In April 2022, we wrote an extended analysis for the Daily Sceptic, entitled ‘Straight from the Freezer: The Cold War in Ukraine’. It was widely read and generated over 300 (mostly positive) comments from the site’s discerning readers. The popularity of the piece, we surmise, was because – true to the intent of the Daily Sceptic’s premise – the article presented a sober, fact-based, analysis in contrast to the feverish speculations contained in much media reportage.
Drawing upon our long engagement with strategic affairs going back to the Cold War, we advanced provisional conclusions based on what was observable, commonly agreed or understood to be known. Again, contrary to much of the agenda-ridden narratives of the mainstream media, the principal contention of our analysis was that it was wise to proceed with caution, acknowledge that facts on the ground were rare, and refute idle speculation or wishful thinking, particularly any which saw every move as a Russian military failure and a Ukrainian success. Understandable sentiments perhaps, but not ones necessarily based on reality.
Our analysis pointed to the historically complex background leading up to Russia’s invasion. For anyone interested in a serious engagement with the origins of the war, this defies easy notions of right versus wrong, especially considering extensive Western complicity in provoking Russia through its policy of NATO expansion eastwards. From the end of the Cold War onwards Russian politicians (as well as Western diplomats) of all persuasions implored Western leaders not to enlarge NATO up to its borders. But they did it anyway. Promises were broken and red lines were repeatedly crossed: a process that included Western meddling in Ukraine’s internal politics in ways guaranteed to disturb Russia’s geopolitical sensibilities.
Whether – through imprudence or hubris – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a mess of the West’s creation or whether it is, as some allege, the intentional engineering of a proxy war with Russia on the part of neo-conservative ideologues in Washington to weaken and destroy Russia, it was interesting to note how little media commentary acknowledged this complicated history. To the extent that it did, it was often to scold those ‘realist’ scholars of international relations who had long foreseen these events. This ‘shoot-the-messenger’ attitude expressed by media commentators was itself telling: a degree of denial for sure, but also an implicit admission that the warnings of these analysts should not have gone unheeded.
Our article concluded that the direction of the war was likely to remain confused and uncertain, especially given how little we knew of Russian objectives or her concept of operations. We suggested the likelihood was that the war would for the foreseeable future be substantially immobile and would assume the contours of frozen conflict: a war of attrition, with little movement on either side.
Eighteen months later, it is opportune to review this assessment and discern what we broadly got right and what we might have missed. While the historical rights and wrongs can still be debated, it is how things have been working out militarily on the ground, and the wider implications of the prolongation of the war, that will be the key factors that will shape the future direction of this conflict. This will be the central focus of our re-evaluation.
Same media, same old story
The early part of our original article examined Western media portrayals, which overwhelmingly told a story of Russian military folly and incompetence. Putin’s imminent collapse and overthrow were routinely predicted. Apparent setbacks for Russian forces around Kiev and various territorial withdrawals from some of the lands it had occupied in the east fuelled much of this heady sense of Ukrainian military success, backed by Western training and technology.
Eighteen months later and many of these suppositions have been disproved through the war’s prolongation. Interestingly, though, little appears to have changed in the media landscape. A vast swathe of commentary over the past year has continued to present a litany of Russian disunity and miscalculation, with every piece of information interpreted as a sign of Vladimir Putin’s vulnerability and internal weakness, the likelihood of his overthrow, and the relentless failures of Russian military performance. Meanwhile, Ukrainian breakthroughs and military advances have been extolled. Typical of the genre was an article in early October by Ben Wallace, former U.K. Defence Secretary, who proclaimed: “Whisper it if you need. Dare to think it. But champion it you must. Ukraine’s counteroffensive is succeeding. Slowly but surely, the Ukrainian armed forces are breaking through the Russian lines. Sometimes yard by yard, sometimes village by village, Ukraine has the momentum and is pressing forward.”
Rousing though such exhortations are, these kinds of claims do not match reality. Russian defences have not been seriously dented. Putin’s hold on power is not imperilled and support for his regime is not evidentially slipping. To the extent that Putin’s rule has been internally questioned, it has been from voices that wish him to prosecute the war more forcefully. Likewise, Ukraine’s much heralded counteroffensive has by all accounts not been impressive. Some forward villages have been taken, but these miniscule territorial gains have been offset by Russian land seizures elsewhere.
