UPDATE: Mark Sumner
We’ve featured Novoselivske several times. It’s one of those towns that has been traded back and forth, with Ukrainian troops most recently driving Russian forces back to the east.
A year ago, thousands of people lived peacefully in this place.
It may have been hard to notice, what with all the wars, politics, and pandemics we’ve experienced over the last three decades, but history ended back in 1989. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many otherwise reasonable people appeared to get the notion that the world would settle down into a condition in which there were minor conflicts, but the kind of multi-nation battles in which the stakes were counted in millions of lives would no longer be possible. The West had won. Democracy had won. Please step out of the car and take the nearest exit to happily ever after.
This left a lot of military contractors scrambling for relevance and a lot of military experts desperately in search of the next threat. Mabe Japan? Sure, Japan had money, electronics, and all those funny exercises at the workplace. Let’s get scared of Japan. Oh, wait, China? The Chinese economy in 1990 was just 15% of that in the U.S., but they did have a lot of people. That could be scary.
Then 9/11 clarified things for a generation. The military mission was no longer about fighting massive armies with comparably trained soldiers and comparably deadly weapons. It was about going after insurgents and extremists. Dealing with suicide bombers and IEDs. About getting them there before they came after us here.
That new vision didn’t just pervade the way politicians used the military, it affected every aspect of military doctrine. It became the basis on which everything from small unit tactics to new military vehicles were designed.
Then the invasion of Ukraine hauled out a giant AED and restarted history.
To be fair, the United States never left behind its strategic doctrine of being able to deal with two major conflicts in different parts of the world at the same time. This is really an oversimplification of strategies and doctrines that were never 100% at one extreme or the other. However, over the post-Soviet period, it has often felt like that two-theater large conflict doctrine was more about justifying military budgets and force levels than what that military was actually designed and deployed to accomplish.
It’s not hard to understand why. After all, anyone standing around the Pentagon in 2005 shouting about Russian tanks pouring across Eastern Europe was likely to be quietly directed down the street to stand in the Smithsonian next to the other dinosaurs. Strategic, tactical, and equipment changes were desperately needed before the military could effectively deal with the challenges that politicians kept putting in their paths. An army designed to plug the Fulda Gap was not necessarily a great fit for clearing buildings in Fallujah or clearing caves on the Pakistan border. They had to find ways to accomplish the tasks they were given, and to protect American forces while doing it.
That need for a different kind of military reached down into how units were structured, how infantry tactics were designed, and what the military was looking for in its next generation of vehicles. It also helped create a confusing list of highly specific requirements that often fell into conflict between providing force protection and rapid deployment. So much so that the Army alone blew through $23 billion in repeated failed attempts to produce a new set of vehicles that would replace the M1 Abrams (in service since 1979), Bradley (1981), and M113 (1960), along with literally hundreds of different specialty vehicles from amphibious landing craft to bridge layers to minesweepers to the recovery vehicles that drag damaged tanks back to where they can be repaired.
It wasn’t until around the time that Russia rolled into Ukraine for the first time in 2014 that the voices talking about the possibility of fighting a large army of “near-peer” forces started to be heard again. Those voices grew louder as Iraq and Afghanistan appeared to be winding down; scenes from Syria, Georgia, and Chechnya made it clear that artillery had not magically stopped functioning. Also, the Chinese economy that had looked so small in 1990 was still growing at a rate that seemed headed for the stratosphere. All those “if you lined every Chinese soldier up shoulder to shoulder, the line would stretch from X to Y” mental exercises started to seem less academic if every one of those guys was actually armed and armored comparably to U.S. forces.
So it wasn’t just the 2022 illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that got “history” (i.e., the idea that large trained armies with masses of equipment might face off on a battlefield fighting for control of territory) rolling again. Military palms in the Pentagon and in Brussels have been getting sweaty for some time. But Ukraine definitely took those voices talking about a renewed threat of large-scale conflict and turned the dial to eleven.
Those concerns are making it easier than ever for politicians to pitch more money at the Pentagon than it requested. They’re also generating new flexibility in the Army’s effort to secure that next generation of vehicles, including some feelings of “you know, that thing we turned down last time? Was it really so bad?” That new flexibility has helped to generate a lot of announcements in the last year, from the first look at the Abrams X tank to some quick movement on both the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMVC) and the Armored Multi-Purposed Vehicle (AMPV). All of these machines are likely headed for redeployment with considerably more alacrity than might be indicated by past attempts.
At the same time, the military is definitely studying what’s happening in Ukraine extremely closely, and it is already having an impact on planning and training. For one thing, the proliferation and rapid evolution of drones affects how every military views the battlefield. The way that each side can “reach out and touch” soldiers who feel themselves safely behind the lines with a $1000 bit of consumer kit and a 3D printed grenade holder hasn’t been lost on anyone. Neither has the role clouds of swirling drones played in turning clusters of “dumb” artillery into much more precise weapons.
