Victor Davis Hanson
Russia started the war with Ukraine in late February with a shock-and-awe effort to grab Kyiv. It failed both to decapitate the government and absorb half the country in one fell swoop.
Soon the conflict descended into a war of attrition in Eastern Ukraine over the occupied majority Russian-speaking borderlands.
That deadlock was eventually going to be resolved by relative morale, manpower, and supply.
Would the high-tech weaponry and money of the United States and Europe allow heroic Ukrainian forces to be better equipped than a larger Russian force—drawing on an economy 10 times greater and a population nearly four times larger than Ukraine’s?
After the latest sudden Ukrainian territorial gains and embarrassing Russian retreats, we now know the answer.
Russia may be bigger and richer than Ukraine, but it is not up to the combined resources of the United States, along with the nations of NATO and the European Union.
Most are now in a de facto proxy war with an increasingly overwhelmed Russia. And so far, a circumspect China has not stepped in to try to remedy the Russian dilemma.
So, what will become the next, and most dangerous, stage III of the war?
A heady Ukraine believes it now has the wherewithal to clear out the entire occupied Donbass and turn southward to free Crimea. To complete that agenda of rolling back all Russian aggression since 2014, it may step up hitting strategic targets across the Russia border and on the Black Sea.
Again, what will a nuclear Russia—run by an ailing, desperate autocrat—do when a far smaller Ukraine finally and deservedly humiliates her before a global audience?
Will Putin cut off all European energy supplies to force a European end to supplying Ukraine?
Russia has all but done that. But so far Putin has gained little strategic advantage on the battlefield, despite current European fears of an impending bitter winter.
Will Putin go fully medieval on Ukraine, like the carnage in Chechnya when he leveled Grozny in 2000?
But a European Ukraine is vast compared to tiny Chechnya. And the Chechens even without allies still withstood a decade of savage Russian brutality.
So how will Putin survive his self-created disaster that may have cost him nearly 100,000 casualties, and now risks losing him all the territorial advances from 2014?
Will Russia mobilize its entire army, drop its silly euphemism “special military operation,” and finally try to crush Ukraine with a full Soviet-style assault?
But that escalation might push an already restive Russian population into open and angry defiance.
Can he just admit defeat, slink back home, and stop the massive Russian hemorrhaging?
Yet can Putin take his chances that sacked generals, money-losing oligarchs, and the embarrassed Russian street will fear his bloodstained reach too much to neuter or remove him?
Will Putin instead keep declaring that Russia is not losing to Ukraine, but to the United States and NATO—even though the West is only doing to him what an opportunistic Russia once did to America in both its Vietnam and Afghanistan fiascos
Putin would then keep portraying himself and Russia as the victim in this conflict. He would drone on that the United States, by supplying the Ukrainians weapons, is now the “aggressor”—as our new proxy keeps hitting more targets inside Mother Russia, sinks more ships of the Black fleet, and assassinates more Russian generals.
Putin’s only way to keep his cred, back up his dangerous brinkmanship, and retain power is apparently to play defender of Mother Russia and continue threatening the use of a tactical nuclear weapon—perhaps against the Ukrainian nuclear power complex or Kyiv itself.
That final gambit of an updated version of the Cuban missile crisis is something the American people need to stop simply discounting. Do our leaders know for certain that the man Joe Biden once dubbed a “killer” is merely yesterday’s empty bluffer?
Of course, Putin deserves all he is suffering. And the Ukrainians warrant the world’s thanks in repelling a brutal aggressor.
But that moral and strategic victory is still a very different story from America sliding into a nuclear confrontation with a desperate autocrat. Do the American people support offering up their nuclear umbrella to a non-NATO, former Russian republic?
And not so long ago, the United States advantageously saw Russia as useful triangulation to the greater threat of Chinese aggression.
In sum, the problem that plagues these assumed, multifaceted Western agendas is that so far they in toto appear mutually exclusive.
Consequently, the question remains: How exactly does the United States all at once avoid the resumption of a Verdun-like, endless bloodbath on the Ukrainian-Russian border, reject any negotiated settlement until Ukraine unambiguously wins the war and expels every Russian from all its territory, prevent a wounded Putin from using a tactical nuclear weapon—and circumvent a head-to-head showdown with Russia and its 7,000 nukes?
28 thoughts on “Ukraine with a Whimper or a Bang?”
I am a big fan of yours, and have been for a long time. Also, enjoying my subscription. I feel you may be wrong about the Ukraine conflict, but either way it is likely going to be disastrous.
Check out https://kunstler.com/clusterfuck-nation/is-war-what-you-asked-for/
All the best to you and yours!
Mr. White, (no relation that I am aware of,) Thanks for those links. Even with the internet, it is nearly impossible to obtain any truth about what is presently happening in Ukraine, let alone any reasonable discussion about what led to the current conflict. For those few who can handle the truth, John J. Mearsheimer and Henry Kissinger have explained in detail how the hegemony of the West, U.S. and Europe have provoked Russia into this war. A needless war that has ruinous global effects on the world economy and food supplies on top of the widespread loss of human lives in Ukraine. There are eerie parallels to the start of WW1. I would like to hear from Victor Hanson making that comparison. Where a labyrinth of complex alliances between the competing nations of Europe emerged much like the NATO and E.U. of today. The world was sucked into a vortex of many years of deadly stalemate on the tiny spark of a dispute between neighbors in some remote Balkan outpost. Some day, the Bidens, Von der Leyens and others in power in Europe will be remembered in history in much the same way as those utter fools who charged into the Great War with such hubris and bluster. Largely forgotten will be the Vindmans, Yovanoviches and Fiona Hills, who advanced their own personal corrupt, Ukraine foreign policy agendas in open defiance of their President. The demand for leadership always outstrips the supply. The failure of those leading the U.S. Europe and the world at present is epic.
Yes. I agree…and believe the first death upon the start of any war is the truth.
I find that Victor is really on the wrong side of this issue. He is so spot on with his analysis of US domestic politics so I am a bit disappointed by his take on the Ukraine war. The Duran has the best analysis and commentary on the war in Ukraine. I am sure the Duran have there biases too but I trust them far more than the MSM.
Biases? Like being obsequiously pro-Russian? Why not try something like Bellingcat?
A brave gamble respectfully your response to a noted military historian and classist.
Try perhaps and look at the summary of the Ukrainian invasion as Shakespeare or poetry.
…and this https://www.unz.com/pescobar/the-kharkov-game-changer/
Interesting article Zelensky talks and walks like Ukraine is a NATO member State.
The Russian Federation has now supplied Ukraine with more tank_pieces than Germany.
Greetings Comrade Commissars White, White, and McDougal. I didn’t know that “unbiased” means “two Putin lickspittles and a raging anti-semite”. Do you know Bellingcat, or perhaps it’s Bellingcat that knows you?
Name caller…a very good tell. Dig deeper for the truth.
Prof. Hanson seems somewhat uncertain about how this may play out, although he does narrow down the possibilities informed by his tight grasp of history. No one has a crystal ball, but human nature being somewhat predictable and given the tendency of history to repeat itself, I wonder what odds he’s places on the alternatives he has laid out? Vietnam brought down LBJ, Iraq greatly weakened the Republican Party (prior to Trump), I don’t see how Czar Putin survives The Ukraine.
I don’t see the correlation with LBJ the 24 writs US congressionally authorized use of force in Iraq and Putin’s expanded invasion of a sovereign Ukraine ?
However your closing remark evidently holds a greater degree of probability.
Dear Dr. Hanson:
What if Ukraine and Chechnya form an alliance and make this a 2 front war?
I don’t see an alternative to extending the US nuclear umbrealla to Ukraine. Russia cannot be allowed to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield. If Russia breaks the “no first-use of nukes” rule, it has to face consequences harsh enough to illustrate *why* first-use is off the table.
The alternative is normalizing first-use of nuclear weapons in a world where nuclear proliferation has begun to rear its ugly head again.
Russia’s consequences should harsh enough to deter further nuke use and not harsh enough to provoke a full-on nuclear war. Assuming that latitude even exists.
The worst part of this is we’re depending on the Biden* Admin to step carefully through this minefield and it is caught between historic Democrat co-dependence of Russia and current Democrat anti-Russia hysteria without two calm-thinking brain cells to rub together.
Thanks Victor! Is there a parallel in ancient Greece or Rome that validates present day posturing of present day would be Agamemnons or Caesars?
If I may not as an answer Agamemnon endures in name myth and legend.
eispiptō, epipiptō, and peripiptō
Amazing turn of events…the world is a dangerous place…
Dr. Ferguson at Hoover just reported this week that Ukraine’s high command is far from elated, very sober, and openly preparing for things to get worse. They have always stayed that their goal was a return of the pre 2014 boarder. There is no sudden rush over there to bite off more than they can chew. Finally, Putin does not have unilateral access to his own nukes. His best bet is to hold on until the Republicans gain power and their pro-European Conservative wing cuts off Ukraine’s funds. If that happens, Hanson can breathe a sigh of relief and commence with the “I told you so’s”. I hope he will personally burst into McMaster’s office and do so in the style of William DeFoe’s lobster speech in The Lighthouse.
Please explain why Putin “does not have unilateral access to his own nukes”
Regarding, “I hope he will personally burst into McMaster’s office…” I assume you mean the General and not the Senator. Again, please explain this.
Sure. He only has half the codes. Select generals have the other half as a final check on the “President” launching them in a moment of anger. Remember: before Putin, Yeltsin was mentally unstable and drunk -the Russian Oligarchy knows the calibur of its strong men and hedges its bets.
