The West is still fighting the wrong war

December 28, 2022

It has now been ten months of war in Ukraine, and the West still seems hell bent on fighting the war it wants the war to be rather than the war it actually has on its hands.

Although cautious voices warn about this being a protracted war of attrition — I have been saying this since, well, April — many people seem to expect it to end in 2023. The most optimistic (rash?) even see the summer of 2023 as the terminal date. I believe this optimism is unwarranted. The war will not end by the summer, and it will not end by the winter. We will be lucky if it ends in 2024. If I am right about this, the current Western strategy of “just in time” financing and arming is fatally flawed, and unlikely to help Ukraine prevail.

Let me explain.

Why the Kremlin will not negotiate

First, let’s discuss why I think the war will not end anytime soon. The Western strategy seems predicated on a beautiful theory of coercion: if one can persuade the opponent that it cannot achieve its goals either because of lack of capability or because of prohibitive costs, the opponent would see reason and agree to negotiate some form of mutually acceptable settlement. To this end, the West has been trying to help Ukraine “not lose” (this is the part about denying Russia the military solution it has been seeking) and also “sort of win a bit” (this is the part about showing Russia that its losses would be significant). Both components seem to be working: ZSU has liberated nearly half of the territory VSRF conquered in this invasion, and the cumulative losses of the Russians have been so staggering that the Kremlin was forced to declare mobilization (and is likely to get a second wave going in January). But… the Kremlin is not offering to negotiate. I mean, they talk about negotiations all the time, but it’s just cheap talk: the actual terms they mention have not receded since the extravagant demands Putin made at the start of the war. Just the other day, Foreign Minister Lavrov insisted that acceptance of Russia’s illegal annexations of the four regions is the sine qua non of any peace talks, as are “demilitarization” and “denazification.” In other words, dismembering Ukraine, taking half of it outright, and forcing the other half into abject submission. The exact thing Putin had demanded in February.

Why is the coercive strategy not working despite, apparently, achieving the military goals it set out to achieve? We have an analogue to this: Rolling Thunder, the US bombing campaign in Vietnam. The US managed to destroy all objectives, exhibit the pattern of geographic and target escalation that was supposed to persuade Hanoi to stop supporting the guerillas in South Vietnam, and it showed that it could do this with relative impunity. And yet nothing tangible came of it — the communists refused to negotiate and the war continued, forcing the US to change strategy. In that case, the problem was that neither the Hanoi regime nor the Viet Cong were sensitive to the type of losses the US was inflicting. The communist regime kept a tight lid on the information, meaning that most people did not know exactly what was going on. They were prepared to absorb massive casualties, in part because of that information blackout but also because the regime itself simply did not care — and could not be made to care — about civilian deaths. The logistics of supplying guerilla fighters did not require sophisticated transportation, and so the attempts to interdict supplies largely failed (in contrast to Linebacker in 1972 when the US had to deal with an invasion of a conventional army). The industry was not a significant component of the economy so the loss could not collapse the war effort, and both the USSR and China supplied North Vietnam faster than the US could destroy the materiel. In other words, the US thought it was hurting the regime and imagined that the problem was Hanoi’s inability to understand this — when in fact, the US was simply not hurting it where it mattered.

Something very similar is happening with Russia today. The West appears to have assumed that after some level of losses, the Kremlin would have to call it quits. It appears logical: if they cannot achieve their goals militarily — it now seems out of the question that Russia can conquer Ukraine — and if even holding most of what they have taken is prohibitively costly, then Putin would have to negotiate. So it’s just a matter of giving him some “face saving” deal or something he could “sell as victory” or some “security guarantees” and Russia would automagically show up ready to sign a peace treaty.

It’s a beautiful theory of coercion and it works great… on the blackboard. I know this because I have written the mathematical equations proving it myself. Unfortunately, the people making these assumptions have not read what else some of us have written. Permit me the indulgence of citing my own book, Military Threats, on this:

“One may be tempted to think that military coercion is a cheap alternative to war preparation. As such one may wonder whether an opponent could be coerced by sending a battalion of Marines or perhaps one task group. The analysis in this book suggests that this is unlikely to work if the force being sent is significantly smaller than what one would need for actual operations. In fact, the model suggests that it may have to be quite a bit larger.

The reason for this has nothing to do with credibility – as we have seen, preparation for war is just as believable as an optimal military threat. The problem is that the opponent’s expected payoff from war is only partially related to one’s own. That is, whereas one could affect it by military preparations, if the opponent’s valuation is too high, the overall payoff may remain high as well. In other words, if the opponent really cares about the disputed issue, then lowering his probability of success sufficiently may require very expensive moves by the threatener. Whereas preparation for war is “simply” preparation to fight the best possible battle, mobilization for coercion is more than that for it must also make the battle sufficiently bad for the opponent.

One cannot succeed with military coercion on the cheap.

The unhappy implication is that sometimes this implies that a strong resolved actor would prefer to fight rather than spend the resources to convince his opponent to give up.”

