A Tale of Two Speeches
Talk is cheap, war isn't.
Joe Biden’s “unplanned” side-trip from Poland to Kyiv last week managed a fairly Churchillian photo-op: laying flowers at St. Michael’s Cathedral – the gold topped complex that’s in every “Ukraine is still standing” piece you’ve read this year – and walking among the rubble with air-raid sirens howling. He announced a $500bn tranche of military aid, as well as a $10bn commitment from the State Department to shore up Ukraine’s finances. He said of Vladimir Putin, “He thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that now.”
So, the rhetoric was less than Churchillian. And, unfortunately, that is exactly what Putin is thinking.
The man swore eight ways from Sunday in a rambling address given the next day to the Russian Duma – aimed squarely at the country’s elite – that Russia will achieve its war aims in Ukraine, although he was at pains to explain quite what they were. Like Adolph Hitler, he claimed his country was encircled by enemies and had been forced into conflict. Victory would be theirs, although he couldn’t articulate what would look like either. In short, Russia was, for better or for worse, in the dumpster now, so get used to it.
The elites got the message: This conflict will last at least as long as Putin. Beyond that, he said nothing new. He announced that Russia was suspending New START, the last nuclear arms treaty with the US, but practically, Moscow already had so nothing has really changed. On the other hand, everything has. How much nuclear saber-rattling can go on before he’s forced to put-out? With tensions so high, symbolism matters. If nothing else it has infused the West with an atomic fears we though went away with the Cold War.
His “special military operation” in Ukraine is merely on theater of the greater conflict, a War on the West. Which he’s employing to roughly the same point at America’s War on Terror, putting the country on a war footing without an endgame.
Talk, though, is cheap. The Russian offensive, hyped by both sides, has started back in January and it’s underwhelming. The army has managed to take back about 60 kilometers of territory at a cost of roughly one dead and four wounded for every kilometer gained. By some estimates one in 12 Russians know someone who has died in the war – which is going to up resistance to further mobilization – and reserves are thin. The army is running out of ammunition and heavy ordinance. The quip being tossed around is that the Russian army, once feared to be the second best in the world, turned out not to be the second best in the former Soviet Union.
Nearly a third of the national budget goes to the military, and spending for the next year has been revised up by 40%. Spending on domestic security (read: repression) - where personnel outnumber the military by a factor of two - is up by 50%. Moscow will be able to continue this as long as the economy remains stable – but estimates on the hard currency that has flowed out of Russia since the start of the war is equal to some 12% of the GDP. The put-upon middle class is increasingly returning to that black market “gangster” economy of the 1990’s.
Ukraine is facing manpower issues of its own: the part population that was gung-ho to fight for the eastern half of the country has already signed up. New conscripts are less enthusiastic, willing to flee abroad and, as a result, recruitment officers are getting belligerent.
All of which has the making of a stalemate. Which is exactly what Europe can’t afford.
Here the advantage swings back to Moscow, and why he does think that he can outlast the West. Pledging $500 bn is one thing, delivering it while flirting with a national default is another. Neither France’s Macron, or Germany’s Schultz made grandiose speeches to the public when they met with Volodymyr Zenensky earlier this month. Both counselled the man that, with no good way to get the Russians out of Crimea, or even much beyond their dug-in positions, he may need to consider negotiations with Russia.
But a cease-fire, without NATO protection, is pointless from the Ukrainian point of view: Russia is militarized society now. Assuming that it would take mere three to five years to rebuild its land forces, it will simply go at Ukraine again. Given how bent out of shape the Kremlin is about made-up grievances, what would it do in the face of a real humiliation?