(Also published at substack.com)
In the ongoing daily struggle to make sense of the conflict, here are my current overall conclusions as to what is happening in Ukraine, and its significance. They are based on my own research which, in turn, is immensely indebted to the multiple sources in which I invest most respect. I acknowledge that these have not been watertight in the past – far from it – and that a great deal remains unknown and perplexing, both about what is currently the case and about future scenarios.
Let me say first of all, that I concur with those, and they include Vladimir Putin as well as authoritative western political and military sources, that the conflict over Ukraine has heightened the danger and the likelihood of nuclear war.
This being the case, I deem that anything short of the greatest commitment of energy and resolution, by the most responsible and influential parties, to achieving a lasting settlement, approaches the status of the most egregious of all possible war crimes, especially so in the case of those whose rhetoric and actions, boosted by their media propaganda puppets, recklessly intensify this state of affairs.
What has Russia Gained?
After nine months, Russia has seized around a fifth of what was previously Ukrainian territory, and this represents a far bigger slice of what was previously Ukraine’s economy. It has incapacitated some 50% of Ukraine’s energy and transportation systems, and created a refugee exodus of some eight or more million people. This will be considerably augmented if and when, following the collapse of Ukraine’s entire energy sytem – as seems quite possible if not probable – many millions more struggle for access to neighboring European countries for their physical safety, shelter, food and water.
Whether out of deference to the strains that this will impose on Europe’s will to continue its support for the conflict, or because the Kiev administration is simply incapable, or because it wishfully believes that every increase in Ukrainian suffering can be leveraged for more European wealth and equipment, Ukraine’s authorities do not appear to be mobilizing appropriately for this likelihood.
The territorial areas (of which four have been integrated into the Russian Federation, and two of which were the previously established, pro-Russian, people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk) already seized by Russia, largely represent the areas of Ukraine that most share with Russia its language, historical points of reference, culture and religion. To these four areas must be added the Crimean peninsula which Russia agreed, at the request of the Crimean people in 2014, to annexe (we can put “little green men” tropes into the western mainsteam media trashcan of imperial fairytales).
But the war is not only or even principally about territory or about territory at all: it is about demilitarization, denazification and neutralization of Ukraine. In this respect, the “meat grinder” strategy enforced by Russian general Surovikin, with its slow, plodding, incremental approach, appears designed to entice Ukraine into massive sacrifices of personnel and equipment, far greater than Russia itself is shouldering. The Ukrainian army is now down to some 190,000 combat troops, possibly around half of what it was at the beginning of the conflict (though it claims to have another 700,000 ‘“in uniform”, whereas Russian combat forces probably now number something in the order of 500,000 either in Ukraine, heading there, or mobilizing north of the border or in Belarus (in addition to a greater pool of available security forces that amount to one and a half million).
Sanctions and Energy Wars
The western war of sanctions against Russia has been a sorry debacle with far more punishing consequences for the west than for Russia. The Russian economy has stablized. It will have contracted 2-3% (according to the Russian central bank) or 3-4% (according to the WSJ) for 2022 and likely less across 2023. Russia’s budget deficit will be less than 2% this year, a sum which it has easily been able to cover from offering bonds on its domestic market.
Russia’s tighter integration with EurAsia, particlarly China and India, will supply it with whatever materials and products it needs, even if import substitution initiatives may not always be sufficient in themselves. The value of the ruble is stable. Even the WSJ has recently conceded that the Russian economy is relatively robust, and even if the WSJ anticipated problems for the Russian economy in the medium term, critics point out that these projections are not based on the solid expert sources or data that are the most convincing, and note the continuing play of extreme western cultural bias in its projections, as in the trope (noted by Alexander Mercouris in his broadcast of December 15) that Russian industry is “backward,” whereas, in reality, western forces from Napolean onwards have been astonished to find, as for example did Napolean, that Russian artillery was more advanced than French, and as Kennedy was astonished when Russia was the first to launch a man into space.
The western energy war against Russia has been an equally silly debacle. The EU arrogantly and stupidly presumed that when it threatened Russia with cancellation of Russian energy imports – but only earmarking this event towards the end of 2022, giving itself time to replanish reserves – Russia, dunce-like, would sit still and allow itself to be tied up and beaten. Instead, Russia seized the initiative and preempted western cancellation with its own drastic modifications of supply and consequent increases in price.
The EU escalated the energy war one further step beyond reason with a proposed oil price cap ($60 a barrel has been reported, but clearly not with the consensus of all European powers) that among other things will have the effect of increasing European dependence on hideously expensive LNG imports from countries like the US (its energy, armaments and finance industries are principal beneficiaries of the conflict), Australia and Qatar, and on imports from other countries some of whose own supply has come indirectly from Russia itself but for which Europe will be paying far more than it did in the past or that it would under the terms of its own price cap (since the origin of gas will be increasingly difficult to determine when sources are mixed and supplied through several trading links).
Propaganda of “Running Out”
In direct contradiction to claims from western politicians and mainstream media, Russia is not experiencing a shortage of ammunition, tanks or air defense forces. It started the conflict with massive stocks including, for example, 17 million rounds of ammunition, according to one western source, of which it has so far fired 10 million (some 37,000 a day over nine months). Even if it was not producing replacements at a fast pace, which assuredly it is, Russia would easily have another year’s supply if it chose to reduce the rate of daily consumption to something a little closer to Ukraine’s, which would still leave a massive disparity between Russian and Ukrainian capability, in Russia’s favor.
