When the invasion started, I was assuming that Russia would most likely defeat Ukraine’s military relatively easily, but that trouble would start after that if Putin intended to annex most of it. As it turned out, the Russians couldn’t even do what I thought would be the easy part and they had to retreat from Kiev after a month, but this was just the beginning of their troubles and since then they have suffered several more setbacks. This isn’t what I thought would happen, even after Russia’s initial failure in front of Kiev, but it’s what happened and it’s just silly to deny it or to pretend that things are not what they seem. Yet that is exactly what many people in the West, among those who support Russia against Ukraine, have been doing for months. They have been coming up with increasingly contorted theories to the effect that Russia wasn’t actually losing, but that everything was going according to plan, when it’s pretty clear that nothing is and frankly it’s not even clear there is a plan. Nevertheless, I think that people on the other side, who are in favor of supporting Ukraine for as long as it’s willing to fight and no matter the cost (as long as it doesn’t require that NATO enter the war directly), are probably overoptimistic.
Good article, refreshing when a 'pundit' admits his own shortcomings and uncertainties like this, bravo! (this sounds sarcastic but isn't).
"Indeed, the US is currently producing only 14,000 155mm shells a month, which is barely 1/10th of Ukraine’s consumption if we assume that it fires 4,000 rounds/month" => should be 4000 rounds/day?
"A Russian opposition website estimated that before the war Russia was producing about one billion shells" => one billion per year? Or one billion total as of today?
Though I agree (mostly) with your observations, there are couple of points I am less sure.
You write: «While the US is relatively insulated from the economic consequences of the war, this is not true of Europe, which used to import a lot of its energy from Russia. Except for Hungary, Central and Eastern European countries have been enthusiastically supporting Ukraine because they still perceive Russia as a security threat, but with the exception of the UK the same thing can’t be said about Western European countries, which have been dragging their feet and arguably had to be bullied into supporting Ukraine as much as they currently do."
«... but I doubt they will continue to provide the same level of support for several years and »
1) Though it is true that Eastern-Europe is more enthusiastic, there are several western countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, etc.) who have been also quite enthusiastic. Germany and France are (were) hesitant, but were they bullied?
2) The economic consequences of the war come mostly from sanctions against Russia and giving up Russian oil and gas. Aid, especially military aid from Europe have not been that large - it can go on almost indefinitely.
3) Cutting economic ties and giving up Russian oil and gas is not easy. But countries adapt. The longer the war continues, more they adapt. For instance EU countries have already built in record speed (and continue to build) new LNG terminals, they have already found new suppliers, new markets etc. Lot of sunk costs already.
4) It poses a question - even if war ends, why should we go back to Russian oil and gas? If we have already invested so much to alternative solutions, why should we go back? From reading western European media, I do get an impression that there is growing acceptance: Russian gas and oil will not come back. And even if it comes back, still, why should we go back.
5) When war started, there was an idea that Europe should cut is gas consumption. In summer it was officialy adopted: between 1 August to 31 March 2023 there should be a voluntary(!) reduction in gas use to 15%. It was deemed impossible task (thats why volutary), but today it is clear that 15% target wes met relatively easily and instead of 15% reduction, Europe is aprroaching 25% reduction. As I said, countries will adapt.
6) Also, sanctions are hard to impose, beacuse there have to be consensus between EU countries. But if they are already imposed, it is equally hard to abolish them - Baltics and Poland would surely veto any attempt to ease or cancel Russian sanctions.
7) I am not saying that the war is not hitting European economy, but longer it drags on, more they adapt and more they get used to the new situation.
«The only way to prevent that from happening would be for the West to set up a sort of war economy on behalf of Ukraine, but that’s overwhelmingly unlikely to happen for political reasons.»
What do you mean war economy? If we are talking strictly about military actions, I will bring one example. During Donbas offensive (May-June), Russia was shelling on average 20-25 000 shells per day, sometimes over 30 000 shells per day (numbers come from recent RUSI report, byt he same report, Ukraine was spending 2000-3000 shells per day). So far, it has been the most intense phase of the war. It seems lot, but historically it is not so much. For instance, during Korean war, americans were routinely shelling 1.5 million shells per month, month after month after month. And I do not think that americans back then were thinking we are in war economy.
During cold war, most western European countries were prepared, meaning, they spent and produced for a long and intensive war - but were they war economies? Sure, when Cold war ended, spending and stockpiles collapsed (this is one of the reasons, why its is hard to support Ukraine), but there is one exception - Finland. Finland continued, Finland preserved their own production capacity and today Finland has largest ammo stockpile in Europe, but would you describe Finland of last 30 years as war economy?
Point being, though war in Ukraine is intense, I cannot see why there is need to set up a war economy to support it.
Seems like a bad strategy from the west to neglect ground based air defence because of overwhelming advantage in fighter jets and then arbitrarily drawing the line at providing fighter jets.
Main Russian opposition news website Meduza published a very similar article today: https://meduza.io/feature/2023/01/04/o-voyne-na-istoschenie-mezhdu-rossiey-i-ukrainoy-govoryat-davno-no-tolko-seychas-ona-nachinaetsya-po-nastoyaschemu
"I’m still not sure why it was wrong, but I can think of several possibilities. One of them is that I underestimated..."
The issue was (and is) available manpower. The Russians weren't completely wrong to think that a smaller attacking force can quickly overwhelm and paralyse a larger defensive force if you intelligently concentrate your resources, and the enemy collapses. After all, this is why Blitzkrieg worked.
However once it was clear that the initial attack into Kiev had failed, there is now a contest over a 2500km front. Ukraine simply had (and has) more men on the ground in Ukraine. Sure, an overwhelming technological advantage can render this unimportant, but as you correctly noted, the two sides are fairly evenly matched. Russia failed to recognise this and paid the price, which prompted the hasty partial-mobilisation.
This is what led to the defeat of the Russians in Kharkov. At the time, there were rumours of a big Ukrainian counterattack but in the Kherson area, and the damage that the newly-delivered HIMARS were doing there forced Russia to prioritise that front over Kharkov.
Kherson, unlike Kharkov, was just a strategic defeat rather than a military defeat. I am surprised that you didn't mention the new commander of the special military operation in Ukraine, Surovikin. He seems to be superior to the prior commander and less susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy. Abandoning Kherson was almost certainly a good decision from a military perspective - the cost/reward ratio is skewed incredibly just by a few hundred yards of river.
I completely agree with your critique of expert-ocracy, and tend to agree with your assessment of the war so far and your predictions for the coming months. On the other hand, I would say that you are overestimating the costs of Western sanctions and ignoring the potential benefits of being forced to produce advanced technology indigenously, although I recognise this is a medium-long term argument and discussions of the war can only really take place in a < 2 year timeframe.
Whomever thinks Kharkov and Kherson were "succesful" "counteroffensive" does not deserve a follow.