John Mearsheimer is an imperial scholar who predicted the Ukraine War years ago (along with many others from within Empire itself). I call him imperial because he argues not that American warmongering is bad but that it should be done better. But even an imperial clock is right twice a day, in this case about the start and end of the Ukraine war.
Recently Mearsheimer made another prediction, saying:
The Russians are going to win the war.
They’re not going to win a decisive victory but they’re going to end up conquering a huge chunk of Ukrainian territory beyond what they already have and they’re going to take Ukraine and make sure it remains a dysfunctional rump state.
What’s interesting about Mearsheimer as a scholar is that his argument for this is quite clearly broken down, so if you want to disagree, there are many clear points of falsifiability You can watch the one-hour talk yourself, but herein I break it down with my own vulgate commentary.
The base assumption of Mearsheimer’s argument is that the Ukraine War is a war of attrition. I won’t get into that beyond, well, look at it. It’s fucking atrocious. On top of that assumption he says that victory in a war of attrition depends on three factors:
- Population Size
Broadly and brutally speaking, how much hot metal you can fling at how many bodies before they break? This is the worst sort of war which leads to the worst sort of peace, but after the crossing of every red line about not shoving NATO up Russia’s ass, here we are, knee deep in shit.
To summarize Mearsheimer’s casualty calculus, here are the three points above in table form, with the numbers he pegs to them. I’ve linked to sources for the numbers further down.
According to Mearsheimer, Russia has a 5:1 population advantage and 5–10:1 artillery advantage. Attrition warfare (important qualifier) is about blood and metal and Russia simply has more blood and metal to spill. Note that within this model any population/artillery difference would lead to one side being attrited (assuming both sides have the same level of resolve). So the ratio could be 2:1 and Russia would still win, but it looks more like 5:1 or worse all around.
To illustrate this macabre model, I’ve drawn it as literal vats of blood:
To repeat, Russia simply has 5x the population, ie 5x as much blood to spill. Russia also has 5–10x the artillery (which I’ve illustrated as 7x), which is how quickly you can bleed out the other side. That’s illustrated as an outlet on Ukraine’s side which is 7x bigger than the blood pipe on Russia’s side.
You can see how this works out, as Ukraine has already lost a huge chunk of its population and effectively two (nearly three) armies worth of men already. They’re at the bottom of the blood barrel, with a huge fucking hole in the side.
As you can see from this model, the only things that would help Ukraine are NATO putting their own troops in the blood bucket (which they won’t do) or attacking deep within Russia itself to attrit war production (which NATO won’t allow).
America keeps funneling (very profitable) arms into the conflict but no bodies. And it keeps Ukraine’s arms tied. Ukraine is all flailing limbs and no torso, which does not help with the blood supply problem. This is the fundamental math problem Ukraine faces. They are bleeding too much and they have very little blood left. Their ‘allies’ will give them a thousand needles (on debt) but no blood transfusions. And so inevitably, this patient will die. This is what’s meant by ‘winning’ in a war of attrition. It’s pretty fucked up. As Luke Mogelson wrote in his deeply depressing ‘Two Weeks at the Front in Ukraine’.
When Kaban told me that he had an eighteen-year-old son, I assumed that both of them were in the Army. I’d met other fathers in the battalion whose adult sons were serving. But Kaban, despite his dedication to the military, had sent his son to Germany. “I told him, ‘If you come back, I’ll kill you myself,’ ” he explained. “We all understand we’re going to die here.”
Math Not Maps
One note about this model is that it’s territory agnostic. So much of war reporting is about maps, but it’s really about men and materiel. Territory is tactics, but it’s not a strategy. In many ways territory is what you get after you kill the enemy, not how you kill them. In this theory of war, the point is not finding land and taking it but finding men and materiel and destroying them.
This is not Mearsheimer, it’s that old Prussian Clausewitz. As Carl said:
“What do we mean by the defeat of the enemy? Simply the destruction of his forces, whether by death, injury, or any other means — either completely or enough to make him stop fighting…The complete or partial destruction of the enemy must be regarded as the sole object of all engagements… Direct annihilation of the enemy’s forces must always be the dominant consideration.”
Hence as much as western media crowed about Putin ‘failing’ to capture Kyiv, it’s unlikely that this was ever an objective. It was likely a feint to pin Ukrainian troops there while Russia was able to setup a defensive line around the Donbass. Then the Ukranians nominally defending their land became attackers, a role which traditionally carries 3:1 casualties. Then the Russians retreated to a second defensive line, which made map jockeys cheer, but all the while the cruel math was destroying the Ukranian military at an atrocious rate. This is the point according to Clausewitz, not the map (according to dimwits).
This gets to the bloody point of war, which is the horrific ‘meat-grinder’ metaphor. You shouldn’t trust America or NATO, which are the worst human-sausage factory ever, nor their media, which has the advertising rights. Do the bloody math yourself. Ukraine is not the chief guest at this propaganda party. They’re what’s on the plate.
Breaking Down The Model
Now that we’ve set the bloody geopolitical table, if you still have appetite for this macabre argument, I’ll break it down. Remember that Mearsheimer’s basic theory revolves around population size, artillery, and resolve. We’ll address them one by one.
If you search the population numbers in the model, it actually looks like Russia is only 3.5x bigger, but Mearsheimer says Ukraine has lost 8 million people to migration, with 3 million going to Russia, which the UN confirms. This lowers the blood in the bucket dramatically.
Hence Ukraine goes from 41m to 33m and Russia from 147m to 150m. Hence the ratio goes from 1:3.5 to 1:4.5. I think 5x population in Russia is a reasonable estimate as refugee numbers are lossy and so much of the Ukrainian population is (tragically) internally displaced.
When we’re talking about fighting numbers, the picture is even worse. Ukraine has already effectively thrown (and lost) two armies into the fight. As Big Serge says:
Russia has essentially fought multiple iterations of the Ukrainian Army — destroying the pre-war force in the opening months, then fighting units that were refilled from Warsaw Pact stockpiles, and is now degrading a force which is largely reliant on western systems.
This led to General Zaluzhny’s now-famous interview with the economist in which he asked for many hundreds of Main Battle Tanks, Infantry Fighting Vehicles, and artillery pieces. In effect, he asked for yet another army, as the Russians seem to keep destroying the ones he has.
As Mearsheimer says:
It’s quite clear that Ukraine is engaged, from their point of view, in a total war. They have mobilized their entire society. They have soldiers who are as old as all of us out there fighting. They have old dogs and young dogs, lots of untrained people. It’s because they’re desperate. And, uh, they’re also dragging people off the street. Right? There are all sorts of stories about how they’re out searching for young people who they can commandeer and put in the military. This is not the case with the Russians.
In fact, lots of people, me included, wonder why the Russians haven’t really mobilized their society in a larger way. Okay, and by the way, this big fight that just took place in Bakhmut, it’s clear. It’s clear that the Ukrainians pushed large numbers of their best troops into Bakhmut to try and hold Bakhmut. It was not the Russian army, however, that was doing most of the fighting in Bakhmut. It was the Wagner group.
There’s this huge Russian army out there. Remember those 300,000 people they mobilized? Those people were mobilized on top of a foundation of soldiers that already were there. They have a lot of people. They have a lot of people in their military, but their mainline forces have not been fighting the Ukrainian forces.
Western media and its consumers talk about how Russia is depending on the mercenary Wagner group like that’s a bad thing. But all this means is the the mainline Russian troops haven’t been engaged yet. Meanwhile they talk about Ukraine throwing children and old men with Panzerfausts into battle like that’s a good thing, how inspiring. Such are the idiot things that raise the morale of people not fighting.
The reality is that Russia has been systematically destroying multiple iterations of the Ukrainian army without fully engaging its mainline forces. This horrible state of affairs is constantly spun as ‘inspirational’ for western audiences so war profiteers can keep bleeding them for blood money, but for Ukraine it’s just blood, and they simply don’t have enough.
The general equation of war is blood + bullets, and on the second account, Ukraine is also fucked. For all the talk of sanctions crippling Russia, Russia is the largest country on Earth full of natural resources and productive capacity. Sanctions have crippled Europe (to America’s benefit), but not Russia. Russia can make its own materiel and most of the world still trades with them (white countries are not the world). As Mearsheimer says about artillery:
Then we come to the artillery imbalance. Almost all of the reports on that balance say the number is either five to one, seven to one, or maybe ten to one in the Russians’ favor. This has massive consequences. Massive consequences. Do you just want to think about what this war is all about? It’s two armies standing toe to toe, trying to kill each other with massive amounts of firepower, and one side has a five to one or a seven to one or a ten to one advantage. The side that’s on the horror end of that ratio is in the deep kimchi. This is really horrendous. And by the way, that country that’s on the downside of that ratio in artillery also is on the downside in the population ratio.