General McMaster and Hanson have nearby offices in the Hoover tower. Given that they argue like frenemies, I often imagine them like the cast of Eggers “The Lighthouse”.
Certainly Zelensky’s charism and leadership are an ideal set of characteristics qualifying him as the worthy recipient of FGM 148’s M 777’s HIMARS and promotor of the NATO Renaissance.
There’s evidence the invading belligerent’s military forces are under equipped and ill prepared for that which has already ended in failure and for what is yet to pass post autumn.
There doesn’t seem to be any logical threat due to the lack of any gain in the use of TNW as a result of Ukrainian tactics and positioning.
Humiliation is the next phase of the conflict.
It seems to me that a broad conscription in Russia might be the only solution to the mess Putin blundered his way into. At the same time concentrating large groups of young men and giving them access to weapons has its own risks.
I can see no risk free exit from the current dilemma. I don’t see a way for Putin to step back absent profound shocks to the Russian system. And that is a system that controls 7,000 or so nukes, and some of them still work.
Could definitely be wrong, but I believe he is in a terrific position on the chess board. Don’t know about his health, but BRICS+ is cooking with their new payment system and military alliances, and his economy is good or better than good. Look at the markets.
The best Ukraine can hope for is a stalemate. How can the European democracies survive winter without heat. If Putin was to either take (or render unusable, possibly radioactively) the port of Odessa – then starvation will be added to freezing to death. The European national governments better not rely on “leadership” from either Brussels or Washington. If Ukraine is currently having some military “success “ then a forced compromise settlement from a “position of strength” needs to happen NOW. The European national government elite ruling class will have a bigger problems with their own rioting citizens in January and February. I doubt that the bunker in Davos has enough room for them all.
In MY opinion, Ukraine has no chance at a stalemate…not even close. Russia hasn’t even mobilized yet. This is a chess game for Putin, and I am quite sure he is very pleased with the way things are going. If you wish, I will send you some different opinions of what is going on, but popular media, I fear, has it all wrong.
‘How exactly does the United States all at once avoid the resumption of a Verdun-like, endless bloodbath on the Ukrainian-Russian border, reject any negotiated settlement until Ukraine unambiguously wins the war and expels every Russian from all its territory, prevent a wounded Putin from using a tactical nuclear weapon—and circumvent a head-to-head showdown with Russia and its 7,000 nukes?’
It is highly unlikely that Russia will deploy nuclear weapons in Ukraine. There are a variety of escalations Russia can use short of nuclear strikes. Russia could destroy vital infrastructure all over Ukraine without nuclear weapons. Small steps toward making Ukraine uninhabitable are already underway. If there is no water or power, masses of people will leave Ukraine and once again flood into Europe.
Expelling every Russian from Ukraine lands is also highly unlikely. Defending the areas already acquired by Russia will be easier than taking them.
That leaves two options: Stalemate or settlement. If there was any leadership in the U.S. or Europe, Ukraine would be led to negotiate a settlement with its’ neighbor, Russia. Stalemate is what will exist unless and until the West elects a leader who can broker an agreement. An ongoing stalemate demonstrates the absence of leadership. This leadership void comes at great cost to the U.S. and Europe as well as most of the world.
It took more than 4 years to settle WW1, 6 years for WW2. Korea 3, VietNam 10.
Thank you for pre-recording podcasts in advance of your annual visit to Hillsdale College. I wish to propose for your consideration a podcast on the historical issues our Constitutional Republic has always had to struggle with regarding election machines. I refer in this case to HUMAN rather than electronic machines. Since you are a registered independent, I suggest perhaps focus on the gilded age (contemporary of Boss Tweed in the democrat Tammany Hall machine) REPUBLICAN PHILADELPHIA “machine”, which as you know was headed by Matthew Quay. I learned from reading The Big Fraud written by Congressman Troy E. Nehls that there is a terrific quote from Colonel Quay: “Politics is the art of taking money from the few and votes from the many under the pretext of protecting the one from the other.” Interestingly he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor at the battle of Frederickburg! According to a YouTube recording by a member of the park service, the Colonel had been releaved of command because of tuberculosis, but he begged the commanding general on the day of the battle to please allow him to participate. Some of his men, who knew that he was going back to the rear due to illness, gave him their back pay to take back home to their families. In order to encourage his men to advance, he held up the satchel containing the money – and they followed the money. Interesting story, and I would love your thoughts regarding the history of vote buying, che
Pleased as are 4 year old boys destroying lego buildings. Perhaps as a sociopath bent on the slaughtering of civilians.
The RF failed to seize Kyiv failed to remove Zelensky and are now loosing 7% per day of occupied land inside Ukraine.
The RF lost numerous ammunition depots and several major supply routes are compromised. The invading belligerent’s are severely isolated by the overall international community through sanctions of various forms. The way things are going?