Does Russia grind out victory? Can sanctions stop that? Might Putin go nuclear? Is China for war or peace? The past offers clues, but no certain answers.
What makes history so hard to predict - the reason there is no neat “cycle” of history enabling us to prophesy the future - is that most disasters come out of left field. Unlike hurricanes and auto accidents, to which we can at least attach probabilities, the biggest disasters (pandemics and wars) follow power-law or random distributions. They belong in the realm of uncertainty, or what Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book “The Black Swan,” calls “Extremistan.” They are like tsunamis, not tides.
What’s more, as I argued in my book “Doom,” disasters don’t come in any predictable sequence. The most I can say is that we tend not to get the same disaster twice in succession. This time we’ve gone from plague to war. In 1918, it was from war to plague. The Hundred Years’ War began eight years before the Black Death struck England.
Not everything in history is random, of course. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was not difficult to foresee at the beginning of this year. You just had to take Russian President Vladimir Putin both literally and seriously when he asserted that the Russian and Ukrainian peoples were one and that the possibility of Ukraine becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the European Union was a red line; and to realize that Western threats of economic sanctions would not deter him.
Now that the war is well into its second week, however, there are much more difficult predictions to make. It seems there are seven distinct historical processes at work and it’s not clear which is going fastest. All I can do is to apply history, as there is no model from political science or economics that can really help us here.
1. Do the Russians manage to take Kyiv in a matter of two, three, four weeks or never?
I heard it argued the other day that the Russian invasion of Ukraine could become a “frozen conflict.” I think it looks a lot more like the opening hot conflict of Cold War II, and one that will be decided quite swiftly. There’s reason to think this is turning into Putin’s version of Stalin’s Winter War against Finland in November 1939, when the Red Army ran into much stiffer resistance than it had expected from the Finns. (It was the Finns who invented the Molotov Cocktail, named after Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov.)
The difference is that Stalin was able to order in a second, larger wave of Soviet troops in February 1940, forcing the Finns to accept his punitive terms, including the cession of 9% of Finland’s prewar territory. Putin does not have as much manpower and hardware at his disposal.
At least one military analyst I respect said late last week that the Russian invasion force has around two weeks left before serious logistical and supply problems force Putin seriously to the negotiating table. I hope that is true. The now famous 40-mile-long stalled convoy between Prybisk and Kyiv is Exhibit A that the war has not proved to be the Blitzkrieg that Putin apparently expected.
On the other hand, Western media seem over-eager to cover news of Russian reverses, and insufficiently attentive to the harsh fact that the invaders continue to advance on more than one front. Nor is there sufficient recognition that the Russian generals quickly realized their Plan A had failed, switching to a Plan B of massive bombardment of key cities, a playbook familiar from earlier Russian wars in Chechnya and Syria. A week may be a long time in politics, as British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said. It is a short time in war.
A better analogy than the Winter War with Finland may be the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that began in December 1979. The reason that developed into such a protracted disaster for the Red Army was that the Afghan mujahideen were so well supplied with American arms. Today, too, the Ukrainians are receiving significant amounts of hardware (Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, Javelin antitank weapons, Turkish TB2 drones), much of it now coming across the border from Poland.
Ukraine is also receiving vital private-sector assistance, notably the delivery of Starlink internet terminals, which are helping maintain communications despite Russian attacks on television towers (not to mention morale-boosting support from Starlink Inc. founder Elon Musk himself).
What I cannot tell is whether or not these weapons and other equipment will suffice to sustain Ukrainian resistance over the coming weeks. Clearly, the Ukrainians are doing real damage to Russian infantry and armor and shooting down an impressive number of low-flying helicopters and planes. They will certainly be able to make any Russian advance into central Kyiv very costly to the invaders.
But the Ukrainians have no real answers to higher-altitude bombardment and missile attacks. The fate of an independent Ukraine will be decided in the coming weeks or days. If cities continue to fall to the Russians, as Kherson has and Mariupol may, we may look back and say that Western arms shipments to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government were too little, too late.
2. Do the sanctions precipitate such a severe economic contraction in Russia that Putin cannot achieve victory?
I have heard it said that the breadth and depth of the sanctions imposed on Russia make them unprecedented. I disagree. The way in which the U.S. and the European Union have severed financial ties with Russia, even seizing those parts of the reserves of the Russian central bank that are held abroad, recalls but does not quite match the sanctions that Britain and its allies imposed on Germany at the outbreak of World War I.
We should remember that those measures did not defeat Germany, however, because — like Russia today — it had the resources to be self-sufficient, though the sanctions may have made a German victory less likely by increasing the hardships of the war at home.
Then, as now, it was possible for an increasingly authoritarian government to impose economic controls and divert resources away from civilian consumption to the war effort, while blaming the resulting deprivation on the enemy. The Allied “hunger blockade” was a potent theme for German wartime propaganda. Economic warfare between 1914 and 1918 was not a substitute for sending British armies to fight on the European continent, just as it had not been in the Napoleonic Wars against France.
It is especially hard to wage purely economic warfare on a vast and resource-rich country such as Russia. After 1928, Stalin imposed autarky on the Soviet Union. Putin has had it imposed on him by the West. But no one should forget that self-sufficiency is possible for Russia, albeit at the price of severe austerity, whether it is a choice or a consequence of war.
It seems clear that Western sanctions will get tougher with every passing week of destruction of Ukrainian cities and killing of Ukrainian civilians. We are already heading for sanctions on Russian energy exports, beginning with a ban on importing Russian oil by the U.S. and U.K. (the Europeans are hesitating). On the other hand, China is able to help Russia in ways that could mitigate the economic shock, just as for years it has helped Iran to circumvent U.S. sanctions by buying its oil.
To my eyes, the most striking feature of the sanctions against Russia is the way that Western corporations have gone well beyond the letter of government requirements. No one ordered the big U.S. technology companies to turn off or restrict most of their services in Russia, but they did so. Unlike Soviet citizens, who were accustomed to a state monopoly on communications, today’s Russians have come to rely as much as we do on Big Tech. Being cut off from the metaverse may prove a more psychologically painful deprivation than shortages of imported foods.
Russia’s economy now faces as severe a blow as it suffered in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell apart and the planned economy collapsed. It is teetering on the brink of a financial crisis that will see bank runs, soaring inflation and default on at least some sovereign debt. But even a 35% quarterly decline in gross domestic product does not condemn a country to military defeat if its planes can still fly and its tanks still fire rounds.
3. Does the combination of military and economic crisis precipitate a palace coup against Putin?
Modern Russia has seen three popular revolutions (1905, 1917 and 1991). There have been assassinations — for example, Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and Lenin, whose life was shortened by an attempt in 1918 — and palace coups, such as the ones that put Nikita Khrushchev in power in 1953 and removed him in 1964. But most Russian rulers die of natural causes — even Stalin, though there was no great rush to get him medical assistance when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. President Boris Yeltsin surprised everyone by resigning on New Year’s Eve, 1999, without duress.
Could Putin fall from power, a victim of his own hubris in underestimating Ukrainian courage and Western economic might? It is possible. But I would not bet the fate of Ukraine on Russian internal politics.
For one thing, the repressive apparatus of Russian state security seems to be in full working order. Those in Russia who courageously protest the war are being arrested and harassed in the usual fashion. For another, I can imagine few riskier actions for a member of the Russian economic elite than to intimate to one of his peers even the faintest interest in overthrowing Putin.
On the other hand, it was obvious even during the somewhat farcical broadcast of the Russian Security Council meeting two weeks ago that not everyone inside the Kremlin was wholly comfortable with Putin’s invasion plan. More plausible than a popular revolt or an oligarchs’ mutiny is a palace coup led by one or more of Russia’s security service chiefs. The people with the power to arrest Putin are the people he counts on to execute his arrest orders: Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Security Council and, like Putin, a long-serving KGB officer; Sergei Naryshkin, the head of foreign intelligence; and Alexander Bortnikov, who heads the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.
4. Does the risk of downfall lead Putin to desperate measures (carrying out his nuclear threat)?
The most dangerous aspect of the war in Ukraine is obvious: Russia, though in many ways diminished, is still the heir of the Soviet Union as a nuclear-armed power — unlike Ukraine, which gave up its Soviet nukes in return for a security guarantee (the Budapest Memorandum of 1994) that proved worthless.
