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Matt Gurney: It's time to start thinking the weird thoughts on Russia
With Putin on the run in Ukraine, we need to consider some scenarios that would have seemed crazy just a few months ago.
By: Matt Gurney
It's probably time for us to start thinking through some weird possible scenarios for what's happening in Russia. Because the spectrum of what could happen is a lot broader than it seemed only six months ago.
But let's start with an important exercise in accountability. In previous commentary, I predicted a lot of things well: that Ukrainian resistance would be very effective, that Russia would have major logistics problems, that the Russians would use mass artillery fire against civilians in place of military advances. I was quick to grasp that Ukraine was overperforming and that Russia was struggling early in the conflict.
But getting some details right didn't help me avoid blowing the conclusion: I thought Russia would win. Not a total victory, but I thought Russia would seize a lot more of the country before its logistical problems and Ukrainian resistance brought their offensives to a halt, leaving Ukraine with some kind of rump state in the west. I certainly didn't believe in February that Russia could lose, and I never would have believed that Ukraine could actually win on the battlefield, as it now seems more than capable of doing.
I don't know if I underestimated Ukrainian capabilities, per se. I always expected them to fight bravely and well, and understood the lethality of modern man-portable weapons against tanks and armoured vehicles. It's probably closer to the mark to say that I overestimated Russia's capabilities — I was a cynic on their military and expected it to perform badly, but it's somehow fallen well short of my already low expectations. It is absolutely delightful to be wrong on this one, but readers deserve the truth: I expected Russia's military to perform better and grab a much bigger chunk of Ukraine before having to stop in the face of logistical dysfunction and Ukrainian resistance. Part of me wonders if the Russians themselves are surprised by how hollowed out their military had become.
With that on the record, let's flash forward to the present. As noted above, Ukraine now seems fully able to win the war. As I write this, Ukrainian forces are on the move again in the northeast, and seem to be encircling Russian positions in occupied Lyman. If able to complete this latest manoeuvre, Ukrainian forces will cut off a large force of Russian troops and will also seize control of an important local rail junction, threatening Russian logistics (such as they are) in the surrounding area. Perhaps more importantly to the overall conduct of the war, Russia's effort to mobilize 300,000 men for the war is running into obvious challenges. Men of military age are fleeing the country. Reports from Russia reveal that the army has little in the way of equipment and weapons for the new draftees, and no system in place to train them. There have been comically bizarre stories of infirm old men getting call-up notices, and of draftees being sent to the front after only a day or two of training … at best.
This isn’t a solution to Putin’s problems. It’s a new problem being created in real time. Even if Putin can find 300,000 men, it seems unlikely he can equip them, and even less likely that he can train them. Whether or not he can transport what men he does round up into the battle area is an open question, as is whether or not he can supply them once they get there.
This is the long way of saying something I'll now just state bluntly: Russia is losing. Putin's latest actions reveal that he knows he's losing. If the mobilization flops, as seems likely, he'll be losing even worse than he was losing before, and he’ll have damn few options to turn that around.
And this is why we need to start thinking through some weird scenarios.
What happens in the world if Russia outright loses a major armed conflict? What does that mean for Ukraine? What does it mean for the post-Soviet states along Russia's southern frontier, where two conflicts have already flared up in recent days, between Azerbaijan and Armenia and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan? What would it mean for Russia itself, if ethnic minority groups within the Russian Federation start thinking that this could be their moment to rise up and demand a better deal, if not secede entirely? Does China try to prop Russia up, or exploit the situation for its own gain?
And in Moscow itself, does Putin hang on? Does he get overthrown? If he does get tossed in a coup, who takes over? Is the next guy an improvement, in the eyes of the West? Or do we get a fanatic who simply cannot accept Russian defeat and tries even harder?
I can't answer any of these questions, obviously. I really wish that I could. I'd happily share my wisdom far and wide with the whole world and hopefully spare us all a major nightmare ahead. Alas. What I can do, however, is note how absurd any of this would have sounded back in February. Remember when Putin's "special operation" began? If anyone had stepped forward and said, "Six months from now, Putin will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine to stave off the collapse of his regime in the face of secessionist uprisings by ethnic minorities,"that would have seemed insane. Beyond science fiction. Now it seems ... possible? Maybe not plausible, yet, but not ridiculous?
One of the major themes in my writing in recent years is that we have to start accepting that the world may now be far less stable and predictable than we've been able to take for granted in recent generations. The first step in that process is going to be shaking off old assumptions, because our expectations are a problem. Given that we use our expectations to shape policy and also to build the institutions we rely on to run our societies, if our expectations are out of date, we won't be able to keep up with a rapidly changing world.
I've yet to see much evidence that we are indeed getting any better at accepting the world as it seems to be, rather than the one we grew up enjoying. Crises are developing in weeks or even days, and we have governments that can't even get stuff done across on the time scale of four-year mandates.
Our expectations about Russia, and this war, were a problem (and that includes mine). Even those who got a lot of the details right, and I got a lot of the details right, were still wrong about the overall shape of things. Are we ready for a world where Putin decides to use nuclear weapons to stave off defeat? Are we ready for a coup in Moscow, or some kind of civil conflict in that country? Are we ready for cyber attacks? For the Russian Federation fragmenting?
Maybe none of these things happen. But maybe some of them do, in unpredictable combinations, and they could happen today. We don't know where this is going to go, and it's far from obvious we're even thinking about it. We don't have years here. We don't have time for entirely new institutions and a whole new generation of thinkers and leaders. We've got what we've got, in Ottawa and across the West, and the challenges are growing.
So like I said. It's time to start thinking about the weird scenarios, and asking ourselves what we should be doing next.
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