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Joe Varner: Ukraine fights on—The state of the Russia-Ukraine war two months in

Commentary

Right now in Europe a legendary war is being fought between a “David and a Goliath” in Ukraine and Russia. David, against many expectations, is doing surprisingly well on the battlefield. Goliath? Not so well. In war, you succeed and win when you obtain your strategic objectives or your war aims. In this case, Russia’s war aim or key strategic objective was to take over the entirety of Ukraine and replace its government with one more friendly, a puppet if you will. Ukraine’s objective in this war has been to hang on, and if possible retake its lost territories in the Donbas and the Crimea. Neither side seems close to achieving their war aims or winning this war in real strategic terms at this point.

We have watched Russia’s military strategy shift several times during this war. In the first phase of the war, Moscow moved quickly to seize Kyiv and replace the Zelensky government with one of its own. In the second phase of the war, we saw a battle of attrition around Kyiv and Kharkiv. In the third phase of the war, Russian forces were defeated in the north above Kyiv and to the northeast, with Russian forces falling back into Belarus and Russia with heavy losses. Now we have entered the fourth stage of the war, which is the battle to secure the Donbas and to take the southern coast to Moldova, and maybe even Moldova itself.

Russian forces are starting to fight according to their own doctrine of using heavy artillery barrages and airstrikes to support ground operations but continue to struggle with low morale. To date, eight weeks in, Russia does not have air superiority. As well, the United Kingdom reports that Russia has been forced to merge and redeploy depleted and disparate units from failed advances in northeast Ukraine.Depleted Russian units that failed to take Kyiv are merging, says MoD Russia is using penny packets of tactical battalion groups and regiments to attack objectives instead of using overwhelming force. There is a reluctance to employ airpower in support of ground power. There are clear gaps in logistics, sequencing, and planning, although it is improving. Russian commanders, in their drive to the cities, have seen their field hospitals left far behind the front.

One of the great lessons learned coming out of this war will be how well Ukraine controlled the information flow in the age of social media. We know everything that Ukrainians want us to know, but we know less about the cost of the fighting for Ukrainian men, women, and materiel. But thanks to a dominant Ukrainian and NATO narrative, we know almost everything about Russian losses in this conflict. Russia has seen 15,000 dead according to the British Ministry of Defence.Russia so far lost 15,000 troops in Ukraine: UK defense secretary There are at least three times that number of wounded. This means that of Russia’s invading force of 190,000 to 200,000 men, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 60,000 are now rendered ineffective.

A specialized blog, Oryx, counts Russian losses and documents them with either photographic or video evidence;Destination Disaster: Russia’s Failure At Hostomel Airpor evidence that strongly suggests that Russia has lost at least 500 main battle tanks and more than 300 armoured fighting vehicles. In a force of more than 120 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) Russia has probably lost somewhere in the neighbourhood of at least 30 BTGs. Russia has drawn on reservists, its proxy Militia in Ukraine, and mercenaries from Chechnya, Syria, and Libya to replace its losses. In real terms, Russia has enough force for one last offensive in the Donbas before it either re-entrenches, pushes back from the table, or mobilizes for war. Russia has not mobilized its entire force for war yet, but if it’s looking for a victory it may have to do so.

Ukrainian losses have been harder to determine as we enter almost two months of the war. We don’t know the real cost to Ukraine in military terms, in civilian lives, infrastructure (which is by all accounts destroyed in the country in the east and in the south), treasury, lost talent, and cultural, artistic, and historic items that are intrinsic to Ukrainian culture and can never be replaced. Some estimates suggest that even with frozen Russian assets it will be two or three years before Ukraine can rebuild much of the country that is now a wasteland. But some things are lost forever. Reportedly, Russian war crimes continue to be as savage as those we saw during the Second World War on the eastern front.Ukraine initiates more than 9,000 cases over Russia’s military crimes Russia’s war on Ukraine is a genocide—clearly an attempt to wipe out a people, a culture, and a history. 

