Commentary on the Right—and some on the Left—is in agreement: the Russia-Ukraine war is essentially hopeless; it’s not our fight; Ukraine can’t win anyway, and America is better off not wasting any more money on this boondoggle.
I am as conservative as they come, and I disagree.
At the outset, there are a few things worth stating: first, whatever the moral rationale for aiding Ukraine, the sole determinant of whether or not to continue with this project should be our national interest. Second, nothing here should be taken to mean that Ukraine and Ukrainians are blameless for their current state of affairs. Third, most of the discussion of the war here is based on Russian-language sources. (I do not speak Ukrainian, but many Ukrainian sources are, helpfully, in Russian.)
The Mistakes of Three Decades
Let’s start with Ukraine itself, and the grave mistakes Kyiv made over the last three decades. In 1991, Ukraine inherited 6,500 tanks and 270 combat aircraft from the Soviet Union. In February 2022, when Russia invaded, Ukraine had 850 tanks and 120 aircraft. Where did they all go? The tanks were mostly sold off to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, or sold for scrap, to bring a little cash here and there. Their air force suffered from underfunding and a lack of attention generally, and roughly 150 aircraft were written off or cannibalized for spare parts over the years.
Yes, not every piece of equipment was worth keeping. The battlefield utility of a 1950s T-55 tank (that sat in mothballs for 60 years) is questionable. But still, imagine the Ukrainian army on February 24, 2022 with 3,000 tanks instead of 850—and with 200 combat aircraft instead of 120. Would Vladimir Putin have risked it?
Ukraine’s politicians—never a particularly competent, honest, or farsighted bunch—passed a number of laws the intent of which was to create a Ukrainian nationhood and identity in a real hurry. Almost all ethnic Ukrainians were bilingual, while many ethnic Russians were not at all fluent in Ukrainian. Nonetheless, the laws made Russians, particularly in the eastern part of the country, second-class citizens.
Once Vladimir Putin’s security services began fomenting pro-Russian separatism in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions in the east, those seeds fell onto fertile soil. The Russian-speaking population living in Ukraine’s east had real grievances against the Kyiv government—both economic and cultural. While most locals might not have taken up arms without Russian meddling (and Russian supplies of those arms), it didn’t take a whole lot of persuasion to find ambitious rabble-rousers in Lugansk and Donetsk willing to rock the boat in 2014. For simplicity, I will refer to the criminogenic black holes known as “Lugansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic” by their Russian acronyms LNR/DNR.
Ukraine was not an economic basket case in 2021, but it was hardly a Black Sea economic tiger either—corruption, that pernicious legacy of Soviet days, was endemic. Trump was actually correct in his concerns that American aid would be wasted. It is easy to advise others to fight corruption (as Joe Biden, that gold standard of corrupt politicians, has done in Ukraine). It is quite another to actually do something about it, in a culture where corruption is considered the norm.
For all of these errors—by its politicians, by its society, by its leaders—Ukraine would pay in blood this year.
Then there is Ukraine’s role in the partisan warfare between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Pro-Trump Republicans have a justified beef with Ukraine because Volodymyr Zelenskyy was silent during the first Trump impeachment (rather than stating clearly that Democratic quid pro quo theories were bogus), while much of the political establishment in Kyiv clearly sided with Biden during the 2020 election.
When Trump feels that he owes Ukraine nothing, he is not wrong. It also means support for financing Ukraine’s war among Republicans outside the Beltway is soft—witness J. D. Vance’s comment: “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.” Vance isn’t a Senator from Ohio yet, but expect many more elected Republicans like him in Washington after November. Ukraine is on the clock.
In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and launched its proxy war in the east, Ukraine had no functional army. To Ukraine’s credit, over the past eight years, its military capabilities improved dramatically. The army became professional, numbering around 170,000. Three hundred thousand soldiers and officers cycled through the conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk over the years, gaining invaluable combat experience. Tens of thousands of reservists were quietly called up just before hostilities started. Units were moved into position where the main Russian thrust was expected—toward Kharkov, in northeast Ukraine. Valuable equipment was distributed and hidden.
Russia Cannot Win
From time immemorial, there have been two cardinal sins in warfare: putting all your eggs in one basket, and failing to concentrate one’s forces. Russia’s performance in Ukraine illustrates the second cardinal sin.
