The title to this post is inspired by this Unherd article where Yanis Varoufakis explains why he thinks Ukraine cannot win (and is an expansion of a comment I made there).
The key segment IMHO is where Varoufakis claims:
There is no way that the Ukrainian army is going to defeat the panoply of the Russian army in Mariupol, in the areas between Crimea, and Donbas. All power to them if they can do it. I don’t believe that Zelenskyy believes it. I don’t believe that anybody actually believes it. Yes, it is wonderful that Putin did not walk into Kyiv unopposed. It’s wonderful that he’s been given a bloody nose. This is the time to sue for peace.
A couple of weeks ago I might have agreed with the argument that Ukraine cannot defeat Russia everywhere. I am considerably less convinced today. In the north (Kyiv/Charnihiv etc.) the Russians have been defeated. Utterly. We may never know the accurate Russian death toll there but it could well be in the 20-30% range with the same again injured plus those taken prisoner. I.e. about half the invasion force is dead, injured or captured. Based on the documented equipment losses (photos usually geolocated etc.) they certainly appear to have lost at least a third of the equipment they invaded with.
This level of defeat is morale crushing. The units that went into the North will not be combat capable for a year or more, claims of “redeployment to Dombas” will need to be taken with several tsp of salt because they’ve lost cadre at all levels: senior officers, junior officers, long term enlisted (the NCOs) and the conscript grunts. You’ll have new colonels, majors and the like commanding demoralized soldiers who have lost the discipline they have to obey orders. Eventually the new NCOs and officers will be able to terrorize the conscripts back in line but that’s not going to be a quick process. It’s made worse by the fact that the new draft starts at the end of this month and normally the old lot return to civilian life then. If they are let go then they get to tell everyone back home how bad it was. If they are kept in by some change in the regulations they’ll be demoralized, pissed off and likely to spread that attitude to the new draft when they arrive. Either way they won’t be combat ready and could quite likely mutiny if ordered back to a place where they have to fight. All that assumes of course that these regiments can be re-equipped…
In fact the loss of equipment may actually be worse because Russia won’t be making any more for a while. Now if you look at the reported numbers of Russian tanks etc. etc. the numbers destroyed in Ukraine to date don’t seem like a large percentage. But… nothing we have seen suggests that the rest of the army has been maintaining its vehicles. In fact logic suggests that the stuff used for the invasion was the most reliable but yet, as Trent Telenko documented repeatedly on twitter we’ve seen mechanical failures that are symptomatic of a failure to do proper maintenance. Russia may still have 12,000 tanks, but my guess is that half of them are basically hulks that have not been driven in a decade and another significant fraction are needed to “protect” Chechnya, Abkhazia and so on. Likewise armored vehicles, trucks etc. So in terms of actually usable replacement equipment, the Russians may simply not have any. And certainly not any nearby. If Ukraine were able to strike into Russia and take out a few railways near Belgorod, which is where the defeated forces are apparently regrouping, those replacement tanks etc. might not be actually deployable at all.
So the northern attack has been defeated, what about the South and East? Well the Ukrainian army in the Dombas seems to holding its own just fine although the Russians are trying to encircle it. If this army is encircled then the rest of this post is junk because it means I’ve missed something critical (#insert Iamnotageneral.disclaimer ) but from what I read this encirclement will only occur if the Russian advance south along the Izyum-Slovyansk axis is successful and this report suggests that it’s being heavily contested.
Elements of the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army continued efforts to advance southeast from Izyum toward Slovyansk. Russian forces advanced seven kilometers southwest of Izyum in the direction of Barvinkove, about 47 km southwest of Izyum, and took control of the village of Brazhkivka, about 25 kilometers south of Izyum. One battalion tactical group (BTG) of the 1st Tank Regiment of the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division attempted to seize the village of Sulyhivka (about 28 km south of Izyum) but was not successful. The advance to the southwest may be part of a Russian effort to bypass Ukrainian forces that recently conducted a successful counterattack along the direct highway from Izyum to Slovyansk. Pro-Russian sources reported that elements of both the 1st Guards Tank Regiment of the 2nd Guards Motorized Rifle Division and 13th Tank Regiment of the 4th Guards Tank Division are operating in the vicinity of Izyum as of April 4.
Apart from the Slovyansk attack the rest of the Dombas attack seems to be poorly equipped Dombas area conscripts who are being killed in bulk.
