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Aug 01, 2023

Monday, August 28, 2023

Dr. Mackubin Owens, MINDSETTER™

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Vladimir Putin, Kremlin News Service

Analysts believe that the war has caused about a half million casualties—killed and wounded—on both sides. On the one hand, Russia seems more capable of bearing these costs. The Russian population is much larger than that of Ukraine and its industrial base is on a war footing. Its war of attrition has targeted Ukrainian infrastructure, especially the energy sector, and the civilian population. The only thing that has kept Ukraine in the fight is NATO—especially the US—material support and the commitment of the Ukrainian people.

On the other hand, there is evidence of cracks in Russian resolve. Those cracks undermine Russian resilience, which may prove decisive. As the Institute for the Study of War (ISW)—which I believe provides the most balanced and reliable open-source assessments of the war—suggests, Russia faces serious morale problems, both military and civilian.

As ISW reports, Ukrainian strikes on Russian rear areas seem to be degrading the morale of Russian forces in Ukraine, which could threaten the stability of Russian defenses, and strikes against Russian deep rear areas are generating discontent in the Russian information space and sparking internal criticism of the Russian military command. Meanwhile, there is a possible fracture within the Wagner Group, the Kremlin’s mercenary organization that until recently, had been the most reliable Russian force in the war. As those who have been following the war may recall, Wagner forces launched a short-lived revolt against Putin in June, with Wagner seizing control of the headquarters of the Russian Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don and then staging a march on Moscow.

Putin accused the Wagner leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, of treason, but Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko brokered a settlement that ended the rebellion. Since then, Wagner commanders accused have accused two high-ranking Wagner representatives of the organization of betraying Wagner, suggesting that the Kremlin’s and the efforts of the Russian Ministry of Defense to disband Wagner are partially succeeding. Of course, it has now been reported that Prigozhin has died in a plane crash, which seems to have occurred under suspicious circumstances.

Niccolo Machiavelli warned about mercenaries over 500 years ago in The Prince: “Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy.”

Ultimately, the outcome of the war will be decided by the Russian and Ukrainian people. Ironically, Ukraine may take heart from the US experience in Vietnam. Certainly, the United States possessed immense material advantages over North Vietnam and tactically, US forced almost always prevailed over the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) on the battlefield. But the North Vietnamese population exhibited greater resilience than the US population. That was the thrust of a book by the late Harry Summers, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, who argued that while the United States focused on defeating the enemy on the battlefield, North Vietnam saw the US population as the primary strategic “center of gravity.” There are many problems with Summers’ analysis, particularly his presentation of Clausewitz, but his treatment of Vietnam as an example of our enemy prevailing in what today we would call the “information space” is persuasive.

I continue to be skeptical of much of our Ukraine policy. The seeds of this conflict were unnecessarily planted many years ago with the end of the Cold War. And once we decided to aid Ukraine, we did so haltingly, which means that we have repeatedly given Russia time to respond to our aid packages. But while I believe that in the long run, circumstances still favor Russia, the resilience that Ukraine has demonstrated makes it possible that Ukraine will hold on.

Mackubin Owens is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He previously served as editor of Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs (2008-2020). From 2015 until March of 2018, he was Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. From 1987 until 2014, he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

He is also a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, where as an infantry platoon and company commander in 1968-1969, he was wounded twice and awarded the Silver Star medal. He retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a Colonel in 1994.

Owens is the author of the FPRI monograph Abraham Lincoln: Leadership and Democratic Statesmanship in Wartime (2009) and US Civil-Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain (Continuum Press, January 2011) and coauthor of US Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Rise of an Incidental Superpower (Georgetown University Press, spring 2015). He is also completing a book on the theory and practice of US civil-military relations for Lynne-Rienner. He was co-editor of the textbook, Strategy and Force Planning, for which he also wrote several chapters, including “The Political Economy of National Security,” “Thinking About Strategy,” and “The Logic of Strategy and Force Planning.”

Owens’s articles on national security issues and American politics have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, International Security, Orbis, Joint Force Quarterly, The Public Interest, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Examiner, Defence Analysis, US Naval Institute Proceedings, Marine Corps Gazette, Comparative Strategy, National Review, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor; The Los Angeles Times, the Jerusalem Post, The Washington Times, and The New York Post. And, he formerly wrote for the Providence Journal.