Economist Herbert Stein famously said, “That which can’t continue, won’t.” That applies to Ukraine. It is increasingly becoming obvious that Ukraine can’t prevail in its proxy war with Russia. Absent a nuclear war or some Yellowstone-caldera-blowup-level natural disaster in Russia, the fact that Ukraine can only pursue a war of attrition against the much better resourced Russia means Ukraine will lose on the battlefield. How total that loss is in military terms is a matter of Russia’s resolve and its willingness to continue to commit men and materiel.
But it is still striking to see Russia doubling down on a battlefield resolution even as the West clearly needs some way out but can’t, as they say in Maine, get there from here.
The 2022-2023 level of funding and arms have not been enough to beat Russia. Politically, the West cannot continue that level of support without a prospect of a Ukraine win, or at least fighting to a not-horrible-looking standstill, in say a year, eighteen months tops. The new mantra in some circles of a long war is an admission of defeat, of trying to buy time until a face-saving is found. And that’s before considering the elephant in the room, that the Beltway “rules based order” types see China as the bigger threat, and don’t want to blow their wad on Ukraine.
In light of all that, we’ll argue that the failure of the Administration to get $24 billion (then cut to $6 billion) of additional 2023 funding to Ukraine as part of the so-called continuing resolution is a bigger deal than the press is acknowledging and many pundits seem to appreciate. Even though many default to “of course Ukraine will get the money,” the procedural path for getting that done is not obvious.
First, the fact that the Administration failed to prevail is a sign that Biden is in lame duck terrain. Normally, the continuing resolution drama is a very effective vehicle to get all sorts of Congresscritters to hold their noses and vote for things they don’t much like to keep the government open. Must haves like disaster relief serve as cudgels to pass the entire package.
The whole point of putting a huge chunk of additional Ukraine spending in that bill was because that was the easiest way to get it done. Any other scheme will be more visible. And now that one round of Ukraine spending has been denied, it makes it less risky for other Congresscritters to oppose Ukraine spending or insist on lower amounts.
Specifically, Biden is now talking up having the House and Senate vote on a stand-alone Ukraine funding measure. He is acting as if that House Speaker McCarthy agrees to that.1 But McCarthy denies that as Florida representative Matt Gaetz, the leader of the campaign to block Ukraine funding, is now taking a run at McCarthy’s speakership. From BBC:
The deal late on Saturday that averted a government shutdown left out $6bn (£5bn) of funding for Ukraine because Mr Gaetz, of Florida, and other ultraconservatives insisted the US has spent too much on that country’s war with Russia.
Mr Gaetz has wielded the threat of dethroning Mr McCarthy ever since January when he led party rebels in opposing the California congressman’s bid for the speakership, forcing him to endure 15 gruelling rounds of voting in the chamber.
During the political horse-trading before he ultimately won the gavel, Mr McCarthy agreed to a change of rules that would allow any single lawmaker to call for a vote to oust the Speaker.
That paved the way to the motion to vacate.
In a speech on the House floor on Monday, Mr Gaetz accused Mr McCarthy of striking a secret deal with the White House to insert new Ukraine funding into separate legislation.
Mr McCarthy has said there is “no side deal on Ukraine”.
After filing the motion to vacate, Mr Gaetz told a crowd of reporters: “Well, I have enough Republicans where, at this point next week, one of two things will happen.
“Kevin McCarthy won’t be the Speaker of the House, or he’ll be the Speaker of the House working at the pleasure of the Democrats, and I’m at peace with either result, because the American people deserve to know who governs them.”
As an aside, the seemingly obvious route of tucking the extra 2023 Ukraine spending in the Pentagon kitty is problematic too. The House and Senate each passed their versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2024, as in the next spending year, in July. The two versions have yet to be reconciled. Trying to cram more Ukraine monies in there won’t lead to a faster outcome even assuming both sides are willing to give much on other contested issues, which is what the Ukraine confidence fairy needs right now.
Now the Pentagon is sure to be able to find some change in the sofa cushions to toss some more cash to Ukraine. But scaring up $6 billion would look unseemly even if they could find out of 2023 authorizations.
Since it’s only six week until the next go at a spending bill, the normal solution to the problem of stubborn representatives is bribes, in the form of pork for their district. For instance, the originally fiercely derided TARP passed after liberal application of handouts. But these Republican ideologues are fierce opponents of more spending save for a few pet categories like border control. They thus might be unwilling to take these inducements out of cussedness or reluctance to be depicted as hypocrites. And as the Washington Post pointed out:
GOP support for Ukraine’s defense has been dropping precipitously with each House vote, and there is little reason to believe McCarthy will face any less resistance to supporting Kyiv if he tries to rally his conference next time he tries to do so.
The US going visibly wobbly is happening just after various commentators have noted, in the last few weeks, Russia has been taking a tougher line, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Chairman of the Duma Vyacheslav Volodin, and now deputy chair of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev all making statements that pretty much amount to Russia now being committed to a maximalist goal, of either getting Ukraine to capitulate or ending its existence as a state.
