Humiliated Putin Doubles Down in Ukraine: Expect a Long War

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by Paolo von Schirach —

WASHINGTON – The surprise pre-Christmas visit to Washington by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, with a roaring bipartisan welcome delivered by Democratic and Republican Representatives and Senators before his passionate speech to the US Congress, was a hit. This event, clearly designed for maximum media coverage, seems to perpetuate the atmosphere of almost giddy excitement regarding the unwavering US support for the gritty Ukrainians fighting for their country. Usually circumspect retired US generals now confidently talk about a forthcoming Ukrainian “victory” on cable TV. Indeed, there have been some good developments in the last few months. Consider the surprising success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the north-east, and also in the south of the country with the successful recapture of Kherson. However, while all this is good, a Ukrainian victory, if by victory we mean regaining full control over all Russian occupied territory, (and this would include Crimea, taken over in 2014), is not in sight. Let’s sober up and look at reality.

Russia is not winning, but it will not give up

Yes, the Russian invaders have been pushed back, in a significant way. And there is no doubt that the evidence still indicates that the Russian armed forces are poorly trained and poorly led. Their retreats shows confusion and weakness. However, it is also clear that despite these stinging humiliations Putin is not about to admit defeat and sue for peace. In fact, exactly the opposite is happening.

In the face of embarrassing tactical defeats, Putin is doubling down. He ordered sham referenda in the Ukrainian provinces his forces (half) control. According to the Kremlin, now these portions of Ukraine are now legally Russian territories. End of story. Furthermore, by ordering 300,000 Russians into active military duty –an unpopular move– he showed his determination to continue this fight, whatever the cost, monetary, human, and possibly political.

Russia will persist

Putin will get more troops to the front. Most likely the newly minted Russian soldiers will be ill-prepared and badly trained. But there will be many of them. And if this substantial reinforcement does not work, more recruits will be called into service. On top of this, Putin, beyond making dark threats about the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons in this conflict, ordered the systematic targeting of critical Ukrainian infrastructure, mostly power generation plants and electricity distribution networks. The Russian missiles and drones (many bought from Iran) may be somewhat inaccurate. But Putin has lots of them. And many of them hit valuable targets, every day. We know that after these waves of relentless attacks large parts of Ukraine are in the dark, without any heat and electricity. With a cold winter now upon them, no electricity or frequent outages have already caused immense hardships for the Ukrainian civilian population, already under considerable stress because of the ongoing conflict.

Yes, the Russians lost Kherson. But now they are bombing it constantly, in effect making it almost uninhabitable. Meanwhile, while the Ukrainians show immense resilience, their counteroffensive has been limited. And why is that? Very simple. The truth is that with the current level of US and European hardware at their disposal, the Ukrainians cannot win, if by winning we mean –as we should– successfully driving all Russian occupiers out of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.

Ukraine lacks a powerful offensive force

Indeed, notwithstanding the significant supplies of modern weapons and ammunition steadily coming from the US and at least some European countries, the Ukrainian armed forces just do not have enough heavy hardware to create the large mechanized offensive force required to break through Russian defenses, thereby pushing the Russians out of all Ukrainian held territory. Therefore, the unpleasant reality is that this war has become a protracted, costly, bloody stalemate. The Russian are not able to advance. But the Ukrainians cannot push them back to the border.

Notwithstanding the heavy price, Russia will not relent

Given Russia’s inability to prevail in the battlefield, a rational Russian leader would understand the magnitude of his miscalculation, propose negotiations, retreat, and eventually go back home. Not Putin. He is not admitting any mistakes. He proclaims that Russia is winning. To be sure, there is a huge downside for Putin’s Russia in this doubling down. Clearly the war in Ukraine is not going according to plan. It is costing a fortune and it is becoming unpopular in Russia. There have been many casualties. Massive amounts of heavy equipment have been destroyed, disabled or captured.

We also know that hundreds of thousands of young Russians fled the country since the beginning of the war in February 2022, that is well before the reservists were called back into active duty. These mostly young and educated Russians went into some kind of voluntary exile to Georgia, the Baltic countries and Turkey –countries where Russians can travel to without any visa requirements. By leaving Russia they signaled their open disapproval for this war of aggression. More recently, when the reservists were called into service, additional tens of thousands of potentially eligible adults rushed to the borders, desperately trying to get out of the country, so that they could avoid being pressed into service. Many among those who escaped are young and well educated. This is a massive flight of young human capital. This loss will hurt Russia in the long run.

