Victor Davis Hanson
For all the dramatic late-summer Ukrainian success, we are witnessing yet another deadlock in the war—one that supposedly will be resolved by escalations on all sides.
Mutually Exclusive Agendas
A rebooted Ukraine is clamoring for more offensive arms. It claims it can win the war, with victory now giddily defined as sending every Russian back home in disgrace.
Russia is screaming threats about using nuclear weapons—though how Vladimir Putin would use them remains in dispute. Putin is ominously no longer qualifying his Strangelovian threat with the adjective tactical, as he calls up 300,000 more troops.
An addled and non-compos mentis Joe Biden only nominally remains the leader of the West. He initially refused to send offensive arms to Ukraine, and then offered to evacuate President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. But now Biden 2.0 has blasted Putin as a killer, someone equivalent to the domestic semi-fascists he blasted in his Phantom of the Opera hate speech.
Biden has called for Putin’s removal. But until Putin’s demise, he wants still more sanctions against Russia. Yet it is hard to distinguish who is more detached from reality—Biden, suffering from cognitive decline as he talks to dead people and shakes the hands of ghosts, or a physically ailing and paranoid Putin. Meanwhile American Vice President Kamala Harris is rambling about a mythical American alliance with lunatic North Korea and the need to disperse federal help to storm-ravaged Florida on the basis of race.
The United States is sinking knee-deep into recession. Once again it is hit with spiraling fuel prices. No matter: Biden promises to borrow still more billions of dollars for Ukrainian aid as he drains the last drops of the strategic petroleum reserve that he inherited almost full.
Biden is on record that there will not be a negotiated end to the war. He instead believes, to paraphrase Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, that the proxy disaster must serve the permanent weakening of Russia, the deserved humiliation of Putin, and his removal from office.
So how does it all end, or will it all end, with so many mutually exclusive and escalating agendas?
The Ukrainians survived the initial Russian effort to decapitate their government and absorb Western Ukraine. Months later they are still frantically trying to push Russians back to, and even well beyond, their areas of control prior to February 23.
Ukraine’s ultimate hopes seem threefold: (1) reestablishing their pre-2014 borders, (2) finding permanent collective security within the West, formally through NATO to acquire future deterrence from the Russian war machine, and (3) weakening the economic and social fabric of Russia itself to the point that it is no longer a superpower capable of such aggression. Translated that means Ukraine wishes to be a permanent proxy of the West, which will pledge its own strategic security on behalf of Zelenskyy’s agendas.
Russia Has Other Plans
As for the Russians, their idea of dissecting Ukraine by incorporating its eastern half and then gradually wearing down, whether economically or militarily, Western Ukraine, for now has failed.
But Vladimir Putin is not entirely foolish. He has pivoted by redefining victory as institutionalizing and declaring as “Russian” the disputed borderlands, and soon Crimea, that he grabbed in 2014. To fight there, he will allege, is to go on the offensive inside Russia. He believes his misadventure in a year or two will still be seen as worth the terrible costs to the Russian people and the thousands of Russian and Ukrainian dead—if he can brag that he still insidiously continues to reclaim lost lands of the Russian Empire.
In the mind of Putin, Russians’ current popular furor at his meat-grinder, at the sanctions, and at their global cultural ostracism will all fade—once Putin achieves his newly defined victory and brags that he turned back the intrusive proxy efforts of a decadent West.
Putin’s propaganda constantly escalates. Now it focuses on the idea that Mother Russia is threatened by Western Nazi-like aggressors. Like the duplicitous Stalin, Putin turns his own September 1939-like aggression into June1941-like victimhood.
So again, how do all these parties find pathways to their mutually incompatible versions of victory and thus see the war end?
Ukraine would like to push the Russians out of its former territory before the winter sets in and an additional Russian 300,000 recruits, despite their poor quality, are streamed into the invasion forces. Russians are now de facto on the defensive. But they are also the beneficiaries of shorter interior lines and more effective propaganda that the soil of Mother Russia is now imperiled from the aggrandizing West.
The use of American intelligence to assassinate Russian generals, and raid into Russia, and of sophisticated weapons to blow up Russian conscripts, and sink billion-dollar Russian ships only feed into Putin’s narratives.
