A 70-year War Ahead?
July 19, 2023
  • Alexander Golts
Alexander Golts analyzes the outlook for the Russian war in Ukraine, comparing it to the Korean War, in which both sides spent enormous resources but were forced to return to the pre-war status quo. In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, there is still a long way to go before the strategic impasse is recognized by both sides.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive has disappointed many foreign observers. Kyiv has not yet come close to achieving its proclaimed goals, the main one of which is the liberation of a significant part of the occupied territories. It is now possible that this will not be achieved before the end of the summer. I suspect that this is not due to inadequate training of Ukrainian troops, but to the obviously inflated expectations of both Western and Ukrainian politicians. The Ukrainian army, though it has received a considerable amount of Western military equipment, is seriously limited in terms of how it can use it. The deliveries were conditioned on Ukraine agreeing to carry out strikes exclusively on the occupied territories, and not within the internationally recognized borders of Russia. Official representatives of the Ukrainian command promised, however, to carry out such strikes with their own means. Yet it is obvious that Kyiv has very few long-range missiles of its own.

Old new war

At the same time, the ongoing hostilities do not at all resemble the “digital war” that was trumpeted by experts after the US Operation Desert Storm. If the achievements of the revolution in military affairs – satellite reconnaissance, unmanned aerial vehicles, precision-guided munitions – are being used at all, it is as a supplement to weapons that have existed for decades: tanks, armed vehicles, cannon artillery, multiple rocket systems, and manned aircraft.

The capabilities of the sides determined the nature of the war – it is much more reminiscent of the wars of the industrial age than the digital one. But if so, then
“The factors that determined the outcome of the main wars of the past century will play a key role in this war. The most important of them is the quantitative superiority over the enemy in manpower and equipment.
Russia-Ukraine conflict as of July 17. Neither side is likely to win anytime soon. A truce could be years away. Source: Institute for the Study of War and AEI's Critical Threats Project
Russia, whose population is triple that of Ukraine, thus has the advantage.

The 70,000 servicemen in two corps being kept as a strategic reserve by the command of the Ukrainian army is hardly enough to achieve victory. Similarly, it is doubtful that Moscow will be able to mobilize and turn into a force the hundreds of thousands of reservists and men who signed a contract with the Ministry of Defense. Thousands of junior officers would have to be trained and training centers reopened. And, most importantly, industry would have to be radically restructured to mass-produce weapons.

This leads to the conclusion that neither side will be able to win anytime soon. Most likely, they are doomed to a war of attrition. Russia will experience the biggest difficulties in terms of replenishing weapons and military equipment, while Ukraine will see its human resources stretched.

History knows examples of conflicts where the sides are so exhausted that they can no longer continue fighting.

A year ago, retired US Admiral James Stavridis, formerly the Supreme Commander of NATO forces in Europe and now a leading US military expert, recalled such a case. Analyzing the conflict in Ukraine, he predicted: "I see this one headed toward a Korean War ending, which is to say an armistice, a militarized zone between the two sides, ongoing animosity, kind of a frozen conflict".

How it was in Korea

The comparison put forward by Stavridis forces us to take a closer look at the first direct armed clash between Moscow and Washington during the Cold War, which took place 70 years ago.

After the defeat of Japan in 1945, the Korean Peninsula was divided between the occupation forces of the US and the USSR along the 38th parallel. Because of the rising tensions between the US and the USSR over Korea, as well as over Germany, they failed to reach an agreement on setting up a single state. The Soviet leadership put Kim Il Sung, who had served in the Soviet army, in charge of North Korea, while the Americans appointed the ardent nationalist and anti-communist Rhee Syngman to lead South Korea.

Kim immediately began bombarding his patrons Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong with proposals to take the South by force. Stalin, fearing a direct clash with the US, did not give his approval for quite some time. According to some historians, Stalin agreed only when he believed the disinformation of Pyongyang that a widespread communist uprising was about to begin in South Korea, where the population was supposed to enthusiastically welcome the “liberators” from the North.

Soviet generals put together the invasion plan, and the Korean People’s Army (KPA) received a significant amount of military equipment. However, Stalin warned that Soviet troops would not be sent to Korea. China, where a civil war had just ended, was to support the invasion with manpower. Mao Zedong sent several units formed from ethnic Koreans to the North Korean army.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea attacked South Korea.

The situation at the front changed dramatically, with each of the sides repeatedly finding itself on the verge of total defeat. At first, luck was on the side of the KPA, which, having captured Seoul, began to sweep down into South Korean territory. Soon, South Korean troops and the American units sent from Japan to support them could only control the so-called Pusan Perimeter, the area around the large port of Busan, located in the very south of the country.

However, the US took advantage of the fact that the Soviet representative to the UN boycotted the Security Council meetings, and a resolution passed that allowed troops of a dozen and a half countries to enter the war on the side of South Korea and receive the status of “UN troops.”

