Writing on the Wall in Ukraine.

An info graphic tucked away on the back page of Tuesday’s Financial Times shows why articles have started appearing across the press in recent weeks, rowing back on previous optimism, to project that the forthcoming Ukrainian military offensive is a last throw of the dice.

Confirming the analyses of commentators like Brian Berletic, who has argued from the beginning that this is a war of attrition, the info graphic compared the munitions so far supplied to Ukraine by the US and its allies, with the annual production of those munitions that they can manage if working their factories at full stretch (“surge” production) and the number of years it would take to replenish stocks already expended.

When read in conjunction with comments from Ukrainian military figures that Ukraine is fast running out of the Soviet era S300 air defence missiles that it has hitherto relied on to contest the air space above its cities and the battlefront, this makes a harsh reality check for anyone arguing that the NATO military input into Ukraine should be increased; because, even if you think that’s the right thing to do, its not actually possible.

For 155mm shells, over a million have already been supplied. They can be produced – when really pushing it – at 240,000 a year. It would take 7 years to replenish stocks to previous levels at that rate* and, its quite evident that even if every shell produced went to Ukraine, that would supply around a quarter of the supply for the first year from here on.

155mm precision shells would take 4 years to replenish, Javelin missiles 6 years, Stinger missiles 7 years and Himars systems 3 years.

To significantly increase military production capacity would require

  • significant investment, that would have to come from elsewhere in the economies, at a time when all the Western countries are undergoing a sharp squeeze on living standards and increasing political turbulence.
  • time, to make the machine tools, build the factories, put in the infrastructure, train the workers; a matter of years not months.
  • a rethink about how the Western military industrial complex functions; as it has hitherto been set up to produce very expensive and sophisticated kit that requires a lot of training to use and, because it is so sophisticated, very lucrative for the manufacturers. This is a viable approach when the wars the West was fighting were either relatively short, or low key against opponents with limited capacity who could be technologically overawed, though is not so effective in protracted attempts to occupy hostile countries, hence the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. It does not hack it at all when what’s needed is the sustained mass production of simple munitions like shells for a prolonged war of attrition; which the Russians are set up to do very effectively, even though they spend a lot less on their military than NATO countries do on average, and far less in total ($1 to every $19 spent by NATO in fact).**

That is a material constraint on the US and NATO because they want sufficient of a stockpile to be able to credibly threaten or fight wars elsewhere. So the longer they have to supply more munitions than they can produce to Ukraine, the weaker their global position becomes.

Hence the increasingly open anger of right wingers in the US who think that engaging in this war is a strategic error; because they want to keep as much powder dry (and missiles in stock) as possible for the war with China they see as the priority to fight before the end of the decade.

This is causing a reframing of the narrative for the forthcoming Ukrainian offensive.

Into the Valley of Death?

Whatever view you take on the rights and wrongs of this conflict, it is hard to contemplate this forthcoming, and much advertised, offensive without a sense of horror for the appalling loss of life that it will require. Like knowing that the battle of the Somme is about to start.

Posed initially as a big push with new Western weapons – primarily Leopard tanks – that would break through Russian lines and lead to a political crisis in Russia leading to a victory and reconquest of all territory up to the 2014 borders, the expectations for this offensive are now being downgraded.

Commentators from Admiral Chris Parry to Daily Telegraph columnists to arch hawk Simon Tisdall in the Observer, are now arguing that, in the words of Admiral Parry, the Russians are “too well dug in” to be shifted much. The logic of this is to try to ward off too much disappointment and war fatigue, such that pressure for a ceasefire and negotiated settlement grows significantly. Reports, from Russian sources, so take them with a pinch of salt if you like – of an increasing tendency for Ukrainian soldiers to surrender and, in some cases, offer to turn change sides, indicates what could happen on a wider scale as the prospect for “victory” is no longer posed as just over the horizon, but as an uncertain and remote possibility in an and unending slog with horrific and remorseless casualties.

