When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered 190,000 Russian troops to invade Ukraine two weeks ago, military experts expected a quick and overwhelming Russian victory, because, at least on paper, the Russians enjoyed overwhelming advantages over the Ukrainian defenders.
Putin also believed that the Ukrainian resistance would quickly collapse without the need for his troops to devastate the country. He wanted Ukraine to remain essentially intact to allow him to quickly absorb it into Russia in much the same way that he effortlessly conquered and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, encountering little or no effective armed resistance.
There had been some advance warning that the resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces and civilian population to another Russian invasion would be more determined than it had been eight years ago. Ukraine’s young and relatively inexperienced president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was boasting that this time, his country would fight back. At the same time, he was issuing largely ignored pleas to the US and its European allies to send his army more weapons with which to defend their country, and not wait until after an invasion to impose punitive sanctions on Russia’s economy.
NOBODY GAVE UKRAINE A CHANCE
But nobody took Zelenskyy seriously. He was a marked man, and most believed that as soon as the Russian invasion started, Zelenskyy would flee the country to save his own life from Putin’s revenge. Nobody expected him to stay. The was why the world was amazed when Zelenskyy defiantly challenged the Russian dictator by personally leading Ukraine’s so-far successful defense and turning himself into an international folk hero overnight.
During the weeks before the invasion, there were many interviews by Western media reporters with defiant Ukrainian citizens who promised to take up arms in defense of their country, regardless of the odds against them. But they were dismissed as too few and too inexperienced to make much of a difference in the face of the huge Russian military force that was poised to invade Ukraine from three sides and quickly crush its defenders.
Nobody listened when they explained that this was not the same Ukraine which had offered little resistance to the Russian invasion of Crimea. Since then, they had eight years of hard battlefield experience fighting Russian armed and led separatist militias in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian army veterans claimed they were no longer intimidated by the Russian military, because they had learned how to fight and defeat them, while even Russian-speaking civilians said they preferred life in a free and democratic Ukraine, and only wanted Russia to let them continue to live that way in peace. But again, very few people outside of Ukraine took their claims seriously.
The rest of the world believed that Ukraine’s defenders didn’t have a chance, because they had seen Putin’s utterly ruthless hybrid warfare tactics succeed several times before. In 2000, shortly after he rose to power, Putin ordered the Russian army to mercilessly crush the Chechen separatist rebellion with brute force, reducing much of the Russian province to rubble and inflicting a huge civilian death toll. In Chechnya, Putin demonstrated to the world for the first time that in war he makes no distinction between fighters and civilians. He considers both to be enemies whose only choices are immediate surrender or death.
WHY PUTIN THOUGHT HE WAS INVINCIBLE
Over the past 20 years, Putin developed his war tactics into a fine art. They combine political subversion, disinformation, aggressive cyberattacks, and social media campaigns with brute military force to undermine the target country’s will to resist, while effectively deterring other countries, including the United States, from coming to their aid. And Putin learned that he had no need to respect the international norms of modern warfare under the rules of the Geneva convention.
Putin got away with these tactics when his troops invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008, and then again in Ukraine in 2014. In 2015, he accepted an invitation from Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to set up Russian military bases in that country. Russian warplanes provided air cover for the Syrian army and crushed all resistance in rebel-held areas of the country by attacking civilian targets, including residential neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals. On each occasion, the rest of the world stood by and watched. Sometimes they complained about the blatant Russian war crimes, but they never made a significant move to punish Putin for them. Again, Putin learned that if he ignored the rules, stood firm, and ordered his troops to be as ruthless as possible, the rest of the world would let him get away with aggression without having to pay a significant price. It became a very successful modus operandi in his efforts to restore the former Soviet empire and reestablish post-Soviet Russia as a world power under his rule.
