Miscalculations, Unexpected Resolve, and How the War Might End
In this interview, IGCC affiliate Patrick Hulme interviews Branislav Slantchev, a professor of political science at UC San Diego who studies military coercion, intrawar negotiations, the conduct of war, and how wars end. A native of Bulgaria, who previously lived in Ukraine, Slantchev offers candid thoughts on the limits of analysts’ predictions about war, the true cause of Putin’s aggression, the futility of red lines. This interview was recorded on March 23, 2022.
Most military crises diffuse well short of actual armed conflict. Why do you think in this particular episode negotiations failed and we actually saw armed conflict?
I have to admit that before the Russian invasion, I did not think that it would be on the scale that it turned out to be. I thought there would be an intervention in Eastern Ukraine, but I did not expect this kind of size. And that actually brings me to the explanation.
The reason that negotiations could not have worked is because the Russian aims started out such that no Ukrainian government would have given them to the Russians without a fight. And now the question is: if the aim is so expansive, why fight over this? And this is where we get into what in the [academic] literature is known as the mutual optimism problem.
I think the Russians—and not just the Russians, by the way, the Pentagon as well—wildly overestimated Russian military capability and the Ukrainians’ will to resist. Now, this second part is very key. I lived in the western part of Ukraine, and nobody who’s analyzed this country would have thought seriously that the Ukrainians would simply meet the Russians with bread and salt as the expression goes.
Everybody loves to talk about NATO expansion and Russian security interests. But that is not [the reason for the invasion]. And it’s not just me saying that. Putin essentially said this when the war started and he laid out the reasons for intervening. His thinking is that Ukraine is a serious problem for the security of his own regime, but not because of any military considerations. It is not because NATO’s threatening. Nobody in Russia could possibly believe this is the case. The problem [was] the way Ukrainians were dealing with their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. They took to the streets three times to get rid of governments they didn’t like. The Russians have done that zero times since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainians managed to oust Kremlin puppets from the government several times as well. So for all the warts and all the problems that they had internally, this was a democracy that was working.
When Zelensky was elected with 70 percent of the vote it was a huge blow to Putin’s initial strategy, which was to destabilize the country and take it over internally by supporting the separatists in the Donbas area. Zelensky is originally a Russian speaker—he’s from Donbas. He was from a simple family. He was the bridge that was going to unify Ukraine, and it was working. Personally, he wasn’t very good as a president. He got mired in all sorts of problems. But Putin’s strategy in the Donbas was failing. And the evidence for this is if you just look at the intensity of the fighting there, right after Crimea, you have serious fighting. The Russians had to intervene to push the Ukrainian forces out. But over the past couple of years, it had dwindled. So this idea that this is going to destabilize Kyiv and force them just wasn’t working. So that necessitated an overt invasion to deal with this problem.
When Zelensky came to power, he basically said—there was actually a press conference when he said—to all other post-Soviet republics, this is what you can do. And imagine the context.
Putin’s staunchest ally in Belarus, Lukashenko, had to steal an election and use violence to remain in power. In Kazakhstan just a month ago, Putin had to send 2,500 Russian troops to keep the president in power. So as far as he’s concerned, yes, Russia is surrounded, but it’s not by NATO. It’s by people who do not like these kinds of regimes.
And he’s very interested in implementing this Russia-centric Slavic kind of orthodox faith version of Russia that includes Ukraine, includes Belarus, includes the Baltics. And heck, in the more feverish dreams include Poland and Finland.
So Putin comes and tells the Ukrainians: I want your country and I don’t think you’re really different from us. You’re all Russians anyway. Who would agree to this? Nobody. You would only capitulate to a demand like this if you’re facing extinction. A government will never accede to anything he wants them to agree to. He wants them to agree to losing more territories in eastern Ukraine. Nobody would give this without a fight unless you’re sure you’re going to lose. And that’s where the optimism part comes in, because Putin was misled, apparently. He believed his own propaganda that there are many Ukrainians who support Russia. This was actually true before Crimea. There was a lot of sympathy for Russia, and a lot of admiration for Putin. But things started to change drastically after Crimea and he doesn’t seem to have updated. So the thing that was a huge domestic success for him in Russia was also a watershed in Ukraine because it switched many people from supporting him to realizing what he’s actually after.
Putin seems to have thought that the army, which vastly outnumbers the Ukrainians, would go in, and that it would take them 2 to 3 days. The Ukrainian government would run to its Western sponsors because it’s a traitorous government run by Nazis and all this other crap, and Putin’s supporters will then rise and install a regime that friendly to him and he’ll deliver all his goals.