The Russian military was (and is) designed for a short blitzkrieg against a weak enemy. The 2008 war with Georgia was a perfect example. This war, however, evolved into a large-scale quasi-positional conflict between roughly equal forces. Contrary to common assumptions, this is not a war that Russia is capable of sustaining indefinitely, and not a war it is capable of winning.
On the subject of winning, there has been endless speculation about what “winning” actually means to Putin. Behind the announced shams of “denazification” and “demilitarization”—which are not military objectives as such, and can’t even be defined clearly in political terms—Putin’s political objective was fairly clear: turning Ukraine into a sort of Belarus 2, a vassal state with some outward trappings of “sovereignty,” run by a Moscow-selected puppet, with Ukraine essentially becoming a province of Russia in all but name. Hence, the Cannonball Run of tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks toward Kyiv in the early days of the war.
Things went off track almost immediately, as the Russian army committed the second sin, by advancing along five or six or seven (or even eight, depending on how one counts) axes of advance, in Ukraine’s north, northeast, east, and south. Since this discussion is more focused on the present and the future, I will not rehash in detail the Russian army’s humiliating retreat from Kyiv, Chernigov, Kharkov, and Sumy early in the war. An analysis of the reasons for the failure—strategic, political, intelligence, operational and tactical—can be found in any number of sources.
The Asymmetric Elements of Ukraine’s War
Usually, the side with more resources wins wars. Usually. But not always. Russia has a population of 145 million, compared to about 40 million for Ukraine. Russia had about 1,100 combat aircraft, compared to Ukraine’s 120, and they are generally more modern than Ukraine’s (those all date back to the Soviet era, with minor upgrades). Russia’s Su-30s, Su-34s and Su-35s may not be F-35s or F-15E Strike Eagles, but they should have made mincemeat out of Ukraine’s ancient MiG-29s and Su-27s.
Russia had about 2,700 tanks in active service—including a few hundred T-90s, some T-80s, and various T-72 upgrades, such as T-72 with 2016 upgrade package.
The number of Russian tanks in long-term storage (and their state) is a subject of intense debate among analysts, but talk of 12,000, or 20,000, is clearly fantastical. The actual number (looking at satellite photos of vast fields east of the Urals, where the tanks are lined up in endless rows) seems to be something like 6,000. This is not the same thing as 6,000 working tanks—after decades of sitting there in the rain and snow, with engines, transmissions, and electronics stolen and sold for metal scrap, it is anyone’s guess how many of these tanks can be made functional.
A back-of-the-envelope estimate is that perhaps 3,000 working machines can be generated out of the 6,000—and remember, these are not the latest-and-greatest T-90Ms or T-80BVMs with advanced reactive armor, top-of-the-line fire control systems and modern thermal sights. Rather, these are 1960s-era T-62s and 1970s-era T-72s, almost all requiring considerable effort to get them running again.
Uralvagonzavod, the only plant in Russia still producing tanks, has been running three shifts, trying to get these old dinosaurs back in action. And so antique T-62s, which rolled off the assembly line six decades ago, began making appearances in south Ukraine, on less active operational axes.
Ukraine’s 850 tanks could not possibly stop Russia’s roughly 120 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) and their approximately 1,200 tanks and artillery, all attacking simultaneously along multiple axes of advance spread across a vast 1,300-kilometer arc. It turned out, however, that Javelin anti-tank missiles (yes, the very same Javelins Trump gave Ukraine, for those who remember the arcane details of that impeachment kerfuffle) actually work.
A modern tank is a fearsome weapon, but it is only effective as long as it sees its opponent—given the terrain in Ukraine, this is typically 1.5-2.0 kilometers. An infantryman with a Javelin can hit a tank from 4 kilometers. Roads in northwest Ukraine became graveyards of Russian armor.
Unlike Western tanks, T-90s, T-72s and T-80s store their ammunition in a carousel in the hull under the turret – so when the ammo detonates, the explosion can rip off the turret (that weighs 17 tons) and toss it 50 feet in the air. The crew can then be scraped off the inside of the burned-out hull for DNA testing. (Yes, the Russians actually do that – getting a payment for a dead son requires proof of a DNA match with the dead man, in cases like these.)
Another short-term asymmetric answer was the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone. As long as Russian forces were on the move and did not have effective air defenses, the Bayraktar could launch small missiles and identify targets for long-range artillery. In late February and early March, when things looked desperate, drone strikes worked. But with more static front lines, we don’t hear much about the Bayraktars, for good reason: Without suppressing the Russian air defenses, the Bayraktars (which fly at 75 miles per hour and have the maneuverability of a World War I biplane) are sitting ducks.
