An Abyss Of Cash And Corpses: How Far Should The West Commit Itself To Ukraine’s War Effort?

Nearly eight months into the Russo-Ukrainian war, and the violence has only worsened. This past month we observed two key developments: the bombing of the Crimean bridge and the commencement of targeted air strikes against Kiev. As Ukraine bleeds ammunition, money, and human life in wave after wave of offensives, the countries backing it should start asking themselves: how much worse does it get before we stop paying for this?

While it may seem counter-intuitive to question the political justification for self-defence, it is this writer’s belief that the post-2014 Ukrainian government has persisted in using profoundly unethical tactics that make this line of questioning legitimate. N.A.T.O. and the G7 have dismissed the recent referendums integrating the Donetsk, Lugansk, Zhaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts into the Russian federation as a laughable sham only serving to drum up war fever. Even assuming the worst fraud in electoral results, we must consider the context of this vote. Since 2014, these chiefly ethnically Russian territories have undergone horrific terror-bombing from Ukraine’s military – explosions targeting civilian areas with virtually no application of the distinction practice of jus in bello. Ukraine also dammed the Crimean canal in reaction to Russia’s annexation, cutting off Russian water supply by 90% and returning it to levels unseen since Stalinism. Those sections of the population who weren’t already pro-Russia – and a majority was, prior to the outbreak of violence in 2013 – may well be alienated by their own government after its use of PFM-1 petal mines, civilian bombing in broad daylight, and far-right squads sent on patrol, all causing a combined 14,000 deaths (before the war even started!).

This behaviour has not abated, either; if anything, it has worsened. Ukrainian intelligence services’ recent assassination of the Russian activist Darya Dugina is proof of this. While Dugina was by no means a figure preaching peace and reconciliation, what justification can be provided for the car-bombing of a civilian? Publicly available Ukrainian kill lists marked her profile as “liquidated,” as she sat next in line to musicians and even Elon Musk.

Consider also the bombing of the Crimean bridge – though it remains unclear how the attack was executed, current evidence suggests a suicide truck bombing. Even if the bombing was executed with M142 HIMARS, the move was a clear attempt to aggravate Russia and escalate the conflict – and it worked, as it triggered the start of air strikes on Kiev.

I list these decisions not to castigate Ukraine as morally inferior to Russia, but to question the prevailing idea that Ukraine must be supported without limit or question. Let us consider the future – what would happen if Ukraine overtook the fortified Russian positions in its east? Would its soldiers be welcomed with open arms as liberators? The previous paragraphs should demonstrate that such an outcome is unlikely. Moreover, Russia would do everything in its power to prevent a hostile N.A.T.O.-backed military on its borders – Putin has said as much. Essentially: we must not uncritically accept the notion that the West has chosen to finance and arm an administration composed of pragmatic, humane, and reasonable generals.

If this ethical analysis is inaccurate or prejudiced against Ukraine, we can shift our focus to the actual tactics and logistics of the Ukrainian military to demonstrate its fundamental problems. On purely logistical terms, one wonders how much further the Zelenskyy government will push the war effort. First, consider the terms of engagement. What is “victory” to Ukraine? According to state media, it is nothing less than the total recuperation of all lost territory – from Kharkiv to Sevastopol. In no uncertain terms, this can be ruled out as a fantasy. Even if Ukraine manages to overcome Russia in the Donbass region – and we will discuss why this is difficult if not impossible – there is absolutely no scenario in which Ukraine overcomes the fortified Crimean position.

This far-off objective, combined with a total diplomatic hostility to Russia precluding negotiation or compromise, means the Zelenskyy government has engaged itself in a war with no conceivable end. This should be incredibly worrying to all international parties concerned with human life, the resumption of trade, cessation of sanctions, and the de-escalation of geopolitical tensions.

The methods employed to reach such a goal have been as dramatic as the goal itself: Ukraine has committed itself to spending all the resources it can on large-scale offensives, such as the one which recently reclaimed Lyman. This makes sense, if one’s goal is territorial gain before any other consideration, but it bears a hefty toll. Ukraine reported 200-300 deaths of military personnel every day in June, numbers which are dwarfed by the death toll suffered in the present offensives – though trustworthy statistics are hard to come by on such matters. The antecedent cause of such deaths is an ammunition shortage – the unrelenting offensive push has exhausted Ukrainian stockpiles and is even beginning to exhaust N.A.T.O.’s own reserves.

Much news has been made of increasing donations of weapons and equipment, but one must not lose sight of the fine print: in many cases, such commitments aren’t immediate donations, but rather pledges, often not even contractually bound, to produce ammunition in the future. Lockheed Martin recently announced a step-up in delivery of HIMARS, but a prudent reading reveals that the corporation does not even currently possess the industrial means to produce the quantity it’s promising: estimates indicate that reaching a sufficient level of manufacturing capability will require months to a year before production can even commence at a satisfactory level. In many cases, these promises of future donations are made because current stocks have already been exhausted: German defence commissioner Eva Hoegl reported that donations to Ukraine resulted in the country needing 20 billion euro for Germany’s stockpiles to even reach N.A.T.O. minimum requirements.

This indiscriminate borrowing might sting less if Ukraine used the resources given to it conservatively, but the inevitable result of unrealistic goals and attrition tactics is a money sink. Mark Svoboda, a pro-Russian military expert, reports that Russian strategy has consisted of conceding territory where necessary to avoid personnel and material losses – the exact opposite of current Ukrainian doctrine. This is increasingly evident as Russia maintains an adequate level of equipment whilst Ukraine receives USD12.4 billion in aid and still bleeds itself dry. Zelenskyy’s aid demands have been so large that the Washington Post reported that Biden chastised him for appearing ungrateful.

Setting aside material, fiscal, and even ethical concerns, all of this comes down to one question: will all this make Ukraine win? Ultimately, this is the primary question dictating donation policy in the West. While it is impossible to see the future, it is this writer’s conclusion that a Ukrainian victory – assuming a continuation of present strategy – would require a mountain of corpses too large for Ukraine to produce. The recent intensification of the conflict has only made this grim forecast more realistic. Air strikes executed by Iranian drones have destroyed 30% of Kiev’s power plants in just eight days, according to the Guardian. Videos circulate online of military and police personnel shooting at low-flying drones with kalashnikov pattern rifles. The problem with such an air defence system (if it can indeed be referred to as such) is that it does not destroy the drone outright, but rather causes it to miss its target and crash into the surrounding neighbourhood – both causing collateral damage. While we can, of course, not blame Kiev for defending itself, this is an indication of how dire the shortage of equipment is becoming.

If the upcoming resumption of the Kherson offensive successfully overcomes the city’s defences, it will be a pyrrhic victory. Russia’s greater military infrastructure simply dwarfs Ukraine’s, even with Western backing. The impending arrival of 300 thousand reservists in the winter will prove a difficult obstacle for Ukraine to surmount. When this happens, the West must ask itself: just how much blood and money will we exsanguinate until we’re sated? The recent declaration of E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell that “Europe is a garden” to be protected against the “outside jungle” is a sobering warning, to be read as such: we will dig as many graves as we must.


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