The Global Contest
Top Stories of the Year: #4
I am spending this week counting down the top stories of 2023, as covered in The Tracinski Letter.
At #5 was the rise of the “supply-side progressives,” which I consider one of the top stories of this year mostly because it’s one of the few good things that has happened in the realm of economics, which has generally taken a back seat to the culture war.
It has also taken a back seat to actual war, which leads me to top story #4: the intensifying global contest between free nations and emboldened dictatorships.
Last year, I described Ukraine’s successful resistance against Russia’s invasion as the turning of the tide against authoritarianism. But this year reminded us that the tide still has a long way to go out. The Ukrainian counter-offensive achieved some successes but did not create the breakout we were hoping for. Then Iran, by way of its proxy Hamas, added another war to our list of problems by launching a massive attack on Israel that is quickly taking on some of the characteristics of a regional war.
Let’s take a look at that big picture.
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The big hope for this year was the Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russia. Having driven Russian troops out of most of the country, Ukraine hoped to regain significant territory in its eastern provinces and especially to cut Russia’s overland connection to the Crimean peninsula.
The counteroffensive did achieve some significant gains, establishing footholds on the East bank of the Dnieper River and punching through a first line of Russian defenses at Robotyne. But the territorial gains have turned out to be very limited. Let’s take a look at the reasons why.
At the beginning of the counteroffensive, I sketched out the big picture by identifying what military strategists call the “center of gravity” for each side in the war.
Going back to Clausewitz, military strategists talk about the center of gravity of a military force: the source of power that allows it to accomplish its military objectives—or, if denied, prevents it from accomplishing them. Let’s ask that question about this current conflict.
The center of gravity for Ukraine, I argued, is NATO support. “If Ukraine has that support, Russia may be able to drag out the war for a long time, but it cannot win. If that support dwindles or is withdrawn, Russia could hope either to overwhelm the Ukrainian army as it runs out of ammunition and supplies, or at the very least force Ukraine into a peace deal that leaves Russia in control of Eastern Ukraine and in a position to rebuild its resources and take all of the country later.”
What is the center of gravity for Russia?
It is the poor morale and lack of coordination of Russian troops. It is the fact that Russia is fighting with an army of poorly trained, poorly motivated conscripts and with literal criminals—recruited out of prisons—whose only interest is in looting. And all of this is heightened by the callous treatment of its soldiers by the Russian military, which frequently sends them in as cannon fodder….
There is a chance that a new counteroffensive, even if it is of limited size and scope and limited military power, will sow panic and confusion among Russian troops, who will retreat in disorder, amplifying even a minor Ukrainian military success into a full-scale rout.
There was a moment when it looked like this might be exactly what was going to happen: the brief rebellion of Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin has long argued that his Wagner mercenaries are the only effective fighting force in the Russian war against Ukraine. This is exaggerated, but it is not entirely without basis. The regular Russian army is poorly trained, unmotivated, and led by incompetent officers, especially at the top level, where the Russian general staff was built around the central task of converting government defense funding into yachts in the Mediterranean. So Prigozhin has been in a running feud with leaders of the regular army, particular Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu. He has used criticism of Shoigu to demand more resources for his mercenaries and also to jockey for greater control over the war and within the regime.
The regime fought back by announcing that the Wagner Group would be brought under the command of the regular army, and Prigozhin was denounced as a traitor. This came to a head after Prigozhin publicly questioned the entire rationale for the invasion of Ukraine in the first place. It’s a little unclear what happened, but it looks like his short-lived rebellion may have been set off by an attempt to enforce the regular army’s takeover of the Wagner Group and even to arrest Prigozhin.
Leading a military convoy to Moscow to take on Putin is an insane risk to take—but it may have seemed like Prigozhin’s best option under the circumstances.
In the end, Prigozhin blinked and cut a deal, which worked about as well for him as we all expected. As I put it, “Prigozhin’s decision to challenge Putin was insanely risky, and his decision to back down and trust to Lukashenko’s guarantees is also insane. But life as the henchman of a gangster regime often presents one with no good alternatives.”
Here was my prediction from all the way back in May.
If neither of these events happen—if NATO does not collapse, nor does Russian cohesion either in Moscow or on the battlefield—then the likelihood is more of the kind of stalemate we have seen for the past six months….
The current state of the war is mostly what is called “positional warfare.” The canonical example of positional warfare is the trench warfare of World War I. The battle is mostly over gaining and holding advantageous positions which allow you to mass troops and especially artillery to use against the enemy. It is a form of warfare that is slow, grinding, extremely destructive, and prone to long periods of stalemate. Positional warfare is closely connected to “attrition warfare,” in which you hope to reduce the enemy’s manpower, ammunition, and supplies at a rate greater than your own losses, until they can no longer fight effectively.
That is very much what the war looks like as we reach the end of the year.
This is a somewhat disappointing result, but it doesn’t mean that Ukraine is doomed to lose. If World War I is the precedent, then this is only 1915 or maybe 1916. The war ain’t over yet.
And we should be clear about what Ukraine has already accomplished: It has inflicted absolutely astonishing losses on the Russian army.
Russia has lost a staggering 87 percent of the total number of active-duty ground troops it had prior to launching its invasion of Ukraine and two-thirds of its pre-invasion tanks, a source familiar with a declassified US intelligence assessment provided to Congress told CNN….
Russia has been able to keep its war effort going despite the heavy losses by relaxing recruitment standards and dipping into Soviet-era stockpiles of older equipment. Still, the assessment found that the war has “sharply set back 15 years of Russian effort to modernize its ground force.”
Of the 360,000 troops that made up Russia’s pre-invasion ground force, including contract and conscript personnel, Russia has lost 315,000 on the battlefield, according to the assessment. 2,200 of 3,500 tanks have been lost, according to the assessment. 4,400 of 13,600 infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers have also been destroyed, a 32 percent loss rate.
In effect, Russia has lasted this long in the war only by heedlessly throwing conscripts into the meat grinder by the hundreds of thousands. Only Vladimir Putin’s callous willingness to sacrifice his own people—and the Russian lumpenproletariat’s inability to resist such a vicious regime—has made the war sustainable. So far.
So what is Vladimir Putin counting on?
Other newly declassified intelligence previously reported by CNN suggests that “Russia seems to believe that a military deadlock through the winter will drain Western support for Ukraine and ultimately give Russia the advantage despite Russian losses and persistent shortages of trained personnel, munitions, and equipment,” according to a National Security Council spokesman.
Or to put it more bluntly: He is counting on the Republican Party, which has been slowly but inexorably turning pro-Russian. Ronald Reagan is spinning in his grave.
From what I’ve seen, it’s not so much that the rank-and-file of the Republican base loves Putin. This is not coming up from the grassroots. This is propagating down into the party from its new nationalist intelligentsia, which is inclined to take the side of an authoritarian leader who talks loudly about using the power of the state to defend Christianity. Cathy Young put it succinctly last year: “Many NatCons are far more sympathetic to Russia’s crusade against secular liberalism than to Ukraine’s desire for integration into liberal, secular Europe.”
Tom Nichols sums up the military situation.
The United States has so far provided military aid to Ukraine that amounts to roughly a tenth of its total annual defense budget. In return, one of America’s most dangerous enemies has sacrificed almost all of its existing soldiers and the bulk of its armor. The courage of the Ukrainian people and the valor of their armed forces have accomplished all of this without a single American soldier being ordered into battle.
Tom also provides some tart comments about any talk of an “exit strategy” other than winning. Similarly, David French argues:
Under the cold calculus of war, aid to Ukraine is one of the most cost-effective military initiatives in modern American history. At a cost equal to a small fraction of the American military budget—in 2022 the US spent $812 billion on its military, and since the war began, we have given $75 billion in aid to Ukraine—the Ukrainian military has set back Russian offensive capabilities for years or more. And this has been accomplished without the loss of life of a single member of the American military….
Our head tells us that we are helping break the military power of one of our two most powerful geopolitical rivals at a cost our nation can easily afford.
Our heart tells us that we are a nation of free people that stands with another nation of free people.
But all of this assumes that defending liberal societies is our goal.
It had better be our goal, because the global challenges to liberal societies are growing.
The big new development this year was the opening up of a new front in Israel, as Hamas unleashed a genocidal agenda in the areas around the enclave it ruled in Gaza.
This was not a military strike and was not intended to achieve any tactical goal. Its sole purpose and goal was the murder of Jews. [October 7] showed us concretely the only conception Palestinian leaders have of victory: Gunmen wandering the streets of an Israeli town, murdering, raping, and brutalizing a helpless enemy. This was not a means to a goal. It was the goal….
This sense of power-through-murder was a moment so precious to the Hamas militants, and to many of their supporters in Gaza, that they were willing to trade that moment for what is likely to be the complete and wholesale destruction of their entire society. Note that Hamas meticulously planned this attack for two years, yet they appear to have no particular plans for how to defend themselves afterward or for what happens next. That is because what happens next does not matter to them.
If the war in Ukraine has exposed the illiberalism of a large faction of the right, the Hamas attack exposed the illiberalism of a significant faction of the left.
For all its pretenses about “marginalized people,” wokeness somehow does not extend to protecting Jews from genocide. In fact, the type who think of themselves as “progressive” are dressing up genocide in the language of social justice.
This puts a pretty definitive end to the era of the campus “microaggression.” The woke left turned out to be “a movement that set itself up as a kind of puritanical moral crusade rigorously policing the content of our souls for even a leftover, implicit influence of racism—all while actually promoting such a profound ethnic tribalism that it can deny the common humanity of the victims of a genocidal attack.”
This is no surprise for anyone who has been paying attention, and it is underscored by another big story this year: a Supreme Court decision that struck down racial preferences in college admissions because it found they were being used to discriminate against Asians.
