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Subject: In case of a conventionnal confrontation how long can modern armies sustain combat ? rss

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Nathaniel GOUSSET
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I was wondering as things can turn ugly or not in the East once more.

Given the price and technicity of modern warfare, can the western and eastern armies sustain the attrition of fighting a decently equipped foe and for how long ?

Could a western country turn to war economy once more ? what about the European ones and other that doesn't have weapons industry anymore ?

I am asking because the West is becoming more and more technical and far less industrial than before, even the USA. With the current state of our industry could we sustain a conflict of WWII intensity anymore ? how many MBT and aircraft could we produce a week ?
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Darth James
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We've made the mistake of thinking sustained war was impossible due to economic constraints in the past. I would hope we would not repeat that mistake.
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IKerensky wrote:
I was wondering as things can turn ugly or not in the East once more.

Given the price and technicity of modern warfare, can the western and eastern armies sustain the attrition of fighting a decently equipped foe and for how long ?

Could a western country turn to war economy once more ? what about the European ones and other that doesn't have weapons industry anymore ?

I am asking because the West is becoming more and more technical and far less industrial than before, even the USA. With the current state of our industry could we sustain a conflict of WWII intensity anymore ? how many MBT and aircraft could we produce a week ?


I suspect it's possible to switch Western economies to a war footing and I reckon they could pump out a heck of a lot of military hardware if that were the case.

I reckon a bigger obstacle these days is the public's tolerance for getting involved in long, drawn out wars, particularly if they involve heavy casualties.
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Leo Zappa
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Interesting question. Obviously, the longer a war would drag on, the more likely it would be that the nations involved would be able to re-purpose their industries for war production, and while I can't comment on Europe, the US still has a considerable industrial base, even though it's not like it was back in the old days. However, I can't really see any modern war between major powers like NATO and Russia going on that long, mostly because the calls for a ceasefire would be loud and numerous, given how such a war would carry with it the threat of escalation which could result in global nuclear destruction . I have to think about this some more.
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Bill Eldard
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IKerensky wrote:
I was wondering as things can turn ugly or not in the East once more.

Given the price and technicity of modern warfare, can the western and eastern armies sustain the attrition of fighting a decently equipped foe and for how long ?

Could a western country turn to war economy once more ? what about the European ones and other that doesn't have weapons industry anymore ?


One could write a book addressing the issues you raise and still not arrive at a definitive answer. These are the topics that defense departments/ministries struggle with in determining what kinds and quantities of conventional forces are necessary to maintain now and in the future. Of critical interest are asymmetic capabilities developed either by the friendlies or the potential enemies: what might they be and what signs should we look for that the other guy has them?

IKerensky wrote:
I am asking because the West is becoming more and more technical and far less industrial than before, even the USA. With the current state of our industry could we sustain a conflict of WWII intensity anymore ? how many MBT and aircraft could we produce a week ?


I think we can say with confidence that a conventional war between major powers would not look like WW2. Technological advances have eliminated the need for armies numbering in the millions of soldiers; even the PLA has been transitioning from Mao's concept of People's War to what they are calling Limited War Under Hi-Tech Conditions, as evidenced by their investments in missiles, submarines, new generation aircraft, and cyber- and space-warfare. One might do far more damage to an enemy's industrial base and infrastructure through concentrated cyberattacks than kinetic bombing; carpet bombing is a thing of the past, except for the threat of nukes, which will always loom over the conflct, especially as more and more countries possess them.

We ought to begin with some examples of what kinds of crises would escalate into a major conventional conflict. Then we can discuss the available methods and tools of modern war that would likely get applied.
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Andy Beaton
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In World War I, the first few months of war were characterized by massive expenditures of ammunition and equipment. It is fair to say that the early war of movement sputtered into a stalemate due to a lack of ammunition and replacement guns as it was due to entrenching.
Once the stocks were replaced, the offensives of 1915 started up, but of course by then the advantage was heavily with the defenders.
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EvilPandaPirate wrote:
We've made the mistake of thinking sustained war was impossible due to economic constraints in the past. I would hope we would not repeat that mistake.


I agree about hoping we don't repeat mistakes.

I see two different forms of economic constraints. One is the idea that "we can't go to war because we are closely integrated trade and investment partners" (Norman Angell's The Great Illusion and others). July/August 1914 demonstrated the fallacy of that; it has taken decades to return to a similar level of globalization as what existed before the guns of August.

The second is probably closer to the OP's point - how long can modern armies fight before running out of steam supplies?

Good question...
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Robert Bruce
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I think the largest problem would be the inability for ground (and air) units to sustain the number of casualties they would suffer in a peer/near-peer competitor conflict. The lethality of modern weapons systems mean heavy casualties in a high-intensity conflict. Homefront morale issues aside, no Western nation has the ability to take those kind of punches for long. Western militaries are composed of small, professional, volunteer forces. All well and good in a COIN fight, but quickly burned up in a high-intensity conflict. Replacements and reserves (especially in the combat arms) are virtually non-existent right now, and even regular US ground combat forces are being demobilized at a frightening pace. See:

http://thehill.com/policy/defense/200764-army-to-cut-combat-...

So, war footing for the economy would also have to include conscription and mobilization of the population. A much tougher sell to one's public, especially in the Western democracies.
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Old Professor wrote:
Homefront morale issues aside, no Western nation has the ability to take those kind of punches for long. Western militaries are composed of small, professional, volunteer forces...

So, war footing for the economy would also have to include conscription and mobilization of the population. A much tougher sell to one's public, especially in the Western democracies.


I hear what you're saying, here, but can you even get to the point where you're talking about conscription? If your armed forces don't have the staying power to last more than a few weeks, then you never get to the point where you can bridge to mass conscription and production.

If modern weapons systems are that lethal, the war's over before you can get onto a war footing.
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Tim P.
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The big issue is not if the West can produce the arms needed to sustain a modern war, it can. The problem will be the time it takes to ramp up production to the required level and to maintain quality at the same time.

A historical example is the shell shortage crisis early in WW1. Expenditure of ammo was so much higher than expected, and of the different type than what was expected that shells had to be rationed.

Rationing of expensive and long lead time supplies would be required until the industrial might can be brought to bear.

A side effect of the increase in production was the decrease in quality, dud ammo and inferior equipment.

Look how long it took for the US to increase aircraft production in WW2, once it got going it could turn out massive numbers of quality modern aircraft, but it took time and the political will to do so.


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Good discussion.

Every game I've designed about modern warfare has included a UN Cease Fire rule.

Both sides will probably be exhausted, even after a short conflict.

The side perceived to be losing might welcome a halt to the fighting.

The side perceived to be winning might be willing to settle for half a loaf if pushing too far could create a severe diplomatic crisis.

BTW, a UN Cease Fire rule is an effective gimmick which can add tension to the game.
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Bill Eldard
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robbbbbb wrote:
Old Professor wrote:
Homefront morale issues aside, no Western nation has the ability to take those kind of punches for long. Western militaries are composed of small, professional, volunteer forces...

So, war footing for the economy would also have to include conscription and mobilization of the population. A much tougher sell to one's public, especially in the Western democracies.


I hear what you're saying, here, but can you even get to the point where you're talking about conscription? If your armed forces don't have the staying power to last more than a few weeks, then you never get to the point where you can bridge to mass conscription and production.

If modern weapons systems are that lethal, the war's over before you can get onto a war footing.


Where the war is fought and what's at stake are the major determinants. Some countries have better power projection & sustainment capabilities than others.

I would agree on the conscription and war production estimate: the war would be over before they could kick in to any worthwhile degree.

No one wants wars, but public support is almost always there if they are convinced that the threat of losing is worth the risk. How long that support remains usually depends on the conduct and outcome of the war.

Today's precision-guided weapons preclude the need for vast amounts of equipment. Let's use the Ploesti Raids of WW2 aw an example. Back on 1 August 1943, five B-24 bomb groups (178 aircraft) attacked the oil fields; the result was 55 aircraft and their crews lost, and little impact on Ploesti's production. Today, a few dozen well placed cruise missiles could probably take it down in a matter of minutes.
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Nathaniel GOUSSET
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Several people ask for a more precise scenario so here is one :

1- Both belligerant intervene in a country that are close to their border and that risk to change allegiance. They both intervene in order to protect the rightfull government and the populations. Because of that the fighting is limited to conventionnal weaponnary (no nuclear, bacteriological nor chemicals) and out of heavily populated areas (limit civilian casualty).
The area of fighting is mainly agricultural and lowly density population, but quite large about 2000 km+ of front. As town aren't to be torched down both beligerant concentrate on surrounding them/besieging them and forcing the other side to withdraw rather than assault them.

