Many People Died for Nothing

Par Lee Slusher

Feb 8 2023


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The war in Ukraine could go in one of two directions. I described the first in my last article, “Amateur-Hour Armageddon.” This would be for the West to continue escalating to the point of direct conflict with Russia, potentially ending in nuclear war, in which case all bets are off. The second option is for Russia to win decisively enough to set terms for the war’s completion, either through an overwhelming military victory or by forcing a settlement that satisfies Moscow’s core demands. Why are there no other options? Consider the following, which I wrote in a detailed explanation of the war’s origins, only a few days after Russia’s February 2022 invasion:

To be clear, Russia does have the means to capture all of Ukraine, even using only conventional forces. Russia could unleash its army of old and employ mass artillery, followed by mass infantry and mass armor (tanks). Such an approach would exponentially increase military and civilian casualties and would destroy most, if not all, of Ukraine’s infrastructure

All of that remains true today, though when I wrote the passage, the West had not committed fully to a proxy war with Russia. At that time, Western leaders still expected Kyiv to fall within days, and the US government had recently offered President Zelensky assistance to flee the country. The situation then began to change—first incrementally and then suddenly. A profuse flow of Western weapons and targeting intelligence became the life-support on which the entire Ukrainian war effort rested. Western military aid created the mirage of an impending Ukrainian victory, but, like all illusions, this one was fleeting. It remains visible today only through the kaleidoscope of propaganda and the feverish haze of fanaticism. The truth now is what it has been all along: In a war between Russia and Ukraine, Russia wins easily. In a proxy war between Russia and the West in Ukraine, Russia wins eventually—but with far more death and destruction, mostly for Ukraine.

Russia has made military errors, for sure. Chief among them was the assumption that the West would not fuel a proxy war, particularly to such an extent. It was based on this faulty assumption that Russia’s invasion force was inadequate, both in size and tenacity. But now Russia has refocused, and its ongoing mobilization is formidable. Meanwhile, the West is struggling to maintain the supply of materiel necessary for Ukraine to sustain high-intensity warfare. To do so much longer would require largescale industrial mobilization in Western countries, namely the US. However, the war’s popularity is fading, especially as attention focuses more narrowly on economic concerns and other domestic matters.  

Then there is the issue of Ukraine’s ghastly casualty figures. Industrial warfare produces industrial-scale casualties. No one has precise figures for both sides, but a conservative, low-end estimate is that Ukraine—in less than a year—has suffered greater than 150,000 killed in action and several times that number wounded. This for a country that had a reported population of fewer than forty-four million on the day of the invasion, and has since seen greater than seven million flee as refugees. The 2014-2022 Ukrainian military that NATO trained and equipped is no more, and the same is true for the replacement force Kyiv hurriedly assembled and deployed last year. Combined arms maneuver is difficult even for experienced armies, and Ukraine no longer has such an army.

Many prominent commentators foolishly conclude that because the latest and best insights into high-intensity warfare are presently found in Ukraine, the Ukrainians are able to capture and implement these lessons. This is false, at least in any widespread, sustainable sense. The tempo and intensity of the war preclude Ukraine from developing any such institutional memory or learning capability. The Ukrainian war effort is a patient on live support. Worse still, this patient now relies on frequent—and major—organ transplants and blood transfusion to survive. No amount of training elsewhere in Europe or in the US can solve the problem of Ukraine having too few personnel to win or even sustain this fight. No amount of training can replace the mass deaths of experienced officers and professional soldiers. The press-gangs now prowling the streets of Ukraine’s cities and towns cannot bridge this gap. The potential introduction of heretofore unused weapons systems, including Western tanks, will not alter the ultimate outcome of the war in any significant or even perceptible fashion. Meanwhile, Russia is methodically building a force of hundreds of thousands in and around Ukraine, and continues to degrade Ukraine’s manpower and critical capabilities, particularly artillery and air defense.

Kyiv’s clock will run out, likely sooner rather than later.

