Risk Aversion Has Enlarged The War In Ukraine
The Biden administration is fundamentally unserious about winning
Reader: suppose that, one morning, I told you to bake a pumpkin pie for dinner at six o’clock, and then gave you a jar of molasses. No allspice, ginger, milk, pie crust, eggs, or baking pumpkins. Just molasses. “Make a pie,” I say to you. “Where are the rest of the ingredients?” You would ask me.
Suppose that, instead of answering, I wait until noon, and then hand you the milk. “Why isn’t the pie ready?” I demand of you. Turning to other people, I whisper: “This person is so bad at making pies. They aren’t even following the recipe.” The reader would protest that I have not provided the full ingredients for a pumpkin pie, that this is unfair.
Now suppose that, after ignoring you until 5:30 PM, I begrudgingly hand you the baking pumpkins. “You’re too late,” the reader would protest in this scenario. “I don’t have time to bake a pie before dessert.” But you are hungry, reader, so you drink the milk, and bake the seeds, and sustain yourself as much as you can on what you have.
If this bizarre scenario disturbs you, reader, imagine being Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Washington, facing Joe Biden, the man who has slow-walked and staggered the delivery of all the military ‘ingredients’ needed for maneuver on the modern battlefield. Imagine shaking the hands of the sneering Pentagon hacks who anonymously tell the Washington Post that you just didn’t follow their directions, that you, and not the withheld ingredients, are why there is no pie.
They haven’t fought a high intensity war like the one Ukraine is fighting, these jokers in American brass. Few of them have ever seen a high intensity conflict and most of them wouldn’t last a month, if they were required to fight like Ukraine has been required to fight. It’s not clear that America could ever cope with what Ukraine faces every day.
Rather than a pie recipe, of course, Ukraine was in need of a great mountain of ammunition as well as the various complementary parts of the combined arms package to use said ammunition. The ammo needs a ride, too.
Like a pie, combined arms is a recipe, not a single Wunderwaffen ingredient. For example, by delaying the delivery of ATACMS until September, the Biden national security team allowed Russian helicopters to operate safely out of Crimea all summer, blunting Ukrainian armored attacks in the south. Only a handful of older missiels bleatedly arrived — but they had immediate impact. The very first ATACMS strike destroyed at least nine helicopters parked at Berdyansk. Russia immediately dispersed its close air support and thus greatly increased helicopter flight times, complicating and limiting their effectiveness. The whole point of the US Army having long-range ATACMS missiles in the first place was to push
Soviet Russian assets, such as close air support, away from the front and scatter them in exactly this manner.
Imagine a world in which Ukraine had those ATACMS missiles in April 2023. It is very likely a world in which Ukraine has reached Tokmak and closed in on the Sea of Azov. Like a pie, the combination of ingredients matters more than any single thing.
Ukraine has never enjoyed anything like equality in the air, either, and no western power would never even think about attacking on the ground without total air superiority, yet the first F-16 has yet to appear in Ukrainian skies. While the UAF have somewhat compensated for this tactical deficit with drones, there are close air support missions that simply require a bigger lifter than a UAV, nor can drones fill the air defense role of an F-16. Critics argue that the F-16 cannot win the war all by itself. It was never designed to do that in the first place. It was always one ingredient in a pie recipe for winning battles.
By not sending planes and missiles, the west has neutered everything else it did send — without sending enough.
Examples abound: the M-1 Abrams has only just arrived, and in small numbers. The GLSDB, a longer-range rocket system that is ready to fire from HIMARS launchers, will be delivered a year behind schedule. Ukraine requested a combined arms package but got only some parts of it, receiving none of them at the same time, with some of these “ingredients” still to arrive and others largely expended, such as the twenty ATACMS Biden gave Ukraine so magnanimously. This policy has wasted life and resources, ostensibly to prevent loss of life and resources. It is a policy of peacetime tomfoolery and political wankery. It is not driven by military necessity.
Jake Sullivan is the National Security Advisor. Antony Blinken is the Secretary of State. William J. Burns is the director of the CIA. These men have mismanaged the delivery of the combined arms package — the full ingredients of the pie — because they thought they were “boiling a frog.” They reasoned that each of Vladimir Putin’s “red lines” could be crossed one at a time, over time, more safely than crossing all of them at once.
Too clever by half, Team Biden has given the Russians ample time to adapt to each new weapon before the next arrives, thoroughly dissipating any shock effect. Indeed, Team Biden has done such a bang-up job of buggering this weapons transfer that it beggars belief there are still conspiracy goobers claiming the weapons transfer was the whole purpose of the war, which was secretly hatched in Washington. They are giving the establishment far too much credit for competence.
Washington first buzzed with anticipation of ATACMS and F-16s and M-1s and GLSDBs during July of 2022. Eighteen months have passed and half of those things have yet to even arrive. The numbers that have arrived were insufficient. Having pressured Ukraine to start a counteroffensive without enough mine-clearing equipment, let alone anything else needful, now Biden wants Ukraine to slow down and adopt a more defensive posture.
The one thing nobody seems to want for Ukraine is victory. Worst. Sinister. Plan. Ever.
Biden is clearly willing to undercut American allies for domestic political concerns at least as much as Donald Trump, if not as loudly. No sooner had I published an observation that Israel has no chill in Gaza last month than Joe Biden authenticated HAMAS narratives of “indiscriminate” bombing and shook his finger at Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel has responded to Biden’s hectoring by slowing down their progress — the time window of operations has stretched from many weeks to many months — and by putting Israeli troops at greater risk, with a corresponding rise in casualties. All of this is necessary, Biden seems to think, because it is so very unfair that Israel was winning so hard.
