Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Getting Pummeled in War Is a 200-Year Russian Tradition

The West made an honest effort to work with Moscow after the USSR’s fall — it was Putin who doomed any partnership. His disastrous Ukraine war was the result.



Photographer: Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images


Despite President Vladimir Putin’s bluster yesterday that “it is impossible to defeat Russia on the battlefield,” there’s no question the last twelve months have been  terrible for his nation. But frankly, Russia has had not just a disastrous year, but a couple of bad centuries.

Just over 200 years ago, Napoleon invaded Russia, eventually occupying and burning Moscow before the Russian army, aided by a brutal winter, was able to eject the French Grande Armee at a cost of more than half a million casualties on both sides. In the middle of the 19th century, Russia lost the Crimean War against the combined forces of the UK, France and the Ottoman Empire, crippling the Imperial Russian Army (500,000 casualties in a two-year war), forfeiting the right to base warships in the Black Sea. 

The Russian Navy was essentially destroyed by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, suffering a humiliating loss of eight battleships in the lopsided Battle of Tsushima while inflicting virtually no damage to the Japanese Imperial Fleet. A dozen years later, as the Russian empire imploded after the Bolshevik revolution, Western armies invaded to pick up the spoils. All that occurred before Germany invaded and destroyed much of the Russian army in the early days of World War II, notably at the battle of Stalingrad, where Russia suffered close to a million casualties in a year of fighting, albeit ultimately achieving victory.

A decade ago, as the supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, I would meet occasionally with my counterpart in Russia, General Nikolai Makarov (not to be confused with General Vladimir Makarov, a failed Russian commander in Ukraine who committed suicide in Moscow this month). Makarov would remind me of those centuries of war and humiliation. “Too much history,” he once said. Russians have a lot of scar tissue from the last 200 years.

But it is frankly magical thinking to imagine that somehow if only NATO had not expanded after the fall of the Soviet Union, by permitting the admission of former Warsaw Pact states — the Baltic nations, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia — today’s war in Ukraine could have been avoided.

Far from rejecting Russia, the West reached out sincerely to Moscow after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In my headquarters in Mons, Belgium – the “Pentagon of NATO” – the Russian military had a robust presence to execute the many programs we shared, including the Partnership for Peace.

NATO and Russia cooperated in important ways for years: on counterterrorism, counter-piracy, counternarcotics, arms control, and even on the war in Afghanistan. Some of the best advice I received about the Afghans came from former Russian generals I met in Moscow. I had very good professional and personal relationships with not only Makarov, but also the mercurial Russian ambassador to NATO, Dimitri Rogozin, who later ran Russia’s space program.

In those years, from 2009 to 2013, I went to the Kremlin and negotiated communications, coordination, and protocols for counter-piracy directly with Makarov. In Moscow, I had a long meeting with retired Russian Lieutenant General Boris Gromov, who famously commanded the Russian 40th Army in Afghanistan and was literally the last Russian soldier to leave there after the Soviet defeat in 1989. 

His counsel stayed with me over my years commanding the NATO presence in Afghanistan: “If you can train the Afghans to fight, and keep paying them well, and provide lots of advisers, you can hold onto the country. But if you cut the payments and reduce your own troops, it will fall back to the terrorists.” We had plenty of disagreements with Russia of course, but we also found ways to cooperate.

What changed over the years was Putin, whose loathing for the West, hatred of NATO and the US, and deep, almost operatic sense of tragedy over the collapse of the Soviet Union became an obsession. Indeed, we should stop calling this “the Ukrainian War,” because in so many ways it is the “War of Putin’s Ego.”  The incursions into Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, and most dangerously his invasion of Ukraine a year ago this week reflect his determination to recreate some vestige of the USSR. He will fail, but hundreds of thousands – if not millions – will die.

After Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine, in 2014, and his formal annexation of Crimea, the West failed to respond with sufficient force. Sanctions were relatively modest, and there was still hope we could return to old patterns of engagement: “Confront where you must; but cooperate where you can.” 

In particular, Germany was hopeful it could salvage the relationship, bring the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to life, and pull Russia more to the West. That turned out to be well-intended but wishful thinking, and there won’t be anything whistling through those natural gas pipelines but air for the foreseeable future.

So how does all that history, indeed “too much history” in the words of my Russian friend, fit into the situation today? In a phrase, how does this end?

I can answer that quite simply with three words: I don’t know. Neither does anyone else. War is unpredictable, human nature complex, and the tower of variables at play in this war reaches to the skies. So, we should begin by recognizing that we need to be humble about our ability to propose sweeping answers. As H.L. Mencken is credited with saying, “To every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple and wrong.” I’d add “inexpensive” to the list of descriptors, because this is going to have a high cost both to the West and to Russia, unfortunately.

