A Deadly Waiting Game in Ukraine - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
A Deadly Waiting Game in Ukraine
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A banner hangs in Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 5, 2022 in support of the residents of the city of Mariupol. (Shutterstock/Sergei ua)

The invasion of Ukraine, as with many other wars in modern Russian history, has followed a familiar pattern. First, the much-lauded Russian Armed Forces stumbles into a damaging and humiliating debacle characterized by operational inflexibility and failures of coordination. Then, the Russians reconstitute themselves: Assets are reinforced, plans are redrawn from scratch, and commanders who have proven themselves to be useless are fired. Occasionally, entirely different approaches to warfare are invented or resuscitated. All of this leads to round two, which Russia frequently wins.

This theme played out most famously on the Eastern Front in the Second World War, as well as in the Winter War against Finland a few years prior. More recently, the First Chechen War ended in disaster for Moscow in 1996 but was followed by a decisive Russian victory in the Second Chechen War three years later. Sometimes the learning experience takes a while: The tsar’s troops were so badly beaten in the 1905 RussoJapanese War that it set off a revolution at home, but their sons returned four decades later and swept the Japanese out of Manchuria.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has now undergone such a necessary recalibration. When the Russian army began its attack along four separate axes in February, the plan was clearly to rout the Ukrainian military with as few shots fired as possible. When it quickly became evident that no rout was forthcoming, the attack derailed into a mess of abandoned vehicles and traffic jams.

Russia’s strategy is no longer to awe Europe and the U.S., but to outlast them.

After an awkward lull in the fighting, the Russians withdrew and changed both their axis of advance and their tactics. In an approach reminiscent of the Western Front in the First World War, Russian attacks in the Donbas now open with massive artillery barrages designed to maul fortifications, followed by quick but cautious infantry assaults aimed at small and defensible gains rather than vast breakthroughs or encirclements. The result has been a brutal, grinding second phase to the war, with Russia making slow and steady gains.

Moscow has further recalibrated on a different level of the conflict. Just as Russian military planners counted on a rapid collapse of the Ukrainian army’s organized resistance, so too did Russia’s leaders gamble that NATO and the EU would offer only a tepid and disjointed response. Ukraine’s swift defeat could then be presented to the rest of Europe as a fait accompli, and any subsequent reprisals would be light.

With this plan long since invalidated, Russia has changed tack. Its strategy is no longer to awe Europe and the U.S., but to outlast them. The invading Russian troops may not be as motivated or as numerous as the defending Ukrainians, but what they do have is “10 to 15 times more” artillery than Ukraine, according to a top Kyiv official last month. Other officials have claimed that Russia fires 60,000 shells per day, an order of magnitude more than Ukraine.

The artillery gap could continue to widen. Russia enjoys a large domestic arms production industry and favorable supply lines to the front. Ukraine had little in the way of an arms industry to begin with, and now it has neither enough functioning factories nor enough workers to staff them. To make matters worse, its supply lines and depots are exposed to constant Russian shelling.

Ukraine’s deficits in production capability should, in theory, be filled in by its supporters in NATO. But deliveries thus far have failed to keep pace with expenditure. The latest U.S. military aid package to Ukraine, announced last week, features 1,000 “precision” 155-mm rounds. The previous package, announced mid-June, included 36,000 standard rounds. Altogether, the artillery ammunition that the U.S. has sent Ukraine in the span of a month could sustain Ukraine’s rate of fire for no more than a week, or Russia’s rate for less than a day.

What NATO Can Afford 

Why isn’t more help coming, faster? This question gets to the heart of Russia’s new strategy. Moscow is betting that gas prices, recession, voter dissatisfaction, and the threat of China will all make NATO leaders think twice before giving away more equipment to its opponent.

Indeed, sending what the Ukrainians need would be a momentous task: Kyiv believes that it requires 1,000 155-mm howitzers, 500 tanks, 300 MLRS, 2,000 armored vehicles, and 1,000 drones to achieve “heavy weapons parity” with Russia. For reference, that is more howitzers than the U.S. has deployed in its own active armed forces. Delivering even a portion of this equipment, and providing the copious amounts of training necessary to use and maintain it, would be by far the most ambitious military aid project in history.

