Remember three weeks ago when Putin and the Russian military were on the ropes and the Ukrainian army was steamrolling through Kharkov? That was then and Urkaine’s promised victory failed to materialize. With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that Russia abandoned the strategically meaningless territory in the Kharkov Oblast of Ukraine and re-deployed forces to the Donbas, Zaporhyzhia and Kherson. Why? To be in position for the referendum–i.e., to defend the Ukraine oblasts that would be given the chance to vote whether or not to reunite with mother Russia. Putin’s subsequent announcement of the referenda, which began last Friday, was not a Hail Mary pass nor an act of desperation. The planning for this had been in the works for at least a month, maybe longer.
While Ukraine continued to throw its troops against the Russian lines and launched artillery strikes on civilian targets, it paid a terrible price in terms of human casualties and destroyed tanks and combat vehicles, and failed completely to disrupt the vote. There have been international observers monitoring the vote throughout the four oblasts. I wish at least one reporter would ask these observers when they were first contacted and asked to come to the Russian controlled territory and do the monitoring. That detail would provide some insight into the extent of the pre-planning for the referenda.
It appears that the vote to reunite with Russia will be overwhelming in favor of becoming Russian republics. Once the results are certified the Russian Duma will act to accept the decision and Putin will put the cherry on the sundae and make it official. At that point–this Friday–the special military operation in Ukraine will end and Russia will be in position to defend its new territory.
I expect Putin to speak commemorating the event and will put Ukraine, NATO and the United States on notice that any further attacks on Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporhyzhia and Kherson will be an attack on Russia. Ukraine and the west will be on notice. The ball will be in their court.
This will create an opportunity for what is left of Ukraine to seek peace. I doubt that Ukraine and the west will accept this chance. The attacks on the new Russian population will continue and Russia will act. In contrast to the restraint demonstrated during the course of the last six plus months, Russia is likely to respond with more aggressive tactics that may include turning off the power in Ukraine and attacking command centers, including Zelensky’s headquarters in Kiev. This will lead to a significant escalation in the combat, but Ukraine and NATO will have a limited capacity to respond. Why?
The west no longer has the industrial base to match Russia’s production of war material. This weakness is compounded by the double whammy of inflation and economic collapse that is savaging Europe and starting to hurt the United States. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the world’s oldest and the UK’s leading defense and security think tank, recently published an important essay detailing this decline:
The war in Ukraine has proven that the age of industrial warfare is still here. The massive consumption of equipment, vehicles and ammunition requires a large-scale industrial base for resupply – quantity still has a quality of its own. The mass scale combat has pitted 250,000 Ukrainian soldiers, together with 450,000 recently mobilised citizen soldiers against about 200,000 Russian and separatist troops. The effort to arm, feed and supply these armies is a monumental task. Ammunition resupply is particularly onerous. For Ukraine, compounding this task are Russian deep fires capabilities, which target Ukrainian military industry and transportation networks throughout the depth of the country. The Russian army has also suffered from Ukrainian cross-border attacks and acts of sabotage, but at a smaller scale. The rate of ammunition and equipment consumption in Ukraine can only be sustained by a large-scale industrial base.
This reality should be a concrete warning to Western countries, who have scaled down military industrial capacity and sacrificed scale and effectiveness for efficiency. This strategy relies on flawed assumptions about the future of war, and has been influenced by both the bureaucratic culture in Western governments and the legacy of low-intensity conflicts. Currently, the West may not have the industrial capacity to fight a large-scale war. If the US government is planning to once again become the arsenal of democracy, then the existing capabilities of the US military-industrial base and the core assumptions that have driven its development need to be re-examined.
This is the work of Lt Col (Retd) Alex Vershinin, a US citizen. He spells out in detail the challenge the United States and its NATO allies face if they dare to engage Russia in a tit-for-tat battle:
Presently, the US is decreasing its artillery ammunition stockpiles. In 2020, artillery ammunition purchases decreased by 36% to $425 million. In 2022, the plan is to reduce expenditure on 155mm artillery rounds to $174 million. This is equivalent to 75,357 M795 basic ‘dumb’ rounds for regular artillery, 1,400 XM1113 rounds for the M777, and 1,046 XM1113 rounds for Extended Round Artillery Cannons. Finally, there are $75 million dedicated for Excalibur precision-guided munitions that costs $176K per round, thus totaling 426 rounds. In short, US annual artillery production would at best only last for 10 days to two weeks of combat in Ukraine. If the initial estimate of Russian shells fired is over by 50%, it would only extend the artillery supplied for three weeks.
The US is not the only country facing this challenge. In a recent war game involving US, UK and French forces, UK forces exhausted national stockpiles of critical ammunition after eight days.
Russia, by contrast, enjoys the luxury of defense plants that are operating 24-7 and producing ammunition, vehicles, tanks, drones, missiles and rockets. The west still labors under the delusion that Russia’s economy is barely tottering along. Russia has the minerals, material, and qualified personnel required to produce what the Russian military needs to sustain operations; especially intense combat operations.
I do not know if this was the Russian plan from the outset–i.e., conduct operations that would create a de facto disarmament of the United States and Europe–or if this is pure serendipity. Regardless, the west has no viable options, short of nuclear war, of defeating Russia in Ukraine.
The coming weeks will expose fractures in the NATO alliance. Britain, for example, woke up this morning to learn that the once mighty pound Sterling, which once had twice the value of the US dollar, is now worth less than the dollar. That means that the Brits will be paying more for products they import from the United States. Although the United States only accounts for 12% of the UK imports, the price increase will further inflame the inflationary spiral in the UK. Newly minted British Prime Minister Liz Truss already is facing push back from the Tories about her proposed economic plan. The death of Queen Elizabeth put the political problems on a back burner for a couple of weeks. That honeymoon is over and the pressure of domestic politics in the UK will make continued support for Ukraine less certain.
The collapsing economies in France, Germany and Italy also will compel those countries to spend more time trying to quiet growing domestic unrest. When you factor in the energy crisis and Ukrainian military setbacks as winter sets in, the foundation of NATO unity vis-a-vis Ukraine, is likely to crack.