As winter sets in, both Russia and Ukraine still think they can win this war

The fantastic new German cinematic version of Erich Maria Remarque’s seminal war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, makes a telling, universal point about war itself right off the bat: how a conflict plays out is almost never as you imagine it to be.

The young German boys are regaled about the effortless victories they are about to win for Kaiser and fatherland by their paunchy, dead-eyed, middle-aged, history teacher, a man for whom war has always been a glorious theory. The next thing we know, the clueless lads he has swept up in his nationalistic fever are at the hellscape of the western front in World War I, about as far away from chivalric glory as it is possible to be.

Remarque’s microcosm of the folly of the Great War can be easily extrapolated: that if the great men of 1914 had known all that was to come in the deadly whirlwind of the next four years – which would sweep their more civilized world aside in favor of the barbarism of that was to characterize the twentieth century – none of them would have been as suicidally bellicose as they were in the fateful summer. To put it mildly, the Great War did not go according to anyone’s plan.

As the canny Otto von Bismarck put it, when you draw the sword, you roll the dice. Wars start out being about one thing, but their outcome is always a gamble. Rarely do they end as anyone imagined at their start. In the case of the present Russo-Ukrainian War this is surely true. What Vladmir Putin assumed would be a weeks-long mopping-up exercise, as Kiev was once again politically amalgamated into the wider Russian empire, has become something very different, indeed.

Worse, for analysts, the fog of war is a very real thing, as yesterday’s missile incident in Poland helped to demonstrate. Trapped in the myopia of day-to-day events, it is devilishly hard to take an intellectual, strategic step back, and make sense of what the pointillist painting actually looks like, rather than obsessing over-much about the dots.

Yet if we are to make sense of the world, these are the intellectual precepts we must sternly follow to do so.

Two Present Truths

In the case of Ukraine there are presently at least two hidden truths that bear a lot more discussion, as they reveal the trajectory of the war, rather than merely what is happening on any given day.

First, despite wishful thinking on all sides, there is a lot more fighting to come; the end is not yet in sight.

It ought to be axiomatic (it isn’t) that wars continue as long as both sides think they have a realistic chance of attaining victory. In both the Russian and Ukrainian cases at present, both Kiev and Moscow think the spring can still lift them to dominance over the other.

In the case of Moscow, despite the recent humiliating defeat at Kherson, Putin still has reasons to believe ultimate victory will still be his.

First, Russia’s new position on the east bank of the Dnieper River (which neatly bisects Ukraine) is far more defensible that was the Russian army’s line awkwardly jutting across the river to Kherson. Putin’s troops had time to dig in before they executed this long-planned retreat. With winter setting in, and with Ukraine perennially short of arms, the Russian army hopes to regroup during the winter lull before the spring campaign of 2023.

Also, on the plus side, the Kremlin plans to put 300,000 new troops in the field. While the actual number will be smaller (experts estimate 180,000 is more realistic) and while they will be raw and often indifferently trained, as Joseph Stalin put it, at some point quantity becomes quality.

Putin had tried to avoid this draft as long as possible, as politically it puts his regime in danger as average Russians become more affected by the tragedy of the war itself. But in gaining use of this new mass of men there is an immediate military upside. He can hurl these new troops at the Ukrainians, at a minimum blunting their advance, and wait for western war weariness to further his cause.

For all these reasons, and despite the military calamities that have befallen him, the Russian elite still believe ultimate victory in the war is possible. It will fight on.

But given its recent surprising successes at Kherson and around Kharkiv, Kiev is greatly encouraged and of no mind to end a conflict where the military momentum presently lies with them. The Biden administration, which in sending more than half of all military and civilian aid to Kiev is in essence Volodymyr Zelensky’s patron, shows no signs of flagging in its support for the Ukrainian cause.

More advanced American weaponry has arrived in Ukrainian hands, most famously the HIMARS multiple rocket launcher, and with time and practice, Ukrainian troops are using the new, advanced weaponry to increasingly deadly effect. With the coming of the Spring, and with the strategic initiative still with them, Kiev is not remotely minded to throw in the towel.

Second, it is political forces away from the battlefield that will determine the outcome of the war.

The two key present political drivers of the war are as simple to explain as they are hard to gauge: will western war-weariness outpace Russia’s fabled ability to suffer, or will Putin’s calling up of his reservists and issuing a semi-draft be the beginning of the end of Russian tolerance for his botched invasion? The key political question is whether Russian or Western weariness comes to a head first.

For the West, the good news is that the European scramble to secure energy supplies for the coming winter has been tactically successful; most of the storage tanks are around 90 per cent full, in excess of normal EU directives. Europe will be able to get through the coming winter.

But what about the next one? For the EU’s scramble to throw policy plates in the air in terms of its energy policy must not obscure the devastating fact that Brussels has no plan to get through the next winter.

It will take time for the German engineers to construct the vast Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals in the north of the country to offload American shale. Likewise, gas-rich Qatar would like to help, but its long-term contracts until recently have been with Asian countries.

There will be more gas from the Netherlands and Norway, but the black hole that emanates from Europe divesting itself from Russian natural gas (due to the moronic energy policies on the continent of the past two decades) will not go away. It is next winter that remains the problem.

Is Europe really prepared to theoretically support a Ukraine most of its citizens have never visited, given the practical economic and social costs that may ensue? Is a decadent Europe really prepared to genuinely make sacrifices for anything?

A fine European Council on Foreign Relations poll of June makes for bleak reading. When Europeans were asked whether the goal over the Ukraine war should be to for it to end immediately or to see Russia defeated, a plurality of 35 per cent wanted peace at all costs, while only 22 wanted justice for Ukraine. Further, pluralities favored peace at any price in Italy, Germany, and France.

If things get tougher, it is an open strategic question as to whether Europe is not the weak link in sustaining the Ukrainian cause.

For the hawkish Russian elite, the danger is that further defeats – and even the absence of a confidently expected victory – will lead to Putin’s demise or at least desire to save face in some way at the negotiating table. While the Russian President is undoubtedly hoping that time is on his side as the Europeans waver in their support for Ukraine as 2023 progresses, time can also be seen as moving against the Kremlin.

A war that was supposed to take days has taken years. Easy victory has given way to humiliating stalemate at best and defeat at worst, sullying the very Russian nationalism brand that has been the source of both Putin’s political legitimacy and surprising popularity for decades. John Kennedy put it well: while victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan.

Putin may find himself increasingly alone, isolated, and politically endangered if Russia’s masses of men cannot change the current trajectory of battle. Saving face at the negotiating table (with the Europeans and Americans restraining the Ukrainians on the basis that they are paying for everything) may be his last, best hope of survival in time.

So, these are the new truths of the Russo-Ukrainian War. What Remarque would entirely understand is that lying beneath these strategic questions there lies one horrible, human certainty; the suffering is bound to continue.

This piece was originally published in Conservative Home.

The Tsar’s throne trembles – as the consequences of Putin’s war haunt Russia in the Caucasus

It is not too much to say that Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations over Ukraine have birthed a new era. At the strategic level, the Russian President is guilty of three seminal errors.

First, his battle plan for invading Ukraine was far too byzantine – a fussy three-pronged assault that quickly bogged down partly as a result of this very complexity.

Second, he didn’t believe that Ukraine was truly a nation, that the country (particularly its Russian-speaking eastern portion) would rally around its beleaguered government in Kiev, let alone heroically fight for it.

Third, the Kremlin didn’t count on quick and decisive Western support for Ukraine, embodied in the crippling sanctions imposed on a shocked Russia. These three dramatic miscalculations led to the failure of the Russian blitzkrieg.

But the war, far from making little geostrategic sense as much as the British commentariat presently opines – the very same people who blithely assured us that the invasion wouldn’t happen in the first place – is eminently explicable in realist terms.

Like his hero, Peter the Great, the present Russian Tsar wants to restore Russian prestige by resurrecting a very old, organic geo-political concept that has protected ‘Mother Russia’ for centuries, that of strategic depth.

When Russia has been successful in the past, it has arrayed a series of satellite countries in front of it, providing itself with geographic space as invaders have come on. In traversing the great distances from their homelands through the satellites and then, at last, entering the vast Russian steppes, the invaders have been swallowed up by the immensity of the country itself.

Indeed, Russian defenders have three times (against Charles XII of Sweden in the eighteenth century, Napoleon in the nineteenth century, and Hitler in the twentieth century) traded land for time, and then let the Russian winter do its fearful work. It is neither odd nor anachronistic of Putin to wish to re-establish either Russia’s great power status, or the strategic depth paradigm that underwrites it.

