A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 19, 2022

Why Despite Possible Belarus Attack, This Remains Ukraine's War To Win

Ukraine is winning because it is better led, more highly motivated, better trained and better equipped by more effective allies. 

In other words, in socio-economic and military terms it is the superior power. And if Russia is foolish enough to attack from Belarus, Ukraine will be waiting. JL  

Phillips O'Brien reports in his substack:

The New York Times, like many analyzing the war before Feb 24, really seem to think that possessing weapons is the indicator of power. It's not. Military power is the creation of a deeper societal, technological, economic and political structure. Its why Russia was always going to fail in its invasion. Which is why the power of the old narrative, which the Times still harbors, persists. Ukrainian officials state that the Russians might start a new offensive from Belarus towards Kyiv, but they believe the Ukrainian army would be more than ready for it. This is Ukraine’s war to win, because Ukraine is the more well-rounded power.

Its been another week with very little movement of the front line. The Russian attacks at Bakhmut continue and there are probing attempts by the Ukrainians in a number of places, but little change. Much of the discussion, not surprisingly, has turned therefore to what is coming (and what was) and so I thought I would spend some time talking about those.

In terms of what is coming maybe the most notable statements were those emanating from the Ukrainian government. We had two major interviews, one by General Zaluzhny in the Economist and the other by Defence Minister Reznikov in the Guardian.


General Zaluzhny was maybe the more pessimistic, and talked about a large Russian offensive in the Spring.


He claimed that the Russians were preparing a fresh army of 200,000 troops and with it would have another go at Kyiv.

Minister Reznikov was a little less pessimistic. He talked about Russia using 150,000 new troops in an offensive against Ukraine.


Now its a really interesting question as to how we should view these statements. All I will say is that in off-the-record discussions with Ukrainian officials they state that yes, the Russians might start a new offensive say from Belarus towards Kyiv, but they believe the Ukrainian army would be more than ready for it.

Also it should be kept in mind that starting an offensive with 150,000 troops who are still barely trained (yes they are barely trained—they were basically stolen off the streets in September, and placed into unprepared facilities) is extraordinarily risky, one might say suicidal. They would hardly have basic-training level skills, and that would be if things were prepared. They would have been rushed through a system, would have only rudimentary knowledge of much of their equipment, and would be expected to launch a combined arms offensive against one of the most combat-experienced forces in the world? Without air supremacy and with old equipment mostly taken out of storage? That would normally be seen as a recipe for disaster.

My own view, for what its worth, is that the Ukrainians have decided to use the spectre of a possible Russian assault on Kyiv to try and speed up the pace of weapons delivery for themselves. Reports are that the Ukrainians, like the Russians, are using up their ammunition stocks at a high rate—much higher than they probably every planned for. They cant start another significant offensive themselves until they have rebuilt their stocks—and I would guess this language is as much to try and get what they need so that they can keep pressing as opposed to worry that the Russians can pull of some grand offensive of their own.

As an interesting evidence of that, CIA director Bill Burns gave an interview to PBS where he claimed that the Russian Army is in worse condition than the Ukrainians, and the Ukrainians were the ones looking to maintain the momentum. The exact words he used were: “The Russian military is badly battered right now. The Ukrainian military is determined to keep up the pressure, build on their battlefield successes of the last several months. But they also need time to refit and resupply.”


So I understand why the Ukrainian leadership is talking up the possibility of a large Russian offensive in the coming months, but I do worry that they are overdoing it a little. In the past in the war, the more they have talked about their difficulties, the more it actually plays into the hands of those who would like the US, for one, to push the Ukrainians to make concessions. I know I harp on it regularly, but what remains important is that the Ukrainians continue to demonstrate a path to victory. US public support for the Ukrainian cause will remain strong as long as the US public believes that they are on track to win. The more that the narrative transforms to Russia is getting strong again and will soon attack Kyiv—the more that is likely to weaken support for Ukraine.

This fundamental misunderstanding of US public opinion is something I started mentioning back in May, when the narrative started emerging that US public opinion would soon get bored. It wont, it will lose interest if Ukraine is seen as not winning.


Reporting on the War: Oldies and not Goodies

Now that tweet thread from May was done up in response to a New York Times editorial arguing (completely inaccurately as its been shown) that US public opinion would soon lose interest in the war. Now, Im a online subscriber to the Times, and I read the paper daily. However their war reporting, while interesting, regularly takes certain ‘lines’ that I think are not reflective of the reality of the war and how it should be understood.

In May after the Russians (temporarily) seized Kherson, I put together a tweet thread that the Times reporting did not understand what it was looking at.

Now that was the second thread I put together on the subject. On March 20, less than a month after the invasion when people like Michael Kofman were still talking like the Russian Army was super-powerful and searching around for Russian victories, I put together this thread on the subject.

Now Kofman got upset for being called out on his weak understanding of what was happening and at that point actually blocked me on twitter (something to this day which makes me laugh when he and his backers like to discuss his supposed integrity). Anyway, I bring this all up to show that the Times has, I would argue, still never come to grips with the reality of Russian military power. They had spent so long giving great amplification to voices like Kofman’s that argued Russia was a great power with one of the most impressive militaries in the world, that they still seem look back at the start of the war in that way.


Now this vision is one that they cant shake, as evidenced by the major story in the Times yesterday, about Russian military performance.


This story is in many ways great. They have gained access to Russian primary sources from the start of the war (the invasion timetable alone is remarkable) and gotten some important reflections on the state of the Russian potemkin military. The description of the impact of Russian corruption near the start is telling.

“The Russian military, despite Western assumptions about its prowess, was severely compromised, gutted by years of theft. Hundreds of billions of dollars had been devoted to modernizing the armed forces under Mr. Putin, but corruption scandals ensnared thousands of officers. One military contractor described frantically hanging enormous patriotic banners to hide the decrepit conditions at a major Russian tank base, hoping to fool a delegation of top brass. The visitors were even prevented from going inside to use the bathroom, he said, lest they discover the ruse.”

And then its like a switch, and the article reverts to earlier tropes about the Russians squandering their supposed dominance through choice, and losing an opportunity to overwhelm the Ukrainians, etc etc.

These kind of statements show how the flawed pre-Feb 24 analysis still infects much of the public discussion of the Russian military (in a way that remains problematic to the Ukrainians). The Russian military never could have steamrollered the Ukrainians. It wasnt by choice that they failed, it was because 1) the Ukrainians were much better prepared than many still seem to understand and 2) The Russian military was a deeply flawed institution that could not execute its plans.

Its telling that the Times piece, to try and show how strong the Russian Army should have been, dwells on the supposed excellence on its weapons.

“Ukraine should have been overwhelmed. By one count, its fighter jets were outnumbered 15 to one in some early air battles. Russia’s planes were also more advanced, helping its pilots see farther and strike from greater distances. Russia had thousands of cruise and ballistic missiles that should have smothered Ukraine’s aging, Soviet-era defenses. That is what American and Ukrainian intelligence officials assumed, anyway, leading to predictions that Ukraine would fall within days.”

No if Ukraine should have been overwhelmed, it eventually would have been. The Russian armed forces were nowhere near good enough to overwhelm the motivated and well-led Ukrainians. This is because the Times, much like many analyzing the war before Feb 24, really seem to think that possessing weapons is the indicator of power. Its not. Military power is the creation of a deeper societal, technological, economic and political structure that manufactures it.


Its why Russia was always going to fail in its invasion. So my worry in this week is that the power of the old narrative, which the Times still seems to harbor and which the Ukrainians are, understandably but I would say mistakenly, feeding, persists.

This is Ukraine’s war to win, because Ukraine is the more well-rounded power.


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