HOW will the war in Ukraine end? It appears that the US – and thus the West writ large – is sliding into a debilitating humiliation of global importance. The Ukrainian summer offensive has unwittingly fulfilled Russian strategic ends, which is precisely why Zelensky and his officials warned against it in the spring. It is in the offensive, not the defensive, that massive casualties and losses in equipment are inflicted. This is a constant in warfare; however, armed drones, precision fires and aerial surveillance have magnified that imbalance on the modern battlefield. Moscow has lost no territory and has bled this purpose-built Ukrainian force white from a position of relative security. As US military chiefs have warned, the offensive could have only days left to run before wet weather stops it altogether.
The offensive has thus not only failed to achieve any of its objectives but has in fact aided Russian ends by wasting equipment, expending vast volumes of ammunition, and casting tens of thousands of soldiers’ lives to the wind. John Mearsheimer predicts that Moscow is likely to exploit the devastation by creeping steadily deeper into Ukrainian territory towards the end of this year. The Kremlin now controls – and de facto governs – the four oblasts (regions) in the very east of Ukraine, some 23 per cent of the nation’s landmass. Mearsheimer’s prediction is that the Russian army will extend itself cautiously into the next four oblasts, stopping at the Dnieper River, and thereby dominating 43 per cent of Ukraine’s landmass. At the Dnieper, he says, Moscow will hold. The river presents a natural obstacle that any force, including Nato, would struggle to breach against a committed force of the Russian size. Even more importantly, Putin has learned that he has substantial support among the population only in the eastern half of Ukraine. The further he drives his army, the greater the threat of a perpetual and vicious insurgency from the western peoples, who have historically been deeply hostile to the Russian national entity.
Time will tell if Mearsheimer’s forecast of a Russian march to the Dnieper materialises. The alternative is that Putin, for fear of provoking further US escalatory action, opts either to hold firm on his current frontage or advance only modestly westwards. Large-scale offensive operations will also bring far greater losses in lives and equipment than Moscow has experienced in defence over the summer. Yet, as illustrated in the first essay of this series, the Russian army has historically ground its way to attritional victories despite terrible casualty rates. Whatever happens, Ukraine certainly does not have the capacity to drive Russia eastwards. We will not see another Ukrainian offensive of the scale of that undertaken this summer. And since the Kremlin has no intention of conceding its hard-fought territorial gains, any prospective peace settlement will need to recognise that, at the very least, 22 per cent of Ukraine’s pre-2014 territory is now in fact Russian.
Henry Kissinger warned from the very start that Washington would come to regret fuelling a proxy war against Moscow on its own flank. In so doing, he argued, the West would inevitably create a monster out of the Russian state. This is precisely what has happened: Moscow’s forces have been drawn deeper into Ukraine, tilting the territorial and military balance of power towards the Kremlin. Having repeatedly rejected both Putin’s and Zelensky’s calls for peace since March 2022, Washington is now facing the grim reality of its war policy: the Ukrainian economy is in ruins; the male population is vastly depleted, and the entire state is utterly and endlessly dependent on Western support. As Kissinger urged, diplomacy at the very outset would have averted this desolation of the Ukrainian nation and its people.
US policymakers are thus caught on the horns of a grim dilemma: either continue – with diminishing returns – using Ukraine as a military platform against the Russians; or accept de facto defeat. The former will become practically impossible and glaringly absurd; and the latter will signal a profound defeat for American power and credibility. In either case, Ukraine will be a broken, rump state for decades to come – a fragile juncture of perennial crisis and conflict between East and West.
The whole episode, it seems, is amounting to a kind of slow-motion Suez Crisis for US power. In 1956, President Nasser of Egypt announced that he would nationalise the Suez Canal Company, the doorway between Europe and Asia, despite its being controlled by European stakeholders. In response, Britain, with France and Israel, invaded Egypt to recover the canal from Egyptian control. President Eisenhower, fearing a broader war in the Middle East, in effect ordered Prime Minister Anthony Eden to withdraw his troops and threatened Britain’s oil supply. Confronted by the ire of a far stronger power, Eden had no choice but to comply. The crisis marked the end of Britain’s role as a great power – the point at which seemingly proportionate strategic ambitions were humiliatingly dashed. Though the British nation had declined economically and imperially for half a century – its greatest possession, the Indian subcontinent, had taken its freedom in 1947 – it was the crushing embarrassment of Suez that suddenly unmasked the extent of the collapse, ushering in an era of almost unswerving obedience to US might.
