A Neutral View On Ukraine’s Future
Well done, brave defenders of Ukraine — you get to keep your country… most of it, anyway.
The pathetic rah-rah jingoism that has taken over the media since Putin launched his assault on Ukraine is difficult to cut through, but this much is now clear: Ukraine will survive.
The cost has been atrocious, but such is life. War is resource conflict, and life itself is a kind of war that we all must lose some day.
The memory of those heroes who have given of their blood to stop Ukraine from falling under Putin’s boot will never die.
But once the violence began few in Ukraine had any choice but to flee or stay to defend their homes and communities. The alternative was to endure the historic disgrace Ukraine’s so-called “allies” have earned by offering only small arms, so deterred by the threat of Russia’s mnogo nukes they don’t seem to get they’re only putting off the day of reckoning.
Because Ukraine is clearly the country suffering an invasion, it does not violate the spirit of neutral evaluation to honor the spirit of Ukraine’s defenders.
So Slava Ukraini! Heroiam Slava!
And for Ukrainian speakers (hooray again for Wikipedia): Слава Україні! Героям слава!
Your fight is an inspiration to all who resist the powerful!
The question now if course is where this brutal war goes from here. The English-speaking media has been wholly captured by Ukraine’s effective information war, turning most of the military pundits on TV and in the news — Institute for the Study of War included — into agents of the Ukrainian regime.
Which is understandable — my personal sympathies are with Ukraine too. Extended family of mine was forced to flee Putin’s assault on Kyiv, and for that reason Russia is now a strong #2 on my fix-list, nipping at dying America’s heels.
But information war, like the largely farcical threat of cyberwar, is intended to obscure on the ground realities from the general public. Huge amounts of attention are paid to every Russian misstep or setback leading to dangerous wishful thinking.
The overall military situation, however, remains extremely dangerous for Ukraine. The assault on Kyiv was a failure, and so Ukraine as a whole isn’t falling anytime soon, if ever.
But Russia’s reserves are moving onto the battlefield, and in the south and east its commanders have proven far more effective than the ones who tried and failed to encircle Kyiv.
This, of course, is why President Zelensky is still begging for real military aid, jet aircraft and air defenses, not just short-range missiles that can only halt, not reverse, the most dangerous Russian gains. Powerful weapons in the hands of motivated fighters can stalemate Russia just as insurgents fought America to a draw in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this kit does not allow Ukraine recapture much of territory Putin’s forces have seized.
Ukraine’s forces are counterattacking, and appear to have at least partially relieved the sieges of Chernihiv and Sumy. Their efforts are also revealing the hard split between Russian operations in the north, focused on surrounding Kyiv, and those in the south, which aim to encircle Ukraine’s best brigades in Donbas.
Right now Ukraine, sensing that Russia’s initial effort in the north has reached the limits of its logistical ability to sustain the assault on Kyiv, is launching local counterattacks to improve its position. They are forcing over-extended Russian spearheads to pull back to more defensible lines, which is definitely good news. Any relief the people and defenders of encircled border towns can get will be life-saving — sadly, Mariupol is experiencing what amounts to genocide while the world looks on.
Ukraine’s counterattacks do not, however, mean the tide of the war has turned. This is a function of the fact defending is much, much easier than attacking thanks to the realities imposed by modern military technology. What is seen on optical, thermal, or radar instruments can be quickly targeted. The moment a unit moves or shoots its position is revealed to any patrolling drones which can pick up the signal and enable operators to call down heavy artillery, the primary killer on the modern battlefield.
The English-speaking media’s obsession with the fighting around Kyiv proper and the general public’s ignorance of military and geographic science allows commentators to conflate fronts separated by hundreds of kilometers. A Ukrainian victory anywhere in Ukraine is sold to the hopeful public as a sign of Russian difficulties everywhere despite the fact Russia’s efforts are proceeding on separate axis each with their own leadership, strategy and air support.
Military commentators trained only in the cautious way America and Britain go about warfare have made the basic mistake of assuming that because Russia didn’t do what they would have, its military must be incompetent. In the English-speaking world planners emphasize a single primary axis of attack fully supported by air and logistics units, which was why in the Iraq invasion of 2003 American forces lunged straight to Baghdad.
