Thoughts on Life, Love, Politics, Hypocrisy and Coming Out in Mid-Life
Saturday, January 21, 2023
India Struggles to Let Go of Colonial Enforced Bigotry
NEW DELHI — A debate in India over the nomination of a man who would be the first openly gay judge spilled into rare public view after Supreme Court justices published the Indian government’s arguments against his appointment on the grounds that he is gay and allegedly a security threat.
The move laid bare an ongoing dispute between the country’s highest court and the Ministry of Law and Justice, which have been increasingly at loggerheads. In a rare, detailed statement issued Wednesday, the court revealed that the government’s opposition to Saurabh Kirpal stemmed from his long-term relationship with a Swiss man and his openness about his sexual orientation, facts that the government argues make him biased and a threat to national security.
The Supreme Court judges stated that Kirpal’s sexual orientation is not only a matter of pride but his constitutional right. “[He] possesses competence, integrity and intellect. His appointment will add value … and provide inclusion and diversity.”
The government, which is controlled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has not publicly commented on the Supreme Court’s statement, but in the past, senior leaders have made statements against homosexuality.
In India, a group of five senior judges, including the chief justice, selects the candidates for judgeships and refers them to the Justice Ministry for comments. Even if the ministry has objections, the judges can send the candidate’s name back, and the ministry must appoint them.
The ministry, however, has in some cases kept tossing names back, and judges have openly expressed frustration that the government has been holding up some recommendations to scuttle them.
Senior Supreme Court lawyer Menaka Guruswamy, who was one of the lead lawyers in the 2018 case that eventually led to the decriminalization of consensual gay sex, described the rejection of Kirpal as “wrong, unacceptable, and unconstitutional.”
“We expect better from our government,” she said. “LGBT people have always been a part of the social fabric of India.”
The conflict between the two branches of the state is taking place against the backdrop of partial progress for same-sex rights in Indian courtrooms and drawing rooms alike. Since the overturning of the colonial-era law banning gay sex, after a decade-long battle, petitions in court to allow same-sex marriage are expected to be heard by the Supreme Court soon.
Pride parades and Bollywood movies also have contributed to the conversation, and just a week ago, the leader of the Hindu organization that is the ideological parent of the BJP made statements in support of queer people, citing Hindu mythology.
“Yes, India is changing. Of course, it would be stupid for us to say that society has completely embraced homosexuality,” said Sanjoy Ghosh, another Supreme Court lawyer, “but definitely, we are in a much better place than we were even 10 years ago.”
In light of this progress, Ghosh said he finds it even more “shocking” and “alarming” that the government objects to Kirpal’s appointment.
Friday, January 20, 2023
Biden Against the Wounded Dictators and Extremists
I’ve covered four presidents since joining The Times in 2003. Year after year (except during the Trump years) I go into the White House. The rooms are pretty much the same. The immaculate formality is the same. But the culture of each administration is quite different. The culture is set by the president.
The phrase that comes to mind in describing the culture of the Biden White House is the assumption of power. Biden and his team do not see America as some beleaguered, declining superpower. They proceed on the premise that America is in as strong a position as ever to lead the world.
Biden’s cheerful confidence is an unappreciated national asset. As American power has come to be underestimated, especially since the election of Donald Trump, a man like Biden, who has been underestimated pretty much his whole life, is in a decent position to help Americans regain confidence in their country and its government.
At the moment. Biden is facing several significant headwinds — political, economic, foreign, domestic. I’d describe this administration’s methodology across these different challenges as incremental pressure and steady progress.
Last year was awash in examples of this, as Biden did nothing less than help tame the world. He passed major legislation and led the Democrats to a surprisingly successful midterm election. He organized a global coalition to support Ukraine and set Vladimir Putin back on his heels. He took a series of measures to push back against Chinese hegemony, including sweeping semiconductor export controls.
Before these events, the momentum seemed to be with Biden’s adversaries in each of these cases. Now the momentum is with Biden and his friends.
This year he will face off against the same extremists. But they are weak in crucial ways. The fractured House Republicans are controlled by their wackiest wing. Putin continues to fail in Ukraine. Xi Jinping is beset by numerous crises, from Covid to demographic decline to the economy. Biden will have to manage these wounded adversaries to make sure they don’t lash out in extremis, doing something crazy to disrupt the world.
