Historically Russia was waged seemingly inept wars, typically botched at the outset (1914, 1941, First Chechen War). They either eventually win by bulldozing their opponent, after mobilizing their huge human and material resources (1945, Second Chechen War), or give up when the country is in an actual (1905, 1917) or nascent (1856) revolt. Russia has fought against much more powerful enemies and alliances for much longer than a few weeks on many occasions. The idea that Putin will get bored or decide it was all a mistake and go home, or give up because of economic sanctions, is not especially convincing, though, as you say, who knows? Still, the smart bet would be that Russia, having jumped into this thing, will wage it to a favorable conclusion, even at what foreigners would consider to be stupid and excessive cost. That's their way.

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There is a meme that circulates periodically about how ppl pivot from being an "expert" on X to being an expert on Y (virology to Russia or something). https://ifunny.co/tags/slowik is a good example.

It has always struck me as silly. It's not expertise - it's critical reasoning, which allows for an intelligent person to study and have an opinion about a variety of topics. We all know that "expertise" is quite often useless or worse.

I think you make a really good and humble point here - you can read and learn - and then form an opinion, while still acknowledging that it may not be a perfect forecast. You don't have to be the tire guy. You can read what the tire guy says and then incorporate it into your mental model.

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Its been fascinating to watch this war play out as an outsider in the US. The US media is almost completely ignoring the astroturfed 2014 "revolution" and the US role in it, while simultaneously also ignoring the far-right Neo-Nazis fighting for Ukraine.

It's very odd, seems like we're back in the post 9/11 era where big chunks of the mainstream actually want war and will go to any lengths to get it. I agree with your predictions Richard, but one wild card is some kind of false flag operation to draw the West into a direct war, could be this war's equivalent of "WMD's in Iraq"...

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Mar 10, 2022·edited Mar 10, 2022

There's a heavy bias from inside a war towards making it seem closer than it really is. Political contests are much the same: check out the tone of fundraising emails even for incumbent politicians in a non-competitive race. This is partly because various forces are trying to convince you it's close, and partly because humans seem to have a psychological tendency to want to believe it's close. Can't let up now!

When you're sitting inside WW2 you think, "Oh wow, looks like the Third Reich might grow so powerful as to even invade the US and reign until the ending of the world." Afterwards: "Well duh, idiots, Germany never stood a chance, they were lucky they even managed to make a real war out of it, the collapse of France was a fluke."

I was only a kid during Desert Storm but I'll never forget being frightened after a news report convinced me that Saddam might start raining SCUD missiles upon the continental US, until my father assured me that was nonsense.

So my first order approximation is to say large conventional wars almost always eventually go to the side the conventional wisdom would have expected to win before the war started, provided it understood the alliance structure correctly. You will almost certainly have more doubt about the outcome from inside the war than before it started, but a majority of that doubt is coming from the effect I'm describing. Not to say setbacks aren't real and might be costly for the winner and even require settling for reduced war aims, but from inside the war everyone around you is going to be biased towards overestimating their significance to the outcome.

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Points in response:

1. Russia has now had 8 years of experience with import substitution due to gradually increasing US sanctions. They have gotten pretty good at it. You might say that economic sanctions follow the law of diminishing returns. More sanctions at this point don't increase the pain dial much for Russia.

2. The Russian war games for months prior to the invasion meant they were testing all their units and vehicles in simulated combat conditions. If their tires were dry rotted they would have discovered this weeks or months before the invasion.

3. The Russian military has a lot of combat experience in Chenchnya, S. Ossetia, and Syria. Putin's staff knew how to calculate the cost of life to invade Ukraine. They are willing to pay that price.

4. Russian military has had a news blackout on the areas of current operations. While Ukraine and CIA/MI6 have been blaring nonstop internet "news". It will not be surprising to learn that 85% of the news from the Ukrainian side turns out to be false.

5. Russia's primary goal is denazification of Ukraine. Since 2014, Ukraine has outlawed and persecuted opposition parties. Zelensky shut down 7 television stations that criticized him. The persecution has caused about 2 million Ukrainians to emigrate to Russia. Therefore there is no opposition leadership ready to take the reigns. I don't see how "denazification" can be accomplished without occupying Ukraine for one full election cycle. But the Russians must think there is a way to do it, or I doubt they would have committed to this war with that as the stated objective.

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The German blitzkrieg of Poland took 35 days. Yet analysts write as if Russia were already, as a matter of fact, bogged down. Is there a reason for this? Even a poor one? Because the implied memory of German blitzkrieg seems to be of two to three days.

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Mar 10, 2022·edited Mar 10, 2022

One major missing element from the analysis is China. China manufactures just about everything. And Russia not only has good relations with China, they share a border. Yes, the sanctions on Russia effectively cut off goods from Europe, North America, S. Korea, and Japan. However, the rest of the world hasn't jumped on board. India, China, and Iran are not playing the sanctions game. So, Russia has nearby massive manufacturers that can supply most things they need, or launder supplies of anything they cannot get. For this reason I think that the people arguing that Russia will collapse from the sanctions are an echo chamber of hopes and dreams that are not rooted in reality. Russia is not going to go out and commit suicide because AirBNB and MacDonalds pulled out of Moscow.

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Agree on war reporting. You can get any side of an issue you want and it's hard to sort it out.

We'll never be able to say what would have happened if Ukraine fell in two days.

Before the war people said it was impossible to control Ukraine, but I figured it was pretty possible to control east of the Dnieper. I still think that is kind of true, but I think the entirety of the Russian parts is going to be hard. People in Kharkov are going to be pretty sour about all this.

From a fundamental territorial sense, Putin probably needs a corridor on the coast from Crimea to Donbass. At a minimum because that's where Crimea's water and power comes from. If he can take Odessa I'm sure he will too.

