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Ukraine Still Winning?

Time flies, and I haven’t gotten back to the Russia-Ukraine war in months. As far as peace negotiations go, I don’t seem to have missed much, as the talks have long since been suspended. As far as the war is concerned, we left off with Russia’s continuing the war in spite of making little apparent progress.

There was a sense in the ensuing months that Russia was making progress in the Donbas and the south, where they captured Mariupol after a long battle. If I had written a post at that time, I would have noted that Putin’s continuation of the war might have been wiser than I previously considered. It is possible that Ukraine, having survived the initial onslaught, did not have the resources to conduct a sustained defensive war against Russia. Putin might be able to turn the initial defeat into a victory (albeit an ugly one) by bludgeoning the smaller Ukraine with superior forces. A couple of weeks ago, I saw an interview with a supposed expert (I do not recall his qualifications, which may have been fine, but I don’t want to say he was an expert without knowing for sure) who said that Russia was preparing a major offensive that would collapse Ukrainian defenses and lead to the fall of the country.

The latest news is that Ukraine has launched successful counterattacks around Kharhiv and Russia is falling back in disarray. The main lesson from this is how hard it is to write about an ongoing war without access to detailed military intelligence (by which I mean to say, virtually everyone writing for public consumption). It is extraodinarily difficult to get an accurate assessment of the state of a war even for the states involved, and for everyone else, it is a crapshoot. All I can go on is what I know about war in general, not specific information about this war.

I will repeat what I said about the alleged Russian amphibious attack on Odessa, which was supposedly forthcoming in May: armies do not become much more efficient in sudden leaps, and they do not hold back their strength. They may keep troops in reserve for a planned operation, but the troops on the front are always fighting as best they can. It is unrealistic to expect the Russian army to perform much better than they were at the beginning of the year; any performance improvement will be visible to observers over time.

What could possibly happen is, not that the Russians are getting drastically better, but that the Ukrainians are getting worse. I think it unlikely that their army will suddenly lose morale or fighting effectiveness (although that it a greater possibility than a big improvement). However, various things can sap an army’s ability to fight effectively, and these things can sometimes be masked for a while and then be revealed all at once. I’m thinking chiefly of units fighting under strength with insufficient reserves, which might not show itself until under the pressure of a major offensive; troops fighting with too little ammo, or sustained by too little food, which is okay until a retreat disrupts an already weak supply situation.

So far as I can tell, none of these things have happened. To the contrary, Ukraine appears to be on the offensive, and they appear to be succeeding. But I think it important to re-emphasize that, no matter how inevitable the outcome of the war may look in hindsight, at this stage we really don’t know. And I will readily concede that my calculation, which is that Putin made a mistake not making peace when he had a chance, could be completely wrong. We may look back and say that he made a good decision, perhaps even an obvious one (from his perspective) in prolonging the war. Or we may say that he acted foolishly. At this point, we just don’t know.

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