Beliefs, Strategies, and Reality
Ukraine’s overall strategy, ultimately, comes down to giving up some territory now, bleeding Russia dry over months of bloody fighting, and painstakingly building up reserves with Western aid until it has enough hardware to push the Russians back in a series of tactical counterattacks that eventually translate to operational, and, finally, strategic, gains.
This is not attrition warfare in its classical sense, but Ukraine believes that the attrition gradient favors it. Russia, on the other hand, after its ill-fated three-days-to-take-Kyiv plan flopped, believed that its military juggernaut would eventually roll over Ukraine, that its political system could endure more stress than the West’s (the jury’s still out on that), and that the victory (however defined and advertised) will justify the casualties.
When attempting to assess the facts on the ground, official numbers should be treated with skepticism. Armies always understate their own losses and overstate the other guy’s. Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman, has already wiped out the Ukrainian army and air force many times over. Russian TV propagandists have claimed the destruction of 1,000 Bayraktar TB2s (out of a few dozen that Ukraine has purchased—actual losses are probably around 25 or so, with perhaps 40 or 50 in service at the moment).
Every number of enemy losses must be multiplied by some coefficient to arrive at something resembling reality. As of this writing, Ukraine claims to have killed 41,000 Russian soldiers. Some Western sources credit them with about half that number. In the past, occasional Russian leaks mentioned numbers that were slightly under Ukrainian figures, but not by 50 percent—more like by 10 to 15 percent. Some Ukrainian officials mention in excess of 50,000 Russians killed in action (which includes Putin’s paramilitary Praetorians Rosgvardia, Wagner Group mercenaries, and various SWAT-type police units “voluntarily” mobilized for service in Ukraine).
In another leak of unknowable veracity, as of April (before the worst of the fighting in Donbass), relatives of 41,666 Russian soldiers have contacted the Ministry of Defense looking for their sons and husbands who went radio silent (and, logic suggests, are now dead). In other words, getting a solid bead on Russian losses isn’t easy, and a case can be made for a range of numbers.
Putin and his generals care very little about losses in the same sense that Western politicians care about them. To Putin, the dead are just abstractions, resources expended in achieving a goal. Even 300,000 killed in action is fine with him, if he achieves the result he wants. The generals will continue ordering their troops to attack, as long as there is at least one soldier left to crawl forward. It isn’t casualties per se that are problematic. It is casualties and losing the war.
In the LNR and DNR, virtually every adult male under age 60 has been forcibly mobilized, and the new recruits are thrown at Ukrainian fortifications as cannon fodder, an Iranian-human-wave-style “reconnaissance-in-force.” But that well is running dry. There is nobody left to mobilize in Lugansk and Donetsk.
Thus, a current estimate of about 35,000 Russian soldiers killed in action (with reports of another 20,000 to 23,000 LNR/DNR dead, and perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 Wagner private military contractors killed, and some unknown number of Rosgvardia/SWAT/police killed or wounded) is more than reasonable. Again, all these numbers should be treated as very approximate—no one in the West really knows the true numbers.
A corresponding estimate of between 60,000 and 100,000 total wounded is probably on the low side, though here we are edging further into guesstimates. This brings total losses (killed and wounded) to easily anywhere between 100,000 and 150,000 or more. Is that a lot? Yes and no. Putin is unlikely to see serious societal antiwar pushback until the death toll is well above 100,000.
Ukraine claims to have destroyed or captured nearly 1,800 tanks, along with 4,000 armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles. About half are confirmed by available photo and video evidence, but we can’t expect to have good photos of every tank Ukraine destroys—especially now that the battle lines are more static. Applying a ballpark coefficient of 0.75 gives roughly 1,200 Russian tanks destroyed. Is that a lot? Russia has been able to replace these losses, albeit with older, mothballed tanks. Since Ukrainian tanks are just as old, the replacement hardware is probably good enough, as far as Russia’s generals are concerned.
Still, Russia clearly does not have vast stores of modern tanks sitting in a warehouse somewhere. Nor can production of T-90s can be ramped up quickly from about 32 a year. Whatever modern or near-modern armor Russia possesses, all of that hardware is being ground up on the battlefield.
