Ever since the start of the war in Ukraine, pundits, armchair generals, and other members of the chattering classes have attempted to forecast its trajectory. While that is human nature, the propensity to try to read tea leaves may be even higher than usual due to the unprecedented amount of day to day battlefield information, the intense and too-often-visible Western efforts at narrative control, and the way this conflict has become a hegemony-breaking struggle of the US and NATO with a Russia that in the eyes of much of the rest of the world is midwifing the birth of a multi-polar order. In other words, the stakes have become disproportionate to the size of even this moderately big conflict.
Sme of the most stalwart supporters of the notion that Russia will prevail against the Collective West have recently sounded cautionary notes about timing. Recall that not just war mavens like Brian Berletic but even the Discord leaks showed Ukraine running critically short of weapons, particularly offensive and air defense missiles, over the summer and early fall. So what gives?
As we’ll explain, independent of reasons on the military front to think the end-game might not be as near as some experts had once thought, there may also be political/geopolitical reasons for Russia to continue to go slowly, including being deliberate about the acquisition of terrain.
One key issue is that it became clear in the NATO meeting in Vilnius that most of the NATO European members have soured on Project Ukraine. That leaves the US holding the bag even more so than before. Of course, with Biden having just promoted the Russia-hater-in-chief Victoria Nuland to the #2 slot at the Department of State, there’s no sign of Administration commitment softening any time soon.
But as economist Herbert Stein famously said, “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” And the West is scraping the bottom of its barrels to keep supplying Ukraine with weapons. Tellingly, despite recognizing that it can’t keep up with Russian production, it still has not even attempted to initiate a reindustrialization/rearming program (I am old enough to remember the post-Sputnik panic; the US quickly resolved to catch up and threw resources at the problem). A few more contracts with the usual suspects is not a remotely adequate response.
None other than the EU’s Josep Borell said in May that the war would be over in days without Western military support. And let us not forget that the Ukraine government is entirely on the US/EU drip feed. Its population level per Douglas Macgregor has fallen from a pre-war 40 million-ish to 19 to 22 million. Its GDP fell by over 30% in 2022. And how, pray tell, will it rebuild? The idea of BlackRock-led public-private partnerships is silly (recall investors turned up their noses as much less basket-casey Greece in 2015). Ukraine needs a Marshall Plan, including state-led direction of what infrastructure gets rebuilt first and why. But the West does not do big dirigiste schemes any more. And let us not forget that Russia would have to supply electrical grid equipment1…how is that supposed to work?
So why with little reason to be cheery about Ukraine’s prospects are Gilbert Doctorow and Scott Ritter making cautionary noises? For Doctorow, it’s about what he sees as too much optimism; Ritter has started thinking about the demands of possible occupation.
Some readers flagged the Doctorow piece but it’s not clear it got the attention it warrants. From Russian military experts on the current state of the war:
There is a lot of cheerleading for Russian military successes on the Western alternative news portals. There is also a fair amount of cheerleading coming from front line Russian war correspondents on Russian state television. But, as I have indicated in past essays, the more serious Russian news programs such as Sixty Minutes and Evening with Vladimir Solovyov also give the microphone to military experts from among Duma committee chairmen and others who actually bear responsibility and accountability for the war effort and are not just talking heads. These speakers are much more restrained in their remarks on the war’s progress and I use this opportunity to share with readers what I hear from such sources. I will be drawing in particular on what was said on the Solovyov show two days ago.
The most sober remark was that it is a mistake to gloat over reports that the Ukrainians have run out of reserves and that their soldiers at the front are now just old men and youths, who are demoralized and surrendering to Russians when they can. Saying that is to diminish our respect for the heroism of Russian soldiers who are facing, in fact, peer equals in the Ukrainian forces. This is a tough war.
Moreover, the Ukrainian reserves are not yet exhausted. Out of the approximately 60,000 elite troops that received training in NATO countries only 30 – 40% were killed or wounded in the battle for Bakhmut and subsequent Ukrainian counter-attack after 4 June. The Russians will not begin their own massive offensive to knock out the Ukrainian military until they are confident that most of the Ukrainian reserves have been depleted in the ongoing war of attrition.
Accordingly, what we are witnessing these days is localized attacks that have tactical, not strategic importance. Yes, the Ukrainians make advances here and there of a few meters at great cost in lost lives of the soldiers. Yes, the Russians make advances of three or four kilometers here or there, at significantly lower cost. The Russians are biding their time. This is not a stale-mate as Western media keep telling their audiences.
Next to Ritter’s concerns. He states in a new interview with Garland Nixon (starting at 46:55) that Russia has reserves of 180,000 and that’s not enough to take Kharkiv or Odessa.2 Ritter also argues that these two targets have become much less attractive by virtue of most ethnic Russians having left and thus those remaining no longer being Russian-leaning.
In contrast with Ritter’s reservations, we also have signs of Russia taking a harder line with respect to Western Ukraine. Before, deputy Security Council chief Dmitry Medvedev had signaled that Russia might welcome the rest of Europe taking the Western Ukraine problem off Russia’s hands by having Poland, Hungary and Romania carve it up. But Putin in a recent Security Council meeting, and then reinforced in a staged talk with Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko, made clear that Russia would act against any Polish incursion.
As we’ve pointed out, Russia’s leadership seems attentive to the fact that this is a multi-fronted engagement, with the kinetic war only one element.3 And domestic politics are a very big part of the equation
Let’s float a new hypothesis, and this is only a hypothesis, not a prediction.
The Ukraine army is approaching the point of exhaustion and collapse. Maybe that will happen on Ritter’s earlier timetable, of late summer/ fall, when artillery supplies were projected to become fatally low (the US supply of cluster bombs has extended Ukraine’s sell by date a bit but I have not seen any revised estimates). But Ukraine may carry on until mud season, and hope that the slowed tempo of the war will enable it to resupply a bit. Regardless, it seems not conceivable that Ukraine can carry on at its current tempo for as long as a year.
