A “Long War in Ukraine”: Making Assumptions and Ignoring Key Questions

By Robbin Laird

As the war in Ukraine continues, significant risks face the West.

One can admire the courage of the Ukrainians, but that does not simply negate the question of the very real risks across the board to the rest of Europe or to North America.

At the same time, Putin’s long-term objective of expanding Moscow’s reach in its former empire is backed by China to enough of an extent to create a Euro-Asian bastion of 21st century authoritarianism focused on reshaping the global “rules-based order,” as the West likes to call it.

This means that conflict will clearly not be confined to the geography of Ukraine. We are in a long war but not simply geographically limited to Ukraine.

But how do Western states manage the risks they face?

How much cooperation is realistically possible?

Will a macro-economic security policy be built within which an enhanced defense can be credibly and steadily be built out?

And what role for the United States?

With a 20-year diversion to the land wars in the Middle East, the United States is in a struggle to reshape and rebuild its military appropriate to a conflict lead by the authoritarian powers. And having led NATO to a significant defeat in Afghanistan, how credible is American strategic leadership as well?

And with the significant divisions within Europe in confronting Russian aggression, clearly evident and clearly generated by a long-term perspective, how will European defense credibly be built out in the coming years?

What I find troubling is that there is too much narrow analysis going on with regard to the war itself and the risks facing the West.  A good example of this is the recent lead article in The Economist which highlighted how the West could win “the long war” in Ukraine.

In The Economist article entitled “How to win Ukraine’s long war,” the article notes that after significant early success, Ukraine is now facing Russian advances in the eastern part of Ukraine. The article notes: “In recent days its forces have taken the eastern city of Severodonetsk. They are advancing on Lysychansk and may soon control all of Luhansk province. They also threaten Slovyansk, in the north of next-door Donetsk. Ukrainian leaders say they are outgunned and lack ammunition. Their government reckons as many as 200 of its troops are dying each day.”

But with enhanced weaponry from the West, and financial support, Ukraine can push back against the Russians. “But to do so it needs enduring support. And that is still in doubt.”

The article notes that the Russian economy is stronger than that of Ukraine and Russia has more stockpiles of weapons. Let us stop here for the moment.

What is being ignored in this characterization is the geographical depth of Russia, the ability of Russia to mobilize force, and the significant backing of the Chinese. And that backing has included overtly sending weapons to Serbia, where the Balkans could explode once again. It also includes using cheap Russian energy resources to fund its exports to the West to continue to undercut any manufacturing revival in the wake of COVID-19 recovery, and the launch of COVID-19 certainly saw a key role for China as well.

The question of supplying weapons to Ukraine is increasingly challenging and entails providing answers to a number of key questions the answers to which are in flux.

Which weapons?

To support which tactics?

It is ever in the Western interest to provide weapons that could strike deep into Russian territory?

Will the countries providing the territory through which weapons are moving – notably Poland and Romania—be able to survive the wave of immigration and inflation burdening their countries?

Will they become war weary or very concerned as well that they might see a limited attack by Russian forces on their logistical facilities given their roles in sustaining transit of weapons?

Will the presence of NATO forces in Ukraine who are supporting transit of weapons get implicated in a broader war? Will the Russians use chemical weapons against transit points to slow down the ability of NATO to resupply Ukraine?

Given the absence of significant training by Western forces in fighting NBC warfare, how would the West respond to such attacks?

The article then goes on to argue that “If Russia starts to lose ground on the battlefield, dissent and infighting may spread in the Kremlin. Western intelligence services believe that Mr. Putin is being kept in the dark by his subordinates.”

We now enter the dark world where Western intelligence has never demonstrated consistence competence – how does one see inside a dictatorial regime and really understand what is going on within that regime?

This is simply very difficult to do, but basing a war winning strategy on high confidence of understanding how change works out in authoritarian regimes is questionable.

And having emerged from the defeat in Afghanistan, the intelligence community – certainly the American one – has not painted itself with glory.

It is important to assess what we think might being going on in the Kremlin within Russia but with a sense of modesty.

The article then goes on to ask whether the West will stay the course?

But much of staying the course is really about non-military issues, notably the outpouring of migration not only from Ukraine but from Africa, in part in response to food crises associated with the war.

One reason why a negotiated settlement to Ukraine understood as a phase in the long war and not a final peace agreement might well be in the European interest in returning Ukrainians to Ukraine before they become a very significant burden to any realistic chance for European economic recovery.

And of course, another major challenge, one not even mentioned in the article, is how to build an effective near to mid-term energy supply system.

Rather than turning to the climate change religion school of thinking, Europeans will be burning coal this winter. How to rebuild the power grid and energy supplies is a major challenge which will determine the fate and future of European independence for years to come, not to say the least with regard to the United States itself, which currently is being led by an Administration which is following the Don Quixote school of energy management.

The article then mentions the question of armaments.

“Western defence industries are formidable, but struggle to produce large volumes, especially of ammunition.” Let me be very blunt – American and European defense forces have little or no stockpile of weapons and capabilities. Indeed, the challenge posed by both Russia and China is precisely the significant lack of combat depth which the West currently possess.

When faced with diminishing stockpiles of ammunition, will European leaders wish to give away what they have when facing the prospect of horizontal conventional escalation or keep it themselves?

A good example of the problem can be seen in the case of the Stinger which featured early in the war but since the United States abolished the supply chain for Stinger 14 years ago, it is problematical to ramp up production.

Then we come to the elephant in the room, namely, the Russian potential use of tactical nuclear weapons. As Paul Bracken has noted the threat of the use of nuclear weapons has already had a significant impact on the conduct of the war with the absence of Western air power in support of Ukraine.

The article ends by underscoring that negotiating with Putin is futile and misguided.

“You can see where Mr Putin is heading. He will take as much of Ukraine as he can, declare victory and then call on Western nations to impose his terms on Ukraine. In exchange, he will spare the rest of the world from ruin, hunger, cold and the threat of nuclear Armageddon.

To accept that deal would be a grave miscalculation.”

The problem is that discussions with the Russian regime, whether headed by Putin or a successor, are inevitable.

Certainly, President Regan did so and so did the Western regimes when dealing with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The question is who should negotiate and with what agenda?

Clearly, the West has no interest is simply leaving what remains of Ukraine as the launching ground for the next Russian invasion. But there are many ways to convey to Moscow that whatever piece of ground they want to hold onto, they will now see an integrated Nordic region, and a Ukraine increasingly integrated into the West, up to and including training and equipping their forces with weapons which would destroy any future Russian operations on Ukrainian soil.

The real question is whether the West is willing to get directly involved in the taking back of the territory seized by Russia and what concrete steps the Kremlin would then take to deal with such actions.