Fighting to the last Ukrainian

Feb 21, 2023
Russia and Ukraine global impact as a war between the Ukrainian and Russian nations as an international security concept.

On Tuesday, General Mark Milley, chair of the American joint chiefs of staff declared, in effect, that Russian had been militarily defeated in Ukraine. Russia, he said, was now a global pariah, and the world remained inspired by Ukrainian bravery and resilience.

“In short, Russia has lost,” he told a press conference after a NATO conference in Brussels.

“They’ve lost strategically, operationally and tactically, and they are paying an enormous price on the battlefield.”

Two days later, however, he seemed a little less sanguine. Neither Russia nor Ukraine was likely to achieve its military aims [on the battlefield] and the war would probably end at the negotiating table, he said.

“It will be almost impossible for the Russians to achieve their political objectives by military means,” he told the Financial Times. “It is unlikely that Russia is going to overrun Ukraine. It’s just not going to happen.’’

It would also be “very, very difficult for Ukraine this year to kick the Russians out of every inch of Russian-occupied Ukraine”, he said, adding: “It’s not to say that it can’t happen … But it’s extraordinarily difficult. And it would require essentially the collapse of the Russian military.”

They were two separate messages aimed at different audiences, but they were not necessarily contradictory. The last rites of most wars, even ones following decisive defeat, are usually performed in negotiations. Milley’s declaration of victory was made while NATO ministers and officials were discussing the further organisation of resources for Ukraine, and intended to perk up confidence and morale among the allies and Ukraine, not least as the first anniversary of the Russian invasion occurs, and as Ukraine prepares for what it says will be an enormous post-winter offensive. If that occurs it will be from within Ukraine’s existing military resources and manpower, because recent western promises of tanks, heavier armour, and upgraded air and missile defences have yet to arrive in the country.

I suspect the second, rather more sobering, statement was equally aimed at Ukrainian politicians and some of the more enthusiastic drum beaters in the west. Ukraine has inspired the world with its defence of invasion by a much bigger bullying neighbour. It appears to have won back considerable ground initially lost in eastern Ukraine, and, for the moment at least, to have deterred Russia from warfare against the military, as opposed to civilians, in the Ukrainian west. The war is being fought by Ukrainian soldiers, with little practical prospect of any other nation, or NATO, assisting it with boots on the ground. Russia would no doubt love to win with military genius but has been uninspired, and is fighting a hard slogging grinding war, with far more reserves of men and women than Ukraine can muster.

The non-combatants are writing the rules. For the Ukrainians it’s now do or die, with fewer choices than a year ago, thanks to their successes and endurance.

If Ukraine is fighting alone in this sense, it is able to fight only because it has enormous and continuing resources from the western alliance, including Australia. It can’t afford them. It has probably received about $US 100 billion in military equipment from the west, including $60 billion from the US. And billions more helping maintain and govern those civilians who have not fled the country. Billions more have been devoted to helping Ukrainian refugees during an indefinite temporary displacement, or, in many cases, permanent resettlement in a much safer environment. Not surprisingly, the gallant nation has almost exhausted its own resources. It is struggling to manage efficiently and effectively the logistics of resupply and the maintenance of its population (some living under siege). That’s a problem exacerbated by entrenched corruption, long distances, irregular communications and military wastage.

The Ukrainian capacity to carry on is entirely in the hands of those who are giving it the wherewithal to fight. And, of course, on the continuing willingness of Ukrainian men and women to use whatever they have been given to fight.

If the Western paymasters want a ceasefire or a negotiation, they are in a position to insist upon it. The Ukrainians have exhausted their military resources, except for their population. They are now more dependent on others than ever they have been, and thus unwillingly at their whim. The paymasters may even have the power to insist on concessions that the Ukrainians say they are not prepared to make – such as the division of Ukraine, or the giving of security guarantees the Russians thought they had been given by the US in 1989.

There’s no sign yet that NATO, America or the nations bordering Russia want Ukraine to surrender, or to sacrifice what it sees as vital interests. But the western allies have other fish to fry in relation to Russia, and may well at some stage wonder whether the drain on its ammunition, military supplies, or powers of concentration is worth it. Some electorates may simply tire of involvement.

One should salute the public relations genius of its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in rallying his own country and in inspiring the western world as a symbol of resistance and willingness to fight. Genius too in putting his hand out and begging for assistance, financial and practical, particularly with weapons. His call may have been more attractive to his western admirers, because what he has asked for does not include putting American, European or other soldiers in the front line, and in a conflict that could go on a long time.