The United States and NATO were at first slow to respond to Russian aggression, issuing threats of sanctions while at the same time clearly signalling to Russia that they would contribute no boots on the ground and would not impose a no-fly zone. In short, the West offered Ukraine every support short of help and assistance. When the Russian invasion came, NATO countries ramped up both military aid and punishing sanctions targeting the Putin regime, Russia’s security apparatus, and its economy.

Now NATO and Western countries are coming to the conclusion that we either stop Russia in Ukraine using weapons we have in our war stocks or we fight Russia later in our own countries. NATO and other like-states are providing training, repair of equipment, provision of small arms, and even now heavy armour and combat aircraft. These moves have reportedly given Ukraine tank parity with Russia. Additionally, NATO has sent anti-tank, anti-air, and anti-ship missiles to Ukraine which the Ukrainian military has used to great effect. Two months into this bloody war, Russia still does not control the sky over Ukraine. 

The end result on the battlefield is that the Russians maintain enough forces to the north in Belarus and Russia to hold Ukrainian forces in and around Kyiv in place. This denies Ukraine from redeploying forces to aid in the defence of the east and south of the country. According to senior U.S. defence officials, Russia continues to bolster its forces in eastern Ukraine, bringing the total number of its Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) to 85. The Russians continue to isolate and blockade Kharkiv. At the same time, the Kremlin is making a massive effort to take the Donbas in a series of north and south pincer movements and to secure the Ukrainian coast up to and including Odesa and Transnistria.

Now, the war in the Donbas is moving in slow motion and whether that pace will pick up will depend on a number of factors including the weather over the next 10 days. The upcoming warm weather will see favourable conditions for  Russian offensive operations. As the ground dries up and the mud starts to come to an end, we’ll see the Russian army have the ability to go off-road and move to mobile warfare. We will also see the advantage likely shift for a time to Russia with its force concentrations in the east and south free for maneuver warfare while Ukrainian forces have to guard the entire country stretched to the limit and stretched too thin.

Having said that, for successful offensive operations Russia would have to have a three- or five-to-one advantage over the defending Ukrainians. At best they have two-to-one. If the Russian military is not careful their phase four offensive in the Donbas may bleed their existing infantry and armoured forces white. For Russia to even come close to saving face it has to at least seize the Donbas, the coast to Moldova, and maybe Moldova itself. The pressure is on, with the almost-holy day of Victory celebrations in Moscow—taking place on the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe May 9th—a week away. 

What does all this mean for the future of the Russo-Ukrainian War? For Russia, victory on the battlefield and in the war itself remains a gamble and is not certain by any stretch. Russia needs a rare quality in war, and one that it has lacked to date: luck. Does Russian President Vladimir Putin get lucky and have his hit teams kill Zelensky and his inner circle so that the Ukrainian government collapses? Does Russia get a battlefield breakthrough and make it to Odesa? Will the Belarusian army cross the frontier and take a distracted Kyiv from the north? Will Vladimir Putin announce a declaration of war with Ukraine on May 9th, Victory Day, and declare mobilization of the country’s reserve army for war? Can Russia take Moldova by surprise through hybrid and/or conventional war and feed the Russian domestic audience some fresh meat for May 9th? Maybe Western resolve collapses and sells out Ukraine at the bargaining table to Russia.

Taking Ukrainian territory and holding it are two different things.

Then there are the worst-case nightmare scenarios: does Russia target and destroy the massive dams on the Dnieper River, flooding large areas of the country with devastating effects? Will Putin resort to increased use of chemical weapons in order to break through on the battlefield or terrorize the civilian population into surrender? Does a desperate Russia use captured Ukrainian nuclear facilities as improvised radiological devices? Could a very desperate Putin use tactical nuclear weapons? None of these can be discounted if Putin’s regime is at stake. 