Kotkin had a throw away line in an interview were he said what worried him is that Putin would take the best parts of the country on the coast with lots of Russians and then leave the Rump Ukraine in control of the shitty land locked parts.

Right now I think he would settle for Donbass and Crimea + some words on NATO. However, if they surround the eastern Ukrainian army they are going to try to take the entire Black Sea coast. If I were Ukraine I would take the offer on hand right now. Even if Putin is lying then when the lie is exposed its a PR victory for Ukraine that makes their case more sympathetic.

But maybe I'm wrong. Progress has slowed down a bit, I wouldn't rule out Ukrainian victory, it just seems a less likely case. A lot of people would die for such a victory, who wants to die for the donabas?

I agree that "Putin overthrown" is a possible outcome but that way to many of the wests eggs are in that basket.

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My view is that the end result in Ukraine will likely be a reduced western Ukraine with concessions to Putin, or a completely annexed Ukraine with no concessions. For the world the eventual borders of the region will not be what has the greatest impact, but rather the geopolitical shifts that occur as a result of the economic/sanctions war to follow. Russia and Ukraine are integral to global food/energy security, and I believe they can play this card to maximal effect, reshaping alliances and influence, and further destabilizing the fragile EU.

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I won’t argue with your assessment as it’s better than anything I could produce, however I think victory, as you define it, could well look like a defeat from many other angles to Russia (e.g. shattered domestic economy, chronic brain drain, rearmed neighbours, subservient to China and much more limited future geopolitical influence).

The Syrian government made retaking the country its only aim and did anything to deliver it, I think many western countries observers cannot believe Russia is equally one dimensional, and that Russia would actually consider this a victory. Maybe that’s where they go wrong.

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Zelensky already said explicitly that he has given up joining NATO so I guess it is out of the question. It is possible he will agree to recognize the annexation of Crimea. In the Israeli newspapers it seems that PM Bennet who talked to both sides thinks it is a reasonable compromise. But it will be very flattering to Russia to define this result as a Russian victory. Their army was exposed as extremely incompetent and this war is a huge embarrassment for them.

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I'm perplexed by your "victory conditions" because they don't seem to be related to what either side considers its victory conditions.

The Ex Ante state of affairs was Russian control over the Eastern Regions and Crimea. If that's all they leave with, that's a clear loss. The converse is true for Ukraine. In practice, it's not much of a loss to give up something you have no control over in the first place.

If we're more objective about this:

1. An implicit victory condition is always that the regime survives and continues to hold power. If, within, I dunno, 6 months to a year, of whatever settlement occurs, there's an overthrow or major civil war, then that side has lost.

2. The proximate cause of the conflict, going back 8 years, has been trade relations and economic power and not military defense. A Ukraine that remains free to economically join the West has won. A Russia powerless to stop this has lost.

3. Territory matters primarily to the extent of economic power. If Ukraine becomes landlocked (by losing Odessa as well as the coast of the Sea of Azov, it's significantly weakened and much more dependent on Russia. I don't know how this fits into the victory conditions. I think a Russia that gets Odessa and leaves Ukraine weak and landlocked, even if free to join the EU has probably won.

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I don't think your view is that far off from the mainstream view, you just have a different definition of what a victor is. A reversion to something resembling the status quo ante would be seen as a Ukrainian victory, because most people (correctly IMO) see Russia's aims as being 'maximalist.' If you invade a country to take it over, then end up not taking it over and leaving, it's not a really a draw, it's a loss. If Russia gets NATO and the Ukraine to commit to Ukrainian neutrality, but fails to depose and replace the government or gain new territory, I'd call that a draw.

On the cost of the war to Russia though, the intensity of the war is such that in a few months it may already be the deadliest war Russia has fought since WW2, worse even that the Russo-Afghan War (which Russia ultimately couldn't stomach). The US couldn't handle 5k soldiers dying in Iraq in 8 years, and Russia has already lost around that many in 2 weeks. I expect in the next few months Putin will relent and make a deal more or less restoring the pre-war status quo, maybe with Ukraine recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk and agreeing not to join NATO for the time being (which Zelensky already seems open to).

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I'm really befuddled how nobody seems to notice the pretty remarkably successful high-tech component of the Russian assault. The Kalibrs, the Iskanders, the AA shooting down Ukrainian tactical ballistic missiles, the new choppers....

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Sir, you do not account for China entering the war should NATO intervene or if the Russian regime is threatened. Admittedly, this takes us far afield, but interesting to contemplate: historians allege that one of the reasons Louis XIV began the Nine Years' War was because the Ottoman Empire was under duress from the Hapsburg Emperor. Surely, Louis also calculated that his war would be easier because the Emperor's forces and attention would be divided, but it is thought he wished in part to prevent the collapse of his allies the Ottomans, so that the Emperor would always have another flank to contend with. Now this unholy alliance between France and the Ottomans is nowhere near as tight and binding as the alliance between China and Russia. And surely, the Chinese are well aware that if the West is able to win fully here, that is install another Western puppet in Russia, China would be encircled and vulnerable to economic and diplomatic strangulation. So, to ease pressure on Russia, if indeed Russia was under duress, wouldn't and shouldn't the Chinese make a play for Taiwan and maybe even South Korea? From a grand strategy perspective, it seems absolutely necessary for China to ensure that regime change does not happen in Russia. How does your calculus change then? What would happen to the US economy if it had to sanction China? Would the US honor its alliances? Could it?

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I would put the probability of this escalating to war with NATO at about 60%. But I'm not sure why you think Ukraine would win if NATO is pulled into the war. Most American analysis and simulations of a war between NATO and Russia in Europe find it highly probable that NATO would be defeated.

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