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After the Cavalry Didn't Charge.
What are we going to do when Ukraine is over?
As I pointed out last week, the war in Ukraine is exactly the kind of crisis that NATO was originally created to deal with, yet militarily, the alliance did effectively nothing. But let’s suppose the rhetoric about increasing defence budgets and expanding the militaries of western states was seriously pursued as a policy. How easy would it be? Not very. In fact, there’s a good argument that it’s scarcely feasible at all. Here’s why.
For the forty years of the Cold War, NATO members retained large, powerful conventional forces with an elaborate command and control system, in case there was a major war with the Soviet Union and its allies. Although a war like that was never regarded as likely, it was still thought possible, not least because the longer the Cold War lasted, the more deeply ingrained became the mutual suspicion of the two blocs. Exercise scenarios in those days often began with a political crisis over a third country: Yugoslavia was a favourite.
Well, that scenario has now more or less come to pass. A political crisis in Eastern Europe has turned nasty, and the Russians have invaded a country supported by the West. And the reaction? NATO wants you to know that it is really, really cross, and it’s sending some equipment and imposing some sanctions as an indication of just how cross it is. Which is odd behaviour for a military alliance specifically founded to counter Russia, but quite explicable in term of the changes in the underlying balance of forces that I discussed last week.
But let’s go beyond that. Let’s assume a serious effort by western states to re-build their military capability to something like the level of the Cold War. What would that entail? Would it be even possible?
The first question is just one of the concept. In the Cold War, the two sides both believed that any war between them would be the Big One, an existential struggle for survival which would be fought out to the end. NATO hoped, but didn’t necessarily expect, that the conflict could be contained to the conventional level: it’s less clear that the Warsaw Pact did. This was why the use of nuclear weapons was expected, and planned for by both sides. The assumption of the Big One dictated strategies and force structures, and produced militaries on a high state of readiness for a short, brutal war of unprecedented violence, at the end of which the combatants would be largely disarmed and their economies in ruins. By contrast, it’s not obvious what any serious conflict between Russia and the West today would actually be about, in the absence of the kind of apocalyptic stakes that existed during the Cold War. What are the differences between Russia and the West that might justify blowing up the world? NATO’s exclusively non-militarily reaction to Ukraine is not just a sign of relative weakness, it’s more importantly a recognition that vital interests aren’t involved. So what would vital interests be, then? I don’t think anyone knows.
For that reason, it’s probably best to leave nuclear weapons out of the argument. Their main utility is political, after all, and a threat to use them would only ever be taken seriously if the very survival of a nuclear power were at stake. It’s honestly hard to imagine how we could arrive there, no matter how stupid you may think your least-favourite politicians of the moment are. So, let’s start from the hypothesis of a conventional war between Russia and some or all western nations. Where would that be, exactly?
If you look at a map it’s not obvious. Taking the most likely outcome of the current war—the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine as independent republics with close ties to Russia—then Russian forces would only be on the borders of the Baltic states and Norway, as now. If the Finns and Swedes were to join NATO formally (and the Swedes have been informal members for generations) then there would be an expanded northern zone of contact between the Russians and some NATO states. But assuming that neither Russia nor NATO set out to provoke another crisis, then there is no obvious reason why there should be conflict in that area. If there were a general crisis between Russia and the West leading to war, then there would be little point in attacking only in those areas. The Russians would want to ensure their unrestricted use of the Murmansk naval base, especially to get their nuclear missile submarines to sea, but that would be a subsidiary part of any general offensive.
So if you were a political leader, and your military came to ask what threat they should actually plan, train and exercise against, then the only one that makes any sense would be a main advance through Belarus towards Poland, with a southward thrust towards Ukraine and Romania/Bulgaria. Now the first question is whether the Russians would actually be capable of doing that. Let's stipulate that for some reason they just have to be able to take Warsaw as a minimum objective, while neutralising Ukraine and Romania, and let’s start with distance.
Well, assuming you concentrate your forces around Minsk, the distance to Warsaw is then about 600 km, comparable to the sort of distances covered by the Allied armies from the Normandy beach-heads in June 1944 to the surrender of Germany a year later. It’s about as far as the Red Army advanced in one of its final offensives in January-February 1945, where the Russians could field two million men against an exhausted and massively inferior German Army. And that only gets you as far as Warsaw. By then, you’ve already got lines of communication and supply extending hundreds of kilometres through hostile territory, and a presumably unhappy Ukraine to worry about, as well as the threat of NATO forces in Slovakia and Hungary to the South, and the Baltic States to the North.