Note that is not tantamount to taking all of Ukraine, but of following Clausewitz: “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” But as Alexander Mercouris and Alex Christoforu have pointed out, Russia has been broadcasting in what look to be recruitment ads that portray campaigns against Odessa and Kiev, as well as others that signal that Russia now expects to move forces west of the Dnieper. Recall not just Kiev but many other cities, such as Dnipro, Nikopol, and Kherson straddle the river, making how far Russia eventually goes West not obvious. 2
As Russia has become more bloodyminded, Ukraine’s allies seem caught in their own conflicting boundary conditions. There is no willingness to mobilize to defend Ukraine. There isn’t even a serious effort to ramp up military production to an adequate level to match, let alone surpass, Russia’s output. which using a population of 36 million, only has 5 EU states larger than it, which makes is a very costly welfare project.
And that’s before getting to the fact that Ukraine as a county has become a very costly ward of all its backers. Alex Vershinin, in his important paper, The Return of Industrial Warfare, clearly envisioned the implications of Ukraine’s dependence on coalition support:
The Ukrainians’ terrain-focused war of maneuver is constrained by two factors: limited artillery ammunition and equipment production, and coalition considerations…Ukraine simply cannot go toe to toe with Russia in artillery battles…
Ukraine’s second constraint is the coalition nature of its warfare. Since running out of its own stocks, Ukraine is increasingly reliant on Western weaponry. Maintaining the Western coalition is crucial to the Ukrainian war effort. Without a constant string of victories, domestic economic concern may cause coalition members to defect. If Western support dries up due to depletion of stock or of political will, Ukraine’s war effort collapses for lack of supplies. In some ways, Ukraine has no choice but to launch attacks no matter the human and material cost.
Due to not wanting to overload this post, we will put to one side the magnitude of funding for Ukraine ex military support and how its economy is buckling even with all of that backing. Commentators have a understandable tendency to focus on what they can observe, even though that runs the risk of the “drunk under the streetlight” syndrome. As we hope to discuss in a separate post the dire conditions in Ukraine’s economy and the extreme measure now taken to keep it going. Many commentators discuss the prospects for the collapse or conquest of Ukraine’s military, but desperate conditions away from the front can also sap the will to keep fighting.
The problem is that factions in the US leadership have conflicting objectives that are becoming harder to paper over. And now we have fractures in Europe, witness the win of Ukraine-war-skeptic Robert Fico in Slovakia and the prospect of Poland’s opposition to providing more arms and other rows with Ukraine becoming not just the spat of the day to appease voters before October 15 elections, but enduring as policy. The very short version is Poland’s lead party Law and Justice (PiS), which was once a diehard Ukraine loyalist, has backed away from that position as Polish voters have soured on Project Ukraine. Ukraine filing a WTO suit against Poland (and others) for rejecting Ukraine grain was correctly perceived as a hostile, ungrateful act after too many displays of Ukraine entitlement. And as one reader pointed out with respect to Ireland, the official budgetary support for Ukraine does not include all of the benefits extended to Ukraine refugees, another source of resentment. Former president Donald Tusk, who is staunchly pro-Ukraine, is running as the opposition leader but even with massive turnout at rallies last weekend, is polling only at 30% The touts seem to favor PIS (now at 38%) forming a coalition with the conservative and Ukraine-critical Confederation party. You’ll note Politico does not even deign to mention that outcome in its latest story. But Associated Press did take note last week:
Poland’s hard-right Confederation party … made their case for lower taxes, less regulation and an anti-European Union and anti-Ukraine foreign policy….
Confederation has turned up the heat on the Polish political establishment, riding a wave of support for nationalist conservative parties across Europe. Similar political forces have surged on opposition to widespread migration to Europe and anger over COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccine mandates…
The Polish party, which won nearly 7% of the vote four years ago, was polling at around 15% in the summer, creating the prospect of a third-place finish after the governing national conservative party Law and Justice, which is the frontrunner in surveys, and the opposition Civic Coalition, led by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, which is trailing in second place.
That created speculation that it could end up as a coalition partner in the next government with Law and Justice. Such a scenario could push the EU and NATO even further to the political right and weaken Poland’s support for the Western alliance defending Ukraine.
While every country is different, polls in other EU members have tended to understate support for anti-EU/NATO factions. Viktor Orban was predicted to at risk of losing when he won in a rout. Fico was projected to be only a possible winner and exit polls had his party as beaten when he won by five points. So that suggests that the conservative groups in Poland might do even better than now projected.
If PiS and Confederation do form a solid coalition after the Polish elections on the 15th, Victoria Nuland’s head might explode. Too bad it won’t be televised.
1 In fairness, the Biden statement was slippery: “I fully expect the Speaker will keep his commitment to the people of Ukraine and secure passage of the support needed to help Ukraine at this critical moment.”
2 We warned from the outset that Russia could win the war and lose the peace; we think trying to subdue Western Ukraine would be a huge resource drain as well as corrupting, which is why we suggested forcing significant depopulation of that area as potentially the least bad of not good options. Medvedev early on had suggested what amounted to partitioning it among countries with reasonable claims, as in Poland, Hungary, and Romania, but EU and NATO heads would explode over member states of these two organizations executing what they would deem to be a nefarious Russian plot. Medvedev having floated that scheme early on makes it seem unlikely that the Collective West would embrace it as their idea.