First, my sincere thanks for everyone who took time to comment in depth on the Open Thread. I learned a lot from all of you and have had calls from friends today who are equally impressed. You are, by and large, a thoughtful, intelligent group of folks and I am humbled that you deign me worthy of your attention.
Second, let me tell you what I think is going on with the Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine. Let me start with Captain Obvious–Russia is grudgingly giving up territory in Kharkov, Donetsk and Kherson, but is avoiding set piece battles. What do I mean? Consider what happened at Liman, for example. Five hundred Russian allied troops help off over 6000 Ukrainians for more than a week and then conducted a tactical retreat. It is true that Ukraine has deployed more forces to these areas than the Russians. But Russia, through its superior fire power with artillery and combat air, slows these attacks and inflicts heavy casualties on the Ukrainians in terms of men and equipment. At the same time, Russia is suffering minimal casualties. This certainly is a break with the sad tradition Soviet troops established in World War II. Millions of Soviet soldiers were killed and wounded in the battles of Kursk and Bagration, for example. Conserving force was not a priority then, but it is now.
The United States and NATO are having a field day with these events, touting these successes as “proof” that Russian troops are poorly led, poorly supplied and lacking motivation. But that is having little effect in rallying public support in the United States and Europe. That lackluster support among the general populace will fade even more in the coming months as inflation, unemployment and recession escalate in those nations. Ukraine capturing a city that most Americans cannot spell is not a recipe for whipping up public support among Americans for sending more billions of dollars to Kiev while prices at home soar and the economy grinds to a halt.
Ukraine’s so-called victories are illusory. Yes, they are occupying territory once held by Russia but they are doing so without the benefit of air support and minimal artillery fires. Ukraine is relying on attacking lightly manned Russian positions with a larger force. This comes at a great cost however, in the loss of men and material that Ukraine cannot easily nor quickly replace. Every country in a war suffers casualties. This means a country at war must have a system in place to call up reserves, train them, equip them and deploy them. Ukraine is outnumbered dramatically by Russia on this count. If (or when) the “Special Military Operation” is finally acknowledged as a war by Russia’s leaders, Putin and his generals have far greater human resources at their command. The current Russian special mobilization is calling back to duty experienced soldiers.
Ukraine does not have a secure training facility where it can assemble and train new recruits because Russia has demonstrated repeatedly over the last 7 months the ability and willingness to attack and destroy those centers. That means Ukraine must rely on one or more NATO countries to host a training base. Even with a secure training base someplace in Europe, new Ukrainian recruits will need a minimum of three months of instruction before they are minimally prepared to go to the front to replace lost personnel. I do not believe that Europe has the capability or the will to host 200,000 new Ukrainian recruits. In short, Ukraine has no real chance of replacing the troops already lost in the front lines.
The training requirements for the Russian reservists called back to duty is far less daunting. The Russian soldiers already know how to wear a uniform, march in formation, maneuver as a unit, clean and operate their weapons, and communicate within a chain of command.
The biggest disadvantage for Ukraine is its lack of an economic base to fund the war and to produce the weapons, vehicles, food and medical supplies required to sustain an army in the field. Ukraine is now entirely dependent on the United States and NATO. Those lines of communication must remain open and flowing. Otherwise, their soldiers will be left defenseless in the field.
Russia, by contrast, has a robust economy that is producing all that its army and air force requires to operate. Its factories are operating 24-7 and it is quite competent, despite western propaganda stating otherwise, to move needed troops, tanks, munitions and vehicles to the front.
The west is betting all on the belief that Russia–its leaders, its government bureaucracy and its economy–is a paper tiger that will crumble if only enough pressure is applied. That is a dangerous and risky wager. While Russia is not a utopia, it has invested its capital over the last 20 years in building up its infrastructure, developing modern, cost effective weapons systems and educating its population to a standard that surpasses anything offered by the United States or Europe. Most importantly, it has vast natural resources and minerals and the industrial capability to extract them and manufacture what it needs to fight.
The United States, by contrast, has burned up billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in fruitless military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan while American infrastructure deteriorates, its industrial capacity is hollowed out, it is dependent on foreign imports of critical materials to produce key weapon systems and its educational system is in shambles. More time is devoted in U.S. schools, it appears, to learning proper pronouns rather than learning math, biology, chemistry, physics and foreign languages. The recently announced failure of the U.S. Army to meet its recruitment goals (25% below the target) is not an aberration. It is a symptom of societal failure in the west.
So what is Russia waiting for? On paper, it has the full capability to crush Ukraine. I am certain that the events of the last seven months have convinced the Russian leaders and civilians that they face an existential crisis from the west. I believe that Putin’s decision to return the four Ukrainian oblasts to the Russian Federation was not made in desperation. Putin, so far, has shown no sign of panic or alarm. I have seen no evidence to suggest that he is out of touch with reality. Instead, he has worked methodically to shore up relations with China, India and the Gulf States. He realizes he can no longer rely on any hope of a working relationship with the United States and Europe. it appears that the referenda process, which culminated on Tuesday with the acceptance of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporhyzhia as new members of the Russian Federation, now paves the way for Russia to invoke the defense protocols of the CSTO. That means additional troops from allied countries like Belarusia can join the fight if needed.
It very much reminds me of a game of chess. Russia is now sacrificing pawns in the form of strategically useless territory, while Ukraine is rushing forward to seize symbolic territory without having the necessary reserves in terms of trained soldiers and equipment to sustain the attack and defeat Russia. Russia, meanwhile, is moving its Knights, Rooks and Bishops into position for checkmate. The question remains–what is Putin’s gambit?