As we approach the end of four weeks of fighting in Ukraine (or more accurately, 8 years, three weeks and three days since the first Russian invasion), pundits, analysts and government officials from around the world are surprised at the continued and valiant resistance from the Ukrainian military and the resilience of its civilian population. It is genuinely inspiring.
Most of those observers are equally surprised (including me) at the utter incompetence of the Russian military. Make no mistake, the Russians can overwhelm the Ukrainians with sheer numbers of troops and weapons, but they have shown a shocking lack of understanding about combined arms attack (integrating combat air, sea, and land forces in a concentrated and mutually supportive way), basic tactical operations, logistics and combat leadership. They are not the modern, effective military machine that Russian President Vladimir Putin thought he spent the last twenty years and billions of dollars building. It appears that they have a limited number of “smart” weapons to precisely hit military targets and have thus used ballistic missiles and “dumb” bombs to terrorize the civilian populations of major cities. Likewise, their tactical aircraft are mostly grounded since the early days of the invasion because they have not gained air supremacy (Ukrainian air defenses have destroyed a large number of low flying aircraft) and the Russians are afraid of losing aircraft and pilots in unsuccessful attacks. Without low level tactical aircraft coordinating with armored columns, the tanks and personnel carriers are left in the open to be ambushed by Ukrainians armed with anti-tank missiles and other weapons.
All of this means between 7,000 (US estimates) and 14,000 (Ukrainian estimates) dead Russian soldiers. Probably there are at least twice that number wounded or captured. That is a lot given the preponderance of force the Russians should have and that the war is only about four weeks old. The Russian military is not the mighty twenty-first century fighting machine that they pretended to be.
That is of only small consolation to the Ukrainians under attack. In fact, it may actually be to their detriment. As the battle lines become more static and Mr. Putin more frustrated, he may increase the attacks on non-military targets to terrorize civilians and break the will of the government to continue to resist. It could lead to more casualties over the long run than a quick, effective strike might have caused.
The scenes are heartbreaking and the cry to help the Ukrainians is getting louder and more insistent. So what should the West do?
Just as nearly everyone overestimated the Russians’ strength, nearly as many people underestimated the ability of NATO to stand together. After the “former guy” nearly destroyed NATO, Mr. Putin calculated that the alliance would not band together against him. He was wrong. The Biden Administration has done a remarkable job in bringing all thirty member countries into a united front to work to isolate Russia and inhibit their ability to fight Putin’s War. Beyond NATO, the Biden Administration has lined up most of our friends and allies around the world to impose sanctions on Russia and to put their economy in extremis. No one thought it possible even three months ago. It is the result of basic hard work, diplomacy and the world’s desire to see the United States as the strong leader needed to bring others into the fold.
Is it enough? Only time and patience will tell. Most likely it will make Russia a pariah for years, if not generations, to come. Except for its nuclear weapons (admittedly, a major element), Russia is a third rate country. Its fate as such will be sealed for a long time to come. Unfortunately, none of that helps the Ukrainians today,
President Biden has the unenviable task of walking the fine line of keeping NATO together, giving lethal and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and not instigating World War III. His Republican critics in Congress and the Senate have criticized his efforts. While legitimate policy discussions are warranted, many Republicans are pushing to “do more” without much specification as to what. And, oh yeah, the recent omnibus spending bill that President Biden signed into law last week had $13.6 billion in aid to Ukraine. Thirty-one Republican Senators voted against it, including many of those most vociferous about the president needing to do more. In addition, other Republicans are from the Putin Wing of the party and are saying unbelievable things. The words spewing from their lips continue to support Mr. Putin and they refer to the Ukrainian president as a “thug.” They and their propaganda wing of a certain cable channel use Putin talking points verbatim in their commentary and are despicable (as a result, they are a part of daily news broadcasts in Russia showing that the “American people” support the Russian “Special Military Operation”).
Talk of a “no fly zone” is just that, talk. Not every American understands what a no fly zone means, but most of those in the Senate pushing for one do know. It would mean declaring war on Belarus and Russia. This is not Iraq. When they talk of a no fly zone they mean stopping aircraft, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. To do that would mean destroying the bases ashore and the ships at sea that are launching the weapons, eliminating Russian anti-air defense missile launchers and shooting down Russian aircraft. Most of those are on Russian soil. The ships at sea fly Russian flags. It would be a direct attack on Russia itself. That would be World War III. If the Senate wants to do that, they should use their Constitutional powers and declare war on Russia. They won’t do that, of course. The Congress long ago abdicated their responsibilities regarding war. Their real purpose is to use the continued suffering of the Ukrainian people as a domestic political weapon against the president.
Everyone should also remember that the the leader of the Republican Party was impeached for withholding military aid to Ukraine for his own political gain. All Republican Senators voted not to remove him from office save one (Senator Mitt Romney of Utah). He also threatened to withdraw from NATO and did everything in his power to weaken the alliance — to Mr. Putin’s advantage. Please do not tell me that you now really care.
There are some additional actions that the president can take that should be done quickly. So far, Mr. Putin is setting all of the “red lines.” Those are the actions he says will escalate the conflict and he even cavalierly reminds the world of his nuclear arsenal. President Biden should be setting red lines for the Russians, something that has not yet really happened. Put Mr. Putin on notice that we are not afraid of his hollow Army and will not allow him to continue to act recklessly.
First on the list should be chemical weapons. Mr. Putin and a major personality on a Fox cable channel are spreading the false narrative that the U.S. has secretly been helping Ukraine build chemical and biological weapons. This is a bald face lie. Unfortunately, it is entirely possible that Mr. Putin will conduct a chemical or biological attack on a major Ukrainian city as he gets ever more frustrated by Ukrainian military resistance. He will then blame the attack on the U.S. and Ukraine. The Biden Administration has been working overtime to debunk this abominable lie. They should go further and make it clear (not vague statements) that any use of chemical weapons will be met with a harsh military response. The what and where are our choice, but their will be a military response.
Likewise, Mr. Biden and our NATO allies have repeatedly assured the world that they will not give up a single square inch of NATO territory to a Russian attack. This also needs to be clarified. Mr. Putin has repeatedly stated that the resupply of Ukrainian forces with weapons killing Russians is an act of war. He stated that resupply lines and bases are legitimate military targets. It is easy to envision a scenario where Mr. Putin tests NATO resolve. A single cruise missile, for instance, that hits a supply warehouse just across the border in Poland. No territory taken, but it was clearly an attack on NATO. Would we go to war over a single missile or bomb, especially if no one was killed? It should be clearly stated that the West will not tolerate any kind of attack, regardless of scope. It is easy to sense that Mr. Putin might try to pull something to embarrass the West or to test the “how much is too much” theory of tolerance.
It is hard to imagine a modern European city under attack by the Russians. It is even harder to watch the gut wrenching videos on TV and to hear the horrible stories from survivors. Most of us want to do something concrete to help them out, especially with a superior force represented by NATO that is not coming to their aid to stop the bombing. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy argues that those worried in the West that current events may lead to World War III are naive. He and others believe World War III has already begun. It is only a matter of time before NATO is involved and meanwhile many hundreds or thousands of people are losing their lives waiting for the West to act. He may be right.
As we all know, we cannot predict the future even if some things seem inevitable. Putin’s War is going to become a long drawn out affair with many, many casualties on both sides and the resultant destruction of a modern European country. The impact will be felt world-wide as oil and agricultural prices increase because of the loss of Russian and Ukrainian exports. It will get even more ugly.
Our leaders need to do everything in their power to end this needless slaughter. If it was easy, we would have ended it already. The western democracies need to lead the way and to keep up the pressure.