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Round Two? There Is No Round Two.
Game pretty much over in Ukraine.
Now that the Global West seems finally to understand that the war in Ukraine is going terminally badly for Kiev, its opinion-formers are comforting themselves with the thought that this is only Round One, and that there are still five or even ten years of juicy opportunities to bring down the Russian Bear by all sorts of devious means, and to finally plant the NATO flag on the roof of the Kremlin. They are deluded, of course, but it’s useful to take a step back and consider just how deluded they are, and why that is.
I’m not going to say much about the current Ukrainian “offensive,” because I’m not a military specialist, and anyway it may already be mostly over by the time you read this. It seems as though the predictions of a bloody shambles made by experts in advance of the operation are probably coming true, and that, in days or at most weeks, depending on how hard the Ukrainians try to push, their military capability will be largely destroyed. Not many western pundits seem to have thought through the consequences of that, so we’ll do it for them. But in the meantime the punditocracy is entertaining and occupying itself with new scenarios which it believes it can force on the Russians, either in return for “concessions”that NATO might make, or because … well, that’s an interesting question: they are deluded, after all.
So let’s look at this issue in two parts: first, what is likely to happen at the strategic level over the rest of this year, and second, whether there is anything, no matter how limited, that NATO can do to change the likely longer-term outcome. If you’ve read some of my earlier writings on the subject, you may feel there is degree of repetition here, but, to be honest, since neither what I’ve written, nor what much more distinguished people with much larger audiences have written, seems to have penetrated the thick skulls of the punditocracy, we’d better have another go.
What’s going on in Ukraine at the moment is a kind of heavy-metal armoured warfare, the like of which has not been seen since the fighting in about the same geographical area between 1941 and 1945. Its traditional characteristics are extremely large all-arms forces operating over tens of thousands of square kilometres, by day and night, using massive amounts of indirect fire and concentrating on attrition of the enemy forces, rather than capturing territory for its own sake. Individual campaigns lasted weeks and even months, and were decided as much by logistics and production capability as by combat. And combat itself required the capability to juggle priorities and integrate the operations of complete Divisions and Armies working together.
That much, any history book will tell you, although you have to see it depicted on a large enough scale before you really understand what it means. A lifetime ago, I used to play table-top war games with a group of friends, and the first time we played the venerable War in the East I remember looking at the maps spread all over the table and the many hundreds of unit counters, and the sheer scale of the campaign, in stunned silence. “Bloody hell!” said someone, eventually. I think we got about as far as the end of June 1941 that Sunday.
It’s got a lot more complex since 1941, of course. Long-range, high precision missiles now enable control of the air and destruction of distant ground targets. Drones and attack helicopters seem to be a particularly fearsome combination, destroying enemy vehicles from a safe distance. Utterly terrifying weapons like the TOS-1 Fuelled-Air Explosive system make the use of buildings as shelters mostly a waste of time. And so on and so on. But what does this mean in the strategic sense?
Well, think of it as a game with rules, where you have to qualify to play. You can’t turn up for a golf tournament with a single old club; you can’t take part in a poker game without a stake; even Django Reinhardt or Eric Clapton couldn’t get much sound out of a plastic guitar with half the strings missing. Now this doesn’t mean that you can’t amuse yourself tapping a golf ball around, it doesn’t mean that you are completely penniless, it doesn’t mean that you can’t play a scale on a single string. But it does mean you are out of the big game. It’s quite possible that in a month’s time, Ukraine will still be able to field a couple of hundred armoured vehicles, including tanks, perhaps a hundred artillery pieces, and perhaps 30,000 western-trained infantry. But they might as well not bother, because these are likely to be in penny-packets, in units which have been badly mauled and have taken heavy casualties.
The military talk about something called force-to-space ratios. These have increased massively since the nineteenth century, when the main challenge was just finding out where the enemy’s Army actually was. From 1914/15 armies became large enough that it was possible to establish a continuous front, such that the enemy couldn’t move forward anywhere without assaulting and overcoming the troops facing them. Even in the vast spaces of Russia between 1941 and 1945 the front stabilised after a while, as the Soviet system generated entire new armies. In addition, possession of key terrain such as high ground and rivers, as well as towns and communications hubs, make the process of maintaining a continuous line easier, and assaulting it correspondingly more difficult. And of course you don’t need to stand on every inch of terrain if you can control it by indirect fire or airpower. Up to now, the Ukrainians have largely managed to keep a continuous front, to the degree that the Russians have not tried any of the massive outflanking manoeuvres the West was expecting, because that would be expensive, and leave their troops exposed.
