Streetwise Professor

July 24, 2023

The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy, 2023 Edition

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 11:32 am

There is considerable angst over the glacial pace of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. This angst is a product of unrealistic hopes and expectations derived from totally different circumstances.

The unrealistic expectations derived from the stunning success of the Ukrainians last year, around Kharkiv/Kharkov and Kherson. These successes were rooted in Russian errors. The Russians overextended themselves in their initial offensive in 2022, leaving open flanks and exhausted forces that made them extremely vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks. The Russian situation last summer was in many respects comparable to the Ukrainian situation in 2014, when they overextended themselves in pushing at separatist forces, leaving them open to a devastating attack by Russian forces.

(Both episodes remind me of a maxim my mother uttered during one of our many tours of Civil War battlefields (she was a saint to take me on so many): “Nobody ever won a battle, but some people sure lost one.”)

Circumstances are totally different now. The Russians had ample time to dig in extensively, and in particular, sow extensive minefields. It’s a totally different proposition attacking deep, heavily mined defenses than pouncing on the flanks of demoralized, exhausted troops in the open.

The Ukrainians, Zelensky in particular, have been damning the West vitriolically for failure to provide enough of, well, everything. Sorry, but “enough of everything” would really mean deployment of several American heavy divisions, and most importantly, a good chunk of the USAF. American doctrine for attacking prepared defenses involves an extended period of intense air attack to degrade them, followed by assaults by heavy divisions (i.e., divisions other than the 82nd and 101st, and 10th Mountain), supported by continued air attacks and massive artillery.

Not happening in Ukraine. Never was going to happen. Never will happen.

I am a Patton fan, but this quote from the movie is wildly incorrect:

Fixed fortifications, huh? Monuments to the stupidity of man. When mountain ranges and oceans could be overcome anything built by man can be overcome.

As Patton surely knew, history is replete of examples of the power of fixed fortifications. Ironically this statement was made about the fortifications at Metz, which stymied Patton for months. (And it is amusing that in the same film Patton gives a tour of the fortifications of Malta, and describes how the Knights of Malta used them to stop the Turks.)

Given these realities, the Ukrainians have adapted. They are gnawing through some of the minefields (at non-trivial cost), but are also executing WWI-like trench raids to attrit front line units and deep strikes with drones and Western-supplied weapons (notably HIMARS and StormShadow) to undermine Russian logistics.

This has some chance of succeeding–eventually. Chewing a wide enough gap may permit a breakout, with someplace like Tokmak playing the part of St. Lo. Russian reserves and operational mobility are likely inadequate to contain such a breakout–if it can be engineered. With “engineering” being the operative word, because making the gap that could be exploited is first and foremost a combat engineering task.

But nothing will happen quickly, if it happens at all.

In the meantime, both sides are acting like exhausted fighters in a no-holds brawl, with attacks on civilian and infrastructure targets being the equivalent of eye-gouging and ear-biting. The Russian attacks on Ukrainian grain-exporting capacity are the most prominent example of this.

(NB, especially to people like supposed commodities expert Javier Blas. The first thing that pops into the minds of most when attacks on Ukrainian grain-handling infrastructure is wheat. But Ukraine is a much bigger player in corn than wheat.)

And these attacks carry the risk of dramatically escalating the conflict. Today Russia extended its missile attacks westward from Odesa/Odessa to the banks of the Danube, and executed a strike that landed ~100 meters from Romanian territory. That is, Nato territory.

All this raises the question: what’s the point? And I don’t mean the point for Russia and Ukraine, or more particularly their governments. I mean for the interests of the United States.

A strong case can be made that the US has already achieved–courtesy of tens of thousands of Ukrainian lives and tens of billions of American dollars–about all of the conceivable strategic benefits of this war. Courtesy of Putin’s idiocy, Russian military capacity has been (a) dramatically reduced, and (b) shown to have been not that great in the first place. The threat to Europe posed by Russia (which (b) suggests was not that serious in the first place) has been neutered, at the cost of increasing the US’s vulnerability in a more vital theater–Asia. Good strategic thinking should not focus on making the rubble bounce, but should pocket gains in eastern Europe and focus on Asia.

So rather than acceding to Zelensky’s ever greater demands, the message to him should be: take half a loaf, and make a deal. For the sake of your people.

But that is not the attitude of America’s (and most of Europe’s) ruling class. They are monomaniacally focused not just on restoring pre-2014 borders, but crushing Putin and transforming the Russian state. As illustrated by this:

Vladimir Kara-Murza writes: There is only one outcome of this conflict that would be in the interests of the free world, of Ukraine and, ultimately, of the Russian people: resounding defeat for Putin, to be followed by political change in Russia and a Marshall Plan-type international assistance program both to rebuild Ukraine and to help post-Putin Russia build a functioning democracy so that it never again becomes a threat to its own people or its neighbors. That is the only way to make sure Europe can finally become whole, free and at peace — and stay that way.

