The Battle for Lviv

I invaded Ukraine, and it ended in stalemate. Maybe someone should tell Putin.

Back in 2007, when I heard that a game designer named Brant Guillory was making a wargame, called "Orange Crush," that played out a NATO-Russia conflict in the Ukraine, I thought he was crazy. Russia invading Ukraine? NATO fighting Russia in Ukraine? Yeah, right.

Forgive me if I wait until summer to eat my words. Humble pie tastes better with fresh tomatoes.

Orange Crush imagines a scenario which seemed unlikely then, but today seems eerily familiar: A bitterly-contested election lead Ukraine to erupt in political violence. The country's president orders the military to halt the fighting, but two army brigades revolt, asking Russia to intervene. Moscow obliges, sending in "peacekeepers" that advance on Kiev, but the fleeing Ukrainian government begs from assistance from NATO, which dispatches a force from Poland. NATO troops run into Russian forces racing to the border to head them off. War ensues.

Spooky, right? With Russian troops occupying Crimea, President Barack Obama warning Vladimir Putin of "costs" to come, and the army of the Kremlin busy sablya-rattling just across the Ukrainian-Russian border, now seemed an opportune time to give Orange Crush a spin, to see what insights it might yield about how a real NATO-Russia clash would play out.

Orange Crush portrays a fight between armies that are shadows of their Cold War selves. This is war on the cheap: No herds of armor thundering across the Fulda Gap, no gigantic armies sweeping across the north German plain. The battlefield is a slice of western Ukraine near the Polish border. The ragtag NATO force that Guillory envisions consists of a single British mechanized brigade supported by Special Air Service commandos, Canadian light infantry, Polish motorized infantry and helicopters, and Danish combat engineers. This isn't the British Army of the Rhine here; it's the odds and ends of whatever is left in the post-Cold War NATO armory. (Guillory assumed in 2007 that U.S. troops would be busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that NATO forces entering Ukraine would be whatever the alliance could scrape together on the spot.)

However, the Russian intervention force in Orange Crush isn't the mighty Group of Soviet Forces Germany, either. In Guillory's game, Russia only musters up a single mechanized division backed by artillery and helicopters. (Here, he's not far off: Ukraine's claim of 16,000 Russian troops in Crimea is only the equivalent of a division or two.) There are also Ukrainian troops fighting on both sides, a hodgepodge of heavily armed mechanized units, light infantry, and guerrillas. Each battalion is rated for attack, defense and movement capabilities; each has advantages and disadvantages (for example, armor rules the plains, while foot infantry loves forests and cities). The game also tries to simulate some of the challenges of command and control: for example, both sides can use special strategies that include Spin Cycle (world media attention slows down your opponent) and Local Appropriation (the tactful word for looting).

I fine-tuned Guillory's game a bit to try to more effectively game out the current situation, with me playing the dual roles of both NATO and Russia. In my version, NATO troops have entered Ukraine from Poland, to protect a Ukrainian government that has fled west, to Lviv, where they've set up the rump state of "Free Ukraine." Kremlin forces, already in the country, are trying to bar more NATO troops from entering; those Western troops that are already there -- a brigade from the British 1st Armored Division, supported by Danish, Canadian, and Polish contingents -- are charged with stopping the Russians. If 10 Russian battalions can reach the Polish-Ukraine border by the end of the second day of fighting, Russia wins; if not, NATO is the victor. Here's how it all played out. (Hint: it doesn't go well for either side.)

The scenario begins with NATO troops just arriving at their staging point at the Polish city of Przemysl, about 50 miles west of Lviv. The British commander of the force, Brigadier Rupert Popham-Noob, decides to quickly roll down the highway and link up with Free Ukrainian forces setting up defensive positions -- the "Orange Line" -- between Brody and Kozova, about 60 miles east of Lviv and 300 miles west of Kiev. This will create a deep buffer zone between Lviv and Russian-occupied Ukraine, and also enable the defenders to take advantage of the wooded terrain around Kozova. 

That doesn't mean Popham-Noob is happy about his position -- far from it. In fact, he curses his political leaders for putting him into this crazy situation. A brigade-sized NATO force is too small for such a large battlefield. The Free Ukraine forces are more sizable, but can only a muster a few heavy mechanized battalions. Coordinating Western troops and a Ukrainian Army that's still largely Soviet in equipment and outlook makes unified operations problematic. The core of his battle group is three well-armed British tank and mechanized infantry battalions that can slug it out with Russian armor, but most of his force consists of light infantry or lightly mechanized troops. He splits his command, with the British contingent as a backstop to Free Ukrainian armor defending the more open terrain to the north of the Orange Line near Brody, while the lighter troops are sent south to support Ukrainian infantry in the forests around Kozova.

