Danish journalist Flemming Rose interviews AGON's Michael Vlahos.
Is the Ukrainian army headed for collapse? American military historian Michael Vlahos has an outside view of the issue. He joined Danish journalist Flemming Rose to discuss the state of the war.
The following is a translation of Flemming’s write-up for AGON readers.
For this week’s Free Thought, I spoke with U.S. military analyst Michael Vlahos, who believes that the Ukrainian army is heading for a collapse. Dr. Vlahos predicts that Russia will win the war and that Putin will sit at the border when negotiations on the future of Ukraine begin.
Does Ukraine Hold the Long End?
I don’t know about you, but I think it’s hard to understand the course of the war in Ukraine.
Despite the gloomy reporting from the front by major US media outlets—The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times—Western experts continue to insist that Ukraine is holding the long end.
Last week, security analyst Mark Galeotti stated in the British newspaper The Sunday Times that “Ukraine is winning the war”, even though it will continue into 2024. The same picture is painted by one of America’s leading foreign affairs commentators, David Ignatius, in The Washington Post, where he predicts that this year, as a result of the ongoing offensive, Ukraine may succeed in cutting off Russia’s land corridor to Crimea, thereby threatening Moscow’s control of the strategically important peninsula.
In the journal Foreign Affairs, military historian Lawrence Freedman has also argued this summer that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is stronger than ever, while all trends in the conflict—military, economic and diplomatic—are going Ukraine’s way, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin is therefore under increasing pressure. He has, states Freedman, no good options left.
Finally, the American security expert Edward Luttwak acknowledges in an analysis in the digital media UnHerd that the Ukrainian offensive has probably not gone as desired, but Luttwak still believes that Ukraine with a mobilization of 2–3 million men can win the war and liberate the occupied territories.
However, Luttwak bases his prediction on Ukraine having a population of 30 million. That number comes from January 2022. In an analysis by the think tank Jamestown Foundation, which is connected to the American intelligence community, it is said that the Ukrainian population has today shrunk to just 20 million, slightly more than the Netherlands, but fewer than Taiwan. And of the 20 million, according to the Jamestown Foundation, retirees make up over half: 10.7 million.
Jamestown estimates that about 2 million Ukrainians are mobilized, which corresponds to about 10 percent of the population. This is a high number, which in other wars has had negative consequences for a country’s economy. This applies to Finland during the Second World War and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. According to the Ukrainian parliament, there is a shortage of labor in the energy sector and in both industrial and arms production because the employees have been mobilized.
Add to this that in the past three months the Ukrainian army has only been able to recruit about half the number it had planned. This is the reason why President Zelensky has fired the heads of all the country’s recruitment offices citing corruption. And that is undoubtedly part of the explanation, but it could also be that there are simply no longer enough people left in Ukraine.
With that in mind, one may well have doubts about the realism of Luttwak’s prediction of a Ukrainian victory based on the math he presents.
Nevertheless, there is a wide range of Western experts who believe that Ukraine still stands to win the war. And maybe they are right.
Predicting Ukrainian Collapse
The syllabus said that democracies are better at waging war than tyrannies. There is no empirical and historical basis for this. It is part of America’s religious doctrine, which does not care about reality.
American military historian Michael Vlahos is of a different opinion. He predicts a collapse of the Ukrainian army and believes that it is in a situation that in many ways can be compared to the fate of the Southern states in the American Civil War. At the same time, he assumes that the Russian army will emerge from this war as perhaps the strongest in the world.
Vlahos—as the radical assessment above indicates—is not one of those who like to march in time. He once left his job at a higher education institution because he got tired of people saying one thing and doing the opposite.
Dr. Vlahos elaborates:
“Everyone kept talking about critical thinking. The teachers and management said to the students: We are here to teach you critical thinking. And although ‘critical thinking’ was mentioned a total of 24 times in the syllabus, the aim of a detailed syllabus of 186 pages, where the ‘correct’ answers are on every other page, is not to teach the students to think critically. The ‘correct’ answers were hammered into the students’ heads again and again. Everything followed a strict manual and all the correct answers were known in advance. It became an intellectual awakening for me, and eventually I couldn’t stand it”.
Can you give an example?
“The syllabus said that democracies are better at waging war than tyrannies. There is no empirical and historical basis for this. It is part of America’s religious doctrine, which does not care about reality”.
Wanted to Penetrate the Mystery of War
We will come back to that with the US’s civil religion and dogmatic view of the world, but first we need to hear a little more about Michael Vlahos’ background.
Vlahos has a long career behind him, during which he has taught war and strategy at Johns Hopkins University in Washington and at the US Navy’s university, The Naval War College in Rhode Island. Vlahos has also been employed by the CIA, and in the late 1980s he was head of research in the US State Department. In recent years, he has been associated with the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy in Washington, and he is the author of the book Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change. Vlahos traces his interest in war history back to his earliest childhood, when his parents gave him an illustrated history of the world, and at that time war filled much of history. He explains:
“I have spent most of my professional life understanding the mystery of war and why war is so central to the life and death of civilizations and how war has served as a positive and negative force in human evolution”.
