How does the Russia-Ukraine war end? On China, the West, and the fog of war, with Jacob Shapiro

The problem with war is that there’s no way to know, really, what is going to happen.

Jacob Shapiro, geopolitical analyst with Cognitive Investments, calls this the “fog of war,” and it creates uncertainty, volatility, and quick shifts in direction that are difficult to plan for.

In the podcast and video below, RealAg Radio host Shaun Haney and Shapiro sit down for an in-depth discussion on the factors influencing the Russia-Ukraine war, one year in. From leaders’ messaging, to Western involvement, to figuring out China, and finally to how it all ends, Shapiro shares his thoughts. Not up for a listen? An abbreviated transcript of the interview is below the player.

One year in, what has changed in terms of this war?

Answer, Jacob Shapiro:

The more it becomes just a boring static conflict that is constantly in the background, the more support is going to wane for military aid and ammunition all these things that Ukrainians need in order to defend their country. So in some ways, Ukraine is trying to make sure that you don’t forget. It’s Zelensky running around to different capitals and doing all these things. And he’s a he’s a seasoned media personnel because he wants you not to forget.

I don’t think Europe is ever going to trust Russia, at least not in its current iteration, as long as Vladimir Putin is president of Russia, as long as this regime is in control of Russia. I think that the that the Europeans will fundamentally mistrust Russia. So instead of getting cheap energy from Russia, instead of thinking of Russia as a place where you could export goods to eventually or maybe even hire workers to be part of that Eastern European supply chain, I think Europe has pretty clearly realized, okay, that’s not going to work. And the flip side of that is that the European Union becomes this more geopolitical actor, it started thinking, it starts thinking in terms of, you know, supply chain, self sufficiency, and digital sovereignty, and all these buzzwords that they’re throwing around and having meetings about.

Vladimir Putin has transformed Russia from a great power into a Chinese gas station — the only real future for Russia is as a supplier of commodities, not just to China, but countries that either can’t or aren’t willing to look the other way of what Russia is doing on the ground, in Ukraine. So if you’re Brazil, and you need fertilizer from from Russia, you don’t have the luxury of political principles, you have to do whatever you have to do to secure the fertilizer. If you’re China, this is great news. Suddenly, you have a great cheap depot for all the things that you were dependent, in some ways on different parts of the world for that is right next to your border. So that I think is also a fundamental change.

Q: What are both sides looking for, at this point to claim victory?

JS: Ukraine is the easier answer to that question. Ukraine, and Zelensky in particular, have been very clear about what they want — they want all of their land back. They want to go back to the 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea and parts of the Donbass, they want all of that back. What Ukraine really wants is to break the Russian military to show the Russian military that it can push Ukraine around and take back all that land that was sovereign Ukrainian land.

The riddle here is what does Russia want? And what would Russia consider victory and Russia has been a riddle since the whole beginning of this. Putin gave his sort of “state of the Kremlin” address this week; he was speaking to the Russian people, and he was sort of vague. He rejected idea that Ukraine even exists. He said he was suspending the New START arms agreement with the United States. And it was kind of a rambling speech that was all over the place. But it didn’t show it didn’t sound like somebody who was about to give up, or who thought that this war was going to be over anytime soon.

Now, the one thing I’ll say about Russia is I pay less attention now to what Putin and all these lackeys say and more what they do. And on the ground, it seems like they’re trying to conquer the Donbas it doesn’t look like the way they’re deploying troops right now. And things like that means they are considering going for say Odessa, or trying again to take Kiev. Maybe they think they have to capture the Donbas first and then lick their wounds, and then maybe they can move on. But it seems to me right now with what they’ve mobilized with what they’re doing on the ground, it looks like if we, if they can take the Donbass, they might say, okay, like, at least this stage of the conflict is over, and we feel good about where we’re at.

Q: You mentioned the address from Vladimir Putin. What about the address from President (Joe) Biden, he made a surprise visit to the region, the beginning of the week. Was there any messaging there that you took from it?

JS: That was an incredibly important symbolic gesture. That’s the first visit from a sitting U.S. president to Ukraine since George Bush. Biden’s rhetoric was fairly defiant and fairly fiery. It was basically ‘we’re not going to give up on Ukraine.’ You have to juxtapose that though, with what’s actually going on. Last week, the White House was leaking to Reuters and Bloomberg and any other media publication that would share it, that U.S. support for Ukraine was not indefinite, and that the United States was not going to continue just sending aid willy nilly to Ukraine all the time. And if you look at polls in the United States, now, it’s gone from something like 60% to 50%, in terms of, you know, do we approve of support of Ukraine, and it’s even lower when you talk about, you know, actual economic aid, United States citizens seem cooler with sending them ammunition and weapons and things like that. But when you start adding up all the billions that the Biden administration wants to send over to Ukraine, you’re starting to get some pushback, especially from the Republican Party, which we’re coming up on an election cycle, like all these things are going to be there. So I think it was very notable that Biden was there he that’s like the maximum amount of symbolic power that he can deploy.

Q:Even in Canada, the support is waning. If Zelensky and the Ukrainian people don’t have support from Europe or from the west, what happens?

JS: Russia had delusions of grandeur and thought it was just going to waltz into Kyiv. But they haven’t given up, they’ve gotten back off the mat, and they’re punching again. And the one tried and true tactic of Russian Grand Strategy going throughout the centuries is they will outlast you, they will out endure you they will be willing to take more pain and more punishment and more death than their opponent is going to be.

Q: Do we see a change in some of the messaging from President Zelensky?

JS: Zelensky was a comic and a fairly good one at that (before being president) and has a whole media background, I think he is a little more savvy than that, because a positive argument is always going to be more powerful than a negative argument. I think you’ve already seen him switch messaging, though. And you see this with what he’s been focusing on at home right now. It’s about corruption. He’s firing ministers for hiking up prices for basic foodstuffs, or sort of things that the military needed. He’s going through some who used to be supporters of him, and investigating them for corruption, or trying to figure out ways to clean up Ukraine’s political system. And that’s a clear message to the West… and the European Union.

Q: At some point, do we do we see the potential for NATO troops to participate? Or is that really off the table at this point?

JS: That’s possible. But then we’re, you know, slowly stalking towards World war three, NATO has been very fastidious about not getting involved. They don’t want to get involved. I’m not sure Russia wants them involved. If NATO got involved in force. I mean, Russia is not going to be able to compete there. You’re right to point out that numerically Russia has done unburden. That’s why the longer this conflict goes on, probably the more the the balance of scales, tips towards Russia. The flip side, again, is that Russia is waging an offensive war across an incredibly flat plane. And it’s a huge front. The whole reason that Russia is doing this is because it feels insecure because of those large planes and massive fronts that it has to deal with and wants to push out to the Carpathian Mountains, which is where the border of Ukraine sort of terminates, so that they have somewhat of a defensible position. So in some sense, it doesn’t matter that they have a numerical advantage, because they’re pushing over an absolutely huge area of land, it’s very difficult to supply the logistics and the supply chains, they’ve already seen how difficult it was to do that into crane. The problem again, for Ukraine is the flip side is also true. So if Ukraine is going to punch back, now you’re going over the flat plane in the opposite direction, you’re gonna need logistics, you’re gonna need supply chains. This is not just about moving defenders from one point to another point are making sure that your defensive weaponry or ammunition is in the right place. So you’re right to point out that the numerical advantage favors Russia sort of in the long term. But just the nature of this conflict means that if Russia really does want to push, say, all the way to the Carpathians, I mean, it’s going to need either to improve the casualty rates that it’s getting, because the Ukrainians are inflicting massive casualties for the Russians as they push through, or something else is going to have to change.

Q: We know how the Ukrainian people feel about this war. I think that’s pretty clear. How do the Russian people feel about it? What What have you been hearing from people on the ground there?

JS: Yeah, that’s a great question. I can tell you that, you know, the few Russian analyst friends that I have, that I continue to talk to, they all told me that Russia wasn’t going to invade Ukraine, and I listened to them. Some of them have gone silent. And to the extent that I’m still in touch with others of them, they’re parroting the rhetoric of the Russian regime. That makes sense, I think Russia has become I mean, it was already an authoritarian regime. But I think it’s become a much more controlled regime, especially from a media perspective, what what Russian opposition papers that were out there that I used to read, most of them have been shut down or subject to sanctions and things like that. You also saw a lot of Russians making their feelings felt with their feet with their movements. I mean, we saw a pretty large exodus of Russian nationals from the country, whether to Central Asia, whether the caucuses whether to Eastern Europe, in the months, immediately after the war started, and especially when the Russian government announced a larger military mobilization. My sense is that the charitable interpretation is that people are against it, but they don’t feel like they can challenge the Russian government. So they’re just gonna bide their time, the less charitable interpretation is that they’re simply apathetic, or that the Russians that are left are buying the propaganda. And they think this is a war for the Russian motherland, and for the glory of Russia and for Russia’s status as a great power. What we can say is that there have been, you know, there were some protests in Russia at the start of the war, but there have been no mass protests in Russia against the war. Nobody seems to be coming for Putin with a knife in the back to try and change the regime. And there doesn’t seem to be any kind of groundswell of political discontent that Putin is afraid of. He’s out there, you know, giving his speeches and sounding and looking fairly confident that he’s in control of things. So I don’t think I’m in a position to say that Russia is the average Russian person supports the war, they probably don’t, but for whatever reason, they can’t say that. And they’re not expressing that politically, it seems pretty clear that Putin and his cronies are still in charge. And that’s all that really matters.

Q: Yeah. If anybody thought that, you know, forcing the sale of Chelsea Football Club and seizing some yachts, it that that tactic doesn’t appear to have changed it, at least on the surface from 100,000 feet. I obviously don’t know,

JS: like, I had a Russian analyst on my podcast a month or two after the after the invasion. And he’s, I remember him saying, so we can’t have French wine. So what do you think we care? This is a fight for the sort of future of Russia? I’m reminded also of a month before the invasion, I believe it was the Russian ambassador to Sweden. I’m pretty sure that that’s right. It was one of those countries, was asked, you know, do do sanctions deter Russia against pursuing future military action. And I’m quoting him here, so you don’t you can pardon his French not mine. He literally said to the reporter, we don’t give a fuck about sanctions. Like that’s the way the Russian sort of political class thinks about it. You know, like, and that’s what I mean about that, that tried and true tactic of Russian endurance, like they will put up with more, this is more important to them, they will suffer more than, than even the inconvenience that the Europeans are willing to suffer. And I think Moscow has been surprised at the amount of suffering that Europe was willing to sign up for. But Europe also never really felt the suffering. The gas crisis didn’t emerge. There was winter, the warm winter. So like, Europe really hasn’t suffered and like now you’re gonna tell them oh, but this Ukraine thing is still going on. And now you have to worry about it for another winter. Like that’s the thing I think Russia is playing for, and the thing they have going in their favor.

Q: Where does China fit in to this? Is it a wildcard?

JS: I don’t think of China as a wildcard at all. In some ways, I find China to be the most predictable player on the global stage right now; that doesn’t mean it’s a stabilizing player. There’s a lot of volatility in China, but I don’t feel that China’s intentions are really confusing or secret in any meaningful way. China really doesn’t want to see the collapse of Russia. China really likes the idea of there being multiple powers out there that the United States has to deal with, it doesn’t want to be the one power that the United States has to focus on as a strategic rival. So if Russia fell apart, or became a liberal democracy, or join the European Union, and some sort of, you know, platonic ideal of a better universe, then China’s all by itself, and the United States can just focus on China

The other part of this is that the United States for years, and this is both the Trump administration and the Biden administration, if you look back at the national security strategies for both administrations, it’s very clear — they describe Russia and China as peer competitors. And when you treat Russia and China that way, in some ways, you’re forcing them to be friendly with each other. (But) there’s not a lot of love lost between Russia and China…but for as long as the United States is gonna say, Okay, it’s you know, China, one, a and Russia, one, B, China doesn’t really have a choice, it’s going to have to have some kind of relationship with Russia. And from China’s perspective, they need the oil, they need natural gas, they need agricultural commodities, and they need all these things that Russia has. So there’s a bit of an alliance of convenience there.

