I note that a consensus seems to be emerging that the war in Ukraine will be a long haul. A dominant view seems to be that neither side can deliver the knockout blow, and that a long drawn out war of attrition will result, similar in many respects to the Iran - Iraq war of the 1980s. Many of those pushing this line seem to suggest that this is indeed now President Putin’s own default setting. That somehow he thinks that Russia, and Russians’ powers of endurance, as seen during WW2, can simply outlast Ukraine and its Western backers. Eventually delivering victory, however, bloody and painful.
If true this would indeed offer up a grim outlook for hundreds, if not millions of casualties, hundreds of billions of dollars in defense spending and destroyed infrastructure, as Russian and Ukrainian economies are ground down. Mass suffering, impoverishment for masses and mass migration out of Russia and Ukraine. But also significant global impact through continued disruptions to global supply chains, and further pressure on the global cost of living crisis. I for one struggle though with the outlook as above.
First, it seems to ignore the bravery, remarkable innovation and ingenuity of Ukraine and its people. Herein, I would just remind readers that military observers gave the Ukrainians only a few weeks to survive without suffering total defeat after the initial invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.
Back then they were faced with overwhelming inferiority in terms of firepower - they were seen as a third or fourth rate military power, using only second generation, threadbare Western military kit. They faced a superpower which saw itself as a peer competitor militarily with the US and China, with access to state of the art, fifth generation military kit.
And yet this third or fourth rate military power showed its ability to defeat the supposed super power in key battles for Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson. And it has taken back half of the territory that Russia first occupied. It has shown, through counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson, that with the right planning and equipment it can inflict devastating defeats on the Russian military. It is still a huge country, with 40 million people, plentiful manpower, and the motivation of fighting to defend its own territory and for the survival of its people and state.
By contrast, Russia, the supposed superpower, has proven incredibly inept in fighting conventional warfare. Estimates suggest perhaps half its conventional military kit has been destroyed and Russia suffered hundreds of thousands dead and injured. It sought to regain the initiative by launching a huge mobilization early last winter, but even this seems to have run into the ground in the mud of Bakhmut.
The core of its problems are that it’s troops lack motivation as they are fighting in someone else’s country, poor equipment and training. And Russia’s inability to wage this war effectively seems much to reflect corruption and ineptitude a consequence I think of the inherent weaknesses of autocratic or rather kleptocratic regimes such as Putin’s. Corruption is rife. Decisions are centralized, particularly around Putin himself, and the regime is hampered by Putin’s own paranoia, which leaves him detached from ordinary people and importantly military commanders. Autocracy means that generals appear unwilling to tell truth to power, and Putin is unable to make optimal decisions in terms of military planning and battlefield tactics.
We see ever changing tactics, often incoherent offensives, and generally the lack of joined up thinking. This can change, Russia can begin to learn from its battlefield mistakes, but it sees as though the power vertical in Russia makes this likely to be slow moving and inefficient. Things will be very slow to improve for Russia.
Therefore ,Russia seems incapable of a speedy victory and one has to ask oneself, even if it did, for example if it succeeded in taking the whole of Ukraine, could it ever hope to properly control, rule or subjugate Ukraine, without an enormous expense of resources? I just don’t think so.
Ukraine has a path to victory still - I can see better Western armaments giving its scope to launch counteroffensives to recapture sizeable chunks of occupied Ukraine, even to the point that devastating defeat and the collapse of Russian forces in Ukraine is possible, even likely, but certainly more likely than that of Russian victory.
Second, if Russia’s game plan is to wear Ukraine and the West down, I don’t see that as likely to happen any time soon. There is no indication from the current Biden administration that it will drop support for Ukraine, and Ukraine still seems to have strong bipartisan support in Congress. That means US support is assured at least until the next US administration takes office in February 2025, two years or so from now.
We can debate whether that will be a pro-Russian Trump regime, but Trump might still not win the GOP primaries, might not beat the Democrat candidate, and even then as we saw with the first Trump administration, his room to cow tow to Putin will likely still be limited by the still strong bipartisan support for Ukraine, and from the D.C. establishment.
Similarly, I don’t yet see support for Ukraine in Europe weakening at all, aside from the usual suspects such as Orban in Hungary who are pretty isolated these days. Europe finally seems to have woken up to the real threat to our very system of government from the Putin regime and understands that Ukraine offers our best hope of defense.
This is now a battle for survival of two systems: Western Liberal Market Democracy versus autocratic kleptocracy. The West finally gets it.
So I think for the next two years at least Ukraine can rely on continued Western support.
But let’s imagine a crack appears in Western support and Western military and financial support slows or stops, what then? Will Russian tanks then easily roll through Ukraine, capturing Kyiv and driving to the border with Poland - and perhaps beyond?
I doubt it. I would argue that Ukrainians will likely continue to fight, even if Western support slows. They will continue to fight as simply they have nowhere else to go. They are fighting for their land and people. Putin has made clear he does not respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, it’s right to exist or that of the Ukrainian people to exist.
So, Ukrainians have no choice but to resist, and Putin would face a nightmarish scenario of trying to take and hold Ukraine, against bitter partisan opposition likely for years to come. Russia would be bogged down in bitter fighting for years, if not decades to come.
This is Ukraine’s State of Israel moment, and like with Israelis, Ukrainians feel they simply have nowhere else to go.
