Ukraine Collapse Starting. What Happens Next?

[If you see this not, it means our Ukraine piece launched before complete because reasons. Please check back at 7:45 AM]

Ukraine now resembles a patient with a terminal disease who is staring to exhibit multi-organ failure. His longevity is still uncertain but is measured in months, not years. It’s not obvious which system will go first and whether that one by itself will be fatal or will kick off the terminal cascade. But the odds of pulling out of the current trajectory are poor.

We’d like to step back and consider what Russia’s choices might be as Ukraine starts coming unglued.1 Many commentators are focusing on the question of territorial acquisition because it seems to be hard to get out of the habit of thinking that way. Recall that the object of war, per Clausewitz:

War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.

Russia may have a fundamental problem. It has arguably been Putin’s top objective, certainly with respect to the US and Europe, to come up with a new security architecture. That was the theme of his much-hated speech at the Munich Security Conference: No one is safe until all of us are safe.

Russia is very far along with one of its key aims, demilitarizing Ukraine, by virtue of not only depleting weapons stocks across the West and producing armaments at a rate the West cannot match, but sadly also by killing or maiming many of Ukraine’s service-age men, and now even women. Ukraine is considering and likely to pass what amounts to a mass mobilization bill. The US is now also committed to arming Israel; it’s not clear, given rising criticism across Europe of Israel’s genocide, if and when its allies will cut back on weapons supplies given their supposed disapproval. While it was noteworthy that the hyper aggressive German defense minister, Annelina Baerbock, whose country is defending Israel at the ICJ, criticize Israel’s conduct in unvarnished terms. But the tweet below points out, Germany has not yet cut back on weapons supplies:

The US and key European leaders are whipping up a “Russia will soon be in Paris” frenzy across the continent. And the problem Russia has is that, as the US has admitted, the war in Ukraine was a proxy war, with the US and NATO as the protagonists.

Even though Russia will soon be able to compel Ukraine to fulfill its will, it can’t do that to NATO, its ultimate opponent. So what is Russia’s next best outcome?

Our colleague Aurelian posited that Europe would eventually retreat into what he called “epic sulking” over its loss in Ukraine. But the level of “We need to rearm” hysteria means that will be some time in coming. Fortunately for Russia, the economic cost of Europe divorcing itself from cheap Russian energy and its accelerating de-industrialization will limit how much Europe can do to live up to its threat display. The US inability to reverse its long-standing, poor procurement practices (overpriced fussy weapons that not only are comparatively few in number but also don’t perform all that well in combat conditions) also means it seeming vanishingly unlikely to catch up with Russia as an arms designer and maker.

And in fact, when the US and Europe have finally internalized that they can’t outdo Russia’s war machine, and its overmatch in most important weapons categories along with its nukes amount to a formidable deterrent, they may indeed settle down to licking their wounds. But absent regime changes all across Europe, which is not impossible given the number of elections this year and voter unhappiness about their own strained budgets and officials prioritizing warmongering over domestic welfare, Europe will want to engage in as much threat display as possible and stoke hostility towards Russia among its citizens.

The fact that Russia is conducting what it has conceived of as a special military operation, as opposed to a full bore conventional war, where it would have flattened administrative buildings in Kiev and taking out the Internet and cell phone service long ago, is now leaving Russia with choices that a normal successful combatant in conflict would not face. Normally if you prevail, you occupy the enemy’s territory, kill or enslave its men, and take the womenfolk. The modern variants are manage the occupied territory badly and turn it into a near failed state (Iraq) or rebuild and turn it into a vassal (Germany and Japan).

By contrast, as we’ve intimated and Black Mountain Analysis has described, it is conceivable that the Ukraine military could break terminally not all that far from where the line of contact is now, which contrary to most historical wars, is well away from the government/administrative center. It’s suited Russia wonderfully well to have Ukraine keep feeding weapons and men into contested spots on the line of contact. It’s not far from Russia, facilitating resupply and even troop rotation. By contrast, Ukraine has had to schlepp all those wonderwaffen across the country. And Russia is also able to destroy anything that might resemble a military training center, further impeding Ukraine replenishing its now enormous losses.

As many commentators have pointed out, General Zaluzhny’s replacement, Oleksandr Syrsky, is in synch with Zelensky’s destructive inclination to try to hold ground at all costs. Syrsky is the “Butcher of Bakhmut” for feeding more men into the Russian meat-grinder in accordance with Zelensky’s wishes and apparently his own predisposition. Note that “Zaluzhny was liked by his men” seem overdone in light of the horrific death count; he’s rumored to have given preferential treatment to the Neo-Nazi contingents which seems a more likely explanation for his supposed popularity.2

Zelensky deems it necessary, as he once did with Bakhmut, to hold what he can of the southern Donetsk city of Adiivka, despite the fact that the Russias have created a cauldron which they could finish encircling pretty readily. With the US funding package still in play, Zelensky can’t afford a serious loss. Syrsky is willing to feed the remaining Ukraine reserves into the Adiivka killing field.

The Ukraine leadership has also been moving towards the politically-radioactive move of a general mobilization, even though it will probably get a kinder, gentler label.

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1 Forgive us for not going into the battlefield situation in detail; there are many excellent sites as well as Telegram channels that do a fine job. However, Dima at Military Summary, who admittedly can over-anticipate, has been describing the accelerating Russia tempo across the front line. Other commentators are describing the Ukraine defenses as cracking at multiple contested points. Liveuaamp.com, which is pro-Urkaine similarly shows a mass of Russian actions:

Similarly, the Institute for the Study of War’s latest Ukraine update tallies Russian advances and positional fighting; it’s hard to find any positive Ukraine sightings.

For those who have been following the conflict, the fact that Ukraine forces are starting to fail is no surprise. Ukraine is on its fourth army, throwing barely trained troops, now including women, against Russia soldiers, with a predictably short life expectancy. Ukraine is running low on material because the West is depleted and can’t supply much even when Washington finally gets around to a new authorization. The European funding packge just approved is not for arms. Not only are European stock drained, but now Russian-fearmongering is leading them to give higher priority to rebuilding their defenses. Zelensky has been footdragging on a mass mobilization. Not that killing more Ukrainians in the interest of your personal survival is a good idea, but if you’ve ruled out negotiation and surrender, it become obligatory. However, with the time it takes to pass legislation, the order would not become law until April. And even on a cannon-fodder accelerated timetable, the earliest new forces might get to the front is late April, more likely May. That seems way too late to do any good, even if they were well enough trained so as not to die quickly.

And the mainstream media is not doing much in the way of porcine maquillage. For instance, from Friday’s New York Times:

Ukraine’s military challenges go well beyond any single battle. American assistance, urgently needed, remains in doubt. Ukrainian troops are exhausted, and they lack weapons and ammunition. Air defense systems, crucial to protecting civilians from Russian missiles, are being steadily exhausted by repeated bombardments.

American officials assess that, without replenishment, Ukraine has enough air defenses to last until only next month.

If you checked out the Institute for the Study of War update, they give lead billing to the desperate state of Ukraine air defenses. More from the gray lady:

Western officials and military experts have warned that without U.S. assistance, a cascading collapse along the front is a real possibility later this year.

It would still be at least a couple of months before the lack of renewed aid has a widespread impact, they say. But without it, they add, it’s hard to see how Ukraine will be able to maintain its current positions on the battlefield.

By next month, Ukraine could struggle to conduct local counterattacks, and by early summer, its military might have difficulty rebuffing Russian assaults, the officials and analysts say.

2 Victoria Nuland was rumored to have come to Kiev to (probably among other things) persuade Zelensky to keep Zaluzhny. Nuland is close to Neo-Nazi leaders, such as the former head of the Right Sector Dmytro Yarosh. This theory would explain her bizarre, isolated night press conference in what I assume was Maidan Square. It screams that Zelensky denied her the use of government offices.

Note also that former lieutenant colonel Lawrence Wilkerson says Syrzky has a good reputation among foreign military types. So he may be terrible only as a willing implement of Zelensky’s bad tendencies.

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