In their support for Hamas, supposed leftists are defending a regime that one exasperated observer on the left describes (accurately) as “a far-right theocratic organization committing mass murder in the name of blood-and-soil nationalism.” Here's how I explained this seeming contradiction.
What unites the far left and the far right is not merely a philosophy that dehumanizes the enemy, but one that dehumanizes the individual….
This is an outlook that sees the individual life not as something to be preserved and defended, but as something to be sacrificed to a higher cause—and the greater the number of lives sacrificed, the more proof of your devotion to that cause.
That is the real bond between the far left and the far right. Both reject liberalism in any sense of the word, and just like their totalitarian predecessors in the 20th century, they hold an ideology in which an imagined collective—the workers or the race—reigns supreme over the expendable individual human.
That’s why these battles are all part of one global contest.
Here is the widest lesson I think we should take from this year.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine and Hamas’s attack on Israel are reminders that the alternative to Pax Americana is the law of the jungle. A “multipolar world” in which America is just one power among many and no longer capable of shaping world events, is a chaos more barbaric than most people realize.
This is not a state of the world that is in our interests. As just one indication of this, I’ve seen reports of increased airport security in the US this weekend, as well as at American synagogues. Most flights to Israel have been canceled. We will not be able to sit back comfortably behind our oceanic moat. This is a reminder of how much of the world and trade and our freedom of action will shrink if the fires of war are once again unleashed.
A more recent reminder of this is an Islamic fanatic group in Yemen launching missiles to block shipping through the Suez Canal.
Yemen’s Houthis, who are aligned with Iran, have been eager to show support for Hamas in Gaza, and began by trying to mount long-range missile attacks into Israel. But these were largely intercepted by Saudi Arabia and the US and had no impact.
Tactics switched dramatically a month ago, when the Houthi fighters dramatically seized the Galaxy Leader, a British-owned and Japanese-operated cargo ship, in a helicopter raid captured on video. It remains in the Yemeni port of Hodeidah.
But while the Houthis initially said they were seeking to target Israeli shipping, they have stepped up their attacks on a wide variety of merchant tankers heading through and towards the 18-mile-wide Bab el-Mandeb strait.
The US is forming a 10-nation task force to put an end to this, but it’s not clear what that will require.
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s regime, having wasted the wealth from that country’s vast reserves of oil, has been trying to make a land grab to seize a huge portion of neighboring Guyana.
The long-running spat over the oil-rich Essequibo region, which is being heard by the international court of justice (ICJ), escalated over the weekend when voters in Venezuela rejected the ICJ’s jurisdiction and backed the creation of a new Venezuelan state. [Editor’s Note: “Voters” is a term that should not be used here, because Venezuela does not have free elections.]…
Brazil’s army intelligence has detected a buildup of Venezuelan armed forces near the Guyana border, according to a senior military source.
The two nations seem to have arrived at some kind of truce, at least temporarily. But you can see how the Venezuelan regime would look out at the kind of world disorder being created by Russia and Iran and conclude that now is the time to grab whatever they can. And you can also project how many other populist leaders and tinpot dictators around the world could be emboldened to do the same.
The global contest isn’t just between authoritarian regimes and free nations. If things get any further out of hand, it will be a global war of all against all, as any power that believes itself to be stronger tries to grab territory from its neighbors.
This future is not yet set, and the odds are very much in favor of the liberal world order. The only way we can lose the global contest is if we turn against liberal ideals here at home.
Then again, this year also offered an example of a country turning back authoritarianism with its own system.
The most hopeful news in the contest between democracy and authoritarianism is the recent election in Poland. The party in power had been implementing the full Viktor Orban playbook.
[The] Law and Justice [Party] has eroded the independence of the country’s judicial system. First, the party forced several sitting justices on the Supreme Court into retirement, replacing them with loyalists who then commanded a majority (an EU court later found the government’s new retirement rule unlawful). It also increased government officials’ ability to determine which judge would hear what case. Finally, it packed a reformed Constitutional Tribunal, the body charged with judicial review in Poland, with political appointees who have the power to suspend judges who displease the government.
The government also undermined the independence of the media. Public broadcasting channels turned into propaganda networks that dropped any pretense of neutrality. The coverage of senior officials borders on the hagiographic. Meanwhile, opposition figures are routinely smeared as lapdogs of Germany or Russia (or, somehow, both)—or as criminals, perverts, and pedophiles.
More ominously, the Law and Justice Party was working on a commission allegedly intended to root out “Russian influence” but actually designed to ban the opposition, including many who are demonstrably not pro-Russian.
Instead, Poles turned out in record numbers, particularly young voters, to give the opposition coalition a clear victory.
As we enter 2024, there are a lot of reason to fear the outcome of this year’s election—but if voters in Poland can make the right decision given a choice between liberty and authoritarianism, we can, too.
If you want incisive and clear-eyed commentary on this contest in the next year, make sure to subscribe or renew, and recommend The Tracinski Letter to your friends.
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