Mon, Apr

The Fog of War: Unrealistic Expectations, and Dramatic Possibilities


GELFAND’S WORLD - There is a website called War on the Rocks which I am told is a credible source.

It is written by professional soldiers, military historians, and all the rest of the people who study war. Just the other day (literally) this website published an article titled "The Wargame Before the War: Russia Attacks Ukraine." You can find it here.  The take home lesson of that article is of interest because it contradicts a lot of what we are being told by pundits and late night television comedians. 

The scene: Just a couple of weeks before the actual invasion, a group of people got together at the Marine Corps University and did a simulation of a Russian invasion of Ukraine -- what we call a war game. I'll simply quote from the beginning of that article: 

"In the two weeks prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Marine Corps University ran a four-day wargame to simulate the first several days of just such an invasion. One of us ran the wargame while the others played the Ukrainian and Russian forces. Despite a few stark differences, the current Russian offensive is playing out in ways eerily similar to that simulation." 

OK so far. Military professionals did what generals have been doing for a hundred years and more. They tried various strategies and tactics using something that might seem to the rest of us like a board game, and out of that drew multiple conclusions. 

Here's the next paragraph (and the last one I will quote): 

"By the time the wargame ended, the overall situation appeared very much as it does on the ground in Ukraine, with only two major deviations. First, the Russians have pushed harder out of Belarus to the west of the Dneiper  north of Kyiv  to strike the city from the rear.  And secondly, the Russian assault in Kherson was temporarily  halted, as the axis of advance in the south for a time turned northeast toward Mariupol. Both of these actions were, however, discussed by the players in the wargame." 

In other words, what has happened so far is not that much of a surprise. The attacks spread out over the south, the east, and moving towards the west were anticipated, and the likely outcomes were also predicted. 

By the way, the same site pointed out several months ago in an article titled "Feeding the Bear" that the Russian army is not all that good at logistics, which is to say that it brings all the fuel, food, and ammunition to the end of its border on trains, and has to transfer everything onto trucks to get it to its tanks and soldiers. And it is a little short on trucks. Hence the slowdown in combat operations a few days into the invasion was predictable. It didn't mean that the Ukrainian resistance (as heroic as it appears to be) was, by itself, causing the slowdown. 

The outcome of this wargame tends to undercut  the way that television comedians such as Stephen Colbert have been gloating over Russia's inability to win the war over a weekend. The comedians have been forgetting -- as the wargamers have not -- that Russia has a long history of fighting protracted conflicts going back to Napoleon, continuing in WWII (consider the battle of Stalingrad), and then continuing into the extended involvement in Syria in more recent years. Bluntly, they could carry on this fight for years while spending tens of thousands of young Russians, all other things being equal. 

It's that last phrase, "all other things being equal," that is questionable in this scenario. When you think about it, the Biden strategy has been to take that advantage away from Putin. It's not 1945, where Russian armies battled their way to Berlin and Stalin didn't particularly care how brutal things got for the conquered Germans or how it looked to the rest of the world. 

What's changed is that the European Union (EU), the United States, and Ukraine's president have managed to make this into an international event, with the vast majority of civilized nations not only opposing the invasion publicly but, in addition, doing at least something at the economic level to punish Russia for its actions. 

All other things will not be equal if Biden and the western alliance has its way. 

There is one other lesson from that wargame. The gamers assumed that the Russians would spend the first couple of days using their missiles and airforce to destroy the Ukrainians' ability to defend themselves from the air. In a word, the gamers assumed a scenario in which the Ukrainian airforce was destroyed by missile attacks and Russian aircraft. But in the real invasion, the Russians failed to concentrate their fire on the airforce targets and instead attacked multiple targets with less individual effect. 

The fact that some kind of Ukrainian airforce continues to exist and is even getting replacement aircraft from NATO countries is of interest. You might even call it heartening. 

But we still have to remember that absent a military response from other countries (not likely) and all other things being equal, the Russians would grind the Ukrainians down and then engage in a prolonged domestic terror campaign. It would not be unlike what Putin is doing to his own people at home right now, only worse. 

But the rest of the world is, outside of sending in armies, doing its best to make sure that all other things are not equal, and the way they are doing it is to hurt the Russian people. What's different compared to the old Cold War days is that young people have gotten used to the technology of easy international communications. Both China and now Russia have put blocks on internet communications, and Russia is notorious for its internet propaganda campaign, but to paraphrase Lincoln, it is going to be hard to fool all of the people all of the time. 

An aside: Some Americans will remember how we used to expect Soviet leaders to speak their own counterfeit reality to the rest of the world. A newer generation may be surprised how easily Putin has lied to the world and to his own people about deNazification of Ukraine and all that. But it is really nothing new at all. A few years ago, I watched a retrospective of movies and newsreels from the early Soviet era. The cinema of truth, Kino Pravda, was anything but truth, although it did contain elements of reality. But the filmmakers actually bragged about how they had been able to create and distribute what they referred to as agitprop -- propaganda intended to promote communism to the Russian people -- and it was clear that this was considered to be something good. The filmmakers proudly showed bales of pamphlets and leaflets being loaded for shipment, just as they also bragged about how the new government was putting food on the table. Putin is merely following a long tradition. 

You have to wonder whether Putin is living in a different kind of reality from the rest of us. It came as a shock to the world that Russia is trying to turn us back to something like the beginning of the First World War or the era of Hitler, where countries conquered other countries by military invasion with the intent of ruling over them forever. We thought the era of naked imperialism was over, at least in Europe. 

And frankly we are sick of it and becoming a little crazed by the idea that one man or perhaps a small group of men could drag us back to that world. Hence the massive anger and consequent outcries from all over. 

The danger of allowing things to go back to the usual 

As one of my colleagues pointed out, if this thing goes on until winter weather makes things cold in northern Europe, the Europeans will be buying lots of natural gas and oil from the Russians and western resistance to the Ukraine occupation will crumble. Maybe yes, maybe no, but it's a worry. This is why the Ukrainians and their friends need to inflict the maximal economic damage on Russia as quickly as possible. 

The Republican Party keeps digging in its self-made hole 

The Republican leadership has the following problem. They know that Trump is a bit crazy, not very bright, and hypersensitive to a totally pathological degree. They also know that if they repeat any part of these truths, then Trump's followers will come after them and the effect on their political careers, not to mention their own personal safety, will not be pretty. So they have kept treating Trump's cozy relationship with Vlad as something strong and virtuous -- or at least defensible. These political positions were supported by piling up the lies. 

Even as Putin in effect began the invasion by recognizing the sovereignty of the eastern end of Ukraine independent, Trump took the occasion to praise Putin's genius. It was a moment that showed Trump's lack of personal empathy to a striking degree, even more so than all the rest of his nonsensical and treasonous actions. 

Molly Jong-Fast has a good article you can find here titled "Ukraine has shredded the GOP's message." It remarks on how exposed the rest of the Republicans are to Trump's cozy relationship with Putin. 

Other pundits have pointed out just how badly things have gotten when Republican senators had to make up excuses for missing the State of the Union address. 

And then there is one other thing which people should be reminded of. Think back to the situation at the beginning of the 2016 Republican convention. There had been a move to add support for Ukrainian independence to the party platform. But Trump's people managed to take it out. Curious that. And finally, remember who Trump's campaign manager was? Yep, it was Paul Manafort. The same guy who had lobbied for Ukraine's previous dictatorial leader, was convicted later on multiple felonies, and was pardoned by Donald Trump. He was working for the presidential nominee who has shown continually that he is in Putin's back pocket.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)