The New Observer Uncategorized The state of the war

The state of the war

To coincide with the “peace conference” in Switzerland Vladimir Putin has reiterated his demands to end the special operation/war. Ukraine must drop its NATO membership aspiration, must cede Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces to Russia and pull back its forces some way from the new border. I have also read that a dropping of international financial sanctions is part of the proposal. Possession of the last two provinces would give Russia a land-bridge to Crimea. I guess this is considered strategically necessary, to prevent Ukraine attempting to cut off Crimea from Russia in the future. (I guess this is the thinking, rather than protection of the ‘pro-Russian’ section of the population in these two provinces). These are maximalist demands. It seems that that calculation is that Russia has made waging this war sustainable; that is, they can go on at the current rate indefinitely. The evidence seems to support this. Sanctions have, it is now widely accepted, failed. The new round of sanctions which target, for example, Chinese firms which are supporting Russia’s war effort and which, for the first time, impose secondary sanctions on banks doing business with sanctioned Russian banks, may also be as susceptible to circumvention as the previous sanctions. No one is going to stop buying Russian oil. Recruitment in Russia continues to bring in new recruits without any need for an unpopular mass mobilisation. The economy will not grow as fast as it might have done in the long-term, without Western collaboration. But they can probably live with this. Unlike in the period of the USSR Russia now has a partner who can supply technology, cheap consumer goods, and finance.

On the other hand, Ukraine’s position continues to be weak. They have serious manpower problems. Even if they do receive new arms who is going to fire them? Provision of new weapons is hampered a) by the lack of available arms, even when there is money to pay for them, and b) political uncertainties in both Europe and the US. Conservative, anti-war, parties are on the rise in Europe. Trump may yet win the next US Presidential election and he is likely to move in an anti-war direction. In an extraordinary display of a lack of commitment to democracy Western political-media actors are now trying to “Trump proof” funding for example by giving NATO a more central role in the provision of arms. This is the liberal-internationalist block quite openly repudiating democracy by circumventing the possible results of their own elections. It passes without any comment at all in the ‘democratic’ press. Furthermore, while Ukraine has just been granted limited permission to fire some weapons across the border into Russia proper, this is a long way from the carte blanche which they seek.

Russia’s maximalist demands do not augur well for diplomatic negotiations. Saying “the question is closed for Russia”, with respect to the 4 in-dispute provinces of Ukraine, sounds, to anyone other than a Russian, like an ultimatum, not an invitation to negotiations. On the other hand, there is no evidence at all that even if Russia offered a less hard-line starting point for negotiations, (the obvious idea being some kind of referendum on the disputed territories *), that anyone currently in power in Kiev, or in the West would be willing to reciprocate. The press reports the latest developments such as the theft of Russia’s frozen assets, (stealing the interest is still stealing, whatever legal justification they have spun up), as “good news”. In reality it is terrible news for Ukraine. It just means this will continue and more Ukrainians will die. The West continues to hope that Russia will “crumble”. But, as this site has frequently pointed out, (based in part on the analysis of John Mearsheimer), this policy is irrational. Most likely it won’t happen; but if it does, it carries a real risk of nuclear escalation. Objectively speaking, it seems like the best possible hope at the moment is some kind of collapse in Western support leading to Kiev being forced to compromise. Failing that Ukraine may simply run out of men.

Russia claims to have 700,000 troops engaged. Even if they have 500,000, using the 3:1 multiplier (which apparently is standard), Ukraine would need 1.5 million troops to push Russia back to the 2022 or 2013 borders. These troops need to be fit young men aged 18-40. I do not know for sure at all but the Internet seems to suggest they have nowhere near this many active servicemen. Even the Western media is slowly beginning to allow into the narrative the reality that Ukraine has a serious manpower problem. Yet, still, if you look at Times Radio at least there are any number of journalists and pundits who keep telling the audience that victory is just round the corner; the next tranche of aid, Ukraine out innovating Russia (sic), the F16s (a few dozen compared to Russia’s inventory of hundreds of jet fighters). ** Last year it was the Leopards and the Chieftains. Maybe next year it will be Harry Potter’s magic wand. I recommend Daniel Davis who sums up the problem pretty clearly.

Notably absent, it seems, from President Putin’s demands is any requirement that Ukraine not join the EU. This means that, as always, Ukraine has a positive path to the kind of future they, (or at least some of them), want. I wish they would take it.


I’ve mentioned above two scenarios in which the war fizzles out. Funding from the West could dry up, as a result of less interventionist parties coming to power. Or, Ukraine could run out of men. In the first case this means that the political decision has been taken to end the war, in which case it simply ends presumably on Russian terms. The second scenario carries more of a risk. If Ukraine collapses but the war parties remain in power in the West what will they do? In response to the most recent collapse, on the Kharkiv front, the West relaxed their rules about arms. In the words of John Kirby they “adapted”. If Ukraine starts losing in a bigger way will the US “adapt” again? What would that look like? It looks like the possible path is already evident; Western trainers in country, Ukrainian fighter jets taking off from European countries. Beyond that, they could start shooting down Russian missiles Ukraine from launch sites in Poland or Romania. All of this looks like a slippery slope. John Mearsheimer pointed out at the beginning of this war that one of the escalatory risks is this, faced with losing a proxy war will the West accept the loss, or turn it into a direct war? My guess is that they would accept the loss, while tightening up their economic and diplomatic war. Let’s hope so.

* While this kind of solution appeals to those who think in terms of the UN running a law-abiding world order it probably does not satisfy Russia’s strategic requirements. Realist thinking will tell us that all states will prioritise their security over ‘international law’. If we think in terms of strategic security Russia would have to be offered some kind of very solid security guarantees with regard to Crimea to give up their aspiration to Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. (The provinces abut a natural river boundary so any plan to split them so Ukraine held territory on the far side of the Dnieper, would be a difficult sell given the lack of trust between the parties).

** According to this article in Politico the picture with the F16s is the same as with all the other systems. Kiev is “spotting” capacity in Western countries and demanding it. But, the training is on the usual drip-drip basis and there will be problems with the provision of the air-to-air missiles which the jets need to fire to be operationally useful.