Dr John C Hulsman is the Founder and Managing Partner of John C Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk firm. He is also a life member of the US Council on Foreign Relations.
The fantastic new German cinematic version of Erich Maria Remarque’s seminal war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, makes a telling, universal point about war itself right off the bat: how a conflict plays out is almost never as you imagine it to be.
The young German boys are regaled about the effortless victories they are about to win for Kaiser and fatherland by their paunchy, dead-eyed, middle-aged, history teacher, a man for whom war has always been a glorious theory. The next thing we know, the clueless lads he has swept up in his nationalistic fever are at the hellscape of the western front in World War I, about as far away from chivalric glory as it is possible to be.
Remarque’s microcosm of the folly of the Great War can be easily extrapolated: that if the great men of 1914 had known all that was to come in the deadly whirlwind of the next four years – which would sweep their more civilized world aside in favor of the barbarism of that was to characterize the twentieth century – none of them would have been as suicidally bellicose as they were in the fateful summer. To put it mildly, the Great War did not go according to anyone’s plan.
As the canny Otto von Bismarck put it, when you draw the sword, you roll the dice. Wars start out being about one thing, but their outcome is always a gamble. Rarely do they end as anyone imagined at their start. In the case of the present Russo-Ukrainian War this is surely true. What Vladmir Putin assumed would be a weeks-long mopping-up exercise, as Kiev was once again politically amalgamated into the wider Russian empire, has become something very different, indeed.
Worse, for analysts, the fog of war is a very real thing, as yesterday’s missile incident in Poland helped to demonstrate. Trapped in the myopia of day-to-day events, it is devilishly hard to take an intellectual, strategic step back, and make sense of what the pointillist painting actually looks like, rather than obsessing over-much about the dots.
Yet if we are to make sense of the world, these are the intellectual precepts we must sternly follow to do so.
Two Present Truths
In the case of Ukraine there are presently at least two hidden truths that bear a lot more discussion, as they reveal the trajectory of the war, rather than merely what is happening on any given day.
First, despite wishful thinking on all sides, there is a lot more fighting to come; the end is not yet in sight.
It ought to be axiomatic (it isn’t) that wars continue as long as both sides think they have a realistic chance of attaining victory. In both the Russian and Ukrainian cases at present, both Kiev and Moscow think the spring can still lift them to dominance over the other.
In the case of Moscow, despite the recent humiliating defeat at Kherson, Putin still has reasons to believe ultimate victory will still be his.
First, Russia’s new position on the east bank of the Dnieper River (which neatly bisects Ukraine) is far more defensible that was the Russian army’s line awkwardly jutting across the river to Kherson. Putin’s troops had time to dig in before they executed this long-planned retreat. With winter setting in, and with Ukraine perennially short of arms, the Russian army hopes to regroup during the winter lull before the spring campaign of 2023.
Also, on the plus side, the Kremlin plans to put 300,000 new troops in the field. While the actual number will be smaller (experts estimate 180,000 is more realistic) and while they will be raw and often indifferently trained, as Joseph Stalin put it, at some point quantity becomes quality.
Putin had tried to avoid this draft as long as possible, as politically it puts his regime in danger as average Russians become more affected by the tragedy of the war itself. But in gaining use of this new mass of men there is an immediate military upside. He can hurl these new troops at the Ukrainians, at a minimum blunting their advance, and wait for western war weariness to further his cause.
For all these reasons, and despite the military calamities that have befallen him, the Russian elite still believe ultimate victory in the war is possible. It will fight on.
But given its recent surprising successes at Kherson and around Kharkiv, Kiev is greatly encouraged and of no mind to end a conflict where the military momentum presently lies with them. The Biden administration, which in sending more than half of all military and civilian aid to Kiev is in essence Volodymyr Zelensky’s patron, shows no signs of flagging in its support for the Ukrainian cause.
More advanced American weaponry has arrived in Ukrainian hands, most famously the HIMARS multiple rocket launcher, and with time and practice, Ukrainian troops are using the new, advanced weaponry to increasingly deadly effect. With the coming of the Spring, and with the strategic initiative still with them, Kiev is not remotely minded to throw in the towel.
Second, it is political forces away from the battlefield that will determine the outcome of the war.
The two key present political drivers of the war are as simple to explain as they are hard to gauge: will western war-weariness outpace Russia’s fabled ability to suffer, or will Putin’s calling up of his reservists and issuing a semi-draft be the beginning of the end of Russian tolerance for his botched invasion? The key political question is whether Russian or Western weariness comes to a head first.
For the West, the good news is that the European scramble to secure energy supplies for the coming winter has been tactically successful; most of the storage tanks are around 90 per cent full, in excess of normal EU directives. Europe will be able to get through the coming winter.
But what about the next one? For the EU’s scramble to throw policy plates in the air in terms of its energy policy must not obscure the devastating fact that Brussels has no plan to get through the next winter.
It will take time for the German engineers to construct the vast Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals in the north of the country to offload American shale. Likewise, gas-rich Qatar would like to help, but its long-term contracts until recently have been with Asian countries.
There will be more gas from the Netherlands and Norway, but the black hole that emanates from Europe divesting itself from Russian natural gas (due to the moronic energy policies on the continent of the past two decades) will not go away. It is next winter that remains the problem.
Is Europe really prepared to theoretically support a Ukraine most of its citizens have never visited, given the practical economic and social costs that may ensue? Is a decadent Europe really prepared to genuinely make sacrifices for anything?
A fine European Council on Foreign Relations poll of June makes for bleak reading. When Europeans were asked whether the goal over the Ukraine war should be to for it to end immediately or to see Russia defeated, a plurality of 35 per cent wanted peace at all costs, while only 22 wanted justice for Ukraine. Further, pluralities favored peace at any price in Italy, Germany, and France.
If things get tougher, it is an open strategic question as to whether Europe is not the weak link in sustaining the Ukrainian cause.
For the hawkish Russian elite, the danger is that further defeats – and even the absence of a confidently expected victory – will lead to Putin’s demise or at least desire to save face in some way at the negotiating table. While the Russian President is undoubtedly hoping that time is on his side as the Europeans waver in their support for Ukraine as 2023 progresses, time can also be seen as moving against the Kremlin.
A war that was supposed to take days has taken years. Easy victory has given way to humiliating stalemate at best and defeat at worst, sullying the very Russian nationalism brand that has been the source of both Putin’s political legitimacy and surprising popularity for decades. John Kennedy put it well: while victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan.
Putin may find himself increasingly alone, isolated, and politically endangered if Russia’s masses of men cannot change the current trajectory of battle. Saving face at the negotiating table (with the Europeans and Americans restraining the Ukrainians on the basis that they are paying for everything) may be his last, best hope of survival in time.
So, these are the new truths of the Russo-Ukrainian War. What Remarque would entirely understand is that lying beneath these strategic questions there lies one horrible, human certainty; the suffering is bound to continue.