Streetwise Professor

May 3, 2022

Pace MacArthur, There Are Substitutes for Victory, When Victory is Too Costly

Filed under: Energy,History,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 12:03 pm

Its unexpected success on the battlefield has convinced Ukraine that it can achieve victory. And by “victory,” I mean driving Russia out of Ukraine altogether, including Donetsk, Luhansk, and yes, Crimea.

This is very disturbing. Defending against a shambolic attacking army with horrible logistics and a pathetic operational plan is one thing. Attacking–even against a shambolic army–is another. This is particularly true given that the Russian army was designed and trained to stop a Nato offensive (as ludicrous as that idea is), and has massive amounts of artillery that would make any attack a nightmare: if it was doctrinally unsuited for offense, and adopted a terrible offensive plan, that does not imply that it cannot defend (and against an army that has itself taken serious casualties in personnel and materiel). And all of the tactics that allowed the Ukrainians to blunt the Russian attack, notably ATGM ambushes and attacks on lengthening supply lines, could be turned against them. Ukraine would be giving up all the factors that have worked to its advantage, and would be courting all of the factors that contributed to Russia’s disaster.

The last time the Ukrainian army got the bit between its teeth, in Debaltseve in 2014, it did not turn out well. Yes, the Ukrainian army is far better now, but fools rush in.

Worse, the US appears to be encouraging this. And in an unbelievable and inexcusable error, the administration–SecDef Austin in particular–have publicly announced that the US objective is to weaken Russia. Even if this is the objective, and that would be defensible, it is not defensible at all to make it public. It only validates the Russian narrative that it is at war with the West, thereby bolstering Russian popular support for the war, but it encourages Ukraine to run risks that it should not.

What is the alternative? Alternatives have to be evaluated in terms of the ugly facts.

The war is exacting a horrific toll on Ukraine. Its people, its infrastructure, and its economy. Tens of thousands dead. Millions of refugees. Devastated cities. A ruined countryside.

But more, it is exacting an awful toll on the world, through its extraordinary disruptions of agriculture and energy markets. All the more because Russia appears to be exacerbating deliberately these impacts. This is not merely a matter of comfort and ease. It is a matter of survival for the world’s poorest.

Given this reality, a less than ideal, and likely temporary, resolution is preferable. Something that gives Putin (or whoever is really in charge) a pretext to cease hostilities, and leaves Ukraine not in control of all the territory within its official boundaries. Edward Luttwak suggests legitimate (emphasis on legitimate) plebiscites in various Ukrainian regions.

The downsides are apparent. Putin/Russia could come back for more in time: maybe “will” is the better word, because no deal with Putin/Russia can be considered binding. Such a deal would represent major concessions on fundamental principles.

But it would stop the slaughter and mayhem for a time. It would allow time to build up Ukraine, and to permit a development of a longer term strategy to deal with the Russia Problem. And it is a big problem.

Remember. There are no ideal “solutions” in foreign policy. There are only shitty options. Statesmanship is the ability to choose the least shitty, and make it reality. Neither Ukraine nor the US (nor Russia) is demonstrating such statesmanship.

One can understand, on a human level, the Ukrainian reaction. The US does not have the same excuse. It is a time for realism, realistically pursued with cold eyes. It is not the time for Wilsonian impulsiveness. That has never turned out well.

MacArthur said “there is no substitute for victory.” This was an absolutist statement that violated fundamental principles of choice. Substitutibility depends on relative costs. Victory–e.g., expelling Russia from all of Ukraine–would be very costly, if is achievable at all. Given such cost, there are substitutes, MacArthur notwithstanding.

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  1. I’m more sanguine on the Ukrainian strategy. The UKR army is not gonna “hi diddle, diddle, straight up the middle” attack on the Russians, lots of maneuver warfare, creative use of precision weapons and night ops. The Russian army could easily collapse, based on materiel shortages, draftee morale. I spoke with a Ukrainian woman, who coincidently bought my parents house, “300 years, we’re done, DONE with Russians. They need to be gone”. She and her husband have family at risk, but no surrender in their mind.

    Comment by The Pilot — May 3, 2022 @ 12:32 pm

  2. From what I get from Ukrainian media: the serious people understand Crimea is out of reach and probably parts of Donbass region occupied by Russians on 2014-2015. Their main objective is to push Russian back to February 24 borders.

    Comment by Yan — May 3, 2022 @ 12:37 pm

  3. “The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils.”

    So said a man who had become the youngest Professor (in American “Full Professor”) in the British Commonwealth.

    Early in WWII he joined the army as a private. He ended the war as a brigadier; for a few weeks he was the youngest brigadier in the British Army.

    Or there again one could listen to intellectuals as accomplished as SecDef Austin or President Brandon. Dear God, the West is in a mess.

    Comment by dearieme — May 3, 2022 @ 3:20 pm

  4. You’ve kind of answered the question as to why Austin made these statements (which was no biggie IMO – I mean it’s not like the Russian propaganda machine isn’t cranked up to 11 already, what with all their crazed fantasies about unleashing a nuclear tsumani on England etc etc). Russia – in its current guise – simply cannot be trusted to stick to any agreement hence degradation of its conventional forces is an imperative.

    I agree with Pilot in that the Ukainians have proven themselves more than adept in ducking and diving on the battlefield; it would be totally out of character for them to dispense with their playbook and launch a frontal assault. No, they’ll just keep chipping away the Russian rear forces, supply lines and command posts (Welcome to Ukraine, Comrade Gerasimov!) until the Russian position becomes untenable.

    I also agree with Yan in that to go beyond the 24th Feb start lines will be a step too far; certainly if/when it reaches this point diplomatic efforts will have to come to the fore. Hopefully the Chinese will get out the goddamned fence at this point and ‘help’ the Russians see the light.

    @deari: Don’t be such an old woman. The West is winning this bigly.

    Comment by David Mercer — May 4, 2022 @ 3:20 am

  5. Ukraine is perhaps encouraged by Russia’s record of military failure against western opponents.

    1799: Russians beaten by France
    1807: Russians beaten by France
    1808: Russians beaten by Finland / Sweden
    1812: Russians beaten by France, France defeated by typhus and weather
    1814: Russians (plus Prussians, Austrians, Swedes, and British) win against France
    1856: Russians beaten by Britain and France
    1917: Russians beaten by Germany
    1922: Russians beaten by Poland
    1940: Russians beaten by Finland
    1945: Russians (with huge assists from west) beat Germany
    1989: Russians beaten by Afghanistan (with huge assists from west)

    There are a few in there I’ve probably missed, eg against the Turks etc, and against Japan (which was neither western nor western-assisted). On balance though it’s hardly a record of success, and when it’s just unassisted Russia, it’s nailed-on failure. This may be what’s motivating Ukrainian thinking; also, that there will never be a better time to attempt this than when you’ve just trashed a large percentage of Russia’s military. They don’t want to be taking years to plan and fit out for recovery of the Crimea if to do so allows Russian to recover and refit as well.

    Comment by Green as Grass — May 4, 2022 @ 4:01 am

  6. Hmm, well, I see your points, but it’s still hard for me to swallow whole. First, Austin’s comments, to me, were a huge blunder. From my experience in Russia, I can say that a large portion of the population, including many people I worked with at Intel, believe that the U.S., the West, NATO, or however they lump us, have the explicit desire to break up Russia into pieces and take their natural resources. Austin’s comments just goad their insecurities even more. We should only focus on strengthening Ukraine and enable them to defend against future attacks.

    Secondly, I look at the territory end game in practical terms. I don’t think it is possible for Ukraine to take back Crimea. Despite the biased referendum there, I still think most living there want to be part of Russia. Also, the loss of the port in Sevastopol is a non-starter. Russia will act as ruthlessly as they can muster to retain that location on the Black Sea. That is the most existential threat to them compared to all the others on their list.

    Mariupol, Berdyansk, and Melitiopol may be a very serious problem. Mariupol has very possibly fallen into the dustbin of history. If Ukraine gets any of them back, they’d only have access to the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait. I have no idea if Russia would ever let that happen. If they can broker safe passage, then perhaps, but that will never be a guarantee since Russia could yank it on a whim.

    Kherson, Mykolaiv, MUST remain with Ukraine since they are key ports alongside Odessa.

    Lastly, the rest of the disputed/occupied territory have no natural borders, so any peace agreements will include completely arbitrary lines drawn on a map. I guess much of Europe is that way anyway, so making sure Ukraine has the ability to defend that border in perpetuity will be critical. This still just pains me, but unless Ukraine performs a masterstroke offensive, then they’ll need to lose a lot of ground. Maybe it will be best since the loyalties in some of those places is questionable and the bill to repair those areas will drag them down interminably. Let Russia pay the bill.

