What Can We Know About Ukraine?


For weeks I under-covered the Ukraine crisis on this blog, largely because everything I read was speculative, and I didn’t know who to believe. US intelligence said Russia was going to invade. Russia said it wasn’t. Ukraine said maybe, but not just yet. Putin’s government had a long history of lying, but US intelligence’s record wasn’t spotless either. I didn’t feel like I knew anything, so I didn’t write anything. (I recommend this policy to others.)

When last week’s blog posted, things were starting to happen in the real world rather than in the imaginations of interested parties: Russia’s forces were staying in Belarus past the previously announced end of the two countries’ military exercises. The pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine were making weird announcements — ethnic Russians should evacuate to Russia to avoid “genocide” — whose purpose seemed to be to give Putin an excuse to invade and save them.

So it looked like something was going to happen, but it was still hard to say what. Maybe Putin was just trying to start a panic in Ukraine, and wouldn’t actually attack. Maybe he’d invade the Donbas provinces he said he wanted to “liberate”, but stop there. The Biden administration said an attack on the whole country was coming.

Well, now we know. Biden was playing it straight with us all along, and US intelligence must have some really good sources inside Russia. The invasion began on Thursday, as Russian troops advanced not just from the east, but from the north (Belarus) and south (Crimea). The whole-country invasion was on. Now Putin was pledging not just to liberate Donbas, but to “de-nazify” the entire country. (Why a Nazi government would be led by a Jewish president like Zelensky has never been adequately explained.)

Since Thursday, the fog of speculation has been replaced by the fog of war. The problem isn’t that we’re all trying to imagine what might happen once things get started, but that too much is happening and too many people are reporting it through their own (possibly distorted) lenses.

Putin’s mistake. Even so, one general conclusion from the last few days seems obvious: Putin guessed wrong.

If the Ukrainian government were what he had been claiming — a corrupt puppet regime imposed on the country by the West — it should have folded under pressure the way the American-established Afghan government did in August. Nobody takes David’s side against Goliath unless they really believe in David’s cause. But the Ukrainian army has been putting up much stiffer resistance than anyone expected, and ordinary Ukrainians (as well as celebrities who could easily opt out) are taking up arms to support the government. (Instead, it may be the Russian army that faces problems with desertion and poor morale, though it’s hard to get solid information about that issue.)

Putin also guessed wrong about NATO. During the Trump administration, NATO had seemed to be on the road to collapse. Trump called it “obsolete” and claimed it was a bad deal for America. He openly questioned whether the US should fulfill its treaty obligations to defend tiny NATO countries like Montenegro or the Baltic republics, if Russia should attack them. He frequently insulted NATO leaders while praising Vladimir Putin, even siding with Putin against US intelligence. (He’s still doing it.)

But rather than shattering under pressure, NATO has pulled together during the Ukraine crisis. Getting all the allies in line has often slowed down the actions Biden wanted to take in response to the Ukraine invasion, but not for long. Agreeing to remove major Russian banks from the SWIFT system, for example, took until Saturday. But it happened. Just about all of Europe has closed its airspace to Russian flights. Arms are flowing into Ukraine from all over Europe, including non-NATO Sweden. The EU is sending fighter planes.

In addition, Putin’s invasion has changed the politics of Europe, and not in his favor. Germany has decided to substantially increase defense spending (a result all of Trump’s nagging couldn’t accomplish). Finland is suddenly talking about NATO membership, and Sweden bristled at Russia’s warning of “serious military-political consequences” if it should decide to join. Even Switzerland is cooperating with some EU sanctions against Russian banks.

The result is that while Russian forces continue to advance on major Ukrainian cities, the operation is moving much more slowly than expected, and the Russians are taking much larger losses. His troops may yet occupy Kyiv and install a favorable government, but if Putin had been hoping for a quick Crimea-style victory that would present the world with a fait accompli and make sanctions (or guerilla resistance) seem pointless, he hasn’t gotten it.

Here’s this morning’s assessment from the NYT:

There was growing evidence that despite its superiority over Ukrainian forces, the Russian military was having difficulties getting a foothold in many regions around the country.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian soldiers have managed to keep most Russian troops out of the city center. In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, where Russian forces have been pounding outlying villages and neighborhoods with artillery, Russian troops briefly pushed into the city center on Sunday, but were driven back by Ukraine’s military, according to Ukrainian officials.

After a short respite, shelling again commenced on Saturday against Ukraine’s busiest port city, Odessa, but there was no sign the city was in danger of falling into Russian hands. And in Mariupol, another port city, the Russian navy’s first attempt to mount an amphibious assault was thwarted, though another effort was in the works, Ukrainian officials said.

