What went on in Ukraine in 2015 (after Russia sneaky-invaded the country in early 2014 and annexed Crimea) was not a Cold War or frozen conflict, where the shooting and killing lie either in the past or in a potential future. Nor was it a hot, high-intensity fight in which two countries spent their blood, toil, tears, and sweat on an existential battle to the death. It wasn’t even an American-style quagmire like Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan.
So what was it? From the Ukrainian perspective, it was and continues to be a sausage grinder consuming money and young lives. But it’s not so clear how it all looks from Moscow. Is Russia winning? Losing? Or did they just doze off?
It’s reasonable to surmise — based if nothing else on the nature of NATO’s concerns about the Baltics — that if Russian president Vladimir Putin got the itch, the Russian military would be fully capable of mustering enough firepower to flatten Ukraine. But then again, the Russian military had more than enough brute force to prevail easily in their first (1994–1996) and second (1999–2000) wars in Chechnya, yet it prevailed only in the second conflict. So it might not be as cut and dried as simply counting the number of guys with guns in the Russian Army.
A lot has been written about why Putin may have gotten involved in Ukraine’s Donbass region following the Great Crimean Heist of 2014. For starters, there’s the slightly messianic vision of Putin as Protector of All Russians. He’s been making increasingly louder noises about Moscow’s responsibility to safeguard the various ethnic Russians scattered throughout the post-Soviet republics.
Secondly, Putin has taken it upon himself to make Russia a strong counterbalance to creeping US hegemony — the bully who bullies the bullies. Busting into Ukraine and (metaphorically speaking) driving a big-ass Russian tank through the Western conceptions of a post-Cold War world has got to have some appeal.
A final, frequently cited reason for Putin’s actions is that this Ukraine kerfuffle has done him no end of good at the polls. But Putin, as ballsy as he may be, is perfectly aware that gambling on a war going well forever is foolish. Why run the risk when he has the political capital right now to jump in with both boots and end this thing for good, locking in his successes while he still can?
It may be that this polling success is just a byproduct of the first two reasons: standing up for Russians everywhere while facing down the big bully America. But it doesn’t explain why Russia is still dicking around in the Donbass. If fighting Kiev to the last Ukrainian is a popular idea in Russia, shouldn’t winning be an even bigger victory?
This question is a bit vexing for Western observers. The vast majority of Western thinking aligns with the idea of war as a means to an end. A war is something you engage in to achieve some particular goal or objective — a.k.a., politics by other means. Even in the 70 years since World War II, the US is still wrestling with the idea that war isn’t a straight-up two-position switch with settings at War and Peace.
Anything that doesn’t involve regular, uniformed people on the ground is deemed Peace — as far as the US public seems to be concerned, Special Forces and airstrikes don’t count. Meanwhile, War is preferentially something with a bold, heroic campaign and decisive victory. It’s taken decades for the US to even grudgingly admit to the existence of low- and medium-intensity wars, like Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Even today, it’s still possible to find politicians nattering on about “declaring war” against the Islamic State, or pundits endlessly parsing this or that particular permutation of “boots on the ground.”
And so in the West, the idea that Russia chooses to remain stuck in the middle of a war it could win at any time can seem rather baffling.
One common rationale is that Putin won’t pull the trigger on Ukraine because he fears the backlash from the West. But the logic doesn’t hold water. After all, the Washington, DC crowd is all aflutter about the possibility that the US sending Ukraine proper anti-tank missiles will be seen as a sharp escalation in the conflict, drawing a dramatic Russian reaction. If the US is already cowed into a tepid response, then it sounds like Washington is a lot more afraid of Russia than vice versa. Besides, Putin appears to have trouble giving any shits whatsoever about what the West thinks of him.
All of that said, a few potential reasons remain for why Putin hasn’t dropped the hammer on the Ukraine still remain.
First, overrunning Ukraine brings its own problems. If the Russians aren’t careful, they could earn themselves a nasty case of insurgency. Russia has made an important observation about warfare from both its various Chechen adventures and its observations of the US experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Taking territory isn’t the same thing as holding it,” says Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. “Ukraine, as a whole, doesn’t want the Russians and can make it painful for Russia.”
But what if Russia contented itself with simply making off with the parts of Ukraine that do seem eager to be Russian: the secessionist Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), which together make up the heart of the Donbass region. To begin with, owning the Donbass would involve paying a pretty hefty service fee for repair and cleaning, since that area was already a hot mess before everyone got around to trashing the merry hell out of it.
And besides, Oliker notes, the longer that separatists in the DPR and LPR keep creating problems for the Ukrainian central government in Kiev, the longer Moscow can rail against Kiev for not living up to ceasefire and election promises in the breakaway territories.
Or maybe Russia simply can’t deliver the coup de grace. Phillip Karber, president of the Potomac Foundation, has toured the conflict zone numerous times and points out that the Russian military is in the midst of modernization and, as such, is broken into two tiers. There’s a first level of highly trained volunteer troops that make up the leading edge of the modern military. But behind that well-trained professional group is a larger body of poorly motivated and badly led conscripts.
