Why Russia Invaded Ukraine, and What Happens Next

Russian troops practicing a river crossing in Belarus in 2021 — Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

Why am I opining on this topic?

After some comments I’ve made on various social media networks, I’ve been asked to provide my views on the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Please note that I am not a geopolitical military or strategy expert. I’m an amateur geopolitical analyst who has found the analysis approaches I’ve developed over a 40-year career to look at strategic business challenges are useful in understanding some of the issues that struggling countries face, at some level. My motivation to comment on this is partially attributable to my belief that much of what has passed as conventional wisdom on this topic is questionable. I also believe that different viewpoints help us all understand the problems and challenges the West and indeed the world face better, so that we can develop better solutions. I believe that people are people wherever we find them, and in order to understand why they act the way they act, we have to understand their goals and motivations as well as their beliefs and values.

Why countries go to war

I agree with the view expressed by the famed German strategist of the 19th century Carl von Clausewitz when he said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” In short, conflict breaks out when a political solution to a problem is unacceptable to at least one party, and that party decides that the problem that must be solved is existential in nature; failure to achieve the minimally acceptable solution would cause more harm to that party than the harm resulting from open military conflict (given that the aggrieved party believes it can and will win, e.g., Russia). Of course, if the conflict in question is truly existential, the aggrieved party may decide to fight rather than back down even if it isn’t confident it can win because it views any chance of survival to be better than surrender and personal or national annihilation, e.g., Ukraine today, the Baathist Party under Saddam in Iraq, and again, perhaps Russia under Putin today.

Vladimir Putin — TASS

Why did Russia go to war?

A lot of the commentary surrounding the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine centers around the view of Putin as an unstable, perhaps even irrational super-villain whose only reason for the invasion is to subjugate the Ukrainian people to his will. In my opinion, viewing and thus dismissing Putin and his close circle of advisors as motivated by evil precludes any ability to understand what is driving him to pursue the use of force against a neighboring country containing a population that has historical ties to and, up until recently, generally held a positive view of Putin and Russia.

A Russian SU-27 intercepting an American B1B over the Black Sea in 2020 — TASS

I don’t think that Putin is crazy, deranged, or mentally unstable. In fact, I strongly believe that in order to understand Russia’s reason for the Ukrainian invasion we have to assume Putin and his advisors are logical and rational, even if we don’t share their values. We also have to try and see the world the way Russia and its leaders do, even if we disagree with their perspective. For instance, a US bomber over the Black Sea is undoubtedly seen as provocative by the Russians, just as we’d see a Russian bomber over the Gulf of Mexico near US territory as provocative.

Putin has a goal and has decided that conquering and/or controlling Ukraine is essential to that goal. Is that a correct decision? The famed physicist-turned-business-consulting-guru Dr Eliyahu Goldratt had many theories, one of which was that conflict is caused by incompatible and/or mutually-exclusive actions based on faulty assumptions, and if we surface these invalid assumptions we can discover how to ‘evaporate’ the conflict. Given this basis, I think it’s helpful to try and see what Putin sees.

Russia is an insecure country, with some justification

Let me preface this section by saying that I have met many Russians and have several Russian friends and acquaintances. To a person, they are kind, polite, unfailingly honest and direct to the point of being blunt. The Russians I know are generous, unselfish, and hard-working, and even the people who left Russia due to political repression have an abiding love of their country and their fellow Russians, if not their leaders. I have found that when they come to mistrust or dislike someone they become dismissive of that person, and generally refuse to engage with them further. In my experience, while Russians may be disappointed with their leaders and their country, they tend to come together and defend it against outside criticism whether or not the criticism is justified. Thus, I believe any hope that the majority of the Russian people will side with the West and against Putin over the Ukraine invasion is unrealistic.

Putin at a Moscow rally to show support for Russia’s involvement in Ukraine — from the Atlantic Council website

I think Russia‘s current leaders and much of its population sees itself as surrounded by adversaries if not actual enemies. Some of this is due to Russian paranoia, some of it is due to the discomfort of Russia standing still while its neighbors progress to the point where Russia is being left behind economically. Russia has historically felt itself to be at a disadvantage to the rest of Europe, dating from the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and certainly their experiences of repeated invasions by other European powers have not helped. Although I don’t think NATO or the US is responsible for Russia’s feelings, I do think that the recent resurgence in the US of targeting Russia as an enemy and the actions we’ve taken to move US troops and equipment closer to Russia’s western border have been unnecessarily provocative to where these actions have harmed US-Russian relations and increased Russia’s paranoia. There’s an old American saying about the danger of foolish provocation: don’t poke the bear.

Russia is failing and facing self-extinction

US and Western actions are not the proximate cause of the war, even as Russin apologists use them as such. Instead, the problem is far deeper and existential for Russia. I think Putin is looking at Russia and facing a very unpleasant reality, one that bodes ill for Russia’s future. Putin governs a country that is imploding, that is dying out. Russians aren’t having children despite government incentives, alcoholism and its health and social effects have remained a serious problem, Russia’s aging demographic is increasingly unhealthy, life expectancies continue to drop, and the population is shrinking. In short, Russia is circling the drain. I think Putin recognizes this but won’t accept the real reason for it.

Abandoned supersonic TU-144 jet

In my opinion, the Russian people are suffering from mass depression and a feeling of hopelessness due to Russia’s corrupt kleptocracy that destroys any chances for its people to advance through hard, honest work. The Russian people have largely given up. Many of the best and brightest Russians, its educated and trained engineers, programmers, and scientists, have emigrated to the West where they can build better lives for themselves without having to deal with the problems in Russia. Those who remain cope the best they can, often with the help of alcohol and tobacco.

Russian women socializing with cigarettes and alcohol in Magnitogorsk, Russia — Reuters

The Russians are a proud people, and this pride is exploited by the ruling elites via propaganda that blames all of Russia’s problems on an evil conspiracy by the West, up to and including the supposed ‘Nazi-ification’ of Ukraine by its Jewish (and pro-Ukrainian) leader who will not submit to Russian hegemony.

Putin’s solution: growth by acquisition

Based on his recent actions, it seems Putin thinks the solution is to expand Russia to more of its historical regions in order to capture more population. An additional perceived benefit is that Russia will simultaneously acquire a buffer against any invasion attempts from the West, something that Russians and their leaders worry about. This worry is understandable given Russia’s history, but is it rational? At any rate, taking Ukraine and then eventually other neighboring Slavic countries seems to provide two desirable outcomes at little to no real costs.

A Russian column on the road to Kiev — from promoteukraine.org

Thus the goal of taking Ukraine quickly by a multi-pronged attack. The only real question was, is Russia militarily capable of conquering Ukraine quickly and easily?

Bad decisions start from miscalculations

Based upon its 2014 experiences during the invasion and annexing of the Crimean peninsula, Russia had few concerns about its military being able to deal summarily with Ukrainian military existence; the assumption was that it would be ineffective if not nonexistent. What Russia didn’t consider is the 8 years of training that the Ukrainian military has received from EU and NATO countries including the USA, the relationships created during that time between these countries, the readily available materiel support in the form of anti-air and anti-tank man-portable missiles like Stingers and Javelins, and how the awakening realization of the growing Russian threat would bind EU and NATO member countries.

Ukrainian troops training with Javelin missiles in December, 2021 — Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service

As with the leaders of many companies, Putin and his close circle gave more credence to any evidence that reinforced their views on the costs of going into Ukraine. Just as US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie’s remarks to Saddam Hussein on how “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait”[1]. It didn’t help that US President Joe Biden announced that the Western response to a “minor incursion” by Russia might not provoke a significant response (a statement that was clarified to mean nothing of the sort subsequently)[2]. Nor did resistance from the EU seem to be an issue, given many EU members’ reliance on Russian oil and gas. China’s acceptance of any Russian action also helped ease Russian concerns[3].

There was also the history of Putin’s previous incursion into Ukraine where Russian forces invaded and captured the Crimean peninsula, quickly and at almost no cost. Western acceptance of this action led Putin to reasonably conclude that the West would not offer meaningful opposition to the re-taking of Ukraine… if it was quick and relatively non-violent. Russia’s experience with the Ukrainian military during the Crimean incursion also led it to believe that Ukrainian resistance would be somewhere between ineffective and nonexistent.

So, the strategy was to launch a multi-pronged invasion from the occupied oblasts in the east to fix the Ukrainian Army in place, from the Crimea in the south to hold the Ukrainians east of the Dnieper River as they drove north towards Kiev, and from Belarus in the north to take the capitol Kiev and then connect to the southern drive and cut Ukraine in half. It was a good plan, but it failed because of a combination of amazing Russian military ineptitude and the Ukrainian military, people, and leadership’s efforts that greatly exceeded Russian (and world) expectations. Thus the invasion and attempted conquest of Ukraine has become a strategic failure due to a massive miscalculation that becomes more apparent with each passing day.

Where we are today

At this time, we’re two months into the conflict. Russia’s attack from Belarus failed, stalling at the outskirts of Kiev and then being driven back to the Ukrainian border and beyond. Russia’s attacks from the east have been stalled. Russia has managed to take much of the Ukrainian coast, yet has been unable to capture Kherson and go on to take Odessa to the west. It has also been unable to fully control Mariopol to the east of the Crimean peninsula at this time, although that city’s fall seems inevitable.

A small part of the 80 kilometer-long Russian armored convoy stalled for several days north of Kiev — © 2022 Maxar Technologies

The expert consensus was that Ukraine would fall in less than a week, its army collapsing and surrendering, its air forces destroyed, all of its major cities captured, and its national government fleeing to the West. That view led to the West being initially unwilling to supply any aid in the form of military equipment and assistance while offering Ukrainian president Zelenskyy repeated offers to evacuate him and his family to which he responded, “Send me ammo, not a helicopter! The fight is here!” The brave resistance of Ukrainian government leaders and Ukrainian troops and volunteers persuaded the West that all was not lost, that materiel support would not be in vain. The Ukrainians have leveraged their assets to deal significant damage to the invading Russians.

The aftermath of Ukrainian missile strikes on a Russian column in Bucha, Ukraine — © Luis de Vega

The Ukrainian air force overwhelming initial Russian air attacks and Ukrainian ground forces destroying dozens of Russian air assets. The Russians lost several large troop transports each with hundreds of elite paratroopers to Ukrainian fighters, likely preventing the capture of key Ukrainian air bases. Ukrainian infantry used portable SAMs to knock down dozens of jet fighters and bombers, and attack and transport helicopters. The totality of these efforts has prevented the Russians from gaining air superiority; a major setback from a small country to a military that supposedly a near-peer to the US military. To the contrary, the Ukrainians seem to be able to freely use air assets like drones and attack helicopters to support and enhance counterattacks against Russian forces.

A Russian MI-24 helicopter gunship being struck by a US-supplied Stinger man-portable SAM north of Kiev

Russia’s military losses are substantial. They’ve lost more troops in two months than they lost in their decade of fighting in Afghanistan[4]. They’ve lost the Moskva, their Black Sea flagship and one of three Slava-class guided missile cruisers (now two remain), equivalent to the US Navy’s Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers. Given Russia’s economy, they will never be able to replace this ship; given Turkey’s control of the Bosphorus Strait they will not be able to bring a replacement Slava-class cruiser into the Black Sea to replace the Moskva. They’ve lost significant standoff strike capability against Ukraine.

The Moskva, listing and on fire after being struck by at least one Ukrainian cruise missile

They also lost one of two Alligator-class large landing ships, the Orsk, that was attacked and sunk while in the Ukrainian port of Berdyansk east of the Crimean peninsula.

The Orsk burning at the Berdyansk dock while two other large landing ships hurriedly leave the port. The ship in the background has also been damaged — Ukrainian Ministry of Defense

Although they have several more of these ships that have been inactivated since the end of the USSR, they do not have the money to restore them to active duty nor could they do so in time to have any effect on the outcome in Ukraine. So, they’ve effectively lost the ability to resupply their forces in southern Ukraine by sea, and they don’t have the capability to do so by land.

What are Putin’s options

Putin is facing some difficult choices. The West won’t let him win easily, if he wins militarily it will be temporary because Russia simply doesn’t have the military resources to deal with an ongoing Ukrainian insurgency supported by the West, and he’s destroying the Russian military and its prestige in the meantime. Western weapons and shared intelligence have made a critical difference, and their presence is drawing increasing ire from Russia.

