If Vietnam was the first TV war, Ukraine must surely be the first Social Media one. Anyone with a passing interest in international affairs will have seen the war porn; clips of tanks bursting into flames, drones dropping bomblets on armoured vehicles, artillery strikes and even snipers snuffing out lives. Rather than a dearth of information we have too much and it is difficult to separate facts from misinformation or truth from propaganda. What is clear, there is no sign of it ending anytime soon.
Hitler, who knew a thing or two about invading places, likened a new campaign to entering a dark room, one never knows what is lurking unseen in the darkness. His invasion of the USSR was based on arrogance and wishful thinking, the idea the USSR would collapse under the weight of his onslaught and that sub-human Slavs would be no match for his Aryan supermen. Putin’s Ukrainian adventure was also based on deeply flawed assumptions. Kyiv was supposed to fall within days opening the door for a Russia-friendly puppet ruler. Even more bizarrely. the Kremlin maintained Ukrainians were really just confused Russians with no identity of their own who would welcome Russian troops as liberators. This abysmal strategic intelligence and fantasy has been the root of Russia’s woes.
Putin’s army has had to retreat from Kyiv and Kerson and failed to capture Kharkiv despite its proximity to the Russian border. The conflict, despite all its high-tech wizardry, is starting to resemble the stalemate of the First World War as photos of denuded trees and soldiers huddling in the misery of flooded trenches look more like 1917 than 2022. seems destined to continue indefinitely because each side firmly believes it can win. Ukraine talks about liberating all the land Russia has taken from it since 2014 including Crimea which seems fanciful, while the Russians, with far deeper resources, are said to mustering fresh forces for another offensive, possibly in the late winter or early spring.
The fighting resembles the latter stages of the Korean War, where little in the way of territory changed hands yet fierce fighting focused on individual hills or other objectives of little strategic value until, when both sides realised, they could not prevail, a ceasefire was finally agreed.
I suspect something similar will happen in Ukraine. The Russians have broadly got the areas they were interested at the beginning, especially a broad land bridge to Crimea. NATO membership for Ukraine now seems doubtful but a pro-Russian client state seems an impossible dream for the Kremlin. The Russians have dug in to protect what they have, miles of dragon’s teeth, pyramid shaped blocks of concrete designed to hinder tank movement, have been laid and Ukraine will find just as Russia did, that attack is more difficult than defence. Neither side has anything close to air supremacy which will make breaking down strong points a tedious affair requiring accurate and lengthy artillery work.
While I expect the Ukrainian people not to be broken by blackouts and bombings any more than the British or German public were in the Second World War, the fact is, fighting spirit can only go so far. Ukraine’s economy cannot support an open-ended war and its battlefield success depends on a steady flow of Western military and financial aid. That in turn depends on fickle public opinion. If Russia were to make a seemingly generous peace offer, western public support for Ukraine could evaporate quite quickly. Already some Republicans in the United States are pro-Russia and the inflation which is direct spin off from the war is hurting tens of millions in western Europe and elsewhere. If aid is reduced or dries up, Zelensky would be faced with the choice of an unpopular peace or risking total defeat.
Putin in turn has much to ponder. There is little reason to suspect a fresh batch of conscripts will fare any better than those before them. Russians logistics are a shambles and much Russian hardware is antiquated junk. American surveillance by satellites, signals traffic and other means is passed to Ukraine making it nigh impossible for the Russians to move large numbers of troops from one sector of the front to another undetected. The Ukrainians, with the advantage of shorter interior lines of communication will always be waiting for them. Sooner or later the Russian public will demand results and tangible benefits from the war. Repression and gas-lighting, like patriotic sentiment, can only paper over the cracks for so long. The longer the war goes on, the more politically isolated Russian will become, the lower its prestige will fall and the more the Russian economy will be damaged. That being said, previous events indicate Putin will double down and go for at least one more big push.
Peace will come when one side loses heavily (unlikely) or both realise all their political objectives cannot be met. Negotiated peace treaties are often messy and unsatisfactory to all concerned but history teaches that is how wars usually end.
- Lukas, 1941 Hitler and Stalin (2006) p.93 ↑
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam