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Why the War in Ukraine Will Be a Protracted Conflict
And why this does not bode well for Ukraine.
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Ukraine has performed remarkably well on the battlefield, demonstrating a degree of grit and testicular fortitude that should make fragile American woke types blush in shame. American intelligence agencies — by far the best in the world — vastly overestimated Russia’s military prowess, predicting Ukraine would fall in a matter of days. Putin spent years boasting about how he was presiding over a military behemoth after spending billions modernizing the Russian Armed Forces, unaware that corruption scandals had ensnared thousands of officers and caused untold rot. Watching from afar, the West believed him.
I followed the war very closely in the first few months. I was fascinated with what was unfolding, and not for the first time found myself wishing I was back at West Point, where they were doubtless dissecting the conflict — the first real modern war — in Military Art classes on a level that rivals the Institute of War. What was playing out was easily one of the biggest military blunders in world history. Russia had to retreat from the outskirts of Kiev after a month, and this was just the beginning of their troubles. Since then, they’ve suffered several more major setbacks.
The front began to settle this summer, only for Ukraine to once again shock the world by conducting a large, masterful counteroffensive that expelled the Russians from Kharkiv and forced them to abandon Kherson. Many of the experts placed too much importance on manpower and quantitative material considerations, underestimating the importance of morale on military effectiveness and how much the quality of equipment matters. There was understandably a lot of skepticism about whether the superiority in quality of the weapon systems delivered by Western countries would be enough to make up for Ukraine’s deficit in quantity relative to what Russia initially had.
But despite Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive, I think expectations going forward should be tempered. Russian lines collapsed like a kicked tent because more territory than could be defended had been seized, leaving thousands of square miles in the hands of skeleton crews of underfed, undertrained, and poorly equipped ragtag conscripts and separatists. The 202nd Rifle Regiment of the Luhansk People’s Republic — Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — was one such unit. It had nearly 2,000 men, but was almost completely dependent on foot soldiers and stood no chance against a fully mechanized combined arms assault. I’m also inclined to believe that Ukraine managed to retake Kherson because Russian troops on the right side of the Dniepr River were put in an untenable position that prevented resupply.
If, however, the success of the counteroffensive was due more to Ukraine’s steep advantage in morale, leadership, and sophisticated Western weaponry, we should know relatively soon because another successful counteroffensive will likely take place within a matter of months. Russia isn’t going to stop it just because they’ve added a few hundred thousand extremely undertrained conscripts who want nothing to do with the war.
In that case, it’s possible the war ends more quickly than I think it will, as it’ll set the stage for what I believe is the only feasible scenario in which Russia sues for peace: In the event that Ukraine manages to pull off another large counteroffensive in the South, they could take back Melitopol, which would then put them in a position to threaten Crimea. This would be a big deal. It’s no secret that Putin considers the 2014 annexation of Crimea to be his greatest accomplishment and part of the legacy he wants to leave behind. Moreover, it’s unlikely Putin’s regime could survive the loss of Crimea, so in the event that Ukraine stands a chance of retaking it, the Kremlin might become interested in a negotiated settlement with serious concessions in order to make it happen.
Herein lies the reason I think the war will go on much longer than many people expect: I cannot foresee a scenario in which a settlement would be agreed to by either side. Putin essentially burned that bridge when he annexed Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia in September. Even if Ukraine conducts another successful counteroffensive in the South, I strongly doubt that Putin would be willing to abandon the recently annexed oblasts, and he definitely wouldn’t let Crimea go because it would absolutely cripple his legitimacy as a ruler. The Russian people wouldn’t accept it: A recent poll shows 78% oppose returning Crimea, while 66% oppose returning the Donbas territories. Meanwhile, surveys of Ukrainians show the retaking of Crimea has high levels of support, with one poll from September finding that nearly 9 out of 10 Ukrainians believe Kyiv should not allow Russia to keep any Ukrainian territory—even if that means prolonging the conflict.
Could the U.S. push for a negotiated settlement by dangling the right incentives and threatening the right punishments, inducing both Ukraine and Russia to make concessions? Possibly. But I also think this is unlikely. The U.S. would be forced to make untenable promises,1 as well as threats that wouldn’t seem credible.
We can also reasonably conclude that Ukrainians aren’t going to stop fighting, not after Russia has destroyed much of their country and committed multiple atrocities. Even if the U.S. and the West cut their support, which would be politically difficult to say the least, especially if they continue to “win,” it’s not at all obvious that Zelenskyy could survive a settled cessation in the eyes of his people. And if they pull off another counteroffensive, the U.S. will be hard-pressed to stop them from trying to take back Crimea. Any attempt by Ukraine to do so would dramatically raise the stakes for Putin and probably lead to total war, meaning a full mobilization.
In the event that the U.S. convinces Ukraine to negotiate and make concessions, that still means we have to convince Russia to do the same, a process that would include lifting at least some of the sanctions. And how do you think that’ll go over with the I-have-a-Ukrainian-flag-in-my-bio-because-I’m-so-virtuous-but-wouldn’t-even-dream-of-ever-putting-myself-in-harms-way-for-these-people liberal crowd who seriously believe nothing less than total defeat of Russia should be accepted? Think of the number of New York Times and Washington Post op-eds that’d be churned out lambasting America for “rewarding aggression” and not having the “moral fortitude” to ensure the bloodiest conflict since WWII continues.
