__This is a transcript of Peter Rough's keynote address to Simulex 2022: War in Europe. The speech was delivered at Duquesne University on April 7.__
For simulations to achieve maximum effectiveness, they must approximate reality, so it is fortuitous that this year’s crisis simulation is based on an ongoing war. As awful as war is for the people of Ukraine, the conflict represents an opportunity to observe decision-making and learn crisis management lessons. So, over the next twenty minutes, I’d like to update you on the war and make you au courant as you take your crisis stations.
I’ll begin tonight with the crisis backdrop. Then I’ll discuss the war’s timing, and then the war itself before concluding with a few considerations about the future.
Part 1: The Crisis Backdrop
There is no consensus on the origins of the war, but multiple overlapping and competing theories compete for acceptance.
In Ankara last month, a Turkish legislator offered one explanation to me: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions should be understood as controlling select former Soviet Union states—in particular the Slavic, Russian Orthodox lands of Russia’s near abroad. Foremost on that list, he argued, is Ukraine. This Turkish interlocutor hastened to add that he doubts Putin aspires to rebuild the entire Warsaw Pact. It is control over Belarus and Ukraine, he emphasized, that Putin seeks.
Unsurprisingly, many others situated behind NATO lines but previously members of the Warsaw Pact see matters differently. Just before the war, I met with a delegation of Latvians. One Latvian relayed to me an encounter he had had years earlier with Alexandr Dugin, the former chief ideologue of the Kremlin. When asked where Russia’s empire ends, Dugin casually replied over pizza, “Wherever you’ll stop us.”
Still other analysts say that the scope of Russia’s ambitions should be understood through Putin the man. In this telling, Putin has deteriorated into a bitter revanchist. He is now in the business of settling accounts from the past. Putin’s revenge for Kosovo was Georgia; his payback for Libya was Syria; and his answer to the Maidan was the Donbass. From this vantage point, Putin wants respect in the form of a sphere of influence, with a pro-Russian president ensconced in Kyiv. When last year Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrested a Ukrainian ally of Putin, Viktor Medvedchuk, he committed a cardinal sin, these analysts say.
About one month after that arrest, in July of last year, Putin published an essay, “On the Historical Unity of the Russian and Ukrainian Peoples” – laying out, in detail, what he told U.S. President George W. Bush at NATO’s Bucharest Summit in 2008 – namely, that Ukraine is not a real nation. To Russian nationalists, the so-called “Kyivan Rus” is not only the cradle of Russian civilization, but crucial to Russia’s security historically. Putin’s essay makes clear that he sees control over Ukraine as his top international objective for which he is prepared to sacrifice much.
To his chagrin, recent Ukrainian presidents from Yuvchenko to Zelensky have put Ukraine on a Western trajectory. In 2014, Ukraine faced a choice between two economic and political paths: the Eurasia Union, which meant a future with Russia, or the European Union, meaning connectivity with the West.
Ukraine chose Europe. After it signed an association agreement with the EU, Putin dispatched so-called little green men, soldiers in combat fatigues but with no identifying insignia, to occupy and annex the strategic peninsula of Crimea. As part of the same campaign, Russia launched an intervention in the base of the Don River, where it catalyzed a pro-Russian separatist campaign in the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts of eastern Ukraine. In the process, Russian commanders also downed a Malaysian commercial airliner flying over the Donbass.
The US and EU responded with economic sanctions. NATO deployed battalion-sized battlegroups led by the UK, Canada, Germany, and the U.S. to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, respectively.
But Russia’s aggression in 2014 did not produce a fundamental rethink in the West.
German officials justified their industries’ voracious appetite for Russian commodities and raw materials with the argument, as one German diplomat explained to me last year, that economic interdependence fosters peace. Until very recently, Germany held fast in near theological terms to engagement with Russia as the key to keeping the peace.
Similarly, France sought to win over Russia. In 2019, President Macron greeted Putin at his vacation home in the Côte d’Azur—a coveted invitation. That same year, Macron spoke of a joint security zone stretching from “Lisbon to Vladivostok” and warned his ambassadors at the annual ambassadorial conference in Paris against undercutting his outreach to Putin.
Great Britain, the last of the major E3 European powers, has been distracted by Brexit but then called in last year’s Integrated Review for an army end-strength far short of 100,000 troops by the year 2025—a posture hardly compatible with fighting and winning a land war in Europe.