Third, yes, I can construct a scenario where Ukraine fails in its counteroffensives and then 2-3 years down the line Western support is pulled back and Russia then takes the advantage over Ukraine. But it would be a long haul for Russian troops, and it’s hard to see the long war narrative being appealing to Moscow.
The long haul means years of conflict for Russia, as noted above millions of casualties, no hope of sanctions moderation, economic decline, guns versus butter economic choices, collapsing living standard, out migration, a skills shortage, productivity decline if not collapse.
It means rising social problems, rising crime, and likely rising divisions within society and across the Federation - risks of centrifugal forces with new independent movements emerging in the South. Sure this can be met with yet more repression, but that likely just means more outmigration, further economic decline. Rinse, repeat.
The long war scenario means that Russia falls further behind the West, and China, in terms of economic development. It means more Russian conventional military kit will be destroyed in Ukraine and sure going on to all out war economy settings could see military manaufactring step thru the gears. But NATO and the West will just go thru the gears as well, and in the end the math is just not on Russia’s side.
Russia has a $1.8 trillion economy, which is shrinking, the West has a $40 trillion economy which is still growing. Russia just cannot win an arms race with the West. The West is already spending close to $1 trillion on defense and that is only going to rise. Russia simply cannot get anywhere near that.
Fourth, neither China or the US would say this, but if Russia opts for the long war, they are likely to be the winners, not Russia, from such an eventuality.
Russia will be relegated to the poor man in the strategic alliance with China. Russia will become much more dependent on China, but much more economically and militarily weaker. And China will be able to exploit Russia, milking it ever more for discounted commodities, a result of continued Western sanctions. Its eastern regions will become vulnerable to assimilation by China. Russia will also lose leverage over its backyard also likely to China, in central Asian and Transcaucasia also likely to Turkey. Russia will become weakened at home, and across the near abroad.
And for the US, the longer the war goes on, the longer Russian economic and military might will be eroded to the point that will will be clear as to its relegation from super power status to more of a regional power, albeit nuclear armed - more like Pakistan. An elongated war will reduce Russia’s military threat to the US, simply thru the erosion of its military capability. Sure the regime could become more rash and unpredictable but I would argue that this will be couched by its reliance and dependency on China - China will then increasingly keep Russia on a tight leash.
A long war would suit US and Chinese interests, but not Russian.
Putin would be a fool to extend this conflict beyond this year, and I would still argue that his preference will be to try and conclude a peace deal this year - he would love a ceasefire to freeze current territorial settings, but Ukraine will never do that. Ukraine wants a lasting peace, with Russian forces ousted from Ukraine and sufficient security guarantees extended to provide a deterrence against a future Russian attack. Ukraine will resist a ceasefire and frozen conflict for more substantive peace talks, but I don’t see the long war threat from Putin being at all realistic. It surely brings more threats to Putin’s power, than actually trying to cobble together some peace deal now.
Putin has to balance off the risks from cutting a peace deal now, despite the significant losses already suffered, for little gains, against the risk of continuing the war in the hope that his hand is somehow improved in the future by changing politics in the West.
But a long war would risk immense casualties and suffering for Russia over the long term, a then much weakened Russian state, and a greater chance of its eventual collapse. If he cuts a peace deal now, even accepting no territorial gains, some concessions on NATO enlargement bit with security guarantees given to Ukraine, I think he could still sell that as a win at home.
He still dominates the media/propaganda narrative at home and can sell almost anything as a win now. But a long war just multiplies the negatives and raises real risks to Russian unity and the very survival of the Russian state. It would be so weakened economically, akin in many respects to the late 1980s or 1990s, that the long war would make it very difficult for Moscow to keep the Federation whole. A peace deal now sure risks the same outcome, but a long war makes the eventual collapse of the Russian Federation almost inevitable.
I guess logic as above would suggest that Russia is a loser from a long conflict, but as ever with this war, the question is does Putin have the same info set as we all have - is the inevitably of defeat as I see it, also evident to Putin? And does he read the same info that I see in the same way, through the same prism. Likely not on the latter.
Reprinted from @tashecon blog. See the original here.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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The only real solution to ending the war is the Afghanistan solution. Russia operates on only 2 rules in its play book - 1) devastate through overwhelming violent force, and if that doesn't work, 2) grind down your enemy through endless attrition. Russia after banging its head against the wall for 10 years finally left Afghanistan when it finally realized neither approach would ever work. And it has never been back. Putin must relearn the same thing for Ukraine.
In the end, the Kremlin must get absolutely nothing positive from this war. Otherwise it will not be over - it will only be postponed. Ukraine is right in wanting all its territory back. The sappy, weak-kneed Macronian "we must not humiliate Putin" is the exact thing that will keep the violence going. Maybe after a pause, but still going.
To really have lasting peace, Russia must be wiped out in Ukraine, and then Ukraine needs to be **armed to the teeth** with the latest western weapons. Whenever Russia sees calls for diplomacy or compromise, it sees a weakness to exploit. When faced with strength and force, Russia gives "goodwill gestures".
If Russia can succeed in dragging out this war, the potential return of Trump the US Presidency presents a huge risk for Ukraine. Currently Trump advertises he is “against World War 3.”That’s a clever but misleading political slogan that’s designed to indirectly support his good friend Putin by justifying withdrawal of decisive support for Ukraine.
Ukraine needs to urgently work with influencers in the Republican Party to prove with already known facts, that the Putin infection will simply return and spread through Western Europe (part of Americas key markets) if not quickly knocked out.
This would also be the lowest cost solution for the long term.