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Holding Ground, Losing War

Zelensky’s strategy of defending territory at all costs has been disastrous for Ukraine.

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CONFLICT-WAR
A serviceman of the National Guard of Ukraine inspects destroyed military equipment abandoned at a position held by the Russian army in the north of the Kharkiv region, on September 20, 2022. (Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)

At the end of 1942, when the Wehrmacht could advance no further east, Hitler switched German ground forces from an “enemy force-oriented” strategy to a “ground-holding” strategy. Hitler demanded that his armies defend vast, largely empty and irrelevant stretches of Soviet territory. 

“Holding ground” not only robbed the German military of its ability to exercise operational discretion, and, above all, to outmaneuver the slow, methodical Soviet opponent; holding ground also pushed German logistics to the breaking point. When holding ground was combined with endless counterattacks to retake useless territory, the Wehrmacht was sentenced to slow, grinding destruction.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, (presumably with the advice of his U.S. and British military advisors), has also adopted a strategy of holding ground in Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian forces immobilized themselves inside urban areas, and prepared defenses. As a result, Ukrainian forces turned urban centers into fortifications for what became “last stands.” Sensible withdrawals from cities like Mariupol that might have saved many of Ukraine’s best troops were forbidden. Russian forces responded by methodically isolating and crushing the defenders left with no possibility of either escape or rescue by other Ukrainian forces.

Moscow’s determination to destroy Ukrainian forces at the least cost to Russian lives prevailed. Ukrainian casualties were always heavier than reported from the moment Russian troops crossed into Eastern Ukraine, but now, thanks to the recent failure of Ukrainian counterattacks in the Kherson region, they’ve reached horrific levels that are impossible to conceal. Casualty rates have reached 20,000 killed or wounded a month.   

Despite the addition of 126 howitzers, 800,000 rounds of artillery rounds, and HIMARS (U.S. rocket artillery), months of hard fighting are eroding the foundations of Ukraine’s ground strength. In the face of this disaster, Zelensky continues to order counterattacks to re-take territory as a means of demonstrating that Ukraine’s strategic position vis-à-vis Russia is not as hopeless as it seems. 

The recent Ukrainian advance to the town of Izium, the link between Donbas and Kharkiv, seemed like a gift to Kiev. U.S. satellite arrays undoubtedly provided Ukrainians with a real-time picture of the area showing that Russian forces west of Izium numbered less than 2,000 light troops (the equivalent of paramilitary police, e.g., SWAT and airborne infantry). 

The Russian command opted to withdraw its small force from the area that is roughly 1 percent of formerly Ukrainian territory currently under Russian control. However, the price for Kiev’s propaganda victory was high—depending on the source, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Ukrainian troops were killed or wounded in a flat, open area that Russian artillery, rockets, and air strikes turned into a killing field. 

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Given Washington’s inability to end the war in Ukraine with the defeat of Russian arms, it seems certain that the Beltway will try instead to turn the ruins of the Ukrainian state into an open wound in Russia’s side that will never heal. From the beginning, the problem with this approach was that Russia always had the resources to dramatically escalate the fighting and end the fighting in Ukraine on very harsh terms. Escalation is now in progress. 

In a public statement that should not surprise anyone, President Putin announced the partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists. Many of these men will replace regular Russian Army forces in other parts of Russia and release them for operations in Ukraine. Other reservists will augment the Russian units already committed in Eastern Ukraine.

Washington always mistook Putin’s readiness to negotiate and limit the scope and destructiveness of the campaign in Ukraine as evidence of weakness, when it was clear that Putin’s aims were always restricted to the elimination of the NATO threat to Russia in Eastern Ukraine. Washington’s strategy of exploiting the conflict to sell F-35 fighter jets to Germany—along with large numbers of missiles, rockets, and radars to Central and East European allied governments—is now backfiring.

The defense establishment has a long record of success in tranquilizing American voters with meaningless clichés. As conditions favorable to Moscow develop in Eastern Ukraine and the Russian position in the world grows stronger, Washington confronts a stark choice: Talk about having successfully “degraded Russian power” in Ukraine and scale back its actions. Or risk a regional war with Russia that will engulf Europe. 

In Europe, however, Washington’s war with Moscow is more than just an unpleasant subject. Germany’s economy is on the brink of collapse. German industries and households are starved for energy that grows more expensive with each passing week. American investors are concerned because the historical record indicates that Germany’s economic performance is often the harbinger of hard economic times in the U.S. 

More important, social cohesion in European States, especially in France, and Germany, is fragile. Berlin’s police force is reportedly drawing up contingency plans to cope with rioting and looting during the winter months if the “multi-cultural” city’s energy grid collapses. Discontent is growing making it quite plausible that governments in Germany, France, and Great Britain will likely follow the path of their colleagues in Stockholm and Rome, who lost or will lose power to right-of-center coalitions. 

As of this date, Kiev continues to oblige Moscow by impaling Ukraine’s last reserves of manpower on Russian defenses. Washington, insists President Biden, will support Ukraine “as long as it takes.” But if Washington continues to drain America’s strategic oil reserve, and ship American war stocks to Ukraine, the ability to protect and provision the United States will compete with supporting Ukraine.

Russia already controls the territory that produces 95 percent of Ukrainian GDP. It has no need to press further west. At this writing, it seems certain that Moscow will finish its work in Donbas, then, turn its attention to the capture of Odessa, a Russian city that saw terrible atrocities committed by Ukrainian forces against Russian citizens in 2014. 

Moscow is in no hurry. The Russians are nothing if not methodical and deliberate. Ukrainian forces are bleeding to death in counterattack after counterattack. Why rush? Moscow can be patient. China, Saudi Arabia, and India are buying Russian oil in rubles. Sanctions are hurting America’s European allies, not Russia. The coming winter will likely do more to alter Europe’s political landscape than any action Moscow might undertake. In Zakopane, a town of 27,000 souls in the extreme South of Poland, the snow is already falling.

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