The Debatable Land #14: Grim Days for Ukraine; A Bleak Future for Russia
The first casualty of war is the notion there is a single truth.
Seven Days Which Changed The World
The war is only a week old but we may already say, even in the midst of geopolitical transformation, that it is in significant respects quite unlike previous wars. All wars happen in real time but none has been reported in real time like this one. None, in fact, has spawned so much information - much of it conflicting or confused - across so many formats in so little time and never before has news from the front been so widely shared on such an unfiltered - and often unverified - basis.
It is not easy to impose order on this and harder still to craft a narrative of the war’s progress. In fact there is no unifying narrative; there are many stories and they contradict each other. The first casualty of war is the notion there is a single truth.
Each of these things may be true or - because this is war and therefore an arena where truth is subject to variance - true enough.
The Ukrainians claim as many as 5,000 Russians have been killed in the first week of war. US and other western estimates suggest the most likely figure is actually closer to 2,000. Uncertainty is unavoidable but a useful comparison might be the Soviet war in and occupation of Afghanistan. Official figures - not necessarily wholly reliable, then - record that over nine years around 15,000 Soviet troops were killed. So, broadly speaking, it seems possible that seven days in Ukraine amount to something like a year in Afghanistan for Russia.
If - everything is ‘If’ - that kind of casualty rate were to continue it is reasonable to ask, first, how long such losses can be hidden from the Russian people and, second, how long they might be sustained. The difference in morale between Russian conscripts and Ukrainian defence forces is already palpable. One side knows it is fighting for liberty; the other must wonder why, if Ukraine and Russia are one people (as Putin claims), they are being sent to slaughter their brothers.
Even as missiles and bombs shower Kyiv, Kharkiv and other cities, at a local level (some) Russian forces appear to be acting with more restraint. Video of troops being halted, or even turned back, by unarmed Ukrainians blocking roads is a reminder this is not yet a total war. “Why are you here?” is a question to which, for now, Russian forces have no good answer.
And yet, and yet. I am not sure one needs to be Clausewitz to appreciate that to the extent we may ascertain the situation on the ground at all, it reveals this reality: the future is grim for Ukraine and bleak for Russia.
The maps showing the extent of Russian gains are helpful but misleading. In many places, Russia controls roads, not countryside. That leaves vital supply lines open to ambush and disruption. Even so, it takes no great genius to see how Russian troops pushing south from Kyiv and Kharkiv and north from Crimea may meet at Dnipro, encircling Ukrainian troops in the eastern half of the country, cutting them off from easy resupply. That pocket might then be squeezed. Slowly, perhaps, but very firmly. Ukraine would then effectively be cleft in two.
If that is grim, the prospect for Russian occupying forces is equally bleak. Russian artillery may reduce Ukrainian cities to rubble but pacifying the country is a different proposition. Every available scrap of evidence suggests Ukraine will fight beyond the point of desperation. Can Russia commit sufficient troops to wage an effective counter-insurgency campaign? Can it do so without enduring the kind of losses that may, eventually, turn Russian domestic opinion against the war?
For the war is taking place in three theatres: firstly, and most obviously and desperately, in Ukraine; secondly in the arena of international opinion and, thirdly and most quietly, within Russia itself. How much information about what is really happening is reaching the Russian people? State television will not tell the truth but this is a social media war too and at least some of the truth is reaching at least some of the Russian people. When the body bags start coming home, these truths will seep into the national consciousness. Already, opposition to Putin means opposing his reckless, wicked, war:
In 1971 John Kerry, not yet a Senator but already an articulate, decorated, Vietnam veteran, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington DC and asked a simple, profound question: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Eventually - not tomorrow or next week or even next month, but eventually - Russians are going to be asking themselves that question. If their army’s artillery assault on Ukraine’s cities is a sledgehammer, occupying the country puts Russia’s own troops into a meat-grinder.
Russia besieges Ukraine but Russia is itself besieged. Sanctions take time to work their poison but the immediate impact of the international response is psychological. Banning Russia from Eurovision and the World Cup won’t save lives this month but, cumulatively, these and other measures send a thundering message: No. Non. Nein. Nyet. And the message must be resolute and clear: the international community has no quarrel with the Russian people, only with the Tsar squatting in the Kremlin and those whom he has permitted to do business on his behalf.
President Zelensky says “We are fighting also to be equal members of Europe. I believe that today we are showing everybody that is what we are”. Today’s Ukraine is not last month’s Ukraine; today’s Europe is not last week’s Europe. That old gag, “Who do you call when you wish to speak with Europe?” has at last - or at least for now - been given an answer: “Anyone, for Anyone is also Everyone”.
The swiftness of Europe’s response - scrambled together in less than a week - is as impressive as its unanimity. It turns out that Europe can be coherent if it chooses to be (or when needs demand it). Putin has awakened Europe’s idea of itself, putting flesh on the bones of lip-serviced rhetoric; Zelensky has demanded this new reality be backed by ammunition and anti-tank missiles. Suddenly Europe does not seem so very spent or clapped-out or purposeless. There is an idea and it turns out to be one worth defending. In seven days Germany has grown by thirty years.
The war, then, is shock therapy everywhere. Its impact is felt across the globe. China may not have condemned the invasion but China’s abstention at the United Nations is an act of political distancing too. The sanctions imposed on Russia are - obviously - beyond anything Putin thought plausible and the severity of the international response may - just may - blunt Chinese enthusiasm for buggering about with Taiwan (at least for now).
None of which is to suggest all is sorted or will be straightforward from this point on. When the war becomes familiar, when it bogs down or becomes a priced-in feature of global politics, holding the line (and insisting upon the importance of its holding) may become harder.
Even as we marvel at the courage of Ukrainian resistance we should do so recognising that we are vulnerable to placing too much emphasis on news which flatters or supports our preferred outcomes and not enough on what we do not see or news which points to darker days ahead. There is an optimism bias which remains in place even if we conclude - tentatively but, I hope, correctly - that Russia is digging itself the mother of all strategic defeats.
But for now, marvel at how fast a world may change in a single week. There are shards of hope there, even amidst the darkness.
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