I would not make the mistake, though, of listening to all the flowery language and the you know, Xi and Putin and no limits to the partnership and things like that. That I don’t think is exactly true. China’s very pragmatic. If China had a better offer on the table, China might be willing to change its mind. The problem is that the West is just not willing to stomach what it would take to flip China. Now, this is not I’m not saying whether this is right or wrong. But to just to give you an example, yeah, if the United States was willing to put support for Taiwan on the table, and saying, Hey, we might change our policy on Taiwan, if you are willing to flip your policy on this Russia war, I think you would have Beijing’s attention, but the sort of compromises that would be necessary to peel China away from Russia, given everything that’s happened right now, I don’t think that the West can or will stomach those things, at least not until this conflict gets much, much worse.

Q: This all sounds very close to how misunderstanding and small events lead to the escalation of World War III. This is a massive geopolitical puzzle that we have not seen for a very long time, it is that correct?

JS: With most presentations and things that I do right now, I’ve been talking about a multipolar world. So I see a world in which there isn’t a dominant power, that there aren’t even two dominant powers — where you have Russia and China and India and Brazil and the United States, all these different powers asserting their own interests and looking out for themselves. There’s a version of the world, though that goes bipolar again, where it’s the United States versus China. And everybody sort of gets up on one side. And if China and Russia collapse in on themselves, suddenly we’re in a Unipolar Moment again.

I think geopolitics has become operative in a way that it hasn’t been for 30 years, because between the collapse of the Soviet Union, and you can we can debate about where it whether you date it with Trump’s election or the pandemic or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that period of time geopolitically was relatively stable. The United States was the top military, economic, political power in the world really didn’t have any rivals, and no one felt comfortable pushing back against that liberal world order. That’s changed. And the to your point, the the riddle, or the real question here is, does the United States reassert itself with its allies? Do we get this sort of US China bifurcated world? Or as I think, do we get this multipolar environment, which is a lot of volatility, a lot of uncertainty. But I also think, a lot of opportunity. I mean, there’s a lot of doom and gloom, and what we’re talking about in the war is incredibly depressing. But when you look at the last multipolar era, from the 1890s 1900s, there were wars and a lot of terrible things happen. But a lot of good things happened as well. And you know, not everything in the world is falling apart. A case in point, this is not world war three, this is a war between Russia and Ukraine. Nobody else is really, I mean, you can throw in Belarus, if you want. But that’s basically Russia. I mean, nobody else wants to or seems to be getting involved in this conflict anytime soon, in terms of boots on the ground, actual fighting, and I have no expectation that it will mushroom in that direction.

Q: So, how does this end?

JS: Analysts like me hate wars, because they remove many of the things that allow analysts who rely on fundamental factors to make predictions. A general could put a missile in the wrong place, and suddenly, we could be off to World War III. What if a Russian missile has a terrible failure in its guidance system and hits a neighbourhood in Warsaw? Like that could really changed things very meaningfully, and nothing, none of the beautiful ideas that I can scope here for you would be able to account for that. The fog of war is real. And once you’re in a war, unpredictable things like that can happen.

In terms of where we go from here, though, there’s a lot of uncertainty, I don’t have really good answers. For where I think we’re gonna go from here, I made the mistake last year of having some certainty that Russia wasn’t going to invade. And I really can’t make that mistake. Again, what I can tell you is that it doesn’t look like it’s going well for the Russian military. And that, I think that as long as Ukraine can maintain enough Western support for another 12 to 18 months at the current levels, they should be able to ward off any of these Russian attacks, and they should be able to maybe even push back a little bit. So I think eventually, I think things are still in Ukraine’s favour here. But they do have to continue ensuring political support from the West, and I don’t think Russia is just going to roll over.

You (might) get some kind of recognition that okay, Ukraine, you’re not going to get Crimea back, you’re not going to get this part of Donetsk, which is majority Russian anyway, back. Is there some way, like if you’re welcomed into NATO, is that enough of a security guarantee to let you give back some of that land? I’m rambling here and dancing around your question, because I don’t really know where it goes from here. I don’t think we can think in terms of two or three or five years. There’s an active war right now. And the the only things I can tell you is that the center of gravity is ‘Can Ukraine maintain political support and military support and economic support from the west?’ And is Russia willing to take the casualties in this meat grinder conflict moving forward right now? Both sides are locked in place, and they’re moving that direction, and it’s a contest for who’s going to wage out? I think if you put a gun to my head, I’d say I think Ukraine eventually is going to push the Russians back. But that’s probably my biases, because I don’t want to live in a world where where Russia wins this one.

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