Putin’s Quasi War Begins

Ukraine car explosion
Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty
Julia Ioffe
February 18, 2022

The war didn’t arrive on Wednesday, as President Joe Biden reportedly warned allies that it would. Instead, Russian state media marked the day by crowing about Western “hysteria” and faulty intelligence of the kind the U.S. produced before invading Iraq in 2003. It continued gloating well into Friday evening, even as the actual war had very clearly arrived after a tense two days. 

On Thursday, the Russian Foreign Ministry made public its response to Washington’s latest diplomatic proposals: a nasty, forceful rejection. Shooting picked up on the front lines between Ukraine and the regions of the Donbas that the media has come to call “breakaway” or “separatist,” a shorthand that unintentionally elides the reality that these territories have been pried away by force. A kindergarten was shelled. The deputy chief of mission—the No. 2 diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Moscow—was expelled from Russia. On Thursday night, Channel One, Russia’s primary state-owned network, broadcast a story from Donetsk that claimed the rebels had seized a secret Ukrainian map allegedly showing the Kyiv government’s plans for an imminent invasion of the breakaway regions. 

By Friday, things had escalated to the point where war—or something uncomfortably close to it—seemed inevitable. The Kremlin announced that Vladimir Putin, accompanied by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, would oversee military exercises that would include the firing of ballistic and cruise missiles on Saturday. The head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) told its residents to evacuate the area and flee to Russia because, he claimed, Ukrainian president Volodymir Zelensky had ordered an invasion. The Ukrainian government spent the day denying those claims.

But it didn’t matter. Soon, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) also announced an evacuation of its residents. Both the DPR and the LPR encouraged men of fighting age to take up arms to defend their land. Air raid sirens began to wail in Donetsk, and a traffic jam quickly formed on the road to the Russian border, as did long lines at gas stations. An orphanage in Donetsk was evacuated, but not before crowds of cameras and friendly journalists magically appeared to film the children as they queued up outside the building. Buses, many looking like they had come straight from the set of HBO’s Chernobyl, lined up to take local residents to Russia, which promised to give these refugees 10,000 rubles ($130) each. 

Then, Russian government media reported an explosion meters away from DPR headquarters and another two in Luhansk. Channel One broadcast video it claimed was from a camera dropped by “Ukrainian saboteurs” who, it said with no evidence, had crossed into the people’s republics in order to blow up a nearby chlorine plant. Russian state TV, while still mocking the West for warning of a Russian invasion that would never come, asked DPR head Denis Pushilin, “Is this war? Is a major war starting?” Replied Pushilin, “Unfortunately, yes.”

On Friday evening, President Biden spoke from the White House, saying he believed Putin had “made up his mind” to invade Ukraine. “As of this moment,” the president said, “I’m convinced he’s made the decision.”

Dusting off the Kremlin Playbook

So, is this war? It certainly looks like the overture for one. Many veteran observers have noted the similarity between the development of this conflict and the beginning of the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. Both conflicts began with the 2008 decision to open the possibility of NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, two former Soviet republics that are core to Russia’s sense of empire—and which produced general secretaries (Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev) who ruled the U.S.S.R. consecutively from 1928 to 1982, almost the entirety of its existence. 

Both conflicts began with Moscow fanning the flames of separatism in border regions of Georgia and Ukraine, and then handing out Russian passports to people who live there. (In 2008, it was South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Today, it’s Donetsk and Luhansk.) 

Both conflicts also began during the Olympics—one summer, one winter—held in Beijing. Both involved a massive Russian military build-up on the border. In both cases, when the West became concerned with these deployments, the Kremlin said it was deescalating by withdrawing troops. In 2008, the news came eight days before Russia invaded Georgia. This week, the Russian government released videos of tanks and convoys moving around and claimed it was evidence that troops were going home, only to have Western intelligence counter that claim, saying the Kremlin had actually added troops to the area. 

In both cases, Russia invoked the danger to Russian citizens as a pretext to become militarily involved. In 2008, the justification that Russia gave for its invasion—the casus belli—was the Georgian shelling of separatists in South Ossetia, which was now home to all those freshly-minted Russian citizens that Russia simply had to protect. Today, it is much the same. Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Russian parliament, said on Friday that “Russia doesn’t want war, but if the threat to Russian citizens and countrymen arises, our country will come to their defense.” Conveniently, Russia has recently passed out Russian passports to some 600,000 of the 2.2 million Ukrainians living in the breakaway regions. Now it wants to come to the aid of its newest citizens.

What happens next is still up in the air. It depends on the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and Europe. Many of them are gathering at the annual Munich Security Conference, the most important and high profile foreign policy conference in the West. Vice President Kamala Harris made an appearance there today, when she reaffirmed the Biden administration’s line on NATO. Zelensky is scheduled to be there on Saturday, though the Biden administration is trying to dissuade him from going to Germany. They fear that Russia will spin his trip to look like he has fled the country and use the opportunity to install a Kremlin-friendly government—just as the British have warned

The next 24 to 48 hours will determine whether this becomes the full-scale, mass-casualty war the Biden administration has been warning about, or a more limited military action. Both will be different flavors of horrible.

Even if Putin doesn’t send his army all the way into Ukraine, he will have accomplished something very important. When he came to power in 2000, the Russian army had been badly beaten in 1996 by a rag-tag group of insurgents in Chechnya. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the once mighty Red Army had been impoverished, decimated, and weakened, both by corruption and a bankrupt government. 

Putin saw this as part of the humiliation of Russia after the end of the Cold War, and understood it to be his historic mission to rebuild the Russian army into the dreaded force it once was. He set about methodically expanding and modernizing it, including its vast nuclear arsenal. Now, two decades and various military adventures later (Syria, Ukraine, Georgia), Putin is using the military exercises to show the world just how advanced, capable, and frightening the Russian army is once again. 

Biden’s Intelligence Success

Over the last few weeks, the Biden administration has made a number of intelligence disclosures, aiming to preempt, expose, or disrupt various Russian plans. By Friday, it was clear that almost all of them have checked out. 

Let’s review:

  • A month ago, the White House warned that Russia would stage false flag attacks, including blowing up its own supporters in the Donbas, to create a pretext for an invasion. Yesterday, Bellingcat, an organization of open-source detectives who began exposing Russian activity in the area in 2014, said that evidence pointed to the conclusion that the Donbas kindergarten had been shelled by Russian-backed forces, not the Ukrainian army.

  • Earlier this month, the administration claimed that the Russian government would create a graphic video to justify an invasion of Ukraine. Today, in its nightly newscast, the Kremlin-owned Channel One showed video of what it said, without providing any evidence, was a firefight between “Ukrainian saboteurs” and Moscow-backed separatists, saying, also without evidence, that this was collected off a camera the saboteurs lost in the battle.

  • Yesterday, in his speech to the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that a possible Russian false flag operation would involve a chemical attack. That video I referenced above? Russian state TV claimed that, before they were foiled, the “Ukrainian saboteurs” were on their way to blow up a chlorine plant in the Donbas.

  • Exactly one week ago, Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that a Russian invasion could occur very soon, before the end of the Olympic Games. (Closing ceremonies are on Sunday.) “We are in the window when an invasion could begin at any time should Vladimir Putin decide to order it,” Sullivan said. Exactly one week later, well, see above.

  • The Russian government mocked as “fake” the apparent leak of U.S. intelligence that predicted Wednesday, February 16, as the invasion date. When Wednesday came and went without an invasion, they stepped up the ridicule. Then on Friday, metadata evidence emerged that the urgent addresses by the heads of LPR and DPR urging their citizens to evacuate or take up arms had been taped on Wednesday

For all of Russia’s invocations of the late Colin Powell’s infamous U.N. presentation, it looks like U.S. intelligence has gotten this crisis right, at least so far. It is all unfolding just as the White House said it would. Unmasking these plans in advance clearly hasn’t deterred the Russian government, though it clearly delayed their implementation. Moreover, the revelations make the false flags less effective, at least for Western viewers.

Lies, Lies, Lies

Though it seems like it happened a year ago, it was only yesterday that the Russian Foreign Ministry delivered its response to American diplomatic proposals, and I didn’t want to end this note without commenting on it.

The most striking feature of the document was, in my opinion, the tone. It was condescending and snarky, like much of the Foreign Ministry’s communications. Earlier this week, in an attempt to demonstrate the ostensible implausibility of an imminent Russian invasion, the Ministry commented that the U.S. had to prove that it was not planning to invade Britain. On Thursday, Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the Swedish of “hallucinating” and said this was understandable because, in ancient times, Viking warriors took hallucinogens before going into battle. On Wednesday, she addressed Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the respected U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in bawdy and indecorous terms. “Dear Linda,” Zakharova said. “I’ll tell you, woman to woman: even when there is potency, the desire for an invasion doesn’t arise automatically.” 

The other thing that struck me about the Russian response was its feats of omission, leaps of logic, and straight up lies. Here’s a small but representative sample:

  • The note states repeatedly that the Russian military has been deployed only on Russian territory. “We proceed from the assumption that the deployment of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation does not and cannot concern the United States’ fundamental interests. We would like to remind you that our troops are not on Ukrainian territory.” Two sentences, two lies: One, this omits the fact that there is a large contingent of Russian troops in Belarus which is an independent country that is not part of the Russian Federation—at least not yet. Two: there are Russian forces on Ukrainian territory and have been for eight years, since 2014. In 2014 alone, some 200 Russian military personnel were killed in the Donbas. And just in December, a Russian court accidentally revealed that Russian troops were, in fact, stationed in the LPR and DPR, which are still part of Ukraine. There have been many, many investigations over the years that have proven that the Kremlin is lying about this, just as it has for eight years.

  • The document alludes to the U.S. mentioning the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia, the United States, and others agreed to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine giving up the Soviet nuclear weapons still within its borders. The 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas is widely understood—for obvious reasons—as Russia violating the treaty. In this document, however, the Foreign Ministry bristles at the mention of this, saying, “The loss by the Ukrainian government of its territorial integrity is the result of its own internal political processes.” This is extraordinarily brazen, like a car thief saying, “The loss of my neighbor’s car is the result of a fight that was happening inside the house at the time.”

The response also repeats the lie, put forward by Putin several times, that the reason Russia is against Ukraine joining NATO is that Ukraine’s constitution still says that Crimea is “an inseparable constituent part of Ukraine.” Therefore, if Ukraine decides to reconquer Crimea by military means, Putin says, NATO, under Article 5, will automatically come to Kyiv’s aid, setting up a direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO. “You want us to go to war with NATO?” Putin said earlier this month. “Has anybody thought of this? It seems they haven’t.” Perhaps they haven’t thought of this because NATO is a defensive alliance, not an offensive one. That is, if Ukraine becomes a member of NATO (and that’s a big “if”) and then launches an attack on Russia, NATO allies will not be responsible for going to war alongside it.