We're Just Choosing Not To
Ukraine Update: Chapter Four Months and Long
Earlier this month, we recognised the anniversary of D-Day and all the horrors and heroism associated therewith. The bold landing operation, made under heavy fire resulting in heavy loss of life, lead to the liberation of western Europe in the following eleven months. What I want you to consider in this context, though, is a big “what if”. What if the western allies had invested more in their militaries through the 1930s and were not in such a weak position in 1938? What if the US didn’t need the attack on Pearl Harbor mobilize its industry and military? In light of these "what ifs", would D-Day have even been necessary?
What I am getting at is that we know we’re in the habit of reacting to aggression and not necessarily doing what is necessary to prevent it, or mitigate it quickly. As a result, it’s been more than once that waiting to engage has likely cost us more in capital and lives than if we invested in prevention or early intervention capabilities.
I made a similar point four months ago in the first mass email that I sent out. Soon after that, Ukraine started winning and we came to believe that we might not need to do much more than send light weapons for the ZSU (Ukrainian miliatary) to rout the Russians. I was hopeful of the same possibility myself, but I'm not now.
Right now, while doing a remarkable job of holding the Russians to incremental gains at high costs in Donbas, Ukraine is suffering staggering losses and more cities and towns are being demolished beyond utility. The ZSU is likely on pace to lose more fighting men in June than the US lost in Iraq and Afghanistan over twenty years. Or consider the US involvement in Vietnam over nine years, where combat fatalities numbered just under 50,000. By the end of this summer, under current conditions, it's likely that both the Russians and Ukrainians will each suffer more than 50,000 combat deaths.
It’s bad. No matter how remarkable and brave the Ukrainian resistance has been, we’re taking on huge losses to just resist. In the coming weeks there will likely be a strong counter-offensive to retake Kherson, and as impressive as that may be, it will come at a high cost of lives and fire power. What’s different in my mind now than a month ago is that I was of the belief that Russian defeats at Kharkiv and Kherson would be enough to bring about the psychological collapse of the Russian army. I’m not convinced of that any more. That's not to say the Russians aren't struggling, but boys from Siberia can fight in Ukraine for 12x their wages at home, if they're employed at all.
Why Russia may not be near defeat
Russia has a few things going for it that may surprise us given its position a couple months ago. This is not to say the war hasn't been a debacle or that Putin can even dream of salvaging a true victory in Ukraine in 2022. It's just the reasons why Russian forces won't collapse anytime soon:
High energy prices and its ability to find plenty of willing buyers on the global oil market. Right now, Russia is receiving about $1-billion a day in fossil-fuel revenues, over 60% of which is coming from the EU. This enables Moscow to keep paying more men to go to the "meat grinder".
Sanctions have limited immediate impacts, and will unlikely deter Russian agression in the long-run. Russians have a high tolerance for misery.
Overwhelming support for the war among Russians. No matter what it’s called -- a special operation or a war -- or how many lies they are fed, Russians are choosing to support the war. Those who don't support the war mostly leave or are silenced.
Re-establishing the Russian empire and the associated glory is clearly a desire of Putin’s and it’s popular among Russians.
They have seen “enough” success in the absolute bombardment strategy in Mariupol and Severodonetsk that it seems unlikely that they’ll discontinue that so long as the munitions are available and the oil revenue keeps coming into the country.
Why Ukrainian victories like the Battle of Kyiv will not be easily repeated:
The primary reason for Ukraine’s early success was the Russians were poorly prepared for stiff resistance. They expected almost no resistance and once they met that resistance, they were poorly organised, over-stretched, and under-supplied to respond. They have since re-organised and concentrated their forces.
The current Russian tactics require an arsenal of military hardware that the Ukrainian military didn’t have four months ago, and while military aid is arriving, the numbers and quality of the armaments they’re getting are too limited to support counter-offensive measures so long as the Russians maintain a desire to fight. To date, I believe it is still true that Ukraine has only received 10% of the armaments that have been promised by allies.
While Ukraine has millions of men in reserve, we've lost most of our professional fighters with years of experience of fighting in Donbas. Some estimates are for as much as 80% of the 200,000-strong force at the outset of 2022 have been killed or injured.
Prior to the 24 February invasion, the US and UK supported Ukraine with light armaments that are effective in an insurgency campaign, not unlike the Muhahideen in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. You can turn around a lot of tanks and armoured personnel carriers with Javelin and NLAW shoulder-fired arms. They’re not going to be effective out in the open while advancing on entrenched enemy positions that are supported by air power.
The awful truth is that neither side will experience enough gains or losses to feel that negotiations are worthwhile. There is just no bargaining position between “You don’t deserve to exist” and “Yes we do.” So, there is little reason to anticipate that the death and destruction will moderate given the balance of losses.
Indeed, even if Ukraine survives this war, it will need much stronger alliances going forward, including NATO bases on Ukrainian soil. While I am optimistic about Ukrainian economic growth in the future, it will be a long time before a country like Ukraine could afford enough M777 artillery units and Javelin weapons, let alone the requisite F-35 fighters and the equivalent of hundreds of M-1 Abrams tanks. Russia’s next invasion will be more studied and better calculated than this one, and there will likely be another invasion if Putin survives this one. He says as much himself.
