Mon, Jul

A Labor Day Look at the Ukraine War


GELFAND’S WORLD - Labor Day celebrates a lot of what has been accomplished while it simultaneously mourns so much that has been left undone. Something as simple as allowing any majority of workers to create a union (the process referred to as Card Check) would be a major improvement in American life. There is more though. and I intend to force a metaphor on this.

Labor Day also represents the right to not be shot by the Pinkertons, and not to be beaten by the local police just for demonstrating or striking. You might say it represents the right to be secure in our persons and in our right to peaceably assemble -- you know, all those things we take for granted as our innate rights, now confirmed and enshrined in the Constitution.

And here is where I force that metaphor, in that this holiday weekend might also be consecrated to the nation and people of Ukraine, who are not safe from being shot at in arbitrary terroristic assaults, but -- like the labor unions in an earlier century -- have fought, been imprisoned, and died in pursuit of their personal and national freedom to choose a way of life.

This moment is particularly pertinent, because that war which was supposed to be over in 3 days is now at 18 months, and the Ukrainians are still very much in it, unconquered and fighting. In fact, contrary to internet propaganda, the Ukrainians are doing quite well. I'm not pretending any military expertise here, but am relying on what seems to be expert commentary on the website called Lawyers Guns & Money (LGM) and on the pages of Daily Kos. But there is a political element that goes deep in this, our own country, and needs to be considered, and will be, below.

I think it’s pretty obvious that Ukraine is not going to be defeated and overrun as an entire nation. Kyiv is sound, in spite of continuing Russian terrorism. What's going on is the Russian occupation of 4 regional areas (one being Crimea, the other being along the east and south of the original Ukraine). Russia has seeded the areas with land mines, trenches, and all the defensive apparatus we think of when we imagine WWI. The idea was to make it as difficult as possible for Ukraine to win back any square foot of the conquered territories.

Moreover, Ukraine was supposedly engaging in a spring offensive (sounds like the language of long forgotten world wars) but has not, as yet, made a large territorial breakthrough. The result of this failure has been a lot of nay-saying. We can wonder about the political motives of the nay-sayers. Are they Russian bot networks, or just Americans who think that loyalty to the former president implies hostility to Ukrainian interests? There seem to be elements of both.

There are also a few professional military figures who look at the 18 month war, see a stalemate, and based on other conflicts, don't think the Ukrainians are going to drive the Russians out of their country anytime soon.

The counter-argument has been played out in the pages of Daily Kos, with some similar discussion in LGM and Talking Points Memo. The argument goes something like this:

In this war of occupation, the ultimate objective is to drive the invaders out of your home territory entirely. There should be no Russian enclaves or puppet governments remaining when it is all over. In addition, there should be postwar conditions (such as Ukrainian entrance to the NATO alliance) that effectively guarantee continued border security for the future.

In such a war, the immediate re-occupation of large swaths of territory is not necessarily the only way to victory. You might think about the end of WWI in western Europe -- how it was waged for most of the war, and how it ended rather abruptly. There were gigantic battles (the Battle of the Somme, to take a particularly dramatic example) which resulted in little actual land changing hands, but did result in attrition among the forces of both sides. When you read about the actual fighting in a novel such as All Quiet on the Western Front, you begin to understand that the ability to wage war in all its forms became critical. Authors speak of how the German artillery pieces lost their accuracy due to continued (and excessive) use -- they just wore out --  whereas the Americans made sure to have replacement parts and whole new artillery pieces available to the western armies. So the history of the western front shows a long drawn-out war of attrition with little territorial advance by either side, until the German army lost its fighting edge and essentially collapsed.

And part of that collapse involved the introduction of hundreds of thousands of American troops at a moment when the Germans were already maximally stressed.

Let's consider the Ukraine war, now approaching 600 days of fighting. Let me be the first to admit that I am doing stenography rather than deep analysis, but considering the political conditions in this country, it is a useful thing to do.

