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US friend-zones Zelensky as The Economist calls for Ukraine and Europe to take charge of a forever war of attrition.
Glowing Western media reports of Ukrainian military’s achievements are strategic communication designed to maintain the fighting morale of Ukrainian soldiers. Additionally, and more importantly, these accounts are designed to maintain the generosity of Western taxpayers who are directly, through taxes and indirectly through lower standards of living, financing the war. Truth is always a mangled casualty of any war but in the Ukrainian information theatre it is often dead on arrival. In contrast, the much more fatalistic Russian news consumer is highly cynical about any of their government’s reports and so a vibrant sector of Russian micro-media has blossomed around the war. Over time, truth can be tracked and those outlets who consistently perform well build more trust with the Russians and the few nomadic Westerners who seek information on what is actually happening on the battlefields.
And so when an establishment propaganda organ like The Economist prints an article that conflicts with most Western rah-rah narratives it is worth paying attention to it. While the text may still be mostly lies, the portions where truth is deployed can be telling, and can reveal the true motives of the authors.
Reading Western media bears some resemblance to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. For Plato our everyday world of appearances consists of mere shadows cast on our wall of perception. The truth, or the true forms of phenomena, lie behind the wall. A powerful light casts their shadows into our world of mere appearance.
For a rare few, it is the duty of truth seekers to attempt to devine from the shadows the true world of forms. In our version of this, The Economist article will help us construe how the West will approach the Ukrainian war in the years to come.
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The Economist article is entitled: Ukraine faces a long war. A change of course is needed. This is a tacit admission that the Russian strategy of imposing a war of attrition upon Ukraine and the West has been a strategic success and now the West must change course.
The war in Ukraine has repeatedly confounded expectations. It is now doing so again. The counter-offensive that began in June was based on the hope that Ukrainian soldiers, equipped with modern Western weapons and after training in Germany, would recapture enough territory to put their leaders in a strong position at any subsequent negotiations.
The triumphalist Western media had set many unrealistic goals for the Ukrainian offensive but here a minimalist goal is invoked: preparing for negotiations. Yet only a paragraph or two down, the authors will claim negotiations with the evil Putin are impossible! One suspects this head-fake about negotiations was included in order to project reasonableness to Western taxpayers. Months earlier Western media outlets had reported the maximalist goal of the Ukrainian offensive was to retake Crimea and its critical naval bases, which is the true target of Western intervention in Ukraine.
An interesting tick is the lie that the training for the offensive occurred “in Germany.” Just months earlier, many leading Western nations, including the US and UK, proudly reported they were training Ukrainians for the coming offensive. Today, with the stench of failure in the air, Germany gets thrown under the bus as the reason Ukrainian troops were so badly trained for the offensive.
Worse there are very few Ukrainian soldiers today being trained in the West, or in Ukraine. The vast majority of the current Ukrainian fighting men have no previous military experience and very little training. Raw recruits are being kidnapped off Ukrainian streets by conscription gangs. In contrast Russia has been steadily recruiting and training reservists. By spring 2024 there will be a manpower crisis in Ukraine while Russia will be swimming in spare human capacity.
This plan is not working. Despite heroic efforts and breaches of Russian defences near Robotyne, Ukraine has liberated less than 0.25% of the territory that Russia occupied in June. The 1,000km front line has barely shifted. Ukraine’s army could still make a breakthrough in the coming weeks, triggering the collapse of brittle Russian forces. But on the evidence of the past three months, it would be a mistake to bank on that.
In the last few weeks, the Western media has attempted to assuage criticism that the Ukrainian offensive was a failure by overstating minor and still precarious gains Ukraine made at the cost of horrific losses in men and materiel. The Economist of course has to hedge in case the Ukrainians do somehow manage to make a breakthrough in the coming days. Nevertheless, the Russian forces who have held off this onslaught of Western arms and Ukrainian meat have so far proven to be anything but “brittle.” Ukraine and the West are now locked into a war of attrition against Russia.
Asking for a ceasefire or peace talks is pointless. Vladimir Putin shows no sign of wanting to negotiate and, even if he did, could not be trusted to stick to a deal. He is waiting for the West to tire and hoping that Donald Trump is re-elected. Mr Putin needs war to underpin his domestic dictatorship; any ceasefire would simply be a pause to re-arm and get ready to attack again. If Ukrainians stop fighting, they could lose their country.
Here we have the glaring contradiction in strategy. Why did the West and Ukraine invest so heavily in this offensive, whose stated goal was to improve Ukraine’s bargaining position if peace talks are pointless?
On the other hand, this paragraph is true. At this point Vladimir Putin has absolutely no incentive to negotiate, he has just won a strategic victory by forcing the West into a war of attrition. However he has not yet taken any large swaths of territory that would force Ukraine to compromise. The only way this war will end is with a de facto surrender by Ukraine.
