How badly is the Russian war in Ukraine going ... Pretty, Pretty, Pretty bad.
I’m Michael A. Cohen, and this is Truth and Consequences: A no-holds-barred look at the absurdities, hypocrisies, and surreality of American politics. If you received this email - or you are a free subscriber - and you’d like to subscribe: you can sign up below.
I’ll be Zoom chatting tomorrow and I could not be more excited that by my good friend UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff will be joining me. Jonathan is one of my favorite people and someone I never tire of talking to — even though he is a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and still refuses to acknowledge that the foul called on Bill Laimbeer in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals was bullshit (you can watch the replay and see that I am clearly correct). But, alas, no one is perfect.
Jonathan and I will be talking about Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court, and why he is not surprised that Samuel Alito is the author of the likely decision overturning Roe. I promise you won’t want to miss this conversation. The link is here! See you tomorrow.
I have a new piece up this week in the New Republic with a small suggestion for US intel officials boasting to reporters about all the help they’re giving Ukraine in killing Russian soldiers … SHUT UP.
Russia is surely aware that the U.S. is sharing intelligence with Ukraine, but it’s something else altogether to publicly trumpet America’s effectiveness at helping kill Russians. It’s akin to waving a red flag in front of Vladimir Putin. The more the U.S. humiliates the Russian leader by pointing out our decisive role in the war, the more it increases the potential of a dangerous escalation. As Dan Drezner pungently put it in the pages of The Washington Post, “When it comes to aiding a belligerent during a war … doing is much better than talking …
… It is true that the chances of conflict between the U.S. and Russia remain low, and neither side has an incentive to get into a shooting war with the other. But every day the war goes on—and every time American officials remind the world of their proficiency in humiliating the Russian military—that possibility rises.”
The US goal in Ukraine should be to end the war as quickly as possible. But growing calls for weakening Russia and boasting about U.S. success in helping Ukraine target Russians are needlessly adding fuel to the fire. Rather than disputing the notion that the U.S. is in a proxy war with Russia, the Biden Administration is actively leaning into it. And that heightens the risk of a dangerous escalation.
All that notwithstanding, a quick survey of recent news stories about the war in Ukraine suggests things are not going well for Russia.
What Is The Opposite of Swimmingly?
Several weeks ago, the Russian military consolidated its forces in Eastern Ukraine, ending the potential threat to Kyiv. Russian military officials announced they were shifting their focus to capturing territory around the Donbas, where pro-Russian forces have waged a bloody insurgency since 2014. According to the Pentagon, things are not going well.
Indeed, US officials have characterized the Russian offensive as “incremental and somewhat anemic.” The same problems that hobbled Russia’s initial thrust into Ukraine in February are rearing their head again — poor planning, lousy logistics, an inability to synchronize air and ground operations, low troop morale, and an enemy that is far more committed to the fight.
According to a report by David Axe in Forbes, a Russian army battalion recently tried to cross a pontoon bridge spanning the Siverskyi Donets River, which intersects the two separatist provinces in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk. It didn’t go well. According to Axe’s reporting, approximately 50 vehicles and a thousand troops were caught by Ukrainian artillery and effectively destroyed. These types of incidents keep happening months into the war, suggesting that Russia is making little progress in improving its shoddily incompetent military performance.
Now, Ukrainian forces have launched a counterattack near the city of Kharkiv and, in the process, are threatening the Russian supply lines that are supporting the Donbas offensive. In addition, Ukraine has now started to launch military strikes inside Russian territory. So while it’s unlikely that Ukrainian forces will be able to deal a killer blow to Russia, it seems even more unlikely that Russia can do the same to Kyiv, which means we may be looking at a long-drawn-out war of attrition in Eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine will almost certainly get a boost from the $40 billion assistance package passed in the House of Representatives and will likely pass soon in the Senate. The steady influx of arms shipments from the US and elsewhere has allowed the war to continue and helped Kyiv put up such strong resistance. As long as those resources keep flowing into Ukraine, it’s very difficult to imagine a scenario in which Russia prevails militarily.
How bad are things for the Russian military?
According to congressional testimony this week from Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, sanctions on US technology exports are taking such a bite that Russia has resorted “to us(ing) computer chips from dishwashers and refrigerators in some military equipment.”
How bad are things for the Russian economy?
According to a report from the International Energy Agency, the cumulative effect of sanctions on Russia’s oil exports, including a planned embargo by the European Union, could set the Russian oil industry back nearly 20 years. Already oil exports (Russia’s largest source of foreign currency) are down by 900,000 barrels a month. That number could hit 3 million by July.
And to add final insult to injury, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was predicated, in part, on stopping the encroachment of NATO into territory bordering Russia. Now, this week comes word that Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, is preparing to seek membership in the Western military alliance “without delay.” Sweden looks poised to follow suit. Amazingly, public support in Finland for NATO membership hovered around 20 percent just six months ago. Now it stands at 80 percent.
This tale of self-inflicted woe brings to mind one of my favorite science in Young Frankenstein:
Almost three months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s difficult to point to anything that is going well for Moscow. The country’s economy is cratering, and Russia has become an international pariah. Its vaunted military has been exposed as a paper tiger, incapable of defeating a smaller, inferior army. And now it’s bogged down in a war of attrition that it seems incapable of winning.
Even if Russian troops can finally capture Mariupol and create a land bridge between Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, and even if the two sides can reach some sort of diplomatic agreement, I struggle to see how Russia gets out of the current hole which it put itself. International business and investment are not going to return to Russia. The G-8 will never welcome Putin again, and Russian military officials and individual soldiers may find themselves dodging international human rights tribunals for the rest of their lives. Moreover, international sanctions on Russia will not go away soon, even if a cease-fire is reached. With that context, it makes you wonder how beneficial it is for the US to focus so intently on weakening Russia.
It seems as though Moscow is taking care of that all by itself. The tragedy, of course, is that it’s not Vladimir Putin who will suffer but rather the Ukrainian and Russian people from this catastrophic series of events.
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