How Did We Get Here?

Even now, many Westerners—leaders and laypeople alike—believe a host of fictions about Russia’s present circumstances. They believe the Russian military is incompetent and on the brink of failure. They believe the Russian economy is crippled by sanctions and, likewise, on the brink of failure. They believe Russia has become an international pariah, instead of only a Western one. They believe Putin to be mentally ill—perhaps even terminally ill—and always under the constant threat of assassination or forcible removal from office. Some even insist the world prepare for the imminent collapse and dismemberment of modern Russia, which—they demand—must never be allowed to rise from the ashes. 

Most in the West have never really understood Russia. This has been helped, in no small part, by the unflinching insistence of Russians themselves that no one else could possibly understand what it means to be Russian, as if it were some mystical plane of existence. For nearly twenty-five years, I have had to contest the belief—both in English and in Russian—with many of my Russian friends and acquaintances. In my article, “On Appeasement: The Fallacy of Modern Munich Moment,” I detailed how the West spent a solid fifteen years ignoring or otherwise soft-pedaling Moscow’s increasingly aggressive warnings and reactions to the West’s continual expansion along Russia’s periphery. In the interim, it was business as usual, including for European arms manufacturers, some of whom continued to export weapons to Russia until at least 2020. In late 2021, Angela Merkel—so desperate to consummate Nord Stream 2—promised the world Russia would not dare leverage its new pipeline to Germany to marginalize Ukraine, through which much of the pipeline gas to Europe had long flowed. Merkel said this as Russian forces were massing on Ukraine’s border. In July 2022—months after the invasion—the head of Germany’s energy regulatory body said “We are in a situation in which gas is now part of Russian foreign policy and possibly part of its war strategy.” Now a part of foreign policy? Possibly part of war strategy?

Not to be outdone, the US went stark raving mad in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. This was no organic or spontaneous occurrence. From the Steele dossier to online bot hoaxes, American officialdom relied on a manufactured Russian boogeyman to wage a yearslong propaganda campaign on the public. It was Rocky and Bullwinkle, dancing bears, and, of course, vodka—those crazy Russians! There was never a common understanding, much less an acceptance, that Russia—despite its flaws—had long earned its position among the world’s great nations. Russia has contributed as much as any other country to the advancement of the arts, sciences, and technology. Russia has produced world-class athletes (the recent and audacious doping scandals notwithstanding.) Russia controls a formidable military and a vast, capable nuclear arsenal. Glib proclamations that Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country ought to earn officials and pundits a permanent seat at the children’s table of politics.

It was in this brew of ignorance, self-delusion, and outright manipulation that Western perceptions of the ongoing war were born. Over recent decades, I observed how the US defense establishment attempted to influence foreign audiences. These efforts were almost uniformly unsuccessful, often laughably so. New newspapers and radio stations, online engagement, leaflets, community outreach—these things simply do not work very well. It seems people the world over are pretty good arbiters of the “smell test.” The real potential for exploitation lie domestically, as we saw with Russiagate.

Western media outlets not only obediently parrot the words of US and other NATO security officials, but they also routinely publish articles based on information sourced exclusively to Ukrainian security services. Reporters do this despite knowing, for example, that Kyiv operates a sophisticated propaganda machine. There is no adversarial media, no fourth estate. The press is now largely in the business of promoting establishment goals—Ukraine is merely a current fixation. The politico-cultural monolith of government, big business, news and entertainment media, tech, and academia created and enforced a cartoonish depiction of the war. This Leviathan marginalized and discredited attempts at substantive inquiry, discussion, and debate.

The sad and simple truth is Ukraine was never going to win.

Why Does This Matter?

Many people, Ukrainian and Russian, died for nothing.