In essence, there are two “burn rates” on each side of the firing line in Ukraine, or as my former boss, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, told me last week, two clocks that are ticking. On the Russian side, the losses of soldiers are staggering — estimates by British military intelligence,  which has thus far been both remarkably accurate and publicly available – are approaching 200,000 casualties. More ominously for Putin, perhaps 800,000 young Russians, mostly men of military age (which, by the way, is a shocking 18 to 65 in Putin’s Russia), have left the country. They are unlikely to return.

In addition to massive losses of young men, Putin is burning through equipment and ammunition. He has lost thousands of tanks and armored personnel carriers, and is running low on any kind of high-tech munitions. Putin continues to beg President Xi Jinping of China for a resupply of basic armaments. (So far, Beijing has refused, although US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week the Chinese were “considering” arms shipments.) So that burn rate is raging.

But before we become too optimistic based on Russian losses, we need to recall the immense resilience of the Russian people. In those 200 years of history, they have faced many, many dark moments and suffered invasion and defeat on their own soil and at sea. Alongside their intelligence reports, Western strategists should be reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s powerful novella, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” about the extraordinary determination needed to survive in the Gulag. It is a meaningful metaphor for Russian toughness.

On the other side of the firing line, clocks are ticking as well. First, Ukraine has suffered tens of thousands of military and particularly civilian casualties, and devastation of its infrastructure, as a result of Russia’s pitiless air campaign. Even so, morale and determination remain high.

But for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the “center of gravity” — as we say in the military, for the thing around which all else revolves — is the support of the West. Despite its people’s courage, innovation and determination, Ukraine is a much smaller country than Russia. It will need ample additional resources to stop the Russians. That means billions of dollars in economic and humanitarian aid, reconstruction support to restore crippled infrastructure, and — above all — more military capacity.

In particular, NATO nations should be providing more long-range systems to the Ukrainians, including combat aircraft, specifically MIG-29 and F-16 fighters (both fairly simple to fly and support). That capability will be vital for a Ukrainian spring offensive, to provide air cover for the armored formations soon arriving from the West.

We should also provide ATACMS — surface-to-surface missiles that can destroy Russian logistic lines at greater distance than the HIMARS now being supplied. Ukraine’s supporters should also strongly consider advanced anti-ship cruise missiles to go after the Russian Black Sea fleet. Of course, we need to make clear to the Ukrainians that the use of such systems to attack targets within Russia proper is forbidden, and would lead to an immediate diminution of Western aid.

Fortunately, the burn rate on the Ukrainian side appears to be slower, in that Western resolve seems strong and generally unified. President Joe Biden’s unexpected trip to Kyiv on Monday, and the significant US delegation at the Munich Security Conference — including Vice President Kamala Harris and nearly 50 members of Congress from both sides the aisle — sent a clear signal to the Kremlin. (Disclosure: I serve on the board of the conference)

Still, you can hear the whispers, particularly among likely Republican presidential contenders, about the increasing cost of the war in a time of economic uncertainty in the US and Europe.

Perhaps late this year, the two sides will come to realize those burn rates are unsustainable, and become amendable to negotiation. If the stalemate continues, Putin may see some erosion in support at home, and Zelensky may find international patience wearing thin. Conversation might be possible, although with the massive human rights violations of the Russians mounting, the ability to conduct such talks is decreasing.

If an opportunity emerges, it is also difficult to see who could act as a broker.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India? UN Secretary General António Guterres? Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who negotiated the partially successful grain export deal between the combatants?

We are still months, if not longer, before the two sides are sufficiently attuned to the burn rates on the firing line. The West’s job is to provide the Ukrainians all they need to gain the strongest possible position for a negotiation. Ultimately, this war will likely end with an uneasy armistice; where the line of demarcation is drawn – one hopes, at the Ukrainian borders before Russia’s 2014 invasion — will depend on the relative military capability of Ukraine and Russia. 


Of note, the longer the war continues, the stronger the Ukrainians’ position to fulfill their ambition to join both the European Union and NATO. They will emerge from the war with the most combat-capable ground forces in Europe, and would be excellent candidates for membership in the military alliance. Russia would require security guarantees of some kind, and perhaps an international UN peacekeeping force could patrol a demilitarized zone between the two nations. It will be a difficult negotiation, to say the least.

But one thing of which I am certain: The US and its democratic allies should continue their full-throated support to Ukraine. The Ukrainians are fighting for our values, on NATO’s eastern line, against an evil and relentless foe. Putin increasingly behaves like Stalin — an all-powerful, maximalist, ruthless leader with a shrinking circle of supporters, especially among the elites. 

Putin this week called the war “a watershed moment for our country,” and he’s right. But as much as he plays at channeling Stalin, the course he has set will more likely lead to an ending like that of Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, who was brutally overthrown just over a century ago. That, frankly, would be just the right amount of history.  

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