The global media panorama is, of course, vast. In the acres of news coverage of the war, it would be unfair to characterise all reportage as deficient or unsophisticated. Nevertheless, the continued preponderance of agenda-ridden commentary at the expense of fact-based analysis suggests that a great deal of the mainstream media is still not engaged in a consistently honest endeavour to report the war objectively. It is, for example, regrettable that outlets of high repute for coverage of geopolitical and military affairs, such as the Daily Telegraph, issue an endless stream of over-optimism regarding Ukraine’s prospects of winning.
Whether such distortions derive from the editorial offices, a susceptibility to Government lobbying or a belief that it is a message that people wish to hear, dispassionate analysis it is not. It is fundamentally unserious commentary that plays its part in reinforcing growing public mistrust of legacy media. The result is that for dependably thoughtful and penetrating assessments of the war, its military dynamics and geopolitical implications, no one looking for any temperate analysis would turn to established newspapers, television outlets or even think-tanks, but to independent content providers such as the Duran, Perun, and the Caspian Report.
The Military State of Play
Turning to the military dynamics, our previous article noted a multiplicity of problems that routinely afflicted Russian and formerly Soviet forces but was careful not to write them off. The piece observed that Russia’s military had shown in several theatres, including the Second Chechen War and in Syria, that it was capable of adaptation. Russian intent in Ukraine is not 100% clear. Given that all war is a sphere of uncertainty, this is to some extent expected. What we can deduce from Russia’s actions thus far, however, indicates that its ‘special military operation’ was always focused on capturing the eastern and south-eastern oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. To that end, the withdrawals from the partial encirclement of Kiev and Kharkiv (Kharkov) were not full-blown retreats as presented by Western Governments and media but likely strategic moves to divert Ukrainian forces from the Azov coast and east.
Having secured the capture of these regions, Russia moved to adopt a defensive posture with an emphasis on artillery and fortified positions. The pattern of the war has consequently fallen into one of a slow, grinding attrition, as we predicted. Attrition suggests a stalemate like the First World War. However, this mode of war and its prolongation and lack of mobility on the frontlines does not of itself speak to any lack of strategic intent.
Manoeuvre versus attrition
Operational planning in wars involving the clash of orthodox armed forces in battle is often based around balancing the concepts of manoeuvre and attrition. The smaller, professionalised, high technology orientation of most Western armed forces tend to emphasise manoeuvre-based approaches, that is, striking and gaining decisions quickly via wars of rapid movement involving combined arms, especially airpower and precision guided munitions. ‘Shock and awe’ tactics, as evidenced in the first Gulf War of 1990/91 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, are designed to have political effects to psychologically overwhelm an opponent, forcing a decision through the speed of advance and the seizure or destruction of command-and-control centres.
Through its counteroffensive, Western trained Ukrainian forces have been intent on seeking a manoeuvreist approach to secure breakthroughs and to reclaim Russian occupied territory. The strategic intent appears that even if the re-capture of all lost ground is not possible, the momentum of a Ukrainian advance can put sufficient pressure on the Russian position to force negotiations on favourable terms. The problem is that manouevrist approaches tend to work only in specific circumstances, for example against relatively unsophisticated opponents (such as the Iraqi army in 1991 and 2003) that lack hardened defensive capabilities; or they succeed for a limited time, only until the other side has had a chance to stabilise and get back on its feet, as the Soviet Union did after the initial setbacks suffered at the hands of the German following Operation Barbarossa in 1941.
Running up against more organised opposition always risks a war of attrition, which is what we see happening in Ukraine. In other words, to regain military momentum requires one to go through a process of attrition, to grind down the other side to a point where movement on the battlefield can be re-gained. This may be the intention of Western-backed Ukrainian forces: to waste Russian military assets, weaken its defensive front line and secure a breakthrough, which can then be exploited. A protracted war might undermine Putin’s popularity at home, making him vulnerable to a coup by more moderate politicians amenable to compromise and withdrawal from conquered lands (a set of suppositions which we have suggested lacks any understanding of Russian historical sensibilities). Conversely, the Russian side is likely pursuing a double-pronged attrition strategy: 1) establishing defensive fortifications that seek to wear down Ukrainian forces on the offensive, 2) eroding the will of Western powers to continue financing and supplying Ukraine over the long term.
