There will be no war over Ukraine, here’s why

[Russian armour on the Ukrainian front]

Taking a risk here of being very wrong. But I don’t think there’s going to be a WAR over Ukraine despite all the developments to-date that led US President Joe Biden yesterday to declare that it was “the beginning of the Russian invasion”. His follow-on statement — “Let me be clear…We have no intention of fighting Russia. We want to send an unmistakable message though — that the United States, together with our allies, will defend every inch of NATO territory and abide by the commitments we made to NATO” explained just why.

It was not as if Kremlin was unaware that the US did not want to gut it out — engage in actual land war with Russia or, short of NATO countries being directly threatened, get tripped into one. But Ukraine is not formally a NATO member; the preparatory measures it has undertaken to gain entry into the Atlantic Alliance still leaves a big hatch that Biden has now used to escape his military dilemma. It left him free, on technicalities of Article 5 of the NATO Charter, to resile from a hard security commitment to Ukraine’s territoriality. Ukraine, after all cannot legally boast of even an “inch of NATO territory”. It was the setting for Putin to activate his plan for the long game.

What was the game plan?

Its larger aim was, of course, to prevent the enlargement of NATO. A militarily weak Russia was in no position since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1992-1993 to halt former constitutent states of the erstwhile USSR — Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and of the Warsaw Pact — Albania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary from formally joining NATO, thereby denuding Russia of its tier of buffer states and its legitimate sphere of influence in Europe. Putin’s more specific aim was to ensure the independent-minded Ukraine — where are located some very important and advanced technology laboratories, R&D facilities and factories of former Communist Russia’s defence industry, is not the latest in the line of ex-“soviets” to fall into NATO’s lap. Ukraine is potentially an enormous value addition to NATO’s southern flank, because it offers, because of mild weather, direct maritime approaches the year round via the Mediterranean, the NATO member Turkey-controlled Dardenelles, and the Black Sea, to Russia’s underbelly.

The first part of the Putin solution was achieved in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, which still left the possibility of a long Black Sea coast centered on the great ex-Soviet naval bases at Sevastopol (where the Indian Navy’s Kashin-class missile destroyers were worked up by Indian crews trained there) and Odessa opening up for NATO use. It necessitated the second part of the plan to shrink Ukraine landward and, if possible, seaward, to preempt NATO’s moving in on Russia from the Black Sea.

The success of the Putin plan was predicated on two things. There were popular movements of Russian-speaking populations around Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine clamouring to rejoin mother-Russia. These secessionist movements had kept Kiev from establishing Ukrainian writ over this, the Donbas region. Putin’s formal recognition of these areas as independent states, perhaps, as prelude to their amalgamation in Russia was, therefore, a foregone event. With Ukrainian sovereignty never physically established here, Russian forces being welcomed into these parts does not, in the event, constitute a violation of Ukrainian territory or a casus belli (cause for war). This is the extent to which Russia will deign militarily to intrude into “Ukrainian” space.

The other predicate was of a frightened, beleagured and overwhelmed government in Kiev acquiescing in Donbas’ secession and making other concessions on the Black Sea, for instance. This, however, has not happened. In the main because the young, nerveless Ukrainian President, Volodomyr Zelensky, has refused to be intimidated by Russia’s show of force. All that Putin’s huffing and puffing has done is burnished Zelensky’s ultracool image — a bold and courageous leader of the Ukrainian nation abandoned by craven allies, who is seen every day visiting the frontline, talking soberly to the soldiery, and infecting the Ukrainian people at-large with his calm until now when, in the face of Russian guns, they carry on as if it is just another dreary and cold winter they have to negotiate. This sort of chutzpah is plainly not what Putin expected. He had banked on a hysterical mob compelling Zelensky, scared witless, giving in, agreeing to concessions and peace on Russian terms. Because this hasn’t occurred, it has forced Kremlin to recognize the independent “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk — possibly the first stage to their eventual absorption into Russia. This is all that Putin may have to settle for.

