This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Two years ago, Vladimir Putin launched a war of conquest and extermination against Ukraine. He failed. Yet now he hopes by guile to snatch victory from the jaws of genocide.
A decorated officer, Patrick Mercer believes him. “Now [Russia] stands within a spit of victory,” he writes elsewhere in The Critic. He accuses journalists of “lies” about the real extent of Ukrainian casualties and claims that “a subservient media” has reported the war in such a biassed manner as to give the impression that Ukraine was winning, doing us a “grave disservice” by “underestimating Russia”.
There is, though, no conspiracy about the casualties on either side. NATO’s latest estimate at the end of 2023 was that Ukraine has lost more than 300,000 killed and wounded. US intelligence suggested that Russia had lost 315,000 troops, though Kyiv puts the number at 350,000.
Given the Russian army’s well-documented disregard for losses and for its soldiers’ welfare, the fact that these numbers are so comparable is perhaps surprising. But there are no grounds for pretending that we do not know what is going on. Many journalists have been killed covering what must be one of the best-reported wars in history.
The assumption that because Russia is bigger than Ukraine it must ultimately win needs to be challenged. Russia (or the Soviet Union) has lost plenty of wars before against numerically inferior adversaries. In the 20th century alone, these included Japan (1904–45), Germany (1914–18), Poland (1919–20), Finland (1939–40 — though the Winter War ended in a Pyrrhic victory for Stalin) and Afghanistan (1979–89).
So does the conflict in Ukraine resemble these wars? After the early weeks of the campaign, when nearly a quarter of Ukraine was conquered by a blitzkrieg with overwhelming force, the Russians became bogged down. They retreated from Kyiv, were repulsed at Kharkov and lost Kherson. In the past year alone, they have lost more than quarter of a million men, yet in that time they captured only 0.1 per cent more of Ukrainian territory.
The military calculus has remained relatively stable over the past two years. Russia has a much bigger war economy; it outnumbers Ukraine both in population and on the battlefield. But Russia is being outfought at both the tactical and strategic levels. Until last summer’s counteroffensive failed to break through to the sea, the consensus was that Ukraine had the edge.
It is hardly their fault if defeatist talk has become fashionable in Washington, London or Berlin
I believe that this still holds true. It is the conventional wisdom on this war that has changed. That has much more to do with attitudes and events outside Ukraine, especially in the United States and Europe, than with the campaign itself. And since the Ukrainians have no control over the West’s domestic politics and only modest influence over public opinion there, it is unlikely that any change in their policies, presentation or leadership will make much difference. If the Ukrainians are not actually being defeated, it is hardly their fault if defeatist talk has become fashionable amongst politicians and pundits in Washington, London or Berlin.
For this reason, I cannot agree with the critique of Volodymyr Zelenskyy from those such as Colonel Richard Kemp, a fine former soldier whom I admire and who is undoubtedly sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause. In the Telegraph, he recently argued that Zelenskyy “needs to put a stop” to this defeatist mood in the West, by forming a coalition government to unite his fractious military and political elites. If Zelenskyy is to regain the initiative, says Kemp, he must go beyond his focus on regaining Crimea and set out “his unified strategic vision”.
I do not know why an experienced officer would advise a war leader to give away his strategic plan, beyond his commitment to regain Ukrainian territory. Did Marshal Zhukov announce that he was planning to counterattack in the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad? The Allies went to extraordinary lengths to conceal their plans for the invasion of Europe; D-Day might otherwise have been much bloodier. Oppenheimer has just reminded us of the secrecy of the wartime American nuclear programme and the paranoia that overtook Washington during the early years of the Cold War. But treason and espionage are now less dangerous than the deliberate leaks and careless talk that have since come to characterise Western political culture.
So Zelenskyy is right to keep his strategic cards close to his chest. As for creating a government of national unity in Kyiv: that was useful for Lloyd George and Churchill, so it might work for Zelenskyy too. But we should remember that some of his rivals were corrupt, others were pro-Russian and all of them condescended to him until he won a landslide election victory.