Russia is trying to counter this via escalation. The Russian military’s strategy of scorched earth as a means to intimidate Ukraine, to break the Ukrainian will to resist by making the price of resistance intolerable — higher than the price of surrender — is not working. Putin doesn’t accept that the Ukrainians will not be cowed, and that they don’t think in the way that Russian leadership assumes they do. It seems that Russian leaders assume everyone is afraid of them and if Russia escalates everyone else will back down, but this is proving to be increasingly untrue. Russian brutality has only hardened Ukrainian opposition and reduced any desire to negotiate. In addition, the fear of Russian aggression has made other nations more determined to ensure Russia loses in Ukraine to prevent further adventurism.

Only bad choices remain

I don’t think Putin has any good choices left, just some least bad choices. If he continues, his military will be rendered ineffective for years, and he still faces unrest inside Russia, Georgia, Chechnya, Kazakhstan, etc. If he loses and is forced to withdraw Russian government prestige is so diminished that he faces domestic political and civil unrest to the point of a revolution/coup, akin to 1917. If he unilaterally declares victory, withdraws most of his forces, and maintains the areas he’s conquered, he faces Ukrainian counterattacks.

His only hope is to negotiate a withdrawal that allows him to keep Crimea and perhaps grants him access to it by land with a ‘promise’ for Ukraine to respect Russians in Ukraine in return for giving up territory Russia has captured. That way he preserves some of his military, can claim a victory of sorts, can claim his actions were for the sake of oppressed Russians in Ukraine, etc. But time is not on Russia’s side. Every day Ukraine gets stronger with Western materiel support that it doesn’t have to pay for while Russia takes more losses in troops and equipment it can’t replace. Missiles are cheaper than tanks, and tanks have trained crews that die when the tank dies. The same is true with helicopters and aircraft.

How it ends

So, Putin’s former goal of expansion and control of Slavic neighbors is no longer achievable. He’s unwilling to admit this; perhaps he doesn’t believe it. Hence the threats to attack NATO for materiel support of Ukraine, the threat to use Russia’s “advanced” weapons like hypersonic missiles and tactical nukes and thermobaric bombs, to threaten Finland and Sweden if they attempt to join NATO, etc. Threats worked in the past but are only hardening the West now. Even France’s Macron reminded Putin that “we have nuclear weapons, too.”

Wars end when one side no longer believes it can win and recognizes that it can only control how many of its people die. Ukraine believes it can win based on how they’ve withstood everything Russia has thrown at them, but evidently the Russian military doesn’t believe Russia can win absent significant escalation. I think Putin believes Russia can win if he can convince Ukraine and the West he’s the craziest guy in the room. So, that is Putin’s goal now… to so intimidate the West that they back down and let him have Ukraine. I don’t think it’s going to work. The view of the Russian Army as all-powerful is seen now as a myth; Russia is not the USSR. Maybe the USSR was never the USSR.

How will it end? Russia’s only path to victory ended when it lost the battle to take Kiev and decapitate the Ukrainian government. Russia will lose now because it can only lose at this point. The only question is how badly will they lose. Putin’s decisions have placed the Russian military into a trap. The West will continue to arm and supply Ukraine, but who will arm and supply Russia? Stories of Russian troops refusing to fight are becoming increasingly common, as are stories of Chechnyan troops performing summary executions on Russian troops in the field to restore discipline through fear. There are also some stories of “accidental” Russian artillery strikes on Chechnyan forces as retaliation. These unconfirmed reports raise the question of the impact of this conflict on Russian military morale. Certainly an army that has lost faith in its leaders and its mission, and that sees itself grow weaker as its adversary appears to grow stronger, will become disillusioned.

Russian forces will withdraw; the only question is, after what cost in troops and materiel… after what impact on Russian national stability? Russia risks being weakened to the point to where the current government will lose the ability to defend Russian territory or suppress civil unrest with their remaining conventional forces. This would make Russia vulnerable to aggression from adversarial states on their southern and eastern borders, and to new efforts at independence from regions within Russian control today such as Ossetia, Georgia, and Chechnya. Again, time is not on Putin’s side. The time to choose the least worst option of negotiating a face-saving withdrawal is now, while he still can. That window will close in weeks to months, not months to years. The longer Putin waits, the more desperate he becomes, and the greater the risk of serious strategic escalation becomes.

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Recovering software engineer, manager of engineers, and consultant. See my bio on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/johngclifford/

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John Clifford

John Clifford

Recovering software engineer, manager of engineers, and consultant. See my bio on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/johngclifford/

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