Streetwise Professor

February 2, 2015

Arms and the Man

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 9:26 pm

The Obama administration is apparently reconsidering its refusal to provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine, although reading between the lines I suspect Obama is reprising his star turn as Hamlet. The security establishment seems solidly behind the idea, but Obama frets about getting into a proxy war with Russia.

Merkel came out steadfastly against the idea:

“Germany will not support Ukraine with guns and weapons,” said Merkel, speaking in Budapest. “We are putting all our bets on sanctions and doing our best to find a diplomatic solution.”

Telegram from Mr. Trotsky to Barack and Angela: you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.* Nattering on about diplomacy is pathetic given where things stand now, with the collapse of the Minsk accords and the dramatic escalation of conflict all along the contact line, but especially in the Debaltseve pocket. Merkel is engaged in wishful, not to say magical, thinking. Diplomacy and force are complements, and Putin will be uninterested in talk, except as a diversionary or delaying tactic, as long as the military option is viable.

One of the weapons the US is supposedly considering supplying to Ukraine is the Javelin anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). This could be a decisive weapon, and some wicked turnaround for Putin. Hezbollah inflicted great losses on Israel using Russian-made Kornet ATGMs in 2006.  If supplied in quantity, Javelins could neutralize Russia’s substantial advantage in armor, and dramatically raise the cost to the Russians and their proxies in blood, treasure, and equipment in any attempt to expand military operations in Ukraine.

How would this affect Putin? We don’t know what he is willing to pay for various outcomes in Ukraine, but making Ukrainian defenses substantially more effective could make the price for an outright conquest of part or all of Ukraine greater than Putin is willing to pay.

Putin has been able to get by so far by having his proxies bear the brunt of the casualties, and by suppressing news about Russian casualties. But even he would be unable to keep a lid on a large spike in losses. What’s more, his manpower and material resources are in fact quite constrained. Substantial losses could render his forces largely combat ineffective and incapable of a decisive victory.

The main risk is that it may be too late. The arms won’t magically appear in Ukraine overnight, and it would take some time to train the Ukrainians in their use after they arrive. If arms start to flow, Putin may conclude that he has a time window in which to advance, and therefore decide to move now, whereas he might be inclined to wait and rely on other means to dominate Ukraine if he believed that he could invade later if need be. Ironically, the more effective the arms we provide (or more accurately, the more effective Putin and his generals believe those weapons will be) the greater the incentive he has to move before those weapons arrive. Thus, the interval between the decision to arm and the time that the weapons are in Ukrainian hands will be quite fraught, and the US would need to be prepared to deter Putin in other ways during that interval.

There are widespread concerns that Putin would react to the arming of Ukraine by escalating elsewhere, such as the Baltics. He is clearly trying to signal his truculence, as with a provocative flight of nuclear armed Bear bombers through the English Channel. Thus, the issue becomes whether he can be deterred from challenging Nato directly in Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, or Poland for that matter. If he can’t be, Ukraine is the least of our problems. Or put differently, we need to revitalize our deterrent regardless of what we do in Ukraine, because Nato countries would be at risk.

If Putin’s madman strategy-real or feigned-is potentially effective in intimidating the West into acquiescing to his subjugation of Ukraine, magical thinking and Hamlet-like fretting are certainly effective at egging him on. People like him sense weakness as a predatory beast can. Arguably the strongest argument for arming Ukraine in the face of Putin’s threats is that it could get him to reassess the strength of American resolve. Obama’s record of temporizing-on Syria, on Isis, on Ukraine-has given Putin considerable reason to believe that when pushed, Obama will back down. It will take something rather dramatic, such as arming Ukraine in a big way, to convince Putin otherwise: even that is merely necessary, rather than sufficient. But if it’s done, it must be done lavishly, and not in a token fashion. But given how stingily we are with arms to the Syrian opposition and even the Kurds (who are actually accomplishing something against Isis), I find it hard to believe that Obama will do that.

