The Tuesday next after the first Monday in November, every four years
Anyone who knows anything about the history or politics of the United States (US) would recognise the formula in the sub-title supra. US federal law mandates that presidential and congressional elections take place on that cycle. The next time this will occur is 5 November 2024, just under 14 months from now. A President and Vice-President will be chosen. Since both Biden and Trump have only served single terms thus far, they can both be selected again by their parties, as per the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution. One could be mischievous and argue that since Trump believes he won the last election, he has, at least his own mind, served two terms and should therefore be barred from selection. On the same date, the entire lower house of Congress, the House of Representatives, is up for re-election, since they only serve two-year terms. Senators serve 6-year terms, so only 34 out of 100 will be up for reelection in November 2024. You might say the numbers for Congress don’t seem to add up, but remember that halfway through a four-year Presidency, Congress goes through mid-term elections: the whole House is up for election again, and another third of the Senate.
Trump will almost certainly be the Republican candidate. The various law suits and prosecutions either won’t stick or will not be resolved by the time of the election. It is more certain Trump will be the Republican candidate than Biden being the Democrat candidate. Incumbents are almost never challenged by members of their own party, but Biden is facing handicaps on several fronts. First, he will be just 2 weeks shy of 82 years old in November 2024. Voters might not be enthusiastic about electing a candidate who will be 86 if and when he finishes his second term. The average life expectancy of a US citizen is 79. Second, Biden’s Vice-President, Kamala Harris, is not very popular and is thus a drag on the ticket. This normally does not matter that much, but it does, when statistically speaking, the Presidential candidate should be dead. Republicans will make this a key campaign point: vote for Biden, get Harris. Third, Biden cannot seem to gain any credit with voters. The US economy is doing very well by comparison with other states. Biden has even had some success in getting his legislative programme through Congress, namely the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Biden has not suffered any noticeable calamities. The fall of Kabul in August 2021 appeared to be a disaster, but it was a foreign policy matter and Americans don’t really care about such things. Biden brought the troops home and in that sense, Afghanistan has been a success for him. The reversal of Roe v Wade is a blow to Democrats, but it was not Biden’s doing and his aggressive use of Executive Privilege to ameliorate its effects will be noted. Most Americans are actually pro-choice, so again, this should be an advantage to Biden. And if abortion is the key issue for an American voter, then they don’t have any choice who to vote for. Overall, Biden’s presidency is far less noisy and chaotic than Trump’s. Americans should be feeling reasonably content with their lot. Yet, with just over a year to go before the election, Biden’s approval ratings are terrible: Only 40% approve, 54% disapprove and 6% are too stupid to give any kind of answer. Separate polls reveal most Americans think Biden is simply too old, with a significant number of Democrats agreeing with this. Trump of course is almost the same age, but Trump acts like a child whereas Biden acts like someone trick or treating as Frankenstein.
Wars of attrition
There are two very broad theories of how armed conflicts can be favourably resolved by one side (i.e.: ‘won’). The first emphasises military choices and tactics. The second emphasises resources and logistics. Of course, there are overlaps between the theories. Every tactical choice depends on having the logistics right. Conversely, every logistics officer has to be confident that their troops and equipment are not being wasted. The first view emphasis the genius of the generals, their ability to overcome a poor logistical situation by some bold maneuver that nobody else could conceive of. The second view suggests that such maneuvers are rare and usually only make a small and temporary difference to the military situation. Robert E. Lee led the Confederate Army in the American Civil War (1861-65). Lee is regarded as one of the greatest generals in history. But he lost. The Union Army, which was led by various generals, but at the end and most famously, by Ulysses S Grant, was always more likely to win. The North was more urbanized than the South, had a stronger, more mixed economy based on both manufacturing and agriculture, whilst Southerners were mainly farmers. The North had a larger population and benefited from more international support, since the one thing that the European Great Powers could agree on was that they were anti-slavery. Lee is universally regarded as the better General, yet Grant won. Infeed Grant went onto become President of the United States, although he is considered to be one of the worst. The lesson is not to be sentimental about military genius. It is a rare and overrated commodity.
There is a third factor to consider, which is technology. Between 1861-65 there was not that much technological difference between the belligerents. The same has generally been true until the end of the Twentieth Century. The exceptions were the colonial campaigns against Africans who were still using spears, whilst the Europeans fielded rifles and artillery. But these aside, belligerents were generally equally advanced technologically. Since the Vietnam War (1954-75), there have been instances where one side has been more technologically advanced than the other. But it is notable that, all other elements being equal, this did not guarantee success. The French and Americans lost in Vietnam, the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan (1979-1989). Technology on its own is not decisive. Technology may also prove to be disruptive, in the sense that it overturns traditional understandings that stronger belligerents (usually states) enjoy the technological advantage: drones are an example of a technology that overall has probably brought more military advantage to the weak than the strong
When a General or politician announces that the war they are involved in is one of attrition, it is bad news for their military. It means they leadership has run out of ideas and the conflict can only be resolved by combat mass and logistics. Generally speaking, leaders will never start a war calling it a war of attrition. They begin by promising it can be won relatively painlessly. Once this turns out to be demonstrably false, they announce the next phase is a war of attrition. One might suppose that the stronger and more militarily capable states are happier to go to this phase than the underdogs. It is not necessarily true however. If the population of the stronger state view the conflict as what is sometimes described as an ‘optional war’, then moving to the attrition phase can be deeply unpopular. ‘Optional war’ is not a legal term , but it usually describes a war with no legal basis: the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Special Military Operation in Ukraine in 2022 are both optional wars. The US and Russia were not acting in self-defence and the conflicts had no other legal basis. It is not the fact that the conflict is illegal that upsets the public, who often have a limited grasp of such things. It is the fact that the conflict is not necessary to securing the states, and thus the populations, interests. It involves pain for little or no gain.
