Ukraine Update 21 May, 2023: Bakhmut’s Fate

Volodymir Zelenskiy’s claim that a small section of Bakhmut remains under Ukrainian control is a sailboat of hope braving increasingly heavy seas of factual certainty. By most independent accounts coming out of the Bakhmut area, Ukrainian forces have been ejected from the town. Russian forces and elements of the Wagner Group are in control of Bakhmut. In Hiroshima for the G7 summit meeting, Zelenskiy was faced with having to put the best face possible on the increasingly negative news coming out of Bakhmut. Almost defiantly, Ukraine’s leader has declared the town has not been captured by Russia. As the hours slip by, Ukrainian officials back home are also scrambling to put the best face upon the situation. According to Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, “Our forces have taken the city in a semi-encirclement, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy … [who] has to defend himself in the part of the city he controls.” Neither Zelenskiy nor his defense officials and general officers would go into detail on their statements.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy also said Sunday that Bakhmut was “only in our hearts,” a curious reference which could be intended to pave the way for bad news in the coming hours and days. If the town is in Russian hands the defeat will reverberate across Ukraine and have a profound effect on Ukrainian morale both on the frontlines and among the population. Meanwhile, with the news from Bakhmut still fresh, US President Joe Biden announced $375 million more in aid for Ukraine, which included more ammunition, artillery, and vehicles. Because so far, the billions of dollars in equipment and war material that has already been shipped east just has not been sufficient to stop the Russian advance permanently. Biden’s philosophy is similar to the ‘throw money at a problem to fix it’ mentality so rampant in Washington DC. Only instead of throwing money, Biden’s tossing artillery shells and armored vehicles.  

The Upcoming G7 Summit

As leaders are arriving in Hiroshima for the G7 Summit to be held this weekend, Ukraine and China are expected to dominate the agenda. Other subjects will undoubtedly be discussed but these are the two poised to take center stage.

The G7 nations are united when it comes to Ukraine. There has been no loosening of support, either material or financial, being streamed to Ukraine by the West. With this in mind, there are a handful of areas where disagreements have cropped up. Most notable lately is the push by Western European nations to pressure the Biden administration into supplying F-16s to Ukraine. Since the start of the conflict this has been a redline for the United States. Internally, Republicans oppose any such transfer and there are a number of influential voices inside the Pentagon thinking along similar lines. Despite this, a number of US allies are moving forward on the F-16 acquirement front. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands are moving to build an international coalition to provide Ukraine with F-16s. Or at the very least to provide training to Ukrainian pilots. The topic will almost certainly be broached in Hiroshima over the weekend, with additional pressure placed on President Biden.

When it comes to China, the G7 are less united in finding methods to deter China’s military ambitions. Not all of the G7 nations have formed hardline approaches on China. The prospect of economic coercion has made tackling China’s ambitions akin to walking on egg shells. The primary concern for some G7 nations is the extent of their reliance on the Chinese economy. European member-states and the EU (which is a non-enumerated member) find themselves forced to adopt rather compromising positions in order to keep their supply lines and critical technologies secure. On the surface, the G7 comes across as more-or-less united on China, yet behind the scenes there are a number of crucial items such as this demanding attention.

Some Thoughts On Putin’s Miscalculation

Today was Saturday and the weather was decidedly perfect. As a result, I spent the afternoon on the golf course. In between bunker shots and missed 3-foot putts I found myself thinking about Vladimir Putin and his pre-war assessment of the Russian armed forces. Given that the war in Ukraine has gone on for over a year it is safe to assume Putin’s faith in his nation’s military power was severely misplaced and underestimated. Russia’s military has an extensive history of long being a paper tiger at the beginning of a conflict. World War I is perhaps the greatest example of a wide disconnect between the false expectations of Russia’s leadership and the terrible condition of its military leading to national ruin. Whether the ‘special military operation’ continuing in Ukraine leads to a similar result remains to be seen.