But increasingly, they don’t need to. There will come a point fairly soon where the number and capability of Ukrainian forces, their density, if you like, declines to the point that they can no longer hold a continuous line. Note that it’s not just about numbers. Modern warfare is frighteningly complex, and one element relies on many others to operate properly. We can see the results for the Ukrainians of having lost their airpower and helicopter capabilities some time ago, and now steadily losing what remains of their artillery capability. So let’s assume for the sake of argument that in two weeks time the Ukrainians still have, oh, fifty modern tanks of various types and three times that number of armoured personnel carriers. But they will be scattered over a wide area, quite possibly out of communication with each other and with their superior commanders, and made up of disparate groups of equipments and personnel trained in different places by different nations according to slightly different principles. There may be ammunition and spares but no tanks, or tanks without ammunition, and the units themselves will only be viable until they run out of fuel or something breaks. It’s highly improbable that they would all be able to operate together as an organised group, even if they were collected together and adequately supplied. At that point, the Ukrainian forces will have such a low density compared to the size of the terrain that they will cease to be a threat and will become a nuisance. Of course, they can continue to carry out ambushes and hit and run attacks, but if the Russians decide to move forward, all the Ukrainians can do is slow them down.
But won’t Kiev simply create more units from conscripts, willing or otherwise, and send them to the front? Maybe, but armed with what? The West has no more heavy equipment left to send, and it scarcely seems credible that western powers would disarm themselves completely by taking much of their operational capability from their own front-line units and sending it to Ukraine, to be destroyed just as advanced western equipment currently is now. In any event, such a force could not be put together much before the end of the year, and during the interim period the Russians would be able to do pretty much what they wanted to. Dismounted infantry or infantry in jeeps might be able to harass advancing Russian troops but that would be all, and they would become pretty useless with the approach of the autumn rains, whilst the Russians would be able to advance quickly along roads and railway lines. There is, in fact, a historical example which gives some indication of how difficult it would be to stop such an advance without heavy weapons. In 1944, one of the tasks of the French Resistance was to hold up German reserves from elsewhere in France reaching the main battle in Normandy after the Allied landings. The Resistance forces, reconfigured as the Internal French Forces (FFI) were trained by British and American instructors and by French Army officers, for about the period of time that recent Ukrainian forces have been trained recently, mostly in small-unit tactics. The FFI fought heroically and with heavy casualties, and did succeed in slowing the Germans down, but never succeeded in actually defeating a formed German unit. And the Germans had effectively no air power to rely on, and were operating in hostile territory at the end of difficult supply lines. In effect, therefore, even tens of thousands of rifle-carrying foot-soldiers, no matter how well motivated, would only be a speed bump for the Russians.
And what would the Russians themselves do? I have no idea, and I’m not sure that the Russians have decided anyway, but there are some obvious alternatives open to them. (Putin’s remarks yesterday left a series of possibilities open.) They will, no doubt advance to a line which gives them control of all major cities and transport hubs, and enables them to satisfy the political commitment to control all of the areas that voted to become part of Russia. What they will do after that is anyone’s guess, but it is unlikely to involve large-scale territorial conquest because, although that would be militarily possible, it would also be logistically complicated, politically messy, and strategically unnecessary. Let’s just make a glancing reference back to Clausewitz who said, you will remember, that “War is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” And he argued that the simplest way to do this compelling was the destruction of the enemy’s military capability. Whilst things can often be more complicated than that, the current war does actually illustrate the principle quite well. Ukraine’s armed forces are practically used up, and cannot be reconstituted in any useful timescale. When your country is disarmed, you don’t have many options other than to do what you are told, and it may be assumed that the Russians have a shopping-list of demands which they will present to the Ukrainians at the appropriate time. These might include mass demobilisation, supervised destruction of remaining armoured vehicles and aircraft, departure of all foreign troops, handing over of individuals for trial, joint patrols along a line of demarcation, and a whole range of other measures that at the moment we can’t foresee. Since the Russians will have the power to punish violations, it will be difficult or impossible for the Ukrainians to refuse.
