Dodging Armageddon: The Third World War That Almost Was, 1950

Fifteen years ago I authored a piece for Cryptologic Quarterly, the National Security Agency’s in-house classified journal, about how close the world actually came to World War III in the early 1950s. Although this was little understood at the time, the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950 was a dry-run for the Kremlin, which was obsessed with silencing Tito’s renegade Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Had the United States not strongly resisted Pyongyang’s aggression, a Soviet bloc invasion of Yugoslavia would have followed soon after.

Of course, President Harry Truman did send U.S. forces to defend South Korea in the summer 1950, resulting in a conflict that has never formally ended. More importantly, he saved the world from nuclear Armageddon, as my CQ piece laid out in detail. Lacking much Western conventional defenses in Europe, any Soviet move on Yugoslavia would have resulted in rapid nuclear release by a hard-pressed NATO. I cited numerous still-secret files and as a result my article was classified TOPSECRET//SCI.

However, NSA has seen fit to declassify and release my article, minus some redactions, and even post it on the Agency’s open website. They have omitted my name, perhaps out of fear UDBA assassins will track me down decades after Tito’s death, but I’ll take my chances.

You can read the article here — enjoy!

Russia’s “Secret” Army in Ukraine

Today the office of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko released via Twitter important details about the organization and structure of Russia’s occupying army in Southeastern Ukraine. The order of battle (ORBAT) information is clearly derived from a lot of intelligence, especially SIGINT (I say this as someone who used to do ORBAT intelligence for a living: this is well done).

Since most of my readers know neither Russian or Ukrainian, I’m passing on what Kyiv has released today in English. The translation isn’t great but it works. I’m providing comments below since most normals are not well acquainted with the nuances of Russian military organization.

Russian Military Command, South-East Ukraine (Novocherkask):

Commanding Officer (CO): GenCol A N. Serdyukov [1]

1st Army Corps (“Donetsk People’s Republic” Military), HQ: Donetsk

CO: GenMaj A.V. Zavizyon [2]

2nd Army Corps (“Luhansk People’s Republic” Military), HQ: Luhansk
CO: GenMaj Y. V. Nikiforov [3]
The organization of the 1st and 2nd Corps, no surprise, corresponds exactly to the standard tables of organization and equipment (TO&E) of Russian Ground Forces. There are several maneuver brigades (“motor rifle” is the Russian term for mechanized in NATO parlance) supported by independent regiments and battalions. As Kyiv has announced, the 35,000 troops belonging to “DNR” and “LNR” forces are bolstered by 9,000 reservists. While some forty percent of the troops are locals, the rest are Russians plus a few mercenaries and foreign volunteers.

The senior command staff are exclusively Russian officers assigned to the 1st and 2nd Corps — officially they are “not there” of course — while the operation is run, logistically and command-wise, from neighboring Russia.
To anybody with a decent memory, this closely resembles the relationship during the 1992-95 Bosnian War, when the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS), while consisting largely of local rank-and-file troops, had most of its command, and nearly all of its financing and logistics, coming from neighboring Serbia and its military — which, in practice treated the VRS as merely as an extension of itself, as in fact it was.

Needless to add, the “DNR” and “LNR” militaries would not last twenty-four hours without constant command and logistical support from Putin’s military. They are an extension of Russian Ground Forces and should be treated as such by the West. It’s time to end, once and for all, any fiction about “rebels” — these are Russian-controlled forces, led by Russian officers, supplied with Russian guns and ammunition, that are waging war inside Ukraine.
Kudos to Kyiv for putting this important information out there as an aid to understanding what’s really going on in their country.


Comments:

1. AKA Sedov; GenCol is a Russian “three-star” rank.

2. AKA Pilen; GenMaj is a Russian “one-star” rank.

3. AKA Morgun; GenMaj is a Russian “one-star” rank.

The OPM Hacking Scandal Just Got Worse

The other day I explained in detail how the mega-hack of the Office of Personnel Management’s internal servers looks like a genuine disaster for the U.S. Government, a setback that will have long-lasting and painful counterintelligence consequences. In particular I explained what the four million Americans whose records have been purloined may be in for:

Whoever now holds OPM’s records possesses something like the Holy Grail from a CI perspective.  They can target Americans in their database for recruitment or influence. After all, they know their vices, every last one — the gambling habit, the inability to pay bills on time, the spats with former spouses, the taste for something sexual on the side (perhaps with someone of a different gender than your normal partner) — since all that is recorded in security clearance paperwork (to get an idea of how detailed this gets, you can see the form, called an SF86, here).

Do you have friends in foreign countries, perhaps lovers past and present? They know all about them. That embarrassing dispute with your neighbor over hedges that nearly got you arrested? They know about that too. Your college drug habit? Yes, that too. Even what your friends and neighbors said about you to investigators, highly personal and revealing stuff, that’s in the other side’s possession now.

The bad news keeps piling up with this story, including reports that OPM records may have appeared, for sale, on the “darknet.” Moreover, OPM seems to have initially low-balled just how serious the breach actually was. Even more disturbing, if predictable, is a new report in the New York Times that case “investigators believe that the Chinese hackers who attacked the databases of the Office of Personnel Management may have obtained the names of Chinese relatives, friends and frequent associates of American diplomats and other government officials, information that Beijing could use for blackmail or retaliation.”

We can safely replace “may” in that quote with “almost certainly did” since for Chinese intelligence that would be some of the most valuable information in any of those millions of OPM files. Armed with lists of Chinese citizens worldwide who are in “close and continuing contact” (to cite security clearance lingo) with American officials, Beijing can now seek to exploit those ties for espionage purposes.

This matters because, while many intelligence services exploit ties of ethnicity to further their espionage against the United States — Russians, Cubans, Israelis, even the Greeks — none of the major counterintelligence threats to America are as dependent on blood ties as the Chinese. Simply put, in its efforts at recruiting spies abroad, Beijing is often uncomfortable operating outside its ethnic milieu. Spies run by Beijing who are not ethnic Chinese are very much the exception. This poses less of a problem for them that it might seem, however, as there are something like fifty million “overseas Chinese” worldwide, including about four million living in the United States.

Nearly every espionage case in the United States involving Beijing comes down to the ethnic angle, somewhere. To cite only a few examples, among many, Larry Wu-Tai Chin, a CIA translator/analyst, passed highly classified information to Beijing for over thirty years. Katrina Leung managed to severely damage FBI intelligence against China for years, in a complex and messy operation that confounded the Bureau. Then there’s the messy case of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist employed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, whom U.S. counterintelligence believed passed significant amounts of classified nuclear information to Beijing. Most recently was there was the case of Xiafen “Sherry” Chen, a Federal worker who was caught having unreported meetings with a Chinese regime official.

It should be noted that all the persons mentioned in the previous paragraph were born in China (Lee was born in Taiwan) then immigrated to the United States. They seem to have been persuaded to betray their adopted country on behalf of their native land. Ms. Chen, against whom serious charges were recently dropped, has alleged ethnic bias in the FBI’s pursuit of her, as did Wen Ho Lee. Members of Congress and ethnic activists have joined that chorus too. Interestingly, Beijing has sung the same tune, with regime outlets alleging that anti-Chinese prejudice is at the root of U.S. counterintelligence efforts. However, whatever blame here lies in Beijing, not Washington, DC, since it is China that is exploiting its nationals abroad to further their espionage.

Beijing also uses its citizens abroad to facilitate espionage. An interesting recent case in Hawaii, which is something of a hotbed of Chinese spying, given the large number of U.S. military commands housed on Oahu, involved a retired U.S. Army officer and defense contractor working at U.S. Pacific Command who apparently got honey-trapped by a fetching young Chinese student (this is being a common Chinese tactic). Benjamin Bishop has been sentenced to more than seven years in jail for stealing classified information from work and passing it to a Chinese woman less than half his age, who was in the United States on a student visa.

The modus operandi of Chinese intelligence and its operations abroad are understood by the FBI and the Intelligence Community. However, the extent of the information loss in the OPM hack is so vast that all the counterintelligence awareness in the world may not be able to offset the advantage in the SpyWar that Beijing has won with this vast data theft. If you are (or have been) employed with the Federal government and have listed Chinese persons in any way on your SF86, it’s time to be vigilant.

