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The Road to War

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By Kmr.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115575464

Absolutely fantastic long account of the eight months leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

Only the British and the Baltic states were fully on board. At one point, an official from London stood up and gestured toward Haines. “She’s right,” the official said.

But Paris and Berlin remembered emphatic U.S. claims about intelligence on Iraq. The shadow of that deeply flawed analysis hung over all the discussions before the invasion. Some also felt that Washington, just months earlier, had vastly overestimated the resilience of Afghanistan’s government as the U.S. military was withdrawing. The government had collapsed as soon as the Taliban entered Kabul.

“American intelligence is not considered to be a naturally reliable source,” said François Heisbourg, a security expert and longtime adviser to French officials. “It was considered to be prone to political manipulation.”

There’s lots going on here, but some thoughts:

  • The Iraq War remains the lens through which the international community views US credibility. That may change in response to the vindication of US intelligence at the beginning of this war, but even this depends to great deal on what audiences prefer to believe.
  • The Russian decision to go Full Monty in the first weeks of the war was a disastrous miscalculation not only from a military point of view but also from a political POV. The ill-fated effort to seize Kyiv probably united the West more than anything anyone could have done, both by demonstrating Russia’s far reaching war aims and making clear the Ukrainian capacity to resist.
  • The Ukrainian decision-making tree was extremely difficult. Common sense screamed that the Russians were just going to try to destabilize the country rather than destroy it, and any kind of preparation would invite response. It also seems there wasn’t a ton of confidence in Zelensky at either the domestic or the international levels.
  • The Biden administration played the information game as well as it possibly could, with a keen grasp of how the careful use of intelligence could help win ensure alliance solidarity behind Ukraine.

A bit more on the difficulty Zelensky faced:

“You can’t simply say to me, ‘Listen, you should start to prepare people now and tell them they need to put away money, they need to store up food,’ ” Zelensky recalled. “If we had communicated that — and that is what some people wanted, who I will not name — then I would have been losing $7 billion a month since last October, and at the moment when the Russians did attack, they would have taken us in three days. … Generally, our inner sense was right: If we sow chaos among people before the invasion, the Russians will devour us. Because during chaos, people flee the country.”

An altogether remarkable account of multilateral crisis statecraft.

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