In the summer of 1944, the Soviet Army destroyed Germany’s Army Group Center with a massive counteroffensive. The simultaneous invasion of France by allied forces and the continuation of the American thrust through Italy put additional pressure on Germany, which was forced to fight on three fronts.
Throughout the war, the Germans undeniably had more sophisticated and superior weapons, including their Panther and Tiger tanks. They also developed jet fighters, as well as the first cruise and ballistic missiles. In addition to these technical advantages, the German Wehrmacht had an innovative and decentralized system of tactics and maintained rigorous training for officers through the end of the war.
Even so, in spite of such qualitative superiority, by 1944 it was obvious Germany was going to lose. Israeli historian Omer Bartov goes further and argues that Germany was destined to lose the war from the moment it invaded the Soviet Union. Germany’s chief disadvantage was the size, or rather lack of size, of its population and economy, compared to the combined might and numbers of the British, American, and Soviet empires.
Economic Power and Wars
As Germany retreated from its high-water mark in 1942, many Germans consoled themselves with rumors that Hitler was setting a trap. The rumor went as follows: as soon as the Germans appeared to be defeated, they would unleash a fusillade of Wunderwaffen, i.e., wonder weapons, which would turn the tide, exact revenge on the allies, and lead to a German victory.
No such victory would be forthcoming. In a war of attrition, numbers, supply chains, and mass end up counting for more than the quality of armaments and other technological advantages. As Paul Kennedy famously argued in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,
The triumph of any one Great Power in this period, or the collapse of another, has usually been the consequence of lengthy fighting by its armed forces; but it has also been the consequences of the more or less efficient utilization of the state’s productive economic resources in wartime, and, further in the background, of the way in which that state’s economy had been rising or falling, relative to the other leading nations, in the decades preceding the actual conflict.
A similar dynamic is currently underway in Ukraine. Russia, the supposed basket case nation with an economy “the size of Italy’s,” has not only survived, but turned the tide, in spite of crushing Western sanctions. Talk of a winter offensive by the Ukrainian army has disappeared, as casualties mount and Russia surrounds concentrated Ukrainian forces.
American media seem confused, but this is probably because very little of this war is “telegenic” when compared to the American Gulf War. Rather, this is a war of attrition, where artillery is predominant, the battles are slow and dirty, and the chief technological marvel is the widespread use of cheap drones to augment the abilities of forward observers.
An Industrial Economy Proves Resilient
Russia’s industrial age economy is apparently well suited for a war of attrition, as Russia has the ability to produce both food and other necessities for her people, while also producing tanks, endless kamikaze drones, and an order-of-magnitude more artillery shells than its opponent. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s economy is destroyed, with its government payroll and military budget entirely dependent on Western subsidies.
Not only can Russia produce more than Ukraine, but it turns out, at least for now, that it can produce more arms and ammunition than the entire West. Having offshored much of its dual-use industrial infrastructure to China in service to globalization over the last 20 years, the West’s military industrial complex is now only optimized for profits. Western leaders mistook economic activity measured by GDP with productive capacity.
Thus, the United States and NATO can produce very sophisticated weapons systems like the F-35 and the Patriot missile, but can only do so slowly and expensively. Like German industry producing sophisticated, but delicate and expensive tanks during World War II, the western arms industry is not optimized for either speed or volume. It will take years to catch up.
By contrast, Russia has followed its successful World War II practice of producing many good (but not great) weapons, which are simple and reliable, like the T-90 tank. Moreover, Russia appears to possess domestic factories and techniques to produce mountains of artillery shells, which are now pulverizing the large numbers of Ukrainian forces gathered in Bakhmut.
Trying to provide a qualitative advantage, the West has showered Ukraine with its most advanced weapons. Any initial reluctance to provoke Russia has been reduced piecemeal. After earlier supplying HIMARS, artillery pieces, anti-tank missiles, and armored personnel carriers, this week, the United States promised to provide Ukraine some of its M1 Abrams tanks—widely regarded as the best tank in the world. America’s commitment of the Abrams tank encouraged the Germans to provide their own Leopard 2 tanks. In all, it appears a little over 100 modern tanks will be sent to Ukraine from NATO countries.
For all of the ways this move has provoked Russia, and for all the optimism and excitement that has stirred in the pro-Ukraine press, it is questionable whether these tanks will change the outcome of the war. There is at present a several-hundred-mile-long front, with several hundred thousand men and thousands of tanks and armored vehicles deployed on opposite sides. The promised modern tanks are sophisticated, require intensive maintenance, and lengthy training of crews, and the West can only supply a handful of them.
This is all similar to the situation facing the Wehrmacht in 1944. Allied tanks—the Soviet T-34 and the American M4 Sherman—had inferior main guns, less armor, and lower performance than the German Tigers and Panthers. Similarly, the allies had nothing like the German V1 or V2 rockets, which were significantly ahead of their time. The Germans had even developed the world’s first assault rifle.
But, in spite of all this innovation, massive numbers of American and Soviet tanks, along with rising numbers of trained troops, all supported by coordinated industrial power, were able to overwhelm the German military completely.
Prolonging the Ukraine War Is a Dead End
The West and its leaders are either engaged in massive denial or they are deliberately destroying their limited reserves of weapons and ammunition for some nefarious purpose. There is currently no prospect of Ukrainian victory, and a few hundred Wunderwaffen are not going to change the outcome. Even the highest U.S. military leaders have begun to express reservations, though they were initially very supportive and optimistic about the Ukraine campaign.
While having little prospect of success, the latest move risks at least two bad outcomes. First, having put its prestige on the line, the West may now be committed to Ukraine simply to avoid “losing face,” much like the United States stuck it out in Vietnam and Afghanistan long after any plausible national security advantage was in view. Second, not appreciating the repeated nuclear threats from Russia, the West may unintentionally cross a red line, setting off a chain reaction that could lead to Armageddon itself.
After committing massive and widespread atrocities in the Soviet Union, the German army knew that surrender was not an option in 1944 and also knew they could not prevail. So, instead of preparing the German people for reality, they seduced them with fanciful accounts of counterattacks in the Ardennes and salvation through Wunderwaffen. This only served to boost morale until the inevitable conclusion.
The United States is not so constrained. There is still the prospect for diplomacy and negotiation to resolve the war in Ukraine. But nothing about Joe Biden or his administration suggests either the wisdom or restraint to take such a course. Further, Republicans are not interested in restraining Biden because of their own militarism and the lingering influence of the neoconservatives. Beyond a little grumbling about the price tag, Americans from both parties also do not appear terribly interested in the matter.
This is all ominous. But it would not be the first time a great power sealed its fate through hubris, historical illiteracy, and self-destructive leadership.