|But a few things have changed since I laid out my position in The Accidental Superpower back in 2014 and sketched out the general outlines of the hypothetical Twilight War in The Absent Superpower in 2017.
First big change: Ukrainian politics and identity.
Back in the 2000s, Ukraine could be very charitably called “messy.” It was an oligarch playground, sharply divided into three competing regions. The biggest region in the east was populated by either Ukrainians who spoke Russian as their first language, or actual Russians who due to the quirks of history happened to live on the Ukrainian side of the dotted line on the map. Ukraine has always been home to the greatest concentration and number of ethnic Russians outside of Russia’s borders. And these groups — both the ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking Ukrainians — were unapologetically pro-Moscow.
It was the mix of this pro-Russian sentiment with the Kremlin’s view that large-scale political violence is often useful, that set us onto the path to where we are today. In early 2014 then-Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych — one of those pro-Russian Ukrainians — dealt with pro-Western “Euromaidan” protesters by using Ukrainian special forces to shoot up a couple thousand people. He was driven out of office and ultimately out of country and now he is living in exile in, you guessed it, Russia.
Yanukovych’s actions against his own people — actions publicly supported by none other than Vladimir Putin — started Ukraine down the road to something I had once dismissed out of hand: political consolidation and the formation of a strong Ukrainian identity. Putin didn’t — hasn’t — figured that out. Later Russian actions — starving the Ukrainians of fuel, annexing Crimea, invading the southeastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas War — only deepened the Ukrainian political consolidation that Yanukovych inadvertently started.
Far from capitalizing on strong and legitimate pro-Russian sentiment, Russia’s policies towards Ukraine these past seven years have turned even the most pro-Moscow Russian citizens of Ukraine into Ukrainian nationalists.
In 2010, Ukraine was not a country. It was simply a buffer territory between Russia and the European Union with no real identity, and it would have been ridiculous to admit such a non-entity into either the EU or NATO. Today Ukraine is a country, and the idea of EU or NATO membership isn’t nearly so crazy. And that evolution is all because of Putin’s ongoing miscalculations.
Second big point: military reality.
Back in 2014 when the Russians launched the Donbas War, Putin boasted that should he choose, Russian forces could easily invade Ukraine. He noted Russian troops could be in Kiev in under a month.
It may have been a brag, but it most definitely was neither a bluff nor an exaggeration. The Russian military may be a pale shadow of its Soviet forebearer, but it is far better than the war machine which ground to humiliation in Chechnya in the 1990s. Ukraine’s military in comparison? Phbbbbt. Wracked by corruption, enervated by a lack of motivation, armed with nothing more than the pre-1992 equipment that the Russians chose to leave behind when the Soviet Union fell? There’s a reason Yanukovych used the special forces to suppress the Euromaidan protestors. The military wasn’t even up to that job. Fighting a hundred thousand or so Russian troops? That’s funny.
Since 2014, some things have gotten better. Western assistance has helped professionalize the forces. The Russian invasion has charged Ukrainian commanders some high tuition at the school of Real-Life War. Strengthening national identity has improved force cohesion. But the biggest shift is in weaponry.
Arming a country the size of Ukraine with sufficient military equipment to fight the Russians soldier-to-soldier would be a Heraclean effort. So that’s not what the United States has done. The Americans have provided the Ukrainians with Javelin anti-tank missiles. Javelins are man-portable and shoulder-launched, weighing in at under 50 pounds. They shoot high and plunge down, striking tanks on the top where armor is weakest. And above all, they are sooooo eeeasy to operate. If you can make it to level 3 on Candy Crush, you can use a Javelin.
Considering any drive to Kiev will be a tank operation, giving Javelins to the Ukrainians is like giving water to firefighters. It’s the perfect tool for the job. The Javelins made their wartime debut on the front lines in Donbas only in November 2021…about when the Kremlin started getting all screechy and demanding wholesale changes to European security alignments. Coincidence? I think not.
Now don’t get carried away. I’ve little doubt that Javelins would be enough should the Russians get truly serious. Any Russian invasion force would massively outnumber and outgun the defenders. But that’s not the point. Unlike in the 2000s or in the Donbas War, the Ukrainians can now slip a knife through the chinks in the Russians’ armor and make them bleed. A lot. And unlike in the 2000s, the Ukrainians now have a national identity to rally around and fight for. The Ukrainians now have the means and motive. It’s up to the Russians to decide if they’d like to provide the opportunity.
If war comes, the Russians could still reach Kiev. But it would likely take three months instead of one. The Russians could still conquer all of Ukraine. But it would likely take over a year rather than less than three months. The toll on the invaders would be high and most of all the war would only be the beginning. After “victory” the Russians would have to occupy a country of 45 million people.
Which brings us to the final bit of this story: demographics.
Russia’s had a rough time of…everything. The purges of Lenin and Stalin. The World Wars. The post-Soviet collapse. Horrific mismanagement under Khrushchev and Brezhnev and Yeltsin. Sometimes in endless waves, sometimes in searing moments, the Russian birthrate has taken hit after hit after hit to the point that the Russian ethnicity itself is no longer in danger of dying out, it is dying out. And for this particular moment in time, there just aren’t many teens today to fill out the ranks of the Russian military tomorrow.