Too many lives rest on a single man’s ego

John Fetterman


Fig. 1. There’s much too much of this kind of thing to be seen around Pittsburgh. Photograph taken by author through his windshield, May 17, 2022, just outside Braddock, Pennsylvania.

It looks like the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania will go to an automatic recount between Dave McCormick and Mehmet Oz, while arch-Trumpist Doug Mastriano will face Josh Shapiro for Pennsylvania governor in November. Donald Trump had endorsed both Oz and Mastriano and, yet again, polls were wrong, showing Kathy Barnette somewhat stronger than she proved to be.[1]

It looks like the conventional thinking is that Mastriano is too extreme to win against Shapiro. David Siders is right to express caution about that view, noting that the political situation for Democrats is worse than it was in 2016.[2] My own expectation, based unrepresentatively on what I see around southwestern Pennsylvania (see, for example, figure 1), remains that Mastriano will prevail.

In their newsletter, Rachel Bade, Eugene Daniels, and Ryan Lizza point out that “If [Mastriano] wins this fall, he’ll be in a position to nominate the next Pennsylvania secretary of state, a position that oversees elections in the key presidential battleground state.”[3]

I will not, at this point, predict an outcome in the race between John Fetterman, who has unsurprisingly prevailed on the Democratic side of the U.S. Senate race,[4] and a Republican to be named later. I might be wondering about this race for a while; I think the outcome will depend on nuances of Pennsylvania politics that—sorry, I’m still new here—I’m still gaining a sense for.

Natalie Allison, Zach Montellaro, and Ally Mutnick, “McCormick and Oz neck-and-neck in Pennsylvania as Fetterman gets Dem Senate nod,” Politico, May 18, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/05/17/gop-picks-swing-state-nominees-for-key-midterm-races-00033271

Rachel Bade, Eugene Daniels, and Ryan Lizza, “Takeaways from the biggest primary night of the year,” Politico, May 18, 2022, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/playbook/2022/05/18/takeaways-from-the-biggest-primary-night-of-the-year-00033345

David Siders, “‘Beware what you wish for’: 5 takeaways from a key primary night,” Politico, May 18, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/05/18/pennsylvania-north-carolina-oregon-primary-election-takeaways-00033339


Ukraine

With her use of a “wood chipper” analogy, Julia Ioffe sets up a binary between two possibilities: The first is Ukrainian victory over dismally-performing Russian troops. The second is a slow grinding away of Ukraine, which apparently Russia can (in quantitative terms) sustain indefinitely, slowly feeding the country to “[Vladimir] Putin’s Wood Chipper.” My sense of this article[5] is that Ioffe, while brilliant and indispensable in understanding Kremlin psychology and in offering insight into the Russian people, is perhaps overreaching in military matters.

It remains the case that the Russian military has performed astonishingly abysmally, failing even at basic tasks of warcraft.[6] And it remains the case that Putin has declined any “off-ramp” and is now boxed in, unwilling to admit defeat, unable to claim victory, unwilling to declare war (as opposed to a “special military operation”), unable to make significant gains without doing so and potentially facing serious consequences if he does.[7] It’s important not to give an incompetent and delusional madman more credit than he deserves. His failure remains a failure. His calculation remains, to put it ludicrously mildly, a miscalculation. His persistence is nothing even remotely like victory. He is, in fact and as I have been saying since January, an idiot and he fucked the hell up.[8]

All that said, there are at least two fallacies in play here: First, binaries are often false dichotomies. And second, as this war has amply demonstrated, quantitative capability is not qualitative capability. I doubt as a practical and political matter that Russia can hold out as long as Ioffe’s experts imply. But it also remains the case that the West’s response has failed to dissuade Putin. There is some question, even if there is as yet no sign of the West relenting in its support for Ukraine, whether the West will in fact relent. There is also no sign that Ukraine will be able to dislodge Russia from Ukrainian territory.[9] Putin’s persistence could yet pay off. I think it is more likely, not necessarily probable, but more likely that Ukraine prevails after a long and horribly destructive war.

The difficulty here remains that where Russia’s conventional forces may be stymied, its unconventional—I continue to think nuclear—forces are untested. If the Kremlin really sees this war, whether it chooses to call it one or not, as existential, whether really for Kremlin political survival or Russia’s survival, Putin may very well decide he has nothing to lose by pushing that big red button.[10] It might be difficult, again in quantitative terms, to see how going nuclear improves Russia’s military situation,[11] but it might, indeed, be a desperate Putin’s only hope, however slender and even at the cost of however many lives, for a face-saving way out.

Matthew Lee, “US, Western Europe fret over uncertain Ukraine war endgame,” Associated Press, May 11, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-europe-western-nato-a990adcad47a34764d64b03bdcd69f7b

Dominic Nicholls, Joe Barnes, and JohnJo Devlin, “Finland and Sweden joining Nato shows just how terribly Vladimir Putin has miscalculated,” Telegraph, May 11, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/05/11/finland-sweden-joining-nato-shows-just-terribly-vladimir-putin/

Sune Engel Rasmussen, “Finland Says It Will Apply to Join NATO in Response to Russia’s Ukraine Invasion,” Wall Street Journal, May 12, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/finlands-leaders-announce-intention-to-apply-for-nato-membership-11652340796

Pjotr Sauer, “‘They were furious’: the Russian soldiers refusing to fight in Ukraine,” Guardian, May 12, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/12/they-were-furious-the-russian-soldiers-refusing-to-fight-in-ukraine

Mark Trevelyan, “Russia says Finnish entry to NATO poses threat to which it will respond,” Reuters, May 12, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/kremlin-says-finland-joining-nato-is-definitely-threat-russia-2022-05-12/

Lawrence Freedman, “When will Vladimir Putin realise it is time to cut his losses in Ukraine?” New Statesman, May 13, 2022, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/ukraine/2022/05/war-in-ukraine-putin-losses

Ross Douthat, “There Are Two Endgames in Ukraine. Both Carry Big Risks,” New York Times, May 14, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/14/opinion/ukraine-russia-putin-biden.html

Natalia Drozdiak, “NATO Expansion Could Finally Shore Up Alliance’s Weakest Flank,” Bloomberg, May 14, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-14/ukraine-war-nato-expansion-could-finally-shore-up-alliance-s-weakest-flank

Liz Sly, “Russia is furious that Finland is joining NATO but can’t do much about it,” Washington Post, May 14, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/05/14/finland-russia-nato-ukraine-retaliation/

Joe Barnes, “Sweden’s bid to join Nato ‘shows Vladimir Putin’s aggression doesn’t pay,’” Telegraph, May 15, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/05/15/sweden-set-follow-finland-joining-nato-despite-threats-vladimir/

Bloomberg, “Ukraine Latest: NATO Embraces Sweden, Finland; US Aid Vote Nears,” May 15, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-15/ukraine-latest-nato-has-frank-talks-with-turkey-on-accession

Deutschewelle, “Finland officially announces support for NATO membership,” May 15, 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/finland-officially-announces-support-for-nato-membership/a-61803764

Deutschewelle, “NATO: Turkey outlines demands on Finland and Sweden membership,” May 15, 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/nato-turkey-outlines-demands-on-finland-and-sweden-membership/a-61806003

Kati Pohjanpalo and Niclas Rolander, “Finland, Sweden Set to Seek NATO Entry in Historic Shift,” Bloomberg, May 15, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-15/finland-sweden-set-to-apply-for-nato-entry-in-historic-shift

Richard Spencer, “Third of Russian invaders destroyed,” Times, May 15, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/third-of-russian-invaders-destroyed-002xrvfsq

Guardian, “Russians and Ukrainians battle around Izium as Sweden joins Finland in Nato bid,” May 16, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/16/russians-and-ukrainians-battle-around-izium-as-sweden-joins-finland-in-nato-bid

Jon Henley, “Turkey says it will not approve Sweden and Finland joining Nato,” Guardian, May 16, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/16/russia-finland-sweden-nato-ukraine-war

Matthew Karnitschnig, “Europe’s leaders fall out of key on Ukraine,” Politico, May 16, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/europes-leaders-fall-out-of-key-on-ukraine/

Jared Malsin, “Turkey Lays Out Demands as Finland, Sweden Plan NATO Entry,” Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/turkey-lays-out-demands-as-finland-sweden-plan-nato-entry-11652722492

John Revill, “Neutral Switzerland leans closer to NATO in response to Russia,” Reuters, May 16, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/markets/europe/neutral-switzerland-leans-closer-nato-response-russia-2022-05-15/

Julia Ioffe, “Putin’s Wood Chipper,” Puck News, May 17, 2022, https://puck.news/putins-wood-chipper/

Rozina Sabur and Nataliya Vasilyeva, “Wounded Ukrainian defenders rescued from Mariupol steelworks to be exchanged for captive Russians,” Telegraph, May 17, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/05/16/russia-says-willing-evacuate-wounded-ukrainian-troops-mariupol/

Emily Rauhala, “Finland and Sweden formally apply for NATO membership,” Washington Post, May 18, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/05/18/finland-sweden-nato-apply/


  1. [1]Natalie Allison, Zach Montellaro, and Ally Mutnick, “McCormick and Oz neck-and-neck in Pennsylvania as Fetterman gets Dem Senate nod,” Politico, May 18, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/05/17/gop-picks-swing-state-nominees-for-key-midterm-races-00033271
  2. [2]David Siders, “‘Beware what you wish for’: 5 takeaways from a key primary night,” Politico, May 18, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/05/18/pennsylvania-north-carolina-oregon-primary-election-takeaways-00033339
  3. [3]Rachel Bade, Eugene Daniels, and Ryan Lizza, “Takeaways from the biggest primary night of the year,” Politico, May 18, 2022, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/playbook/2022/05/18/takeaways-from-the-biggest-primary-night-of-the-year-00033345
  4. [4]Natalie Allison, Zach Montellaro, and Ally Mutnick, “McCormick and Oz neck-and-neck in Pennsylvania as Fetterman gets Dem Senate nod,” Politico, May 18, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/05/17/gop-picks-swing-state-nominees-for-key-midterm-races-00033271
  5. [5]Julia Ioffe, “Putin’s Wood Chipper,” Puck News, May 17, 2022, https://puck.news/putins-wood-chipper/
  6. [6]William Booth, Robyn Dixon, and David L. Stern, “Russian generals are getting killed at an extraordinary rate,” Washington Post, March 26, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/26/ukraine-russan-generals-dead/; Larisa Brown, Charlie Parker, and Richard Spencer, “Ukraine forces ‘counter-attack’ as Russia loses estimated 7,000 troops and 230 tanks,” Times, March 18, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ukraine-crisis-world-war-three-may-have-already-started-warns-zelensky-f5fs72vq5; Larisa Brown and Richard Spencer, “Struggling Russians ‘plant mines’ and dig in for a long war,” Times, March 21, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/retroville-mall-a-symbol-of-new-kyiv-is-destroyed-by-cruise-missile-0znsr9zc9; Robert Burns, “Russia’s failure to take down Kyiv was a defeat for the ages,” Associated Press, April 6, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-war-battle-for-kyiv-dc559574ce9f6683668fa221af2d5340; Helene Cooper, Julian E. Barnes, and Eric Schmitt, “As Russian Troop Deaths Climb, Morale Becomes an Issue, Officials Say,” New York Times, March 16, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/16/us/politics/russia-troop-deaths.html; Mark Galeotti, “How does Putin extract himself from this nightmare of his own making?” Times, March 5, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/how-does-putin-extract-himself-from-this-nightmare-of-his-own-making-v2ktvw08g; Michael R. Gordon and Alex Leary, “Russia, Failing to Achieve Early Victory in Ukraine, Is Seen Shifting to ‘Plan B,’” Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-failing-to-achieve-early-victory-in-ukraine-is-seen-shifting-to-plan-b-11647824374; Jon Henley, “Russia laments ‘tragedy’ of troop deaths as Zelenskiy warns of atrocities in Borodyanka,” Guardian, April 8, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/08/russia-laments-tragedy-of-troop-deaths-as-zelenskiy-warns-of-atrocities-in-borodyanka; Jon Henley, Pjotr Sauer, and Shaun Walker, “‘Ukrainians are not naive’: Zelenskiy voices doubt on Russian military withdrawals,” Guardian, March 29, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/29/ukraine-russia-peace-talks-istanbul-war-kyiv; Richard Kemp, “The Russian army has run out of time,” Telegraph, March 22, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/2022/03/22/russian-army-has-run-time/; Dan Lamothe, Alex Horton, and Karoun Demirjian, “Ukraine’s military adapts tactics after enduring Russia’s initial invasion,” Washington Post, March 5, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/03/05/ukraine-military-strategy/; Eric Levitz, “Putin’s War Looks Increasingly Insane,” New York, March 4, 2022, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2022/03/putins-war-looks-increasingly-insane.html; Matthew Luxmoore, “Russia Refocuses on Ukraine’s East After Month of Heavy Losses,” Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-refocuses-on-ukraines-east-after-month-of-heavy-losses-11648243627; James Mackenzie, Natalia Zinets, and Oleksandr Kozhukhar, “Russia getting bogged down in Ukraine, Western nations say,” Reuters, March 17, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/shells-hit-theatre-sheltering-ukraine-civilians-biden-calls-putin-war-criminal-2022-03-17/; Justin McCurry, Samantha Lock, and Luke Harding, “Russia targeting cities as strength of Ukraine’s resistance ‘continues to surprise’, UK says,” Guardian, March 6, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/06/biden-and-zelenskiy-discuss-more-aid-for-ukraine-as-russian-attacks-intensify; Ashley Parker et al., “‘No off-ramps’: U.S. and European officials don’t see a clear endgame in Ukraine,” Washington Post, March 11, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/03/10/ukraine-end-game/; Nebi Qena and Yuras Karmanau, “Russia shifts focus to try to grind Ukraine’s army in east,” Associated Press, March 28, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-putin-kyiv-business-europe-7386a5893a3b43bad7e438cfe45468c2; David Remnick, “The Weakness of the Despot,” New Yorker, March 11, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/stephen-kotkin-putin-russia-ukraine-stalin; Dan Sabbagh, “Is an outright Russian military victory in Ukraine possible?” Guardian, March 17, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/17/is-an-outright-russian-military-victory-in-ukraine-possible; Jamie Seidel, “Russia-Ukraine War: Putin’s Plan B is failing as Russian troops ‘pushed out’ of Donbas,” New Zealand Herald, May 7, 2022, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/russia-ukraine-war-putins-plan-b-is-failing-as-russian-troops-pushed-out-of-donbas/H73PJNRK3TJDUIN7YUCMI4DNM4/; Liz Sly and Max Bearak, “Russia pulls back from battered Kyiv region in major shift of war to east,” Washington Post, April 2, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/02/russia-ukraine-east/; Liz Sly and Dan Lamothe, “Russia’s war for Ukraine could be headed toward stalemate,” Washington Post, March 20, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/20/russia-ukraine-military-offensive/; Richard Spencer, “Third of Russian invaders destroyed,” Times, May 15, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/third-of-russian-invaders-destroyed-002xrvfsq; Lorenzo Tondo, Luke Harding, and Isobel Koshiw, “Russia takes Donbas town but Ukrainian frontline ‘still holding,’” Guardian, April 19, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/19/ukraine-war-battle-for-donbas-has-begun-russia-launches-offensive
  7. [7]Max Boot, “Putin is trapped in a quagmire and doesn’t know how to get out,” Washington Post, May 9, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/05/09/putin-victory-day-russia-ukraine-quagmire/; Will Dunn, “‘He has embarked on a war he can’t stop’: Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Putin’s next move,” New Statesman, May 3, 2022, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/ukraine/2022/05/he-has-embarked-on-a-war-he-cant-stop-mikhail-khodorkovsky-on-putins-next-move; Christian Esch, Susanne Koelbl, and Fritz Schaap, “Putin’s Disaster and What Could Happen Next,” Spiegel, May 6, 2022, https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/putin-s-disaster-and-what-could-happen-next-a-e8c89bfa-b7a3-4e32-908a-7642a301eda6; Lawrence Freedman, “When will Vladimir Putin realise it is time to cut his losses in Ukraine?” New Statesman, May 13, 2022, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/ukraine/2022/05/war-in-ukraine-putin-losses; Richard Kemp, “Vladimir Putin’s military cupboard is bare,” Telegraph, May 3, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/05/03/vladimir-putins-military-cupboard-bare/; Pjotr Sauer, “‘They were furious’: the Russian soldiers refusing to fight in Ukraine,” Guardian, May 12, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/12/they-were-furious-the-russian-soldiers-refusing-to-fight-in-ukraine
  8. [8]David Benfell, “Vladimir Putin is a fool,” Not Housebroken, May 10, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/01/24/vladimir-putin-is-a-fool/
  9. [9]Julia Ioffe, “Putin’s Wood Chipper,” Puck News, May 17, 2022, https://puck.news/putins-wood-chipper/
  10. [10]David Benfell, “Nuclear survival,” Not Housebroken, May 17, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/03/13/nuclear-survival/
  11. [11]Lawrence Freedman, “A ‘strategic nuclear exchange’ would offer Putin zero military gains,” New Statesman, May 4, 2022, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/ukraine/2022/05/a-strategic-nuclear-exchange-would-offer-putin-zero-military-gains

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