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Russia & Ukraine: The smartened-up story – Chapter IV

{Homoatrox, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons}
{Homoatrox, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons}

I’ve said in the previous chapters and I’ll mention it again: in the current war Russia (and only Russia) is the guilty party.  But that’s no reason for Western politicians and mainstream media to treat us as if we’re all simple-minded, unable to grasp complexity or nuance and incapable of telling reality from wishful thinking.

In this series of articles, I fight the groupthink; I attempt to expose the dumbed-down narrative that’s being fed to us and smarten it up. I trust my fellow human beings: we are able to cope with the stark, unadulterated, unvarnished reality; treat us like intelligent adults.

In this chapter, I will focus on Russia’s political position, on the military situation on the ground, on probable outcomes and on the indirect (but no less grave) consequences likely to result from Putin’s aggression and from the Western response to it.

Pariah

Listening to Western politicians and media outlets, one may be forgiven for thinking that Russia is on the brink of collapse: isolated politically, undermined economically and defeated militarily.

Speaking on LBC, former Prime Minister David Cameron told Putin

[You] turned your country into a pariah state and we’re going to treat you that way.

“Pariah”?  You’d think that Mr. Cameron would have learned to be careful with his assessments, after getting the mood of his own people so wrong in the runup to the Brexit referendum!

The Times of London interviewed former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, who opined that Putin might be deposed by a coup:

With Putin, I very much expect there to be resistance growing and discontent growing that will be resolved one way or another.

Well, everything is possible, of course.  But the problem with Mr. Kozyrev’s opinions about what’s may happen in Russia is that… he’s been living in Miami for donkey’s years now.

The (however unpleasant) reality is that Putin enjoys popular support in Russia.  A recent opinion poll showed that his approval ratio rose to no less than 83% in March 2022.  While we cannot guarantee the veracity of this result, the poll was conducted by Levada Center; which, in the words of USA Today, is

widely considered among the only credible pollsters operating in Russia.

People in the West may struggle to grasp that kind of result, when it comes to a man who restricted freedoms at home and initiated a war abroad.  But admiration and even love for strong leaders is very much part of the Russian culture.  And, on the other hand, Putin – who has a tight grip on the media – controls the flow of information and the public narrative.

There is, of course, social media.  But, it’s not so simple.  To start with, only 30% of Russians are on Facebook – as opposed to 66% in the UK; for Twitter the numbers are 11% in Russia and circa 60% in the UK.  But it’s not just that: even when they do use social media, Russians tend to use it… in the Russian language (only circa 5% of Russians speak English).  But what also needs to be realised is how social media actually works: unless you are looking for something specific, chances are that platforms like Facebook and Twitter will mostly show you posts that more or less align with your own opinions.  This is how their algorithms work: they seek to identify your ‘interests’, then show you mostly posts that chime in with those ‘interests’.  The chances of ‘learning the truth’ from social media aren’t actually great – unless one makes a determined effort to find a variety of points of view.

In fact, the reality that Putin enjoys popular support in his own country is well-known among Western leaders – though few of them care to admit it.  Well, they may hide the truth from us, but fortunately not all of them dare to lie to their own parliament.  Questioned in the US Congress, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters (who is in charge of the U.S. European Command) said that popular support in Russia was a major factor in Putin’s decision to go to war.

The Western press has been quick to notice anti-war protests which took place in several Russian cities.  Well, that’s great – but only until one reads that the largest such protest (in Moscow’s Pushkin Square) is reported – by the same Western media – to have numbered 2,000 people.  Compare that with the more than 750,000 people (as estimated by the Met Police) who, in 2003, demonstrated in London against the war in Iraq.

Well, Putin may be popular at home, but Russia is internationally isolated – right?  Err… so it would seem – if you get your information from Western politicians and West-centric media.  But let’s broaden our view a bit.

True, a clear majority of UN members voted in the General Assembly to ‘deplore’ the Russian aggression.  But talk is cheap, ‘deplore’ isn’t a particularly strong term in diplomatic parlance – and votes in the General Assembly don’t count for much.