Republican craziness could manifest itself during the looming debt ceiling crisis. A wing of Republican fiscal terrorists could make such outrageous demands that the United States is unable to fulfill its financial obligations. Biden will probably have to work with Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer in the Senate to come up with a plausible debt ceiling compromise. Then he’ll have to cajole or pressure a group of vulnerable and reasonable House Republicans, some in districts Biden won, to break with their party, so that the compromise can get through the lower chamber.
Putin’s craziness could manifest as a doubling down on his Ukraine adventure or even the still existing threat of nuclear weapons. The core problem for Putin is that he has no easy way out, short of withdrawal and humiliation. He could try to win the war the traditional Russian way, by throwing masses of men into the quagmire. But suppose that doesn’t work out. All he’s got left is nukes. What does Putin do then?
Xi’s craziness could manifest as ever more aggressive moves in his region and beyond, including an invasion of Taiwan. Xi has helped raise millions to middle-class status, but suppose he can’t fulfill the expectations that middle-class status generates? His authoritarian nationalism has provoked the United States to erect trade barriers and impose export controls. Growing levels of American corporate investment can no longer be assumed. How does Xi respond to the hostile environment he has created?
The United States, democracy and liberalism are now winning, and the problems of authoritarianism, domestic and international, are exposed. But Biden is going to have to thread a series of needles to be sure the wounded extremists don’t take the world down with them.
I’d describe this administration’s methodology with this phrase: steady and incremental pressure. When Putin first invaded Ukraine, the U.S. was wary of acknowledging the ways in which it was militarily aiding the defenders. But it has steadily ramped up the pressure, moving from offering Ukraine Stinger antiaircraft missiles to providing Patriot air defense systems and armored fighting vehicles. Now, my colleagues report, the Biden administration is thinking of helping the Ukrainians go after Russian sanctuaries in Crimea.
The Biden administration does not seem to be trying to decouple the American and Chinese economies. A healthy Chinese economy is in America’s interest for the sake of global stability. But the Biden administration has continued to ramp up the pressure on China’s nationalist tendencies, trying to stall Chinese development in, say, computing, biotech and biomanufacturing.
Biden’s pressure on the Republicans follows the same incremental and steady pattern. Many of the infrastructure projects that were funded by recent legislation are now getting underway. You can look forward to seeing the president at event after event, like the one he did with Mitch McConnell in Covington, Ky., to tout new funding for the Brent Spence Bridge.
The goal is to show the American people that government does work and that Biden himself deserves re-election. Biden’s going to go after G.O.P. extremism, but he hopes to make his own competence the center of his election argument.
The word to associate with Biden should be “calibration” — this much pressure but not too much. It’s a tricky business.
Thursday, January 19, 2023
Republicans Are Poised to Harm Every American
Every American could get hurt if the new hardline Republican House’s dangerous game of roulette with a still vulnerable economy backfires.
The nation reaches a first, critical threshold Thursday in the brewing Washington showdown over the national debt that could define the tenure of the new GOP majority and the final two years of President Joe Biden’s term.
Republicans are demanding significant spending cuts in return for fulfilling the routine duty of allowing the government to borrow more money after its credit limit is reached. But the White House is refusing to negotiate. If the standoff lasts until a drop-dead date in the summer, it could trigger a financial and stock market cataclysm and crash the retirement savings of millions. The government might also not have enough cash to pay Social Security payments, federal workers or veterans’ benefits [and members of the military].
Officially, the Treasury is expected to reach its $31.4 trillion dollar borrowing limit on Thursday, but it plans to take extraordinary budgeting measures to stave off disaster until June. Until that deadline looms, neither side is likely to budge.
Since the government spends more than it makes in revenue, it must borrow money to service its debt and pay for spending that Congress has already authorized. It has no problem getting more credit since the US always pays its bills and has always had a stellar credit rating, despite one previous downgrade from the threat of default.
This year’s debt ceiling showdown could be the riskiest yet, since Kevin McCarthy offered radical conservatives whose votes he needed to become House speaker guarantees that the debt ceiling would not be raised without significant cuts to government spending.
