The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Teetering on the Brink

Posted on | March 4, 2022 | Comments Off on Teetering on the Brink

The good new is, we’ve avoided World War III so far. The bad news is, Ukraine is getting pounded to hell. Being a student of history — and particularly of military history — I’ve struggled to resist the feeling that I’m living through a sequel to The Guns of August. If you’ve never read Barbara Tuchman’s classic account of the miscalculations that led to World War I, now would be a good time to buy it on Amazon (which, of course, would pay me a commission if you buy it through my affiliate link). But I’m not just hustling Amazon sales here; if you’ve never read this book, you simply must. It took a lot of blundering to go from a Serbian nationalist’s assassination of the Hapsburg heir to the bloodiest war in history, mainly because of a series of interlocking alliances. What the hell did England care about some obscure Balkan intrigue? And yet, because of Russia’s sympathy to Serbia, the fragile nature of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the imperial ambitions of Germany, England found itself sucked into a war in which 876,084 British troops died.

We are not 10 days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and there are some people in the United States itching to get us into a shooting war with Russia, which is an idea nearly as crazy as Putin’s belief that he could just roll his army into Kyiv in a matter of days. Eight days later, however, the Ukrainians are still fighting. The New York Times reports:

Ukraine’s soldiers have blown up bridges to halt advancing Russian ground troops. Its pilots and air defenses have prevented Russian fighter jets from conquering the skies. And a band of savvy Ukrainian cyberwarriors are so far beating Moscow in an information war, inspiring support at home and abroad.
To the surprise of many military analysts, Ukrainian troops are mounting a stiffer-than-expected resistance to Russian forces up and down battle lines across a country the size of Texas, fighting with a resourcefulness and creativity that U.S. analysts said could trip up Russian troops for weeks or months to come.
The Ukrainians are also exploiting a bungled beginning to Russia’s all-out assault. Armed with shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons, they have attacked a mileslong Russian armored convoy bearing down on Kyiv, the capital, helping stall an advance plagued by fuel and food shortages, and stretching a march that was expected to take a handful of days into possibly weeks.
To be sure, Russia’s invasion is only a week old. The strategic southern city of Kherson fell on Wednesday; the Kremlin’s army has intensified its bombardment of Kyiv and other cities; and, despite a flow of fresh arms pouring in from the West, Ukrainian leaders say they desperately need more weapons to destroy Russian tanks and down Russian warplanes.
And while the Ukrainian government has publicized its victories and Russian attacks that killed civilians, it has said far less about battlefield losses of its mechanized units. For their part, Russian officials are keen not to present the operation as a war, and so they have not put out information about the engagements their forces have won.
The result, in these early days of the invasion, is that the Ukrainians are turning the tables on the Russians in the information campaign.
On the battlefield, the Ukrainian military is conducting a hugely effective and mobile defense, using their knowledge of their home turf to stymie Russian forces on multiple fronts, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Thursday.
General Milley said some of the tactics employed by Ukrainian troops included using mobile weapons systems to bedevil the Russians wherever they could. Ukraine’s forces, he told reporters traveling with him in Europe, are “fighting with extraordinary skill and courage against Russian forces.”
U.S. officials have been impressed with the fighting prowess of the Ukrainians, but their assessment that Russia has the superior military has not changed.
Ukraine has succeeded in slowing the Russian advance, but has not been able to stop it, nor is the resistance strong enough to shift Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s war aims. Over the long term, U.S. officials said, it will be difficult for Ukraine to continue to frustrate the Russian advance.
In the meantime, though, Ukrainians are turning into a nation at arms. “In combat, it’s always different than what you thought it’d be, and the side that learns faster and adapts faster will win out,” said Frederick B. Hodges, the former top U.S. Army commander in Europe who is now with the Center for European Policy Analysis. “So far, Ukraine is learning and adapting faster.”
Ukraine has one of Europe’s largest militaries, with 170,000 active-duty troops, 100,000 reservists and territorial defense forces that include at least 100,000 veterans. Thousands of civilians are also now enlisting.
The Ukrainian army has been training for further Russian encroachment ever since Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and began supporting separatists in the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine. Many of Ukraine’s veterans fought in those battles, so there is a subset of the population that is trained and knows how to fight Russians.
U.S. Special Operations Forces have also trained Ukrainian military forces. Leaders in Kyiv then assigned those soldiers to conventional units, allowing them in turn to train a larger portion of the army. American analysts say that training has made a difference on the battlefield.

Understand how high the stakes are here. Almost nobody in the U.S. is on Putin’s side, but do we want American troops dying over there?

The armchair war hawks — the Bill Kristol types — are urging belligerent measures that could lead us down the road to war, with consequences too horrible to contemplate. And dear God, how can we possibly go to war with this Commander-in-Chief? So we must hope that the Ukrainians can keep fighting, and with sufficient success that Russia becomes demoralized, and Putin is overthrown by his generals.

Every Ukrainian success, no matter how modest it may seem in the grand scheme of things, will help hasten Putin’s downfall. There are allegedly serious people who seem to think that Putin has sufficient strength within Russia to withstand a popular uprising. But the Russian army has already lost hundreds of vehicles and thousands of soldiers in this conflict, and with more arms flooding in to the Ukrainian resistance, the price of Putin’s gamble will only increase in the days and weeks ahead.

We may yet avoid Armageddon, and the success of the Ukrainian resistance is now the world’s best hope. Pray for Ukraine!



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