Geography devours armies. Napoleon and Hitler learned this the hard way by demolishing their mythos in the process. Then Russia and the Soviet Union were saved by geography. Today in Ukraine, geography is still the dominant player and will be the ultimate arbiter of the end of this war. Michele Flournoy, Obama’s Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and an acclaimed name in defense and strategic affairs, thinks, “Russia doesn’t have numbers in theater to fully occupy Ukraine and Ukraine does not have the strength to dislodge the Russian forces that are inside Ukraine. At some point, a stalemate will ensue as both sides have exhausted their ability to do more; the geographical extent of Ukraine is such. This will stretch Russia’s logistical lines to their untenable limit, just like those of Napoleon and Hitler, reversing their fortunes unalterably. Russia will be fixed in situ while Ukraine will have the remaining landmass on which to anchor its identity as a state. Geography would have been the ultimate arbiter.
Ukraine is 800 miles east to west and 360 miles north to south with a total area of 6,000 square kilometers, making it the second largest country in Europe after Russia. Russia spans eleven time zones and has an army of over one million people on active duty with around two million reserves to defend its territory. Granted, Russia has always focused on the west from where it has found the most threats, but the east has also seen its share of wars with China, Mongolia and Japan. The United States in Alaska, across the Bering Strait, is only 50 miles away through Russian Siberia, exerting its own influence on Russian redeployment options. In the troop with a sense of space, even with a million men and women, it remains sparsely distributed, compensating for the lack of numbers with technology and lethality. Along with the United States, it remains the world’s leading armed force driven by technological innovation. He thus hopes to strategically dominate with his destructive and lethal ability bending the adversary with firepower to his war aim.
In Ukraine, these limitations will come into play. The inability to concentrate force at the point of application and a long logistical line will mitigate the Russian attack. The north-south orientation of the Russian axes of attack indicates recognition of these limitations. If successful, he will split Ukraine in two. At the same time, the pressure of war on several axes can force the adversary to succumb. At least that’s what is expected but hasn’t worked yet.
Zelensky refused to resign. It forced Russia to change course and focus on cities threatening major cities and the capital Kiev to impose the inevitability of submitting to Russia’s primary goal of regime change and forcing the Ukraine to move away from its declared intention to join NATO and be formalized in the EU. The city wars are what most decimated those who ventured against Russia and the Soviet Union – Stalingrad comes to mind. Falling into the same trap is what armies would generally avoid. Luhansk and Donetsk already separate and virtually incorporated into Russia proper, the area now under Putin’s focus is the Kharkiv, Dnipro and Odessa axis which, once acquired, will effectively divide Ukraine along a north- South. Russia can barter the bigger chunk in exchange for Ukraine’s constitutional neutrality, making it the strategic depth imposed by Russia, even if it retains the Donbass region.
So what does the United States hope to accomplish by sending platitudes the Ukrainian way? That Russia will inevitably go for city wars and conventional wisdom will waste its resources and infantry fighting a losing battle. That sufficiently supplied and equipped Ukrainians can be encouraged to continue to resist in the name of Ukrainian nationalism whose references to history are conveniently made. This Ukraine could become what Vietnam and Afghanistan were for the United States. That Russia may be bleeding enough trying to overtake all of Ukraine as it spreads too thinly along complex logistical lines away from its base. That a combination of economic sanctions against Russia inhibiting its trade in raw materials with the rest of the world, an enticing geography that will stretch Russia, and constant emaciating warfare will wear down Russia enough to succumb to the West’s overwhelming dominance in Europe – allowing the West/NATO to lock Russia in on all sides, erect a perpetually virtual siege, and impose enough pain on Russia to create the conditions for regime change, dumping Putin and democratization in the tradition of the rest of Europe. A long shot but a probable plan. Putin will just have to be nice enough or dumb enough to comply with all of this.
Another walk on the tightrope of the economic playbook accompanies in parallel. Russia is heavily sanctioned – incomparably in fact; its banks are disaffected from the global financial system, leaving only a minor window for dependent Western European countries to pay for the Russian oil and gas that keep flowing; the United States plans to stop its own imports of Russian oil causing a stratospheric rise in the price of oil worldwide. Russia and Ukraine both supply a quarter of the world’s staples, particularly wheat, which if cut off from the supply system due to sanctions and the ongoing war will lead to a meteoric appreciation of its cost. Sorting out edible supplies in dependent economies will only run amok, creating social and political distress in societies. Governments will change and societies will fragment. A world barely emerging from a nearly three-year disruption with Covid will now have to deal with this. Supply lines will stagnate and the world will willy-nilly slide back into an economic recession around rampant inflation and a stalled global economy. Russia too will suffer, as will the United States and most of Europe. The poorest nations in Asia and Africa will suffer the most, giving rise to crime and domestic instability.
Politics will ensue after the economy has bitten long. Russia may well be pushed into another revolution – West hopes this one is for democracy. The United States and Europe will give rise to multiple ultra-right sentiments and cause major polarization and rifts in their societies. Somewhere in there, the world will have to find a new balance. The world is too tied together not to suffer when one part hurts. This is the new reality. Seeking political ends by taking advantage of the economy is a bad strategy and myopic but a tool all the same in modern wars. Russia and the United States will have to stop somewhere and respect the limits of the existing order. Any further redrawing will only be disruptive, destructive and disastrous.
On the contrary, Russia could stop after controlling the Kharkiv-Odessa axis and engage in meaningful negotiations with Ukraine. If in the process and under increased pressure on Kiev, according to Zelensky, Russia would have achieved its main war objective. Alternatively, he could simply trade the won territories for Ukraine keeping his pro-Russian bias while keeping Donbass as a land bridge to Crimea. If Russia gets involved in the war of the metropoles, it could very well deliver to the United States what it aims for, but at a price which it does not understand. The world could indeed be on the verge of a profound political and economic transformation.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 11and2022.