At the start of March, we pointed out, Ukraine’s armed forces were more fragile than was acknowledged in the Western press. That’s since been confirmed by more-than-occasional admission-against-interest stories depicting how Ukraine is short on ammo, taking serious losses, and not looking likely to retake Russia-occupied territory.
We’d like to point out a conundrum. The West has been engaging in a remarkable level of propaganda and stunts. Some of that has been that the Ukraine government is particularly good at that sort of thing, and apparently even our intelligence agencies have not been much/at all sanity-checking what Ukraine tells them. Admittedly, satellite imagery limits how much tale-telling Ukraine can do, but many Western official seem genuinely to believe dodgy Ukraine claims, like the level of Russian deaths, where the BBC, despite looking very hard, has been able to confirm a small fraction (16,000 as of the start of March).
All of this perception-management is perceived to be necessary because this war is costing a lot of money and the backers need to be able to maintain enough support so as to be able to get funding bills passed. And aside from being predisposed to make maximum use of its soft power skills, Ukraine appears to be quite cognizant of the fact that it depends on coalition support for its survival, and therefore needs to keep up an image of success, or at least viability.
One side effect of the coalition-ness has been that the military side of this campaign has been far too transparent. There’s been a weird “loose lips sink ships” quality to Western disclosures. Brian Bereltic should not be able to chronicle declining US/NATO weapons deliveries. TASS should not be able to estimate, as it did earlier this week, how many Western tanks have been delivered out of recent commitments.
Perhaps I am old school, but I am pretty sure the Allies didn’t disclose how many landing craft they were sending to England before D-Day, much the less publicize debates among the Allies as to who was supplying what.
Admittedly, the US Defense Department of late has stopped identifying how many weapons are being sent in each package, but that’s apparently due to wanting to hide declining support and not out of concern about over-sharing with Russia.
However, Ukraine and its media friendlies have been actively talking up a counter-offensive, to the degree that Russian and Russia-friendly commentators have been spending an awful lot of time speculating when and where it might happen. Commonly-held views are it has to be pretty soon, particularly since Western experts are now admitting that Western ammo supplies will run dry sometime in the summer. But it can’t happen until mud season is over, and with a late snow re-softening the ground, that probably won’t happen till the end of the month at the earliest.
Given how appearance-driven Kiev is, another reason for launching the perceived-to-be-necessary-to-maintain-support counteroffensive sooner rather than later is to try to offset the demoralizing impact of the loss of Bakhmut, and potentially in the not-too-distant future, Avdiivka, which is near Donetsk city.
The war-watchers think Ukraine will try to cut the Russian land bridge to Crimea, most likely by striking towards Melitopol. This raises the question of what Ukraine thinks it will accomplish. Even if Ukraine were to perform way above expectations and somehow surmount the extensive fortifications that Russia started building when General Surovikin took over as theater commander last October (which would be a massive embarrassment to Russia), Russia still has the depth of forces and materiel to turn this around, particularly since Ukraine would be committing a lot of its remaining firepower to this last gamble.
Indeed, Ukraine has apparently moved toward the recommendation that got General Mark Milley in so much hot water last fall: that Ukraine should sue for peace, after of course Doing Something to improve its bad bargaining position. From the Financial Times:
Kyiv is willing to discuss the future of Crimea with Moscow if its forces reach the border of the Russian-occupied peninsula, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has told the Financial Times.
The comments by Andriy Sybiha, deputy head of Zelenskyy’s office, are the most explicit statement of Ukraine’s interest in negotiations since it cut off peace talks with the Kremlin last April.
“If we will succeed in achieving our strategic goals on the battlefield and when we will be on the administrative border with Crimea, we are ready to open [a] diplomatic page to discuss this issue,” Sybiha said, referring to Kyiv’s long-planned counteroffensive.
He added: “It doesn’t mean that we exclude the way of liberation [of Crimea] by our army.”
Towards the end, the Financial Times reports that a February poll found 87% of the Ukraine public is dead set against territorial concessions to Russia. Would the loss of Bakhmut and rumors of how many men died and were maimed trying to keep it, shake that support? Or say a Kiev propaganda push? Past studies have found that a mere six weeks of concerted messaging will generate big shifts in opinion.
Despite all this talk of a Ukraine attack, since Russia decided it needed to commit more forces to the special military operation after having to abandon Kharviv, the war has been generally going well for Russia. Ukraine has continued to play right into one of the comparatively few things Russia has made public about its intentions, that it is waging an attritional war. Ukraine has repeatedly fought tenaciously not to cede territory, typically at high cost in men and materiel, when Russia has the advantage in both categories.
And we are starting to see evidence of the degree of Ukraine depletion. For instance commentators have noticed that the Russian air force of late has been more active. That’s believed to be due to Ukraine running low on missiles for its Soviet S-300 air defense system (the Patriots the US is sending to shore it up are inferior and comparatively few in number)
Indeed, Russia has come to learn it is well positioned even compared to its NATO nemesis. As many have pointed out, NATO’s forces are set up for defense, in or very near their home countries. For instance, Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks are designed for use on good roads, despite being a tracked vehicle and with maintenance close at hand. The US and NATO spent 30 year optimizing their offensive capabilities for regional insurgent wars, not conflict with a major power, and in its backyard to boot.
NATO has at least three other problems. First, coalition of a large number of countries is not a great vehicle for unified action. It’s shocking to see that NATO members have balkanized weapons systems. What sense is it to have a zillion types of tanks and armored personnel carriers? The EU was able to agree on a single commercial airplane operator, the Airbus, and figured out how to divvy up parts manufacture and maintenance so as to keep everyone pretty happy. Why was there no similar effort for an EU-champion for far-more-essential-to-survival major weapons platforms?
Another manifestation of the coalition problem is uneven willingness to commit forces. Even though hawks love talking up NATO manning up to show those Rooskies a thing or two, as Douglas Macgregor and others have pointed out, the only NATO members who might sign up are Poland, Romania, the US and the UK, who might muster among them 100,000.2
Second, not only had the Collective West learned that hollowing out our manufacturing base is at odds with having muscular armed forces, but we’d also need to get over our “just in time” practices and be able to stockpile inputs as well as outputs. Not only would it take, per Alex Vershinin, a decade for the US and NATO to catch up with Russia’s production levels, but we don’t even seem to be thinking very hard about how to get started in closing the gap.
Third is that in most NATO members, support for the war is falling, and in some important states, particularly Germany, protests are rising.
Now admittedly Russia’s silence on its military plans has sometimes been costly, witness when the government refused to ‘splain the Kharkiv retreat. Russia did learn a bit and communicated more when it pulled out of Kherson city. My sense is that Russian citizens would rather be told more but that may be why the government tolerates hyper-active commentary on Telegram: anything on it was presumably also observed by Ukraine, so no risk to the armed services.
In any event, with Russia well along with taking all of Bakhmut, Ukraine will have to create the appearance of success somewhere else. And if not that well-advertised counteroffensive, it would need to be a very big terrorist stunt.
1 German foreign minister Annelina Baerbock famously said she’d keep backing Ukraine, public support be damned.
2 It would take the US nine months or so to send meaningfully more from our side of the pond and then we’d have to get our stuff to Eastern Ukraine, oh, and with not much air cover, since that theater is too far from our airbases.