So, yes, I can absolutely explain why the war broke out the way it did. The part I did not expect is that he so wildly underestimated the resistance that the Ukrainians would put up. Today, in the east of Ukraine, they cannot even recruit ethnic Russians to help them fight. That’s how bad it is.
It seems that the U.S. and the Pentagon were expecting that, however big the Russian invasion was, if there was a big invasion, the Russians would win pretty quickly. But then you have an insurgency. They weren’t expecting the stalemate on the battlefield that we have today. In the recent days, we’ve actually seen successful Ukrainian counter offensives. So, the Russians might still have the upper hand, but certainly the Ukrainians have been fighting a lot more effectively than anyone expected. Do you have any inkling why the U.S., NATO, and all the others seem to underestimate the Ukrainians?
We bought Putin’s hype about the state of his own military. We knew that they’re not great. I mean, we know they’re behind in technology. They’re not a serious opponent in conventional weapons like a NATO force. However, look at their performance. In all past interventions in Georgia, in Chechnya, the second time in Africa and Aleppo in Syria, they did their job. It was ugly, it was nasty. It was inelegant, in some sense, militarily. But they just pounded everybody into submission.
So, people thought this exact same thing is likely to happen here. It’s not that they’re brilliant tacticians or strategists. They’re not. They’re fighting in a very old-fashioned way. But their mass is just so big that it still works for them. So, I think that was the thinking.
The other thing is, while we were helping the Ukrainian military modernize, I don’t think we realized how far ahead they’ve gotten. They’re fighting 21st century style warfare against the Russians. But as brave and determined as the Ukrainians are, they could not have brought the Russian war machine to a standstill in Ukraine without our support. And this, frankly, was not a given.
I was astounded by the speed and the scale with which the West managed to mobilize the world, especially the Biden administration. I was stunned. The European Union, which many people consider incapable of making any decisions whatsoever, managed to do crazy things. The Germans upended 60 years of foreign policy. If anybody told you they could have predicted this, I would bring water to douse their pants because they’d be on fire.
There is no way anyone could have predicted it. It was a massive realignment, which happened virtually overnight. And that is part of the reason why I think the initial optimism from Putin’s perspective was warranted because he thought “ah they’ll slap some sanctions like in Crimea, they’ll pull us out of SWIFT…” That was apparently the top sanction that they considered, which actually doesn’t do much. It’s good PR [public relations], but it doesn’t matter. But he certainly did not expect the kind of sanctions we slapped on them. He did not expect the mass exodus of Western multinationals from Russia, disinvestment, and things like this, which are wrecking the Russian economy in ways that even the Soviets never experienced. From that perspective, I think it is important to realize how much of this was actually not predictable.
NATO has not directly intervened militarily, and it seems unlikely it will. The Biden administration, for weeks and weeks and weeks before the war, was very clear that the U.S. was not going to have direct military conflict with Russia in Ukraine. And that has been borne out so far. Would it have been more beneficial if the Biden administration left that on the table and said, even if it was a complete bluff, “well, maybe we will intervene”?
No, I don’t think we could have done anything. Before the war started, our resolve to deal with it the way we are did not exist. This was created after the war began, after the Ukrainians put up the defense, after Zelensky decided to stay, after rallying the Ukrainians when it became clear that they will, in fact, fight to protect their way of life and their homeland and we could not just stand idly by.
The only thing that might have possibly done something [would have been] to actually put serious NATO and American troops in Ukraine. That was never going to happen. I do not think we could have prevented it. I mean, they can analyze our politics. They knew what was happening. There was no way. And in fact, had we made these threats and our bluff had been called…. I don’t think the response would have been as effective as the Ukrainians have been on their own, in the way they resisted. Nobody can be as effective, from a moral and an emotional perspective. It works [better] in a way than it would have if the U.S. was trying to protect its “puppet” regime and “look, it failed because they always lie.”
In this way, it probably worked better for the Ukrainians this way because it enabled our response. The fact that what we do now is different from what we imagined doing just a month ago should also alert you to the possibility that we might do more in the future than we are imagining that we’re doing now.
These red lines that the administration is drawing—”We will never intervene under any circumstances” —they’re not realistic. No world war started as a world war. None of them. They all started as localized conflicts that draw in other powers because of developments on the ground. What if Putin unleashes mass chemical warfare and starts murdering civilians by the tens of thousands daily? Are we sure we’ll be able to resist intervening? Are we sure that if Belarus intervenes in the war—and there are signs that they are increasingly getting ready to do so—that we won’t intervene as well?
Once you get engaged in these crises, your resolve changes. It evolves. So as a result, things that seemed impossible before the crisis become not just possible, but desirable.
It is not like you come with some fixed ideas of exactly what you’re going to do under all circumstances, and then you have to signal your resolve or not, which is how a lot of people seem to think about this crisis. Your resolve evolves with the situation.
And so I think it’s a bit actually irresponsible to make these kinds of statements. The last time a popular president made these kinds of statements was Franklin Roosevelt. “No American boys in foreign wars,” which he said how many months before the war?
Another question has recently come up about chemical weapons. At the beginning of the conflict, the Russians put their nuclear forces on a higher alert, although there was some confusion in the West among nuclear policy experts [about] what this meant. But clearly it was meant to convey at least an implicit threat or reminder of: hey, we have a lot of nuclear weapons. Then more recently, there’s been suggestions that Putin might use chemical weapons.
With any crisis like this, there’s plenty of historical analogies, but one that comes to mind with chemical weapons and red lines is the 2013 crisis in Syria. As a reminder for listeners, this was during the Syrian civil war. President Obama said the U.S. was not going to intervene, but, if chemical weapons were moved around or used, that would be a red line. Chemical weapons did end up being used, and there was a big push for the U.S. to intervene. The president seemed somewhat reluctant and eventually a deal was concluded where the Russians were going to come in and destroy the chemical weapons. But that didn’t work out as planned and it was seen as a debacle.
What consequences do we possibly have out there, aside from direct military intervention, if chemical weapons are used? It seems like we’re almost down to the bottom of the barrel—like there’s not a lot left that we can threaten outside of direct military action. Do you think that’s an accurate reading? Do you think there’s a likelihood that chemical weapons might be used?
I think the administration is doing the right thing in being very vague about what this would mean, because if there’s anything worse than saying “I will under no circumstance intervene” it is to say “these are the circumstances” and then not intervene.
In terms of the likelihood of use, unfortunately, I actually think it’s high. The reason is, Putin’s strategy right now has switched. Now it’s clear to him that he cannot have what he wanted initially. So he now is trying one of two things. One is to see if he can grind the government in Kyiv into submission by mass civilian casualties, because this worked in Chechnya. The Chechens were so bent on independence and even they collapsed in the end. And he was able to install a puppet regime that hunted down all the other pro-independence people, because the calculation of that particular government was, “we’re facing extinction now.” Now, of course, Chechnya’s much smaller than Ukraine. The population of Kyiv is several times the size of Chechnya itself. But this is the kind of the thinking: we’ll put so much pressure by murdering civilians relentlessly that the government will have to concede. But what will they have to concede now is the question.
have now heard reports that the Russians are trying to organize sham referenda in occupied territories in eastern Ukraine so they can start declaring independence. So far, they haven’t found willing collaborators because Ukrainian morale is sky high right now. But this would be an indicator that they intend to dismember the country because they cannot have all of it. They will take part of it. Even this strategy is predicated on Kyiv agreeing to this. And as you mentioned, right now, the situation on the ground does not favor the Russians. In fact, many people are now beginning to think they may not actually win this even with brute force. But they can still inflict mass casualties [in an effort to] grind the will of the Kyiv government to resist by mass casualties and then chemical weapons.
Chemical weapons are a possibility. They’re not perfect. Now that we also deny them access to weather predictions and satellites, they may not be able to figure out how to safely use them, meaning so that they don’t hurt their own forces with them. They’ve shown themselves willing to do what Russian governments have always been willing to do, which is to throw thousands of people into a meat grinder.
What can we do about this? We actually can do more with the sanctions. They’re not fully tight yet. But again, this is long-term issue. With the chemical weapons, we need an immediate response, not something that is going to be painful a month down the road or even a week down the road. That’s where the big uncertainty comes in. Can we do something short of direct intervention to, for instance, disable the places that are launching these chemical weapons? I actually do not know. That’s why
I think we’re entering a very dangerous phase of the war, because Putin’s entire strategy is predicated on inflicting harm on civilians, which is precisely what might actually trigger a more massive and direct intervention.
What needs to happen for a war to end?
Two other factors will be important. First, they need to reassess their war aims in light of the new situation. There seemed to be some realization in Moscow that the original unlimited aim is not attainable, [but] their fallback aim is equally unattainable, but they don’t seem to agree to that. Taking half of Ukraine is not something that, given the situation on the ground, Kyiv would agree to. At the same time, Kiev’s position has hardened because they have found that they actually are more capable than probably even they imagined. So, reassessment has not happened sufficiently to enable any sort of convergence. It is also, I think, unlikely to happen while Putin is in power. That’s the troubling part.
This brings me to my second point. When you cannot [reassess your] strategies, then you have to attack their ability to continue fighting. So, the idea here is that maybe you don’t want to agree to the terms, but if you cannot continue fighting, it doesn’t matter that you’re not agreeing.
So that’s been our strategy: basically to destroy Russia’s ability to sustain this war. Now, this will take a couple more weeks, maybe before it’s really, really felt, although there are some signs that it’s already being felt on the front lines. And then we have to see what Putin will do next because he desperately needs Belarus to intervene to relieve pressure on his forces around Kiev and to stop the Ukrainians from being resupplied. You’re going to see more and more people [Russians] not willing to send their sons to the front to die in Ukraine. But in the short term, frankly, you could end this very quickly by stopping aid to Ukraine.
Of course. Right.
As long as we continue to support them [Ukraine] and they can keep at it, they will win. I have no doubt in my mind that they will win and that we are unwilling to just pull the plug on them doing so. Zelensky rightly said, this is not just a war for Ukraine. It’s a war for Europe and us as well. And even the Russians have said [that] this is a war for the new world order.
So bottom line is the convergence hasn’t happened because both sides still have the ability to keep going. And I don’t think we can influence Putin, frankly, given the vision of what he’s articulated. And I don’t see any reason not to believe that he himself believes that vision. He will not stop unless he’s removed somehow.
One thing that I’ve seen put out there is the idea that: what if Ukraine said we’re not going to pursue NATO membership and make that their official policy?
They’ve already said this. Zelensky said: I want to be in NATO, but we understand it’s not going to happen. Look, the idea that this is somehow going to end the war is predicated on the idea that this is somehow related to the cause of the war. And that’s just not true.
You don’t think it is.
No. Aside from people who should stop playing Risk in their offices a long time ago, nobody actually thinks that. Please. I’m not going to mention names. But we all know who I’m talking about. So that’s just the bogus argument with NATO. It was clear in Kiev, in Washington and Brussels and in Moscow that Ukraine will not be a member of NATO for the foreseeable future, if ever.
Everybody knew that. So. This idea that somehow magically NATO membership is the key to ending the conflict. No, it’s not. It never was. And it never will be. What the Russians want is for the country to demilitarize, which basically means they will get to control it.
The last big question we wanted to ask is about international relations as an academic discipline and its focus going forward. There is somewhat of a narrative, although not everyone buys into this, that after the end of the Cold War, there was less focus on inter-state conflicts, and more of a focus on civil wars, human rights, [and other things]. And therefore, there’s now a sense, because now we have a major war again in one of the key areas of the world, that there might be a shift in the discipline. Do you think that there’s any truth to that?
Some of the shift is inevitable simply because people always chase the latest fads no matter what they are. When I was on the job market, people told me: “you should do international political economy, this conflict stuff is obsolete.” But I kept going, not because I had some insight that it’s not obsolete, but because I was interested in it. And then 9/11 happened and suddenly there was huge interest in conflict.
[That kind of shift is] likely to happen again.
What I would dispute, however, is that there’s been some huge shift in the discipline away from studying conflict. The American public’s interest has waxed and waned depending on the news. But in the discipline, there has been very vibrant research.
I do expect some people will start dealing with direct military security matters more. Especially because the problem with Russia is not going to disappear even if Putin were to have a heart attack tonight. We have entered a new world in which Russia will be a pariah for decades to come. They will not have a democratic government anytime soon. And as long as it’s not democratic, it’s proven itself a threat. We will have to deal with this. Basically, it’s Cold War on steroids again.
Then there’s the question of China. We’ve been very focused on the economic aspects of this relationship, but the developments in Russia signify that perhaps we should be thinking more about the military aspect. I expect some people will start doing this just because there’ll be more interest in analyses like this.
It seems like there is kind of a fusion between the economic and the security sides that may not have been as prominent as the past. Famously during the Cold War, there wasn’t a ton of economic exchange between the two blocs. But today, at least until the last few weeks, we had a ton of economic exchange with Russia. And even more economic interdependence with China. The entire western strategy so far [has been] to respond to a security intervention with economic tools, so this cross section of security and economic interdependence seems to be a fusion that will continue to develop in the coming years.
That is one [area] where I think some reassessment is necessary. I think interdependence in absolutely key in ways we have not come to understand. Big companies are leaving the country and selling their shares and all sorts of things like this. That’s not what we usually think about when we talk about interdependence, but now we will. I just saw this morning that Nestle is quitting, which is a huge deal. It’s one of the hold outs. Apparently public pressure is getting to them as well as the realization that the Russians will expropriate their assets. So that will be an interesting development for graduate students.
Unfortunately, I’m a little too late to shift gears.
What do you mean you are late? I’m late.
Even later. In any case this has been great, Branislav, thank you so much.
These are great questions, I very much enjoyed the questions.
The music featured in the IGCC podcast is courtesy of Gato Loco de Bajo.