And in my opinion, Russia won’t ever make serious concessions. Putin has already made it clear that no amount of Russian bloodshed will deter him from continuing the war.2
People who know Mr. Putin say he is ready to sacrifice untold lives and treasure for as long as it takes, and in a rare face-to-face meeting with the Americans last month the Russians wanted to deliver a stark message to President Biden: No matter how many Russian soldiers are killed or wounded on the battlefield, Russia will not give up. — The New York Times
New conscripts are receiving several weeks of training before being sent to the front lines. That is absolutely insane. It takes well over a year of training before your standard American infantryman is deemed fit to deploy. War is not a video game.
I think Putin wants a protracted fight because it’ll work to his advantage (more on this below). He also believes the West will “blink first,” and that the level of support we’ve given Ukraine will not, and cannot, be sustained indefinitely.
Is he wrong?
Warning Signs About a Prolonged Conflict
There’s an old adage that Taliban leaders would often repeat to American commanders when we were in Afghanistan:
“You Americans have the watches, but we have the time.”
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Ukraine has been remarkably successful on the battlefield. But I have concerns about how long this momentum will continue. There are several big problems looming on the horizon, and time is not on Ukraine’s side.
General Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes that the front is likely to stabilize in the coming months, meaning that both sides will continue to sustain heavy losses without making substantial gains. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Milley will be right (he’s been wrong before), but even Valery Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, thinks that in order to push the Russians back to the pre-February 24 lines, Ukraine would need 300 tanks, 700 IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles), and 500 howitzers.3
These figures are unlikely to be met any time soon. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy’s Ukraine Support Tracker, the West has delivered 280 tanks, 120 IFVs, and 321 howitzers so far (many of which have been destroyed). Tanks are going to be increasingly hard to come by. The only countries that have delivered any to Ukraine so far are Poland and Czechia, which gave Soviet T-72s that’ll be replaced with American tanks. Even in the event that the U.S. starts supplying the M1 Abrams or the British agree to provide Challenger 2s, it’d be a long time before Ukrainians could deploy them, because unlike the T-72s they’re familiar with, they’d have to be trained to use Western tanks.
It’s no secret that Zelenskyy has repeatedly asked for more offensive weapons, but Western countries are extremely reluctant to send any for fear of “escalating the conflict.” And while hawkish liberals screech about why we need to forego restraint and essentially give Ukraine a blank check and the full American arsenal, even if the U.S. decides to up the ante it’s not like this’ll happen overnight. As we’ve seen, it’s been a very gradual process. It took months before we agreed to send HIMARS.
In the event that the West matches the numbers that Zaluzhny has requested, it still wouldn’t come close to the quantitative advantage Russia enjoys in offensive weapons. Although it’s true that Russia has lost an ungodly amount of equipment, including over 1,584 tanks (!) — losses that have been documented with photographic evidence — the fact remains that it has vastly greater stockpiles.
Consider: Ukraine started the war with around 900 tanks total; Russia started with 3,417 functional tanks, but enjoys a stockpile of over 10,000 according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.4 Ukraine started with 1,800 howitzers; Russia started with more than 16,000. Ukraine started with about 1,200 IFVs;5 Russia started with 8,000, with another 8,000 in storage.
So, while Russia is losing equipment at a much greater rate according to the open-source tracker Oryx, it has a far greater number from which to draw from and a much greater production capacity.
Besides a lack of offensive weapons, another big problem that Ukraine will soon have to deal with is a shortage of ammunition for its air defense, which primarily consists of Soviet-era S-300 and Buk systems.6 Unfortunately, the missiles used by these systems are only manufactured in Russia and have proven very difficult to procure; aside from a batch obtained from Slovakia earlier in the war, they haven’t been able to find any on the global market.
Russia knows this. Ukrainian officials confirmed a claim by British military intelligence that Russia has been firing X-55 nuclear missiles — with the nuclear warhead replaced by an inert one — simply to exhaust Ukrainian air defenses, which typically fire two S300s or Buks at every Russian missile to improve the chances of interception by its aging systems.
Although it’s true that Russia is burning through its supply of precision-guided missiles, and that sanctions make it harder to source components, it appears that Putin has found a way around this and is increasing production. Russia began what’s become almost weekly aerial strikes against critical infrastructure on October 10, and while it’s impossible to know when Ukraine will deplete its own stock of missiles, officials have made it clear that they’re quickly approaching desperate straights, urging Western backers to provide more modern Nato-standard surface-to-air systems.
Britain’s Royal United Services Institute warned in a report last month against “Western complacency about the need to urgently bolster Ukrainian air-defence capacity,” and that when Ukrainian surface-to-air systems run out of ammunition, it will open the skies to Russian heavy bombers operating at medium and high altitudes with devastating consequences.
