The US proxy war with Russia over Ukraine is on the verge of getting costlier, maybe in more ways than one. Since the start of Russia’s invasion this past February, Washington has appropriated tens of billions of dollars to aid Kyiv, mostly for military training, advanced ordnance, and intelligence assets supporting Ukrainian operations.
The spigots are far from closing. President Biden has asked Congress for another $800 million, this time for advanced surface-to-air missiles. On top of this, Washington has moved 100,000 troops to defend NATO’s eastern frontier, and Congress wants to send more.
Western arms, and not just Ukrainian resolve, have cost the Russians dearly in casualties and prestige, and every new military delivery risks a reprisal. By upping the ante, the Biden administration and its supporters are gambling that Russia either is too weak or too wary to fight back against the West.
They may be right. Moscow certainly realizes any kinetic strike against a NATO target would escalate quickly beyond its ability to manage a conventional defense. Moreover, the Russians don’t need to win the war in Ukraine outright. So long as they have the will and resources, paid for by the West’s continued dependency on its energy, the war could rage for years before fizzling out in a treaty, as many wars do. There’s even a chance NATO could get cold feet if Russia chokes off Europe’s gas supply this autumn, ending the war sooner.
But Moscow cannot afford to lose the war, either. By capitulating, Russia would be forced to accept what it feared all along: the loss of Ukraine to NATO and the European Union. Losing the war also would place them between a rock and a hard place, a choice on one hand of accepting Western terms to end sanctions or, on the other, possibly becoming China’s vassal. Right or wrong, the Russians are playing for high stakes, and we Americans are militarily and mentally unprepared for them to call our bet.
While the US military is the most splendid killing machine ever devised, twenty years spent fighting wars of revenge against terrorists have not steeled it for the realities of higher-end warfare – that is, wars against states with modern militaries. There’s high turnover in the profession of arms. Veterans bloodied in close-quarters, small-unit combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are getting rarer in the ranks, and those who remain mostly are unpracticed in complex operations above the brigade level.
The same can be said of their most senior leaders. The Pentagon may boast of standing up a corps command post in Poland. But no American general in service today has maneuvered a heavy corps in the field, in training or otherwise.
Leaning on our technological edge is no substitute for training, as Russia’s shockingly poor performance demonstrated early on in their invasion of Ukraine. Whatever one thinks of Ivan, the Russians will not simply slink away. They will instead do their best to undercut US advantages where they can; where they cannot, they will cede territory dearly, if history is a guide. This raises the specter of high casualties which, in terms of both troops and equipment, we may be hard-pressed to replace.
Shortsighted policies, some recent and some decades in the making, have worsened matters. Even now, before a shot has been fired, the Pentagon is struggling to recruit fresh troops, while at the same time it’s preparing to pitch 60,000 unvaccinated National Guardsmen and Reservists it relies on for routine mission support.
Appealing to patriotism to replace the patriots we’ve disposed of because they wouldn’t take their Covid shots is hypocrisy, while resuming a draft in a nation so deeply divided is fantasy.
Meanwhile, offshoring our vital industries and supply lines has left little depth in civilian manufacturing to expand wartime military production. Consider that in the span of three years during World War II, American companies delivered nearly 500,000 tank-killing bazookas and 16 million rockets. It may take Lockheed Martin as long to replenish the 5,500 Javelin anti-tank missiles transferred to Ukraine since March, if they can get the semiconductors from overseas suppliers. Replacing larger items, like damaged tanks, aircraft, or ships, would take even longer.
Defense manufacturing has become so specialized that President Biden would have better luck ordering the ocean tides to roll back than invoking the Defense Production Act to speed deliveries.
Professional soldiers understand the risks in war, and they will make the best with the hands they are dealt, even when less than ideal. By comparison, the public is psychologically ill-equipped to fight a war. To most civilians, wars are something that happen far from home, and casualties are something endured by strangers. Waging a war on our front stoops and in our back gardens is inconceivable.
A war with Russia, however, is unlikely to remain contained in Eastern Europe. As each side seeks to increase their opponent’s pain, they will strike more deeply into the defensive zones resupplying the front lines. Western Europe, no longer the armed camp of 30 years ago, would feel the brunt, its populations and supply arteries relatively easy pickings for Russian deep attacks.
North America is no more a refuge. In this cyber-nuclear age, even a relatively modest strike of either sort against our fragile and splendidly connected society would, in addition to death and destruction, sow chaos more surely than the arrival from China of an historically minor virus. A further litany of possible calamities is unnecessary.
All of this, of course, says nothing about the potential for a second front should China make a move on Taiwan.
By any measure the United States remains formidable. But victory in war can be a near-run thing under the best of circumstances. There’s always a chance you might lose. And in a big war against an opponent with global reach, you just can’t decide to call it quits and go home, as we did in Afghanistan. You either fight until you win, or accept terms from your enemy.
At least one indication suggests the Biden administration knows it’s dancing on the razor’s edge. Reportedly, the president intends to harden Washington, DC, with a ring of air defense missiles. If true, it would be the first time since the 1970s that fixed missile batteries protected the nation’s capital – surely a comfort to the millions of ordinary Americans living beyond the Beltway.