Sunday, March 5, 2023


This February, 2023 the international media and some independent political groups took notice of the First anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, indeed some groups labeled rallies in support of Ukraine as "celebrations".  What would be cause for "celebration" could only be the fact that Ukraine's armed forces had successfully blocked the previously anticipated  quick victory and occupation of Ukraine's major cities by  numerically superior Russian forces. 

Much credit is deserved by the vigor and leadership of Ukraine's army but the rapid and significant dispatch of military aid to Ukraine by the U.S. and European allies was the essential component of the successful resistance up to date.

Now after one year of heavy fighting and what appears to be close to a prolonged stalemate in geographical control, voices in the U.S., still the primary donor of military equipment, are questioning the projection of the need for more billions of dollars in a "policy without a strategy" and a fundamental "lack of a threat to vital American interests" to justify it. 

While these criticisms as yet are coming from a relatively small group of conservative media figures and members of the more conservative wing of Republican Party in Congress, they will surely grow in the face of a prolonged continuation of hostilities and the prospect of continued significant costly military aid to Ukrainian forces. While some of the criticism is surely stimulated automatically by partisan political opposition, Biden opens the door with the grandiosity of his justification for the America's role in the conflict, describing it in terms of America's moral duty and responsibility for a kind of permanent post-cold war Pax Americana based on America's special "values" and enforced by world wide military superiority. This sounds more like proselytizing than policy and is the concept which underlaid the prolonged and unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with their failed democracy building efforts. Applying it now in relation to the Ukraine war deemphasizes the more basic political/security threats to the region which justify intervention. 

The criticisms, as described above while worthy of debate, ignore or reject the broader and more long-lasting consequences of an abandonment and collapse of Ukraine's independence and Russia's, under Putin's leadership, ability to upset the Post Cold War international security framework, especially as it relates to the entirety of Europe. America's vital security interests are tied to those of Europe, specifically by joint membership in NATO and indirectly by its' economic interdependence with the 27 members of the European Union, 21 of whom are also NATO members.

Critics of continued efforts to defeat Putin's expansionist and revanchist policies should first contemplate what the results would have been, and now would be, if the U.S. and its' European allies stood aside a year ago when the Russian invasion began.  What would be the threat level and political future of other of the former Soviet Republics, similarly at a significant military disadvantage with Russia?  The tiny Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, former Soviet Republics like Ukraine and with borders on both Russia and Byelorussia, an authoritarian client state of Russia, would be indefensible without a full credible commitment by NATO, to which they belong but which would suffer from a lack of credibility if even non-NATO member Ukraine were allowed to fall to Russian aggression.  The threat and political instability would include larger Eastern European states like Poland, a NATO member, and Finland, long a Cold War neutral with a Russian border but now an EU member and NATO applicant along with Sweden who now see the new Russian expansionism as a genuine threat.

A new Cold War emphasized by the memories of the Soviet intrusion and suppression of the reformist movement in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and the similar intervention into Hungary's effort to democratize in 1956 would be the probable result.

The impact on other potential aggressors by a failure of U.S./European reaction to blatant aggression is difficult to predict with certainty, but China has clearly stated its' intention to force democratic/capitalist Taiwan into its' control and Iran, currently pursuing nuclear weapons state status, has pursued regional power aspirations in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and remains a fundamentally hostile adversary to both Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

Of course, the U.S. is not operating as a solitary actor, although it is by far the largest contributor of both military and humanitarian aid.  Nonetheless, from a political point of view, it is important that there is near total support among European nations for the transfer of weapons to Ukraine.  The principal nations with the largest militaries and economies, UK, France, and Germany are all NATO members and contributors. This is an extraordinary level of unanimity in support of a major military intervention even without introduction of combat units and reliance on U.S. leadership is clearly a priority.

Nonetheless, from the security/strategy side, realistic expectations should be recognized. There is no realistic expectation that Ukraine can "win" this war in the conventional meaning of the term. Putin cannot accept defeat in military terms as that would erode his political support and end his status as leader of Russia.  The disparity in size of population and related military forces are simply too much in Putin's favor to provide a clear-cut military victory for Ukraine. The population of Russia is over 144 million and the current ground forces available to Putin number around 360,000 with another 300,000 in reserves; this, compared to Ukraine's population of 44.5 million and @ 242,000 active duty and reserve ground forces.  Putin also can, and has, utilized the military draft to replace and enhance his ground troops as needed.  Even though the Russian military so far in the conflict has demonstrated a lack of professionalism and effective leadership as well as poor tactical decision making, the sheer weight of numbers and Putin's willingness to callously sacrifice large numbers of undertrained troops, will deny a classic "defeat" and expulsion from all of Ukraine's territory.

The situation now is essentially predictable stalemate. Tactical victories and retreats swing back and forth.  Unable to secure large portions of Ukraine's territory, Putin seems to be planning a large-scale offensive sometime this Spring.  In the meantime, he has turned to what might be described as a "war of attrition" which focuses on destruction of domestic targets and infrastructure in hopes of demoralizing the populace and Ukraine's' government to the point of their seeking a negotiated settlement in Russia's favor.  Since there is yet no sign of that happening and if Ukraine successfully resists any major Spring offensive, the prospect of at least another year of conflict seems probable.  The question then remains as to how much pain either side is willing to accept before the willingness to negotiate a ceasefire and end the war seems like the only course left. Ukrainian President Zelensky remains defiant and is willing to fight on as long as he continues to receive the necessary military aid from the U.S and European nations.  

Thus, the final outcome whenever it comes, looks like an eventual series of difficult negotiations sponsored by a neutral party such as India.  Compromises will have to be made by both parties.  Zelensky's demand that Russia return control of all occupied territory is unrealistic and is intended to bolster his citizen's resolve to keep fighting.  He may as well be looking ahead and establishing a negotiating position from which he can make concessions to the inevitable without giving up anything beforehand.  It is almost a certainty the Putin will not return control of Crimea to Ukraine, a territory home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which was taken with little resistance from Ukraine in 2014.  The future of territories in southeast Ukraine currently under control or contested by Russian backed militias and falsely declared a self-governing territory by Putin are probably also likely to be candidates for permanent loss to Ukraine. Putin will have to be given enough to "declare victory" and withdraw to preserve his political status. Zelensky will have to be assured that the geographical and political integrity of most of Ukraine is guaranteed for the future.  Putin is also likely to demand that international economic sanctions imposed on Russia be eliminated.  Sanctioning countries led by the U.S. will have to require that sanctions be lifted in stages as Russia complies with all the negotiated terms of the peace agreement.

All of this scenario could fall apart with significant Russian military victories or significant reductions in aid to Ukraine's armed forces. Also, it is impossible to know what is in Putin's head; how many risks he is willing to take with escalation of the conflict, or with unexpected Russian domestic opposition to the war by influential civilians or alienated senior military officers.  He is the great unknown quantity in any resolution of the war.


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