12 May 2022

Avoiding a protracted war

A prominent theme in recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis is that Putin is preparing for a long war (example).  This may be partly bluster -- trying to discourage the democracies by asserting that he's not going to back down under the pressure of sanctions and military failure.  But it would also make sense that this is his actual stance at the moment.  From his point of view, he doesn't have a lot of good options.  He can't score a decisive victory -- after three weeks, his more limited Donbas-centered offensive is as badly bogged down as the earlier attack on Kyiv was -- and accepting defeat by pulling out of Ukraine is too humiliating for him to contemplate.  Dragging the war out in the hope that such a protracted slog will grind down Ukraine and weaken the democracies' resolve is, from his point of view, the least-bad course of action.

It is, however, dangerous to everyone.  The longer the war continues, the greater the risk that some mistake or miscalculation will lead to direct NATO-Russia combat and thus to all-out nuclear exchange that would wipe out both Russia and the West.  All wars involve confusion, errors in judgment, commanders under pressure to make hurried decisions on the basis of incomplete or mistaken information, and suchlike.  The longer the war drags on, the greater the risk of such a case leading to a catastrophic result.  Thus, for the West, the safest course is that which is most likely to lead to a relatively early end to the conflict (so long as that course does not, itself, involve direct NATO-Russia combat).

Since a protracted stalemate is actually the most dangerous option, and withdrawing support from Ukraine so that Russia can win is totally out of the question (it would be a monstrous betrayal of our values, and rewarding aggression would encourage further aggression, including perhaps by China against Taiwan), the least-bad option from our point of view is to escalate our support to the point where Ukraine wins an outright victory, and as soon as possible, with victory being defined as pushing the Russian forces completely out of Ukraine, or at least back to their pre-February-24 starting line.  This would show Putin that a protracted fight is actually not in his interest, since it would merely prolong the humiliation of defeat.

The US government seems to have come to the same conclusion.  It is now providing much heavier weaponry to Ukraine, and the Ukrainians have pushed the Russians back from Kharkiv (the country's second-largest city) -- back practically to the Russian border, according to some reports.  If they can push the Russians back in Donbas as well, it will show clearly that the stalemate is over and Ukraine is winning.

This course does pose one risk.  It's when a nuclear-armed country is clearly losing a conventional war that the temptation to turn things around by using nuclear weapons looms largest.  If Putin were to use nuclear bombs, but only against Ukraine itself, this still would not constitute direct combat with NATO, but it would be such a massive escalation that a forceful response would be needed.  No doubt the leading Western military powers have been carefully considering their options for such a response, and have made it clear to Putin that using nuclear weapons on Ukraine would have consequences unacceptable to him.  And he has said himself that he would use nuclear weapons only in case of an "existential threat" to Russia -- the same case in which any nuclear power would use them -- and merely losing the Ukraine war is not an existential threat.  However, it's an open question what such a promise is worth.

The ideal outcome, of course, would be that other elements in Russia would stop Putin from taking such a dangerous course by removing him from power.  Obviously we cannot count on that.  But the only alternative seems to be letting the war grind on endlessly, which would be too dangerous for the world at large -- and, of course, would also intolerably exacerbate and prolong the already horrific suffering of the Ukrainian people.

Related links:

Russian soldiers in Ukraine are continuing to sabotage their own equipment to avoid combat -- more here.

A new video suggests that Ukraine can now hit Russian forces deep in occupied territory, far behind the front line.

Russian pilots are taping GPS devices to the control panels of their planes because the built-in navigation systems are junk; Russia cannot replace lost tanks because sanctions are crippling its manufacturing; the Russian army is dumping the corpses of its own troops in hidden locations to conceal the magnitude of losses (source links here).

During Russia's May 9 Victory Day events, hackers imposed anti-war messages on Russian media.

On a lighter note, there's this (found via Miss Cellania).


Blogger Jimmy T said...

I found that last one (Where Russian Tanks Go To Die) on Twitter yesterday. According to this article Russia's losses are severe, so there is a lot of truth in humor. Be advised the list is comprehensive...


12 May, 2022 07:18  
Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Oh, Vlad is a bully and like every bully will try and destroy what he cannot have. The sanctions have affected Russia, but they are putting up a good face (also, they are swimming in rubles because oil went up so much). It's how bad he will look to the world what counts, but being a megalomaniac his only fear is to appear 'weak'. His fragility is telling. Does it remind you of anybody?


12 May, 2022 07:34  
Blogger Mike said...

We should be sending cruise missiles to Ukraine that can reach Moscow.

12 May, 2022 10:46  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

I don't see him being removed from power anytime soon.

12 May, 2022 12:38  
Blogger Bohemian said...

The longer anything bad drags on the higher the risk of catastrophic mistakes being made.

12 May, 2022 16:03  
Blogger yellowdoggranny said...

where's a good assassin when you need one??? fuckin''Putin.

13 May, 2022 05:29  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Jimmy: Everyone seems to agree the losses are very severe. I wonder how many are due to self-sabotage.

Sixpence: He seems to be destroying everything because it's the only available option. The artillery is the only part of the Russian military that seems to function well -- and of course artillery at long range is pretty inaccurate. So they're just shelling cities because they're big targets.

Mike: The Ukrainians already have fairly long-range weapons. I don't see why Russia's territory should be sacrosanct when Ukraine's isn't.

Mary K: We'll see. It's a very opaque situation.

Bohemian: Which is why we don't want it to drag on, especially with nuclear weapons potentially involved.

Granny: The Ukrainians are probably looking into it. They play rough in that part of the world.

13 May, 2022 09:55  
Blogger Comrade Misfit said...

Longevity in office in Russia is not long if one loses a fight. Putler is well aware of that.

One effect of the war has been to show the world that the Russian military is hollow. Other than their nukes, the rest of their military seems to be riddled with corruption and incompetence of a scale that was only exceeded by the Afghan army. That Sweden and Finland are not dissuaded by Russian threats speaks volumes.

The question will be how far down the rabbit-hole of losing a war and destroying the effectiveness of the Russian military will the rest of the Russian leadership will be willing to follow Putler.

13 May, 2022 15:29  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Yep. If Putin loses the war, he risks being deposed and killed. If he tries something too extreme in order to avoid losing it, he risks being deposed and killed. It's a bad situation, but he's the one who put himself in it.

If I were him I wouldn't want to count on Russia's nuclear weapons working any more reliably than the rest of their military junk.

And he'd be crazy to mess with Finland. The Finns beat back an invasion in 1939-1940 by the Red Army when it was in far less decrepit shape. Not too surprising that they aren't intimidated by Putin's bluster now.

14 May, 2022 00:40  
Blogger Tommykey said...

What seems pretty clear in hindsight is that if the Russian military had focused all of its efforts on taking the Donbas and Ukraine's Black Sea coast, they probably would have won by now. Instead, Putin abandoned the tactics of limited objectives that worked so well for him in the past (which probably fed his delusions of grandeur) and tried to go for the whole enchilada without having the army in a condition for doing so. Now he finds himself caught in the "Sunk Cost Fallacy" trap where he has to keep fighting because he can't end the war without having anything to show for it, which means more Russian soldiers will die needlessly.

As long as Putin remains in power, I don't see the war (excuse me, special military operation) ending without Zelensky having to swallow some concessions. For Ukraine, now that they have pushed the Russians away from Kharkhiv, the best case scenario is recovering Kherson, which is a major city in the south, and some of the Black Sea coast they lost, which is vital to their economy. However, barring a total collapse of the Russian army, I don't see him getting back the territory Russia seized in the Donbas and the southern lands that are north of Crimea. I don't want it to have to be that way, but I don't believe Ukraine has the military muscle to regain all of the territory Russia seized after February 24, again, barring some sudden collapse of Russian forces, or Putin being deposed and his replacement ordering a full withdrawal.

15 May, 2022 12:27  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Well, we'll see. This war has already confounded quite a few expectations about both Russian and Ukrainian capabilities. I do tend to agree that Putin won't back down as long as he's in power, but at this point I don't think even a sudden collapse of the Russian forces can be completely ruled out.

15 May, 2022 13:05  

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