2- UN intervention/ceasefire is not a possibility because a lot of the nation involved siege at the security council or are allies of people sieging here and the situation about who is right or who is the agressor is not clear enough to vote sanction (that would be vetoed anyway). Blue Helmets could be deployed in populated area but in small number as the nation that usually transport, supply or provide the Blue Helmet contingent are active belligerent in the conflict.

3- The main part of the belligerant arsenal and production capacity is out of reach of conventional weaponary or cruise missile (Ballistic/Continental range). The few ressources in range are equally important for both side, in neutral hand or equally vulnerable (you blow up mine, I blow up yours then nobody has anything and a lot of neutral people are now pissed against us (basically everyone else)).
One side is closest to the front but this proximity make his military infrastructure a bit more vulnerable, the other side is further away but his troops and supply is more vulnerable during the long transit.

4- Population support is rather good because the intervention is perceived as absolutely needed and vital for the survival of every belligerant. One side fear that it will open the door to more agression and hope to avoid a bigger war later on (WW2 trauma), it also need to proof his unity and political existence of his alliance of states recently weakened by elections. For the other side it is perceived as its last chance to prove they are still a main power or go down kicking. In case of defeat they fear to be entirely assimilated and destroyed culturaly, economicaly or military by an agressive and raising in power eastern neighbours.

5- The goal is not the annihilation or direct elimination of the other side. The goal is to assert his dominance over the other side on the political scene by asking from very heavy conditions (cease of land, payment of ressources as damage, political change,...). Non directly lethal method could be used against the other belligerant (blocus, cyber-attack, financial reprisal,...) . The goal is to destroy the conventional military potential of the adversary so he have to admit defeat but without exacting a toll on the civilian population nor cornering him into using nuclear weaponnary.

Here, I hope I was understandable
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T. Dauphin
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I heard a discussion of this once, and that was a few years ago now, but the suggestion then was that this would be measured in days to weeks.
As others have already noted, our destructive abilities are so sophisticated that we would eliminate each others resources at a rate faster than we could replenish.
As I recall the aerial combat was expected to last hours to days.
The land combat was expected to last perhaps a few weeks.
I'm afraid I don't remember the source.

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Nathaniel GOUSSET
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Yep, but what happen if fight is still going on after thoses weeks ?
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What about the worldwide integration of resource production? Countries may build their own weapons, but where do the screws, rubber, integrated circuits, etc., come from.

Say a component is bought from country A, built in country B from materials processed in country C from raw materials from country D. Take any of these countries out of the equation and use of that component would need to be re-evaluated.

Take tungsten for instance. 83% of tungsten comes from China so a war which involved China would have repercusions on its usage.

You would either:
1) Use other sources which would require production to be vastly increased. This would take both time and money.
2) Find materials to replace tungsten. Again time and money.
3) Not use/use less tungsten.

This would see some 'cutting edge' technology being retired as its use becomes unsustainable due to costs. Reassessing of military capability and resultant tactics changes would become an everyday occurance as these abilities are constantly downgraded, at least initially.
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IKerensky wrote:
Several people ask for a more precise scenario so here is one :

1- Both belligerant intervene in a country that are close to their border and that risk to change allegiance. They both intervene in order to protect the rightfull government and the populations. Because of that the fighting is limited to conventionnal weaponnary (no nuclear, bacteriological nor chemicals) and out of heavily populated areas (limit civilian casualty).
The area of fighting is mainly agricultural and lowly density population, but quite large about 2000 km+ of front. As town aren't to be torched down both beligerant concentrate on surrounding them/besieging them and forcing the other side to withdraw rather than assault them.

2- UN intervention/ceasefire is not a possibility because a lot of the nation involved siege at the security council or are allies of people sieging here and the situation about who is right or who is the agressor is not clear enough to vote sanction (that would be vetoed anyway). Blue Helmets could be deployed in populated area but in small number as the nation that usually transport, supply or provide the Blue Helmet contingent are active belligerent in the conflict.

3- The main part of the belligerant arsenal and production capacity is out of reach of conventional weaponary or cruise missile (Ballistic/Continental range). The few ressources in range are equally important for both side, in neutral hand or equally vulnerable (you blow up mine, I blow up yours then nobody has anything and a lot of neutral people are now pissed against us (basically everyone else)).
One side is closest to the front but this proximity make his military infrastructure a bit more vulnerable, the other side is further away but his troops and supply is more vulnerable during the long transit.

