Saturday, March 26, 2022

A month into the war on Ukraine: can we say who is winning and losing?

In a very real sense the Secretary-General of the United Nations was absolutely right when he said last week that Russia's invasion of Ukraine set off a war in which there are no winners, only losers.

Even if President Putin had a sudden attack of sanity tomorrow and ordered all his troops to cease fire and withdraw from Ukraine, that country would still have lost dozens of cities devastated and thousands of troops and civilians dead.

Even in the even more unlikely event that President Zelenskiyy unconditionally surrendered tomorrow the cost in terms of blood, treasure and prestige already suffered by Russia looks to be greater than any possible benefit which Russia could gain if they did "win" the war.

This war is a disaster, not just for both Russia and Ukraine but for the world. In a year when even without the war living standards would have been under pressure around the world as a result of energy prices, the war has both made energy even more expensive and created food shortages.

Macauley wrote of Frederick II of Prussia that "in order that Frederick might rob a neighbour whom he had sworn to defend, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America."

History will record of Vladimir Putin that because of his attempt to rob a neighbour whose borders he had sworn to guarantee, African children starved in countries from Somalia to Congo and other children in the poorest countries all around the world went hungry.

At the start of this conflict, it appeared that Russia had much more firepower than Ukraine and Putin appears to have thought he could seize the country in a few days.

It is now clear that this assessment was disastrously wrong.  The extent to which Russia underestimated the Ukranians is illustrated by today's reports that the Russian general who told his men at the start of the invasion that they would win victory within hours, has become the seventh Russian general killed in Ukraine. 

The Russian army has proved to be excellent at the mass murder of civilians but significantly less effective at almost every other aspect of war than most people anticipated, while the Ukranians have put up a classic flexible defence, particularly around Kyiv. 

It is difficult to see Russia's announcement that the first phase of their "Special Military Operation" is complete and they will now focus on the Donbass region and the Eastern area of Ukraine as anything other than an attempt to pretend that they never attempted to capture Kyiv when the reality is that they tried very hard indeed to do so but their initial attempts have failed.

Every day that the war continues, all the objectives which Putin says he wants are more clearly sabotaged by his actions. He wanted fewer countries in NATO and fewer NATO troops near his borders. But the outcome of his actions is that countries which have been neutral for decades now have bottom-up popular movements wanting to join the NATO defensive alliance and there are more NATO troops on his borders. Putin wanted Ukraine to reunite with Russia: he has guaranteed that Ukrainians have a much stronger national identify distinct from Russia and that most Ukranians will hate the idea of Russian rule for the rest of their lives.

Above all, you only need to say six words to prove that Putin has now earned himself the title of the most incompetent and unsuccessful Russian leader for a century:

Putin has provoked Germany to rearm. 

This is not a criticism of the German government's decision to increase defence spending: in the present circumstances it is only sensible for all European nations to review the effectiveness of our defences. But if I were leading Russia, one of the first aims if not the first aim of my foreign policy would have been to ensure that Germany continued the renunciation of militarism which the country adopted after World War II in reaction to the horrors of Nazism, a policy Germany continued to follow for seventy-five years. It is almost impossible to overstate what a massive failure of Russian policy it was to push Germany into a decision to double defence spending.

Sadly, nothing in this catalogue of Russian failures means that Ukraine has won or that the war will end any time soon. Putin is largely insulated from the suffering his disastrous policies are inflicting on the people of Russia and it is very difficult to see him backing down in the near future.

However, the one thing which even the most savage repression and the most comprehensive suppression of bad news cannot conceal is that large numbers of Russian soldiers are dying in Ukraine. The former Soviet Union gave up attempting to maintain a military occupation of Afghanistan after nine years and after losing 15,000 dead soldiers. There are huge discrepancies between different estimates and claims about how many Russian soldiers have been killed during Putin's invasion of Ukraine, but it is clearly in the thousands and if the number of Russian fatal casualties is at or near the higher end of the range of estimates by Western intelligence agencies, they've lost as many people in Ukraine in a month as the Soviets lost in Afghanistan in nine years. 

These deaths cannot be concealed from the families of the dead, and the scale of losses will inevitably leak out into the rest of Russian society - and sooner or later it will also become obvious that all these young men are dying for nothing.

It is not for people in the rest of the world to decide who should rule the Russian Federation: it should be for the people of Russia to make that decision, preferably in a free election. The present regime does not have a history of allowing those.

However, difficult a coup or popular revolution against Putin would be to mount, Russians will not put up with the casualty rate they are suffering in Ukraine for ever, It may take months: it may take years. And during those months or years there may be periods which Russian arms are more successful than they have been to date. But Russia simply does not have the military manpower to occupy Ukraine in the face of determined resistance. In the longer term, Putin will eventually either have to abandon his attempts to conquer Ukraine or he will be overthrown in favour of someone who will.

In that sense Ukraine will ultimately win, and Putin will ultimately lose.

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