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Russia has a long history of being invaded. Scythians, Huns, Mongols - the land has changed hands again and again and again. In large part that’s because it has so few obstacles. From the Urals to the plains of Eastern Europe there are a number of large rivers, but all can be forded. To the west only the Pripet (or Pinsk) Marshes of South-East Belarus - North-West Ukraine (just east of the eastern border of Poland), and the Carpathian Mountains in South-West Ukraine represent any meaningful geographic obstacles. Napoleon had little trouble advancing all the way from France to Moscow, which he then burned. Winter then destroyed his army, but that’s a different story. Charles XII had invaded a century earlier. In the 20th century Germany seized much of western Ukraine during World War I, the US and British (and a few other allies) landed forces in Murmansk and held Russian terrain for a year and half, and, of course, the Germans in World War II nearly reached Moscow.
All this has left the Russians with something that might be called national paranoia, as well as a national stoicism.
The expansion of NATO eastward in the last 30 years has fed that cultural paranoia. US official support of the "Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2013 further fed that paranoia, and has been interpreted as (and spun into a tale of) a CIA led coup.
Meanwhile, the Russians continue to flex their military. Recent news reports detail that they’ve begun exercising various elements of their nuclear forces. As a really smart friend noted, this is something you would want to do, make certain that your nuclear forces are prepared and on alert, and make sure the US understands that as well. That readiness acts as an upper boundary to escalation. No one wants any situation to “go nuclear,” and this shows that Russian nuclear forces are ready, ergo, the US and NATO have been duly warned to not push the boundaries of any response.
Another particularly astute friend of mine then passed an observation on the situation in Ukraine and everyone’s ability to understand what might happen in the next few weeks. I’ll get to that in just a moment, first, consider this:
In a recent essay, Scott Ritter, former Marine and a weapons inspector with the UN’s Special Commission that destroyed Iraq’s WMD in the 1990s, makes an excellent point that much of the talk about Russia and Putin misses the mark, focusing purely on Putin, substantially over-simplifying the situation, and in many respects failing to recognize how actions of others - to include the US and NATO - have, from the Russian perspective, pushed them to act.
Ritter then goes on to suggest that use of Boyd’s framework - Observe - Orient - Decide - Act (the OODA loop) - as a tool of “comparative analysis” may improve our assessment of what the Russians might do.
Which brings me back to my particularly astute friend, who pointed out that Ritter then makes a common error, he suggests that the third phase of Boyd’s framework - decision - is the most important. But it’s not, “orient” is the most important. If you are not properly oriented your decisions will be mistakes and each will build on the previous mistakes. As he noted:
An opponent whose orientation is more closely aligned with reality than yours gains great advantages with every bad decision you make. A correctly oriented opponent could choose to simply watch while you and your allies destroy yourselves through a series of rapid disoriented OODA Loops.
This echoes Napoleon’s famous advice to never interfere with your enemy while he is making a mistake. And that is important as we try to assess Putin.
Boyd noted that to orient required an understanding that included cultural traditions, heritage, new information and old, the integration of a huge array of information, in effect, everything you can “get your hands on.” In regard to Russia and Ukraine, this includes understanding that Putin is acting within a very large bureaucracy and a large staff, as well as in Putin’s immediate staff and his offices. And all of them are oriented to a much different world than the one we see from this side of the Atlantic.
None of this excuses Putin invading Ukraine. But we need to understand that what is happening here isn’t the rantings of the fevered mind of Vladimir Putin. There is a Russian cultural and social bias that is hundreds of years old that call for larger (ever larger) and more secure borders and buffer zones. Any decisions we make need to be made in light of those Russian cultural forces; it isn’t simply Vlad Putin, and this won’t go away after he retires.
Further, Vlad’s world view is, to some extent shared by the majority of Russians, which suggests that Vlad might be viewing this in terms of what is needed for Russia in the long term. If so, as a Stoic, he might be willing to accept severe shorter-term problems for longer term security. President Biden made it clear that we will not put US troops in Ukraine, nor am I advocating doing so. But sometimes ambiguity can be of value. Confusion and a bit of chaos in the mind of the enemy is of value. President Biden’s statement substantially reduced the level of confusion in the minds of Putin and his senior planners.
Where does that leave us? With this possibility: Putin is going to make a decision based on what he sees as the long-term good of Russia. And if that needs to be paid for by a bloody war, so be it. But he can also look around and say, for a wide range of political and economic reasons, that he will never have a better time than right now.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...