Opinion | What The Ukraine War Teaches Us About Military Power and Economics

Credit When Credit Is Due: Make America Great Again is a brilliant slogan, precisely because no one knows what it means. Is it about bringing jobs in manufacturing? Is it about reinstating white, Christian men who are outspoken about what some of them think is their natural position of social dominance? MAGA has become the universal code to reverse whatever is bugging you about 21st century America.

And an important trend of MAGAism has been the belief that sobriety is making America militarily weak. Back in 2021, Senator Ted Cruz shared a famous story videotapes compares Russian military advertisements, which feature masculine men doing manly things, to a US commercial that tells the story of a female recruit raised by two mothers. “Perhaps a weak, exhausted army is not the best idea,” Cruz declared.

Remarkably, the idea that sanity makes us weak persisted despite the defeats of the Russian military resolutely not being awakened in Ukraine. Senator Tom Cotton, who published a book titled “Only the Strong: Reversing the Left’s Plot to Sabotage American Power,” recently. declare that “soldiers join the army to kill bad guys – not to learn to speak as if they were in the waiting room of the faculty.”

OK, there’s so much wrong with this worldview that it’s hard to know where to start. National power in the modern world has more to do with economic power than military power and also reflects “soft power” — the influence of a country’s values ​​and culture. Even when it comes to military might, modern wars don’t include much hand-to-hand combat between muscular guys. What they involve is mainly strategic duels using long-range weapons, aided by a plethora of technology. And winning such duels certainly depends in part on having smart and well-informed leadership – that is, a cadre of officers that really have learned to speak. as if it were in the waiting room of the faculty.

I Not say that modern warfare is like a video game. If you need proof of both that and the importance of a smart, dedicated army, I recommend using a describe by Illia Ponomarenko of The Kyiv Regardless of the brutal, terrifying fighting currently unfolding in Bakhmut. Courage and endurance are just as important as they were. But biceps and flamboyant, not so much.

However, in that case, what determines military strength? Obviously, I’m not a defense expert. But I do know something about applied mathematics – and contemporary wars are, to a large extent, about arithmetic.

Even before Putin invaded Ukraine, I was a fan of military historian Phillips O’Brien, whose 2015 book on World War II, “How War Was Won,” has a memorable opening line: “There were no decisive battles in World War Two.” What he meant was that the conflict was primarily a war of attrition, in which no single battle changed much of the balance of power, especially given the rate at which all the major players were producing. Export new weapons until the end of the game.

O’Brien, as it happens, is one of the few commentators Refuse the idea that Russia could overwhelm Ukraine in a few days. Instead, he predicts that Russia-Ukraine will turn into a war of attrition – and that Ukraine has a good chance of winning such a war.

Let’s look at a few numbers.

First, if you compare the military budgets of Russia and Ukraine before the war, it is not difficult to see why many analysts expect a quick Russian victory:

But quick, decisive victories are more difficult to achieve than the generals in the armchair can imagine. Russia’s performance has been crippled by what appears to have been a complete failure to think things through, to gauge the vulnerability of elongated vehicle columns to cornering attacks. The defenders are equipped with modern anti-tank missiles. Perhaps Putin’s generals should spend more time in the faculty lounge.

And here’s the problem: Once Ukraine has defeated the initial attack and the invasion turns into a war of attrition, it is no longer a simple war between Russia and Ukraine. It is true that on the Ukrainian side, Ukrainians are fighting and dying. But they do not have to rely on their own military-industrial base.

Thanks to a form of soft power — Ukraine’s ability to present itself as the defender of democracy against a brutal tyrant — the country has received plenty of weapons from the West. And when you take a closer look at these military resources, the picture of Russian dominance disappears:

Moreover, the Russian military may be even weaker than the spending deficit suggests. On the one hand, NATO’s military technology – notably the ability to make precision strikes on targets from incredible distances – seems to be even further ahead than most people realize, and Ukraine have benefited from this through exchanging equipment and intelligence with NATO countries.

On the other hand, the Ukrainians have shown an unexpected talent for “MacGyvering,” improvises effective military technology from civilian equipment.

But please wait a moment. Again, one thing I learned from O’Brien is that modern wars burn military equipment at an astonishing rate. Russia started this war with a large number of tanks and loads of artillery. But many tanks were destroyed in the disastrous initial attempt to capture Kyiv, and War Research Institute now believe that the Russians are “running out of ammunition” to the point that they “will struggle to continue at their current rate of operation”. (To be fair, the Ukrainians, who still heavily use Soviet-era artillery, are also having problems.)

This means that productive capacity – ultimately economic power – tends to be decisive in a war of attrition. And Russia is vastly superior to that measure:

All that said, fortunately this is not an open war between Russia and the liberal democratic West, in which the full force of these GDP and military disparities will come into play. use. Therefore, it is difficult to see exactly how the conflict between Russia and Ukraine will end.

During the Second World War, Nazi military power did not really collapse until 1944, when Allied planes gained air superiority over Germany and could destroy much of it. fight in this country. Ukraine won’t be able to do that to Russia, nor can Russia do it to NATO, which will probably continue to send supplies to Ukraine. So the brutal slogging battle can go on for a very long time.

But this, as I said, is mostly about math. And the arithmetic, amazingly, seems to favor Ukraine.


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