Ukraine in the Balance

Ukraine in the Balance. By Srdja Trifkovic.

Russia’s initial attack on five fronts — towards Kiev in two directions, and towards Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kherson — with less than 150,000 front-line combatants, was devoid of strategic sense. …

Russia’s flawed strategic design was likely due to Putin’s speculation that he might have a fifth column inside Ukraine, as evidenced in his call on the second day of the “special operation” (Feb. 25) for the Ukrainian military to depose the Kiev government. His misjudgment was likely due to faulty intelligence, the result of a successful Western secret-service operation designed to encourage Putin’s inner circle to present him with an unrealistically rosy assessment. …

The war in Ukraine will be decided on the battlefield, not in diplomatic negotiations. At the moment, neither side has an incentive to negotiate in good faith, let alone to make major concessions. The conflict has become existential for both sides, but Russia’s huge untapped resources make it unlikely that Ukraine can “win” in the sense of regaining control over the Crimea and the Donbas regions. The influx of Western arms has enabled Ukraine to fight with impressive vigor, but it faces a growing paucity of trained manpower and civilian infrastructure. …

If and when the Russians start a major offensive, sending more Western weapons to Ukraine may no longer be enough. Sometime before the end of 2023, the U.S. and its European minions are likely to face an unpleasant choice: risk a war with Russia by sending in NATO troops — initially perhaps in the form of Polish and Lithuanian volunteers — to reinforce Ukraine’s depleted ranks, or let Russia prevail.

At that point, the façade of Western unity may crack. Within NATO, not only Germany and France but also Italy and Spain and a host of smaller countries (Hungary, Greece, Slovakia, Portugal, etc.) will not be willing to risk an open-ended escalation with its inherent specter of nuclear war.

It appears to be another classic war of quantity versus quality.

Russia has four times the population of Ukraine, though is less able to mobilize its population. In a long war, Russia can trade soldiers at three for one and still win. Indeed, this was the exchange ratio against the Germans in WW2, and Russia triumphed after nearly four years. But Russia’s demographics have worsened, and in this war they lack the motivation of defending their homeland.

The Russians are throwing untrained and under-trained soldiers into the fight. This is partly because they threw their military trainers into the fight in March 2022, when things first started going badly, and lost them. So their ability to train new soldiers is badly crimped for a while. Meanwhile, Russia’s artillery domination has ended, having used up their huge stores of shells. Now both sides are firing similar numbers of shells each day.

Ukraine started westernizing its armed forces after the 2014 invasion, and now largely fights using NATO doctrines and NATO weapons. Apart from the scramble of the first few months, the Ukrainians train their soldiers much better.

The last big three wars Russia fought against quality opponents were the Japanese war of 1905, WW1, and WW2. Each was a quality versus quantity war. Russia lost the first two, and won the third. This war appears evenly balanced as the fighting season for 2023 begins.

hat-tip Stephen Neil