Slantchev, Military Threats, pp. 255-56.

The crux of the problem here is that in some causes fighting might be preferable to coercion because trying to persuade the opponent by lowering their expected payoff from war could require vast expenditures on military preparations that may well go beyond what is optimal for fighting.

As I explain below, the West is trying to solve this conflict by coercing Russia “on the cheap” without realizing that this cannot possibly work because such an indirect approach to war termination — by manipulating the incentives of the opponent to settle — requires a lot higher commitments of resources.

The second problem is that a lot of the theorizing that informs current thinking about Russia comes from what we call “unitary actors models,” which is just another way of saying that the theories assume that the benefits and losses from the war accrue to the actors who make the war and peace decisions. With an actor like that, if the expected value of peace on some terms (benefits minus the costs) exceed the expected value of war (continuing to fight until other peace terms or until a military resolution), the actor would obviously choose peace on those terms. And so, the thinking goes, if Putin can be shown that the value of war is low (very low likelihood of a military victory, high costs of continuing, in lives, treasure, and the economy), then there should be terms that he would accept to end the fighting (this is where the maps come out and Western analysts start dividing land that isn’t theirs to give).

But, as we well know from more developed theoretical models, if the actors who make the war/peace decisions do not bear the costs of war directly (but do enjoy the benefits), then this logic quickly falls apart. What appears to be an “unacceptable” loss can, in fact, be quite acceptable. What looks like an “unreasonable” decision to continue to fight might make perfect sense if the personal benefit is high but someone else is footing the bill.

There is no reason to suppose that the Kremlin is sensitive to the human losses it is suffering, and much for the same reasons that the communists in Hanoi were not. Let’s do a small calculation. Assume that the Russians have 150,000 dead (which might be too high since these lists usually include KIA/POWs). Russia has 213 cities with a population over 100,000 alone, and the average size among these is about 360,000. Distributing these casualties over these 213 cities means 704 military dead per city for the year. Russia’s mortality was 16.7 per 1,000 in 2021, so a population 360,000 would expect 6,012 deaths per year. The military dead would increase this by 11%, or there will be 560 funerals per month instead of the “customary” 501 in a city roughly the size of Cleveland. Without the media blanketing the airwaves with news about this, this sort of thing would go virtually unnoticed. And, needless to say, the Russian media is blaring exactly the opposite. And this is with the recipients of “Gruz 200” being cities — right now, most are scattered among small towns and villages, where the funeral processions would have 1 or 2 bodies to bury, occasionally. Even less visible than my rough and ready calculations were meant to show.

Thus, even the first, basic, step in the logic — that the population losses should be known in order to increase tensions in society, which presumably would make the Kremlin’s life more difficult — is already missing. Russia is simply too large and the media is simply too well controlled for the massive losses of human life to register.

Now, it’s true that the mobilization was not popular, and I expect the second wave to be even less popular than the first. But that’s not because of the losses — which are largely unknown — but because people just do not want to go and fight in Ukraine all that much. But even then one cannot expect any resulting discontent to erupt and cause Putin to fall from power. (I have discussed this before, so will not belabor it.)

The Russian government has no compunction losing tens of thousands of its own citizens, or immiserating millions more by transitioning the economy to a wartime footing and perpetuating the sanctions through its refusal to withdraw or offer reasonable terms to the Ukrainians.

The Western strategy of indirect coercion by manipulating Putin’s incentives is bound to fail. What it is doing, however, is useful — but not sufficient — for the strategy it must adopt, which is to directly deny Putin the ability to achieve any of his goals in Ukraine.

The Western indirect strategy

Looking at what the West has been doing since the start of the war strongly suggests that it has been trying to coercive Putin “on the cheap” — essentially by providing Ukraine with specific weapons and capabilities meant to deny Russia’s enormous prewar advantage at least in specific sectors of the front. This has enabled ZSU to inflict massive losses on the Russians while holding its own. The West has done several things along these lines:

  • Purchases and transfers of Soviet-era weapons or their modernized variants. This war is (still) mainly fought, on both sides, with these types of weapons. There are several reasons for this: these weapons are widely available in large quantities, both on active duty and in storage, and there are facilities that can repair, restore, and maintain them. For example, many of the Eastern bloc countries have relatively large arsenals with Soviet tanks, artillery, and so on. Even though some countries dismantled their military-industrial complex when the Cold War ended, others did not. Czechia and Slovakia conserved their production lines, and have now been able to restart them. Bulgaria and Romania have vast stores of this equipment as well as production facilities. Poland has been rapidly expanding its own. Collectively, the Eastern Europeans have the capacity to supply Ukraine with these sorts of weapons for a while, probably for at least a year (they generally do not have the ability to produce these weapons from scratch). The Ukrainians are right now able to have this equipment serviced quickly in the safety of the neighboring states, and get it back to the front as quickly as possible. This would not be the case with Western equipment like the Abrams M1 or Leopard tanks, for instance, where the support would be much harder to implement, not to mention the numbers, which are quite a bit lower than the Soviet-era counterparts. For example, Germany has 284 main battle tanks in service, while Romania alone has over 800 of the old T-55s, which they are taking out of service. There are probably at least 1,000 of these tanks made in Yugoslavia on the Balkans too. The military factories of Czechia, Bulgaria, and Romania can service up to 250 of these tanks per month. They may not be great, but in the current war, they do not need to be great. They need to cover infantry and help ZSU overcome some of its artillery shortage. There are also many Soviet-era weapons in Africa, where the West could potentially buy them for use in Ukraine.
  • Training of Ukrainian troops. The idea here is to use quality to overcome disadvantages in quantity. The British were the first to start training Ukrainians in the spring, and the result was the core of the Kharkiv Offensive. Now, the West has implemented a training program that should produce about 50,000 more highly prepared Ukrainian troops by the spring. This is a very serious number, and will form the core of a formidable strike force. It is extraordinarily difficult for the Russians to compensate for the large losses of officers and trained personnel although Putin recently signed a decree requiring many institutions of higher education to open military training institutes. The advantage in quality will remain with ZSU for the foreseeable future.
  • Supplying specific Western systems but only as last resort. It took what seems like an eternity for the US/West to finally give Ukrainians HIMARS and similar systems, and these immediately made their presence known. They enabled ZSU to strike at command HQs, logistical hubs, and ammo depots with deadly precision, thereby offsetting some of the massive superiority in quantity that the Russians had become accustomed to. We have been slow with air defense systems as well as anti-drone counter-measures, and waited (inexplicably) until 80% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure was destroyed by the Russians to do anything. Even now, we are sending them a single PATRIOT, an embarrassment. It’s always reactive, and never enough for anything decisive for ZSU.

The West is being stingy for two main reasons: economy and strategy. On the economy side, it looks like NATO simply has not planned for the type of war that is being fought in Ukraine. We have been sending Ukraine stuff out of our stocks, and we have been dipping pretty deep into some (but not others). Artillery rounds, in particular, seem to be a problem as we just do not make enough of them. Nervous about weakening our own defenses, we have been giving Ukraine the desperate minimum of what it needs in the hope that the war just would not last long enough to make us face the harsh reality of insufficient preparation (that’s the strategy part). The problem is that the logic that leads the West to believe in a relatively short war is, as I have explained, wrong.

One awful consequence of this is that by trying to purchase Soviet-era weapons and supporting Eastern European production/maintenance lines, we are trying to weasel out of the very plain but painful conclusion that we have to start investing in “guns” much more than we hoped we would need to. Our current budget has billions dedicated to replenishing our stores, but this would not be enough. Not when the Russians are firing 20,000 rounds per day. The West has an insanely strong industrial base that can overwhelm whatever desperate measures Russia takes, but it needs to get started, and then it needs to ramp up. It takes 3-4 years for this to happen, and nobody here wants to do it because, again, they think the war would not last long enough to justify the expense (hence all the furious improvisation above).

But if the assumption is wrong and the war does last beyond 2023, then what? Are we going to start gearing up then or are we call it a day and let Russia have its pound of flesh? And if we begin to ramp up only then, how much longer would the war have to be for the effect to be felt at the front?

If we persist in this folly of stingy help, Russia would sense that it can outlast us. The Russian economy sucks, their technology — at least the one that can be put into serial production — is decades behind, but the Kremlin can keep it up basically indefinitely, even turning on the repression screws when needed. If we are not investing right now in capacity to outlast and outproduce the Russians, then Ukraine cannot win this — the Kremlin will see that the attrition trends would work in their favor, and just keep at it until we give in.

And then what? If we have proven unwilling to shoulder the burden when Ukraine is fighting the war, are we going to start investing from nothing when we have to deal with a victorious Russia ourselves?

This is a war of attrition. It’s a war Russia often has to fight because they are so bad at fighting anything else. But this is a type of war that Russian governments can fight “well” because of the vast resources and capacity of country, their imperviousness to suffering of the Russians, and ability to maintain control of the country. Our understandable attachment to the “Cold War dividend” and, especially the European, massive free-riding on the US for security for decades have left us with insufficient current resources to compete in such a war. The West has all the potential to win such a competition, but it requires courageous and determined leadership, and it requires massive investments in decidedly “unsexy” things — military things. And the investments have to come now.

One thought on “The West is still fighting the wrong war

  1. A game theoretic model with uncertain payoffs can explain Putin’s behavior. Putin may not care about the body count, but is incurring real costs. But those costs can be justified if they reduce the probability of what he perceives to be a really bad payoff. In fact, Putin is Russia’s Churchill, sort of. Britain had no hope of winning the second world war after the fall of France and Hitler expected Britain to sue for peace. But even a small reduction in the probability of the unimaginably bad outcome of German hegemony was enough to induce Churchill to fight on in the hope that something would turn up. Of course, Barbarossa and Pearl Harbor turned up and the rest is history.


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