Dec 15, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

But overall I think that Russia is the major power that has become most vulnerable as the result of the developments of the last few years. It sits between two large economic powers, the EU and China. The EU is launching accession talks with Ukraine, and is distancing itself from dependence on Russian supplies. NATO is enlarged, and Ukraine won't be far behind, probably impelled the most by Poland and Turkey, which border on Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia has become economically totally dependent on China, and if China becomes more aggressive in East Asia, supplies to Russia will diminish. Extreme Russian weakness in its far east will open the door for China to reestablish hegemony over the only Chinese territory which was ceded to western powers and never recovered. When there is talk about Chinese "humiliation," people forget this, but I'm sure China really doesn't.

In central Asia, it's the same story. Russia will lose influence relative to China.

A section of the American foreign policy establishment, and of the European, correctly diagnosed that it was in Russia's best interest to maintain a positive relationship with the West to counterbalance its weakness elsewhere. Putin chose otherwise, unwisely. Most ethnic Russians are socially, culturally, and economically, Westerners with a capital "W."

There is no viable Russian success possible in this aggression against Ukraine. It never made sense in the larger context of the total Russian geopolitical exposure, and I don't think it will last beyond Putin.

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Dec 15, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

It’s the „Baltic Sea“ that Putin would get access to via the Baltic States. Not the „Black sea“

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Yes! Yes yes yes

> Such non-powers can survive for a while, but eventually a conqueror will arrive, and the garden will burn.

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Dec 15, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

"f Germany and France and the UK continue to talk big but let their militaries decay into nothingness, the future of Europe will likely be written in Moscow, despite all of Russia’s stumbles so far." Hear, hear! But how do we get more people to hear it? This is a message that needs to lead in the news and political debate but absolutely struggles to get airtime.

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Didn't take the US long to lose interest in a war with no boots on the ground, I wouldn't be feeling too good if I was Taiwan, their sell by date is whenever the Friendshore onboards enough chip making to not need them anymore.

A real question is, if the Ukraine war gets frozen in amber, and Trump takes the US out of NATO, will Putin just move on to the Baltics without needing to complete a conquest of Ukraine?

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"So Europe — most of all Germany — really needs to step up here. If Germany and France and the UK continue to talk big but let their militaries decay into nothingness, the future of Europe will likely be written in Moscow, despite all of Russia’s stumbles so far."

I don't get it. You describe in this article that "Ukraine wasn’t just much smaller and less militarized than Russia in 2022 — it was also much poorer.", and that Ukraine nonetheless managed to defend itself from the 1st invasion, and to resist afterwards.

So what makes you think that Russia could beat the armies of all the EU countries + the UK, whose combined GDP is more than 10 times greater than Russia's?

The Russian army would probably lose in a conventional war against only the French and German armies combined.

Against that of the 28, the result is clear. No need for NATO and the USA. They would certainly help, but would not be indispensable.

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"With the notable exception of Poland" is a textbook case of "with notably rare exceptions". The frontline EU states alone have military capacity comparable to Russia and are building fast.


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The US has been trickling in support. We started out sending Javelin missiles, which was controversial, we've now sent them a relatively small amount of equipment (two companies of tanks, some IFVs, 1% of our rocket launchers). The claim on munitions has been higher, the production rate on Patriot missiles, GMLRS, etc is so low that we've been running down our stocks to provide what we have. For 155mm ammunition, I estimate that we've sent more shells than we currently have in inventory, although the actual numbers are classified.

This has been a disaster because the longer the war goes on the more adapted the Russians become. ATACMs is a good example, we refused to send them for years. When we finally did, the first thing the Ukrainians did with them is hit a KA52 helicopter base and destroy a number of attack helicopters. This is most significant because those helicopters were the weapon which turned the Ukrainian counterattack, by hitting breaching vehicles from long range.

If we had sent those missiles earlier it is possible that they could have made a significant impact on the Ukrainian offensive.

I don't know why the Biden administration is bumbling its way through this crisis like so many others, but I agree that without US intervention the Baltics could be subsumed in a week. Europe doesn't have the ability to protect them, and the single most effective military in Europe, that of Finland, was designed to fight with its own borders. They aren't organized or equipped to leave Finland to fight.