Putin’s Balkan Offensive

On the weekend, the leader of Bosnia’s Serb Republic threatened secession if he did not get reforms, proposing to hold a referendum on leaving the country if his demands are not met by the end of 2017. Milorad Dodik, who has ruled over the Bosnian Serbs, on and off, for most of the twenty years since the United States forced a peace settlement to end Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, has toyed with secession before, but his weekend announcement represents the most direct threat ever to the country’s postwar political system.

In fairness to Dodik and the Bosnian Serbs, almost nobody in Bosnia is happy with the current system, which when it was hashed out in Dayton, Ohio in the autumn of 1995, under Clinton administration pressure, was never intended to be more than a temporary political solution to Bosnia’s political conflicts, yet here we are two decades later, and that short-term solution has become a seriously flawed, long-lasting one.

Dayton Bosnia is a deeply dysfunctional polity, with a weak, state-level government in Sarajevo plus two “entity” governments: the Serb Republic in Banja Luka and the Muslim-Croat Federation, also in Sarajevo. Its defects are too many to list briefly but boil down to a decrepit economy that never recovered from the war two decades ago, staggeringly high unemployment (officially it approaches fifty percent, but that is an underestimate), plus corruption so pervasive that it cannot be rooted out without cashiering the country’s whole political class, regardless of party or ethnicity (Dodik himself being one of the country’s biggest pols-on-the-take). Anybody who can escape Bosnia does so, leaving the country of four million with a declining population and a serious brain-drain.

Poor and corrupt, the Serb Republic isn’t a viable place, but neither is the whole country, and nobody knows what to do about it. The Dayton Accords created an impoverished ward of the European Union that nobody knows what to do with, yet which festers with crime, corruption, and extremism. And it’s not only the Serbs who want out: Croats, too, are deeply dissatisfied with the Dayton arrangement, which left them without an entity of their own, but unhappy Bosnian Croats can at least escape easily to neighboring Croatia, which distributes its EU passports to any fellow Croats who want them.

The root of Bosnia’s turmoil is not difficult to grasp in its essentials, though the diplo-dialect used by Eurocrats and American overseers buries it under lots of legalese and Balkan jargon that is impenetrable to outsiders. Bosnian Muslims want a more centrally controlled state, which they as the country’s largest ethnic group will dominate, while the Serbs want more autonomy for their entity and have no desire to live in a Muslim-dominated Bosnia. This is the exact same dispute that Bosnia collapsed into war over back in 1992: nothing has changed except a hundred thousand people got killed and a beautiful country got wrecked.

To be fair to the Serbs, there has been anger and confusion over recognition of an independent Kosovo by most of NATO and the EU, including the United States, after that former Serbian province formally separated itself from Belgrade in 2008, nearly a decade after NATO went to war on its behalf. Nobody in Brussels or Washington, DC, has been able to plausibly explain why Serbia’s borders can be redrawn but Bosnia’s cannot.

For NATO and the EU, Bosnia’s territorial integrity has been sacrosanct, even though partition, as with Kosovo, represents the obvious long-term solution to a problem that nobody really has any other fixes for. Yet, as the Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians learned after World War One, when the Americans push “national self-determination” they mean it for some people, and not for others. Unsurprisingly, Bosnia’s Serbs have pushed back against this American and EU double standard for two decades, to no avail, and Dodik’s exasperation reached its breaking point on the weekend.

Banja Luka has hardly been its own best ally in its campaign to get more power for Bosnia’s Serbs, with their nationalist antics alienating even their friends at times, yet it should be noted that the Muslims have shown little willingness to even discuss Dodik’s demands. That is functionally impossible, since much of Sarajevo’s elite, to include the Muslim clerical establishment, has demonized the Serbs with constant charges of genocide during the 1992-95 war — notwithstanding that such claims are at best a partial truth about that ugly conflict — and who, after all, can be expected to parley with such monsters? This peculiar version of “Holocaust theology” among Bosnia’s Muslims does not bode well for reconciliation and harmony. Total political paralysis has been the logical outcome.

Although it needs to be made clear that Bosnians of all stripes are primarily responsible for their country’s dismal situation, thanks to their seemingly intractable inability to get along, the West bears ample blame for Bosnia’s deep dysfunction, and not merely for creating the Dayton situation. As in Afghanistan, throwing billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, while not watching closely where it goes, led to NATO being the cash-cow for Bosnian organized crime and corruption.

Above all, the existence of the Serb Republic today is due to American intervention, a strange case of Balkan blowback. In early August 1995, the Croatian military unleashed its victory offensive, Operation STORM, to regain the territory it lost to Serb rebels in 1991. Still the largest European military operation since 1945, STORM rapidly crushed the Serbs and, with American go-ahead, Zagreb continued Croatia’s march into Bosnia, with the help of Bosnian Croat and Muslim forces. Two months of offensives followed, backed by NATO airpower, the Atlantic Alliance’s first-ever military operation, and by early October the Croats were at the gates of Banja Luka, having taken the heights of Manjača, a strategic mountain fifteen miles south of the Bosnian Serb capital.

The complete defeat of the Bosnian Serbs was at hand, since without Banja Luka, the only real city the Bosnian Serbs possessed, their pseudo-state would simply not be viable. Yet, mysteriously, on the night of 11-12 October 1995, the Croats suddenly halted their offensive. It was an open secret that they would have been in Banja Luka within twenty-four hours, as the Bosnian Serb Army was in chaotic retreat. It was equally an open secret that a call from Washington, DC, had ordered the Croats to halt their victory march.

While it’s not completely clear why the Americans wanted the Croats to stop short of a strategic victory over the Bosnian Serbs, allowing Banja Luka to stay in Serbian hands twenty years ago set the troubled course Bosnia has been on ever since. Having permitted the Serb Republic to live in the autumn of 1995, the Americans constructed the ramshackle Dayton system that would leave nobody in Bosnia satisfied.

This Goldilocks approach to Bosnia, where nobody’s Balkan porridge is ever quite right, worked inadequately for nearly two decades, in its own dysfunctional way, yet over the last year the game has been changed by Vladimir Putin, and only now is the West taking notice. It’s not that the Kremlin has exactly been hiding its diplomatic offensive in the region. Suspicious numbers of Russian diplomats have been visiting Banja Luka, a tiny place by European standards, while last September Putin praised Dodik as “an experienced politician and manager” while the Bosnian Serb leader was in Moscow. In exchange, Dodik hailed Russia’s theft of Crimea from Ukraine, praising it as a model of self-determination that the Bosnian Serb leader made clear set an example for changing Bosnia’s borders too.

There is significant ideological harmony between Banja Luka and Moscow, based on an anti-Western ideology grounded in Orthodoxy and Slavic nationalism, all of which masks a great deal of corruption and personal profiteering. This ideological alliance has been cemented by Leonid Reshetnikov, a retired Russian intelligence general who makes regular trips to the Balkans to visit his “brother” Serbs. A Kremlin insider with strongly nationalist and religious views, Reshetnikov is a fierce advocate of what I term Putin’s Orthodox Jihad, and he heads a major Moscow think-tank that serves as an arm of Russian foreign policy.

Unsurprisingly, Reshetnikov has counseled the Bosnian Serbs they must stand up to the West, since Brussels and Washington, DC, are plotting against them, seeking to destroy the Serbian entity. Just as unsurprisingly, this hardline nationalist take has won Reshetnikov plaudits from the influential Serbian Orthodox Church, which has hosted several of his visits to the region and bestowed him with high honors

This Kremlin offensive, with Reshetnikov in the ideological lead, has led some to worry about the “Russification” of Serbia, and that is a valid concern. However, despite ominous signs such as Serbian participation in the forthcoming Victory Day parade in Moscow on 9 May, including by the Serbian military, public opinion in that country remains divided between those who want a more European orientation for Serbia and those who seek some sort of Orthodox Slavic alliance with Russia. The outcome of this important debate remains uncertain.