As for the South. Well in the area of Kherson the Russians are also on the back foot if not actually retreating (see map above cut from this map and twitter thread), so the issue is the coast to Crimea. And again we’re looking at logistical issues and the Russians failure to achieve anything like air superiority. Everything north and west of the Dniepr is looking pretty vulnerable as that lack of air superiority means that all those lovely drones that blocked the 40 mile convoy etc. can now be redeployed. South and East of it, there’s the area adjacent to Crimea which is heavily dependent on Crimean for logistical support. Russia has limited routes into and out of Crimea (basically two into Ukraine plus the Kerch bridge) and destroying those railways and roads – two of each plus a bridge combo – will essentially isolate Crimea.[Aside, if I were a Ukrainian general, I’d try really hard to take out the Kerch bridge such that it blocked the navigable waterway underneath. Doing so would of course make naval resupply to Russian forces along the sea of Azov a lot harder. This is not an easy task, but it looks like there’s one central span that is high and broad enough to pass ships so knocking that down would be key. I think that knocking that down might also disconnect Crimea from the Internet too – if not, figuring out where the Kerch internet connector goes and destroying it would be a good follow up because currently all Crimean internet access is fed through a link across the Kerch strait.]
With Crimea isolated by land, resupply for all those forces near it becomes tricky and the Ukrainians have already shown that naval resupply is not exactly secure (see Berdyansk), and particularly so if the Kerch strait is blocked so that the major Crimean ports cannot be used. Bluntly assuming the map above is reasonably accurate about where Russian forces actually are, the northern parts look to be vulnerable to the same logistics attacks that worked around Kyiv though if they are smart they’ll withdraw in order before those attacks can happen. Presuming the Ukrainians do indeed isolate Crimea (and if the advantages of doing so are obvious to me, then I’m sure that the Ukrainian high command is equally aware of the benefit to doing so) then really the only places that Russia can hold is the coast from ~Mariupol to Russia. And that only works presuming Russian logistics in the Donbas work and are not disrupted.
In summary the Russians seem to be vulnerable to a defeat in detail as the Ukrainians attack one invasion force after another. Having defeated the forces in the central North, Ukraine can now deploy forces to relieve Kharkhiv and the Crimea adjacent areas north of the Dniepr. Then, once those have been taken, the parts south of the Dniepr and near Crimea become defeatable. Then the parts closer to Dombas. Then the Dombas itself. And Crimea. And then you wonder whether Ukraine will stop.
Who is the bad guy?
There’s a lot more confusion about the justification (or not) of the invasion. A lot of people seem to think that promises made during the break up of the Soviet Union should be binding for all time and that Western meddling in Ukraine – particularly the 2014 Euromaidan revolution – was unforgivable meddling in a country that was forever destined to be in the Russian sphere of influence. A fair number also seem to think that if the EU, US Democrats, Trudeau and other “globalist elite” sorts support Ukraine then therefore they should support Russia. This seems to be misguided. Mind you Ukraine is a governance mess. Yes every single government of Ukraine since independence has been filled with corruption, cronyism and so on, and this certainly includes the current Zelensky one. Yes, Ukraine has armed battalions of neo-Nazis (Putin’s claims of Nazis in Ukraine are not entirely fiction).
I might have been swayed by these arguments if Ukraine’s current government had collapsed and the population had generally welcomed the Russian invaders, however the opposite has occurred. I’m a strong believer in freedom and that includes the freedom to choose one’s country. Ukrainians, even the Russian speaking ones, are putting up such a fight that there is no doubt in my mind that Ukrainians, despite living in a corrupt country that is barely more functional than Russia, desperately do not want to be ruled by Moscow. When you have celebrities of various sorts staying, or returning to Ukraine, to fight and that even in occupied areas unarmed civilians are protesting in large numbers (this map shows documented protests – blue dots – all over the place) then you have to assume that the vast majority disagree with Putin’s belief that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia. It is notable that Kherson, which has seen many protests, is mostly a Russophone city as are most of the others that I can see. In Berdyansk – where the Russians had their naval disaster – they have apparently disappeared the main local businessman, a person who was apparently about as pro-Russia as could be.
Now there might be occasions when I would think people wanting independence were misled into that belief (for example I think that if the Scots or Quebecois achieve independence they’ll regret it big time, Catalonia maybe or maybe not) but on the whole I think that if populations don’t want to be parts of other larger countries then they are entitled to the support of the rest of us in resisting being incorporated. If Russia were a beacon of good governance, tolerance, democracy and so on, I might support Russia. However Russia is none of those things. It’s run by a clique of mafiosi and their capo – Putin.
The one big thing in favor of Zelensky is that he didn’t actually cut and run which was undoubtedly what Putin (and to be honest pretty much everyone else) expected. I think that explains/is an illustration of a) why Ukrainians are fighting and b) why they seem to be respecting his government. Shortly before the war started his popularity in Ukraine was in the low end of Biden territory, partly I think because everyone thought he was just as much on the take as all the previous rulers. But it turns out he is a patriotic Ukrainian, and he is in fact inspiring his countrymen to fight. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he has a command of modern social media communication that is a stark contrast to Putin. It is notable that the Zelensky dress code seems to be influencing France’s President Macron and others who have switched from suits and ties to hoodies and polo necks
Yes Ukraine is crony-corrupt. Yes it has neo-nazis. Yes it has been manipulated by Russia, the US, the EU and any number of sleazy oligarchs and kleptokrats. The amazing thing to me is that despite all of that the Ukrainians are willing die for their country, flawed as it is. Moreover the evidence is that the Russian controlled separate bits of Ukraine have been essentially ruled by thieves who have taken anything of value that they can find so even the “oppressed” Russian speakers prefer oppression by their Ukrainian speaking brothers than the Russian’s government’s puppets. This is 100% not what Russia expected and that surprise is almost certainly the reason why the Russian invasion is failing in its major objectives.
