With the failure of Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive despite billions in armaments and months of training, the post mortems have begun.
They follow: The West was too slow in providing missiles and aircraft; Russia had too much time to prepare trenches and minefields; Ukraine needed more time to learn combined-arms tactics and employ Western armor effectively. Yet underlying all these excuses was a broader analytical failing that has yet to be acknowledged: flawed and often facile historical analogies led defense planners to underestimate Russia’s resilience.
Even today, with the horrific costs of overconfidence plain to all and Ukraine at a crucial crossroads, the same flawed analysis of the Russian adversary persists.
Time and again, policymakers and commentators based their expectations of the war based on flawed historical parallels. One example is Russia’s acceptance of mass casualties and use of “human wave” attacks where they lose three or more soldiers for every Ukrainian casualty.
Time and again — right up to the present — commanders and commentators cite this as a sign of severe Russian weakness. Whether discussed in the jargon of an “asymetrical attrition gradient,” or simply referring to Russian soldiers as “cannon fodder,” analysts frequently note that such profligacy with human lives is a legacy of ponderous Soviet and Tsarist armies.
But what they fail to note is that this tactic often brought victory. Tsarist armies took massive casualties in battles with Swedish, Persian and Turkish forces as they built the Russian empire. In defeating Napoleon, the Russians suffered as many casualties as the French despite the advantage of fighting on their home ground and their familiarity with the Russian winter.
Soviet Marshal Zhukov absorbed 860,000 casualties to the Germans’ 200,000 at the Battle of Kursk in World War II. He also lost 1,500 tanks to the Germans’ 500, yet Kursk is remembered as a great triumph that crushed Hitler’s final hopes of victory. Can one imagine Germany celebrating its superior casualty ratio while being defeated by Stalin’s hordes?
However shocking this tactic may be, it is a resource that Moscow has and Kyiv does not. Consider the battle for Bakhmut and the daily bulletins trumpeting Ukraine’s success in killing thousands of Russians, right up to the moment that Bakhmut fell to Wagner Group mercenaries — weirdly reminiscent of the Pentagon’s body-count bulletins in the Vietnam war.
At Bakhmut Ukraine lost the indispensable cream of its army to hordes of dispensable Russian convicts-turned-storm troopers in doomed defense of a strategically insignificant town that President Zelenskyy vowed would not fall. The average age of Ukrainian soldiers is now 43.
Losing Bakhmut hurt Ukrainian morale, but it is Russian morale that pundits say is shot. And they remind us that military disasters sparked Russian uprisings in the past — in 1905 after defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, or the debacle of WWI that led to the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in 1917.
Given their hardships and suffering, why wouldn’t Russians do it again and overthrow Putin? Pundits often ignore that, after a decade of economic chaos and global humiliation in the 1990s, Putin is respected for restoring stability and national pride. Tsar Nicholas II, by contrast, was rather more like Boris Yeltsin — weak and out of touch, reliant on hated advisers, presiding over chaos.
It’s also likely that, unlike a distant debacle with Japan or European carnage triggered by an Austro-Serbian dispute, many Russians believe in this war because they see Crimea and Donbas as historically and culturally Russian.
Whether it stems more from deep-seated imperial attitudes or a decade of anti-Western propaganda, Russians still back Putin and even take pride in standing up to the best NATO can throw at them. An effort to appreciate the views of Putin and his people is not being “pro Russian” even if we find those views wrong or repugnant.
On the contrary, such an approach is key to “thinking in time” with accurate historical analogies, and vital to avoiding the conceit of assuming that Russian soldiers or citizens will behave as we would.
On the eve of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman General Mark Milley declared that Russians “lack leadership, they lack will, their morale is poor, and their discipline is eroding.” Of course, if your main historical lesson is that Russian armies crack under strain, then you look closely for signs of dissent and soon find a looming collapse.
This is how superficial history joins with confirmation bias to produce flawed analysis. Stymied by fierce Russian fighting, Ukrainians troops themselves told Milley he was wrong: “We expected less resistance. They are holding. They have leadership. It is not often you say that about the enemy.”
As Kyiv’s crisis deepens and recriminations spill out in public, commanders at all levels of the Ukrainian Armed Forces agree that they and their NATO advisers badly misjudged Russian tenacity: “This big counteroffensive was based on a simple calculation: when a Moskal [slur for ethnic Russian] sees a Bradley or a Leopard, he will just run away.”
But what about taking the fight to Russia? Former CIA Director General David Petraeus predicted that Russian resolve could “crumble” in response to Ukrainian drone attacks on Moscow. Such strikes “bring the war to the Russian people” and might convince Putin’s regime that, like the USSR’s Cold War quagmire in Afghanistan, Russia’s current war in Ukraine is “ultimately unsustainable.”
In fact the old Soviet elite did not see the Afghan war as unsustainable, nor were they much concerned about public opinion. It took both a generational transition and a bold new leader who prioritized improving ties with the West — Mikhail Gorbachev — to finally manage an exit.
The point is not that war isn’t costly. The Afghan war was, and the Ukraine war is even more so. The point is that accepting defeat in a major war that was justified as a vital national interest is unlikely until there is both a new leader and turnover in the ruling elite.
As for “bringing war to the Russian people” by bombing Moscow, when did that ever work? NATO brought the Kosovo War to the Serbian people in 1999 by bombing Belgrade, and it only rallied them to the side of dictator Slobodan Milošević; 25 years later, Serbs remain strongly pro-Russian and anti-NATO. And when Chechen rebels bombed Moscow and other Russian cities in the early 2000s, it only rallied Russians around Putin and helped justify his increasingly authoritarian rule.
These aren’t mere historical quibbles, but illustrations of flawed analogies that framed both strategic expectations and tactical decisions. And they have cost dearly, in both Ukrainian lives and now Western support. Confidence in Washington-Brussels elites falls even as officials still claim that Ukraine is winning and Putin “cannot outlast” the West.
In fact, as NATO empties its warehouses of equipment and misses deadlines for producing new munitions, it’s hard to conclude otherwise unless one is trapped in another oversimplified WWII analogy: that of America as the “arsenal of democracy.”
Many have contrasted America’s innovative private arms producers with Russia’s technology-starved state factories, predicting that Moscow would soon exhaust its munitions. Instead, Russia has consistently belied the “all brawn and no brains” narrative, not only outproducing the West in tanks, artillery and shells but defying sanctions to develop new precision-guided bombs, drones and missiles. Perhaps those discounting Russian ingenuity forgot the Katyusha multiple-rocket launcher, a legendary artillery weapon that both the Germans and Americans copied in WWII.
With a looming crisis in efforts to keep Kyiv supplied with munitions, it is useful to look closer at American arms production in WWII, when the “arsenal of democracy” was in certain respects more like Putin’s economy than Biden’s. But today Washington faces a complex set of institutional obstacles: “least-cost production models,” contractor aversion to stockpiling, export restrictions, and environmental regulations the likes of which do not trouble Putin.
A final lesson from WWII’s “armaments race” is a caution against technological hubris such as that seen in today’s gushing about the superiority of Western Leopard or Abrams tanks over the Russian T-72 and T-80. Germany’s Tiger tank was clearly superior to the Soviet T-34 in WWII, but the latter was cheap, reliable, and easy to produce in numbers; at Kursk, Soviet tanks outnumbered German ones by 2:1.
So as NATO planners and media pundits take up the “cannon fodder” refrain again with reference to the heavy losses Russians are taking as they advance in the battle for Avdiivka, these planners and pundits would do well to consider a quip famously attributed to Soviet wartime leader Josef Stalin: “Quantity has a quality all its own.”
Professor Robert English specializes in Russian and Post-Soviet Politics at the University of Southern California. A former Defense Department analyst, he also teaches courses on Technology and Conflict and the Political Economy of Post Communism. English is currently PI on a National Science Foundation project analyzing the collision of geopolitics and the environment in the Arctic. He has written widely on the Cold War's end and aftermath.
Photo credit: Soviet troops of the Voronezh Front counterattack behind T-34 tanks during the Battle of Kursk. (Unknown Red Army photographer/ CC BY 4.0)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.