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  1. The Weekend Essay
2 September 2023

The realists were right

As the much-hyped counteroffensive against Russian forces stalls, the West is asking hard questions about the war in Ukraine.

By Lily Lynch

Eighteen months into the war in Ukraine the breathless hype that characterised early media coverage has curdled into doom. This is the deepest trough of despair that the wartime media has entered yet: the past month of reporting has given us new admissions about a war that increasingly appears to be locked in bloody stalemate, along with a portrait of Ukraine and its leadership shorn of the rote glorification and hero worship of the conflict’s early days. The deadlock has increasingly resembled brutal, unabating, First World War-style combat, with the Ukrainian army rapidly depleting artillery ammunition supplied by the West. Distant audiences, who always treated the war as a team sport, and Ukraine as an underdog defying the odds against a larger aggressor, are thinning out; surely many will soon turn their attention to the partisan conflict of the forthcoming US presidential election. Optimists say the change in the media’s tone is indicative of little more than the inevitable pendulum swings of war and that Ukraine may yet emerge victorious. But such a view elides a host of unavoidable realities.

At the centre of this cascade of disappointment lies Ukraine’s poor performance in the overhyped “spring counteroffensive”, which arrived several months late. Boosters in the press set expectations so high that Ukraine was practically set up for failure. “We’re about to see what a decentralised, horizontal, innovative high-tech force can do,” Jessica Berlin, a German and American political analyst, wrote in May. “Ukraine may be underfunded, undermanned and underequipped compared to Russia. But those tactical, adaptive Ukrainian strengths deliver what money can’t buy and training can’t teach. Get ready for some stunners.” In the Daily Telegraph, the soldier-turned-civilian-military-expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon was effusive as recently as June: “As a former tank commander, I can say one thing for certain: Putin’s demoralised conscripts are utterly unprepared for the shock action now hitting their lines.”

But by most accounts, the counteroffensive has been a profound letdown. A Washington Post article published on 17 August cited a classified assessment by the US intelligence community which said that Ukraine’s counteroffensive would “fail to reach the key southeastern city of Melitopol”, meaning that Kyiv “would not fulfil its principal objective of severing Russia’s land bridge to Crimea”. Other analyses have testified to the same. As Roland Popp, strategic analyst at the Swiss Military Academy at ETH Zurich told me, “The main cause for the change in [the media’s] tune is certainly general disappointment about Ukrainian military performance in the much-anticipated ‘counteroffensive’. Military experts in Western think tanks had whipped up high expectations based on Ukrainian successes in Kharkiv and Kherson last year. They ignored the Russian ability to adapt – which is historically the main factor explaining the changing odds during wars – and overstated the effects of Western weapons technology and doctrine.”

It is said that “success has a hundred fathers but failure is an orphan”, and a rush to allocate blame for the underwhelming counteroffensive is now under way. Some Western military experts blame the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ failures on its “Soviet legacy”. And several recent articles have condemned Ukraine for refusing to follow US instruction. “The thinly disguised criticism of Ukrainian operational decision-making is also intended to distract from [their] own misjudgments,” Popp said. American officials have complained through media that Ukraine has focused too much on the city of Bakhmut and other points in the East, wasting Western-furnished artillery in crushing barrages, and asserted that Kyiv should concentrate its forces in an area around Tokmak in the south of the country and its artillery fire only on the most important targets. Through unnamed sources and leaks to the press, a story of a more frustrated US-Ukraine relationship has emerged in recent weeks. “We built up this mountain of steel for the counteroffensive. We can’t do that again,” one disappointed former US official is quoted as telling the Washington Post. “It doesn’t exist.” 

[See also: History offers Ukraine slender hope for a decisive victory]

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“They are clearly trying to show some distance from Ukraine’s decision-making even as the official line is ‘we’re with them 100 per cent’,” Ben Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think tank, said. The Ukrainian side, on the other hand, blames the West for its reluctance to furnish it with weapons and supplies. To cite but one of many examples communicated through the press, an anonymous source in the general staff recently told the Economist that Ukraine had received just 60 Leopard tanks despite having been promised hundreds. Adding to the irritation was the disappointment at the Nato summit in Vilnius in July, where Ukraine was not granted a much hoped-for timeline for accession to the military alliance. Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, responded to the news in a series of furious tweets, calling the decision “unprecedented and absurd”.