Another point is the Russian artillery is Russian artillery, while Ukrainian artillery is largely begged and borrowed. Not only does Ukraine have less weaponry, they’re not allowed to really use it. They can get western wunderwaffen… but only use them to bomb their own country. For example, they’re talking about getting F-16s, which would mean using a high-maintenance jet to bomb their own backyard (with $1 million bombs). This makes no sense, but it makes headlines and makes someone a big commission, so who gives a shit. While the US gives Ukraine weapons (on debt), it literally does not let them use them to attack Russia where it hurts. As US Army General Mark Milley said, “I can say that we have asked the Ukrainians not to use U.S.-supplied equipment for direct attacks into Russia.”
Western arms policy is actually precisely designed to maximize profit while bleeding Ukraine dry. As the 40% war criminal Richard Haass said in Foreign Affairs,
Western policy is caught between the goals of preventing catastrophic failure (in which an under-armed Ukraine is swallowed by Russia) and catastrophic success (in which an over-armed Ukraine leads a cornered Putin to escalate).
Haass, fresh of the Iraq War, goes onto to say ‘fuck it, escalate’, but he identifies the general American policy here. Ukraine cannot fail, but also cannot succeed. In attrition warfare, this just means failing. American policy has consistently been to give Ukraine arms and then tie those arms around its back. Not only is America too cowardly to show up, they also prevent Ukraine from doing anything beyond grinding its own meat.
When America does allow escalation, they allow it in drips and drabs, after Ukrainians troops are already dead. Also note that none of these arms are just ‘given’, they’re all delivered later, and they’re all debt piled on future Ukraine, which is going to be a dysfunctional rump state for decades, preyed on by both enemies and its western ‘friends’. As Henry Kissinger openly said, ‘it’s dangerous to be America’s enemy, but it’s fatal to be America’s friend.’
But let’s return to basic numbers,
Ukraine simply doesn’t have the materiel, and we are living in a materiel world. Quoting from just imperial propaganda outlets, they’re pathetically low on basic artillery. According to the New York Times in November 2022, Ukraine was firing 2–4,000 shells per day. Meanwhile British think tank RUSI.org estimated that Russia was firing 33,000 rounds per day (12 million / 365). For sense of what this looks like inside the horrific World War I type trenches, there’s Mogelson’s front-line report again:
The most advanced and expensive U.S. contributions to the war have been longer-range howitzers and missile systems that operate from the rear. The infantry on the front relies on rudimentary muzzle-loaded mortars, for which there is currently a dire ammunition shortage. The major in charge of artillery for Pavlo’s battalion told me that in Kherson his mortar teams had fired about three hundred shells a day; now they were rationed to five a day. The Russians averaged ten times that rate.
In a war of attrition, a battalion with five shells is just human sacrifice. Human sacrifice to the war gods Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, garlanded and cheered all the way to their grave. Like the lost souls in All Quiet On The Western Front, these men shouldn’t fucking be there. The war is already lost. Ukraine should have started negotiating a year ago and now, in many ways, it’s too late.
People might say Russia is also running out of artillery and point to the head of Wagner complaining about running out of artillery… but consider the source. Russia’s motivation, like a poker player with a winner hand, is to get the army they’re trying to destroy to commit more into a losing position. Shortly after these very public complaints, Wagner took Bakhmut. War is the art of deception and Russians don’t even have to try that hard to fool Americans. Americans are so deep in self-deception that the work is already done.
Ukraine is supposed to mount a counter-offensive now (with, effectively, a fourth army) but they just can’t do it. Most of their materiel is promises that have yet to materialize and most of their men are dead, wounded, or in the ground. Ukraine is at the point where both the population and artillery are exhausted and all they have left is resolve.
Now, en fin, I’ll go over the ‘resolve’ part of Mearsheimer’s talk. Resolve, or morale, is tricky because it can’t really be measured, but makes a huge difference. The western media loves to talk about resolve because fuck math, it’s boring. The oligarch media’s job is producing emotive stories to sell deadly toys, like Paw Patrol for homicidal adults.
While Ukrainian resolves is indubitable (their country is under attack) so is Russian resolve, which westerners willfully do not understand. People outraged about China building up its military in China refuse to understand how Russia feels about enemy troops on its border. Mearsheimer breaks this threat perception down into two parts. First is how threatened Russia felt by NATO fiddling with Ukraine before the war and how much more threatened it feels now. Now the West is talking about killing Putin, regime change, and dismembering Russia. This only strengthens Russian resolve, making Ukraine an existential fight for them as well. Then we’re doing to artillery and population, where Ukraine is fucked.
