Russia sees itself as existentially threatened – regardless of whether NATO and the West ever had and have in mind to attack Russia. What is relevant is what the Russian leadership and the majority of Russians are convinced of. Russia has long accused NATO of wanting to turn Ukraine into a Western bulwark on its border with Russia.
Since 2008, Russia has repeatedly made it clear to the West that this is unacceptable.
“In Ukraine, it’s coming down to an endless war of position.”
by John J. Mearsheimer
Editor / 4.06.2023 Neither side will give up its military objectives, he said. Artillery, not fighter planes, would decide on the fronts.
[This article posted on 6/4/2023 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.infosperber.ch/politik/welt/in-der-ukraine-kommt-es-zu-einem-endlosen-stellungskrieg/.]
John J. Mearsheimer made this prediction in a lecture at the Committee for the Republic on May 22, 2023. Mearsheimer is a professor of international relations theory at the University of Chicago and researches geopolitical regularities.*
Major media did not inform about his current analysis of the Ukraine war.
The state of mind and the goals of the three main actors
The three main actors of the war are Russia, Ukraine and the USA with their allies in Europe. I first analyze the state of mind and the war aims of these three actors.
1. the Ukraine sees itself existentially threatened
0The attacked Ukraine is threatened in its previous existence.
As a war goal, Kiev wants all lost territories back and to achieve that Russia will never be able to attack Ukraine again.
By the end of 1994, Ukraine had returned all nuclear weapons stationed on its territory to Russia. In return, Russia, the U.S., the U.K. and other countries guaranteed Ukraine its existing borders and sovereignty in the Budapest Memorandum.
2. Russia also believes it faces existential threat
Russia sees itself as existentially threatened – regardless of whether NATO and the West ever had and have in mind to attack Russia. What is relevant is what the Russian leadership and the majority of Russians are convinced of.
Russia has long accused NATO of wanting to turn Ukraine into a Western bulwark on its border with Russia.
Since 2008, Russia has repeatedly made it clear to the West that this is unacceptable. When Russia finally deployed troops on the border with Ukraine, President Putin wrote to President Biden and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg for the last time on December 17, 2021, telling them to renounce Ukraine’s NATO membership once and for all. A monart later, on January 17, 2022, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejects Russia’s demand: The U.S. would stick to its policy.
0Since the start of the war on February 24, the West has repeatedly let it be known that the Russian military must be defeated in Ukraine in such a way that Russia loses its status as a great power and is never again in a position to attack another country militarily. There is also talk of regime change in Moscow and of Putin being indicted by an international court.
All of this reinforces the Kremlin’s belief that the West poses an existential threat to Russia.
Russia’s war aims are as follows:
Russia wants control of all Ukrainian territories with a Russian-speaking population, the majority of which has always been pro-Russia. In addition to Crimea, this involves vast areas east of the Dnieper River – adding four administrative districts (oblasts) to the four already controlled in the Donbas since 2014. The area targeted by Russia covers 46 percent of the country, including the cities of Odessa and Kharkiv. Control of the Black Sea coast to Odessa would definitively weaken the rest of Ukraine.
The Dnieper River divides Ukraine
From Russia’s perspective, there must be no repeat of the 2014-2022 civil war, which killed over 10,000 people in the Donbas.
Russia, on the other hand, is not interested in the ethnic Ukrainian and long westernized areas west of the Dnieper River. Nor could Russia gain control over a totally hostile population.
Whether Russia is capable of achieving these war aims is an entirely different question.
3 The West suddenly declares Russia a threat
In the attitude of the West, the USA is undoubtedly playing the leader. They call the shots in NATO. The influence of the EU is less.
Before 2014, the West had never considered Russia a threat. Nor was NATO’s expansion eastward done to ward off a Russian threat.
Only since the 2014 Maidan coup did the U.S. suddenly declare that Russia was an imperialist power threatening the West. Poland and the Baltic states declared themselves threatened. With this new image of the enemy, the U.S. wants to distract from the fact that the West triggered the crisis with the constant expansion of NATO to the east.
Since Russia attacked Ukraine in early 2022, the West has been spreading even more vehemently that Russia is an existential threat to the West. First, there was a danger of a Russian attack on Poland and the Baltic states. Therefore, European security and world peace would depend on a victory in Ukraine.
Second, democratic values are at stake. It was about the struggle between democracies and authoritarian states.
Therefore, Russia should be eliminated as a great power and Ukraine should be admitted to NATO all the more.
“It is not enough for Ukraine to win the war – Russia must lose it in a disastrous way. Anything less would promote Russian imperialism and embolden autocrats around the world […] Russia must learn the lesson that Ukraine is permanently and completely lost […] Defeating Russia’s army without requiring the blood of a single American soldier would be an amazing strategic bargain.”