Should the US be “mobilizing” for war in Europe (and the Pacific)?
President Biden has asked Congress to authorize an $800+ billion defense budget for the next fiscal year, and looks like Congress will prefer to spend even more. My hope is that much of the increased defense spending will be used to build a greater deterence against Russia (and China), including bases in Ukraine. That’s expensive, but it’s quite likely cheaper than the alternative. Think about it this way, if NATO had bases in Ukraine prior to 2022, it’s unlikely there would be war in Europe or that that we'd be experiencing all the associated damage to global energy and food markets. It’s also likely that we wouldn’t be experiencing the same threat of nuclear war.
Similarly, a more robust security response to Ukraine would have been a greater deterrent to Beijing and its calculation on Taiwan. If all the US was willing to do was arm Taiwan, the deterrent would unlikely be enough to prevent an invasion. The Chinese lesson from the Russian advance on Kyiv is likely this: Don’t go in with anything less than everything.
Why hasn't arming Ukraine been enough?
The Pentagon has been and continues to be concerned about certain sensitive weapon technology falling into Russian hands. They're also concerned about certain weapon capabilities being revealed through leaks within Ukraine. It’s a reasonable concern, but it’s really constraining the capacity of the Ukrainian forces to translate morale, bravery, and tactics into wins on the battlefied. Plus, it's pretty much the same tech that was exposed in all our recent Asian combat ventures, so it's not like the Pentagon hasn't done this already.
Hypothetically, if NATO were to engage with Russia in the theatre in and around Ukraine, it would first establish air superiority and eliminate Russian anti-aircraft assets in Ukraine and over the border in Russia and Belarus. No amount of secondhand F-16s and F-15s from NATO handed over to Ukraine would do that. Sure, the ZSU needs to cycle out its old Soviet airframes and re-arm with NATO 4th generation fighters, but that won’t turn the tide since those air assets will still be vulnerable to Russian anti-aircraft fire. NATO would use 5th generation "stealth" aircraft like F-35s, F-22s, and B-2s to open up the skies for those older fighters to fly air-support missions for Ukrainian ground forces.
So as long as the Pentagon is unwilling to give Ukraine the same advantage NATO would have against Russia – and the F-35 just isn’t an option for Ukraine now for a number of reasons – we’re going to witness the horrors of war in Europe for months if not years. I'm hopeful that lend-lease with improve the options for Ukraine, but that is months off, and will still take months of use on the battlefied to provide war-ending results. Lots of lives will be lost in that scenario, even if that happens.
I’m under no delusions that NATO will get involved soon. My point is simply to say that we in the West have chosen to handcuff ourselves and draw out the conflict much longer than it otherwise might be if we acted according to the scope of the threat from Russia. I'm not just talking about NATO actively being involved, but also about the Pentagon sending M777 howitzers without GPS guidance, and sending the HIMARS without the long-range precision guided minutions that could seriously disrupt Russian logistics. Our decision not to give Ukraine the weapons to win is based on the false premise that there is a long-term diplomatic solution that will limit losses in Ukraine and to Europe.
Yes, that is a critique of the Biden administration (again), but even more so of the Macron presidency in Paris, and certainly of the Scholz chancellorship in Berlin. The idea that we shouldn’t provoke Putin to escalate is preposterous and has been for months. There has rarely been a conflict where right and wrong has been more clear, or one where the path to victory is more obvious.
I’ve been quiet, but active
I haven’t had much to report myself here or on Instagram in the last month for several reasons, paramount among those is that I’ve been back in Pennsylvania for family reasons. I had a US visit planned for July, but unfortunately had to bump that visit up four weeks, and rather hastily. Mom is doing much better now, and thanks to all of you folks who have sent your well wishes.
Still, I’ve been active on the scene in Ukraine, particularly with the team that does the supply runs to the east. Last week, we bought another car for the troops: a Polish-owned, aged Land Rover SUV. $3,000. Presently it’s getting its camouflage paint job and will go out to the front on the next trip in about a week. Vitalii and Dmitrii are out again doing another supply run to Donetsk oblast as I type, and so the car will go on their next trip.
You may have noticed that I didn’t renew the fundly.com donation page for the L'viv Alliance. I wasn’t doing a good job of keeping it up-to-date. The processing fee there wass the same as PayPal is anyway. So if you’re interested in supporting the next car purchase for the troops, email me or just send a donation to firstname.lastname@example.org at PayPal, or find me on Revolut.
While in the States, I will continue to press for a better understanding of the scope, scale, and significance of the war, particularly in American society. I know Ukraine will not be an electoral issue (especially given this last week, sheesh!) but it’s important that we – all of you who have read this far – tell our representatives that we believe as strongly now in the cause of democracy and the independence of Ukraine as we did in February. Ask them why we're not sending adequate weapons systems to Ukraine. If the bottle necks are at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or across the Potomac in Arlington County, your repesentative is the best way to pass on the pressure.
Again, I'm hopeful that the Biden administration will eventually allow Ukraine to have the long-range, precision-guided munitions that NATO uses in the HIMARS (rocket artillery). I'm also hopeful that the quanitites will increase. I think this will happen, but in the meantime, thousands and thousands of Ukraine's best and bravest will die. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me.