On the war in Ukraine | Random thoughts | Who I am | Yaniv Hamo

On the war in Ukraine

A weird thought that came to me in a dream last night, don't read too much into it.

Managers in large corporations are often tasked with implementing re-org decisions made by higher ups in a way that ensures continuity of work for their reports. These decisions are made by VPs and directors in smoky rooms, well in advance hidden from the workers. Numerous times in my career I faced the challenge of delivering the message about a feature that is to be abandoned, or an entire project that has become redundant. Outright cancelling a feature risks people losing trust in leadership, always fearing that anything they work on can be taken from them the next day. It is also painful to part from something you have vested so much effort into, having the chance of seeing it through be stolen away from you. Shutting down a project can result in a chaotic scramble to find other teams and sometimes outright panic.

One of the tactics I use is to try and convey, gently, what makes the feature no longer necessary, so that the engineers end up proposing themselves to cancel it. Once it is their idea, everything becomes simpler. But every once in a while, an engineer would get so vested into a feature, that they insist on continuing to work on it. Instead of outright denying this, I would play along, allowing the engineer to continue working on the feature, even though it is completely clear to me that it is not going to launch. I do that, because the alternative of cancelling a feature from one day to the other is sub-optimal for the future. I might then find it hard to motivate engineers to start working on new features. Moreover, I cannot be seen as sabotaging the process of developing that feature, but rather I’d have to support it and allocate resources for it, but not enough that it actually succeeds – the decision to cancel is, after all, a done deal.

This is in essence what we see unfolding with the war in Ukraine these days. Let me give you my view on several key events around this war.

Since 2014, the Ukrainian army was relentlessly bombing LNR and DNR. These regions are home to a large Russian-speaking population, with strong historical ties to Russia. On average, 100-150 people were killed every month by this fire, many of which civilians. Russia could not watch by idly forever. In addition, NATO doubled-down on its calls to expand into Ukraine, which it repeat explicitly (“Ukraine will become a member of the alliance”) in its June 2021 summit in Brussels. This is a clear and present danger to the security of Russia, according to the Russians, but also well recognized as a “red line” for Russia in the west.

In 2021, the Russian army started accumulating around Ukraine’s east border. In December 2021 Putin gave an ultimatum to the US: to stop NATO’s expansion, to stop Ukraine’s aggression towards its eastern parts and recognize them as autonomous regions, to make Ukraine a neutral country. Or else. Officially, the US brushed Putin off and rejected his demands. NATO issued a press conference in December saying that “NATO stands with Ukraine” and denouncing Russia’s army buildup along the border. Unofficially, however, in a smoky room, the US agreed to Russia’s demands in full.

Everything that followed is one big show, a well choreographed dance of the big powers, designed to implement this decision in a way that ensures continuity, ensures that the US can save face with the Ukrainian and European people.

The show started with Zelensky being instructed to demand nuclear weapons for Ukraine in his speech in Munich on February 19. Then the US ordering the Ukrainian army to ramp up their bombardment of LNR and DNR starting February 21. Indeed, the intensity of fire rose 30 times during these days, as measured by the OSCE. This gave Russia a casus belli.

On February 24, Putin outlined the goals of Russia’s special military operation, simply listing what the US has already agreed to: LNR and DNR part of Russia (notice: no Kherson, no Kharkov), Ukraine de-militarized and de-nazified, Ukraine neutral and not part of NATO ever. The Russian army then went deep into Ukraine and surrounded Kiev. The next move in the choreography was for the US to order Ukraine to accept a deal. The parties met in Istanbul in March and signed a deal. Perfect dance moves by both sides, and that should have been the end of it; Russia’s ultimatum to the US could have been fully met in a way that the US keeps face. But something went wrong.

I suspect that the nationalists in Kiev reiterated their old threat to Zelensky, that upon negotiating with the Russians he would lose more than his presidency, he would lose his life. Zelensky caved in, and wanted to back off the agreement. He wanted to keep on working on the feature. The US sent Boris Johnson in person to Kiev to try and put some sense into him. If Zelensky wasn’t going to play along, Russia would increase the price it demands. But Johnson failed to make Zelensky follow the plan. We entered the phase where the manager is forced to show fake support for the work on the feature, even though it is already doomed. Officially it became known that Johnson came to show support for Ukraine and promise military support. Behind the scenes, Russia was not happy, and the US had to agree to give it a land bridge into Crimea, in addition to LNR and DNR; that is, parts of the Zhaporozhye and Kherson districts.

Now had to come a period where the US is putting on its best show as trying to help Ukraine, while not helping too much, because, after all, it has already committed to Russia. This period is important for the Ukrainian and Europeans to see that US did seemingly all it could; otherwise they would lose all trust in it. But that period has ended, and now we are at the end game.

Russia originally took large parts of Kharkov region and Kherson city, not part of the original plan, to give Zelensky some leverage when talking with the nationalists. Zelensky could now offer them “wins” in the form of the Kharkov region and Kherson city. But what about the Russian population? They need a show as well. Kharkov region was abandoned by the Russian army as part of settling into the agreed upon borders with the US. General Surovikin was brought, and he immediately said that he would need to make a painful decision. He wanted to prepare the Russian public for the return of Kherson city to the Ukrainians. Kherson was indeed returned to Ukraine. Now Zelensky is starting to sing that the situation in Bakhmut is “very difficult”, to prepare the Ukrainian population for a retreat of the Ukrainian army from there and from Avdeevka, which is necessary in order to return DNR to Russia.

Unless Zelensky is backing off again, the conflict is at its final stages. Russia will get what it demanded since the beginning: LNR, DNR, plus an extra: a land bridge to Crimea which was the price for Zelensky bailing out of the original deal. Ukraine was effectively de-militarized in the first month of the war, and has only stayed in the game thanks to endless weapon supplies from the west. These will stop, and it will stay without an army. The regime in Kiev (election is in two years) will have to be more friendly towards Russia as part of the deal.

The only question now is will the nationalists flip the table once again?...