The Special Military Operation in Ukraine has become a war of attrition. Russia, Ukraine and NATO are increasingly focusing on the number of casualties inflicted on each side. This is a lousy measurement of success. It first became prominent in Vietnam, where the US commander, General Westmoreland, would brief the media on the number of enemy fighters that the US and South Vietnamese forces had killed every week. It is a lousy measurement of success for various reasons. First, the North Vietnamese forces were always able to replace any losses. Second, simply killing the enemy does not help secure territory. An area might be cleared of insurgents on Monday and overrun with them again on Wednesday. Third, killing enemy fighters does not secure the loyalty of the non-combatant population who often end up being included in the kill figures. Fourth, and related to point three, officers were incentivized to inflate the kill figures. Sometimes this simply involved directly lying. But it also meant that if a village of innocent Vietnamese civilians was killed, the officer would count them as enemy combatants. This both improved his figures for the week, whilst also avoiding any potential accusations of violation of International Humanitarian Law. Focus on kill figures is a terrible measurement of success and the fact that is being used in the current conflict tells us that we are in a war of attrition.
Yet it is a war of attrition of a very specific type. It is a war of attrition with what this author calls a specific ‘strategic waypoint’. This is a date at which the direction of the operation, the perception of how it is to be further prosecuted, can be predicted in advance. It should be obvious by now that the date in question is the US Presidential Election on 5 November 2024. If Biden wins a second term, then US and thus global support for Ukraine could be expected to continue. Biden might even increase aid to Ukraine and risk further escalation with Russia. This is based on the theory that second-term Presidents take more risks on foreign policy because they have nothing to lose. There is not much practical evidence for this theory, but it is often thrown around on election night.
Strategic waypoints are quite common in conflicts and they often are election dates: in the Vietnam War, the 1972 election was viewed by the North Vietnamese as key. If Republican President Nixon did not secure a second term, then a new Democrat President might bring the conflict to a swift close. This concern was mirrored in the Pentagon. Something similar happened in Somalia in 1993, when the new President Bill Clinton felt able to terminate a conflict that his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, had sole political authorship of. However, it is rare for strategic waypoints to occur in wars of attrition, because wars of attrition do not really have much in the way of a nuanced strategy. The assumption is that fighting will continue until one side is exhausted. This is the reason why leaders of democracies don’t like wars of attrition: their very nature means that they might go on for longer than the leader does, before ingloriously collapsing when the leader leaves office. Yet President Biden probably feels he is doing all he can: he dare not risk direct conflict with Russia, both for the safety of the World and his own personal safety in remaining in The White House.
President Putin is clearly hoping for a second-term President Trump. Russia will doggedly continue with its expensive, politically ruinous and strategically stupid policy in Ukraine until the outcome of the election is known. This crisis occurred a year after Trump had left The White House and it is thus unclear exactly what Trump’s position on it might be. It is very difficult to predict any of Trump’s policies on anything, since one suspects he simply does not have any. Trump’s Republican Party is a cult of personality rather than a serious political movement. However, we can make some broad assumptions based on his prior conduct, and the admittedly dangerous assumption that he might display some consistency.
Trump will abandon support for Ukraine because:
- He does not see it as a direct strategic concern of the United States;
- The voters do not care much about foreign policy. Most could not find Ukraine on a map;
- The assistance offered to Ukraine is expensive;
- Trump has expressed a personal liking for Putin and for other authoritarian figures, like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un;
- Trump believes he is good at making deals;
- President Putin will offer Ukraine a deal and Trump will urge them to accept it.