Again, looking historically, the invasion of Ukraine is not an isolated event. Instead, Putin has been setting about this plan for the entirety of his time in power. He has restored traditional Russian influence in the Balkans. In saving the dictator Alexander Lukashenko from his people last year, he has made Belarus a firm satrapy of Moscow. Following his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and after successfully brokering an end to the Armenia-Azerbaijan war of last year, the Kremlin was back as the dominant force in the Caucasus region.

Even the old naval base at Tartus has been reclaimed, following Russia’s successful intervention in the bloody Syrian Civil War. But the final piece of the puzzle, the jewel in the crown of any strategic depth strategy, must leave Moscow with a pliant Ukrainian client state next door, rather than the pro-western regime which presently exists there. That is why Putin raised the sword and rolled the dice; but in failing in his initial blitzkrieg, he has greatly endangered his other quasi-imperial gains.

In settling the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of 2021, Putin emerged as the kingmaker of the Caucasus. Its recent slide back to tension reflects the waning of Russian influence over the region.

The six-week war of last year over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh—an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan that has been dominated for a generation by Yerevan—resulted in a surprising Azerbaijani victory. The bloody conflict (up to 6600 were killed) was dominated by Baku’s use of new technology, specifically Israeli- and Turkish-manufactured drones, which routed the antiquated Armenian forces. Much of Nagorno-Karabakh, de facto in Armenian hands since the 1990s, reverted to Azerbaijani control.

Before its traditional ally, Armenia, was wholly militarily humiliated, Putin jumped into the fray, organising a ceasefire, which was secured by Russia placing 2000 soldiers along the line of contact between the two sides during a cooling off period.

Further, Putin has cleverly managed the diplomacy so that both sides are beholden to Moscow, with the Kremlin emerging as the steadfast friend of Yerevan, and the newfound friend of Baku, traditionally the ally of Turkey.

However, with the Russian cat away, the local mice will play. Clashes on March 24th-25th occurred along the line of control, with Moscow accusing Azerbaijan of violating the truce. While both Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, and Armenia’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, agreed to peace talks brokered by Charles Michel, the EU Council President, in Brussels this week, it is likely the old great game in the region is afoot, as Russia’s increasing weakness is palpably clear to all.

Given their substantial losses in Ukraine, Putin has been forced to transfer troops away from its two sponsored, separatist enclaves in the nearby country of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for use as reinforcements in the current war. Surely Azerbaijan is watching like a hawk as to whether the Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh will be the next to go.

Traditionally allied to Turkey, perpetually wary of Moscow’s influence in the Caucasus, and supremely confident after their military victory of last year, it is clear that Azerbaijan is probing Russia’s commitment to the region, given the dumpster fire in Ukraine. With the modern-day Tsar’s powers ebbing, the rest of his satellite strategy for retaining its great power status is increasingly in peril as Baku clearly aspires to finish the job, taking the rest of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Even in quiescent Georgia, which Putin dismembered following a short war in 2008, recent political tremors are indicative of Russia’s increasing weakness. South Ossetia, a small enclave in the north of the country of only 50,000 people, plans to take steps to formally join next-door Russia itself, to the strenuous objections of Georgia.

Anatoly Bibilov, the President of the breakaway republic, recently announced his intention to hold a referendum ‘linked to the window of opportunity opened in the current situation,’ meaning the Ukraine war. Given that the Russian-speaking enclave has strong historical ties to North Ossetia, already formally a part of Russia, a successful referendum outcome would be a foregone conclusion.

However, it is another symbol of Russian weakness, not strength. In essence, Moscow is engineering this gambit to bank its winnings from 2008, even as it is being forced to withdraw some of the 10,000 troops it put in place in both separatist enclaves following Russia’s successful prosecution of the 2008 war. As its power in the Caucasus wanes, today’s Tsar is trying to salvage what he can from Russia’s strategic depth strategy.

War always brings a myriad of unintended consequences. The strategic irony is that, in this case, even as Putin strove with a successful lightning invasion of Ukraine to complete his life’s work of restoring strategic depth for Russia’s defense, in failing he has imperiled the other satellites he has already managed to dominate. It is not just a pliant Ukraine Putin has lost. Indeed, as events in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia show, the whole Tsarist edifice Putin has painstakingly put in place is now in the greatest of danger.

This post was originally published in Conservative Home