These three powers struggled to meet their promises, made at the Wales Summit in 2014, to upgrade their defense capabilities. Instead, they sought to stem the Ukraine crisis through the Minsk Accords, in which Germany and France attempted to pacify the war in the Donbass through mediation.
This western European engagement of Russia discomfited key Central and Eastern European countries especially Romania, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, the Baltic States, and Poland—all of whom felt the brunt of Russian gray zone operations over the years, from cyber-attacks to brazen bombings to information warfare.
Instead, these countries looked to the U.S. for security.
Even Washington, however, could not fully placate them. Eastern European leaders watched as the U.S. sought to partner with Russia on the Iran nuclear file, in climate change talks, and, at key times, in the war in Syria. After cutting oil imports from Venezuela and Iran, the U.S. even added Russian oil to its energy imports.
Indeed, while the U.S. shared Eastern Europe’s hostile attitude toward Putin, it did not fully bring American power to bear against Moscow. For example, the much-vaunted NATO battlegroups in Poland and the Baltic States deployed on a rotational basis consistent with the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, an agreement Putin had repeatedly violated even as the U.S. continued to abide by its terms.
Putin was treated as an opponent with adversarial qualities, to be sure, but still as someone with whom it was possible to transact business.
Part II: The War’s Precipitating Moments
It is difficult to know why, exactly, Putin chose this moment to invade. But it may be that he simply viewed the politics as propitious.
This year, France goes to the polls with President Macron facing off against multiple Russophiles who have expressed their admiration for Putin and threaten Macron’s flanks. Today, the divide between French elite and popular sentiment is stark.
Last fall, Germany saw a leadership transition, with Olaf Scholz taking the reins of power from Angela Merkel. The former mayor of Hamburg and finance minister, Scholz has little experience in foreign policy and maintains only a loose hold on his party, the Social Democrats, who see (or saw) outreach to Russia as essential to their own identity.
And most importantly, the Biden administration took power with many of the same advisers who declined to seriously punish Putin for the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Biden began his time in office by slowing the provision of military aid to Ukraine and traveling to Geneva, not Kyiv, to meet with Vladimir Putin, whom he offered “predictable and stable” relations so that the U.S. would be free to pivot to Asia.
Biden also made clear that he would not send U.S. troops to defend Ukraine and downgraded ties with Eastern Europe’s most important country, Poland. Putin could not have read these moves as a green light to invade, much as, say, Saddam Hussein interpreted the comments of April Glaspie before the first Gulf war. But he may have judged that the West would not put up much resistance to an invasion.
In the spring of 2021, Russia deployed its forces near Ukraine. In the fall, it increased that buildup—including in Belarus, which provided Russia with a crucial vector of attack from the north. By February, when Putin met with Xi Jinping in Beijing on the sidelines of the Olympic Games to declare “no limits” to the Sino-Russian relationship, 150,000-190,000 Russian forces stood within striking distance of Ukraine.
As the U.S. monitored the Russian buildup and sounded the alarm, Russia built a diplomatic process to cover its tracks. In the Russian system, the foreign ministry is virtually powerless, as its diplomats freely concede in conversation. Instead of policymaking, the Ministry serves the role of propagandist. Little wonder, then, that Putin charged Sergey Lavrov, his wily foreign minister, to structure talks on political demands that no Western leader could accept. These were not real negotiations but stratagems in preparation for war.
On February 24, once Russia’s troops had fully deployed, the Beijing Olympics had concluded, and the time of year was right for ground operations, Putin attacked.
Part III: The War Itself
Putin’s goal for the war was, and may still be, the overthrow of the Zelensky government and the installation of a quisling who would give him control over, but not responsibility for, management of the largest country in Europe.
This was to be accomplished in an opening thunder-run of elite Russian units to Hostomel Airport northwest of Kyiv, who would make way for paratroopers and, ultimately, mechanized units in a rapid advance on the Ukrainian capital. In the span of mere days, so the Russian plan went, Ukraine would be subdued—a liberation of sorts which would make it impossible for the West to justify harsh sanctions against Russia. Putin would gain the crown jewel of a rebuilt empire at little cost.
