Ukraine: Who is winning?

Sep 6, 2023
Map of Ukraine and Russia.

How is the war going? Two expert observers add to the confusion. Former British soldier Richard Iron, reflects on what he sees as the brittleness of Putin’s situation, thinks Putin could fall in a coup and predicts that Ukraine has a good chance of turfing Russians out of Ukraine altogether. American Professor John Mearsheimer, a professor at Chicago University and adherent of the so-called ‘School of Realism’ thinks Ukraine has already lost the war.

Colonel Iron CMG OBE had wide experience fighting Britain’s enemies in Northern Ireland, Oman, the Falklands, the Balkans and Iraq before becoming an official British strategist. He came to Australia in 2015, and is now President of the Victorian branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, a rather surprising appointment given his brief time as an Australian resident.

On 17 August, 2023, Iron expressed his views about Ukraine in a lecture to the Melbourne Forum. Given his background, these were fairly predictable. The Russian army, he said, had human and logistic weaknesses. Truck supply convoys were highly vulnerable to air and artillery attack and the army had difficulties getting shells to the guns. One couldn’t be sure, but Russia’s human-wave assaults seemed to have been highly costly. All its troops were committed and the army had no significant reserves. Ukrainian divisions were more highly motivated than their Russian counterparts.

And although Russian fighter jets were highly advanced, they were running out of missiles, both air-to-airand air-to-ground. The NATO military establishment is saying the same things.

Iron asserted that Putin’s aim was to mobilise the whole nation behind the war and break Ukraine’s capacity to resist. He wanted to bleed Ukraine dry, and isolate it from the West. Ukraine would then be Russia’s for the taking. But Putin’s hold on power was problematic. As in other authoritarian regimes (like Iran under the Shah), a coup against him could happen suddenly and without much warning. Given the lack of any real chance of victory, there could be a backlash from the military, or from civilians. ‘We do know’, said Iron, ‘that Russian support for the war was already minimal.’

The war might end through a settlement, but this would probably have to be negotiated between NATO and Moscow, without much Ukrainian input. However, Iron seemed to contradict himself by asserting that Putin was a war criminal, and one couldn’t deal with war criminals.

Throughout his analysis Iron alleged that Putin wants to occupy or control the whole of the Ukraine. Nowhere did he consider contributing motivating factors behind Putin’s 2022 invasion – including NATO’s advance to Russia’ western borders, the Maidan coup of 2014, the Odessa massacre the same year, eight years of bombing Donbas civilians by the Kyiv regime, Banderism, or the abandoned Minsk process.

Meanwhile, Zelensky’s repeated his assertion that Ukraine would never surrender. It wanted all seized territory returned, including Crimea.

Australia’s role, Iron said, should be to continue to supply what military equipment it could to Ukraine. It must contribute to allied efforts to make the cost of keeping Putin in power more and more expensive. Australia, he asserted must remain deeply opposed to a negotiated settlement.

Professor Mearsheimer, a West Point graduate, member of the Brookings Institution and foreign policy adviser to successive US governments, has a radically different take on the war. In ‘Bound to Lose’, an article published on 3 September 2023 in an independent publication Brave New Europe, Mearsheimer asserted that it is now clear that Ukraine’s eagerly anticipated and much heralded autumn counteroffensive had been a colossal failure. Quoting US and European officials in The New York Times, Mearsheimer said as much as 20 percent of weaponry Ukraine sent to the battlefield was damaged or destroyed – including some formidable Western fighting machines – tanks and armoured personnel carriers. And these, coming from disparate manufacturers, were difficult to integrate into a unified force. Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops had suffered enormous casualties. All nine of the vaunted brigades that NATO armed and trained were meant to follow a ‘blitzkrieg’ strategy, to punch a hole in Russian lines, force the Russians back, and avoid a war of attrition that is slowly grinding them down.

Mearsheimer thinks that there is little between the quality of both armies. Western observers claim that the Russians were suffering serious morale and other systemic problems, and that they would crack in the face of the counteroffensive. But that was not the view one usually heard from the Ukrainian military, which is doing the actual fighting. As General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s military commander in chief, angrily told the Washington Post, the West had not provided Ukraine with adequate arms, and ‘without being fully supplied, these plans are not feasible at all.’

Mearsheimer recalled that after its initial invasion with 190,000 troops in February 2022, Russia became over-extended and had to withdraw from the Kharkiv Oblast that lies on the west bank of the Dnieper River, but only after inflicting massive casualties on Ukrainian forces. Putin then mobilised 300,000 troops in September 2022 and captured Bakhmut in late May 2023 after a long and grinding battle – a serious defeat for Ukraine. With Russia having a 5 to 1 advantage in population, and a significant advantage in artillery and air power, Mearsheimer considers that neither Kyiv nor the West has the capacity to rectify this imbalance.

Mearsheimer claims there is growing evidence of war fatigue in the West. This is exacerbated by what is seen as a growing threat to US hegemony from China in East Asia, more a danger to American interests than the threat from Russia. Much is made of the fact that the US and NATO are committed to train the Ukrainians in ‘combined arms operations’. But the fact is, says Mearsheimer, that Western armies of 2023 have little recent experience in armoured warfare – the Iraq war took place 20 years ago. He quotes US General Ben Hodges who once commanded the US Army in Europe saying that ‘I certainly was never involved in a fight as large, violent and disorienting as the battles underway in Ukraine.’

‘Many in the West’, says Mearsheimer, ‘foolishly believed the Russian army would perform poorly, if not collapse, in the face of the counter-offensive.’ That has not happened. ‘For understandable reasons, Ukraine insists it needs a security guarantee, which can only come from the US or NATO.’ Russia, on the other hand, insists that Ukraine must be neutral and end its security relationship with the West. In fact, concludes Mearsheimer, this was the main cause of the present war, ‘even if American and European foreign policy elites, refuse to believe it.’ As, it appears, does Colonel Iron.


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