Who Can Pull Their Eyes Away from Ukraine?
Is there anything else worth talking about?
Happy Friday my beautiful babies. Cue my intro music. Last week’s Jackal was dark, serious, and gritty, like the new Batman movie, so we’ll be doing the Batman Forever version of the Jackal this week to keep things light and fun (no Senator Romney, that doesn’t mean we’re bringing back the Bat Nipples).
Basically, I wanted to do a round-up of everything going on with Ukraine and then give you a few should-reads for the weekend.
First, some housekeeping: Substack has an official app that works really well. Yes, they do ask writers to promote it in a post, but I have been using it and overall it’s pretty great.
The best part: Longer posts will never cut-off in your email inbox 😈. Comments, media, likes, etc., all work in the app. Right now it only works for iPhone, but if you are a weirdo with an Android1 you can join the waitlist here.
What does Putin even want in Ukraine?
This question is probably eating at a lot of people. It seems like, right now, Putin’s best hope for a victory in Ukraine will only be Pyrrhic. Even if his forces are successful in taking Kyiv, installing a puppet government, and controlling the country, they will face a dedicated Ukrainian insurgency for years, possibly decades. This piece is a little bit older, but it is the best explainer on how a long-form Ukrainian resistance could emerge:
The key elements determining the success of an insurgency are the degree to which the populace supports the invading power, the presence of external sanctuaries and support for the insurgents and terrain providing cover and concealment for the rebel fighters, and the ability of an information operations campaign to influence the occupying power. On all of these fronts, Russia has cause for concern; a Ukrainian insurgency could spell doom not just for the Russian occupation of the country but also for Vladimir Putin’s reign of terror. […] The parallels with Afghanistan should cause Putin to quake in his boots; in Ukraine, Russia would again face a committed population with a history of resisting foreign invasion, likely with significant external support. While Afghanistan’s mountains provide better cover for insurgents than do Ukraine’s plains, the country is so vast that the usual ratio of one counterinsurgent for every 50 people in the occupied country is probably insufficient; even that ratio would require over 800,000 Russian troops to occupy Ukraine after an invasion—likely for many years to come.
However, any long-lasting insurgency would need support from NATO, as Emily Harding notes:
Ukrainian insurgents would have distinct advantages. They have a populace that is more than willing to support them and world powers that are eager to see Moscow pay a price for its aggression. If an insurgency develops, NATO members should step up to provide critical support to the fighters, in the form of arms, training, secure communications and safe havens. If Moscow’s control stops at the Dnieper River, this insurgency could be based out of a protected enclave in western Ukraine. But if the whole country falls, NATO members on Ukraine’s perimeter will need to establish safe egress routes for people and ingress routes for weapons.
This is weird to read, because it's simultaneously horrific while also encouraging: Ultimately Putin isn’t going to “win” in Ukraine, but his road to failure will be filled with Ukrainian lives. That’s why it’s worth celebrating every Russian setback in Ukraine:
Overall, we are lucky that the Russian Army seems to be completely incompetent and equally lucky that the Ukrainians are such adept fighters. Putin really was expecting this to be an easy war that they’d win in 48 hours, and we are now more than ten days out and they are making little progress.
So, an obvious question is that if Putin’s endgame is looking this terrible, then why did he even bother invading Ukraine in the first place, and what does he want out of this? We’ve sort of answered the first question in a lot of different ways lately, but Putin essentially views “Russia” as the entirety of the former Soviet Union, and part of the kingdom of “Rus” that he wants to restore. David Brooks sums this up in a great piece from today:
The war in Ukraine is not primarily about land; it’s primarily about status. Putin invaded so Russians could feel they are a great nation once again and so Putin himself could feel that he’s a world historical figure along the lines of Peter the Great.
This has always been his goal, and the risks of going in always seemed worth taking to Putin. However, that doesn’t mean he fully considered the risks in the way that you or I would.
Even though some Western “leaders” have called Putin “smart” and “savvy,” in reality he is kind of a big dumb idiot. He has a lot of trouble thinking strategically and makes big, weighty decisions based on emotion. A really obvious narrative that has unfolded over the past few years has been the cozy relationship between Putin and Trump. There are a lot of factors (and mysteries) behind that relationship, but one simple explanation that gets overlooked is that Putin and Trump are very similar in their thinking. Too many people think of Putin as ruthless and methodical, but he is very much controlled by his id in the same way as Trump (he might also be a narcissist).
After the (attempted) 2014 impeachment and fleeing of Putin’s puppet in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, he was so incensed by the idea of Ukrainian independence that he threw caution to the wind and invaded Crimea. It was an emotional reaction that pulled Russia back from its (at that point) more normal ties to Europe. It was a dumb move that only a big dumb idiot would make and it should have been clear then that Putin isn’t able to properly weigh the consequences for his actions.