The Suez crisis is instructive in understanding the patterns of great-power demise in the modern era. The US remains, for now, the global hegemon; however its relative power has been diminishing for decades. China has emerged as a major economic and technological competitor, challenging US power in the Indo-Pacific region, competing successfully for imperial clout across the developing world, and waging an internecine trade-war against US interests. The US Navy routinely loses its computer-simulated wargames against China, fuelling fears of a brutal defeat in the event of inter-civilisational war in the Pacific.
What is more, America singlehandedly upholds the Nato alliance, which is nothing but a hollow sham – a mere pretence of unified military power and political coherence. Most of its members, such as Albania and Romania, would probably never show up in the event of an Article Five confrontation. Those that would, such as Britain and France, now possess such limited military capacity that their contributions would be mere footnotes to the overarching US-led campaign. The US spends $811billion on its defence annually. The next largest NATO contributor is Britain, which spends only $72billion. Although Poland and France plan to expand military spending significantly over the coming years, America still outspends all other Nato members – annually, at the moment, by $448billion. In theoretical future wars against Russia and China, the US can count only on itself to contribute meaningful fighting power.
But, crucially, American military power has itself declined starkly in recent times. During the Gulf War of 1990-91, the US could have fielded 5,000 fighter jets, granting it total air superiority over any potential adversary. Three decades later, as the commentator Douglas Macgregor observes, only 500 fighter jets could be fielded due to manning shortages and logistical constraints. Moreover, a 2022 report by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, ranked the US Air Force as ‘very weak’, citing an ageing aircraft fleet and a lack of pilots as the principal factors. The report contends that the USAF would struggle against a ‘peer competitor’, and that similarly steep real-terms decline has quietly occurred across the entire US military.
There is profound economic trouble looming, too. Dozens of large emergent nations, including China, South Africa, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, are seeking increasingly to abandon and permanently undermine the US dollar by using alternative currencies. There is a specifically anti-American economic and diplomatic movement at work on the world stage, with a vast bloc now aiming to usurp and diminish US influence. Alastair Crooke, the former British diplomat and director of the Conflicts Forum, notes that the coming global de-dollarisation will inevitably drive up inflation and interest rates both in the US and in Europe for years to come. In parallel to this rising foreign threat, the domestic American economy now rests on a perilously fragile debt-ridden system, with many prominent scholars predicting an impending catastrophic collapse.
Washington is still, for now, the great global power. Yet, as Orwell told us, it is the direction of travel that counts. And it is a demonstrable fact that America’s relative power, so impregnable and assured in previous decades, is waning at an alarming rate. Its enemies are coalescing and actively conspiring to contain its influence. At the same time, by the objective metrics of economic and military strength, and diplomatic clout, America grows weaker year on year.
Suez teaches us that military crises serve to expose decaying empires, unveiling previously hidden frailties. Washington’s doomed policy in Ukraine is just such a crisis, one in which US strategic ends have been frustrated at every turn. The almost limitless sanctions of early 2022 – hailed initially as a catastrophic blow to Moscow – not only proved ineffective but pivoted the Russian economic and industrial engine towards the West’s most powerful adversaries, forging now-irreversible diplomatic and financial allegiances. In the face of the West’s most strenuous efforts – the overplaying of its entire hand – the ruble has remained stable, and the Russian economy is projected to continue growing at pace.
Similarly, on the battlefield, increasingly desperate measures have attempted to disintegrate the Russian force, from the provision of top-end Western vehicles and weapons to missiles of ever-increasing range to cluster munitions. Each addition is presented by a hawkish established commentariat as the decisive instrument of victory. And yet Moscow’s forces not only remain entrenched and stable but grow constantly in size and capability. Important battles, such as the horrible attrition at Bakhmut, or the Ukrainian summer offensive, are crushing losses for Kiev. Western equipment, once believed to be technologically supreme, lies smouldering across the battlefields of the Donbas, destroyed by mines, drones and missiles. Time will tell whether Moscow presses deeper into Ukraine or holds the current frontage in perpetuity. In any event, Russia’s territorial buffer in eastern Ukraine is secure, and the Russian army will stand poised against Kiev and its backers for years to come.
Western defeat in the region is now a fait accompli, determined from the very start by the pursuit of an Ahabian proxy war against an historically formidable power. The policy, logically, could never succeed. The consequences of our defeat, and the deep decay it is steadily disrobing, will reverberate far beyond the Russian borderlands.
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