When it comes to adopting sanctions against Russia, things look a lot different.  Of course, the European Union enacted such sanctions as a bloc – and so did 5 countries: USA, Canada, UK, Japan and Australia.  And… that’s all, folks!  Sure, you may say, but the US is the world’s largest economy; it’s not just one more country.  True – but not necessarily relevant.  The US may be the top dog when it comes to economic output; but in 2021 it accounted for just 3.6% of Russia’s exports.  The UK (despite the bad blood between the two countries, caused by nefarious Russian activities on British territory) accounted for 4.5% and Japan for 2.2%.  In fact, those large economies were worth – in terms of Russian exports – less than Belarus (4.6%) and Kazakhstan (3.8%).  Admittedly, the EU was the destination of a whopping 30% of Russian exports.  But, as we know, that’s mostly coal, oil and gas, which continue to be supplied from Russia.  From the point of view of Russia’s international trade, the most important country is by far China (14% of exports and more than 20% of imports).

Nether China nor India (another populous country with a large economy) have any intention of sanctioning Russia.  And that’s true of every other country in Asia (except Japan), as well as the entire Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

In fact, given that besides the European Union, only five non-EU countries have adopted any sanctions against Russia, Putin might argue that it is the former that’s isolated!

Mighty Bear or paper tiger?

But – I hear you say – things will no doubt change.  More countries will surely join in; the Russians themselves might decide to get rid of Putin.  After all, as we learn from the Western media and from our very reliable leaders, Putin’s army is getting a right beating at the hands of Ukrainian forces.  In fact, writing for Al-Jazeera, Justin Bronk determined that

Russia has effectively admitted defeat In [sic!] Ukraine.

You heard that, folks?  The Russian Bear is actually a paper tiger!  Justin Bronk, by the way, is Senior Research Fellow in Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute in London (ironically the acronym they use is RUSI).  Well, if a Senior Military Scientist working for something with ‘Royal’ in its name said it – it must be true!  Especially since RUSI is an independent charity, which assures us on its website:

The Institute receives no core government funding.

Now, one of my many issues is that I like to verify things that are given to me as ‘fact’.  That’s why I had a look at their list of ‘Supporters’ (charities are supposed to disclose lists of major donors).  In the highest category – called ‘Over £1,000,000’ – I was surprised (no, not really!) to find a certain outfit called ‘European Commission’.  In another category (more modestly described as ‘£200,000 to £499,999’), one finds some other renowned philanthropists: United States Department of State, [UK] Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Canada Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Plus, incidentally, Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs – which might explain why Mr. Bronk published his article in Al Jazeera, of all places.

Just as an aside: one of Mr. Bronk’s previous Al-Jazeera contributions dealt with Iran’s ballistic missiles – which, Mr. Bronk broadly dismissed as

potentially dangerous but not decisive or hugely effective.

That article was published on 9 March 2016.  That is, I’m sure, a mere coincidence: nothing to do with the fact that, on 8 and 9 March 2016, Iran test-fired a whole series of long range ballistic missiles (some of whom have been marked with good wishes written in Hebrew – such as ‘Israel must be wiped off the face of the Earth’).  Nothing to do with the fact that these missile tests were ‘a bit’ embarrassing for the Obama administration, coming as they did shortly after the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action’ (JCPOA – i.e. the agreement that removed sanctions and gave Iran access to some $100 billion of previously frozen funds) started its much awaited implementation period.  Though I seem to remember then Vice President Joe Biden rather struggled to explain why such a ‘Comprehensive’ Plan of Action did nothing to prevent Iran from developing and testing what is essentially a nuclear bomb delivery system!

So, now that we’ve established his superb credentials, let’s go back to Mr. Bronk’s article on Russia admitting defeat in Ukraine.  The article gleefully announces that

the Russian army has taken extremely heavy losses; between 7,000 and 15,000 personnel killed and more than 2,000 vehicles visually confirmed as destroyed or captured.

