A lot is staked on Ukraine’s counteroffensive

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-2021).svg by Rr016Territorial control sources:Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map / Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed relief mapISW, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115506141

I haven’t commented on the Ukraine war since January, when the world was waiting for a new Russian offensive. That has come and gone, and now all the talk is of a Ukrainian offensive. First I want to look at the shape of things on the battlefield. Then I will take a step back and consider the situation strategically, before trying to probe how this war could end.

That Russian offensive turned out to be a damp squib. It was a series of attacks mainly in Donbas, and especially around the town of Bakhmut, the strategic value of which has been much argued over. The Russians made use of “human wave” attacks – a tactic with a long Russian history, but which led to massive casualties. Ukrainian casualties were quite heavy too, especially from relentless artillery fire. I was somehow expecting something more – the whole thing bespeaks of poor quality military leadership – apparently at all levels. What captured a lot of attention was politicking between Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group mercenaries, and the regular military. Mr Prigozhin’s troops did much of the heavy lifting around Bakhmut, using poorly-trained recruits from prisons, and he sought to make political capital out of this. Gradually the Russian effort has fizzled out, as they moved to a more defensive stance, though they still seek to complete the conquest of Bakhmut.

Which leads to the Ukrainian offensive. This is much talked about, including by Russian military commentators. Ukraine has been preparing a number of units for this task, and equipping them with advanced weapons supplied from the West. It is hard to tell what the real game is here. The Ukrainian leadership would clearly like to keep the Russians guessing as to where the blow will fall and when – but that is hard. The talk now is of whether the effort has already started, with some attacks north and south of Bakhmut. There is a game of bluff and double-bluff, and from this distance I can’t tell what is going on.

When it comes, the big question will be how tough and resilient will be the Russian troops on the receiving end. They are poorly trained and led, but their leadership is trying hard to steep them into the tough no-surrender traditions of the historic Russian military. If successful, even poorly-trained men will slow the Ukrainians down. Still, even though he Russian army is large by 21st Century standards, they have a lot of ground to cover, so they must be spread quite thinly. Another imponderable is ammunition supply. The Russian way of war is to use ammunition prolifically – and there are clear shortages. But ammunition supply is a major issue for Ukraine too. The Western powers’ ability to maintain stocks of ammunition for the weapons they are supplying is in question. Probably the reason for the regular waves of Russian missile and drone attacks is to run down Ukraine’s stocks of anti-aircraft munitions – especially since American intelligence leaks indicated that these were running low.

One area that Ukraine has been pressurising its allies on is the supply of advanced fighter aircraft like the American-made F-16 (though these aren’t top of the range weapons in the most advanced arsenals, they will out-perform the Soviet era equipment Ukraine has been using to date). The allies appear reluctant – as these aircraft require substantial logistical support, and any bases would become a natural Russian target that would be hard to move. The Economist points out that Sweden’s Viggen aircraft would be much more appropriate, as it doesn’t need big bases – but there aren’t enough of these around. A significant force of F-16s would undoubtedly give Ukraine more options, however, but they clearly cannot arrive before their offensive gets under way.

Which brings me to strategy. There is something rather curious about this war: the Russian don’t refer to it as a “Special Military Operation” for nothing: it is important to them to minimise its impact on the daily life of Russian citizens. This is a far cry from the total war idea we saw in the Second World War – but it is very much the way the Western powers have tried to conduct their wars, from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq. Ukraine is having to play along with this, and restrain their attacks on Russian territory, and even on Crimea, which is widely recognised as theirs. They have more to lose from an escalation. And so we have a paradox at the heart of the Russian strategy – the conflict is claimed to be an existential battle with the West for Russian values, and yet the Russian commitment to it is restrained. The Russians hesitate to mobilise further troops, or force their population to endure major shortages as more economic heft is devoted to the war. The Russian leadership has, in fact, been remarkably successful in insulating their public. But it limits any attempts to overwhelm Ukraine – and is ceding the initiative on the ground.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, apparently feels that he has long-term advantages. Ukraine is dependent on Western succour, and this cannot last indefinitely. The leading Republican presidential candidates in America, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, seem reluctant to maintain American commitment – and the presidential election is only next year. European commitment can be seen as a glass half-full or half-empty, like so much of what Europeans do. Meanwhile China might start to come through as an ally, providing vital logistical support. Furthermore there are questions about how the Western powers can keep the supply of munitions going in the long term – it is hard to ramp up production volumes. So the Russian strategy looks to be to weather the storm from the upcoming Ukrainian offensive, and then slowly take the initiative back, until America in particular wilts.

Will this work? It is rather of the nature of war that the leaders of each side tend to under-estimate their opponents – and both sides in this war have been guilty of that. I think Mr Putin is here. But neither should we underestimate his grip on power in Russia, and nor his ability to keep the Russian war effort going. All of which is a grim prospect.

How might things end? The signs are that Russia could settle for keeping most of their territorial gains. They are likely to choose to do this through a ceasefire, followed by a frozen conflict, of the sort already ongoing before the 2022 assault (or those in Georgia and Azerbaijan – or Korea). Of course there would be talks toward a longer term settlement, but these would get nowhere. The conflict might then be reignited later if the balance of power shifted. Ukraine’s ambiguous status would prevent it from entering NATO. This seems to be more or less the sort of resolution China wants to achieve.

It is obvious enough why the Ukrainian government wants to avoid this outcome. They would lose much territory permanently, and the threat of re-ignition of the conflict would be constant. And yet it is difficult to see that the war will end in any other way. The Russian regime cannot admit that the war is over and that they have lost. Even if Mr Putin is replaced, it is highly unlikely that any replacement will renounce his expansionist narrative. The regime is tapping into widespread popular beliefs. This means that Ukraine must retake as much territory as possible before a ceasefire is forced on them.

This would put a priority on territory south of the Dnieper river up to the Sea of Azov. This forms a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula. This is, naturally, where Russian defences appear to be thickest. As the offensive moves from advance to stalemate, the Ukrainian leadership will then come under huge pressure to settle for a ceasefire accompanied by peace talks.

Once we get to a ceasefire and move to a frozen conflict, the pace of changes slows. This can go in roughly two directions. The worst case scenario is that Russia follows North Korea, and is gripped by a totalitarian regime that is an economic failure, but where the regime’s grip is secure. The alternative is that we follow the Cold War, where the Russian leadership’s economic and other failings lead to a loss of confidence and political implosion… and ultimately a new settlement with the West. Ukraine, meanwhile, embraces the West and the European Union, and enjoys economic success as it rebuilds. Such rebuilding efforts usually surpass outside expectation – and the manner Ukraine’s military and civic success in beating off the Russians bodes well for its economic development, just as the Russian security elite’s tightening grip bodes ill for Russia’s.

But first this summer’s events will shape who controls the ground. Alas that means that there will be many thousands more deaths before we can approach some kind of resolution.

No end in sight for the war in Ukraine

Viewsridge, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My reviews of the war in Ukraine are becoming less frequent. Thee war just goes on. At the start I spent quite a bit of energy thinking about how it might end. And yet the prospect of an ending is receding. We must resign ourselves to several more months of death and destruction, and probably many more after that. What will happen in that time?

It is hard enough to tell what is happening now. Both sides are wary of releasing information, and it’s always for a purpose. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which is one of my main sources, now has extensive commentary on Russian attempts to manipulate what it calls “the information space”, both internally and in the wider world. Interesting as this may be, it reminds me of the story of the blind man looking for his keys under the street lamp: not because that is where he dropped them, but because that is where the light is. Beyond that there are formulaic reports of clashes along the three or four hotspots, which may be nothing more than aggressive patrolling, along with the endless artillery pounding. The Ukrainians are anxious to put out the story that the Russians are gearing up for a major offensive, using troops mobilised last autumn, along with, perhaps, a fresh mobilisation. The Russians seem to be dropping hints of this too, so it is probably true. Stories that Ukraine is preparing an offensive of its own come and go.