The conundrum is that Putin will view American (and European) passivity as an invitation to keep pressing forward. Those who oppose doing something more robust, such as arming the Ukrainians, argue that this action will goad him forward as well: they are deluding themselves if they think he can be appeased. So it seems that regardless of what course is taken, Putin will keep trying.

At least Bloomberg is somewhat consistent. It says that we’re not going to seriously oppose Putin anyways, why give the Ukrainians any false hopes by giving them weapons? Just tell them to get used to living under Russian domination again and don’t encourage them to wage a futile war on their own.

But if you don’t want to acquiesce to Putin dominating the entire Warsaw Pact space, you have to make a stand somewhere. If the Ukrainians are willing to make that stand, give them the means to do it.

* This phrase is widely attributed to Trotsky, but the closest anyone can find written by him is “you may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.”

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  1. Get this: while Merkel simply says no weapons from Germany, the SDP, aka Gerhard Schroeder’s party, is actually “deeply concerned” about the prospect of Ukraine getting lethal weapons from the US. I’m shocked, shocked.

    Those guys must have truly endless supplies of deep concern, looking how much of it they have already expended for all those Ukrainian civilian casualties.

    Comment by Ivan — February 3, 2015 @ 12:18 am

  2. > If arms start to flow, Putin may conclude that he has a time window in which to advance

    It very much looks like this is precisely what is already happening (or at least everything is being prepared for this option). While Putin’s proxies have announced ridiculous upcoming mobilisation numbers, leaving massive direct Russian invasion as the only way to achieve those numbers, there are reports from various parts of Russia that military units will be leaving for Ukraine within a week.

    Comment by Ivan — February 3, 2015 @ 12:31 am

  3. And so Mr. Obamov has green-lighted the next phase of Russian invasion of Ukraine. Quoting his next self-congratulatory speech: “we assure what-remains-of-Ukraine of our continued support … due to our sanctions Russia has suffered tremendous losses in ammunition …”

    Comment by Ivan — February 3, 2015 @ 9:29 am

  4. I wonder if there is concern that Putin might react to the US supplying weapons to kill Russians by supplying weapons to those who are currently trying to kill Americans. There are logistical issues, but it would seem to me that the Russians could probably dump a fair amount of weapons into the Middle East/Afghanistan that would increase the lethality and effectiveness of those currently engaged in fighting the US and allies, and with enough deniability to get away with it.

    The questions are then 1) Could the Russians do this, 2) Would they do this, and 3)Is this prospect something that is of concern to US policy makers and affecting their decision making.

    Comment by JDonn — February 4, 2015 @ 12:59 am

  5. @JDonn

    Commenters have noted that Putler and the Kremlin try to curry favor by appearing to “act” against Islamic terrorists. But Putler and his mafia state continue to pursue the old sovok Kremlin technique of stirring the pot wherever and whenever they can. Putler and his mafia state have already supplied arms to Syria and nuclear materials to Iran.

    All the more reason that Putler and his mafia state must be stopped.

    You might also look at this:

    Putin Risks It All on Korean Nukes and Cheap Vodka

    Taken together, the moves paint a picture of a Russian government struggling to find answers to an increasingly toxic combination of economic and political problems. A government facing a citizenry that has suffered massive losses of economic power at the same time that it is increasingly isolated on the international stage is not in a position of power. Neither cheap liquor nor alliances of convenience are likely to protect it for long.

    Comment by elmer — February 4, 2015 @ 8:38 am

  6. The weak response of last year continues to haunt us. If Europe and the US took a strong stance on Crimea, it is possible that Russian troops would still be there, but unlikely Putin would have launched his attacks on the Donbas and southern Ukraine.

    At this point, the dynamics have a life of their own, and the best that can be hoped is that the Donbas conflict is “frozen” with all the bad issues that continue to afflict Moldova and Georgia. However, it seems more likely that the situation will just get worse.

    We have not seen such poor leadership from the West since the 1920s and 1930s.

