Chartbook #199 How Putin's war dawned on Washington
What does it feel like to see a major war coming? Not to “sleepwalk” but to wake to the reality that one state, with deliberation and intent is about to invade another with massive military force? With drastic consequences for millions of people and huge loss of life.
We have experienced this before. For many of us that moment came in 2002 and 2003 when we watched with horror the massing of the “coalition of the willing”, including our own country’s forces, for the invasion of Iraq. Around the world the memory of that moment hangs like a shadow over events today. This, indeed, is one of the points brought out by Politico’s oral history of the Biden administration in the autumn of 2021. This remarkable collage of interview segments conveys vividly what it was like for those who were privy to the most top-level military intelligence to face the dawning realization of Putin’s intent.
Anyone interested in the war should read it. It is a graphic account of a group of people trying to rouse themselves from the clinging inertia of normality to grasp and react adequately to an intentional and premeditated act of massive violence, which they could see coming several months ahead of time.
As Politico describes it:
This oral history was compiled and woven together by writer and historian GARRETT M. GRAFF, based on dozens of hours of interviews by POLITICO national security reporters ERIN BANCO, LARA SELIGMAN, NAHAL TOOSI and ALEXANDER WARD with more than 30 key figures of the U.S. government and Western allied response. (Additional interviews were contributed by Jack Blanchard, Graff and Maggie Miller.)
The team deserve our congratulations and thanks. We are in debt to them for a remarkable first draft of history. .
Like any such effort at history writing, it is constrained, on the one hand by the self-presentation and perspective of the witnesses and on the other hand by the aim of the editors to frame a coherent narrative in a limited space. In this compilation of dozens of interviews one striking thing is the lack of dissonances. Within a matter of weeks, the witnesses cited here all came to an agreed interpretation of the military intelligence - Putin was going to strike. This is either the result of editing or a pretty remarkable and, it turns out, constructive example of group-think. We can’t judge which, because given the constraints of the Politico presentation there is no meta data. We don’t know what they left in and what they took out. Perhaps a longer form presenation will or the publication of the full interviews will allows us to judge.
In any case, in the form of a long read article, the result is a powerful narrative in which the Biden team realize what is about to happen and it is people outside the beltway, notably political leaders in Europe, who have had hard time seeing the truth that is dawning on the inner circle in Washington.
The main characters on the American side, including General Milley, chair of Joint Chiefs, and NSA Jake Sullivan, are presented as self-reflective and complex personalities. Of course, they are not Zelensky or the Ukrainian fighters who have emerged as the heroes of 2022. Perhaps to compensate for that fact - ultimately these are desk warriors - the narrative is at pains to stress their personal involvement and the stresses they were under. There is a somewhat sophomoric account of how little they slept, how hard everyone was working, and how abnormally they fed themselves. The passages about eating poorly involuntarily reminded me of Alexander Kluge’s book Battle, a surreal collage history of the encirclement of the German 6th army at Stalingrad in which he vividly describes the vicarious excitement of those in Berlin as they witness at one remove the giant “man-made” (sic) disaster coming towards them.
But despite these cloying moments, or perhaps because of them - these are the kinds of things that contemporary Americans do care about (hydrating, healthy snacks etc) - the narrative that emerges has the ring of truth about it. And it serves to make a series of important points about the way America’s diplomats and military leaders approached the historic crisis of Russia’s invasion.
The first key takeaway is that Biden’s foreign policy team came into office aware of Russia’s resentments and hoping to contain and deflect them through diplomacy. You would not, of course, expect them to say that they intended to hustle Putin into a trap, by provoking him into an invasion. But in light of this document that interpretation seems completely far-fetched. It is certainly in no way consistent with the administration’s self-understanding as laid out here.
Russia’s resentment and revisionism were accepted as the normal state of affairs. That included everything from menacing diplomacy, to saber-rattling, threats and even various forms of unconventional subversion and warfare. The drama began in September 2021 when the military intelligence picture began to coalesce around a far more dramatic conclusion. Putin was not just maneuvering for advantage through threats. He was not just ventilating his long-standing frustration with the status quo. The Russian military were preparing for a large-scale invasion. The crucial point vividly conveyed by the interviews is that the one does not follow from the other. To have a big military and to deploy it in a menacing position is one thing. To deploy a military ready for the full-scale invasion of another country is quite another.
No account of 2022 can be useful if it does not distinguish between the problem of explaining Russian resentment and revisionism and Putin’s decision actually to go to war and to do so on a gigantic scale. An account like John Mearsheimer’s is perfectly adequate, indeed necessary, to explain the former i.e. the build-up of tension. It has little or nothing to say about the latter, the decision to not just pull the trigger but to launch entire armies into battle. The interest of the Politico history is that it shows the American decision-makers in their own words trying to reach across this gap and. to make sense of it. Given that Putin was an angry revisionist and given that he had what was generally taken to be a formidable military, could it possibly be true that he was planning a large-scale offensive war against a neighbor? How could this be true?
As Milley chair, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pentagon remarks
When someone like me is saying, “Hey, this is the most dangerous course of action — you’re probably going to see five field armies coming this way, two over here, and five over there. It’s going to be preceded by a significant amount of Russian bombings and missile attacks, and this is going to be the most horrific combat operations since the end of World War II.” People are sitting there going “What planet did this guy just walk in from?” I can understand that, actually.
Or as Avril Haines Director of National Intelligence commented
It was hard to believe, at first, honestly. Most people said, “Really? A large-scale military option? That seems unlikely!”
It was hard to grasp because it posed problems of rationality. Why would Putin do this given the risks and the alternatives? It posed problems of comprehension. What does an all-out shooting war mean? As Michael Carpenteer, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Vienna remarked:
When you’ve spent your entire adult career working on Russia, there is a distinction between the plausibility of something and the shocking nature of something that is so epic in its proportions that you know it’s going to shape your career and world politics for years to come. When I saw this information about Russia’s imminent attack for the first time, it did seem plausible, but it was also deeply, deeply shocking — it would be history changing. That was the horror of it all. Any large-scale Russian war against Ukraine was going to be a human and humanitarian tragedy.
But as outlandish as it seemed, as the military intelligence flowed in, at some point you could not avoid the conclusion that war was what the Russians were preparing and if that was true you had to start acting accordingly. The result was, at times, a sense of surreal disjuncture.
AMB. MICHAEL CARPENTER: I remember arriving in Vienna in late November of 2021, and most of my colleagues were talking about the quote unquote deliverables for the ministerial [OSCE’s decision-making body]. I remember being incredulous that this was what most people here at the organization were talking about, because all I wanted to talk about was the risk of a full-blown war in Europe that could be weeks away. It all seemed surreal — not that climate change isn’t crucially important for all of us, but it seemed we were on the precipice of this massive geopolitical catastrophe. There weren’t enough people convinced of the gravity
But until the moment of invasion it was not those clinging to normality, but those warning of war who seemed as though they inhabited a different universe. Accepting and inhabiting the fact that we were actually in a pre-war moment, required self-discipline and adjustments that went into the daily habits of life in the Beltway and in the WestWing. For one thing, the military began calling the shots. As Laura Cooper deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs, Pentagon, remarks
As far back as November, we were gearing up in a significant way to make sure we were monitoring the situation incredibly closely, understanding the intelligence, gearing up to support Ukraine and reinforce our allies. Secretary [Lloyd] Austin put us on a vigorous battle rhythm — we were providing updates every single morning, at first it was by 7:30 a.m., and then it was by 6:30.
It was all the more awful to make this leap because of how the Americans envisioned the war going. They expected that Russia’s forces would crush Ukraine in a matter of weeks. That might well mean the end of the Ukrainian state. So, in coming to terms with likelihood that Putin was going to act, they were also coming to terms with the likely extinction of an independent Ukrainian state.
