Weekend Update #66: Its always been about Ukraine--Not the Border, Not Spending Cuts
Poland becoming assertive; Where are the advances?; Command change update
As Mykola Bielieskov and I released our latest podcast less than 24 hours ago, and it ranged over issues of the week, including the question of when/if President Zelensky will try to remove General Zaluzhny from command of the army, I thought I would use this update to delve a little deeper into some of the other questions that have been swirling around. I will provide an update about the command question at the end, but don’t want to start repeating what Mykola and I said here:
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Its always been about Ukraine—Not the Border, Not Spending Cuts
Speaker Johnson dropped all pretence yesterday. Above all other issues, the Republican leadership in the House is desperate to stop any US aid to Ukraine. With it becoming obvious that the Senate was going to move forward soon on a bill that had aid for Ukraine and Israel, and some concessions to the Republicans to make it work, Johnson went nuclear to try and get aid to Ukraine removed from any bill. Johnson sent this letter to Republicans in the House saying that a bill will aid for Israel, but without the spending cuts that he had demanded previously, would soon be sent for a vote. However, aid for Ukraine was not mentioned.
Its disingenuous on so many levels. The House has been the most obstructive on the funding bills, first tying them to Biden making a major compromise on the border, which the president did. However, once Biden moved on the border, Johnson and the House leadership decided that was not enough, and backed off any bill that had aid for Ukraine. The Speaker, at that point called any compromise bill “dead on arrival”.
Now, we have a panic-stricken response by Johnson to the real prospect that the Senate in the next few days will approve a compromise bill with aid for Ukraine. He is trying to pre-empt the bill by passing aid for Israel without any preconditions. After all his huffing and puffing, now no compromise on the border or spending cuts are needed. He even threatens the Senate with obstruction if they pass the aid bill for Ukraine. So, once the dust settles its clear that the Republican leadership in the House doesn’t really want spending cuts, doesn’t really want a border bill—but under no circumstances wants aid to Ukraine.
The Republican priority is now undeniable, and undeniably shameless.
How will it work out? I’m starting to lose hope (though its not all gone). I’ve always thought that aid to Ukraine had a better than 50-50 chance because there are clear majorities in both houses of Congress in favor and because Johnson, once he became speaker, actually moderated his rhetoric on aid for Ukraine—clearly saying it could be passed if a deal on the border was reached.
Now, that compromise language is gone. Things are not hopeless, however, as the Senate will almost certainly pass an aid bill for Ukraine. At that point there will be negotiation between House and Senate. It will take the Senate to back down, accepting aid for Israel without aid for Ukraine, to fully throw Ukraine under the bus. I don’t know enough about the feeling in the Senate to say if they will remain firm on Ukraine. The other option would be for pro-Ukraine House Republicans to basically threaten Johnson’s position—however they have shown themselves time and again to be weak. Its hard to see them making a stand here.
One thing to watch is if Trump continues to drop in the polls. This move by Johnson is clearly being driven in the House by the Trump-acolytes (or Trumpolytes). With Trump almost certainly to be the nominee, Johnson is obviously terrified of making him upset. If Trump looks like a loser, however, that could help. Again, I would not get my hopes up too much—but its a possibility.
Ultimately I’ve moved from 60-40 thinking aid for Ukraine would pass to 60-40 thinking it wont. Putin has basically taken over a wing of the Republican Party and is driving their policy choices.
Europe and Ukraine better get ready (more on that next week).
Poland Becoming Assertive
In all the talk about populists winning elections, its important to recognize that populists lost power in the most important European election of 2023—the Polish elections. The return to power of Donald Tusk and his coalition of non-populists is easily the most positive political development in Europe—for the continents and for Ukraine. The previous populist government of Poland had been supportive of Ukraine—but with caveats. They were not interested in working cooperatively with other Europeans (populists love to make the EU a bogeyman) and they were quite weak when it came to trying to work out problems with Ukraine during the farmers and truckers disputes.
Now with Tusk back, its becoming clearer and clearer how influential Poland can be. This week there was an important moment where the change was obvious. The EU, wanting to approve 50 billion euros of aid for Ukraine for months, had been stymied by populist Orban in Hungary. This week, however, Orban was basically threatened with economic war from the EU and (as he often does when threatened) folded.