So, in some quarters there is now an explicit argument that the aim of the offensive is to gain ground to put Ukraine into a more advantageous position when these negotiations come. The overt call, coming from the Ukrainian military and these same writers, is that the supply of munitions from NATO is insufficient and should be, or should have been, even greater than it has been. The problem with this position is that, in reality, as outlined above, there is insufficient capacity in the Western military industrial complex to provide the level that is demanded. So, it is a demand that cannot be fulfilled. In the event of a debacle these commentators can nevertheless cry betrayal, as reality rarely stands in the way of a politically useful myth.

The scale of the shift in investment required to make it so would require a shift in resources on a scale that could not help but hit domestic living standards very hard indeed; and the militarisation of society that would follow would require dissent to be repressed as treason. The legal case already being taken out in the US against four members of the anti war African People‚Äôs Socialist Party for “conspiring to covertly sow discord in U.S. society, spread Russian propaganda and interfere illegally in U.S. elections” is the beginning of what threatens to be a much wider and deeper process across the NATO countries.

Its possible that this offensive will make no ground at all. That the 50,000 or so troops assembled for it will make little or no headway against heavily fortified Russian positions and be hammered by superior Russian artillery and air power and, ultimately, a concentration of reservists that will outnumber them. It is, however, also possible that a heavy enough concentration of forces could break through and reoccupy territory. The Russians have been evacuating civilians in preparation of such a possibility. This is posed by our press as “abductions”, though, what they’d have them do to keep these civilians safe I don’t know. Given the way the Ukrainian army has tried to use the continued presence of civilians as human shields, the chutzpah here is quite extraordinary.

Whatever the impact, the question of what happens when it runs out of steam – as casualties mount, munitions are used up, soldiers succumb to exhaustion – is rarely addressed. There seems to be a presumption that the Russians will be equally exhausted, will not have military reserves in place, or the political will, to push back; which seems unlikely.

Any assessment of what happens then is necessarily speculative. A successful Russian push back with limited territorial aims but aiming for regime change in Kyiv – as spelled out in tub thumping terms by Dmitri Medvedev – would involve a loss of face for NATO that it would find unbearable. So, a partial occupation of Western Ukraine by some NATO forces as a face saving territory holding operation is being rumoured; with the Polish Army being set up to do this. If this is clearly understood and expected by both sides through back channel diplomacy it could lead to a ceasefire and frozen conflict on pre determined territorial lines and avert the very real risk of direct engagement leading potentially to nuclear catastrophe. If not, we could all be in very serious trouble indeed.

In that situation, the cries of betrayal from the right – and some sections of the NATO supporting left – would be very loud; and there would be every prospect of a lower intensity continuing conflict with Azov type forces trying to conduct raids across whatever DMZ might be set up. Alongside this there would be continuing campaigns to increase military spending in the NATO countries and attempts to line everyone up behind it; and demonise and criminalise those that don’t.

At the same time, the price for the aid to Ukraine, which is in the form of loans, will be called in by the NATO powers and Ukraine’s mineral and agricultural resources will be asset stripped on a grand and ruthless scale from the part of the country it occupies. So much for sovereignty and the rights of nations to self determination. The war time legislation stripping workers of what rights they still had will be reaffirmed in the name of national survival and the oligarchy in Kyiv will make a comfortable living on brokering the deals.

Chinese solutions

There have also been articles arguing that China could put pressure on Russia in order to pull NATOs nuts out of the fire; which is more wishful thinking. Why China should do this when the US is actively trying to mobilise the reluctant population of Taiwan to play the same role viz a viz China as it has managed to get the Ukrainian oligarchy to do viz a viz Russia, is unclear. China’s capacity to broker a peace should not be underestimated. They have managed to get Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations, which has led to a real prospect for peace in Yemen. The recent call between President Zelensky and President Xi opens the door to an end to the conflict that is not primarily framed by NATOs interests; which will therefore be resisted by it. The comment of a US major about the Vietnamese village of Ben Tre in 1968 “in order to save the village, it was necessary to destroy it” could end up as the preferred US position on Ukraine, if the alternative involves a Chinese brokered peace.

*These are the FTs figures. Although 1,074,000 divided by 240,000 gets you just under four and a half years, presumably they are taking other factors into account lime depreciation, use on live fire exercises etc.