However, there is little debate that in Bosnia’s Serb Republic the Kremlin’s allies have already won. Banja Luka is broke and weak, and here Putin’s money goes a long way — and already has. Thanks to the flawed Dayton structure imposed by the West, Bosnia as-is cannot be a functional country, and Putin is now exploiting a weakness that Western overseers should have fixed years ago, yet did not. Here the Russians are reaping easy diplomatic gains thanks to NATO and EU mistakes and unwillingness to fix them.

Skeptics are noting that Dodik that is merely playing a game to win more concessions from Sarajevo and the West, implying that he has no intention of actually staging any independence referendum. Dodik is unquestionably a scheming Balkan wheeler-dealer from central casting. Yet these are the same hopeful sorts who, over a year ago, assured us that Putin didn’t “really” mean all his nationalist rhetoric, he would never dare to actually invade Crimea and Eastern Ukraine …

The fate of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s looms large in Putin’s imagination as an example of what happens when the Europeans and the Americans gang up to dismantle a Slavic state: it is a warning sign to the Kremlin, the sort of thing that a strong and resurgent Russia will not allow to happen again in Eastern Europe. While this narrative of Yugoslavia’s violent collapse is very different from how most in the West view it, it’s widely held in Moscow and informs current Russian discussions of Bosnia and all of Southeastern Europe.

Bosnia may muddle through just yet, and perhaps Dodik is all talk. Dayton has lasted for twenty years in its plodding, dysfunctional way, and perhaps it will last for twenty more. But Banja Luka, with Moscow’s backing, is now signalling that real changes may be afoot that constitute a direct challenge to the political and security architecture the West created for the Balkans in the 1990’s. This is nothing less than a strategic offensive in the region — for now it falls under the rubric of Special War in typical Kremlin fashion — of the kind I told you Putin would bring to Europe this year. However, given the stakes there is no room for Western complacence, particularly given how badly it worked out the last time the Russians went all-in with their support for the Serbs.

UPDATE (0730 EST, 28 APR): Yesterday’s jihadist terrorist attack on a police station in Zvornik, which killed a Serb policeman (get the details here), seems perfectly timed to coincide with Dodik’s pro-independence move. As if on cue, the Bosnian Serb leader has stated that Banja Luka may withdraw from Bosnian state-level security structures, which would be an important step towards dismantling the Dayton apparatus. Elsewhere in the Balkans, Russian diplomats are stoking the fires of Orthodox Slavic nationalism and some people are starting to notice.

Putin Turns Up His Special War Against Europe

Over the last year, since the Russian theft of Crimea, I’ve unambiguously warned that Vladimir Putin means what he says and he will not shy away from confrontation with the West, even at the risk of major war. Opportunities to deter this resurgent Russia, which I counseled many months ago, were punted on by the U.S. and NATO, so we now face a serious risk of war with Putin over his mounting hegemony in Eastern Europe. Ukraine is just the beginning.

As I’ve long made clear, Russia does not play by Western rules, and Putin and his Kremlin, being Chekists to their core, place great value on what I term Special War, meaning a shadowy amalgam of espionage, propaganda, and terrorism that Western states are poorly positioned to counter. At the end of the last year I predicted that the Kremlin’s Special War against the West was sure to rise, and so it has in the first quarter of this new year.

Last week I explained how Russian espionage against the Czech Republic — no congenital hater of the Russians like, say, Poland or the Baltics — had become so serious that Prague had expelled three Russian spies in recent months, amid warnings from Czech counterintelligence that at least a quarter of the outsized number of Russian diplomats in the country were actually spies posing as diplomats.

Over the last year I’ve explained in detail how Russian intelligence abroad, encompassing the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), have increased the scope and intensity of their operations against many NATO countries, including France, Germany, Hungary, and Poland. Most of these operations are undertaken by SVR or GRU officers serving under what the Russians term Legal cover, meaning they are pretending to be diplomats, trade representatives, and whatnot.

But in recent years there has also been an uptick in operations by spies whom the Russians term Illegals, meaning intelligence officers who serve abroad without any official protection, often posing as third-country nationals. The massive 2010 round up of a whole network of SVR Illegals in the United States proved a serious blow to the Kremlin, and their espionage still exhibits weaknesses, as evidenced by the recent arrest of an SVR Illegal operating in New York, a second-rater who did not belong to the elite of Russian spies.

Such Kremlin activities extend beyond NATO as well, and now it’s Sweden’s turn. A neutral that’s prone to downplaying threats on political grounds, and is always careful not to needlessly aggravate the Russian bear looming across the Baltic Sea, Stockholm has nevertheless had enough of clandestine Russian shenanigans in their country. This week they have gone public with the extent of the Kremlin’s Special War being waged against Sweden.

According to the Swedish Security Service (Säpo), at least one-third of the Russian diplomats in the country are actually spies. Recent months have seen repeated incidents of Russian intelligence provocations — submarines off the coast, SVR and GRU ramping up clandestine in-country operations — and Stockholm is worried, particularly because Kremlin efforts to recruit spies inside Swedish military and political circles are increasingly obvious.

Gone are the bumbling, vodka-swilling Russian spies of the 1990’s, when the Soviet collapse curtailed much espionage abroad. Since 2006, SVR and GRU operations against the West have risen steadily, to the point that current activities are as intense in number and audacity as they were at the height of the Cold War. Sweden is no exception, and Säpo’s chief analyst noted that Russian spies today are “highly educated and often younger than during the Soviet era. They are driven, goal-oriented and socially competent.” Not to mention that this is only talking about Russian Legals, not Illegals, who can be assumed to add to the ranks of Kremlin spies in Sweden, perhaps considerably.

As always, these spies are recruiting sources, disseminating disinformation, and fomenting dissent in the host country, per longstanding Russian espionage practice. This has become so serious that Stockholm now considers Russia to be the top threat to Swedish national security. The Säpo analyst bluntly explained, “There are hundreds of Russian intelligence officers around Europe and the West. They violate our territory every day … We see Russian intelligence operations in Sweden—we can’t interpret this in any other way—as preparation for military operations against Sweden.”

There’s the rub. Every week of late, Putin turns up the heat on NATO and the West: diplomatic threats, aggressive maneuvers with combat aircraft, the movement of late–model missiles to Kaliningrad, putting Stockholm, Warsaw, and Berlin within easy range of Russian tactical nuclear weapons. Now, Putin either wants open war against the West — not just the clandestine games of Special War — or we wants us to think he does: in either case, this is a terrifying situation.

Many believe that Putin thinks he can use the threat of nuclear blackmail to gain a free hand for Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, and they may be right. Certainly there is little in NATO reactions to Russian aggression to date that suggests a backbone is forming in Berlin, Paris, or Washington, DC. Whether or not the Kremlin wants major war is known only to Putin and the tiny circle of advisors, all hard-edged Chekists like himself, whom the Russian leader listens to.

For now, Special War will continue to achieve Kremlin aims, possibly without major war, while laying the intelligence groundwork for that bigger conflict, should that happen. Today’s news brings word that Polish counterintelligence has detected an air force officer spying for Moscow. He is reported to have passed classified information about Poland’s wing of F-16 fighters, the backbone of Polish defense against the Russians, in what may constitute a serious blow to NATO readiness on the Alliance’s exposed eastern frontier.

Another day, another Russian spy in the West detected. You can expect more of this. If we’re lucky, our conflict with Putin, which is being orchestrated by the Kremlin, will remain confined to SpyWar. Yet how robustly the West confronts Russian Special War — which is ultimately a question of politics, not counterespionage — is a good benchmark for how effectively we can deter a major, and possibly nuclear, war. Without political will, all the West’s acumen in military and intelligence affairs will matter little compared to the robust will shown by Vladimir Putin, who is playing for keeps, and intends to win.

How Ukraine Can Win

As we are now in a lull in Russia’s war against Ukraine that Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin began one year ago, it’s time to assess how Kyiv can do better at war-fighting. Not for want of courage, Ukraine’s efforts to defend its territory and sovereignty from Russian aggression have been failures, as I’ve explained many times. I’ve repeatedly counseled Ukraine to emulate how Croatia in 1991 lost one-third of its territory to Serbian rebels, only to regain almost all that territory through quick, decisive military operations in 1995. As a template for strategic success against a more powerful enemy at a reasonable cost in lives and treasure, Zagreb’s model from the early 1990’s cannot be improved upon.

