The Russia-Ukraine War and the Management of Expectations

Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

It can’t be coincidence. In the past few days, I’ve seen articles at mainstream media outlets like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal that the much-hyped and much-delayed Ukrainian “spring” counteroffensive has stalled, and at high cost to Ukrainian troops. Here’s a quick online headline from the NYT on Monday:

The war is approaching a violent stalemate. Ukraine has made only marginal progress lately and is deploying less experienced soldiers after heavy casualties.

And here’s what the WSJ had to say (intro here from an article by Caitlin Johnstone):

In a new article titled “Ukraine’s Lack of Weaponry and Training Risks Stalemate in Fight With Russia,” the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Michaels reports that western officials knew Ukrainian forces didn’t have the weapons and training necessary to succeed in their highly touted counteroffensive which was launched last month.

Michaels writes:

“When Ukraine launched its big counteroffensive this spring, Western military officials knew Kyiv didn’t have all the training or weapons – from shells to warplanes – that it needed to dislodge Russian forces. But they hoped Ukrainian courage and resourcefulness would carry the day.

“They haven’t. Deep and deadly minefields, extensive fortifications and Russian air power have combined to largely block significant advances by Ukrainian troops. Instead, the campaign risks descending into a stalemate with the potential to burn through lives and equipment without a major shift in momentum.”

So: We have both the NYT and WSJ admitting the war is likely to be stuck in a destructive stasis for the foreseeable future. This isn’t that surprising. Russia is deploying "defense in depth" tactics with minefields and other traps. Ukrainian forces try bravely to advance, they get stuck, and Russia replies with withering artillery fire.

There’s much of World War I here. WWI only ended when Germany collapsed from exhaustion after four terribly long and incredibly costly years of war.

I don’t know if Russia or Ukraine will collapse first. Certainly, Ukraine would collapse quickly without massive infusions of US/NATO aid.

What’s striking to me is how the MSM hyped the "decisive" spring counteroffensive, and how that narrative is now largely forgotten as a new narrative is rolled out, one where the course must be stayed until all those new US weapons turn the tide, like M-1 tanks and F-16 jets.

Only time – and lots more dead – will tell. Supporters of Ukraine allege that progress is being made, that Russia is suffering more dearly, and that US/NATO aid must continue at the highest possible level to ensure that the forces of democracy will prevail against those of authoritarianism. These same supporters reject calls for diplomacy as misguided at best and at worst treasonous to Ukraine and appeasement to Putin. As long as Ukraine is apparently willing to fight to the last Ukrainian, the US/NATO should help them to do so.

I confess I don’t support this idea, which I hope doesn’t imply I’m a Putin puppet. Sorry, I don’t want to see Ukraine destroyed in a lengthy, murderous, and destructive war fought on their turf. Assuming this war is truly stalemated or otherwise bogged down, what better time for both sides to come together for a truce and some wheeling and dealing? The worst that could happen if talks bore no fruit, i.e. more killing, more war, is already happening and will continue to do so.

And indeed there are much worse things than a costly stalemate here: an expanded war that goes nuclear.

Interestingly, so far the mainstream sources I’ve read may be admitting to a stalemate but they’re not suggesting diplomacy in earnest. When they start doing that, I suppose that’ll mean things have truly gone bad for the embattled people of Ukraine.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.