Much of the media kerfuffle in recent days has been over the supply of (relatively) advanced “main battle” tanks to Ukraine by its Western supporters. What to make of this? At the start of the war, Russia suffered desperate casualties amongst its armoured vehicles, and the idea that such things were obsolete in the age of drones and hand-portable antitank missiles Tok hold. After this came a gruelling war of artillery, and the usefulness such vehicles became more apparent. But their use seems to be a world away from the Second World War, which still shapes how many people view warfare. The Ukrainians clearly decided that they needed these tanks. Equally important, I suspect, are lighter “infantry fighting vehicles”, such as the US Bradley, which can transport troops – a cross between an tank and an armoured personnel carrier – a concept first developed by the Russians in the Cold War. These were promised to Ukraine by several countries (not including Britain, whose IFV is a bit of a failure) without much fuss before the tank row blew up. There is a lot more symbolism in the tanks, evidently. The whole episode was portrayed in the media as a show of disunity amongst the Western allies, and dithering by Germany. Well, there was certainly dithering – but such time the taken over important symbolic acts often makes them more solid. It is of the nature of alliances that they have arguments over strategy, as each participant has its own objectives. But often this helps improve the quality of decisions. It is possible to look on Germany as a foot-dragger – but it is the lynch pin of the alliance and has shown astonishing resolution, in spite of having much bigger problems thrown at it than the other allies.

Will these weapons transform Ukraine’s prospects, as the BBC seems to be reporting as fact? That is very hard to tell. A lot depends on logistics and finding the right tactics. The weapons were designed for a different type of war – but they are more capable than anything the Russians have. The Ukrainians have shown facility at both tactics and logistics, so we can expect them to make a difference. Still, transformative sounds too much.

What of the coming Russian offensive? They have refreshed their manpower, and will be able to employ large numbers, by modern standards (but not by mid-20th century standards), at the pressure point. This is likely to be in the Donbas region, where the biggest political imperative lies, as well as the easiest logistics. The Russians have learnt a lot from their earlier mishaps, and have developed much more effective tactics. Still, they face three considerable obstacles. Firstly, the Ukrainian forces are much better prepared than they have been. We’ve heard a lot about how Russia has superior numbers, but this is misleading. Russia has huge manpower potential, but Ukraine can dig deeper on its resources, and has been doing so for the last year, building up and training large forces. Second, the supply of Russian munitions is not as plentiful as it was. The Ukrainians report that Russian artillery fire has slackened recently; doubtless this is because they are conserving stocks for the offensive – but it indicates that there are limits – and artillery is central to current Russian tactics. And third, Russia lacks experienced officers and cadres to lead its freshly mobilised forces. This is usually regarded as central to the effectiveness of any army. Still, the Russians have surely thought all this through, and there may be surprises.

And the Ukrainian offensive? If the new Western supplied armour is to be part of it, it does not look as if they will be able to pre-empt the Russian one. It will have to come later, assuming that the Ukrainians have the strength left. There is some rather wild talk of seeking to recapture Crimea (for example in The Economist). Militarily this is not quite as absurd as it sounds – if Ukraine can advance south of the Dnipro River, then that would put it in a position to isolate the peninsula. Politically, it sounds like a bad idea, though. Russian claims that Crimea is somehow more historically Russian than Ukrainian is their usual nonsense. But in 2014 it had a substantial population that looked to Russia, and many anti-Russian elements (such as the Tatars) have doubtless largely left. Ukraine would acquire a grumpy province that would be hard to secure, as well as delivering a massive humiliation to Russia.

But that opens up the question of how on earth this war is supposed end. It looks as if Russia will talk about it if the annexation of Ukrainian territory is on the agenda. That would obviously include keeping Crimea, but surely also large parts of the four oblasts that they formally annexed last September and now partially occupy. That is so far inconceivable to Ukraine – the war has cost them so much that they want more to show for it. We might objectively argue that such a deal would not be so bad – Ukraine has consolidated its moral hold on the rest of its territory, and its place in the “West”, including as this expression does such countries as Finland, Poland and Bulgaria – but this is far from the psyche of the men doing the fighting, and the citizens enduring Russian bombardment. What would be decisive is the withdrawal of American support from the country. If that comes it will be seen as a huge betrayal. We will certainly have to see how the bloody events of this spring and summer play out first. I don’t think Joe Biden’s hopes of being re-elected as president in 2024 would survive such a retreat.

Could Russia’s resolve weaken? There have been plenty of examples of despots hanging on for years while their countries go to the dogs (look at Syria or Venezuela). Russia has already endured massive losses. A big test will be if the regime goes for a further wave of mobilisation, of which there is already much talk. Last autumn’s wave was clearly politically costly. Meanwhile the economy weakens, as war priorities take over, and many men are conscripted or have fled the country to avoid that fate. But economic hardship will not weaken its leader, Vladimir Putin, who sees his mission in terms of historic destiny, and who has so much personally tied up in the war. His war has failed its original objectives, but he cannot afford to admit defeat. Perhaps a coup will carry him away. But this would be done by Kremlin insiders, who are also committed to the war – there would be limits as to how much such people could concede. Mass unrest that would cause the collapse of Russia’s internal security apparatus looks vanishingly unlikely – though it is conceivable that another wave of mobilisation could provoke it.

The outlook is very gloomy indeed. The war presents as clearly as ever the main lesson of war: never start one. But there was plenty of evidence for that before this misadventure began.

Russia is exposed as a Potemkin state

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-2021).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source:BNO NewsTerritorial control sources:Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map / Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed relief mapISW, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115506141

The story goes that when Russian chief minister Grigory Potemkin took Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, on a tour to the south of her realm, he stage managed the process by co-opting peasants and painting up the villages she passed through to give her a false impression of the prosperity of the area, and her popularity. The expression “Potemkin village” has entered the language. Russia’s assault on Ukraine, launched in February, conjures up a similar image. Much of what we see of Russian power has been set up to give the right appearance. But things don’t actually work.

This was evident from the first days of the war. We were told, and Western experts accepted, that Russia had a modern army capable of quickly overwhelming Ukraine’s ramshackle affair. But Russian troops had not been properly trained; their equipment was not up to standard; their logistics systems could not cope with more than minor movements of troops. The army could produce glitzy videos of troops in action, but it was not up to the real thing.

We are now witnessing another example. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has ordered a partial mobilisation, to provide 300,000 extra troops to complete the campaign. He set out some clear principles for this action: the recruits would have military experience and would be given extra training, certain professions would be protected, and so on. These followed clear Russian laws about who was eligible and how they should be treated. All this has been ignored by the officials trying to implement the orders, who simply focus on providing enough bodies in any way they can, and dispatching them straight to the front without training. The Russian state is incapable of following instructions properly – the systems needed to do so aren’t there. At at the front, Russia’s army is being hollowed out and filled by untrained and unmotivated recruits – even supposedly elite units. Meanwhile the impact of the mobilisation on Russia’s productive workforce has been doubled by people fleeing in fear of being drafted – unable to accept assurances that they aren’t at risk.

I last commented on the war towards the end of August. At the time there seemed to be a bit of a stalemate. Russian attacks in the east had run out of steam. Ukraine’s much talked-of offensive in the south looked rather underwhelming. But a couple of weeks later, the picture changed dramatically. Ukraine launched an offensive in the north-east, in Kharkiv oblast, and caught the Russians on the hop. The Russians were routed and Ukraine recovered swathes of territory. Since then Ukraine’s progress has slowed there, but it continues. They recaptured the significant town of Lyman last weekend and have made further advances since. In the south, things have been much less clear. Ukraine had been making slow but costly progress. They were using American and European supplied advanced artillery and rocket systems to degrade Russian logistics – but progress in doing so was slower than hoped – the Russians have responded with dispersal tactics that have proved quite effective. But more rapid progress has been reported in the last few days. Ukraine hopes to isolate the Russian forces around Kherson city and force their retreat or surrender, without destructive street fighting, and complete the recapture of all territory to the west of the great Dnieper river, before the expected autumn rains.

