The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Ukraine Counterattacks

Pro-Russian “militias” seized the city of Slovyansk, now Ukraine is attacking to take it back.

This is a profoundly dangerous situation.  On the one hand, if the Ukrainian government had done nothing, Russia would have de-facto control over the East.  But Putin has repeatedly warned Ukraine not to attack pro-Russian militias.

And, if these pro-Russian militias include Russian troops, well Russia really can’t afford to have any captured, can they?  “On a leave of absence” explanations only go so far.

If Putin gives the word, a very large Russian army will overrun Ukraine’s East.  If Ukraine does not immediately back down in such a situation, Russia is more than capable of overrunning the entire country.

NATO can then either do nothing but mouth impotent threats or can itself intervene militarily.  NATO does not have enough forces in position to win the initial clash, but would certainly win a longer conventional war.  Victory by either side, however, risks a nuclear war, as generations of Cold War planners understood.

Ukraine’s orientation to Europe, and the opening of its economy to destruction by the IMF and looting by Westerners, is not a cause worth risking nuclear war over.

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  1. Celsius 233

    Ian, the west may well be stupid (ample evidence exists), but I don’t see much, other than rhetoric, at this point. Yes and sanctions, oh my…
    Do you think the U.S. is really ready to make a meaningful stand here?
    Sanctions may well backfire and those U.S. missile destroyers are too easily taken out by a swarm attack by anti-ship missiles.
    Putting those ships in the Black Sea is the height of hubris, ignorant hubris, and just laughable.
    I can hardly believe Putin takes that seriously…

  2. Ian Welsh

    Real sanctions would really hurt Russia.

    No, I don’t think NATO intervene, however. However, stupidity is an awesome force, and not to be entirely ruled out.

  3. Formerly T-Bear

    What these exercises in stupidity reveal is the extent of damage done to the western mindset by going on 70 years of cold war propaganda which has doubtlessly permeated the thought processes of the commanding elite to the extent that rational thought is no longer possible. Like conditions existed in 1913 after 90 years of relative peace after the final defeat of N. Bonaparte (the peace being given a small respite during the Franco-German fracas later that century).

    The issue that emerges from all the rattling of keyboards is nowhere there exists any restraint bringing up rational opposition to governments following those policies which will clearly lead to conflict or present a decisive position against their own best interests from governmental authority. There is hardly a whisper – hey, that’s stupid – anywhere.

  4. S Brennan

    Formerly T-Bear,

    Disagree that this is a symptom of a cold war, we got over Germany fast [measured in weeks/months] in 1945 and that is after two wars that spanned 25 years. And the cold war began in earnest in 1947, roughly 40 years if you don’t count Gorbachev tipping his hand in the early 80’s.

    No, this DC crew is an entrenched elite [seen throughout history] using war as a distraction while they plunder the nation and destroy anything/body that was worthy in this nation. We are ruled by murderers, thieves, vandals and sycophants…ordinary people will have no say in the matter…of this most public of treasons.

  5. IAN: no doubt Russia would win the initial clash. Suppose NATO intervenes. The big question then becomes, what does China do? All China has to do for NATO to lose is to find an excuse not to ship rare earths and a few other key components to the West and Russia CAN outlast the West.

    Would it?


    But knowing Russians as I do, and knowing a little of Russian history, I’d not put odds on a Russia with tacit Chinese support losing a medium term encounter with the West. All Russia really has to do to keel-haul the West is shoot out half a dozen of our GPS satellites and our space advantage evaporates. The US cannot do war with out it. Why? Because our general officer corps is bereft of any strategic insight.

  6. The reason I bring China into this is a.) the obvious reason–strategic counterweight but also b.) a lot of people have forgotten that China manufactures everything America needs. We’ve deindustrialized. And this situation in the Ukraine could also give the Germans very real pause when it comes to NATO. There are real-world scenarios where the Germans could say, NATO, we’re done with you. NATO has become toothless, more a political club than a defensive strategic alliance.

  7. A couple of other things: the US is a littoral power. It has never been and never will be a continental power. It doesn’t know how to fight long drawn out continental wars–excepting the Civil War, which we learned nothing from. The US knows how to be like the Brits and use its navy to project power and get others to do its continental bloodletting, as it let the Soviets in WWII. I seriously question whether the NATO alliance could survive more than a year long campaign. And within a year the wear and tear on the NAVY and the need to get rare earth elements could have the US screaming uncle.