Throughout this process-Tusk has played a particularly assertive role. He said earlier in the week that the EU would find a way to get aid to Ukraine regardless of Orban and his posturing. Once Orban was pushed aside, Tusk made the best comment on the whole affair—when asked whether the EU was suffering from Ukraine fatigue, he replied it was suffering from “Orban fatigue”.
A more assertive and aggressive Poland can play a huge role in galvanizing European states as they support Ukraine. Poland is one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, and is modernizing its armed forces by spending a larger percentage of its economy on its military. Its important to see Tusk and the Polish government now pressing the EU to toughen up its sanction regime against Russia and to allow frozen Russian assets be transferred to Ukraine to help the Ukrainians. As Tusk said this week, “Poland will “demand the broadest possible sanctions” against Russia – including an embargo on nuclear fuel and the transfer of frozen Russian assets to Ukraine – as the EU discusses a new set of measures against Moscow.”
If the US does withdraw support from Ukraine and then elects Trump (which would threaten the very existence of NATO, regardless of what the hopeless optimists say), Poland is poised to play a crucial role in helping organize the response by those European states who see any Russian victory in Ukraine as an existential issue. With the US giving up its influence, the break that US policy has played on aid for Ukraine (while the US has supported Ukraine, its escalation-fear policy has also strictly limited some support) would be over. At that point, Europe would be faced by a stark choice, as I laid out in this Bulwark article.
If the United States does abandon Ukraine and Europe, Europe will have to decide whether it can bear the cost the of remilitarizing in a very short time. It will have to give Ukraine what it needs to fight on in the short term, even if that is politically and militarily painful, and it will have to invest a great deal of money to rebuild its military industrial base. It will have to set up protected supply chains, establish new industrial plants, and coordinate efforts across the continent. In short, Europe will have to take war seriously.
Poland under a Tusk government would be vital to helping Europe make the right choice. I know Polish military modernization has a long way to go—but the Russian military has been significantly damaged and is not performing well (see next section). Poland has the strength to help galvanize those European states who for their own future want Russia to lose—and it has the military power to represent a challenge to a greatly weakened Russian military.
Thank God Poland has a sane government, is all I have to say.
Where are the Advances?
The front line of the battlefield remains almost entirely static, as it has been for almost a year. This is worthy of note, as the Russians have tried to make significant advances in the last few months, and Ukrainian artillery fire seems well down as US aid has collapsed. Remember even in the last few months of 2023, US aid was well down on earlier in the year—and now its ceased.
The difference in fire now between Ukraine and Russia seems to be stark. One report is that the Russians are firing 5 shells for every Ukrainian one—and that the Russians don’t have to worry about the Ukrainians having the artillery ammunition to attack them, so they are starting to concentrate their forces in a way that would be far too dangerous if Ukraine had access to reasonable stores of ammunition.
Yet, even with this supposed advantage, the Russians cant advance—indeed their attacks seem disjointed and they are suffering very heavy losses. One calculation about losses around Avdiivka has the Russians losing pieces of equipment at a more than 10-1 clip.
Where the Russians have lost 608 pieces of equipment (see above) for which there is photographic evidence, the Ukrainians have only lost 46 (including 20 tanks, 22 armored/infantry fighting vehicles).
There are a number of things going on here. Its confirmation that even with a heavy firepower advantage, advancing remains extremely difficult. It also points out that the Russians are still considerably less efficient than the Ukrainians—and remain a very imperfect military with major shortcomings.
Now, things could get worse for Ukraine going forward with no ammunition at all from the USA—at some point something will have to give. However, it is still hard to imagine the Russians making large, combined arms advances even at that stage. In other words, if Europe can get its act together, even with a US failure to support, a Russian large-scale advance is far from assured.
As of now the Zelensky-Zaluzhny standoff remains unsettled. There are lots and lots of rumours circulating—that the move will happen in the next few days or it wont happen at all. I have no idea. I will just repeat what I’ve said in the podcast and other writings. Zelensky needs to end the uncertainty ASAP. He either needs to make the command change and own it publicly, or he needs to confirm that Zaluzhny remains in charge with full authority. The instability is helping no one—least of all Ukraine.
Changes of command happen in war—but they must be handled openly and with assurance. This is an important moment for Zelensky’s leadership.
Have a good rest of the weekend everyone.