Clint Ehrlich: What I got wrong about Ukraine
The Russia realist speaks about his recent change of heart
The recent Ukrainian offensive against Russia has seen an apparent reversal of fortunes. The army, as it pushes further towards the Russian border, has recaptured swathes of territory and pushed back Russia’s army near Kharkiv.
But reading the runes on this kind of warfare can be fraught with difficulty. And several questions linger: Is this bringing the conflict closer to peace? Or will we see an effective counter offensive by the Russians? Is there an end in sight? And what might the resolution of this conflict look like?
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Clint Ehrlich is an analyst commonly accused of being too ‘pro-Putin’. He belongs squarely to the ‘realist’ side of the argument — critical of NATO provocations, eager for a negotiated settlement. In the past few days, however, he has done that rare thing among commentators, and admitted he made a mistake. The success of the Ukrainian offensive took him by surprise, and he is now vocally critical of Putin’s strategy.
His change of perspective — alongside observations within the Russian side – confirms that cracks are beginning to emerge within the Russian sphere. Even allies of Putin are starting to cast doubts on the operation.
“To see Russia fall back and hand this territory over to the Ukrainian military, from the perspective of Russians, is really a fundamental betrayal. It calls into question the effectiveness of Russia’s military leadership,” he says.
“It’s important” he adds, “not to think that this is bringing us close to an end to the war – that isn’t happening at all – but it is decisive in a psychological sense. This is probably the worst defeat that Russia has suffered since the first Chechen War.”
The events that unfolded the past week were mostly the product of a Russian power vacuum in the region, revealing a major impasse Putin will have to overcome in order to recoup his support.
Since its outset, the invasion has been called a Special Military Operation rather than a war – leaving the Kharkiv region occupied by paramilitary forces that did not have appropriate weapons. Russia is defending regions with insufficient troops on the ground, unable to fully mobilise its resources, left to fight “with one hand tied behind its back.” But Putin does not want to generate internal civil unrest by admitting he may have to escalate further into full war-mobilisation.
“Russia has already downsized its aims in this war, and this defeat just further calls into question its ability to achieve even those.”
The political landscape, then, means there is not exactly an equal playing field between the two sides. Ukraine already has a manpower advantage. But more importantly, we should not view this so much as a direct conflict between Ukraine and Russia but rather a conflict between the combined resources of the West and Russia, Ehrlich points out.
Nevertheless, Russia’s failure to fully capture Ukraine has confounded many strategy experts. Ehrlich took the same view early on in the conflict as much of the American intelligence community, believing Russia “would be able to achieve a quick, decisive victory in Ukraine.”
“Instead what we’ve seen is that the Russian military has struggled just to take this small portion of Ukrainian territory. It’s been humbled in this conflict. And so, the risk of Russia as a revanchist power realistically has diminished in the wake of this conflict, not increased.”
Of course this does not assuage the pervasive global anxiety that Putin may be willing to resort to nuclear escalation. The sticking point here, says Ehrlich, would be any Ukrainian advance into the Crimean peninsula. He claims that within Russia, Crimea is viewed as their own sovereign territory just like Moscow or St Petersburg. And as such, “there is really no limit to what Russia would do to defend that territory, including the use of nuclear weapons.”
Ehrlich is not convinced that a negotiated settlement is politically viable for President Zelensky. He is, to a certain extent, at the behest of the nationalist forces in his country. And it is not unlikely that Zelensky would face internal military opposition if he conceded any territory to Russia – something this contingent of nationalists would see as a seismic betrayal of Ukraine.
Some suggest that a forceful removal of Putin from office may hasten the end of the conflict. But Ehrlich does think he can be ousted “in any sort of dramatic fashion.” It is more likely that Russia’s constitution will not be amended in order to grant him additional time in office, and he will step down in an orderly transition of power with a tarnished legacy.
But even if that were come to pass, “I think we would see a more nationalist leader rise to power in Russia. And I believe that in hindsight Putin may look like a moderate compared to what’s to come.”