Who benefits from attrition-based war?
The central question arising from any military analysis is which side does an attrition strategy favour? The evidence thus far would suggest it redounds to the Russian advantage for the following reasons. First, it is simply that Russia is by far the largest combatant, capable of mobilising greater quantities of troops and resources vis-à-vis Ukraine.
Secondly, it is doubtful that the supply of superior weaponry such as the Storm Shadow missile or ageing Leopard and Challenger tanks or F-16 jets to Ukraine is going to change the balance of forces. Western forces simply do not possess sufficient weapons stocks, still less the capacity to help Ukraine deploy such forces quickly or effectively in the field in ways that are likely to have any long-term impact. There are already signs that Western arsenals are being depleted.
Thirdly, anticipating Ukraine’s counteroffensive (signalled for months on end by the ramping up of Western military supplies and media reports) allowed the Russians to prepare their defences and draw the Ukrainians into cauldrons of artillery fire and landmines, eradicating what is reported to be tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops and weaponry, while the defenders’ losses have been relatively small. The Ukrainian counteroffensive therefore has not amounted to anything in terms of territorial gains beyond the capture of parcels of land that are ultimately unlikely to worry Russian military planners if their goal is to force the opposition to waste itself on fruitless forward assaults.
Accurate casualty figures are hard to verify, though reports have suggested that hundreds of thousands have perished, including 400,000 on the Ukrainian side. Other statistics claim the casualty figures to be much less. Yet the fact that Ukraine is talking increasingly of a general mobilisation indicates that it is feeling the pressure on this front. The inference is that Russian forces have adapted sufficiently to attrition warfare to place Ukraine in a military bind in that it is not strong enough to make major breakthroughs in Russia’s frontlines or to prosecute the war without Western help.
Who benefits from the prolongation of the war?
The other important question that follows is which side is likely to benefit from the prolongation of the war the most? Is Russia likely to be sufficiently weakened economically and politically? This seems to be the thinking of U.S. policymakers, namely that supporting the Ukrainians in fighting the Russians over a protracted period is a strategic instrument to weaken Russia. Backing Ukraine against Russia is therefore a “direct investment“, to quote Senator Mitch McConnell, because it does not involve the use of U.S. ground troops in any direct confrontation. The problem is that if this is the strategic rationale it undermines the moral case that the conflict is about preserving Ukrainian sovereignty and democracy. Instead, this rationale suggests that the collective West is using Ukrainian forces to do the fighting and dying in a proxy war against Russia.
The key strategic issue, then, is about who can outlast whom in a battle of attrition between Russia and its backers and Western nations? Our initial article referenced an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph by Sherelle Jacobs who argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a defining moment that was galvanising the West into re-discovering a sense of collective purpose.
We expressed scepticism and suggested that only time would tell if a newly found Western unity was the outcome. Subsequent events have validated such wariness. Western solidarity is being sorely tested as the war drags on. The failure of financial sanctions against Russia has emphasised Western economic weakness and dealt a significant blow to the West’s strategic position. The war has merely underlined the fact that Russia, as a primary producer of key resources like oil and gas, and China an industrial power, have in some respects emerged strengthened.
The revelation of European energy dependence on Russian oil and gas exports was a particularly salutary reminder of the economic complexities engendered by the war. The sabotage of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has been one of notable curiosities in this respect. The idea that it was Russia that blew up its own infrastructure (when it could have simply turned a stopcock) has been yet one more reason to doubt Western governmental and media narratives. One must be obtuse not to detect some level of U.S. complicity in or knowledge of the destruction of Nord Stream 2, the outcome of which has been to render the German economy dependent on American energy supplies.
Having forsaken energy independence and de-industrialised their economies, Western countries fired their one and only financial weapon, only to see it go off half-cock. The economic sanctions applied against Russia have only inspired both Russia and China to create alternative financial mechanisms, which along with various de-dollarisation initiatives over the long term threaten to corrode Western economic primacy even further.