This was a hopelessly optimistic operational plan based on a flawed reading of Ukraine. Years ago, a colleague relayed a story of a high-ranking Ukrainian prosecutor that has stayed with me. At the time, the Ukrainian told my colleague that if he ever encountered Putin, he’d pin a medal on him. Surprised, my colleague asked why. “Because he’s done more to give Ukraine a sense of nationhood than anyone else,” the prosecutor answered. Putin vastly underestimated Ukrainian nationalism. As one European ambassador in Washington put it to me recently, “Putin started to believe his own propaganda.”
This miscalculation may have dawned on Putin, albeit belatedly. He has since reportedly confined two top leaders from the FSB’s Fifth Service, responsible for espionage operations in Ukraine, to house arrest. There is much to be said here about information bottlenecks in authoritarian systems but suffice to say Putin operated on false assumptions.
Russia’s expectation of a quick victory also led it to neglect logistics, undersupply its forces, and provide little force protection to its vanguard as it rushed forward. Already, the Russia military is structured to operate with fewer supply elements than any Western military. Its huge modernization program over the past decade focused more on, say, precision fires and heavy armor than logistics. Making matters worse for Russia, Ukraine’s early resistance has denied the invaders key rail junctions, forcing it to truck equipment across vast distances. As the saying goes: “In war, amateurs talk strategy while professionals talk logistics.” Russia has proven shockingly amateurish in the first month of war.
For its part, Ukraine has sought to avoid set piece battles and instead organized into units as small as squads to ambush supply convoys and logistics units. In this context, the Western supply of British NLAWs and American Javelins has been especially valuable, with new systems like loitering munitions now giving Ukraine added strength. The Turkish TB-2 Bayraktar drone, which first showed its effectiveness for Azerbaijan against Armenia in the war over Nagorno Karabakh, has defied prediction by proving deadly against Russian armor, too. U.S. Army logisticians have organized an increasing flow of weapons trucked from Romania and Poland across the border into Ukraine.
With the ghosts of the Afghan National Army hovering over the West, it was crucial for Ukraine to show determination in the opening stages of the war. Zelensky’s savvy and Ukraine’s tenacity has more than met the test. In particular, Ukraine has won the information campaign. If the Iraq war was the war of the satellite dish and the Arab Spring a revolution of online organizing, the war in Ukraine is the social media war. Nothing has done more to pressure reluctant Western governments into adopting larger economic sanctions and military aid packages than Ukraine’s info ops. To cow the West and slow that resupply, Russia has responded by striking targets in western Ukraine and resorting to nuclear threats.
Because Putin expected a quick victory, he also neglected to prepare his population for a grueling war. There is evidence to suggest that Russian troops are suffering from low morale, especially as tens of thousands of casualties return home from a war few truly understand. As the brilliant Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyses has noted, Russia invaded Ukraine with 75 percent of its permanent readiness Battalion Tactical Groups and National Guard. It may have lost 30 battalions worth of equipment while committing its best forces to the fight. U.S. Army officers note that at 10 percent losses, most units lose their effectiveness. Many of these officers believe that Russia has reached its culmination point and can no longer conduct offensive operations across the country. In effect, the war in the west and south has stalled while fighting continues in the east.
By contrast, although not much is known publicly about Ukrainian forces, there is much evidence to suggest that they have grown more confident by the day. Ukraine also continues to benefit from Western intelligence, which has reportedly penetrated Russian decision-making and revealed impending Russian actions to an astonished world. During a meeting with Ukrainian parliamentarians at Hudson Institute last week, the Ukrainians were bullish about their prospects.
Part IV: Next Phase and Considerations
Russia is now adjusting for the next phase of the war. Putin has withdrawn and refit his forces for an anticipated offensive in the Donbass, where the bulk of Ukraine’s military is positioned in the Joint Forces Operating (JFO) Area. Unlike Ukraine, which enjoys interior lines of communication and the advantages of defense, Russia must move its troops across vast distances as it refits, reorganizes, and resets its force for this next phase. This will take time, which the West is using to strengthen Ukrainian forces. Meanwhile, Russian forces continue to besiege the city of Mariupol, the Donbass’ port on the Sea of Azov, which represents a major strategic prize. The Russians have made 90 percent of the city uninhabitable.
