Some notes looking back on last week:
SCOTUS nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearings were mostly uneventful. So far she’s saying what she needs to say to get appointed. She strikes me as a good addition to the Court because I don’t think she’s an extreme judicial activist. She handled the unfair question about the “definition of woman” as well as can be expected. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn) was obviously setting a trap: if Judge Jackson answers the question like a sensible human being, she would get excoriated by progressive activists; on the other hand, if Judge Jackson provides an overly intellectualized explanation of gender, she plays into the national-populist right’s obsession with trans issues. The smart thing to do was to give a non-answer.
Meanwhile, The New York Times issued an editorial in favor of free speech, including a critique of progressive “cancel culture” for its damage to national discourse. I’m happy to see this editorial. However, I can’t help but wonder if the Ukraine crisis helped to move NYT’s editorial board toward taking steps to lower the temperature of domestic culture war battles. After all, the center-left and and center-right can agree on one thing: liberal internationalism backed by US military might served America well for 70 years. The New York Times seems to like every war until they go bad. Give war a chance!
Speaking of which, the establishment media narrative on Ukraine is worrying. Of course there’s not much nuance–it’s all good guys and bad guys, another Manichean battle. But there’s also some kind of doublespeak at play. The current narrative emphasizes Russian military failure, usually explained by bad planning, lack of preparation, corruption, bad tactics, etc. On the other hand, Ukrainian military success is the miracle of 2022.
Yet it is clear to me the Russians did not want to roll through Ukraine like Grant’s march through Georgia. I think the strategy is for the Russians to wear down Ukrainian resistance in order to achieve a favorable peace settlement favorable (i.e., Russia turns Ukraine into a client state like Belorussia). Maybe it works, maybe it fails. It may take months.
We can’t jump to conclusions about Russian military impotence. Let’s consider the fact that the Russians have not achieved air superiority. If the Russians think Ukraine will eventually sue for peace on favorable terms, then the Ukrainian air force and its air defense systems are potential military assets for Russia. The media is also making a big deal about the Russians not taking a major Ukrainian city. Perhaps that’s because the Russians know it would require bloody devastation and huge losses on both sides–like the Russian’s taking of Grozny in 1999. It seems likely the Russians would rather not resort to street-by-street fighting that will level the major cities of a nation they want to control.
I’m sure I can be wrong, but do we have any doubt that if the Russians “took the gloves off” they could not takedown the Ukrainian government and its military in a matter of weeks? I think the Russian military can achieve air superiority and take major cities. It will be bloody and devastating, but they can do it. The Russian army has always been more of a hammer than a scalpel, designed to plunge tanks and motorized infantry through the Fulda Gap.
So I think the better analytical argument is that the Russians are just lousy at fighting anything less than total war. They could take Ukraine only by destroying it and killing millions in the process–turning Putin and his cronies into true war criminals and international pariahs. In other words, the Russian military may ultimately fail to achieve the strategic goal of an intact Ukrainian client state. It is too soon to tell. However, I highly doubt the Russians will “go Grozny” on any Ukrainian city. This is not to say there will be a Russian retreat; rather, I think there will be a long-term occupation of the territories already taken.
The establishment media’s excitement over supposed Russian military impotence is simply dangerous, just like the unrealistic notions of no fly zones bandied about a few weeks ago. The underlying message of the “Russian military failure” narrative is the fantasy that the Russians will just lay down in a fight with the West. That is wishful, crazy thinking. Now, to be clear, even leaving WMDs aside, I believe US-led NATO forces would soundly beat the Russians, but losses would devastating.
Finally, both conservatives and liberals I respect are leveling criticisms on the Biden administartion for not doing enough to prevent the Russian invasion. First, this is “making it all about the US” which I wrote about last week. I think it is wrong to assume there’s no Ukrainian agency in this conflict. Russia wanted Ukraine to make territorial concessions, commitments to remain neutral, and even resisted EU membership. None of that has anything to do with the US. Second, sometimes I wonder if pundits forget about the billions of dollars the US invests in intelligence and military infrastructure. While debates play out over messaging and talking points, there’s grand strategy at play–something far more important, far more real. If US intel indicated the Russians were going to invade Ukraine after the intimidation tactics failed, and strategic analysis predicted both high probabilities for a difficult occupation and Western unity on damaging sanctions, there would be virtually no reason for the US to prevent this Russian blunder. The past 20 years have proven the Russians are an adversary and Russia’s mistake worked out in favor of the US. I know it sounds bad to say this awful war was “good” in any way, but those humanitarian costs are on Russia and not the US. Consider the result of a re-energized NATO with new countries joining (Austria, Sweden, Finland) and the Russian army bogged down in eastern Ukraine.
On the entertainment side of life, I watched miniseries DMZ on HBO Max. I liked the graphic novel but read it years ago, but was pretty excited to see it come to screen. What a disappointment. There was no world building, nothing on the back story of the second US civil war. They also changed out the main character and totally changed the story. I love Rosario Dawson, but her character was contrived (come on, she’s desperately looking for her son who’s now a full grown man). The new story, where Dr. Alma takes over Manhattan within two days of her arrival, was laughable.