There is more uncertainty with aircraft. Ukraine claims to have shot down 223 Russian fixed-wing aircraft and 190 attack helicopters (out of perhaps 400 or so helicopters initially available), but there is scant public data verifying this—only about 35 aircraft and 50 helicopters are confirmed destroyed by available videos and photos. With confirmed dead pilots (but no photos of their aircraft), this rises to about 100. What to make of this? These are all multimillion-dollar machines. Most should be falling on Ukrainian-controlled territory. The wreckage of each is presumably found and studied carefully. The guy who shot it down gets a medal. So why is there public proof of only about a quarter of these kills?
Some experts think that this is normal and that Ukraine’s numbers are believable. Others think that a ratio of 4-1 of claimed kills versus actual kills is what one typically sees in a war, and not because of intentional exaggerations or fabrications. Such is the fog of war. If the numbers (roughly 400 total shot down) are accurate, it would take years for the Russian Air Force to rebuild. Before the war and sanctions, Russia produced between 30 and 35 combat aircraft and 20 to 25 attack helicopters per year. Nobody knows how the high-tech side of Russia’s defense industry will cope in this new environment.
Clearly, the Russian Air Force has been spectacularly ineffective, and the key asymmetric component here is the Stinger—the same Stinger that first made its appearance in the 1970s, and then proved itself in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Large numbers of Stingers supplied to Ukraine have made Russian pilots too fearful to operate effectively. Most of Ukraine’s airspace is, for all practical purposes, off-limits to them. Their only useful activity is to dart toward the front line, toss some dumb bombs in the general direction of Ukrainian positions, and dart back to safety. In other words, Stingers are effective as an asymmetric solution not because they are all that capable against Russian aircraft but because their presence scares Russian pilots to death.
In March, Putin was forced to refocus his efforts on a more achievable objective. The Russian army launched its long-awaited battle for the Donbass in early April. No more tank thrusts deep into Ukraine-controlled territory. No more big cauldrons, no more attempts at vast encirclements.
Putin is lucky. If there is one thing that he has plenty of, it is artillery, of every kind, that Russia inherited from the USSR.
There are many photos of empty fields in eastern Ukraine, the earth pockmarked by countless artillery shell impacts. Due to poor accuracy and lack of drones to aid in targeting (though we are seeing more and more Orlan-10 drones lately), the Russians are carpet-bombing areas into moonscapes, hoping that at least one or two rounds will hit something. It is inevitable that they occasionally do, but it takes enormous quantities of ammunition to achieve even modest results.
Fifteen-thousand rounds per day isn’t evidence of Russia winning—it is evidence of World War II-era thinking. Those artillery rounds had to be delivered across thousands of miles by rail, offloaded onto trucks (by hand), then brought to storage depots 30-40 kilometers behind the frontlines, offloaded (by hand), then again loaded (by hand) onto trucks and delivered (and offloaded by hand) to the guns for firing. And all this accomplishes is moving a few tons of earth a few feet.
Ukraine, forced to keep a close eye on its ammo expenditures (and having nearly buckled due to a critical shortage of 152mm ammo for its legacy systems two months ago), emphasizes accuracy over quantity, using cheap expendable commercial quadrocopters and the more accurate NATO 155mm artillery systems (of which close to 300 have been delivered). Still, in war, quantity can become quality. No one really knows how much ammo is scattered in storage facilities all over Russia, but a very rough guess would be 10 million rounds (and how much of it is usable is even more difficult to know). Of that, perhaps 5 million have been used up. At current consumption rates, Russia might run out of ammunition by the end of the year.
Russia advertises its army as “the second most powerful in the world.” Whatever can actually fight in that army, is doing just that right now in Ukraine. There are no divisions in reserve, no BTGs held back in case of emergency, no brigades sitting around at bases waiting to be sent to the front. Anything capable of fighting today is at the front—or being refitted and reconstituted in Belgorod and Kursk, as the Russian Ministry of Defense resorts to ever more desperate force regeneration measures. Motor rifle brigades, elite armored divisions, Spetsnaz brigades, naval infantry brigades, airborne troops, air assault troops, private military contractors, Syrian mercenaries, police SWAT . . . If they aren’t dead yet, they are all in Ukraine.
The result of this all-out effort? After 90 days of do-or-die, Russian troops advanced a grand total of 40 kilometers in Lugansk Oblast, captured the charred rubble of what was once Severodonetsk (after Ukraine’s troops withdrew), and, a few weeks later, the half-charred ruins of Lysychansk (once Ukraine’s troops withdrew from there as well). Meanwhile, Ukraine’s army advanced cautiously elsewhere, about 10-20 km, toward Kherson and Melitopol in the south.
