Fighting for nothing

Since February, some of the most intense and continuous fighting in Ukraine has been around the village of Shirokino, just east of Mariupol. Now, the Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, General Viktor Muzhenko, has declared that the village has ‘no military value whatsoever’.

Muzhenko’s statement drew howls of protests from Ukrainian soldiers and political activists, angry at the suggestion that blood had been shed for no purpose, but he is probably right. And Shirokino is hardly an isolated example. It is a sad fact that war often descends into bloody struggles for territory which has no tactical or strategic value, only symbolic importance. War is not a very rational endeavour, if one measures rationality in terms of material costs and benefits. Rather, as I examined in my book Military Honour and the Conduct of War, it is about honour as much as anything else. Why else keep attacking Passchendaele? Why else throw the Sixth Army deeper and deeper into Stalingrad? Why else keep on fighting the Taliban long after it has become obvious that you’re never going to defeat them? The answer is that honour, under whatever name you choose to give it – face, prestige, credibility, reputation, self-respect, pride – is at stake, and so you keep on at it, however unsuccessful it may be.

According to Clausewitz, war is a means of achieving a political objective. The tactics chosen will thus reflect the objective in question, which may change as the war develops. At the start of the war in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government’s object was to recapture its lost territories. It therefore focused its attention on capturing land and on strategic manoeuvres designed to destroy the enemy occupying that land. Now, though, it is quite obvious that recapturing the entirety of Donbass by military means is impossible. The objective, therefore, has changed. After the humiliating defeats at Ilovaisk in August 2014 and Debaltsevo in February 2015, restoring lost pride is the only objective achievable. And so, the Ukrainian Army fights over villages which have ‘no military value whatsoever’ because they come to symbolize that pride. It is, in a way, rather more logical than it initially seems.

This, then, is what the war in Ukraine has come down to: restoring Kiev’s damaged pride. Ever since the Minsk-2 agreement in February this year, both sides have been shelling each other daily, probing each other’s lines, and exchanging small arms fire, without gaining more than a few yards here and there. From a military point of view it doesn’t make sense. But from a political point of view, abiding strictly by the terms of Minsk-2 would have meant that Kiev would have had to accept a political settlement forced upon it by a victorious enemy. The current small-scale fighting doesn’t bring Ukraine any closer to a military victory, but it prevents that humiliation. If the warring parties in Ukraine weren’t fighting over Shirokino, they would have just have to fight over something else. In essence, fighting itself has become the aim. Muzhenko’s comment suggests that the General Staff don’t like this very much, and as a former army staff officer, I thoroughly sympathize. But given the prevailing political mood, I fear that there is very little that the General Staff can do about it, and the struggles over useless objectives will continue for some time yet.

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20 thoughts on “Fighting for nothing”

  1. Bravo! Honestly – bravo, Paul!

    With your “to the point” analysis you’ve managed to finally articulate a couple of the critical Ukrainian issues, which are too often ignored by the rest of the Western “Russia Watchers”.

    1) First of all – admission of rather simple and obvious fact that Ukraine had [once…] a very clear objective – to crush the Rebllion completely and re-occupy affected territories. Admitting that it failed to do that, or that the set of objectives somehow changed in the meantime is tantamount to the admission of defeat.

    2) Second – Kiev’s current regime can’t lose. It’s already on ver sahky ground. What should’ve become a “Short, Victorious War” for a newly elected Poroshenka became a humiliation, and, possibly, a root of his downfall.

    In my opinion, neither Ukrainian government, nor various armed forces more-or-less (un)controlled by it, nor the oligarchs, nor the common Ukrainians themselves are interested in actually stopping this war. All of them truly believe, deep down, that it could be “won” via military means if only… and then, their views differ. For someone, it’s connected with the “magical” US-grade weapons, for others – with tough Western sanctions against Russia and “the terrorists”, and yet for others – with cutting of all the red tape and allowing Volunteer Battalions a free reign.

    In a country experiencing a Hipster Revolution while it’s own troops are shelling their own compatriots there is no hope for an honest, sicere initiative to end the violence. Only when a large number of ordinary Ukrainian would feel the whole bear of war, when they truly understand what is it like to be civillian caught in the conflict, when the Ukrainian militaries would be rendered totally un-combat worthy… and when “the accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”” maybe, only maybe, the Ukraine and their Western cheer leaders would be ready for a peace.