Meanwhile Ukraine—waging mobile and encircling offensives on its borders against a country of 145 million and an economy 10 times larger—soon will punch too far beyond its weight. Millions of Ukrainians are leaving the country. The Ukrainian economy is in shambles. Putin has inflicted trillions of dollars in damage to Ukrainian infrastructure that is beginning to resemble 1918 occupied France and Belgium. And Zelenskyy’s appetite for far more, and more lethal, Western weapons is insatiable.
Ukraine also needs a far greater stream of replacement parts and ammunition. It demands much more Western money and economic aid. And it harangues for greater political and military Western solidarity to ensure that Europe and the United States, via NATO, would be permanently willing to deter a humiliated and defanged Russia from opportunistically resuming its aggression a few years down the road.
Strategically, Ukraine feels that it must bleed the Russian military by hitting supply and staging areas inside Russia, and on the Black Sea. It apparently assumes such risky retaliatory escalation is achievable by denying these very attacks—and, if undeniable, justifying them because “Russia, not us, started it and they, not us, invaded a neighbor.”
Even before victory is achieved, Ukraine talks of multitrillion-dollar reparations for the horrific damage and death inflicted upon it by a criminal Russian war machine. That demand is certainly justified and understandable. But historically, reparations are the stuff of postwar haggling among the victors—and commence only after the enemy is first defeated and helpless.
Western Reality Checks
Will Ukraine then end up achieving all its long-term strategic goals?
Not likely and for a great number of reasons.
A once haughty and sanctimonious green Europe is more terrified of returning to premodern winter cold and scarcity than ensuring it remains a loud model of postmodern energy sustainability. It is one thing to give Churchillian speeches in the Bundestag about new German solidarity with NATO, but quite another to send even a few multimillion-Euro Leopard tanks to Ukraine to blast away at Germany’s decade-long gas supplier. Remember, as the hated Donald Trump once warned, it was the diabolical Putin’s once dirt-cheap and reliable natural gas that gave German moralists the margins of error to push their suicidal green gospel upon the world.
Critical Russian natural gas shipments to Europe are no longer guaranteed. It will take years for Europe to find comparable alternative new sources. Yet in these months before its impending 19th-century winter, the European Union still remains hostile to its own fracking and horizontal drilling, nuclear power, and coal generation.
Under Joe Biden’s pressure, Europe passed on the win/win EastMed Israeli/Cypriot/Greek natural-gas pipeline. Some Americans talk grandly of saving Europe by shipping massive amounts of American liquified natural gas to new German terminals. But at home, Joe Biden has shut down pipelines as well as oil and gas fields. No president in the last 80 years has issued fewer new federal natural gas leases.
Europe is still wounded by greens who, albeit more quietly, prefer unaffordable gas and oil prices. Bankrupting the fossil-fuel-guzzling middle class they believe will at least spur greater use of windmills, solar panels, and batteries.
European leaders, however, who won over the American Left to their ritual cannibalistic green policies, now reverse course and beg the United States to drill all the hot-burning natural gas it can export. So, by next January, cold, broke, and immobile Europeans may resent even one more lecture from Volodymyr Zelenskyy about the need for more sacrifices on Ukraine’s behalf.
American weapons are the best in the world—and apparently the most expensive and difficult to produce in massive numbers.
Supplying Ukraine has squeezed America’s tactical and strategic weapon reserves down to dangerous levels—the military equivalent of Joe Biden’s draining the strategic petroleum reserve, even as global oil prices are once again spiraling, and the weather disrupts supply.
Joe Biden has a bad habit of exploiting the petroleum and weapons bounty that he inherited from Trump, depleting and not replenishing it, and then covering his tracks by blaming Trump.
The more our Ukraine proxy advances to the border, the more it sinks Russian capital ships and the more it conducts raids into Mother Russia, so all the more it relies, de facto, on the American or NATO nuclear umbrella in the face of Putin’s contrived threats.
But are these ultimata completely empty intimidations?
An aged and ailing Putin now cites America’s first use of a bomb over Hiroshima (that saved millions of lives by ending the Pacific war abruptly against Soviet Russia’s erstwhile four-year, non-aggression partner Japan.) To justify a nuclear strike, Putin weirdly insists U.S. World War II-area bombing was inhuman, forgetting that it served as a second front until June 1944 and thus forced the Wehrmacht to redirect homeward thousands of flak guns, fighter aircraft, and troops away from the Russian front.
Surveillance photos show Russian transference of strategic bombers nearer to the Ukraine border. All the while Putin seeks ever more diabolical ways to decouple Ukraine’s sponsors.
