Winning the War in Ukraine, Part #8
US electoral politics aside, that the Russian government is well aware are quite unpredictable, the principal objective factor the Russian Federation is relying upon in her intention to prevail over Ukraine in a long-term war is that Ukraine will gradually demonstrate herself an inferior ally to the Western powers that no longer deserves such intensive western financial and military support. In other words, Russia is content with the current stalemate and can finance that stalemate indefinitely both in terms of the financial costs and maintaining logistics to the front line and replenishing munitions but also in terms of the costs in terms of the numbers of soldiers dying. Nobody knows exactly how many Russian troops have died since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and all estimates involve substantial guesswork. Nevertheless one recent study suggested that up to 34,000 Russian soldiers may have died so far, which would approximate to around 2,000 per month. The figure of 500-600 Russian troop fatalities per week has been touted recently been touted, which if consistent with the 34,000 figure would suggest that Russian troop fatalities are increasing as the war has been progressing. That would be consistent with the recently observed escalation in front line fighting after a period of relative calm on the front line after the Russian evacuation of Kherson in early November 2022.
Let us assume a figure of 600 Russian fatalities per week: the bleakest forecast from the Russian point of view. If that is right then it would suggest about 85 fatalities a day whereas the best estimates I have heard of Ukrainian military fatalities on the front line is in the region of 10 to 20 per day. In terms of pure numbers - and in war, as one military man recently emphasised in informal discussions, the purpose of being in the military is to kill one’s enemy - the Ukrainian Armed Forces are seemingly doing a much better job than the Russian Armed Forces notwithstanding the Russians’s superior firepower in terms of quantities of ammunition, including small arms fire, artillery rounds and mortar rounds, enabling them to undertake blanket shelling in greater quantities in the front line regions than the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The Russian Armed Forces also have far greater access to military drones, in particular the Iranian-built Shaheed drones that are used to travel long distances and deliver high-explosive ordnance in urban areas and to damage urban infrastructure facilities with a view to terrorising the Ukrainian population.
The reasons why the Russian Armed Forces’ military losses are so much higher than those of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are difficult to specify with any clarity but a number of factors might be discerned. The Russian Armed Forces are thoroughly demoralised. They are fighting for a cause they barely care about, thousands of kilometres from Russian territory and from their families. They are living amongst an alienated population that have been separated from their families in the rest of Ukraine and for the most part those people detest their occupiers. The Russian Armed Forces, like the Ukrainian Armed Forces, are conscripts, but they are not fighting for their own territory or for the valour of their country. They fighting simply because Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to use them as cannon fodder. The terrain is alien to them, whereas for Ukrainian soldiers they are fighting for familiar territory.
The Russian Armed Forces struggle on in the face of a series of stinging defeats - the failed invasion of Kyiv, the failed invasion of Kharkiv, the failed invasion of Mykolaïv, the retreat from Kherson - and they have watched as their once-proud Russian navy has mostly retreated from Sevastopol in Crimea in ignominy. They have watched the imagined impregnable Kerch Bridge from Crimea to the Russian mainland be successfully attacked on more than one occasion. Their government is becoming increasingly oppressive. Tens or hundreds of thousands of Russians, unsympathetic to the cause espoused by the Kremlin, have fled the country and are now starting to understand just how much international alienation towards Russia this war has caused. Russian civilian and military morale is at rock bottom; but the FSB and Russia’s associated sinister security and intelligence agencies have taken an ever greater grip over Russian society and people are afraid to speak out or even to think at variance with the official line in Moscow. In the meantime Russians are now effectively banned from travelling to Europe whereas once they could obtain Schengen Visas with ease. Wherever Russians go, they are treated with scorn for the actions of their dictatorial government.
These things may explain why the Russian Armed Forces are suffering dramatically higher casualty rates than the Ukrainian Armed Forces; but of course Ukraine has a toll of civilian casualties as well whereas Russia does not to any significant extent (save perhaps for dissidents being imprisoned or murdered behind the scenes). However we have to face the fact that the Russian Federation has one of the largest standing armies in the world, with over 1.5 million active service personnel and 2 million reserve personnel, and that is before we start counting the various other quasi-military organisations that serve in uniform, such as the Ministry of Emergency Situations (precise numbers unknown but estimated by this author to be in the region of 80,000 plus its own air force) and the National Guard (troop numbers in the region of 350,000 to 400,000). So Russia has a lot of soldiers, and 85 fatalities a day is a perfectly tolerable rate of attrition for the Russian Armed Forces, particularly within a society gripped by totalitarian terror in which speaking out against the regime can easily cost you your liberty or your life - or you may find yourself conscripted.
By all accounts the conditions on the Russian side of the front line are atrocious, with supply lines stretched as far as the south bank of the Dnieper River yielding little in the way of comfortable shelter, supplies, food or fuel. There are stories of Russian troops having been drinking their own boot polish as a means of getting drunk (boot polish contains alcohol), to stave off the misery and pain. Unlike on the Ukrainian side of the front line, the occupying Russian forces are treated with relentless suspicion. The Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories have had politicians and administrators belonging to United Russia (Vladimir Putin’s political party) and the FSB (Russia’s internal security service) dominate and manage the territories and Ukrainian passports have been confiscated and replaced with Russian citizenship documents. The Russian Ruble is now the currency in these regions and the time zone has been changed.
The Kremlin’s calculation is that these events will become permanent in time, as a matter of fact, and indeed they already have done to an extent because this war has actually been in stalemate since 2014 until Russia executed another land grab starting in late February 2022. The Russian game is long-term and if left unchecked Russia may simply wait another ten years or so until the West gets bored of Ukraine again, and then execute yet another land grab against another chunk of Ukrainian territory. Or they may try the same thing against Finland, or the Baltic States. That is the overriding concern and the reason why twenty-first century Russian military aggression in Eastern Europe presents an existential threat to the European peace that has existed since the end of World War II in 1945.
We in the West must accept that the Russian calculus has some logic to it. Russia has never much cared about the quantum of civilian and military deaths in the cause of her historical military campaigns - aside from the figure of 6,000,000 Russian soldiers dead that precipitated the Russian revolutions in 1917, the abdication of the Tsar and the dissolution of the Russian Empire. And we are nowhere near that figure yet and it is unlikely that we ever will be unless nuclear war begins which the Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated it will not do. It is now obvious that nuclear powers will not use nuclear weapons against one-another, because the escalatory consequences will be so dramatic and catastrophic. Hence Russia estimates that by reason of short western electoral cycles, she can outlast western financial and political commitments to Ukraine just by staying in the game with a resolute understanding that she can tolerate the ongoing loss of life and financial expenditures longer than can the West. Once the West again tires of Ukraine, as it has done in the past, Russia will take another territorial lurch westwards and the cycle of war in Ukraine will start again.
The answer to all of this is of course NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was conceived as a bulwark against the threat of the spread westwards of communism by military means driven by Moscow. The West had been appalled by the way that the nascent central European democracies that were later to form the Warsaw Pact group of countries, from Poland down to Bulgaria, whose democratic development had been promised by the Soviet Union in the various agreements and understandings in the closing period of World War II, had been crushed by the Red Army and dominated by Soviet communism. The so-called “percentages agreement” between Churchill and Stalin, acquiesced to by Roosevelt, in October 1944, dividing the countries of central Europe into spheres of influence, had been openly ignored by Stalin in the aftermath of VE Day in May 1945, and Stalin had used the extent of the Red Army’s military occupation of central and eastern Europe to exert absolute political control over those countries, imposing Soviet-style communist governments in each and traducing the democratic values the West wished to see develop within them. The only country that escaped this disturbing fate was Yugoslavia, that had liberated itself from Nazi occupation with the help of British special forces. (Greece and Albania are special cases that deserve separate discussion.)
Stalin traduced the percentages agreement because he did not care about law or agreements or political understandings with other statesmen and neither does Vladimir Putin. He understood only the extent of his own military control which he understood to mean that he could use to dominate political control of the countries the Red Army controlled at the end of World War II by using violence to suppress domestic political activity and by incorporating various domestic versions of his own Soviet internal security forces to strike fear into the population and prevent them from resisting Soviet-style communism. This is what central Europe got for the next 45 years until the entire system collapsed, ultimately because free of a ruthless tyrant like Stalin, this form of totalitarian rule was unsustainable. The only thing to be said for Stalin is that he took a terrible system like communism and made it work because he was prepared to sacrifice limitless lives and inflict limitless human suffering in order to make it work. And now that is what we are finding in the military-political activities of modern Russia in invading Ukraine. And that is what we are fighting to prevent a recurrence of.
NATO was established as a mutual defence pact whereby an attack upon one NATO country would be regarded as an attack upon them all and, in particular, an attack upon the United States of America which is and was then the world’s largest military economy by far. It remains the case in 2023 that the United States spends more than the rest of the world put together on her military and she therefore remains “the World’s Policeman”, an unfashionable phrase at one time but one that remains true in Europe. The United States needs to occupy this role once more and she needs to press for Ukrainian admission to NATO as soon as humanly possible. The threat of the United States military, with overwhelming strength compared to the demoralised, ill-treated pseudo-barbaric tribes of the Russian Armed Forces, is the only thing that will deter the Kremlin from waiting patiently in Ukraine with the current tolerable loss of life from Russia’s ugly perspective until the next moment when the West loses focus on Ukraine and another land grab is made. Russia has historically respected only power and force and not rule of law. This is unlikely to change in the near future and provision must be made now to deal with this sort of mentality just as it was with the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949.