Capturing the smoking ruins of two medium-sized towns fools nobody in Russia. An analogy would be if your objective were conquering Florida, and all you’ve captured is Tampa after three months of bloody combat that wore down your entire offensive combat power.
Compare the two maps below: the first is from March 12, the second is from August 2. Does it look like Russia is winning from these maps?
So things aren’t going swimmingly. After what passed for a short operational pause, Russia is launching more tactical-level offensives—except they are all going nowhere.
Ukraine cannot destroy all of Russia’s artillery—not with counter-battery fire (no matter how accurate), not with anything else. The counter-battery radars supplied to Ukraine have made Russian gunners more cautious, but orders are orders. Russia has deployed perhaps 1,300 mostly self-propelled artillery pieces (and a few towed ones) to Ukraine, and the number in long-term storage is galactic in scale: something like 3,000 to 4,000 self-propelled guns, 12,000 towed guns, 3,000 MLRSs like Grads and Uragans. Yes, the mothballed hardware is old and rusted, but every gun and MLRS Ukraine destroys on the battlefield can be replaced many times over.
There is no chance of the West supplying Ukraine artillery tubes in numbers that would even approach parity. And if Ukraine went through 60,000 rounds of 155mm a day, it would burn through the entire world’s annual production of 155mm ammo in three days.
The asymmetric answer to Russia’s artillery advantage has finally arrived, however, in the form of M142 HIMARS and GPS-guided ordnance that lands within a few meters of its intended aim point. Their first targets were division-level and brigade-level ammunition dumps. Every night is the Fourth of July, if you are near an ammo dump—in Lugansk, in Donetsk, in Novaya Kakhovka, in Kherson, in Popasnaya, in Melitopol. The HIMARSes typically say “hello” during the night, and move around and hide during the day, to confuse drones and satellites. Within days, Russian artillery volume fell sharply.
Putin’s generals may not be Gaius Julius Caesars, but they aren’t complete dilettantes, either. They are distributing the ammunition among many more storage sites. They are using shopping centers, schools, children’s daycare centers, and apartment buildings to store ammo and equipment. They are repositioning larger storage depots to the rear, beyond 84 kilometers (the maximum range of the HIMARS missiles currently in Ukraine’s inventory). They are moving the railway offloading points further back. They are moving their troops into city centers. All of this is inconvenient and gums up the works considerably—if for no other reason than because it violates the principle that to win, an attacker must concentrate his resources.
When the ammo has to be scattered to avoid a HIMARS reaching out and touching it or needs to be kept far in the rear, the 60,000 rounds a day are reduced. By a lot. The loss of ammo itself in each dump is not that consequential, but the strain on the logistical tail spikes with each such hit. In practical terms, instead of massive artillery barrages preceding its advances, the Russian army is again forced into close contact engagements. And that means it is bleeding more and advancing hardly at all.
A Long, Difficult Road
But Russia is adapting. They are replenishing supplies as best they can. They are repairing knocked-out bridges and rail lines. The process never ends, and Ukraine damaging a bridge or two and hitting 30 ammo dumps is just a step on a long, difficult road.
Russia has fired nearly 3,000 ballistic and cruise missiles at Ukraine since February 24. That’s a lot of missiles—and they are running out of many types. In terms of pure numbers, this is comparable to Desert Storm. The problem is, their battlefield impact has been close to zero, while every time an apartment building turns to rubble and civilians die, more weapons and money flow in from the West. Even ancient X-22s (design work began in the 1950s) are dug up from storage and launched at shopping centers and chicken farms. If the idea is to make Ukrainian civilians pressure Kyiv to capitulate, it isn’t working.
So is Russia winning despite its losses? Or is Ukraine winning by not losing? More importantly, are we winning? And can Ukraine really bleed Russia dry?
Yes and no.
The reserves of hardware don’t seem as inexhaustible as they did a few months ago. MT-LBs pulled from storage are being used for the newly formed units to ride into battle. For example:
It does sort of look like an armored personnel carrier, or just possibly an infantry fighting vehicle—except that it isn’t. It’s a tracked towing vehicle with paper-thin armor that will stop an AK round but little else.
In theory, Russia can mobilize 17 million people—if every single person subject to wartime call-up were called up. Theory and practice diverge sharply in this war. Russian efforts at force regeneration are stumbling, badly. There are no long lines at recruiting offices (a few of which have been torched), no big crowds of patriots anxious to defend the Motherland, no rush of reservists answering the call to duty. And Putin is worried about what might happen if he gives weapons to all those who don’t really want to go to Ukraine.