Both Ukraine and its Western supporters are coming to realise that this will be a grinding war of attrition. President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Washington this week for talks. “I have to be ready for the long war,” he told The Economist. But unfortunately, Ukraine is not yet ready; nor are its Western partners. Both are still fixated on the counter-offensive. They need to rethink Ukraine’s military strategy and how its economy is run. Instead of aiming to “win” and then rebuild, the goal should be to ensure that Ukraine has the staying power to wage a long war—and can thrive despite it.
This paragraph, while largely correct, suffers from an incorrect initial assumption. The war is indeed currently a “grinding war of attrition” but it may not stay that way for long. The West’s armories are mostly bare, Ukraine has no military industrial complex to speak of, and the entire goal of this article is to diminish US involvement in the war. In light of the failed Ukrainian offensive, maintaining this grinding war of attrition is Ukraine’s best case scenario.
Ukraine today is fighting for a stalemate. They seek to avoid a Russian offensive breakthrough that would turn the conflict into a big arrow war of manoeuvre with Russian forces sweeping across Ukraine. After years of unhinged devaluations of all things Russian, defensive stasis is a tough sell to the Ukrainian fighting man where there is no chance of victory. On the other hand if Ukraine fails to maintain a certain level of defensive capability, Russia will overrun the current lines and take at least Odessa and Kharkov, and then eventually Kiev.
The first recalibration is military. Ukraine’s soldiers are exhausted; many of its finest have been killed. Despite conscription, it lacks the manpower to sustain a permanent large-scale counter-offensive. It needs to husband resources, and to change the game. New tactics and technologies can take the fight to Russia. Ukraine’s tech-savvy entrepreneurs are ramping up drone production: Ukrainian drones recently destroyed Russian warships; its missiles seem to have damaged a big air-defence system in Crimea. Many more strikes are likely, to degrade Russia’s military infrastructure and deny its navy sanctuary in the Black Sea. Don’t expect a knockout blow. Russia has also scaled up its drone production. Still, Ukraine can hit back when Russia bombs it, and perhaps even deter some attacks.
These “Hail Mary” attacks by Ukraine against Russia remind of the vengeance attacks Germany carried out against Britain the final year of World War 2. German rocket scientists developed the V2 rocket, for which no defence was available. The raids against Britain certainly caused damage, raised German homeland morale, but had no impact on the outcome of the war. Notice the term “Ukraine’s tech-savvy entrepreneurs.” It’s far from clear where these drones are being manufactured. Russia has total dominance of the sky and can hit any production facilities at will. Russia also has an increasing number of Ukrainian informants, and as the tide further turns, more Ukrainians will work with the Russians, hoping for a positon in an eventual Russia-alighned Ukraine.
Alongside this offensive capability, Ukraine needs to boost its resilience. As well as heavy weaponry, it needs help with maintenance to sustain a multi-year fight: humdrum repairs, reliable supplies of artillery and training. More than anything, a long war requires better air defence. Ukraine cannot thrive if Russia blasts infrastructure and civilians with impunity, as it has for the past 18 months. Kyiv is a surprisingly vibrant city because it has effective defences against non-stop aerial attacks. The same set-up is needed for other cities, which is why squadrons of f-16s and more missile-defence systems are essential.
It’s a stretch to call what amount to terror weapons “offensive capability.” Air defense is indeed a critical Ukrainian need, and the West has little or nothing left to offer. Kiev has barely any air defense protection, it is a vibrant city because Russia has not yet decided to bomb it back to the Stone Age. An air defense capability would have come in handy during Ukraine’s failed offensive but Western stocks are depleted. European economies are weak, and there is no excess capacity to manufacture enough air defense infrastructure to protect Ukraine. So while the need is certainly there, the means are lacking.
F-16’s are not air defense and will struggle against the superior Russian S-400 air defense system. F-16’s require a huge “back-of-house” operation to keep them flying. Once Russia gets wind of where these operations are located—they will be destroyed.
An economic recalibration is needed, too. That means fewer highfalutin plans for post-war reconstruction and more attention to boosting output and capital spending now. The economy has shrunk by a third and almost half of Ukraine’s budget is paid for with Western cash. In an odd kind of wartime Dutch disease the currency, the hryvnia, has strengthened even as private investment has plunged. With around 1m people bearing arms and millions having fled from the country, workers are scarce.
Ukraine’s economy needs to shift from relying on aid to attracting investment, even as the conflict keeps raging. From making more arms to processing more of what it grows on its farms, Ukraine has plenty of potential. The challenge is to get local and foreign firms to invest more, and to lure more Ukrainians back to the calmer parts of the country in the west.
These two paragraphs are sheer lunacy and have no relationship to reality. They represent an unhinged policy of “Ukrainization.” This signifies that the economic load stemming from the war in Ukraine, currently mostly borne by the US, will be transferred by the magic of capitalism back to Ukraine! And this without access to the sea for export and a grain blockade against them enforced by their great ally Poland.
There are massive labour shortages in Ukraine and this is because there are mobilization gangs plucking any male between 18-60 off the streets. But the demand for soldiers will only increase and will always take precedence over industry.
