ADELAIDE - The Ukraine War has now been going on for 11 days and I have been following developments as closely as possible in both mainstream and social media.
While not a military person, I am an avid student of military history and feel able to offer these tentative observations about how events have unfolded so far and how they might reveal themselves in future.
Perhaps the most significant and surprising factor has been the obvious inability of the Russian military to quickly and easily impose its control over Ukraine.
The reasons for this are unclear but appear to include poor planning and coordination at a command level, persistent maintenance and logistical problems with munitions and the unexpectedly ferocious resistance from Ukraine’s military, notably its territorial and irregular fighters.
Perhaps most importantly, Russian troops seem reluctant to engage in the close order fighting necessary to subdue agile and motivated opponents.
Battles of this nature are notoriously ugly, and serious casualties are guaranteed.
The result is that, well into the second week of warfare, the Ukraine political and military command structures remain operative and effective, its air defence system, although degraded, is still functional and an effective asymmetric warfare strategy has been unleashed upon a Russian army that, unexpectedly given the time it had to organise, seemed almost entirely unprepared for the spirited Ukrainian response.
The term ‘asymmetric’ in this military context refers to unconventional strategies and tactics adopted by a force whose military capabilities are unequal in terms of conventional military strength to those enjoyed by the opposing power.
Examples from modern history include Vietnam ousting France in 1954 and having to do it all again to get rid of the USA and its allies in 1975 after a 20-year war.
Another case is that of the Mujahideen expelling the Soviet Army from Afghanistan after a nine-year war in 1989 and, just last year, the Taliban (who had pushed the Mujahideen aside) victorious in a 20-year guerrilla war against a US-led military coalition.
Importantly in Ukraine, it seems that the steady flow of hand-held rockets and missiles from the US, Britain and some European countries (notably Germany), has ensured that the Ukraine military now have access to at least 15,000 anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, with many more on the way.
Ukraine has an army of about 190,000 plus 900,000 trained reservists, the majority of them with battlefield experience.
In addition, as of two days ago, an estimated 20,000 foreign fighters had joined on Ukraine’s side since the invasion, with the number growing rapidly each day. (Russia is said to have deployed about 200,000 troops so far of a permanent force of one million with 2.6 million reservists.)
The experience of the Ukrainian forces and the armaments now pouring in may prove to be of pivotal importance in the outcome of the war.
Putin’s increasingly strident demands that Western country’s butt out of assisting Ukraine tends to reinforce a conclusion that he is concerned with at the strength of the resistance his forces are encountering.
Putin’s statements in the last 24 hours – warning, not for the first time, that Ukraine “is not a real country”, that Western sanctions are “akin to a declaration of war” and that Ukraine “could lose its statehood” if it does not sue for peace – are not words of unbridled optimism.
But none of this means that the hugely larger and more heavily armed Russian military will fail in its mission.
That said, however, it does mean that the price paid for ‘victory’ (whatever that may be) is going to be many orders of magnitude higher than foreseen in the Kremlin.
In the economic sphere, Russia has been hit with the most comprehensive and painful sanctions ever inflicted upon a sovereign nation.
As a consequence, the value of the Russian rouble has collapsed, its stock exchange has closed to prevent a market collapse and there are signs of a run on the banks.
Also, much to Putin’s shock, access to about half of his entire foreign currency reserves, around $US300 billion (one trillion kina if you can count that far) has been frozen, meaning the cash available to both fight his war and soften the worst impacts of sanctions has been greatly reduced.
Putin’s statement that the sanctions amount to a declaration of war carries with it the implicit threat that the war could be waged against countries other than Ukraine.
I interpret this sort of language as a sign of increasing desperation, not of strength, but you can never be sure what this man might do if he feels his hold on power slipping.
So the overall situation remains febrile and perilous for the Ukraine but not yet hopeless.
The chosen strategy of using asymmetric warfare tactics has been effective so far and the Russian army has struggled to achieve its objectives owing to the unexpected difficulties I’ve discussed.
Added to these must also be the possibility, much reported upon but with no hard evidence yet, that there is low morale amongst the Russian Army’s mostly conscripted troops.
The deaths of at least three senior Russian commanders, including Major General Andrei Sukhovetsky, commanding general of the Russian 7th Airborne Division, are emblematic of a plan going seriously wrong.
Furthermore, Russia’s erstwhile allies have generally been reluctant to engage in the fighting.
China has issued guarded statements about the war that fall far short of endorsing Putin’s actions.
It is pretty clear to no-one is in a hurry to rescue Russia from the military and economic trap it has fallen into.
This week will be critical, but if the Ukrainians can keep their political and military command and control structures robust and ensure the rockets, missiles and other weapons they possess are able to be deployed to hit important Russian munitions and push back or hold off its military, then there is a chance that this might trigger an outcome unexpected and unforeseen within the Kremlin.
As has been observed many times in PNG Attitude, we are at a hinge point in history and the world is changing rapidly in many ways, not all of them good.
Democracy is under severe challenge from both external and internal forces, and it is by no means certain it can survive the attacks on it unscathed or, in the longer term, even at all.
Like Australia, Papua New Guinea is caught up in what may become an existential struggle between the world’s democracies and its totalitarian powers.
The ‘quiet militarisation’ of the Pacific needs to be seen in the context of this much broader problem.
Decisions seemingly taken in isolation about loans for the construction of mines, ports and other infrastructure may become significant elements within this overall strategic equation.
Make no mistake, the world’s great powers are manoeuvring for their own advantage in the Pacific, and elsewhere besides.
Seen in this context, what is happening in Ukraine has the potential to be just a prelude to a much wider, more brutal and more protracted struggle.
The Ukraine War should serve as a warning to each one of us about the shape and content of our futures.
Whether the resurgence of autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Xi Zinping leads to total catastrophe for the planet or whether we find a way to peacefully and successfully manage the many problems we have created for ourselves remains very much in the balance.