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Russia Ukraine War-Two Years In

As we come to the two-year mark in Russia’s war in Ukraine, it brings with it an opportunity to reflect on what we have learned and are continuing to learn. At the time of the initial invasion, few noted that this war had the potential change history. And just as World War I (WWI) reshaped the geopolitical landscape, this war also is shaping global geopolitics. In addition, as WWI upended longstanding political arrangements, this war is also helping to fuel or exacerbate existing trends towards political instability. WWI took existing technology and expanded its military uses, and to some extent that is also happening in this war. And both wars revealed the weakness of existing pre-war views on military science. So, what are the main lessons that an observer can take away from the last two years?


1.)    The major news outlets are full of ignorant propaganda.


To some extent this is understandable during war. After all, as it has been said, “The first casualty of war is truth”. But western audiences have been treated to an initial assessment that Ukraine was not going to last a week. That it had no chance at all. If there were voices that deviated from this line, they were not very loud. Any reasonable analyst who had spent any time observing the Russian army over years would not have a reached this conclusion, even if that analyst believed that Russia would ultimately win. After being spectacularly wrong on this assessment, the news media over time switched to a “Russia is doomed to lose” narrative. In this telling, the Ukrainian counteroffensive would punch through Russian lines, sweep through to the coast, and make the Russian position in southern Ukraine untenable. This did not happen either. And what is worse, it did not even come close. In short, while the news programs might trot out their “experts”, it has become pretty clear that the news programs are pushing an agenda. The experts are simply credentialed folks who believe what the news media already believes. Understand that if you want to know what is actually happening in the war, it isn’t likely to be found on the major news outlets.


2.)    There are limits to the United States’ power.


While this should not really be news, the fact is that this war has drawn a line under the limits of U.S. power and influence. The days when the U.S. could dictate largely everything outside of China, Iran, Cuba, and few valleys in Afghanistan are over. At the beginning of the war, the U.S. made it a goal to isolate/collapse the Russian economy in order to force them out of Ukraine. The fact is that a large fraction of the world (in addition to the aforementioned countries) simply refused to go along. The U.A.E. has acted as a financing hub, willing to business with anyone, including Russia. India has continued to trade with Russia. Even ostensible allies such as Turkey have provided only half-hearted support to U.S. efforts. And even some of the major western companies that made a great show of leaving Russia in the aftermath of the invasion have quietly resumed operations there. In other words, the U.S. has not been able to get enough countries on board to fully isolate Russia into another North Korea. While it would be too much to say that the U.S. has only had minimal impact (Russia does appear to be having trouble sourcing components like computer chips, etc.), it clearly has not been able to inflict sufficient pain/isolation to prompt a change in policy, which was the ostensible goal.


Although recently there are reports that some Turkish, UAE, and even Chinese, banks have started cutting off certain Russian businesses and closing accounts. While an indication that the U.S. may be starting to assert itself, the fact that it is has taken two years is an indication that there are greater limits on what the U.S. can demand of other countries than was previously believed.


3.)    Russia is not as strong as was previously thought.


At the beginning of the war as noted earlier, experts assumed that Russia’s mighty military would sweep aside Ukrainian resistance and swiftly take over the country. This analysis lacked an understanding of the importance of logistics in military matters, as well as a skepticism that Russia had the logistical know-how and flexibility to pull off an armored thrust. Whatever else may exist in terms of technology and armaments, an inability to master the mundane logistics aspects of combat is going to render an operation ineffective. What also became clear is that Russian military exercises prior to the war were scripted and perhaps not much more than a massively large theater production for the benefit of a powerful audience. The ability of junior officers to improvise under combat conditions, a characteristic found in most western armies, was largely absent. In fact, even after two years of combat, it is not clear that the Russian armed forces have made any significant improvements in these two areas. In addition, the Russian Air Force has shown itself to be, if not absent, unable to gain overwhelming air superiority of a contested air space. These factors make it highly unlikely that Putin could ever achieve his maximalist goals in Ukraine.


4.)    Russia is not as weak as was previously thought.


