Joshua Treviño, Austin
Finland, Ukraine, the Kesselschlacht, and more. On many fronts, in the US and Europe, the forcing is at hand.
The expand-the-problem gambit for Russia will probably come with a crisis over Finnish (and secondarily Swedish) membership in NATO. A démarche will be issued, the countries in question will refuse to comply, the alliance in question will refuse to comply, and the scenario will unfold. To that end, I give you this couplet of tweets:
The author of the first tweet, a Finnish security researcher, also claims he was told that a Finnish NATO application will trigger automatic bilateral security guarantees from major NATO-member states. The point of this, presumably, would be to make NATO membership de facto automatic, as the actual accession process is reasonably slow, requiring as it does unanimous ratification from every member-nation legislature. The substantive time gap between a request for accession to actual accession is also the period in which a crisis is likely to erupt, and so the (putative) bilateral guarantees aim to reduce it to nothing.
It is worth thinking through what this might look like—and to be clear, the Finnish researcher sharing this is explicit that his information is secondhand and unverifiable—because events are moving so fast as to compel us to think through a great many things we didn’t before. If it is true that Finland is seeking NATO membership, and it is further true that this request would trigger automatic guarantees from (presumably) the United States, the United Kingdom, France, et al., then we must ask what the constitutive stuff of those guarantees might be. (Accompany Finland with Sweden in this discussion as you will, because it is probably accurate: but Finland will be the real trigger for Russian reaction.) It seems unreasonable to assume that this substance won’t exist—at least, that shouldn’t be the case if anyone is passingly familiar with the disastrous unfolding of the Anglo-French guarantees to Poland in 1939. So what would it look like? In its most benign form, it might be an extension of the (very modest) NATO Baltic Air Policing mission to Finnish airspace. In its most dramatic form, it might be the deployment of NATO-member units directly into Finland, concurrent with the guarantee.
In light of events, what would be the most prudent course? What would the Finns want? What would be the predisposition of the guaranteeing powers? The questions nearly answer themselves, especially in the light of the reality—hindsight bringing all necessary clarity — that the only way to have prevented the Ukrainian war would have been to extend similar guarantees to Ukraine. History and human events are, as we keep saying, contingent. Contra John Mearsheimer, who has become very popular of late among people who have never thought about these topics in their lives, and who are therefore grasping for explanations providing the ease of mechanistic determinism, all parties in those events retain agency and volition. We cannot predict the future, but we can refer to the past and infer probabilities from it. One pattern of the past shows that the Russian state is very much subject to the logic of deterrence—but only if the mechanisms of deterrence are present.
All this may be unfulfilled speculation. The Russian demands upon Finland and Sweden may be a journalistic error; a Finnish request for NATO membership may trigger a Russian storming of Helsinki as the entirety of Europe watches, inert. I doubt all this very much, but surely the most foolish thing now would be to discount the possibilities. The Lyapunov horizon is so very close.
Turning toward the actual seat of war in Ukraine, a few items of note emerge across the past twenty-four hours. Much has been made of the Russian failures to storm Kyiv and Kharkiv, and though there is no question that they intended to do both, it is not at all clear that they are still seriously trying. You can assess as you wish here: they are taking an operational pause to revise tactics and operations; they are fatally preoccupied with low morale and bad logistics; or they have changed their aim and now operate versus Kyiv and Kharkiv mostly to tie down Ukrainian forces there. Any one of these may be true, but the last is most concerning, because what it looks like—this is based on no especial insight beyond the ability to read a map—is that the tremendous Russian gains in the south will become the base for a drive north. The Russian concentration around Kyiv will likely swing west of the city, and head south to join the offensive out of Kherson. The Russian concentration at Kharkiv will attack relentlessly in the hopes that Ukrainian forces stay fixed, and there is no general movement to escape the pocket. You therefore must contemplate the prospect of a grand encirclement, what the Germans call a Kesselschlacht, trapping and destroying the bulk of the armed forces of Ukraine.
In this scenario, the political pressure in the West to resupply the pocket will become intense, and you should think that through too.
THE UKRAINIAN STATE
One other item of interest and concern is the apparent Russian decision to retain the officeholders and structures of the Ukrainian state as part of their occupation. This is based mostly upon reports from Kherson, where the civil authorities including the mayor are still apparently in charge, albeit overseen by a military administration. It is unknown whether this represents a local development, or a deliberate policy by the whole of the Russian effort. (If so, it demonstrates a great deal more prudential wisdom than accompanied the Americans into Iraq.) If the latter, it constitutes a tremendous challenge for any Ukrainian insurgency, and may even indicate that this insurgency will not meaningfully exist. Looking a year ahead, if Ukrainian civil administration remains functional under a Russian aegis—probably as Novorossiya, or Malorossiya, but set that aside—then any insurgency faces the difficult decision as to whether to attack that administration. Much ink has been spilled as to the putatively unwinnable nature of a Ukrainian insurgency versus Russia, although I reject most of it, mostly because the Russians will do nearly anything in these cases. But the extent to which any insurgency takes on the cast of a civil war among Ukrainians is a direct aid to a Russian occupation. Force people to choose sides, and they will.
On many fronts, here and abroad, the forcing is at hand.
Editors’ update: Ilta-Sanomat (the biggest digital news outlet in Finland; translation via Google) reports that following his emergency meeting with Biden, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö held a press conference and said, “Finland is intensifying its security cooperation with the United States,” though he didn’t specify what this would mean in practice. “We talked about continuing a process … then the matter will be taken step by step.” Niinistö was “happy to state that NATO’s doors will remain open to Finland,” and the United States considers this Open Door policy important. Niinistö said he believed that if Finland were to apply for membership, the processwould “progress rapidly.”
In another article in the same newspaper, Finnish foreign policy experts note that “the language has changed.” According to Pete Piirainen, a visiting senior researcher at the Foreign Policy Institute, “instead of [speaking of ] the option [to join NATO], the emphasis was on NATO’s open door, membership criteria, Finland’s membership, and Western unity.” Petteri Orpo, chairman of Finland’s Coalition Party, told Ilta-Sanamat, “Concrete steps are now being taken. … We are seeking the route to NATO membership together. Deliberately, but without delay.” Anu Vehviläinen, the centrist former speaker of parliament, said, “Finland is really a part of the West. The process of closer cooperation with the United States has been sealed. Finland and Sweden share a common path, and the door to NATO is open.”
Here’s the latest war map:
Joshua Treviño is the Chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He writes at Armas about culture, events, and strategy, with a particular focus on Texas, Mexico, and China.