The special operation revealed that not only the political leadership in Ukraine is Nazi, but also the majority of the population. All Ukrainians who have taken up arms must be eliminated – because they are responsible for the genocide of the Russian people.
Ukrainians disguise their Nazism by calling it a “desire for independence” and a “European way of development”. Ukraine doesn’t have a Nazi party, a Führer or racial laws, but because of its flexibility, Ukrainian Nazism is far more dangerous to the world than Hitler’s Nazism.
Denazification means de-Ukrainianisation. Ukrainians are an artificial anti-Russian construct. They should no longer have a national identity. Denazification of Ukraine also means its inevitable de-Europeanisation.
Ukraine’s political elite must be eliminated as it cannot be re-educated. Ordinary Ukrainians must experience all the horrors of war and absorb the experience as a historical lesson and atonement for their guilt.
The liberated and denazified territory of the Ukrainian state should no longer be called Ukraine. Denazification should last at least one generation – 25 years.
This article duplicates what Putin has said in various speeches and has been echoed by others, such as this TV newsreader(?). Russia’s government and many Russians simply fail to admit that places that were once under the Russian Empire can be allowed to have their own independent existence where they are not under the control of Moscow. That attitude means that none of the former soviet union countries can trust Russia ever.
Finally let us note the now clearly documented abuses of civilians in territory Russia has occupied in Ukraine and its army’s complete unconcern about civilian casualties – even when, as in most of the cities Russia is currently besieging/occupying, those civilians are the Russophones that Russia used as a justification for invasion by claiming that the Ukrainians were oppressing them.
In summary Ukraine’s government may be “bad guys” but IMHO it is clear that Putin is the worse guy and his army is just as bad as he is.
Should Ukraine take the war into Russia?
Unless Russia changes its attitude towards Ukraine (i.e. accepts Ukraine’s right to an separate existence) there is no chance for a long term peace because Russia will take advantage of any peace agreement to rearm and prepare for another attack, so stopping once they have kicked the current Russian invaders out of where they have invaded as well as the Dombas is definitely not going to lead to long term peace. Plus it isn’t just Ukraine, as it quite clear if Russia takes Ukraine it will then prepare to attack the Baltic states, Poland and so on, thus Russia needs to be prevented from such attempts in the future as well.
The only way that I can see for Russia to change its attitude is for it to suffer a sufficiently bad defeat that every single minority inside the current Russian federation feels they can form a country and, in particular Siberia and all its natural resources need to be put under the control of a government that isn’t based in Moscow. To do that Ukraine needs to inflict a defeat that destroys most of the forces that can be used to keep the Russian federation together. That means, at the very least, Ukraine needs to take back not just the Dombas region but also Crimea, and in Crimea to take Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol to remove from Russian control its major black sea port and naval base. It doesn’t really mater what happens to the ships, but the infrastructure and the port needs to be under clear Ukrainian control with the Russian navy no longer having access to the place.
Furthermore unless Russia has some unexpected reserves of equipment there is no better time to strike than now while the army and airforce are in total disarray and with their reserves of usable tanks, missiles etc. depleted. If Ukraine is able to sustain the fight there will be no better time to inflict a crushing defeat on Russia. That means not stopping with just clearing Russian forces from Ukrainian territory but also destroying Russia’s ability to project force abroad and since that includes Russia’s internal security forces those also need to be hit. Probably the best way to do this is to firstly trash Russia’s rail network. Then do to Russia what Russia did to Ukraine with its fake Dombas republics and create/support similar movements in neighboring parts of Russia (and of course Belarus). Thus may not be very difficult. For sure a bit of encouragement would get Georgia involved in taking back its breakaway regions and Chechnya would also likely try something presuming that Ukraine has killed enough of the Kadyrovtsy enforcers that are currently posing in the Dombas area. And of course taking Sochi would hit the Russian upper and middle-classes hard. The government might feel obligated to fight to take it back no matter whether it made strategic sense or not. Considering the complex mess of the Adygea Republic being entirely surrounded by Krasnodar Krai and many other equally bizarre political boundaries, a Ukraine that decided to export independence movements around the Black sea and the Caucasus would find plenty to work with. If Ukraine were able to incite revolution in Belarus and remove Russia’s entire Black Sea coast from Russian control it would probably result in precisely the reputational collapse needed for the Russian federation to fall to bits.
Bluntly, short of that I see no way that Russia will not attack Ukraine so if I were a Ukrainian general I’d be doing everything I could to make Russia fight on its own soil until it collapses. That means not just kicking Russia out of Ukraine but then taking a chunk of Russia that the Russians would feel obligated to attempt to recover.