Things could go off the rails because, essentially, Republicans are seeking to use the need to pay for past spending to force cuts in future spending. Raising the debt ceiling has been fraught in recent years when there’s a Democrat in the White House and Republicans control either chamber of Congress. Adding a strong whiff of hypocrisy to the standoff, the GOP has typically had no problem doing so under big-spending Republican presidents and suddenly develops a compulsion to ensure fiscal discipline when there’s a Democrat in the Oval Office.
And now it’s far from clear that McCarthy can deliver. Given his willingness to do anything to placate hardliners to win his job, alarm bells are ringing from Wall Street to Washington about what might happen.
It may be impossible for the California Republican to both raise the debt ceiling and keep his job – and the country is heading to a fiscal cliff edge as a result.
Arizona conservative Rep. Andy Biggs suggested he was willing to tank the economy to keep a promise to voters. “We cannot raise the debt ceiling,” Biggs wrote on Twitter. “Democrats have carelessly spent our taxpayer money and devalued our currency. They’ve made their bed, so they must lie in it.”
The comment ignores the fact that a large chunk of the debt the government now needs to pay for was accrued during the Trump administration. . . . . “Rep. Biggs is dead wrong to actively support the ruin of millions of American livelihoods, 401k plans, and small businesses, all in the name of scorched earth partisanship,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said.
“Default would needlessly plunge the country into economic chaos, collapse, and catastrophe while giving our competitors like China an historic boost against us,” Bates continued. “That’s why congressional Republicans – with strong bipartisan support from Democrats – avoided default 3 times under Donald Trump, without conditions or playing chicken with our credit rating. This president and the American people will not stand for unprecedented economic vandalism.”
The administration – in staking out its position that it will make no concessions – is implicitly wagering that the fury and political damage that the GOP would sustain by failing to act is so bad ahead of the 2024 election that McCarthy will blink.
There’s an analogy to nuclear deterrence – the consequences of using the ultimate weapon are so horrendous and self-defeating that neither side believes the other would risk it. Or would they?
What makes the current standoff so perilous is that it can’t be assumed that every Republican wants to avoid fiscal Armageddon. The extreme Trump wing of the party, which holds considerable power in the House given the narrow GOP majority, includes members who seem quite prepared to blow up the country’s economic and political system and see where the pieces fall.
Of course, McCarthy could make this a lot easier and piece together a coalition that includes moderate Republicans who have no wish to crash the economy and Democrats. But since he handed hardliners the capacity to write his political obituary – allowing a return to a rule that lets a single lawmaker call for a vote to oust him – he’s unlikely to survive the consequences of constructing an end run around his party’s extremists.
Biden knows that if he bows to pressure from the Republican House on this issue, he will be held to ransom on everything and the domestic portion of his presidency will effectively be over. And Senate Democrats, who control the chamber after adding a seat to their own wafer-thin majority in the midterms, see no reason why they should be jammed by the House. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York is already laying the blame for any financial meltdown at the hands of the GOP.
“America pays its debts. Period. There should be no political brinkmanship with the debt limit. It’s reckless for Speaker McCarthy and MAGA Republicans to try and use the full faith and credit of the United States as a political bargaining chip,” Schumer said in a statement Tuesday. “A default would be catastrophic for America’s working families and lead to higher costs.”
The fate of the economy may rest on McCarthy’s capacity to deliver his fractious conference to some kind of compromise – a feat that after his chaotic and desperate bid to win the speakership may be beyond him.
Be very, very afraid of what these lunatics and extemists may do with no regard for the harm done to every American citizen.
Wednesday, January 18, 2023
Republican Conspiracism Is Hurting America
As an American living in Britain for the past decade, I’ve had a front-row seat to two dysfunctional democracies hell-bent on embarrassing themselves. President Donald Trump warned that a hurricane was “one of the wettest we’ve ever seen, from the standpoint of water.” Prime Minister Liz Truss failed to outlast a lettuce at Downing Street. These years have not inspired confidence in democracy.
In Britain and the United States—and across most faltering Western democracies—this democratic dysfunction is routinely chalked up to a catchall culprit: polarization. The reason our democracies are decaying, we’re often told, is that we’re more divided than ever before. And that’s true: Polarization is worsening. Debates over Brexit and Trump tore citizenries—and families—apart.
