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shelling in Ukraine

Ihor Mazhayev—who lost his wife and 12-year-old daughter as a result of Russian shelling—stands by his destroyed house on March 5, 2022 in Markhalivka, Ukraine. (Photo Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images)

Ukraine: What We've Learned

"We're not doing enough to combat climate change. Russia has launched World War III. And Republicans have lost their minds."

Bob Burnett

It's been more than two months since Russia invaded Ukraine (February 24). We've learned enough to be able to predict what will happen next and what the geo-political consequences will be.

1. Russia will lose the war: At the beginning of the invasion, most observers believed that Russia would overwhelm Ukraine. That didn't happen and, as time passes, it seems more unlikely to happen. The conflict may drag out but eventually, Russia will lose.

There are multiple reasons why Russia has performed so poorly. The first is that the Ukrainians have out-fought the Russians; the Ukrainians are highly motivated and the Russians are not. The second is that the Russian military has been "hollowed out" because Russia is a kleptocracy and Putin and his cronies have siphoned funds, that should have gone to defense, for their own purposes. In all facets of the Russian invasion we see indications that the invasion was underfunded, and terribly managed.

Russian soldiers are poorly trained. There is inadequate communication between front-line troops and battlefield commanders. The Russian generals have made bad tactical decisions; for example, to invade the Donbas region in the spring while the ground is very wet. The Russian supply infrastructure is inadequate. Russians seemingly have no capability of repairing vehicles that break down in the field. Because of the E.U. sanctions, Russia cannot get critical parts it needs to repair or replace its equipment. (While Russia has shown the capability to build prototypes of advanced weapons, they cannot manufacture these.)

The Russian military is a mess. Russian military power was overrated.

2. Russians soldiers have committed atrocities: It's one thing to be incompetent and quite another thing to be a brutal loser. Russia's conduct of the war has outraged the Western world. Russian troops have no respect for civilized norms.

3. Ukraine will win the war, but at a terrible cost: The war will end when Russia either runs out of money or has lost so much equipment it will be unable to maintain its lines. Then the Russians will withdraw, looting and burning everything in their path.

Most likely, Russians will retreat to the previous Ukraine border; they will cede Donbas but there will be nothing left of it. Russia will pay no reparations. (The fate of Crimea remains to be determined.)

4. Sanctions will continue: This isn't a war that will be ended with a peace conference where dignitaries sign agreements. Russia will slink back to its den. The West will be outraged by Russia's conduct. Putin will continue to threaten us. (How does it all end? "Not with a bang, but a whimper.")

Russia will be isolated from the Western world. "Normal" relations will not resume until Putin is out of power.

5. Russia will lash out: Since the war began we've been expecting Russia to do something to hurt NATO countries—such as arrange for Marine Le Pen to become president of France. The most likely possibility is cyber warfare. A recent "60 Minutes" segment explored this possibility. One of the presenters observed: "The reality is that [the United States has] way too many targets. If you look particularly in our energy sector, you have regional utilities. You have minor energy processing companies, storage companies, pipeline companies. And make no mistake, Bill. The cyber actors that [Russia has] are top notch. And they've demonstrated that time and time again."

Russia will continue to interfere in U.S. Politics. (Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, Rand Paul...)

To say the least, this is a dangerous period. If, as I expect, Russia eventually retreats to the previous Ukraine border, Russian forces will likely use heinous weapons to render the Donbas landscape unusable.

6. Germany is particularly vulnerable: Germany has taken steps to aid Ukraine but not to the extent that the other major NATO members have. That's because Germany gets 34% of it gas, 32% of its oil, and 43% of its coal from Russia. If Russia loses, as we expect, it's reasonable to expect NATO members to suffer for this; of course, Russia would need to find a big customer to replace the revenue. The Guardian observes that Germany is at the edge of recession.

7. Russia is vulnerable to China: In a recent Renew Democracy podcast, Tom Tugendhat was interviewed; he's a member of the British Parliament and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He observed that it's not just Russia's reputation that's been damaged by their poor performance in Ukraine. Tugendhat noted that to resupply troops killed or injured in Ukraine, Russia has been forced to withdraw troops from their eastern provinces.

It's conceivable that China will capitalize on Russia's weakness and take back territory such as Manchuria. China might invade Siberia, where there are big oil fields. 

8. There will be severe economic consequences: There is a school of thought that argues the war will only stop when Russia runs out of money; that is, when NATO countries stop buying Russian fossil fuel—currently estimated at $1 billion per day. However, there is an emerging school of thought that argues the war will end when Russia so depletes their military store that to continue the Ukrainian invasion would present Russia with a grave national security threat. In other words, Russia will have lost so many troops, tanks, trucks, and other weapons that they will not be able to adequately secure their vast territory.

The latter possibility once seemed unthinkable. Now it isn't. Russia has lost far more troops than they anticipated and cannot adequately replace them.

During the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has lost about one-quarter of their armored vehicles—roughly 1,200. They still have a lot of armored vehicles but they are not replenishing this supply and evidence suggests the existing store is poorly maintained. That suggests that by June, Russia will have lost more than half of their half of their armored vehicles.

The war may continue but it will soon have grave consequences for the Russian and Ukrainian economies. Russia exports fertilizer and grain to the West. These exports will stop as well as Ukrainian agricultural exports. The cessation of Ukrainian agricultural exports will create a food crisis in the Mediterranean region. Writing in Common Dreams, Steven Devereux observed: "Ukraine is known as the breadbasket of Europe, and Russia and Ukraine have both become major food exporters in recent years. In 2020 these two countries accounted for one-third of the world's wheat trade and one-quarter of the world's barley trade. Ukraine alone exported 15% of the world's maize and half of all sunflower oil traded globally." The war will drive up food prices.

9. The environmental consequences are unthinkable: Russia is the largest country in the world with 11% of the world landmass. It's unthinkable to seriously attack global climate change without the support of Russia. Nonetheless, under the present circumstances, that's not going to happen—and is unlikely to happen until Putin is out of power. (Note that the effort to combat climate change has some support from all other major powers, including China, third largest, Brazil, fifth largest, India, seventh largest, and Kazakhstan, ninth largest.)

For the foreseeable future, the world will have to tackle climate change without the support of Russia.

10. Politics: We've started World War III, but the United States remains divided along political lines; according to the latest Pew Research Poll, "69% of Republicans [describe] Russia as an enemy." (Only 6% express confidence in Putin.) Nonetheless, there is a huge partisan divide on the conduct of the war. The Pew poll indicates that Americans are divided on the Biden administration's handling of Russia's invasion of Ukraine: 47% strongly approve and 39% strongly disapprove. Opinion is divided along partisan lines: 69% of Democrats strongly approve and 67% of Republicans strongly disapprove.

It's difficult to understand what Republicans disapprove of since they seem to change their tune every day. The one continuing theme is that Republicans don't like Joe Biden.

But some Republicans have seen the light. Writing in The Washington Post, Republican columnist Jennifer Rubin thinks that Biden has done a good job managing the war in Ukraine. "In our age of perpetual cynicism, distrust and discontent, it would be unheard of for [Republicans] to acknowledge that an administration is doing just about everything humanly possible to confront evil. But this administration is. For that, Biden deserves a great deal of credit."

Summary: Welcome to the new world order. We're not doing enough to combat climate change. Russia has launched World War III. And Republicans have lost their minds.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Bob Burnett

Bob Burnett

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley Quaker, activist, and writer. In another life he was a Silicon Valley executive — co-founder of Cisco Systems.

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