The DailyKos argument is that the necessary first phase of the fighting is to destroy the ability of the Russians to use artillery and rockets. The Ukrainians have been reasonably successful so far, in that they go after Russian logistics (bridges, train tracks, fuel, ammunition, and the guns themselves, while the Russians continue to fire into residential districts and kill families. If you believe Kos and his staff, this process of wearing down the ability of the Russian army to wage war has succeeded in reducing the ability of the Russians to carry on the fight. The military analysts use terms like "shaping the battlefield" which refers to reducing the number of artillery pieces and other weapons available to the Russians, and blowing up their supplies of ammunition and rockets whenever this is possible.

It's referred to as Degrading the enemy's logistics so that when the Ukrainian attacks come, there won't be tank killers or active mine fields available to the Russians, or at least there won't be as many.

And suddenly, we seem to be seeing some forward motion on the part of the Ukrainians in terms of taking territory on their way to the coast. The aim is to cut the Russian holdings in half, so that Crimea is isolated and under siege.

It has admittedly been a slow process, but the supply of modern weaponry to the Ukrainians has obviously had its effects. We might also remember that the Russians have never been able to achieve total air superiority, and western nations are gradually beginning the process of supplying and supporting modern fighter aircraft. Is this the modern equivalent of all those American troops arriving at the battlefields of WWI?

Here is the situation as seen through the admittedly optimistic eyes of the sources I have been reading: Ukraine has been chipping away at Russian logistics, setting a high priority in destroying the Russian ability to use its artillery. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians have been engaging in the slow, methodical process of clearing mine fields in front of Russian defenses. In this way, they are preparing for those ground-gaining attacks to come.

And now, we are starting to see some small, but real, evidence that the Ukrainian offensive is moving forwards. The prediction would be that, given the time and weapons to continue the conflict, the Ukrainians will someday take back the territory they have lost to Russia. This will include the three regions along the east and south, and it will include Crimea. The Russians are momentarily at risk of losing some (or much) of what they have taken since 2014.

The DailyKos writers, and others, have been pointing out that the predictable response is now occurring. The Russians and their propagandists are now talking about negotiations. The point is that any cease fire would allow them time to rearm while holding the territory they have already conquered. And some time in the future, perhaps under a Republican American president, the Russians would be able to renew the fighting and continue their conquest.

It's not unfair to liken this approach to what we saw in Czechoslovakia and Poland in an earlier time. The word that was applied to British behavior of that era was Appeasement.

We should notice that appeasement is the proper term to describe the way that the former president behaved with regard to North Korea and to Russian behavior in Ukraine. In a recent interview, Donald Trump said that he would end the Ukraine war in one day. Well, there is only one way to do this, and that is to kick the props out from under the Ukrainian government and force it to agree to a cease fire in place. It would undermine the advantages that Ukraine is currently building and give up on the hope of regaining the lost areas.

You can read a summary of these views here. The conjecture is that Russia finds itself losing ground and troops, at least momentarily, and is therefore turning on the propaganda machinery to convince naive westerners that now is the time to negotiate.

Of course there is a history of Soviet style negotiation that the west learned the hard way, and which you can read about here.  There is no reason to assume that the tactics or dishonesty underlying that style will have changed.

The flurry of propaganda about negotiating should be the clue that the Ukrainians are doing OK, and that the western world must continue to support and supply the Ukrainian war effort, in spite of all the nay-saying. It is up to the Ukrainians to decide if and when they feel like negotiating.

And one last point which is admittedly repetitious on my part, but requires a reminder. The Russians have used the threat of nuclear arms to try to intimidate Ukraine and all of the NATO alliance. This must not be allowed to go unavenged. It is necessary to continue sanctions on the Russians for as long as it takes to extract concessions from Russia regarding the use of the nuclear threat.

Russia began its attacks on Ukraine in a different world. With a lot of effort and a little luck, the Ukrainian invasion will end in a world where the Russian border faces NATO nations including Finland, Sweden, and Ukraine.

On this Labor Day weekend, let's celebrate what gains our workers have achieved, even as we strive to bring the freedom to organize to American workers once again, and while we are doing so, let's remind ourselves that we have to continue our support for Ukrainian independence.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])