Most likely those who could not escape, and will now reluctantly wear a uniform, are not going to be happy warriors. They know that many among them will die in this war in Ukraine that appears meaningless to most of them. This overall unhappiness will stir additional political opposition to the invasion. All in all, with more people against it, this costly and badly managed war at some point may become a serious domestic political liability for Putin.

Putin likely to stay in power

That said, we have no idea about the limits to Putin’s staying power in Russia. For over two decades he has been the unchallenged and quite popular autocrat. Can he just ignore the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, who are somewhat or vehemently against this war in Ukraine? Can this brewing grass root discontent at some point jell into a real political challenge for his regime until now secured by police, security services, intimidation, threats, prison, and targeted assassinations? Nobody really knows. Yet, at this time, the likelihood of a bottom up anti-Putin popular insurrection seems minimal. An insurrection needs a disciplined organization leading it, communication systems, logistics, money, trained soldiers and lots of weapons. There is no such thing in hypercontrolled Russia.

Still, even if we assumed a different scenario of a palace coup staged by disgruntled members of Putin’s inner circle, how likely is this? We simply do not know. Given this uncertainty, and knowing as we know that Putin is very good at running a ruthless police state, counting on the war in Ukraine to end soon because Putin has been imprisoned or killed by Kremlin insiders would be utterly foolish.

Prepare for a long war

While poorly trained and weakened by low morale, the Russians still enjoy the advantage of a vast numerical superiority. Besides, at least in some areas of occupied Ukraine, they are now well entrenched in hard to penetrate defensive positions. And they keep attacking civilian targets in Ukraine on a daily basis, causing the destruction or at least disabling of critical civilian infrastructure, this way making normal life impossible for millions of Ukrainians, while killing many civilians. Obviously they hope that impoverished and demoralized Ukrainians soon will just give up.

As indicated above, while the Ukrainians have made some gains on many fronts, it is most unlikely –in fact impossible– that they will soon be able to mount an all-fronts counteroffensive that will drive all the Russian invaders out of their country. In order to launch a successful counteroffensive across the entire front, Ukraine would need a much larger mechanized force, with significantly larger numbers of heavy weapons.

For sure, the US and a few other countries will continue to supply and resupply the Ukrainian armed forces. But the volumes of weapons that would be necessary to win this war are not forthcoming. At least not now. Indeed, we know that the shrunken US defense industry base is already stretched. There are severe limits to American weapons production capabilities. A surge may be possible. But it would take years and massive investments to substantially increase the production of complex, high technology weapon systems.

Given these constraints, at this time America is simply unable to deliver more weapons to Ukraine, while also keeping enough of them in the stockpiles of the US armed forces. Recent US government announcements indicate that more sophisticated weapons will be shipped to Ukraine “in the next few years”. Yes, this is years, not months. This means an inability to create a large Ukrainian offensive force within a short time, unless Washington could organize a massive, NATO-wide, all out arms production effort involving all western countries. And this is unlikely.

Therefore, based on what we know today, the most realistic scenario is for the Ukrainians and the Western countries supporting them– the US in the lead– to prepare for a long war, because by every indication Putin –horrible daily losses notwithstanding– is not about to let go any time soon.

War fatigue will decide the outcome of this horrible conflict

And this brings up the most critical issue, frankly the issue that probably will decide which way this war of attrition ends: I am talking about war fatigue. Where does it manifest first? In the West or in Russia? This will decide who wins. We know that Europe for the moment is united in supporting Ukraine. But it is grappling with a costly energy crunch made worse by myopic and misguided green energy choices, coupled with a misguided –and it turns out disastrous– overreliance on uninterrupted deliveries of enormous volumes of Russian oil and gas. In the short term changing this grim reality of European energy scarcity is utterly impossible. Assuming policy flexibility and some courage within the EU, much could be done to improve this horrible predicament. But this would entail, as a minimum, reassessing the green energy illusions that are still dominant in Europe.

The energy crunch

The Europeans need to understand that –at least for the time being– fossil fuels are essential. They are not optional. As of today, there are no good green substitutes for natural gas and oil that can be deployed on a scale so large to offset the loss of energy from fossil fuels. Will Europe look at other options? For instance there are large shale deposits in France, the UK, Eastern Europe and the Balkans. There is a new debate on this issue in Europe. But there is still a massive opposition led by uninformed “experts” who claim that fracking –the technology used to break up shale formations allowing the release of oil and gas– causes terrible environmental damage.

