Monday, April 4, 2022

Getting Up to Speed on Ukraine

Now that the Russian war against Ukraine has been ongoing for weeks, everyone, or so it seems, has an opinion. Or, should we say, an analysis. 

Of course, the Biden team, along with the lamebrains at the Grammy awards are cheering from the sidelines as Ukraine and Ukrainians are being destroyed. I continue to wonder what rationale lies behind sacrificing a country and its people in order to make Joe Biden look tough. 

Of course, the Biden administration wants to rid the world of Vladimir Putin, but, by the evidence of the commentaries I have collected, that seems to be largely unrealistic.

But, that is neither here nor there. 

For now, check out some of commentators who are better informed than yours truly.

Highly respected economic historian Niall Ferguson writes in Bloomberg that he is increasingly pessimistic about any of it leading to a satisfactory outcome. By Ferguson's analysis, Putin is not doing as bad as it appears. And we are not doing as well as we would like:

But there are good reasons not to be too optimistic. History and political science point to a protracted conflict in Ukraine, even if a cease-fire is agreed at some point next month. They make Putin’s fall look like a low-probability scenario. They make a period of global stagflation and instability a high-probability scenario. And they remind us that nuclear war is not guaranteed never to happen.

And Ferguson explains, as we have on this blog, that Joe Biden’s calling Putin a war criminal might make us all feel good, but it is likely to lead to more death and destruction for Ukraine. Rhetorical incontinence in a president has a price. Good one, Joe:

Explicitly calling Putin a war criminal and for his removal from power meaningfully increases the risk of either chemical or nuclear weapons being used in Ukraine. And if nuclear weapons are used once in the 21st century, I fear they will be used again. An obvious consequence of the war in Ukraine is that numerous states around the world will intensify their pursuit of nuclear arms. For nothing more clearly illustrates their value than the fate of Ukraine, which gave them up in 1994 in exchange for worthless assurances. The era of nonproliferation is over.

And then we have Sergei Karaganov, head of a Moscow think tank. He makes the salient point, which we have often made on his blog, namely that Putin cannot allow himself to lose-- no matter the cost.

I don’t know what the outcome of this war will be, but I think it will involve the partition of Ukraine, one way or another. Hopefully there would still be something called Ukraine left at the end. But Russia cannot afford to “lose”, so we need a kind of a victory. And if there is a sense that we are losing the war, then I think there is a definite possibility of escalation. This war is a kind of proxy war between the West and the rest –  Russia being, as it has been in history, the pinnacle of “the rest” – for a future world order. The stakes of the Russian elite are very high – for them it is an existential war.

Normally, we are happy to check in with conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat. At the least, we know that he is not going to defend a Democratic or even a Republican administration thoughtlessly.

After acknowledging that the war does not seem to be going as the Russians would have wished, Douthat adds that, on the home front, in Russia itself, Putin has been winning. Naturally, it makes no sense to the American mind or to Paul Krugman that a warmongering bully can elicit a positive response from his constituents, but Douthat reports that it is happening. The notion of regime change in Russia, engineered by Ursula van der Leyen and Joe Biden was a pipe dream:

Putin is not losing, however, in the battle for Russia. From the start of hostilities, the Western answer to his maximalist ambitions — not an official goal, but a hope that informs policy and punditry and slips out of Joe Biden’s lips in excited moments — has been regime change in the Kremlin, a failed war toppling Putin and bringing a more reasonable government to power.

This was always a thin hope, but despite military quagmire and unprecedented economic sanctions, it appears even thinner now. In polling and anecdote alike, Putin appears to be consolidating support from the Russian public, rallying a nation that feels itself to be as he portrays it — unjustly surrounded and besieged.

It may count for little in America, but patriotism is apparently alive and well in Russia.

Douthat continues:

His approval ratings, according to Russia’s main independent pollster, look like George W. Bush’s after 9/11. His inner circle has always been unlikely to break with him, for reasons sketched by Anatol Lieven in The Financial Times a few weeks ago: Its members mostly come from the same background, share the same geopolitical assumptions, and are far more likely “to fight on ruthlessly for a long time” than to suddenly turn against their leader. But even in the wider circle of Russian elites, the war so far has reportedly generated more anti-Western solidarity than division.

“Putin’s dream of a consolidation among the Russian elite has come true,” the journalist Farida Rustamova reported from her recent conversations. “These people understand that their lives are now tied only to Russia, and that that’s where they’ll need to build them.”

And then we have Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail. You know that Hitchens is the brother of late writer Christopher Hitchens. Apparently, they did not always agree on very much, but still, his views are worth considering:

This is not a war between Ukraine and Russia. It is a war between the USA and Russia, in which both sides are cynically using Ukraine as a battering ram. 