As much as I would like to see Europe take its own defense seriously, they've shown that they have no interest in doing so and this war hasn't changed that. As a result, we are running down stocks on missiles that we would desperately need in a war with China, and that's bad.

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The Finland winter war analogy is a good one….though remember that Finland was neutral toward Russia for many decades afterwards.

What you are missing is that Ukraine is a wedge issue for both Biden and Trump supporters and partisans generally. You yourself are looking at this with a heavy emphasis on Putin and Trump, which impedes rational analysis.

Remember that the 2014 invasion did not turn Putin into an evil Hitler for Dem pols (Obama and Kerry later cooperated with and entreated Putin in Syria and on other fronts), nor was Ukraine considered a strategic issue of national import for the US after 2014. Yes, at least they put on some sanctions against Russia (and helped train UA troops- albeit with no US weapons) rather than appeasing and kowtowing to Putin as Obama/Biden did during their famous “reset” after Putin’s invasion and effective annexation of Georgian territory (hey- I wonder what gave Putin the idea he could take what he wanted without consequences?).

It really was the Hillary campaign’s “Russian collusion” disinformation in 2016 (and after) that turned Putin into enemy number one with Dem partisans, and protecting Bidens’ ill-gotten gains and interference in Ukraine made plucky Ukraine a hero of Trump’s first impeachment.

Trump, to his credit, confronted Russia in Syria, opposed the Nordstream pipeline, sent weapons to Ukraine and harangued the EU on its inadequate defence spending. However, Putin was not afraid of Trump in Ukraine. Putin began his prep for invasion in 2020 during Covid- Russia cut fiscal policy and had a budget surplus (and the lowest debt to GDP amongst OECD countries) in 2020 when everyone else was spending money like water to offset the pandemic. He also built up a 300 billion war chest of special reserves (much of which now frozen in the US and Europe). He was preparing for a more confrontational/interventionist strategic in the CIS states that had more to do with Putin’s own legacy than whether Biden or Trump were elected- a re-litigation of the terms of the breakup of the Soviet empire that more heavily weighted Russian interests than the one Yeltsin acceded to in 1991. Crimea and the Donbas were just the beginning.

Biden, while Russia was massing troops on Ukraine’s borders and intervening in Belarus and Kazakhstan, signed a Russian-friendly nuke deal with Russia, summited with Putin and blessed Nordstream 2. More appeasement and entreaty. At the same time he made another NATO declaration with Zelensky (Nov 2021), said nothing as Zelensky implemented discriminatory and jingoistic anti-Russian legislation in Ukraine and fortunately sent more shipments of the MPADs the US had been sent under Trump.

However, despite believing that a Russian invasion was imminent by late 2021, Biden sent no heavy weapons to Ukraine, no air defense systems to Ukraine to protect civilians, and moved no additional US troops or planes to Europe in 2021 (this would have left the US and Europe spectacularly unprepared if Putin wanted more than just Ukraine). In fact, Biden and US Intel thought Ukraine would lose quickly and were more focused on evacuating Zelensky than arming him.

Fortunately, Putin chose a bizarre decapitation strategy in Ukraine rather than a well-resourced invasion.- believing his yes-men that the government would fall quickly and be replaced by a pro-Russian one. Russian assets (Ukrainian pols) in major cities were set to peacefully hand keys to Russian civil defense troops. This indeed happened in Kherson and several southern and NE towns but not in Kharkiv and Odessa. When the decapitation strategy failed and the UA fought valiantly (mostly with MPADs and western Intel), Russia changed its military leadership and strategy, withdrew to defensive lines (and behind natural barriers like the River) and heavily reinforced them with mines, barriers and the conscription of hundreds of thousands of new troops, and beefed up military production while annexing (in theory) the four provinces they partially occupied.

Russia has followed their botched decapitation with a very intelligent and sustainable strategy that plays to Russian strengths.

Biden’s strategy has wavered between capricious and pragmatic while consistently being dishonest. Taibbi had a great take on this a couple days ago. Painting Putin as Hitler and supporting Ukraine polled well with his base as a wedge issue and made Biden look decisive after the Afghan debacle, so his base became massive and bloodthirsty interventionist chicken hawks when it came to Ukraine as Biden and team fed them lies about the war and nice throwaway lines never ever linked to actual US policy (“Putin must go”, “Putin is a war criminal”).