    Comment by Chris — February 4, 2015 @ 1:14 pm

  7. […] the Impaler’ in eastern Ukraine.  I have just read two articles on the subject, one from The Streetwise Professor and another from Max Boot at the Commentary site.  Both are gung-ho to send in serious […]

    Pingback by A view from across the pond | libertybelle diaries — February 5, 2015 @ 2:32 pm

  8. SPW:

    The Western media continues to repeat the talking point, that ‘no decision to supply weapons to the Ukrainians has been reached,’ as if that is even a possibility.

    And Barry Soetoro now wants to take over (via the FCC) regulation of the internet, since he has proven so adept at micromanaging the healthcare & banking industries. ABC News breathlessly reports that the FCC Chairman has ‘struck a blow for consumers by attempting to enforce “Net Neutrality.”‘

    When will it end, Professor?

    VP VVP

    Comment by Vlad — February 6, 2015 @ 3:51 pm

  9. @Vlad-I wish I knew.

    The NetNeut thing is another disaster in the making. I plan to blog about it over the weekend.

    The most pathetic part about it is that he decided to make this an issue primarily out of vanity and because it was something he could do unilaterally to shaft the Republicans. Appalling.

    Re Ukraine, today Kerry told the Ukrainians that “reform is the best defensive weapon.” If I were Ukrainian and he had told that to me I would have strangled him.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 6, 2015 @ 4:35 pm

  10. The sad part of this is that, abstracting from the pessing military needs (which cannot be abstracted from in the real world, of course), Kerry is right: it’s just insane, the scope of the damage the government is inflicting on what remains of the Ukrainian economy. Like leaking the vanishing FX reserves to subsidise natural gas on the one hand and on the other hand making sure as little hard currency as possible enters the country by rigging the market with administrative measures to the point of creating dual exchange rates. If one did not know they were just a bunch of imbeciles one would have to conclude they were acting on direct orders from Moscow. Think a thousand Frankendodds and not a hint at anyone in the govt showing any understanding of the scope of the problem, let alone any intent on solving it.

    Comment by Ivan — February 6, 2015 @ 6:22 pm

  11. SWP – unfortunately, corruption, which has been killing Ukraine for 20 years, is still there, and reforms are proceeding only at a snail’s pace.

    Comment by elmer — February 6, 2015 @ 10:55 pm

  12. @elmer & ivan-I know that Ukraine is still a corrupt and largely Sovok place. But the country is also under invasion, and it is delusional to suggest that reforming that corruption is any kind of a substitute for actual weapons. First things first. “Let them shoot Russians with reforms” makes “let them eat cake” look like sage and compassionate advice.

    This is an Obama pattern. He refused to support the Iraqi government against ISIS because it was sectarian and corrupt. We saw how that worked out. As bad as the Iraqi government was, and the Ukrainian government is, there are worse things.

    This is, I suspect, just another Obama dodge. He does not want to engage. The imperfections in the beleaguered governments gives him an excuse.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 6, 2015 @ 11:57 pm

  13. “One of the weapons the US is supposedly considering supplying to Ukraine is the Javelin anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). This could be a decisive weapon, and some wicked turnaround for Putin. Hezbollah inflicted great losses on Israel using Russian-made Kornet ATGMs in 2006. If supplied in quantity, Javelins could neutralize Russia’s substantial advantage in armor, and dramatically raise the cost to the Russians and their proxies in blood, treasure, and equipment in any attempt to expand military operations in Ukraine.”

    And how did the Iraqi Army we spent billion$ arming and training with US weapons do when it came time to employ them?

    So it appears that something more than just US weapons would be required to get a Hezbollah 2006-like performance from a Ukrainian Army armed with US weapons.

    Hezbollah spent many years training and preparing with deadly seriousness for 2006.

    The Ukrainian armed forces spent 25 years being barely paid by their oligarch-dominated governments, whether Orange or Blue. The first Russian defense minister Grachev said decades ago that he inherited an army of ruins and debris. The only difference between the Russian and Ukrainian ruins and debris is that the dust ceased settling on the Russian ruins and debris about 10 years ago, after the government commanding them decided to make something useful of them. At that time, Yushchenko and Timoshenko decided they’d rather fight each other than govern, with the results we see today.

    This war has had the only outcome it could have had. Deal with it.

    Comment by PailiP — February 7, 2015 @ 7:41 am

  14. SWP – I take your point, and you are correct – reforms are not a substitute for weapons.

    But corruption is an impediment to obtaining weapons and to efficient use of weapons, and past corruption decimated the Ukrainian military. Current corruption of all sorts also hamstrings the Ukrainian military. That is why there are civilian brigades, bypassing what many see as corrupt layers of military.

    Some also see corruption as demoralizing – “what the hell are we fighting for, if we just get more of the same old corruption in a new look?” For example, Ukraine has no legal system. The excuses for snail-paced reform is: “where are we going to find judges and prosecutors?” Corruption in Ukraine is incredibly pervasive. The civilian brigades might be seen as a sort of reform – one of the criticisms of the Ukrainian military is fat old sovok generals who sit back on their wealth and provide no leadership at all.

    All of that having been said, the performance of Ukrainians against Putler and his “non-war” has been absolutely remarkable.

    And I do take your point.

    Comment by elmer — February 7, 2015 @ 9:22 am

  15. @elmer-And I take yours. These things have to be done in parallel, rather than serially, as difficult as that is. But Kerry’s Antoinettesque statement suggested that either arms were unnecessary, or that they could wait on reform.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 7, 2015 @ 10:06 am

  16. @PalliP-As shambolic as the Ukrainian military is, it has performed far better than Iraq’s did. The comparison is not particularly apt.

    The Ukrainian army has performed well against Russian proxies. It has performed acceptably even against Russian regulars when in decent position. What happened in August was that Poroshenko took a major risk, and lost. Poroshenko launched an offensive against the proxies. It was going quite well, and it looked like the proxies were on the verge of a crushing defeat. But one look at the operational map made it plain that the Ukrainians exposed their rear and flanks to the Russian border. Poroshenko was betting the Russians would not come in. He was wrong, and lost big time. Putin had the motive to strike (to save his proxies) and the golden opportunity to do so (because of the way the Ukrainians were exposed to an attack from Russia). Consequently, Ukrainian forces were attacked by superior numbers from directions that they were not deployed to defend, and many Ukrainians were slaughtered.

    Not to say that Ukraine would prevail even if properly deployed. But they could extract a heavy price from the Russians, and the price would be even heavier if they were armed. This despite the fact that the army was gutted over the last 25 years.

    I fear that Poroshenko is committing another error by holding onto a pocket at Debaltseve. That position is not tenable, and I do not see what can possibly be gained by attempting to hold it. The Ukrainians need to conserve their forces and only risk combat when circumstances are relatively favorable. Holding the Debaltseve pocket fails on both counts.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 7, 2015 @ 4:11 pm

  17. The Ukrainian Army has also not performed nearly as well as Hezbullah in 2006, and not from any lack of weapons.

    The Ukrainian soldier has proven brave, but his commanders have proven incompetent in strategy and operational art, and the objectives his government assigns him in support of political considerations are assigned without due consideration of what he is capable of accomplishing against the enemy he faces. For instance, President Poroshenko wanted a victory parade down the streets of Donetsk on Ukrainian Independence Day. There was a parade of Ukrainian soldiers then and there, but it wasn’t quite what President Poroshinko had in mind. Now, political considerations are important in war, indeed, the very point of it, but governments fail their troops when they assign them objectives they cannot accomplish. Your point about the lack of flank protection and the pocket around Debaltseve reinforces this point.

    There is no indication that the present Ukrainian government has learned anything from past defeats, which means that defeats will continue, regardless of what weapons the Ukrainian Army has. And draft age Ukrainian males are beginning to wonder whether allowing their determined but clueless government to squander more of their lives is a wise thing to do. US weapons won’t help this, and indeed may allow the Ukrainian government to indulge in even greater delusions about what the troops they command are capable of.

    Comment by PailiP — February 8, 2015 @ 6:38 am

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