But Britain’s and America’s democratic woes are not at all the same. The problems in American democracy are worse. That’s because a particularly insidious disease has infected the core of its political system, one that is not present to the same degree in other rich democracies: extreme conspiracism. Other countries, including the U.K., have polarization. America has irrational polarization, in which one political party has fallen under the spell of conspiratorial thinking. Polarization plus this conspiracist tendency risks turning run-of-the-mill democratic dysfunction into a democratic death spiral. The battle for American democracy will be a battle over reality.
Within the modern GOP, conspiracy theories—about stolen elections, satanic cults, or “deep state” cover-ups—have replaced policy ideas as a rallying cry for Trump’s MAGA base. . . . They rattle off their accepted wisdom about conspiracies that most people have never heard of, such as “Italygate,” the absurd notion that the U.S. embassy in Rome, in conjunction with the Vatican, used satellites to rig the 2020 presidential election.
In Britain, far fewer people believe in conspiracy theories. According to YouGov polling, a third of Americans believe that a small group of people secretly runs the world, while just 18 percent believe the same in the United Kingdom. Similarly, 9 percent of Americans think COVID-19 is a fake disease. In Britain, that figure is just 3 percent. Seventeen percent of Americans agree with the statement that “a secret group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles has taken control of parts of the U.S. Government and mainstream U.S. media . . . .
What’s really troubling about this political moment in America, though, is not merely the spread of conspiratorial thinking in the general population. It’s also that the delusions have infected the mainstream political leadership. The crackpots have come to Congress.
When Kevin McCarthy finally became speaker of the House this week, one of the first photos to circulate was a selfie taken with Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a former QAnon believer who once blamed a wildfire on Jewish space lasers.
Writing a similar sentence about modern British politics would be impossible. There’s just nothing like it. Instead, in Britain, conspiracy theorists are ostracized by the political establishment. Politicians may disagree about policy, but those who disagree about reality face real consequences.
Last week, for instance, Andrew Bridgen, a conservative member of the British Parliament, tweeted a graph from a conspiracy-theory website, spreading false information about the risks of COVID vaccines. . . . . The response was swift. Bridgen was condemned across the political spectrum. His own party expelled him. The Tories, Britain’s ruling conservative political party, didn’t want to be associated with a conspiracy theorist.
Meanwhile, America’s political right is the leading global source of COVID conspiracy theories. The more outlandish, the better. . . . . Republican State Representative Jennifer Gross compared mandatory vaccination to the Holocaust. Then Gross went much further. She effusively praised the testimony of a quack expert who claimed that vaccines magnetize people, such that spoons will stick to your forehead following a shot. . . . . Gross faced no primary challenger and was recently reelected, with 64 percent of the vote.
Rather than getting expelled from the Republican Party or becoming pariahs on the right, conspiracy theorists have become GOP stars. Mike Flynn, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser and a former top intelligence official, has falsely suggested that COVID-19 was created by George Soros, Bill Gates, and the World Health Organization . . . . Flynn should be an irrelevant laughingstock. Instead, he’s headlining right-wing conferences and commanding huge audiences.
All humans of all political persuasions are susceptible to conspiracy theories. Millions of Americans, on the political left and the political right, believe in them. But conspiratorial thinking is thriving especially on the right because it’s sanctioned, and endorsed, from above.
This asymmetrical conspiracism has been going on for a while now. The historian Richard Hofstadter noted how “the paranoid style” took root on the right in the mid-20th century, starting with McCarthyism and continuing through Barry Goldwater’s rise in 1964, shortly after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
In the past decade, conspiratorial thinking has shifted from a worrying factor in Republican politics to a defining feature. . . . As Trump took over the party, his conspiratorial lies became Republican orthodoxy. And that opened the door to conspiratorial influencers, who started inventing new lies.
Deranged grifters profit from what the writer Kurt Andersen has called the “fantasy-industrial complex,” in which media provocateurs, including Infowars and Fox News, have cashed in on political messaging defined by a conspiratorial mindset.
They prey on susceptible individuals, particularly those who are lonely and bored, browsing alone, and finding online communities to replace real-world ones. . . . . To solve a problem, you first must agree it exists. Democracy therefore requires a shared sense of reality. Instead, America has splintered into a choose-your-own-reality society, in which citizens self-select into whatever version of the world they want to inhabit, reflected back at them by media outlets that earn most when they challenge worldviews least. Conversely, in Britain, the BBC continues to dominate broadcast-media market share, and outlets that push conspiracy theories have tiny audiences.
