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PostGeography, Demographics of Russia's Aggression (Mendo Henriques, Portugal, 04/14/22 3:22 am)
Empress Catherine the Great allegedly declared that the only way for Russia to defend its borders was to expand them. And so she did by conquering Crimea and the territories where the battle of the Donbas is now raging and where, apparently, her lover Potemkin built facade villages to create the illusion of being populated.
Back to the present. Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine in February 2014, the day after the last athletes left the Sochi Olympics. He conquered Crimea in a few days. In two months, Russian paramilitary forces occupied half of the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. Crimea was proudly incorporated. As for the Donbas, Moscow's official position spoke of a rebellion against the authorities in Kyiv. Russian soldiers, vehicles, and equipment were captured, yet according to Moscow, it was all about a few volunteers who had crossed the border.
Such was the first phase of the Ukraine war. Eight long years. Sevastopol, the home of the Black Sea Fleet, was returned to Russia as an unsinkable aircraft carrier. Its naval and air assets threaten a blockade of Ukrainian exports by sea. Land armies would have time to advance.
Ukraine in 2014 was not a viable country. It had a collapsed infrastructure, and poor education and health systems. It had no jobs to give, and a system of corruption that sucked the economy and did not allow for reliable rulers. The population migrated, even to Portugal, a distant country with no traditional relationship, which welcomed more than 25,000 Ukrainians. Now it has 50 thousand, proudly received. The Ukrainian army had ceased to function, tied to a fatal trap: most effective units had closer links to Moscow than to Kyiv. When mobilized to resist the attack, many troops deserted, taking their equipment and battle plans.
By the end of 2015, the Ukrainian military was shattered, and the conflict "normalized" with "only" around 100 dead a month for both contenders. When the time came, Russian tanks could be in Kyiv within a month. Russia had implanted in the European Union the feeling that it was unrealistic to resist its moves. Just take one small step at a time.
An example of this successful strategy--and of how Europe did not want to stand up to Putin--occurred in July 2014. A Russian-operated missile system brought down a Malaya Airlines plane flying over Donbas. 298 passengers died, of which two-thirds were Dutch citizens. All that was heard in the Netherlands was the outrage of the government and the media. Some sanctions emerged, but with minimal impact. Except for the voices of the President of the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, nothing more was done.
The other big small step Putin wanted to take was the February 24th 2022 invasion. In three days paratroopers and tanks coming from Belarus would settle the matter. What happened was the defeat at Kyiv. History will judge how this aggression was a step too far for the Russian president, a war criminal to be tried, namely for mass murder in the city of Mariupol which is known to have suffered at least 22,000 civilian deaths.
The strategy of the small successive steps fits with a current narrative justifying the Russian aggression; the tsars, the Soviets, and the current Russian leader consider the control of Ukraine, Crimea, and access to the Black Sea as vital for security. The great Russian Western plain does not provide direct protection from invaders, whether Mongols, French, or Germans. Thus, Catherine the Great's dictum. The memory of World War II still weighs heavily and is cultivated by the regime. Putin does nothing but repeat the goals of traditional Russia.
However, unlike his predecessors, Putin operates with a very adverse demographic. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, health collapsed: alcoholism, drugs, low birth rates, and declining life expectancy; tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and, finally, COVID-19, with one million deaths since 2020, counting real lethality. All this mowed down the population and mobilization capacities. The Russian army is getting smaller and smaller; they may have ten times the firepower of the Ukrainians and they are the second nuclear world power. Yet, Ukraine is a nation in arms: Russia has only an expeditionary corps carrying on a "special military operation."
Geography helps explain the reasons for Putin's aggression; Demographics help to understand the moment. It was now or never, the 24th of February. Just an extra small step. It increasingly appears to have been a step too far.
JE comments: Ukraine faces similar demographic challenges. Just how debilitated is Putin's war machine at present? A week or so ago the Western press reported up to 40,000 Russian dead, but yesterday US defense experts said 4000. This is a huge difference, which underscores how little we know. In WWII the USSR could lose 40,000 combatants on a single bad day, yet they emerged victorious. History teaches many lessons, and here's another: Russia in the Great Patriotic War was defending its homeland, the strategic advantage now "enjoyed" by Ukraine.
Mendo, you touch on a topic of great importance. After the Crimea debacle, Ukraine somehow got its military act together. We hear about Western advisers and the like, but there was also a moral shift. I'd like better to understand how this happened.