Ukraine: What Have We Learned


It’s been five weeks since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The conflict threatens to stretch out for months; a resolution is murky. Nonetheless, we have learned several important lessons:

1.Putin is a thug. Out here on the Left Coast we never had high expectations for Vladimir Putin. We knew that he came out of the Soviet KGB and heard rumors that he was a “kleptocrat,” reportedly the richest man in Europe ( https://fortune.com/2022/03/02/vladimir-putin-net-worth-2022/). We didn’t trust Vlad. We believed that he contrived to get Donald Trump elected in 2016.

We thought Putin was immoral but smart. When it looked like he was going to invade Ukraine, we worried, “Poor Ukraine. Russia will roll over them in a few days.”

We forgot that thugs often start out wily but then get overconfident — inflated with hubris.  Thugs surround themselves with sycophants.  They start believing their own B.S.

Putin got cocky.  He thought Ukraine and NATO would roll over if he acted tough.  He confused brutality with guile.  As a result, Putin got Russia into a war it cannot win.  Now he is scrambling to find a way out that “saves face.” It’s not clear what that is.

2. Ukraine isn’t going to roll over.  What’s become obvious is that Putin underestimated Ukraine’s military capabilities.  Putin’s initial objective was to quickly occupy Ukraine’s four largest cities: Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, and Lviv.  That’s not going to happen.

Putin underestimated Ukraine and most of us over-estimated Russia.  Most Ukrainians would rather fight to the death than be occupied by Russians.  Given what we’ve seen in the last five weeks, the Ukrainian attitude makes sense: Russia has been brutal with civilians.

Russia has more missiles and bombs than Ukraine does.  But Ukraine has proven superior at ground combat.  It appears that the Ukrainian communication and logistical systems are better than those of the Russians.  For example, it appears that the Russian attack on Kyiv stalled because there was poor communication among the Russian troops and they ran out of supplies.

3. It’s difficult to find middle ground.  Russia has agreed to hold “peace talks” with Ukraine; they’re beeing held in Turkey.  Russia has suggested a “lull” in the fighting; they would pull back from Kyiv and concentrate on solidifying their gains in the east, in the Donbas region.  There’s no reason to believe the Russians are doing anything more than stopping to resupply their troops.

Ukraine would agree to “neutrality” but wants a return of the areas of Ukraine that Russia has seized.  Russia won’t agree to that.  Russia wants the economic sanctions to end; NATO won’t agree to that until Ukraine’s demands are met.

It’s hard to see how there can be a quick negotiated settlement.  Putin needs to save face and that’s not possible.

4.There are important consequences of a protracted conflict:

a. Food:  Russia exports fertilizer, and grain to the West.  These exports will stop as well as Ukrainian agricultural exports. The cessation of Ukrainian agricultural exports will create a food crisis in the Mediterranean region.

Writing in Common Dreams, Steven Devereux (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2022/03/28/russias-war-ukraine-poses-threat-global-food-security) observed: “Ukraine is known as the breadbasket of Europe, and Russia and Ukraine have both become major food exporters in recent years. In 2020 these two countries accounted for one third of the world’s wheat trade and one quarter of the world’s barley trade. Ukraine alone exported 15 percent of the world’s maize and half of all sunflower oil traded globally.”  The war will drive up food prices.

b. Energy: A total blockade of Russia will create a fuel crisis in Europe.  Some EU members are extremely dependent upon Russian gas; for example, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, and Poland.  There is no quick solution for these countries.  (For example, Germany has no port suitable for the processing of liquid natural gas.)  At the moment, Germany and Austria have ordered fuel rationing; they are preparing for Russia to stop sending gas through the pipelines.

Russia is demanding that EU countries pay for Russian gas in roubles (https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/russia-sets-deadline-rouble-gas-payments-europe-calls-it-blackmail-2022-03-31/).  The EU countries seem unlikely to do this. The war will drive up energy prices.

c. Cyber warfare: We haven’t seen the massive cyberattacks that we expected.  But Russia has.  This week Aviation News (https://www.aviation24.be/miscellaneous/russo-ukrainian-war/powerful-cyber-attack-on-russias-civil-aviation-authority-servers-no-more-data-nor-back-up/ ) reported a massive hack: “A powerful and effective cyberattack on the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency (Rosaviatsia) infrastructure that took place on Saturday morning has erased all documents, files, aircraft registration data and mails from the servers. In total, about 65 terabytes of data was erased.”  This suggests that we will see an escalation of cyber attacks.  The war will directly impact US security.

c. Climate Change:  The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a disaster for the climate change movement.  The constant Russian shelling has dire consequences — along with the use of mines and other weapons aimed at civilians.

Because there will be an energy “panic” in Europe, there will be enormous pressure in North America to produce as much oil as possible, so we can ship a lot of it to the EU — to replace the oil no longer provided by Russia.

d. Accidents: the longer the war continues, the greater the probability that Putin will do something horrible.  It’s seems increasingly likely that Russian forces will damage a Ukrainian nuclear plant and cause a massive radiation leak (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/31/nuclear-power-plant-ukraine-danger/).  Sadly, it’s within the realm of possibility that Putin — because he is a thug, who is playing a losing hand — will use tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons.

Summary: If this analysis seems gloomy, it is.  The Russia-Ukraine conflict is going to stretch on; there’s little hope for a quick diplomatic solution.  There are all kinds of sinister side affects.  Putin made a big mistake, but he’s incapable of admitting it.