Of course, in this invasion America actually wanted very much to set up a second front in the north to divert Iraq’s attention from the push up from Kuwait, but Turkey nixed the plan. And Ukraine is a much bigger country with a military budget just a tenth the size of Russia’s plus Russian forces surround it on three sides. Each Russian military district likely has its own logistics network operating from its own supply base and so striking Ukraine from all sides simultaneously had the effect of preventing Ukraine from sending all its reserves to any one front.
When you see American news outlets like the routinely-wrong Institute for the Study of War conflate Russian losses and difficulties around Kyiv with those elsewhere, that’s a clear signal the information war is still underway. There can be no doubt that Russia has suffered severe losses over the past five weeks, but where they have occurred matters as much as the overall count.
Supposedly around 20 of Russia’s 120 battalion tactical groups in Ukraine have been battered or destroyed. No one seems to know exactly how many of these BTGs are intended for front line combat, and they’re also not saying how many on each front have been knocked out.
It seems likely that the half of Russia’s forces operating in the north have suffered more serious losses than their counterparts in the south because of how exposed the long spearheads from Belarus and western Russia were. What this probably means is that Russia’s military capabilities elsewhere might not be nearly as degraded.
Russia is now saying it is holding off further attacks around Kyiv while focusing on Donbas. This plus Russia’s failure to break through west of Kyiv and cut it off from resupply adds further credence to the idea the fight around the capital was fiercer and involved more of Ukraine’s reserves. It is also important to remember that the forces in Belarus were on field exercises before the war broke out and appear to have been drawn from Russian units originally based in the Far East.
When you add up the unfamiliarity of these units with each other, their weariness from weeks of exercises in the mud and cold, the difficult terrain northwest of Kyiv that even the Germans mostly avoided in 1941, and the necessary vigorous defense of Kyiv’s approaches, then the failure of the northern arm of Russia’s attack makes sense. Frankly, what I’ve personally seen of American military operations makes me certain the US Army would have bogged down in exactly the same way in this terrain.
Before the war broke out I believed the Russian forces in Belarus were there as a credible bluff, a threat Ukraine could not ignore but that had the main effect of tying Ukraine’s defenders down so they couldn’t reinforce those fighting near Donbas. Their difficulties prove why I didn’t think the attack they launched was likely to happen — Kyiv had to be defended, so reserves had to be committed, and the ground favored the defense.
That’s the essence of military deception, by the way — you don’t bluff with no cards as some like to in poker, instead you make a credible threat that forces your opponent to divide their attention. And to a degree Putin’s military maskirovka worked — Ukraine’s loss of Kherson province early on appears to be a result of pulling forces from the south to protect Kyiv.
Putin’s key mistake was committing this force to battle and going maximalist early on instead of launching a limited war that would slowly break Ukraine’s military and split the NATO and EU response. The shock of launching a wider war cost Russia dearly, and Ukraine’s sense of being under attack led to the savaging of many Russian formations— yet there are some indications those in the north weren’t Russia’s best. Emerging casualty evaluations show that disproportionate numbers of Russian military dead were from regions of Russia inhabited by ethnic minorities, as if the troops in Belarus were seen as more expendable than others.
Away from Kyiv Russia’s military progress has been steady, deliberate, and now threatens the encirclement of Ukraines most elite forces in the east. Russian attackers hitting Ukraine from the south and east are pushing from bases on Russian territory where they were likely better rested and fed before setting out, plus their air support isn’t limited to flying down a narrow corridor to get near Kyiv, meaning it can avoid the worst of Ukraine’s surviving air defenses.
Russia’s biggest successes so far have come where I expected, the terrain they’re seizing north and south of Donbas is exactly the region I figured they would go for. Russia is not being truthful in claiming the assault on Kyiv was merely a feint designed to tie down Ukraine’s forces and keep them from reinforcing the east. Nevertheless its repositioning of forces east and west of Kyiv accomplishes the purpose they would have had if Putin had kept them in Belarus: force Ukraine to keep major forces near Kyiv.