Putin has understood from the outset that his ace is to threaten to use nuclear weapons. Even before launching his invasion, he warned that “anyone who tries to interfere with us … must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.”
Russia, he added, remains “one of the most powerful nuclear powers” with “certain advantages in a number of the latest types of weapons” and that “no one should have any doubt that a direct attack on Russia will lead to defeat and dire consequences for a potential aggressor.” After the war was underway, he put Russian nuclear forces on a “special regime of combat duty” — in other words, high alert.
If Putin’s goal was to deter members of NATO from offering direct military assistance to Ukraine, it seemed to have some effect. An idea for Poland and others to lend fighter jets to Kyiv was briefly floated by the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, and then melted away, although U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is trying to revive it, and the Poles appear to think they are swapping their Soviet-era MiG-29 jets for U.S. planes, presumably so the MiGs can go to Ukraine.
There has also been media discussion of a NATO “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, which the Ukrainian government keeps asking for, but which would surely be seized on by Putin as an act of war. Fortunately, no one in a position of responsibility has endorsed the idea.
Yet it cannot be right that a threat to use nuclear weapons goes unanswered. In the Cold War, both sides used nuclear alerts to intimidate one another. The reason no nuclear war occurred — though it came close on more than one occasion, notably in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the Able Archer false alarm of 1983 — was that each side believed the other capable of going nuclear and no one could be sure that a limited nuclear war, of the sort envisaged by Henry Kissinger in 1957, would not escalate into Armageddon.
At 11:41 p.m. on October 24, 1973, at the height of the Yom Kippur War, Kissinger and the other key members of President Richard Nixon’s national security team agreed to raise the U.S. alert level to Defcon 3 — the highest level of peacetime readiness for war — to ensure that the Soviet Union did not send troops to support the Arab states that had attacked Israel but were now losing badly. At the same time, they ordered major movements of U.S. military assets, to ensure the Soviets got the message.
The Soviet documents reveal a Politburo wrong-footed, just as Kissinger had intended. None of the Soviet leaders, not even the drug-addled Leonid Brezhnev — who, like Nixon, was asleep during the hours of maximum danger — was ready to blow up the world to save Egypt and Syria from defeat. As the future Soviet leader (then KGB chief) Yuri Andropov put it: “We shall not unleash the Third World War.”
Today, however, the boot is on the other foot. Not only is Putin intimidating NATO; he may have achieved something more, namely a tacit admission by the Biden administration that it would not necessarily retaliate with nuclear weapons if Russia used them. The failure of the administration to signal that it would retaliate is of a piece with last year’s reports that Biden’s national security team was considering ruling out first use of nuclear weapons in its new national military strategy. Nuclear missiles cease to be a deterrent if one side is unwilling to use them.
Putin is probably bluffing. What would he strike with a tactical nuclear weapon? If it’s a Ukrainian city, particularly Kyiv, he surely destroys his own spurious claim that he is fighting to preserve the historic unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples.
Russian casualties are being caused by Ukrainians using arms supplied by multiple NATO countries, including the U.S. and Turkey, but they are mostly crossing into Ukraine from Poland. Might Putin therefore strike a target in eastern Poland — Lublin, say, or Przemysl?
It cannot be completely ruled out. And he is surely more likely to do so if believes the U.S. would not immediately retaliate in kind against a Russian target. A key lesson of this entire crisis has been that indications of weakness on the U.S. side, which I discussed here last week, have emboldened Putin.
5. Do the Chinese keep Putin afloat but on the condition that he agrees to a compromise peace that they offer to broker?
Let no one have any illusions. Putin’s war would not have gone ahead without a green light from the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who was able to specify that the Russians wait until the Beijing Winter Olympics were over. The Chinese now have the option to assist Russia economically. The question is whether this leverage would give Xi the role of intermediary played by Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, when it was Japan that Russia was fighting.
We know from a number of reports that Chinese peace-making is a possibility. On Tuesday it was reported that China, France and Germany were “coordinating to end the conflict.” We can assume that the messiness of the war is not pleasing the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, who have their hands full with Covid (remember that?), a slowing economy and their upcoming Party Congress, and wanted a quiet world in 2022.
On the other hand, we should not underestimate the closeness of the Xi-Putin relationship and the extent to which Xi’s preference must be for a Russian victory, given his own ambitions to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control. My guess is that the Chinese make no serious diplomatic move until they are convinced Putin’s invasion is thoroughly bogged down in Ukraine’s spring mud.
6. Does the West’s attention deficit disorder kick in before any of this?
All over the democratic world, people are learning the words “Slava Ukraini!” — Glory to Ukraine! — donning blue-and-yellow garments, participating in pro-Ukrainian demonstrations.
True, the U.S. public generally has about three weeks of attention for any overseas calamity (see the temporary wave of outrage that followed the abandonment of Afghanistan last year). Yet the response to the invasion of Ukraine seems bigger and more likely to endure. Remarkably, one U.S. legislator told me last week that he “couldn’t recall an issue more obsessively followed and more unifying among” his constituents.
We may speculate as to why this is, but a significant part of the explanation is surely the skillful way in which Zelenskiy has used television and social media to win the world’s sympathies. Most Americans also recognize a war of independence when they see one.
I am reminded of the way the British public in the 19th century would periodically embrace an ethnic group fighting for its freedom. The Greeks in the 1820s, the Poles in the 1830s, the Germans and Italians in the 1840s, the Bulgarians in the 1870s — all these causes aroused passionate support in Britain, and equally passionate condemnation of the despotic empires of the Ottomans, Romanovs and Habsburgs.
However, spasms of moral outrage tend to contribute very little of practical use to those intent on building nation-states. That was Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck’s point in 1862, when he declared: “Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided … but by iron and blood.”
The only real significance of Western public outrage at Putin’s actions is the political pressure it exerts on Biden and other leaders to take a tougher line with Russia.
7. What is the collateral damage?
The problem for Biden — and it will soon be a problem for his European counterparts, too — is the economic damage this war will cause. Inflation expectations had already shifted upward sharply as a result of the excessive fiscal and monetary stimulus administered early last year in the form of the American Rescue Plan and the Federal Reserve’s continued asset purchases. History shows that wars (much more than pandemics) are the most common cause of jumps in inflation.
The best-known recent illustration is the way wars in 1973 (Yom Kippur) and 1979 (Iran-Iraq) contributed to the great inflation of the Seventies, but there are many other examples. True, the price of oil is a much smaller component of economic activity and consumer inflation indices today than 50 years ago. But it would be naive to imagine that, with inflation already at its highest level since 1982, the additional shock of war and rapidly escalating sanctions won’t pour kerosene on the barbecue.
Even if the Russians fail to scupper the scramble to resuscitate the Iran nuclear agreement, the return of Iranian oil to the world market is unlikely to offset the shock of Western sanctions on Russia. What’s more, these price spikes are not confined to oil and gas but involve a host of other commodities. The prospect of this year’s Ukrainian grain harvest being disrupted means a significant surge in food prices, with all kinds of consequences, especially in developing countries.
Nor can we ignore the risks that may be lurking within the international financial system. A great many institutions blithely ignored the approach of war and have been left holding large quantities of Russian assets that have plunged in value. Losses on this scale — and with more to come if the Russian state defaults on some of its debt — almost always have repercussions. The Russian default on local-currency bonds in 1998 was an important element in the Long-Term Capital Management blowup that year.
Add these seven imponderables together and you see how profoundly important the next few weeks will be. This is the first big crisis of Cold War II, which is in many ways like a mirror image of Cold War I, with China the senior partner, Russia the junior, and a hot war in Eastern Europe rather than East Asia (it was Korea’s turn in 1950). I do not know how the crisis will turn out, but I do know it will have profound consequences for the course of the superpower contest.
If the invasion of Ukraine ends in disaster for the heroic defenders of Kyiv and their comrades, another disaster may well follow — and it could occur as far away as Taiwan. Conversely, if there is justice in the world and the disaster befalls the architect of this war, that too will give birth to some fresh and unforeseeable event. For any victory for democracy in Ukraine is likely to prove ephemeral if its consequence is a new Time of Troubles in Russia, echoing the 17th-century fight over the tsar’s crown.
A tsunami of war has struck Ukraine. Whether the Russian tide flows or ebbs in the coming weeks will do much to determine the course of world history for the rest of our lives.