As Jake Sullivan remarked:
The intelligence community’s analysis was that Russia would achieve substantial gains on the ground very rapidly. Kyiv could easily fall fast. It wasn’t just the pressure of a war starting. It was the pressure of Russia, brutally, ruthlessly succeeding. A lot of our planning was worst-case scenario planning, which always psychologically puts one in a tough space because you’re just constantly thinking about the worst things that can happen.
From the fact that they were assuming a short but violent war of conquest, a further crucial point follows:
Before March 2022, US strategists did not envision US support for a conventional defense by Ukraine as a means of draining Russian power. Sanctions might hur Russia, but the war as such was not seen as such an occasion or opportunity. Some American military did calculate that the conflict might be protracted. But what they envisioned was a resistance insurgency of the kind they themselves had faced in Iraq. They shared this assessment with their Russian counterparts. They did so, not in the spirit of inviting the Russians to do their damndest, but on the contrary in the hope of dissuading them from launching the war. Before March, the possibility of using a sustained and successful military campaign by Ukraine as a tool of power against Moscow was not on Washington’s radar.
It was only after the Ukrainians managed to deny the Russians quick victories around Kyiev that the US shifted its priority to expediting supplies of the material necessary for defense.
The initial lesson drawn by this insider group was not that of omnipotence or complete manipulative control, but the opposite.
DEREK CHOLLET (counselor, Department of State): It’s just another reminder that the U.S. can’t dictate events. We have more influence than anyone else, but ultimately, we can’t control others if they choose to do incredibly stupid things.
MATTHEW MILLER (special advisor, National Security Council, White House): There is sometimes this unrealistic sense that America can wave a magic wand and control the world. That’s just not true. We don’t have magic wands.
PASCAL CONFAVREUX (spokesperson, French Embassy to the USA, Washington): There was a feeling of acceleration of history. As diplomats sometimes you feel that you are the first spectators of such things, a moment where also many parts are moving at the same moment — bilateral relations, transatlantic relations, European Union, defense.
To the very end in late February, disbelief prevailed, as Sullivan remarks:
What was hard to process was that the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to the fact that this was going to happen, and yet the intelligence also overwhelmingly pointed to the fact that this was — I think the technical term is — “a crazy thing to do.” It’s weird to process both of those at the same time: OK, this is going to happen, and it is really strategically, morally bankrupt, and bereft of common sense — yet, there they were, going off to do it. There was an element of “What the hell are you guys thinking?”
And even on the day of the invasion several key allies in Europe needed to see it to believe it. As Daleep Singh deputy national security adviser for international economics, National Security Council, White House and mastermind of sanctions remarks:
The Europeans were participating fully in the sanctions design effort, but when I would have conversations with my counterparts — Björn Seibert, at the European Commission, but also Jonathan Black, who is Boris Johnson’s sherpa and the others — the Europeans emphasized many times that the visuals would matter. In other words, this invasion had to actually be something that political leaders could see on screen — that’s what would create the emotional valence needed to implement the packages as ambitious as the one that we were putting together. I remember getting up at 3 a.m., and getting in touch with Björn. He immediately said, “Yeah, OK, I see the visuals.”
The initial logic of sanctions as described by Singh was deterrence. The idea was to threaten something massive - “start high and stay high”. He stays within the language. of the Cold War up to a point:
We start at the very top of the escalation ladder and continue to mount escalating pressure with the broadest coalition that we could mount.
But then, tellingly, shifts into a different register
I knew that we had to deliver an economic shock and awe.