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    1. Another example of a “purely prestige” battle was the Mad Max craziness with the “cyborgs” at the Donetsk airport.

      The Ukrainian “cyborgs” were doomed, and the airport had been completely destroyed by that point, but they were ordered to hold on indefinitely in the rubble. (Until they finally had to leave.)

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    1. Far too many – 58,000 in Vietnam, and many more since. The maintenance of ‘credibility’ has been probably the primary aim of US wars over the past 50 years.

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  2. Well, Ukraine has at least one good reason to fight for each of these villages: it’s their territory and it’s in the presence of Russian troops and “opolchenie” why the war continues in the first place.

    Ukraine did abide to both Minsk and Minsk-2 for a moment each time, and you could see that in OSCE SMM reports clearly, but they were constantly shelled at by the Russian side. This is precisely the same tactics Russia used in South Ossetia in 2008 shortly before the war started.

    So, again, when speaking about “fighting itself that became the aim” for Ukraine what makes your comment biased is to forget about constant presence of Russian troops and weapons at least since August 2014. It’s not “fighting for itself” or for “honor”, but to prevent any further advance of Russian army.

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    1. If there has been a constant presence of Russian troops and weapons for over a year now – constant, meaning always present – why has the substantiation for this been so poor? Why the fake photos of Russian armor rolling into Ukraine that were shopped to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee back in the spring?

      http://freebeacon.com/national-security/exclusive-photos-show-russian-military-in-ukraine-arming-separatists/

      Please note the assertion by Inhofe’s communications director: “These were presented to the Armed Services Committee from a delegation from Ukraine in December,” Harder said. “In December, we talked to them about publishing the photos and giving them the credit, and they were fine with that. We thoroughly checked our sources again prior to releasing the photos, and felt confident proceeding because the photos also match reporting. We are currently making calls to our sources.”

      We thoroughly checked our sources again prior to releasing the photos, and felt confident proceeding because the photos also match reporting.

      Photographs which were exposed as fakes by internet users almost as soon as they were released, were still pushed as genuine by Inhofe’s sources although he had had the photos for two months. Does it not also follow, then that reporting on the subject is just as phony? It should, because it is and it is coming straight from Kiev. Washington simply rebroadcasts Kiev’s nonsense without bothering to check it. Have a look at how many times the Kyiv Post has reported that Ukraine has been invaded by Russia. An army that could barely muster 6000 combat-ready troops at the beginning of the insurrection, an army that had nearly 50% of its strength in Crimea desert to Russia and has since then increased its numbers by drafting college students right out of the university and artists from the opera houses has thrown back the combined might of the Russian army several times a month for the past year? And so effectively that it can’t advance past the Donbas, but yet the Ukrainian army cannot drive it out altogether? Does that actually make sense to you?

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      1. I don’t actually doubt that there are some Russian soldiers in Donbass, providing training and logistical support, and perhaps occasionally firing a few shots, albeit at a very low unit level. But equally, it’s clear that the bulk of the fighting is done by locals. This is certainly true of Shirokino, as can be seen by the films taken by Western journalists who have visited it.

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      1. Who are you asking? If you’re asking me, then no – on the contrary, I have repeatedly said that this is best seen as a civil war (one in which outsiders are involved, but one nevertheless – what international relations scholars would call an ‘internationalized civil war’).

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  3. Good article. Another possible motivator is an unreasoned desire to dominate others which is (to some extent) present in all of us – from the bossy mother-in-law to the spoiled child who has caught on to the idea that his wishes must be executed or the tiring discussion-partner who must always be right.

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  4. If there was no constant support from Russia – military, financial and logistic – the war would be over back in August. No amount of the mythical ‘ammunition captured from Ukrainians’ would be sufficient for a large scale military operation lasting now over 1.5 year. These are millions of dollars, thousands of shells, spare parts for tanks, tons of fuel etc being spent every DAY!

    This is precisely why Russians have intervened back in August. If Ukraine took control over the 200 km window on the border – and they were very close to that – the war would be over exactly because the constant stream of resources for the war would be cut. By the way as you speak about ‘humanitarian tragedy’ that could happen if Ukraine regained control of Donbass back in August, just look at life in Slavyansk when it was controlled by the masked thugs, and now.