Ukraine has hundreds of S-300 and Buk systems, but Western countries have only delivered 20 air defense systems according to the Ukraine Support Tracker. More have been pledged, but it’ll be a long time — months, maybe even years — before they’re actually delivered, and certainly won’t make up for the hundreds of systems Ukraine has been relying on. The media made a big to-do the other day about the Biden administration agreeing to provide a Patriot battery, but a single battery consists of “a truck-mounted launching system with eight launchers that can hold up to four missile interceptors each, a ground radar, a control station and a generator.” Not even close to being enough to fend off Russia’s systematic attacks.
Compounding the problem is the fact that Western countries — the U.S. included — don’t even have many air defense systems to give even if they wanted to. That’s because after the Cold War ended they mostly stopped producing them since they’ve had overwhelming air superiority in every conflict since then and expected that to continue. The obvious solution would be for Ukraine to partner with Western countries to produce missiles for Soviet air defense systems, but I haven’t seen anything to indicate that’s happening.7
Ukraine will face many more problems the longer the war goes on. Take manpower, for example. Russia has more than three times as many men of fighting age.
In a war with an astonishingly high casualty rate, this matters a good deal. Ukraine claims that it’s had no more than 13,000 KIA, but I think that’s a gross undercount. In all likelihood the number is closer to 26,000. Assuming a 4:1 wounded-to-killed ratio, that’s around 100,000 casualties already, which is on par with what Milley estimated last month. For what it’s worth, I think there’s good reason to believe Russia has had far more casualties, if only because offensive operations tend to incur a greater number than defensive operations do.
However, I’m inclined to believe that Ukrainians are prepared to lose far more men than the Russian people are because Ukraine’s fight is existential. Russia might enjoy a manpower advantage, but there’s less popular support for the war. They also have a severe morale problem, the significance of which cannot be overstated. As Napoléon Bonaparte once said, “In war, the moral is to the physical as ten to one.” Even so, Russia’s numerical advantage is worth bearing in mind, and the longer the war continues, the more this advantage will matter.
Then there’s the possibility that Ukraine’s economy, which is already running on fumes, will collapse, making it impossible for the country to continue fighting. A massive share of the workforce is now under arms, and nearly 8 million people have fled. Indeed, Ukraine’s year-on-year GDP8 decline recorded in March 2022 was a massive 45%, and that was before Russia started systematically destroying the country’s energy infrastructure. In September, before those attacks started in earnest, the World Bank estimated that $349 billion worth of physical assets had already been destroyed.
Speaking by video link to finance ministers at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund annual meetings in Washington, Zelenskyy said Ukraine needed about $55 billion—$38 billion to cover next year’s estimated budget deficit, and another $17 billion to start rebuilding critical infrastructure, including schools, housing, and energy facilities. But some officials now believe that because of Russian attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure it may need another $2 billion per month in external financing in 2023.
While both the U.S. and the E.U. have been giving Ukraine grants and loans this year, the process hasn’t been fast enough and the executive arm of the E.U. has even started blocking some loans “as caution prevails over the country’s urgent needs.” Ukrainians have been forced to dig into their foreign reserves to buy critical imports and to print money to finance their deficit, resulting in a 26.5% inflation rate.
For 2023, the U.S. and E.U. have pledged to give another $30 billion or so—far less than Zelenskyy said they needed before Russia began its systematic infrastructure attacks. Ukrainian officials apparently tried to get more but “found a cool reception” from Western officials who were “already wary of appearing to support too much aid.”
Suffice it to say that this is a situation that’s only going to get worse, and which cannot continue indefinitely. Unless the international community significantly increases its support, Ukraine is going to capsize under financial duress, effectively making it impossible to wage war on the scale that it’s been able to thus far.
Though Ukraine has enjoyed tremendous momentum up to this point, it’s a mistake to assume that it’s on the brink of defeating Russia, as many mainstream media morons are wont to claim. Such an assertion requires a child-like naivety. Moreover, I think it’s very unlikely that this war ends sooner than later. I could very well be wrong. It’s certainly plausible that Ukraine manages to conduct another counteroffensive in the South, effectively putting Crimea in jeopardy and hastening negotiations. But neither side appears remotely receptive to the idea of making the kind of concessions that’d be necessary to end the war, which suggests the conflict could become frozen without a resolution for years to come. And the longer the war goes on, the more things that can go wrong for Ukraine.
For example, promising to help rebuild the country, which would cost an insane amount of money such that Ukraine would probably only believe us if they had some way of ensuring we followed through.
And I think we’ve long since passed the point where Russia thinks they’re committed, given how much they’ve put into the conflict. The sunk cost fallacy. Consider how long it’ll take before the world sees Russia as anything but a pariah and its reputation is mended. There’s no going back.
It’s possible that Zaluzhny is requesting more than he thinks Ukraine will need in order to maximize what they do get.
Worth pointing out here that many of these tanks in storage are in god awful condition.
They’ve also been using Western supplied shoulder-fired air defense systems, but these can only be used against targets at low altitudes.
Ukraine has also been trying to deal with an ammunition problem for artillery, which is absolutely essential if they’re going to withstand future Russian offensives. Though it has many Soviet-era artillery systems, Ukraine started running out of ammunition several months ago and has become reliant on Western systems that fire different shells.