This has been met with whining from supporters of failing President Petro Poroshenko that 1. War is hard, and 2. Russia isn’t Serbia. The latter is true, but it’s also worth noting that Ukraine is ten times Croatia’s size in population, and even more so in area. Kyiv has ample resources to conduct defensive war, it just doesn’t seem to want to. National strength and honor seem lacking to a worrisome degree. Furthermore, if Poroshenko is not up to the difficult job of saving his country from Kremlin aggression, he needs to return to the candy business without delay and make room for a leader who actually wants to fight.

Emulating Croatia today means several specific actions that must be taken, and soon. The current lull in the Russo-Ukrainian War is temporary. Since people often ask for specifics, I’m giving them to you. Here is what Ukraine must do if it wants to not lose even bigger swathes of the country to the Russians, and eventually regain the land it has already lost to Putin.

Think strategically: This means looking at a map and noting that Ukraine is a very big country by European standards. Kyiv can certainly trade space for time, and in the long run time is not on Russia’s side in this war of choice. This means halting idiotic military moves like “last stands” at places of no strategic significance like Donetsk airport and Debaltseve, where Kyiv sacrificed motivated defenders for no reason except Poroshenko, a strategic illiterate, said so. Any Russian drive to make its Novorossiya fantasy a reality must be stopped — in practical terms this means turning Mariupol into Vukovar-on-the-Azov — but this is an achievable strategic goal for Ukraine’s hard-pressed armed forces. If the Russians can be halted at Mariupol, they can be halted anywhere. If not, Ukraine is lost. Act accordingly. Zagreb won big in 1995 because it played the long game, both diplomatically and militarily. Eventually the Kremlin will tire of its noxious proxies in Eastern Ukraine: be ready to pounce when that happens.

Take intelligence seriously: At present, Kyiv cannot do much of anything in secret. Moscow’s spies, deeply embedded during the Yanukovych era, when Ukraine’s SBU was in effect a subset of Russia’s FSB, know all, or nearly so. Operational security in the Western sense hardly exists. Rigorous counterintelligence is needed without delay. This task seems daunting but, given patience and discipline, it can and must be done. In 1991, Yugoslavia’s military intelligence alone had almost 1,800 agents in Croatia — counting Belgrade’s civilian security service the true number of Serbian spies easily doubled — but Zagreb eventually won the all-important SpyWar by taking counterintelligence seriously. There are other pressing intelligence needs, especially in the area of electronic warfare, where Moscow’s dominance on the battlefield is almost total, costing Ukraine’s military many lives, and here Western aid can help significantly. But there’s not much point in giving Kyiv sensitive gear that will be passed to the Russians. Ukraine cannot win the war until it bests the Russians in espionage, and time is wasting.

Fight corruption hard: Ukraine’s fighting troops are already disgruntled by the fact that their political masters in Kyiv, to include the military’s famously corrupt generals, are living well while they are dying in misguided operations that seem doomed to fail. This is recipe for political disaster for Ukraine in the long run. The situation is so bad that Western charities supporting the military go around the General Staff and the official chain of command, which they know steal aid that is intended for the front. Ukraine’s overall corruption problem is staggering, but institutionalized theft in the defense sector must be beaten down if Ukraine wants to stop losing lives and territory to a rapacious Russia. Executions of corrupt generals and politicos, in Beijing style, pour encourager les autres, would send an indelible message. Rooting deep corruption of out of the military would have a salutary effect on the whole country. Spreading the message that corrupt officials are helping Moscow, and should be dealt with as traitors, is a necessary start.

Quantity has a quality all its own: Ukraine’s military is far too small to defend the country against Russian aggression, much less win back lost territory. In the more than two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s military devolved into an embarrassing morass of theft and laziness with little combat capability. This erosion of basic competence in battle has been laid bare by events around Donbas in recent months. Additionally, Ukraine’s fighting forces are simply too small to defend the country. Belated efforts to raise the active military to 250,000 troops, approved in Kyiv this week, are both unconscionably late and inadequate. Putting anything less than one percent of the country’s population in uniform, when Ukraine is at war, is frankly a joke and indicates Poroshenko wants to lose. In the second half of 1991, Croatia mobilized nearly 200,000 troops from a population of not much more than four million. That Ukraine is having a hard time coming up with a similar number of troops from a population that’s ten times Croatia’s speaks volumes about what’s wrong here.

But quality counts too: Ukraine certainly needs more troops to prevent further Russian aggression, but it also needs better troops. Some of the volunteer battalions have shown impressive grit in battle against the Russians, far more than most regular army units, and properly handled, they might form the core of Ukraine’s new, improved army. Here the Croatian model again informs. Starting from basically nothing beyond disarmed Yugoslav-era Territorial Defense structures, Zagreb built an effective three-tiered army. At the top stood seven mechanized Guards brigades, staffed with professional soldiers and equipped with the most modern weaponry the Croats possessed. They were the tip of the spear in Operation STORM, the biggest European military undertaking since 1945. At the other end were Home Defense regiments, part-time troops that were intended for mopping up duties, not high-intensity combat. The bulk of the army consisted of infantry brigades, a mix of conscripts and reservists, intended for defense and limited offensive missions. Together, this three-level system restored Croatian independence and sovereignty, making efficient use of Zagreb’s limited stocks of modern weaponry. The only thing stopping Ukraine from doing something similar is a lack of will and imagination.

To sum up, the Russo-Ukrainian War is Kyiv’s to win, if it approaches the future wisely. The last year has been one of defeat after defeat for Ukraine, sometimes needlessly. Vladimir Putin has opted for war against Russia’s vast neighbor, the second biggest country in Europe, and this is now a conflict that Russia cannot win without a massive invasion and mobilization that would be politically and economically toxic to average Russians. Therefore the initiative has passed to Kyiv, if it has the strength and honor to use it. That will require thinking strategically, turning the espionage tables on Moscow, and building the right military machine for the war at hand. All this can be done, but every day that Kyiv does not change course is a further indication that the Poroshenko government does not really want to win.

Why the West is Losing

That the West is quaking down to its foundations at present seems broadly understood by many Westerners, based on numerous opinion polls. The population of the West, despite its vast wealth, is mired in self-doubt and worries about its future. Recent events in Ukraine and the Middle East are part of this concern. Resurgent Russia, led by the boastfully confident Vladimir Putin, is openly mocking ceasefires in Ukraine, which he agreed to with major NATO members, while the ink remains less than fully dry. Meanwhile, the Islamic State continues its murderous march across Iraq and Syria, undeterred by intermittent U.S.-led airstrikes, butchering and decapitating for the cameras now on the Mediterranean shore. Rome is preparing for war on Libya, a troubled state pushed past the point of coherence by botched NATO intervention in 2011, so grave does the threat appear to Italian eyes.

In contrast, President Obama sees little threat at all, or at least nothing that can be termed “Islamic.” Recent comments from the White House do not inspire confidence that Obama and his national security staff have taken the full measure of the threat emanating from the advancing Islamic State, ISIS for short. The mainstream media has come around to an understanding that ISIS, as its name implies, is grounded in a vehement ideology wrapped up in a literalist and extreme version of Sunni Islam. They are unquestionably violent extremists, as the White House has noted, but of a particular kind which is identifiably Islamic. That the Islamic State has nothing to do with “real” Islam is a epiphany that only overeducated Westerners can witness. This is more evidence that, to paraphrase Orwell, some ideas are so silly that you have to be an intellectual to believe them.

ISIS is so absurdly, sick-cartoonishly violent that they surpass the ability of post-modern Westerners, what I have referred to as the WEIRD contingent, to comprehend what’s going on. Having never been taught about the West’s long, often unpleasant history with Islam, except to emphasize Western misdeeds, grasping that ISIS is tapping into a virulent and violent strain of Islam that has deep historical roots is impossible. WEIRDos, led by Obama, know all about the Crusades, or at least think they do, but have never pondered Tours 732, Kosovo 1389, Constantinople 1453, much less Vienna 1527 and 1683. Does even one American in a thousand know how the “shores of Tripoli” wound up in the Marines’ Hymn?

