Ukraine’s War of Attrition
If you are a sports fan you know the feeling of showing up for the big game, say the Super Bowl or the World Series, and counting on your team to beat the crap out of the opponent. But once the game is underway, your team gets clobbered mercilessly. At the start of the second half, your team is down 40 points, or it is the 7th inning and your guys are looking at a 14-run deficit.
What do you do? Be honest. Do you sit there and continue cheering? Or do you pack up and leave or switch the channel to watch Downtown Abbey or Black List or hell, even Oprah? Normal people pull the plug. Yes, there is always a smattering of die-hard fanatics who hang on to the bitter end, but most folks beat feet for the exit.
Welcome to Ukraine. Their team, er, I mean, their army is getting shellacked with no let up in sight. A story in RT captures the mood:
Ukrainians appear to be losing unity amid military defeats in the Donbass and the economic crisis in the rest of the country. The surge of patriotism that arose when the Russian army was close to Kiev appears now, in the last days of May, to have been exhausted. Along with it, the national consensus that saw all political groups rallying behind the Ukrainian army, rather than struggling against President Volodomyr Zelensky seems to have disappeared. . . .
The withdrawal of Russian troops from areas around Kiev, Chernigov, and Sumy, completed by April 3, was seen as a significant victory for the Ukrainian authorities. The removal of the threat from the capital made it possible to return diplomatic institutions, organize the visits of foreign delegations to the sites of past battles, and convince NATO countries that Ukraine would be able to withstand the war against Russia if it received more serious weapons.
All this was presented to Ukrainians as laying the groundwork for preparing a counteroffensive in Kharkov, Kherson, and the Donbass. In addition, a favorite carrot was brought out – promises of early accession to the European Union, bypassing existing norms – as payment for heroism and Ukraine taking up the banner of “Europe’s Shield.” The mood in Ukrainian society was positive. The Russian army had already been stopped. It remained only to wait for Western help, and it would be possible to take revenge for 2014, when Moscow reabsorbed Crimea.
Meanwhile, foreign aid was flowing in, but it did not bring relief to Ukraine. It proved effective only in supporting refugees in countries free from Ukraine’s corruption and cronyism. As for the military component, by the end of May, it turned out that the requested artillery and air defense systems were not enough to defeat Russia, and it was necessary to boost the army’s ranks to one million.
The vast majority of folks reading this blog have no living memory of the start of World War II for the United States. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 flipped a switch in the American public, turning them from masses demanding the United States stay out of Europe’s war to a populace seething with anger and dedicated to punishing Japan. Throngs of young men flocked to recruiting stations. Many of those deemed not fit for military service committed suicide, wrongfully feeling shamed that they could not fight for their country.
That spirit did not waver despite continued setbacks in the first four months of 1942. But then came the Battle of the Coral Sea followed by the triumph at Midway followed by Guadalcanal. Victories on the battlefield and the Pacific Ocean gave Americans glimmers of hope that the crusade to conquer Japan and Germany would succeed. Most Americans do not know that while Pearl Harbor was being bombed, the Soviet Union stopped the advance of the Nazis on Moscow.
Compare that time with what is going on in Ukraine now. Apart from Russia retreating from Kiev in March–the Ukrainians believe they beat the Russians back while Russia appears to have used the operation to fix Ukrainian forces in the west so that they could focus on the Donbas and southern coast of Ukraine–Ukraine has experienced regular loss of territory and horrific casualties. Some estimates indicate that for every Russian killed or wounded, Ukrainian troops are suffering 20 times the losses.
There has been no organized offensive campaign by Ukraine. I am talking about battalions moving with armored columns to attack and decimate Russian positions and push them back. At least Hitler’s Nazis tried to save Von Paulus’ forces at Stalingrad in December 1942 (that failed). When Ukrainian neo-Nazis were surrounded at Mariupol, Ukraine completely failed to mount any kind of land based offensive to save them.
So, on the macro level, Ukrainians are normal people and have no real victories to celebrate and kindle hope that they will prevail. On the micro level, i.e. the battlefield in Donbas, the news is even more grim. Entrenched troops are experiencing continued artillery and missile attacks. It is not only the devastating effects of the explosions tearing up earth and men, the noise and blast waves rattle the brains and souls of those on the receiving end of the Russian offensive. Yes, some Ukrainian units are able to fire artillery rounds into Russian lines and on civilians in cities like Donetsk. But these efforts are not changing the dynamic on the battlefield.
Ukrainian men are voting with their feet. Unlike the American youth who besieged U.S. military recruiting stations, Ukraine’s youngsters are being forcibly pressed to “join up”. Many are fleeing Ukraine for safety in Europe. As I noted in a previous post (see UPDATED PIECE on Ukrainian Troops Rebelling), Ukrainians with the territorial defense are rebelling and being charged with desertion. We are not talking about isolated units, this revolt is widespread.
Unlike boxing, where there is a referee who can step in and stop a fight, this war of attrition will not end until the Ukrainian army surrenders or Ukrainian political leaders come to their senses and seek an end to Russia’s “special military operation.” As long as Russia maintains its control of the air space and its ability to shell relentlessly the entrenched Ukrainian forces, the grinder will go on and Ukraine’s bargaining chips will be shredded and worthless.
Andrei Martyanov’s piece on the U.S. and NATO coming to grips with this reality is worth your time if you have not already read it.