Saturday, March 05, 2022

How will the war in Ukraine end?

During the Iraq war general David Petraeus famously asked the question “tell me how this ends,” a quote referenced by former Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt in a powerful piece about Russia's invasion of Ukraine a few days ago, which you can read here.

The answer, though in both cases it is likely to involve a terrible human cost including terrible loss of life on both sides, is very different depending on whether you look at the short term or the longer term.

Start by looking at what has already happened. The regime in Moscow was concerned with the danger that the leader of the neighboring country would taking his nation in the direction of friendship with the West and hostility to Russia. Hardliners in the Kremlin were determined not to allow this to happen. So they settled on a path of military intervention.

The Kremlin hawks devised and launched a plan which was intended swiftly to secure cities, towns and roads, stabilize the government under a new pro-Moscow new leader Karmal, and withdraw within six months. They used air power ruthlessly against both military units and fighters who resisted them and civilians alike. The rest of the world was furious. The United Nations general assembly condemned the Russian invasion by an overwhelming majority, with over a hundred nations voting for and very few against. Economic sanctions were imposed along with boycotts of Olympic and other sporting events. 

The Kremlin responded only with anger, and their military action continued, backed up by repression at home and a ruthless campaign of disinformation and lies both at home and abroad. But they found that they had united the country against them: military success came far more slowly and cost far more, in both economic terms and lives, than Moscow had expected. 

A British journalist who was trying to explain Moscow's decision to invade wrote that "The simplest explanation is probably the best." and that the Kremlin had got into their intervention and it's bloody results "much as the United States got sucked into Vietnam, without clearly thinking through the consequences, and wildly underestimating the hostility they would arouse."

The account in the four paragraphs above may seem very familiar, but it describes the opening stages not of Putin's invasion of Ukraine but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 which had catastrophic human consequences for both countries, resulting in an occupation which lasted nine years, bled Russia white, ended in a humiliating withdrawal and was a significant factor in bringing about regime change in Moscow.

As the Soviet Union found out the hard way in Afghanistan, the level of military force required to seize and over-run an area in the short term, and the level of force required to conquer and occupy that area in the long term are two very, very different things. 

And any dictator who wants to annex a country whose people are as hostile to the idea as the people of Ukraine are to being forced back into union with Russia had better be aware that even if he has enough force to occupy that country, he'd better prepare the his subjects to expect and accept that for years to come hundreds or more likely thousands of their young men will be coming home in sealed coffins. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan cost them 15,000 dead over nine years, and the Afghans far more. I suspect the number of Russian dead from Putin's war will top that figure within the first year.

Russia's superiority in air power and heavy weapons mean that if Putin is determined to over-run Ukraine and willing to pay the butcher's bill to do it - and it appears that he is - it will be very difficult for the brave defenders of Ukraine to achieve a military victory in the short term.

But the long term is a totally different matter. The Soviet Union, which was in relative terms both economically and militarily stronger than today's Russian Federation, could not and did not have enough troops to occupy and hold down Afghanistan, a country of 13.4 million people, nor could the USSR ultimately sustain the horrendous casualties which that invasion cost both sides,

Nor does the Russian Federation have the military capacity to occupy a country of 41.5 million people. If Putin is foolish enough to try to occupy and annex Ukraine - and again, it appears that he is - the human cost to Russia will be so dreadful that it will eventually lead to regime change. It is unlikely to be quick, because overthrowing a dictator as entrenched as Putin is rarely quick and never easy, 

But as month after month the flower of Russia's young men come home in body bags, and the ghastly truth sinks home to the other men in the Kremlin, not just that that as long as Putin is power this will continue, but also that the wider population of Russia is becoming aware of the same thing, sooner or later the calculation within the Kremlin will change from "We have to back Putin because if he goes, we go" to "Either Putin goes now, or we go down with him."

I don't pretend to be an expert on modern Russia and nor do I believe in historical inevitability. It does, however seem to me even less likely that Putin can survive the consequences of his invasion of Ukraine in the long term than it does that he can be defeated in the short term.

No comments: