionally, the Baltic countries and Poland have all requested permanent NATO bases, and particularly an American presence (it comes with the bonus of a nuclear shield).
And when Ukraine wins this war? It too will become part of NATO before long, and it too will host NATO troops in its territory. The only thing that might prevent that would be a negotiated settlement that removes Russian troops from all occupied territories including Crimea in exchange for neutrality, and we know that’s not going to happen.
All that is already catastrophically bad for Russia, but it gets even worse.
After 50 years of “negotiations” over Russia’s occupation of the Kuril Islands, those efforts were abandoned at the start of the war (and they were going so well!). After decades of trying to play nice, Japan declared the islands “illegally occupied” and is ramping up anti-Russian rhetoric. With Russia’s military depleted in Ukraine, Russia now has to worry about an angry neighbor on its Pacific flank. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea are both attending the NATO summit in Madrid this week—a sign of greater integration between the Western alliance and Asia’s most economically powerful democracies. For Japan, particularly, this is a watershed moment given its constitutionally mandated pacifism. And while a NATO with Japan in it is unlikely for various reasons, even tighter integration has to be driving Putin crazy.
Looking to Russia’s south, the former Soviet republicans in Central Asia are getting antsy at Putin’s talk of empire. We saw Kazakhstan’s dictator Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, literally propped up by Russian forces just last year during a popular uprising, directly tell Putin to his face that he wouldn’t recognize the independence of Russian proxy states in Ukraine. He hadn’t taken kindly to Putin saying to his face that his country didn’t deserve independence.
Take a look at the map at the top of this story. Kazakhstan is about a third of Russia’s southern border, and that’s a long border spanning 11 time zones. Russia expected a pliant puppet regime. It no longer has that as countries that might have cowered at Russia’s belligerence just six months ago are thumbing their noses at their impotent neighbor. China is eyeing the situation hungrily, ready to fill a void.
This might be the most unmitigated foreign policy disaster by any one nation since … World War II? NATO has significantly enlarged its presence on Russia’s border, and now is just 250 miles from St. Petersburg. NATO’s military presence on Russia’s border is about to grow from nothing, to 30,000, to 300,000, and much of it will be permanent. Ukraine has shredded Russia’s military to the point that Belarus is providing military aid for the their war effort. Russia’s foes and neighbors are taking note. Japan and South Korea are playing footsie with NATO, while China increases its influence in Central Asia. Russia only got four supporting votes at the United Nations voting on the war: Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria. Even old allies like Cuba, Venezuela, and half of Africa turned their backs.
I truly wonder what Putin thinks of all that. His generals can lie to him about the battlefield situation, but this? There’s no way he can avoid this reality.
Meanwhile, back in Ukraine, rumors abound that Ukraine will be abandoning Lysychansk for more defensible positions to the west. It makes military sense:
Lysychansk is squeezed into a little pocket with sketchy supply lines. Its location deep into a salient limits artillery support. But if Ukraine withdraws to the well-prepared defensive line between Sivers’k and Bakhmut (marked on the map by the red line), artillery (inducing HIMARS rocket artillery) can roam relatively safely right behind those lines, striking Russian artillery and ammo depots deep behind Russian lines. It also forces Russia to begin extending its supply lines, something it still struggles to do. Look at that Izyum salient northwest of Slovyansk—it has barely budged in months.
Indeed, if some Russian sources could be believed (like the infamous Igor Gerkin), Russia may call a pause after claiming Lysychansk, and with it, the entire Luhansk oblast. Putin gets a propaganda victory to wave at the home crowd while giving his exhausted forces time to catch their breath and reconstitute.
A Lysychansk withdrawal would be unfortunate since it is a very defensible city, but as I’ve repeatedly said, it serves little strategic value. Its defense would’ve been better secured by an early retreat from Severodonetsk, using those forces to reinforce Lysychansk’s southern advance. But what’s done is done. Pull back from Lysychansk and give brave defenders better artillery cover and stronger supply lines, making Russia suffer on any advance well short of the twin fortresses of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk—the real strategic prizes on this front.
The Kherson region is a big mysterious question mark as Ukraine General Staff has requested an information blackout to mask operations. We know two small settlements were liberated south of Kryvyi Rih, but that’s rolling up the margins. The big important towns in the area remain contested. I suspect much will depend on whether this front gets two HIMARS to assist in clearing out Russian defenses (and artillery, in particular). Every video and picture we’ve seen has them operating in pairs, so are all four operating in the eastern Donbas front, or have they been bifurcated?
And look, another ammo depot goes boom!