So, the people of Ukraine are being used and being sacrificed by the powers who are cheering them on from the sidelines.

The people of Ukraine will gain nothing and lose much from being treated in this way. They fight and die or lose their homes and flee. We pour in more weapons and shout encouragement from a safe distance. Russia wrecks the joint.

What Ukraine actually needs is action to cure its festering, universal corruption. It would also benefit from the pushing to the margins of the ultra-nationalist fanatics who have far too much influence in its government and armed forces. The war will make these problems worse, not better.

And then we have David Goldman who takes us back in time to channel the views of one Cardinal Richelieu, foreign policy eminence for French King Louis XIII in the seventeenth century. Need we say that Richelieu takes a more hardass attitude toward it all. He is anything but optimistic about the future of Ukraine:

Now, my na├»ve friend, Putin commands Chechen shock troops in Ukraine. Putin understands ‘the systematic exploitation of time as the deadliest of all weapons.’ Ukraine was hollow before the war began. It had one of the world’s lowest birth rates, and its birth rate will fall even farther. Twelve million Ukrainians, fully half the able-bodied population of working age, left before the war started. Another five million have fled. As Russian artillery pounds Ukraine’s cities, more will flee. How many will return? Large parts of Ukraine will fall into ruin. Centuries of Ruthenian resentment against Russian overlords encrusted over the centuries will be consumed in a few weeks of war, and in its place, there will be nothing but a dull sense of horror.

And the good cardinal is not impressed by the West’s understanding of the situation:

The foolish West believes it can encircle Russia and force Putin from power. Europe cannot do without Russian oil and gas and will continue to pay Putin a billion dollars a day, no matter how despised he is. Most foolish of all, the West imagines that the stolid, brutal war of attrition that Russia is fighting denotes a failure to achieve its objectives, when the war itself is Putin’s objective….

Perhaps that suffices for one post. But, at least it brings you up to speed regarding some of the better-informed analyses of the situation in Ukraine.


Steve Goodman said...

I read you blog daily and find it very informative. Thanks for taking the time to provide very relevant and timely matters of such great concern.

One point that the experts seem not to have touched upon with regard to the war in Ukraine is that the nature of war is rapidly changing and the future battlefield will probably be dominated, at least for a time, by the side with the more sophisticated and deadly means of projecting power that is more likely to remain relatively secure, such as hand carried but very lethal weapons. The tank was invented by the British in WW1 and dominated the battlefield in WW2 and to the present. But, shoulder fired and drone fired antitank and anti-air weapons are pushing tanks and planes off the battlefield. There seems no valid reason to even invest in them. Why put tanks on the battlefield if they can so easily be defeated by relatively inexpensive infantry carried or controlled rockets and smart bombs.

From what I have learned by reading and watching many YouTube videos, education in Russia collapsed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, like Ukraine, Russia is and has been suffering a brain drain and the best and brightest of its citizens have and continue to emigrate to safer and more favorable and profitable climes. From watching the performance of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, the Russians are doomed to fall behind in the ability to train their soldiers in the use of more sophisticated weapons and may not be able to compete on the modern battlefield, at least in the very near future, which dramatically increases the likelihood of their use of atomic weapons. All Russia's tanks and personnel carriers are just expensive junk which their soldiers have abandoned at the first sign of an attack. (And, I guess so are our tanks and those of all the other potential protagonists in the world.). It seems to me that Russia is not at present prepared to engage with Ukraine's use of more modern infantry carried weapons and cannot continue the battle without in some way properly responding with infantry carried shoulder fired weapons of its own, but is hampered by an army composed of relatively uneducated soldiers. So, it may not be able to withstand any efforts by Ukraine to take back the eastern portion of its country and even the Crimea. This is scary stuff as it elevates the conflict off the battlefield and to other more vulnerable places, and presages the use of much more deadly atomic weapons.

In sum, to someone like me who has no real idea what he is talking about and can therefore throw out opinions of little merit or consequence (so take what I am saying with a very large grain of salt), the latest news videos demonstrate that the main battle tank is no longer the queen of the battlefield. It is now just costly junk! Why invest in heavy metal if relatively cheap weapons neutralize their use. Moreover the future use of helicopters and fixed wing airplanes will depend on their abilities to project power safe from infantry fired or directed weapons. So they will have to become more effective from much higher altitudes. Drones will sit high in the sky, scan the battlefield for targets, and let loose smart bombs as directed by properly trained and armed infantry. In sum, using the new weapons of war the individual soldier will be the king of the battlefield.

Anyway, this is a novice's view of modern warfare and it scares me to even try to think of what comes next.

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