    Comment by Howard Roark — May 4, 2022 @ 10:51 am

  7. Russia wants the Donbas for its fossil fuel reserves, and Crimea for its strategic position. The views of the populace are irrelevant even if (as likely) they are pro Russian.
    Ukraine wants the same thing but would be foolish to incorporate a resentful pro Russian minority when they are trying to join NATO and the EU and clean up their (very) corrupt state.
    But the USA would love Russia to lose its warm water port in Sebastopol. They might like it less when the Black Sea becomes a Turkish lake but they may not be thinking that far ahead.
    In the designs of the powers the views of the people who actually live there count for very little.

    Comment by philip — May 4, 2022 @ 5:00 pm

  8. @Philip: Russia has no need for Ukraine’s fossil fuel reserves, given its own vast holdings. Its intent is (or was) simply to deny the rump of Ukraine access to them. Also, I’m not sure the US is that bothered about Sevastopol now. Those NATO countries bordering the Black Sea have seen what the Russian navy is incapable of, and will be adjusting their posture accordingly (sea-skimming missiles and Bayraktars all around).

    Comment by David Mercer — May 5, 2022 @ 3:29 am

  9. “even if (as likely) they are pro Russian”

    That might have been the case before, but I’m very doubtful that they will keep that viewpoint after the treatment they’ve gotten from the Russians. That might not be true of the two separatist republics, of course, but I agree with the Prof that Ukraine would be unwise to take them. I bet you they could if they wanted though – the big takeaway from this war for me was that Russian military incompetence has no upper limit.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — May 5, 2022 @ 6:15 am

  10. All relevant points, but we don’t know their applicability. I have no idea how Ukrainian forces are performing. Are their casualties that severe? What is the relevance difference between Ukrainian and Russian forces now and at the start of the war and when they might begin a large offensive? If the war ends, how likely is it that Western support for Ukraine will continue, or take security seriously? Would Germany and France go back to their old ways? Would a pause between fighting allow Ukraine or Russia to build up faster so that we know which side would be relatively stronger over the other? What would be the effects on Ukrainian morale? Would Russia even accept a ceasefire which allowed the West to rebuild Ukraine and improve its military?

    If the issue is disruption of food and energy, there are other means to alleviate that without requiring Ukraine to stop fighting. Besides, if the fighting ended it is not like Ukrainian industry or farmland can be switched automatically on.

    The Ukrainians were clearly willing to negotiate with the Russians, and Zelensky offered reasonable concessions if we assume that Russia’s public objective of no NATO membership was sincere. But it’s not. It was just a pretext for Russia to invade Ukraine and occupy all of its territory. Since that is now obviously not going to happen, Russia is going to its fallback position – the southern Ukrainian provinces so that it can have a landbridge to Crimea, secure Crimea’s fresh water supply, and possibly make Ukraine a landlocked country. So Russia won’t accept peace until it secures those objectives.

    Neither Ukraine nor Russia can meet each other’s current minimum demands to end the war. So the war continues. It’s tragic, but that is how wars go.

    I don’t think Zelensky is so delirious that he is ignoring the actual state of Ukraine, and refusing reasonable peace deals like Napoleon before and after the Battle of Leipzig.

    The big problem though is the idea that somehow other people can control what Putin does or accepts. We don’t. It’s not an issue of doing this or doing that so we can maneuver Putin to what we want. We can’t. Putin has already shown he is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to secure his minimum demands (and still try to get as much as he can). The only thing we can do is remain open to negotiating with Putin once he decides the time has come for talking again once either he or Zelensky decides to reduce their minimum demands. And that decision will only come once one side or the other get too severe losses. Unfortunately, I think we are a long way from that.

    Comment by Chris — May 5, 2022 @ 11:54 am

  11. All good points. At present (I suppose this is the case in all hot wars) the mini-max is not in equilibrium. There is no acceptable compromise in sight. As time goes on, we will discover what the REAL minimum demands are for peace. Perhaps that will be acceptable to the belligerents, I hope the US doesn’t FIU for its own strategic goals.

    Comment by philip — May 6, 2022 @ 5:37 pm

  12. Latest reports have Ukrainian forces carrying out their first true counteroffensive to the northeast of Kharkiv, sweeping the Russians out of tube artillery range of the city. The Russians have blown up bridges behind them as they retreat, suggesting no immediate intention to come back. There is a good chance that Ukrainian forces will reach the Russian border in that sector.

    Comment by SRP — May 8, 2022 @ 11:55 am

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