  8. S Brennan

    I don’t agree there will be a direct US/Russia confrontation, Russia has modernized it’s weapons systems, has local knowledge, a base of collaborators, that may well be a majority of the populous and an enormous logistical advantage.

    Turkey has become highly unreliable in NATO. And Greece…didn’t Europe just finish whipping them to their knees…there will be a lot of information of US movements forwarded to Russia from that NATO country by the USA/EU/IMF humiliated Greeks. The US has “conquered” Iraq, Libya & Serbia by using air assets from nearby NATO bases and aircraft carriers, in the Ukraine those assets don’t exist.

    For that reason alone, the US organized coup of Kiev was an extremely high risk, low reward misadventure that needs to be rolled up…and those responsible pushed out of power. However, in the corrupt world of the New York /DC nexus…such discipline is impossible, we will double down as Obama did in AF-PAK…with similar results. Our Peace Prize Prez loves war, but the Pentagon will not allow our child President a direct US/Russia confrontation.

  9. There will be no meaningful change in DC until the actions of those in DC cause those in DC to suffer in some direct way. No consequences for them, then the same old will keep happening.

  10. steeleweed

    “Ukraine’s orientation to Europe, and the opening of its economy to destruction by the IMF and looting by Westerners, is not a cause worth risking nuclear war over.”

    Not worth the risk to whom? What risks would the oligarchs face?

  11. Bruce Wilder

    I think Formerly T-Bear is right to take the long view, and I can see how the myths of Cold War propaganda cast a long shadow into our present.

    When George W Bush chose to put a bust of Churchill on the mantle and to misuse the rhetoric of Wilsonian internationalism, it marked out a complete divorce of rhetoric from conceptual thinking. No one believes in neoliberalism in general, even as it continues to be used as a powerful rhetorical engine to generate a torrent of mindless verbiage, rationalizing greedy and reactive policy.

    The idea of trying to bring a degree of law and order to international politics, which animated FDR’s foreign policy, and to which even Stalin subscribed to some large degree (possibly more sincerely than the imperialist and colonialist Churchill), depends on an enlightened sense of self-interest, which can see the value of self-restraint, principles that apply universally and precedent. We need practical idealism and historically-informed vision, and what we’ve got is a lot of people, who cannot remember the history of last week, and believe in an immaculate conception of “good” intentions.

    As for the U.S. general officer corps, I agree that the absence of strategic insight is going to be a problem. These people do not know how to bring any conflict to an end. Their initial response is going to be to see this as an opportunity to renew and extend their trillion-dollar meal ticket in perpetuity, not as a problem of defending any general interest or principle. This is an instance of a general problem with an elite that doesn’t understand or value the architecture of the system, and only knows how to exploit the structure of the system for personal or class gain.

  12. Bruce Wilder

    I’m going to throw out a hypothesis that anyone more knowledgeable might play with.

    Putin has had a very good economic run in Russia over the last 8 or 9 years, increasing median incomes from very low levels and restoring the morale of the country somewhat. His ability to restrain and/or work with the oligarchy is still touch-and-go. If he’s very, very smart, he may realize that after such a run, Russia is due for an adjustment crisis, and that the deteriorating economic situation, exacerbated by the Eurozone’s shift into surplus and the impending economic chaos in China, makes some rough times inevitable. He may think that an international confrontation, even with sanctions, could help generate a sense of political solidarity behind his regime, a ready excuse in sanctions or Western hostility for some economic hardtimes, a ready excuse to squeeze the oligarchs on behalf of the nation while reducing corruption to improve the quality of national response to the challenge from the West, etc.

    I’d expect him to act very methodically, proceeding step-by-step, with a good deal of care, letting the West bumble about. In his own mind, he may think there’s very little risk from a series of small steps, each with clear exit paths, and some big upsides, in terms of enhancing political solidarity and morale at home, increasing Russia’s prestige and respect in its near abroad, and making an impression as an effective great power on an emerging multipolar system.

  13. Thepanzer

    This could go sideways quickly depending on how both sides react. The west hasn’t been in a war against a near-peer in a very long time. I don’t think the DC bubble really even has any idea what a war with a great power would look like. After decades of conditioning, taking on 3rd world nations at the head of multi-national coalitions they’re used to shock and awe with minimal western casualties. That IS war to them.