And the consequences for Russia are disastrous. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate this, but the economic sanctions on Russia have basically destroyed it as a country. Russia went from being a moderately big economic superpower to being poorer than American Samoa in the span of a week (this isn’t a knock on American Samoa, but it’s itty bitty). As a country run by a dictator, Russia was already suffering from brain drain (i.e., when younger, smarter, and educated Russians move out of the country) and that has been multiplied by ten-fold due to the crippling sanctions the West has enacted. To put it simply: Russia was sent back 50 years economically, and it may never catch back up to the rest of the world. They will default on their debt relatively soon and will be unable to import things like food or other goods from the West because their currency is worthless. The Russian Army is suffering outsized losses, but they are nothing compared to how many ordinary Russians are going to die over the next decade due to sanctions. And it’s all thanks to Putin.
So, Putin probably feels backed into a corner, and knows that his best possible outcome is securing some portion of Ukraine. The main worry is that the prospect of his total defeat is making him desperate.
Will this psycho really use a nuke?
The main reason the West/NATO has not gotten involved militarily and done any pew pew action is the very real worry of escalation. This is a foreign policy concept that basically says:
Once you get into a shooting war with an opponent, both sides eventually start using bigger and bigger guns.
If one side has the biggest gun, nuclear weapons, causality tells us that eventually those will get used.
Any NATO conflict with Russia inevitably becomes World War III.
Basically, the reason we do not want to get into a shooting war with Putin is because we are worried that he will eventually use a nuke. Tom Nichols gets to the heart of this, and has been on the “let’s not do a war” side of dealing with Putin:
Here is the money tweet in a long thread of money tweets:
There is something of a disconnect between normal foreign policy types and people who work in intelligence when it comes to Putin using a nuke. Regular diplomats like Michael McFaul and Fiona Hill have both said pretty openly that they think Putin is crazy enough to nuke Ukraine. And this makes sense, given that Putin has already hinted that he might use biological weapons in the conflict.
But folks who work in intelligence seem adamant in their belief that Putin will never use a nuclear weapon (which makes me wonder if they know something we don’t, like the nukes are broken).
The logical response, then, is why can’t we do something like a No Fly Zone if we don’t have to worry about this escalating to nuclear war? Well, the fundamental argument is that Putin will not use a nuke (or more severe weapons) on his own, meaning, if we don’t give him a reason to launch a nuclear weapon at Ukraine, he won't.
Think of it this way: North Korea is a torture chamber disguised as a country. There are millions of people starving and in slavery all because of an insane dictator who controls the country. Why can’t the world’s most powerful army just go in and take him out? The primary reason is because Kim is happy to watch American movies and eat imported Taco Bell as long as we leave him alone. But once we draw a painting for him detailing his exit from this world, he will take Seoul with him on the way out.
Putin, fundamentally, doesn’t want a war with NATO, because he knows he will lose. What he was (and is still) betting on is that the West would allow him to slowly rebuild Russia without punishing him too severely. He might still think that.
If his “adventure” in Ukraine had been successful, he would have probably done a “minor incursion” to test NATO’s true commitments in Estonia or Latvia or North Macedonia. Given our response with the Worst Sanctions the World has Ever Seen™, it doesn’t seem like he’d be willing to test that theory any more (but who knows with Putin?).
How does this end?
The answer here is more elusive. One thing seems clear: Putin is never going to withdraw because he has already committed too many of his chips. Another guarantee (that is more bleak): Russia is going to get more brutal and it will inflict more pain on Ukraine as Putin gets desperate:
"Their main firepower is unguided munitions which risk devastating Ukrainian forces while causing very, very large numbers of civilian casualties which will increase the exodus (of refugees)," he added. Images coming out of the country from Ukraine's second-city of Kharkiv, the southern port of Kherson and the suburbs of Kyiv showed damage to apartment blocks, schools, university buildings or government offices. A suspected cruise missile exploded in the main square of Kharkiv on Tuesday. "I don't see how Putin can climb down with dignity," warned Eliot A. Cohen, a security analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "He will continue to double down, which will mean more destruction and suffering.
We are not in the endgame yet, but it’s definitely going to get worse before it gets better, and for us to see a possible off-ramp to this conflict, it has to get better first.
Margaret Sullivan on the disinformation coming out of Russia.
A great factcheck on the “bioweapons in Ukraine” propaganda being pushed by the Kremlin, along with its mouthpieces in the West, Glenn Greenwald and Tucker Carlson.
Relatedly, one of the best national security reporters in the country, Jen Griffin, goes head-to-head with Tucker Carlson.
A plan to boost domestic energy production, by Matt Yglesias.
Inside baseball, but a funny summary of the right between Maggie Haberman and Taylor Lorenz.
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that the Jackal got a little redo. It was a long time coming, but it felt appropriate. If you’re looking at this in your email, you should check out the website and see all the fancy new touches. See you all next week.
I am sure Androids are great phones, possibly superior to iPhones, but I have had the latter since the very first iteration (15 YEARS AGO) and I don’t like change.