In the longer term, the Russians will be able to prevent the re-militarisation of Ukraine, by force if necessary, and ensure that there is a government in Kiev that realises that disarmed neutrality is in the best interests of the country. So it’s likely that the immediate Russian objective is to turn Ukraine into a kind of Finland Plus: neutral, without foreign forces, and with a limited and purely defensive military capability. Now it’s obviously possible that Ukrainian ultra-nationalists (if there are any left) will try to carry on some kind of “armed struggle,” probably through terrorist attacks. But this is problematic for a number of reasons, the main one of which is that any conceivable Ukrainian government is not going to want to suffer the consequences of Russian displeasure at such attacks, and will try to stop them happening. In addition, history does not furnish many promising examples of success. In Algeria, the French constructed the Challe and Morice Lines, which effectively prevented the nationalists from infiltrating fighters into the country from Tunisia. A generation later, the apartheid regime in South Africa was able to use technical and human resources, and the vast spaces of Namibia and the Western Cape, to make infiltration of the ANC’s military forces from Angola massively costly. Veterans tell of losing 30-50% of their forces before they even crossed onto their own country. The Russians will be in a much stronger position, albeit that some level of domestic terrorism will probably have to be accepted, if only for a few years.
But of course Russian aims go much wider than just a non-threatening Ukraine, even if that is what’s obsessing western pundits for the moment. Ironically, and as a result of NATO and the EU never really being able to kick the Cold War habit, we may finally be approaching that situation which was so feared during the Cold War itself: the Finlandisation of Europe. Forty years ago, it was believed (or argued anyway) that Soviet military dominance over NATO was becoming so pronounced that unless European nations spent much more on defence, they would soon slide into the kind of ambiguous neutrality typified by Finland at the time. This was, of course, a political argument for more defence spending and bigger armed forces, and it was never very convincing. But by the deepest of ironies something like that same situation has now actually come to pass, as a result of NATO’s belief that it could simultaneously provoke and insult Russia whilst also effectively doing away with its capacity to match Russia in any traditional heavy-metal armed conflict that might result. It’s actually quite hard to get your head around just how stupid this policy was, but there we are, it’s done now, and the West has to live with it.
What this policy means in practice is that, as I have argued, the West is now, and will be for the foreseeable future, significantly quantitatively inferior militarily to Russia in Europe, and more generally inferior in certain areas of military technology as a whole. Moreover, as I’ve also argued, in practice it will be impossible to re-build western forces to anything like the level they were at during the Cold War. I see no reason to change either of these assessments. Now of course this inferiority is not global, in either sense of that word: the West continues to have a considerable advantage in Carrier Battle Groups, and possibly in the technology involved in Nuclear Attack Submarines (SSNs), though Mr Martyanov might noisily dispute the latter point. But the fact is that Carrier Battle Groups, whilst excellent for power projection against non-peer enemies, are actually fairly useless for anything else. It’s hard to imagine them playing any serious role in a military conflict in Europe, for example.
Huge amounts of western investment are also tied up in air superiority aircraft, and there are reasons to think that this an almost total waste of money now, partly because of the way that technology has been moving, but, more importantly because of the asymmetric nature of western and Russian conceptions of the use of airpower itself.
Briefly, the theory of air power has progressed through a series of metaphors, and western airpower, as it now exists, is the consequence of the dominant series of metaphors at the end of the Cold War. Military aviation started from the metaphor of light cavalry: it would “leap over” (in the favourite phrase of the time) the armies slugging it out on the ground, and perform the traditional light cavalry functions of reconnaissance and screening one’s own troops. The latter function led in turn to the adoption of the metaphor of “control of the air” from naval terminology, and early literature was full of predictions of massive battles between “air fleets” to dominate the sky. This never happened. Finally, as aircraft became larger and more capable, air power enthusiasts started to adopt metaphors of shock attack and bombardment, indifferently cribbed from artillery, battleships and heavy cavalry.