Whether it would be safe to give fierce opponents such as Vitali Klitschko, the ambitious mayor of Kyiv, more power and bring them into his inner councils is a judgement only he can make. He certainly does not need to listen to those in the West who echo Putin by lecturing him about Ukrainian Nazis. Indeed, the far-Right has less support in Ukraine than in many EU countries (it won 2.15 per cent of the vote in Ukraine’s 2019 parliamentary elections and its presidential candidate got 1.62 per cent).
There is no denying that opinion in the West has shifted, especially in the United States. To give one example: a Telegraph poll in January found that in six swing states, a third of voters now think the US has given too much military support to Ukraine and a large minority now want that aid to be cut. In five of these states, voters thought the war would not be happening if Donald Trump had been President instead of Joe Biden.
Trump has pledged to stop military support for Ukraine and to end the war “in a day”, presumably by giving Zelenskyy an ultimatum to accept whatever terms Putin offered him. These Trump supporters tend also to downplay Russia as a threat and see the national interests of the US and Ukraine (or Europe for that matter) as divergent.
Nothing that Zelenskyy could say would change their attitudes: the mere fact that the Democrats support the $61 billion aid package that President Biden is trying to get through Congress is enough to turn the majority of Republicans against it. Added to this is the unpalatable fact that the war in Ukraine must now compete for resources with that in Gaza — and Americans are better informed about Israel than Ukraine.
The Ukrainians have shown themselves quite capable of defeating a demoralised, dehumanised Russian army
The conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas is the kind of asymmetrical warfare with which people in the West are all too familiar: the US has been fighting such wars since Vietnam and the British for much longer than that. But the war in Ukraine is of a kind that was first encountered in the era of world wars: a war in which technology, volume and numbers are decisive, dubbed by the Germans Materialschlacht. On the battlefield, the quantity and quality of drones and missiles, of artillery and tanks, are all-important.
In general, Western military technology in Ukrainian hands has outperformed its Russian equivalent. But increasingly the cheaper weaponry and munitions have been supplied from elsewhere: to Russia by Iran and North Korea, to Ukraine by South Korea, and to both sides by China. Just as Nobel’s dynamite and Krupp’s artillery made vast fortunes for their firms, so the first drone billionaires are emerging. Ukraine has received more shells from South Korea than from the whole of the European Union.
The stubborn refusal of the West to mobilise its industries for war contrasts sharply with the conduct of the “greatest generation”, who recognised the Nazi threat and stepped up to the plate. In December 1940, a year before Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt gave a celebrated radio broadcast in which he warned that “if Great Britain goes down, the Axis powers will control the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia and the high seas” — and would then “bring enormous military and naval resources against this hemisphere”.
To isolationists he pointed out that American troops were not expected to fight in Europe; the US had only to supply the arms to the British. But this required a huge industrial effort on the home front. It was not the American government, but the American people who could turn the tide of war. “We must be the great arsenal of democracy,” Roosevelt declared, in a phrase which is justly famous.
Once the US entered the war, this theme was seized upon by Allied propaganda, much of it aimed at women. Gracie Fields sang her hit song about the girl “that makes the thing-ummy-bob that’s going to win the war”, whilst “Rosie the Riveter” flexed her muscles. They drove home the message that wars were won on the factory floor no less than on the battlefield. That is a message that has been forgotten not only by the public but even by the soldiers, scientists and politicians who should know better.
Colonel Mercer is correct that hitherto “the West has shown itself to be weak”, but he is wrong to suggest that NATO support for Ukraine is mere “jingoism”. On the contrary: the Ukrainians have shown themselves quite capable of defeating a demoralised, dehumanised Russian army that practises torture and other war crimes on a vast and systematic scale. It is Ukraine, not Russia, that is fighting its “Great Patriotic War”. This year will show whether the Atlantic alliance is equal to the challenge of giving Zelenskyy the tools to finish the job.
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