But how can Putin realize the cutting off of Black Sea access to NATO?

Russia, as per the 1997 partition agreement dividing the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, shares the Sevastopol naval base and its shore-based resources with the Ukrainian navy. That can prove icky for Putin in terms of an Ukrainian-NATO naval linkup. Some American analysts foresee Putin seizing Ukrainian territory up to the Dnepr River and an additional belt of land (to include Odessa) connecting Russian territory with the breakaway Transdniestria republic and thus separating Ukraine from the Black Sea and rendering what remains of Ukraine economically unviable. Or, avoiding military actions against the urban agglomerations of Kiev and Kharkive, Russia captures a belt of land between Russia and the Transdniestria republic (including the main cities of Mariupol, Kherson, and Odessa) to secure freshwater supplies for Crimea and block Ukraine’s reach to the sea. (Refer https://www.csis.org/analysis/russias-possible-invasion-ukraine)

The fact is neither Ukraine singly or together with NATO will be able to thwart such Russian designs. But these actions are substantive military actions, which will trigger, at a minimum, some blocking moves by US military forces deployed to Poland (including lead elements of the famed 82nd Airborne) inviting Moscow, in effect, to escalate. This Putin will be unwilling to do. Because it will mean full-fledged war with the massed artillery — the Russian “God of War”, opening up on three fronts, reducing Ukrainian cities to rubble. Just the optics of such action — recalling for the world the death and massive destruction visited upon Ukraine and the rest of Russia by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, which was paid back in trumps by Marshal Zhukov’s avenging armies crushing everything in their victorious path to Berlin — will be too daunting even for the hardened KGB agent in Putin to stomach.

But even limited objectives achieved in Ukraine will fatally hurt America’s credibility with its allies and strategic partners especially in the Indo-Pacific, credibility which is already shaken. Thankfully, the dangers of counting on the US when the chips are down, has finally dawned on the Narendra Modi regime, whence Jaishankar’s moves of late to keep Moscow humoured.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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33 Responses to There will be no war over Ukraine, here’s why

  1. From Lt Gen JS Bajwa (Retd)
    Wed, 23 Feb at 3:56 pm

    Had written an article in the IDR web magazine- Ukraine: Games Nations Play. Assessing the leaders involved and analysing their Life Positions based on the book – I am OK, You are OK. More tongue in cheek assessment of most having a life position – I am OK you are Not OK. So they end up only generating a lot of decibels.

    • manofsan says:

      Lt Gen JS Bajwa@ — Prof Karnad, how is India going to respond to pressure from Western countries to side with them against Russia on Ukraine? After spurning us for decades since Nixon & Kissinger, the West are now suddenly declaring us to be their new war bride. Uncle Sam now wants to sleep with us on the first date, which feels very rushed and transactional. No less than 27 envoys met in New Delhi to stage a show of solidarity, and to put pressure on India to take a stand against Moscow, which has been a good ally to us for decades. Didn’t India co-found the Non-Aligned Movement in order to ward off such pressure in the first place? Why can’t we use NAM now to have them speak on the Ukraine crisis, to frame it according to a Non-Aligned viewpoint? Not long ago, the West told us that NAM had become irrelevant, because since the Cold War was over, there was nothing to be non-aligned with respect to. But now that the Cold War has come back with a bang, shouldn’t the NAM be relevant once more? NAM was founded in Belgrade in 1961, and perhaps a meeting there of all places might help to throw the ball back into Europe’s court.

  2. From Dr V Siddhartha

    Wed, 23 Feb at 3:51 pm

    THIS is Karnad-class!

  3. SITARA says:

    Thanks, annexing an interesting article. Smita Purushottam Founder & Chairperson SITAR*A*

  4. Email from Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha (Retd)

    Wed, 23 Feb at 4:35 pm

    A very nice write up, correctly analysed.
    Russia has a huge stake in Ukraine, one of the three Slavic Republics of USSR- Russia, Belarus & Ukraine.

  5. Sankar says:

    In the context of this article, I found penetrating insight in the write-up of the journalist John Pilger here
    https://asiatimes.com/2022/02/western-democracies-have-mutated-into-propagandists-for-war/

    or even here as if from the “horse’s mouth”:
    https://www.msn.com/en-au/news/other/putin-s-powerful-message-no-one-can-rescue-ukraine-from-russia/ar-AATO6nt?ocid=msedgntp

    It is interesting to note that no one from India’s political analysts has captured the core issues. Or the strategic reality on the European stage. It is too early to predict the outcome as the events unfold. But it will be worth following up.

  6. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    This is the main reason why Ukrainians hate Russia;

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor

    • Sankar says:

      Wikipedia can write what they want. There is no “screening”, or vetting, of the content or challenge by readers to their stories – in fact, Wikipedia is out of control for independent analysts. I have come across such nonsense about Kashmir on Wikipedia.

      How does Wikipedia deny what Pilger has said in the article quoted by me:
      “Russian-speaking Ukrainians, under economic blockade by Kiev for seven years, are fighting for their survival”????

    • manofsan says:

      Sankar@ — Stalin was a Georgian not a Russian, and is revered in Georgia to this day as their favourite son of the soil. It was he who carried out these atrocities.

      • whatsintanyway says:

        It was Laverenti (?) minister of internal affairs under Stalin I think… He was Georgian too. He was shot and burnt

  7. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    @BK, I think you are also getting carried away by the ceaseless media assault on collective conscience of the world. This kind of ‘feeling’ is natural in these wretched times but it also counter-productive for level headed analysis.
    Several months back when the world was in awe of the Delta wave, Putin was writing his essay on Russian and Ukrainian unity. Several times Putin has clearly blamed the Bolsheviks for the mess. But he also clearly acknowledges the capabilities and strengths that the USSR bestowed on both Russia and Ukraine. Putin has at several media appearances displayed extreme mindfulness, respect and knowledge about his country’s history. His goal was limited – to prevent NATO from usurping 1 of the 3 original members who founded the USSR. You can change your friends but you cannot change your neighbor – right !!??
    Putin would not have attacked with this massive artillery even without the shouting match inflicted upon him. Having said that please let me balance it by saying that Putin will get his job done eventually, by other, more cultured means. Russians don’t need to first become a vishwaguru to be able to understand the concept of “Sanskritik Sangathans”. I mean, who would he fight an unnecessary war, if he holds all the cards and there is no enemy on the other side, worth speaking off. He did offer war to the worthy enemy and the offer was not accepted, so that settles it.
    His goals was to offer to stop NATO in its tracks and put a permanent spanner in the Brzezinski theory that Russia without Ukraine is irrelevant, to world power plays. While it may be subject of argument, but he did make definite progress towards his goals.
    West Ukrainians on their part have done everything to undermine their own case, right from the day Victoria Nuland was seen distributing bread etc. at Euro-Maidan. Most likely Biden also knows the ground reality well otherwise we would never have witnessed the “minor incursion” faux pas. Note also that all the witches who were involved in the 2014 war are not speaking to anybody beyond their immediate constituency. Thanks or no thanks to Trump, there is now no way to stop the American decline and Biden just has to manage a controlled crash.

  8. Amit says:

    Professor,

    Very interesting article. Based on what US analysts are saying, NATO will not send troops to Ukraine. So whether there is war or not will depend on what Ukraine does. NATO is more interested in controlling the missile threat from Kaliningrad and other locations to Poland, Finland, Sweden etc. If there is no war, Ukraine will have to acquiesce to Russian demands of not joining NATO. If there is war, it would be a long and protracted guerrilla war, but with Russia executing scenarios 3,4 or 5 of the CSIS article. It is unlikely the current Ukrainian Govt. will survive as Russia will try to topple it, and there is no one really to stop it. In either case Russia prevents Ukraine from entering NATO. Seems like Russia has won.