General Noobovich, commanding the Russian force, is also fuming. His superiors have ordered him to reach and seal off the Ukrainian-Polish border at all costs. The longer the border remains open, the greater the risk that NATO will dispatch more troops into Ukraine. But with most of the Russian Army subduing Ukraine, Noobovich has only been given a reinforced motorized rifle division, supported by several former Ukrainian Army battalions that have defected, as well as some pro-Moscow irregular bands of marginal utility. Despite the tight deadline, he only slightly outnumbers the defenders, though he is stronger in armor and artillery. Noobovich opts to use the Ukrainian irregulars and a Russian motorized rifle brigade to pin the defenders in the south, while he masses his armor for an attack in the north that will open the highway to Lviv.

As the assault begins in the north, the Russians discover that the Ukrainians are not the weak Georgian forces they bulldozed in 2008. In fact, some mechanized units are almost as strong as their Russian counterparts. With the aid of artillery and helicopters, the Russians manage to dislodge two Free Ukrainian battalions and breach the Orange Line. But a nicely timed counterattack by British armor stabilizes the front. In the south, a Russo-Ukrainian attack fizzles against Canadian light infantry entrenched in woods.

The Russians fail to break through in the north, but they have pushed the defenders back sufficiently to uncover the flank of the southern Orange Line. Popham-Noob does not want to give up good defensive terrain, but he withdraws the NATO-Free Ukrainian forces 10 miles closer to Lviv, creating a fan-shaped defensive line in front of the city. His British and Ukrainian armor has done well, but it has taken losses, and no replacements are forthcoming.

As Day Two of the conflict begins, both sides are worried. NATO can't seem to stop the Russian advance, but Russia can't break through NATO defenses. Noobovich briefly considers trying to bypass Lviv and thrust toward the border. But forests and mountains west of Lviv make that difficult, and leaving enemy forces on his flank will leave his supply lines exposed. He shifts his offensive to the south, seeking a clean penetration near the town of Peremyshlyany. But again, a British armored counterattack stymies a breakthrough.

At this point, the game ends. Technically, Russia lost because it did not seal the border. But overall, it was a draw. Russia was not going to seal the Ukrainian-Polish border or eliminate Free Ukraine without bringing in substantial reinforcements and paying the consequent political and economic price. On the other hand, if the conflict were continue, NATO would have had to deploy far more of the alliance's forces, something neither Western European public opinion nor treasuries would swallow. The only solution would be a major U.S. military commitment, but only at the risk of escalating tensions to nuclear levels.

This, of course, was an arbitrary scenario. One can adjust it to fit whatever situation a strategist envisions (for example, giving Russia more time to reach the border could have resulted in a different outcome). Considering that -- in real life -- much of Ukraine's military equipment is unserviceable, and Kiev worries about the loyalty of ethnic Russian soldiers in its army, the game's decision to give Ukrainian battalions the same combat capabilities as their Russian counterparts certainly could be called unrealistic. At the same time, given its poor performance during the 2008 Georgian War, the Russian military, too, might not fare so well against NATO on the battlefield. But on the other hand, could recent defense cuts have hurt Britain's ability to send a ground force into Eastern Europe?

Either way, should NATO and Russia come to blows over Ukraine, I suspect Orange Crush would capture at least some of the nature of the conflict. Despite the immense resources of NATO members and Russia, any conflict between the two would probably be a small war with highly-limited objectives, waged by relatively small numbers of troops, with neither side willing to commit more to the fight. Commanders like Popham-Noob and Noobovich might grumble -- but considering how close the world came to catastrophe during the Cold War, that's probably a good thing.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


The Forgotten War

How Obama can salvage the fight he's losing in Afghanistan.    

With the White House scrambling to respond to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it will be easy to overlook the crumbling of the war effort in Afghanistan. But it should not be.

On Feb. 25, the White House announced with much fanfare that President Barack Obama had spoken by telephone with Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- for the first time in eight months. It is a pathetic reflection of the U.S. president's pale commitment to winning this war that he is not in regular contact with the leader of the country that the United States is fighting in. And the White House used the pretext of the call to begin floating trial balloons about the zero option. This is a terrible idea. Instead, the administration should be emphasizing both its commitment to continued involvement and the strength of Afghan support for that.

The United States overinvested in Karzai from the start. George W. Bush's administration sought to unify Afghanistan and took a top-down approach to the provision of aid and the development of political practices ("institutions" feels too strong a word for a country that ranked 181 on the U.N. Human Development Index in 2007). A strategy that distributed power and built up from local authority was better suited to Afghanistan's political culture and level of economic development -- and, incidentally, much less vulnerable to corruption. But at least Bush called, visited, and tried to see it through by empowering Karzai. The Obama administration built a strategy dependent on Karzai's active support of its war aims and then alienated him without shifting to a strategy in which his support was not essential.

Add to that a staggering mismatch of political objectives and the means to achieve them, as well as the sorry spectacle of the Obama administration setting and then relaxing deadlines for the signing of the bilateral security treaty (first set to be signed by December 2013, then April 2014, and now Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speculates we will need an answer by the summer), and the stage is set for the United States to lose the war. Or, more accurately, to just quit.