Oh yes, manpower. The total strength of the Russian military is about one million, including all the branches, with about two million reservists. That sounds a lot, but of course only a fraction of those are combat troops who can be used in a modern high-technology ground war. The Russians seem to be employing about a 100,000 troops in current operations in the Ukraine, and that’s probably close to the maximum effort they can make in any one operation outside the country, particularly as about two-thirds of their total strength is conscripts. By contrast, the old group of Soviet forces in the GDR alone had a strength of some 350,000 men. Overrunning Europe would be problematic, therefore.
And where would the battles take place, and how? In the Cold War, the two forces were actually facing each other in essentially in the positions they occupied in 1945. The British, French and American forces, like the Soviets, were repurposed versions of the occupying armies at the end of WW2. Over several decades, a huge infrastructure of barracks, training areas and airfields was added to what remained of the historical infrastructure in Germany. The only comparable area today is Poland. So are we going to deploy our shiny new armies along the Polish-Belarusian border? Has anybody asked the Poles what they think about turning their country into an armed camp, as Germany used to be? Who’s going to pay for all that?
But let’s say that some, at least, of the wilder promises of military expansion and rearmament are maintained, rather than being quietly forgotten. Lots more money is voted, and some kind of future NATO concept is finally agreed. That’s the easy bit, though. The first problem is time, and history may help a bit here. You don’t build up and equip armed forces overnight. So the British, and French governments all started rearming after 1934. Even at 1930s levels of technology, though, neither was fully ready by 1939. Radar, like the Spitfires and Hurricanes, only just arrived in time for the Battle of Britain. At least the British had some government-owned arms factories: in France, successive governments found that the private sector simply wasn’t that interested in producing complex military systems where there was no guarantee of long term orders. These days, of course, it’s a lot worse. The western armaments industry is small, heavily concentrated and internationalised. It makes small numbers —often just a handful each month—of highly sophisticated and complex platforms. So the first thing you would need to do is set up a lot more factories, as the British did in the 1930s. For that, you need many more skilled engineers and a highly qualified workforce, and the time and materials to build the factories. You need raw materials and components to make the weapons and equipment, many of which come from far away, quite a few from China. And you’ll be competing with everyone else for the same raw materials and components.
You’ll need more personnel, of course. For a start, there’s an obvious limit to the number of people in any country who can be high-tech military specialists: not just fast jet pilots, but also officers or at least senior NCOs in a modern high-technology Army or Air Force. For most of those who can, it won’t be an attractive career. Few military personnel just carry a rifle around these days, and the militaries of most countries struggle to retain the technical specialists they do have, in the face of better salaries and conditions of work elsewhere. Modern militaries today are very small by the standards of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Take the Bundeswehr, for example. At the height of the Cold War, it had half a million active personnel, and millions of reservists. It now has less than a third of the active strength it had then , and only handfuls of reservists. Its once mighty Army has shrunk to 60,000 personnel, and it is also badly weakened by many years of underfunding. But it still has trouble attracting enough technical specialists, even at its present size.
This problem is insoluble without the return of military service. It doesn’t need to be universal: it can be highly selective, as in Russia, while maintaining an expanded permanent professional cadre. But is that even remotely politically feasible in most countries? By the end of the Cold War, military service had often dropped to token levels (typically six months) but it was still generally accepted politically: after all, Soviet forces were not that far away. But a selective military service scheme, where often the better educated and more technically skilled receive the call, isn’t going to be popular, especially if it means Belgian conscripts spending six months in a barracks on the Polish/Belorussian frontier. And if you double or triple the size of the military, you need to double or triple the number of officers and senior NCOs, since someone has to lead, train and administer them. You can’t just magically find people with perhaps two years’ initial training and 10-15 years of experience. And of course you need a large auxiliary workforce of administrators, educators, cooks, domestic staff, security guards, medical personnel, and half a hundred other specialities.
Where are you going to train them? For a hundred years until the end of the Cold War, western nations set up a huge infrastructure to house, feed and train large numbers of conscripts every year. Almost all of that has been sold off: there are often luxury flats today where the flagpoles once stood. You couldn’t even think of returning to the sort of militaries the West had a generation ago without massive programmes of land purchase (or seizure) and new building construction. And that’s only individual basic training. You then need to set up new establishments, with new instructors and support staff, for the technical and specialist training. After which comes collective training, for which you need ranges and exercise areas. And of course there will be a lot more flying training, which is notoriously noisy and disruptive. There are some things you can’t do by Zoom.