The way to counter long-termist Russian military aggression over Ukraine is to demonstrate a permanent commitment to Ukraine’s defence that will inhere notwithstanding the changing tides of democratic elections in the various western countries that dominate the NATO architecture. Any further aggression against Ukraine will be met with the overwhelming military force of the United States and her military allies, and any further attacks upon Ukraine will be treated as an attack upon the United States and her allies. This is the only sort of clear red line and pressure that Russia will respect and that will cause her to desist from further Ukrainian territorial ambitions. We have been here before and the result was the Cold War, and we fought the Soviet Union up and down the front lines of the Cold War because the Soviet Union could not be trusted as an international partner to maintain the European peace. And now we are here in the same place again with Russia, undertaking exactly the same sort of opportunistic policies for military aggression without regard to spheres of influence, agreements, treaties, international law or anything else. It is not just Ukraine that is at risk. Existing NATO member states are at risk and they are afraid, and we see the handful of non-NATO European states now clambering for promptest admission. The threat of Russian imperialism does not just stop at the doors of Europe; Wagner Group’s interventions in those parts of West Africa that were formerly colonies of France reveals a similar, deep-seated desire on the part of the Russian Federation to intervene militarily in any part of the world where it can cause the West chaos or disruption.
This is the Second Cold War, and we must face up to that fact. Unrelenting determination in the face of Russian military aggression is the only solution, and all the countries in the West are going to have to increase our military budgets in consequence. The legal argument against Ukraine joining NATO - that only countries with undisputed borders can be admitted - can easily be worked around. All NATO member states agree upon the undisputed borders of Ukraine. Ukraine has no border disputes. She has been invaded, and occupied, and it is that clear and straightforward. The invasion began in 2014 and it has continued for over a decade with Russia as the aggressor power. There can be no excuses for this and none of this can be a reason by Ukraine not to join NATO.
Having Ukraine join NATO does not mean just that NATO troops can openly occupy front line positions in eastern Ukraine, thereby causing the Russian guns to stop in their tracks because NATO can decimate the Russian Armed Forces if NATO forces are attacked by Russia. It also means that the NATO international administrative architecture can get to work on the root-and-branch reform of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and its bureaucracy necessary to transform the Ukrainian military into a massive, modern army capable of playing a fundamental role in bolstering NATO in its operations around the world. As of 2021, the United States was the largest NATO member state with 465,000 active military personnel; Turkey was the second biggest with 260,000. Ukraine has an extraordinary 700,000 active personnel and hence Ukrainian membership of NATO, with the Ukrainian Armed Forces duly modernised and reformed, would render NATO and ever stronger force for global military and political leadership. Now that would give the Kremlin pause for thought.
Turkey can be persuaded. Turkey’s President Erdogan at one time felt that he owed Vladimir Putin a personal favour for forewarning him of the (allegedly) Gülenist coup attempt in July 2016 that Erdogan managed to defeat. Nevertheless Erdogan’s sympathy for Putin has receded substantially in recent years as Erdogan’s own attempts to mediate a resolution to the Russia / Ukraine conflict, including (of particular importance for Turkey given her strategic position on the Black Sea) free operation of the Ukrainian port of Odessa for global exports of foodstuffs including to the Middle East, including Turkey and many of Turkey’s Gulf and other Arab allies, have been treated with spiteful disregard and contempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin is now in effect siding with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the terrorist organisation within Iran that is responsible in large part for the current foment in the Middle East through its financial and military backing for the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, and Turkey will not be pleased about that as this destabilises all axes of Middle Eastern politics the stability of which Turkey relies upon for her own progress. The truce-like arrangements between Turkey and Syria in the course of the Syrian Civil War are no longer of pertinence to Turkey and Turkey is fed up with Russia. Hence Turkey should and no doubt shortly will drop any objection to Ukraine’s membership in NATO which should proceed as soon as possible and without prejudice to Ukraine’s EU accession negotiations which will take substantially longer and are more complex because more comprehensive institutional reform is required for Ukraine’s membership of the European Union to be a sustainable prospect.
Ukraine should join NATO straight away, and NATO peacekeepers should enter Ukraine to face the Russian Armed Forces down. This is the only way of denting Russia’s long-term military strategy to wear down the West in Ukraine by successively seizing ever greater chunks of Ukrainian territory over the next decades and reverting to a lawless state of European polity in which international law and the sanctity of borders are not respected. This may the Russian model of international relations, but it is not ours, and we must do everything we can to prevent it. And we must do it now.