The West could learn how to manage military expenses from Ukraine

The West could learn how to manage military expenses from Ukraine

CIUS weekly report on North American media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 20–26 May 2023

Three publications (The Conversation, The Economist, and National Review) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in the North American press during the past week (20–26 May 2023). The sample was compiled based on their impact on public opinion as well as on their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. These three publications represent centrist and conservative viewpoints on the political spectrum.

This report covers only the most-read and relevant articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective North American publications themselves in the past week. Its scope covers promoted articles on home pages and articles from special sections on Ukraine, with the hashtag #Ukraine, from the paper editions of the publications, and about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.

Topics featured in the selected articles:

  • Ukraine’s current affairs: Ukraine sets an example for the West about effectively managing defence budgets;
  • The world and Ukraine: EU overcame its economic dependence on Russia and should do the same with China; G7 members promise to continue their support of Ukraine; 
  • Russia at war: This war was ignited primarily by Russia’s revanchist neoimperial ambitions; Russian anti-government troops are wreaking havoc in Belgorod oblast and prompting international debates on the nature of contemporary warfare.

Main arguments:

Ukraine represents a case study for the West of optimizing military spending and defence strategy. The Economist analyzes Ukraine and draws recommendations for Western governments on how to better manage their growing defence budgets: “Our simulations suggest global defence spending may rise by $200bn–$700bn a year, or 9–32% [of GDP]. Blame fraught geopolitics—especially Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s sabre-rattling at Taiwan.” This growth in expenditures is accompanied by the need to care for aging populations and curb climate change—challenges that Western governments did not have to face during the Cold War. Considering the dynamics and character of the Russo-Ukrainian war, The Economist arrives at three major recommendations. Primarily, “to restock depleted arsenals and boost the factories that make shells and missiles,” because active fighting consumes unexpectedly vast quantities of ammunition. Secondly, “to shake up procurement processes and disrupt the cozy structure of the defence industry” by engaging new and innovative contractors, as well as facilitating the adoption of know-how in the military. Finally, “to create more of a single market for defence that boosts economies of scale and competition,” as well as anticipates further unification of standards for equipment, weapons, and ammunition. The experience of Ukraine has demonstrated that similar kinds of military tech produced by different NATO member-states cannot be operated and maintained by the same specialized crews. Moreover, US-made tanks run on jet fuel while German ones use diesel, and British-made guns cannot fire ammunition rounds designed for US and German guns. The Economist concludes that the best way for liberal democracies to bolster their security is “to embrace innovation and ruthlessly pursue efficiency and scale.”

Having undermined the Russian energy monopoly, the EU should similarly diminish its economic over-dependence on China. The Economist argues that after the EU—unexpectedly to many—freed itself from Russian energy supplies, it should focus on designing strategies to counter China: “Once they are done breathing a sigh of relief, policymakers should…ponder their next geopolitical challenge: how to ‘de-risk’ the continent’s trade with China. If Putin’s super-weapon fizzled, how much should Europe pay to rid itself of dependence on China for its imports of everything from rare earths to mobile phones?” Writing of the EU’s energy market following the sanctions on Russia, The Economist highlights that prices for gas increased yet remained within the normal historical range. At the same time, actual demand for that fuel significantly decreased—as a result of relatively mild winters in recent years, as well as more responsible gas consumption across households, industries switching to alternative types of fuel, optimization of energy-hungry technological processes, and establishment of alternative gas-supplying corridors from Norway, Algeria, Azerbaijan, and the US (including LNG). The Economist suggests that the EU should address the Chinese domination of specific markets—microchips, batteries, solar panels, and others—in a similar manner to how it addressed Russian energy domination. This could be achieved either by replacing Chinese imports with products made in Europe or diversifying international trade so that China is no longer a monopolist. The latter approach is portrayed as being more productive and reasonable.

G7 members promise powerful support to Ukraine. Donna Weeks (The Conversation) offers an overview of this year’s G7 summit, which took place on 19–21 May in Hiroshima, Japan. One of the most important topics on the world leaders’ agenda was continued support for Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia. The participation of President Zelensky in the summit has a profound effect on how the discussion developed and what decisions were made. To promote his cause, Zelensky had personal and lengthy talks with the representatives of India, Brasil, Indonesia, and other countries of the Global South who had been restrained in condemning Russia’s aggression and supporting Ukraine. On the last day of the summit, the world leaders released a strong six-page statement on Ukraine, which reaffirmed their commitment “to stand together against Russia’s illegal, unjustifiable, and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine” and condemned “Russia’s manifest violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the impact of Russia’s war on the rest of the world.”

