As the war becomes commonplace, it's citical that we don't shrink from the challenge of defeating Putin and aiding those whose lives that are in tatters.
A lot of speculation is going into what “phase two” of this war is going to look like. (I had a bit of fun with how it would look in Ukrainian, above, but that's not how you would actually write it.) If you’re not familiar with the discussion, it’s the idea that the first six weeks of this war have ended in a “win” for Ukraine. That’s “phase one.” It's a win, not because Ukraine suffered fewer losses than the Russians, but because Putin’s army has achieved none of his military objectives. Recognising that, he has reduced his expectations and shifted his strategy to bite off the easternmost portion of the country. The Russians (at least for now) have fully pulled out of the north (around Kyiv) and are refocusing on the east and the south, areas which they have pulverized but not taken so far.
Phase two is supposedly going to start with more of an open-field combat environment, where it’s not about taking cities (but probably still pounding them indiscriminately with imprecise artillery) so much as it is about encircling and strangling Ukraine’s ground forces in and around Donbas. This is more of the Blitzkrieg model (one Gen Patton also adopted) that’s not so much about holding ground so much as it is crushing the enemy army. It’s about speed, mechanised artillery, and armoured divisions, and about co-ordinating close air support with ground movements.
The Wahrmacht in the 1930s, when developing Blitzkrieg, wanted to avoid the war of attrition that was WW1. Back then, the allies eventually used the stalled fronts to starve the German state and army and bring about the now-famous 1918 Armistice, which was famously unfavourable to Germany. I mention this because, interestingly, one of the things you may hear from analysts about “phase two” is the possibility that it too will get bogged down to a war of attrition and drag on for months or years. It’s interesting because the tactics we’re anticipating were designed to avoid that.
It’s probably fair to say that open field combat doesn’t favour the Ukrainian army like city and village fighting has, at least not as the Ukrainian military is currently armed. The light and agile model that the Ukrainian infantry has been using doesn’t hold up so well out in the open, where anyone is easier to spot. This is why there has been the push to get the Ukrainians more tanks, armoured personnel carriers. Close air support is why they need the MiGs and Sukhois from NATO's old Warsaw Pact armies; planes that the Ukrainian pilots are already familiar with. The US can replace those aircraft with newer F-16s, which I believe the Poles are also flying.
One target of phase one that will likely take on renewed importance to the Russians in phase two will be taking the port city of Odesa. Defending Odesa and any of the coast can be achieved with American-made and British-donated Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Keeping Odesa is critical in so many ways in the long-run especially given the damage and vulnerability to Ukraine's ports on the Sea of Azov.
And the Ukrainian forces needed that hardware yesterday, because it sounds like phase two has already started. Kharkiv (in the north) is taking more of a pounding everyday and not much of Mariupol (in the south) is still standing to fight back So the two arms of the Russian pincer movement can encircle the Ukrainian army that is actively fighting in Donbas. Phase two will be fought with heavy equipment and heavy losses on both sides.
Yet, I don’t think folks are giving Ukraine enough credit, once again, or perhaps they’re just giving the Russians too much credit. There are a couple things that have changed in the Russians’ favour from six weeks ago. They now know they’re in for a tough fight and no one at all is going to be welcoming them. They also have time to prepare logistically for a prolonged fight.
Still, several new factors are working against them: they’ve lost fighting personnel and command personnel, and they’ve lost a lot of hardware. They’re also scared and demoralised and likely not as fresh for the fight. Moreover, the many significant weaknesses of the Russian army remain: poorly trained, poorly paid, poorly fed, unprofessional, with a weak NCO corp, and poor logistical capabilities. They also don’t have the will to fight like the Ukrainians. Amplius iuvat virtus quam multitudo.
How this all ends. Not soon, apparently
A military victory for Ukraine is likely the only way out of this. I’m aware that a massive amount of property and lives will be lost, but there can be no partial victory after Bucha, Mariupol, Kramatorsk, and all the other Russian atrocities that are yet to be uncovered or occur. Any peace that doesn’t ascribe the original borders to Ukraine and give it full independence and the right to self-defense won't be a peace that lasts. Moreover, there’s no justice in that for all those who have suffered the unspeakable.
We must steel ourselves against the desire to hasten an end to this war for the mere sake of returning to something closer to normal. Believe you me, I want something closer to normal, but there is a job to do and a fight to be won. It’s not everyone’s fight, but for those in it, please give them your patience to proceed toward a just conclusion. They deserve it.
I also ask that you lend us a generous dose of that can-do spirit wherever it is you are. One thing people in North America and the antipodes mightn’t fully realise about this part of the world is the high level of cynicism that is endemic here. I think we Westerners are raised in the belief that we’re empowered in our own lives and in affecting our communities. We believe we can hack out our own paths in life and we set about doing so to varying degrees of success.
One reason why Russians believe so much of the propaganda out there is they don’t really believe in a common truth. They believe you can pick your facts a la carte to suit your outlook, and they feel justified to do so because they believe everyone else is doing it. They have, in so many ways, given up on ever doing what is just and righteous, and settled on that which is just convenient. This is true in much of the Balkan Peninsula and persists in much of former-communist Europe.
