Is the U.S. in a proxy war with Russia?
Photo via AFP

With heavy weapons like first-line tanks, multiple rocket launchers, 155mm howitzers, attack helicopters and updated anti-aircraft systems flooding into Ukraine and beginning to reach the battlefield, the only thing missing from an all-out war between NATO and Russia are allied soldiers.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded to the upsurge in weapons shipments this week when he said, "NATO is, in essence, going to war with Russia through a proxy and arming that proxy." Lavrov accompanied that with some nuclear saber-rattling, and then said that NATO and the U.S. were running the risk of turning the war global and involving nuclear weapons: "The risk is serious, real. It should not be underestimated," he said Monday night on Russian state television. "Under no circumstances should a third world war be allowed to happen. There can be no winners in a nuclear war."

No shit, Sherlock. Sixty-four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, it's finally dawning on the billionaires in charge over there that they might have made the proverbial mistake of biting off more than they can chew. On the same day reality appeared to slap Lavrov in the face in Moscow, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, at a meeting with more than 40 NATO and non-NATO defense officials in Germany, announced a new American strategy intended to degrade Russia's military so that it cannot threaten other nations with war in the future. "We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine," Austin told reporters.

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President Biden backed up the new strategy by announcing that his administration is seeking $33 billion in military, economic and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, far more than the U.S. has committed so far in the conflict. "We either back Ukrainian people as they defend their country, or we stand by as the Russians continue their atrocities," Biden said at the White House on Thursday. The Washington Post reported that administration sources confided that the new spending package "is meant to not only defend Ukraine but to weaken and deter Russia in a conflict that shows few signs of ending. U.S. leaders are increasingly open about their hopes that the conflict will result not just in Ukraine's survival, but also in a significantly weakened Russia."

The new strategy reflects what has already happened on the ground. Russia's attack on Ukraine has been crippled by clever tactics and counterstrikes by the much less well-equipped and smaller Ukraine military forces. An all-out assault on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv was turned back, sending Russian forces retreating into safe havens on Russian and Belarus soil where they had massed earlier in the year before their late February attack. According to Ukrainian drone footage seen by the Daily Mail, fields that surveillance photos once showed lined with row after row of Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and supply vehicles are now littered with burned-out skeletons of the same military hardware.

Ukraine's military reported last week that it had destroyed 839 Russian tanks, more than 2,000 armored personnel carriers, a mix of 393 self-propelled and towed howitzers, 108 multiple rocket launchers and 76 fuel tankers. Ukraine's foreign ministry said on Thursday that 187 Russian military fixed-wing aircraft and 155 combat helicopters had been destroyed, along with 215 drones the Russian military had been using for surveillance and as missile launch platforms. Not to mention the Russian missile cruiser Moskva, now at the bottom of the Black Sea.

Russia has been using older T-72 tanks but has also fielded some newer, more high-tech and expensive T-80s. The T-72 tank, in service since the 1970s, cost about $2 million apiece when new. The T-80 tanks, also in service since the mid-1970s but upgraded since then, cost about $3 million. Russian armored personnel carriers (APCs) cost about $500,000. All those photos you've seen of blown-up and burned-out low-slung tracked vehicles that don't have large-caliber turreted guns are APCs. No matter who's counting, the Russian military appears to have lost thousands of them.

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Forbes reported this week that the initial Russian invasion force in February involved 120 battle tactical groups (BTGs), composed of 85 armored vehicles each, about 12,000 armored vehicles total. Forbes assesses that Ukrainian numbers for Russian battlefield losses are "optimistic," and cites the open-source intelligence website Oryx as probably more accurate. Relying entirely on photographic evidence of destroyed, damaged or captured vehicles, Oryx on Tuesday reported that Russia had lost 562 tanks and 1,200 armored personnel carriers for a total of 1,762.

Taking an average of figures reported by Ukraine, Oryx and the Pentagon, Forbes concluded that Russia has lost somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 of its armored fighting vehicles, meaning that 20 to 25 percent of the entire military force Russia initially put on the battlefield in Ukraine has been knocked out. Relying on the same sources, Forbes estimates that Russia has suffered 15,000 battlefield deaths. Every soldier who is killed has to be replaced, and training soldiers costs real money. According to the Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), it currently costs about $200,000 to recruit and put one U.S. soldier through basic training. All soldiers continue their training in advanced courses, and some take as long as two years to fully qualify certain specialties, making the real cost of taking a citizen from civilian life to being ready for combat much more expensive, no matter which country is spending the money.

No matter whose numbers you accept, Russia is suffering heavy, expensive and potentially unsustainable battlefield losses in Ukraine.

No matter whose figures you accept, Russia is suffering heavy and very expensive battlefield losses in Ukraine. "Some units are much more devastated than others. We've seen indications of some units that are literally, for all intents and purposes, eradicated," a senior U.S. defense official said at a background briefing of reporters earlier this month. "There's just nothing left of the BTG except a handful of troops, and maybe a small number of vehicles, and they're going to have to be reconstituted or reapplied to others."

So the degradation of Russia's military is already happening on the battlefield in Ukraine. With $20 billion of the new Ukraine aid package earmarked for combat equipment, ammunition, resupplies, military rations and other battlefield gear, the U.S. seems to be employing a rope-a-dope strategy with Russia: Lure them into throwing as much of their military forces as they can muster into Ukraine and then spend them into the ground, much as the U.S. did during the Cold War, when our military advances and expenditures ended up bankrupting the Soviet Union by exploding its defense budget.

That strategy also depends on how well Western sanctions work against Russia. Every Russian tank, helicopter, fighter jet, rocket launcher and drone lost in Ukraine has to be replaced. All modern military weapons make heavy use of computers, which need chips, and as we all know, computers break and parts need to be replaced. Technology import restrictions have been imposed on Russia under sanctions approved by the U.S., NATO and other countries. Russia will doubtlessly try to figure out ways around the restrictions, but that will cause delays, shortages and problems repurposing dual-use computer hardware and software imported from countries that have not joined the sanctions. There are no timeouts in war. Enemies on the attack don't wait.

If the U.S. is in a proxy war with Russia, it's a war of attrition that will last a while. "Degrading" Russia's military capability means slowing down its ability to equip and man its forces. Vladimir Putin is learning a truth that has endured through the centuries: If you take too big a bite on the battlefield, you die. There are no Heimlich maneuvers in war.