Ukraine and Biden: Let’s not deceive ourselves for the reality is bleak

The mainstream media is reporting that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has “stalled” or even become a “stalemate,” even as the US government believes they are mounting a siege around key Ukrainian cities.  A siege, however, is not a stalemate.  It’s a slow, bloody stranglehold that will get much worse.

Last weekend, the man who spearheaded the successful surge in Iraq during the darkest days of the Sunni insurgency, General David Petraeus, told CNN’s State of the Union that the war in Ukraine was effectively a stalemate.  “It’s a stalemate. But we should note it’s a bloody stalemate.  Also, arguably, it’s a battle of attrition,” he said.  General Petraeus is obviously far more schooled in military matters than me, but this still seems like wishful thinking.  It is true that the Russian military has been unable to capture either the capital at Kyiv or other major cities like the southern port at Mariupol after facing stiffer than expected Ukrainian resistance.  At the same time, Russia’s far superior air power and near unlimited supply of rockets has enabled them to shell these cities from afar, inflicting massive damage on both critical infrastructure and civilian targets.  Mariupol, for instance, is estimated to be 90% destroyed, almost completely in ruins.  The Russian strategy also appears to have changed, from a blitzkrieg style attack with the goal of swiftly conquering cities to mounting long term sieges around critical targets.  Thus, their focus has been on encircling these population centers and preventing people and goods from moving in and out.  US officials concur, “Based on our assessments militarily, it does appear that he is reverting to siege tactics,” explained a U.S. official to The Wall Street Journal

All indications are that they are seeing at least some level of success in this regard.  The Financial Times described the conditions inside Mariupol as “hell on earth.”  Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, recently covered these developments for The Daily Mail.  In his opinion, “On the actual battlefield, the Russian offensive has undoubtedly slowed over the past week. But what is being described as a ‘stalled’ takeover may be the result of the Russians taking time to reorganize their forces and improve their logistics.”  He continued, “The truth on the ground is that Ukrainians are putting up stiff resistance everywhere in an effort to defend their cities and make the Russians pay for every inch of ground.  But short of the quick capture of Kyiv and the collapse of President Zelensky’s government, the Russian assault on Ukraine was always going to take time.  Conventional warfare is a time, manpower and equipment consuming effort and quick victories are rare.”  Mr. Roggio cited the northern city of Kharkiv as an example.  “The Russian military is now attempting to encircle Kharkiv, while pummeling it with artillery.  They also dispatched troops southward towards the town of Izium, which U.S. Defense officials said was taken yesterday.  If the Russians can push south of Izium, they can encircle Ukrainian troops in the northeastern part of Ukraine and cut them off from resupply.  This is a classic military maneuver. Once a force is surrounded, they will begin to run out of necessities, like food and ammo.”

This, of course, is the entire purpose of a siege, and they are by nature slow moving. The army besieging a city seems stalled because it just sits there, strangling it.  Once a city is surrounded, the question becomes can the occupants do anything to break the siege or can they at least continue to receive supplies?  The answer to that question in Ukraine is unknown at this point, but it is difficult to believe any city can hold out long term without being supplied by a Berlin-style airlift, which would require far more resources than the Ukrainians have at their disposal.  Given that Russia has shown no hesitancy in targeting civilians or destroying huge swaths of a city like Mariupol, we can expect the siege strategy to be supplemented by massive amounts of firepower.  There is little doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing to reduce any cities that continue to resist to dust, meaning the choice will ultimately be surrender or total destruction.  We saw this on Sunday, when Russia demanded the unconditional surrender of Mariupol itself before 5:00 AM Moscow time.  The Ukrainians refused, to their credit, but what difference does it really make when the city itself lies in almost complete ruins?  Ultimately, these are not the makings of a stalemate when the Ukrainian military is incapable of defending themselves from rocket attacks, nor can they prevent the start of a siege forever.  They have shown the tenacity to harry Russian forces as they surround a city, but at some point that will not be enough as Russia increases their stranglehold on anything coming in or out.  Sadly, these appear to be the makings of a slow moving slaughter.

The question now:  Is there anything we can really do about it?  President Biden is traveling to Europe later this week to meet with NATO allies in a show of solidarity, but will it prove to be anything more than show?  Again, it is difficult to see how that could truly be the case.  So far, Russia has been resistant to increasingly aggressive sanctions and anything short of a wholesale embargo seems unlikely to have an immediate effect.  This is not surprising when the existing sanctions have enough loopholes for Russia to alleviate the effects at least in the short term, sanctions in general are usually a long term strategy anyway, and China appears to be helping Russia whenever possible.  As far as I’m aware, no one truly believes the current sanction regime will prevent Putin from launching a single missile, much less pull out entirely.  President Biden famously remarked that no one thought sanctions could prevent a war, and no one has really demonstrated that they can end one quickly either.  This leaves us with either military action like a no-fly zone or direct humanitarian aid like an airlift.  Ukraine wants both for obvious reasons, but neither is palatable to NATO for equally obvious reasons, meaning we are likely to be stuck with a status quo that greatly favors a Russian victory.

I am hesitant to say this is inevitable given the grit shown by the Ukrainians and that Russia has been so far unable to achieve their strategic objectives.  Alas, it is difficult to identify any other likely outcome.  We should continue to help where we can, supplying arms and ammunition whenever possible.  We should also take more creative steps that directly target Russian morale and seek to disband their army in theater, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves as to the most likely outcome.  Russia is a bear and Ukraine is a squirrel.  These are the facts, but the United States government has been eager to distribute information about the conflict provided by Ukraine, information that should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism.  As Mr. Roggio described it, “Putin may be losing the information war, but Zelensky’s NATO concession suggests Ukraine may be losing on the battlefield. The West must not fool itself into thinking otherwise.”  He continued, “On the Western side of the information war, we were told from the opening days of the conflict that the Russian military would break due to high casualties and defections, loss of tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and aircraft, and domestic opposition.  Videos of Russian battlefield setbacks abound in the media, and strangely there is little reporting on Ukrainian losses.  And yet, over three weeks into the war, Vladimir Putin remains president and the Russian war machine has not collapsed but in fact continues its plodding, imperfect, and messy advance.”

This is the reality on the ground and, so far at least, no one has offered any ideas that could truly change it.  The mainstream media is, however, in the process of offering plenty of opportunities to deflect any blame from President Biden, turning him into some kind of hero for democracy that suffers from a “cursed presidency.”  David Smith writing for The Guardian quotes Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota.  “Biden has a cursed presidency.  He’s gotten nailed by the continuation of Covid, by inflation being out of control, by a lunatic leader in Russia and now soaring energy prices that are hitting voters in the pocketbook. They want to be able to get gas for their cars and not spend a hundred bucks.”  This is a continuation of a theme started last year claiming Biden is merely the “victim” of events.  It was nonsense then and it’s even more ridiculous now.  Biden was the one who promised to “shut down the virus.”  That is a direct quote.  He either overstated his own abilities or misled the country.  You can decide.  Likewise, Biden was warned that the pork-laden coronavirus “relief” legislation he signed last year would lead to inflation, including by advisors to former President Barack Obama.  He refused to listen to their advice.  The President is also the man who claimed he’d gone to toe with Putin and that Putin feared his Presidency.  Now, we’re learning that is certainly not the case.  These are his words.  He must be held accountable and certainly shouldn’t be treated as a mere observer, watching a cursed reality unfold around him, powerless to stop it.

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