But the stage was set for these deflated hopes in the war’s first weeks in 2022. Early on, reporters framed the war as one of David vs Goliath, in which Ukrainian grandmothers downed Russian drones with jars of pickles. Ukraine’s astonishing performance in Kharkiv fuelled expectations. Early mythmaking has made recent disappointments all the more bitter. “There were wishful expectations that Russia would collapse, fold early on, especially after Ukraine heroically survived the first round, and people got carried away,” Patrick Porter, the realist scholar of international relations, said.

Compounding the disillusionment is the fact that the early shock of the war has worn off, meaning it’s lost some of its initial sense of urgency – especially as war takes its toll far beyond Ukraine. “There was the initial widespread feeling of revulsion; then, people were naturally drawn towards ‘we must not compromise’, and moral and strategic maximalism,” Porter said. “That’s easier to hold when you’re not yet feeling the pain. Now, materially, there are costs everywhere.” And while the immediate convulsion of fear that accompanied the full-scale invasion was so strong that it prompted Sweden and Finland to apply to join Nato, the initial panic has since faded, and evolved into a more ambient dread about a long war of attrition, rising inflation, recession and food insecurity.

Recently, Ukraine itself has also been depicted in a more complicated light. On 19 August the New York Times published a story about Kyiv’s wartime policy of jailing conscientious objectors. Meanwhile, Zelensky’s new proposal to equate corruption with treason, transferring cases from anti-graft agencies to the security service, was met with unusually harsh condemnation in Politico. And this summer both the Guardian and BBC have published articles about Ukrainian deserters and men employing other means to avoid conscription, including barricading themselves inside their homes and using Telegram channels to warn other men about the location of roving military recruitment officials. On 24 February 2022 a presidential decree imposed martial law which forbade men aged between 18 and 60 from leaving Ukraine. But according to a BBC report in June this year, tens of thousands of men have crossed the Romanian border alone, and at least 90 men have died attempting to make the perilous crossing, either freezing to death in the mountains or by drowning in the Tisa River.

Further, the Economist recently published an article about the Ukrainian public’s waning morale. Most men eager to defend Ukraine joined the armed forces long ago, and many are now dead. The country now recruits among those effectively forced. Individually, stories about conscientious objectors, deserters, those hiding from conscription, and a war-weary public can appear anecdotal, but taken together, they begin to undermine one of the foundational tenets of the war: that Ukrainians want to fight, in the words of Joe Biden, the US president, “for as long as it takes”. And as expectations are dramatically scaled back, one cannot help but ask: for as long as it takes to do what?

As a more sober reality sets in, it’s worth asking why Western governments and the media were such effusive boosters of Ukraine’s war effort. The writer Richard Seymour has suggested that part of it was about identity formation, wherein Ukraine is emblematic of an “idealised Europe” or even democracy itself, while Russia represents Oriental despotism and authoritarianism. The war thus embodies the supposed civilisational struggle theorised by Samuel Huntington between democracies and autocracies, promoted by the Biden administration through initiatives such as its Summit for Democracy. That annual event aims to “renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad”, underlining the continuity between liberal opposition to the putative authoritarian affinities of Donald Trump and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

But beyond the merely symbolic there was a practical rationale for the kinds of coverage we saw in the war’s early months: the conflict in Ukraine has revived a waning Atlanticism – a long-sought aim of proponents of Nato enlargement. Just a few years ago Emmanuel Macron, the French president, declared Nato “braindead”; the war in Ukraine has brought it back to life. Finland and Sweden applied to join. Critics say that the governments of both countries used “shock doctrine” tactics to convince their respective populations to abandon their policy of neutrality, making the decision to apply for membership while the war was top news and the public was still afraid.

