Barry R. Posen’s just-published article (“Ukraine’s Implausible Theories of Victory: The Fantasy of Russian Defeat and the Case for Diplomacy now in Foreign Affairs”) is an exercise in wishful thinking on the one hand and willful inattention to inconvenient facts on the other. The result is an argument that is as implausible as those he claims to reject, both because it rests on unconvincing logic and because it ignores certain elementary empirical realities.
The Problems with Posen’s Ideas on Ukraine
It is striking just how often Posen resorts to the word “unlikely.” It appears a total of seven times, usually at critical junctures of his argument. The word “likely” appears six times. As I illustrate below, these words are intended to convey that “theories” of Ukraine’s victory are implausible, while his own theory of stalemate is plausible. In fact, his case against a Ukrainian victory is weak and his case for negotiation is even weaker. And that means that the case for a Ukrainian victory is, by the same token, far stronger than Posen cares to admit.
How do we know that something is or is not unlikely if Posen provides only one side of the story, that which corresponds to his own preconceived conclusions? According to Posen, “In Ukraine, the Russian army is likely strong enough to defend most of its gains. In Russia, the economy is autonomous enough and Putin’s grip tight enough that the president cannot be coerced into giving up those gains, either.”
Perhaps, but “likely strong enough” is not much of an endorsement of the Russian army’s strength. Moreover, Posen’s sweeping conclusion ignores the possibility—and reality—that the Russian army’s likely strength may vary. At this time, for instance, the Russians are obviously strong enough to advance incrementally in the Donbas. But they are also weak enough to be retreating in Kherson oblast. Is that a stalemate? Hardly, inasmuch as control of Kherson is strategically important for Ukraine, while control of Luhansk is not.
Posen’s casual use of unlikely and likely also masks the possibility that something may be so minimally unlikely as to be close to being likely—and vice versa. An outcome that is 51% likely is also 49% unlikely, after all, and a two-percentage-point difference isn’t much of a difference. Why should the Ukrainians be alarmed by a 49% likelihood of success? Given the disparity of resources between Russia and Ukraine, a 49% chance of a Ukrainian victory would be cause for rejoicing in Kyiv. How unlikely must the unlikelihood of a positive outcome be for Ukraine to be disheartened? 40%? 35%? 25%? Posen doesn’t tell us.
Posen’s conclusions often rest on flimsy evidence. Consider this, not atypical, statement:
“These early estimates [of the Russian army’s attrition and collapse] now look overly optimistic. If they were accurate, the Russian army ought to have collapsed by now. Instead, it has managed slow but steady gains in the Donbas. Although it is possible that the attrition theory could one day prove correct, that seems unlikely. The Russians appear to have suffered fewer losses than many thought or have nonetheless found a way to keep many of their units up to fighting strength. One way or another, they are finding reserves, despite their stated unwillingness to send recent conscripts or mobilized reservists to the front. And if push came to shove, they could abandon that reluctance.”
First, no one expected attrition to lead to the Russian army’s “collapse by now.” Second, Russia has made “slow but steady gains in the Donbas” because it has concentrated most of its troops in that sector, and not because of its prowess. Third, Ukrainian estimates of Russian war losses—at about 36,00 dead—are roughly twice those used by Posen. There is no likely or plausible reason for thinking these estimates are inaccurate. Indeed, they may be conservative: according to a reliable Russian source, “the Kremlin received nearly 42,000 complaints in April from the relatives of soldiers missing in Ukraine.” That number may be considered a proxy for the number of Russians killed in the war. Finally, the Russians are struggling to find adequate reserves, having been forced to conscript overage men and untrained residents of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics, enticing foreign mercenaries, and hoping to drag the Belarusians into the war. These facts hardly bespeak an army that is easily able to resist pushes and shoves.
Putin’s War Goals
Equally debilitating for his argument is that Posen ignores some inconvenient facts regarding Vladimir Putin’s intentions and goals in the war. Instead, Putin appears only as a run-of-the-mill leader with limited aspirations and rational approaches, while Russian ideology and culture—and especially Russian attitudes toward Ukraine—appear not to matter at all. Ukraine, and its hopes, fears, expectations, and strategies, is equally absent from the analysis. All that seems to matter is Posen’s evaluation of likely and unlikely outcomes.
But Putin is absolutely central to any understanding of the war. He started it, and he appears to be conducting it. He is also the major obstacle to any more or less simple resolution of the war. Putin’s goals are genocidal, intended to erase Ukrainian identity. They are also imperialist, intended to destroy Ukrainian sovereignty and transform Ukraine into a vassal or province of Russia. And, to add insult to injury, Putin appears to have a Ukraine obsession that pushes him toward a position of uncompromising rejection of any solution short of Ukraine’s destruction. Many of his minions and many Russians, including the Russian Orthodox Church, share these barbaric views.
Such a hardline attitude means that Putin will be unwilling to engage in any kind of compromise regarding Ukraine. For him, the war is a zero-sum game, as it is for the Ukrainians. Either he destroys them, or they survive by stopping and perhaps pushing back the Russian advance. Putin will negotiate only if he is forced to negotiate—that is, only if Ukraine does well enough on the battlefield to persuade even him that a Russian victory is impossible and that a Russian defeat is inevitable. In light of this, Posen’s recommendation that “Ukraine’s allies should continue to provide the resources that the country needs to defend itself from further Russian attacks, but they should not encourage it to expend resources on counteroffensives that will likely prove futile” is exactly wrong. Putin will never negotiate as long as he thinks he can win. Only a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, even one that stops short of recapturing all the territories Russia seized since February, is indispensable to bringing Putin to the negotiating table.
Putin’s intransigence, barbarity, and imperial goals are also the major obstacles to Posen’s recommendations for a negotiated peace. Herewith his suggestions: “Each side would have to make painful concessions. Ukraine would have to relinquish considerable territory and do so in writing. Russia would need to relinquish some of its battlefield gains and renounce future territorial claims. To prevent a future Russian attack, Ukraine would surely need strong assurances of U.S. and European military support, as well as continuing military aid (but consisting mainly of defensive, not offensive, weapons). Russia would need to acknowledge the legitimacy of such arrangements. The West would need to agree to relax many of the economic sanctions it has placed on Russia.”
Can one seriously believe that Putin would voluntarily agree “to relinquish some of its battlefield gains and renounce future territorial claims” and “acknowledge the legitimacy” of a militarily strong Ukraine? The likelihood of that would appear to be close to zero, while the unlikelihood is close to 100. The probabilities will change only after the Ukrainians push back and Putin realizes that his goals are unattainable.
Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”