Friday, 12 July 2024

    Whither Ukraine 

    by Navy Capt. (Ret) Pete O’Brien

    I spend a good deal of time trying to make sense of the war in Ukraine. Over the course of the last 28 months the war has changed, expanded, and is slowly but surely escalating as more and more ideas are creeping into planning cells: leaders in France, Poland and the Baltic states have suggested that they are willing to send troops into Ukraine, Ukrainian forces have begun to strike Russian infrastructure targets just as Russian strikes continue to damage Ukrainian infrastructure targets, consideration is being given to Ukrainian Air Force aircraft – in particular the soon to be delivered F-16s – being maintained at Polish Air Force bases, with the inherent risk of accidental escalation, etc. And beyond all that, the ongoing, ever-rising casualty count.

    The latest casualty estimate – not from Kiev – suggests Russia has suffered some 55,000 Killed In Action (KIA), though that number may be as high as 85,000. This would expand into some 200,000 – 300,000 wounded in action (WIA).

    At the same time, Ukrainian casualties are of the same scale, certainly over 40,000 KIA, and it could easily be more than twice that, also with 3 to 4 times that many WIA. Remember, Russia has a population 4 times that of Ukraine, and Ukraine’s demographic trend lines – prior to the war – were substantially worse than Russia’s.

    This week President Zelenskyy suggested that before the end of the year he will have a plan to achieve peace. At the same time he commented that the war must not be allowed to go on, that Ukraine has already suffered too many casualties. What specifically he means by that isn’t clear, but looking at the increased effort to mobilize the nation, it’s possible that the Ukrainian population is approaching some sort of demographic  “knuckle in the curve” beyond which it will be increasingly difficult to meet the demands of the army for new troops.

    This demand has come in the wake of the lessons learned from last summer’s offensive, and the gruesome grind of Russian forces as they inch westward. Russian forces in the south have recovered a significant number of the trench lines they were pushed out of last June and July, and in addition Russian engineers have been building new and improved fighting positions and trenches across much of occupied Ukraine. Ukraine has reportedly become the most heavily mined terrain on the planet, which, given the density of mines in the DMZ in Korea, would represent some prodigious mining efforts.

    Which means what?

    Hard to say. Assuming the Ukrainian army has the additional 400,000 – 500,000 recruits, and the time to train them (6 months to a year), and they can neutralize Russian artillery and drones with their own artillery and drones, and the flow of ammunition to the front lines is sustained, then some future Ukrainian winter offensive might be successful in dislodging the Russians and forcing them to withdraw. But there is a long list of variables that makes any such prediction, without hard data on both your own capabilities and limitations, and the enemies, a fools errand. We shall have to see.

    If Ukrainian casualties are, in fact as high or higher than Russian casualties, it’s very possible that a detailed assessment would yield essentially no meaningful chance of a successful counter offensive. 

    Meanwhile, there is no real chance of a Russian “breakout” as the Russian army simply is not organized to execute such an operation even if the opportunity presented itself. What is left is a Russian army slow-crawling across Ukraine, and each town they reach is reduced to rubble. The Russian army is extremely unlikely to “win big,” or win in a hurry, but neither is it likely to lose.

    And the Ukrainian army may be well be approaching a point inside of the next year that they will forced to change their policies because of manpower issues.

    Where does that leave them? As I don’t know the real manpower numbers on either side, but knowing that Russia has a population 4 times that of Ukraine, and that, despite the bravado in the western press, Ukraine is suffering casualties of roughly the same magnitude as Russia, it’s difficult to imagine a dramatic success in the next year. 

    What they are left with is the Korean peninsula solution: a ceasefire. Not a peace treaty, no relations with the other side, borders not agreed to, just “no shooting.”

    Meanwhile, tomorrow will mark the 161st anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. The battle lasted for 3 days and in the end Lee was forced to withdraw southward. Union losses in the 3 days were 3,155 KIA, 14,529 WIA and 5,365 missing. Southern losses were 3,903 KIA, 18,735 WIA and 5,425 missing.

    In A. L. Long’s “Memoirs of Robert E. Lee,” a story is related of wounded Union soldier on the battlefield as Lee withdrew on the 3rd:

    “I was at the battle of Gettysburg myself. . . . I had been a most bitter anti-South man, and fought and cursed the Confederates desperately. I could see nothing good in any of them. The last day of the fight I was badly wounded. A ball shattered my left leg. I lay on the ground not far from Cemetery Ridge, and as General Lee ordered his retreat he and his officers rode near me.

    As they came along I recognized him, and, though faint from exposure and loss of blood, I raised up my hands, looked Lee in the face, and shouted as loud as I could, “Hurrah for the Union!”

    The general heard me, looked, stopped his horse, dismounted, and came toward me. I confess that I at first thought he meant to kill me. But as he came up he looked down at me with such a sad expression upon his face that all fear left me, and I wondered what he was about. He extended his hand to me, and grasping mine firmly and looking right into my eyes, said, “My son, I hope you will soon be well.”

    If I live to be a thousand years I shall never forget the expression on General Lee’s face. There he was, defeated, retiring from a field that had cost him and his cause almost their last hope, yet he stopped to say words like those to a wounded soldier of the opposition who had taunted him as he passed by. As soon as the general had left me I cried myself to sleep there upon the bloody ground.”

    There are all sorts of acts of barbarism in any war, and this war in Ukraine has seen its sad share.

    If there is a realistic chance of actually winning this war without the risk of massive escalation, and if doing so will not destroy what is left of Ukraine, then fight on. But if not, and only those who know the real numbers can honestly answer that, if the likely result will simply be more fighting and more slaughter, and little gain, then there needs to be a ceasefire, sooner rather than later. 

    It is too easy to forget one’s humanity, as that Union soldier almost did. It would be worse if an entire nation did. President Zelenskyy needs to take a hard look at the facts and make that call. The US and NATO will support him, but he and his people need to make that call.