Five brutal truths about the war in Ukraine
Five sentences sum up the war in Ukraine as it stands now.
The Russians lack precision-guided weapons. The Ukrainians are running out of Soviet-era ammunition. The world is running out of patience for war. The Biden administration is running out of ideas on how to carry it out. And the Chinese are watching.
Moscow’s shortcomings with its arsenal, which have been evident on the battlefield for weeks, are cause for long-term relief and short-term horror. Relief, because the Russian war machine, for the modernization of which Vladimir Putin spent a lot, was exposed as a paper tiger that could not seriously challenge NATO in a conventional conflict.
Horror, because an army that cannot wage high-tech warfare, relatively low in collateral damage, will wage low-tech warfare, appallingly high in such damage. Ukraine, according to its own estimates, suffers 20,000 victims per month. In contrast, the United States suffered approximately 36,000 casualties in Iraq over seven years of war. For all its bravery and determination, Kyiv can hold off – but not defeat – a neighbor more than three times its size in a war of attrition.
This means that Ukraine must do more than slow down the Russian military. He needs to break his spine as quickly as possible.
But that cannot happen in an artillery war where Russia can fire some 60,000 shells a day against the roughly 5,000 the Ukrainians say they can fire. Quantity, as the saying goes, has a quality of its own. The Biden administration is supplying Ukraine with howitzers, rocket launchers and advanced munitions, but they are not arriving fast enough.
Now is the time for Joe Biden to tell his national security team what Richard Nixon told him when Israel was reeling from its losses in the Yom Kippur War: After asking what weapons Jerusalem was asking for, the 37th president ordered his staff to “double him”. adding, “Now get the hell out of here and get the job done.
The urgency to win soon – or at least to roll back Russian forces on a broad front, so that it is Moscow, not Kyiv, that demands peace – is compounded by the fact that the time is not necessarily on the western side.
Sanctions against Russia could harm its ability to grow in the long term. But sanctions can do little in the short term to reduce Russia’s destructive capacity. These same sanctions also impose a heavy price on the rest of the world, and the price the world is prepared to pay for its solidarity with Ukraine is not unlimited. Critical shortages of food, energy and fertilizer, and the supply disruptions and price increases that inevitably follow, cannot be sustained forever in democratic societies with limited tolerance for pain.
Meanwhile, Putin appears to be paying little price, whether in energy revenues (which are up, thanks to rising prices) or in public support (also up, thanks to a combination of nationalism, propaganda and out of fear), for his war. Hoping that he can soon die of the disease that could afflict him – Is it Parkinson’s disease? A “blood cancer”? Or just a Napoleon complex? – is not a strategy.
What more can the Biden administration do? He must take two calculated risks, based on a conceptual breakthrough.
Calculated risks: First, as retired Admiral James Stavridis has proposed, the United States should be prepared to challenge the Russian maritime blockade of Odessa by escorting cargo ships to and from the port.
This will first mean that Turkey will allow NATO warships to transit through the Turkish Strait towards the Black Sea, which could lead to uncomfortable diplomatic concessions in Ankara. More dangerously, it could lead to close encounters between NATO and Russian warships. But Russia has no legal right to blockade Ukraine’s last major port, no moral right to block Ukrainian agricultural products from reaching world markets, and not enough sea power to confront the US Navy.
Second, the United States should seize the approximately $300 billion in Russian central bank assets held abroad to fund Ukraine’s military and reconstruction needs.
I first proposed this in early April, and Harvard’s Laurence Tribe and Jeremy Lewin presented a compelling legal case several days later in a Times guest essay. The administration has cold feet on the grounds that it could violate US law and set a bad financial precedent — which would be good arguments in less dire circumstances. What is urgently needed right now is the kind of financial punch to Russia that other sanctions have failed to inflict.
Which brings us to the conceptual breakthrough: the struggle in Ukraine will have a greater effect in Asia than in Europe. The administration can rest assured that it has bloodied the Russian army enough that it won’t soon invade anyone else. That’s true as far as it goes.
But if the war ends with Putin comfortably in power and Russia in possession of a fifth of Ukraine, then Beijing will learn the lesson that aggression works. And we will have a fight for Taiwan – with its crushing human and economic toll – much sooner than we think.
The Gist: The war in Ukraine is either a prelude or a finale. President Biden needs to do even more than he already has to make sure it’s the latter.
The New York Times