[B]etween 7,000 to 15,000” is of course quite a wide range.  And anyone who served in the army (any army!) knows that ‘visually confirmed’ is the military equivalent of ‘take with a grain of salt’.  According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Russia has more than 1,000,000 regular soldiers under arms, plus 2,000,000 reservists.  Its military budget is 4.3% of GDP – double the proportion UK spends.  The Russians have circa 13,000 tanks (the largest such arsenal of any army in the world) and hundreds of thousands of military vehicles, of which circa 36,000 armoured ones.

Now, I am not claiming for a moment that the Russians did not sustain losses – even such that other countries might call ‘heavy losses’ (though to describe a few thousand fatalities as “extremely heavy losses” in the context of the Russian army is indicative – to put it mildly – of a ‘slight’ penchant for exaggeration!)  For whatever it’s worth, by the way, BBC News Russian claims to have documented the death of 1,083 Russian servicemen.  This is based on the panegyrics published in local newspapers and on locally issued lists of ‘fallen heroes’.  If Mr. Bronk’s “between 7,000 to 15,000” is right, then it means that the BBC missed 6,000 to 14,000 obituaries.  Or perhaps those soldiers did not have any relatives and were not considered heroes…

Anyway, what we are not told (you’d struggle to find such information in the Western press) is the extent of losses on the Ukrainian side.  The Russians claimed (on 16 April) to have killed 23,367 Ukrainian troops.  On the very same day, President Zelenskyy estimated Ukrainian military fatalities at 2,500 to 3,000 troops, while judging Russia’s losses to be 19,000 to 20,000.

Me… gee… I just don’t know.  But I know one thing: ‘Truth is the first casualty of war’.  Or, as Samuel Johnson more poetically put it:

Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.

Since many of those involved in this conflict aren’t particularly famous for their love of truth in the first place, it behoves us to reign in our credulity, lest we become hapless foot soldiers in their propaganda war.

It’s not just the losses.  We are told that Russia has already suffered a defeat and ‘had to’ reassess its war aims.  For instance, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby claimed, already at the end of March:

[T]hey failed to take Kyiv. Which we believe was a key objective. And again, you just have to look at what they were doing in those early days. They wanted Kyiv. And they didn’t get it.

True, the Russians “didn’t get” Kyiv – although they half-encircled the city, reaching within a few miles of it.  But it does not follow that they “wanted” it.  Before starting his ‘special operation’, Putin and his collaborators issued lots of tough-sounding, threatening statements.  That’s to be expected when a dictator decides to go to war.  Some of those statements may have been psychological war; others were no doubt meant to sow confusion and mess up the Ukrainian troops’ disposition.  Who knows?  One thing is clear: taking those statements at face value is incredibly naïve.

Did Putin want to conquer the entire Ukraine?  I doubt it.  Conquering a country of that size is of course possible – Hitler conquered Poland in just six weeks.  But, as the Russians still remember from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, conquering and controlling are two different things.

Like everybody else, I cannot read Putin’s mind.  But, as someone who spent his youth under a dictatorial regime, I can try to guess the ‘logic’ behind his actions.

I suggest that, ideally, Putin would’ve wanted to replicate in Ukraine the model that works so well for him in the case of Belarus and Kazakhstan: to wit, an authoritarian regime closely allied with Russia, while maintaining (at least in theory) the national independence, with all its nominal attributes: a flag, an anthem and separate votes at the UN.

Assuming my guess above is accurate, would Putin have wanted to conquer Kyiv?  Doubtful, I say.  Firstly, where he really wanted to take a city, take he did (see the case of Mariupol), even against desperate Ukrainian resistance.  Secondly, taking a city of the size of Kyiv (c. 6 times larger than Mariupol) would have involved heavy Russian losses.  His army’s advantages (in terms of manpower, equipment, firepower, air superiority) come into play in open terrain, not in close-quarter street combat.  And any regime he would’ve installed in Kyiv under occupation would’ve been irredeemably tainted in the eyes of most Ukrainians.