Although surprised at the outbreak of war, the only independent polling out of Russia suggests most of the population has rallied behind Putin thanks to the Kremlin’s iron grip on domestic media. For now, the public is defiantly backing the Kremlin in the face of growing financial pressure, the impact of which will grow more acute over time as Russia’s galloping inflation and Western export controls take hold.
For its part, the West faces less punishing but still consequential costs in the form of high food and energy prices at a time of burgeoning inflation. For all the talk of sanctions, the West still buys $700-900 million of Russian energy products each day, or around $30 billion since the war began. While Germany has promised to phase Russian energy out of its energy mix, this will not take place in the short-term. Berlin leads a coalition of countries, including Austria and Italy, which rejects energy cutoffs as deleterious to their own economic growth and social stability.
Moreover, while Russia bungled early, it still enjoys the advantage of a quantitatively and qualitatively superior military. At maximum capacity, the Russian armed forces are a 900,000 strong force, compared to a mere 200,000 Ukrainians. But such a full-scale mobilization would put the lie to Putin’s claim of a limited operation focused on the Donbas. In effect, Putin is attempting to win a war against the largest country in Europe while selling it as a narrow military move at home.
Russia has sent an assault force into Ukraine but not an occupation army. The counterinsurgency literature makes clear that Russia’s current troop-to-population ratio is inadequate to pacify the country. Russia has sought to compensate for this deficiency with extreme brutality, as the world witnessed in Bucha. But even if Russia turns Ukraine to rubble, it will face the mother of all insurgencies, amply supplied by the West. As a result, Putin faces a decision-point: to maintain his maximalist aims of taking Ukraine, which would require a total mobilization, or to lower his ambitions to the Donbass, but hope to accomplish this task with his current force structure.
Finally, allow me to touch on a few additional dynamics and considerations to keep in mind for the next phase of the crisis.
First, Russia will continue to systematically target Ukraine’s rather significant military-industrial base, consistent with Putin’s goal of demilitarizing the country. Just as the Chechen wars stretched over multiple campaigns and dragged out over years, Putin may see the present war as the opening phase in a broader campaign against Ukraine. He wants to permanently destroy its military capacity.
Second, the strategic city of Odessa, Ukraine’s third largest, has escaped most of the fighting, and it is in many respects crucial to Ukraine’s survival. As Can Kasapoğlu, an expert on the Black Sea region put it, “Odessa is Ukraine and Ukraine is Odessa.” Over 60-70 percent of Ukraine’s trade to the outside world runs through this Black Sea port. If Odessa is cut-off, Ukraine becomes a landlocked Kazakhstan dependent on Western aid for survival. Moreover, Russia would be in position to exploit the offshore energy riches that come along with coastal control. To date, however, Russia has not managed to link its land forces based in Crimea to an amphibious assault awaiting offshore.
Third, Russia possesses an arsenal of WMD and cyber weapons that have not played a major role in the war. The Russian use of battlefield nuclear weapons, consistent with its doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate,” would risk direct military intervention by the West at a time when Russia can ill afford it. However, some defense analysts are speculating that Putin may believe that detonating a battlefield nuclear weapon would force a political settlement, allowing him to credibly claim victory. Relatedly, Russia has also only made limited use of its cyber arsenal, although U.S. officials reportedly believe that may change soon.
Fourth, the war has clarified political alignments. NATO has announced the forward deployment of new multinational battlegroups into Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. The alliance’s guiding document, the Strategic Concept, will be adopted at the Madrid Summit this summer. It will call for an overhaul of NATO’s posture toward Moscow. Moreover, Sweden and Finland are closer to joining the alliance than ever. For its part, Russia has doubled down on its relationship with China, which it has asked for military assistance. China may also help Russia evade some of the economic penalties imposed by the West.
Ominously, as a final point, the war in Ukraine may also accelerate the proliferation of nuclear weapons programs.
In 1994, Ukraine surrendered the nuclear weapons stationed on its territory in return for assurances made in the Budapest Memorandum. Today, Iran is on the cusp of sanctions relief while barreling toward the nuclear threshold. The lesson for third countries from these two situations may be that going for nuclear weapons themselves is the smart choice.
On that dire note of a possible proliferation cascade, which Americans have been warning about since the days of President Kennedy, I’ll hand the floor back to Father Sawicki and look forward to answering any questions you may have.
Thank you very much.