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 prolonged 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. Shrapnel from a blast shell, which explodes at programmable heights, can kill infantry in 2½ acres. Russia has counter-battery radars that can calculate where an incoming shell was fired and hit that spot in four minutes.
Serhii Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, says in the Spectator “the way the Russian army conducts its wars does not change much” and “Artillery is an extremely important part of history,” a story of the multiplication of collateral damage by coarse artillery. British military historian Antony Beevor agrees: “We are seeing a repeat of the atrocities committed, especially in, say, 1945, by the Red Army.” As to where “this brutality… this casual savagery” comes, said Beevor: “Russian soldiers are rather treated as the Red Army was often treated by its own commanders”, with “contempt” and “a complete absence of feeling.”
Today, a potential weapon of Putin is starvation: waging war on estranged children. 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.
Even though neither the world nor the Americans want the United States to be “the policeman of the world” For decades, the (relative) order and prosperity of the world depended on the US Navy guarding the global commons: the oceans.
However, the navy’s mission may be abandoned where it matters most today: in the Black Sea.
People in poor countries spend a large part of their income on food. A wave of pain from soaring prices and food shortages may be imminent, but it can be eased if naval forces end Russia’s blockade of Black Sea ports.
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 U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, told him: “What’s the point of having this awesome 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 should be quickly employed to break Putin’s illegal blockade before it has the intended 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.