Three Decisive Factors
In early August, Vlahos published a sensational essay in the conservative Compact magazine under the dramatic heading “The Ukrainian Army is Breaking”.
According to Vlahos, it is the interaction of three factors that can cause an army to break. First, when the initial optimism and belief in victory turns to a perception that the war cannot be won. Just such a change of mood, says Vlahos, can be traced in Ukrainian society and at the front, where several express that the stated goal of victory—re-establishment of Ukraine’s borders from 1991—is no longer realistic.
Second, Vlahos points out, a critical tipping point occurs if external support from allies begins to slip. No Western allies are saying it out loud, but Ukrainian politicians acknowledge that they are under heavy pressure from several Western countries to begin negotiations to end the war, and this week one of Ukraine’s strongest supporters in Congress, Republican Andy Harris who is chairman of a Ukrainian support group in the House of Representatives, noted that this summer’s offensive has failed and that Ukraine is unlikely to win the war, and that it is therefore time to reduce American support. At the same time, The Wall Street Journal noted in a sensational article a few weeks ago that Western military decision-makers knew in advance that Kyiv had neither the necessary training nor the weapons—from grenades to fighter jets—to push back the Russian forces.
Third, an army’s will to fight approaches a critical turning point, according to Michael Vlahos, when the attitude towards those who at the beginning of the war have shown the way to victory and triumph, and who have been hailed as heroes, who become the object of criticism and in the end are branded as liars and frauds.
Comparison With the First World War
In Ukraine, that trend can manifest itself in a split between army chief Valery Zaluzhny on the one hand and President Zelensky and his inner circle on the other. Observers point out that Zaluzhny was against this summer’s offensive, while Zelensky, as a result of pressure from the United States in particular, insisted on launching it. If the offensive ends in failure with such heavy losses that Ukraine will not be able to rebuild its forces, the war-torn country risks being plunged into a domestic political showdown over responsibility and blame, it says.
As I said, Michael Vlahos believes that all three factors are now at play in Ukraine, and that this weakens morale.
He draws comparisons to the First World War 1914–1918, when six out of seven great power armies collapsed. It led to surrender, mutiny and revolutions. Over the four years, Germany lost 3.1 percent of its population and France 3.6 percent. Vlahos estimates that in just one and a half years Ukraine has lost 2.5 percent of its current population in the form of killed and wounded who cannot return to the battlefield. This corresponds to 250,000 people. Vlahos suspects that the numbers may be higher, but for the sake of the morale of the Ukrainian population, they are a state secret. According to the American intelligence documents, which were leaked in the spring, the Ukrainian military at that time had lost around 130,000 killed and wounded. Vlahos also insists that it recently emerged that up to 50,000 Ukrainians have lost at least one body part, an arm, a leg or something else. That figure for Germany in the First World War was 67,000—a war in which Germany suffered a loss of 1.7 million dead at the front and 450,000 civilians out of a population of 65 million.
Ukraine’s Losses Are Greater Than the Russians’
But, Vlahos points out, casualty figures are not, when it comes down to it, decisive for whether an army can continue the fight. Even worn out armies will fight on if they believe in the cause. The British Army lost 60,000 men in the first day at the Somme in July 1916, while Italy lost 350,000 in 17 days at Caporetto in the autumn of 1917. But both armies continued the war.
In contrast to a widespread belief in the West, Vlahos believes that Ukraine has suffered significantly greater losses than the Russians, if you ignore the first phase of the war. The background to his calculation is the strength ratio in artillery guns and shells, where the Russians are believed to have a preponderance somewhere between 5:1 and 10:1. Precisely that type of weapon has been the most deadly in this war, so unless the Russian army has mostly shot out of the blue, this difference will be in their favor, says Vlahos. During World War I, casualties from artillery fire accounted for 70 percent of all casualties, and Vlahos believes that is also an excellent guideline for understanding casualty figures in the current war. Furthermore, he believes that the Russians have been better at adapting to developments on the battlefield.
No Frozen Conflict
Vlahos does not believe that the war will end as a frozen conflict. Instead, he predicts a Russian victory, in which Ukraine and the West will be forced to accept demands for a neutral Ukraine without a significant defense. Ukraine risks becoming the size of Belarus, both in territory and population, and just like Belarus without access to the sea.
If you had to point to an example from the history of war, which is similar to what we see in Ukraine, what would it be? “The American Civil War had a similar dynamic in many ways. Ukraine is similar to the Southern states. They, like Ukraine, also had great powers that supported them. They kept the Southern States going. The British presented the Confederate States with 1 million rifles. It was the British who were secretly behind attacks on the trading ships of the northern states. They were in effect waging a proxy war against the Northern States. The British also sent their fleet to Bermuda, where it protected Confederate blockaderunners. The way Britain acted in the American Civil War is exactly what the US is doing to Russia today in relation to the war in Ukraine”.
The Southern States Had the Same Goal as Ukraine
And you think that the result will be the same in Ukraine as in the civil war? “The North was several times larger than the South, just as Russia is several times larger than the Ukraine. The northern states were much richer than the southern states and had most of the industry, the same applies in the relationship between Russia and Ukraine”. Vlahos points to the enormous losses the Southern states suffered in the American Civil War. One million men served in the Confederate army, of which 350,000 died and about 200,000 were wounded.