Eliot A. Cohen, professor of international studies at the privately funded Johns Hopkings University, which also has its work funded by the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Defense, among others (in NZZ, 31,5.2023)
The situation on the battlefields
A classic war of attrition is underway in Ukraine. Rapid successes are not expected on either side.
In 2022, the Ukraine under attack maintained the upper hand and was able to recapture territories. So far, 2023 has gone better for Russia. The Russians were able to recapture the completely destroyed city of Bachmut1 with Wagner mercenaries, although Ukraine deployed of its best forces.
Thus, Russia has by no means won the war. But in the longer term, the advantages remain on the Russian side – whatever Western governments, think tanks and with them most of the media suggest.
There are three factors that decide a war of position and attrition:
1. the will to war.
This is equally strong on both sides. Reports of Russian fatigue are propaganda. Admittedly, many young men in both countries are seeking to escape the war.
2 The number of operational soldiers
If both countries mobilize, Russia can muster about five times as many soldiers.
There is a lot of false information about the losses so far. One dead Ukrainian is said to be matched by seven dead Russians so far. This is wishful thinking and propaganda.
Experience shows that the attackers lose about three times more soldiers than the defenders. In Ukraine, the Ukrainians counterattacked as much as the Russians attacked. This was also the case in Bachmut, where the Ukrainians repeatedly tried to regain lost districts.
So far, the Russians have avoided large battles and are using their infantry very selectively. The Economist recently acknowledged, “Russian tactics are getting better, but Ukraine can still win.”
It is most likely that the Russians have so far lost about twice as many military personnel overall as Ukraine. But Russia can muster about five times more soldiers.
3. the strength of artillery
A war of position and attrition is decided by artillery with its large-caliber guns and missile weapons. The artillery strength ratio is at least 5:1 in favor of Russia.
Western delivery of F-16 fighters will not decisively affect the outcome on the ground. It takes a long time for Ukrainian pilots to be sufficiently trained, and Russia has a very good air defense system. A bigger risk is that the Ukrainians will use these fighters for targets in Russia, despite Western requirements to the contrary. Ukraine is interested in the U.S. being drawn into the war.
*John J. Mearsheimer’s assessments
On his website, Mearsheimer introduces himself:
“I am first and foremost an international relations theorist. More specifically, I am a realist, that is, I believe that the great powers dominate the international system and are constantly in a security competition with each other that sometimes leads to war.
Although I have devoted my life to science, I have also tried to participate in current political debates. For example, I was among the staunchest opponents of the 2003 Iraq war before it happened.”
Back in March 2014, Mearsheimer published an analysis in Foreign Affairs titled “Why Is the Ukraine Crisis the West’s Fault?” and concluded that Western policies at the time “will intensify hostilities with Russia and destroy Ukraine – a scenario in which everyone will come out the loser.”
A peace agreement is not even on the horizon. Territorial claims are irreconcilable. Russia wants to keep Crimea and the Donbas under control at all costs. Ukraine is avowedly desperate to get these territories back. Further obstacles to a peace agreement are security guarantees for Ukraine. Who will be able to provide these? Then there is the hyper-nationalism on both sides and also the lack of mutual trust.
A ceasefire could merely freeze the conflict, allowing it to reignite at any time.
China, India or Brazil are at a loss as mediators. They cannot resolve the fundamental territorial conflict.
For all these reasons, the war of position and attrition will continue for the foreseeable future-with many casualties, injuries, and destruction.
Two possible endpoints
If Russia loses this war of attrition despite its stronger artillery, it will probably or even very probably resort to nuclear weapons. Great powers will resort to any means when they feel existentially threatened.
Conversely, if Russia succeeds in capturing and holding four more administrative districts (oblasts) east of the Dnieper, Russia will be busy for the next 25 to 30 years rebuilding these areas and integrating them into the Russian Federation. This is because almost all cities and industries will be similarly destroyed as the conquered city of Bachmut1.
It is already militarily and economically impossible for Russia and it will become quite impossible in the future to attack, say, Poland or Baltic states. Russia has zero interest in occupying and administering these countries with a totally hostile population anyway. Almost all people there hate Russia.
It is a fact that most Poles and Balts are afraid of Russia. But this fear cannot be justified by facts.
Neither did Russia ever have any interest or intention to conquer all of Ukraine. As evidence to the contrary, Putin is said to have said at a meeting with Biden – according to Biden – that Ukraine is not a real country. As further evidence an article of Putin from 12 July 2021 is quoted. But there is nothing of the sort in this article at all. To date, no one has been able to give me a documented quote from Putin stating his intention to bring all of Ukraine under Russia’s control.
There is no excuse for Putin’s war against Ukraine
It may be that without NATO’s eastward expansion, without the intention to include Ukraine in NATO, and without Ukraine’s years of attacks on Russian-controlled areas in the Donbas, there would have been no war. But even if Russia felt constrained by NATO, Russia was not threatened existentially. The country was certainly not attacked. Therefore, there is nothing, but nothing at all, that justifies the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine.