My best man at my wedding – a great guy and U.S. citizen – now lives in Ukraine with his Ukrainian wife and family. I want to travel there and see him again, and am worried about his safety and the fate of that beautiful country, now threatened by Russia. What will happen to Ukraine? Let’s figure it out.
We’ll pretend that we are writing an article for the CIA’s Presidential Daily Brief. I was once offered a job on that publication, but took a higher paid consultancy elsewhere instead. I do know a bit about the approach, however. We will examine open source reporting, U.S. government assessments, overhead assets, and HUMINT (human intelligence sources), and then will do a six-months-out forecast.
Open sources – publicly available news outlets – are mostly in hand-wringing mode, saying that Putin’s motives are inscrutable, and/or that he is focused on increasing his own dwindling popularity. For example, The Washington Post (1/16/2022), stated that even “the state-owned Russian pollster WCIOM…[reported] that just 25 percent of Russians trusted Putin to resolve their problems,” and that the non-government Levada Center polls show that “a mere 32 percent” of Russians would vote for Putin in an election.
Some outlets note that Russia seized 20 percent of the Republic of Georgia in 2008, including the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and of course invaded Ukraine in 2014 and seized the coal-mining, Russian-speaking region of the Donbas and the strategically important Crimea. Former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili stated in Foreign Policy in 2019 that “whenever Putin’s domestic popularity dips, he either escalates an ongoing conflict or launches a new offensive,” and that “it’s no coincidence that Putin’s approval rating peaked in 2015, after the annexation of Crimea.”
Turning to our own government’s assessments, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken says that, “it may well be that … [Putin] has not fully decided on what he’s going to do….” Former National Security Council staffer Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, not inhibited by being in office, rated the chances of invasion at “eight out of ten” (NPR, 1/13/22). It is clear that recent US-Russian diplomatic talks have been useless, with Russia making absurd demands, such as insisting that Ukraine never be allowed to choose to join NATO.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has tipped its poker hand to Russia, letting Putin know that we will not send our troops to defend Ukraine. A cynic might argue that that move was worse than “bringing a knife to a gun fight” – it was more like “bringing a slice of quiche and a glass of white wine to a gunfight”!
But the U.S. is not totally without cards to play. Secretary Blinken has stated that there will be major financial consequences for Russia if an invasion is launched. He refused to specify these, but it appears likely that the major blow would be cutting off Russia from the international SWIFT banking system. This would prevent Putin and his oligarchs from transferring money overseas.
The New York Times (NYT, 1/9/2022) says that is not really effective, since Russia and China have set up a competing system. But expert professor Harley Balzer disagrees, saying that the new Russia-China system is “much ado about nothing,” carries very few transfers, and losing SWIFT would “have a serious long-term impact.” (Atlantic Council.org, 1/12/22).
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has weighed in, warning his Russian counterparts that the U.S. military is preparing to support a major, “bloody” Ukrainian insurgency, after an invasion (NYT, 1/14/22).
Overhead assets (satellites, spy planes and drones) and other sources have revealed that over 100,000 Russian troops have massed on Ukraine’s borders on three sides, with plans for over 75,000 more soon (NYT, 12/5/2021). The Russians will likely deploy their TOS-1 Buratino thermobaric rocket launcher after its “successes” in Syria, wiping out several city blocks with each salvo. Ukrainian and even U.S. forces have nothing to match this horrifying weapon (19fortyfive.com, 1/2/22 and NationalInterest.org, 12/2/15).
Of course I do not have a HUMINT network in Ukraine. But in 2021 my buddy in Kiev thought that “Putin is saber-rattling” and that President Zelensky of Ukraine was “exaggerating” the Russian threat in order to prop up his waning popularity. But now my buddy is “starting to worry.”
The elephant in the room is that virtually no-one is trying to analyze Putin’s motivations, and if they do they say he is “inscrutable.” Rubbish. The big prize is incredibly obvious. Putin wants Donald Trump back in power. It is clearly Putin’s assessment that Trump will do more damage to the U.S. government and society than Putin ever could directly. So Putin is using Ukraine to distract and humiliate President Biden, hoping to re-elect Trump – or any Trumpian Republican.
I estimate that it is 65 percent likely that Russia will invade Ukraine within the next six months, coming through Donbas, Crimea, over the northern borders, and via friendly Belarus. However, as with Georgia, I think that Putin will not occupy all of Ukraine, since he realizes that would be an over-reach. Instead, he will pull back some of his attacking forces after a “reasonable negotiation,” and “settle” for humiliating Ukraine and the U.S., while holding on to some new territory.
Putin may well grab and hold the rest of the Black Sea coast of Ukraine, including Odessa, and link up with the Russian-leaning pseudo-state of Transdniestria, in eastern Moldova. That would isolate Ukraine from trade with the West, and directly threaten West-leaning Moldova and Romania.
Soooo, if like me you want to travel to Ukraine, do it soon.
Photos courtesy Lew Toulmin