The Russo-Ukrainian war has its roots in the Kremlin’s retrograde nostalgia for its lost imperial past. Mark Edele (The Conversation) writes a review of Serhii Plokhy’s recent book, The Russo-Ukrainian War, and highlights a few of its messages. For one thing, Plokhy prefers to define the armed confrontation between two nations as the Russo-Ukrainian war, not the Russian war against Ukraine: “While the latter expression is well suited to emphasising Russia’s culpability in this war, the former stresses that Ukraine is not just a victim of Russia but its equal.” Secondly, one of the reasons that Putin is aggressive toward Ukraine is because Ukrainians despise the Soviet legacy while Russians pine for it. Thirdly, an essential aspect of this war is the competition between Russia’s centralized autocratic order and Ukraine’s decentralized democracy: “The further from 1991 we move, the further the rift between an increasingly autocratic and neo-imperialist Russia and a democratic Ukraine, orienting itself away from the old imperial metropole and towards Europe and the Atlantic. The current war is one result of this rift.” Fourthly, it was not NATO enlargement alongside the gradually increasing presence of Western structures in the post-Communist that provoked the Russian invasion; instead, Russia’s nostalgia for its lost empire did, given that its very identity has always been bound up with self-aggrandizement. Fifthly, if Ukraine had preserved its nuclear arsenal from the early 1990s, it would likely not be attacked by Russia in 2014 [let alone 2022]. However, it was an insurmountable challenge back then. Sixthly, the West’s hesitation to offer Ukraine a NATO membership plan in 2008 emboldened the Kremlin’s strategists and led to the invasion of Crimea in 2014. Seventhly, the guerilla insurgencies in the Donbas in 2014 were orchestrated by Russia’s intelligence services and had little to do with local separatist movements. Finally, according to Plokhy, Russia’s future destiny is to become a junior partner to Beijing, the new leader of the anti-Western world. Meanwhile, “the West has been rebuilding its Cold War alliance, now strengthened by new members in Eastern Europe, the Baltics, and Scandinavia.” And “Ukraine emerges on the map as a new Cold War Germany, its territories divided not just between two countries, but two global spheres and economic blocks.”

“Russian dissident fighters” ramp up anti-government activity in their own territory. The Economist describes the military units that broke into Russia’s Belgorod oblast from Ukraine on 22 May as being from the “Russian Volunteer Corps” and the “Free Russia Legion.” Consisting of Russian nationals, they were in no way subordinated to the Ukrainian government but allegedly coordinated their activities with Ukraine’s military intelligence service. The operation was a tactical success—it included crossing the border “by tanks and infantry fighting vehicles; the death of at least one border guard; farm buildings on fire; a downed helicopter; traffic jams of fleeing locals; and the reported evacuation of a nuclear-arms facility several kilometres into Russian territory.” The reaction from the Kremlin was unusually muted. It downplayed the gravity of the breach, presented it as a distraction to tarnish Russian successes at Bakhmut, and claimed to have killed or expelled all the units from Belgorod oblast, though it provided no evidence. Ukrainian intelligence sources, on the other hand, posited that the operation pursued two objectives: “The first was to undermine Mr. Putin’s domestic authority: if a strongman can’t guarantee security, what is the point of him? The second was to pull Russian military reserves away from critical sections of the front line, in the run-up to a long-planned Ukrainian counteroffensive.” The Economist also highlights that the Russian units which breached Belgorod oblast were different from one another in their structure and ideology. The Free Russia Legion was more disorganized but was in good contact with Ukrainian Intelligence, whereas the Russian Volunteer Corps was better disciplined but had far-right leanings.

Gavin E.L. Hall (The Conversation) also touches upon the incursion of Russian anti-government troops into 

Belgorod oblast from Ukraine. Although the intensity of fighting during the incursion was low, the sole fact of exporting the war to within Russia’s borders “cannot be understated, as it marks an escalation of the war—even if only in relation to its geography.” As the Freedom of Russia Legion posted on social media, “Тhe myth that the citizens of the Russian Federation are safe and the Russian Federation is strong has been destroyed.” Official Russian authorities branded the incursion as an act of Ukrainian terrorism, while the government in Kyiv insisted that no Ukrainians were part of the operation. The official Ukrainian position is that local anti-Putin forces planned and executed the operation on their own. Hall concludes that regardless of the absence of tactical gains, the incursion and the reaction to it will “tell us about Vladimir Putin’s [weakening] grip on power and ability of Russian forces to manoeuvre or mobilise to counter” this and similar operations. 

Michael Brendan Dougherty (National Review) also scrutinizes the circumstances of the incursion of Russian anti-governmental troops on the territory of Belgorod oblast and presents them in a negative light: “Now, it’s been very clear for years that the elected government of Ukraine has never had full control over all the nationalist militias that operate in Ukraine.” Considering the absence of control, Dougherty raises the question of whether Western allies should continue supplying Ukraine with weaponry and ammunition: “For those charged with responsibly stewarding American resources and managing our geopolitical risks that affect American people, it’s a troubling pattern.” 

In his answer to Dogherty, Noah Rothman, another contributor to National Review, encourages readers to stop interpreting modern warfare through absolute notions of white and black or good and evil. Rothman argues that above all, “ethnic Russians fighting with Ukrainian support on Russian soil against the Russian Federation” is a logical consequence of the Kremlin’s brutal war in Ukraine spiralling out of control. This development does not and will not neatly fit Western notions of warfare. What the world is experiencing today—be it in Ukraine, Syria, or anywhere else—is the blurring of distinctions between actors on the battlefield. Therefore, the only objective that the West should have in this respect is to prevent such blurred conflicts by all means possible. 

Media Monitoring Service

Media Monitoring Service (MMS) critically assess dominant narratives, including a special focus on disinformation, in selected key Canadian and US publications regarding contemporary Ukraine. The purpose of MMS is to inform experts and the general public about how Ukraine and Ukraine-related events are covered and reported on and to alert them to contentious ideas and claims that may be perpetuated in the media to Ukraine’s detriment. Read more

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