Ukraine now has two big advantages. The first is that Russian frontline troops are badly degraded. Their artillery still seems to be effective, and remains their battle-winning edge, though Ukraine’s use of Western artillery technology has redressed some of this advantage. The second advantage is that of a central position. It is much easier for Ukraine to switch resources between the various fronts than it is for Russia. Russia can’t deploy decisive concentrations of artillery everywhere, so Ukraine can attack areas where Russia is weaker. The military situation seems to be deteriorating rapidly for the Russians – and feeding untrained recruits into battle will make little difference.

The Russian leadership is now getting more desperate. The original intention was that the operation would not have a major adverse impact on the Russian public. One Russian apparently put it something like this: “It’s like de-fleaing your cat. Easy for you; painful for the cat; fatal for the flea.” The mobilisation changes all that. Now the war is serious for the public, and that has undermined the regime’s popularity. Meanwhile supporters of the war are becoming increasingly critical of the leadership, and the regime does not know how to handle this. The situation is getting harder for the regime to manage.

But does Mr Putin have an ace up his sleeve? He has invested a lot in the country’s nuclear arsenal, and he is desperate to show that this investment has clear benefits. Can he use nuclear weapons to tip the balance back? He is probably not too worried about the dire warnings coming out of the US. He has the means to respond to a direct escalation by them, by threat of more nuclear weapons. And as for sanctions, what more can the West do? And would it really lead to a loss of passive support from most of the rest of the world, including China and India? If they aren’t outraged by the trampling of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, will anything short of a direct threat worry them?

But how useful would nuclear weapons actually be? Russian forces patently aren’t equipped to deal with a contaminated battlefield. Firing weapons at Ukrainian logistics centres would destroy whatever remains of the Russian narrative of avoiding civilian deaths. And if they win, do they really want to clear the mess up? And if they don’t, what’s the point? Gradually people are steeling themselves for some form of nuclear demonstration.

That would change things in unpredictable ways. But we might pause to ask how Russia got itself into this mess. Post-communist Russia is a joint enterprise between its intelligence services and organised crime. Mr Putin seems to have had a soft spot for criminals from quite early. Doubtless the admired the way they could get things done – as well as they opportunities for personal enrichment they offered. It was a good fit with the shadowy, menacing way in which the intelligence services, his own powerbase, like to work. But this combination destroys the rule of law, and undermines institutions, including most of the armed services. It creates the Potemkin state. (In the metaphorical sense – actually the real Potemkin was an effective administrator, overseeing one of the more positive periods in his country’s history. Potemkin did not create a Potemkin state).

Meanwhile, as his failings become ever more exposed, Mr Putin gets more desperate. His most recent gesture was the annexation of four regions of Ukraine (in a ration to Crimea, already annexed), though Russia won’t say what the boundaries of the annexed states are. The desperation brings danger to the rest of the world. But it also makes compromise harder to envisage. We are moving into an even scarier phase.

Russia’s endless war in Ukraine

Viewsridge, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is now six months since Russia launched its full-sale war against Ukraine, though hostilities started all the way back in 2014, with the seizure of Crimea. Not much changes day to day on the ground, and it is hard to tell if either side has an advantage. All the talk is of a long war and stalemate. It looks as if this is now Russia’s strategy. Will it work?

I last commented on the war in July. I mentioned then that my two main sources were The Economist and the Institute for the Study of War. The former is by far the better for getting an overall perspective. In the last print edition it had three interesting articles, on Ukraine’s prospective counteroffensive in the south, on life in occupied Ukraine, and a more general one on urban warfare. As somebody who can’t quite let go of his boyish enthusiasm for for military things (I still play with model soldiers), I find its coverage of military thinking of interest. It is, of course, very journalistic. It reports a number of points of view without being clear about the conclusion. In previous blogs I have expressed my frustration with its frequent repetition of the “conventional wisdom” that attackers need a three-to-one numerical superiority. It is clear that this piece of nonsense is actually quite embedded amongst western military theorists. This is a demonstration that the money-machine of the defence industry has a large bullshit factory attached. I shouldn’t have been surprised. All that can be said is that things look even worse in Russia, but at least Ukraine has demonstrated a capacity for intelligent pragmatism in military matters. That is doubtless a reflection of the extreme pressure they are under. They can’t afford bullshit.

ISW provides a bit more detail around the edges, but its quality has fallen off. It has a strong pro-Ukrainian bias. I mentioned in my last article that it nevertheless reported interesting colour from Russian “milbloggers” – commentators with military connections that were often critical of the Russian military leadership, though not of the war itself. Alas this source is a lot less interesting these days. The Russian government seems to be curbing it.

What do I learn from these sources? Well, not very much seems to be happening on the ground at all. Russian attacks in Donbas are slowing down, now that the more obvious targets, such as Severodonetsk have fallen. They are shifting strength to the south, in anticipation of a Ukrainian counteroffensive there. This counteroffensive has been talked up for the last couple of months or so, but not much seems to be happening on the ground, beyond an intensifying artillery battle, with Ukraine using its new advanced munitions to attack Russian logistics. The Economist is suggesting that the whole thing might be a feint. They don’t think the Ukrainians are ready yet. It is hard to tell how much of this assessment is based on hard reality, and how much is from the same western bullshit factory that thought the Russians were going to secure a rapid victory, and who keep talking about the need for a 3 to 1 numerical superiority for an attacker. The critical factor is the morale of Russian forces – which seems to be weak, since they depend so much on hastily raised and poorly trained and led units. These are the raw materials of a spectacular military disaster. On the other hand, plentiful Russian artillery presents a major problem for the attackers. And the Ukrainian military would be right to be wary of sending in inadequately trained forces. They can’t repeat Russian tactics.

With the situation on the ground moving to stalemate, more emphasis is going on symbolic and propaganda attacks. Ukraine’s attacks on Crimea look to be such, the area having been considered safe enough for Russians to use as a holiday resort. and so do occasional Russian long-range attacks on targets in Ukraine’s interior.

Meanwhile the Russian leadership thinks time is on its side. It’s not hard to see why. Ukraine is becoming more dependent on advanced western equipment and munitions, but these are expensive and supply capacity is constrained. Meanwhile the economic war with the West seems to be going quite well for Russia. Its economy is bearing up to sanctions better than expected. Meanwhile high energy prices are causing a major economic crisis in both Europe and, to a lesser extent, in America. There are signs of stress in the West’s political pro-war political coalition. The far right look as if it will come out on top in Italy; Emmanuel Macron has lost his parliamentary majority; Donald Trump looks ascendant in the US. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, has a low opinion of the moral fibre of the West. He surely thinks that Western resolve will collapse.

But that is to underestimate the strength of the West – a bit like the many Brexiteers thought the European Union was on the verge of collapse. It is hard to appreciate the strength of something you despise. Germany is the bulwark. Britain has found it politically convenient to back Ukraine’s war, and that will not change, even as it changes prime minister. Donald Trump is two years away from re-entering the White House – and his campaign may well collapse before then. Germany had staked a lot on a cosy commercial relationship with Russia, and access to its gas. Russia has betrayed the trust Germans placed in it, and the country understands that there is no going back. And so before our eyes that country s accomplishing a major economic realignment. The cost is enormous but the country is ready for it.

And meanwhile Russia has weaknesses of its own. Its army was never as effective as many thought, and now it is short of trained manpower and leadership. The problem will take years to fix. The government may have the political will, but it lacks the technical competence. Mr Putin has developed a highly effective internal security apparatus and propaganda machine, but beyond that Russia is being hollowed out.