This ploy risks leaving Ukraine’s army in the east, already far from its logistical support base, lacking reinforcements and pounded on the ground and in the air from three sides. Fear of this exact scenario and the dreadful danger it puts Ukraine’s army in over the long run is why before the fighting broke out I advocated a pullback to a line from Dnipro to Kharkiv, using the Dnieper River as a defensive screen that would allow Ukraine’s forces to concentrate in a denser, hopefully impenetrable defense capable of protecting most of the population.
So far Ukraine appears incapable of launching large scale counterattacks that retake large amounts of lost territory. That isn’t to say that Ukraine’s fighting forces aren’t competent or retaking some key ground, just that defending is much, much easier than attacking. Morale among defenders tends to be higher and their lethality greater, and what frustration Russian soldiers feel at killing Slavic brethren won’t long survive seeing their friends die.
Again, this isn’t to say that Ukraine hasn’t performed better than the most optimistic pre-war predictions. You simply can’t model something like morale very effectively, it always remains an unknown factor until put to the test and varies from place to place, moment to moment. No sane planner counts on it — material factors are the root of morale anyway. Models used by the Pentagon are almost certainly incapable of incorporating morale effects in a meaningful way, over my life I’ve seen zero evidence that the few Americans who study systems have adopted the right underlying theoretical framework.
The situation is different in Europe, but that’s for another essay :)
The next vital phase of the war in Ukraine will begin soon as Russian forces mass to try to punch through Ukrainian lines to cut the rail lines heading east from Dnipro. It seems likely that Russian troops in the field in the south have a couple weeks more fight left in them before reserves being mobilized across Russia as well as mercenaries from Syria and the Wagner group form a new echelon.
Whether Ukraine’s army can withstand this onslaught in place or can, as I hope, execute a fighting withdrawal under constant threat of air attack can’t be known. Though Ukraine has fought better so far than anyone could have hoped, the disparity in power on the battlefield is leading to extreme Ukrainian casualties even if these aren’t being covered by the media. Modern warfare is just too lethal to hope otherwise, and if Ukrainian forces were more intact than I suspect their counterattacks would be having substantially more effect, inducing many Russians to surrender.
That this does not appear to be happening indicates that while Russian forces are almost certainly facing morale and supply problems, they are still coping. And the weight of Russian material reserves has yet to come into play. Without serious reinforcement Ukraine is still in an awful military position and this war could well drag on for years.
Ukraine has survived the first hard test — the next awaits. And even victory will usher an even more uncertain phase, as Putin now simply cannot accept any outcome less than taking Donbas and the Azov coast. Over time, absent real reinforcements from abroad, Ukraine’s military will be forced back to the Dnieper one sector at a time. If Russian forces can dig in where they stand now in the north a grave threat to Kyiv will remain. What Belarus does is also an open question — ISW has insisted its army was primed to charge into western Ukraine for weeks now just as the organization insisted a naval landing near Odesa was imminent for about as long, but it seems much more likely that if used Belarusion forces will reinforce Russian positions around Chernihiv or Kyiv.
Russian forces do remain exposed if Ukraine can muster bigger counter strokes, which means the next phase of the war will be decided by the answer to several vital questions:
- Can Ukraine cut off the Russian spearheads that charged across the flat ground between Sumy and Kyiv?
- Will it be able to force the Russians back to the Pripyat marshes in the northwest?
- Is Ukraine able to retake all of Kherson province, where Russian forces are threatening the logistics network connecting arms coming across the Polish border and heading to Dnipro?
- And how battered are Ukraine’s forces in Donbas after over a month of being pounded and slowly surrounded?
I hope, hope, hope for the sake of everyone fighting this miserable war on both sides that a ceasefire is reached soon. Unfortunately neither Russia nor Ukraine seems willing to accept losing territory it claims, meaning that nothing is truly resolved yet — all the diplomacy we’re seeing take place now could even be a sham designed to give Russia time to reset.
Truth be told a ceasefire now would probably lead to a resumption of heavy fighting in 3–6 months or next year. Russia seems likely to give up its gains in the north and south only if its control over Crimea, Donbas, and the Azov coast is recognized, which Ukraine is ruling out for understandable reasons.