What is highly dubious is American resolve. First off they have no skin in the game, and second their military has been losing wars and abandoning allies for decades. That’s their business model. The great American innovation in empire has been figuring out that there’s more money in losing wars. You can loot your own treasury, fuck over your allies, and do it all far from home (using the most fossil fuels of any single entity, so fucking over the planet also). It’s the greatest ‘bezzle’ in history, and Ukraine is just the latest mark.
Recent history is full of discarded American allies, frozen conflicts like in Korea, and outright devastation of countries they purported to ‘save’. Ukraine was led (and couped) down this primrose path like so many others before. Now their best case scenario is existence as a dysfunctional rump state, in complete debt slavery to western capital and stripped of much of their resources and population.
The fact is that the United States doesn’t have the resolve to fight themselves, they won’t let Ukraine attack Russia, and give them just enough rope to hang themselves. It doesn’t matter how much superhuman resolve Ukrainians can muster up. With friends like these, they’re completely fucked.
Since resolve is roughly equal on the Russian and Ukrainian side and actually drained by the Americans, all that’s left is population and artillery. Here, as mentioned, Ukraine is fucked. Russia wins by sheer attrition, but it’s a terrible victory which merely moves their NATO problem a few years forward and few oblasts over. If you go by Western propaganda Putin started this war for fun, but if you follow the record, he actually did everything he could to avoid it. As Mearsheimer said in response to a question (and as anyone can look up)”
No, I don’t think he had any other options. I do believe that Putin was deeply committed to finding a negotiated settlement to the problem. As I said to you in my formal comments, he was deeply committed to the Minsk agreement because what he wanted to do was shut down the conflict in the Donbass so he would not have to invade. With regard to NATO expansion, EU expansion, and the efforts to make Ukraine a western bulwark on Russia’s borders, he went to great lengths to explain to the West why that was unacceptable. On December 17, 2022, he sent a letter to Biden and to NATO saying that they have to do X, Y, and Z so we can find a solution to this problem, but we refused to go along. I think that Putin was left in a position where he felt he had no choice. To answer your question, there was no other way to deal with the problem. So, I think he, with great reluctance, invaded Ukraine.
To people who say this violates the ‘rules-based order’, what is that exactly? Under the ‘rules-based order’ America ‘pre-emptively’ attacked Iraq, and Iraq is nowhere near America. Ukraine is right next to Russia and hostile troops were amassing there. The example America and NATO have set is to attack wherever you feel like based on completely made up threats. Russia more than anyone is following the rules based order because they actually were threatened by NATO and complained about it for decades.
Of course, ‘rules-based order’ just means rule by the latest incarnation of White Empire, doing whatever the fuck they want. The only rule being violated is any other country having a concept of national security, which makes America feel very insecure. And so they will keep poking at Russia, and China, and anyone who defies them, obliterating their own allies and potentially the whole planet on their way down.
As you can see, there are no good guys here, no winners and losers when it really comes down to it. Russia will ‘win’ this war, but what do they win? A fucking ruin. This has been brutal, grinding trench warfare like World War I, leading to deeply embittered people on both sides. And you know how that worked out last time. This is the second point Mearsheimer makes:
You see, you have a problem involving territory, a problem involving neutrality, hypernationalism, and zero trust. You’re not going to get a meaningful peace agreement; you’re going to get a frozen conflict.
A frozen conflict in the time of climate collapse is going to thaw out and explode faster than all the shit under the Siberian tundra. There will be no lasting peace here. Just a brief absence of war.
Mearsheimer is right about this, but sadly for all the wrong reasons. He thinks America should stop poking Russia so they can better poke China, As he has said, “Good relations with Russia are essential, because the United States needs Moscow’s help to deal with Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and eventually to help counter China, the only genuine potential rival to the United States.” So I mean, choose your tinder keg for World War III, even this man wants to blow something up. This is why I call him an imperial scholar.
But even an imperial clock is right twice a day, and Mearsheimer is calling the start and end of the Ukraine War in a falsifiable way. It started with America shoving NATO up Russia’s ass, and it ends with Ukraine drowning in its own blood to western applause. It’s a bloody mess, but an organized argument. If you don’t have the blood and metal to pay the piper, then you lose it all. You wouldn’t know this from consuming western media, but they’re just trying to get you to buy something that you can figure out for a free on a napkin.
Population * Artillery * Resolve = Russia wins the Ukraine War.