It is difficult for us civilians to have a qualified opinion on the outcome of the Ukraine war. The large majority of the military specialists in the Western media, often retired military people, predict that the result will without any doubt be a Russian defeat. See here, here and here. Equipped with modern Western military hardware, NATO intelligence and with a high morale among its troops, Ukraine will defeat the Russians with their low-tech arms, incompetent leadership and demoralised soldiers. There are a few military experts with other opinions, but you will only find these in marginal media, in the far away corners of the internet. Even so, lately some doubts have started creeping into even the mainstream media.
Experience has taught us not to trust the authoritative mainstream military experts. They were the ones who saw “the light at the end of the tunnel” in the Vietnam war, just before the Tet Offensive in 1968 (the joke then was that it turned out to be an oncoming train). They were the military experts who assured us that the Afghan army, trained and equipped by NATO, would prevail – just before it collapsed. And that the Iraq war would be a cake walk – 20 years on and still counting. So it is understandable if some of us non-military people are a bit sceptical when we hear these assurances.
The German military theorist, Clausewitz, wrote that “War is the province of uncertainty: three-fourths of those things upon which action in war must be calculated, are hidden more or less in the clouds of great uncertainty.” This has since been synthesized in the expression “the fog of war”, a place where it is difficult to see and understand what is going on.
I have stated before that I find it improbable that Ukraine will win this war. Not because of the quantity of tanks, soldiers, ammunitions and so on, but from the simple observation that Ukraine is a small country compared to Russia, and it is completely dependent on an unprecedented military and financial support from the NATO countries. If that support is withdrawn, the Ukrainian armed forces will soon collapse. For sure, Russia is on its own, and it is dwarfed economically and militarily by NATO. But the war in Ukraine is existential for Russia, which it is not for NATO. And Russia is self-sufficient in energy, food and military equipment, the essentials for a country in war. So even if the much awaited Ukrainian spring offensive should turn out to be successful, it will probably just lead to a new round of mobilisation in Russia and a longer war.
Let us look at the hypothetical situation, where all these clever, military experts are wrong, and the Russians are winning. What will happen?
The West, and particularly the EU countries, have invested so much of their political capital in this war that it will be very, very difficult to accept a defeat. It would force leading politicians to eat their words. Biden: “Russia Will Never Defeat Ukraine”. German Chancellor Olaf Sholz: "We cannot allow Putin to win this war". NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg: “NATO won’t allow Russia to win Ukraine war”. The Danish PM Mette Frederiksen: “If Ukraine loses, we risk the whole of Europe and the whole of the West losing” – letting us understand that in that case “Putin” will invade the next country. And so on. Not easy to backtrack on all this.
They all agree in NATO - Joe Biden, Jens Stoltenberg, Ursula von der Leyen, Pierre Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron: defeat for Ukraine is inconceivable. By 首相官邸ホームページ, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=116404624
The official US position is that if only the war continues for a while longer, the Ukrainian government's military position will improve and it can then negotiate a better outcome from a position of strength. Therefore, the Americans are opposed to a ceasefire and international mediation as this would 'cement' the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine. I still think that the most likely outcome is that, independently of the fate of the much advertised Ukrainian spring offensive, the Russian forces slowly will expel the Ukrainian armed forces from Donbas, perhaps towards the end of this year, perhaps in mid 2024. Then negotiations are a possibility, but the longer the war is going on, the higher will the price probably be for the Ukrainian nationalists. As I see it, this war has never been about “land grab” – what Russia wants is to have a neutral and friendly Ukraine as a neighbour. So Russia will be very reluctant to accept a cease fire with no peace agreement and the understanding that rump Ukraine will become a member of NATO.
It is worth noting how the stakes have been raised during the years. In 2014, the Minsk agreements, signed by Ukraine, Germany, France, and Russia were a possible peaceful way out, where Ukraine would accept that Crimea had left the country, keeping Donbas as part of Ukraine but with constitutionally secured regional autonomy. Now Crimea, Donbas and the Southern parts of Kherson and Zaporizhia Provinces are unlikely ever to be part of Ukraine again. If the war continues, the next target for Russia will probably be Kharkov (where the rebellion against the Maidan “revolution” started) and eventually Odessa. So a continued war, apart from the horrible costs in the form of death and destruction, comes with a high sticker price for the Ukrainian Nationalists, when it comes to a future peace agreement.
Anit-maidan protesters in Kharkov, 8 April 2014. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_pro-Russian_unrest_in_Ukraine
What options does NATO have to avoid this outcome?
1. The first is more of the same. Continue arming Ukraine and increasing the sanctions against Russia, particularly by the use of secondary sanctions, that is, sanctions against companies and third countries that are not willing to join the sanction regime. Georgia, Kazakhstan, other Central Asian countries, Turkey, India and China are all candidates. This is already under discussion in NATO and will probably be the next step. But it is unlikely to get much traction or make much of a difference.
2. The second is to provide Ukraine with heavier weapon, particularly fighter jets like F-16 and longer range missiles, which can hit deep into Russia. I doubt the jets will make much of a difference, but long range missiles will lead to a serious escalation. This is also presently under discussion in NATO, and may happen if Ukraine is set back on its heels.
3. The third is a naval blockade to control Russian exports. Russia depends heavily on the access to open seas through the Baltic and Black Seas, for which the way out are under control of NATO countries. Russia would still have Murmansk Port in the North, its ports in the Pacific, the Northern Sea Route and the fledgling North-South Corridor via Iran to India, but it will be impossible to redirect all the traffic through these in the short term. A stop for example for the Russian oil export from Baltic and Black Sea ports would seriously hurt the Russian economy. But it would at the same time cause serious damage to the EU countries and the rest of the world, as the oil price would sky rocket if large quantities of Russian oil suddenly is taken off the market. A naval blockade would be very close to a declaration of war and would probably lead to armed confrontations. It would be an extremely dangerous development. I guess this is under discussion in closed NATO circles, but several NATO countries are probably against it because of the economic cost (and the risk of escalation).
4. The fourth is direct military intervention. The most likely way of doing it, is by sending a NATO “peace-keeping” force into Western Ukraine. Poland and the Baltic countries would be happy to man that force. If it stays in Western Ukraine, it is possible that Russia wouldn’t care much. But if it is sent to take control of Odessa or Central Ukraine, the reaction will be violent and it will lead to open war with Russia.
So much for the options. And what is the likelihood? As mentioned, strengthening of the sanctions and provision of heavier weapon and Western fighter jets to Ukraine are very likely to happen during the coming months. A critical point will be long-range missiles – some NATO countries may be against it. How far NATO is willing to go beyond that is difficult to say. It depends on many things, among these, how strong public opinion the media are able to create along the line: “we have to do something to save Ukraine”. This may lead us down the road towards a broader war. The mobilisation of a strong peace-movement to stop the slide into a larger war is unfortunately not very likely – who would want to be called “Putin’s useful idiots”.
In the end, if they are unwilling to engage in an open war with Russia, the NATO countries may end up having to accept a settlement where Ukraine drops its NATO plans, commits to staying neutral, and cedes some of its Russian-speaking territories. If that happens, then expect once again a blame game in the West as after the defeat in Syria: How could this happen? Why didn’t we do more for Ukraine? Who were the traitors, the Hungarians? And so on. And we have of course to get accustomed to a permanent war environment, a narrowing space for public debate, and a continued arms race.
In 1967 the journalist Jørgen Schleimann from the Danish State Broadcaster (DR) came to my secondary school to talk about the Vietnam War. The only thing I remember from his speech is that he tried to convince us that the 1967 election in South Vietnam would be the turning point, leading to the US victory. So he evidently didn’t see the oncoming train either.