Zelenskyy has learnt to adjust his requests to the possible. He has proved agile in playing international leaders, but they have now learnt to play him back. Increasingly, it is those who are paying the piper who have the flexibility of manoeuvre.

Some nations neighbouring Ukraine have been deeply traumatised by the Russian invasion. They have mobilised their resources for self-defence as well as resupplying Ukraine. The bigger powers, the United States, Germany, Britain and France, for example, and smaller ones, including Australia, have been in varying degrees very generous with military aid and equipment. But none are ready to intervene with their own troops unless, for some reason, the war escalates across a line in the sand that has not yet been completely defined. The west would probably intervene if Russia took pot shots, or dropped bombs, on any of Ukraine’s allies. Likewise, we must assume if Russia uses nuclear weapons, even tactical ones.

Russia might make a significant escalation if Ukrainian soldiers went beyond Ukraine’s borders into Russia, if one could imagine such a dastardly, illegal and wicked thing. Likewise, if cities and towns and non-military targets near the border became subjected to regular artillery attacks, or if they were attacked in Ukrainian air raids. [Ukraine has bombed some adjacent military targets, including storage places, without the heavens falling down. But we do not know the limits of Russia’s capacity to absorb this without a massive retaliation, including against civilians.] Russia has already demonstrated readiness to attack non-military targets, including homes, hospitals and schools, in what is presumably an attack on morale. In recent times, its attacks have involved drones and missiles, if only because Ukraine has been supplied with formidable air defences. But Russia retains a virtually intact air force many times bigger and more powerful than anything so far accessible to Ukraine.

Ukraine certainly seems to have the edge in morale, daring and determination. But it must be understood that they are, as they see it at least, fighting with one hand tied behind their back. In a very asymmetrical war, the underdog takes all the chances he can. Left to their own devices military or political leaders might see opportunities from incursions into Russia, including the Black Sea. They might contemplate partisan operations and sabotage inside Russia. Or taking a terror war to Russian cities, including ones far from the battlefield. Some of its hotheads might also see advantage in provocations from within third countries which have the effect of bringing Russian wrath on to such countries, and, by widening the war, bringing NATO into active hostilities.

President Biden and other western leaders are terrified of being drawn into the conflict by some Ukrainian escalation, deliberate or accidental. A good deal of diplomatic activity – including Milley’s comments about negotiations – are designed to keep Ukraine’s ambitions possible with only Russian and Ukrainian blood on the line. Thus, President Biden has ruled out allowing the most sophisticated and able American fighters to be used, whether they come from the US, or from allies such as Poland. NATO countries including the US and Germany have recently given ground on the supply of very heavy duty tanks, such as the Abrams and modern Leopards. But it is unlikely that any will be on battlefields this year. And one can be reasonably sure that if they are ever deployed, they will be stripped of a good deal of communications and targeting systems, and weapons that the suppliers would not want to see falling into Russian hands. Any number of Middle Eastern wars, particularly during the Cold War, have demonstrated the capacity of enemy combat losses to substitute for R&D.

A very small investment in bankrupting America, militarily, materially and morally.

Consider what happened in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s, and Afghanistan during the 1980s.

From the time that American (and even some Australian) military advisers were posted in Vietnam during the early 1960s, the military resources on the South Vietnamese side, and the investment in keeping them engaged, exceeded by many times the money that the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front were investing in the war. On paper, one could not see North Vietnam winning. Almost every day, top US commanders and CIA operatives would hold press conferences delivering hundreds of “metrics” – body counts and the like – showing that they were winning. They were dropping many more bombs (in fact the North Vietnamese lacked the power to rain hell from the air.) The Americans were defoliating thousands of hectares of forest, including the Ho Chi Minh trail, in both Vietnam and (illegally) in neighbouring countries. They were putting more and more villagers into “strategic hamlets” – as their concentration camps were known. But the steady slog of the war, and the occasional upsurge, such as the 1968 Tet offensive, showed that American intervention at existing levels was not making a critical difference and that any number of efforts, including coups, were not increasing the South Vietnamese capacity to match its enemy.

At the peak of American intervention, about 600,00 American troops were engaged. By war’s end, more than 50,000 were dead. A convenient moment had been found to declare victory and dump the whole continuing burden on the South Vietnamese, but the realists knew they could not hold, even with enormous continuing American military equipment and aid. In 1975, within three years of the American departure, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) fell to the North Vietnamese.