Some have wondered whether the media’s shift in tone – and all the anonymous messages transmitted by official US sources – presage an imminent change in policy: negotiations, a peace settlement, or ceasefire. But most experts agree that it is still too early for that. “Russia’s invasion has been a particularly brutal war, one with many atrocities,” Porter explained. “Ukrainians are unlikely to accept peace negotiations yet.” For both Russia and Ukraine, the war is a primal one, and nowhere near its end. But the new crop of articles does mark a return of a sceptical tone largely suppressed until recently. In November last year General Mark A Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, proposed a negotiated settlement to the war. Following Ukraine’s successes in Kharkiv and Kherson, he asserted that “you want to negotiate from a position of strength” and that “Russia right now is on its back”. The Biden administration promptly distanced itself from the idea. Publicly, the US pledged support for Ukraine’s total victory, but privately, many in the administration were said to have shared Milley’s scepticism. Late last month, some in media started revisiting the general’s remarks, suggesting that perhaps he had been right all along.

[See also: Putin has declared war on Russia]

Realists, most infamously John Mearsheimer, who are highly controversial among liberal boosters of Ukraine, have long warned of the dangers of the exalted rhetoric and mythmaking among Western governments and media. In an op-ed for Politico published in spring 2022, Porter, along with the grand strategy experts Friedman and Justin Logan, cautioned against the risk of “giving Ukraine false hope”, and stressed that “the rhetoric-policy gap could also raise excessive Ukrainian expectations of support”. Eighteen months into the war, with a dejected Zelensky chastising Nato for insufficient support, their unheeded warnings look prescient.

Instead of total victory, at summer’s end the media now appears to be girding the Western public for a long, protracted war of attrition. The editorial board of the Washington Post, citing US statistics of nearly half a million killed or injured, recently cautioned that “no end to the carnage is in sight, and calls for a negotiated solution are wishful thinking at this point”. The editorial asserts grimly that “the war could continue for years – waxing, waning or frozen”. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies has also recently warned that “the most probable outcome… is a war of attrition that has no clear outcome or time limit”. Le Monde also reported that in July a French general, Jacques Langlade de Montgros, warned that the conflict in Ukraine “is a war of attrition, set for the long term” like “two boxers in a ring, exhausting each other blow by blow, not knowing which one will call first”.

Also hanging over the grim media coverage is the 2024 US presidential election. “The Biden administration now has the difficult task of convincing the public that an attritional approach, that is, opting for a long war, can still lead to some kind of Ukrainian victory or at least a standstill in order to maintain support for continued financial and military assistance for Ukraine,” Popp said. The war in Ukraine has polarised US public opinion. According to a recent poll by CNN, 71 per cent of Republicans are against new funding for Ukraine; among Democrats, 62 per cent support it. Significantly, the war has also divided the Republican Party. At the first Republican presidential candidate debate on 23 August, the cracks in the party were on full display: the insurgent populist right, embodied in the millennial figure of Vivek Ramaswamy, hopes to see such aid diminished or eliminated entirely, while more conventional Republicans like Chris Christie and former vice-president Mike Pence expressed a commitment to continuing it. Ramaswamy said: “I think that this is disastrous, that we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else’s border, when we should use those same military resources to prevent… the invasion of our own southern border here in the United States of America.” He also mocked American deference to Zelensky, referring to him as some politicians’ “pope” to whom they paid pilgrimage while ignoring domestic catastrophes. Trump, who was not on the debate stage, called for an end to the war in an interview with Tucker Carlson, saying “that’s a war that should end immediately, not because of one side or the other, because hundreds of thousands of people are being killed”. And now, it appears that most Republicans agree with the positions of the populist candidates: 59 per cent say they believe that the US has “already done enough to support Kyiv”.

But for some, hope is not yet lost. There is new talk of a “reset” of Ukrainian strategy. In a Washington Post op-ed co-authored by David Petraeus, a retired US army general, and Frederick W Kagan, of the American Enterprise Institute, readers were cautioned against excess pessimism. The authors argued that major breakthroughs could happen at any moment, and that Ukraine is indeed making slow, steady progress, field by field. Those with similarly optimistic views argue that the media always vacillates wildly between unrealistic claims of imminent victory and maudlin pronunciations about catastrophic losses, both territorial and human, and the spectre of a war without end. But that the increasingly exhausted public – in Ukraine and the West – will be eager to accede to more war with the same enthusiasm it did in the war’s early months appears less likely by the hour.

[See also: What if Ukraine loses?]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain