I had to eat some shit last night for blowing my first big foreign prediction. I thought that Russian troop build ups were all for leverage at the negotiation table. I thought it would be too risky to launch a full assault when one could, theoretically, get a neutral Ukraine over the bargaining table. We don’t yet know if this was a realistic possibility or not. If Blinken and co sabotaged such a deal or if Putin did. I hate that Putin resorted to this in response either way. Fuck Vlad.
So yesterday I was getting ready to go to bed when suddenly some cursed impulse made me check my phone one last time. Only to be immediately jolted awake by The Great Gopnik War and cries of ‘Anuuuuuuuu cheeki breeki iv damke.’ I really wish I hadn’t looked. I wish I had a full night’s sleep and only got rudely awakened the next morning.
For now its too early to make super serious comments. But I will say this: If Putin’s goals are limited, he will likely scoop out either a diplomatic neutrality concession by Kiev or, more grossly, a new territorial swathe from the Donbass to Crimea, connecting them in a kind of Slavic Northern Ireland facsimile. He could get away with this and, in time, things might settle down. But if his ambitions are as stated and he wishes to go full American-style regime change…well, get ready for full insurgency, poisoned relations with neighbors in Europe, and a simmering guerilla war that will indirectly suck in other countries and hold the potential to directly involve more as it goes on. Russia’s inferiority complex to America, it seems, has caused it to flirt with repeating its mistakes too. I distinctly remember being a teenager in the Iraq invasion and having those first months seem a euphoric victory ride for most of the population. We know now how that turned out. Moscow has a choice, and choosing wisely involves recognizing your limits.
But I am not done eating shit, though I do wish to put it in context that makes it less bad. I never said Russia would ‘never’ attack Ukraine. I always quantified the prediction with ‘probably not’ and then went on to say ‘and here’s how they would do it if they did,’ which-so far-is still somewhat accurate from what I can tell. I do feel in taking this path Russia has burned a lot of diplomatic bridges it once could have crossed. This is precisely why I didn’t think they would go ahead.
For what its worth, Biden so far seems to be handling this better than any other President of my conscious lifetime would have. Ukraine is not a NATO nation, and we are under no obligation to defend them. Additionally, its location, political situation, and other factors mean it never was a likely inductee to NATO (another reason I thought Putin would refrain from attacking). It is truly baffling to me that no one in NATO could have admitted this publicly, and I wonder if they had if the current situation would be different now. Knowing this, Biden seems to be owning, much like he owned the issue on Afghanistan, the reality that war in Ukraine directly does not suit U.S. interest. Obama said the exact same thing in 2014, but now, due to Russiagate, his partisans seem to forget this. For now anyway. It is too close to Russia and all advantages go to team Moscow. Even in the event of a decisive U.S. victory that would mean permanent stationing of U.S. troops near Russia’s core area for decades. In a country with no core shared interest with the North Atlantic? Ridiculous. The cost would not be justifiable, especially considering how far east that would be. If Ice Cream Joe keeps it up, I might just vote for his reelection. And I haven’t voted for a major party candidate at the national level since 2012…including Joe himself. Granted, I suspect many of the others who yelled at me for not doing so in 2020 might jump ship by that point. Well, there’s little point to life without some contrarianism.
As I said already, its too early to go too much into detail on the war itself. If Kiev was wise they must have prepared interior defenses in depth to compensate for their numerical and firepower disadvantages and won’t contest every inch of ground but rather fight like hell in a core defensible area. If they didn’t prepare at all than their actor-president (who once played an actor-president on tv, peak clown world) is even more cavalier than I feared. Let us leave it at that for now.
What I can do, and what I will do right now, is examine why I got this one wrong by comparing it with my other bogus prediction: the 2016 Presidential election. Both are outliers in an largely on point predictive career, so maybe if smashed together they can be elucidating.
First, lets establish that I am actually on the whole good with predictions in politics. I am not going to go through everything I ever wrote for hyperlinks, but you can search this site and my external publications are largely linked to on the publications tab. Feel free to see for yourself. But I made many big calls successfully before. Nation building in Iraq would be a disaster (2002-still in high school!), proved true in 2004 onwards. NATO expansion being a mistake that could lead to further conflict in Europe (2005), proven true from 2014-present. That the U.S. and company should avoid the Syrian Civil War like the plague (2012), proven true 2013-present. Most on point, I predicted a Karabakh re-match (2016) where advantage would be strongly in Azerbaijan’s camp…this of course came true in 2020. Additionally, and more domestically, I predicted with a one state margin of error, every U.S. presidential election from 2000-2020 with the sole exception of 2016. 2004 and 2012 I got with not a single state in error. I also had one big but very mixed prediction made in 2020, that Afghanistan’s government would collapse post-U.S. pullout (yes) but not until at least 6 or so months had passed (no).
I am not listing this to brag or fellate my ego to compensate for messing the two I fumbled up. It is important to establish the overall record to investigate the flops. Furthermore, it is important when rating a geopolitical analyst to see the overall picture. Someone like Thomas ‘lets ally with ISIS’ Friedman is remarkable for his near total failure rate, while someone like George Kennan, who predicted both the overall course of the Cold War in the 40s, and, in the 90s, the current post Cold War mess, had a proper record that showed he was paying attention. Few if any get everything right, and some room for failure must be allotted, but proportionality remains a key attribute. And should I ever tip the balance near 50/50 or…even worse, under that, I promise to do something terrible and humiliating. Like drawing Uncle Klunk erotica, signing it, and sending it to whoever asks to adorn their wall of shame (as it will not be going on the blog).
So, what do my two big failures have in common? A domestic political call that thought the election would be close (correct) but totally misread several key states vs a tale of brinksmanship vs hard power deployment in a foreign country that came out on the wrong side of that equation?
I think, placed in binary, a common theme emerges. I am…and this pains me to say…far too trusting in the long term planning abilities of powerful people. Yes, me who dunks on lanyards all the time. But I thought ‘Hillary has the money and the connections, she’ll leverage them correctly.’ And I thought ‘Putin won’t burn most of his European bridges/NATO surely wouldn’t dangle out membership to Ukraine as an actual possibility.’
So clearly, I, who gets criticized for being too cynical, need to becomes more cynical. Because I am not yet cynical enough. Challenge accepted.
U.S. intelligence, possibly for the first time in my adult life, got something right out the gate and told us the truth of what was going to happen. This is a good thing actually (though last week it furthered my doubts as to Russian action given the general record of those-who-glow). I would like to see more of this. HOWEVER…so far this is one big public call for U.S. intelligence out of…what, dozens of failed or intentionally doctored calls? WMDs? Gadhafi’s Viagra rape army? Moderate rebels? Russiagate? Havana Syndrome? Kuwaiti baby incubators? Tonkin Gulf? The rise of ISIS? You get my point. They are going to use this one case as a ‘trust us’ pass in the future. Do not. The odds still do not bear out their claims on most issues. It is up to them, not to us, to earn the public’s trust again.