4- Population support is rather good because the intervention is perceived as absolutely needed and vital for the survival of every belligerant. One side fear that it will open the door to more agression and hope to avoid a bigger war later on (WW2 trauma), it also need to proof his unity and political existence of his alliance of states recently weakened by elections. For the other side it is perceived as its last chance to prove they are still a main power or go down kicking. In case of defeat they fear to be entirely assimilated and destroyed culturaly, economicaly or military by an agressive and raising in power eastern neighbours.

5- The goal is not the annihilation or direct elimination of the other side. The goal is to assert his dominance over the other side on the political scene by asking from very heavy conditions (cease of land, payment of ressources as damage, political change,...). Non directly lethal method could be used against the other belligerant (blocus, cyber-attack, financial reprisal,...) . The goal is to destroy the conventional military potential of the adversary so he have to admit defeat but without exacting a toll on the civilian population nor cornering him into using nuclear weaponnary.

Here, I hope I was understandable


OK, let's call out your scenario for what it really represents. Russia, under Putin, decides to take the next step and openly invades Ukraine proper after Ukrainian forces clearly defeat Pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine appeals to NATO and, after diplomatic means to get Russia to back down fail, NATO reluctantly decides to intervene militarily. NATO members Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania, plus the Baltic States, are on the front line, opposed by Russia, while pro-Russia Belarus remains neutral. US and maybe UK forces deploy to the front line.

Let's start to develop the scenario. The US only maintains two Army combat brigades (more or less) in Europe these days, so these would have to be augmented by units from elsewhere to build a credible striking force. Airmobile units could be brought in rather quickly, but they are light and not equipped for sustained combat in a heavy environment. The US would therefore have to ship heavy forces to Europe, and as we saw with both Desert Storm and OIF, that takes time, like a month or more. I'm assuming the UK is not much faster, and that no other NATO members either have the desire or ability to contribute significantly to the creation of an offensive force that will directly engage Russian forces. In that time, Russian forces are rushing to consolidate their gains and present a fait accompli to the West.

I have to go to work now, but I leave it to others to build on this framework. I'll comment later...
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IKerensky wrote:
Yep, but what happen if fight is still going on after thoses weeks ?


Stalemate until one side or the other is able to replenish its stocks of ammunition, men and equipment.
 
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aiabx wrote:
IKerensky wrote:
Yep, but what happen if fight is still going on after thoses weeks ?


Stalemate until one side or the other is able to replenish its stocks of ammunition, men and equipment.


I think the keys are who runs out of 'first line' equipment / ammo first, how much the other side has left and to what extent they can parlay that advantage into gains. No one currently has the production capacity to maintain large forces in sustained combat (with 'first line arms') for long. However, small arms / ammo and 'dumb' projectiles (rockets or artillery) are relatively cheap and easy to produce quickly.

So there would presumably be an initial highly 'active' phase while the advanced munitions are used and equipment lost. If that doesn't end it, then one or both sides would 'run out' of such, and there would either be a lull while both sides tried to ramp up production and replenish their forces or the side that still had some left would try to leverage their advantage while they had such weapons and the other side was without. If one side was without while the other side still had such weapons the side without would obviously be at a significant disadvantage. However it would not necessarily end the fighting. Infantry dug into a city would not be so easily removed, even with such an advantage to the other side.

In the example of the current situation in Ukraine, if the US were to 'run out' first, they would likely withdraw and return later when resupplied. If Russia 'ran out' first they might well try to 'hang on' while the US expended their remaining stock. Also, there would be an ongoing risk of further escalation. If the US were to try to use such an advantage to strike 'infrastructure' (e.g. oil refinery mentioned above), that might well open the door to Russia striking 'infrastructure' in the US itself. Unfortunately, the weapons that would be used for such a counterstrike would still be available and their use would escalate the conflict further.
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A key point here is the scale of the conflict: limited or large scale ?

If there is a large scale conflict, the immediate material expenditure would be immense and the belligerents would scrape together, borrow, scavenge, cannibalize and beg for follow up parts, ammo and material to keep the fight going. Second line and obsolete equipment would soon become just as valuable as the latest boondangle... even more so if it is effective enough and more readily available. Reserve, training and stored equipment would be plundered and revamped. Never underestimate the ability and ingenuity of humans in such a situation.

