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Ukraine, before counterattacking, seems prone to play up the idea it is teetering on the brink of failure. It is a risky gambit. A strategy built around exploiting emotional highs and lows, where impending defeat is closely followed by an unexpected battlefield achievement, offers enormous benefits—when it works. And while this well-worn stage tactic is a useful Hollywood plot device, the unintentional stink of failure can be contagious.
Right now, everything sounds terrible. The New York Times, reflecting Pentagon concerns over the staunch Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut, writes that Ukrainian casualties and ammunition consumption have been so unsustainable that an expected spring counteroffensive may not happen. The Washington Post is reporting that “grim assessments have spread a palpable, if mostly unspoken, pessimism from the front lines to the corridors of power in Kyiv.”
To be blunt, the news coming out of Ukraine is no worse than it was in mid 2022.
Back then, the key Ukrainian port of Mariupol had just fallen, Ukraine was covered in mud, and Western defeatism was everywhere. The Washington Post fretted that Ukraine had “completely run out of ammunition for the Soviet-era weapons that were the mainstay of its arsenal.” For every shell a Ukrainian gun fired, the Russians sent ten back.
Western observers abruptly abandoned all the pessimism two months later, when an apparently ammo-less Ukraine went on the offensive, pushing Russia out of Kherson and away from Kharkiv—recovering territory Ukraine still holds today.
In short, Ukraine is exceeding expectations at almost every level. The country is holding the line, forcing the once-mighty Russian superpower to beg Iran and China for aid. Russia’s military leaders are squabbling with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and on the battlefield, Russia’s gear keeps getting older and less reliable by the day, while Ukrainian forces are gradually getting better weaponry.
Use Lessons From World War II and the Korean War
The West is still getting reacquainted with the grim realities of large-scale, temperate zone warfare. The Korean conflict was fought 73 years ago, and the lessons learned on that bloody back-and-forth battlefield have long been forgotten.
Modern-day observers are still in denial about the carnage of modern, no-holds-barred warfare.
Large-scale invasions inflict an enormous number of casualties, and progress can often be measured in yards. In 1951, over a three-week fight for Korea’s “Bloody Ridge”, a single strategic geographical feature, the U.S. Marine Corps 2nd Division suffered 2,772 casualties while killing, capturing, or wounding some 15,363 adversaries. About 10% of Korea’s prewar population was killed in the war.
Despite advances in targeting and precision, conventional fights still consume an enormous amount of ordinance. In June 1953 alone, UN Forces in Korea fired 2.7 million shells of 105 mm and above. Against that sort of consumption rate, Ukraine’s recent request for a million or so 155 mm shells, on top of the million rounds already dontated, suggests efficient use rather than some sort of irresponsible profligacy.
Battles are always shaped around seasonal weather patterns. The “Rasputitsa” season—when mud makes off-road travel virtually impossible—is always a trying time on the battlefield, characterized by either a frustrating lull or a grinding fight from relatively static lines. Right now, few muddy frontline fighters in Ukraine will have anything positive to say.
A world far-too-used to Amazon’sAMZN overnight delivery must also realize that local ammunition shortages are a feature of modern warfare and may not reflect the wider supply situation. Ammunition shortfalls have complicated, emotional, and politically fraught roots, and can be manipulated for tactical, strategic, or economic advantage.
Just as often, they’re more a matter of perspective than anything.
Front-line soldiers, who see little beyond their gun or unit, are particularly quick to interpret any rationing as a sign of a systemic supply crisis. Even before the internet, the perception of widespread supply problems could unintentionally reach up and demoralize the upper ranks. Throughout the Korean War, top U.S. field commanders reported repeated “serious” or “critical” ammunition shortages when supply levels were within normal operational standards for the time.
When the Germans launched their successful World War II assault on the Crimea, their ammunition supplies were desperately low, and yet, they were able to convert their handful of bullets into big battlefield breakthroughs.
Certainly, supply crises are motivational, spurring complex, slow-moving bureaucracies into action. But they can backfire too. Munitions makers, long attuned to the boom-bust nature of their business, are perfectly happy to pad their small margins by supercharging the perception of a supply crisis—-and then charging more for their products.
That’s the way business gets done. The fact that Washington’s prestigious Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is consistently focusing media attention on U.S. ammunition shortfalls is no doubt pleasing to CSIS board members Pheobe Novakovic and Jin Roy Ryu, leaders of two big ammunition producers, General DynamicsGD and the South Korea-based Poongsan Group. But the regular analyst-driven drumbeat of defeat—while it spurs the U.S. to buy more ammunition—is eroding precious U.S. support for the defense of Ukraine.
Playing up a supply crisis, accentuating a gloom-and-doom message, can be a useful tactic in warfare. It lulls an opposing force into inaction and overconfidence while spurring more vigorous efforts to help. But there is a moment when a somewhat fabricated crisis can become a real thing. It is human nature; friends and allies tend to distance themselves from no-win situations.
Tinkering with global perceptions is a perilous process.
Big Wars Don’t Run On Western Media Cycles
The fact that nobody in the West is bothering to look back or recall past media coverage from a year ago is distressing. If anything, Western stakeholders in Ukraine’s struggle to throw back Russia’s illegal and unjustified invasion need a far better understanding of how this war compares to past conflagrations.
Rather than just feed defeatism, a bit of added context can be a real help in setting expectations.
Despite the present-day gloom-and-doom, Ukraine, overall, is doing very, very well. And while things may look bad now, Ukraine appears to have a habit of making the battlefield look very dark before the dawn of a new—and unexpected—counterattack.
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