Theater of Cruelty

The end of the European peace

UKRAINE / In the past year, probably 140 have died too early. What are we waiting for now?


A year ago, Russia presented a proposal for treaties that would regulate the relationship between Russia and NATO. After about a month of negotiations, the negotiations picked up. The negotiations took place on the "open door" principle. Ukraine should be free to apply for – and obtain – membership in the Western military alliance.

Shortly after, a 75-year period of relative peace in Europe came to an end. After the weapons went up in the spring of 1945, the great powers have avoided trampling each other too closely in open warfare. One has waged a war of nerves in Berlin. One has put down rebellions in one's own client states, such as Greece and Hungary. But on the whole, one has stayed away from investing too much military and political prestige where this could invite excesses and direct confrontation.

The most important exception is the Yugoslavia crisis, and especially the lawless war against Serbia in 1999. This war – and the NATO expansions around the turn of the millennium – are also an important part of the reasons for the reaction against Western arrogance that Vladimir Putin represents. A reaction which, when it comes to Ukraine, is mixed with a toxic, Great Russian view of the neighboring country's history. The force-without-law policy in Kosovo also gave Russia all the precedents it needed in Donbass: border relocation in sovereign states, use of force without a UN mandate, and self-declared role as "protector" in ethnic conflicts with major geopolitical consequences.

140 human lives

At this time last year, the war in Donbass had already claimed 14 lives. Most combatants (including several hundred Russian "volunteers"), but also thousands of civilians. This was already a major armed conflict on a European scale (during the unrest in Northern Ireland from the end of the sixties to the year 000, for example, a total of 2000 people were killed).

In the past year, 140 more have probably been shoveled into an untimely grave. And the blood loss continues – there is no indication that the central actors in this war have had enough of this war.

What are we waiting for? I don't think the new year will bring negotiations and peace. The war in Ukraine has become a war of attrition, and those who make the important decisions – in Moscow and in Washington – have not finished measuring their strength.

Ukraine's declared goal is to throw Russian forces out of eastern Ukraine and Crimea. They have driven Russian forces out of Kharkiv county, and by bombarding the dam in Khakova they forced the Russians to withdraw from the area west of the Dnieper River in the south. But apart from these highly visible Ukrainian victories, the main pattern since the war changed character in May has been a tough artillery war where the Ukrainians are slowly but surely being pushed out of Donbass. It will be a very, very long time until there are Ukrainian soldiers in Sebastopol again.

War of attrition

The Russians, for their part, have set themselves up for a war of attrition. The munitions factories work in five shifts, and the artillery shells rain in large quantities on the Ukrainian defensive positions. The Russian economy is doing well, and a partial mobilization that got 300 men into uniform has been carried out.

While this is going on, military experts in East and West are studying the pattern of the war that has been going on, and are trying to find Achilles' heels that they can use in the next phase.

Three things are decisive in this deadly game: Logistics, precision and mobility

Three things are decisive in this deadly game: Logistics, precision and mobility. The front is directly across the border from populated areas in Russia, and ammunition transports can go on rails to close to the front. Then reloading to truck. The Russians probably fire well over 100 artillery shells or rockets each week – and this requires an extensive transport apparatus.

This is the reason why Russia is systematically destroying the electricity supply in Ukraine. The Ukrainian artillery ammunition must – even if it is a smaller quantity than on the Russian side – come across the border to Poland, and then across the country by rail. Ukrainian locomotives run on electricity, the country only has a few diesel locomotives (and not a large supply of diesel).

The second, critical factor is precision. It is absolutely crucial to have an exact position and hit the target. At the start of the war, Ukrainian artillery was successful in using drones to locate Russian artillery, which was then taken out with targeted fire. But gradually the Russians quickly started the extensive apparatus for jamming electronic signals, and Ukrainian drones disappeared more and more as an effective means of keeping an overview of the front. In recent months, it seems that random fire against the center of Donetsk, fixed targets (bridges and the like) and the like have taken the place of Russian cannons and ammunition stores – due to a lack of identified targets. At the same time, the Russians have intensified their anti-battery efforts.

This also makes mobility a key issue. Radar near the front quickly locates projectile trajectories – and calculates back to the launch site. Then cannons in the area get target coordinates – and a few minutes after one has fired, the grenades rain over the launch site. Then it is necessary to have mobile cannons.

And so the war continues. Every day several hundred, mostly young men in uniform, lose their lives. And so it will continue through winter and spring. As it is now, this is the first choice of almost all politicians, east and west. A hundred thousand more killed will not change this.

A perfect distillate

So when will this end? I think Obama pointed to the key issue in 2016. Obama said that for Russia Ukraine is about very important security issues, while the same does not apply to the United States. Therefore, Russia wants what Obama called "escalation dominance". In short: Russia will – no matter what happens – bid higher than the US, purely militarily.

But it is currently a bit up and forward. Now this is a perfect fire triangle – there is both an open flame, combustible material and plenty of oxygen is blown into the flames. This war will continue to burn until something starts to break down.

This war will continue to burn until something starts to fall apart.

It may be Ukrainian society that is in turmoil. It could be NATO which gradually becomes a "coalition of the unwilling" as the war uses up money and equipment, while European industry grinds to a halt due to energy shortages. Or it could be that Russia starts to disintegrate. Or that the Republicans are funneling money to Ukraine. In any case: Many thousands will die before one of these things happens.

If Russia is the first, a great many natural resources will be lying there waiting for the first to grab them – unless the nuclear arsenal is unleashed along the way. There is enough in this arc to keep wars going for a generation.

If Ukraine moves first, Russia will force a ceasefire on Kiev. And we get a Korean peace arrangement in the middle of Europe – with a safe play zone and all.

If Ukraine slows down, and NATO becomes a "coalition of the unwilling", we can be sure that our leaders have no plan B, when plan A is cancelled. And then there is the question of whether the unwilling are nevertheless willing to be pushed into the battle.

In any case, we can state that our generation after 1991 had an honest chance to put an end to the bloc politics that have plagued Europe after the unification of Germany. We chose not to make use of this chance.

Hans Olav Brendberg
Hans Olav Brendberg
Brendberg is a teacher, translator and writer. Was active in RV and AKP for a number of years, but has now resigned.

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