Just as with the physical war, the information war is being waged in different theatres with different results. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s resolve is winning the information war at home, although Russia’s indiscriminate bombing almost seems calculated to reinforce Ukrainian determination. He’s also winning hands down in Europe among both the people and national leaders. Even Germany has agreed to supply weapons and finally spend 2% of its GDP on defense. Where he doesn’t seem to be winning is perhaps the most important theatre, namely elite and popular opinion in Russia.
Despite the appearance of some anti-war protestors on the streets of Russian cities, there’s little evidence that concerns about the war have significantly penetrated the mutually reinforcing echo chambers of the Russian media, the carefully curated Russian internet, and the national persecution complex. It’s going to take more than a few kleptocrats losing their megayachts to turn President Vladimir Putin around.
Once again, the West has fallen into a rationality trap. Just because most of us in Western democracies thought war in Europe was unthinkable and there was no rational reason why Putin would start one, doesn’t mean that Putin considered it was unthinkable or an irrational way to achieve his quasi-theological Ethno-nationalistic ends. Even though we’ve seen Putin and his Soviet predecessors use armed force whenever it suited their purposes, we keep dismissing it as a possibility. Are we going to keep projecting our abhorrence of war onto authoritarian states that simply see it as a tool to achieve their ends?
Which leads us to our region. I don’t know if Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s ‘limitless friendship’ means they have a coordinated plan (such as phase 1: Ukraine, phase 2: Taiwan, phase 3: the world) or simply have conversations in which the everyday meaning of words such as democracy and the right of countries to determine their own paths are simply turned upside down (at time of writing, the link to the text of their joint statement released in early February hosted by the Kremlin’s website seems to be down—this report on freelance cyber operations could explain why). But we can be sure that Xi and the Chinese Communist Party are closely watching the invasion of Ukraine and learning. They’ll be particularly interested in seeing how long the Western democracies’ newfound resolve and ability to supply weapons last for.
Let’s be clear about what the Russian demands for ‘denazification and demilitarisation’ of Ukraine mean. The former means that Russia, or more specifically Putin, decides who the government of Ukraine should be. The latter means Ukraine can have no ability to stop Russia from installing its chosen government in Kyiv whenever it wishes. Taken together, they result in the end of an independent Ukraine. In effect, any Russian negotiating position that starts with those terms is demanding unconditional surrender and a future for Ukraine that at best mirrors today’s Belarus.
Based on the massive amount of footage on the internet of destroyed and abandoned Russian vehicles in Ukraine, the ‘modernized’ Russian military hasn’t shown itself to be the invincible force that many commentators had depicted before the invasion.
However, the Soviet art of war, continued by the Russians, is not based on tactical excellence or the technical superiority of individual weapon systems. It’s about achieving operational and strategic outcomes by expanding whatever resources are necessary. The Russians may be sending 30- or 40-year-old Soviet-era tanks to Ukraine, but losing one and its crew to a US$100,000 Javelin missile may be a fair exchange from Russia’s perspective when it has tens of thousands more stockpiled across Russia and its crony states to throw at the problem.
That said, Russia’s ability to invade NATO states must be questioned. If the 50-kilometer-long immobilized convoy stretching back from Kyiv to the Belorussian border was instead stretching back from Warsaw, NATO airpower would have turned it into a rerun of the 1991 Highway of Death out of Kuwait City.
While the numbers of casualties are contested, it’s clear that the Russian approach has led to them suffer extraordinarily high combat losses. The Ukrainians are claiming they’ve killed more than 10,000 Russian soldiers already. While that may be somewhat exaggerated, there’s more than enough footage on the internet to indicate that many thousands of deaths are plausible. Since 2003, the US-led coalition has suffered 4,910 killed in Iraq, and Russian losses in Ukraine may well have exceeded that in a little more than a week. Considering the Soviet Union suffered 15,000 troops killed over a decade in Afghanistan, the current approach is proving expensive, even in Russian terms.
Consequently, it hasn’t taken the Russian military long to resort to its default Grozny approach of flattening everything to defeat the Ukrainians’ will to fight. And with no obvious off-ramp (the Ukrainians ceding their statehood or Putin admitting the invasion was a mistake seem equally unlikely), things are going to get a lot worse before they get better as the Ukrainians hunker down to defend their cities. Kyiv is more than 10 times the size of Grozny, but that won’t deter Putin’s generals from setting about their handiwork.
The war has set back the cause of nuclear non-proliferation by decades. Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union in return for security guarantees from Russia, the US and the UK under the Budapest Memorandum. How’s that working out for them? Conversely, one key factor stopping NATO from intervening and using its airpower to turn the road between Belarus and Kyiv into a highway of death are Russia’s nuclear weapons and Putin’s thinly veiled threats to use them. In short, whether they want freedom from coercion or the freedom to coerce, many states must be considering nuclear weapons to be a pretty good option right now.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. An actor/comedian is showing up the supposed professionals running many countries by demonstrating to the world what true leadership looks like. Volodymyr Zelensky won’t ever have to buy himself a beer in any pub in the world (outside of Russia) for the rest of his life.