Ukraine: Another Unwinnable War

It's bad for everyone.

Collapsed building
Photo by Jade Koroliuk on Unsplash

A long time ago, a friend told me a story about American troops in Vietnam and later in Afghanistan. He said it was common to break your fancy M-16s on purpose. They did it for a reason that makes perfect sense.

"Everyone hated their M-16s," he said.

Apparently, an M-16 is finicky. Despite its range and accuracy, they don't perform well in real combat situations.

They lock up.

They jam.

He said if you broke your standard issue weapon, you could replace it with any gun of your choice. And in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, there were plenty of old AK-47s lying around. "You can bury those things in the mud for weeks, wash them off. They're fine."

That story recurred to me when Russia first invaded Ukraine, and everyone was predicting an easy win after blowing up some Russian tanks and battleships. The internet was laughing at Russian troops roaming around with old rifles, not fancy American assault weapons. Trust fund babies masquerading as journalists smirked at the sight of Soviet-era bombs and missiles, while I thought, if you had 40-year-old bombs that still worked, why wouldn't you use them first?

It felt like an omen.

Let's face it, the war in Ukraine isn't going the way many optimists predicted. We're looking at a third year, and a fourth. Even The New York Times can't deny Ukraine's mounting casualties anymore, now hovering around 200,000 and even higher according to "private" admissions by American military leaders. As the newspaper states, "Equipped with advanced American weapons, the Ukrainians nonetheless became bogged down in dense Russian minefields under constant fire from artillery and helicopter gunships." They lost 20 percent of the weaponry originally given to them for their counter-offensive, and they got almost nowhere.

Now Ukraine needs another military aid package to the tune of $10 or $20 billion. The White House is getting frantic, saying we're "out of money and nearly out of time."

Republicans don't care about Ukraine one way or the other, but they're more than happy to use it as leverage for all kinds of concessions out of the Biden administration, who has made Ukraine and Israel the hills they'll die on. They didn't make mask mandates or student loan forgiveness non-negotiable issues, but there's no end to what Democrats will compromise on to free up military funds. They're already bending on hardline immigration, and you have to wonder what's next. As The Guardian writes, "Biden has been left with only bad and worse options in his flagging campaign to send more aid... it could be a serious hit... in a crucial election year."

Yes, that's the point.

It gets worse.

There's a difference between money and weapons production. Simply put, the western world is struggling to keep Ukraine armed. Europe promised 1 million shells by March 2024. They'll actually provide less than a third of that.

According to a piece in Bloomberg, the U.S. and Europe can't keep up with the demand for ammunition. As they write, "The US is struggling with low stock levels of artillery ammunition, leading Washington to take the controversial decision to send Ukraine cluster munitions, despite concerns that the weapons pose a grave danger to civilians." Biden is discretely begging Europe to make more shells and bombs, but they can't.

Without Russian natural gas, they're hurting for efficient fuel sources. This partly explains why Biden and Sunak and everyone else are resorting to increasingly desperate measures to get their hands on fossil fuels, digging up Alaska and ethnically cleansing Palestine.

Wars consume a lot of energy.

To put things into perspective, Ukraine is going through a normal year's worth of ammunition in about two weeks.

Here's one military expert:

“I’m greatly concerned. Unless we have new production, which takes months to ramp up, we’re not going to have the ability to supply the Ukrainians,” Des Roches told CNBC. 

And a little bit later:

Weapons Ukraine relies on that are now classified as “limited” in the U.S. inventory include HIMARS launchers, Javelin missiles, Stinger missiles, the M777 Howitzer and 155 mm ammunition. 

The U.S. military has essentially run out of surplus weapons and ammunition, and they aren't willing to send their own stocks. After all, that would put us in a pretty precarious situation with China, a country we should be trying to get along with but only seem interested in antagonizing. Then again, it does look like the stance toward Xi has softened a little since it's become blatantly obvious that we're nowhere near ready for a world war.

Meanwhile, Russia now produces a staggering seven times as many shells and missiles as the entire west. This isn't Russian propaganda. A piece in Business Insider of all places describes how "Russian production of missiles and ammunition is thriving even in the face of western sanctions." Russia has managed to work around nearly every roadblock over the last year. They're riding high off anti-western sentiment while working with China to build an economic network outside of our influence.

To drive it home:

Western officials told the outlet that Russia is on track to manufacture two million artillery shells a year, which is twice as many as Western intelligence originally estimated it could make before the war.

So, western elites are now finally admitting how severely they underestimated their position at the beginning of the war. If only there weren't a long historical precedent for failed optimism.

In fact, the official reports now attribute Russia's immense advantage to the fact that they make cheaper, lower-grade munitions. After all, having cheap bombs is better than having no bombs at all.

Which is our problem.

