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Franklin Roosevelt, when Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson cabinet, remarked to a friend that: “it would be wonderful to be a war President.” That thought has probably crossed the mind of many a politician who sees himself as a great leader.
The war in Ukraine has been grinding on now for almost 18 months… Although, again, one might defer to the Ukrainian Air Force Colonel who insisted the war was not a year old or 9 years old or even 100 years old, the war was almost 400 years old.
In the last several weeks the war seems to have entered another tactical phase. Whether this new phase will change anything remains to be seen. There was a long and ugly slaughterhouse called Bakhmut, then on June 4th the least-secret offensive in modern history was begun by the Ukrainian army. The Russians went through some sort of abortive coup, or didn’t - the jury is still out, NATO added Finland but Sweden’s joining still hangs in the air after a man burned a Koran outside the Turkish embassy.
And, the Black Sea Grain Deal appears to have died and there’s now a minor shooting war in the Black Sea. So, what’s next?
Consider briefly how the two countries - both the leadership and the people - feel about the war; the polling is fairly clear: overwhelmingly the people and the leadership in both countries insist that they can’t give any ground. For Russia to back out of Ukraine would be a true national disaster for Russian, and for Putin and his regime. And, the same is said by Ukrainians and by Zelenskyy. Various stories have used the word “existential” on both sides. That is, both sides view this as a death match, they must not yield. I would add that there’s a vigorous effort to control information in both countries, so the polls, which are always suspect, are even less reliable in these circumstances. But, with regard to what the people feel they’re the only thing we have to go on.
As for the leadership, what we do have are statements from each. In the case of President Zelenskyy, he and his various deputies and assistants have consistently maintained that they’ll fight until Ukraine is defined by the 1991 borders.
And, President Putin has stated repeatedly that Crimea is Russia, and there are parts of 4 provinces of Ukraine on which that Russia has a fairly tight grasp.
Can the current offensive push Russia out of all of Ukraine? No, not without some sort of outré event: a real coup in Moscow or a mutiny in the army or some such event and then 2nd and 3rd order events that lead to the army abandoning its positions.
With the arrival of F-16s will the Ukrainians be able to defeat the Russians?
Probably not. The F-16s will provide a certain capability but coordinated air-ground tactics take a lot of training, and specialization as well as the right mix of weapons and the command set-up and more training and a host things that look boring and mundane from the outside but are quite necessary. The abbreviated course in combined arms warfare that was given to some Ukrainians as they prepared for this offensive certainly helped, but this just requires a good deal of training time.
It’s also important to remember that the Russians have some excellent systems - the S-300 and S-400 surface to air missile systems, and some of the newer Russian short-range systems, are excellent systems and will not be easily defeated. The enemy gets a vote.
There’s also a major problem with casualties. Disregard most of the numbers that either side puts out about the other - those are propaganda and have no relationship to the truth. And, the number of tanks and vehicles that have been lost is a good question. There are several groups that keep track - or try to (using commercial imagery) - equipment losses. But keeping track of what has been repaired over time is difficult.
How many killed and wounded on each side? From what I can scrape together the numbers are similar, Russia about 50,000 killed and 170,000 wounded, Ukraine about 60,000 killed and 220,000 wounded.
But, more important than that is who has been killed and how can they be replaced. Anecdotal reports suggest that Ukraine has lost - killed or severely wounded - something on the order of 80% of the soldiers in uniform on February 24th, 2022.
I don’t know if any of these numbers are correct, they may be better for the Ukrainians. But they may be worse. And meanwhile there are the other numbers: the total - real - population is now on the order of 30 million, 30% less than the official population. GDP fell by more than 30% and after the collapse of the Black Sea Grain deal and the follow-on strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure it’s hard to imagine a dramatic increase in GDP in the next 12 to 18 months.
And damage to the country’s infrastructure is now estimated to be roughly $500 billion - three times the 2021 GDP, but 5 times the current GDP.
Meanwhile, Russian strikes on infrastructure are cycling up and down and each time they cycle up, Ukraine responds with more strikes on Russia. From Ukraine’s perspective that is completely justified. But that doesn’t change the fact that the war is escalating. Short of some black swan flying over eastern Ukraine, this war won’t end this year; rather, it promises to escalate next year. Is that in US or NATO’s interest?
St. Teresa of Avila once remarked that: “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.” I wonder what President Biden has prayed for in the past?
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...