FROZEN IN THE WINTER OF DISCONTENT
Ukraine greets 2024
By Matin Stanton
STALEMATED IN A BLOODY MESS
It’s the New year’s season and the Ukraine war has largely frozen in place. The heady hope that the Western equipped Ukrainian Army’s “summer offensive” could break through and re-establish Ukrainian sovereignty to pre-2022 borders foundered in the maze of Russian defensive belts north of Tokmak. Ukrainian operations now seem more tied towards IO and fundraising than any coherent scheme of maneuver. Meanwhile, the Russian’s spastic and ill-thought-out counterattacks further north gain mere yards at great cost. Both armies are desperately tired and seem to be “phoning-it-in” when responding to their respective political masters repeated urges to, ”Do more! Do More!”. Only the suffering of the troops is real.
Meanwhile, in the US, real questions are emerging about the open-ended expense of our support for the Ukrainians war effort, especially when more immediate aspects of American national security (the border being only the most prominent) appear to be woefully neglected. Right on cue in response to this concern comes a flurry of media stories/opinion pieces about the dangers of Russian expansionism and statements from senior administration officials about how failing to finance the Ukrainians could eventually mean the commitment of US troops against some future Russian aggression. The choice, we are told, is between resourcing the Ukraine war ad-infinitum towards total Ukrainian victory or opening Europe to the imminent threat of further Russian domination. The Bear is back and he’s hungry! Either we give the Ukrainians a blank cheque or Americans will be fighting in Europe.
That’s a bit hard to swallow when the Bear can’t sustain offensive operations in Eastern Ukraine, much less west of the Dnieper.
So, what’s going on here? It’s time for some realism.
THE UKRAINIANS CAN’T RESTORE THEIR BORDER TO PRE-FEB 2022 STATUS ALONE – AND NATO ISN’T COMING
Proponents of open-ended aid to the Ukraine point towards some future complete Ukrainian victory as the justification for the expenditure. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that this will be the case. Since the war began in early 2022 the Ukrainians have had significant battlefield success at the tactical level. So did the Finns in the Winter war of 1939-40, but their tactical success and favorable exchange ratio in losses did not enable them to restore the territory they had lost. Zelensky’s insistence that the Ukraine must recover all of its territory is looking increasingly unrealistic.
The Summer Offensive Failed
Throughout early 2023 Ukraine was buoyed by the arrival of Western equipment. Much was made of the promise of western equipped units to provide a decisive edge to in the upcoming summer offensive. Given their experience with the Russians up until then no doubt many Ukrainian leaders felt that their western equipped units could break through the badly trained and demoralized Russians and drive them out of the Donbas. It was definitely worth trying. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. At no place along the front did the Ukrainian forces achieve a breakthrough. The expectations of Ukraine’s leadership (and a lot of US National Security policymakers) foundered on a fact that too many of them chose to ignore.
Modern weapons alone cannot bring victory.
New stuff is nice, and it may have a local tactical impact here and there, but it probably won’t change the operational flow of events because what the pundits and academics tend to forget is armies are more than hardware. Armies are organized systems of operation. The US Army J-series TO+E Heavy Division 86 worked because it was a robust organization for sustained combat that itself was plugged into a robustly designed Corps and Army level logistics systems. It was a drill made to chew through anything on land, specifically designed to fight in Europe (it did pretty good in DESERT STORM too). The hard drill bit was the M1s and Bradleys, along with fires units, but the power of the drill came from the robust logistical organization – the ability to sustain the advance and fix-forward – that came with it.
We can hand the Ukrainians all the high-tech cutting-edge drill bits we want to, they’ve got an $8.00 drill from Wal-Mart with a half dead battery as a sustainment organization.
In the first 18 months of the conflict the Ukrainians fought a brilliant series of improvised battles that took full advantage of the Russians disorganization and lack of training. But by the late spring of 2023 the Russians caught their breath and reverted to what they do best – creating and defending massive defensive belts. The Ukrainian Army doesn’t have the sustainment organization required to drill through these successions of belts. This kind of organization and sustainment depth is not something that can be built during the conflict.
Nor will providing the Ukrainian Air Force with F-16s be a game changer. Like the US Army, the USAF fights as a system. The F-16s will be just another expensive drill-bit that has none of the USAFs sustainment, and C2 systems (such as AWACs) to back it up. The USAF may be able to help on the edges, but until we start flying and positioning assets in Ukraine proper, we won’t be able to make up for the Ukrainians lack of systemic capability.
The bottom line is the Ukrainians don’t have the ability to fight as a military system that we do. They will do what they can with the new equipment we give them, but most likely will only produce more of the same stalemate in terms of results.
And NATO is not going to intervene directly.