It is far more likely, given that this is increasingly conceded by western politicians and western mainstream media, that it is Ukraine and its European sponsors who are running out of weapons stockpiles. Their claims that it is Russia that is running out, based on little to no actual evidence, represents a form of “mirror propaganda,” popular with the Kiev PR-inspired regime. While the US and NATO countries are forever announcing new tranches of weaponry, the volume and quality is degrading over time, and is becoming ever more dependent on assumptions about future production by for-profit industries. Continuing evidence of Ukrainian capability, even despite the increasingly dire stockpile situation, may be accounted for by the likely delivery and possibly training in, stinger, javelin and other missiles from even before the beginning of the war.
Russia has experienced a number of setbacks, namely, its push to encircle Kiev in the opening phase of the war (although this might also have been an effective way of enforcing a wider distribution of Ukrainian troops, away from their concentration in Russia’s main goal, the Donbass). Secondly, Russia retreated from Kherson city and that part of Kherson that lies on the west bank of the Dnieper, although this retreat has actually created more problems for Ukraine than it has solved. Ukraine has been unable to sustain the city’s economy, and has proceeded to evacuate its civilian population, while defending itself from Russian artillery bombardment from one kilometrer away on the east bank of the Dnieper and having to worry about Russia’s capability to destroy the major bridges across the Dnieper. Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive in Kharkiv region was likewise possible mainly because Russia quickly withdrew its forces, in this case to the east of the Oskil river. Ukraine has not been able to further extend its Kharkiv counteroffensive and may now be retreating. Russian offenses in the Lyman districted are frequently reported.
Other set-backs include more minor incidents, some of which have a symbolic significance beyond the actual damage caused, including: NATO-directed Ukrainian strikes against Crimea including a partially successful strike on the Kertz bridge that has now been repaired, strikes against Russian airfields (most notably against Engels, home to a fleet of nuclear bombers), strikes against the border town of Bolgorod, and continuing heavy strikes against the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk (ongoing since 2015).
Arguably more significant than any of these was the US or US-inspired sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 maritime gas pipelines, jointly owned by Russian and German interests, an act that was directly threatened before the conflict by US President Joe Biden himself. It has ensured that any resumption of energy relations between Russia and Germany (and therefore a continuing supply of cheap Russian gas to German industry) is impossible in the short term. The most extraordinary consquence has been evidence of German passivity in the face of US aggression, thereby making it clear to the world that German elites, like those of other European countries, prioritize the needs of Washington above their own national interests and do so, time after time after time and on this occasion demonstrating a willingness to be de-industrialized and impoverished for Washington’s sake. As this realization sinks into consciousness across the effete political leadership of the European landscape it will sharpen divisions within Europe between those less powerful nations whose elites entertain a visceral hostility against Russia so strong that it obscures their own calculations of what makes sense for long term national and European interest, and those that strive valiantly for a more realistic appraisal of what makes sense against the oppressive force of neoconservative ideology and interest pervading all western governments and institutions, including the international orgazations that depend to a substantial degree on western money and expertise.
Where Things Stand
While Russia continues to hold the Luhansk oblast securely, it holds most of Donetsk but has still to oust Ukraine from southern Donestsk. Over four months it has struggled against Ukrainian forces around Donetsk City and in the town of Bakhmut and its surrounding villages and small towns such as Vuhledar, Pavlok and Marinka. Fighting in this region continues to be intense, but my reading is that Ukraine will lose, quite soon, and will retreat to a newly-fortified Kramatorsk, and, beyond that if necessary, Sloviansk. But it will not hold these for long before being forced to retreat, in effect, to the west bank of the Dnieper, ceding the entirety of Donbass to Russia. I do not anticipate that Ukraine will actually launch a counteroffensive through Zaporizhzhia to Azov, for a number of reasons – wintry conditions, falling weapons stocks, better equipped Russian forces which have recently been concentrated in the Azov region, and inability at this time to release forces from the Donbass.
It seems very unlikely that the provision by the west of alledgedly more advanced air defense weapons such as the Patriot will make a difference in favor of Ukraine. It is not clear that more than one Patriot will be made available. The Patriot cannot be integrated with the Soviet style missile defense systems on which Ukraine mainly depends, and the Patriot is heavy in the cost of associated maintanance and the training that it requires. Maintenance will only be possible in Germany, thus increasing the logistical challenges.
Towards a Settlement, Not
There does seem a strong likelihood that the west, in part to cover up with new mistakes the old mistakes that its neocon brainwashed politicians have committed so far, will continue to escalate, even in the face of what critics have described as Russia’s “escalatory dominance.” This means the presence of US and NATO troops in Ukraine who may step in to prevent an attempt by Russia to gradually take the whole of Ukraine (which would require it to field a total occupation force of some 600,000). The point may be to impose a de facto line between eastern Ukraine (Russian) and western Ukraine (NATO), one that will preserve Odessa and the extreme southwest Black Sea coastline for Ukraine, along the model of the divided Korean peninsula, or even, until the US lost its war in 1975, Vietnam.
The prospects for a formal peace agreement in the forseeable future are challenging. Russia, especially in the wake of Angela Merkel’s recent statements to the effect that the only purpose of the Minsk agreements that she authored in 2014-2015 was to buy time for the rearmament of Ukraine, retains zero trust that the USA is willing to commit in good faith to any long-term agreement. Any agreement therefore will be the result of force, will require force to sustain it, and will need to be predominantly on Russian terms and from a Russian position of strength, a strength nourished by Russia’s increasing integration into a new Euroasian-centered order.