As wikpedia tells us, shock and awe, which became famous in Iraq in 2003, belongs very much to the post Cold War era and is the articulation of absolute dominance:
Introducing the doctrine in a report to the United States' National Defense University in 1996, Ullman and Wade describe it as an attempt to develop a post-Cold War military doctrine for the United States. Rapid dominance and shock and awe, they write, may become a "revolutionary change" as the United States military is reduced in size and information technology is increasingly integrated into warfare. Subsequent U.S. military authors have written that rapid dominance exploits the "superior technology, precision engagement, and information dominance" of the United States. Ullman and Wade identify four vital characteristics of rapid dominance:
near total or absolute knowledge and understanding of self, adversary, and environment;
rapidity and timeliness in application;
operational brilliance in execution; and
(near) total control and signature management of the entire operational environment.
It was a tall ask on the economic side, but it signalled the extent to which sanctions against Russia were something other than merely deterrent or punitive measures. They were intended to assert dominance. Both Victoria Nuland, under secretary for political affairs, Department of State, and Wally Adeyemo, deputy secretary, Department of the Treasury, comment that sanctions were the way in which the Biden administration hoped to influence the situation more favorably than had been possible in 2014 over crimea,
And then, the entire situation assessment changed again, “within about a week”.
On the first day of the attack as AMB. JOHN SULLIVAN US ambassador to Russia remarks:
When we saw that thrust south from Belarus, the amount of equipment and the number of personnel who are heading south — it’s not that far to Kyiv — I thought, “Boy, it’s blitzkrieg. They’re going to be in Kyiv.”
And then it didn’t happen. The Ukrainians resisted The Russians proved incompetent and as Nuland candidly remarks:
All of a sudden, we realized that Ukraine — and particularly the government, the leadership, the capital — might be able to resist.
It is a remarkable and revealing story, brilliantly put together, a true must read for anyone interested in the news or contemporary history. The link is here. One can only hope that they are planning a book which will elaborate the material.
What are its implications?
What I worry about are the implications of this shocking experience for the way in which Washington thinks about fture conflicts ahead. What does a team that has been through this experience of stepping across the threshold to actual war, learn for future crises? How does it change their understanding of history and their approach to the tense relationship with China.
As DAME KAREN PIERCE, British ambassador to the U.S., Washington remarks:
People did start thinking about Taiwan quite early, thinking it’s very important we get this right because the Chinese will be watching.
That must surely be the greatest concern.
In saying this I am not thinking, as Dame Pierce seems to be, of the impact on Chinese assessment. What troubles me more is the way in which the US will see future conflicts. If Ukraine becomes a model for thinking about Taiwan what we must fear is that it leads to a progressive banalization of the “War with China”-scenario, an increasingly routinized assumption that tense diplomacy naturally leads to actual conflict, and quite sensibly, therefore, a dominant role for the military in strategic assessments of the situation.
General Milley comes across in the Politico report as a reasonable person with a serious appreciation of the devastating impact of war. But soldiers are in the business of preparing for war and that at times this requires a gung-ho spirit that can be alarming and dangerous. When we have four-star generals opining to their command, as head of US Air Mobility Command (AMC), Gen Mike Minihan recently did, that: “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025 … Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.” We are in a dangerous situation.
What the Politico account reminds us of, is just how radical, reality-shattering and disastrous the step from “ordinary” geopolitics to war actually is. A lot depends on upholding what should be, not just a political, strategic, legal and moral boundary, but something akin to an existential divide. Who are we, if we calmly and routinely contemplate a timeline for war with China? A glib answer might be that we are “realists”. That is what Russia’s aggression against Ukraine could be said to teach. Politico’s account of the shock to Washington that this realization implied should drive us in the opposite direction. We should not normalize this reality. And if the risk of war is real, as unfortunately we must accept it is over Taiwan, then the impulse must be to do something to change that reality, not to put a timeline on it and to prepare for the inevitable. As Edward Luce remarks in a brave and important op-ed in the Financial Times: “The consensus” in Washington is “now so hawkish that it is liable to see any outreach to China as weakness.” But that is misguided: “The US still holds more of the cards. … The case for US resolve and patience is stronger today than it was when Kennan was around.” Biden’s version of containment plus is excessive. “Self-confident powers should not be afraid to talk.”
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