I was at an anti-war conference in Sydney in 1972 where some French scholars of the war, who had seen the action in Hanoi as well as Saigon, agreed that the North Vietnamese and the NLF were fairly dependent on Russian and Chinese aid, even though, by then, they were also well-equipped with American equipment abandoned on battlefields. Most of the aid was in guns and ammunition, and very little of it was big, very heavy, or very sophisticated, especially by comparison with the quality of the equipment the Americans were using. These scholars estimated that the total value of Russian and Chinese assistance amounted to about $US 100 million a year. At that stage, American was spending that, to little effect, every day. The annual financial cost of the Australian contribution to the war, apart from lives, was several times the total amount available to the “enemy.” As usual, Australia got no bang for its buck, and the US, only damp squibs.

What these scholars suggested was that both Russia and China were very carefully and miserly measuring out how much they gave the North Vietnamese. There was no open chequebook at all. Indeed, neither Russia nor China were all that keen on a North Vietnamese victory at all – the Chinese in particular feared Vietnam would become a pawn of Russia. On the other hand, they were very enthusiastic about America bleeding men, military resources and money into a bottomless pit, trapped by pride, treaties and stupidity for almost no worthwhile strategic purpose. An added bonus, it seemed, was that the war brought drugs, racism, civil rights and American poverty into the spotlight. America was bogged down and humiliated, and around the third world, the cost of its inept military performance was enormous. In due course American (and sometimes Australian) generals were to claim that they didn’t win because they were fighting with one arm tied behind their back, but the disproportion of resources made that a laughable claim, at least until the US made the invasion of Grenada such a close-run thing.

About 10 years after American troops abandoned Vietnam, Soviet Russia invaded Afghanistan. Its troops had all the equipment and resources in the world. Afghan military resources were minimal, and mostly adapted for tribal warfare. The world condemned the invasion, even if not many countries (not even Australia, despite Malcolm Fraser’s imploring) boycotted the Olympic Games in protest.

How America, with Osama bin Laden’s help, returned the compliment

In the end, it was not the Cold War outrage of Russian occupation of a neighbour over which it had always exercised considerable influence, that made the invasion a liability for the Soviet Union. It outraged and inflamed the Muslim world. The American CIA helped recruit and arm non-Afghan mujaheddin to fight the godless Russians. One of them was Osama bin Laden. They supplied the mujaheddin with shoulder-held surface to air missiles to take out Soviet helicopters and aircraft. They laid out supply trails through Pakistan. The resistance fought with great zeal, and not a little success, including doing great damage to the morale of Soviet soldiers and Russian public opinion back home. No one noted that the level of American assistance was judged for being just enough to keep the Afghan side on level pegging, but not so generous as to make any sort of serious Afghan victory likely or possible. America was returning the Vietnam compliment. In the end, it became too much for the Russians, and they left of their own accord. Not defeated in any sort of decisive battle, but unable to point to any advantage that had been gained from the blood and the treasure left behind.

The cynic might reflect on how America snatched defeat, (including September 11, 2001) from the victory of its erstwhile comrades-in-arms. But that was hardly new to the Americans. After all, the Vietnamese fought for their freedom against colonial France with guns the USA had given Ho Chi Minh to fight the occupying Japanese in WWII. These guns, and guns seized from the defeated French sustained the North’s war against South Vietnam for 10 years until America intervened in a big way, at which stage Russia and China reluctantly opened their purses.

We all deplore the cruel and illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine in any terms. But there are some parallels with the way that this, like the Vietnamese war and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, is a war by proxy. Russians are fighting Ukrainians, and the casualties are enormous, on both sides. For the Ukrainians, if not the Russians, casualties include civilians and the virtual destruction of the living environment. The west may be spending a lot of money, but it has no one at all – least of all any Americans – in harm’s way. (We all know that Americans quickly lose their appetite for fighting, even in what its politicians regard as good causes, once the body bags start coming home.)

The Russians on the ground are not, of course, proxies. They may be slowing grinding the Ukrainians. But the west is slowly grinding them too. Ukraine may have finite resources, and depend on western resources, but for all intents and purposes, there is no limit to the resources the west could give them. Perhaps enough even to make a decisive difference without ever going too near the mysterious line. But with the cost of miscalculation potentially very serious indeed, perhaps it is safer to fight to the last Ukrainian. Or to so limit and contain both sides that they exhaust each other.

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