Thursday, 18 April 2024
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    Strategic Costs

    by Navy Capt. (Ret) Pete O’Brien

    One of the questions that keeps popping up in editorials, at least in the last month or two, is whether or not the folks in the White House want Ukraine to win the war with Russia. There are, of course, two obvious answers to that question – yes and no. But I have an unpleasant sense that the correct answer is “maybe.”

    By that I mean, in a very real sense they haven’t thought through what they really want, and more importantly, what it will cost. To be sure, if you ask senior folks in the West Wing, the State Department, at the Pentagon, they are all going to say roughly the same thing: Russia needs to leave Ukraine, one way or the other and we are standing with Ukraine to the end.

    But, the uncomfortable fact is that stating some goal, but having not worked out a strategy to achieve that goal, will in the end mean failure.

    So, going back to basics, consider what strategies are, and how they get made.

    There are some hard truths about strategies, and they more or less apply at virtually every level. But those truths are virtually carved in stone when you get to the level of any great power trying to achieve something which is in direct opposition to the strategy go another great power. 

    Perhaps the most important rule is this: your goal, that thing you are trying to achieve, has to be crystal clear. There are all sorts of ways for a strategy to fail. But if you are not crystal clear on your goal, it is a certainty that your strategy will fail.

    But there’s more to it than that. Every strategy is really a very simple thing, at least in concept. A strategy, to quote Jay Luvaas (who was paraphrasing Frederick the Great) is nothing but the bridge that connects your assets to your goal. So, you have a goal. But before you can construct a meaningful strategy you must answer the question “what will it cost?” Or, in the world of geo-politics, what are you willing to spend?

    This means everything: money, people, and “stuff” (gear, weapons, etc.) certainly. To use the jargon of Washington, this is a “whole of Government” solution. So, also non-tangibles: time, reputation, relations with other countries, etc. A good strategist will insist on a comprehensive account of what the leadership is really willing to spend.

    Of course, he won’t get an answer. No one gives an answer to certain questions: Never mind the simple one: How much are we willing to spend? But what about the hard questions: How many troops are we willing to lose, killed and wounded? How much time are we willing to fight this war? How many of the enemy are we willing to kill?

    Try getting a war plan approved that begins with: “War Duration: 20 years.” 

    This, by the way, is what makes fighting a truly existential war much simpler to get your head around, the answers come easily: we will spend every dime we have, we will fight as long as it takes, we will fight to the last man, and we will kill until there are no more enemies. 

    But what if it’s not your war?

    What if your ally is saying “this is existential,” but you have other concerns?

    Israel is in an existential fight. Hamas has called for the death of every Jew in the world. So has Iran. The attack on 7 October was a clear statement by Hamas that they mean to kill Jews. And there is nowhere for Israelis to go. They can’t surrender to Hamas, there is every reasonable expectation that they’d be killed. They can’t leave, no country would take them. They can’t flee overseas, how would you evacuate 8.5 million people?

    Israel, therefore is in an existential fight. This makes the “left side” of the strategy question, that is, “assets available,” easy. The answer is “everything.” And the plan is, in many cases, simpler.

    Or should be. The fact that much of the world is screaming at Israel for attacking into Gaza and causing civilian casualties – to a certainty far fewer than the ludicrous numbers passed out by Hamas – and the Israelis are adjusting tactics in response, is a dangerous warning-sign for Israel’s long-term survival. The majority of the residents of Gaza support Hamas. And even so, Israeli forces are trying to minimize casualties. I understand the impetus. But we all need to remember this is truly existential.

    What about Ukraine?

    Is it existential? I would argue that it is, but they may have already lost; the precipitous crash of the Ukrainian population over the past 30 years – and again in 2022 – has left Ukraine with a de facto population – people who are actually inside Ukraine – of perhaps 30 million – or less. This from a population of 52 million in 1991.

    Further, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians who have fled westward into Europe do not wish to return. 

    The Ministry of Education released data this past week that shows that graduates of colleges and other post-high school trade schools, etc. for 2023 was 360,000 graduates. The same number for 2008 was 630,000 graduates.

    There are a number of possible reasons why that number would be smaller – people joining the army is okay. But recall that the draft age in Ukraine is 27, deliberately set high to allow Ukrainians to finish school. But the other possibility, people fleeing the country, goes to the heart of the problem. In 2008 the population of Ukraine was 46.1 million, but by 2022 it had decreased to an official 43 million and was probably closer to 35 million. 360,000 suggests a population closer to 25 million.

    Add to this a fertility rate: Ukraine’s fertility rate (pre-war) was 1.16. There are only 3 countries on the planet with a lower rate. The replacement rate is 2.1 – the fertility rate in Ukraine is 1/2 of what’s needed to sustain the population. And that number is from before the start of the war. To a certainty it’s now lower. Said differently, before the war Ukraine’s population was contracting at almost 1% per year. Add to that the fact that most of the refugees who fled west, and who don’t want to return, are women. 

    Add all that up and you have a country that is in a death spiral.

    What has all this to do with the US?

    Again, the folks in Washington need to ask themselves what is our real goal in Ukraine? Is it defeat of Russia? Or is it saving Ukraine?

    And what are we really willing to spend to achieve that goal?

    HISTORICAL WORDS OF WISDOM