A War of Miscalculation: Part I

[Note:  hopefully, those following these pages won’t find this merely a rehash.  While I have watched media accounts of the Russian invasion over the last week, other life pursuits have precluded a close reading of the accounts of credible newspapers, which I consider an American citizen’s definitive sources.  Unless directly attributed, what follows – whether useful or misguided — occurred to me without outside prompting.]

“No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces.”

  • Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, 1871.

The conflict in Ukraine has thus far been much a war of miscalculation.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has, at least to this point, seemingly miscalculated strategically the most woefully, apparently believing as he ordered Russia’s invasion:  that the bulk of Ukrainians wished to be reunited under Russian rule; that any Ukrainian resistance his forces met during their invasion would be minimal and readily dispensed; that Russian conventional forces were highly competent; that the NATO alliance would be unable to sustain itself in the face of a direct challenge; and, probably most crucially, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lacked the resolve and inspirational qualities required to lead his people against a Russian onslaught.  Given its pointed efforts to shore up NATO borders and defenses in the months before the invasion, it would appear that prior to the assault, the Biden Administration had similar misconceptions regarding the Ukrainians’ resolve and military effectiveness, Russian conventional military competence, and Mr. Zelenskyy’s leadership capabilities.  I would venture that both sides believed that if Russia chose to endure the international condemnation that would accompany its attack, it would be a quick conflict in which Russia would secure Ukraine, establishing Russian control over a key part of the former USSR — which was its strategic objective; while the United States, after making all the gestures it could before the invasion to dissuade the advances of the Russian bear, viewed any Russian conquest of Ukraine as a sacrifice on the chessboard of Europe that would so terrify the rest of the continent that it would result in an energized, unified, and financially-committed NATO alliance – which was its strategic objective.

Mr. Zelenskyy’s leadership, his people’s grit, and the savage nature of the Russian assault have changed all that.  I would submit that the conflict now provides the United States strategic global opportunities not imaginable before the invasion if it acts wisely — and decisively.    

Before going there:  the courage and heroism of the Ukrainian people cannot be overstated.  I tend to look at foreign policy problems from the “Realpolitik” perspective I absorbed in my imprinting days from the works of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.  There is nothing wrong with this perspective – in a world run by humans and not saints, a great power does its citizens a disservice if it does not objectively determine and protect its own best interests – but such a viewpoint, alone, overlooks the terror and suffering Ukrainians are enduring right this minute to preserve their freedom and culture.  Hopefully, their struggle is searing into our national and personal psyches how precious freedom is and how it must be cherished — not diddled away wrangling over absurdities such as vaccine mandates and whether one should have the right to own military assault weapons.

150 years ago, Herr von Moltke was suggesting that victory in any struggle will go to the side that best adapts to changed circumstances.  I would submit that the Biden Administration should recognize that at this point, with all the destruction and ignominy that Mr. Putin has brought upon himself and his nation, he cannot and will not go back.  Even if he ultimately physically conquers Ukraine, he has lost strategically.  The personal and national respect he craves is gone.  His enemies are united and determined.  In the larger sense, this has become a struggle not for Ukraine but for Russia’s and Mr. Putin’s own future.  As long as Mr. Putin leads Russia, it will be viewed as a rogue nation – feared for its nuclear might, loathed for its barbarism, compared to Nazis.  That said, while the media has made much of the Russian people’s protests and the influence that Russian oligarchs allegedly have with Mr. Putin, I entirely discount these internal Russian factors; Mr. Putin can do as he wishes with each.  On the other hand, any dictator’s influence relies on military support and I suspect that Mr. Putin’s top military command has come to the uneasy realization that Russia will be an economically-hobbled pariah as long as Mr. Putin remains at the helm – an unease that, ominously, a man as aggrieved and paranoid as Mr. Putin is undoubtedly monitoring. 

The Administration – although President Joe Biden cannot say so out loud; such a statement itself could trigger a nuclear war – should set the stage for Russian regime change while the opportunity presents itself.  If counseling Mr. Biden, I would advise that the Administration proceed on three fronts:

Militarily:  We should ensure that we are taking every step to get the Ukrainians, either directly or indirectly, as much materiel as they want of whatever kind that they want, short of nuclear weaponry.  In other words:  “Every weapon system on the planet, that we can send to Ukraine,” as asserted by former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.  (Mr. McFaul has gained credibility with me by being critical of the Obama Administration’s reticence to confront prior Russian aggressions, since he was part of the Obama Administration.)  Last week, the U.S. rejected a Polish plan to provide Ukraine MiG-29 fighter jets that Ukraine has requested.  There is reportedly bipartisan Senate support for providing the planes.  Our reluctance is incomprehensible.  I have no way to judge what the logistical challenges are, or whether the Ukrainians can actually make effective use of the aircraft; but we should let the Ukrainians decide what they need and can use.  Any fear we have of “provoking” the Russians is nonsense.  I am confident that Mr. Putin already considers himself at war with NATO; Russians have now begun shelling sites in western Ukraine where NATO is providing materiel to Ukraine.  Our purpose should be to help keep Russia back on its heels.  I would suggest that those talking heads chortling over the last couple of weeks about Russian military ineptitude have been whistling past the graveyard.  Even from incomplete reports, the conflict has seemed to me akin to a bout between a lumbering heavyweight boxer and a skilled lightweight.  Through skill and determination, the lightweight has done much better than expected in the early rounds; but the fact remains that if the heavyweight is able to land a decisive punch or two, the overt military conflict will be over.  If Russian forces are advancing – and they are – Ukraine is losing.

A related point:  the safety of President Zelenskyy.  By dint of bravado and determination, he is the Ukrainian resistance.  He has been compared to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Inspirationally, I agree; but I would actually give him more credit when it comes to raw courage.  Throughout WWII, Mr. Churchill was mostly in a bunker deep underground, with the British Navy and the English Channel between him and the Nazi Wehrmacht; in Kyiv, Mr. Zelenskyy has a relatively few miles and some amateur soldiers between him and the Russian army.  The Russians presumably consider killing or capturing Mr. Zelenskyy the single most devastating morale blow they can land on the Ukrainians.  Mr. Zelenskyy, who has rallied the world through his own derring-do, cannot be seen to have abandoned his post, while Ukraine cannot afford to lose him.  It is extremely dangerous.  This is the one area in which I would clandestinely insert American soldiers into Ukraine if such was necessary to safely transport Mr. Zelenskyy to western Ukraine (if and when he was willing to go).

To make at least a mild attempt to hold these notes to manageable length, the other two “fronts” that I would advise Mr. Biden to consider as the Russian invasion continues will be held for the remainder of this note.

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