THE BEAR CAN’T GET TO KHARKHIV
The Russians have stopped the Ukrainians offensive, but that doesn’t mean they’re winning the war. They can’t seem to break through the Ukrainians defenses either. Even if they do break through the Ukrainians front line their sclerotic logistical tail can’t sustain a sweeping operational level advance any more than the Ukrainians can. They couldn’t take Kharkhiv when their forces were fresh in 2022. They’re even less likely to get anywhere near it now. Projection of ground forces across the Dnieper (without going through Belorussia) is out of the question.
This makes all the recent articles about Ukraine being the bulwark against the rapacious Russian bear so disingenuous. The Russians may be strategically expansionist, but that expansion is aspirational. Right now, they are as stuck as the Ukrainians and stalemate is all they can look forward to as well.
FROM’ THE WEST’S PERSPECTIVE, UKRAINE HAS SERVED ITS PURPOSE
From the strategic perspective of the west, Ukraine was always a “Combat Outpost” or a “Screen Line”. That is, a position far enough out in both distance and time to provide sufficient threat warning for the west (NATO) to react in time. In this regard, Ukraine has performed its role brilliantly. The NATO alliance is rejuvenated due to the Ukraine war and the Ukrainians have inflicted debilitating damage on the Russians that will take time for them to recover from. From a coldly objective analysis, it’s unrealistic to expect them to do more. We need to stop encouraging the Zelensky government’s fantasies about restoring Ukraine’s borders and start encouraging them to find terms.
A “FINLAND IN 1940” PEACE FOR UKRAINE IS NOT A BAD OUTCOME.
In March of 1940 the Finns had to seek peace to prevent the loss of more of their country. The bloodied Soviets (with a wary eye on the Nazis and plans of their own) agreed to not much of a victory with minimal land changing hands. The same situation exists today. A peace along the existing front lines would allow Ukraine to keep the vast majority of its territory and be a seminal moment in their national narrative, just as the “Winter War” was for Finland. It would also be a “booby-prize” for Putin.
PUTIN’S THREADBARE “VICTORY”
At the conclusion of the Soviet-Finland “Winter War” of 1939/40 a Soviet general is supposed to have lamented (not too loudly, lest Stalin hear it) “We won just enough ground to bury our dead”. The Russians are in the same situation now. A peace that wins the overland corridor to the Crimea in the Donbass – and not much else is going to look like a pretty meager reward for all the lives lost and effort/treasure expended. Oh, Putin will put the best face on it he can - proudly proclaiming he kept NATO at bay. Russian propaganda will work overtime towards this. But Putin has a problem that Stalin didn’t.
As much as Putin and the Russian government would like the truth to keep from coming out about their Ukrainian adventure, they can’t shut out the world like they did in the 30’s and 40’s. Russians are going to learn about the waste and mismanagement. Russia had a whole generation of disillusioned angry veterans from Afghanistan. They will have many more from Ukraine. Right now, Russians are in the support-the-nation mode they historically fall into during wartime. They are a Patriotic people. But once peace is declared, then the hard questions and recrimination will begin.
Putin, of course, is aware of all this but is betting on his ability to weather the discontent. He knows that it will take the rest of the decade (if not longer) to re-generate his badly depleted forces, but he is betting on the fractured politics and limited attention span of the west to help him. Given the past three decades, it’s a reasonable calculation for him to make.
THE RACE TO RE-ARM: NATO VERSUS RUSSIA
The new arms race between NATO and Russia has already begun with the Russians at a critical disadvantage due to all the damage their forces/warmaking capacity have suffered in Ukraine. It will take the Russians longer to reconstitute themselves to be a viable threat to NATO than it will for NATO to re-arm to adequately confront and deter this threat. That is if the NATO nations live up to their pledges and don’t fulfill Putin’s expectations by reverting to their old less-than-2% GDP towards defense /dependent on Russian energy ways (I’m looking at YOU Germany). Right now, though the race to re-arm in Europe is NATO’s to lose.
THE WAY TO PEACE IN UKRAINE
NATO cannot unilaterally abandon Ukraine, but the Ukrainian leadership needs to be made aware in no uncertain terms that open-ended resourcing is not on the table. It’s time to negotiate a peace. NATO and the west need to help Ukraine re-build and re-arm. Even if it is not a NATO member (sure to be a Russian-negotiations demand) Ukraine can be a useful buffer state that the US has bi-lateral relations with. Some issues (such as the repatriation of all kidnapped Ukrainian citizens) may drag out negotiations for a while. But even with all the potential pitfalls, it’s best to start peace negotiations now. All the continued stalemate will do is get more Ukrainians (and Russians) killed to no purpose.