The Ukraine war has entered into its second year (420 days), with no victory on either side which could signal the end of the war. However, the Western countries are talking about Ukrainian counteroffensive that is likely to be undertaken this late spring.
In fact, a wolly-headed view of the war in those countries is undermining the counteroffensive before it can even begin. One of the reasons this war is still ongoing is the West’s extreme caution when it comes to resourcing the Ukrainian military with the weapons and munitions it needs for an offensive to breakthrough enemy lines and render the Russian army combat ineffective so that Ukrainian forces can liberate their country.
The West has given Ukraine enough to survive, but not enough to win. This strategy will require the world to pay a much higher prize
With the West helping Ukrainians to defend their country versus undertaking an offensive to ‘defeat’ the Russians is altogether a vastly different kettle of fish. Undoubtedly Ukranians have shown incredible patriotism, courage and resilience – for how long?. The story of their fight is also that of the West’s failure to balance the risk of potential horizontal and vertical escalation in this conflict against the stakes in this war, not just for Europe but also of global stability and security.
The West has given Ukraine enough to survive, but not enough to win. This strategy will require the world to pay a much higher prize in terms of bloodshed and heavy loss of property resulting in the worst global economy in the coming years.
Avoiding an all-out confrontation with Russia, a major nuclear power, is a rational approach. But going slow when it comes to providing Ukraine with weapons is simply a means of delaying the point of decision as the process of worldwide systemic unravelling proceeds to its denouement. The truth is that the international system that western leaders assumed would last for another generation is being dismantled by forces unleashed by the West.
The system – transforming battle in Ukraine may soon yield to a larger system – transforming war. It is so because the United States and is allies have allowed – for the most part wilfully through their own greed and myopia – their systemic adversaries – China and Russia, to accrue power that is now poised to offset what the collective West represents.
Three decades of “globalisation”, with the transfer of western technology to China and bumper – crop profits for Russia’s sales of energy, have undermined the United States relative power position worldwide to a point that China and Russia can now venture to overthrow the international system that the United State built after the cold war.
Victory in a war is about achieving strategic objectives, and to do so requires a clear articulation of the vision of victory…
The fact that, despite repeated warnings and efforts by the United States and its allies to push intelligence into the public domain, they failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine should serve as a warning of how much the world has changed.
And the fact that the West continues to allow small powers to bear the brunt of Russia’s challenge to the foundational principles of the order it claims to defend, and that it hesitates to provide Ukraine with the requisite weapons and munitions to make it possible for Kyiv’ to win speaks volumes about how unprepared the West is for what’s coming. This is no way of winning wars.
In the last three decades of campaigns in the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan have wrapped the United States strategic culture, its policy elites have become addicted to the idea of a “short war”, and this has all but stripped Washington of a fundamental understanding that wars are about strategic wins, not discreet campaigns. Victory in a war is about achieving strategic objectives, and to do so requires a clear articulation of the vision of victory – above and beyond hegemonic innuendo about “preserving a rule based – international order”.
Strategic outcomes are about geopolitics and redefining absolute and relative power balances, and precious little in current US strategy in Ukraine speaks to those fundamental outcomes. Even less strategic clarity pervades Germany or France, and though Poland, Finland o Estonia could articulate a vision of victory, they do not have the punching power to set NATO’s agenda on this.
The strategic irony of how the war in Ukraine has unfolded is that the West remains unable to grasp the temporal dimension of this conflict. War is not just the size of one’s military or about the resources and population a country can bring to bear. History is replete with smaller states inflicting crushing battlefield defeats on a much larger force fielded by a much greater power.
The temporal dimension of the war is what often defines the outcome – that is, at what point the decisive engagement is fought, how motivated the opposing forces are at that time, and how determined they are to prevail. For example, during Kyiv’ offensive last summer, if at that time the Western partners had provided Ukraine with precision long range weapons, main battle tanks, and jet fighters, is forces would have stood a good chance of achieving a strategic decision on the battlefield and perhaps ultimately bringing Russia to a negotiating table.
The US leaders are also mistaken in their understanding of the processes that end wars. For thirty years they had assumed that they can control the end – even if it meant tucking tail and running. This is not a conflict in which the United States has the ability to manage the terms and in the case of defeat, as in Afghanistan, avoid the consequences.
History is back and what matters is that the United States and its allies and partners understand the pre-requisite for a strategic win, and act accordingly.
In contrast, how the war in Ukraine ends will have a direct and immediate impact on the US position in Europe, the Indo-Pacific and the Western hemisphere. It is troubling that a year into this war, nether the United States nor Europe have shifted full-tilt into wartime production, instead, they are arguing about depleting their stocks of weapons and munitions as though national security was a “just in time” fixed game.
Other than NATO flank countries, there are few signs of urgency across the West when it comes to defence industrial production. US national security documents speak about fighting a near – peer adversary, but Washington’s actions when it comes to defence industrial production do not reflect that.
Throughout the past year, the Western rhetoric about the principles it is determined to defend in Ukraine has not been fully matched by its actions when it comes to supplying the country with the kind of weapons and munitions it needs to win.
Most of all Western understanding of how nuclear weapons factor into its decision-making processes needs to be urgently rethought, lest the United States and its allies send a message to China and Russia that in the final analysis, a nuclear – armed power is entitled to win when it launches a war. If this is indeed where Western nations are, then any talk about supporting Ukraine to victory – not to mention defending Taiwan – is moot proposition.
It is time to shed the US mentality of the last 20 years of overseas contingency operations and face reality. History is back and what matters is that the United States and its allies and partners understand the pre-requisite for a strategic win, and act accordingly.