GELFAND’S WORLD - It was supposed to be a lightning war of three or four days, one in which the corrupt and cowardly leadership of Ukraine would flee to Switzerland, whereupon victorious Russian tanks would roll into Kyiv and install their chosen puppet. Russia is still waiting for that victory. It's been more than 500 days, and the once-vulnerable cities of Ukraine appear to be holding their own against further Russian moves. The supposedly comical president of Ukraine turned out to be an international hero, even as the countries of western Europe have reconstructed the Nato Alliance in a way that would not have been imagined during the previous presidency.
Zelensky's response to the Americans, "I need ammunition, not a ride," is the remark that will be remembered. It got through to Americans who otherwise couldn't find Ukraine on a map, but who understood that it is not a favorable thing that the Russian Army is crossing your borders.
There is a kind of bewildering complexity to the reports from the battle lines, largely because there seem to be battle lines all over the eastern and southern areas of Ukraine, and this generation of Americans are, for the most part, unfamiliar with the modern science of war. There is also the bewildering language difference, where words such as Oblast are crystal clear to scholars of eastern Europe, but opaque to people like me (unless we make an effort to look them up or find some sort of explanation).
Over the months, I've been following the news of this war mainly on the website Dailykos, which is a pro-Democratic Party and pro-Ukrainian independence source. The big advantage is that the founder of DailyKos is a veteran of the U.S. military and knows the technology and tactics of artillery fights. Kos gets his pen name from what his fellow soldiers called him (due to it being the final syllable of his name). He and his other authors have been building a picture of the war pretty much from day to day and week to week.
I'll take a pause here to define one or two terms that come up continually in the discussions. There is a term "shaping the battlefield" which refers to all the efforts by one side to create conditions that will eventually lead to a decisive victory over a particular area. It includes destroying the ammunition dumps and railways that the other side has, so that they cannot be used against you when you finally send in your troops.
Kos also talks in great detail about the critical strategic importance of certain towns and cities. But in order to understand their importance, you first have to have a feel for the overall strategy. For example, taking back Crimea would be a possible part of a larger strategy, where the wider goal is to force back all the Russian soldiers from every square inch of Ukrainian land, including the areas that Russia claims for her own.
I bring up the DailyKos website because it differs from other internet sources. In particular, there was a lot of speculation among the mainstream media about the spring (or now summer) Ukrainian offensive. It seems to be a little slow, in the sense that whole regions of the country are not falling to Ukrainian arms in a matter of days, the way things happen in movies. Mainstream commenters have found reasons for concern over the slow advance (when there are advances at all).
Kos says differently. He claims that the offensive is working OK, and is functioning at least as it was designed. Apparently there is a lot of "shaping the battlefield" going on. In addition, the Russians have adopted a strategy of building trenches and fortifications, allowing them to defend that part of Ukraine that they had already seized back in 2014 and 2022. The point of view of Kos and his other writers is that Ukraine is (if I may paraphrase here) taking what the Russians give, and in so doing are destroying lots of Russian armament and killing many Russian soldiers. It is an interesting point that quite a few ranking Russian officers have been killed in this war, something that can be attributed to all sorts of failings on their part, and partly due to the unusual command structure that Russia uses.
What have we learned over these past nearly two years of warfare? There is the depressing realization that Russian warfare has traditionally involved blowing up the enemy up with artillery, using as much as it takes for as long as it takes. Thus the Ukrainian strategy of blowing up as much Russian artillery as possible.
And this leads to the other basic lesson of this war. Early in the fighting, commenters started pointing out that the Russian Army might look good on paper, but it didn't perform according to its theoretical numbers (so many tanks, soldiers, etc.) due to the fact that the equipment had not been maintained, the soldiers were badly trained or simply untrained, and the whole system was corrupt from top to bottom. When a general got funding for some equipment, he would steal half the money and get less. Then the officers underneath him would take their cut, and so on. The soldiers who were supposed to carry the battle suffered from lack of workable armor, lack of fuel, and even from lack of food.
We all witnessed those first confusing weeks of the invasion, when Russian airpower was inadequate, tanks got bogged down in one long line along a muddy road, and -- this being the first miracle of the war -- the Russians failed in their early attempt to take the airport at Kyiv and thereby achieve the knockout blow against the Ukrainian capital.
Kos now points out that the current offensive is making progress, although it's not taking a lot of ground due to the fact that the Russians have constructed defensive fortifications and trenches to hold onto the territory they captured early in the war.
Let's say that again
It was obvious that the initial goal for Putin was the conquest of all of Ukraine. It would be accomplished by destroying the lawful government and putting a puppet government in charge, much as they did in the occupied eastern regions. In this sense, the Russian invasion is a failure and by that standard, the war has been lost.
This does not mean that the Russians can't continue to commit war crimes, steal children, and basically flex their sadism. Until they are completely driven from Ukraine, they will do so. But they cannot conquer Ukraine with what they have now.
Ukraine will survive -- and most likely take back all of its lost territories, if the United States and its NATO allies continue with financial and military support.
The one road to defeat would be if the American government changed sides. It's an odd idea considering the strong support among the American people for Ukrainian independence, but the hard-right Trumpist faction in the House of Representatives has been a fifth column. It came to a head in mid-2022 when 57 Republicans (and zero Democrats) voted against the Ukrainian aid package.
Then, just a few days ago, 70 House Republicans voted for an amendment to cut off all military aide to Ukraine.
Recent remarks by Donald Trump that he would settle the war in one day are also of concern. Perhaps it's just bombast (rather like that plan to replace Obamacare that never saw the light of day), but perhaps it's within Trump's brain that he will indeed halt the war. But the only realistic way for the United States to stop the fighting is to strongarm Ukraine into giving up its lost territories, and to enforce that demand by cutting off aid.
There simply is no other rational approach, as traitorous as this one would be. Of course, in doing so, Trump would be acting in the interests of Putin. This wouldn't be much of a surprise to careful viewers who have been following Trump's actions over the past six years.
So, 510 days and counting in this conflict, and the Ukrainians have established a road to victory. They have support from our president, most of the Senate, and pretty much all the Democrats in the House. It should be a sure thing, but the prospect of the reelection of Donald Trump is the one element of doubt.
And breaking news: Ukraine confirms that it carried out the latest strike against the Kerch Bridge, a structure which has been critical to Russian support of its conquered territory on the Crimean Peninsula.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at email@example.com.)