Two Ways of Looking at the Russo-Ukrainian War
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Two Ways of Looking at the Russo-Ukrainian War

the winding road up to a stone fortress with a bridge crossing a ditch between the camera level and the next level
The city-side entrance to fortress Hohensalzburg was designed in the 17th century, but many aspects of a 17th century siege would be familiar to a soldier in the Great War or on parts of the front in Ukraine without many drones

In Spring 2024 there were two ways of looking at the war in Ukraine. One was to emphasize that Ukraine was short of troops and artillery ammunition, that Russian forces were capturing a sunflower field here and a village there, and that US aid to Ukraine may end if the Republicans win the next US election. We don’t hear much about the small Ukrainian operations on the east bank of the Dnipro River any more so perhaps they have withdrawn those few hundred men. Ukraine can’t get enough of its young men in uniform, in part because the officials in charge of exemptions and exit permits accept bribes. In this view, Russian forces will grind down Ukrainian forces and force the Ukrainian government to sign over territory. The ground war is not going well for Ukraine. The other way was to emphasize that Ukraine continues to strike Russian naval vessels and ports, destroys Russian aircraft and air defence systems, and launched a strategic bombing campaign against Russian oil refineries. The air and naval war are going better.

If you look at 1942, the Axis were making big advances, bigger than either side has ever achieved in this war. Those advances hidden that they were falling behind in the race to design weapons, produce them, train people to use them, and get those weapons and trained personnel to the front. Their strength relative to the other side was declining. In the First World War, several of the minor European powers got involved early hoping for spoils. This was a dreadful decision, because the thing to do in Europe in WW I was to keep out and sell the belligerents arms and materials. While both Russia and Ukraine have strategic air campaigns against their enemies (Russia attacks Ukrainian power plants, Ukraine attacks refineries and harbours) that shows that Ukraine is not steadily losing capacities like the Axis lost first the ability to bomb Allied cities, then the submarine war and the war in Africa, and were reduced step by step to holding whatever territory they still held.

Its hard to understand the wars of recruitment, training, production, refurbishing, and distribution. Illia Ponomarenko openly talks about the need to defeat corrupt forces inside Ukraine to win the war against Russia, while a Russian soldier says that his brother died in combat in April after enlisting in February and taking two weeks of training. That does not sound like a military which is successfully replacing its casualties with fresh trained soldiers and generating fresh new units of infantry, that sounds like the Soviet Union in January 1942 (the Guardian, for whats its worth, says that new Ukrainian soldiers were receiving 45 days of training in May 2024 which is not good but not as bad; a Ukrainian who fled conscription tells about someone who was conscripted and on the front lines within “days” but that might mean the same thing). The Kyiv Independent claims that military traffic rarely crosses the Kerch Strait bridge and alternative Russian supply lines to the southern front are not great.

Trying to predict the outcome of a war is folly. Perhaps Russian forces will grind down Ukrainian forces enough that they suddenly collapse and Russians can advance tens of kilometers in a day. That was how the First World War ended. But I wish that more people were focusing on these structures and processes rather than battles for individual city blocks or arguments about whose made-up numbers are better. I agree with Phillips P. O’Brien that to understand industrialized wars you need to consider air, sea, ground, production, and distribution and not just ground combat. You also need to bother to learn the local languages and get to know local sources.

I can believe that artillery and air defence ammunition such as 155 mm shells and Patriot missiles were short during the period without US aid, and that Russia was shelling the Ukrainian trenches harder than Ukrainians were shelling Russians. I don’t have to believe I know exactly how many casualties both sides have suffered, or exactly how many Soviet artillery tubes and North Korean shells Russia has left.

The Schwerpunkte of this conflict are the Russian and Ukrainian militaries, and the willingness of EU and Anglo countries to provide arms and funds to Ukraine (and let Russia import goods from Europe via cut-outs in the former USSR). Who controls a wilderness of shattered trees and burnt-out houses matters for the soldiers, the farmers, and the inhabitants, but its not the best guide to which side is becoming relatively stronger or weaker, because one side can achieve short-term tactical gains by expending resources it can’t replace.

(scheduled 31 May 2024)

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1 thought on “Two Ways of Looking at the Russo-Ukrainian War

  1. Sean says:

    A Canadian Forces veteran points out that six weeks of training can be six weeks of how to live in the mud and not be spotted by eye – radar – drones, or six weeks of parade-ground drill and political education. So its easier to see what a state is putting in (how many tanks they take out of storage or recruits they pay) but hard to tell how much effective military power they are getting out. This is one reason why the demands to spend a certain percentage of GDP on ‘defense’ are stupid, because spending more can just mean that people steal or waste more.

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