What’s especially amusing about this is that even though he’s accepted he was wrong, he’s STILL wrong, and for exactly the same reason.
Fundamentally, the failure of Ehrlich to get this is down to his failure to credit Ukraine itself with any agency.
If he could just realise that Ukrainians are people too, he might actually get somewhere.
Good point. I think though that a degree of caution along the lines of Erlich’s general position is still advisable. Erlich is not wrong to maintain that NATO’s provocations prior to this conflict were bad idea and that the West must bear some responsibility for this. He is quite correct.
More generally while I would love for it to be true that Ukraine’s victory is now in sight, I think this may be a dangerous presumption. It’s not over yet and the tide may yet turn.
I beg your pardon, but you seem to be suffering from the same illness as Ehrlich, since you, too, are denying the right of Ukrainians to have their own will.
Since I’m from Mariupol and know a little more about what’s going on than you and Ehrlich put together, let me say something, which I think is somewhat more accurate.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is the result of internal processes that took place in Russia and Ukraine after the collapse of the USSR. I won’t go into details, but your NATO, your West have nothing to do with what happened.
Now you can only choose a side in this conflict, the side of Russia, like Ehrlich (or Quisling, if you like), or the side of Ukraine.
But remember, what means to be in the middle today. The middle is Vichy France
There’s an arguable case that there were EU “provocations”, though none that justified invasion followed by war crimes against civilians, but there were no provocations by NATO.
The start of this conflict actually came from Putin’s stooge, Yanukovich. For all his corruption, he still wanted Ukraine to be a rich western nation.
That, of course, is not consistent with the “Russian World,” where Europeans are clueless cowards who must give in to Russian demands. Ukrainians, on the other hand, are mere puppets, who by rights “belong” to Russia, and must always be poor cousins to the glorious empire centered on Moscow and St P.
Putin quite rightly reined in Yanuk, who was then overthrown by outraged Ukrainians. Since they had no agency themselves (how could they? They are part of a Russian World ruled from the Kremlin!), this HAD to be a CIA coup. Putin then quite rightly sent in his troops.
But having failed in both 2014 and 2022, Putin now knows that the conspiracy goes much deeper than he ever suspected.
It’s almost as if reality itself is constructed differently than the Russian World.
Which is an outrage that he will soon correct!
NATO’s provocations prior to this conflict – what provocations, then? Being from a small country who joined NATO, hoping not to fall back to the embrace of the Russki Mir, I think it’s outrageous to suggest that was imposed by NATO somehow. So, let’s be more specific. What provocations?
Maybe there’s a familial curse on prognostications by people named Ehrlich — even though it means ‘honest’ in German. In 1970 Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted huge famines killing hundreds of millions a year during that decade, and that “all important sea life” would go extinct. He also bet “even money” that by 2000 the UK would “no longer exist”.
I remember the Simon-Ehrlich wager. Paul Ehrlich and the neo-Malthusians are such muppets!
«Ehrlich is not convinced that a negotiated settlement is politically viable for President Zelensky. He is, to a certain extent, at the behest of the nationalist forces in his country» – People who want to take back what was taken from them are nationalists (i.e. very bad people).
Thanks Ehrlich! Now I know that robbing, raping, killing is not a sin.
Sin is resistance to robbery, raping and murder.
Do you write for the Guardian?
Do you write for Pravda?
Address the point mate, and drop the ad hominem deflection.
“Nevertheless, Russia’s failure to fully capture Ukraine has confounded many strategy experts. Ehrlich took the same view early on in the conflict as much of the American intelligence community, believing Russia “would be able to achieve a quick, decisive victory in Ukraine.””
I’m no intelligence expert, and I don’t think many Unherd readers are either, but there were plenty of us on this forum who thought Putin dropped a huge one as soon as he invaded Ukraine.
It was clearly a stupid move, and only Putin fans on this forum, who thought he could do no wrong, had a touching faith in his political and military ‘genius’.
4d chess mate. 😉
My apologies for underestimating your skills Ian! (I don’t even know how to add an emoji!)
My geopolitics training was limited to the board game ‘Diplomacy’. Took bleedin’ ages to play, and amazed my late dad had the patience to play it with me.
It was so obvious what was afoot when Putin lined up 100,000 troops along the whole border waiting for the heavy January/February frosts that would allow them to enter Ukraine on a wide front right along the border.. The frosts never came and the first few attempts to advance were bogged down so they set off down the main highway to become sitting ducks when Ukraine blew the bridges in front and behind.. A typical problem when troops are told to “get it done” by idiots in the background!
WTF does that last line appear to indicate ??? You cant leave us hanging like that !
We are entering the Psychotic Phase of Russia’s war.
Apparently Russian tellie commentators are finally acknowledging the depth of Russia’s losses–and demanding that Ukraine be destroyed. All civilian infrastructure must be obliterated. 20 million Ukrainians must be forced to leave for Europe–presumably to destabilize it via immigration.
Since this will fall most heavily on people in the east and south, the sad irony is that these are the very Russophones that Putin is claiming to help. So, it was never about saving anybody. It was always about power–trying to make a medium-sized nation with a dysfunctional govt and army into a superpower again.
Like Hitler’s very similar vengeance actions in the last days of his regime, this will do nothing to make Russia into anything but a desperately poor country with a broken military that can never be rebuilt.
But in the “Russian World,” reality doesn’t matter anymore.
What happened to my comment?
Better think about who comes after Putin.
Now that Russia is on the defensive, it’s only a matter of time. On a front this size, Russia can’t be strong everywhere. That’s why they had to place police units and elderly conscripts on the front lines in Kharkiv Oblast.
Moreover, Putin still can’t mobilize. The nation would revolt. Pro-war bloggers may talk about it. But none of them have volunteered to go to the front. The Ukrainian Army will always outnumber Russia’s, and has newer and better weapons.
The army that Russia spent 20 years building is now largely destroyed, with much of its equpt. Cutting off gas to the West insures it will never have the money to restore it.
So, better also start thinking about what comes after Russia.
Esteemed commentator Oleg Zhdanov has noted, with respect to those teachers who came out to Ukraine to brainwash the local children, that they are liable to criminal prosecution and, as non-combatants, not protected by the Geneva Convention. So if they fall into Ukrainian hands, they will rot in jail for ten years. So be it!
This is childish nonsense. Russia attacked Ukraine . Russia never said that it would attack Ukraine if …. . No threat was made by Russia. It just lied day after day then attacked. It has never stated its war aims. And now it is going to lose and look incredibly weak. Putin of Course will be removed.
Ok, lets look at this…who is in charge of this conflict.
Zalenski with a coalition of Oligarchs and Military/Political leaders.
This guy says Zalenski cannot negotiate part way with Putin because his coalition would break up – so according to this Ukraine cannot stop this runaway train.
Putin cannot negotiate without Ukraine yielding real stuff at the table (and it seems they cannot politically) because it would ruin him.
OK – got that, two tigers holding each other by the tail and neither can let go or the other one will get to bite them. Stalemate. But……. Biden. I think this has been a Biden/Putin war from the start.
Biden can tell Ukraine what the deal is. He can make the Ukraine factions take what he says, or he can just walk away with his war enabling weapons, Intelligence, and $60,000,000,000 of money which is doing All kinds of things –
But Biden will not do that because he is owned by the Neo-Cons, and is one, and needs this distraction, and needs to act strong for Nov 8, and the MSM is 100% pro war for reasons maybe a bit dark and the MSM is all which is Keeping Biden propped up.
It is all Biden’s group, he is funding this, supplying this, getting the MSM to agendize this for War. I was supprised how Freddy left Biden out. Biden is essentially sitting on Freddie’s desk for the whole interview –
(and some Uniparty Rino Republicans too, to be truthful)
I like the cut of your jib.
The readership here do love war, want a lot of down votes? Say war is bad and negotiated settlements are good. Look at how the above did….
