MOSCOW BLOG: Proxy war

MOSCOW BLOG: Proxy war
The US just increased its military commitment to Ukraine eight-fold. That has led some to say, especially the Kremlin, that Washington is fighting a proxy war against Russia. / wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin April 29, 2022

There have been two big developments on the war front: US President Joe Biden asked Congress to expand his mandate for presidential discretionary military spending to $33bn on April 28, two thirds of which will be spent on arms for Ukraine. Congress signed off on this within hours and also reactivated the WWII Lend-Lease legislation, which gives Ukraine decades to pay back whatever they get now, if ever; on the same day German lawmakers voted through a law that allows Germany to send heavy weapons (for which read: tanks) to Ukraine. This was another historic decision, as it is the first time since WWII that Germany will get into the offensive military game. For obvious reasons Berlin has always been extremely reluctant to get involved in wars and has usually taken some sort of low-key role in those Nato operations in which it has participated.

All this has sparked an active debate on proxy wars. The US spending pledge is huge. It is more than eight times above what the US has spent on Ukraine so far, five times more than the entire Ukrainian defence budget of $6bn a year, and half of Russia’s budget of $65bn. It suggests several things: the US expects this war to continue for a while; it is abandoning hope of a negotiated peace deal any time soon; and it will not let Ukraine lose.

Has Ukraine become a proxy war between Russia and the US?  

Yes, in the sense that the US is now actively and materially backing Ukraine to make sure it wins, but at the same time has committed no troops to the fight and will not do so in future.  

No, in the sense that the US didn't start this war and has been asked for help by Kyiv to defend its freedom and sovereignty, which are legitimate reasons for the West to get involved.

However, upping the cash commitment also ups the risks. There has been a lot of talk in the last week about nuclear weapons and a few people have suggested that they should not be blithely dismissed. As I have said many times, the “new Putin” we are dealing with is a lot more unpredictable and if he has shown us anything, it is that he is prepared to go to shocking extremes at each escalation of this conflict.  

“The endgame here seems to be Russia's outright defeat in Ukraine, including the return of Donbas and Crimea. Will Putin resort to nuclear weapons to avert this? The expectation here seems that he will not. But it's one hell of a gamble,” Prof Sergey Radchenko said in a tweet.  

You can easily believe that he will see this very large increase in spending as an attack by US, and the Russian side is already talking about a proxy war. If Putin starts losing the war with Ukraine then you cannot rule out that he will do something really stupid, like use a tactical nuclear weapon to destroy somewhere like Kyiv. And at this point I think the chance of him doing this is less than small.

Are we prepared to go there? Abandoning any effort to find a negotiated solution (admittedly seemingly pointless at this stage) will just increase this risk. However, public opinion makes trying to do a peace deal increasingly difficult. Moreover, the Ukrainians themselves seem to have come to a “FY” moment and will just fight regardless, hoping that the West will supply them with enough materiel to allow them to win.

As for action on the ground, Russian progress is "slow and uneven" in Donbas, according to a senior US defence official on the wire this morning, who says the Russian forces are making "incremental" progress in the region. They are advancing only a few kilometres a day, whereas usually you’d expect an attacking army to move around 15 km a day, according to our military expert Gav Don, as Russia doesn't want to run ahead of its ability to resupply its forces. And its raining heavily in the Donbas, which is slowing everything down.  

But the Russian army is making progress. The problem I’m having is that there is very little objective and independent information coming out of the battlefield itself. Most of the western correspondents are in Kyiv or Lviv. I’ve only seen one or two reports from the actual front line. And the most information is being provided by the Ukrainian defence ministry, which we know tightly manages its content as part of the info-war. (Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was a TV producer before he became president, after all.) Almost nothing is coming out of the Russian side, and what does is pure propaganda.

There is almost no frontline reporting in the way there was in Vietnam or even the embedded CNN camera crews like in Iraq. What little reliable reporting I have seen from the front line says the Ukrainian forces are running low on supplies and ammo and Russia is making resupply difficult, although it is not impossible, as the pincer has not closed yet. So at this point I have to assume the battle for Donbas is still very much up in the air.

Russia now has 95 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) in the theatre, according to today’s reports, up from 85 at the start of the week and about 72 last week, but still down from the approximately 120 BTGs Russia started with. Moreover, Russia has those heavy weapons that Ukraine lacks – Russia’s one advantage. The western aid is welcome, but much of it will take weeks, if not months, to arrive, although the howitzers the US promised last week have already reached Ukraine. There are also reports that Nato members like Slovakia and Czech are already running out of their Soviet-vintage weapons so if the West switches to Nato arms the Ukrainian troops will need to be trained to use them, further slowing things down.  

So this whole war seems like it will boil down to a logistical race, as most wars do after the initial Blitzkrieg phase is over. Pouring in more weapons to counter Russia also means that this war will drag on. The West’s military strategy has always been “shock and awe”: massive military force to bring the war to an end quickly. With Ukraine the West has been dribbling in weapons over a long period. Even now things have gone up a gear or even two, the flow of materiel is not a flood and from the little information available from the battlefield it appears the two sides are fairly evenly matched at this point.  

“We are staring into the abyss. Even if the worst does not come to pass, something tells me that by the time we are finished saving Ukraine from Russian imperialism, there won't be much left of it to save,” Radchenko said in a thread.

This article first appeared as the blurb in bne IntelliNews’ EDITOR’S PICKS, a daily email digest of the best articles from the last 24 hours delivered free to your inbox. Click here to see the back issues and to sign up.