And then there would still be the question of supplying ammunition to these weapon systems. Despite America’s huge military budget, artillery is not as central to U.S. military doctrine as it is to Russian doctrine, and so the U.S. maintains quite a small ammo stockpile. For the whole of 2019, the U.S. Army allocated funds to purchase around 150,000 conventional 155-mm shells. The order was seen at the time as an “eye-popping” nine-fold increase over a previous plan to purchase only 16,000 shells — yet in the context of the Ukraine war, it would’ve lasted roughly three days at Russia’s rate of expenditure. A disturbing possibility is that the dwindling of U.S. ammunition aid to Ukraine may be best explained not by stinginess, but by a genuine depletion of American ammo reserves.

That is not to say that the U.S. has hollowed out its own armed forces to support Ukraine. Again, artillery plays a smaller role in American doctrine than in Russian doctrine, and NATO easily overmatches Russia in areas such as air and naval power. But fighters are not being supplied to Ukraine for fear of escalation; and even if they were to be sent, there would be no means to maintain them and no trained pilots to operate them.

NATO’s willingness to sacrifice for Ukraine has found its limits.

If the war drags on — as it almost certainly will — NATO will not be able to sustain the kind of aid that Ukraine requires without some kind of partial mobilization of workers into wartime production. This would be a politically damaging move, at home but also abroad, where Russia and China are looking for any excuse to accuse the West of reckless escalation. It would also be an inadvisable allocation of production at a time when much of Europe is tipping into double-digit inflation. (READ MORE: China’s Share of Ukraine)

Ultimately, NATO’s willingness to sacrifice for Ukraine has found its limits. With Finland and Sweden on the verge of becoming members, rearmament happening among previously inert countries like Germany, and serious weakness in the Russian economy, the alliance does not expect imminent further westward expansion by Moscow. Losing Ukraine to Russia would be a humanitarian disaster and a blow to democratic prestige, but not an existential danger to Washington or Brussels. NATO can afford to lose the war, even if Ukraine cannot.

Kyiv or Bust 

The calculus is a bit different on the other side of the war. It is something of an axiom among Russia watchers that President Vladimir Putin’s domestic popularity is shaped first and foremost by his cultivated strongman image. His highest-ever approval ratings were in 2008, when Russia crushed Georgia in a five-day war, and 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea.

But Putin’s image is also a proxy for the current Russian regime as a whole. During the turmoil of the 1990s, the Russian state and economy came under the de facto control of two factions: the oligarchs, who accumulated vast wealth by buying up former Soviet assets; and the siloviki, men with backgrounds in the army, law enforcement, or the intelligence agencies.

Putin’s greatest political accomplishment has been the taming of the once-invincible oligarchs through methods ranging from sidelining to assassination. The current Russian state could be described as a securocracy — rule by siloviki — with Putin, an alum of the Soviet KGB, as its face.

A defeated Russia would tip perilously toward regime change.

Hence, the current government derives its legitimacy from its ability to assert Russia’s sovereignty and to project the power of its state through the military and other means. Any outcome short of a major victory in Ukraine risks undermining the entire regime. With businesses shuttering, incomes falling, and restaurants running out of potatoes, Putin would have nothing else with which to justify his continued hold onto power.

A defeated Russia would tip perilously toward regime change. By Putin’s own reckoning, such a transformation would be inevitably followed by the undermining of national sovereignty and possibly even the dismemberment of Russia at the hands of NATO. Needless to say, Moscow will accept no outcome other than the subjugation of Ukraine, or at least a substantial portion of it.

China, for its part, believes in a Russian victory almost as much as Russia does. No doubt Beijing only wishes that it could have happened in days or weeks instead of months.

The duration and intensity of both the war and the sanctions on Russia have helped to spur a global economic downturn, in which China stands to suffer the most from out of any major power. It has been struggling to cool down an out-of-control real estate market, which, if forced to deleverage by a recession, could cause a worldwide economic crisis. In general, growth is slowing and cracks in the country’s traditional financial infrastructure are beginning to appear, as evidenced by recent bank runs at multiple small regional banks.