Sounds great! How is that going to happen, exactly, Vlad baby? Especially the part about “build[ing] a functioning democracy so that it never again becomes a threat to its own people or its neighbors”?

This reminds me of a statement that I saw from China today, about how government policy makers promised to “optimize and adjust policies” in response to the real estate meltdown. Optimization is not a plan–it is an aspiration. Almost to a person the policy establishments in the US and Europe are hooked on a categorically, metaphysically unachievable aspiration and are willing to spend countless lives and dollars in the futile attempt to achieve it.

These people believe in fairy tales. Murderous fairy tales that cannot possibly come true.

In an ironic twist, a war in Europe (not Asia) is now “The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” (I’m not a big Omar Bradley fan, but he got that one right.) But our policy “elites”–of both parties–are hyper-focused on the wrong war. (Why that is is a story for another, and probably much longer post.)

War and geopolitics require cold-blooded calculations. The cold-blooded calculation for the United States is definitely not to dream of magically transforming a notoriously intractable and autocratic society into Switzerland with nukes. (The possession of nukes in itself making such a transformation wholly fantastical.) It is instead to push for an outcome that satisfies none of the combatants–and indeed infuriates them–and shift focus from eastward to westward. Don’t fight the last war. Prepare for the new one–in order to prevent it.

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  1. still don’t know why we are there out of a framing of strategy….does it matter if Ukraine is dominated by Putin, or not? Taiwan is another story. That country matters.

    Comment by Jeff Carter (@pointsnfigures1) — July 24, 2023 @ 11:58 am

  2. Yeah, Ukraine should just accept the current frontlines as a good long-term compromise. I mean it worked with the “just accept the post-2014 borders” approach, why wouldn’t it work now?

    Comment by Peter Nagy — July 25, 2023 @ 3:46 am

  3. Yeah, those Ukrainians, and Europe as a whole, have definitely chosen a wrong neighbor. But. That Ukraine cannot win with minimal losses like the US would does not mean Ukraine cannot win. That the Russian army is currently degraded does not mean it is not a threat. That a post-war plan offered by (garbage) Russian opposition is garbage does not mean any possible plan is garbage.

    Of course, democratization of “Russia” is as realistic as democratization of Auschwitz: the administration and the inmates have somewhat different visions of the future. The simplest and least dangerous way to ensure Muscovy can no longer be a threat is for Muscovy-occupied territories to be further decolonized. As I might have written before, if Moscow cannot steal oil from the Tatars to equip the Buryat cannon fodder, there won’t be a “Russian” army to threaten anyone. Whether the government in Moscow is then like the one in Bern or more like the one in Tashkent is of much lower concern.

    Comment by Ivan — July 25, 2023 @ 3:49 am

  4. So… the international law, including the inviolability of the legitimate borders, is no longer enforced, right?

    Right. I’m sure them in Peking are listening very closely. And Mr. Orban is already signalling an interest in Transylvania.

    Just let THAT Pandora’s box open.

    Comment by LL — July 25, 2023 @ 5:30 pm

  5. Up to now I think Western policy as been correct. Talk tough, dribble in supplies, show the military superiority of our kit. A kind of boiling the frog procedure, not so hot that it risks the frog jumping out of the pan and landing on the nuclear button, but enough, in the end, to make him croak.

    I see little to be gained for Ukraine in trying to recover every last acre. Crimea and the Donbas are not inhabited by many ethnic Ukrainians.

    A truce, a DMZ and a very very big North Korea is our best bet. Russia becoming a functioning democracy under the rule of law is for the birds.

    Comment by philip — July 25, 2023 @ 6:16 pm

  6. Our SWP overlooks one strategic interest the US does have in Ukraine: the credibility of nuclear non-proliferation treaties. If the Ukes can win back (or at least turn into a DMZ) Crimea and Donbas, then the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 meant something after all.

    Comment by M. Rad. — July 27, 2023 @ 6:51 am

  7. “Vladimir Kara-Murza writes …”

    Who was that grifter who swanned around D.C. ginning up the prospects for democracy and his role as future leader of the country in the buildup to the war in Iraq?

    Amazing how the same playbook is dusted off and presented as new, plausible and exciting after having been consigned a couple of decades ago to the (I was going to say the dustbin of history but obviously inapplicable …) dusty shelves of some obscure nook in the political and strategic ‘library’.

    Maybe they should get some unemployed Hollywood scriptwriter to develop some scenarios really different

    Comment by Simple Simon — July 30, 2023 @ 11:01 am

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