For Ukraine, it is a matter of protecting its legitimate government and holding as much of its sovereign territory as it can by wearing down and even defanging the Russian war machine. Ukraine’s conduct of this war from the grand strategic level to the small unit actions of Mariupol are going to be studied in Western military academies and beyond for a long time to come. Ukraine has become NATO’s proxy war with Russia, and as long as it continues to get lethal aid from the West and training it is still in the game. The chance of Kyiv getting back territory in the east or south of the country in battle or peace treaty with Russia is low. Over the long haul, the chance that Ukraine retakes it after a bloody insurgency against a sanction-strapped Russia unable to reconstitute its army is medium to high. Taking Ukrainian territory and holding it are two different things. 

For NATO, it has entered its first real proxy war with Russia since Afghanistan in 1979. It is hoping for a replay of that war with Russia emerging with a greatly diminished military machine. Russia’s long-standing strategic goal of splitting the U.S. and NATO from one another or pulling apart the EU has ended in failure, likely for the long haul. While some alliance members went weak, others have stepped up to the plate and an increase in overall NATO defense spending and combat readiness in the short-term is a certainty. NATO states know that they have to rebuild their combat power before Russia rebuilds theirs and before China becomes too big to stop.

Lastly, a bellicose China has gone quiet and shown a cold shoulder to its failed strategic partner Russia. The Chinese Communist Party’s recent dreams of carving up a sphere of influence from New Delhi to the Philippines, Taiwan, the Senkakus, and the Solomon Islands are no longer assured. China has been shocked by the power of the Western sanctions and others against Russia. Beijing has been taken aback by previously neutral counties like Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland choosing sides against Russia. Chinese President Xi is reportedly astounded by the triumph of Western military power over Russian military power and the superiority of Western arms over those of Russia’s—and China’s by extension. China can no longer ignore the power of a Taiwan with a “hedgehog” defense bristling with anti-air, anti-ship, and anti-tank missiles or automatically count on the success of a Chinese invasion fleet. The fact that Ukraine, using old weapons, has destroyed eight Russian warships (including the Black Sea flagship the cruiser Moskva), a frigate, and a large amphibious warfare ship, in a ground war, without a navy, has not gone unnoticed in Beijing. 

Howard Anglin: We need a better, not smaller, House of Commons—Why it’s time to double the number of MPs

Commentary

As a rule, cynicism about politics and politicians is healthy. Given the state of our Parliament, it’s certainly easy. Pierre Trudeau famously said that members of parliament (he was addressing opposition members specifically) are nobodies once they get 50 yards from Parliament Hill. That was generous—it assumes they are somebodies when they are on the Hill. 

More often they find themselves compared to trained seals, tractable sheep, and other dumb animals.Tory Jackass Moves To Quash Right To Privacy With Orwellian Move As far as I am aware, the first ovine analogy came from the British MP Christopher Hollis in a gloomy tract from 1949 titled “Can Parliament Survive?”Can Parliament Survive? Hollis wrote (presumably from experience):

The member is the obedient servant of the party machine. He tramps into the division lobby voting for or against he knows not what … As things are now, it would really be simpler and more economical to keep a flock of tame sheep and from time to time to drive them through the division lobbies in the appropriate numbers.

As far as cost-cutting suggestions go, it’s not a terrible idea. We might even save on mowing the lawn in front of Parliament. 

It’s no worse, at least, than the recent proposal in these pagesCanada has too many MPs to cull the flock, er, reduce the size of the House of Commons. I don’t mean to be hard on Mark Johnson, who made probably the best possible case for fewer MPs. His problem was that there is no good way to make the case for a bad idea.

Let’s start with the obvious. Johnson’s proposal to reduce the number of MPs and create ridings of equal population would require a constitutional amendment. That is not happening. Setting aside the territories, 28 of the 30 smallest federal ridings (by number of electors) are in Atlantic Canada, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba. None of those provinces is going to approve a plan to cut their representation.