Some of those in Western militaries have also begun to have a big concern about air power. For decades, the doctrine has said that air power is step one in dominating the battlefield. The side that has air superiority goes where it wants and fights where it wants. The side that doesn’t only get to lay down and die. But at the same time, Western militaries are refusing to send jets to Ukraine, they’re watching very closely what it means to fight an artillery-heavy army if you don’t have effective air superiority. What they see is scaring them. They’ve very worried that changes in air defenses and all those pesky drones could mean that Western forces also have to deal with a situation where simply knowing the location of the enemy doesn’t translate into incoming fire from heaven. (To be clear, it’s not as if Western militaries are denying aircraft to Ukraine so that they can see how a ground-ground conflict plays out … they’re just viewing that as a side benefit of the current political situation.)
All of this helps explain why there is sometimes an unexpected resistance to giving up hardware from militaries that might seem to have a lot of the stuff collecting a tan out in the desert or living under a half-inch of cosmoline in some forgotten warehouse. They’re looking at Ukraine, and they definitely see the need. There is not a single one of these governments that doesn’t understand how crushing Putin’s dreams of empire in Ukraine is 10,000% better than having to do it in the next place. 1,000,000% better than having to do it at home. But they’re worried. They’re worried that Ukraine isn’t the last gasp of a dying past, but the first sign of things to come. They haven’t figured out exactly what they might need if Bad Things happen.
So they give up their gear … but their fingers open more slowly than anyone, especially Ukraine, might want.
A whole new generation of hardware is going to come out of the current situation, and a whole new set of training and tactics, all of it designed to deal with what’s being seen now in Ukraine. The best thing we can hope is that all that new gear ends up moldering somewhere for decades, and that when Ukraine wins, we can tuck this particular branch of history back into bed.
For the last three weeks, pro-Russian sites have been reporting a large offensive by Russia in the Zaporizhzhia area. For the most part, that offensive has been limited to arrows drawn on maps sourced from Russian Telegram accounts and the usual “oh boy, now I’m going to be proven right!” fist-pumping from tankies across social media.
However, there is one (count ‘em) area in the south where the pace of conflict has actually accelerated, and that’s around the town of Vuhledar (also written as Vugledar or Ugledar if you’re searching for news). Over the last week, Russian sources have claimed the town was taken. It wasn’t. Then pulled back to saying that Russian forces had entered the town. They haven’t. What’s actually happening in the area is the same kind of fighting that’s been seen at other locations along the front, with Russia trying to push unsuccessfully toward Vuhledar mostly from the direction of the neighboring town, Pavlivka.
The result of Russia’s attempted assaults on Vuhledar has been some of the most horrific (or spectacular, depending on how you look at it) losses of whole units that have been caught on video in the war to date. Outside of Vuhlendar Russia is leaving a junkyard of T-80s, BMPs, and assorted bits of armor. Also other bits. The Ukrainian military reported over 100 Russian soldiers were killed in a single assault on Vuhledar on Thursday. While the Ukrainian MOD has been known to exaggerate, it’s very easy to believe these numbers.
These are some of the best units of the actual Russian military being thrown against Vuhledar and ending up in flames. However, there’s a big difference between what’s going on here and around Bakhmut, one that extends beyond the fact that these are actual soldiers being killed rather than Wagner mercenaries.
That’s right. Vuhledar has actual strategic importance. From this location, Ukraine has potential fire control over the rail lines that run through Volnovakha to the southeast. With the railroad bridge into Crimea still under repair and reportedly unable to transport materiel, placing artillery at Vuhledar allows Ukraine to disrupt the primary line of supply for everything Russia holds to the west. That’s most of Zaporizhzhia, the still occupied areas of Kherson, and all of Crimea.
Even more than Starobilsk in the north, Volnovakha is currently a vital transport hub for Russia, and it will remain that way at least until the bridge into Crimea is back at full capacity. Russia can get around this tight spot by offloading gear onto trucks, but as kos has talked about many times, that’s exactly the kind of process at which Russia simply sucks. They want to put things on a train somewhere outside Moscow and take it straight to a big depot somewhere near Melitopol, because they’re just not equipped for a lot of rehandling and transfer.
They want Ukraine out of Vuhledar so that Ukraine can’t easily reach that tracks passing through Volnovakha. Or at least can’t do it without employing systems like HIMARS.
Considering the losses that have already been seen this week at Vuhledar, it’s unclear if Russia is willing to keep smashing its forces against this location with the disregard Wagner shows for its forces at Bakhmut. If they do, at least there’s a little bit of a reason behind the madness.
But it’s still madness.
Word today is that things are getting increasingly tight around Bakhmut. Russian forces to the south have pushed through the town of Klishchiivka, including that fortified hill to the west, and are driving toward Ivaniske on the T0504 highway.
The threat to supply lines into Bakhmut is significant, the city is increasingly being isolated, and forces there are at increased risk of encirclement. Ukraine has staged a number of counteroffensives at Bakhmut and pulled that location out of what seemed like near defeat over and over, but the situation in the area is looking pretty dire on Friday. Something needs to change … or something is going to change in a bad way.
There’s a lot of hopeful F-16 talk going around, but it’s hard to know if there’s any actual reason for this beyond Leopard-euphoria.
Markos and Kerry are joined by University of St. Andrews Professor of Strategic Studies, Phillips P. O’Brien. O’Brien, an expert in military history, explains how we got to where we are right now, what is unique about the world’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the parallels between the conservative movement’s isolationism in World War II and now.