Moreover, the testosterone-laden appeal of the bloody and hateful ISIS message to a disturbing number of young men (and women), including thousands of Westerners accustomed to comfort, is incomprehensible to WEIRDos. White House messaging that employment opportunities will fix this problem is not only untrue, it’s the opposite of the truth. Teenaged fanatics, many of them far from pious in their faith, are seeking to join ISIS precisely to reject the softness and decadence of the Western post-modern way of life, which they despise and quite literally wish to kill. To date, this warrior’s call to adventure appeals mainly to losers, criminals, and the psychologically unbalanced, but it may not remain confined to such déclassé elements.

Yet ISIS represents a second-tier threat to the West at present. If Obama should find the backbone to issue orders, U.S. airpower and special operations forces can decapitate the Islamic State in its heartland in a few months. While ISIS-inspired jihadists will create mayhem in Europe, and eventually America too, these will mostly be low-level attacks of the sort recently witnessed in Paris and Copenhagen: evil but limited. In the West to date, ISIS-inspired jihadists, many of them merely wannabes, are incapable of pulling off “big weddings” that will kill hundreds of innocents. Periodic incidents of homegrown terrorism may become simply “how we live now” in the West, something that will change lives and lifestyles but will not overturn civilization. There is no security solution to this challenge and a political fix seems impossible, since real issues cannot be discussed honestly, so increasing violent extremism in our midst looks like the West’s new normal.

Russia, however, is a different matter. The world’s biggest country, possessing thousands of nuclear weapons, and led by a man seething with hatred and resentment against the West, represents a potentially existential threat to the Western way of life — and countless lives. While Vladimir Putin does not seek a nuclear war, he is willing to gamble with hard power, with all its attendant risks, in a fashion no Western leader has countenanced in decades. In recent months, Putin’s embrace of duplicitous diplomacy backed by Special War and periodic outbursts of conventional combat, most recently at Debaltseve, another stinging — because needless — defeat for Ukraine, have delivered victory after victory for the Kremlin.

Strategically speaking, none of this should be happening. Notwithstanding that Ukraine’s deeply flawed leadership, which has refrained from real mobilization much less reality-based war planning, has been a highly cooperative adversary for the Kremlin, Putin has been winning round after round of poker with Kyiv and NATO despite holding mediocre cards. Putin’s Russia, hobbled by sanctions and the collapse in oil prices, is no Soviet Union: in economic terms, it’s dwarfed by the European Union, while militarily, anything resembling a European war would be a disaster for Russia. Americans are advised to think of Putin’s Russia (143 million citizens with a per capita GDP of USD 14K) as basically Mexico (114 million citizens with a per capita GDP of USD 11K) with thousands of nukes and fiercely anti-Western leadership.

Yet Putin’s streak of wins cannot be construed as anything but impressive, particularly considering how weak his cards really are. With his recent Minsk escapade, where he got terrified German and French leaders to sign off on a “ceasefire” in eastern Ukraine which Russian-backed fighters never honored at all, instead opting to push harder — with weapons, ammunition, intelligence, and skilled commanders coming from Russia, mind you — Putin demonstrated his contempt for the West, as well as how he plans to establish Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe, breaking NATO in the process, preferably without major war.

How important Putin’s grand strategic goal is to the Kremlin should not be underestimated. He aims to achieve what the mighty Soviet Union never could, winning Moscow’s control over Eastern Europe — and thereby pushing America out of Europe, at least de facto — without major war and extended occupation. Whether he can actually pull this off remains to be seen, but it’s not difficult to see why, surveying the last twelve months, Putin is brimming with self-confidence, while viewing the West with sneering contempt.

The risk to world peace at present, since Putin’s continuing to gamble with high stakes is now a given, is that Russia will eventually cross a NATO “redline.” It’s impossible to know if the Atlantic Alliance would really go to war over an aggressive Kremlin provocation against a Baltic republic, which is clearly an attractive option for Moscow now. If the West has a redline in Eastern Europe, where exactly it is seems to be unknown to Western leaders, except in a highly formal (and therefore meaningless) sense. Given Obama’s shaky track record with redlines, we should expect the Russians to keep pushing, and in so doing, they may go too far, causing the Third World War.

Or perhaps not. Given the dismal conduct of Western diplomacy over Ukraine, with bouts of weakness amidst bursts of sheer panic, it’s worth pondering if there is anything Europeans in 2015 will fight for, even their own homelands. Over the last generation, Europeans have become accustomed to their comfortable, post-modern lifestyle, with ample state support, where war is impossible, so defense budgets can be cut down to nearly nothing. This is indeed a lovely life — which is why I spend as many months of the year in my rustico, high in the Alps, as possible — yet it cannot last much longer without major changes. Demographics alone will undermine the post-modern European project, as too few children are being born to sustain such generous welfare states and their attendant dolce vita.

Even before demographic demise, the Russians are coming. The Kremlin, which is winning every diplomatic fight and battle in Ukraine, sees no reason to stop now. As Western sanctions inflict pain, doubling-down by Moscow seems a rational choice, as was evident months ago. Putin represents a drastically different vision of Europe’s future than what passes for received wisdom among Europe’s elites. Mired in old-think, including a downright nineteenth century take on force, war, and diplomacy, Putin represents an atavism, a crude, outmoded version of ourselves — the angry white male of liberal nightmares — that Western progressives believed had been killed off by the gender and social revolutions of the 1960’s.

Putin, a staunch traditionalist in matters of belief and social order, oozes contempt for the post-modern West, viewing it as feeble, feminine, and dying. He rejects the European post-Cold War consensus in toto, and seeks to remake the continent along Russian lines. He has promised Russians glory and order, not comfort and decadence. While he cannot succeed in the long run, for reasons I’ve already elaborated, he can create enormous damage along the way, as well as creating conditions which will mandate a return to traditional values in any countries that wish to survive in a Russian-dominated Europe.

Analogies to Adolf Hitler are hazardous, but some appear obvious in the case of Vladimir Putin. In the first place, Hitler was shaped profoundly by the collapse of Imperial Germany in 1918, just as Putin was by the demise of the USSR in 1991. Both men viewed the state they served ambivalently — Hitler wasn’t much of a monarchist and Putin wasn’t a diehard Marxist either — but defeat was a life-changing ordeal that created new political and social realities which, in time, Hitler and Putin exploited masterfully.

From 1918, Hitler took the lesson that Germany needed moral rearmament more than anything else since, in Nazi telling, collapse at the end of the Great War was caused by moral shortcomings more than military defeats. Thus Hitler’s famous line that, though he was a socialist, he had no need to nationalize German factories because “I shall nationalize the people.” Similarly, Putin considers that the sudden implosion of the USSR was not due to economic or military weakness, rather to loss of faith in the Soviet system. Such a withering away of national morale, and therefore of the state itself, is something Putin will not have happen on his watch. Hence the emphasis on nationalism, unity, propaganda, and religious imagery to bind citizens to the state — which makes a better motivator of average Russians than Marxism-Leninism ever was — as in venerable Muscovite tradition.

Also like Hitler did in the mid-1930’s, Putin in a few months has managed to overturn European diplomacy, through clever and cautious use of force, remaking it in his own, tough image (though Berlin, Paris, and Washington, DC, haven’t quite realized this yet). By re-writing the rule-book of international relations, recasting it in terms of force and will, Hitler and Putin alike created a new diplomatic reality, despite their own weakness, that bears little resemblance to the happy never-never-land of conferences, summits, heated debates over beef subsidies, and cocktail parties that polite Europeans thought constituted statecraft. That naive vision has been steamrolled by the Kremlin over the past year, as surely as Ukrainian volunteers have been crushed under Russian tank treads.

At a certain level, what Putin represents to Western post-moderns is so terrifying that they simply deny reality, individually and collectively. Of course, continuing to deny what Putin is, and what his Russia wants, and is willing to kill and die for, will only encourage more Kremlin aggression and game-playing with nuclear weapons, so a strong dose of reality would be welcome in NATO capitals, and soon, if we wish to deter Putin while he still can be deterred.

