When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago many analysts expected a quick catharsis in line with the prevailing view of war as a short hymn to military power.
That view had taken shape over many decades as memories of wars in ancient times through the 18th century faded. The 200-year long Roman-Persian war was far away as were the 100-year religious war and the 30-year war in Europe. Wars became shorter and shorter. The Napoleonic wars, staring with the French Revolution lasted 23 years.
The American war of secession lasted four years. The four-year long war became a pattern repeated in both world wars. The US-Philippines war lasted three years as did the Korean War. The US-Spain war lasted eight months while the US-Mexico War took two years.
As always there was one exception to the new rule: the Vietnam War that lasted almost 10 years.
However, we also had the Six Day war between Israel and its Arab neighbors and the US capture of Grenada in four days. The war between Argentine and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands lasted 70 days.
The image of war as a short sharp clash was shaken by the Soviet war in Afghanistan that lasted almost 10 years and the Iran-Iraq war that lasted eight years.
However, when Putin’s invasion of Ukraine came most analysts still saw war as a short hymn to victory not a long symphony of death in four movements.
Heading for its second year, the Ukraine war seems set to become a long symphony of death rather than short hymn to victory.
Why has Ukraine become the scene of a costly positional warfare that may last forever, if such a thing as forever exists? One reason is that it was not launched as a means of altering the status quo but as an attempt at totally effacing the very context in which the status quo had taken shape. Putin wanted to Russify Ukraine which, despite a long history of sharing the experience of Russian-ness was on a new trajectory towards a distinct Ukrainian identity.
Thus they felt that rising defeat on the battleground is less than surrendering to superior force on the way to extinction as a nation-state.
No war is won or lost until one side admits defeat or one side totally destroys the other side. Hitler could not admit defeat, a possibility that was urged
on him even until 1944, because that would have meant the end of his Reich.
In the Six Day war, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul-Nasser could admit defeat because that did not pose an existential threat to Egypt or his dream of one day crossing the Suez Canal in the opposite direction.
The symphonic war in Ukraine started with a short and sharp overture that saw Putin’s troops reaching part of the Ukrainian shores of the Dnieper River and advancing to Donbass. That was followed by Ukraine’s success in stopping the Russian advance just weeks after the invasion.
By April what had started as a war of movement had morphed into a war of position. Since then Ukrainian success in recapturing chunks of territory has created the illusion of movement. However, reality on the ground depicts a stalemate in military terms.
That stalemate has not prevented, or may even have caused, socio-political changes not only in Russian held chunks of the Donbass but also in the Crimean Peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.
In Lugansk, Moscow has lost the control it had until a few months ago.The annexed Ukrainian territory is now divided among several contenders for control.
Local pro-Russian militia still dominates in one portion of the territory while Wagner mercenaries have set up their own fiefdom. Chechen “volunteers” and Syrian “contract” fighters are present in another chunk of Lugansk. In Crimea, Putin has created mixed armed units of Tatars and ethnic Russians as auxiliaries for his army in the face of manpower shortage.
In Donetsk, Russia is increasingly worried about local pro-Russian groups switching sides. This is why the pace, at which inhabitants of Donetsk are transferred to Russia, ostensibly for humanitarian reasons, has accelerated in recent weeks.
In both Donetsk and Lugansk, the absence of effective authority has allowed criminal gangs, including black-marketers and human traffickers, to set operational bases.
The deadly stalemate, the symphony of death, is prolonged both by Putin’s failure to realize that his aim of de-Ukrianizing Ukraine has entrapped him in a long war of position that he can only pursue by incessant and ultimately counter-productive attacks, short of total war, on civilian targets, that could only reinforce Ukrainian defiance. The appointment of General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s top military as commander in the Ukraine war, shows that Putin isn’t ready to change his trajectory.
However, the US and its European allies are also helping prolong this war. Anti-West analysts claim that this is because the US and the European Union wish to prolong the war to bleed Russia while creating a new status quo in Europe with expanding NATO.
I don’t share that view. But I think that the Biden administration as its principal European allies, Germany and France, lack the vision, or the courage, to provide Ukraine with the hardware needed to threaten Russia’s sense of immunity. Writing fat checks, offering a limited range of recycled weapons, and diplomatic gesticulations such as setting up a tribunal against Putin and his associates, won’t shorten this symphony of death.
Things are not going well for Russia. Putin has failed to create a network of dependable allies while Russia’s industry is under pressure to supply the material needs of this costly war. The only way to shorten this deadly symphony is to raise its rhythm and tempo towards a crescendo that could come if and when Putin feels he has lost control of the war.
The war in Afghanistan was shortened when President Ronald Reagan’s administration supplied the anti-Soviet insurgency with Stinger missiles that ended the Red Army’s control of skies with helicopter gunships and troop carriers.
The decision by Britain and France to supply Ukraine with two or three dozens of motorized vehicles and tanks, with a nod from Washington, shows that Western powers are still locked into the stalemate that Putin hopes to maintain on the ground. The Stinger moment that could shorten this war has not yet arrived.