Some things are easy to predict, the orbit of planets, for example. They adhere to well-established physical laws not subject to alterations by the whim of humans.
But any forecast that has to do with humans and the complex systems within which they live is bound to be problematic if not downright wrong. When humans engage in billions of daily interactions with other humans and the physical world, they become surprisingly unpredictable, especially when novel or unexpected interruptions interfere with the smooth operation of those interactions.
It might be simpler to say that peace is more predictable than war, and that would capture most of what global society is feeling today in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Each side in the conflict—and we must now include NATO countries on the side of Ukraine against Russia—has made decisions based on expectations that proved to be utterly mistaken. Each side assumed that we live in something like a billiard-ball world in which a single action has a precise and foreseeable reaction.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the self-styled student of risk and author of The Black Swan, relates in the first chapter of that book his personal observations of the Lebanese civil war which lasted from 1975 to 1990. Taleb, a native of Lebanon, was living there when the war broke out. A place which had known stability and peace for 2,000 years (with rare short-lived exceptions) was now at war with itself.
Many people of means decamped to hotels or further to Cyprus, Greece, France and other places to wait out the trouble. They thought that trouble would last a few days or a few weeks at most. Taleb also writes of Cuban refugees who fled when Fidel Castro came to power, of Iranians who fled to London and Paris after the Islamic Republic was formed in Iran, and Russians who fled their country in 1917 after the October Revolution, all believing that they would soon return after the dust settled. Of course, decades later they were still waiting.
And so we come to Ukraine today. The Russian war planners assumed that Ukraine would quickly crumble once the Russian military invaded. In fact, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators were engaged in talks throughout the first month of the war. (A couple examples of reporting on the peace talks can be found here and here.) It’s not known exactly what terms were discussed. But Russia seemed to be confident that some of its announced objectives, especially the neutrality of Ukraine, could be achieved.
But negotiations ceased after then British prime minister Boris Johnson told Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy that Britain and its allies would not sign security guarantees negotiated with Russia and that negotiations should end.
Russia had not anticipated that the NATO allies would prevent a negotiated settlement, help Ukraine resist so vigorously, and settle in for a long war of attrition.
On the NATO side, economic sanctions meant to cripple Russia rebounded to undermine Western economies as much or more than the Russian economy. The blindness of NATO and others joining the sanctions was that complex supply lines for critical resources—some of which were coming from Russia—would hit Western economies hard, especially those in Europe.
Even though foodstuffs and essential energy supplies in the form of grains (especially wheat), natural gas, oil and uranium were largely exempt from sanctions, many shippers and commodity brokers avoided dealing in Russian commodities for fear of future changes to sanction rules and repercussions for dealing with the Russians. Prices skyrocketed.
Could the Russians have guessed that Ukraine, not Russia, would halt the flow of Russian-produced natural gas transiting through Ukrainian territory to Europe? Could the Russians have guessed that the Poles and Bulgarians would refuse Russian natural gas deliveries when payment was demanded in rubles? Could the Russians have anticipated that a now energy-starved Germany approaching a potentially catastrophic winter without enough natural gas would continue to rebuff Russian offers to send gas directly from Russia to Germany through the huge Nordstream pipelines under the Baltic Sea?
Could anyone have predicted that some as yet unknown naval force would blow up the Nordstream pipelines? For the record, Russia denied blowing up its own pipelines. Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the United States and its allies for the damage. We will probably not know the truth anytime soon because it will almost certainly be kept classified if discovered.
It’s not hard for us in the West to imagine Russia engaged in a false flag operation with the intent of blaming its adversaries for the sabotage. Harder to imagine is that NATO countries sabotaged the pipelines to prevent any German backsliding on the issue of Ukraine and on refusing gas from Russia—backsliding that might very well have come in the face of rising public unrest over sky-high energy prices and energy shortages. The second scenario is a truly unsettling alternative and makes the future of what is growing into a worldwide conflict all the more uncertain.
If we consider the number of pipelines around the world and their vulnerability to highly trained forces who can deploy in small numbers to maximum effect, we can see how much the dangers of the Russian-Ukraine conflict have been underestimated. But pipelines aren’t the only target for would-be saboteurs. Cutting undersea internet cables would cause a lot of chaos, too. In fact, infrastructure everywhere could become a preferred method of fighting behind the lines, so to speak, since infrastructure is hard to defend and responsibility for attacks would be difficult to determine.
So, here we are. Each side of the Russia-Ukraine conflict assumed it could foresee a quick victory. The Russian leadership thought Ukrainian forces would crumble and submit to terms in weeks. NATO allies thought that the Russian economy would collapse in the face of sanctions forcing a Russian retreat. The blindness of war comes at the beginning, and sight is only gradually restored (if at all) as the evolving realities present themselves. With this conflict only a few months old, I suspect that blindness will continue to prevail for some time and that all of us should expect to be blindsided many more times in the coming year.
Photo: Disposal of Russian bombs in Chernihiv, 9 March 2022. Photo by State Emergency Service of Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Disposal_of_Russian_bombs_in_Chernihiv,_9_March_2022_(3).jpg