On January 6, 2021, thousands of deluded insurrectionists attacked the Capitol because of lies spread by Trump and his acolytes. But the bigger problem was inside the ranks of Congress itself, as most House Republicans voted not to certify the election based on those debunked theories. These were the conspiratorial insurrectionists in suits—and they’re now in charge of the House of Representatives. . . . . Governing will be put on hold for two years.
Until modern Republican politics stops systematically empowering crackpots, America’s democratic dysfunction cannot be considered equivalent to the mere polarization that exists in peer countries such as Britain. In Britain, the political system is broken in ways that are more easily fixed. When reality shifts, people change their minds—and someone as incompetent as Liz Truss gets booted from office in just 42 days.
Be very, very afraid of where these GOP lunatics will take the nation. They are a clear and present danger.
Tuesday, January 17, 2023
Are the Economy and Democrat Prospects Improving?
If the midterm elections could be rerun this month, Democrats would probably end up in full control of Congress. President Biden’s approval ratings are rising. Inflation is down, and consumers are feeling more optimistic. And Americans are getting a better look at the G.O.P.’s actual policy agenda, which is deeply unpopular.
OK, we don’t give politicians who lost an election the opportunity for a mulligan, even when they falsely claim that the election was stolen. But it is, I think, worth noting just how much the economic and hence political environment has shifted in the past few months, and to start thinking seriously about the possibility that Democrats might be in a startlingly strong position next year.
It’s hard to overstate how bad things looked for Biden’s party on election eve. The last report on consumer prices released before the midterms showed inflation of 8.2 percent over the previous year, a terrible number by anyone’s reckoning. The unemployment rate was still very low by historical standards, but the news media was full of warnings about hard times ahead, and a large majority of likely voters believed (falsely) that we were in a recession.
Given the perceived grimness of the economic environment, Republicans and many political analysts confidently expected a huge electoral red wave.
Why didn’t that happen? Part of the answer may be that Americans weren’t feeling as bad about the economy as some surveys suggested. It’s true that the venerable University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment had fallen to levels last seen in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, during the worst slump since the Great Depression. . . . But the Michigan index was probably distorted by partisanship: Did Republicans really believe, as they claimed, that the economy was worse than it had been in June 1980?
And another longstanding index of consumer confidence, from the Conference Board, was telling a quite different story, with consumers feeling pretty good about the economy. I’m not sure why these measures were so different, but the Conference Board measure seemed to do a better job of predicting the vote — although the backlash over Roe v. Wade, and against some terrible Republican candidates, surely also played a role.
In any case, in mid-January — a bit over two months after the election, but three consumer price reports later — things look very different. There’s still no recession. Consumer prices actually fell in December; more to the point, they’ve risen at an annual rate of only 2 percent over the past six months.
And while consumer expectations haven’t caught up with financial markets, which appear to believe that inflation will stay low for the foreseeable future, consumer expectations of inflation are back down to their levels of a year and a half ago.
Which raises a question few would have asked even a few months ago: Is Joe Biden — who, for the record, had a much better midterm than Ronald Reagan did in 1982 — possibly headed for a “morning in America” moment?
A few months ago I looked at the “misery index” — the sum of unemployment and inflation, originally suggested by Arthur Okun as a quick-and-dirty summary of the state of the economy. . . . it has historically done a surprisingly good job of tracking consumer sentiment. And as I noted even then, the misery index seemed to be declining.
Well, now it has fallen off a cliff. If we use the inflation rate over the past six months, the misery index, which stood at 14 as recently as June, is now down to 5.4, or about what it was on the eve of the pandemic, when Donald Trump confidently expected a strong economy to guarantee his re-election.
Nor is that the only thing Democrats have going for them. The green energy subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act are leading to multiple new investments in domestic manufacturing; it’s unclear how many jobs will be created, but the next two years will give Biden many opportunities to preside over factory openings,
Now, I’m not predicting a Democratic blowout in 2024. For one thing, many things can happen over the next 22 months, although I don’t think Republicans, even with cooperation from too many in the media, will convince Americans that the Biden administration is riddled with corruption. For another, elections often turn not so much on how good things are as on the perceived rate of improvement, and with inflation and unemployment already low, it’s not clear how much room there is for a boom.
