Sunday, March 13, 2022

Thoughts on Ukraine

My comment at the beginning of the invasion was that, in order for the Russians to lose, their military would have to be substantially worse than believed, the Ukrainian military substantially better. At this point both conditions have been met. While Russia might still be able to win the military conflict, it looks to me as though their strategy now depends on besieging Ukrainian cities in order to threaten to starve the population in the hope that that will force the Ukrainian government to make substantial concessions. 

If my interpretation of the situation is correct, Putin now knows that the invasion was a mistake. The problem is that saying so and withdrawing make him look very bad, possibly resulting in his fall from power. At the same time, if it becomes clear that Russia cannot win, that the most it can do is to destroy a lot more Ukrainian property and kill a lot more Ukrainians, Zelinsky will be reluctant to agree to any terms that make it look as though Russia had gained something by the invasion. That raises the question of whether there is any agreement that would let both sides claim to their own people to have won. 

Hence my suggested terms, conditional on its being reasonably clear that Russia cannot win a military victory:

Both sides agree to referenda in the Crimea and the Donbass region, conducted by a neutral party. If a majority in the Crimea vote to join Russia, Ukraine — and, presumably, other countries supporting it — agree to accept Russian annexation of Crimea. If a majority in Donbass vote for independence, Ukraine agrees to accept it. If, on the other hand, a majority in either region votes to be part of Ukraine, Russia agrees to accept that.

When the agreement is made, Putin can claim that of course Russia will win both referenda, hence getting the result it wants. Zelinsky can claim that he is agreeing not because of the Russian military threat but because Ukraine believes in democracy. The actual referendum happens after the Russian military has withdrawn from Ukraine, so if things don't go the way Putin wants he can complain that the referendum wasn't done properly but stop short of repeating the failed invasion. In fact, I expect Russia will win in Crimea, thus actually getting something it wants — international recognition of its seizure. 

What happens in Donbass partly depends on whether the referendum is for the whole province or only the parts that have been under Russian and secessionist control. That is a high stakes gamble for both sides. A referendum in the whole province might result in Ukraine losing territory it has been controlling — but also might result in Russia losing territory it has been controlling, since the rest of the province may not be enthusiastically pro-Russian, especially after being invaded. Whichever way the referendum goes happens after the Russian army has left Ukraine, unlikely to return any time soon.

Two further points on the general issue. 

1. I think the Ukrainian charges of genocide are pretty clearly wrong. The Russian military is obviously willing to kill Ukrainian civilians but if killing as many Ukrainian civilians as possible were its objective I expect a lot more would be dead by now. As I interpret their strategy, what they want are not corpses but hostages, people in cities whom they can threaten to starve if Ukraine does not agree to their terms. That doesn't work if the people are already dead.

2. I cannot make sense of Biden's claim that we cannot deliver Polish fighter jets to Ukraine because that would be a dangerous escalation. It would be an escalation if fighter jets piloted by NATO pilots entered the war. It would be an escalation if Ukrainian jets were engaged in military operations from NATO bases. But fighter jets are military equipment and we have been delivering military equipment to Ukraine throughout the war. If we turn a fighter jet, possibly unarmed (no missiles attached), over to a Ukrainian pilot at a U.S. air base and he flies it to a Ukrainian air base, how is that any different from our sending a truck full of anti-tank missiles or Turkish drones across the Polish border? How is it different if an American pilot, or perhaps a Polish pilot, with strict orders not to engage Russian targets, flies it to a Ukrainian air base to turn over to a Ukrainian pilot?


Toby said...

The problem with delivering fighter jets is that Russia doesn't know what nationality the pilot is. The plane can depart from a NATO base with Ukrainian pilot or with a NATO pilot. How could Russia know the difference? All it sees are planes departing from a NATO base and entering Ukrainian air space to fight Russians.

jacekkk said...

So, one option is that you transfer the ownership while the plane is in Poland, and then Ukrainian pilots essentially operate from NATO base.
The other option is that Polish pilots deliver the planes to Ukraine - but then NATO member soldiers enter the territory. Still bad.

The same situation has been already encountered by the US in the WW2, when it was still nominally neutral. The solution was that the planes were manufactured in the US, and then landed and _pulled_ through Canadian border, where they were picked up by RAF pilots and flown into the UK.

Interestingly, there are even photos of that!,these%20planes%20across%20the%20border.

David Friedman said...

When the plane starts attacking things it is flying out of a Ukrainian base with a Ukrainian pilot. It isn't an act of war to fly a plane into Ukraine if you don't attack anything.

Toby said...

Let's say you'd want to participate in the war as NATO.

A simple thing to do would be to move planes to, for example Poland, and let your own trained pilots fly these planes. Now you have NATO pilots in Ukrainian air space participating in the Russo-Ukrainian war.

Under the rule that it's OK to fly planes into Ukrainian air space from NATO members you can plausibly deny that they're your pilots.

And even if they're not your pilots in there, then Russia can still plausibly claim that they are which might escalate the conflict by for example giving Russia a reason to destroy an airfield in a NATO member such as Poland.

