It is perilous indeed to try and draw lessons from a war that is still underway and may, indeed, have just started.
Too many of those who rushed to deliver what Americans call ‘hot takes’ on the current war in Ukraine have been left wiping egg off their faces.
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There was, for example, the individual who, immediately after the war broke out, tweeted a comment ridiculing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pre-war statement that the era of big tank battles was over.
Although things might have changed by the time you read this, at time of writing, three-and-a-half weeks into the conflict, there appear to have been no tank battles of any size at all, and it is not Johnson who looks foolish. But certain points can be made, certain hypotheses floated.
The first point is already widely accepted and understood, but is restated here for completeness. War, as Clausewitz pointed out, is a continuation of politics (or policy, depending on how you translate the German) by other means. War must have political objectives and victory can only be achieved when those political objectives are secured. (To digress briefly: this means the claim that ‘X won militarily but lost politically’ is an absurdity; there is no such thing as winning militarily but not politically; winning tactical victories is meaningless if those actions are irrelevant to the outcome of the war.)
But it is already clear that, by attacking Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has achieved the complete opposite of every conceivably rational political objective he could have had. He has considerably strengthened Nato, and he has galvanised Ukrainian patriotism and, under the hammer blows of indiscriminate bombardments of civilians, forged a keen unity between Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers: all are Ukrainians, fervent in the defence of their land.
Consequently, Russia has lost the war. Moscow’s political objectives cannot be achieved. No matter how much of Ukraine Russian troops overrun, they will never be able to hold it down. In the end, Ukraine will re-emerge, or (if East is split from West by force) re-unite, with a stronger national identity and a significant streak of hostility towards Russia (with the Russian-speaking Ukrainians probably the most hostile of all).
But Russia could still win this campaign. That is, Russia could still win this ‘first campaign’, a campaign of territorial conquest, now under way. It seems pretty certain that Putin’s original objective of seizing the whole of Ukraine is now unachievable, but the Russians might occupy a large section of the country, in the east and south. But that will not end the war. And occupying is not the same as securing. The war would continue, in a different form: the ‘second campaign’, a partisan war.
However, it is now possible that Russia might actually be defeated in the current, ‘first’, campaign. True, Russian forces continue to slowly grind forward into Ukraine on several fronts. But their progress is very slow. Our big problem, as outsiders, is that we don’t know what the Ukrainian defence strategy is. Are these Russian advances being achieved by wearing down Ukrainian resistance, or are the Ukrainians purposely allowing the Russians to move deeper into Ukraine, offering just enough resistance to force the Russians to expend fuel and ammunition, while their supply lines become ever more stretched, vulnerable and disrupted by Ukrainian ambushes, until a point is reached, at which the Ukrainians fiercely counterattack and drive the fuel-, food- and ammunition-starved Russians back in disarray and defeat? Time will tell.
Of course, even in the latter scenario, the Russians might very well be able to hold on to the territory in southeast Ukraine that they have seized, because of its proximity to the Crimea and to Russia. That could allow Putin to claim that his ‘special operation’ had succeeded. But make no mistake: such an outcome, although frustrating for Ukraine, would still be a defeat for Russia.
This brings us to the second major point. Last July, I wrote an analysis piece for UK Defence Journal on Russia (How strong is Russia? (ukdefencejournal.org.uk)). In it, I stated:
“When considering how strong modern Russia is, the first thing to remember that it is Russia, not the Soviet Union, and not even the Tsarist Empire. The resources available to Moscow today are far less than those that the Soviet Union commanded, and it controls much less territory than the Tsarist Empire. However President Vladimir Putin’s regime has stabilised the country politically and economically. Viewed against the backdrop of Russian history over the past 700-odd years, during which the government of Russia has taken the form of autocracy interrupted by periods of chaotic anarchy, Putin has provided the average Russian with a significant degree of personal freedom within a framework of a significant degree of stability.
Putin’s Russia does not meet Western democratic standards, but it remains, for the average Russian, an improvement over the disorganisation of the immediate post-Soviet years and a great improvement over the Soviet period. This has been a source of strength for Putin that seems rarely to get the attention it deserves in Western analyses. (This is not to deny increasing dissatisfaction with his regime, which is not surprising given that he has ruled Russia for some 22 years now, as Prime Minister or President, but it is not clear if this dissatisfaction is strong enough yet to force him out of office.)”
Hit by massive sanctions from Western (including East Asian democratic) countries, Russia’s economy has been destabilised again. And, confronted by economic and financial crisis and battlefield failures, Putin has moved to re-establish autocracy and end that “significant degree of personal freedom”. He is, in fact, undermining the very pillars on which he built his regime. He will fall. But whether his fall will be fast or agonisingly slow is impossible to predict. As is normal with Russia, we have no idea what is really happening behind the walls of the Kremlin.
A palace coup is possible. But ruling elite solidarity (on the basis that it is better to hang together than to hang separately) is also possible. And then there is the factor of the Russian people: because of his track record, most Russians are currently inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But the Russian people of today are not the largely illiterate peasants of the 19th century, nor the semi-educated urban proletariat of the first half of the 20th century. When they start to learn, for example from returning conscripts, what really is happening in Ukraine, it will further shake the foundations of Putin’s regime.
In addition to undermining his own power, Putin has undermined the power of Russia itself. Seeking to exalt Russia’s status, and reaffirm its (apparent) position as a superpower, he might rather have irretrievably shattered its claim to such status. Now, some may object that Russia has suffered similar and worse reverses and humiliations in the past (not least, in the Russo-Japanese War, which triggered the ultimately abortive 1905 revolution, a precedent that Putin will be keenly aware of), and successfully reformed and rebuilt itself and emerged even more powerful than before. (The Imperial Russian Army may have suffered major defeats at the hand of the Imperial German Army in 1914, but that same year it achieved major victories over the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Army.) But, to reiterate what I have said above, modern Russia does not have the resources of either the Tsarist Empire or the Soviet Union. Not the economic resources, not the financial resources, not the natural resources, not the population. Indeed, modern Russia has a demographic crisis. Its population is declining. It can’t just throw young men at an enemy, until that foe is overwhelmed, like the Imperial and Soviet regimes could.
Hence the Kremlin’s desperate attempts to scrape up non-ethnic-Russian manpower (such as Chechens and Syrians) to fight in Ukraine; using conscripts is politically dangerous, and mobilising reservists is impossible. And to be a leading world power, a country needs to have high-tech armed forces, not merely large armed forces. But the harsh light of war has exposed Russia’s high-tech military capabilities as largely being a thin veneer. The bulk of the army still seems to function (when it functions) like a mid-20th century force, and while the air force is pretty high-tech, it can manage only low sortie rates. Russia’s missiles do work, but there don’t seem to be very many of them and their impact has largely (but not always) been limited. And to confront Ukraine’s tiny navy, the Russian Navy drew ships in from its Northern, Baltic and Pacific Fleets, to augment its Black Sea Fleet which, on paper, was, on its own, massively superior to Ukraine’s little fleet.
Western sanctions are going to make it incredibly difficult for Russia to rebuild its high-tech weapons stockpiles, both by reducing the economic and financial resources available to the Kremlin and by halting access to various Western technologies. Likewise, the further modernisation of the Russian armed forces will also be very difficult. China will not be able, on its own, to fill the gap. True, Russia retains a huge nuclear arsenal, but, with a shattered economy, how long can Moscow maintain it? How long before the Kremlin has to bite the bullet and downsize its nuclear forces? (They might try and disguise such a move by seeking to negotiate a nuclear arms reduction treaty with the US.)
Putin has, with good reason, been called a fascist. It looks as if he has turned Russia into 21st century analogue of the 20th century’s Fascist Italy: a state that successfully bluffed the world into accepting it as a giant (and yes, I was one of the ones largely taken in by Putin’s bluffing), only to be exposed as a giant with feet of clay, which crumbled under the stresses of war. Or, to use a more Russian concept, Putin has exposed his country as a Potemkin (village) superpower.
However, although no longer a superpower, Russia would remain a nuclear power, although trending over time to a status much closer to France and the UK and ever further away from the US. And Russia’s future military reach, outside Eurasia, will probably be inferior to that of either the UK or France. And Russia could remain a potential threat to many of its direct neighbours. But this last point depends on how long Putin’s regime lasts, and what replaces it.