In fact, none of these metaphors ever really applied. In particular, “air control” struggles between fighters were rare to non-existent. The Battle of Britain in 1940, for example, was not really a contest between fighters, but between British fighters and German bombers, with German fighters trying to get in the way. It was the number of bombers destroyed that decided the outcome. Nonetheless, the “air control” metaphor survived into the Cold War, through several generations of fighter aircraft, whose main role would have been intercepting Soviet conventional bombers over the North Sea. The appearance of fast and powerful Soviet fighters like the MiG-25 (which was actually a specialist interceptor, designed to counter high-flying US nuclear bombers and was effectively obsolescent when introduced) suggested the need for western fighters to counter them in turn. Beginning in the 1980s, concepts were developed which led eventually to aircraft like the Rafale, the Typhoon and more recently the F-35: enormously expensive and sophisticated air superiority fighters, which in many ways were unemployed before they entered service, but which supplied the felt need for an “air control” aircraft. The problem, of course, was that the Russians had never had a similar doctrine, and didn’t intend to fight the new NATO aircraft with other aircraft, but with missiles, so the F-35, for example, actually has very little to do: it is like a motor-bike entered in a go-cart race.
Because of the frightening cost of these aircraft, they have inevitably become the de facto platform for all purposes, and are expected to do everything, thus increasing the cost even further. The result is a generation of aircraft which are unlikely ever to be needed in their primary role, since they will not face an adversary that has the same doctrine, and so get pressed into service performing subsidiary roles that simpler and cheaper aircraft could do better: the equivalent of chartering a helicopter to take you to the local supermarket. In the early days of the conflict in Mali, the French Air Force used Rafales, flying out of metropolitan France and refuelled several times, to bomb Islamic State militant concentrations. One former Mission Commander calculated that it cost around a million Euros to kill a single jihadist, but the Rafale was the only aircraft available.
Thus, the West is at a massive structural and doctrinal disadvantage with airpower, and it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine what practical military tasks its air forces might successfully perform in a hypothetical conflict with Russia. There’s a good chance, in fact, that the age of the air-superiority aircraft is finally over, given the unprecedented advances in missile technology of the last few decades, and the mind numbing cost of individual airframes today. Now, it’s often said that NATO doctrine presupposes air superiority. This isn’t really true historically: in the Cold War NATO never expected to challenge, let alone overcome, Warsaw Pact control of the airspace over their own forces. Its aircraft relied on flying low and fast to survive in the most hostile air defence environment in the world, while hoping to retain at least some margin of air superiority over NATO territory. It’s truer to say that NATO has been operating for twenty years in environments where air control (and thus its fighter aircraft) are simply irrelevant, and the artillery metaphor of air power has been dominant.
It’s the same with tanks. NATO trained, exercised and equipped its forces to fight a defensive battle over a relatively small and highly urbanised part of Europe, where it expected to fall back on its own lines of communication and supply. It procured tanks from the 1970s onwards that were heavy, expensive and sophisticated, and progressively traded mobility for firepower and protection (in tank design you can have any two of three.) After the end of the Cold War, with tanks developed in the 1980s to fight a short, brutal defensive battle entering service in large numbers, NATO found itself with no doctrine for land-air offensive operations, and no equipment suitable for such operations in high-intensity conflict against a competent enemy. It never developed either, since there was no obvious need to. But Soviet military doctrine from early on (some would say since the 1930s) was predicated on the offensive, and, especially after 1945, on fighting the war on somebody else’s territory than your own. This produced a whole body of doctrine, much of which is still influential today, and, more importantly, equipment that was relatively light and mobile, and could be produced in very large numbers and operated by troops with a modest level of training. This doctrine emphasised attrition rather than manoeuvre, and assumed that some of that attrition might be accomplished by a carefully-prepared defence, to degrade the attacker and make subsequent advances easier.
So basically, NATO officers from countries that no longer have a doctrine of heavy-metal warfare, whose strategic tradition is anyway defensive, and whose recent experience is of small-scale counter-insurgency wars, have been hurriedly training raw Ukrainian recruits to fight complex high-intensity offensive armoured battles with equipment designed for defensive or for counter-insurgency operations. Their opponents meanwhile continue to study and practice operational-level defensive doctrine as part of wider strategically offensive operations. Oh dear.