About 90,000-100,000 troops, give or take, are currently deployed in Ukraine. So long as the daily casualty count is in the range of 300-500, Russia can continue to replace manpower losses.
The question is, with whom?
Well, here they are (some of the new boys, anyway—the others were less photogenic).
Russia’s 84 regions have been ordered to form such “volunteer battalions” of 400 men willing to go to Ukraine for about $3,000 a month—a princely sum in many places. Men in their 50s and 60s are welcome. How closely do recruiters even look at age when a warm body shuffles in? Alcoholics, homeless, debtors who can’t repay their mortgages . . . Five days of training, and you’re ready to rock! (So far, it looks like fewer than 25 “volunteer battalions” have been formed, as enthusiasm for the idea varies, and there are rumors of the recruitment process going poorly.)
Not to be outdone, the Wagner Group, Russia’s shadow mercenary army, is scraping the bottom of the barrel in prisons, offering amnesty and money to those willing to sign up for a few months. (These aren’t jaywalkers or shoplifters, either. The pitch is geared toward your more hardened criminal.) Unlike the homeless and the alcoholics, the prison population seems skeptical of the sales pitch. Still, unconfirmed reports say that about 1,500 convicts have signed up. Even Uzbek and Tajik migrant workers, who toil in the menial jobs that Russians don’t want, are hearing recruitment pitches.
Meanwhile, back at the front, as one officer told his men, their only way home was either as cargo-200 (the Russian military term for killed in action) or as cargo-300 (seriously wounded in action). Draconian measures are now employed against those refusing to fight. Four months ago, it was still possible in Russia to break a contract and leave the military. Today, anyone trying to wriggle out of the fighting is S.O.L.—your papers are taken from you, and you are thrown back into combat. There is even a new slang for such refuseniks: “cargo-500.” (This is dark Russian humor—it means they are dead men walking.)
All this begs the question: would a country with real reserves of manpower resort to all this? In the absence of an openly declared mobilization (which Putin hesitates to do, knowing that the war’s popularity is a mile wide but paper-thin), how long can the Russian “juggernaut” rely on a supply of professional alcoholics and career criminals to fill its ranks? We don’t know exactly, but these are all signs of desperation.
Domestically, the screws are tightening. Anyone publicly opposed to the war is guaranteed a prison term. Calling the war a “war” gets you seven years in prison. Putting quotes around the words “special military operation” can get you fined for sarcasm. Relatives are warned not to publicly discuss the deaths of their family members in Ukraine. What little was left of independent media is long-shuttered.
Would a country on the verge of victory act this way?
The Psychology in the West
So to sum up a fairly complex military situation, despite losing some territory, Ukraine’s prospects are not bad, given continued Western support and a favorable attrition gradient. Losses between 7,000 and 10,000 are acceptable for a country of 40 million fighting for its life. (Ukraine does not publish details of its own losses, and Russia’s figures are laughable.)
Putin’s political strategy is the reverse—at some point in the near future, he will attempt to freeze in place the battlefield configuration by offering some kind of “ceasefire,” or a “humanitarian pause,” or a “temporary cessation of hostilities,” or a “territorial compromise to stop the bloodshed,” or some such fiction. If there is a line on a map, and the guns fall silent even for a day, the psychology in the West would change. The Macrons, the Scholzes and the Draghis will all eagerly sign on to the notion that a bad peace is better than a bloody war.
European elites can then exhale and get back to business as usual. No danger of freezing during the winter, so long as the “peace” holds—or so Putin will tell Europeans. This gives Putin a few years to rearm and rebuild, absorb and apply the lessons of the war, and start again. But for Ukraine, such a “ceasefire” will also mean a dramatic slowdown in weapons inflows. It is not at all certain that it can count on continued Western support, should it launch an offensive to retake its territory once “peace” is declared.
Ukraine understands this—the greatest danger to its existence is some kind of “peace” now, under the guise of stopping the bloodshed. Putin’s previous attempts at blackmail using gas, oil, grain, and electricity have all failed. But winter is only a few months away, and we don’t really know what the European elites will do this fall. Have they truly crossed the Rubicon, and are prepared to live without Russian gas, despite the short-term pain? They say they have, but this is Putin’s last chance – and his entreaties for negotiations show he is desperate. The side that feels it is winning does not beg for peace negotiations.