Also, extreme political polarization has probably made landslide elections a thing of the past. Republicans could probably nominate George Santos and still get 47 percent of the vote.
But to the extent that the economic landscape shapes the political landscape, things look far better for Democrats now than almost anyone imagined until very recently.
One can only hope that the trend continues and that Republicans do not sabatoge the economy.
Monday, January 16, 2023
Biden’s Document Blunder Is Nothing Like Trump’s Crime
The sweet spot for Donald Trump’s allies has always been when they can justify his abuses and crimes through misdirected comparisons rather than direct defense. Did Trump extort Ukraine into smearing his opponent? Well, Ted Kennedy once did something kind of like this. Did Trump try to stay in office after losing the election? Maybe so, but let us tell you about the time a Democrat registered an objection to the Electoral College count in Congress.
The key aspect of these arguments is exaggeration, not fabrication. They seize on real events, often genuinely bad things done by other politicians, then use them as pretext to dismiss actions by Trump of a vastly greater order of magnitude.
As many people have very neutrally pointed out, the news that President Biden held on to classified documents is pure manna for Trump’s defenders. It gives them a set of facts to work with that, if examined without any of the important context, can be spun to the willfully credulous as evidence that these men have committed similar crimes.
But Trump is not potentially facing charges because he improperly took classified documents. It’s because when the government found out about the documents, he refused to give them back and — allegedly — took steps to hide them from the FBI. This is not a small twist on the same crime. It is the crime.
You might say, in Trump’s defense, that he had no underlying motive to hold on to the documents — that is, they didn’t contain any national-security secrets he planned to sell or incriminating information he wished to hoard. That is probably true. The motive instead seems to be that Trump does not believe the law applies to him.
This is how he has operated for his entire career. He cheats, lies, and steals in the expectation that he can brazen out any consequences. He can simply refuse to let Black people rent an apartment or pay contractors what he promised them or lie to his lenders about his worth, and whatever cost he faces will be worth it. The reason his document theft rose to the level of a federal crime was that he applied this method to behavior that is covered by the federal criminal code and handled by prosecutors he can’t necessarily bully or bribe into submission.
When Trump’s allies moan about his supposedly unfair treatment, the distinction is hiding in plain sight of their complaints. . . . . Biden didn’t refuse to give back the documents. Indeed, his lawyers volunteered that they had the documents and turned them over immediately. There was nothing to raid.
If Trump’s lawyers had informed the National Archives that he’d mistakenly taken classified documents, or even if they had responded to requests from the archives by turning them over, the FBI never would have been involved. The documents themselves would never have become a criminal matter if Trump had complied with the law. It became one because he flagrantly refused to follow the law, which happened because Trump is a criminal.
The whole thrust of Trumpist propaganda has been to act as though normal politicians making normal blunders are criminals in order to justify handing the presidency to a lifelong crook. Trump is not a smart man but shrewd enough to comprehend that his party is fully invested in a narrative of Democratic evil that compels them to deem anything he’s done, however wrong or illegal, as no different than the actions of any other powerful man. If Trump shot somebody on Fifth Avenue, Republicans would just start talking about Dick Cheney’s hunting accident.
Sunday, January 15, 2023
Is Time Actually on Ukraine's Side?
The war in Ukraine began trending toward the defenders soon after Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24. In the summer and fall of last year, Ukraine rapidly recaptured territory that Russia had seized in the war’s early days. Yet the relative stability of the front line in recent weeks has fueled fresh suggestions that Russia may soon go on the offensive again. Many analysts were hypnotized a year ago by what they saw as Russia’s overwhelming firepower, modern weapons, and effective planning and leadership. Although the Ukrainians almost immediately proved far more formidable than nearly anyone had anticipated, lulls in the war play to the expectation that Russia will soon start massing its supposed great reserves and recover the situation on the battlefield. The underlying assumption is that Ukraine has little hope of ultimate triumph over a fully mobilized Russia. In this account, the longer the war goes on, and the more rounds of forced conscription that Vladimir Putin and his military impose on the Russian population, the more decisive Russia’s supposed advantages will be.