Which explains the current shambles, but also why the situation isn’t going to improve in any useful timescale. It also explains why NATO’s options are fairly close to non-existent. Let’s go into that in a bit more detail.
First, it puts into context all of the hopes or fears that NATO would become “directly involved.” It invites the questions “Where?” and “With what?” As I’ve pointed out before, geography and logistics means that it might just be possible, over many months, to somehow assemble a smallish light mechanised force from different NATO countries, with incompatible equipment and logistic needs, and project it perhaps a thousand kilometres to the East, where those units that arrived in one piece would inevitably not remain in one piece for very long. OK then, what about air power? Well, see the discussion above.
There’s also the “light” version of such an operation, usually involving the entry of Polish troops into western Ukraine, but no actual fighting. It’s not obvious what this is supposed to accomplish, since the Russians have no interest in physically occupying that area, and the Poles might actually help to bring security to it. But remember, this is a combat deployment, by a country that has no recent experience beyond peacekeeping, deploying a good 500 km from its borders. Whilst such a deployment might make good headlines for a couple of days, it will be expensive and complicated to perform, will involve all the usual problems of foreign troops far from home, including reservists called back from civilian life, and its personnel will be aware that they could be wiped out by Russian missiles at any time, whilst being incapable of responding. You can’t deploy a force like this for more than about six months at a time, so you need a second and third set of units available (the equipment would have to stay there) and before long, most of the Polish Army will be spending a third of its career sitting in a field outside Kiev, not sure what it’s doing there. In the end, the force is likely to become a political hostage as much as anything else, since there will never be a “good” time to withdraw it. As I’ve suggested before, any kind of “mercenary” force would be a non-starter. This is not the Sahel.
The above, I think, puts the current noise about “security guarantees” into some kind of context. NATO offering Ukraine a security guarantee would be like me offering to guarantee your loan when I actually had less money than you had. There is this bizarre belief some quarters that such a guarantee means something in itself, and would frighten the Russians, because … well, I really don’t know why. Likewise, it is widely assumed that a ceasefire and negotiations could happen simply because the US/NATO wanted it, that the West would have a powerful role in setting the agenda, and that Russia would be obliged to accept, for example, Ukraine becoming a western protectorate and its military forces being rebuilt. I can so no earthly reason why the Russians should accept, or even consider, anything remotely of the kind, nor any way in which they could be induced to do so. Negotiation implies that you have something I want, for which I am prepared to trade something you want. But I can see nothing the Russians want here that they can’t take anyway. A formal treaty committing the US to withdraw all its forces from Europe, or at least to NATO’s pre-1997 borders, would no doubt be a political prize worth having, but probably not at the expense of any significant concessions from the Russian side. Finally, the mere possibility of the deployment of US troops is considered a solution by some and a factor leading to World War III by others. I suspect the Russians would simply ignore them, since they would pose no threat.
Thus, the sensible response to the suggestion that “the West will never accept X,Y,Z” is: “how interesting.” It simply means that it will take the West some time to adjust to the new realities, as was the case after the Communist takeover of China, Castro’s revolution, or the Islamist seizure of power in Iran. One is tempted to say that that’s the West’s problem.
All of which leaves the West pretty much bereft of options, yet with a busybody tradition of interfering everywhere, trying to take the lead and the initiative, and assuming that its views count for a lot, just because. Moreover, the chances of a western forum (say NATO) being able to develop and implement a new strategy now are minimal to non-existent. As often with international organisations, inertia rules, and NATO last year walked up to and fell over the precipice because there was no alternative that everyone could agree on, and because it was politically inconceivable that NATO should back down. Add to this thirty years of arrogant dismissals of Russian military capability, and even the hope in some quarters that Russia might stumble into some catastrophe of its own making, and you have the present shambles. NATO policy at the moment consists of hoping for a miracle, and, whilst some countries are making a lot of noise, no-one is really in charge, not least because there is no obvious direction in which to go. Quite how an organisation with as much hubris as NATO (or for that matter the EU) is going to handle disappointment and defeat is an interesting question, but one that requires an essay of its own.