Obama warned Karzai that he was instructing the Pentagon to start seriously planning for the zero option -- that is, removing all troops from Afghanistan. The Afghan government predictably followed up on the White House account by emphasizing that "President Karzai rebuffed another request to sign a bilateral security agreement," as the Hill put it.

Either the Obama White House lacks the discipline not to be repeatedly drawn into this counterproductive patter or the White House anticipated and sought it.

It might just be that the Obama White House is playing an elegant double game. Friction with Karzai could be seen to justify ending U.S. involvement in the war and also get Obama around the U.S. military's ardent appeals for keeping 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014 (the White House favors 3,500 troops remaining, something military commanders consider too small for the training and counterterrorism missions).

This White House is probably too narcissistic to attempt such a thing without drawing attention to the artistry. Moreover, it has repeatedly ignored the recommendations of military leaders on the conduct of the wars without political repercussion. But it would at least make more sense of the Obama administration's counterproductive cycle of feuding with Karzai.

Obama fumes that Karzai has frustrated and complicated U.S. war efforts, politicizing every development for domestic purposes. Not only can the exact same charges be leveled against Obama, but it is unreasonable -- both morally and practically -- to hold the leader of a tenuously democratizing country in the midst of a war to the same standard as politicians in safe and established democracies. As novelist Sena Jeter Naslund expresses in Ahab's Wife, "[I]t is wrong for the strong to test the weak, though it is natural for the weak to test the strong." Karzai is no Winston Churchill, but Obama is no Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Instead of continuing to trade barbs with Karzai, the Obama administration should be trying to understand exactly why Karzai thinks his antagonism gains him so much and what means are available to neutralize those gains, and the administration should be incentivizing different choices and finding workarounds. That is the stuff of classic diplomacy. But the Obama administration is apparently not in that business, despite all its high-flown rhetoric about "smart diplomacy."

It requires sophisticated understanding of how a country's society operates and what levers can be pressed at what times to affect the politics of that country. It requires taking a hands-on approach to creating institutions and cultivating leaders who see their interests aligned with America's. It requires demonstrating the effectiveness of U.S. development assistance and aligning in support of the war effort, something the U.S. Agency for International Development too often objects to (which goes some way to explaining why Americans harbor such hostility to foreign aid). It requires flooding the country with well-meaning civilian diplomats and increased nonmilitary engagement to buffer the transition from a large military presence -- the "civilian surge" that never materialized. It requires making a priority in U.S. foreign policy of situating Afghanistan among countries that will help shield it against malicious external and internal forces.

The Obama administration has undertaken none of these things. It meddled in the 2009 presidential election, but only enough to enrage Karzai and earn his lasting resentment, not enough to ensure a free and fair election or to get someone else selected. The U.S. military strategy has achieved its objectives, but it remains unconnected with the political, economic, foreign-policy, and other lines of operations that should be capitalizing on those military gains to win the war. It is this sending of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen into harm's way without commitment to purpose by the president that tolls so grievously through former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's memoir.

Given the choices made by the Obama administration, it is a marvel that the 3,000 tribal leaders in Afghanistan's loya jirga supported the bilateral security agreement that Karzai is refusing to sign. The United States is punishing all of Afghanistan for the sins of a political leader Washington kept in power. Afghanistan wants U.S. help, and it's manifestly in America's interest to help them.

The most important thing Obama could do now is to commit himself -- both through policy decisions and frequent public reiteration -- to a sustained involvement in a post-Karzai Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's powerful will be tempted to broker a backroom deal in advance of the April 5 presidential election. And in a country badly fractured -- without institutions to constrain the power of individuals or groups and with low levels of social trust after decades of strife and not much opportunity -- political deals that create consensus among the major brokers of power may actually serve Afghanistan better. Democratizing countries very often have winner-take-all mentalities about elections, with winners whose rush to consolidate their power fosters instability (Egypt sadly comes to mind).

And Americans should have the humility to remember that more than 100 years into their own democratic experiment, such Tammany Hall political dealings were commonplace.

In fact, the scramble to form alliances broad enough to govern is probably a positive sign for Afghanistan's political development -- for if it is not a gleaming democracy from the hilltop, it is a political process of accommodation to produce stable government. In fact, this alone would make Afghanistan's presidential election process a more promising plebiscite than was Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election and aftermath -- which saw Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki contort both electoral law and Iraq's fragile sectarian peace in order to retain power.

Afghanistan's presidential election could still go catastrophically bad. Six of the 11 presidential campaigns have a warlord on the ticket. Human rights groups are understandably worried about regression (though that surely underestimates the leverage the United States will continue to have through Afghanistan's need for foreign assistance). Congress grows restive at providing assistance. Presidential leadership is needed to realign U.S. strategy and actions.

The Obama administration's policy choices are increasing the likelihood of a bad outcome in Afghanistan. The United States should instead pivot to a policy that looks past Karzai and emphasizes its continued interest in an Afghanistan that, with U.S. help, struggles against its many challenges toward a better future.

Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images