On the fall of Avdiivka (and Western political rationalism)

Can’t leave the news for even a weekend?

I spent a rather pleasant weekend with my family in Transylvania, among other things visiting the spectacular Salina Turda salt mine. I was less than 200 kilometers from the border with Ukraine, but well over a thousand from the beleaguered city of Avdiivka – and my mind was further still from the horrors its name evokes.

So it wasn’t until this Monday morning that I learned the city’s defenses had collapsed in a disorderly retreat; one which left the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers to run along the only remaining road out; or to be killed; or to be captured by the storming Russians. The collapse of Avdiivka also punctured a gaping hole in Ukraine’s longstanding defensive line inside the Donetsk Oblast, through which Russian forces are storming as I type these words.

Asymmetric warfare: shovels against balcony flags

The Russian troops have at their backs an overwhelming superiority in shovels (i.e. airplanes, artillery, drones, missiles), in troop numbers (essential for troop rotation), in morale and in momentum. Their political leader enjoys unprecedented popularity, a mostly buoyant economy and newly forged alliances with the most powerful economy in the world, China, whose leader has just refused to even speak to the Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zellensky.

What does Ukraine have at its back? Despite the promises of support for ‘as long as it takes’, the US Congress has decisively denied a funding package of 60 billion dollars to rearm its proxy ally. America’s most popular journalist (by viewer numbers) just conducted a soft-ball interview of President Putin that was watched by over 100 million Americans; and the clear frontrunner for the presidency in November has vowed a policy of negotiation and disengagement.

Meanwhile the EU is out of military cadeaux (shells, F-16s, Leopard IIs) to send east, and is facing a run of elections likely to further erode the political appetite for any form of solidarity more painful than photo-ops and impassioned speeches. Its latest economic forecast, meanwhile, shows anemic growth and deteriorating public finances, while Polish farmers are blocking their Eastern border to stem the flow of cheap wheat, Ukraine’s only real remaining export.

A badly scripted TV president with a predictable ending

The worst part is, this was all so depressingly predictable. I’m no great military tactician, but it didn’t take me long to understand that this war was entirely unwinnable for Ukraine, at the very latest once the Russians had declared the territories in dispute to be an integral part of the Russian Federation itself. Absent direct military intervention from NATO leading to a catastrophic escalation, Ukraine’s battlefield valor could do no more than prolong the inevitable, and claim the lives of ever more young men. You only need to have played a few games of Risk to understand that when the troops stack sufficiently high on one side of a battle, the outcome is not seriously in question.

Likewise, one didn’t have to be a great statesman to see the dangers of driving Russia into China’s arms. Nor was a Nobel Prize in economics needed to understand that the rise of BRICS meant there was limited scope for Western sanctions to dissuade Putin from his course of action, or that the politicisation of the Bretton Woods financial system would backfire, undermining its credibility and hastening de-dollarisation.

Why, then, did the West persist? And persist it surely did – with months of declarations of unwavering support, with ever more risible packages of sanctions, with arsenals of last-generation military gear. Why did not a greater statesperson emerge, look three moves ahead and realise where this was all heading? Why did he not take Putin quietly by the elbow, smoke a cigar with him and hand over just enough territory to restore the peace and allow everyone to declare some sort of victory?

Did Big Gun bring out the big guns…?

The internet is full of conspiracies these days. When Klaus Schwab, Bill Gates and George Soros are not busy planning mass depopulation of the planet, it’s Taylor Swift and her devil cult rigging the Super Bowl so her (presumably Satanic) boyfriend’s team can win (they play in red! Coincidence? I think NOT).

According to the sages of this school, the powers that be knew full well Ukraine was a lost cause from day one. They nevertheless wanted to draw Putin into a messy conflict, stir up a heightened sense of threat and play on that in order to be able to fill the arsenals of Washington and Brussels with next-gen NATO weapons, all on the dime of the West’s generous taxpayers. They foresaw the fall of Avdiivka long before I or even Putin, but they frankly didn’t care, and will watch indifferently as every rick and croft east of the Dnieper gets burned. The shadowy cabal pulling the strings here is the military-industrial complex, and it’s all about the money.

…or is the truth even more depressing?

I don’t buy it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Honeywell, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin et al do not actively lobby to promote hawkish policies – this they have always done. Nikki Haley is just Dick Cheney in heels, and Dick Cheney was just Henry Kissinger with better glasses. But their influence is limited, their reach finite. They can tilt outcomes at the margins perhaps. They cannot, however, cause a Ukrainian flag to hang from every balcony from San Francisco to Helsinki. They cannot cause the West to lose its collective mind and throw all its political capital, hundreds of billions of dollars and its very economic hegemony into what is obviously a lost cause.

My theory is what we have witnessed with the fall of Avdiivka is the collapse of something much more central to Western civilisation. It is the loss of political rationalism in Western decision-making. The West no longer has the ability to apply reason to its political calculations. The carefully groomed tradition of considering consequences and working backwards from there to determine the best future course of action is out of fashion. Instead, decisions are made on impulse – mad gambles steered by the public mood, by passions and by the moment.

Baby needs a new pair of shoes!

Of course, when the gamble goes bad, there is an emotional reaction. A sort of heart leaping into the mouth, as the gambler sees that he somehow did not make the flush on the river card, even though he ‘had had that feeling’. That is what we see in the news today: multiple reports of ‘shock‘ at the news from Ukraine, a sense of ‘gloom‘.

This is precisely the moment when you should cash in your remaining chips, take stock of the experience and review the path that led you to such bad decision-making. Sadly, for most gamblers, this is not what actually happens. They make excuses, double down, and continue with the bad decisions. The reason Avdiivka fell is because Congress did not hastily enough approve the additional funding. We must send more to Ukraine, we must press Putin harder. Perhaps another round of sanctions (this time targeting the lucrative Russian canine toothpaste market)?

In my heart, I want to believe we can regain our ability to apply political rationalism. But if I were a betting man, I’d cash in my chips and go buy a 500 litre rainwater filter.