Of course, there is no evidence of that. Fully developed in the 1990s, in the US fracking is a vast, sophisticated industry. Fracking dramatically increased American oil and gas production because it demonstrated that it was economically feasible to extract vast amounts of energy from shale rock formations, something that was deemed to be impossible before the development of the hydraulic fracturing technology. Because of fracking, in just a few years America completely transformed its energy outlook. From a major importer with rapidly declining resources, America became the largest world producer of oil and gas and a net exporter of both. The long US experience with hydraulic fracturing demonstrates that fracking is safe. But there is no way to convince European public opinion and political leaders to follow this course of action regarding their own shale oil and gas deposits.

Problems in America

Here in the US we also have major energy problems, in large measure caused by the self-defeating anti-fossil fuels ideological bias openly embraced by the Biden administration. Compared to Europe, America is in much better shape since it is a major producer of both natural gas and oil. But the policy signals to the fossil fuels industry coming from Washington are disheartening. The political and policy consensus among the ruling Democrats is that fossil fuels are bad, in fact evil. Therefore, while they reluctantly acknowledge that right now America needs them, they emphatically declare that they want to do away with them as soon as possible. So Washington is telling energy companies that, while they are needed for a little while longer, in the long term they are doomed. This is not exactly the message that would encourage energy companies to invest in new production facilities, this way expanding output. While US oil production is still high, it is not growing. In fact it declined somewhat after its peak in 2020. Lacking additional US supply, higher global energy prices caused by the western efforts to detach itself from Russian supplies is felt in America as well, this way weakening support for Ukraine, since the war is at the origin of this enduring energy crunch.

Beyond that, the Republican party, now in control of the House of Representatives, seems somewhat cool regarding continuing the current level of American military aid to Ukraine. Will this political change force a policy inflection in Washington? Not clear at this point. However, there are more and more voices in America (as well as in Europe) suggesting that soon enough it will be time to start focusing on negotiations aimed at ending this war.

Negotiations?

But here is the problem. Negotiations with Putin? And on what basis? At the moment the Russian negotiating position is that they are prepared to end the war, as long as Ukraine and the world will recognize their territorial conquests resulting from their war of aggression. At this time, this is clearly a non starter. For their part, the Ukrainians maintain that they would consider negotiations with Moscow only if the starting point is the complete Russian withdrawal from all occupied Ukrainian territories, including Crimea, combined with a commitment to pay reparations for the immense destruction this war brought about. Not a chance that Putin will accept any of this. Therefore, no common ground.

Having reviewed all this, and considering that both sides rightly or wrongly believe that time is on their side, we should be prepared for the continuation of this nasty war of attrition that will end –unless something totally unforeseen occurs– when one side bails out because of exhaustion, as opposed to defeat in the battlefield. That said, if the West remains focused and steadfast, and considering its vastly superior resources, it should be able to prevail.

Fear of nuclear escalation

There is of course another scenario. There is the possibility that a humiliated Putin, contemplating failure, may resort to the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine as a last resort. Many in the West, considering this possible development, counsel that we should quickly start negotiations that would include territorial concessions to Russia. For them the possibility, however remote, of this conflict escalating to a potentially out of control nuclear war is way too horrible. Therefore, in order to avoid a possible global disaster, the West should urge Kyiv to offer territorial concessions to Russia as a way to satisfy Putin and put an end to this conflict before it escalates into a global tragedy.

At the moment, this position of “quickly give Russia something, if this means avoiding nuclear war” is not dominant. But as the conflict grinds on it may become so. If the fear of a nuclear war unleashed by a deranged Putin becomes the dominant policy driver, then Ukraine will be forced by the West to make territorial and other concessions. This way Ukraine and the West lose, and Russia wins.

If this happens, our “pragmatic wisdom”, even if driven by the noble intent of avoiding a nuclear holocaust, will send the signal that in the end wars of aggression pay. If the aggressors are persistent and reasonably strong, and are able to threaten a nuclear escalation, they have a good chance of prevailing, because the West cannot stomach a protracted and costly effort that might escalate to nuclear weapons, in the defense of sovereignty. Sadly, the Ukraine war lesson will be that nuclear armed bullies will win.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Professor of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.

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