So where does it end? The world is getting another lesson in how modern wars are easy to start and hard to end. As the war goes on, the stakes rise. What starts as a matter of geopolitical manoeuvre is sold as a clash of civilisations. In the early part of the war (or this phase of it), I speculated on what sort of a settlement might result. Such a settlement, with territorial losses to Ukraine, may come about if American patience is exhausted, and it forces Ukraine’s hand. That looks a long way off. The rise of Mr Trump, and President Joe Biden’s weakness, ironically, makes such an end less likely. Mr Biden can’t afford another embarrassing retreat after Afghanistan. Otherwise it will take regime change in Russia to end the war. It is hard to tell what might precipitate that. Mr Putin looks as secure as ever.

So the world has to endure yet another lesson in the futility of war.

Are the Russians winning the war in Ukraine?

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-2021).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source:BNO NewsTerritorial control sources:Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map / Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed relief mapISW, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115506141

As I was drafting this article, British politics went through an extraordinary period of turmoil, and Boris Johnson’s government started to collapse. The dust still hasn’t settled. I will not attempt to comment on developments just yet, though. The war in Ukraine grinds on, and this article is as relevant as ever.

BBC reporting on Ukraine is a faithful representation of the zeitgeist in journalistic circles. It reflects mood swings and momentum rather than a sober reflection of the facts. That mood has recently swung to pessimism (on Ukraine’s behalf) as Russia has completed its conquest of the Luhansk oblast. Is this a fair assessment of the facts?

Beyond the mainstream media reporting, I have found two sources particularly useful to try and get an understanding of what is happening. The first is The Economist (which manages to be both mainstream and fringe at the same time), and especially the weekly summaries in its print edition. The paper tries to get behind the headlines a bit – though it can repeat some silly tropes put about by military experts. One was that the fighting in the Donbas would start to resemble battles fought over the same area in the Second World War, with the use of mass tank formations across open country in particular (this one was repeated by a BBC correspondent). That was always going to be nonsense: the scale of the conflict is dramatically smaller, and modern technology has transformed warfare – not just in weapons, but in logistics. Instead we have seen battles with incremental gains based around towns and highways – with artillery playing a dominant role. Another trope was the repetition of the idea that “in theory” an attacker should have a 3:1 numerical superiority over the defender to succeed. Repetition of this idea (which dates back the General Montgomery in WW2) is sure sign of somebody talking well beyond their expertise. The odds needed by an attacker are completely dependent on context: sometimes 3:1 is not nearly enough, at others 1:3 is perfectly adequate. Still there is a lot of value in The Economist‘s reporting. This week it has a very good assessment of the two sides – concluding that it is too early to tell who is winning, and it will take a long time to tell.

My second source are the daily bulletins from the American think tank the Institute for the Study of War. This body is by no means impartial – littering its references to Russian activity with such adjectives as “illegal”. It has been quite dependent on briefings from the Ukrainian military – and it tends to talk up the idea of “false flag” attacks by the Russians. Its daily reports are a bit formulaic as well. But it tries to give a sober assessment of what is happening. It has improved its coverage significantly by reporting on what it calls Russian “milbloggers” – Russians with military connections reporting on their own assessments of what is going on. These are often very critical of the Russian leadership, while supporting the “Special Military Operation” overall. These sources are often the first to report Russian successes – and they help give the ISW reporting better balance.

So what do I glean from all this? Russian tactics have switched to something that plays much better to their strengths – with the use of heavy artillery bombardments and incremental territorial advances, trying to surround and then reduce Ukrainian strongpoints, tempting the enemy to reinforce a “cauldron” of partially surrounded troops into a killing field. This approach accounts for their recent success in Luhansk. But how successful have they actually been? Some suggest (including from the Russian side) that Ukraine has been playing a cleverer game here – forcing the Russian side to expend copious resources for marginal gains, and then retreating before it is too late. Well, maybe – but Ukrainian casualties have been heavy too. Most people expect the Russian military efforts to pause while they rebuild their forces after suffering heavy losses. Building new cauldrons will be harder as they push into Donetsk.

A second point to make, which you won’t hear on on the mainstream reporting, is that there has been significant action outside Donbas. In particular Ukraine has made some successful counterattacks in the south. It is very hard to know what is actually going on here. The Economist has an online article on this (which I haven’t read – you can get too obsessive…I wait for the weekly printed edition). The ISW reports are patchy. It seems that the Ukrainian military don’t particularly want to draw attention to it, and Russia’s milbloggers aren’t very interested.

Looking deeper, there two aspects on the battlefield that will prove critical. First is logistics. The Russians are burning through an enormous amount of materiel. This is clearly limiting when it comes to the more advanced equipment – precision munitions in particular – but they seem to have deep stocks of less advanced equipment, and plentiful supplies of of low-tech ammunition. I have speculated that China might be helping them with this. On the other hand the Ukrainians have used up most of their Warsaw Pact era supplies, and are now dependent on supplies from their Western allies. And here they are being supplied faster than the materiel is being manufactured. This means that the Ukrainians cannot copy Russian tactics of mass bombardment. They need to use the more sophisticated capabilities of this weaponry to their best effect. To listen to some Ukrainian officials appealing for more firepower, focusing on the disparity of quantity, is not reassuring. But The Economist suggests that Ukrainians do understand this dynamic and are not trying to match the Russians for volume of fire.

The second critical aspect is morale. Here it is the Russians who have the disadvantage. The quality of Russian troops and training was always exaggerated by Western experts (and their own, it seems) – but heavy casualties have made things worse, as well as a neglect for the welfare of frontline soldiers that goes back centuries in Russian military tradition. This could come to matter a lot if Russians are put on the defensive. Strong physical defences are all very well, but defence requires grit. If Ukraine can find tactics that exploit this weakness, while not burning up too much ammunition, they may be able to see the initiative, especially away from Donbas.

A further aspect to think about is support for the war both within Russia and amongst Ukraine’s Western allies. At first sight things seem to be going Russia’s way here. The Russian economy is apparently holding up well, and the government’s has a strong grip on the narrative. Support for the war remains widespread and dissent rare. The most conspicuous sign of Russian economic success is a trade surplus, and a Rouble that has recovered from its earlier troubles. And yet this is not the success it seems. Clearly Russia is having success at exporting raw materials. But a surplus (and even a high Rouble) is a sign that it is struggling to import it needs. Sanctions are clearly hurting. And the Russian regime is worried enough about the Russian public not to declare a proper war, which would unlock mobilisation. This is something that puzzles the milbloggers.

On the Western side, Russia’s stranglehold on natural gas looks scary, and high petrol prices are causing widespread hardship. Problems with a liquid natural gas terminal in Texas, amongst other mishaps, mean that plans to substitute for Russian gas are behind. Western leaders are staring at a bleak winter. Pro-Putin populists in some countries are recovering their poise. It is no wonder that the thoughts of some leaders remains on how to bring the war to an end. Russians, Chinese, jihadi terrorists and others sneer at the ability of Western democracies to withstand pain – but this is always a mistake. It helps that many of the panful adjustments required are this that are needed to combat climate change.

What next? We may soon be moving into a new phase of the conflict. Ukraine is likely to move onto the attack. But in order to turn the tide properly they will have to cause something of a panic amongst the Russian troops. That is possible. But come the winter exhaustion will set in – and thoughts will turn to a ceasefire. Before then the Ukrainians are not ready to contemplate such a thing, while advanced Western weapons flood in. Neither will Russia, who doubtless think that logistics are on their side, and that Western patience will not last. A grim summer awaits.

Ukraine is not losing Russia’s war. That’s not the same as winning.

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Recently the British Chief of Defence Staff suggested that Ukraine was winning its war with Russia. I’ve only picked up reports of this on the BBC News, and I’m not sure what he actually meant. Ukraine should survive as an independent political entity. winning the war is another matter.