General Douglas MacArthur, the American appointed to command these troops, whose core was American units, built up the necessary capacities and made the famous landing at the port of Icheon, surrounding a large number of North Korean troops. In parallel, the Americans mercilessly bombed the entire territory of North Korea, and North Korean troops left Pyongyang and retreated almost to the Chinese border.

Kim Il Sung begged Stalin and Mao for immediate assistance. The Chinese leader, who had just won a long civil war, saw in the advance of UN troops to the borders of China a threat to his country. As a result, a 200,000-strong group called the “People’s Volunteer Army” – actually regular formations of the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) – entered Korea and forthwith launched a large-scale offensive, putting the Americans to flight.
MacArthur insisted on a nuclear attack on China, which was seriously discussed by the US leadership. In the end, the Americans did not dare to launch nuclear strikes, and President Harry Truman removed MacArthur.
The demilitarized zone dividing the Korean peninsula was established under the provisions of the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement. It has served ever since as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. Source: Wiki Commons
With considerable difficulty, the new American commander-in-chief, General Matthew Ridgway, managed to stabilize the situation.

By the middle of 1951, after numerous bloody victories and defeats on each side, the troops stood along the 38th parallel – basically where they were when the war began. And this situation continued for the next two years. Despite fairly intense fighting, neither side managed to force a turning point. Moreover, the longer the conflict went on, the more Beijing, Moscow and Washington understood that all possibilities had been exhausted. No one was strong enough to win.

Negotiations to conclude an armistice, which was to be a return to the status quo, began as early as 1951. The most surprising thing is that both the representatives of the US and China agreed in principle on this. The stumbling block was exchanging prisoners of war.

The US believed that the North Korean and Chinese soldiers they captured had the right to choose whether they wanted to repatriate to their homeland or go somewhere else. It was obvious that many people would not want to go back to either China or North Korea, which, of course, the communist authorities of these countries could not accept.

Months of negotiations took place against the backdrop of unceasing, bloody battles. The sides agreed that a special commission of representatives from neutral countries would be established to decide the fate of the prisoners of war. In the end, on July 27, 1953, in the village of Panmunjom (located on the 38th parallel, it was the site of extended battles that did not bring victory for either side and became a symbol of the stalemate), an armistice was signed that created a four-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone.

A senseless war

The Korean War is a perfect example of the futility of trying to resolve contentious issues through force. It was the bloodiest conflict since World War II. Several million people died. The entire infrastructure of the Korean Peninsula was practically destroyed. Both sides committed massacres of prisoners of war and civilians.
Huge resources were spent in vain, as the sides were forced to return to the prevailing situation when the conflict had started.
It was the first real clash of the Cold War. During the fighting in Korea, the Soviet Union and US mastered the complex science of how to hurt each other without starting a nuclear war. Responding to Kim Il Sung’s pleas for assistance, in March 1951 Stalin sent an entire fighter air corps to China to protect North Korea from air attacks. The Soviet pilots wore Chinese military uniforms, they had documents with fictitious Chinese surnames and PLA insignia on their planes.

Of course, after the very first air battle, during which the Soviet pilots were not speaking in Chinese, Soviet involvement in the war became an open secret. The White House kept this from the American public, rightly believing that as soon as it became known that Americans were fighting with Soviet pilots, the indignation in the US would be such that it could lead to a direct war with the Soviet Union.

The Americans did not repeat the mistake of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who, shortly before the war, in a public speech described the US “defense perimeter” in the Pacific Ocean without including Korea, which inspired within the North Korean leadership, as well as that in Moscow and Beijing, false hope that aggression would go unanswered. The Soviet Union never again boycotted the UN Security Council, no matter how unpleasant the subject.

Today, Russia’s representative to the UN Security Council also participates in every meeting, always ready to reject any accusations against Russia.

But the Korean War never ended, and a peace treaty between North and South was never concluded. The demilitarized zone still divides the peninsula. And its existence pleases only ecologists, as over the past decades rare species of animals have found refuge there. The standoff between the two Koreas periodically erupts in military incidents. Meanwhile, the sides, who after the armistice found themselves more or less in the same situation – face-to-face with complete ruin – have gone in very different directions over 70 years. One Korea, having gone through several military dictatorships, is a fully democratic state and a global economic powerhouse. The other Korea has seen a medieval tyranny set up that from time to time frightens the world with nuclear weapons.

It seems that Russia and Ukraine are still rather far from perceiving the war as a stalemate and are full of hopes for a military victory. An understanding of the “strategic stalemate” is unlikely to come in the coming weeks and months – before the sides have exhausted all possible means of achieving military success.

Ukraine expects to achieve military parity through Western supplies of modern military equipment. Russia still has the ability to carry out another mass mobilization and put industry on a war footing. If you project the history of the Korean War on the current situation, then the sides are somewhere in the beginning of 1951. A truce is not months but still years away.
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