Biden sent heavy arms to Ukraine…..usually at least six months later than necessary. He dithered on tanks, HImARs, ATAMCs, air defence, F-16s…..you name it. Moreover, he has let most of Europe get away (brazenly) with continuing to underspend on defense and allowing France to contribute almost nothing to Ukraine. If Ukraine is so important an issue, why is Europe not treating it like one. And why should it be America’s problem? A problem is that demonizing Putin and lying about Ukraine’s prospects keeps Biden’s base happy, but he has done far too little actual work with allies, with defense production, with armaments to convince any rational non-partisan analyst that Ukraine is a vitally important issue worth spending an extra $50 or $100 billion a year on in perpetuity while most of Europe continues to spend less than 2 pct of GDP on defense. Yes- the EU is spending a good amount on Ukraine (particularly Germany) but German and French companies stand to make bank during the rebuilding.

As for Ukraine, with no Air Force and a lack of manpower nobody serious believed they would ever be able to breach the heavily entrenched Russian lines last fall. These were lies told for political wedge purposes or (charitably) relied on the very low prob scenario of all of Russian conscripts running away and abandoning lines at the first sight of a Bradley. The latter scenario requires ignorance of the techniques Russia has used for 80 years to keep soldiers at the front from running away. Ukraine would have had more success if tanks and APCs had been sent in quantity 3-4 months earlier (before Russian defenses were complete and conscripts trained and deployed). Biden’s (and the EU’s) dithering destroyed chances for the offensive. All is not lost given the small bridgeheads across the river, but Russia is probably going to make more gains in Zap and the Donbas than the UA will make in the south unless the river freezes hard or dries up or Ukraine gets 50 F16s with thousands of missiles (unlikely in the near term). Hats off to the UK and much of E Europe for being more proactive and trying to push the laggards in the US, France and Germany.

As for Ukraine- it is a bankrupt, corrupt, heavily damaged country with a good portion of its population now living in the EU and with the surviving husbands of the women and children in the EU hoping to join them as soon as feasible. Free housing. Good work opportunities. No bombs. No conscription. Ukrainians are definitely more patriotic and nationalistic but they are also not stupid.

Russian sanctions were designed to be leaky. Gazprom and other metals and energy producers were never sanctioned nor prevented from receiving payments from the EU and US. Gas continues to flow through an undamaged pipeline in Ukraine to Europe while Europe imports large amounts of Russian LNG. French and German and Italian exporters see a windfall as their clients in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, China and India mysteriously double their orders for dual use components. .

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"Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are small countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, and would offer Putin access to the [Baltic] Sea. They have tiny populations, and their only real defense is their NATO membership."

Hm. Putin thought he would roll Ukraine like a carpet and that didn't go well. Those countries have conscript armies, iirc. They can generate significant fighting force fairly fast. I wouldn't count on Russia just steam rolling them.

"After that, Putin would definitely at least think about attacking Poland. Poland has a population similar to Ukraine, and a bigger manufacturing industry and much higher GDP, so it could put up quite a fight, even without U.S. aid."

Hm. Putin is old, he won't live forever. How long do you think all this digestion of Ukraine (guerrilla warfare would be a given), conquest of the Baltic and rearmament would take? At least a solid decade?

"if it refuses to do so, and leaves itself open to Russian attack, Europe will have only its own ineffectuality to blame. If this happens, Europe will have proven itself to be a defunct civilization."

Right. Much as I like to shred Europe and the EU for its ineffectuality myself, we still have nukes. If Russia crosses into Germany, I'm pretty sure France and the UK will go nuclear. It doesn't end well for Europe but I'd say the US won't have to worry about Russia anymore for a couple of centuries either...

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One of the best things I've read about Putin's reasons for invading was in William Burns' memoir "The Back Channel". In a meeting with Putin in 2008 (?) he goes off about Ukraine joining NATO as a threat to Russia and adds in "Didn't you know Ukraine isn't even a real country?". Goes to show his motivations and it's great that you touched upon the fact that self determination is something Ukraine will inevitably win out of this war.

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I have mostly not found the argument "If we don't stop Ukraine here, Poland is next" Not to be credible. Russia has been stopped in Ukraine and if they can't handle Ukraine they certainly can't handle Poland.

But I think you make an excellent point that Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania are in danger of Russia keeps its chunk of Ukraine and NATO deterrence is not credible with a Trump administration.

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>> (Side note: Imagine what a war with China would look like.)

Ummm... mostly an air/naval battle over the Taiwan Strait and throughout the greater Pacific that involves missiles and barely any artillery?

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Not a military analyst either but regarding the thesis of anti tank missiles making armored vehicles advance close to impossible it's worth following another important development from the Israeli-Hamas war. The Israeli Armoured Shield Protection - Active (בראשי תיבות: ASPRO-A is able to shield Israeli tanks almost hermetically from anti tank missiles (upwards of 95% success according to official data but really very few cases in which it failed so far) which is a game changer in this particular conflict and has allowed the Israelis to advance their armored vehicles with relatively minor losses from the many anti-tank missiles of Hamas

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Great article Noah! I agree that if Russia is not stopped, it ultimately wants to reclaim its Soviet borders, which were the most manageable for Russia to ever hold and defend in history. As Peter Zeihan points out in The Absent Superpower (https://thexproject.substack.com/p/the-absent-superpower-the-shale-revolution-ccb), Russia is in its demographic "twilight" and, therefore, only has a few years remaining to make that happen before it the male fighting population ages out.

With that said, @Dr. Pippa has argued that WWIII started years ago, the nature of which is fundamentally different than prior world wars in that it is being fought in space, cyber, and undersea, and it is also an economic, financial, and technological war. She has said, "We have a hot war in cold places and a cold war in hot places." (https://drpippa.substack.com/p/a-hot-war-in-hot-places?utm_source=profile&utm_medium=reader2; https://drpippa.substack.com/p/wwiii-winning-the-peace?utm_source=profile&utm_medium=reader2). The US won the Cold War by outspending and bankrupting the Soviet Union. Putin and Xi surely know that recent history and the precarious state of the US Treasury market, which is under stress with the need to finance $2 trillion in deficits in a supposedly robust economy with low employment. So, maybe Putin is winning more than 18% of the Ukrainian territory at this point with the additional US deficit spending on the war and with the political discord.

But the Russia-Ukraine war is a small battle in the much bigger war for regional hegemony of the Eurasian landmass, and it may not be Russia but China that is the more significant longer-term threat to US strategic interests in denying such a regional hegemon. @Dr. Pippa suggested in a recent article on the Xi-Biden deal (which she claims was really a Xi-Newsom one) that part of the deal in thawing tensions with China in the short run to help service US domestic political interests is that the US will look the other way as China absorbs the resource-rich Eastern portion of Russia (https://drpippa.substack.com/p/deal-the-siberian-tiger-and-the-panda?utm_source=profile&utm_medium=reader2).

If true, that is very concerning and short-sighted.

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A bit of perspective: look at the change in the late 20th century map (USSR vs. stand-alone Russia). Now consider the addition of Finland to NATO, a doubling of NATO’s border with Russia.

Sure you can keep rapidly conscripting soldiers, but are they really soldiers who have had any decent training? And at some point, you’re forced to start conscripting from the middle class.

Attack Poland, where two million — a significant percentage of Russia’s young, educated tech-savvy — fled? If Russia thinks 30 Ukrainian drone hobbyists on bicycles were effective, it would be another mistake to underestimate Poland.

Putin has significantly damaged Russia’s economic prospects for two generations.

Again, China doesn’t have the conduits to take on the militaries outside the South China Sea. Who would be blockading who? They have provisioning reach of 1,000 nautical miles, hardly a world-beating conventional military force. Of course, China could use its modern missiles, but then all hell breaks loose and the whole world loses, an empty “victory” on an unprecedented scale. If Xi wants to stay in power, falling on his sword won’t work.

China likely will fall further behind on leading-edge chip manufacturing. American companies will invent better and safer batteries in this decade (e.g., silicon anode with thermal runway mitigation technologies, solid state). Its cheap labor has evolved into the middle-income trap.

Pollyannish? I don’t think so. Putin and Xi represent the worst of this generation of world leaders. The Silk Road Project is a failure, creating bad infrastructure and unsustainable debt in too many countries. It stands as an example of China’s failure in soft diplomacy as well as engineering incompetence.

Economics trumps warfare over the long term.

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