Clearly the war is not meeting Russia’s initial expectations. Their objectives seem to be diminishing. First they wanted to take political control of all of Ukraine. Then they simply wanted to sheer off the Donbas region and the country’s ports on the Black Sea. Now they seem to have let go of their attempts to secure Mykolaiv and Odesa, and the fighting is concentrated on the town of Sievierodonetsk, with Russians on the defensive elsewhere. A major effort to complete the conquest of the two Donbas oblasts has clearly stalled. Meanwhile Ukraine is recovering territory near Kharkiv.

All this is a huge achievement on the part of the Ukrainian people and their armed forces. But take a step back. Russia has still conquered large swathes of Ukrainian territory, especially in the south, including the important cities of Mariupol and Kherson. They have almost all of Luhansk oblast, and most of Donetsk. They are consolidating these gains by establishing administrative control and building defensive positions.

So what would victory actually be for Ukraine? Firstly, the war needs to end. Ukraine must be able to rebuild its infrastructure and start functioning again as a peacetime society, by, for example, freely exporting its agricultural products. That requires Russian consent – a formal ceasefire if nothing more. Then Ukraine must recover territory. There four distinct steps to this. First is recovering territory that is not within Russia’s main territorial ambitions. This is mainly the territory in Kharkiv oblast to the north of Donbas. Ukraine is slowly taking this back, but there remains much in Russian hands, notably around the town of Izyum. Next is recovering the other territory lost since the start of Russia’s attack in February. This is mainly in the south, and includes Kherson and Mariupol. Third is the rest of the Donbas, taken in 2014/15, but which hasn’t been incorporated into Russia itself. And finally there is Crimea, also taken in 2014, but now considered by Russia to be part of its own territory.

How realistic is the prospect of Ukraine taking back these lands by force? Except where Russia has decided to withdraw, Ukrainian counterattacks have so far reclaimed territory in only small steps. They have not shown an ability to concentrate large-scale forces sufficient to make major gains; if they did it would tend to play to Russia’s remaining military strengths. But there does seem to be widespread demoralisation in Russia’s armed forces, and Ukraine has demonstrated and increasing ability to project artillery and airpower. I think the first of my four steps is distinctly feasible. After that it looks a very big ask.

Meanwhile Russia is contemplating a long war. It may reckon that Western resolve has its limits. Extending sanctions to oil and gas is already creating disharmony within Europe. The economic costs to the West are mounting. While Russia is still able to sell large quantities of hydrocarbons, especially at inflated prices, it may find other sanctions quite bearable, especially since the rest of the world is loth to join in. As ever the ruling elites will suffer only relatively minor inconveniences. The Putin regime’s grip on Russia looks secure and it is being consolidated. Any major Ukrainian victory would require this to crack – which it shows no sign of doing. Most of the Russian political class seems to be investing in the war, and they will want to see some return on their losses. This is the sort of dynamic that makes wars so hard to stop.

And how long can Ukraine keep going? Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea, and destruction of rail infrastructure means that it is hard for Ukraine to export the agricultural products that are the core of its economy. It requires to be bankrolled by its allies. It is not hard to see that Vladimir Putin might think he has the advantage in the long game.

At some point Mr Putin might offer a ceasefire, conditional on the main Western sanctions being lifted, but with Russia holding on to most, if not all, of the second category of its gains, as well as all of the third and fourth. This would return the conflict to the frozen status prior to its February invasion. This is a dismal prospect, but it will be hard for Ukraine and its allies to resist. Russia may decide to incorporate its conquests into its own Federation, following Crimea. Whether it does so or not, it will have the major headache of consolidating its control over wrecked infrastructure and a largely resentful (or absent) population. There may even a continuing insurgency, though we must hope not. It would be hard to paint this as a Russian victory – but just as hard to paint it as a Ukrainian one either.

A lot depends on the next couple of months. If Ukraine starts making rapid progress in regaining territory, because the Russian forces are too demoralised to stand firm, then a new dynamic will take hold – although an unpredictable one, as we do not know how the Russian government would respond. But if the war settles into a stalemate, as seems most plausible, then both sides will have to consider a ceasefire.

This is probably the best outside observers can hope for. Russia would claim a famous victory, but the rest of the world will note its enormous cost. Vladimir Putin will consolidate his hold on his country, but internationally it will have been weakened. Ukraine would survive as a political entity, and would be free to engage fully with the West. But many refugees would be unable to return to their homes. The country will need to invest enormously in its defence.

At the start of this war I suggested that Russia lacked resources, and would not achieve the overwhelming victory that many assumed. It would be an equal mistake to exaggerate Ukraine’s ability to reverse the gains of Russia’s aggression.

How does the Ukraine war end?

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I’ve been offline for three weeks, but remarkably little has changed in Ukraine. The Western powers have followed my advice about the scale of assistance to Ukraine. I also suggested that the West place pressure on the Russian-controlled territory of Transnistria; tension there is indeed rising, but not as the result of Western actions. Meanwhile Liz Truss, the British Foreign Secretary has been upping the rhetoric about the scale of defeat she wants to inflict on Russia. This is fluff from somebody talking to Conservative Party grassroots before a potential leadership election. But it poses a more serious question: what is the endgame?

On the ground, meanwhile, little has changed. Russia continues its assault on Donbas, but has so far gained little territory, though it is making slow progress on one of it axes of advance. The battle for Mariupol seems to be nearly over, but further drama is assured with the fate of Ukrainians holed up in the Azovstal steelworks. Elsewhere Ukraine has nibbled some territory back, notably around Kharkiv. Once again the some of the expert military commentary in the media is well off the mark. It was suggested that the more open terrain in Donbas would lead to tank battles more reminiscent of the the Second World War (notably the great battle of Kursk in similar terrain nearby). That is nonsense – technology has changed the way war is fought. Instead the battles seem to be turning on artillery. The Russians do not want to press beyond the range of their low-tech artillery forces; the Ukrainians need to resist continuous bombardment, and strike to back at the enemy artillery if they can. This makes warfare slow-moving, unlike those battles of an earlier era.

Events in Transnistria (the thin sliver in the east of Moldova on the map) are a bit of a puzzle. Grenade attacks on Russian facilities there have been reported, without casualties. The Ukrainian government suggests that these are false-flag attacks designed to give Russia the pretext for involving its garrison in an attack on Ukraine (it is close to Odesa). This doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The Russian garrison is weak (reported as 1,500 men) and difficult to supply. It is surely more useful to the Russians as a source of signals intelligence and such without direct involvement. It is more likely that Ukraine is taking a leaf out Russia’s book and preparing the ground to carry out a “special military operation” to neutralise the Russian garrison. That would be a major humiliation for Russia, given the history of the place.

My earlier analysis was that a stalemate in Donbas would continue until something broke – by which I meant that physical or morale losses, and or logistical strains, cause a dramatic collapse on one or other side. That still seems to be true. Ukraine has longer supply lines than around Kyiv, and Russia is trying to attack them with air power and missiles. Russia’s army is badly mauled and shaken, and it is using prodigious amounts of munitions, though its supply lines are more secure than in the battle for Kyiv. It is hard to tell who will break first or when, or, indeed, if either will. Conflict at the current intensity is not sustainable in the long run though.

A Russian victory would see Ukrainian forces giving ground in Donbas, with the probability of a substantial number of troops being surrounded. Russia would take control of the two Donbas oblasts, plus the southern ones of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia (or most of the southern portion of the latter). This would fulfil one of its stated war aims of “liberating” Donbas, as well as securing Crimea, including its water resources. Russia would dearly like to add Odesa to this, but it might choose to stop there. It would then enter peace talks with the ever-present threat of continuing a low level war that might be escalated. Any peace would result in a formal partition of Ukraine, with effective Russian control of its new conquests. This would be enough for Russia to claim vindication, though in fact its main war aim of “den-nazifying” all of Ukraine would not be met in most of the country. Parts of the Ukraine that the Russian leader Vladimir Putin regards as core Russian territory would have been turned into hostile ground for the foreseeable future. And NATO would have been greatly strengthened, while Russia’s own forces would require many years of rebuilding.

