This article is an expansion of a presupposition I stated previously, that the conflict in Ukraine would not end when Russia achieves its goals there, it will expand and continue but I do not think necessarily in a kinetic way. But, events are not always in the hands of the planners and the West is conducting dangerous brinkmanship in Lithuania. What would a war between the West and Russia look like, and why is it, as I claim, a fool's errand to even consider. The answer is not as simple as just nuclear weapons.
Let us first address some reality and geopolitical facts. No nation can fight, invade, occupy and ‘nation-build’ in any other great nation, not in the modern era. China cannot invade and occupy the United States (sorry Nyquil lovers, he is a preposterous fool), Russia cannot occupy all of Europe and certainly not the US and likewise, The West cannot ‘decolonize Russia” by occupying territory and nation-building. There are nuances and caveats to those statements, which I will discuss in more detail.
Second, the West is incapable of fighting either Russia or China (directly and openly) and winning, if by winning we mean ending the war with any semblance of your previous order, laws, and society intact. I make that statement excluding the use of strategic nuclear weapons, we are not speaking of that yet.
The West, with its volunteer, quasi-professional armies, could not fight a near-peer competitor in an operational space that spanned a front the size of the Russian frontier with the current force structure. Superior equipment, weapons, and systems carry one only so far. The industrial base to replenish precision-guided munitions is tuned toward a set level of production, that can be altered, but that has other costs. The ordinary Western mind, the populace, is accustomed to shock and awe, fast campaigns where the enemy obliges by allowing airframes to roam unopposed over the battlefield and to bomb them day and night at our leisure. We are accustomed to wars with few casualties (of our own). And frankly, we are used to the notion that the poor, black, white and Mexican bear the brunt of the pointy end of our foreign policy. Someone else does the fighting….
It is clear enough to me, that mass media operations can shift the opinion of the masses to almost anything. It is possible that initially Western governments, in concert with all the usual supporters of the official narrative just might be able to turn opinion from ‘just those people serve” to we need a whole lot more. That is possible and likely, short-term. But the official narrative has never been as tested as it would be once a very ‘brave’ believer in all the narratives, a person that includes all the proper good guy flags and hashtags is actually drafted and sent to the eastern front. The narrative would begin to slip once those sorts began to die, in large numbers.
And that is the thing, the nature of a conflict between Russia and the West. The West would not have absolute freedom to roam the skies bombing Russian troops at will, even if we destroyed every plane in Russia down to the last Piper Cub. Russia built its land forces with the assumption of Western air superiority. Shooting down planes is actually a lot easier and less costly than systematically destroying an embedded air defense system. Some will argue, not incorrectly, that those systems have been defeated by the West in the past and this is true. But never in a nation that employed them doctrinally and in-depth and numbers – so we do not know the cost to Western airforces, but we can be certain it would be higher than anything since WWII and that air power would not be decisive against Russia's ground forces. Not initially and not for some time (if ever).
The West would have to fight against Russian positional warfare with maneuver warfare. The thing about that, when you penetrate, create salients, and encircle is this, sometimes you open yourself up to countermoves that can put your own troops in encirclements and salients. The larger the operational environment, as in the bigger the front and the larger the enemy you face, increases the chance that such situations occur. They would occur, maybe more maybe less, but the West is not psychologically accustomed to Khe Sang-like sieges that literally succeed in wiping out units.
That is what a salient looks like, and an unpleasant place to be
It is also true, that all of the arguments that think tanks and the official narrative spreaders say about quality are true, mostly. The quality of design and engineering and of the technology level used is greater in the West. That quality requires a certain quality of end-user in many cases. We cannot know what we do not know until rounds go down range but if peacetime statistics are a clue we could simply look at air accident rates and resulting groundings and extrapolate that there is something of a problem in the West. The simplicity of design served the Soviets over the Germans on the Eastern Front, it is not guaranteed that the problems we can only remotely detect in the US/West would be endemic and war deciding, but we suspect they would play a role. We do know, historically and logically that quantity has a quality of its own. The age of industrial warfare may not be over and if that is true, the West is in a weak position. (see Royal United Institute piece) If nothing more than to make it all more bloody and slow.
So, the West does not have enough troops to conduct a positional or maneuver campaign against Russia over such a long front or at depth, the draft would be required (and that presents a twofold problem) The tactics used by the US and the West over the last 30 years would not work, total control of the air is not guaranteed and is likely impossible. The West would have a difficult time producing enough precision-guided munitions to do what it is comfortable doing. (This last item could be complicated by the source of microchips and the commodities used to make them). In a conventional war, the West would face the prospect that much of it would come down to traditional slobber-knocking and with that the costs and implications.
