Ukraine, the Time I Toured a Russian Warship

Welcome back! A change in topic today. I’ll get back to game design next time, but I have to admit I’m paying a lot of attention to what’s going on in Ukraine and trying to guess what comes next.

It’s fair to say the Ukraine-Russia relationship is long and complicated. In some ways, Ukraine is the “Texas of Russia”—a onetime independent frontier that embodies things we think of as very Russian, like Cossacks or Kievan Rus. It was pretty much incorporated into Imperial Russia in the middle of the 1700s. Right now, it’s something of a historical anomaly that Ukraine isn’t ruled from Moscow.

That said, Ukrainian sovereignty was bought and paid for by giving up what would have been the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world (the Budapest Agreement). Vladimir Putin complains about NATO breaking a promise not to expand to former Warsaw Pact nations, but he’s broken big promises too.

What I Think

I don’t like the idea of giving Putin a free hand to do what he wants in eastern Europe. Maybe we don’t have the strategic interest in Ukraine that Russia does, but I have to imagine that if he successfully Belarus-izes Ukraine, he’ll target the Baltics next. We’ve got a NATO obligation to fight there, and frankly it would be better to stop Russian revanchism with the strategic depth (and army) of Ukraine than to try it in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

So, I think our best policy would look something like this:

  • Economic sanctions, yes, of course. Goes without saying. If there’s a way to take Russian oil off the world market, we should. Or even pushing down the price of oil by increasing production elsewhere. Putin’s a lot less scary when oil is $50 a barrel than when it’s $100.
  • Support Ukraine with everything short of ground troops. Back in the Korean War Soviet MiGs protected North Korea’s airspace from US bombing missions. I think the possibility of F-22s and F-35s intercepting Russian airstrikes would do a lot to deter an attack, or protect population centers from indiscriminate bombardment if it doesn’t.
  • Extend NATO’s protection to Finland and Sweden. No other country should face the prospect of Russian aggression alone. Russia’s eying the strategic Swedish island of Gotland; we should stop that nonsense now.
  • Get heavy US ground forces into Poland and the Baltics ASAP. We might not send ground forces into non-NATO territory, but we should make it clear that we’re ready to defend any country already in NATO.

Unfortunately, this would have been a good policy for deterring the attack three months ago. If we did something like this now with the goal of making sure Putin loses the fight for Ukraine, then we’ll be dealing with a sociopath whose political survival might depend on escalating his way to victory. Vladimir Putin with nothing left to lose is a scary damned prospect.

What If We Do Nothing?

My instinct is to stand up to bullies, even if you get your nose bloodied. But you can make an argument that defeating Putin might push him into a nuclear war, and that’s the absolute worst possible outcome. It’s also true that standing up to Putin is driving Russia into an alliance with China, which is a far more dangerous long-term threat. I don’t think that can be stopped now, though.

If there was a way to buy Russia with Ukraine (ignoring the morality of such a move), maybe you could justify appeasement—the end of that historical anomaly of Ukrainian independence, you might say. But the cost would also include the Baltics, Poland, Romania, and Hungary. Putin wants the Soviet empire back, and he won’t be satisfied until he gets it.

Sometimes bad people don’t give you easy choices.

The Time I Toured a Russian Warship

Back in my Navy days, I had the opportunity to tour a couple of Soviet warships (yes, Soviet, it was still the CCCP then). In 1989 a small flotilla made a port visit at the Norfolk Naval Base, and I went over to see the Russian ships with a few other officers from my unit. Naturally they limited our access to just the weather decks and the wardroom—no close looks at the bridge, the engines, or the combat information center. But it was still very interesting to walk around the ship.

Marshal Ustinov was a Slava-class cruiser (and still in service today). The Slavas are some of the most intimidating-looking warships afloat, with 16 huge missile tubes prominently featured on each side of the superstructure. Those tubes housed one P-500 Bazalt missile each, although we called them SS-N-12 Sandboxes because we didn’t know what the Soviets called them. The Bazalt was designed as a carrier-killer, a Mach 3+ weapon carrying a 1,000-kilo warhead to a range of 300 miles. They’re simply huge; when you see them up close, those missile tubes look like they’re the size of a school bus. The Soviets knew they wouldn’t get many swings at a US carrier, so they wanted to make sure that even one hit would put a big ship like a carrier out of action. Marshal Ustinov’s whole purpose for existing was to find a way to get within 300 miles of a carrier and fire off a salvo of gigantic shipkillers (although it’s also a good anti-air platform with long-range SA-6 missiles).

Otlichny was a Sovremenny-class destroyer. She was relatively new at the time, but retired from service in the late ‘90s with the general drawdown of Russian naval power that followed the end of the Cold War. The Sovremenny-class ships were primarily anti-air platforms, but they also had dangerous cruise missiles—in this case, SS-N-22 Sunburn missiles. Those we worried about, because they flew at Mach 2+ and were sea-skimmers. You don’t get much reaction time against a low-flying missile going that fast.

Anyway, Marshal Ustinov and Otlichny were freshly painted and all tidied up for their port visit to the US Navy’s biggest base. We hardly exchanged a word with the Russians aboard, who mostly stood around with a few nervous smiles watching us follow the marked tour route. The one thing that stood out to us during our tour (other than the gigantic missiles): the Slava had exactly one firefighting station topside. A US warship of the same size would have half a dozen, easy. Damage control was an afterthought for the Soviet naval designers—if a Slava lived long enough to fire off her missiles, whatever happened next just didn’t matter.

(We also noted that all the shoring stored around the ship was painted into its brackets. I guess it looked better that way, but if you ever needed it in a hurry you’d have a heck of a time getting it.)

What I’m Reading: Powers and Thrones, by Dan Jones. It’s a big-picture history of the Middle Ages, starting with the fall of the western Roman Empire. I like to mix some “popular history” titles into my reading list, because I find that being informed about history is a great way to generate insights and inspirations for my writing. A year or two back I read another of Jones’s books, Crusaders. I think I liked that one a little better, but Powers and Thrones filled in some blanks for me (like how Rome gave way to Ostrogoths and Visigoths and such). It’s a good read so far.

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