The continuation of military support to Ukraine has been contingent, in part, on the public perception in the West that Ukraine could win—that the billions in aid would do something other than perpetuate a slaughter until Kyiv’s ultimate demise. Yes, the US and its allies have waged unpopular wars before. For instance, the average Western citizen quickly lost interest in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and, even now, remains largely ignorant of those war’s horrific non-Western casualties—but the wars dragged on anyway. However, mission creep meant something much different then. To wade ever deeper into a national quagmire in a far-flung land is a far cry from rolling the dice on World War III. The Ukraine narrative had to be positive—regardless of facts—or else the push for a proxy war would have been dead on arrival.  

There is another reason why this matters. The lies and obfuscations surrounding the war in Ukraine have masked dangerous realities about military capabilities, both NATO’s and Russia’s. A recent report concluded the British Army could last only a single afternoon in combat against Russia before the British would run out of ammunition. Some may be tempted to dismiss the report, because it came from a British Army think tank. That would be foolish. Decades of budget cuts have reduced the British Army to only a single combat division’s worth of readiness—and one with a fatal sustainability flaw.

The story is the same or worse throughout most European NATO militaries. This was by design. European nations cashed in the “peace dividend” the end of the Cold War produced, and money that had been used to fund large standing armies went to social services. Armies no longer focused on combined arms maneuver. Their goal was no longer “to close with and destroy the enemy,” at least not at scale. So, that capability atrophied. Most European militaries, instead, focused on providing boutique capabilities, often in concert with neighboring countries, such that altogether these militaries could support “out-of-area” operations (i.e., out of Europe). This an approach might be sufficient to sustain peacekeeping operations or low-intensity warfare in the developing world, but “might makes right” in high-intensity engagements. The US faces its own challenges. Here are some hard truths:

  • While NATO has substantial troop numbers in aggregate, most are reservists, not active-duty forces. Such personnel would require a massive mobilization, including refresher training, equipping, stagging, transport, and so on. At present, NATO does not train actively or otherwise preparefor such a mammoth undertaking—a plan on the shelf is no substitute.
  • NATO forces do not train to deploy directly into combat in Europe, at least not in an appropriate size and fashion. Russia’s over-the-horizon weapons systems (e.g., missiles) effectively range much of Europe. So, NATO could not rely on forward staging areas should direct conflict with Russia occur. Groups and individuals do not “rise to the occasion” in war—they fall back on their most effective level of training. Yet, NATO forces in Europe lack any such training to deploy into combat directly from their garrisons.  
  • Even before the West drained its weapons stockpiles to support the war in Ukraine, it lacked sufficient materiel to engage in sustained, high-intensity warfare. No domestic industrial mobilization has occurred since in any NATO country. This calls into question whether such a mobilization could occur quickly enough to stave off defeat should war with Russia occur suddenly.
  • Then, of course, there are concerns about getting the materiel where it needs to be. Russia only recently began to degrade Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, and has not attacked any infrastructure in NATO countries. This would change quickly. Even without a Russian onslaught, Europe lacks the rail throughput and cargo vehicle capacity to support such an operation. Most of Europe’s bridges cannot even support the weight of some main battle tanks, such as the Abrams.
  • The US was always meant to be the heavy lifter in NATO. Other members were never supposed to shirk their responsibilities as they have long done, but their primary purpose was to “hold the line” until America could mobilize its tremendous military might. But very little of that might is left, in terms both of numbers and of skill. Most US personnel currently serving joined after the move away from high-intensity conflict. In fact, many of those who joined in response to the attacks of 9/11 have completed full careers and retired. This current version of the US military knows how to conduct low-intensity warfare using high-tech systems in an largely uncontested environment. US troops have come to rely on easy access to air support, as well as aerial resupply and transportation—all of which is predicated upon the very air superiority that would be in jeopardy due to Russia’s air defenses. US forces would find themselves subject to sustained air attack for the first time in generations. A similar reality applies to the US’s reliance on GPS navigation and targeting, which would suffer—not only jamming and spoofing—but also from Russia’s anti-satellite weapons.

There are other critical deficiencies, but these are sufficient to illustrate NATO’s poor levels of readiness, training, sustainment, and so on. NATO’s lavish, glass headquarters in Brussels belies these realities. While it is true Russia has deficiencies of its own, we should remember the old military adage about the need to “get there the firstest with the mostest.” In Europe at the present time, Russia has done this. It has hundreds of thousands of men in the field supported by well-established supply lines, and its defense industry has already mobilized. Its people at home, by and large, are supportive of this wartime posture, despite the propaganda to the contrary.  

Some might point to advanced capabilities NATO could unleash on Russia. These exist, for sure, but Russia has its own, not limited to hypersonic missiles. Consider electronic warfare. Not only are Russia’s capabilities arguably more advanced, but the country has a layered array of systems—tactical, operation, and strategic—all along its western periphery. These systems “reach” into Ukraine and NATO countries. This highlights a key difference between the American and Russian militaries. The US military is an expeditionary force by design—it is meant to fight somewhere else. The Russian military is designed to defend Russia. In order for the US’s design to be effective in sustained conflict, a massive months-long build up is required. This is evident in each part of the US war machine, from the administrative architecture dictated by the Goldwater–Nichols Act to the very equipment the US purchases. Everything is designed for use in a foreign operation that can be freely supported by unfettered, international logistical support. But Russia would contest the very sea and air lanes on which this support relies. Meanwhile, Russia can not only fight in its own backyard, but it also stands ready to fire from inside its own house. This is not to say Russia would necessarily win a protracted conflict with NATO—I have no crystal ball. This is intended as a reality check on the present circumstances—and a very necessary and dire one at that.

Consider, too, that Europe already sees massive protests against sanctions on Russia, weapons for Ukraine, and even NATO membership. How much appetite is there for war with Russia, particularly for people accustomed to peace and prosperity who, until recently, never imagined war might come to their doorstep? Should Russia achieve some quick wins, or should NATO suffer even a fraction of Donbas-level casualties, what then? Would the war end or, perhaps, would NATO dissolve into a coalition of the willing? At that point, the battlefield geometry of Europe would change in ways not yet envisioned, as critical ports, airfields, and ground routes could become closed to NATO forces. Western leaders’ unshakable obsession with and dedication to the Atlanticist project had produced a dangerous lack of imagination.   

Some readers might still baulk at my arguments. If Russia is so capable, why has it yet to take Ukraine? Some insist that if Russia had an “easy button” in this war, it would have used it already. The implication, of course, is that the Russia military is somehow deficient, and ought not concern us too deeply. These people miss the point—two points, really.

First, Russia’s advanced capabilities, like hypersonic missiles and electronic warfare, were a response to the US’s overmatch in the categories of joint warfare and global strike capabilities, particularly as seen in the First Gulf War. The US, at that time, still had a massive standing military that was extraordinarily capable in high-intensity warfare. The way in which this force dismembered the Iraqi military, then one of the world’s largest, terrified leaders not only Moscow but also in Beijing. Russia knew it could not go toe-to-toe with this behemoth without resorting to nuclear weapons and, therefore, had to seek out advantages in other areas. So, Russia made good use of its population’s tremendous STEM talent to produce advanced weapons systems. Again, these systems are intended for use against the US in an existential conflict. Though some such systems have seen service in Ukraine, many others have not, or else the US and others would have to the opportunity to develop countermeasures. Russia has fought a very limited campaign.

Second, if an enemy refuses to surrender, its forces must be destroyed—and this is a very painstaking process. We in the West have largely forgotten this lesson, but Russia has not. In fact, it excels at this task, much like its predecessor, the Red Army. This is why, in the first few days of the war, I noted “Russia could unleash its army of old and employ mass artillery, followed by mass infantry and mass armor.” It took some time for Russia to mobilize properly, but its vaunted artillery forces are now engaged, backed up by ever growing numbers of infantry and armor. Those who refer to Russia’s lack of an “easy button” fail to grasp the limits of sophisticated capabilities and quick wins in high-intensity warfare. This sort of conflict, at its core, requires the ability to assemble large formations and to move them “to the sound of the guns” in coordinated, combined arms maneuver. The Russian military does this very well—they are not amateurs.  

The Coming Pivot

Western leaders have busily moved the goalpost throughout the entirety of the war. In the early days, the Biden Administration offered Zelensky a “ride” out of the country amid reports that Chechen hit squads were roaming Kyiv in search of him. Within a few months, we heard almost confident proclamations that Ukraine just might be able to win. After several months more, not only was Ukraine winning, we were told, but retired generals and others began to speak of returning Donetsk, Luhansk, and even Crimea to Kyiv’s dominion.

Assuming the war does not escalate to a direct conflict between NATO and Russia, Western leaders will have to pivot as the Russian steamroller makes clear to everyone what the ultimate outcome had been all along. This involuntary Western disengagement from Ukraine will prompt a blame game. The process will appear to be contentious and, perhaps for some individuals, it will be. But, mostly, it will be political theater. The appearance of introspection and accountability is a necessary step in this mass act of self-absolution. We are likely to hear some variations of the following:

  • On one end of the excuse spectrum sit the diehards, who will continue to claim NATO should have intervened directly, consequences be damned. Such people represent a large part of the constituency that currently dismisses all concerns over the potential of nuclear escalation.  
  • Next are those who will maintain NATO did nothing wrong, because “we had to do something.” They will persist in the charade that democracy and the liberal international order are one and the same. They will make no mention of the 2014 coup or of the deep, longstanding divisions within Ukraine that invalidate claims the war was fought for self-determination. They will say nothing of the immense human costs of “doing something.”
  • Then come the much more sanguine geopolitical strategists for whom it was all worth it to “weaken Russia.” These people currently make clever arguments to have it appear the war is a financial bargain for the US. They do so while making no mention of the appalling casualties or of how their calls for the dismemberment of Russia helped to cement the resolve of the Russian government and people, and likely accelerated the realization of Russia’s goal of a multipolar world. Likewise, they will ignore the Russian military’s newfound strength, size, and combat experience. This group will have a much more limited run as ongoing events will undermine its core claims.
  • The most technical of the bunch will be the tacticians who followed the war’s various battles in intricate detail. This is the “if only” group. If only NATO had supplied this or that weapons system earlier, everything would have turned out differently.
  • Lastly are the self-appointed visionaries who will call for us to “reimagine” NATO and the EU. It was a mistake, they will say, to have insisted full compliance with standards was necessary for admittance. Instead, nations should be welcomed based on the need for collective defense, with the ultimate goal of meeting other necessary requirements in good time. Many such people currently demand that whatever is left of Ukraine be granted NATO membership at war’s end, as if this had not been among the primary violations of Moscow’s red lines from the very start. This continued intransigence from NATO tells Moscow its military operation must not cease too early.          

Washington DC, like the capitals of its European vassal states, does not hesitate to pivot away from disastrous policies. For instance, who still discusses what happened in Kabul less than two years ago? However, Ukraine is different for the West, not only because it is part of Europe, but also because support for the war quickly devolved into a public spectacle of unprecedented, maximalist delusion. Western leaders indulged a rarefied worldview in which they saw themselves as too sophisticated to play by any rules other than their own newly established ones. Their normative and moralistic demands outweighed all practical imperatives and considerations. As a result, only one side understood it was in a knife fight.

Reality is now sinking in as those atop the US government develop a much fuller view of the scale of the destruction in Ukraine. This is particularly true of the real body count, which cannot be kept hidden for much longer. These officials understand the political necessity of distancing their own reckless policies from Ukraine’s impending collapse. Otherwise, it will be all too obvious that Ukraine lost a generation of its young men—as well as its sovereignty—all on a fool’s errand for foreign elites who will incur no personal cost for having orchestrated the calamity. 

(This piece belongs to the thematic series, “Western Leadership and Other Myths.”)

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