Andrew Bustamante on Lex Fridman – Ukraine a forlorn hope?

I have problems tieing together the depressing nature of his conclusions with his analysis of why the outcome will be so negative. i.e. “Russia is winning. They’re winning in Ukraine… Empircally, when you look at the math!” This might be explained by his attempt to push back against a triumphalist narrative that Ukraine is one last push away from from a general rout of Russian forces in South and West Ukraine. However, while he believes Kherson and Odessa will fall before Winter 2022 – where he discusses a maximalist Russian ambition of strangling the Ukrainian economy by linking Crimea to Transnistria – he also indicates his negative assessment might include a negotiated ceasfire (perhaps with similar borders to how they are today?).

Most of all he looks at Ukraine as a problem of disinterest due to an absence of compelling Western motivations to suffer in their support of Ukraine.

First of all, what I do agree with:

  1. This is an information war, and we’re busy consuming the western infowar strategy that is being broadcast to bolster allied performance and degrade enemy performance. Ref my point above about the triumphalist narrative that Ukraine is one last push away from from a general rout of Russian forces in South and West Ukraine.
  2. That regardless of whether Kyiv holds Odessa, the fact that the grain agreement was negotiated with Russia and Turkey is graphic evidence that Russia has its boot on Ukraines economic windpipe. Kyiv cannot reorient its export supply-chains via land and rail routes into Poland when its grain markets are in the Middle East and Africa.
  3. That the biggest problem Ukraine faces in maintaining the coalition of support is disinterest in ‘allies’ when the situation grinds on without a decisive outcome that makes the risk and cost seem like a moral endeavor. This is true whether this is energy inflation in europe, or distraction from pacific ambitions in the United States.
  4. That there is a sad truth to the notion that the Great Powers are are keen to use Ukraine as a cauldron to test and refine their tools and strategies against the potential of Great Power competition. This does exist, and we’re happy to soft-pedal this when we wax lyrical about the moral reason why nations support Ukraine.

These are significant problems, and they could be decisive arguments if Ukraine was Afghanistan.

Now, where I disagree with the argument:

1. That Russian cannot afford to let its pipelines that run through Ukraine out of its control. Why not? The value of pipelines to europe is the revenue stream it generates to prop up the Russian economy, and the dependence it creates on Russia’s external neighbours to keep the energy flowing. If the benefit is revenue and control, why initiate a war that will long term destroy both of those things?

2. That Russia “has to have Ukraine”. Ukraine is valuable as a fractured state that acts as a buffer between it and NATO. Having a ‘controlling interest’ in a large fraction of Ukraines agricultural and energy will sustain its own dominance in those economic exports. Holding Crimea as a warm water port able to easliy project force down into the vital East<>West trade artery is invaluable. Having access to core Russian military industrial industries in Ukraine is valuable. Having frozen conflicts in the Donbas that prevent Ukraine migrating into NATO and the EU are essential. But Russia does not [need] Ukraine.

3. That Ukraine has received nothing from the west except IOU’s. Ukraine has in six months received commitments to the value of $100billion. Roughly one fifth in the form of grants, three fifths in loans, and presumably much of the remainder in the form of direct transfer of equipment and supplies. Very little of that funding is humanitarian-focused according to Devex. And this does not capture funding for Poland, Hungary, and surrounding countries to support their work with Ukrainian refugees, nor does it necessarily include funding that countries have committed for supporting refugees within their border.

4. That Russia is ‘winning’, and that it will have annexed the Black Sea coast before Winter 2022. How does it get maneuvre armies across the Dnipro now? Russia is going to struggle enormously just to hold onto its bridgehead in Kherson, utilising huge resource just to sustain its garrison in the city, let alone using that as a launch point that will cross four significant north-south waterways (not including the Dnipro!). There is no snake island, there is no black sea fleet on the high seas, there is no amphibious forces to split Odessan defenders.

To summarise my specific objections above:

a) Yes, Putin did appear to have maximalist ambitions, but I do not see why he [must] have maximalist ambitions now.

b) Maximalist ambitions are fine, hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but there is nothing here that demands that Russia must achieve maximalist outcomes.

c) That Ukraine is receiving continued and sustained support in the military sphere on a very significant scale, and that the fact that there are no ‘boots on the ground’ does not change this fact.

d) Yes, Putin will retain a foot on Ukraines economic windpipe, but if a negotiated ceasfire occurs and Ukraine retains Odessa then it continues to have access to its major export markets.

Now, beyond specific objections I want to take issue with the general themes around the lack of compelling motivations to for Ukraines allies to sustain the support that will allow them to ‘win’:

i. First, that America has no long term interest in helping Ukraine to win. I disagree. The US doesn’t care about Russia itself, it’s interests are entirely focussed on Great Power competition with China, and will be so for the rest of the century. That said, Russia is a stick that China will use to beat ‘the west’ with, and in particular to drive a wedge between the commonality of interests that currently exists between east and west NATO. The US wants and needs Europe to be able to take care of Russia so it can concentrate on China.

ii. Second, that if America wanted to solve the ‘Russia problem’ then the only four things need be done: 1. Finland 2. Poland 3. Ukraine 4. Art5 support for 1,2 and 3. The three hyper-defensive nations completely bracket the eastern border of NATO, putting a hard stop to Russia threat into the softer interior. Even if formal Ukrianian membership of NATO can’t happen any time soon, it can be created by proxy with sufficient practical support.

iii. First, that Europe has no long term interest in helping Ukraine to win. I disagree. It is exceptionally hard to get the EU to act strategically, and they have repeatedly demonstrated an ability to shoot themselves in the foot here. Witness EU treatment to Turkish accession in creating an adversary out of an ally, and one that is both an important power and a strategic nexus. But there has to be recognition that having secure access to 120 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves is a benefit – the 23rd largest in the world, and the largest in the EU – even if 60% of that is divided between Kharkiv and the Donetsk. Nor too the fact that Ukraine is corrupt because that is how Russia wants it to be, and that if the EU doesn’t like having a corrupt neighbour it should do something to lessen Russian influence.

iv. Second, that this disinterest is general and if it applies to the US then nobody else counts. If you want to see what commitment looks like then look no further than Poland. An advanced and rich western european nation that is: 1. Socially committed to the hilt with a militia system that makes Montana look amatuer 2. Culturally bound in blood with Ukrainian people as evidenced by the 5m making a life in Poland 3. Militarily commited to resist Russia by forming more armour and mechanised divisions than UK and Germany put together 4. Industrially aligned in locally manufacturing enormous quantities of advanced military equipment sourced from a nation histiorically permissive about onward transfer. Poland would and could guarentee the nothern Ukranian border west of the Dnipro, leaving the Ukrainian forces free to disregard Belarus. Poland would and could re-arm Ukraine with locally manufactured K2PL and K9PL tanks and artillary once the Warsaw pact stocks and western donations disappear. Not saying they will, but I want you to understand that Poland is [very] serious about Defence as the first duty of the nation state.

In conclusion:

I think it would be wrong take Andrew Bustamante’s pessimism as evidence that Ukraine is destined to be a corrupt client appendage of an irresistable Russian Hegemon. That the US strategy is based on the lend-lease act in WW2 does not mean that Ukraine is abandonned. It may never be free entirely of Russian coercion, and may always need to consider the interests of its beligerant neighbour, but Finlandisation does not mean subjugation.

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