Before spanning the continent and foreshadowing the horrors of modern European history – religious impulses sublimated by politics – Napoleon Bonaparte was an artillery captain.
Today, another roughly 5-foot-6 brutalist wages a war dominated by artillery. Vladimir Putin will prevail unless Ukraine’s allies quickly supply him with more sophisticated modern artillery.
The war in Ukraine is ‘a protracted artillery duel’, according to The Economist, whose ‘science and technology’ section recently explained ingenious weapons capable of launching a rocket-equipped shell at a moving vehicle 40 miles away. distance. Shrapnel from a blast shell, which explodes at programmable heights, can kill infantry on 2½ acres. Both sides have drones to spot enemy artillery. Russia has counter-battery radars that can calculate where an incoming shell was fired and hit that spot in four minutes. Hence the Ukrainian tactic of “shoot and spin”.
But “smart” artillery is not necessary for Russia’s barbaric mode of warfare, exemplified by the 1995 use of low-tech artillery to pulverize Grozny – the capital of Chechnya. A Russian-based military analyst told the Financial Times that Russia’s culture of military insensitivity “derives from a larger authoritarian culture where no one trusts anyone” – “a culture of irresponsibility”.
Serhii Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, said in the Spectator that “the way the Russian army fights its wars does not change much” and that “artillery is an extremely important part of history “, a story of the multiplication of collateral damage by crude artillery. .
British military historian Antony Beevor agrees: “We are seeing a repeat of the atrocities committed, particularly in, say, 1945, by the Red Army.” As to where “this brutality … this flippant savagery” comes from, says Beevor: “Russian soldiers are treated rather as the Red Army was often treated by its own commanders”, with “contempt” and “a complete lack of feeling “. It expresses a “national self-image” that “goes back a very long way, perhaps to the Mongol invasions of the 13th century”. The belief is that “brutality is a form of force” and that “cruelty and savagery are legitimate or natural weapons of war”.
Today, a potential weapon for Putin is starvation: waging war on remote children, in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. Their bloated stomachs may soon testify to his success in dissuading Ukraine’s allies from defeating his policy of preventing more than 20 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain from reaching the world market.
The Economist reports that last year Russia and Ukraine were the world’s largest and fifth largest exporters of wheat. They supply almost one-eighth of the calories traded in the world, and almost 50 countries depend on Russia or Ukraine or both for more than 30% of their wheat imports — for 26 of them, more than 50%.
Although neither the world nor Americans want the United States to be “the policeman of the world”, for decades the world’s (relative) order and prosperity has depended on the United States Navy policing the global commons. : the oceans.
Hence, for example, the navy’s freedom of navigation exercises that today challenge China’s lawless sovereignty claims over the South China Sea.
However, the arduous but noble and global mission of the Navy may be abandoned where it matters most today: in the Black Sea. Russian naval forces prevent Ukrainian grain exports that the Russians do not steal.
Residents of poor countries spend a large part of their income on food – in sub-Saharan Africa, 40%. A wave of pain from soaring prices and food scarcity could be imminent, but it can be ameliorated if the naval forces of the nations supporting Ukraine end the Russian blockade of Odessa and other ports in the Black Sea, and escort grain transports to places from which the cargo can be distributed. .
In his memoirs, Colin Powell recalled a 1993 meeting where, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he expressed skepticism about the use of US military forces in Bosnia. He thought he “would have an aneurysm” when Madeleine Albright, then US Ambassador to the United Nations, said to him, “What’s the point of having this great army you always talk about if we can’t use it?” ”
Powell, a Vietnam veteran, was cautiously wary of military engagements.
But reluctance should not become paralysis.
Naval forces – including British skills in minesweeping (to remove mines laid by Ukraine to deter Russian attacks from the sea) – should be quickly employed to break Putin’s illegal blockade before he has the predicted effect of mass starvation.
If Putin’s nuclear saber-thrusts deter the nations supporting Ukraine from using their vast naval skills to execute a humanitarian policy, his contempt for the West will be confirmed and his appetite for further aggression will be whetted.