However, I am decreasingly optimistic that Western leaders will rise to the occasion in time. I have been sharply critical of Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s candy entrepreneur turned war president, for his diffident leadership as Putin devours his country, one bite at a time. In good post-modern European fashion, Poroshenko has emphasized hashtags, peace vigils, and tough talk (not action), rather than national mobilization and coherent strategy-making, which is why Ukraine is losing badly. Yet NATO deserves sharper criticism still, since their military and economic power dwarfs Ukraine’s, while Western leaders seem every bit as mired in fantasy thinking and hope-as-strategy when it comes to Putin as anybody in Kyiv.

The essential incomprehensibility of Putin’s Russia, which after 1991 was supposed to have become “like us” in matters economic, political, social and sexual, albeit at a languid Russian pace, looms large in the minds of Westerners today, who utter nervous laughter about Putin and his shirtless photo-ops with dangerous animals, rather than pondering what this says about Russia. Some are slowly noticing that twenty-first century Russia has embraced values which are not merely unlike ours, they are the actually the opposite of them.

The WEIRD take on Putin has been perfectly captured by a piece in The New York Times Magazine, authored by just the self-absorbed, nebbishy sort who both writes and reads the Grey Lady. The author, a Russian Jew who came to America as a child, covers his subject with roughly the same dispassion as a Palestinian would write about Israelis. To learn what makes Putin’s Russia tick, the author submitted himself to a week of non-stop Russian TV, while holed up in a swanky Manhattan hotel, fed with room service finery to counteract all the Kremlin agitprop.

Lots Seinfeld-y inside jokes about calling therapists ensue, amidst constant jibes about how latently homosexual Putin and his testosterone-driven Russia really are. What comes through clearly, however, is that popular culture under Putin has created a mindset that is nationalist and firmly anti-Western in virtually every way; at times, it drips with hatred towards the West, seeing nefarious plots against Russia everywhere. That Russians are a bunch of uncouth idiots is made obvious. But the crux of the matter, as revealed in the piece’s title, “Out of My Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth,” is that Russia has simply opted out of the post-modern Western way of life, emphasizing outmoded values such as masculinity, faith, plus traditional sex and gender roles, in a thoroughly atavistic manner.

Anybody who has met actual Russians knows how little they, even the cultured ones, have been touched by post-modern Western mores on race, gender, and sexuality. They remain comfortable with the tough, ugly, dog-eat-dog world we have. I have tried on multiple occasions to explain “trigger warnings” to educated Russians, but they never believe me and burst out laughing. What causes this — Communism? Byzantinism? Tsarism? something in Russian water and/or DNA? — is debatable but that Russians simply live in a different mental universe than twenty-first century Westerners do is not.

Besides, Russia’s return to atavism is more disturbing to Westerners than any ISIS madness. At a deep, if unstated level, Muslims acting like barbarians has been part of our script for so long that it fails to stir our fears except when it comes close, as in Paris recently. The only thing that’s shocking is how the madmen are capturing it all on YouTube now. But Russians are Europeans of a sort, they look rather like us, but they certainly don’t think and act like us, and this is disconcerting to Europeans, and many Americans, at a level that cannot be easily expressed. The white caveman of progressive nightmares is back, and his name is Vladimir Putin.

A big part of why the West cannot seem to grapple meaningfully with the Russian threat, despite the fact that in any strategic sense NATO is holding most of the cards in this high-stakes game, is because he challenges not just what we have, but who we are. Putin and Putinism represent a direct challenge to the post-modern way of life that has become normative, especially among educated Westerners since the 1960’s. A worldview that prefers soft, feminine values to tougher masculine ones, that finds patriotism risible, that believes there is nothing worth dying for, has little to say when the monsters we firmly believed were safely behind the fortress walls, lurking hungrily, turn out to be on our doorstep, and the front door is unlocked.

Europeans who wish to resist Putinism will need to become a bit like the Russians, reemphasizing the utility of force in international affairs, and that reassessment brings social and gender implications that post-moderns will find uncomfortable. It should not be excluded that some Europeans actively prefer Moscow’s vision of the future, even if they don’t like Russians, to what Brussels can offer now. Greece may only be the beginning of a disturbing trend. Small, if ardent, numbers of Europeans will be enticed by the mad jihad offered by ISIS, but far larger numbers of disaffected Westerners may find Putin’s worldview enticing, particularly as he moves from victory to victory.

The moral outweighs the physical in war, as sages have counseled for millennia, and today Putin is drinking the elixir of easy triumphs over his feeble foes. This aura is intoxicating to many even outside Russia. If the West wishes to deter Putin before he unleashes continental war, by accident or by design, it needs to examine what it has become and how it can realistically defend its way of life. Only then will it be sensible to discuss strategies to deter and, if necessary, defeat this resurgent Russia.

Is This the End of NATO?

The last few days have brought depressing developments for those who care about European freedom. Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande went to Moscow to present a Ukraine “peace plan” that actually had been suggested to them by Vladimir Putin. Unsurprisingly, this went nowhere and Merkel has already pronounced that there is no military solution to the Russo-Ukrainian War, a message that was amplified by the Munich Security Conference, Bavaria’s best-catered talkshop, where the lack of Western resolve to confront Russian aggression was made abundantly clear. In Munich, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a rare European NATO leader who has a clear picture of events, told Merkel that the choice was “surrender or arm Ukraine” — to no effect.

To be fair to Europe, Washington, DC, has hardly been telegraphing resolve either. My proposal to send Ukraine defensive weaponry, which looked like it might be in the offing, by this weekend looked dead, though this White House sends so many mixed messages one can never be exactly sure. Late this week, the Obama administration unveiled its new National Security Strategy, amid less than fanfare, with the execrable Susan Rice explaining in “remain calm, all is well!” fashion that things are really much better globally than they look. This White House’s new foreign policy mantra is Strategic Patience, which seems to be the been-to-grad-school version of “don’t do stupid shit.”  Since nobody inside the Beltway is taking this eleventh-hour effort to articulate Obama’s security strategy seriously, it’s doubtful anyone abroad, much less in Moscow, will either.

It’s therefore unsurprising that European leaders are in full-panic mode about what Putin will do next. The serious possibility that the Chekist-in-Charge in the Kremlin will seek more provocations, and possibly a major war, to achieve his strategic aim of establishing Russian control over the former Soviet space and therefore dominance over Eastern Europe, is reducing weak-willed Western leaders like Merkel and Hollande to political incoherence.

It seems to have never occurred to them, nor Obama and his national security staff either, that crushing the Russian economy with sanctions might bring more, not less, aggression from Putin, even though that was an obvious possibility. Jaws dropped this week when Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who until recently was NATO’s civilian head, stated that it is highly likely that Russia will soon stage a violent provocation against a Baltic state, which being NATO countries, will cause a crisis over the Alliance’s Article 5 provision for collective self-defense. Rasmussen merely said what all defense experts who understand Putin already know, but this was not the sort of reality-based assessment that Western politicians are used to hearing.

There are two core reasons for Western collapse of will before Putin’s decidedly modest aggression in Ukraine. The first is that Western and Central Europe have so substantially disarmed since the end of the Cold War. Hardly any European NATO countries spend the “required” two percent of GDP on defense, and no amount of American scolding about it seems to make any difference. As a result, European NATO militaries, with few exceptions, possess a mere shadow of the combat power they had two decades ago. Several of them have abandoned tanks altogether, while even Germany has so cut back its combat power that there are only four battalions each of armor and artillery in the whole Bundeswehr.

Not all the fault for this sorry state of affairs lies in Europe. Here America has played an insidious role too, encouraging spending on niche missions for the Alliance at the expense of traditional defense. Hence the fact that Baltic navies have considerable counter-mine capabilities — this being an unsexy mission that the U.S. Navy hates to do — yet hardly any ability to police their maritime borders against intruding Russians. To make matters worse, since 2001 the Americans have encouraged NATO partners to spend considerable amounts of their limited defense budgets on America’s losing war in Afghanistan.

But the moral collapse of Europe is even worse than the military collapse. All the armaments in the world do no good when the will to use them is absent. Since the Cold War’s end, Western Europeans have convinced themselves of many things that simply are not true. Their optimistic worldview, which really is the highest form of the WEIRD Weltanschauung, abandoned any notion that monsters might still exist, and many Europeans, including most of their leaders, seem unable to accept the new reality that Vladimir Putin has forced upon them. Yet denying that Russia aims to change the European order, and will use force to do so, will not stop Kremlin misdeeds, actually it will only encourage more Russian aggression.

To be blunt, I see little evidence to date that major European leaders are willing to wake up to this new reality. In the event of Russian provocation against NATO, which is highly likely soon, it’s very possible that the Atlantic Alliance will unravel completely. Putin may achieve his strategic victory with hardly a shot fired. In such an event, I have no idea how Obama, or any American president, could send U.S. troops to die to defend a Europe that is so flagrantly unwilling to defend itself.

Two-and-a-half millennia ago, the Chinese sage Sun Tzu counseled that “the best military policy is to attack strategies; the next to attack alliances; the next to attack soldiers,” and Putin is doing exactly this. He has no need to undermine NATO strategy, since none exists in reality, while he continues to hack away at the foundations of the Western Alliance through Special War, particularly espionage and subversion.

It’s significant that, just after Greece elected an openly pro-Russian government, whose defense and foreign ministers are major Putin fans, the rising left wing in Spain announces that, should it come to power, it will take Madrid out of NATO altogetherCyprus’s announcement on Friday that it will offer its military bases to Russia should be seen in proper strategic context. If this chipping away at the foundations of European security by the Kremlin continues, there may be no big war for Russia to have to win.

Which is good news for Putin, since what makes craven European conduct towards Moscow so appalling is the fact that Russia is winning from a position of profound political, economic, and especially military weakness. In military terms, despite the shortcomings of European NATO, Russia lacks the ability to win any major war against the West. Moscow frankly would have a tough time subduing Ukraine quickly, much less marching westward with haste.

Outside the nuclear realm, where the Kremlin likes to rattle radioactive sabers, terrifying Europeans, Russian military strength is not especially impressive. Moscow is in the middle of a big military modernization program that will not be complete until the early 2020’s, and at the moment its ground, air, and naval forces can be assessed as far from ready to win any major war in Europe.

A look at Russia’s ground forces is revealing. Far-reaching reforms of the whole bloated army, which spent nearly two decades languishing in semi-Soviet mode — from organization to training to manning, everything — that commenced in 2007-09 are bearing fruit, but significant challenges remain. On paper, the active Russian army looks impressive, with slightly over forty maneuver brigades, many with modern weapons. But many of those brigades consist of conscripts who are not trained to NATO standards, and this army must face not just Ukraine and the West, but guard the vast border with China, while keeping a lid on the Caucasus and providing post-imperial order in parts of Central Asia.

In other words, Putin cannot engage in a major war without a substantial recall of reservists to flesh out the order of battle, and that may not be popular. The Russian population has endured the economic downturn, blaming the West rather than Putin for the collapse of their currency and much of the economy, and the Kremlin’s anti-Western stance is supported by most Russians. Yet this has something to do with the fact that Putin has kept truly painful costs low so far. Soldiers killed in Russia’s not-very-secret war in Ukraine are professionals. If bigger numbers of teenaged conscripts and thirty-something reservists start dying, Putin may find his war of choice is suddenly less popular.

For all the Alliance’s military shortcomings, NATO can deter Putin’s aggression until 2020 at least, with current forces. However, deterring the Kremlin’s Special War, which I have long counseled the West to get serious about, may prove a more serious challenge. The West has the ability to keep a rampaging Russia restrained. Sending defensive weaponry to Ukraine would be a wise start, while so is bolstering NATO forces on the Alliance’s vulnerable frontier, well beyond the modest efforts now, finally, being undertaken. What no defense budget or military strategist can provide, however, is political will. If Europe cannot regain enough self-confidence to resist Putin, it will lose everything, sooner than you think.

Russia’s Emerging Holy War

At the beginning of this week, President Barack Obama explained that Russia, hit hard by Western sanctions, is losing in its confrontation with the West and NATO caused by Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. In his State of the Union address, Obama displayed similar swag and bluster against both the Kremlin and Congressional Republicans, seemingly without regard for any recent events. As the President explained:

We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy and reassuring our NATO allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.

“Every one of these sentences is, to put it mildly, a stretch,” explained one seasoned Kremlin-watcher, and the news this week from Ukraine has been grim, contra Obama’s hopeful pose. While Russia’s economy remains seriously hurt from sanctions and, even more, the sharp drop in oil prices, the notion that this is taming Putin’s baser urges is not only untrue, it’s more likely the opposite of the truth, as I cautioned a month ago.

Facts have increasingly been getting in the way of this White House’s messaging, on many fronts, so just as Obama now calls for political bipartisanship, after six years of doing the opposite, all the while ignoring the massive blowout of his own party by the Republicans in Congress that just happened again, for the second time in his presidency, Obama likewise seems to think that a bit of swag, plus a public taunt, aimed at Putin when the former KGB man is down on his luck will have the desired geopolitical effect. This White House does not seem to dwell on the fact that, while the domestic enemy may be politically obstructionist, the foreign enemy has all sorts of Special War unpleasantness in his arsenal, not to mention thousands of nuclear weapons.

If nothing else, the current crisis has demonstrated to Russians, with Kremlin prodding, that the United States remains their Main Enemy that it was for decades, now led by the arrogant and weak Obama, who is hated by the Russian public. The Chekists who run Putin’s Russia, who protested for years that America wanted to defeat Russia’s post-Cold War resurgence, that the U.S. will stop at nothing to bring Russia to heel while humiliating it, have been proved right, at least as far as most Russians are concerned.

To the shock and dismay of hopeful Westerners, including nearly all NATO leaders, the hard hit of sanctions has caused Russians to hate the West, not Putin. Most Russians view their war in Ukraine as a legitimate defense of Russians and Russian interests, certainly nothing like America’s aggressive wars of choice halfway around the world, and they are backing the Kremlin now.

Word of this defiance has even crept into The New York Times, which otherwise is a pitch-perfect expression of the WEIRD worldview. As Russian troops are advancing deeper into Ukraine, fresh from victory at Donetsk, NYT asked what on earth is going on here, why would Russians want more war now that the cost of it all to their economy is becoming obvious? The explanation was proffered by a Moscow economist: “The influence of economists as a whole has completely vanished,” he opined about the Kremlin: “The country is on a holy mission. It’s at war with the United States, so why would you bother about the small battleground, the economy?”

Once again, Westerners have imagined Putin is just like one of their leaders — cautious, timid even, obsessed with Wall Street and finely tuned to what big donors care about — when our Chekist-in-Charge is nothing of the sort. With perfect timing, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, addressed the Duma this week, for the very first time, delivering a speech long on social conservatism, including a plea to ban abortions to help Russian demographics, as well as a caution to ignore the West’s dangerous “pseudo-values.” Putin’s Russia is inching ever closer to Byzantine-style symphonia, and in the war against America and the West that is coming — and, according to many Russians, is already here — the Kremlin wants its people to be spiritually fortified for a long fight.

Bankers and oligarchs, who get much attention from the Western media, have become peripheral figures in Moscow. Months before the Ukraine crisis broke with Russia’s seizure of Crimea, Putin privately warned wealthy men whom he deemed friends and supporters to start getting their money out of the West, as tough times were coming. In the Kremlin’s view, oligarchs who failed to do this, and are now facing ruin, have nobody to blame but themselves. Any billionaires who criticize Putin too freely will meet with prison or worse.

It’s increasingly clear that the security sector, what Russians term the special services, are running the show. They are Putin’s natural powerbase, his “comfort zone” in Western parlance, plus they are the guarantor of his maintaining power as the economic crisis worsens. Current reports indicate that Putin’s inner circle now is made up entirely of siloviki, to use the Russian term, men from the special services:  National Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev, Federal Security Service (FSB) head Aleksandr Bortnikov, Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) head Mikhail Fradkov, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu.