We must not and cannot ever become that society.
So I'm asking again, wear some of the pain of the coming months with us. It’s for a worthy cause. Write an op ed or write to your member in government, and tell them you’re prepared to accept some inconvenience as justice plays out. When you hear someone getting a little carried away with the current situation, tell them what my 101yo grandmother says: it could be worse.
I should also add, and some of you know this already, there is a not-uncommon sense here that Ukraine is doing all the heavy lifting on its own, and that most of Europe, while crafting generous statements, and opening up their guest bedrooms, isn’t really in this fight. And I’m not just saying that because it suits our cause. If Putin wins this war, the grim story continues, and not just with Russia. His win could become the blueprint for other autocrats and their whimsy. This is a war begun by the powerful few who do not like free and open societies. Such societies cannot easily be abused to extract yet more power for that very same powerful few.
If we win here, we push back the flood waters, likley for years. We also learn valuable lessons about how to fight and defeat such elements, both on the battlefield, in cyberspace, and in the arena of public misinformation. This is no small task before us now, but now is the best time to address it across all fronts.
And that means, "my fellow Americans", $2-billion doesn't cut it. Two-billion dollars distributed among every adult and child and 101yo grandmother in Catasaqua is a little more than $6 per person. That's about the price of a pint of beer (before tip). Do you know how much each US taxpayer spent on the last twenty years of the War on Terror operation in western-central Asia? About $8000. Sure, one war is only a couple months old and the other was spent over two decades, but look at the magnitude more closely. The one is approximately 1300x more than the other, using the back of the envelope. At the current spend rate, it would take more than 100 years for our efforts in Ukraine to catch up with Iraq and Afghanistan, et al. Obviously the cost in American lives lost isn't even comparable in these events.
It also seems quite clear to me that the faster Ukraine regains its full sovereignty, the faster we get back to something more like normal in the world economy. The faster that happens, the sooner all these displaced people can get back to work and, hell, I’ll be out of a job soon thereafter. I can go back to painting again.
Speaking of my Job: Two New Operations
We have lined up two new aid priorities. The first is to supply food and hygiene products to supply centres in my neighbourhood (pictured above). The way it works is that displaced people needing assistance go to register in the location where they’re staying. Once registered, perhaps in an apartment or in a shelter, they show up at one of the suppliers in the neighbourhood where they may find some of the things they need. If that supplier doesn’t have diapers or toothpaste or whatever, they don’t get those items that day or maybe a week. We were recently out of food until we did our last run to the store. (We also get foreign-donated food shipments but they're become less frequent.)
As I’m typing this section, I’m in the breakfast room of the hotel, looking out the window, and across the narrow street, through the rain, where again desperate people gather to register or get supplies. There are probably 100 people on this block alone, just waiting. Another hundred will be back tomorrow, and the next day. This is how they spend hours upon hours of their week. Waiting. There’s no panic, although some of the people can be rude, but many of those people (typically the ones I refer to as the Soviet grannies) have been like that all their adult lives. Some of the people are deeply deeply traumatized by the events of the last six weeks. More on that later.
We’re expecting more of all kinds of refugees in the coming days because the government has made it clear, everyone in Donbas and areas like Kharkiv needs to clear out now before the door closes. Not everyone is heeding that warning, including family members of some volunteers in the supply center.
So my role in this is as "the money" and "the muscle". It's quite clear that I'm not as knowledgeable as the Ukrainian student volunteers about what's a good price and what goes far for a family. So we go together to the grocery store and stock up in bulk. I lift things into the cart, load them in the cars, and whip out the old credit card when the time requires. A five-cart shopping expedition might cost us $750, and parts of that can last us a few days; much will be gone after 36 hours.
I really like this group of volunteers. None but one or two is over 20 years old, I believe, and the youngest just a fiesty 15. And they're pretty darn good at what they do. I look at them and marvel at what memories they will take out from this war, knowing they can look back with pride at the part they played for the liberation and security of their country. I didn't get to do that in my college years. How about you?
The other operation that we just lined up is using locally sourced farm meats and produce to package primarily for our troops out east, but also for some of the local shelters. It’s a community north of town, and they have been collaborating amongst themselves to produce foods that can be stored without refrigeration.
The primary effort is a pre-cooked and jarred meat stew (usually pork or chicken) that they’re now mixing with oats for more bulk. It’s an excellent source of protein and fat for the troops. They also dehydrate vegetables and package some spices so the troops only need to add water for a vegetable soup. The kids in the schools are actually making energy bars for the troops too. It’s a whole community effort.
The next load is for their Easter run, and for that they’re adding some small cakes. They look like cupcakes to me. The L'viv Alliance is funding the Easter food run to the troops: about 500 jars, 400 energy bars, and 100 of the cup cakes. The primary constraint isn't so much financial as much as it is their ability to produce in a hydrid domestic-industrial operation. If they could make more before Easter, they would.
