After reading many things, talking to colleagues knowledgable about Russia, thinking about parallels to other conflicts, and idly speculating about a place that five months ago I struggled to find on an unlabelled map, here are some thoughts.
One plausible scenario is that we are looking at the next Kashmir—something that will soon evolve into a tense but durable “peace” without any real settlement, but at least one where few people are dying.
- For the next while there will be more fighting between Russian forces and the Ukrainian army in the east. Once those battles are decided (in months?), intense fighting will die down. Because fighting is just too costly a means to get their way.
- Russia will occupy a swathe of eastern Ukraine plus Crimea. Ukraine and the West will refuse to recognize their control. And, for years or decades—at least until Putin is out of power, and maybe well beyond—it will be disputed territory where Russia is in de facto control. Many Western sanctions will continue, but not the ones most costly to the West. (So, unless Germany suddenly revisits its loathing for nuclear power, they will still send truckloads of money to Russia for gas.)
- In this world, Russia will continue to try to shape Ukrainian politics through every other means (much like the US attempts to do so in their sphere of influence). These efforts are often risky and clumsy, and it’s hard to predict their effects.
A big question is how this will affect world politics and the risk of international invasions elsewhere. I am slightly optimistic here that a sanctioned Russia will be an impediment to autocrats elsewhere, and make China more wary of human rights abuses and military invasions. Bit who really knows.
- Russia has few allies in the world, and so it will continue to do its best to build its sphere of influence, stand up friendly autocrats, and veto UN Security Council Resolutions that affect anyone in this sphere. But they will be more constrained and weaker than before, and so the resources to buttress dictators may go down.
- Meanwhile, while the sanctions regime and Western cooperation is in some ways a “one-off” coordination, precedent matters, and this kind of concerted action may be easier in the future.
- How China looks at this no one yet knows, but the hope is that this lowers the likelihood of an invasion of Taiwan or heavy repression in Hong King and elsewhere. If you have seen good pieces on this, I would love to har about them.
Still, to people elsewhere in the world, it’s clear that Western outrage over invasions and massacres are incredibly selective and somewhat hypocritical.
- There have been far worse human rights abuses in the past few years that no one really cared about. That might be because it happened within the borders of a great power (think Uyghurs) or because it’s a US ally (e.g. Abiy’s regime in Ethiopia).
- It’s also a bit rich of the US to recommend someone to the international criminal court when they are one of only 7 countries — along with China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar, and Yemen — to vote against its creation and still not sign on to its legitimacy.
- To be clear: I am not criticizing people for their outrage at atrocities in places like Bucha. Rather, I wish they would get equally outraged at all the atrocities that don’t happen to allies and Europeans.
Personally I would like to see this unity and sanctions precedent evolve into something more rules-based and consistent, such that any nation, including the powerful, and including the US, faces predictable consequences for international violence. This is happening very slowly, which is fine, and probably the only way such things evolve.
In terms of my Kashmir prediction, the big unknown is how ideological and irrational is Putin and his inner circle, and what they think they need to do to achieve their goals or stay in power.
- I have colleagues, very knowledgable ones, who are convinced that Putin is delusional and is surrounded by a bunch of inexperienced, inept, ideological, yes-men. I have others who see them as having some of these faults, but they are more strategic.
- As a general rule, I err on the side of believing opponents are strategic. Too often I think we succumb to a rigid and poisonous view of enemies, we underestimate them, we demonize them, and we do so partly by removing their agency and their humanness and their smarts from the equation. So even though it’s possible that the quality of Russian government has devolved so far, I think we should be suspicious.
- To be clear, however, the most knowledgable insider I know thinks I am completely wrong.