So much for the idea in reality, but what about its merits in theory? Johnson’s main arguments are that: Canada was governed just as well (or at least no worse) 22 years ago with 40 fewer MPs; more MPs inevitably means bigger government; and we will save the cost of their salaries and staff budgets. 

It’s hard to dispute the first argument, if only because I don’t know how we would measure differences in the quality of government over such a short time. But Johnson is probably right that a Parliament of 300 MPs vs a Parliament of 340 MPs wouldn’t make much difference because increasing or decreasing the size of a group by 10 percent doesn’t change its basic structure or its internal dynamics. (More on what would later.)

The second point confuses the role of the House of Commons with the role of the government. There are very few opportunities for MPs to increase the size of government. Members do not initiate legislation, except through rare and mostly symbolic private members bills. It is not Parliament’s job to govern, but to scrutinize the government’s actions and debate its proposals. And if there is one thing we could use more of in Canada, it is more debate and more scrutiny. 

As for the savings to Canadians, cutting 40 MPs would save about $20 million, or 1/17,750th of the federal budget. 

Anticipating an objection that larger constituencies would mean worse service for constituents, Johnson assures us that private “[c]ompanies regularly downsize their workforces but achieve the same outputs.” Of course corporate “outputs” aren’t the same thing as customer service, as anyone who has spent time waiting to be connected to an overseas call centre can tell you. 

But I am not just here to shoot down a proposal, especially one that is already dead on arrival. I have, wait for it, my own “bold new idea.” Let’s go the other way and increase the size of the House of Commons. 

Doubling the number of MPs would be procedurally simple—we could just split each existing riding and not have to worry about constitutional futilities. That would exacerbate some distortions of representation, but then the Westminster system has never been fussy about strict adherence to representation by population. Nor, I might add, would it be the first federal make-work scheme for Atlantic Canada, or close to the most wasteful.

We should expect a larger House of Commons to produce better government. One of the open secrets of Canadian politics is the flamboyant incompetence of most federal cabinet ministers. This is not a partisan point. Once you get past the handful of sage and competent ministers in any government, the talent level drops off like a continental shelf. Remember that it took electoral defeat to finally dislodge the cherubically vacuous Maryam Monsef from cabinet. 

The need for diversity in building a cabinet, especially regional diversity, already narrows the choice of ministers considerably. More MPs should increase the chances of quality appointments and reduce the need for tokenism. It’s simple math. Doubling the size of the House of Commons would mean more members in each region for a prime minister to choose from.

In the U.K., with 650 MPs, a prime minister with a majority government has at least 326 MPs from which to choose about 22 cabinet ministers and another 100 junior members of the ministry. The result is a generally (though not uniformly) higher quality of minister. (Yes, the U.K. population is almost double ours, but we are almost 40 times bigger. The constituency farthest from Westminster is Orkney and Shetland, about 1000 km away; the same drive starting in Ottawa and heading West wouldn’t even get you out of Ontario.) 

The flip side of a larger caucus that offers more choices for cabinet is that also leaves more members out of cabinet. That is a good thing for national governance because a large backbench is a restless backbench. In the U.K., having more MPs with little or no chance of cabinet appointment has meant more independence and a stronger sense of collective backbench identity. This comes closer to replicating J.A.G. Griffith’s“John Aneurin Grey Griffith, FBA (14 October 1918 – 8 May 2010) was a Welsh legal scholar.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._A._G._Griffith idea of a parliament divided into three parts—government, opposition, and backbench—with a government that has to worry as much about members behind it as those across from it.

Johnson worries that more MPs means more “idle hands” creating make-work for themselves, but in the larger British parliament, those idle hands have been put to productive use on much stronger parliamentary committees. This includes genuinely independent and bipartisan specialist committees like the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, which would be unthinkable in the Canadian parliament.

I understand the instinctive skepticism about what looks like a proposal for larger government. But one lesson I learned working inside government is that more political oversight usually means better government, not necessarily more government. Or to return to the terms of the political menagerie, a bigger House of Commons would mean more watchdogs and fewer sheep.