Instead, talks between the Russian and Ukrainian governments have started. Probably nothing will come of them, because it’s hard to picture what concessions either side could offer at this point. But we’ll see. Meanwhile, the shooting continues.


Ukrainian morale. I spent much of the weekend glued to Twitter’s #Ukraine, where Ukrainians posted videos shot out their windows, and pictures of themselves and their neighbors, in addition to spreading stories and memes that are floating around in Ukraine. (In theory, anybody can post, including pro-Russian sources. But the tweets of Ukrainians and Ukrainian sympathizers have dominated.)

I had to keep resetting my cynicism filter. These are raw, unverified accounts, and many are posted by people who are trying to keep each other’s spirits up in the face of harrowing threats. Something you see posted ten times might be ten echoes of a single falsehood. (For half an hour, I was sure that hackers from Anonymous had taken over Russian state TV.) Undoubtedly mythmaking is happening, and maybe some of it is well-constructed propaganda. And yet it’s hard not to be moved by stories like

My thoughts keep coming back to this couple, who moved up their wedding date so they could be married before they went to war. “After their wedding, Arieva and Fursin, 24, a software engineer, prepared to go to the local Territorial Defense Center to join efforts to help defend the country.” I look at the picture below and wonder if they’re still alive. I hope so.

Twitter also provides many images of Ukraine’s incredibly photogenic women soldiers, from the first lady on down. And seeing Ukrainian MP Kira Rudik hold a Kalashnikov, as she prepares to defend her home, illuminates Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s gun fantasy. It’s like glimpsing the movie star who wears the dress your neighbor thinks she looks so good in.

And finally, there’s President Zelensky (who has to keep posting videos to refute Russian propaganda that he has left the country). As one tweet put it: “If Zelensky dies he’s a martyr. If he lives he’s a hero.”

Putin has worked so hard on his manly image; it must really gall him to see Zelensky upstage him like this.

International support. I wish I could remember where I saw this observation, but someone described Putin’s Ukraine invasion as the worst propaganda disaster since the Kaiser invaded neutral Belgium.

NATO countries that border Ukraine are all preparing for refugees. Suddenly the issues about immigrants have vanished. (I’m sure that being mostly White and Christian makes a difference.) #Ukraine tells of Romanians waiting at the border to offer Ukrainian refugee families a place to stay.

Rallies in support of Ukraine happened all over the world this weekend, like this one in Berlin.

The whole world seems to be lit up in Ukrainian yellow-and-blue.

Morale in Russia. The Russian soldiers have no idea why they’re fighting. Particularly in the western part of the country, Ukrainians clearly don’t want to be “liberated”. And because Ukrainians look and sound so much like Russians (and typically speak pretty good Russian), it’s hard to dehumanize them as “gooks” or “ragheads”, as Americans did in Vietnam and Iraq. Putin’s soldiers are killing their cousins, and they know it.

It’s very dangerous to protest in Russia these days, but thousands of people have been. From the outside, it’s hard to know whether that’s a radical fringe or the tip of a iceberg. Russian celebrities overseas have not denounced Putin directly, but many have spoken out generally against war and left the rest to our imaginations.

What is clear is that there is no broad upswelling of support for the invasion. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was met with widespread jubilation inside Russia. That’s not happening now.

The delay in finishing off Ukrainian resistance is giving sanctions a chance to work. Ordinary Russians will soon feel the bite. The value of the rouble is plunging and there are worries of runs on sanctioned Russian banks.

Like its soldiers, Russia’s citizens don’t understand why this war is necessary. Putin can control the state TV, but information blockades are difficult these days, particularly when so many Russians have relatives in Ukraine. His claims about “liberating” and “de-nazifying” Ukraine can’t be very convincing. And while the government can hide its casualties for a while, eventually soldiers either communicate with their families or they don’t.

More worrisome to Putin, though, has to be the effect of sanctions on his fellow oligarchs. They’re losing billions, and losing access to the billions more they have stashed in the West. To the extent that Putin’s regime resembles a Mafia, the history of Mafia gang wars may apply: Often they end when one family’s capos decide that continuing the war is bad for business. They hit their own boss and make peace.

As Josh Marshall has laid out, none of this would matter if the Russian forces were having a quick and easy victory. The deed would be done, and the rest of the world would just have to get used to it, even if they didn’t like it. Ukrainians would be intimidated rather than angered. NATO politicians might posture, but in the absence of any effective actions to be taken, they would soon run out of steam.

But Ukraine is holding out, and that opens up all kinds of alternative futures.

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  • Roger  On February 28, 2022 at 11:13 am

    Writing about Ukraine IS difficult because it’s so volatile. BTW, I believe the leader is Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with two Ys at the end, though I’ve seen it both ways. And he voiced Paddington Bear in two very well-regarded movies; expect the videos/streaming of them to spike.

  • Neal  On February 28, 2022 at 12:13 pm

    Suddenly, this story of a turning point seems to be on everyone’s tongue. For my part, I’m struck by the juxtaposition of two images: the beleaguered truckers (with their pitiful resentments); and the beleaguered Ukrainians.

    And it comes at a propitious time, the end of the Omicron surge.

    I’m truly sorry for all the damage done these last few years. But I’m optimistic for the future, both here and abroad. God bless.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On February 28, 2022 at 12:34 pm

    A Trump supporter reminded me yesterday that Trump’s was the only presidency in this century where Russia did not invade another country. I told him that as an employee, Trump was entitled to certain benefits, and that was one of them.

    • weeklysift  On February 28, 2022 at 12:40 pm

      I think that Putin was happy with the way Trump was sabotaging NATO from within. He didn’t want to interfere with an enemy that was destroying itself. But when Biden began to rebuild the alliance, time was no longer on Putin’s side.

      • Dale Moses  On March 1, 2022 at 6:40 pm

        Moreover. Putin probably would have liked to invade a few years earlier. But invading with an unvaccinated army seems like a way to lose a lot of soldiers

  • Corey Fisher  On February 28, 2022 at 1:23 pm

    You say “for half an hour, I was sure Anonymous had taken over Russian state TV” – does that mean that’s false? The link you provided, and the top results I get for “anonymous Russia state TV” imply that it’s either true or at least plausible – the Guardian, for instance. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/27/anonymous-the-hacker-collective-that-has-declared-cyberwar-on-russia
    If you’ve seen evidence to the contrary, I would definitely be curious to see it.

    Apparently “de-Nazifying” Ukraine is more convincing inside Russia than you would think – I got to listen in on a conversation between a liberal friend of mine and their Russian friend. While I personally suspect they’re a victim of a lot of propaganda, apparently the reports of anti-Russian-speaker crimes get a lot of play there, and they generally trace their alleged far-right problems in Ukraine to the Euromaidan. That said, apparently even a lot of Russians who buy that – who thought Crimea was just flatly a good thing based on the demographics, and who thought the threats and support for Donbas up until a few days ago were reasonable or at least in pursuit of justice or Russian goals or something – think the new invasion is flatly madness.

  • Bolling Lowrey  On February 28, 2022 at 2:42 pm

    Like our Monroe Doctrine, which we never “consulted” with the countries involved to get their approval and during the 1962 missile crisis we did not “allow” nuclear armament so close to our borders. It can certainly be stated that Russia feels the same toward their ties with the Ukraine. Anton Chekhov was both Russian and “Little Russian” meaning he was from the Ukraine. But in 2014 https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/ukraine-mearsheimer-told-us-so-in-2014/
    Push has come to shove.

  • Anonymous  On February 28, 2022 at 5:29 pm

    Ouch! You certainly put the gun toting “fake” United State Congresswoman from Georgia MTG in her place! Well played!

  • wockerjabi  On March 1, 2022 at 1:57 am

    I’ve been a reader for years and have often appreciated your thoughtful commentary. This was surprising and disappointing:

    It’s like glimpsing the movie star who wears the dress your neighbor thinks she looks so good in.

    Are only the physically flawless allowed to enjoy feeling pretty?

    • Dale Moses  On March 1, 2022 at 6:50 pm

      No. Its about the illusion that the facade affords you. That is. Putting on the dress does not make you the movie star. And holding a rifle does not make you a defender of freedom

  • Dale Moses  On March 1, 2022 at 6:59 pm

    There is a thread on twitter by a researcher at the Woodrow Wilson Center which is interesting. It discusses the founding myth of modern Russia and the late Soviet Union. I think its valuable here since in explaining the Russian Lexicon. What a Nazi really is and has meant over the years.

    It kind of puts Russian fascism into clear light when it becomes clear that “Nazi” never really meant “fascist” but just “an enemy of the state”

    • weeklysift  On March 3, 2022 at 7:10 am

      The kernel of truth in the “nazi” charge is that many Ukrainians remembered the famine that Stalin unleashed on them in the early 30s, and thought a German victory over Stalin might be a good thing — until the reality of Hitler’s rule sunk in.


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