Under the rule that it's not OK to fly planes into Ukrainian air space from NATO members you can't plausibly deny that they're your pilots.

The safest rule is the second one if you're worried about escalating the conflict.

Toby said...

^This is garbled. Apologies.

Let's say you don't want to escalate the conflict into a conflict between NATO and Russia.

There are two possible rules:

Rule 1: It's not allowed to fly military planes into Ukraine from a NATO member.
Rule 2: It's allowed to fly military planes into Ukraine from a NATO member.

Under rule 1, the conflict won't escalate. There is no reason.

Under rule 2, NATO might let its own pilots fly into Ukraine and fight against Russia.

And NATO can plausibly deny that it's their own pilots doing the fighting.

But Russia can also plausibly claim that NATO is letting it's own pilots do the fighting. And this gives Russia a plausible reason to escalate the conflict by attacking an air field in Poland.

If NATO doesn't want to escalate the conflict, then they will not retaliate. And if they will not retaliate, then they might as well choose Rule 1.

SB said...

I think the goal of the attacks on civilian targets is neither maximizing the number of corpses nor maximizing the number of hostages, but rather destroying morale. Civilians are being killed, and civilian infrastructure destroyed, as examples to the rest. The message is "the longer you fight, the more civilians we'll kill and the more civilian infrastructure we'll destroy, so you're better off not fighting. Just surrender and the destruction will end."

Which makes a certain kind of sense, but humans haven't historically taken well to that argument.

Maciej Mi─ůsik said...

The problem is not just who will fly these planes and from where, but their technical preparation. These are NATO planes, with modern avionics that the Ukrainians are not familiar with and would need to be trained. The planes would also have to be deprived of NATO equipment (e.g. communication equipment), which has to be replaced with equipment compatible with what Ukraine uses. Both these processes would take time and quite a lot of it, it is a matter of handing over like keys to a car.

On top of that there is a question of what Poland would receive for it. Although the planes may be outdated, they are a part of Polish military potential and such a selfless gift is not in Poland's interest, especially in the current situation. Poland is already bearing the burden of the conflict in the form of taking in most of the refugees and various other forms of support, including weapons and other military resources. If other, much richer, NATO countries find such a move desirable, they could offer Poland something in return.

David Friedman said...

What was offered in return, early on, was replacing the MIGs with western fighter jets of a sort Poland already had, I think F-15's. My guess is that Poland was assuming that offer was still on, until Biden decided it wasn't.

Anonymous said...

As far as holding civilians hostages, the evidence seems to be pointing the other way. Both sides accuse each other of holding hostages and using human shields.
On the evidence, no refuges got out while the city was surrounded with fighting on the outskirts. Large convoys started pouring out after Russian army took control of some parts of the city.

Anonymous said...

I am talking about Mariupol.

Gor Nishanov said...

New referendum is something that is already being mentioned on Russian TV with respect to Donetsk/Luhansk republics. They said something along the lines: if DNR/LNR wants to go back to Ukraine it is up to the people of those republics. Which make me think that Russian negotiators are already exploring something like that

Tibor said...

I am not sure why NATO is not sending more stuff in general.

I get that you cannot really send tanks and modern warplanes because it takes time to learn how to use them. But AFAIK the US as well as other NATO members (Slovakia, Romania) have much better anti air defence systems than what Ukraine has and which they could presumably operate quite easily.

Ukraine is being given stinger missiles which are presumably great against helicopters (and the Ukrainians seem to be devastating the Russian helicopter fleet) but cannot reliably hit the high altitude bombers the Russians are also using.

I don't get the conservation argument either. The point of having a military (unless you are a dictatorship) is mainly to prevent a foreign invasion. The only realistic threat in Europe right now comes from Russia. There are two ways to prevent the invasion as far as I can tell - 1. We keep the weapons, Russians know we have then and they hesitate to attack because of that, 2. We give the weapons to Ukrainians and they use them to destroy the Russian weapons, hence Russia won't have any weapons to attack with.

Russia can rebuild those weapons in time but so can NATO. But economically, Russian is dwarfed by the west (which I believe is the West's most potent weapon against Russia or any other 3rd world nuclear power for that matter) and losing a tank or a fighter jet costs Russia a lot more than it costs NATO (also they'd be losing the pilots too).

Also, the more damage the Ukrainians can do to Russia, the shorther the war is likely going to be, hence lower the costs of rebuilding Ukraine (which, realistically, is also going to be massively subsidized by the West). So giving them as much equipment as they need seems like the cheapest option (in terms of both money and lives).

I don't think Putin can draw a red line between stingers and better anti air weapons, so I don't think escalation is a concert here why the hesitation?

Anonymous said...

I'm skeptical that Russia would allow a referendum that they don't control from occurring. Since they fraud all their own elections, they would be highly suspicious of someone else doing the same thing, and if they didn't get their way, they would likely blame it on "western election fraud" or something.

Kailer said...

Very interesting to read this 8 months later. This seems to be the inevitable endgame. Unfortunately, I expect the war to continue for many months before this is accepted by the combatants and their allies. Longtime reader, first time commenter.