Patrushev headed the FSB from 1999, the beginning of Putin’s presidency, to 2008, and was a previously a career KGB officer, serving in Leningrad counterintelligence just like Putin: and just like Putin, he is a Chekist to his core. Current FSB director Bortnikov, who took over from Patrushev in 2008, is another career Chekist who joined the KGB after college and, yet again, comes out of the Leningrad office. Fradkov is not officially a Chekist by background, having spent the early years of his Kremlin career in foreign trade matters, but he was “close” to the KGB during that time, and he has headed the SVR, the successor to the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate, since 2007; it says something about Putin’s confidence in him that Fradkov survived the 2010 debacle of the exposure of the SVR’s Illegals network in the United States, which was nearly as demoralizing to the SVR as the Snowden Operation has been for U.S. intelligence. The last, Shoygu, who has headed the powerful defense ministry since 2012, is not a military man by background, yet has longstanding ties to military intelligence (GRU).

As Russia’s economic crisis has mounted, Putin has unsurprisingly turned to fellow Chekists, some of them very like himself by background. They share a worldview which is conspiratorial and deeply anti-Western; they view America as their Main Enemy and now believe Obama is on a mission to destroy Russia. That they will not allow, and they will stop at nothing to halt what prominent Orthodox clerics recently have termed the “American project” that wants to destroy Holy Russia. This volatile combination of Chekist conspiracy-thinking and Orthodox Third Rome mysticism, plus Russian xenophobia and a genuine economic crisis, means that 2015 promises to be a dangerous year for the world. The Kremlin now believes they are at war with the United States, an Orthodox Holy War in the eyes of many Russians, and that struggle is defensive and legitimate. It would be good if Obama and his staff paid attention. This is about much more than Ukraine.

The Fate of Ukraine

Events this week may finally wake up Kyiv to the reality it is facing. Ukraine is at war with Russia. It has been so for many months, as was obvious some time ago to those with eyes wanting to see. Ukraine’s government has not been in that group, and as military reverses mounted, hiding from painful facts has continued. In their own way, Kyiv mouthpieces have been nearly as dishonest in their depictions of the Russo-Ukrainian War as the Kremlin.

In the face of mountains of contrary evidence, Kyiv insisted that the war in the Donbas has been an “anti-terrorist operation” and that the enemy found there are “terrorists” rather than the Russian soldiers that most of them are. In recent days, Moscow has dropped any pretense and is dispatching battalions across the border essentially openly. Once commonplace efforts to mask insignia identifying these units as regular Russian troops have dissipated as Vladimir Putin feels he no longer needs to hide his aggressive presence in Ukraine.

Why should he? Kyiv is a paper tiger, the Europeans are cowered in the corner, terrified of the Kremlin’s next move, while Obama is talking tough about how Russia is losing this conflict, despite the fact that obviously it is not. As usual, Obama is all vapid and chest-puffing talk, coupled with very little action. The White House’s tendency towards escapism in foreign policy has become increasingly marked in a manner that ought to worry all those who like a free Europe, but Obama has no grounds to criticize Kyiv for its dishonest depiction of events in Eastern Europe.

The fall of Donetsk airport this week says a lot about Petro Poroshenko and his presidency, none of it flattering. While there was little Ukraine could have done about the loss of Crimea last spring — they were floored by Putin’s unleashing of Special War with its “little green men,” just as NATO was, and Ukraine had no desire to confront Russia head-on, thinking a wider war might be averted — Kyiv’s leadership since then deserves harsh assessment.

Ham-handed summertime efforts to put pressure on Russian troops and their local proxies led to disaster at Ilovaisk, where ill-prepared and supplied Ukrainian troops and volunteers were cut to pieces. Rather than take the obvious lesson from this, that due to a lack of troops, especially battle-ready ones, Ukraine needed to establish more defensible positions in the Southeast, Kyiv did nothing of the sort.

Instead we wound up with the needless siege of Donetsk airport, an objective of no strategic value except that Poroshenko and his administration said many times that it must be held at any costs, implying Ukraine itself would be lost if this worthless heap of rubble fell to the rebels. Given such rhetoric, one might expect a no-holds barred effort to reinforce the defense, but this being Poroshenko, nothing of the sort happened.

Instead the “cyborgs” bravely holding on to Donetsk airport remained outnumbered, poorly supplied, and dismally led, so their eventual defeat was only a matter of time. With astonishing stupidity, just last weekend Poroshenko, breathing fire, publicly promised that all lost Ukrainian land would be retaken, then turned around and said he was a peace president, not a war president. Then he promptly flew to Davos to hang out with the global one-percent-of-one-percent jet-set. It’s no surprise that many Ukrainian frontline soldiers hate Putin yet actively despise their own president.

I’ve already called on Poroshenko to step down if he cannot manage the war, and it’s painfully clear that he cannot. My counsel last week, that Ukraine must emulate Croatia in the 1990’s — and definitely not Georgia more recently — if it wants to win this war, has been met with pushback from fans of Poroshenko, whose argument really boils down to: this is hard. Yes, war is very hard, perhaps even hell if you believe certain battle-tested generals.

A lot of Ukrainians are angry that they have been left in the lurch by NATO, forgetting that they are not a member of the Alliance. NATO will never go to war over the Donbas and the sooner Ukrainians accept that and stop feeling sorry for themselves and get in the war, the better. To be clear: Putin has engaged in naked aggression against his neighbor, just as Milošević did against Croatia in 1991. Yet if Zagreb had approached that war as Ukraine has dealt with its current crisis, complaining instead of fighting, substituting hashtags for strategy, one-third of Croatia would still be in Serbian hands today, an eternally frozen conflict, and that country would still be decades away from membership in NATO or the EU.

Given the complete lack of serious mobilization for war by Poroshenko, the next move is Putin’s. Given rather strongly suggested Russian objectives, plus looking at a map, it’s likely Russian forces will next move on Mariupol, in an effort to create a land bridge to Crimea. Outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian troops will resist bravely, again, and again they will lose. At this point there is nothing militarily stopping Putin from creating Novorossiya, a Russian pseudo-state running from the Donbas across the Black Sea coast over to their pseudo-state in Transnistria.

Creating Novorossiya would deprive Ukraine of any coastline, which is another reason Putin may seek to do that. It needs to be understood that, after so many needless and humiliating Ukrainian defeats, Putin is only one operational-level victory away from breaking hard-pressed Kyiv’s military in any meaningful sense. The Kremlin can already dictate its terms in the Southeast of Ukraine, and soon it will be able to exert its political will, without a full-scale invasion, over the whole shambolic country.

Putin has the military means to take over all Ukraine, particularly given Russia’s total control of the air, but that would be a fool’s errand, a humanitarian nightmare coupled with an endless insurgency. We can assume the General Staff has told “the boss” what would happen in that case, and we can hope Putin is listening. More likely is the creation of Novorossiya, step by step, under the Russian tricolor, and with that the shattering of any Ukrainian conventional military capability — and political will.

After that, the partition of Ukraine will be easy. The most likely end-state would be a three-way cutting up of the country, with Novorossiya, like Crimea, being joined to the Motherland by a triumphant Putin. The middle of the country around Kyiv, still called Ukraine, would emerge a rump Russian vassal state, independent in name only, to serve as a buffer between Russia and NATO. Ukraine’s West would go its own way, by default. Consisting of an expanded East Galicia, Austrian until 1918, this is the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism, unclaimed even by Russian hardliners, who acknowledge its special status and history. Those with long memories will recall that in 1918, after the Habsburgs fell, the West did not seek immediate union with the rest of Ukraine: expect the Kremlin to “remember” this soon. West Ukraine, the remnant not eaten by the Russian shark, would soon join NATO and the EU, as the Russians off-record understand and accept.

This fate is not preordained, yet it approaches fast, and should be acknowledged as the likely outcome of this war by Ukrainians who seem unable to grasp the gravity of the situation Ukraine faces — starting with Poroshenko. Should Ukraine be broken and partitioned by Russia, a sad history will have repeated itself, and Putin will have thoroughly overturned Europe’s post-Cold War order. This is only part of a broader struggle between Putin and the West — since members of the Russian elite are publicly warning of war with the United States, we may want to pay attention — but Ukraine is the main battleground for now. There Putin is winning, and he will continue to triumph unless Kyiv decides to get serious about the war that has been forced upon Ukraine. They will lose much more than Crimea and the Donbas if they do not.