A month from now, however, Russia is almost certain to be in possession of this territory. A that point Putin can leverage a withdrawal from his forces in northern Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine accepting Russia’s control over much of Ukraine’s east or continue to expand his attacks until he seizes all of Ukraine east of the Dnieper river.
Which leaves only two likely outcomes short of an escalation into a direct war between NATO and Russia.
- A fig leaf compromise is found that lets each side declare victory, with Ukraine still legally claiming territories Russia has taken but agreeing not to try and take them back for 10–20 years, in the meantime giving them effective autonomy. Ukraine agrees to military neutrality backed by a group of outside countries. Russia pulls back forces from the north and Kherson province. Some American and European sanctions on Russia are lifted. A fragile cold peace ensues so long as Putin lives.
- Russia keeps up the steady grind in the east, eventually surrounding or at least forcing the retreat of Ukraine’s combat forces. Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kyiv remain under threat. Ukraine refuses to relinquish any territory in talks while Russian strikes across the country slowly crush Ukraine’s infrastructure and try to starve its people into submission. Additional Russian offensives east of Kyiv once the weather improves surround Kharkiv and threaten to take all of Ukraine east of the Dnieper. The war grinds on with nuclear escalation a constant threat, and NATO supply columns eventually come under attack.
It is still possible that NATO and Russia will manage to fall into a direct fight, largely thanks to Joe Biden’s total incompetence and disgusting attempts to play with people’s lives for domestic political gain. His half-threat to pursue regime change in Russia was simple bluster designed to boost his polls and further provoke the Second Cold War he and his backers clearly believe is the only way to hold America together.
The option to escalate will continue to rest with an isolated, endangered Putin — America’s hands are effectively tied, its military forces incapable of protecting NATO allies from a Russian missile attack and so deterred from giving Ukraine the heavy equipment it needs to replace its losses. Putin can slowly grind down Ukraine’s ability to conduct offensive operations if he chooses. Given the tensions between Russia and America he has little reason not to unless offered a climb-down deal that lets him claim a win. Something America might not let happen, because its horrible leaders sincerely want a forever war with Russia that kills anybody except Americans.
The hard, unpopular truth is that the Polish parliamentarian who argued that Ukraine needs a humanitarian intervention force is absolutely correct. NATO is hostile to Russia and the UN has no power, so an independent organization is required to oppose military aggression around the world. Securing and rebuilding Ukraine ought to be the job of a dedicated Earth Defense Force, a democratically-accountable security organization capable of deploying troops to secure an area with the support of the local population then direct massive locally-owned green infrastructure investments in the community..
District by district western Ukraine should fall under the protection of this international force. Ukraine’s foreign legion could be part of it, the volunteers trained to fight together and equipped with effective weapons over a period of 3–6 months. This would free up Ukrainian troops to hold the front line and prove to Russia that a long fight won’t go its way.
I can see no other way out of this nightmare that doesn’t end badly for all involved. America and NATO don’t truly care about Ukraine, they want and need a forever war to keep their inept, geriatric Boomer leaders in power until they finally pass on. Russia doesn’t believe Ukraine has a right to exist and Putin is locked into his war now — it might never end.
Over the long run, Ukraine needs a rebuilt defense force to survive any future Russian aggression. It needs to be the home of a real international defense force equipped with non-American gear like Swedish Gripen fighters, German Leopard tanks, Bayraktar drones from Turkey, and surface to air missiles from Korea.
But that is an effort that will take time, training, and a whole lot of cash. To keep Ukraine safe forever, the work must begin as soon as possible.
Ukraine and all the other small powers of Earth will only be safe if an international alliance of non-aligned countries is established dedicated to protecting vulnerable people around the world. The same is true of the rest of us in the long run, because to the big powers we’re all just playthings.
This is the Matrix, they are the robots, and we are their food. Global rebellion is justified and necessary, if we value our lives.
If anything good is to come from Putin’s wicked war, let it be this. The alternative is a world that keeps on getting worse.