**A World War 2 analogy might be in comparing the T34/85 and the PZKWV (Panther) tanks. Panthers were designed as an answer to the T34. They were heavier, better armoured, faster, more sophisticated and overall more effective tank to tank, but they were far more prone to breakdown (with only 35% of vehicles considered “combat ready” in 1944) and were more expensive and time consuming to build; so that from 1943 to 45 the Nazis built around 6,500 of them, while in the same period the USSR built 29,400 T34/85s.

Peace in Ukraine?

In a recent interview, President Zelensky said that unless Ukraine can hold Bakhmut, he will come under immense pressure, at home and abroad, to negotiate a peace with Russia. It is possible to interpret this in four ways.

1 Zelensky is trying to stiffen the resolve of the troops in Bakhmut, whose morale is low, after conceding inch after inch of ground and terrible losses, fully aware that they are virtually surrounded and after hearing for weeks and weeks about a relief counter offensive that never arrives.

2 He is putting pressure on NATO to up its military supplies, warning them that there is a limit beyond which the Ukrainian armed forces and people will no longer fight on their behalf.

3 He is giving himself an opening to go for such negotiations if Bakhmut does fall, to cut his country’s losses in all respects – as arguing for such negotiations in public hitherto has be tantamount to treason and people have been assassinated for doing so. It is of some significance in this context that, while the USA dismissed the Chinese Peace Plan outright, Zelensky didn’t.

4 He is doing all three at once.

A negotiated peace then is no longer unthinkable. Even his more recent statement that Ukraine would be willing to discuss the status of Crimea if the offensive that has been flagged up for the end of this month and start of May manages to get through to the Black Sea, underlines that negotiation over territory is not off the table. Obviously he does not talk about what will happen if the offensive is a debacle, but this would be a much bigger deal than simply losing control of Bakhmut, which is slowly happening.

Its evident that NATO has no end game beyond crossing its fingers and hoping for the best. Its military industrial complex isn’t designed around wars of attrition with an “almost peer” military.

  • It is designed to produce immensely expensive and complex weaponry requiring months of training to use and squads of maintenance crew to keep going. These are very profitable for its manufacturers and very effective in short wars in which any resistance is qualitatively outgunned. Not so much in this war, in which the capacity to mass produce shells is more decisive. So, all they can do is shovel in enough aid to keep the war going, but not enough to turn the tide.
  • With the sanctions only adopted by direct allies and having blown back hard on Europe primarily, their presumption that the economic war would do the job has failed.
  • The alternative, of decisive direct intervention would be World War 3 and we’d all die.

So, in the meantime, hundreds of men, mostly Ukrainians, are dying every day with no prospect of “winning”. While a reader of the Guardian here might well believe that the Russians have lost 200,000 troops, because they paper they (still) trust says so, the BBC Russian Service calculated just 10,002 killed by December last year, the Russians themselves say they have lost 14,000 and the Israeli Security Agency Mossad calculated 18,840 last month. With the US reckoning on at least 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed that’s a loss ratio of at least 5 to 1 that’s completely unsustainable. Something has to give. And in the interests of not throwing away more and more lives in a hopeless fight, the sooner the better.

The outlines of a possible peace are quite clear and very like the initial Russian call before last February. Demilitarisation of Ukraine – demobilisation of the army and redeployment in reconstruction – no membership of NATO, recognition that the areas that have seceded from Ukraine don’t want to be part of it and have as much right to join the Russian Federation as the West of Ukraine does to stay out of it and mutual security guarantees between Russia and NATO, to allow both sides to de-escalate and put scheduled expansions of military budgets to more constructive use. This will open a period of intense struggle in Ukraine and NATO countries, because the war will be seen to have been futile, the far right will cry betrayal and “stab in the back” resentments at NATO might well lead to all sorts of unpredictable blowbacks, and the reconstruction deal that Zelensky has agreed with Blackrock looks like creating a neo liberal dystopia. One motivation for trying to prolong the war on their part.

Those, in USC and elsewhere, who argue for the NATO/Kyiv war aim of restoring sovereignty over all of Ukraine’s pre 2014 borders and for “Russian troops out” are ignoring a political reality within pre 2014 Ukraine, which is that there has been a civil war there since the population of the Donbass rebelled against the overthrow of a government that they had voted for. There is no doubt that the Maidan movement in Kyiv had popular support in that part of Ukraine. It was also taken advantage of by the US and EU. And hegemonised by the far right. USC people tend to emphasise the first point and turn their eyes away from the latter two, but all three are true and have to be taken into account.

The rebellion against that in Donbass has been described like this in New Left Review. After the Maidan events “opposition to the new government was broad. In late February, some 3,500 elected officials gathered at an anti-Maidan conference in Kharkiv. The following day, the Kiev parliament repealed protections for Russian as a regional language. The anti-Maidan uprisings in Eastern Ukraine copied the Kiev model of occupying central squares and taking over government buildings. The security forces were also divided; in some areas the local police made no effort to stop the anti-Maidan protestors. In cities like Kharkiv or Odessa, Kiev’s authority prevailed. In hardscrabble towns like Donetsk and Luhansk, popular militias made up of miners, truck drivers, security guards and the local unemployed stormed the regional-administration offices and declared peoples republics…” In effect a parallel movement. Arguing for Ukraine’s right to self determination while denying it to the people of the Donbass is wilfully inconsistent.

The initial, rather cautious, Russian intervention that summer was to prevent this uprising being completely crushed by the Ukrainian army. The ensuing civil war killed over 14,000 people, mostly in the Donbass Republics, over 3,000 of them civilians.

They have a memorial garden in Donetsk City to all the children that have been killed by Ukrainian shelling. And these kids are just as dead as any killed in Western Ukraine. They won’t get the full Fergal Keane treatment on the BBC, but they are just as dead. While Donetsk holds these graves…

The Donbass militia, which is locally recruited and has done a lot of the front line fighting even after last February, is 44,000 strong. They see themselves as Russian, and, since the referendums last autumn (far from perfect though they were) see their land as part of Russia. Calling for them to “withdraw” is calling for them to leave their homes, dismiss their own right to self-determination and become refugees, alongside the 3 million or so others who have fled to Russia during the conflict – about a third of the total (and the largest single destination country). This would also apply to a large number of non-combatants. Given that the Ukrainian armed forces “cleanse” captured areas of “saboteurs and collaborators” and one senior politician has called for the local “Sovoks” to be put in concentration camps after “liberation”, a very large proportion of the local population would have to abandon their homes to keep safe. USC is actually calling for ethnic cleansing.

If you doubt that, here are some statements by leading spokespeople in Kyiv in an ongoing discussion about how Ukraine should reintegrate the territories lost after the Maidan. There are various perspectives on this, from the genocidal to the more precisely targeted. The solutions range from wholesale killing, driving out the local population in whole or in part, to filtration measures for the population to identify ‘agents’ and ‘proponents of the ‘Russki Mir’ ie pro Russians, more selective punishment for anyone associated with military resistance overarched by ‘cultural’ measures, re-education, re-naming everything, forbidding use of Russian and so on.

  • July 2014 – MIkhail Koval (Ukrainian Minister of Defence) states that special filtration measures are needed to ‘identify those linked to separatism’
  • August 2014 – Bogdan Butkevich (journalist) speaking on live TV states that Ukraine should free itself from ‘excess people’ in the Donbass and that ‘some people need to simply be killed’
  • In 2018 the Ministry of Interior under Avakov proposed a law on deoccupation and reintegration and a law on collaborators. These were passed in February that year. The laws effectively suspended citizenship to suspected ‘collaborators’ and denied them political rights, and provided almost unlimited powers to the military in the ‘liberated territories’
  • In 2019 Oleg Radik (journalist) wrote that ‘when we go in there, there’ll be 40 years of purges and anti-terror, a ban on the use of Russian by state officials. Close all the higher education institutions, let them study in Lvov.’
  • November 2020 the Prime Minister Denis Shmigal proposes Bill No.4 327 which allows the SBU to identify people to be {forcibly} interned by the military.
  • In March 2021 Alexei Reznikov (vice Prime Minister for the Temporarily Occupied Territories) discusses the removal (Otseleniya) of Russians in Crimea (some 500k people).
  • In August 2021 President Zelenskii told Donbass residents who think they’re Russian ‘to go to Russia’.