What is not commonly realized by the public is that Putin is not alone in his miscalculation. A host of national leaders over the last century or two have believed the military power of their respective nations to be far greater than it really was. France in May 1940 presents a rather astonishing case study of political miscalculations of military power leading to disaster. On paper France’s military matched up very well with the armed forces of Germany. In reality, however, French ground and air forces were marred by a number of issues ranging from readiness to the lack of a doctrine applicable to modern (at the time) war. France’s political leaders were rather anti-war did not give the French military adequate attention through the early and mid-1930s. By the time of Munich in 1938 when it became clear rearmament needed to be a priority, it was too late.  

At the present time, it is unclear if Putin can salvage victory from the jaws of defeat. In February, 2022 had Russia’s ground and air forces operated as well as its commanders had claimed, the war would not have lasted longer than a few weeks. Now the war is well into its second year with no end in sight and the consequences of Putin’s miscalculation continue to grow by the week.

The Coming Ukrainian Counteroffensive

Anticipation for the long-expected Ukrainian counteroffensive is increasing with each passing day. To be fair, the coming counteroffensive must be one of the worst-kept secrets in military history. The Ukrainian government has made no sincere effort to conceal their plans to retake areas of the homeland currently held by Russian forces. Statements are made in broad terms though, and very few details emerge. The ones that do, however, are analyzed to death by journalists, military experts and of course, by the legions of OSINT amateurs on social media. There is growing speculation that behind the scenes some Western leaders are not entirely convinced Ukraine’s counteroffensive will live up to the growing expectations. In fact, there is increasing concern in some Western capital cities about how negatively a failed counteroffensive could affect the constant stream of money and material from Europe and the United States east to Kiev.

On the flip side, the Russians know what is coming and should be preparing. The critical variable now is timing. Will a counteroffensive start in late April or early May? Or will it not kick off until late May or early June? Every passing day gives the Russian military and government more time to prepare. After Ukrainian forces successfully secured positions on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River on Sunday, there was widespread speculation that this signaled the start of the counteroffensive. Now, some two days later, it appears this was not the case.

Where Ukraine enjoys a seemingly limitless stream of Western weapons and ammunition, Russia is not so fortunate. Manpower and material shortages have caused problems for Russian units now in Ukraine. How problematic these shortages are remains to be seen. There does not appear to be an issue in Bakhmut where Russian forces are said to be concentrating for a new assault on Ukrainian positions.

Counteroffensive or not, the fighting around Bakhmut does not look to be diminishing any time soon. Both sides appear determined to maintain the stalemate or bring about a victory at any cost.

The Global South Is Coming Into Play

The theme of the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs is the non-aligned world and the distressing (in Western eyes, at least) amount of disorder that has presented itself since the war in Ukraine commenced in February of 2022. The West viewed the opening of hostilities as a moment of opportunity for the free world to unite against Russia’s aggression. In the fourteen months that have passed, the world has, in fact, witnessed the United States, Europe and many first world nations in other parts of the world come together in the name of Ukrainian defense. Unfortunately, this coming together has not involved a significant number of Global South nations. They have not joined the wave of economic sanctions directed at Russia and Vladimir Putin. Their unwillingness to condemn Russian actions through votes in the United Nations puts their reluctance on full display and provides economic and material lifelines that help allow Russia to continue fighting the war in Ukraine almost indefinitely.

Geopolitical themes are the primary motivators causing Global South nations to refrain from joining the anti-Russia crowds. Western colonialism, globalization and the emerging shape of the multi-polar world are the main themes influencing most of the Global South. The governments of Global South nation-states are conducting independent foreign policies centered squarely on national interests. Along with the trouble this poses for the United States and Europe on the Ukraine front, there are problems also forming in East Asia. As the geopolitical competition between China and the US heats up, technological decoupling from China presents opportunities for Global South nations. Both the US and European Union are trying to promote product relocation to third-party nations. The current offer is economic support through new production facilities and jobs in exchange for supporting the Western geopolitical positions against Russia and China. Even though this offer is enticing and beneficial, many Global South nations are reluctant to accept, for fear of having to shed their economic relationships with China. For many nations in Asia, Africa and South America, China has become the most important trading partner. Breaking from Beijing would come at a cost few are willing to pay.