Why Ukraine cannot win the war

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 in the hope of a lightning victory and a government collapse in Kyiv, the Kremlin has had to revise its plans several times. Instead of a quick victory, Ukrainian troops pushed Russian forces back from the capital, and a counter-offensive in recent weeks has managed to reverse months of Kremlin gains. Worse, Ukraine has pledged to continue its counter-offensive and regain control of all its territory, including Crimea. Euphoric Western allies have vowed to continue supplying weapons, dismissing the Kremlin’s nuclear threats as irresponsible. The Biden administration is expected to announce an additional billion dollars in security assistance to Ukraine, in addition to the $15 billion already provided. U.S. and European officials hope that sweeping sanctions against Russia will increase pressure on Putin to change course. Is Ukraine and the West winning the war symbolizing the fight for democracy against what Manuel Macron called the new imperialism?

On the ground, the results are significant but not definitive. Without minimizing the courage of the Ukrainian forces, the turnaround is to the credit of two elements: the American intelligence that will continue and weapons arrived in numbers, which will become much rarer. As winter comes, it will be difficult for Ukrainian forces to advance and hold their position without heavy weapons, such as tanks. A U.S. defense official said this week that there was a growing focus on Ukraine’s longer-term needs for Western weapons, as Soviet-era ones, such as tanks, were running out. Nevertheless, he also indicated that Ukraine would need the ability to maintain and support them. In diplomatic language, they will not supply heavy weapons to the Ukrainians. 

Because another element haunts American strategists today, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 confirmed the threat of autocratic aggression in the democratic world. The crisis that erupted in August, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan and Beijing responded with its biggest show of force in the Western Pacific in a quarter of a century, has made many U.S. officials fear that the countdown to a conflict in Taiwan has begun. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan recently told Bloomberg News that there is a “distinct threat” from a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines called the threat “serious.” The Pentagon has warned for years that China’s military build-up would alter the balance of power in East Asia. 

The war in Ukraine is not a fight between two great powers but a full-scale study of a high-intensity conflict where the world’s leading power struggles to meet the needs of the Kyiv government without dangerously depleting its stocks. The U.S. reportedly supplied a third of its overall stockpile of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine in the first few weeks of the fighting. According to military analysts, it may take years for Washington and other countries to rebuild their arsenals. Kyiv’s demands are increasingly in tension with Washington’s need to ensure that it has adequate weapons supplies at the center of its own war plans. The current war also warns about the difficulty of maintaining a supply of weapons in a conflict.

The United States won World War II by capitalizing on its productive tool and overproducing for the rest of the world. By the war’s end, the United States had produced nearly 300,000 aircraft, far more than Germany and Japan combined. U.S. shipyards manufactured 2,247 warships, more than any other country combined. This superiority in production gave the United States and its allies an endurance their enemies lacked. American troops were not always superior in quality to German or Japanese forces, but they ultimately exerted such overwhelming quantitative superiority that marginal differences in combat skills made no difference. Furthermore, it took time and all the determination of F.D. Roosevelt for the American economy to get into the order of battle. The situation today is different. 

America lacks the essential elements needed for wartime mobilization, such as adequate machine tools and a skilled workforce. If the U.S. military remains the world’s largest military, the world’s factory is now China. In shipbuilding, Beijing has a production advantage of about three to one. The U.S. defense industrial base is also significantly weaker than it once was. The number of large U.S. military contractors has dropped dramatically since the end of the Cold War, making it much harder for the Pentagon to increase production in the event of a crisis rapidly.

In conclusion, without Western weapons, there is little chance that the Ukrainians will gain a definitive advantage on the military ground and delight the Westerners by pushing Russia towards a defeat marking the superiority of the democratic world.

“Fools learn through experience, and sages learn from the experience of others.” This sentence of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck is probably put into practice by President Xi Jinping. The longer the conflict lasts, the more the West’s economic position and military reserves become more fragile. There is no doubt about mainland China’s action toward Taiwan. The question is not if but when. Since the takeover of Hong Kong, which was the symbol of “one country, two systems,” the only way to unify China is through force. Before the invasion of Ukraine, there were two opposing currents. One pushed for rapid action before strengthening Taiwan’s defenses, and another advocated patience, the time for China to surpass American power. If the latter seemed to have won, the Ukrainian conflict might have changed the balance of power. White House officials have a growing consensus that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s views on Taiwan will only harden after the 20th Party Congress this year. He may be more willing to unify the island with the mainland forcibly.

Finally, another element must be taken into consideration. Suppose China has kept a certain restraint without economically ceasing to support Russia, notably by purchasing oil. In that case, it cannot allow Putin’s government to collapse because of massive western military aid. It would go against its interests.

Nor is the American position the most comforting. Like Nancy Pelosi (82), Joe Biden (79) is of the same generation and has a stubborn resentment towards China, like Russia, heir to another time. As president, Joe Biden has said three times that the U.S. will defend Taiwan if China invades the island, and each time, his diplomatic staff has argued that he is not changing U.S. policy toward Taiwan. 

A few days ago, in an interview on an American channel, Joe Biden left no doubt about his position, saying that the United States would commit military forces in the event of an “unprecedented attack” by China. With the broader hardening of the U.S. stance towards China, it is hard to see Biden’s comments as anything other than a refutation of decades of so-called “strategic ambiguity” in which the U.S. refuses to clarify its intentions. The president went even further, stating that decisions regarding independence belonged to Taiwan. Historically, U.S. policy has always been not to support Taiwan’s independence. Knowing they have U.S. military support, Taiwan’s leaders could move closer to independence, a direct red line that would force China to act.  The remarks shocked American allies such as Japan and South Korea, knowing that American bases on their soil would be involved in any conflict. This would not fail to drag them into a war automatically. Such comments feed Beijing’s sense of urgency where hawks are now in the majority.

As a good chess game, Putin knows that time is on his side. Economic sanctions are more painful for the West, whose public opinion is beginning to turn. The victory of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, the German coalition’s quarrels, or the United States mid-term elections risking destabilizing an American President in perdition in the polls are all elements he will capitalize on. 

Discontent over the fallout from the war is particularly evident in Eastern Europe, where some nations are more divided over ties with Russia. There have been mass protests in the Czech Republic, while in Slovakia, opposition parties are calling on the country to emulate Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, Putin’s closest ally in the E.U. and a vocal critic of the sanctions. In Germany, it is mainly in the former communist part that the opinion public has turned. Many still feel more sympathy for Russia than for the United States. The German government fears that soaring energy prices, an impending recession, and accelerating inflation could lead to social unrest over the winter. According to a Forsa poll, 42% of East Germans support sanctions against Russia compared to 66% in the West part of the country. In France, unconditional support for sanctions against Russia now stands at 40 percent from 46 percent in March, according to an Elabe poll for BFMTV.

Ukraine is now overtaken by two growing threats affecting the Western world: an economic recession and an open conflict with China over the case of Taiwan.

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