Friday, March 11, 2022

Strange Defeatism about Ukraine

To me one of the strangest things about the war in Ukraine has been the hopeless defeatism of many western "experts", which has been reflected in the media. From day one we have been told, over and over, that the Russians' overwhelming military advantage means they are bound to win in the end – "win" here meaning take Ukraine's cities and overthrow its government. Consider this, from the commanding general of the US Marine Corps:

If one were to run a virtual wargame knowing how Russian forces were postured and understanding their capabilities, the computer model would have said Russia would be victorious in a matter of 72 to 96 hours.

Here's one I just found on Twitter:

At some point, we will have to stop encouraging Ukraine to continue fighting a losing battle. . . . Putin will continue attacking until Ukraine ceases to exist.

Meanwhile, here is part of the Institute for the Study of War's situation update for today, March 11:

Russian ground forces attempting to encircle and take Kyiv began another pause to resupply and refit combat units on March 11 after failed attacks March 8-10. Russian forces also appear to be largely stalemated around Kharkiv. Russian advances from Crimea toward Mykolayiv and Zaporizhya and in the east around Donetsk and Luhansk made no progress in the last 24 hours, and Russian forces in the south face growing morale and supply issues. . . .  Uncoordinated and sporadic Russian offensive operations against major Ukrainian cities support the Ukrainian General Staff’s assessment that Russian forces face growing morale and supply issues and have lost the initiative. 

The Kremlin likely seeks to increase its combat power by drawing Belarus into the war and leveraging Syrian proxies, in addition to ongoing efforts to directly replace Russian combat losses through individual conscripts that are unlikely to be well-enough trained or motivated to generate effective new combat power. Putin is reportedly conducting an internal purge of general offers and intelligence personnel and recalibrating Russia’s war effort to sustain combat operations far longer than the Kremlin initially planned. Russia likely requires a new wave of combat-effective reservists or recruits in a short period of time to achieve its objectives in Ukraine but is unlikely to be able to generate such a wave. 

I am not saying Ukraine is winning; as I have said repeatedly, I cannot tell who is winning, because I see very mixed signals. But anyone who thinks the Russians are "overwhelming" Ukraine is not paying attention. I don't even understand where this notion came from that Russia's forces have an overwhelming advantage. Sure, Russia has a much bigger army, but if you just count the forces in Ukraine, Ukraine has more troops on the battlefield. Ukraine has also been at war continuously since 2014, and they require all the conscripts that pass through their army to spend some time on the front lines. A higher percentage of Ukrainian troops had seen combat when the invasion started. Manning a trench and dodging the occasional mortar round is not like repelling an assault by a battalion of T-90 tanks, but in war even a little experience under fire gives veterans an advantage. It is certainly true that the Russian army in Ukraine has more tanks, but especially in the north they are not proving to be decisive. The Ukrainians have destroyed at least 200 of the 1200 or so tanks in the invading force. The Russians have a lot more aircraft, but they have been very reluctant to use them.

The one thing Russia clearly has more of is artillery, and they may end up pounding many Ukrainian cities to rubble. But that won't win the war.

The event that made me think this would be no easy victory for Russia was the failure of their airborne assault on Kyiv on the first night of the war. Their "elite" airborne troops landed as planned at Hostomel airport, but the Ukrainians drove them off. This would, I decided then, be no US-invasion-of-Panama cakewalk.

So why the relentless negativity? George Orwell once wrote that during World War II Britain's educated elite was always more defeatist than the masses; some of the elite, he said, went on being defeatist long after the war had obviously been won. He ascribed some of this to imagination. If you knew enough to understand what would be involved in defeating the Nazis, and could imagine what it would be like to live through that, it might just be easier to anticipate a swift defeat.

I wonder if this is at play in western reactions to the war in Ukraine. A swift Russian victory would have avoided the horror of the war we see unfolding before us: the thousands dead, the cities destroyed, the world economy teetering, the looming threat of escalation. The longer the fighting goes on, the greater the chance that Ukraine will emerge as an independent nation; but the longer the fighting goes on, the more will be lost, and the greater the chance that this will spiral into a European conflagration.


G. Verloren said...

I feel like a lot of military experts have been overlooking the Russian culture of corruption and cronyism.

The Russians have a lot of tanks, APCs, etc - but in the first few days in Ukraine, lots of photos and videos showed a widespread pattern of broken down and abandoned vehicles, most of which appeared to be the result of problems that arise from neglect and lack of maintenance while in storage. E.g., you can't just leave wheeled military vehicles sitting around parked in lots - their tires can't be left in the sun for too long or the sidewalls become brittle, so you need to rotate and move them and recondition them every so often to avoid that, or they inevitably blow out once used. That sort of thing.

We've seen pictures of Russian soldiers in Ukraine who were issued MREs that expired in 2015. We've seen ample evidence of bungled supply lines, with military vehicles stranded or abandoned for lack of fuel. We've seen tanks advancing in isolation, lacking any sort of infantry or other ground support to back them up - a massive fundamental blunder that belies a total lack of tactical and strategic planning.

We've witnessed how the Russians also decided to invade precisely at the time when early spring thaws would be turning huge swaths of open terrain into mud that not even the mightiest of tanks can overcome - a phenomenon which the Russians are no stranger to themselves, and which they even named in their own language: "Rasputitsa"! All of the potential mobility of their vehicles has been negated, because they are forced to travel only on a limited number of improved roadways, resulting in predictable movements and an inability to maneuver which make them sitting ducks. The western media got spooked by a "40 mile convoy" of tanks and other vehicles as if it was some sort of deliberate show of force - when in actuality, it's just one giant traffic jam caused by bald faced incompetence.

Dictators hate getting bad news, and their cronies hate giving it to them. So what do the flunkies do when the reality on the ground doesn't live up to the demands delivered from on high? They lie! They falsify records! They tell their Glorious Leader exactly want he wants to hear!

Are the tanks well maintained? But of course - our mechanics tend to them night and day, for the glory of the Motherland! Do they have enough fuel? Absolutely - in fact, they've often got so much fuel, we don't know where to store it all! Are the troops well trained? Our training programs are the best in the world, and thus the men are all top notch, crack commandos with top marks in field trials! Is morale high? How could it be anything BUT high when proud patriots are given the chance to serve their beloved and noble country! And so on.

Suffice it to say, in the absence of Western experts actually going to Russia and inspecting the troops themselves, they're reliant on official Russian numbers and documents to gauge the strength of the Russian military - and the official numbers and assessments are utter nonsense, wildly inflating the capability of the military in order to keep Putin pleased with the progress of his underlings, and cover up the naked corruption that is endemic at every level of Russian governance.

Now, add to that a Western reliance on orbital surveillance which fails to capture nuance. The Russians might well have X number of tanks sitting parked out in the open across their various depots, and our satellite images might well be able to visually confirm that number - but if 50% of those tanks aren't in working order because they've been sitting neglected for years without proper maintenance, then our best intelligence will be fundamentally wrong to a staggering degree.

We've overestimated the Russian military precisely because the Russians themselves have overestimated it - and no one anywhere along the line has bothered to question and ask "Can we really trust these numbers", simply because they fit the expected narrative.

szopen said...

I admit I was quite sure Ukraine will just collapse and I am pleasantly surprised they gave Russians a solid pounding. The reason was very poor show Ukrainians gave in 2014, where Russians had no major problems with taking Crimea. I guess many people, most importantly including Putin, thought 2022 would be a repeat from Crimea. They forgot that 8 years is a very long time and 2014 was shock for Ukraine which helped them increase their combat power.

The other thing is that I have no idea what's really happening. The thing is vast majority of sources I have access to are pro-Ukrainian. It's obvious that in any war both sides produce propaganda, in order to procure support from abroad and raise morale of the citizens. However recently twitter, for example, banned one Russian account which gave pro-Russian side of the conflict. It was for sure biased and partly propaganda, but it gave a chance to peek into Russian side of the conflict. Think about gossips about Wagnerites being all wiped out or Snake island story, or a drone being knocked down by jar thrown by old babushka. Because of that it's reasonable to estimate real war effects to be somehow less optimistic for Ukraine that it seems from the available media.

But still, Ukrainians really gave an excellent performance and in my eyes their chance of successful defence went from zero to some low two-digit probability now.

szopen said...

Another thing that make me pessimistic is that the war no longer is a war of survival only for Ukraine. Ive read and heard people saying that if Putin will lose, it could mean an end to his regime. This created a paradox: if he would easily took over eastern Ukraine, he could then dictate a peace with some rump Ukraine remaning in place - but now he needs a more decisive victory. A peace now, even with just reaching originally stated goals (neutrality for Ukraine and recognised independence of two regions in their 2014 region), could mean Putin is seen as a loser and that would mean danger for his regime.

Now, I don't know how true this is, but this line of thought seems reasonable.

John said...


I'm curious; how optimistic or pessimistic does the mood in your part of Poland seem to be?

I think we are lucky that Putin started out the war laying out the minimal goals you listed: Ukrainian neutrality, recognition that Crimea is part of Russia, effective independence for Donbas. That means he could at some point accept a negotiated settlement that grants those things and say, "We achieved our aims."

I suppose one problem is that such an outcome might look like a win for NATO, which has already been bolstered by the fighting. Another is that given the extent of Russian losses - Pentagon is now saying 5,000 to 6,000 Russians killed, besides more than 200 tanks and a thousand other vehicles - he might need a bigger win for his own prestige.

David said...

@szopen and John

I think y'all are right: the reason a Ukrainian victory seems unlikely is that, for Ukraine to win, Putin has to be overthrown or be willing to not win an outright victory--and neither of the latter is looking very likely in, say, the next six months.

It took ten years for the Afghans to push out the Soviets and eleven to push out the Americans. In both cases, in that time both the USSR and the US underwent profound internal political changes (obviously much more profound in the case of the USSR, but still, IMHO, pretty profound in the US case).

To put it another way, it seems impossible that the Ukrainians could win by driving the Russians out militarily. They can inflict tremendous pain on the Russians, but I don't see them being able to launch offensives that take back cities or swathes of territory in a permanent way. So a purely military outcome means outright Russian victory, or a military stalemate--which is not Ukrainian victory even if it is also not Ukrainian defeat--or a Russian takeover with a long-term insurgency. In all of those cases, ultimate victory for Ukraine will depend on what Russia's leadership decides to do.

Could Putin negotiate for his stated limited goals and survive? It's possible. Dictators can survive not winning a war they've launched--consider Saddam after the Iran-Iraq war and then Kuwait. But would Putin allow himself to be satisfied with that limited outcome? So far he doesn't seem like the type.

But if this century has shown us anything so far, it's that anything is possible.

szopen said...


Re: first question:

I'd say there is a mix of optimism and pessimism. On my FB there are people flooding my feed with photo and videos of destroyed Russian equipment and thinking Russia will collapse any minute now, a Stauffenberg will then arise and Putin will be given a 9mm resignation letter. There is another faction thinking that as soon as Ukraine will be finished, Russia will invade pribaltika and then us. I think overall the feeling is that Ukraine will not prevail. There is a discussion what will we do with Ukrainian refugees, and though from time to time some will protest "war is not over yet!" still majority of publicists seem to assume the refugees will not return - meaning Poland can suddenly get huge national minority.

Then you have to remember that we are very divided as a nation. A slurs of "russian onuca" (onuca == kind of footwrap associated with Russian army) are being thrown all around, as are accusations of people being Russian useful idiots or traitors (or German useful idiots and traitors). Some are saying that "We cannot let PiS use this crisis to cover their incompetence, corruption and problems with law" while others are saying "see? Even in this crisis we have traitors who vote in EU parliament to impose sanctions on Poland!"

As for Putins minimal goals there are IMO several problems. First, as you have just pointed out in your newest entry, Putin might not now true situation on the front and might be fed news assuring him Ukrainians will collapse any minute now - which might lead him to prolong the war . Second, will Ukrainian nationalist wing agree to those demands? They might see those proposals as betrayal of national cause and/or sign that Putin is weak. Can Zelensky ignore that nationalist wing? Third: are Putin's proposals honest? What if he will get those minimal goals and will then start invasion again in few years?

And finally - as you have said. He might need a bigger win to keep face. PlusRussia already got huge losses fom sanctions, so there is investment bias - "if we already lost so much, why stop now"

David said...

Excuse me: both the Russian and American interventions in Afghanistan lasted ten years.

pithom said...

"The event that made me think this would be no easy victory for Russia was the failure of their airborne assault on Kyiv on the first night of the war. Their "elite" airborne troops landed as planned at Hostomel airport, but the Ukrainians wiped them out."

This didn't, you know, actually happen. In reality, the Russian troops captured the airport and held it until ground forces arrived from the North. What else do you know that you don't actually know?

Russia will win the war, because it has the economy, military, and military equipment to do it, it is inflicting greater losses on the Ukrainians than the Ukrainians are inflicting on the Russians, and because it is taking territory. Crucially, this war is also far more important to the Russian leadership than it is to the Ukrainian or Western leaderships.

Shadow said...

I am no student of military strategy, but to my admittedly untrained eyes, Ukraine looks to be near its end. if you throw all the rhetoric out from the cheerleaders who say Ukraine still has a chance, and just look at the map, certain things seem to stand out. Please correct me where I am wrong.

1. Ukrainians are fighting valiantly.

2. Putin took too long to invade giving the West time to arm Ukraine.

3. AWACS have provided Ukrainians with excellent intelligence.

4. Russians were floundering at first.

5. But for the past week Russia has been getting its act together.

6. Key cities are now surrounded and shelled almost constantly from land and air.

7. Soon Russia will have military control of the port cities and the south. Then they will march north.

8. Russia has control of much of the countryside by default, because Ukraine's military is protecting cities.

9. It's the endgame, a siege war, -- a numbers and starvation game -- and Russia has the advantages -- weapons, food, water.

10. At some point Ukraine has to surrender or they all die.

11. An insurgency may continue for years to come, but Ukraine will be in Putin's hands, and he will have time to recover his losses.

12. And next time, maybe a few years from now, his army and generals will be much better at this. Moldova, look out.

szopen said...

Well, for the more optimistic take, see

I will quote extensively the relevant parts:

" The easiest explanation for why Russian tanks lack an infantry screen is that the Russian army lacks the infantry to provide them."

"Much of the analysis of the conflict assumes that Moscow is the side with superior numbers, and greater reserves, but in practice the opposite may be true. While Russia can theoretically call upon much greater manpower reserves, the performence of conscripts hitherto implies they are tactically worthless."

"the longer the conflict goes on, the more time Ukraine has to call up reserves. More than 400,000 Ukrainians rotated through action in the Donbass over the last eight years, providing a larger operational reserve than the Russian army possess. Combined with a greater pool of motivated volunteers, the challenge for Kyiv will be equipping these forces. Infantry weapons, unlike aircraft, are relatively easy for NATO to supply."

It was reported in Polish news that tens of thousands of Ukrainian men from Poland, including those who were on professional contracts in Polish army, returned to their homes to pick up the arms. I think that Ukrainians really have advantage at least in morale. I've read at least two people suggesting that on the Russian side the best performing infantry was actually poorly equipped, supposedly not-professional militia from Donbass and Lugansk - which could be true, after all they have 8 years of combat experience.

In total this heavily implies the Ukrainians still have a chance to impose such large costs on Russian army, that even Putin may decide to reconsider.

David said...

FWIW, as I said before, I can see the Ukrainians fighting the Russians to a standstill, at least to a point where Russia will decide it isn't worth it carrying on (what "Russia" would mean in this context is another question . . .).

But I think it's a stretch to imagine the Ukrainians being able to take the strategic offensive, push the Russians back, and retake territory and cities. If they succeed in doing that, it truly would change everything.

Vietnam is an interesting comparison. The Communists were able to fight the Americans to a standstill. But they tried at least two major offensives against the Americans, and both failed as military operations (and famously, after Tet, the Communists were in a state of despair as deep as the Americans).