You could make the case that more accurate, efficient bombs matter if you want to limit civilian casualties, but I think the last few months have shown us that nobody is ever interested in that. It's just something the press secretary says.

Russia currently spends 7,000 rounds a day. They can make around 2 million rounds per year.

It's enough.

They're also engaged in arms deals with countries like North Korea and Iran. Worse, leaked documents have shown that China has been supplying substantial amounts of equipment and hardware. And of course, China has every reason to arm Russia while denying it.

As it happens, coverage of the western world's military problem also often brings up skilled labor shortages. You'd think these geniuses would put two and two together and try to stop spreading a virus known to cause severe brain damage and chronic fatigue, but that hasn't happened yet.

It looks like we're screwed.

In early 2022, it was almost impossible to talk about the larger context of Russia's actions without getting labeled a pro-Putin troll. That reactionary hot take ignored decades of warnings by our own diplomats and military experts to stop expanding NATO, especially when it had arguably outlived its purpose. According to Ted Galen Carpenter with the CATO Institute, "even slow-learning U.S. leaders" should have figured out years ago that "the days of Russian officials merely issuing verbal protests about the west's steady encroachment into Russia's security sphere were over." While Americans only know the story of Russian aggression, the real history shows years of European governments who "meddled shamelessly" in Ukraine's affairs as far back as 2013. In fact, the U.S. and Europe did pretty much exactly what we've accused Putin of doing with Trump.

Here's more:

Yet Washington still refused to back off. Instead, the Trump and Biden administrations poured weapons into Ukraine, approved joint military exercises between U.S. and Ukrainian forces, and even prodded the allies to include Ukraine in NATO war games.

I don't know about you, but it looks very much like everyone in power wanted this war, or something like it. Regardless of whose "side" you're on, this boils down to a pure and simple power struggle, a largely pointless one given the rapid acceleration of climate collapse.

Do you see how it works?

We can keep digging through sources, but let's take a bird's eye view. Anyone who studies economies and ecologies understands that Russia and China have tremendous natural resources at their disposal. And they have tremendous human resources. For years, they've been building up influence in the Middle East, Africa, and South America. Those just happen to be the places where we get our oil, and our rare earth elements for tech goodies.

U.S. imperialism has worn out its welcome.

The genocide in Gaza has exposed western hypocrisy once and for all. Like it or not, Putin is the one on the world's stage calling Gaza the "largest children's cemetery in the world." Think about how bad you have to be at diplomacy to make Putin sound like a reasonable human being.

Pretty bad.

All of this is leading toward a global confrontation. In some ways, WWIII has already started. As Noah Smith has written, China's military production outstrips ours by wide margins. They're increasingly on a war footing with Taiwan. We're competing directly with them for influence of a country that produces the world's most advanced computer chips. We were trying to develop our own capacity, but skilled labor shortages have slowed us down. Despite investing $52 billion in chip production, we're taking twice as long to fill positions. Everyone in the industry is worried about the workforce.

Despite all the western propaganda, we're the ones short on allies and materials going up against two superpowers. All of Europe can't even produce enough ammo to keep Russia out of Ukraine. They can barely keep the lights on. Countries around the world are largely disgusted with American support for genocide. Nobody's going to be doing us any favors. We don't have enough workers to power an economy during peacetime, and our politicians seem hellbent on infecting the last ones we've got with a brain-damaging disease.

They're not making very smart decisions.

For what it's worth, many critics of the Ukraine war don't oppose the idea of helping another country beat back a totalitarian aggressor. It's just that we're doing such a bad job, and we're doing it for impure reasons. If this war were really about Ukraine, it would be over.

It's not.

The U.S. is simply trying to relive its glory days, clinging to power for a little bit longer as the world shifts to a new balance.

On a more epic timescale, none of this even matters. Our leaders should be working together to deal with the collapse of our climate. Instead, they're jockeying for power and preparing for war.

The colossal failure in Ukraine matters because it puts American hubris on display once again. Some of us did try to warn everyone that this war would turn into an utter disaster for everyone and that we should do everything in our power to de-escalate the conflict. Instead, Biden and his diehard supporters escalated it as far as possible and got us stuck in another unwinnable war.

The U.S., Russia, and China have a lot more in common than any of us are willing to admit. They're all superpowers with our own shameful histories of corruption, exploitation, and genocide. They all have ideologies we're willing to sacrifice the public good for, whether it's capitalism or some version of socialism. They have nuclear weapons, and a bad temper.

It would be nice if the world's three largest, most powerful countries could stop getting into turf wars and cooperate for the sake of human survival. But apparently that's too much to ask of them. They would rather risk human extinction for a little more oil, or some computer chips.

Russia and China fight wars of attrition, and that's how they win. They're the last one standing. They're the AK-47s you bury in mud, and they still work. We're the M-16s. Sure, we look impressive.

Don't get us dirty, though.

We'll jam.

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