Before he bestrode the continent and prefigured the ghastliness of modern European history — religious impulses sublimated in politics — Napoleon Bonaparte was an artillery captain. Today, another brutalist of about 5-foot-6 is waging a war dominated by artillery. Vladimir Putin will win it unless Ukraine’s allies quickly provide it with more sophisticated modern artillery.
The war in Ukraine is “an extended artillery duel,” according to the Economist, whose “science and technology” section recently explained ingenious weapons that can hurl a shell equipped with a rocket onto a moving vehicle 40 miles away. Shrapnel from an airburst shell, detonated at programmable heights, can kill infantry across 2½ acres. Both sides have drones to spot the enemy’s artillery. Russia has counter-battery radars that can calculate the place where an incoming shell was fired, and hit that place in four minutes. Hence the Ukrainian tactic of “shoot and scoot.”
But “smart” artillery is not necessary for Russia’s barbaric way of war, exemplified by the 1995 use of low-tech artillery to pulverize Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. A Russia-based military analyst tells the Financial Times that Russia’s culture of military callousness “derives from a broader authoritarian culture where nobody trusts anybody” — “a culture of irresponsibility.”
Serhii Plokhy, a Harvard professor of Ukrainian history, says in the Spectator “how the Russian army fights its wars doesn’t change much” and “artillery is an extremely important part of the story,” a story of crude artillery’s multiplication of collateral damages. British military historian Antony Beevor agrees: “We’re seeing a repetition of the atrocities committed, particularly in, say, 1945, by the Red Army.” As to where “this brutality … this casual savagery” comes from, Beevor says: “Russian soldiers are treated rather as the Red Army was often treated by its own commanders,” with “contempt” and “a total lack of feeling.” This 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 strength” and that “cruelty and savagery are legitimate or natural war weapons.”
Today, one potential Putin weapon is starvation: waging war on distant children, in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. Their distended stomachs might soon testify to his success in deterring Ukraine’s allies from defeating his policy of preventing more than 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain from reaching the world market.
The Economist reports that, last year, Russia and Ukraine were the world’s first- and fifth-largest wheat exporters. They provide almost an eighth of the calories traded worldwide, and nearly 50 countries depend on either Russia or Ukraine or both for more than 30 percent of their wheat imports — for 26 of them, more than 50 percent.
Although neither the world nor Americans want the United States to be “the world’s policeman,” for decades, the world’s (relative) orderliness and prosperity have depended on the U.S. Navy policing the global commons: the oceans. Hence, for example, the Navy’s freedom-of-navigation exercises that today contest China’s lawless sovereignty claims concerning the South China Sea.
However, the Navy’s strenuous but noble and global mission is perhaps being abandoned where today it matters most: in the Black Sea. Russian naval forces there are preventing exports of the Ukrainian grain that the Russians are not stealing.
Residents of poor nations spend large portions of their incomes on food — in sub-Saharan Africa, 40 percent. A wave of pain from soaring prices and scarce food might be imminent, but it can be ameliorated if naval forces of nations supporting Ukraine end Russia’s blockade of Odessa and other Black Sea ports, and escort grain transports to places from which the cargo can be distributed.
In his memoir, Colin Powell recalled a 1993 meeting where he, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed skepticism about using U.S. military forces in Bosnia. He thought he “would have an aneurysm” when Madeleine Albright, then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said to him, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Powell, a Vietnam veteran, was prudently wary of military engagements. But reluctance should not become paralysis.
Naval forces — including Britain’s mine-clearing talents (to remove mines Ukraine placed to deter Russian attacks from the sea) — should be promptly employed to break Putin’s illegal blockade before it has its intended effect of mass starvation. If Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling deters the nations supporting Ukraine from using their ample naval competencies to execute a humanitarian policy, his contempt for the West will be ratified, and his appetite for additional aggressions will be whetted.