    What we know will certainly happen now is economic warfare esp. based on Energy. Russia will supply more to China, and less to Europe and the price of gas will go up. US and Qatar could fill the gap to Europe. But the problem is that the US has dialed back gas and shale production due to climate change issues. With Biden at the helm, dialling up is not certain. Russia will seek new markets in China and Pakistan. China has already happened. Pakistan is waiting to happen. Interesting dynamic for India.

    Of course, there is also the question of how China will respond on Taiwan due to all this. And how India responds to that. And what this all means for US global power. Maamla dilchasp hai!

  9. andy says:

    One needs to get into the ‘map reading habit of mind’ to fully comprehend the write up. The assessment seems to be spot on and time will tell wether it was or not. Much sabre rattling going on by the protagonists, hopefully war will be averted.

  10. Thoughts says:

    How should I cook the crow? Kung-Pow or Butter?

  11. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Professor Karnad- You should have held your horses for one more day/night.

    There are reports, seemingly confirmed by a Ukrainian official, that Russian tanks are already in Kharkhiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.

    This is all happening so fast.

    As many as 40 Ukranian soldiers and around 10 civilians have been killed by Russian shelling, a Reuters report quoting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy adviser, said on Thursday.

    The AFP, meanwhile reported that Ukraine said it killed ‘around 50 Russian occupiers’ without providing details. The casualties are the latest in a series of fast-paced developments that began when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military operation in Ukraine early.

    I won’t be jumping to conclusions but last time a Pakistani head of state was in Russia (April 1999; Nawaz Shariff- May 1999; Kargil)

    Imran Khan was in Moscow on a two day trip, reported in media as “on Russian President’s invitation”

    In reality, the Chinese side asked Putin to invite Imran.

    Be very careful about what you wish for, you just might get it.

    It seems that finally the oft repeated bravado of Indian army generals is about to come true;

    “India is prepared for a two front war with China and Pakistan”

    May you live in interesting times

    Old Chinese Proverb

    • Debanjan Banerjee says:

      @gaurav tyagi I feel you are so pessimistic about indo-pak relations. Remember the same Imran Khan has offered a debate with Modi to resolve Kashmir. What do you think about that offer?

  12. Arvind says:

    Mr Bharat Karnad ,
    Now its a foregone conclusion that Russia will be in chinese orbit for the foreseeable future . With a sanctioned Moscow , strengthened Beijing and distracted Washington , India stands to be a loser here . You think India will now start moving away from this evil axis of China-Pak-Russia and towards the west militarily ?

  13. Amit says:

    Professor,

    For all the diversity of backgrounds in American think tanks, there was a group think like consistency in how to deal with Russia. I watched over 30 hours of discussions in the last month and everyone was talking about sanctions, ramping up troops and military in east European NATO countries etc. etc. The only sign of introspection came yesterday in a CFR discussion where Mr. Haas discussed how American actions in the last 20 years may have caused Russia to behave the way it did.

    There was also a CSIS discussion where a Georgetown professor/diplomat (Evan Medeiros) presented co-opting Russia as one option on the table, but which was dismissed as not feasible now. He is right. It’s no longer feasible for the US to co-opt Russia. So now they are talking about letting China and Russia come closer in the short term but exploiting divisions to bring Russia out of China’s embrace.

    But one thing is becoming clear. The blunders in America’s foreign and security policies have brought the US great harm. Outside the EU and NATO, the US is losing a lot of goodwill. Russia has upset the US apple cart, and China is likely to exploit this. For this to end quickly, Russia will enforce a regime change in Ukraine and a puppet government. Any long or wider conflict could lead to disastrous effects. Nothing good in all this for India I’m afraid.

  14. Indian says:

    This did not age well!

  15. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    So, I also got surprised just as everybody else. ROTFL.
    Well they kept warning – at least, they can’t be blamed now for not having warned. I like the way these Russians do plain talking and its strange how, we Indians who are not used to it get confounded individually and collectively. Much of the world, is forever engrossed in ‘social media’ and sweet sounding electioneering jumlas. The icing on the cake is the meme-worthy retort by Putin ‘Speak directly!’, to Sergei Naryshkin, speaking to the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). That was some chutzpah, to extract what your explore. Because nobody is going to hand it over to you, even if you own it. Loved to see a leader of the state, who controls his spy chief instead of the other way round – masters of ‘The Great Game’.

    @BK, would request your views on the following :

    (1) https://indianexpress.com/article/india/ukraine-russia-crisis-russian-interview-7789421/ – ‘For us, Ukraine is the same as Pakistan for India. And so we are going to have our peaceful Pakistan, and pro-Indian Pakistan on our border’ – Alexey Kupriyanov, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, spoke to Nirupama Subramanian – Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai | Updated: February 25, 2022 11:03:29 am

    (2) And does the week show that from Bipolar to Unipolar worlds we are now entering a real Multipolar world with at least 4 poles and heavy inter-linkages:
    (a) China & Allies,
    (b) AUKUS,
    (c) Russia and CSTO,
    (d) Continental Europe lead by Germany & France).
    I always hated QUAD or even MOD-QUAD and may be now, Indian Deep State will be forced to try to create a Fifth pole around a grouping of Japan, South Korea & India.

    • Debanjan Banerjee says:

      I believe Japan will have India and possibly Taiwan in a block. South Koreans hate the Japanese pretty badly to be part of any group that has Japan in it. Taiwanese love the Japanese as the Nipponese were the best colonizers of Taiwan but the same Japs were the worst colonizers of the Koreans.

  16. quickboy says:

    Dont look like this worked. War started just the next day

    I think from what I’am seeing , that war is almost over. Mass surrender of Ukraine service men in south and east is being aired on TV. Just some pockets of kiev or other cities have some minor resistance, like someone believing the Ukraine Govt speech and trying to shoot a Russian soldier etc. They get huge retaliation too.Even with Russia trying to explain things like a missile system malfunctioned, it crashed into a building etc.

    West is trying to threatening Russia to get their cronies alive from Kiev. That seems to be the true things. May be they are all in Russian custody by now too. Americans are happy because they need a lot of cash and this can fool Europe to buy Oil from them. Also weapons. After all they are the world’s arms supermarket. Their bread and butter simply depends on more people getting killed.

    European economies like Germany and France are scared to build their own armies. As they are afraid of their own history. The moment they have strong armies, they have this hobby of killing each other.

    Western media is more concerned about that cargo plane the Soviet union made to carry their Buran in 80s. Much more than innocent people, just like you and me . who are caught in this western game to attack Russia. Russians and let us say the Slavic people never had gone down without a fight, That will happen in Ukraine too.

    We have seem this kind propaganda during Iraq war etc.Western media should know we dont buy any of these. where one American plane crashes and two pilots in Iraqi custody etc. Ie all some kind of joke. The reality is that out of sheeer greed some UKraine leaders have exposed their own people to a huge peril.

  17. Kunal Singh says:

    India should follow this process for getting a UNSC seat https://twitter.com/i/status/1497480399617941509

  18. Brandon says:

    Nuclear saber-rattling going on. What are your thoughts on Putin using N-weapons ? Russian forces are also taking a big hit in Ukraine.

  19. Prabal Rakshit says:

    Prof Karnad
    Zelensky has finally applied for EU membership although it is not clear whether it will be fast tracked. I think he realizes that cohabitation with a hostile proto hegemon like Russia needs a security guarantee either of nukes or a treaty like NATO. Do you think this is indeed something in Ukraine’s interests? I mean even if Ukraine was a NATO member, do not see France, Germany or UK intervening on its behalf unless Uncle Sam did.
    What should an independent minded Ukraine have done in this case?
    Also do you think there will be prolonged bad blood between Kiev and Delhi on India’s abstention in the UNSC resolution? I do not honestly think India had any neutral choice.
    In case China decides to do the same with Taiwan (unlikely given the Taiwanese readiness) is there any way India can intervene more actively?