I don’t think this outcome is very likely. Russia’s resources are not limitless, and the damage inflicted on its armed forces is very severe. While its strategy of attacking Ukrainian infrastructure is militarily sound, it lacks the precision munitions and air capability of doing it in the way the Americans managed in Iraq, for example. The West is providing more and more logistical support, and Russia has few good options of doing anything about this – just as America couldn’t stop Soviet and Chinese support in Korea and Vietnam, which went substantially further than the West is doing now.

What would a Ukrainian victory look like? A dramatic collapse of Russian logistics and morale is possible, but not very likely. More likely Russian efforts will slacken and resistance weaken, allowing Ukrainian forces to slowly start biting bits of tis territory back. But this is unlikely to take them any further than the post-2014 frontiers. After this the Russian defensive infrastructure will be too strong. At this point America might offer Russia sanctions relief if they agree to settle. But any substantive settlement, even based on these borders, would be very humiliating for Mr Putin, and it is hard to see him accepting it. He would have to be removed through a coup from the security establishment, unable to countenance the war continuing. But Mr Putin takes his personal security more than seriously.

Meanwhile the Russians are taking steps to consolidate their control of the territory they have acquired, with the “filtration” of the remaining population, the creation of local government structures and the adoption of the Russian rouble. They are trying to find ways through the Western sanctions for militarily useful supplies, using third nations. There is also speculation that they will escalate the conflict into a full war, allowing full mobilisation. The damage to Russian military capability runs deep, though, and large numbers of conscripts won’t help. But it would show that Russia is preparing for a long haul. This would require the West to extend sanctions, potentially upsetting neutral countries. And then winter would approach with Europe’s gas supplies under threat.

What happens next depends on what happens on the ground. If Russia can complete its conquest of Donbas, it is possible that Ukraine and its backers will reluctantly accept a tactical defeat. If Ukraine can recover Kherson and Mariupol, they, and their backers, may feel they have done enough to settle, and Russian political will might crack. Neither possibility looks at all likely in 2022. Which means a long haul. The military intensity of the conflict will reduce, as both sides seek to regroup. It then becomes a battle of political wills, in Russia, Ukraine and amongst the Western powers, especially America and Germany.

That is a grim prospect for the Ukrainian people, especially if they have homes in the east and south of the country. One reason that nobody should start a war is that they are so hard to stop. The world did not need another lesson the futility of war – but that is exactly what Russia has given it.

Ukraine: the Western powers need to move onto front foot

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This is likely to be my last post for three weeks as I take some time out. I still want to talk about Ukraine, though some other interesting issues are bubbling up, especially in economics. Never mind, Ukraine is front and centre at the moment for any European.

Since my last post, Russia has completed a withdrawal in northern Ukraine, including its advances on Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy. It retains its positions near Kharkiv and continues to shell the city. It has also, for now, abandoned its advance on Odesa in the south west. It is concentrating on Donbas in the east and Mariupol in the south. There is talk that they are gathering strength for a major offensive in Donbas. Meanwhile the world is shocked by the behaviour of Russian troops in the areas they have now abandoned in the north. “Genocide” is a much-used word, notably by the Ukrainian government. I don’t think what has been happening merits that word – but claims by some authorised media in Russia that the Ukrainian national identity is an artificial construct do add weight to the claim. But it is without doubt that the actions of Russian troops amount to war crimes, even though I think a lot of it is reckless disregard rather than deliberate targeting.

It all contributes to the propaganda war being used to sustain public support for the conflict. Both sides can claim success. In the West Russian disinformation has been overwhelmed – some people are picking it up, but nobody with political heft. What had been a rather successful part of Russian political outreach is in tatters. The only clouds so far as Western propagandists are concerned are younger people in the US, who are notably more sceptical according to a poll in the Economist, and Hungary, where the sceptical government led by Viktor Orban has just won another term in power, partly thanks to a campaign suggesting that the country should not join the war. But in Russia, hopes in the West that there would be a public backlash have been dashed. The public had not been prepared for the war, but the authorities have made up for lost time. They have developed their own powerful narrative of victimhood, denied claims of heavy losses and bad conduct, and successfully shut down all alternative news sources. There is something of a parallel with Ukraine itself – there the Russian attack has rallied Ukrainians into a show of patriotism, from what had been a rather sceptical public. The Russian government is successfully using Western sanctions to achieve something like the same effect. Their main risk is the suppression of news about what is really happening – but once feelings of identity and patriotism are stirred up, facts are little obstacle. After all supporters of Donald Trump still think that he won the presidential election in 2020. There is something of a backlash amongst middle class Russians, but they are unable to organise – the most important consequence is a brain-drain.

Outside the West and Russia, the results of the propaganda war is mixed. Russia has been able to play on anti-Western sentiment, resulting from such things as the Gulf War. By and large more neutral governments aren’t falling for Russian disinformation – but they is a large well of scepticism over the motives of the West. It is not hard to make a claim of hypocrisy.

Still, while Russia has successfully rallied public support, it has two big problems. The first is the state of its armed forces. These were never as strong as most people thought, including Western experts, doubtless as a result of the endemic corruption that is the hallmark of the Russian state. The disastrous early phase of the campaign has inflicted devastating losses, leaving what remains as damaged and suffering poor morale. It is much harder to keep the front-line forces in the same information bubble as the general public. It will be a struggle to regroup for the next phase of the campaign. The second big problem is logistics. Western sanctions may not have turned the Russian public against their government, as initially hoped, but they have weakened the capacity of the Russian state to make war. Of course it is hard to get decent information on this. The Ukrainian government is publishing a lot of details about the difficulties the Russians are experiencing – but it is hard to know how much weight to put on these. To my mind, one important issue is the supply of artillery shells, so critical the Russian way of war. But I suspect that this is somewhere they could get surreptitious support from China.

But Ukraine does not seem to be in a strong position to exploit Russian weakness, and retake territory which Russia wants to defend.. There is very little decent information this – but the Ukrainian government is now focusing its efforts on getting more munitions, as well as increasing sanctions on Russia. Demands for a no-fly zone are now less audible. This is putting pressure on the Western powers. For them there is an invisible but vital line in the type of support they are able to offer without escalation. This line needs to be examined harder, but the thinking is unclear, probably deliberately. What sort of escalation do they fear? The obvious one concerns gas supplies – but Russia surely needs the currency. Military attacks on the West would surely provoke the sort of further escalation that the Russians don’t want. Of course with the threat of nuclear weapons, any move has to be thought through carefully – but surely the boundaries could be pushed? Two issues occur to me. One is the supply of more types of weapons. Better anti-aircraft defences might be one area; armoured vehicles to allow Ukrainian troops to move around under artillery fire would be another (the use of armoured vehicles in front-line combat is another matter, as they look very vulnerable to modern weapons). A second issue concerns Transnistria, the Russian-controlled enclave in Moldova. This presents a threat to Odesa, but it is also very vulnerable. Western governments need to make it very clear that any attempt to use its bases there to attack Ukrainian territory would be unacceptable and result in military action and blockade. This would make it visible to the Russian government that their war is diminishing its global status and ability to hang on to its outposts.

Why should the West want to take more risks? Because Russia’s new battle plan presents a real threat. A spectacular advance in Donbas by Russia looks unlikely, but a grinding, slow one is a real threat, and could keep the war going for a lot longer. Ukraine needs to have the capacity to retake territory in order the convince Russia that continuing the war is not in its interests.

And at some point also, the West will need to get serious about making peace – as that is the only realistic way this war will end. But for that to work, Russia’s military efforts must be weakened further. And to achieve that the West will have to try harder.

The Ukraine war settles into a slow grind to partition

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Peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul drew headlines yesterday, but there was almost nothing to see. The war goes on in two main theatres: the fighting in Ukraine itself, and the economic assault on Russia conducted by the Western powers. Russia remains battered but unbeaten. Either something big breaks and one side is the clear victor, or the war will grind on to de-facto partition after both sides are exhausted. This is unlikely to be quick.