But let’s assume you’ve done this. Over ten difficult years, you have doubled or tripled the size of your forces at huge expense and with enormous disruption, reintroduced selective national service, and fielded your shiny new military. What do you do with it? Where do you put it? In the Cold War, there were permanent British, Dutch, German, Belgian and US forces stationed in Germany itself, with French forces ready to move in. So are we going to do the same thing in Poland? Will Italian and Croatian forces be stationed in Romania? If not, are the Dutch going to set up and maintain a transport and logistic infrastructure enabling them to deploy a distance of perhaps 1500km to the Polish border?
I could go on. But the answer to all these question is self-evidently “no.” There will be token measures, ritual chest-beating, some rebuilding of capability and quite a lot of extra money, often wasted. But for severely practical reasons, anything resembling the size and type of the NATO deployments in the Cold War simply isn’t going to happen. What, then?
Well, we wind up with a very curious situation. The Russians will secure their frontiers and develop a protective glacis against western incursions. But the nearest Russian soldier will still be perhaps 6-700 kilometres away from the nearest NATO frontier. And the Russians will have neither the capability not the intention to go much further west, without being provoked by some catastrophic political crisis which for the moment we can’t even imagine.
So at first sight, things should settle down, and in the end not change very much. The West glowering at Russia, Russia glowering at the West, with perhaps a few Russian troops in Belarus and a few NATO troops in Poland. Can we go back to where we were before? Not so fast. As I explained in the previous essay, the underlying economic and military situation has been changing for a while. It just hasn’t been consciously registered by western leaders. Europe will continue to be dependent on Russia for natural gas and a whole range of other raw materials, while Russia doesn’t really depend on the West for much except luxuries. Ambitious plans to replace Russian natural gas may succeed over a long enough time and with enough investment, but no amount of investment can mine scare metals that were not in the ground in the first place. (The West can’t supply its own needs for titanium, for example: Russia can.) There will be repercussions, though for the moment it’s not clear how things will turn out.
But on the military side, the position will be starker. Russia will be able to use force to keep any foreign military presence away from its borders. It can stop any western attempt to expand into Belarus, and it can keep Ukraine disarmed, by force if necessary. And there will be nothing the West can do about it. (As I’ve explained, nuclear weapons are simply not relevant here.) As a result, Europe will have to get used to living with a Russia which, whilst not a super-power, is militarily superior to any reasonable combination of European states, assuming they could operate together, and which can defeat any plausible US force despatched to Europe.
One reason for this is precisely the lack of a common frontier. The only way that Europe and Russia can directly threaten or strike each other is by air, and there, Russia has a massive advantage. Now, this is not in manned aircraft. Individually, NATO air-superiority aircraft and pilots are almost certainly superior to their Russian equivalents. But that’s soccer, and the Russians are playing rugby. Their air defence system is effectively impenetrable by Western aircraft without horrific casualties, which would risk ultimately disarming the nations sending the aircraft. If, say, NATO sent a hundred strike aircraft against Russia in one mission, and the Russians used a thousand missiles to destroy them, their infrastructure and support, on the ground or in the air, Russia could replace those missiles in months, whereas NATO would take perhaps five years to regenerate the same capability with trained pilots and support personnel. And with conventional bomb-loads, how much damage could the aircraft and missiles actually reaching the target manage to do? The Russians have spent decades building on the impressive old Soviet Air Defence system, to produce a capability to stop the vast majority of attacks on their territory by aircraft and missiles, and with NATO’s current inventory, the alliance is simply not able to threaten enough damage. The Russians, on the other hand, have invested a great deal of money in high-precision, long-range conventional missiles, which are difficult or even impossible to stop, in spite of laborious efforts by NATO over the last twenty years to develop anti-missile defence. These are not super-weapons, and there may not be many of them, but they change the strategic landscape entirely. The West can’t hurt Russia very much, but Russia can hurt the West a lot more.
As I’ve suggested before, the political and media classes are often slow to appreciate the consequences of changes in the underlying economic and strategic realities, and tend to coast along like bicycles going downhill. This new situation will take some getting used to, but may, in the end, turn out to be stabilising. Neither Russia nor the West has any real reason to attack the other. Neither can launch a major ground attack against the others’ vital interests, and neither has any reason to resort to nuclear weapons. All we have to hope for is a minimum amount of common sense and rationality: you know, the kind of thing that hasn’t been much in evidence recently.