    Now, speaking about ‘few Russians fighting’, you must be reading your news very selectively. Just go and read Russian news from places like Krasnoyarsk or Buryatya, as this is no secret for people there. There are now literally hundreds of first-hand accounts of Russian soldiers who were fighting in Ukraine being in active service (Batumunkuyev, Sapozhnikov, Dorovskih, Alexandrov, Yerofeyev, Starkov, Dambaev and many many more). There are now at least 2000 confirmed killed in action, while in active service, their families receiving compensation according to the new regulations signed by Putin last year.

    OSCE periodically reports downing of latest Russian drones and electronic jamming, which is way beyond capabilities of any equipment in possession of DPR.

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    1. You know, kravietz, I considered replying to your, ah, “excellent observations” that you’ve made so far, but upon reading the claim about “at least 2000 confirmed killed in action” I just LoLed and realized that there is no use for that. If you still, nearly a week after it’s debunktion believe in this fake, then any meaningful conversation with you is just pointless.

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      1. Ok, I just found the rebuttal on StopFake.org so I might have jumped a gun with that ‘2000 compensated’. Nonetheless, the law was indeed introduced by Putin last year and it was happening among vocal complaints of Russian soldiers who were killed in Ukraine (like the paratroopers from Pskov) and did not receive compensations initially. All that was widely discussed in Russian local media and apart from the specific piece from Delovaya Zhizn all the rest of my comment remains valid.

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  5. The 2000 claim was obvious bullshit to start with, and was obviously bullshit to anyone with even a minimimal understanding of warfare since the onset of antibiotics.

    First, never trust “round” numbers, second, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, third, there are certain “rules of thumb” concerning what kind of losses a military force fighting a near peer competitor (which is what Ukraine would be for the Russian military) would expect to take, especially if that military is “fighting with one hand behind the back” due to clandestine reasons.

    The neglible number of “Russian prisoners” strongly implies that Russia is not fighting the Ukrainian military directly.

    The number of captives taken by Ukraine who actually are Russian servicemen is, iirc, 2. These were GRU agents, apperantly tasked with reconnaisance, which were caught and much paraded. Then there was the case of the 10 or so border troops, who surrendered without offering resistance.

    Anyone who needs “stopfake” to know a completely obvious fake should be very carefull with his observations and analysis.

    My assessment is that of an ongoing train and equip mission (I do wonder if the US takes some notes, the Russian trained forces certainly appear to be more combat capable then the US trained Iraqi army).
    Another component would clearly by intel and sigint support, as well as providing C4 platforms.

    I would not be surprised if formal Russian military does act as a mobile reserve during periods of massive fighting, and these reserves would have a potent impact on the situation even, actually especially, if they do not directly engage in combat.
    Kiev systematically undervalues the Donbass rebels, and blames many defeats on “direct clashes with the Russians”. My interpretation of the debalzevo debacle is that Kiev believed that the decisive strike would come from regular Russian military, however, the rebels on their own eventually slogged their way through, the “Russian reserve” was mostly doing Maskirovka and was not commited. Kiev focused too much on these “phantom forces” and thus missed the moment for withdrawal.

    Since every Kiev commander who lost people or territory to the rebels blamed Russian regulars instead (safer for career reasons), those “Russian regulars” Kievs Stavka could not trust any individual “Russian sighting”, and that probably resulted in some operationally deleterious paranoia, and increased the incentives to micromanage everything.

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    1. There were many more than just these 2 GRU servicemen (Alexandrov, Yerofeyev). Those who you call ‘border troops’ were actually paratroopers from Kostroma and paratroopers aren’t normally used for patrolling your own border and especially 17 km inside another country’s territory. Also check other Russia soldier families mentioned as each of them has a story of at least one unit in active service dispatched to Ukraine. Some of them returned alive, some didn’t. Your theory about Russian units taking part in ‘decisive strike’ seems to match accounts from both sides fighting in Debaltseve. Russian elite units would do the fighting, take control and leave the territory for ‘self-defence’ to give interviews to reporters.

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    2. Now, having the OSCE official report confirming presence of Russian “Buratino” flamethrower in Donbass, I wonder how do you explain that?

      Like

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