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’s 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.
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.