Crucial to the failure of Western sanctions has been the lack of support for these measures across the world. Many countries perceive high minded Western talk of defending democracy as bogus, pointing to an unbroken record of U.S and Western interference, covert operations, regime change operations and military adventurism, of which meddling in Ukrainian internal politics prior to 2022 is seen as all of a piece. Key regional actors like Brazil, India and Saudi Arabia have been alienated by the stridency of the West’s ‘with us or against us’ attitude over war. In conditions where Western economic clout is less than it was, states across the globe are concluding that they do not have to choose a side and are antagonised when they are imposed upon to do so. In the words of Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems“.
What is happening in the West?
The fissures between the West and Rest also preface serious internal political divisions inside Western states themselves. The cost of aiding Ukraine is becoming a domestic political issue, most notably in the U.S. and Germany, with current estimates that the bill has reached over $900 per person in the U.S. and is already becoming an electoral fault-line in American politics. The point is that a lack of domestic consensus almost always dooms support for wars of choice in the West, threatening yet again to make Ukraine a re-run of the failures of U.S. and Western policy from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
Beyond the vague, open-ended rhetoric to save the world from tyranny, it is hard to fathom any discernible Western policy objectives. What is the strategic purpose behind the war? Is it to ‘liberate’ Ukraine? Is it to ‘defend democracy’? Is it to overthrow Putin? Collapse and divide Russia? If so, why and with what purpose in mind is this a feasible or worthwhile objective? Does Russia, itself, pose a vital threat to U.S. and Western interests?
Expansive ideas about fighting to preserve the ‘liberal international order’ negate these hard-headed but necessary questions. Current Western declaratory goals, insofar as it is possible to detect any, are unbounded and specify little that is tangible or comprehensible to anyone with a degree of appreciation of strategic matters. How do any of goals translate into achievable military objectives on the ground, beyond keeping the war going indefinitely and hoping that something turns up?
Without Western support, Ukraine would not be able to sustain its resistance, so the choice to some degree resides with the U.S. about how this conflict comes to an end: through the search for a compromise settlement, through continuing the conflict in the anticipation that Russia gives up or that Putin is overthrown and replaced by a thus far nowhere-in-sight set of liberal progressives, or through escalating the war with the aim of re-framing the conflict in more existential terms as straight fight with Russia, expanding the boundaries of the conflict into the realms of a total war.
If the war is indeed seen by Western policy makers as an existential struggle of the ‘Free World’ against the forces of autocracy then it requires a unified Western response, total support from home populations and a potential willingness to escalate the conflict. But escalate to what? Western troops in Ukraine, directly confronting Russian forces? Escalation to the nuclear level? In what reality is any of this prudent or wise? Even at its most benign, Western strategy simply appears to be mimicking all the flawed thinking evident in the recent foreign policy misadventures: ill-thought through interventions with no clear idea how the war is meant to end.
Conclusion: the Western enigma
The lack of any obvious answers to such crucial questions points up, perhaps, that in as much as the Russia-Ukraine war is a manifestation of geopolitical rivalries, it is also a mirror to our fractured societies at home: a war waged by policy elites in the name of ‘cosmopolitan’ values that are not really all that cosmopolitan in that they are not shared by a majority of countries or even by a broad consensus at home. Under their guidance, Western geo-strategy has merely succeeded is in driving much of the world into a putatively anti-Western camp and further divided their societies internally.
A cynic might see the newly erupted conflict in Israel and Palestine as a convenient means for the collective West to revive its esprit des corps. Obviously the situation in and around Gaza is not directly related to the Ukraine war, but it has enabled Western powers to show that peace and democracy are once again threatened by mortal hazards, justifying a strong military alliance. Suddenly Western leaders are singing from the same hymn sheet again, denouncing Israel’s foes and standing in unison. But for how long, we wonder?
Our initial article concluded that it was Russian strategy and objectives in Ukraine that were a continuing mystery, wrapped in an enigma, to rehearse Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism in relation to Russia’s foreign policy. Eighteen months later and we confess we missed something important. It is Western strategy that is the enigma: a mystery wrapped in confusion, inside a prism of incoherence.