In the West, the narrative is that the Russian army was stopped in its tracks by resolute Ukrainian resistance, combined with its own logistical mishaps.  But how credible is this narrative?  Kyiv is well-served by roads and railroad and it is relatively close to Ukraine’s border with Russia’s ally Belarus.  The supply lines are neither long nor difficult and Russia has, of course, plenty of petrol to fuel its tanks.  Videos circulated, apparently showing Russian soldiers looting Ukrainian shops and plundering food.  This was taken to mean that they were hungry.  But anyone who, like me, has lived for any length of time on army (any army) rations, will tell you that those taste – at best – somewhere between bland and disgusting.  No, it does not take hunger for soldiers to plunder civilian food; it takes ‘just’ indiscipline and low moral standards.

As for Ukrainian resistance: assuming that Putin really wanted to take Ukraine’s capital, encountering such challenge should have caused him to bring in additional reinforcements (Russia has, as we know, plenty of additional manpower and materiel).  But this has not happened.  Are we to believe that the Russian dictator gave up so easily?

Why, then, the initial advance on Kyiv?  My guess is that Putin was simply applying maximum pressure, hoping to see either a Ukrainian-led coup or the country’s current government agreeing to make extensive concessions.

Neither scenario materialised – his bluff clearly did not work.  But to describe this as ‘defeat’ is ‘a bit’ premature.  The fact of the matter is that all the fighting takes place inside Ukraine – not in Russia.  While it is, as mentioned, doubtful that the Russians really wanted to take Kyiv and Kharkiv (Ukraine’s second-largest city, situated very close to the Russian border), Putin has secured a much more useful objective: a sizable land corridor linking Russia to the Crimean Peninsula.  Apart from facilitating logistics, this turns the Sea of Azov into an inner Russian lake.  It allows the Russian navy to blockade not just the Ukrainian Black Sea ports, but – in case of need – also the Georgian ones.  Last but by no means least, it goes a long way towards reversing what Putin sees as a NATO encroachment via the Black Sea shores of its members Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania.  In any conventional conflict between Russia and NATO, the Black Sea may become a main theatre of operations – and potentially Russia’s soft underbelly.

Pink represents Ukrainian territory taken by the Russian army. The latter appears to have initiated a pincer movement from south from Izyum and north of Mariupol and Berdyansk. This threatens Ukrainian supply lines and, if completed, may cut off Ukrainian forces engaged in combat on the Donbas front.
{YouTube screen capture}

After reaching Crimea via Mariupol, the Russian army continued to push west along the seashore, threatening the important port and industrial cities of Kherson and Odessa.  Taking those cities would cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea, leaving the country landlocked; and would establish a land link with the largely Russian-speaking breakaway Republic of Transnistria, which seceded from Moldova and is being ‘supported’ by a contingent of Russian troops.  Whether Putin actually wants to take Kherson and Odessa remains to be seen.  But what the southern push certainly does is to broaden Russia’s tactical options.

The yellow-green area represents Ukrainian territory occupied by the Russian army (approximatively). The red arrows are estimated directions of Russian offensive. The thin red strip to the East of Moldova represents the breakaway ‘Republic of Transnistria’ (recognised internationally as part of Moldova and ‘supported’ by Russian troops).  The two ‘republics’ carved out of Georgia are also represented.
{modified public domain picture}

The Russians have also conquered considerable Ukrainian territory in Ukraine’s east and north.  Very importantly, they have reached the town of Izyum, circa 100 km deep inside Ukraine.  This may be the key to taking the entire Donbas.  The Russians are currently pushing west along the entire Donbas front, thus engaging a large proportion of the Ukrainian army.  But simultaneously they threaten to encircle those Ukrainian units through a pincer movement south of Izyum and north of Mariupol.

Speaking about the latter city: we are told about the heroic Ukrainian resistance and about the horrific plight of civilians caught in a city under siege.  What is less frequently explained is that the city is, for all practical purposes, under Russian control – and has been so for a while now.  A few hundred Ukrainian soldiers still holding on in an ever-decreasing area – in the ruins of the Mariupol’s industrial area – may be symbolic and heart-warming for many Ukrainians; but in stark military terms it is of no real consequence.

So what’s the end game?

