White House on alert: Russian invasion of Ukraine expected to begin next week

Jake Sullivan was more cautious than my headline, saying at today’s White House press briefing that Putin might not have made a final decision yet and that an invasion could happen before the end of the OIympics, not necessarily next week.

But PBS says the situation is more dire. Putin has given the order. And it won’t be weeks before it’s executed, it’ll be days.

Something has clearly changed in the last 24 hours in case that wasn’t already clear from Antony Blinken warning last night that an invasion could come at any time and the president himself urging Americans in Ukraine to get out now. The U.S. has been dropping hints periodically this month that it’s listening in to the conversations Russian officials are having with each other, even going so far as to reveal the outlines of a false-flag plot cooked up by the Kremlin to justify an imminent invasion. Presumably we intercepted the order to invade as well and have put out the word to allies.

They’re suddenly scrambling to get their people out too:

Sullivan warned any Americans based in Ukraine who were watching today that the Marines won’t be coming to get them if the Russian military rolls across the Ukrainian border. Of course, the Marines also weren’t able to go get Americans stranded in Kabul during the Afghanistan evacuation thanks to Team Biden’s lack of foresight about the Taliban’s advance. But the military did at least establish a beachhead at the airport. There won’t be any beachheads in Kiev:

NATO is repositioning forces, including U.S. forces, in member nations on Russia’s western border to remind Putin that the alliance intends to honor its mutual defense obligations, just in case he decides that Ukraine isn’t enough for his imperial ambitions. But no one expects Russia to confront NATO on the battlefield. What Putin is testing is Germany’s commitment to the alliance in an era of weak U.S. leadership. Does Berlin care so much about NATO and its alliance with America that it’s willing to risk its supply of energy from Russia by standing with Ukraine?

Last week Biden claimed that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline will be halted if Russia attacks Ukraine. Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, conspicuously hasn’t echoed that commitment. Does Germany want to stay yoked to an America split between feckless liberals on the left and anti-NATO nationalists on the right or would it rather have a friendly relationship with its neighbor, Russia?

The word “Finlandization” is suddenly kicking around to describe what might happen to Ukraine. That is, the country might remain nominally independent but be forced to adopt a position of strict neutrality between the west and Russia while Moscow dominates its internal politics, as happened to Finland for most of the 19th century. There’s no doubt that Russia will eventually prevail in a fight if Ukraine resists but there is some doubt as to what sort of cost Ukraine’s army might be able to exact as the conquest plays out. Ukrainian troops are better than they used to be and, as they’ve proved for the better part of the last decade, they’re willing to fight:

The Ukrainians have also undertaken serious military reforms and attempts to modernize. To be sure, and to the great credit of the country, these have been undertaken in the context of a struggle to become a true and liberal democracy, in the face of both domestic corruption and constant Russian interference. Indeed, by his actions in 2014, Putin has made Ukrainians more nationalistic, independent and ideological.

If the Ukrainian army has been unable to become as modern or lethal as its Russian opponents, it has become a much more professional and tactically competent force, at least in some part. The army’s best units, for example, excel at employing terrain for cover and concealment in ways that consistently impress U.S. and other Western partners in joint training exercises. Kyiv is also well aware of its shortcomings—the Russian air force would own the skies, for instance, and while the Ukrainians have a lot of artillery tubes that could make life miserable for any invading armored force, they lack modern ammunition and sufficient or sufficiently trained crews.

Moreover, Ukrainian terrain is more complex and defensible than current red-arrow maps contemplate.

It took 10 years in Afghanistan but we’ve seen before that even the Red Army could be bled to the point that Russia’s willingness to fight was sapped. Ukrainians are thinking about that today.

As to the question of why the U.S. has any interest in Ukraine’s independence, defense analyst Reuben Johnson has a hardnosed look at that today that’s light on the usual moral case for preferring democracies to autocracies and heavy on strategic reasoning. Provocative weakness now might mean a wider European war later, he argues, one which would suck in the U.S. military under NATO’s Article 5 and badly damage the American economy. Abandoning Ukraine after it agreed 30 years ago to give up its Soviet nukes in exchange for security guarantees would also (further) incentivize every rogue actor in the world to go nuclear. And certain military tech in which Ukraine specializes would fall into the wrong hands if Kiev were conquered — and I don’t mean Russia’s:

Specifically, the Trump administration put considerable effort into preventing Ukraine from selling the massive Motor Sich aeroengine design and production facility in Zaporizhye to a PRC firm under the control of Beijing’s military. Chinese industry has consistently failed in efforts to design and build reliable jet engines for its jet fighter programs. Getting its hands on this Ukrainian firm would have completed that gap in their defense industrial chain.

Ukraine possesses a cornucopia of other capable defense enterprises, many of which the Chinese for years have been trying to gain control of as well—and undoubtedly would under a Russian occupation of Ukraine. Should Russia take over Ukraine, Moscow’s allies in Beijing would receive an enormous plus-up to their defense sector’s technology base.

I wonder what sort of trade was made between Putin and Xi Jinping during their summit this week. Engines from Ukraine for Beijing in exchange for chips from Taiwan for Moscow once China conquers its own neighbor, maybe?

Britain’s defense secretary was in Moscow today for talks and told reporters afterward, “I heard clearly from the Russian government that they had no intention of invading Ukraine. We will judge that statement on the evidence.” Hope for the best, expect the worst. I’ll leave you with this, footage of the president headed off on, er, vacation.

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