In sum, are the strapped American people now willing to up their nearly $100 billion supply pipeline to Ukraine, with assurance that its own cities are to risk Armageddon to deter Russian missiles over Kyiv?
As for Russia, a wounded Putin knows even empty nuclear threats must be taken seriously. But they are just one tool in his apparent ample kit to frighten off Ukraine’s suppliers. Meanwhile, Russia keeps selling oil to its new, anti-American partners China and India—40 percent of the global population. He mobilizes more manpower. He transforms his stale propaganda from posing as a reluctant, legitimate oppressor to a noble oppressed victim. He watches the West slide into recession and mutual bickering, Biden slide into utter incoherence, and America slide into dangerous pre-midterm factionalism.
No End in Sight?
So how does it all end and all these agendas become compatible?
It doesn’t and they won’t.
The once American, isolationist, and antiwar Left is now mimicking the old, interventionist, neocon Right. After the failure of the Russian collusion hoax and the various impeachments, it wishes to construct the war as proof that it was right all along about demonic Vladimir Putin—as if anyone ever doubted that he was a dangerous adversary who should never have been appeased by the embarrassing “resets” of Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Barack Obama—and Joe Biden.
Hillary Clinton’s own stealthy hiring of Igor Danchenko and Christopher Steele’s use of eager Russian sources to find dirt on her political opponent Donald Trump are ironic ways to warn about the dangers of Russian election interference.
America, then, no matter its economic and fuel woes, no matter the dangerous loose mouth of a grumpy and fading Joe Biden, and no matter the loss of American strategic deterrence in 2021-22, apparently will supply Ukraine until the last Russian leaves the borderlands.
As for Russia, it cannot fulfill even its limited goals, even with more oil money, more manpower, and more weapons—unless it can sever the supply of Western arms. So far nuclear threats, blown-up pipelines, fuel cutoffs, and Chinese, Iranian, and Indian help haven’t ended the Western-Russia proxy war.
So, Putin will still try to peel off individual NATO members with hyped threats of attack. He will hope he can sell his fuel to new customers and cut off, for good, his old dependent Western buyers. And he will search for new targets and areas for leverage, be it through cyberattacks, satellite interference, terrorism, fresh proxies, or Chinese help.
The mere idea of a negotiated ceasefire or settlement that allows plebiscites overseen by third parties in the disputed territories between 2014 and 2022 is an anathema to all sides. So, the battlefield alone will apparently be the final arbiter—as it is so often in history.
Apparently, Ukraine, Russia, NATO, Europe, and the United States all believe their own war aims can be achieved and the unfortunate losers will accept the verdict and crawl away to lick their wounds.
Good luck with that in the age of nuclear contestants, transcontinental cyberattacks, continental-sized energy dependencies, gain-of-function plagues, and globalized markets and interdependence.
Or to put it another way, everyone is signing up for a very long, very cold winter.
23 thoughts on “Pushing the Envelopes in Ukraine”
This does not read like VDH, Putin “screaming” about nukes, when, where?
Putin “ailing and paranoid” These statements need to be backed with something more than NYT propaganda.
I’ve got no horse in this race but I do like statements backed with fact in all cases.
Dr. Hanson. I usually enjoy reading you, even if i don’t always agree, but: using US Army terms. Putin is calling up 300,000 reservists, not recruits, which are being sent to replace active units on the Asian borders in order to free up 300,000 combat/combat support ready and equipped for transfer to Ukraine. Even if he had to draw on the est. 1.2 million reservists, behind them are an estimated 20+ million men who have undergone a 3 month Basic Combat Training.
Perhaps Victor hasn’t had a chance to talk to his Hoover colleague, Nial Ferguson, who was just in Ukraine. He didn’t find anyone there was giddy about their recent success-quite the opposite. Ferguson also set out a Ukraine skeptic and returned in a much more pro-Ukraine frame of mind.
Second, Ukraine has to shoot for the moon because it will inevitably get less than it wants. If Putin is willing to bargain, they will have concessions to offer.
Third, China is backing off on Putin. Xi has his own ambitions in Taiwan, and isn’t going to waste his own tenuous economic-military machine on a loser.
Fourth, Victor needs to address the counter arguments to his nuclear worries as stated by his Hoover colleagues in the recent Goodfellas podcast.