“It is incredible that the Southern States could continue for so long. They lost about the same number of men as the Northern States, but the Northern States had a population more than twice as large. The southern states could have lasted longer if they had invested more in defense, but instead they attacked and invaded the northern states four times. They suffered huge losses”.
Why did they do it then? “They wanted to get Britain and France to enter the war on their side and believed that this could happen if they won a spectacular victory. So General Robert E. Lee fought in many ways the same war that Ukraine is now forced into. But it only helped to accelerate the collapse of the Southern states. They were totally destroyed and it took them 100 years to recover. It is the same tragic development we are now witnessing in Ukraine”.
The Northern States Also Got off to a Bad Start
And just like Russia in Ukraine, the Northern states also did badly at the beginning of the civil war? “Yes, despite preponderance in population, prosperity and industrial capacity, the army of the Northern States was not very capable at the beginning. They lost a lot of battles and several generals went over to the Confederate side, but during four years of war the North learned to fight and in the end it was a superb army that turned the tide of the battle”.
Corporate media follows the government’s narrative in the same way that Pravda did in the Soviet Union.
Do you think the same is happening to the Russian army? “Yes. It is an element of all wars. Of course you can lose and then it’s over, but if a war lasts long enough, you learn and get better at fighting. We saw the same thing during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. In the first years, Napoleon ran over one European army after another, but over time the others learned to fight, and it ended, as is well known, with Napoleon’s fall. It took 10 years, but the Russians’ learning curve is much faster in Ukraine. They have adapted and innovated, and they have ramped up their production of weapons and ammunition. The Russians may now be producing 3-6 million shells a year, while the US can deliver 24,000 a month”.
The Battle for the Narrative
I hear a very different story when President Biden and his ministers, top advisers and intelligence chiefs speak out. They all say with one voice that Russia has already lost the war. How should we make sense of it? “They are waging war with a focus on controlling the narrative, and they can because most of the American population has never been interested in finding out what is really going on. The mainstream media follow the government’s narrative in the same way that Pravda did in the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the war, it was assumed that the Russian economy would collapse as a result of a strict sanctions regime. And because the Russians’ initial venture failed, it was said that they were primitive, savage, and hopelessly incompetent, and that they could never learn because they were stuck in their Soviet mentality and military doctrine”.
Vlahos continues: “When reality started to change, there was no adaptation on our part, and when you are so focused on winning the battle for control of the narrative, regardless of what happens in reality, you end up believing it yourself. And the risk of promoting a narrative that is at odds with reality is that it not only creates unrealistic expectations. It also ends up exploding in your face and undermining any faith and trust in those who propagated it”.
America’s Apocalyptic Vision
And then we come to America’s civil religion, i.e. the religious doctrine that, according to Michael Vlahos, drives the United States, and whose fingerprints he also sees in Ukraine.
He says: “America is the home of the most successful and most extreme nationalism, which is borne of a universalism and the belief that one has been given a divine task by the creator to bring humanity to the right path and to punish and eradicate all evil in the world. This sacred narrative runs through American history like a common thread”.
How does it play out in Ukraine? “Here we see the reenactment of a narrative that has been passed down from the 20th century, two world wars and a cold war, but it actually goes all the way back to the Civil War and the American Revolution. It is about the fact that there is some evil in the world that must be fought, and that America must save the world from all evil. During the civil war it was the slaves who needed to be saved from evil, today it is the Ukrainians who need to be saved from the evil Russia, even though the basis of the US view of Russia as the epitome of evil, communism, is gone. All our coups and attempts to overthrow governments around the world by military means were driven by the same narrative. We had to save all the unhappy people, but of course it became more difficult as you could see that it was not going as preached”.
It’s Not About Ukraine
And do you think that is also happening in Ukraine? “The goal in this war is not about Ukraine, about Ukrainian needs and interests. It’s about America’s apocalyptic view of the world. It is our task to transform the whole world into democracy and create a new world order. According to this sacred narrative, America cannot lose because we are driven by a divine providence, we have God or Righteousness on our side, and even when things go wrong time and time again, we keep going. This is because our strategy is dominated by the notion of who we are. We do not act rationally, we are driven by a religious impulse. This war is going to end with the opposite of what America wanted”.
What will President Biden do if things go as you predict? After all, he risks having to deal with a defeat in the middle of an election campaign. “It will be a hard blow. We can already see approaches to how Washington will spin the story. You want to say: ‘We did what we could for Ukraine, we gave them everything they asked for and we trained them, but they were not up to the task.’ They can also choose to throw Zelensky under the bus and point to the huge corruption which has been fatal to Ukraine’s warfare. It will sound a bit like Afghanistan, but a Ukrainian collapse will be something completely different, and sooner or later the casualty figures will come out. They are gigantic, so at some point it will be clear that the US blocked Kyiv’s negotiations with the Russians and sacrificed an entire country for the sake of our vanity, narcissism and far-reaching ambitions”.