Over the last two years as the weaknesses listed above have become apparent, western commentators have taken to minimizing and dismissing Russian military skills. It is this dismissive attitude that led them to confidently predict that the Ukrainian counteroffensive was going to be successful to the point of perhaps even ending the war. After the Ukrainians had pushed the Russians out of the territory north Dnipro River as well as the sudden collapse of Russian lines in the Kharkiv region, analysts thought that a prepared, western-style counteroffensive could deal the Russians a massive defeat. What these people failed to understand was the Russians had 6 months to prepare a static defense-in-depth system of fortifications and that the Ukrainians lacked the capability of B-52-style carpet bombings, as well as the sort of overwhelming air-superiority, needed to overcome such fortifications. Also, while the Russians had revealed themselves to be lacking in logistical skills, the Ukrainians have not yet shown whether they are any better at this skill. Regardless, static defense is one of the easiest military skills to master, and the Russians have shown themselves to be competent at it. Furthermore, they have also shown that they have some skills in flexible defense as well, which they put to good use to largely blunt the counteroffensive in the Zaporizhia region. They have also shown good skills in electronic warfare, use of drones, and missile technology. While maybe not unbeatable, the Russians have shown some formidable skills that many in the West doubted that they had.


5.)    European political elites do not seem to be equipped for this historical moment.


Over the last 2 years, it has become clear the Europe’s elites are uncomfortable with military matters. After nearly 80 years of relying on the U.S. for defense while neglecting their own, the political classes of Europe are finding it difficult to shift course and rebuild the sort of military capability that will be necessary going forward. Regardless of whether or not Donald Trump returns to the White House, and regardless of whether or not he actually takes the sort of actions that keep Atlanticists awake at night, the fact is that the American people don’t have the same stomach that they once did for sending their sons and daughters over to fight in other countries’ wars. There seems to be rhetorical understanding that Europe needs to see to its own defense, but not yet a deep acceptance within the political class of this fact. This reluctance seems to be especially deep in Germany, which is concerning because they are largely seen as being the leader of Europe. While their chancellor spoke of a “Zeitenwende” (a changing of the times) and committed an additional one-time 100 billion euros in additional defense spending, a lot more needs to be done to make the German armed forces a serious fighting force. In order to build up something that could credibly defend Europe without appreciable U.S. involvement, Germany would have to turn its back on decades of pacifism and fall in love with its military again. It would have to come to view the acquisition of nuclear weapons as a legitimate defensive measure given the change in the geopolitical position of Russia. Certainly, some in Europe might understandably be nervous with this path. Nevertheless, some of these concerns might be alleviated if Germany expanded its military in conjunction with France and England, as well as working with some of the smaller countries to integrate a portion of their military into a loose European-wide military infrastructure.


However, the European elites currently seem unable to grasp the severity of the danger that they are in. They do not appear to have the seriousness necessary to make the moves that need to be made. They have come up in, and are adapted to, a world that no longer exists. And the world that is emerging is one for which they appear to be uniquely unsuited.  Whether a new elite more suited to this historical moment is able to emerge will be one of the primary questions of the next 10 years.


6.)    Ukraine can survive, although what form it will take is still unclear.


Despite the counteroffensive failing and despite Ukraine looking at some serious military challenges in the coming months, the fact is that Putin’s goal of reincorporating Ukraine into Russia in the manner of the Soviet Union has not succeeded. Whatever Putin thought would happen when he invaded, this clearly was not it. However, the fact is that despite Russian missteps, Ukraine has lost the initiative on the battlefield for the time being. While this is not necessarily a permanent situation, the hard reality is that returning to the 1991 borders of Ukraine is no longer a realistic military goal. However, hanging on to the current front lines in a manner reminiscent of Korea is certainly an achievable military objective, although one that is not currently a given at this time. At this time, Russia occupies roughly 20% of Ukraine’s internationally recognized territory. The fact that Ukraine has been able to effectively force the Russian fleet largely out of the western Black Sea (along with diplomatic maneuvering) has allowed it to secure trade routes into and out of Odessa. A Ukrainian state, at peace, under the current conditions is economically viable.


What is in doubt, however, is whether Putin is open to good-faith peace negotiations under any conditions short of Ukraine becoming another Belarus; effectively a vassal state of Moscow. Current indications are that he is not. And so, the war will go on. And given this, there is always the possibility that something shifts for one side or the other that appreciably changes the strategic situation. But at the moment it is hard to see what that might be. While the Russians might be able to use massed artillery, drones, and missiles, to pulverize their way to taking some more territory, it is difficult to conceive of them blowing through the Ukrainian lines, blitzkrieg style, and sweeping through to the border of the EU. But to end the war with a permanent ceasefire (Korea-style) or some sort of a permanent peace treaty along the current front lines would likely require some sort of Ukrainian neutrality pledge.


Ultimately, there is a lot more to be decided before this war ends.


Conclusion:


In conclusion, it should be noted that wars are difficult to predict in advance, and to analyze in real time. Historians are still arguing about wars from hundreds of years ago and their impacts. And it will be the same with this war in the decades to come. However, after two years, there are lessons and observations that can be made. Unfortunately, this war does not appear to be close to its conclusion. There are undoubtedly many more lessons and surprises still to come.

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