    Putin, who’s frighteningly competent (the world needs more INFJ leaders), does know what it means and will obviously try to avoid letting the situation start to snowball out of control. But facing his own domestic pressures and the fact that he can’t allow Ukraine to NATO-ize on his doorstep he may be forced to ratchet the risk level up if he has to.

    So the chances for a world war I style chain reaction of miscalculations and escalations is possible, but unlikely. The big BUT though is the complete hubris and fecklessness of the Obama administration. As we saw with the Obamacare roll out, Obama is given the mushroom treatment in his own administration and doesn’t seem to have any idea of the realities of the situations he’s deciding on. (Or worse, he does know and is such a sociopath that he doesn’t care) So the question becomes, will the west eventually shut up and sit down or continue with the continual double-downs every time one of our bad decisions blows up in our face.

    Double downs in this situation can lead to very bad outcomes…

  14. S Brennan


    I don’t think all the “institutional knowledge” has left the Pentagon…but I could be wrong.

    If the US Military is led into another/this war by our Peace Prize Prez, I suggest they call the operation…

    Barbarossa, the sequel, once just isn’t enough!

    …opens June 22nd.

    If that happens, young men, you’d better get your “Biden tested” draft dodging X-rays NOW and avoid the rush….after all, you’ve got better things to do than fight in Obama’s wars…even though statistically, you voted for the “lessor of two evils” twice.

  15. S Brennan

    To my earlier comment;

    “Russia…has local knowledge, a base of collaborators, that may well be a majority of the populous.”

    Apparently, without US air support [see Libya], the US led Kiev Coup Cabal can’t get any traction.

    “the US organized coup of Kiev was an extremely high risk, low reward misadventure that needs to be rolled up…and those responsible pushed out of power.”

  16. David

    So Biden is going to visit the Ukraine
    on April 22, I wonder whether he realizes
    that he may well be the next
    “Arch Duke Ferdinand”.

  17. JustPlainDave

    One has to shoot out more than just half a dozen GPS satellites to degrade the constellation below military effectiveness (heck, the number of “extra” birds currently in orbit beyond the old constellation specs exceeds half a dozen) . Additionally, this is easier to say and than it is to do. The operational challenges are nontrivial.

  18. Celsius 233

    @ JustPlainDave
    Yeah, not a feasible option. Ridiculous on its face.
    The U.S. has redundant systems.
    So, for this scenario to play, would require a massive planning response. Which just isn’t in the cards.
    Russia has the upper hand here and the best the U.S. can do is recognize that fact and act accordingly, IMO…

  19. Joe

    Bruce Wilder – I tend to think this is more a series of miscalculations – the Poles and Americans did not think their proxies would succeed, the Russians did not think Yanukovich that incompetent, etc..

    Now the genie is out of the bottle so to speak all players are making it up as they go along. I think there are a number of paramilitary groups operating (call them Soccer Hooligans if you prefer) – not sure if the US or Russia even has to use Blackwater and or Special forces.

    Both countries share 1000 years of shared history and culture so lots of deep roots – also with Poland. It is naive to think The Russians (Or Poles even) don’t have good intelligence. Likely too much.

    Sounds like the local Oligarchs are not acting in a cohesive way – some want the west in because they feel the west offers better protection of their stolen gains than the Russians. All in all a mess.

    Thepanzer – I don’t think Russia Militarily is a near peer – but they get to play and they get to shoot as well and there would be a very very high cost of any confrontation with them. I like to think we have geography on our side (Ukraine, maybe Russia and Europe get blown up) – unfortunately the two big oceans provide a enough of a buffer that we don’t see the consequences of our actions.

    The only positive has been the reluctance of the Ukrainians to start killing each other in serious numbers. Lets hope it stays that way.

  20. Cynthia

    Sending our boy Biden to Ukraine is a brilliant idea, don’t you think, David? He’ll tell a few of his Pappy stories and everyone in East Ukraine will lay down their arms and accept the regime in Kiev. Then there is McCain with his suggestion to supply the Kiev unelected regime small arms and ammunition to kill Russian speaking Ukrainians. That Obama really knows how to play chess and win the hearts and minds of no one except Neocons and Fools. A big Black Swan will take flight this Spring from Ukraine and fly West towards Washington and Wall Street.