The deal President Putin would offer would be a treaty. This would include a complete end to hostilities and restoration of peaceful relations with Ukraine, something akin to what used to be called non-aggression pacts, or more euphemistically, treaties of friendship. These were almost always imposed by one side on another and often rescinded after only a few years. In exchange for an end to all fighting, including a (possibly genuine) undertaking that Russia will not assist insurgents in Eastern Ukraine, President Putin will ask for formal recognition that the parts of Eastern Ukraine (Donbas) that have declared themselves independent are now no longer claimed by the Ukrainian government. Their precise legal status may not be determined in the treaty. In all likelihood they will eventually just join Russia, but the key here is that the treaty will not give any outside state (Including Ukraine) or other entity any say in this final legal status. President Putin will also want Ukrainian agreement to abandon their claims to Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. Trump will urge Ukraine to accept this treaty saying that it will end the bloodshed. If Ukraine accepts the deal, Trump will be able to abandon US sanctions against Russia and every other state in the world will follow, with the possible exception of Poland, who might carry on out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
Of course, this deal will be good news for all sides except for Ukraine, who will have lost territory as a result of aggression committed against them. Aggression is a crime in international criminal law and a delict in the law of state responsibility, but this can be brushed aside if Ukraine ‘consents’ to the peace deal. It is rather like suggesting a battered spouse ‘consents’ to being hit because they cannot do anything about it.
This kind of treaty is also stupid because it invites further aggression from Russia in the future. This could be against Ukraine, or some other unfortunate state. President Putin will assure Trump that there will be no further Russian aggression until January 2029, when someone else will be in The White House. And there is a wider concern, that whilst Europeans and Americans may see this as a purely Atlantic matter, the precedent and lesson it sets will be felt around the World. China, locked in disputes over Taiwan and islands in the South China Sea will learn that violence, followed by diplomacy, followed by the threat of more violence gets results. Will the United States really engage in a conflict with China over a few coral reefs? Will India simply annex Kashmir?
In the First Cold War (1945-1990) the superpowers avoided direct confrontation. Why this occurred is too complex to go into here, but part of it was due to the huge nuclear arsenals each side possessed. This made full scale war unappealing. However, there were plenty of provocations in the First Cold War: the Berlin Crises of 1948 and 1961; The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; the Prague Spring of 1968 and the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1982. The concern for military strategists was how to react to each of these incidents. It seemed foolish that any one of them might lead to global thermonuclear war. A new theory emerged, that neither side would ever want to put the other in situation where nuclear war was an acceptable response. So rather than advancing their interests through an invasion of each other’s territory or a massive missile strike, they would advance their interest in small pieces or slices, rather how one would consume a salami sausage (think Pizza). This is what we will see on a global scale if Russia is allowed to consolidate its gains in Ukraine. A few kilometers of desert is claimed here, an island there. Ethiopia has just announced the final filling of the Grand Renaissance Dam reservoir on the Nile. This poses huge questions for Egypt’s future water security, but can the filling of a dam really justify military action?
Salami tactics can be viewed as a key part of hybrid warfare. Russia has had military formations fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014. The Russians simply deny these exist. They say the units are local freedom fighters and nothing to do with the Russia, save that they share Russia’s aims in protecting the interests of people of Russian descent who are supposedly opppressed by the Ukrainian state. One could believe this if these units were driving around in tractors and trucks and using hunting rifles. But they are simply Russian mechanized troops (tanks and Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFV’s) with their unit insignias removed. This, together with the annexation of Crimea would normally be enough to constitute an armed attack against Ukraine, as per Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This should create a right of collective self-defence whereby other states could come to Ukraine’s aid. Instead, this intervention was simply ignored until it became the full-scale invasion launched in February 2022. Even now, Ukraine is not claiming a right of collective self-defence, and no state would offer assistance if they did. But imagine there was no insurgency in Donbas in 2014, no annexation of Crimea. Imagine there was simply a sudden invasion of Ukraine in 2022. It seems at least plausible that Article 51 might be invoked and assistance might be provided. This demonstrates one of the psychological effects of using salami tactics and hybrid warfare: it makes the reasonable seem unreasonable: The NATO Council considers that if it did not do anything in 2014, why should it do anything in 2022? There is perhaps a kind of international relations gaslighting going on here: NATO states blame themselves for not standing up to Russia before, so they cannot do it now. This returns us to the analogy of the battered spouse who blames themselves for the beatings. Russia has uprooted the post-World War Two notion of a Europe where sovereign states respected each other’s borders. For almost a decade it has been attacking a neighboring state.
Armed conflict, of the hybrid-warfare type, may be the new normal in Europe, just as it has been in other parts of the World for decades. Why should Europe be special? Why should Europeans enjoy a level of comfort and security that has been historically denied to the inhabitants of every other continent except North America? When terrorism became more common in Europe post-2001, perhaps it was always likely that interstate armed conflict would follow?
The Special Military Operation in Ukraine is now a war of attrition. The Ukrainian summer offensive has not gone well. This is a conflict where the defence enjoys distinct advantages. It is a war where the anti-tank missile is superior to the tank itself, where the drone provides much better value for money than the piloted aircraft. This conflict will not end until November 2024 and it may not end even then. When the conflict began, some naive people predicted it would lead to President Putin’s undoing. The brief and ridiculous Wagner rebellion on June 23 2023 made the hearts of many beat faster, although quite why the prospect of civil war in a nuclear armed state was a good thing was never addressed. President Putin continues to suppress opposition and simply kill opponents. Successful revolutions against authoritarian rulers rarely succeed.
The future of the conflict after November 2024 is partially in the hands of US voters, but few will choose Ukraine as the main reason as to whom to vote for.