Russia drew headlines with the claim that it is scaling down its operations against Kyiv and Chernihiv as a gesture of goodwill. This is obvious nonsense. Intelligence suggests that Russia is withdrawing battered units from the area, but they seem to be replacing them with fresher units, albeit of doubtful quality. Heavy losses and logistical strains have forced them to dial back, but there is no sign that they are ceding territory. The aim of the announcement seems to be twofold: to make a virtue out of necessity for the sake of world propaganda, and to prepare the ground for any Ukrainian counterattacks, which they can label as escalation.

For their part, the Ukrainians aren’t offering much either. They are stepping back from their stated aim of joining NATO. But instead they want security guarantees that add up to much the same thing, except that they have renounced the idea of foreign troops on their soil. There is no sign of any flexibility on Russia’s territorial demands on Crimea and the Donbas. Russia does seem to have stepped back from their demand for regime change, and Ukraine’s exclusion from the European Union. That is progress of a sort, but not enough to get our hopes up.

The peace talks are missing elements that might point to success. They are not being convened by a power with the ability to knock heads together. Turkey is an improvement on the talks held in Belarus, but you need the heft of the USA or China, or preferably both, to force the sides into serious compromise. America is vital to Ukraine’s ongoing resistance, and central to the sanctions regime that is causing Russia such pain. China can put decisive pressure on Russia. But both China and America are posturing on the sidelines and show no interest in moving a peace process along. On the other hand neither of the combatants is yet close to breakdown – so neither will concede defeat in a costly war. Any serious compromise on territory will amount to a defeat of one side or the other.

On the ground we have something of a war of attrition. Russia is slowly strangling Mariupol to death. Ukraine is slowly pushing the Russians back in the north. Russia is clearly suffering from resource constraints. It is struggling to maintain its human resources – and the reinforcements that it is finding are generally of poor quality. Much the same can be said of replacement equipment. Less obvious are any constraints on ammunition supplies. Their method of war once serious resistance is encountered is very demanding of ammunition. Just how far consumption is outstripping production is unclear – the various reports I read on the situation don’t touch on this aspect, as presumably good intelligence is hard to get. However my feeling is that Russia’s scaling back in the north has as much to do with this factor as anything else. One key factor will be whether China can offer a supply of munitions to keep the Russian war machine going.

What could break in Russia’s military campaign? Exhausted units could collapse and retreat. This is more likely in the north, where Russian positions look stretched and vulnerable. It would make sense for them to conduct a physical withdrawal to consolidate – though this could free up Ukrainian troops too. In the south Russian positions look much less exposed, but if their commanders keep trying to push their troops forward, there could be trouble. If ammunition supplies do start to get stretched, some kind of disaster is more likely. If Ukraine is able to build up enough reserves to carry out more than limited counterattacks and insurgency operations, then this will make a big difference.

But Ukraine has its own weaknesses. Military experts suggest that their forces in Donbas could get cut off by advances especially from the south. I don’t have a feeling of the level of danger here – these military experts have often been proved wrong and have spouted their fair share of nonsense. I heard one on the radio saying that attackers usually need a 3:1 advantage in numbers. This number originates from General Bernard Montgomery trying to explain why he made such heavy weather of the battle of El Alamein with a mere 2.5:1 advantage. Numbers required depend completely on the context, and any rule of thumb is nonsense. Ukraine needs a continuing supply of munitions from the West, and could do with more weapons that would allow it to take the offensive – such as aircraft and tanks. Their morale is much higher than that of the Russians, though, and it does look as if they have saved Kyiv.

What of the economic war? This does not look as bad for Russia as it did at first. Loopholes have been found in the sanctions. There have been no bond defaults. They are being helped by Turkey, Israel and the Arab states, as well as China. The rouble is recovering. They are still exporting substantial quantities of gas. Still the civilian economy is taking a bad knock, and doubtless unemployment will rise. The state propaganda machine is all-out building a sense of Russian patriotism which allows its fantastical propaganda to be believed. Dissent is being stamped out. The Russian middle class is taking a big battering, though, and that is leading to a big brain drain. Russia’s s not a robust, self-sufficient economy, and corruption is endemic. Something could break. But there are plenty of examples of countries withstanding sanctions in the long term (Cuba, Iran, Venezuela). This is not what the Russian people signed up to when they voted for Vladimir Putin, but the narrative of victimisation is being developed. A palace coup is possible – as presumably not all of the Russian ruling elite is signed up to Mr Putin’s messianic vision of Russia’s destiny. But the first we would hear of that is the day after it happens.

How about the West’s resolve? The war is taking its toll, but public support is widespread. A life or death struggle of this nature is more engaging than our normal humdrum existence. The main problem is knowing how far the West can go in providing aid to Ukraine without provoking Russia into a military response. Russia’s ground forces are now overstretched, and cannot credibly threaten any NATO country. But they have a strong navy, long range bombers and missiles, and a formidable nuclear capability. Western leaders have managed this risk by defining clear limits to their interventions. This has been criticised by many of the more aggressive commentators, but it heads off the risk of a Russian first strike. Doubtless military options are being considered by Nato planners, and confidence in Western military doctrine and weapons have been given a huge boost by Russia’s struggles. But such options will only be considered if Ukraine is facing military collapse, and would aim to limit the damage.

Where is this war headed? The Ukrainian commentators who suggest the war might end in some form of de-facto partition and cease-fire, like Korea (still technically at war), are on to something. The Russian will eventually be driven out of or withdraw from the north. They will probably extend their territory in Donbas and secure a land bridge to Crimea. Unless something drastic breaks.

UPDATE: 31 March

It is confirmed that Russia has been withdrawing troops in north Ukraine, and not just rotating them. They are not abandoning territory, though, and continue with shelling. My suggestion that consumption of munitions is a limiting factor for Russia is not so far being borne out by the facts – not of low-tech artillery shells anyway. There are claims that Western sanctions applying to advanced electronics is preventing Russia from the production of advanced weapons and munitions, however. If so it is a critical strategic weakness for Russia with important implications.

Blaming the West for the war in Ukraine

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The month-long war in Ukraine is has entered a new phase. Neither side seems to be in a position to make major advances – but the fighting goes on with longer range weapons, causing continued death and destruction. The misery remains for Ukrainians and there seems to be no end in sight. It is a human catastrophe.

Most of the fighting is now around Mariupol. According to BBC correspondents, this is part of a new Russian strategy which focuses on one major objective at a time. Once this objective is secured, they will move on to the next: Odessa perhaps. This fits with a broader narrative followed by BBC correspondents that Russia has overwhelming resources and progress is simply a matter of time. Personally I am sceptical. It is quite hard for the Russians to replace the sort of resources they need to carry out an effective offensive campaign. After Mariupol, they may be too exhausted to do much more, apart from continued bombardment. A stalemate is likely to continue until something big breaks on one side or the other, militarily or politically. Both sides will seek to cover up their vulnerabilities and it is very hard to predict where the cracks will show first.

Meanwhile, I want to step back and look at the blame game. Two narratives are doing the rounds, suggesting that the war is the West’s fault. These are variations on the general, post-colonial narrative that everything that goes wrong is the responsibility of the Western powers, and especially America; everybody else is a victim. This is based on two ideas: one being that the West is all-powerful, in soft and hard power, and so has the ability to shape events everywhere. The other is a victim narrative, popular amongst developing nations, China and Russia, which seeks to absolve anybody else from blame for anything bad happening, often by digging back to some historical misdeed as an underlying cause. Neither is very convincing, especially in the Ukraine context, and, to be fair, few in the West are blaming anybody other that Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia for breaking the great taboo – using a military campaign to solve a political problem.

Still, seeking to blame yourself for things that go wrong is a better habit than always blaming somebody else. It is much easier to change your own behaviour than to convince anybody else to change theirs. It is worth asking what mistakes Western leaders made that might have spared us this tragedy. So what are the two blame narratives? One, popular on the left, and taken up by Chinese commentators, is that Western leaders disregarded Russia’s prestige and security interests, especially with the westward expansion of Nato and the EU. This forced Mr Putin into his death spiral of paranoia and a desire to rectify Russia’s humiliation. The other narrative is popular on the right: this is that Western leaders ignored the emerging threat from Russia, and were too busy engaging with the country rather than pushing back, allowing Mr Putin to think that he could get away with it. The West’s response to Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008 and Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 are critical aspects of this narrative.

The first point to make is that these two narratives are incompatible. They can only be reconciled by suggesting that Western leaders followed a false middle path – aggressive enough to provoke, but too weak to head off the threat. That is an interesting thought, but we need to look at each of the component narratives a bit more closely first.

There is a case that Western leaders, and in particular George Bush Senior and Helmut Kohl were too aggressive in taking advantage of the collapse of communism. They took the opportunity to cut Russia down to size with a decisiveness and ruthlessness that was too much even for Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, usually referred to as the “Iron Lady” in her confrontational zeal. There is particular criticism of the lack of economic aid as the communist economy collapsed. Instead Russia was flooded by neoconservative economists who urged that nothing should interfere with the operation of market forces in the building of a new economy. Well-connected individuals, and organised crime, took advantage of the power vacuum to make fortunes, while life for most Russians was misery. What Russia really needed was a managed transition to a mixed economy – something the Chinese achieved in the 1980s and 1990s. But the main problem was weak leadership of Russia’s political class – something that was reflected too in other parts of the Soviet Union, not excluding Ukraine. Would Western aid have achieved anything lasting in the absence of such leadership? There is good reason to doubt this – though that is not to say that the Western powers should not have done more.

The next problem came with the breakup of the USSR. This followed the Soviet Union’s internal structure, which did not necessarily make political sense. At the core of each of the USSR’s component republics was an ethnic group distinct from Russia. But that did not necessarily add up to a sensible separate polity. Belarus in particular did not make sense as a separate nation, and Ukraine was dominated by Russian-speakers, even if they might not all call themselves Russians. Never mind: each of these republics became an independent country, while statelets within the Russian federation, such as Chechnya, did not. There was nothing rational about this, but it is hard to see what the West could have done about it, even if it wanted to. The problem was the collapse in authority by the central Soviet state. This then created a dynamic that was very hard to reverse. There was possibly something of a window in the early 2000s when Russia seemed a little less chaotic and better governed than most of the other republics, and might have reunified with Belarus and Ukraine. It is surely true that European and American leaders did not encourage this idea, in order to prevent the new Russian state becoming too powerful. But Russia chose to advance its cause by allying itself with autocrats who were spectacularly corrupt., stoking popular resistance in Ukraine in particular.

But the biggest grievance of Russia’s leadership is the expansion of Nato and the EU that took place at this time. This included most of the old Warsaw Pact countries in Central and Eastern Europe, together with the three former Soviet Republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Let us take the EU first. Russian leaders tend to see this as an aggressive expansion of a zone of political and economic interest by West Europe. In a sense they were right – but it was motivated by the wish to consolidate democratic values and strengthen the European economy. It has broadly succeeded in both aims, notwithstanding many problems, notably in Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria with political corruption, and populism in Poland. Funnily enough there have been fewer such problems of integration among the former Soviet republics that joined. All these countries have prospered relative to the former Soviet republics that did not join the EU, for reasons that will be the subject of many an academic study for generations to come. It his hard not to see this expansion of the EU as a brave political move to benefit the peoples of Europe, rather than a provocation to keep Russia in its place.

That case is less easy to make for the expansion of Nato, which Russia challenged at the time. Personally I felt at the time that the admission of former Soviet republics to Nato was a step too far. But the new entrants clearly wanted to be part of the alliance, and it is hard not to argue that the threat from Russia was a real one. The West tried to reassure Russia with an agreement to limit the deployment of forces in the new countries – an agreement that they have broadly honoured until the Ukraine war. It is very hard to portray this expansion of Nato as a military threat to Russia, which doesn’t stop some people from trying. In the far left narrative Nato’s aggressive intent has been shown in its campaigns in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. But you really have to have the sort of world view that sees Cuba as a brave democracy in order to give this sort of thinking serious weight. But what Nato and EU expansion clearly presented was a limit to Russia’s ability to expand its own influence, and in particular opportunities for the self-enrichment of Russian elites. And yet it is very hard to subscribe to the principle of democratic consent and accept that Russia has a right to treat these countries as part of a sphere of influence, reminiscent of great power politics pre-1914.

The next step in the provocation narrative is the West’s growing influence in Ukraine. There was, in fact, no real prospect of this country joining either the EU or Nato. Oligarchs had too much influence over the state structures for the former, and ongoing territorial disputes with Russia doomed the latter. But western countries would not rule this out formally. Furthermore they have been very supportive of reforms that would push back the corruption rife in Ukrainian public life, which Russia has seen as an important channel of influence. Ukrainians in general have shown a clear preference for closer ties with the West, especially after Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and supported separatists in Donbas, kicking off a nasty war in which many Ukrainians were killed. Before this it was possible to sustain a narrative that Ukrainian politics was a battle between Ukrainian-speaking nationalists in the west, and Russians in the east, with the former only achieving political power through corruption, and using it harass Russian-speakers. The war in the Donbas changed that – though that surely some Ukrainians would still like their country to be part of Russia. But even before the current war, most Russian-speaking Ukrainians looked to the West, and the way they voted in elections clearly demonstrated that.

And that, at heart, is the problem with this Russia-the-victim narrative. The current Russian regime is a bully that believes in subverting the interests of its neighbours to support those of their ruling elite. Do we simply accept this as a matter of realpolitik, or do we push back? And where do we draw the line? Personally I would have drawn a pretty hard line around the borders of the former Soviet Union, and allowed Russia a greater level of influence there, even if it was malign – including an effective veto over Nato membership. But what would the outcome of that have been for the people of Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia? The examples of Belarus and Moldova are hardly encouraging. What I find very hard to take is people on the left supporting this Russia-the-victim narrative, using classic arguments of realpolitik. They would have been much better sticking to the high moral ground and comparing the behaviour of Russia to that of Israel, for example. To their credit this is what some of them have done.

Which brings me to woolly-West narrative. This line of reasoning instantly raises hackles with me because it reminds me of Cold War arguments in the 1970s – which I fully subscribed to at first, before moving on. Actually it may have more justification this time. The argument goes that Mr Putin was committed to his confrontational course in the early 2000s, if not before, and nothing was going to shake him from that path. Better to have frozen Russia out earlier, especially after his attack on Georgia in 2008. This may have weakened Russia economically and even militarily. But that would have given Russia little to lose from aggressive military campaigns against its neighbours, with a distinct risk of a nuclear confrontation. The West wanted to present Mr Putin with an alternative path of continued economic integration with the West, leading to greater domestic prosperity. Even so, the passive behaviour of Germany in supporting Russian gas exports while neglecting its military was not a good look.

There is a little bit of truth in both the West-is-to-blame narratives. But the West’s middle path of wary support for emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, combined with not treating Russia as an enemy was a perfectly rational one. It is hard not to see Russia’s troubles as being primarily driven by mistakes and weak leadership within Russia’s ruling elite in the 1980s and 1990s. After this a democratic path was open to its leadership but tackling corruption and building an open economy; or alternatively there was the Chinese model of developing a competitive private economy while tackling corruption in the ruling elite. But Mr Putin chose not to follow either path. Military assertiveness is not the only way to respond to political humiliation, as Germany and Japan have proved. western leaders may well have made mistakes in their management of Russia – but would that have stopped a war like this being started by Russia? That is much harder to say.