Uncertain Endgame in Ukraine

The task of a military analyst should be fairly straightforward and value-neutral. When looking at a conflict, he can rely on an array of tested tools to discern which warring party is more likely to degrade its adversary’s physical capacity and moral readiness to fight within a given timeframe and to continue exerting lethal pressure until that adversary is ready to behave in accordance with the winning side’s political objectives.

This model often works when there are few unknown unknowns. To an analyst free from personal bias, it was clear that Hitler was doomed when he attacked Russia in June 1941 without defeating Britain first, thus repeating Napoleon’s blunder of 1812. The Central Powers likewise could not prevail after America entered the war in 1917, in spite of the simultaneous collapse of Russia and regardless of a desperate military gamble that duly failed in the spring of 1918.

The fog of war sometimes trumps quantitative calculus. The Persian Empire, the global hegemon of the 5th century B.C., failed to conquer the Greek world, although the latter was politically fragmented and accounted for no more than two percent of Persia’s demographic, territorial, and financial strength. Just over a century later, Alexander conquered the Achaemenid Empire with a minuscule force of Macedonian phalanxes. The explosive, shockingly violent expansion of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. was at odds with the new creed’s scant demographic and resource base in the Arabian desert. The rise of Japan as an aggressive great power after the Meiji Restoration was both rapid and surprising to all outside powers.

After one year of heavy fighting, the war in Ukraine shows no sign of abating. There are many predictions about its likely future course and finale, but they differ wildly and often depend on the forecaster’s personal bias and ideological preferences. The scenarios can be divided into four groups: a Ukrainian win, a Russian win, a negotiated settlement, and a Korean-style frozen conflict.

A prominent advocate of the dominant view in Washington—that Russia will suffer a catastrophic defeat if only the West continues supplying Ukraine with all the advanced weaponry it wants—is Ben Hodges, who served as the commanding general of the United States Army in Europe. “All the momentum is with Ukraine now and there is no doubt in my mind that they will win this war, probably in 2023,” Hodges said in an interview with the BBC in December. Hodges was adamant that by the end of this year, Ukraine will be “in a position to begin the final phase of the campaign.”

The entire neoconservative-neoliberal U.S. duopoly currently follows some variant of this optimistic scenario. Most of its public voices treat Russian President Vladimir Putin’s removal from power as the conditio sine qua non (“the indispensible condition”). Some envisage the dissolution of the Russian Federation into many fragments, the establishment of a Western-controlled tribunal at The Hague to try Russian leaders accused of war crimes, the imposition of crippling reparations on what remains of Russia, and the maintenance of sanctions in perpetuity. What these people have in store for Russia is incomparably more brutal than what the victorious Allies imposed on Germany in Versailles.

The notion that Russia will be not only defeated but also humiliated and perhaps destroyed as a sovereign state reflects the emotional longing of those advancing such ideas. They are not based on any sober assessment of the warring parties’ strengths and weaknesses. Instead, like Hodges, they use phrase of faith, such as “there is no doubt in my mind,” “I see no other outcome,” and “I believe.”

Ukraine’s army has not collapsed, as Putin may have expected in the early phase of the war. It has staged successful local counterattacks at Kharkiv and Kherson. However, its remarkable resilience is not tantamount to an ability to stage a massive counteroffensive against Crimea, let alone to inflict a crippling defeat on the Russian Federation—a country 30 times Ukraine’s size with thrice the population and nine times the GDP, and which commands infinitely greater natural resources.

Quantitative parameters can be misleading sometimes, and Davids have occasionally defeated Goliaths throughout history. Such outcomes are fairly rare, and they invariably happen when the stronger party wages an optional war while the weaker party fights what it perceives as an existential struggle.

Both Ukraine and Russia see the current conflict as existential, where defeat is not an option. Russia enjoys a huge advantage in the fact that it is a nuclear power. Nuclear weapons are useless as a means of protecting a fragile state’s internal political order if it is threatened by internal forces, as happened in South Africa in the early 1990s. The bomb is, however, an eminently viable tool of last resort to deter acute external threats, as confirmed by the uneasy but stable regional balance between India and Pakistan. The vision of a triumphant Ukrainian army staging victory parades in Sevastopol or Donetsk is, therefore, devoid of rational grounding and dangerous in its implications.

The problem with faith-based foreign policy is that it precludes a meaningful discussion about the overall U.S. strategy vis-à-vis Russia in general and the war in Ukraine in particular. Whether we should fight Russia to the last Ukrainian—and to what end—even if this entails a nuclear escalation, is not addressed. Risking Boston for Lugansk may be a rational choice, but it needs to be stated and defended.

Constant arguments about the wisdom of sending advanced Western weapons systems—including tanks, missiles, and now possibly latest-generation fighter aircraft—to Ukraine are meaningless if they are not anchored in a coherent strategic vision. At the moment, there is none. As soon as a platoon of M1 Abrams tanks and two Leopard II battalions were promised, Ukraine asked for F-16s and more advanced aircraft. Such dilemmas are invariably “resolved” in favor of escalation, with fatalistic automatism reminiscent of the European crisis that led to the Great War in 1914. The political class in Washington is sleepwalking toward a catastrophic conflict, taking a huge risk that is impossible to connect with any perceptible benefit.

The possibility that, once it deploys newly trained reservists mobilized last fall, Russia may win by breaking through the Ukrainian defensive wall in the Donbas is a minority view in the U.S. but not in Europe. It is hinted at with commendable caution by a seasoned realist, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. He warns that it is “easier to imagine the Russians hanging on to the territory they now control and eventually gaining more territory.” If he is right, it would then be in the American interest to pursue a Korean-ceasefire model along the existing battle lines, with political arrangements left for some later date. This would reduce the main threat to the security of the United States, which is the creeping escalation between the U.S.-led NATO and Russia, and the rising risk of nuclear war.

For over 300 years, Ukraine had been an integral part of the Russian state. After the Bolshevik revolution, it became a “republic” in the new Soviet conglomerate, and the Russian-speaking Donbas industrial region in the east was given to it. Ukraine declared independence after the USSR collapsed. At no time during those three-and-a-half centuries was Ukraine envisaged as an anti-Russian state—until America intervened.

It does not matter if and when the disputes between Russia and Ukraine over territory, identity, and past rights and wrongs are resolved or not resolved. What matters greatly is that those disputes, utterly irrelevant to the security and well-being of the United States, should not threaten America.

The frozen conflict model is not a novelty and is preferable to forcing the issue in a violent and unpredictable manner. Even if we omit the Palestinian-Israeli problem, which is sui generis, there is Kashmir (unresolved since 1948), Cyprus (frozen since 1974), and a host of fortunately dormant post-Soviet disputes (Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia). Freezing the present lines of contact would stop the carnage and slow down—and (one hopes) eventually eliminate—the NATO-Russia escalation. It could prevent the loss of face for either party before their domestic audiences.

The Korean model has the advantage of not offending too deeply the Russophobic fanatics while giving the realists a viable option to pursue a long-term solution with no pressure from news bulletins and lobbying groups.

Russia is not going to collapse any time soon. Putin may fall, but his successors are almost certain to be more radically nationalist than he. The “collective West” is obsessing with a caricature of Putin, the Russian Hitler, who, in reality, desperately wanted a partnership with the West. If and when he is removed, Washington and its Brussels minions will get in his stead some serious Eurasians who will never, ever use the term “our Western partners.”

The war in Ukraine was started by Russia, but it was willed, engineered and choreographed by the U.S.-led West. It is both a mistake and a crime, a minus-sum game for the declining European remnant.

It is ironic that even if the current team in Washington is successful, at a huge risk, in forcing Russia to withdraw to its pre-2014 borders, and even if Ukraine is subsequently admitted into NATO, America will be significantly less secure than it was before the Maidan coup, let alone before Putin’s intervention. The U.S. would then have to assume responsibility for supporting and defending a bankrupt state with arguably the most corrupt political establishment in Europe. The U.S. would become the ultimate guarantor, in perpetuity, of Ukraine’s borders, which were arbitrarily drawn by Lenin’s Bolsheviks in 1922 and expanded with a stroke of Nikita Khrushchev’s pen in 1954. Those borders would be certain to remain disputed by an embittered, revanchist Russia—just as Germany’s eastern borders were strenuously disputed after Versailles, and probably with similar long-term results.

This would be a Pyrrhic victory for America and a permanent distraction from the only global challenge she faces, 5,000 miles southeast of Moscow.

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