    A quote from “War and Peace” seems to be in order here. In reference to getting one’s nation into too many military adventures, a Russian proverb was used: “Chop down trees enough and you are bound to cut your finger.” I think that in Ukraine, the CIA, Blackwater, and other tax dollar leeches in the warfare state may have chopped at one too many trees and are about to seriously cut a finger!

  21. S Brennan


    Speaking of bloody stumps …

    “Administration officials did confirm that CIA chief John Brennan visited the Ukrainian capital of Kiev over the weekend”

    ….there was a popular joke inside CIA in the 1990’s which ran something like: “Question: Why is George Tenet never photographed from behind? Answer: Because they have not found a way to dislodge John Brennan’s nose.”

    Now, it surely would be unfair to deny any nominee a job because of how people reacted to his performance as professional sycophant or because of off-color humor made at his expense. But there are at least four substantive reasons to deny Mr. Brennan the job of heading the CIA. The following are those reasons, and one would think that if the Senate does not ask him about them, it will have failed to do its job.

    1) 1996: When, in December, 1995, the Agency set up a unit to dismantle al-Qaeda and capture or help the U.S. military kill Osama bin Laden, one of that unit’s first actions was to ask Mr. Brennan—who was then what George Tenet has described as “CIA’s senior officer on the Arabian Peninsula”—to secure from the Saudi intelligence service some very basic information and documents about bin Laden. The Saudis did not respond, and so the bin Laden unit sent frequent messages to Mr. Brennan asking him to secure the data. When we finally received a response from Mr. Brennan, it was to tell us that he would no longer pass the bin Laden unit’s requests to the Saudis because they were annoyed by them. DCI George Tenet backed Mr. Brennan’s decision, and when I resigned from CIA in November 2004, the Saudis had not delivered the requested data.

    Comment: I speak on this from firsthand experience, as I was the chief of the bin Laden unit at the time. The messages from Mr. Brennan refusing to push the Saudis on bin Laden are in the archives of several government agencies, but, more important, they are in the archive of the 9/11 Commission. (NB: I know the documents are there because I supplied them to the Commission.) In the latter archive, the messages have been fully redacted to protect the CIA sources and methods and so ought to be easily available to the Senators and to the media via a Freedom of Information request.

    2) May, 1998: For most of the year between May, 1997, and May, 1998, the bin Laden unit—with fine support from too few other Intelligence Community agencies—prepared an operation to capture Osama bin Laden using CIA assets. During the preparatory work, none of the bin Laden’s unit’s bin-Laden-specific information requests to the Saudis were answered, and given Mr. Brennan’s above-noted attitude, the unit was not ever sure the requests were passed to the Saudi intelligence service. Just before the capture operation was to be attempted, Mr. Brennan convinced Wyche Fowler—then U.S. ambassador in Riyadh—and DCI George Tenet that the U.S. government should cancel the capture operation. Although the Saudis had yet to lift a finger to assist U.S. efforts to counter bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and because it is the merest commonsense to know that Afghans never obey orders from any foreigner, Mr. Brennan, Ambassador Fowler, and DCI Tenet all assured then-National Security Adviser, Mr. Sandy Berger, that the capture operation should be canceled. Mr. Berger cancelled the operation, only to demand—through his assistant for terrorism Richard Clarke—that the operation immediately be restarted 75 days later when bin Laden’s al-Qaeda destroyed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania.

    Comment: I also speak on this issue from first-hand experience, as I was the chief of the bin Laden unit at the time, and also traveled in early May 1998, with DCI Tenet and the then-chief of CIA’s Near East Division to hear Mr. Brennan explain why this ludicrous reliance on the thoroughly unhelpful and often obstructive Saudis was a better way to protect Americans than by using CIA’s capabilities. Again, however, it is more important to note that the papers documenting this entire episode—including notes from Mr. Brennan, Ambassador Fowler, and DCI Tenet to Mr. Berger urging the cancellation of the capture operation—are in the archives of several government agencies, but, more important, they are in the archive of the 9/11 Commission. (NB: I know the documents are there because I supplied them to the Commission.) The latter archive the messages have been fully redacted to protect the CIA sources and methods and so ought to be easily available to the Senators and to the media via a Freedom of Information request.

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