“The entire Russian Army, as currently mobilized, is only 50 percent larger than the Ukrainian Army,” Karber says. So while the Russian Army could, in theory, scare up a lot more manpower, it couldn’t do so without throwing the entire Russian Army into the mix — meaning, the Bad News Bears conscripts — which would bring its own complications.
Russia has done very well in Ukraine with a mix of professional Russian soldiers, mercenaries, oddballs, and freshly trained separatist Ukrainians. But stepping up to the next level would involve digging into the larger body of lower-grade recruits. The fact that the fighting in Ukraine is pulling units from all over Russia — for example, naval infantry from the Arctic port of Murmansk were brought in to fight for the Donetsk airport — Karber says, is a sign that Russia is scrambling to find enough high-quality troops to keep the pressure on.
Switching to the vast, untapped legions of low-grade grunts would also shift the conflict into a new, more politically risky phase, Pavel Felgenhauer, a noted Russian military analyst, explained in a July interview. Russia has, like the Soviets before them, a pretty sizeable box of tools for low-intensity conflict and intervention in foreign wars. The problem is that going in full-strength as an advanced combined arms team — meaning, the close integration of air power and all flavors of ground forces, like tanks and artillery — would not just reach deep into the less-reliable mass of conscript troops, it would mean the active use of Russian aircraft for air support in Ukraine. If that were to happen, then the polite fiction of Russian non-involvement would come to a screeching halt, endangering all of Putin’s political gains from the conflict.
So why doesn’t Putin just declare victory and call it a day?
“The Russians could leave tomorrow if they wanted to — but they want a mess,” Oliker says. “They want to show what happens when you have a Maidan movement: disaster follows.”
In other words, a more traditional, short, all-out war differs from the Russian approach in Ukraine the way that an execution by lethal injection differs from a crucifixion: Both are intended to kill the prisoner, but one is intended to make a very public demonstration of a long and agonizing death in order to send a message to others. In this punitive scenario, cruel and unusual punishment is a feature, not a bug.
This narrative, although chilling, makes sense. For years, Russia and its allies have been of the firm opinion that the so-called color revolutions that keep popping up all around the world, toppling dictators and authoritarian regimes, aren’t, in fact, homegrown, natural movements. Rather, the allegation is that they are “AstroTurf” campaigns supported and funded by the West in general and the US in particular, with an intent to destabilize and remove governments. If you assume that the allegation has some truth to it, then the Maidan movement — a wave of civil demonstrations in Ukraine in 2013 — would be interpreted not as the ousting of an unpopular president, but the willful destabilization of a key Russian ally.
Thus, the objective of intervening in Ukraine would ultimately be deterring other Maidan wannabes from getting too uppity and eloping with the West. Moreover, intervening in Ukraine would demonstrate to the West that Russia will counter any moves against its close neighbors and client states. So, according to Oliker, keeping the fight going is a way to prove that the government in Kiev is incompetent, can’t control its own country, and can’t comply with the provisions of the Minsk ceasefire agreements related to regional self-determination. If Russia were to just swoop in and take the place, it would let Kiev off the hook.
An interesting riff off this idea is described more fully by Felgenhauer. His contention is that this whole thing is analogous to World War I’s Verdun campaign. Sparing all of the historical details, the nut of it is the theory that if things can be made to go badly enough, it will cause political support for the government in Kiev to crumble.
So, in a way, it’s not about what Russia needs to do to seize the territory, but rather what it can do to make the Ukrainian government collapse and, in so doing, surrender the contested regions.
Moreover, land surrendered by the Ukrainians to Russia would be far less likely to give rise to a viable insurgency, thus making the post-conflict peace a lot easier. If the local opposition to Russia has already been sold down the river by the central government in Kiev, is there really any reason for them to fight Moscow just to rejoin Ukraine?
Future historians are the ones who’ll figure out which of these scenarios is really happening, but in all likelihood, it’s a combination of factors. The Russians probably look at Ukraine as not being worth the extra headache of defeating outright, because it would require making a serious military commitment and probably earn Russia a nasty insurgency problem. But if the Russians outlast the Ukrainians (which they almost certainly can do) and simply wait for Ukraine to cry uncle, then it makes all the relevant political points, domestically and internationally, far more persuasively than a pure smash-and-grab would.
There are some relevant lessons for observers in the West here, beyond the obvious ones involving Putin’s world-class levels of crankiness. The traditional Western mode of thinking, particularly about high-intensity modern warfare, is that it’s either an on or off thing. A great deal has been written about “escalation ladders” and steps to raise or lower tensions in a conflict. Once you’ve tipped over into war, the conventional wisdom goes, then it’s best to be as brutal and violent as possible, bringing about an end as quickly as you can manage.
But US adventures in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have shown that there are limitations to this approach. And Russian involvement in Ukraine is showing the broader range of possibilities available to a country that doesn’t put all of its military options on one neat sliding scale from peace to war.