In reality, the logistical, planning, and organizational failures that stalled Russia’s advance and allowed Ukraine to recapture territory are likely to keep occurring. As long as its NATO partners keep increasing their support, Ukraine is well positioned to win the war.
Russia’s strategy relies on the mobilization of lots of soldiers. But the sheer size of an army is not in itself a decisive factor in modern war and has not been for some time. Russia’s new soldiers, who up to this point have resisted every attempt to get them to volunteer but also lacked the motivation to flee their country to avoid conscription, are poor raw material for an army. To do substantial damage to an enemy force, soldiers must be properly trained—which takes a minimum of six months and normally requires about a year. Russia’s new army will have no time to practice maneuvers together before being thrown into action.
Crucially, all of these new trainees also need to be given modern new equipment. Quality can be decisive. During World War II, rival armies were constantly improving their weapons systems. But far from upgrading its equipment and expanding production, Russia seems incapable of reversing more than a fraction of the damage it has suffered in the past 11 months.
According to an independent estimate based on photographic evidence, Russia has lost at least 1,600 tanks; the Ukrainian military claims to have captured, destroyed, or otherwise incapacitated 3,100. Before the war, the annual production of frontline equipment was surprisingly small. For example, it made a little more than 200 main battle tanks a year from 2014 to 2021. Now, because of sanctions restricting Russia’s technology imports, plus the inefficiencies endemic in the Russian military supply chain, the country seems unlikely even to maintain its prewar production rate, so Moscow will have to take more and more equipment out of storage. . . . Some Russian soldiers are being transported in vehicles that are decades old, including Soviet-era BMP-1 armored personnel carriers. This materiel is certainly less effective than the frontline equipment that the Russian army had at its disposal on February 24.
In short, Russia is not gathering its strength in a powerful new army. It is assembling an inferior version of the force with which it started the war.
Although Ukraine has suffered substantial military losses and absorbed a series of attacks on civilian targets, its defensive capabilities keep improving. Only 11 months ago, many of the most pessimistic analysts were saying the Ukrainian army should receive no heavy weapons, because it stood no chance against the mighty Russians. Ukraine’s friends limited much of their aid to smaller, handheld systems. Basically all of Ukraine’s artillery and armor, for instance, were legacy Soviet designs.
But because Russian barbarity has shocked the West into action, and because Ukraine’s military successes proved that advanced weaponry would not go to waste, its forces have steadily received more NATO-standard equipment. First came long-range artillery systems, including French CAESAR self-propelled howitzers and American High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). Next came the promise of a major boost to Ukraine’s air-defense capabilities, via National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems and Patriot missile systems.
In the past several days, Western governments that had previously been wary of provoking Russian escalation by offering too much advanced equipment have crossed an important threshold. Ukraine may soon be receiving high-tech armored personnel carriers and apparently even main battle tanks, including German-built Leopards and British-built Challenger IIs.
Many NATO leaders now believe not only that Ukraine can outlast the Russian invaders but also that it must. Anything but a complete Ukrainian victory will offer some validation for depraved Russian fighting tactics. It would encourage Putin to test the resolve of other nations that share borders with Russia or were once under Soviet domination. In recent days Norway, Finland, the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have all promised continued support for Ukraine. These donors do not believe that NATO membership alone will protect them from Russian military interference; their security now hinges on Putin’s Russia being vanquished.
This kind of pressure should hopefully persuade the Biden administration to let Ukraine have the final pieces of military technology that it needs to force the Russians out. These include advanced vehicles to provide increased mobility as well as the kinds of long-range artillery systems that will allow it to hit Russian forces anywhere in occupied Ukraine. . . . . and would allow Ukraine to sever supply chains through large parts of Russian-occupied territory.
In almost every category of equipment, the Ukrainian army is significantly stronger today than it was in February, and it will keep getting stronger. About 20,000 Ukrainian personnel have now completed advanced training in NATO countries, according to a Ukrainian state news agency, and thousands more will do the same in 2023.
In the coming months, the war could become horrifically bloody if Russian generals continue to send large numbers of poorly trained soldiers into combat. Still, Ukraine has most of the advantages that typically decide a war. Its forces will be better trained, better led, and, with the West’s help, far better armed. And most Ukrainians’ determination is likely to remain strong, in part because they don’t have any choice but to win.