Wednesday 22 February 2023

Ukraine can’t win unless Russia agrees to lose

Biden meeting Zelensky in Kyiv

A year into the war and Ukraine has not only fought the Russians to a standstill, they've pushed Russia back across the Dnieper River and away from Kharkov (Okay, some say it was a tactical withdrawal to buy time, but my way sounds more dramatic). 


What Ukraine cannot do, however, is march upon Moscow and depose Putin. Even if they push Russian forces out of Ukraine, it won’t spell an end to the Russian threat. Putin can just take a few years to eat borsch and rebuild his armies and try again.  


The Russian army invaded with 190,000 troops against a Ukrainian army of 200,000, about a third of what Russia would need to win. Ukraine began full mobilization on day one, meaning that Ukraine may very well have had (at some point) more troops in the field than Russia did. 


Russia has taken horrific casualties (over 200,000) thanks to crude tactics. The invasion strategy was basically to pound a square peg into a round hole, and it didn't go well. Hundreds of Russian vehicles have been captured by the Ukrainians. Reliance on cell phones has helped Ukrainians eliminate Russian field commanders, while Russian logistics are so bad their Kyiv pincer ran out of gas, then food, and had to retreat, raiding convenience stores as they went. In their wake they left rape rooms, torture chambers and mass graves of the not-so-happily ‘liberated’. 


For all the labelling of the Ukrainians as Nazis, the Wagner mercenary group’s recruitment of convicted rapists and murderers is an echo of Oskar Dirlewanger’s charming SS brigade, a collection of thugs and criminals in WWII so odious even the SS distanced themselves from the unit. Which is surreal, as the whole purpose of the SS was industrialized mass murder. Maybe the Wangers were too ill mannered in their mass murderer. Convicts are notoriously ill disciplined and prone to committing atrocities, but it seems the regular Russian army is going to give The Wagner Wangers a run for their rubles.


Russia has mobilized 300,000 men, with another 500,000 more cannon fodder on the way. (Un)fortunately, these poor bastards (sorry, soldiers) are badly trained (or not trained at all) and poorly equipped. One video purported to show a Russian soldier armed with a pellet gun. At best, they’ll be using 60-year-old weapons and ammo that have been badly maintained (and may blow up in their faces). It’s Apocalypse Now meets a nightmarish and lethal version of Bugs Bunny.


Nothing new for Russia: in WWI, they used human wave attacks, and sometimes only 1 in 2 had a rifle; the other was to pick it up after the bearer was killed and carry on. Doesn't exactly instil confidence in the system. Many wars start out badly for Russia, though; then they course correct and plow over mountains of corpses to the win. 

This won’t end until the Russians (Putin specifically) decides to give up. 


How likely is that?

About the same as me winning the lottery.

Don't hold your breath: I don't buy lottery tickets.


And while Putin ponders, Ukraine is being wrecked. No doubt part of Putin’s plan: he wants a weak Ukraine, a neutered buffer state between Russia and NATO. Destroying Ukrainian infrastructure potentially increases pressure on Zelensky to seek accommodation. Yeah: won't work. The Ukrainians have no interest in ceding territory and NATO is pouring weapons in. Mass famine will hit before Ukraine ever considers surrender. 


Negotiation for Zelensky now would be political (and possibly the more existential variety) suicide. Arafat had the same problem. 


John Mearsheimer doggedly asserts that the war is being fought to the last Ukrainian, that they are puppets of the West, cynically manipulated into burning their own country to the ground. I am not so sure I buy that, whatever the folly of Bush pushing Ukrainian NATO membership. 

However much the United States relishes the opportunity to thwart Russia (and they do), it's the Ukrainians who are fighting. People who don't want to fight don't fight, no matter how many weapons you give them. The US provided billions in arms to South Vietnam, and they promptly collapsed after US withdrawal. Same with Afghanistan. They didn't want to fight, not on their own.

The Ukrainians, on the other hand, are fighting like demons in the defence of their country. Effectively. Resolutely. There are even partisans fighting in Russian held areas. That does not happen if there is no will to fight. 

After The Holodomor, back room interference and annexing Crimea, many Ukrainians just don’t want to be ruled from Moscow, and I can’t say I blame them. 

True, Western Ukraine is more anti-Russian than the East, which has a large Russian speaking population. Even given that, there doesn't seem a lot of support for the invasion in Eastern Ukraine. There have also been Russian atrocities in Eastern Ukraine, and the Donbas paramilitaries have been used as disposable cannon fodder. Is there not a point where you look at your rescuer, who's willing to throw your life away like it was a piece of toilet paper (and I'm talking post-Covid toilet paper crisis here), and question their benevolence? 

When someone says you are a brother, and then bombs, rapes and murders your fellows, do you believe they have your best interests at heart? 

No, the United States does not have the best interests of Ukraine at heart, either; they are first and foremost pursuing their own, yet these can align with Ukraine. So could Russia's, but since they've been flying hypersonic missiles into apartment buildings and flattening whole cities with artillery fire, I admit I am more dubious of Russia's motives than I am of the Americans. 


Russia is in stage five of demographic transition, they will eventually run out of soldiers, unless they want to roll in geriatrics. That bodes trouble for the Russian Empire down the line, as many ethnic groups in Russia have more robust demography and aren't keen on being ruled from Moscow. More regions may secede if Russian dominance falters. That'll be fun.


All the lives Putin is throwing away in human wave attacks means fewer potential fathers and fewer potential Russian families with fewer potential children. Same goes for Ukraine, which also is in stage five. There may be no one left to inherit their earth, which would be the ultimate tragedy for both sides.


Eventually, Putin will die, too. Mearsheimer and other poli-sci experts’ claim this will not change anything: Russia must dominate Ukraine, as an existential issue, and any Russian political leader who follows Putin will also be compelled to attack.

Maybe, maybe not.


If Putin is the driving force behind the war, it could end with his death. If the driving force is great power politics (the need for Russia to seize the gaps on either side of the Carpathian Mountains, north to the Pripet Marshes and east to the Black Sea), then Putin's death won’t mean jack. But it would also mean that Russia is likely to try and close the gap to the north of the Pripet Marshes (to the Baltic Sea) by invading Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. All NATO countries... so let's hope not.

Putin has not drafted enough troops to overwhelm Ukraine. He'd need a few million men, but he doesn’t have the ability to supply or equip that many. Such a vast mobilization might even provoke civil unrest. So instead, Putin’s drip feeding young Russians into the meat grinder of an unwinnable attrition war. 

On the other hand, Russia has almost four times the population of Ukraine, so in an attritional war, Ukraine will run out of bodies first. Casualty estimates for Ukraine are more difficult to come by: they vary from one third to over 100%. Bakhmut may be the new Verdun: designed to bleed the Ukrainian army dry. As German Commander-in-Chief Falkenhayn famously said, the point of his attack was not to capture Verdun; it was, instead, to 'bleed France white'. Japan resorted to the same strategy at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. It's a workable, if utterly ruthless, path that will consume plenty of Russians, too. 

Perhaps the much talked about summer offensives will tip things in Ukraine's favour. 

With China now threatening to supply Russia with lethal military aid, US-China relations may go from bad to abysmal, and tough sanctions on China would cause even more economic disruption as we head into a recession. 


There is another unsavory issue: grain and fertilizer exports to Africa, Brazil and China have been blocked by the war. That will impact marginal farmlands (which require copious amounts of fertilizer to be productive), which will lead to large scale famine(s). 


As Hawkeye Pierce might say, "Just end the war!" He was always light on the details but I get the sentiment. 

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