Did Putin Make a Big Misstep?

Published at 20:52 on 24 February 2022

It really depends on what the reaction of the West and the Ukrainians is.

First, sanctions are mostly a spent force. The West is about to sanction the Putin regime up the wazoo. It almost certainly won’t work, assuming “work” is defined as “prompt a quick recalculation on Putin’s part.” Putin has no doubt priced such sanctions into the expected cost of invading and occupying Ukraine, and has decided they are worth it.

What he hasn’t necessarily done correctly is price the military cost of an indefinite occupation. In doing so, he might be repeating the error made by Leonid Brezhnev when he ordered the invasion of Afghanistan. When that happened, the West immediately and accurately realized the possibility of giving the USSR its own Vietnam experience.

At that point, it was only a matter of time: how long would it take the USSR to get worn down by an unwinnable situation and slink back across the border in defeat?

Invasions have a fundamental asymmetry. In order for the invader to win, the invaded nation must be thoroughly subdued and subjugated. It is not enough to merely install a puppet regime in the invaded nation’s capital; that puppet regime must be able to stand on its own and control the people subject to it.

In order for the invaded to win, all that must be done is to deny the former to the invader. The invader can still invade. The invader can still install and recognize a puppet regime. But that regime won’t be able to defend itself against a hostile population. Such a population will resist conscription; if conscripted, they will fight poorly and divert materiel to the resistance. That resistance will keep popping up, destabilizing the regime. The population will be sympathetic to the resistance, which will further frustrate efforts to stamp it out. So the puppet regime will require a continual military presence of the invader’s forces to prop it up. Eventually, the invader gives up. Victory for the resistance.

It all makes occupying and subjugating a nation a tall order, one that has often seen powerful armies bested by ragtag groups of resistance fighters.

So it ultimately comes down to the West and the Ukranians. How much are the latter willing to fight, and how much are the former willing and able to furnish military aid to them? It may take years, and it will take a terrible price, but it is possible to drive Russia out of Ukraine.

And no, I don’t mean direct military assistance. That’s off the table, anyhow. Nobody wants to instigate a direct conflict between two nuclear-armed powers. I’m talking about providing weapons, intelligence, training, and diplomatic support to the resistance within Ukraine, post-invasion.

Putin will of course label this as “supporting terrorism,” and in a way he will be correct. Terrorism is merely a pejorative label for set of tactics; one man’s terrorist is quite often another man’s freedom fighter. Such it has always been. If Putin didn’t want to have so much trouble with so-called “terrorism,” he shouldn’t have picked the fight he just did. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

But, to reiterate, there is a way to punish Putin for what he has done. It won’t be quick, it won’t be pretty, but there is a way. The question is: is there the will?

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