Even the more conservative commentators, like Doctorow, warn that Russia won’t make any big moves until Ukraine forces look kaput.
Given the complexity of the domestic and international political situation, big moves may not be immediately forthcoming even then.
First, from the domestic standpoint, Russia will have a lot of unfinished business. It must first of all secure and clear Donbass. It must stop shelling and terrorist action against Donetsk. Even assuming the Ukraine army starts to break up, there’s a lot of potential for rearguard action, as well as mines to clear.
Second, it still will have the crazy and very much in denial West to deal with. Some of what is logical to do next will be very much path dependent and is hard to forecast now. For instance, the promotion of Victoria Nuland makes the poor prospects for a negotiated outcome even worse. But it is possible, if Biden’s approval ratings have fallen by next spring or he has had a Mitch-McConnell-level-visible health crisis, that Biden will be in lame duck territory and it will behoove Russia not to do anything too definitive until it has a better reading on possible outcomes.
That is a long winded way of saying if and when military events break decisively Russia’s way, it may still see fit only to take comparatively low risk moves that might (finally) get the attention of the West. Recall that once Russia clears the final line of Ukraine defense in the Donbass, it then has a pretty clear run to the Dnieper. Marching up to its bank might focus a few minds.
Third, if, as in when the US abandons Ukraine, the government funding will end or be considerably reduced. The already very bad conditions in the parts of Ukraine still under Ukraine control will go from not great to terrible. This will be an end of Soviet Union level collapse with war damage and casualties thrown in.
Most commentators have assumed Russia will take territory when it has the chance. But Russia is committed only to securing the four oblasts that it now regards as part of Russia (which does entail some additional ground-taking). It may want to take Kharkiv to better secure its borders, or Odessa to control the Black Sea coast and assure that rump Ukraine is weak and poor. But per Ritter, those are cost-benefit exercises, and that equation looks to be in flux right now.
Russia is already going to have a lot on its plate with clearing, securing, and rebuilding its new Russian territory in the former Ukraine. Could it go into wait and see mode as the rest of Ukraine becomes a failed state? Russia may decide to act only selectively and opportunistically, entering areas that seem receptive to Russian “help,” taking action as needed to pursue denazification aims. It may seem nervous-making and unduly fluid to wait and watch as events unfold. But taking a lot of territory would be a huge commitment and Russia does not seem to be manning up for that yet.4
To put this another way: in decision science, an important concept is the cost of information. Decisions are always made under uncertainty, but often it is worth the time and expenditure to get better intelligence before acting.
As maddening as it likely is to many Russian citizens and others with stakes in the outcome of the war, it looks to be entirely rational for Russia to persist in going comparatively slowly in the prosecution of this war,5 not just to save lives and husband resources, but also to see how events play out so as to plot the most promising path in a very high risk game. So this war may well drag on, due not to Russian failure but to prudence.
1 Ukraine runs on Soviet spec gear that the West does not make and is not about set up just for the purpose of fixing Ukraine. Redoing the grid for Western equipment is not a realistic alternative.
2 Ritter has always been cool on the idea of Russia taking Odessa. He posited that Russia would use it as a bargaining chip, that letting Odessa remain in Ukraine’s hands would assure it some measure of economic viability. But as I recall, Ritter, who reads everything Putin says, was also reacting to a throwaway remark by Putin at a Valdai Club talk, where a journalist in what was presumed to be a planted question asked if he would need a Russian or Ukrainian visa to visit Odessa in two years. Putin in ducking the question, said:
Odessa can be an apple of discord, a symbol of conflict resolution, and a symbol of finding some kind of solution to everything that is happening now. It is not a question of Russia. We have said many times that we are ready to negotiate, and I recently mentioned this publicly once again speaking in the Kremlin. But the leaders of the Kiev regime have decided not to continue negotiations with the Russian Federation. It is true that the final word belongs to those who implement this policy in Washington. It is very easy for them to solve this problem: to send the appropriate signal to Kiev that they should change their position and seek a peaceful solution to these problems. And that will do it.
At a minimum, that looked like a signal that Odessa was not necessarily on the menu. But that was last October. Russia’s positions have hardened since then.
3 Witness, for instance, Russia being measured in exiting the so-called grain deal, which was supposed to be a “get Ukraine grain and Russian fertilizer to market” but of course the West failed to deliver on the Russian bennies. And that’s before getting to wee issues like Ukraine using the deal as cover for war materiels movements and storage.
Russia took the time to ‘splain to the so-called Global South that the West was hogging the Ukraine grains and that Russia, which was always a much bigger cereals producer than Ukraine and has been having bumper harvests of late, would supply the poorest countries with grain for free and would assure supply at fair prices to the rest.
That does not mean all Russian decisions have been great. Letting Prigozhin get too big for his britches was unwise, even if (to mix metaphors), the Russian leadership was able to make lemonade from the lemon of his revolt. And there’s been gears-grinding as Russia has scaled up from what it envisaged as a limited engagement to a much bigger war.
4 Some readers have argued the reverse, looking at an increase in Russia’s conscription rates. But that was pre-planned before the war and is at least partly due to the 1990s-early 2000s economic implosion in Russia leading to low birth rates then and thus comparatively low numbers of conscription-age adult men.
5 Russia just fired a bunch of generals. Scuttlebutt has it that included some seen as effective and liked by their men but also loudly advocating much more aggressive operations. If that is correct, the Ministry of Defense looks to be sending a message that boldness and opportunism are not in favor, that following battle plans and orders, even if they seem unduly restrictive, is paramount.