  20. Amit says:

    Professor,

    Looks like Indian intelligence failed to predict what would happen in Ukraine. That aside, it seems like with all the strong sanctions and inability of Russia to steamroll Ukraine so far, things could get quite ugly. NATO is fighting a proxy war with Russia through Ukraine – it is horrible to see and the carnage is yet to come! Russia may topple Zelensky, but then what? NATO wants a proxy guerrilla war there with Ukrainians as cannon fodder. Unless Putin has something up his sleeve.

    I thought that the US would be overextended with Russia in Europe, but looks like EU states are stepping up their defence spending. Same thing could happen in Asia as middle powers step up to China. There is talk about nuclear arming S. Korea and Japan. China may also hold back on Taiwan for now as there is too much economic disruption already.

    In the meanwhile, I hope this event catalyses the OFB and DPSUs to become more efficient, faster in India. Maybe this is another ‘mission mode’ moment for India.

  21. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Dear Dr karnad I just read an interview from an Harvard professor that the US , EU sanctions on the Russian central bank may bring de-dollarisation quickly. What do you think about this aspect?

    • Debanjan@ — That’s a risk, the US and NATO are running.

      • Ayush says:

        Dr karnad, fellow readers I believe we must all observe a minute’s silence in honor of the truly mind boggling courage the Ukrainians are showing on the field.A post of 13 unarmed Ukrainians at snake island said to a Russian destroyer, “Russian warship,go f*** yourself” when asked to surrender.It was immediately destroyed by cruise missiles. Zelensky telling biden, “I need ammunition,not a ride”. That truly awed me and even brought out some tears.He reportedly told EU leaders in a video conference, “this is the last time you are going to see me alive.”Ukrainians have shown valiance that we Indians can only dream of.SILENCE! RESPECT!

    • Not an economist so cannot hazard a guess. But many Western economic experts are now worried about precisely this.

  22. Amit says:

    Professor,
    Not just the US media, but even CSIS analysts are now saying that Putin blundered and this is a strategic loss for him. That NATO is united, US is stronger and Putin failed to achieve his objectives. He is losing the info war (even though the war is not over yet). I don’t know if it’s part of info war on part of the US, but its a very different view from some Indian generals in the media who think NATO has lost. While there are some in the US mainstream as well think tanks who had advised against SWIFT sanctions so soon, most think that the Biden admin is doing well in handling Russia so far. In fact Generals like Wes Clarke and Breedlove are even advising hot action (no fly zones). And the US is preparing for a long proxy war in Ukraine, along with decoupling from Russia economically.

  23. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Ukraine is what happens when a people decide to abase themselves with the outsiders, to overtake their own country and chase a mirage. The other side can also bring in somebody from outside. In any case it is always a very very bad idea to throw a bunch of right-wing low lives at Russia – that is the way to make history rhymes.

    And just to set the records straight, ‘Snake Island’ did not have 13 soldiers. It had 82 and all surrendered. One of the earliest videos on the matter posted by ‘The Sun’ shows that the shells did not land where the soldiers were but well away from them (the Ukranian soldiers themselves presume they were warning shots). Zelensky effectively did their impromptu Shraadh ceremony when he said he would award some medals posthumously. Apparently at least one of the soldiers, now profusely cursing Zelensky, has the view that there was enough opportunity to withdraw them but weren’t. This video evidence by the Russians has not been contested till now.
    https://youtu.be/Xh0w57UJqeA – This video has the Ukrainian soldier speaking just what he thinks of Zelensky
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnCVG3VyuOI – This the video by ‘The Sun’ which shows how the Russian Warship did the right thing.

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