The voters of Europe just might be a lot less wobbly than their politicians give them credit for, and fears of a freezing winter are probably overblown. Still, all of a sudden, every useful Western idiot and every paid Russian agent of influence in Europe is busy repeating the mantra that “there is no alternative to talking to Putin.” Thus, Ukraine is on the clock here, too.
Are We Winning?
Let’s start with what is all of this costing us. In the big picture, very little. We’ve supplied Ukraine with $8.8 billion in weapons. Some of those were old, obsolete, and paid for long ago. For scale, our annual defense budget is over $800 billion. The U.S. Department of Education spends $188 billion a year to produce exactly nothing of value. The cost of Ukraine to America is chicken feed.
Starting in October, Ukraine will be able to draw on $40 billion of lend-lease money, most of it to buy American-made “stuff.” Forty billion is not chump change, even in this age of Biden-induced inflation. A few billion more here and there are allocated for economic and humanitarian aid, but these numbers aren’t breaking the bank.
Zelenskyy’s government often mentions ever-rising post-war reconstruction costs, but those numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt. First, these are future possible expenditures over many years. Second, most of it will be borne by Europe, especially now that Ukraine is a candidate for EU membership. Third, nobody seriously expects Ukraine to get everything it’s asking for. Self-evidently, if Ukraine needs $200 billion, it must ask for $750 billion and hope that $100 billion shows up.
And what have we gained?
It is axiomatic (unless you are a leftist, a socialist, or an Islamist) that anything that weakens our enemies and increases our influence is a net positive. The weapons that we are giving to Ukraine are being used precisely for their intended purpose: grinding down the Russian war machine. With minimal investment and zero risk to American lives, the entire Russian military is being demilitarized. Can someone suggest a better way to spend a measly $8.8 billion to reduce “the second most powerful army in the world” to a point where it can’t even defeat Finland?
Thanks to Putin, NATO has a new lease on life. Finland and Sweden are joining the club, making the Baltic Sea a NATO lake. Unlike, say, Macedonia, adding Finland and Sweden is actually a net plus for the alliance. Defense spending is rising in Europe, relieving the burden on us to defend it. Trump’s badgering of Europe moved the needle only barely—but the war in Ukraine accomplished in months what Trump could not achieve in four years. Kazakhstan, once Russia’s loyal partner on its southern flank (and, at least on paper, an ally), is rethinking its relationship with Russia and anxiously reaching out to Europe, Turkey, NATO, and America because it worries that it might be next on Putin’s list.
For those who follow the details of the war, there is much focus on the tactical back-and-forth involving the taking of this town or that village by this or that side. In the bigger picture, if we believed Putin, his war was intended to keep NATO further away from Moscow. Thanks to the war, NATO is now closer than ever. This is our gain. Strategy is immutably rooted in geography, and our opponent’s long-term strategic geography has worsened considerably, regardless of where the final line of contact is drawn.
Natural gas is a weapon that is better left unused—the threat of a supply cut-off worked more effectively than the cut-off itself. Putin spent 20 years cocooning Europe in his pipelines, and spineless European politicians were only too willing to addict their countries to Russian natural gas. But now, Putin has fired his weapon repeatedly, and gained nothing, in a spectacular display of shooting himself in the foot, reloading, and pulling the trigger again. It finally dawned on the Eurocrats that Russia isn’t “just another gas supplier” and that addiction to hydrocarbons supplied by a sociopathic megalomaniac with imperial delusions is a monumentally bad idea.
In response to Putin’s latest attempts to manipulate the gas flows, Germany suddenly gave Ukraine three more PanzerHaubitze 2000 self-propelled howitzers and three M270 MLRS/MARS II launchers, announced an impending shipment of 16 pontoon bridge-layers, and signed a 1.7 Billion euro contract for 100 more PanzerHaubitze 2000s. It appears that even the cowardly, two-faced Chancellor Scholz, who for months has been single-handedly sabotaging promised German weapons deliveries, has his limits.
It remains to be seen whether Europe can fully wean itself off of Russian oil, gas, and coal, and the process is bundled in with Europe’s “green” insanities. From our perspective, a Europe less dependent on Russian energy (and more dependent on American coal and gas) accrues to our geostrategic benefit, while Russia will have difficulties finding replacement customers for its hydrocarbons. It is now forced to sell oil at a deep discount (as much as $40 off per barrel), while China has exhibited no desire for more gas purchases. The loss of the European energy market will weaken Putin more than all the high-minded rhetoric at all the summits. America is both a direct and indirect beneficiary.