Fifth, America’s deteriorating cities are State problems first and foremost. The South is experiencing dynamic growth that the Old North West, New York, and the West Coast are not. Aside from the boarder, these are not Federal problems.
Victor is always strongest as a critic, but quickly turns morose when it comes to solutions. It doesn’t leave him much room to complain if he is ignored.
I imagine Hoover tower looks something like this about now (caution: some situationally appropriate profanity): https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=WBZwUdJFnhw&t=25s
A thorough analysis that lets NATO off too easily for using Ukraine as a bulwark against Russia. Putin made the case in a recent speech that the U.S. would never accept Russian military agreements in Canada or Mexico, nor accept a Moscow installed government in either country. Even as an excuse to grab another 15% of Ukraine, it was nevertheless a valid principal. John J. Mearsheimer warned us about our errant Ukraine policy years ago. Henry Kissinger has said that the Ukraine proxy war is nonsensical. His experience in Vietnam should count for something. H.R. McMaster (of disaster) is the latest Pentagon talking head to parrot the lie that Ukraine is winning this thing. Despite the enormous weight of pro-Ukraine propaganda, there are no reliable reports on the numbers of deaths. As in WW1, grim statistics are being concealed in favor of uplifting tales of the current valorous advance. Only in Biden’s feeble mind, is there unlimited capacity to print the money it takes to fund this new endless war. The fact is ignored that the manpower available to deploy all of the new U.S. weapons being sent to Ukraine is not infinite. Russia has always had and still maintains a manpower advantage. The Russian people are more united in knowing the causes of this war than the Western press claims. 80% of Germans believe it ends in a negotiated settlement. Biden needs Putin to demonize and divert from his epic failure as President.
Greetings Comrade Commissar White! Your analysis is not correct. Putin installed his puppets in Ukraine and used poisonings to keep them in line. When the Ukrainians ousted them, Putin grabbed the Crimea and a chunk of the Donbass. After the retreat from Afghanistan became a route, Putin deemed the time right to try and seize the whole. Those countries that remember what the Russians do with the non-Russians in their empire, immediately grasped the situation. Joe Biden took much longer and US support has been cautious and fragmented. With almost 1 million Russians running for the border the minute a limited draft was announced, it seems that their support is far from unanimous. In the meantime, however, enjoy the caviar and eclairs.
This is a terrific summary of where things stand right now. The actors in this tragedy will find reality is only remotely connected to their delusions, assuming their medications remain modestly effective. Short of a nuclear attack, the biggest shock is likely to come in the winter. As we saw in Texas two years ago, severe winter weather exposes the episodic performance of both windmills and solar panels. It can lead to downstream failures in neglected, petroleum-based facilities. Frozen gas pipeline valves and controls, poorly winterized stream power plants with burst water pipes were all experienced as Texas’ green energy investments shut down for lack of wind and sun light. Electricity was needed to warm the pipeline and the standby power plants. But none could be found. And these problems could be experienced in countries undamaged by war. The situation in the Ukraine would be dire. Stalin killed about 2 million Ukrainians each winter in the early 1930s. Much of that was from simple starvation. Stalin needed to export the Ukraine’s grain to earn foreirn currency, and none was left for those who resisted the communal farms. Lack of heat and damaged housing will be their primary threat this winter. A mild winter is our best hope.
Prof. Hanson, I empathize with many of your observation and the idealistic Libertarian in me wants to say “Yes!” Still, I’m not sure you offer any solutions, other than to suggest there is no solution. Hmmm…
Thank you Mike, do you have any potential solutions or suggestions to offer Sir? Respectfully, G
The ball is largely in Putin’s court. How about stealing it back by taking Victor’s pipeline podcast suggestion and upping our LNG production and sending it to Europe. Then we can get that Isreali Cyprus Pipeline deal going again? Next, we need to reach out to India and find out what it would take to bring them away from Putin. If I was Xi, I’d be looking at territorial grabs from Russia rather than an imminent attack on Taiwan.
Has oil drawn from previous president’s petroleum reserve been added to the budget? How long will the “reserve” last? The withdrawal curve I’ve seen has very large slope. Didn’t it used to be called the “war reserve” to be used only in times of conflict?