Putin invested much of the money Russia was earning as one of the world’s leading energy exporters into rebuilding the huge Russian military. He equipped it with large numbers of new, state-of-the-art weapons, ships, and planes to catch up with the US and NATO, and modernized Russia’s huge nuclear missile arsenal. He also forged an informal military and diplomatic alliance with the autocratic leaders of China and Iran against what they saw as their common enemy — the US and its NATO allies, and the free world order they supported.
EXPOSING THE RUSSIAN MILITARY MYTH
Putin is, above all, an opportunist and a bully, who prefers to prey on weak enemies who cannot effectively fight back. He has also benefitted from the impression that because Russia is still a major nuclear power, and its military is large and well-equipped, it is also capable of effectively waging war on the battlefield against a much smaller but determined enemy. The unexpected collapse of Russia’s myth of military competence has been the single greatest surprise emerging from the first two weeks of the war in Ukraine.
Two of the three prongs of the Russian invasion force immediately got bogged down in trying to quickly penetrate and take over the capital of Kyiv, as well as Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv. At first, Western media dismissed Zelenskyy’s claims that his forces had halted the Russian advances, until they were confirmed by satellite surveillance images. Using an inadequate supply of US-supplied Javelin anti-tank rockets, the Ukrainian fighters had been able to stop Putin’s initial invasion force, forcing him to send in his reserve in a miles-long armored column. That column, too, quickly got bogged down, giving the US and its European allies time to resupply the Ukrainian military.
The weapons were sent in ground convoys crossing into Ukraine across its still open western borders, while more than two million Ukrainian refugees, made up mostly of women and children, fled the fighting in the opposite direction. Their personal ordeals and courage in the face of the Russian brutality touched the hearts of people around the world, including the people of Poland, who welcomed the refugees with open arms and did their best to ease their pain.
PUTIN RETURNS TO A STRATEGY OF CRUELTY
When the initial Russian invasion force was stopped, Putin quickly went back to the tactics he used to crush the rebellion in Chechnya 20 years ago — ruthlessly attacking civilian targets. The main difference this time was that Western reporters were present in Ukraine’s cities to show the world graphic evidence of Putin’s brutality, as well as the courage of the civilian Ukrainian men and women who willingly stayed behind to fight the Russian invaders.
They and the rest of the world had been inspired by the personal example set by President Zelenskyy. The day after the invasion started, a US official called him with an offer to help him flee the country. His memorable reply, according to the original Associated Press report, which was later confirmed by the British Embassy in Ukraine, was, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” His unexpected determination to stand and lead his country’s fight against the Russian invaders quickly turned the little-known Ukrainian president into a worldwide legend of courage and heroism.
BEATING PUTIN AT HIS OWN GAME
This also highlighted another crucial difference between the Ukraine invasion and Putin’s previous successful acts of aggression. This time, Putin was losing the public relations war. World public opinion quickly turned against him, considerably raising the economic and diplomatic costs of the invasion.
In addition to Zelenskyy’s courage, there were other factors which prevented Putin from effectively using the tools of deception and false information to obscure the world’s view of his cold-blooded tactics, as he had been able to do in the past. One of these was the willingness of the Biden administration to release to the media the secret intelligence that it had gathered about Putin’s intentions to stage provocations and false flag operations to back up his claims that Ukraine was responsible for starting the war.
Another important factor in the war for global public opinion was the ubiquitous presence of social media throughout Ukraine. This enabled civilians witnessing Russian atrocities to record them as they happened on their cellphones, and immediately share those videos with viewers around the world.
This made it impossible for Russia to credibly deny that it was committing war crimes in Ukraine by deliberately aiming heavy artillery barrages at civilian apartment buildings and schools, attacking refugees trying to flee the country along escape routes that Russia had previously agreed would allow for safe passage, and using lethal cluster weapons, which had been banned by international law because they are designed to inflict maximum casualties, against civilian targets.
EVIDENCE OF RUSSIAN INCOMPETENCE
News videos of burnt-out Russian tanks and other military vehicles destroyed by US-supplied Javelin missiles, with the bodies of dead Russian soldiers still lying on the ground nearby, also made it clear that the Ukrainian fighters were inflicting heavy casualties on the invading forces.
Even more surprisingly, almost two weeks into the invasion, the Russians still did not enjoy full air superiority over Ukraine. The Ukrainian air force, equipped with about 225 obsolete Soviet-era aircraft, was still flying missions against the Russian troops, despite the presence of Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. The Ukrainians troops were also inflicting heavy casualties on the Russian armored columns using small, Turkish-made armed drone aircraft.
When President Biden and NATO turned down repeated requests from Zelenskyy to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine for Russian aircraft, Zelenskyy then asked Poland and other Eastern European NATO countries to donate their Soviet-era fighter planes as replacements for Ukraine’s combat losses that its pilots already knew how to fly. In response, the US has agreed to supply countries donating those aircraft to Ukraine with more capable American F-16 fighter jets that would bolster their air defenses in case Russia might invade them as well.
However, the addition of a few dozen used Soviet-era planes to Ukraine’s air force will not make much of a difference in the long run. Those planes are obsolete, and no match for the latest Russian jets, which Putin could deploy to quickly establish absolute Russian air superiority over Ukraine.
The Russian forces invading along the southern Ukraine coast have been more successful than the columns in the north. They have captured the major city of Kherson and are battling Ukrainian forces for control of Mariupol. But the major port city of Odessa remains firmly in Ukrainian government hands, giving it continued access for shipments and resupply via the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
BEHIND RUSSIA’S EMBARRASSING MILITARY FAILURE
Still, the Russian military’s overall performance in Ukraine has been an embarrassment. According to an analysis published by the New York Times, “Russian soldiers have been plagued by poor morale as well as fuel and food shortages. Some troops have crossed the border with MREs (meals ready to eat) that expired in 2002, US and other Western officials said, and others have surrendered and sabotaged their own vehicles to avoid fighting…
“With each day that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy holds out, the scenes of a frustrated Russia pounding, but not managing to finish off, a smaller opponent dominate screens around the world.
“The result: Militaries in Europe that once feared Russia say they are not as intimidated by Russian ground forces as they were in the past.”
Among the problems with the Russian military cited by the experts quoted by the New York Times is an overcentralized command structure which prevents common soldiers and non-commissioned officers to make the necessary on-the-spot decisions in combat, as well as risk-averse senior officers.
As a result, according to Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a defense research institute, “Most Russian capabilities [in Ukraine] have been sitting on the sidelines. The force employment is completely irrational, preparations for a real war near nonexistent, and morale incredibly low because troops were clearly not told they would be sent into this fight.”
During a Pentagon briefing Monday in which fresh US military deployments to NATO and Eastern Europe were announced. Press Secretary John Kirby discussed US intelligence assessments on Russia’s military performance in Ukraine. He said that because the Russian military has gotten bogged down in the north of the country, “they continue to get frustrated [and] to rely now more on what we would call long-range [artillery and missile] fires… into city centers that they aren’t in yet.”
Kirby also confirmed media reports “that morale continues to be a problem for many of the Russian forces. Particularly up in the north and the east. It is not clear to us that all of the soldiers that Russia has put into Ukraine realize that that’s what they were doing. That they were actually going to invade Ukraine.”
PUTIN NOW BRINGING IN FIGHTERS FROM SYRIA
Kirby said that the Russians have now moved practically all the combat forces Putin had gathered before the invasion along Ukraine’s borders into the country, which makes “an awful lot of combat power available to him.” But at the same time, the Pentagon believes media reports that Russia is now seeking to recruit “Syrian fighters to augment their forces in Ukraine.”
Kirby also said that, in addition to morale problems, the Russian forces in Ukraine “are having supply problems. They are having fuel problems. They’re having food problems. They are meeting a very stiff and determined Ukrainian resistance. And we still maintain that they are several days behind what they probably thought they were going to be in terms of their progress.”