For those people still screeching nonsense about “genocide,” we have a similar answer to Ukraine. Until Biden slowed down the operational tempo of the IDF, HAMAS claimed 20,000 Palestinian civilians had been killed by what the Associated Press calculated to be 20,000 tons of bombs. If we accept the word of a terrorist organization using civilians as human shields (and encouraging fighters to wear civilian clothes in battle so as to be counted as “civilian deaths”), we can only conclude mathematically that this supposed “genocide” is the least efficient, slowest, most expensive act of mass murder in the history of mass murders. A prolonged war is going to kill more Palestinians, not fewer, and out of hunger, as HAMAS steals all the food aid.
Perhaps this Biden administration framing of military necessity as very improper and unsporting plays well in certain parts of Michigan. Or perhaps the prospect of actual victory, either in Gaza or Crimea, makes Joe Biden and Jake Sullivan and Antony Blinken and William Burns wet their pants in terror at the prospect of a world that Washington does not control. Maybe the illusion of control is far more important to them than a path to victory.
“We can’t let Putin win,” Mr. Biden said in December as he pressed Congress for a new round of funding for Ukraine. “It’s in our overwhelming national interest and international interest of all our friends. Any disruption in our ability to supply Ukraine clearly strengthens Putin’s position.” He is right, but it is his own damn fault. He took too long saying yes to things out of fear it would provoke Moscow.
We are still waiting to see how real the threat of Venezuelan invasion will prove to be. Nevertheless, the United States faces a new, potentially frozen, conflict over the oil-rich western region of Guyana, invoking the special relationship of Nicolás Maduro to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Houthis have made the Red Sea dangerous. Add the new bush wars of the Sahel and the world seems to be catching flame. This is enlargement. It has been tried before, with global consequences. For example, Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Ottoman caliphate fanned the flames of jihad across the Middle East in 1915, creating most of the problems we face across the region today, because the war in Europe was deadlocked. Who knows what the world will look like by the time the west gets its act together, if we ever do.
Perhaps we will, if the various wars become one huge conflict. Vladimir Putin is happy to frame them all as a single global conflict. Biden, on the other hand, seeks to deny any connection between 7 October or Houthis and Iran, or between the Red Sea and Moscow. Indeed, Biden has played for time so well that enemies of the west and America have been able to get their act together.
We know that HAMAS planned their attack for at least a year, starting when the present war in Ukraine was perhaps six months old. Risk-aversion has enlarged the risks and reduced the freedom to respond to each crisis independent of the others. Slow, slow clap.
As the Institute for the Study of War explained last week, there is no tenable peace in which Ukraine does not recover important real estate, particularly Crimea. Russian forces currently occupy the strategic depth that would allow Ukraine to scale back wartime force levels. If the conflict is frozen on current lines, Kyiv would be forced to sustain “a large, fully-equipped, fight-tonight-trained military” that “is exorbitantly expensive and requires keeping a high proportion of the defender’s population in the military even during peacetime.”
By contrast, Russian forces would be free to reconstitute, reposition, and try again — the historical formula for every military adventure of Muscovy’s empire in Ukraine. Mutterings of “peace” are therefore calls for another war in a decade or so, and with Russia in a much stronger position.
We can discern a hint of why western governments have failed this test so far in the shortage of mine plows. Zaporizhzhia has demonstrated that a defense industrial base (DIB) can cover large areas in such dense minefields that every tank, and probably most armored fighting vehicles, ought to have a mine plow. Ukraine never received enough of them, but western inventories were clearly far too low in the first place. Before the war in Ukraine, Russia and NATO both provided only one mine plow per tank platoon, concentrating that equipment in engineering units.
If I was designing a new kind of tank, I would start out by making it a huge mine plow, with 360 degree demining capability, instead of adding armor where I want to protect it. I would mount a drone launcher that can spit out dozens of drones, all of which hunt and destroy mines automatically, so that legacy equipment can follow through and expand the breaks. Of course, this would require expensive R&D along with design parameters and contract terms that encourage the DIB to invest in infrastructure. Politics begin right there at the spending, and politics are where everything comes apart.
Russia is far weaker than they wish to appear. Intensified “meat wave” attacks at Avdiivka betray the growing desperation in the Kremlin as sovereign wealth funds run out and exports collapse. When Putin says he wants to fight for five more years, he is trying to force the west to force Ukraine to capitulate in five months. It is likely that the United States Congress will pass some sort of funding legislation in the next few weeks, though of course it will be more limited than that horizon. Western powers are only now seriously discussing the possible transfer of Russian sovereign wealth funds, currently locked in their banks by sanctions, to Ukraine. That would secure a source of revenue for Kyiv, but it does not solve their basic problem: everyone not currently at war prefers to prepare only for a short, cheap, victorious war, which is the absolute best and easiest way to get a long, expensive, bloody war instead.
Treating the war in Ukraine as something short of an absolute emergency has resulted in an actual emergency, indeed multiple emergencies.
Everyone mewling about peace right now has a responsibility to explain why they think Putin would agree to anything less than his maximalist demands, and then explain why they imagine he would respect that peace, and what it is about Putin’s Russia which makes them imagine a successor to Putin would respect that peace agreement.
Everyone complaining about the possibility of a $100 billion dollar aid package must explain why they imagine the next war in, say, 2033 would be less expensive, rather than costing trillions of dollars more than this one has.
Zero Americans have been killed in Ukraine; the next war could kill tens of thousands of Americans. Everyone still frantic on day 700 of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion that he might decide to start World War III if America does too much for Ukraine should have to explain why they imagine the next war in Ukraine will be less dangerous for America and humanity.
Anyone who whines “peace,” who moans about costs, who concern-trolls us about the loss of life, but cannot explain their reasoning on these points, confirms thereby that they are fundamentally unserious about “peace.” They are demanding someone deliver them a freshly-baked pie out of thin air, from no ingredients at all.
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