Could also be that they just don’t like sniveling compliance with a dictator’s idiotic fantasies.
Just a thought.
So it was the Americans that forced Russia to invade Ukraine?
Or is it more likely that the Americans are taking advantage of Putins ineptitude, and by arming Ukraine have the chance to severely weaken one of their rivals?
The latter Billy Bob.
Though I sometimes wonder if Putin isn’t inept, but really a CIA agent infiltrated into the Kremlin to destroy Russia – he’s been so successful in this goal that I can’t believe it’s ineptitude.
OK – then say during the Falklands war if Russia armed, say with Billions of high tech weapons, the Argentinians. Or say USA in Nicaragua, or France in Mali, and the Russians armed the other side…
Look – take a regional war which is not in our interests, and not our business – make it into a Global war – THIS IS BAD. War is Bad, so making it worse is (to use the words of your soon to be NWO Masters, Double-Plus-Bad (if you know your Orwell))
And you MSM believers are for making it Global War??????? The third world does not have fertilizer and many will starve, many hanging on be reduced to abject poverty by energy prices, because Biden and his mini-me Boris thought they would get stuck in this war because some of their friends stand to make Billions out of it…….
You fat cats being all war mongering because you can afford it – does not make it right.
Again, Zelensky should never have invaded Russia.
I hope we can all agree on that.
What point are you trying to make with your hypothetical about the Argies being armed by the Soviets? I fail to see any relevance at all.
Russia has armed many states around the world that it wants to bring into its orbit, the same as the Americans, British, Iranians, Saudis, French and numerous others. Why shouldn’t countries sell weapons to other nations who are in dire need of them?
Trying to blame Ukraine or those assisting her for the food shortages is the biggest load of nonsense I’ve ever read. The blame for that lies solely on Russia, it was they that launched an unprovoked invasion
By regional you mean European, given Putins “nibbling” of countries that border Russia it could soon be Russia vs EU
To Europeans “regional “ is not the neighbouring country
This line of “thought” is unbelievably illogical and puerile.
War is bad and Putin started a particularly nasty one, deliberately trying to grab land and attacking civilians. You argue that he should be allowed to reap immense benefits, so that any nasty regime with a friend amongst the permanent members of the UNSC (veto power) will be allowed to invade its neighbours.
If you’re constructing your very own private conspiracy theory, why don’t you just say:
“The Hidden Hand of World Capital ?!”
By their very nature, conspiracy theories are simplistic, and designed to appeal the people who are not very bright.
So, next time, don’t overcomplicate things.
“I think this has been a Biden/Putin war from the start.”
Tsarist thieving thug invades neighbouring country.
I know, let’s blame the Americans!
Is it really a “Ukraine offensive” or Russia pulling out of territory not part of Donbass and regrouping inside the disputed provinces. Bear in mind that 100% of info about the war comes from Zelensky and the US pro-Ukraine “intelligence” community. Don’t bet money on this being the big setback the media is representing it to be.
We have authenticated video and photos of all the abandoned equipment. It was a rout. The Russians ran like hell.
Also, losing the supply depots and rail heads at Kupyansk and Izyum will be devastating to any attempt to take the rest of Donetsk oblast. In short, the Russians would never have voluntarily given them up.
I wonder if people were asking the same question during the last Hundred Days offensive in October 1918
“Pulling out” by leaving behind tanks, mortars and ammunition?
Russian commentators are confirming. They fell for the oldest trick in the book and had their ass handed to them. It’s awesome!
Indeed, Germany in 1944 led the Allies into that gigantic trap that saved Hitler’s regime.
Good job we have you to keep us right Sam lol
I feel your pain Sam. Your rapist battalions running like gazelles
A month ago people like you were claiming that Russia’s fallback to the Donbas and Luhansk regions were what it had intended all along, and that anyone who believed that Russia’s original intent was to capture Kyiv was merely fooled by anti-Russian propaganda.
When will you give up with such nonsense?
Sam you’re very funny – you should go on stage!
No Russian media reports the war, it’s just that nobody believes them
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