So, while in the West the story is overwhelmingly one of Russian military incompetence and defeat, I fear that in reality Putin is doggedly pursuing his goals.  Nor do I believe that his goals have fundamentally changed –he has just accepted that they will take longer to achieve.

Assume, for the moment, that Russia conquers and– international recognition be damned – holds on to Donbas (or large parts of it), as well as other parts of Ukraine.  Assume, also, that at that point Putin stops the offensive and declares victory (despite Western assertions to the contrary, it would not be difficult for him to ‘sell’ that victory to the Russian people – after all he’d have the new territories as ‘evidence’).

What will happen then?  Ukraine’s economy is in tatters.  The World Bank expects (or, more accurately, expected early in April) the country’s GDP to shrink by 45%.  So just $88 billion – down from circa $160 billion last year (but that forecast assumes that most of the Donbas will still be Ukrainian…)  Repairing the infrastructure is (so far!) expected to cost $63 billion.  Millions of Ukrainians took refuge in the West – and the best and brightest among them are unlikely to return any time soon to their ravaged country.

It’s easy to provide weapons to Ukraine in the midst of an aggression against it – especially as the weapons don’t cost much, as they come from old, existing stocks.  But who will support Ukraine economically in the years to come?  Who will supply the coal, oil and gas needed to keep Ukrainian from freezing next winter – and many winters after that?  Who will provide the money needed to rebuild the country and its economy?  After two years of devastating pandemic, the West faces grave economic difficulties of its own.  But without massive and sustained economic aid, Ukraine will gradually fall under the sway of its larger and stronger neighbour, just as surely as Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Dire consequences

This isn’t just about Ukraine, unfortunately.  Putin’s aggression – and the paltry Western reaction to it – have made the entire world a much more dangerous place.

First and foremost, there is China.  China which is arming at a tremendous pace.  China, which is expanding its international reach and influence, alongside its economic might.  China, which is becoming more and more assertive in its relationship with the West.

What does China get out of this?  Firstly, an extremely valuable ally (Russia) – and one that is likely (because of the Western sanctions) to become increasingly dependent on its economic and political support.

Secondly, China had an opportunity to gauge the West’s determination – and found it lacking.  Given that the Western governments showed zero willingness to intervene militarily in Ukraine (a European country) – how likely are they to make such a move when China attacks Taiwan?

China (red) and Taiwan (the blue island to the south-east of China). China considers Taiwan part of its sovereign territory and has openly declared its intention to reunite it with the mainland at an unspecified time in the future. {Shoshui, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons}

Thirdly, China had the opportunity to see in practice the value of economic dependence: the West was rendered impotent not just by its lack of appetite for conflict, but also by its dependence on Russian exports of fuel.  But, while the Western leaders belatedly try to reduce that dependence (a gargantuan task in itself), their economies rely more and more on Chinese exports and Chinese money.

China’s officially-available military budget. In 2022, its military expenditure is expected to reach c. $230 billion.  Which means that it almost doubled in the past 10 years.
{EricMiles, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons}

China is already the main exporter to Europe; it’s share of EU imports of goods will soon reach 25%.  While Western economies (like sail ships drifting entirely at the mercy of ‘market winds’) increasingly focus on services, China is building itself as the Global Manufacturer.

We in the West live in an increasingly sophisticated world: everything – our power plants, our roads and railways – and certainly our military – is based on computers.  And what’s the problem with that?  Well, let me tell you: I am typing this on a Chinese-manufactured keyboard; I format it with the help of a Chinese-manufactured mouse.  My laptop was assembled in USA from components made mostly in Taiwan.  And I rely increasingly on my iPhone – manufactured in China, of course.

{own work}

Now remember what Putin got away with – just because Europe buys about a third of its fossil fuels from Russia.  How will we ever be able to confront Chinese aggression?  Or is ‘It won’t happen’ our ultimate strategy?

And it’s not just China; there are many – enemies and unreliable friends – who will look at the Russia-Ukraine-West kerfuffle and draw conclusions.

Take Iran, for instance.  Or, more precisely, take the Ayatollah that sits at the top of the Islamic Republic.  He has seen at least two Middle Eastern leaders toppled and killed in a rather brutal, dishonourable way: Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein tried to get nuclear weapons – but was stopped first by an Israeli raid and eventually gave up that quest.  He ended up hiding in a dark, smelly underground hole, from which he was pulled out and ultimately hanged.  Unlike him, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi ‘listened to the voice of reason’: he agreed to stop and dismantle its nuclear programme, as well as give up chemical and biological weapons.  He was eventually defeated, captured and killed by a mob – including by being rectally assaulted with sharp objects…

If your conclusion is that all dictators end badly – think again.  There is at least one who is, perhaps, much worse than both Saddam and Gaddafi: I’m talking about North Korea’s own Kim Jong-un.  He is, however, very much alive and kicking; in fact, he is arguably untouchable –because, unlike the two Middle Eastern dictators mentioned before, he was neither stopped, nor listened to reason, but went on and obtained nuclear weapons.

And then there’s Ukraine.  Which has nothing to do with any of the dictators I mentioned – except insofar as it had and gave up nuclear weapons.  Had it controlled those weapons today, would Putin have attacked it?

Now place yourself in the tight shoes and wide robes of the Iranian Ayatollah and think: what can you learn from all this?

An Iranian Khorramshahr ballistic missile (range: c. 2,000 km)
{Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons}

And it’s not just the Ayatollah, but every jihadi terrorist out there.  Make no mistake: the next Osama bin Laden, the next Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – they are all emboldened by this.

In international relations there are many steadfast enemies, but few reliable friends.  If you’re an ally of the US (think, for instance, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan), what will you make of what’s happening to Ukraine these days?  We are not talking about countries that share ‘values’ with the West, but regimes that see (or saw, at least) interest in an alliance with mighty Uncle Sam.  But an uncle that abandons one nephew might also abandon the next one in his hour of need.  The US ‘nephews’ are increasingly unsettled and might be ready to exchange their old uncle for another, with a more reliable ‘nepotism’ policy.

Again, put yourself in the shoes of these Middle Eastern ‘kings’, ‘emirs’ and ‘presidents’.  On one hand, there’s Russia: it stuck to its ally, Syria’s Bashar Assad, through thick and thin – even after the latter butchered Syrians by the thousand, including with chemical weapons.  Putin unerringly saved Assad’s bacon, not in the least by direct military intervention.  On the other hand, there’s the West: one does not have to go back as far as Vietnam or bring up Jimmy Carter and the Shah of Iran – there are more recent examples.  Obama dropped Mubarak like a hot potato, then tried to ‘make nice’ to an Islamist.  It was the Egyptian dictator’s sheer luck – not the protection of his ‘ally’ – that spared him a fate similar to that of Saddam or Gaddafi.  The West abandoned its ‘ally’ Georgia when it got in trouble with Putin.  And now it’s done pretty much the same with Ukraine.  To be an ally of the West is to be constantly preached to – just look at the constant stream of ‘criticism’ that democratic Israel is getting – but not necessarily get help and support when needed.  The West is gentle on its enemies and tough on its friends.  Or, as Henry Kissinger more forcefully put it,

it may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I want the West to give up its values and, like Russia and China do, warmly embrace every bloody dictator who promises to be ‘on our side’.  No, quite the opposite.  But what is needed is consistency and dependability.  By all means choose your friends and allies carefully; but then stand by them.  Zigzagging between supporting friends and appeasing enemies will take you nowhere.

 

***

In the next (and probably last) instalment of this series, I will focus on Jews.  What (if any) are the current and potential consequences of this conflict on the Jewish people and the Jewish state?  Watch this space.

About the Author
Noru served in the IDF as a regular soldier and reservist. Currently a management consultant, in his spare time he engages in pro-Israel advocacy, especially in interfaith environments. He presented in front of Church of England and Quaker audiences and provides support to Methodist Friends of Israel. Noru is the Editor-in-Chief of 'Politically-incorrect Politics' (www.Pol-inc-Pol.com). Translated into Polish, his articles are also published by the Polish portal 'Listy z naszego sadu.'
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