Nothing New In The East

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 04-17-2022

The war in Ukraine has settled into a disquieting monotony: for those who have been following the war closely, the last few weeks seem like “nothing new”: each day Russian forces continue to slowly move into the East, small unit actions continue along most of the fronts, the siege of Mariupol continues, and the Russians continue to fire rockets and artillery into various cities.

Ukrainian forces, both in the East and the South, continue to attack in small units, “picking at” pieces of terrain held by the Russians, inflicting small losses daily and giving the Russians no time to gather strength. The Russians seem to have played into this tactic and in many areas rather than establishing defensive positions and then regrouping behind them, have simply continued to flow reconstituted forces and reserves into forward units. This offers a slim chance for victory, as the Russians still don't have the necessary force advantage to defeat long-held Ukrainian defensive positions. At the same time the Ukrainians don't have the forces, or arguably the mechanized vehicles and fuel, to conduct an offensive operation to retake large areas of terrain.

In some areas the Russians now appear to be setting up some defensive positions, but they still lack the necessary force margins to confidently attack an equal enemy - never mind one that has already demonstrated that it’s more than a match for Russian armor.

Meanwhile, having failed to establish air control, Russia continues an ill-defined air campaign against Ukraine, one seemingly designed to simply anger the Ukrainians more than anything else.

In his tour de force “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Erich Maria Remarque described the stress, discontent and eventual trauma of the German soldier serving in the trenches on the Western front. The German title of the book is "Im Westen nichts Neues,” literally, “In the West Nothing New,” pointing out, from the cover on, the sense that every day was this horrible sameness, every day more grind, more artillery, more living on the edge of the abyss, the ever-present possibility of being killed; a trauma Remarque never fully put behind him.

Nor will there be much less trauma across Ukrainian society. President Zelensky commented on this in recent interviews, talking about how impossible it will be for many, who have seen family and friends beaten, raped and murdered, to ever fully recover.

Yet, the war grinds on. And, as with WWI, the unintended consequences of what was supposed to be a “quick and easy war” seem to be spreading, as the war, and sanctions, begin to have 2nd and 3rd order effects throughout the world.

There are “simple” issues: multiple economies around the world seem to teeter on the edge: inflation, supply chains disorder, scarcities of certain materials already popping up. In every continent, every region, there are economic and political crisis brewing. One of note, the government of Pakistan, which turned over after a “no confidence” political gamble by now former Prime Minister Khan. And two days ago Pakistan conducted an air strike into Khost province, Afghanistan. And the Pakistani economy (as with both Russia’s and Ukraine’s) is weak and getting weaker. And they have nuclear weapons, too.

The one thing the Russians have on their side right now is that the Ukrainian economy is grinding down faster than Russia’s, and even though Ukrainians may still want to fight, if Putin can simply make the war drag on, the sheer mass of Russia may allow her to survive even as Ukraine crumbles, assuming of course that Putin doesn’t get frustrated.

Various pundits have commented on whether the war will last a long time or end quickly, the majority now seeming to favor that it will last at least until the end of the year, with Secretary of State Blinken now taking that perspective. Right now, it appears that a long war benefits Russia.

The people of Ukraine have made it very clear from day one that they weren’t interested in giving up any territory, though shortly before the atrocities were uncovered in Bucha, President Zelensky suggested he was willing to have a truce while Russian forces still held Ukrainian territory, with their final departure to be negotiated.

But, following the uncovering of the various horrors in Bucha and elsewhere, neither the Ukrainian government nor the Ukrainian people are likely to consider any sort of “deal” with Putin, at least for the time being, and negotiations continue in name only.

And, with the loss of the cruiser Moskva it’s doubtful Putin will settle for less than something that begins to look like victory, even if it will require some spinning of a tale.

Meanwhile, all the reports suggest the Russians will commence some sort of offensive in the East in the next few days-to-weeks.

Given the terrain and weather (it’s still “mud season”), Ukrainian defensive positions, and Ukrainian competence, the Russian forces are going to find it difficult to gain significant pieces of terrain and there will be more temptation to “dig in,” exacerbating what is already looking like a long, slow grind. It’s possible we’ll see the ground effort evolve into a 21st century version of WWI trench warfare. And with the presence of many drones, allowing for virtually persistent surveillance, and precision weapons that can accurately hit a designated spot, even a small attacking force will find it increasingly difficult to break through.

This will eventually lead to increased frustration as the costs in men and material, and GDP, continue to mount. Which leads back to the warning that has been given before, and which President Zelensky gave yesterday: we need to be concerned that Putin may use nuclear weapons.

So, as this possibly settles into “nothing new in the East,” ask yourself this question: how might World War I have ended if one side had nuclear weapons?