Some onlookers have used these facts to argue that the leadership of the Communist Party must be running out of patience with Putin and may soon pressure him to accede to an unfavorable negotiated peace. But it is more likely that China believes that a Russian loss would only make things much worse. Most of the sanctions currently in place would probably stay in place, and so the economic benefits would be marginal.

More importantly, while NATO has seemingly regained its sense of purpose thanks to Putin’s invasion, allowing Russia to lose would only further galvanize the Western alliance. Beijing is convinced that the U.S. wishes to cripple China and sees Russia as a vital impediment to Washington’s plans. A defeated Russia and a rejuvenated NATO would be President Xi Jinping’s worst nightmare.

Beijing has plenty of other concerns as well. The People’s Republic shares a gigantic border with its northern neighbor and has no desire to see nuclear-armed Russia undergo serious unrest or revolution. China must also contend with its dangerous reliance on foreign food and energy, usually imported by sea. A close relationship with Russia acts as insurance in case of open conflict with the West, offering access to safer overland imports.

The U.S. and most of Europe, by contrast, have far fewer reasons to stick with Ukraine to the bitter end. There is, of course, the shared belief in democracy and international rule of law. In better times, that would have been enough. But with a seemingly once-in-a-generation economic crisis in progress, more concrete cost and benefit calculations have taken precedence.

The Dilemma 

Russia will more than likely win its war against Ukraine if events proceed on their current trajectory. As aforementioned, such an outcome would not be too materially damaging for the United States or Europe; indeed, Russia would be sure to emerge in much worse shape than any country in NATO (barring perhaps Germany).

Nonetheless, should the United States and NATO recommit to ensuring Ukrainian victory, Putin is still far from unbeatable. But defeating him will be costly.

The West could begin to provide Ukraine with air support, which would entail flying sorties with NATO jets and NATO pilots. The riskiness of such an escalation has led most commentators to rule it out as a possibility from day one of the war, and for good reason.

The alternative, as previously described, is for America (and maybe France, the U.K., or Germany) to act as Ukraine’s artillery munitions factory. This would do less to heighten tensions but would entail some mobilization of resources away from civilian goods production. Such a move would be difficult to justify to voters worried about the economy.

If it picks either option, NATO must be prepared for a long war against the Russians. Certainly, it would not end this year, and perhaps not even the next. Some analysts have suggested that Russia could deploy tactical nuclear weapons if it feels that it cannot win. What is more likely, at least at first, is that Russia would begin mass conscription. What the Russian Armed Forces have deployed so far in Ukraine — probably around 300,000 troops in total — is a fraction of the manpower that it is capable of summoning in a desperate situation. Putin has so far refused to initiate mobilization on account of the instability it would cause, but his thinking is certain to change if the alternative is a lost war.

Dealing with China, on the other hand, is entirely about how much economic hurt America and its allies would be willing to endure. Despite launching aircraft carriers and spy campaigns, the Communist Party is well aware that it is not yet strong enough to make a move on Taiwan. Instead, it threads the needle in Ukraine, supporting Russia rhetorically but not materially, mostly complying with sanctions in some areas but keeping Russia’s economy afloat in others. Beijing appears to be confident that Putin’s waiting game in Ukraine will eventually win out against NATO and that China’s own strength will eclipse America’s in the Pacific in due time. Given this, Russia’s biggest ally is keen to sit on the sidelines and bide its time.

If the West wants to force China to officially take a side, it must be willing to expand sanctions beyond Russia. Vague threats are insufficient. Now, while China is still dependent on America and on EU countries for vital aspects of high-tech manufacturing, will be the best opportunity to obtain concessions for the foreseeable future.

But leaders in Washington are afraid, perhaps rightly, that Beijing would sooner plunge the world into a depression than appear weak and lose Russia as a partner. With the midterm elections approaching and Americans citing inflation as their top issue by a huge margin, few political leaders in the U.S. are particularly eager to start a trade war.

If Ukraine is to be saved, its allies and supporters must be prepared to make more and greater political, economic, and military sacrifices that they are under no obligation to make. In the absence of such sacrifices, Putin will win his war. Not because of any particularly impressive leadership, tactics, or technology — but because he is willing to go to round two, and the West is not.

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