With all due respect for your parsing the current clash-of-worlds in Ukraine, it seems (to me) that the world, both sane and insane, has ignored the real issue, ergo, the threat of NATO expansion at Putin’s border. Again, using my simplistic view of World Order, why were there no wise men to say to both Ziphead and Putin, “Ok boys, get together and talk it over. Certainly you two smart fellas can find an easier way to insult each other than killing innocent civilians and legions of poor untrained conscripts.” Nicht war?
Lieber Herr, Das ist nicht NATO (86’-90’) when on the CENTAG/4ATAF Staff 600,000+, not including the 1st French Army counterattack force; 6 Allied Corps covering the Hartz mountains to the Swiss border. NATO is a history lesson, not current today. Nicht wahr? Respectfully, G (Pioneer Oberst im Ruhestand)
Dear Professor: I am a huge (borrowing an adjective from Trump) fan of your podcasts. Like many of your listeners I enjoy your commentaries on films. Are you familiar with “Look Who’s Back” – a dark comedy about Adolf Hitler waking up in 2015 via some kind of worm hole in the space time continuum. He resolves to regain power by taking over the most promising political movement then available – THE GREEN PARTY!!! Many pundits seem to hope for regime change, but it is far likely to occur in northern and central European democracies than in Russia. Freezing to death and starvation (if Putin renders grain shipment via Odessa unusable, radioactively or conventionally) is a real danger. Your thoughts?
I commend you for your insightful narrative, Professor Hanson. It is tantamount to a game of Russian roulette.
I am glad for the long cold winter that will come when it destroys the “green” movement, and I am close to exulting over the bloodletting of the Russian army and the ongoing war. Before Meloni’s victory in Italy, the heroic defense of their country, culture and borders by the not very “diverse” and “intersectional” but apparently very manly and tough Ukrainians was indeed the only thing that gave me some hope in these times of utter madness and decline in the West. If billionaire Putin wants to blow up the world, I certainly won’t be begging for mercy as a childless, unhappy, aging “laptop” work drone in the emerging global dystopia created by the WEF, Blackrock, the Internet giants, the CCP, the “Democratic” Party, the “Green” movement and their part-communist, part-opportunist, stupid and greedy media lackeys. I would prefer to suddenly go to hell anyway than to continue sinking for decades. So push the button if you must, Vlad, but spare me the lamentations about the evil machinations of a NATO adversary who is in fact endangering no one but committing a multitude of national suicides in the most grotesque, stupid and disgraceful way possible.
There is one hope, that some European Countries . maybe Hungary first, will succeed to wake up other countries .. what about England and Italy and also Germany, approaching a cold winter , and they will opt for peace ?! .I understand that it needs Divine intervention to begin with…
Concerning this country , where is the ” We want Peace movement” that now should be initiated by the republicans ….
Dear Professor: For clarity please allow me to emphasize that I am not “rooting for” Putin. Like most Americans my instinct is to “root for” the underdog. What I caution is to BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR, i.e. regime change. Rebekka Koeffler (I apologize for any misspellings or punctuation errors) points out in her book (Putin’s Playbook) that the communist party is still a force in Russian politics. That’s not a regime substitution that I favor. What I really fear is the loss or transformation of European democracies into something much less desirable. In January and February Putin’s best commander – “General Winter” – will arrive at the front.
Or put it another way, everyone is signing up for a very long, very cold winter, or two, or three.
Only other possibility is that mobilization, return of
POWs, and bodies, gets too heavy for the Russian citizens.
I know it’s grim and very dangerous, but I remain a hawk. Merely scotching the snake could be even more dangerous in the long run.
Wanna hear something phunny? OPEC just slashed its production quotas by 2 million barrels / day.
I’ll be here all week, don’t forget to tip your servers.
Victor, Thanks for this comprehensive analysis of the Ukrainian war situation. Your “Second World Wars” mental muscle remains in good shape. While reading, this old geezer heard stains of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “The Great Mandala” echoing in my memory banks.
Win or lose now you must choose now
And if you lose you’ve only wasted your life
Very insightful analysis of Ukraine situation.
Putin’s image and success is largely dependent upon his ability to manipulate the US and EU media. They are compelled to use his language “special military operation” each time an article is published. Everyone knows it is an “illegal and unprovoked invasion” of Ukraine. When women and children are murdered by Russian bombing the media seems to go soft and call it just an attack on Ukraine. Shouldn’t the murder of women and children by Russian military be characterized for what it is?
Watch a 15 min of Bucha and put yourself in the their shoes to understand. https://youtu.be/4bkhGrpWl6I