The war is an awful ongoing advertisement for the Russian military-industrial complex. Tens of thousands of pictures show the latest and greatest Russian hardware smoking, burning, exploding, or just plain failing to do its job. India used to be a major buyer, but even before the war, it canceled a big contract for T-90 tanks, going with French LeClercs instead. After witnessing the smoldering wreckages of Russian heavy metal, what country would want to buy a T-90 now? Who would splurge on a Su-35 fighter that was unable to defeat ancient Soviet-era air defenses? Who would buy S-400 surface-to-air missiles after the CEO of its manufacturer was fired for making false effectiveness claims? The benefit to the American defense industry and our influence is self-evident.
It is a measure of how far Putin has fallen that he is forced to travel to Iran, of all places, to grovel and beg for reconnaissance drones his own country cannot produce. The optics are not good.
Long-overdue immunity to Russian intimidation is yet another benefit. Just four months ago, every threatening word from Moscow was taken seriously, parsed, and analyzed for “escalation.” Today? No one cares about Putin’s words. Someone in Moscow says something about taking Alaska back, or incinerating Poland, or razing Berlin and London, and . . . crickets. The weapons keep flowing to Ukraine, the ammo dumps keep going up in smoke, the plans to live without Russian energy proceed apace.
The sanctions are biting. All too often, discussion of sanctions devolves into arguments of whether or not this particular set of sanctions will make Putin retreat from Ukraine. The answer to the question “What sanctions will make Putin stop the war?” is simple: “None.”
What the sanctions are doing is slowly reducing the Russian economy to a more primitive state. Auto production in May was down 97 percent over last year, bus production was down 77 percent, glass production was down 61 percent, electric motor production was down 50 percent, and so on. The cars they do produce are 1970s-era jalopies: no anti-lock brakes, no airbags, no navigator, no modern transmissions, no power windows. Russia has suddenly discovered that many critical components used by every sector of its economy are only produced elsewhere, and smuggling and sanction-busting can only get them so far.
Economists are predicting a pizdetz (Russian for “clusterf—”) this fall, with inflation accelerating still further, job losses piling up, and manufacturing collapsing even more. GDP is expected to contract as much as 10 to 15 percent this year. What can Putin do about it? The difference between Putin’s “effective managers” and Stalin’s “effective managers” is that Stalin’s “effective managers” knew they might pay with their lives if they failed to deliver. Putin’s “effective managers” can count on a sinecure, no matter how much they fail, so long as they are loyal.
More and more, Russia is forced into an autarky: whether it’s cars, or aircraft, or pharmaceuticals. Yes, the sanctions are porous, at times half-hearted, and key industries, like oil and gas, are not so easy to sanction in the short term. But the more relevant question is: can this economic autarky produce all the hardware and software needed for network-centric wars of the future, with the factories falling silent, and the scientists, engineers, and IT people leaving the country in droves?
Salaries aren’t paid, or are delayed, or employees are informed they are now part-time or quarter-time. Putin can (maybe) solve any one problem, but he cannot solve them all.
Ukraine probably cannot resolve its conflict with Russia through purely military means—but the Russian political system is looking at some serious turbulence, and probably soon. The Russian people can forgive its leader, high casualties, and a lower standard of living. The elites can forgive a temporary drop in their ill-gotten incomes, but they will not forgive all that plus a military disaster. A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive will lay bare Putin’s failure. And that will bring closer not just a change in leadership but a change in political paradigm.
Russia and its people are sick today. Sick with hatred of everyone and everything not its own, sick with phantom limb pains of imperial glory that will never be again, sick with excuses and justifications of war crimes, large and small, sick with a routinization of torture, sick with denials of reality, sick with a fake church that abandoned Christianity, sick with corrupt, incompetent state machinery, sick with an inferiority complex that manifests itself as delusions of grandeur. Russia desperately needs a cure from what ails it. A humiliating defeat in this war is the beginning of that cure.
The road ahead is long. Expect to hear more stories about corruption in Ukraine (many of them probably true). Expect to see billions of aid dollars disappearing into the sand (just like they did in Iraq and Afghanistan, c’est la vie). Expect more Biden Administration fecklessness and rank incompetence, and more grandstanding from politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Ukraine will only get one chance at its counteroffensive, so expect the military progress to be slower than one wants.
But almost despite ourselves, we are winning.