Wars are unpredictable affairs. Experts can evaluate troop strength and weaponry. But morale and courage do not lend themselves to quantifiable analysis. Nor does leadership. No one can predict when a former KGB agent will become psychotic, or when a former comic will mutate from a Charlie Chaplin to a Winston Churchill.
But allowing for the uncertainty, it now appears likely that Russia will lose its war against Ukraine.
Russian forces are running out of supplies. There are reports of hungry Russian soldiers looting supermarkets and gas stations, desperately seeking food and fuel. Russian rations have been found bearing 2002 expiration dates, evidence of corruption within Russia’s military bureaucracy. That 40-mile convoy of armored vehicles, the subject of much speculation, has been stalled outside the capital for days, apparently unable to move. The reason may relate, again, to corruption. Reportedly, government officials bought cheap Chinese imitations of the Michelin XZL military tire, and the shoddy merchandise is failing, as counterfeits are wont to do.
Cable television maps show expanding Russian penetration into the country. But appearances are deceiving. Ukraine is very large, and the Ukrainian defense forces are trading territory for time. The further the Russians advance, the longer and more vulnerable their supply lines become. So while they may occupy more space, they are unable to capture many cities.
Moreover, it is not clear whether capturing cities represents any kind of victory. Russians troops may blast their way in, but once in, they lack the manpower to control. In the southern city of Kherson, military units were greeted by defiant crowds, jeering and calling them “fascists.” In one video, a local resident can be seen climbing up on a Russian armored personnel carrier, triumphantly waving the Ukrainian flag while local citizens cheer. From the video, it is hard to tell who has conquered whom.
Russia has now committed all of the personnel mobilized for the invasion. There are no remaining reserves. Russian casualties are much higher than expected. Ukrainian military officials recently claimed the figure exceeds 11,000, while Russia put the figure at a much lower 498. Both figures may be dismissed as propaganda, but the actual number doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Russia has become so desperate for manpower that it is hiring Chechens, and offering large cash payments to Syrians, to fight in Ukraine.
The bombing of civilian targets, however inhumane, is another sign of weakness, not strength. Putin and his commanders would not be unleashing this misery if they thought they were winning. Instead, they would be preparing to install a puppet government to rule a sullen and subdued populace. Bombing civilians just stiffens Ukrainian resolve. It is the military equivalent of a childish temper tantrum, and further evidence that Russia is losing.
Anything can happen. But in view of what is happening so far, it may be time to start planning for Russia’s defeat. And that planning should begin with this somewhat counter-intuitive realization: historically, Russia and the United States have been friends, not enemies.
The pattern goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War, when Russia proclaimed the founding of the League of Armed Neutrality. Ostensibly the League’s purpose was to protect the shipping of neutral countries, but practically it served to undermine Britain’s blockade of its rebellious colonies.
During the Civil War, Russia was one of the few European powers to openly side with the Union. After the war, when the Grand Duke Alexis visited the United States in December 1871, Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the Supreme Court Justice, penned this grateful poetic greeting:
Bleak are our shores with the blasts of December,
Fettered and chill is the rivulet’s flow;
Throbbing and warm are the hearts that remember
Who was our friend when the world was our foe.
Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, a deal advantageous to both sides. In 1905, Russia trusted the United States enough to accept President Theodore Roosevelt as mediator in the peace talks following its disastrous war with Japan.
Pre-Soviet Russia was America’s ally in World War I, and Russia under the Soviets was its ally in World War II. In the final days of the Soviet Union, President Gorbachev joined the United States in condemning Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Although Russian troops did not participate in Desert Storm, the country was an important part of the American-led coalition.
Even during the coldest days of the Cold War, the two super-powers were punctilious in following protocols designed to ensure that American and Russian soldiers never actually fired on each other.
There are many possible theories for this historic pattern. One may be geography. Russia and America are on different sides of planet. Sharing no borders, they have historically experienced less friction than other major powers. Instead of sharing borders, they have shared common enemies: England in the early days of the Republic, Germany in the 20th century.
Planning for Russia’s defeat requires envisioning a Russia without Putin. Such a Russia will eventually exist, whether through natural or unnatural causes. (Lindsey Graham may not be diplomatic, but he may prove prophetic.) A Russia without Putin may be no more of a threat to the United States than Russia under Boris Yeltsin was.
It may also be a Russia with whom we share a common rival. Russia is one of two major powers on the Eurasian land mass. The other is China. Of the two, it is not hard to see who will be the greater threat to the United States in the 21st century.
Russia is not the Soviet Union. Its population, at 147.5 million, is less than half that of the United States, and it is declining. Its GDP is about $1.5 trillion, smaller than Italy’s, and about 1/16th the size of the America’s. Its nuclear weapons make Russia a military power to be reckoned with. But in terms of economic power, it is no rival.
China is another story. Its population, at 1.4 billion, is more than four times that of the United States. Its GDP is ten times larger than Russia’s, and about 70% the size of America’s. Unlike Russia, it is a high tech super-power. Domestically, China squelches dissent, and oppresses ethnic and religious minorities. Internationally, China threatens its neighbors and issues expansionist claims to the South China Sea.
If America faces a threat from the Eurasian land mass in the 21st century, that threat is more likely to come from China than from Russia.
Starting with the Revolution, the United States has always sought allies in its struggles. Ironically, President Nixon’s opening to China changed the geopolitical balance of power in our favor and against the Soviet Union during the Cold war. A reverse approach to Russia could shift the balance of power in our favor against China in the 21st century.
Which brings us back to Ukraine.
If Russia is going to lose that war – and the evidence is mounting that it will lose – it is vital that its defeat be seen as Putin’s defeat, not Russia’s. Cutting off trade with Russia and disconnecting them from our banking system are fit and proper measures while their invasion continues. But we should stand ready to restore those commercial ties as soon as possible.
Most importantly, we should understand that Russia’s defeat will mark a harrowing humiliation for the nation. It is tempting to respond: Good, they deserve to be humiliated. But humiliated nations may go from bad to worse. Germany’s humiliation at Versailles led to something much worse than an autocratic Kaiser.
In the short run, the United States must stand by Ukraine, and do all it can to ensure the survival and success of that valiant nation. In the long run, the United States stands to benefit from a healthy Russia restored to the company of civilized nations. The time for that restoration is not now. But it will come. And we should be ready.