However, most military analysts still believe that because of their overwhelming numerical superiority in men and equipment, Russian forces will eventually be able to defeat the Ukrainian military, but at a much higher cost than anyone had initially expected. In addition, it will be extremely costly for the Russian military to maintain an effective occupation of Ukraine after such a victory, because of the deep resentment of the Ukrainian people due to the bloody, drawn-out invasion.
Ukraine could become another long-term quagmire for the Russian military, similar to the Mujahideen insurgency it faced in Afghanistan after the Soviets invaded that country in December 1979.
THE PRICE OF OIL EXPLODES
US and NATO leaders, like almost everyone else, initially expected a quick Russian victory in Ukraine, prompting a brief spike in prices in the world oil market, which would quickly come down after order was restored. What they did not expect were the severe consequences of an extended war in Ukraine on a global economy still struggling to fully recover from a pandemic.
As had been predicted, the invasion prompted a quick rise in oil prices to $100 a barrel, but when it became clear that the fighting will last longer than expected, oil and gasoline prices jumped again, due to fears that the growing public pressure for the imposition of sanctions on Russian oil exports would create a permanent shortage in the world oil market that neither OPEC nor the Biden administration appears to be willing to fill with increased oil production.
Over the weekend, prices on the international oil market for Brent crude briefly hit $137 a barrel, the highest price since 2008. The average cost of gas at the pump shot past $4 a gallon, and set a new record Tuesday when it hit $4.17.
Yardeni Research estimates that in addition to about $1,000 in estimated additional food costs for a typical American family at the grocery store due to inflation over the next year, increased gas prices at the pump will cost them another $2,000.
Oil prices rose sharply despite the fact that the US and NATO had originally carved out exceptions in their economic sanctions on Russia to enable them to keep buying Russian oil. That is because, according to Andy Lipow of Lipow Oil Associates, “Oil buyers are reducing their purchases of refined products from Russia, causing Russian refineries to shut down. Dockworkers are refusing to unload vessels carrying [Russian] oil and gas. Insurance rates are skyrocketing, causing vessel owners to cancel ship bookings loading in Russia, and this is also impacting on the ability of Kazakhstan to sell their oil.”
Because of this self-sanctioning of Russian oil in the international market, Russia has been forced to sell it at a steep discount from the market price to those who are still willing to buy it.
CALLS FOR A CUTOFF IN RUSSIAN OIL IMPORTS
Bipartisan political pressure had been steadily growing in Washington for a ban on all Russian oil imports into this country. Russian oil accounts for only 7.9% of total US oil imports, an amount the US should be able to easily replace from other oil exporters.
The political pressure to end US dependence on imported Russian oil was so intense that even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed the idea. Other House Democrats facing a difficult midterm election in November also saw a ban on US oil imports from Russia as a possible political shield against Republican criticism of Biden’s war on domestic American fossil fuel producers.
By Tuesday, the administration gave in, leading to an announcement by President Biden that US imports of Russian oil would be halted.
Over the weekend, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN that the US is “now talking to our European partners and allies to look in a coordinated way at the prospect of banning the import of Russian oil,” while trying to ensure global oil markets remain sufficiently supplied. That will be more difficult, because Russia supplies 11% of global consumption, and 17% of natural gas, including 40% of EU consumption.
If broader sanctions on Russian energy exports are applied, in addition to replacing Russian natural gas, European countries will have to find a new source for the 800,000 barrels of Russian oil a day they receive through the Druzhba pipeline supplying refineries in Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
US MAY TURN TO IRAN AND VENEZUELA FOR SUBSTITUTE OIL
The only other major oil exporters sitting on excess production capacity are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They have rejected President Biden’s recent requests to relieve gas price inflation by pumping more oil, in part because they worry that the oil market could soon be oversupplied, especially if sanctions on exports from Iran and Venezuela are eased.
If current export sanctions on Iran are eased, it could add an additional 1.3 million barrels a day to the global oil supply, about one-third of current Russian oil exports. But Venezuela, which was once a leading supplier of heavy crude oil to American refineries, has neglected its oil fields for years, and is now capable of producing only about 300,000 barrels a day, most of which now goes to China in payment for Venezuela’s debts.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has blasted the Biden administration for opening secret negotiations with the socialist regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, which is notorious for its human rights violations. In a tweet, Rubio called it “a demoralizing betrayal of those who have risked everything to oppose Maduro and weren’t even told this was happening, and for what? The amount of oil Venezuela can produce right now is insignificant.”
But if Russian oil exports are widely sanctioned and the fighting in Ukraine continues, driving crude oil prices to $150 a barrel or even higher, the Saudis and the UAE may change their minds. As they have in the past, they could start pumping more oil to protect long-term global demand for their oil by keeping its price within reach of their customers.
COULD CONTINUED HIGH OIL PRICES LEAD TO A RECESSION?
Another fear expressed by economists if oil prices remain around the $130 level for an extended period of time is that they could trigger a recession before the end of this year.
Joseph LaVorgna, chief economist at the research firm Natixis, told USA Today that since 1970, each time oil prices increased by 90% or more year over year, the nation was in a recession, or about to enter one. According to Forbes, former Obama Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers puts the chance of a recession in the US economy within the next 30 months at above 50%.
But Summers believes that the main risk of a recession is not from high oil prices, but rather because the Federal Reserve ignored inflation for too long. It now must play catch-up by raising interest rates just enough to slow inflation, without sending the economy into a tailspin. The current spike in crude oil prices, and uncertainty about their future direction, has now made that delicate compromise even more difficult for the Fed to achieve.
That is because a sharp increase in the price of oil eventually hits every sector in the economy, increasing the cost of everything which requires energy to produce or to transport. Oil price increases are also very visible to consumers in the form of higher prices for gas at the pump, which, in turn, help to further reinforce a self-perpetuating inflationary consumer psychology, making them less likely to spend.
However, even liberal economist Mark Zandi agrees that the best way to protect the US economy from an oil-price induced recession is to boost domestic oil protection. Renewed energy independence would then enable the US to set its own consumers’ prices for oil, gasoline, and other fossil fuel energy sources.
THE NATIONAL SECURITY CASE FOR ENERGY INDEPENDENCE
Conservatives have long been critical of President Biden’s war on US fossil fuel producers, but the recent spike in oil prices due to the invasion of Ukraine has now highlighted the national security aspect of the energy independence issue.
This has prompted a call from four prominent conservatives — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Trump Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland, publishing executive Steve Forbes, and economic commentator Stephen Moore — for a systemic reset of American energy policies they call “Operation Energy Independence.”
Writing on Fox News, they blame the “leftist Green New Deal political agendas embraced early on by the Biden administration [for the fact that] Americans are paying skyrocketing costs for energy, food and other daily staples. Domestic prices will be further exacerbated by the new security threats and global instability arising from Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.”
The conservatives also note that, “Even European nations have now realized how blind allegiance to politically favored renewables and reliance on foreign energy sources threaten their economies and sovereignty, and they are changing course accordingly… Looking abroad, we must recognize that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been enabled by two primary catalysts: unnecessarily high global energy prices, and Europe’s reliance on Russian energy exports.”
They are calling for a new American four-point energy policy which would “leverage America’s vast and diverse array of resources and technologies across the entire energy spectrum, including all types of renewable and traditional assets”; insulate America’s long-term energy policies from radical partisan shifts of political power in Washington; reevaluate the technological viability and national security threats now associated with “all government energy programs and policies”; and “make available cheap, clean, and affordable energy to our European and Asian allies to deny Putin and other rogue actors the wherewithal to threaten or hold allied nations hostage over energy supplies.”
The four authors conclude that if the US embraces this approach, it “will lower energy costs and drive down inflation for all Americans while advancing greater peace and prosperity throughout the world.”
MUSK BREAKS RANKS WITH THE CLIMATE CHANGE ACTIVISTS
Even the owner of Tesla, Elon Musk, said that in light of the energy crisis created by the invasion of Ukraine, the US must increase its domestic oil and natural gas production to make up for the loss of Russian energy supplies, despite the global climate change threat.
“Hate to say it, but we need to increase oil and gas output immediately. Extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures,” Musk, who made much of his fortune from electric vehicles, tweeted Friday. “Obviously, this would negatively affect Tesla, but sustainable energy solutions simply cannot react instantaneously to make up for Russian oil and gas exports,” he pointed out.
Two days later, Musk issued another call to European countries to restart their recently decommissioned nuclear power plants. “Hopefully, it is now extremely obvious that Europe should restart dormant nuclear power stations and increase power output of existing ones,” Musk tweeted. “This is ‘critical’ to national and international security,” he said, and then tried to reassure Europeans that their reactors were safe to operate.
However, the Biden administration remains strongly opposed to any suggestion that would end their progressive “Green New Deal”-inspired war against domestic fossil fuel producers, even if it would provide price relief at the pump to American consumers. When pressed on that point by White House reporters, Press Secretary Jen Psaki insists that the only acceptable policy response to higher energy prices is to encourage greater American reliance on solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources.
FEARS OF WORLDWIDE GRAIN SHORTAGES
The disruption of the global energy market is not the only dangerous economic consequence of an extended war in Ukraine. The interruptions in the flow of basic food grain, commodities, and manufactured goods from both Ukraine and Russia will further broaden the shortages and supply chain disruptions which have been driving inflation.
Together, Russia and Ukraine currently supply almost a third of the world’s wheat exports. The UN World Food Program, which distributes grains and food to poorer countries, bought 1.4 million tons of wheat last year, of which 70% came from Ukraine and Russia.
Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, it was already paying 30% more for wheat because of poor harvests in Canada, the US, and Argentina. Now the agency fears that disruptions in deliveries from Russia and Ukraine will drive wheat prices even higher. A lot will depend on just how long the fighting in Ukraine continues.
Ukraine alone accounts for 8% of global wheat exports and 13% of global corn exports. A significant reduction in grain exports from Russia and Ukraine would further aggravate food inflation. Wheat futures are currently at a 14-year high, and climbed by an additional 40% last week. Corn prices have increased by 21% over the past month, and soybean prices are up by 15% during the same period.
It is now time for Ukrainian farmers to start planting seeds for their spring crop, and they are wondering whether it will be worth the effort, especially if the fighting continues.
Any additional increases in the cost of grains will be immediately reflected in higher prices for such household staples as cereal and cooking oil, as well as the price of cattle and poultry, reflecting the increased cost to ranchers and farmers for their feed.
The war in Ukraine could also impact farmers worldwide by further interfering with the availability of fertilizers they will soon need for their spring crops. Fertilizer prices were already very high, and availability limited, due to the high price, especially in Europe, of natural gas, which is essential to the chemical process which produces fertilizer. Now the transport of fertilizers will become more difficult, because Russia is a major producer of fertilizer, and several large shipping companies have temporarily suspended their service to Russian ports.
MORE SUPPLY CHAIN ISSUES
Russia is a major global producer of aluminum. Sanction on those exports will increase the price of everything using that metal, from soda cans to aircraft.
Russia is also a major exporter of the metal nickel, which is an essential component of stainless steel as well as lithium-ion batteries, which are needed to power everything from laptop computers to cellphones to electric vehicles.
In addition, Ukraine has several factories which produce car parts for European automakers that were closed when the fighting started. If they remain closed for a significant length of time, it will further reduce the supply of new cars already impacted by the worldwide shortage of computer chips.
Many economists had been hopeful that the inflationary pressures due to worldwide supply chain interruptions would be coming to an end soon with the sharp decline in the rate of Covid infections. But now they fear that the current sharp rise in energy and grain prices, as well sanctions on the export of essential commodities from Russia such as aluminum and nickel, means that inflation is likely to get much worse for as long as the fight continues in Ukraine.