One potential answer is to make Western Ukraine a dumping ground for refugees flowing into Europe. This would be popular in Western Europe but one has to wonder what the extreme right Neo-Nazis, who hold disproportionate power in Ukraine, will think of this. Part of their motivation in fighting Russia is to create a pure homeland for Ukrainians.
This entire idea of a self-sufficient Ukraine smacks of telling them to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. The US position on Ukraine has always been that the US supplies the weapons and Ukraine supplies the human cannon fodder. No capitalist enterprise is going to invest in heavy plant in a broke country where Russian missiles can fall at any minute, destroying in mere seconds billions of Euros of investment.
Ukrainization is a throwback to the Nixon Administration policy of Vietnamization from the late 1960’s. In sharp contrast to the current situation, back in Vietnam the US had half a million troops on the ground. The idea was to withdraw Americans and to replace them with South Vietnamese soldiers, who were to be trained by the US. American airpower was to remain in the skies.
In Ukraine the US is far less involved than in Vietnam. Nevertheless, the war is taking the same trajectory towards defeat. Politicians will naturally prefer that others take the blame for their failures. And so the sooner the US can implement Ukrainization, the more likely others, perhaps the Europeans, will get the blame for the eventual defeat.
Ukraine’s President Zelensky is reportedly not too excited about the US exit strategy. In one of his rare coherent statements, he predicts losing the war if the US cuts aid, which is the idea behind Ukrainization.
Better security can help. The stronger Ukraine’s air defences, the lower the risk that a new factory will be blown up. The farther Russia’s navy is pushed back, the more safely exports can flow through Ukraine’s ports on the Black Sea. But economic reforms matter, too. More must be done to curb Ukraine’s long-standing corruption, with a priority on making the judiciary clean and impartial. And more action is needed to make doing business easier, from recognising qualifications that refugees have earned abroad to offering firms war insurance.
Ukraine has a long-entrenched culture of corruption that has only accelerated under war conditions. War insurance? This is just silly. Notice The Economist is opening the door to refugees, who for the most part have very few qualifications, let alone proficiency in Ukrainian. This strategy demands decade-long reforms be achieved in record time in war-time conditions.
All this requires political will from Ukraine, but also from its friends in the West. In the long term, the best guarantee of Ukraine’s security is NATO membership. Short of that, partners have promised a web of bilateral security guarantees. Equally important is what the European Union can offer: not just cash, but the prospect of membership. It is not easy to nurture a flourishing economy while being barraged with explosives—even Israel never had to face such a powerful aggressor. But Ukraine, unlike Israel, could one day be integrated into the world’s richest economic bloc. A roadmap for eu accession over, say, a decade, with clear milestones, would offer hope to Ukrainians and accelerate economic reforms, just as the same promise galvanised much of eastern Europe in the 1990s.
Ukraine will never be part of NATO, that will be the first and most solid redline for the Russians once negotiations start. Ukraine has been talking about EU membership for years but has made no progress on tackling endemic corruption. Ukraine is today a failed economy sitting on a mountain of debt. It will be a parasite for the next 30 years at least. So it is smart for America to dump this problem on the Europeans. In addition to Ukrainization, we have a dollop of EU-ization as well.
For that to happen a shift in mindset is needed in Europe. It has committed as much weaponry as America and far more financial aid. Yet it needs to step up further. If Mr Trump wins in 2024, he may cut back American military assistance. Even if he loses, Europe will eventually need to carry more of the burden. That means beefing up its defence industry and reforming the EU’s decision-making so it can handle more members.
Americans love playing this Good President / Bad President game on the Europeans. But if Europeans are to carry more of the burden, then shouldn’t they be in charge of deciding the eventual peace agreement? If they are paying, then by rights they should be deciding. Perhaps they will want to cut their losses and make peace now by sacrificing Ukraine to Russia?
The stakes could hardly be higher. Defeat would mean a failed state on the EU’s flank and Mr Putin’s killing machine closer to more of its borders. Success would mean a new eu member with 30m well-educated people, Europe’s biggest army and a large agricultural and industrial base. Too many conversations about Ukraine are predicated on an “end to the war”. That needs to change. Pray for a speedy victory, but plan for a long struggle—and a Ukraine that can survive and thrive nonetheless.
The narrator of this piece seems to be the Biden Administration’s national security team. Ukraine is already a failed state and the longer the struggle, the more failed it will become. The bill to be paid only increases. Once Ukraine’s undertrained army starts to crack, combined with a lack of artillery shells that is just around the corner, Russia will rampage through the areas it desires.
One of the key Russian demands is to pull back NATO troops to their positions in 1997, before NATO began expanding eastward. This means the new members would remain in NATO but would only be allowed nation troops on their soil. US missile installations would be banned beyond the 1997 borders.
This article is a political document that sets the best conditions for the current administration when an eventual Ukrainian defeat occurs. As the situation deteriorates, the US wants to be as far away as possible; lecturing the Europeans and Ukrainians about how they are losing this war. In the meantime, the US has much bigger fish to fry in Asia…