Let's talk about the draft. I do not recall the exact statistics but a running theme in Army planning was the fact that only a very small number of the American population is qualified to serve. Qualification here means physical, mental, or moral (criminal). It is a fact, and the military is aware of it that plainly stated, the bulk of American youth is fat, dumb, or criminal. But these are peacetime standards, the ideal the military wants for a quasi-professional force. Those standards would have to be amended, but that has meaning. Training manuals in the military are designed to be written at no more than an 8th-grade level, so that the minimally qualified private, the lowest a peacetime army will accept, can read them. As you begin reducing standards the system you designed begins to have problems. There is something else. Study after study has demonstrated that recruiting fat, dumb or criminal recruits results in soldiers that display more discipline problems. An army in the midst of duking it out with a near-peer competitor cannot afford discipline problems. The Army would have to rebuild all the prisons and disciplinary barracks destroyed after the draft ended.
I am not implying that the West cannot defeat Russia, it certainly can on paper and if it was willing to commit cultural suicide it could do so conventionally; eventually, and at a terrible cost. Nobody that knows any of these things, planners at the Pentagon, would disagree with the foundational premises. Some may assess that Russia has a center of gravity that they could break sooner (maybe) and others that this or that yet unrevealed weapon would be a game-changer (very few such items have ever changed current wars that much). There could be some truth in some of that, but at the core, the plain facts, as I have written them remain.
So what happens when the game-changing new weapon does not change the war? Already in Ukraine, we have seen that neither Russia nor the US is willing to use day-zero cyber exploits. We can be certain that such restraint would not be the case in a real war versus a proxy war. We do not know who wins that battle of the ethernet, but let's assume the West does. Do we also assume that Russia does not get in any licks of its own? Who is more vulnerable Russians or Westerners to cyber disruptions? You know the answer to that. Even winning that very early battle could be very costly. Who is the first to strike orbital assets? Does winning that battle, leaving millions of pieces of dangerous space debris in low earth orbit mean ‘winning’, considering the consequences to satellites we use and need for everything? What if the ‘center of gravity’ in Russia, that concept written right now in secret rooms in the middle of whiteboards – what if it is not the center of gravity? Those sorts of mistakes happen, often. What happens when Russia keeps fighting, perhaps losing ground every day…but they still fight?
Napoleon learned that, and so did Hitler. Russia is large and eventually it gets damned cold. What do you do if they do not break?
What do you do when you win? Once the Russian army collapses under a sustained barrage of conventional thrust, feints, encirclement, and pincers..what then? What nation in the West wants to expend blood and treasure and the troops required to occupy and nation-build in Russia – none. They would give it a half effort and leave, and in leaving, even if they divided it up like satraps they would leave behind a pissed-off culture of Russians, people that would never accept the humiliation. Eurasia would be the breeding ground for a hundred strong men and dozens of conflicts in the coming years as Russians felt not unlike Germans in the 1920s.
In winning it all, the West cannot win. It might not even survive the winning, not in a form that anyone would recognize. Some say that is the point, perhaps it is.
Caveat: If you are inclined to argue that my assessment above is too bleak in reference to the West I would simply tell you I included only the best-case assumptions. I assumed that somehow the production limitations could be partially solved, I downplayed some items that are significant problems in both structure and composition of the US military and only briefly touched on the elephant in the room - the fractured state of domestic tranquility in Europe and the US. Frankly, and honestly, the assessment above is 'hopeful' and unrealistically optimistic. I believe the reality is much worse, and numerous fault lines would become glaringly apparent very early on. I suspect that most conducting planning for this are oblivious to those faults. I know the species, I suspect they believe they are all either manageable or not present. Economic choices over time have consequences, culture has consequences, and both of those play into the darker version of the picture above. I gave the warmongers and fools egging this on the benefit of the doubt above, assuming they are smart enough to at least believe they have a plan to address systemic limitations.
Most when speaking of this, or doom Tweeting, go straight to nuclear. I do not know how many thought it through to get to that conclusion and how many just scream about nearly anything in the direst way, but there is something to it – that would be how it ends.
My biggest flaw in life is that I still expect people to act rationally and to be honest. I served in the Army 30 years, I know more senior leaders than not are either of those very often. I have little faith that those planning and evaluating all of this are exercising rational and honest thoughts – I hope there are a few. Up to this point, the US poking Russia in Ukraine was just crazy and immoral, prodding Lithuania to act up is borderline Dr. Strangelove insanity.
In any event, it is all just so batshit crazy, that I cannot place it high on my threat-o-meter. I think it will escalate in a different way, as I said in the earlier article. But then again, we have seen so much bullshit and crazy, some of it theoretically related to bats that anything is possible!!