Preparing for a Long War
I don't think you can omit the ideological aspect of Russia's invasion. Just yesterday, Putin delivered another speech in which he reiterated his belief that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, "a single whole" as he put it in his 2021 essay. This is not an isolated, nor a new view. A view of Russians as a triad composed of Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians dates back to the 17th century in Moscow. In the late 19th Century it got a big boost as a fundamental component of Russian nationalism and has continued to this day. It is part of Putin's overall ideology but it works because it has widespread acceptance within Russia. Of course, Ukrainians and Belarussians beg to differ. And, of course, in Russian nationalism, the Russians are at the top of the triangle and the other two are junior or subservient partners. Thus, Putin has repeatedly either implied or directly said that this is a "family quarrel" and outside interference is not appreciated. Given this viewpoint, Russia's war objectives are not just about territorial acquisition. Territorial acquisitions are an intermediate objective to the strategic objective of dominating Ukrainians again. The Ukrainians know this; they feel it. Thus, they have no faith in any short-term deal with Russia.
A clear-eyed analysis of choices and ways forward. All wars must have political backing and objectives and it is clear that there is an empty intersection between what Putin desires and what Ukraine needs so the war will continue, though with ebbs and flows. Give that territory is much harder to take or recapture at the moment, the focus on attrition of men, matériel, and most importantly LOGISTICS going back to the economic base and delivery system of weapons to the theaters of operations. This is why Russia attacks Ukrainian power infrastructure. It is why we have seen Ukraine hit key factories and Russian infrastructure. It is how Ukraine has driven the Russian Black Sea fleet largely from Crimea grain shipping corridors. It was how Ukraine forced the Russian’s from the right bank of the Dnipro.
But as retired Gen Mick Ryan has stated, the West and Ukraine need to have strategic patience, continue rebuilding its defense capabilities and give Ukraine the long range fires it needs to further erode Russian logistics (channeling Phillips O’Brien on this last point). If anything, Putin is showing the opposite and lacks a sense of strategic patience in his fixation with a Pyrrhic victory at Avdiivka just like at Bahkmut. The West needs to exploit Putin’s lack of patience. Putin clearly views personnel as expendable and not as valuable as technology or other considerations. Ukraine views it’s people as it’s most valuable resource. Here, Ukraine has a distinct advantage in thinking. Skilled personnel are needed to operate state of the art systems, to make good decisions on the ground, to help innovate, to maximize the systems they have.
It is in the above that we in the West need to reframe the thinking about supporting Ukraine and dispense with the fixation of territory gained or lost on a map. If we reframe and operate toward the strengths Ukraine has and have patience, the recapture of Ukrainian lands will come, Russia will be defeated and deterred, and maybe we can have security in Europe.
After 21 months of redlinery, dithering, and incrementalism, the West is clearly unwilling and unable to go all-in on matériel delivery and production. Increasing production is complex. New production lines or even factories have to be built, artisanal manufacturing methods have to be streamlined for higher output, workers have to be found and trained, suppliers have to be sourced and co-ordinated. A few Storm Shadow and ATACMS missiles will hardly change the picture; like Konrad Muzyka or Michael Kofman observed on the ground, no western observers are present to relay information about how to improve and expand training in the West and in Ukraine. As the Kiel-Institute data shows, hardly any offensive matériel has been delivered from March, while Russia, able to circumvent sanctions ever more easily, is expanding existing production and builds new factories, like Radio Svoboda reported recently; Russia also helped by its allies Iran, China and North Korea that, unlike the West, can deliver.
So, why should Putin negotiate anything at all? He is winning long-term against the West, mired in boredom, angst and decadence, and the ever more likely Trump presidency in only a year from now will make him rejoice even more. If Ukraine is press-ganged by Biden, Scholz and Macron to take the bus to Minsk III, giving up one or two bonus oblasts, Putin is rewarded and knows that war does pay off. He will have his forces take a little breather, and then proceed to conquer all of Ukraine, which still is his burning ambition.
Ukraine, on the other hand, would be severely crippled. Already the Russian destruction of the Kakhovka dam has severely crippled important agricultural land and even more so industrial facilities. I saw it first hand in Kryvyi Rih, where water was occasionally rationed, far away from the front. Loss of agricultural land and industries means loss of jobs and loss of tax revenue.
The West allowed Russia to withdraw around 25,000 of its best troops and over 2,000 pieces of matériel across the Dnipro last year. The West allowed the heavily mined Scholz-Biden-Line of field fortifications to be built from November until June. The West looked on after the Kakhovka dam destruction. From all of the above, I conclude that Biden, Scholz and Macron prefer to force Ukraine slowly under the bus to Minsk III, happy to then care for the resultant Ukraine-stub humanitarily, without having to deliver "nasty offensive weapons". They would even prefer a total annihilation of Ukraine, because, like their weak and mollycoddled citizens, they would be content with a new NATO-Russia border with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, because they believe that, just like during the cold war, everything will be nice and quiet again for years to come. And that is what most western citizens want, being able to focus on hedonism, shopping and holidaymaking again.
I cannot fault the reasoning and analysis taken across both pieces. I also perceive that the current R offensives and sustained propaganda of triumphalism and more carefully curated Kremlin narratives are connected. There is long-term damage being done to R and I get more and more glimpses of that. P will be aware of this better than I am (I assume) so his SMO cost benefit and risk perceptions might motivate the desire to end this soonest. Therefore, this could be P’s Kaiserschlacht moment. March 21st 1918.
To counter this would be a clear political and articulated strategy that speaks to continued and mounting support from Ukr allies. Right now, this is absent (the old one is not fit for purpose under changed circumstances). Nor do I think that every major government has simply given up and moved on. It’s too important to ignore and just taking UK, France, and Germany for examples, all have expended and risked political capital backing the fight. I suspect there is an enormous amount of below the surface conversations going on between the major sovereign states in Europe, US and Ukr of course. This political vacuum is therefore filled by R and we all dance around this and talk about it.
The pronouncements from General Z appeared to be aimed at capturing the military agenda for discussion and put this in the context of strategy. He felt a long-term war had major risks (so he might not agree with your view). He is a general and wants to win battles, so could be expected to lean that way. The fact that he articulated in open sources was significant. It puzzled me even if I was fascinated by its contents. It suggested that not all the parties were on the same page and for reasons he felt were based on erroneous analysis or information. Better to have the facts laid out by Ukr’s most senior soldier. Then the meetings can talk around that as the start point.
So, we wait for that emerging political counter to R messaging. This cannot come from President Z alone, he needs his allies on a single joined up message. In the meantime, Ukr can continue to both frustrate the Kaiserschlact while inflicting a heavy political cost on R with performative acts of aggression around sensitive targets. The waiting is uncomfortable but inevitable in a multiparty alliance. To defeat P will require a political offensive before any ‘100 Days”.
Where you say: "The costs and impact of a Russian victory would be far greater." That may be so, but the vital question is to who. Surely for Ukraine, but the case needs to be made to the voters in Western countries that this runs a high risk of affecting them too. It isn't clear that this case has been made with sufficient conviction to overcome - let us face it - growing concern or opposition to the very high costs for on-going meaningful support to Ukraine's war effort. The outcome of this war, were there to be no negotiations, does in the final analysis boil down to a balance of resolve and resources, both human and material. While Ukraine will presumably be the sole source of human resources in the battlefields, much of the material support must come from the West and the future of this effort remains uncertain, especially in the USA.
The Korean war has not formally ended and the two Koreas are technically still at war, engaged in a frozen conflict. Are there lessons here with regard to Russia v Ukraine?
Excellent analysis - as ever. But one query: shouldn't the arrival before too long of F16 aircraft make a big difference?