All is not well for Ukraine

Stephen Bryen

The delivery of tanks, advanced air defense systems and potentially long-range ground-launched bombs may be a response to Ukraine’s dire requests, but it also brings with it a new load of problems.

These hastily and urgently provided supplies indicate that all is not well in Kiev and that it is closer than ever to losing the war with Russia. These are not one-to-one replacements for equipment lost: Most of the delivered supplies aim to shift the fortunes of the war in favor of Ukraine.

At least one of the projected weapons, a 100-mile ground-launched long-range bomb known as ATACMS, also would shift the war from Ukrainian to Russian territory.

There is little doubt that putting this sort of weapon in Ukrainian hands will result in a bigger war in Europe. Russia will try to attack the transit centers for these supplies, most likely Poland, although retaliation could also conceivably include attacks on railroads and roadways in Germany.

The US decision to ship upgraded nuclear bombs to Europe also will convince the Russians that tactical nuclear war may be NATO’s response if Ukraine collapses. Compared with the US and NATO, Russia has a massive arsenal of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.

Ukraine’s forces are falling back in the Donbas region and, if the retreat continues, will soon lose the strategic town of Bakhmut. The Russian wave, in the Pentagon’s view, is a sure thing and the US has asked Ukraine to abandon the area.

However, Ukraine’s military and political leaders can’t pull back because doing so would open the center of the country to the Russian army. That, in turn, could light off a long-suppressed clamor for political change in Ukraine with unknown and unknowable consequences.

President Volodymyr Zelensky knows full well he has arrested most of his political opponents and silenced the media he dislikes, including some instances where his opponents have allegedly been liquidated by Ukraine’s secret police, the SBU.

But that won’t protect him or his colleagues if people in Kiev start to understand that Ukrainian defenses are folding.

Despite claims to be a democracy, Ukraine is actually an authoritarian country that has blocked out real news and throttled any opposition. But because of social media, the messages will get through anyway and Zelensky and his team have a lot to fear.

It appears the US is placing its hope of reversing the battlefield situation on the new armor systems being sent to Ukraine. The US has put huge pressure on Germany to deliver its creaky Leopard II tanks and to allow Poland to ship the Leopards it has.

Poland has an inventory of 569 tanks, of which 398 are active. Most of the active tanks in Poland’s army are Leopard IIs (250). Poland is planning to replace the Leopards with 180 Korean K-2 Black Panther tanks, the first ten of which were delivered in December 2022. The K2 is an advanced tank featuring netcentric capabilities.

No one can say how effective Leopard tanks will be on the modern battlefield. In December 2016, numerous Leopard 2s were destroyed in fighting over the ISIS-held Al-Bab area near Aleppo, Syria. Ten Leopards were destroyed including five by anti-tank missiles (Russian origin), two by IEDs, and one by rocket fire.

The Russian wire-guided anti-tank missiles, 9k115 Metis and 9M113 Konkurs, are vintage 1970s weapons. This leads to the suspicion that the Leopards won’t turn out to be any more effective than the Russian-origin armor Ukraine already has, which could help explain why Poland is eager to unload them.

The US has made clear that it will not deliver the Abrams M-1 tank to Ukraine. This is the US main battle tank that is vital to NATO defense. Reluctance to send them to Ukraine could also represent a Pentagon view that the M-1s might not fare well on the modern battlefield against Russian forces because they control most of  Ukraine’s airspace, meaning that tanks can be destroyed by air attack.

Psychologically, the loss of US tanks to Russian weapons would be a negative message about America’s ability to uphold security in Europe. (It certainly would unnerve the Baltic States and Germany.)

One of the key dangers in the Ukraine war is that it will spill over to other European countries, particularly Poland. Another Russian “option” may be to counter US support for Ukraine by attacking one or more of the Baltic states, namely Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Tension is rising between the Baltics and Russia, as seen most recently by Russia’s decision to expel Estonia’s ambassador in Moscow.

Estonia is crucial because of its location on the Gulf of Finland and its sensitive border with Russia, close to St Petersburg. Estonia is setting up an “adjacent” zone giving it the right to inspect Russian civilian and military ships.

It is unlikely Estonia can carry out any inspections given that it only has two patrol vessels (EML-Roland and EML-Risto) and no other warships except some mine layers. But if Estonia even tried, it would create another friction point that Russia could exploit if it chose.

There is also a strategic element. With Finland joining NATO and already a de facto member, the Gulf of Finland becomes significantly more hostile for Russia and there will be growing pressure on Russian political leaders to take action against a rising threat to Russian security.

While Ukraine is far away, the Russians see NATO’s “ganging up” on Russia as a key issue for Russian security and stability. This brings the Baltic region into sharper focus because Russians see NATO trying to surround them and undercut their economic and military advantages.

The Biden administration, at least on the surface, appears to have little concern about the threat of a widening war or the possibility that Ukraine might be defeated by Russia. In fact, the administration and its allies keep claiming they are close to driving the Russians out of Ukraine – the latest such claim having come from Ukraine war supporter Boris Johnson.

If this claim were true, then all of the additional weapons slated for delivery to Ukraine would not be such an urgent need.

One of the problems is that war news is generated primarily by Ukrainian propaganda, which is endlessly parrotted in the Western media. Anytime there is contradictory information – for example, mention of Ukraine’s high casualties – Kiev pushes back so hard that Western leaders go silent.

Even so, accurate information does periodically leak. The latest example is a German report citing Berlin’s BND foreign intelligence service saying that Ukrainian casualties are very high in the Bakhmut area, estimated in the hundreds per day.

Washington could thus soon be faced with some dangerous choices. Should it commit US forces or US air power to Ukraine? If it did so, how quickly would the war spread in Europe?

Would NATO, always far more boisterous than can be justified by reality, support sending NATO forces to Ukraine? Or would NATO’s knees finally buckle?

The alternative – and more likely – scenario is that Washington will push for a peace settlement, something it has strictly opposed in the past. Will Russia be willing to sit down and discuss a deal? Of course, but only if the price is right.

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“The great bulk of controls over social behavior are not external but built into the relationships themselves.”— George Homans