Ihor and I met up with those folks on Thursday and it very much feels like this is scaled to suit the L'viv Alliance: support local businesses and communities so they can support their men and women in uniform. It’s empowering.
Stories of the Displaced, but not Defeated
I’ve mentioned the family that is staying in my apartment before. Wednesday was laundry day, and so I impinged on my new friends – Eliz, Olha, and Serheyi, and their dog Pyf (short for Pythagoras, they say) – to ask them about their story. Hopefully there’s a video attached to this entry that you can watch, but I’ll summarise it here.
Theirs is not a traumatic story, but I suspect their circumstances are more relatable for most of us reading this blog. Eliz (in her twenties and working a great IT job) left her home in Kharkiv as soon as the war started, taking a bus to the family home down south in Zaporizhzhya and away from the advancing and encircling Russian army. The traffic leaving town was terrible. The family only decided to leave Zaporizhzhya once the Russians tried to take the nuclear power plant and damaged it in the process.
What I found interesting in all of that is there was no real plan; just go west. Before being connected to me by a mutual friend, they were just spending a couple nights here and there. Also interestingly was that rather than pack up clothes, they focused on water and food and getting all their cash out of the bank. Having heard the horror stories out of Mariupol, they were afraid of getting stranded and cut-off and having to live out of their car or in some unfamiliar bombshetler along the way.
Now that they’re in L’viv and somewhat settled, Eliz is the bread-winner of the family. Her fether Serheyi’s trucking logistics business is closed up. His trucks are either being used by the army or there’s no diesel to run them.
After the war, they’re planning to get back to their lives much like they were, but it’s not clear, particularly in the case of Kharkiv, that there will be a home still standing.
Almost any way this comes out, we’re going to have a housing crisis in Ukraine, even in the cities not directly impacted by the fighting, like L’viv. We’re going to have displaced homeless folks for months to come.
A Randomly Inserted Thought:
This message appears on the door of our little supply center, in Ukrainian:
“For those Russian-speakers who try to speak Ukrainian with us,
you’re not awkward, you are beautiful.”
The Traumatic Story: Mariupol
I really don’t know if it’s worth it for me to get into the timeline of some of the worst stories that I’ve heard, especially now that news about the Iskander missile attack on the Kramatorsk railways station is coming in. (It’s a relentless news flow of awful atrocities, isn’t it?) Still, we’re starting to get late arrivals in from Mariupol; people who lived through the siege and the related starvation. One family, staying at one of the volunteer’s apartments here in L’viv, went through the horrors of being fired on by Russian troops during two attempts to escape the city by car. The car was hit by gunfire, but the people inside were not. After the first effort, they returned home to find their apartment block no longer standing. They would spend much of the next days in bomb shelters in the neighbourhood, living off melted snow.
On their successful escape, and it wasn’t really clear to me what they were trying to say, but suffice it to say they had to avoid mines in the road. The cars followed in a single column driving in each other’s tyre tracks. Along the way, they passed one car that was either hit by gun fire or detonated a mine. Inside was a dead mother and her two small children, also dead.
You’ve seen the horror stories on TV and online, I suspect, and I really don’t have the stomach to go into much more now. It's an understatement to say there’s no professionalism in this invading army. It’s a gang of thugs with heavy equipment. That the West is still intimidated by such an amatuerish operation, boggles the mind.
These sanctions packages as they are now will not speed up the end of this war. We’re probably nowhere near where they need to be for that to happen. Heck many of them don't kick in for months. And I’m really curious if the related costs to the world economy of this war aren't already more than it would have been if NATO stepped in with a military solution weeks ago. I’m sorry for going over this another time, but if Vladimir Putin is ready to nuke us for defending free, peace-loving societies, then that’s just the world we live in, unless you're ready to accepted a new, dark world order.
Your Mission for Next Week
Taking a page from my own critique of the US proceeding without a clearly defined mission, I’m going to give you a mission for next week. Many of you have already donated and so I don’t want you to donate more unless you were really planning on making on-going contributions anyway. What I’d like you to do is talk to at least five new people and try to get them signed up to follow www.lviv-alliance-org and/or follow my Instagram campaign at “tom4ukraine”.
For those of you who have not donated, you do what suits your budget and interests, but know that even $25 helps. That amount gets a tube of toothpaste to ten families for the next month. And like the others who have donated, keep spreading the word and bringing up the Ukrainian cause in conversation, awkward as it may be. (You don’t think I find this whole thing inconvenient and awkward? I'd be better off if I had cookies to sell you.)
Aid centres in town are witnessing flagging support, and if we’re going to see an up-tick in refugees out of big cities like Kharkiv, Odesa, and Dnipro, then we’re going to be in a world of hurt here. It's unlikely those folks with just be transiting L'viv on their way to Poland and beyond because they probably lack the funds and connections to make it that far.
So the L’viv Alliance is going to go into the red in a few weeks if we don’t open up the taps again. (I am planning to upload a summary of in-flows and out-flows to the website next week.)