A limited scale but intense conflict who cause the belligerents to strip other forces and theatres of equipment, even to their own detriment, ebfore replacement equipment can be sourced.

Example: The US may not have many active brigades in Europe (2 iirc), but it can get troops there quickly and can airlift in material too, it's expensive but possible.

Weakened forces in other areas may cause the conflict to widen as others see a weakness develop in an enemy and a potential to strike while the opposition is distracted.

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oi_you_nutter wrote:
A key point here is the scale of the conflict: limited or large scale ?


And thanks to the Information Age, a conflict will not be confined to a geographic area of operations. Tactical operations can be impacted by cyber-attacks from the farside of the world. Similarly, attacks against industry and infrastructure can be pinpointed for heavy effect at little or no cost, and trigger cascading failures linked to the aim point. Major cities need not come under bomber or missile attack to be damaged; cyberattack can cause chaos. As I used to tell folks in the Pentagon in the '90s, "The strategic is tactical and the tactical is strategic" meaning that distance no longer defines the scale or the scope.

And such attacks can come from non-nation actors as well as military powers.

Such globally-scoped attacks will affect the power projection of nations accustomed to performing it well and in a benign environment.

I have no doubt that such worldwide attacks will be launched well before the ammunition runs out.
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desertfox2004 wrote:
IKerensky wrote:
Several people ask for a more precise scenario so here is one :

1- Both belligerant intervene in a country that are close to their border and that risk to change allegiance. They both intervene in order to protect the rightfull government and the populations. Because of that the fighting is limited to conventionnal weaponnary (no nuclear, bacteriological nor chemicals) and out of heavily populated areas (limit civilian casualty).
The area of fighting is mainly agricultural and lowly density population, but quite large about 2000 km+ of front. As town aren't to be torched down both beligerant concentrate on surrounding them/besieging them and forcing the other side to withdraw rather than assault them.

2- UN intervention/ceasefire is not a possibility because a lot of the nation involved siege at the security council or are allies of people sieging here and the situation about who is right or who is the agressor is not clear enough to vote sanction (that would be vetoed anyway). Blue Helmets could be deployed in populated area but in small number as the nation that usually transport, supply or provide the Blue Helmet contingent are active belligerent in the conflict.

3- The main part of the belligerant arsenal and production capacity is out of reach of conventional weaponary or cruise missile (Ballistic/Continental range). The few ressources in range are equally important for both side, in neutral hand or equally vulnerable (you blow up mine, I blow up yours then nobody has anything and a lot of neutral people are now pissed against us (basically everyone else)).
One side is closest to the front but this proximity make his military infrastructure a bit more vulnerable, the other side is further away but his troops and supply is more vulnerable during the long transit.

4- Population support is rather good because the intervention is perceived as absolutely needed and vital for the survival of every belligerant. One side fear that it will open the door to more agression and hope to avoid a bigger war later on (WW2 trauma), it also need to proof his unity and political existence of his alliance of states recently weakened by elections. For the other side it is perceived as its last chance to prove they are still a main power or go down kicking. In case of defeat they fear to be entirely assimilated and destroyed culturaly, economicaly or military by an agressive and raising in power eastern neighbours.

5- The goal is not the annihilation or direct elimination of the other side. The goal is to assert his dominance over the other side on the political scene by asking from very heavy conditions (cease of land, payment of ressources as damage, political change,...). Non directly lethal method could be used against the other belligerant (blocus, cyber-attack, financial reprisal,...) . The goal is to destroy the conventional military potential of the adversary so he have to admit defeat but without exacting a toll on the civilian population nor cornering him into using nuclear weaponnary.

Here, I hope I was understandable


OK, let's call out your scenario for what it really represents. Russia, under Putin, decides to take the next step and openly invades Ukraine proper after Ukrainian forces clearly defeat Pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine appeals to NATO and, after diplomatic means to get Russia to back down fail, NATO reluctantly decides to intervene militarily. NATO members Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania, plus the Baltic States, are on the front line, opposed by Russia, while pro-Russia Belarus remains neutral. US and maybe UK forces deploy to the front line.

Let's start to develop the scenario. The US only maintains two Army combat brigades (more or less) in Europe these days, so these would have to be augmented by units from elsewhere to build a credible striking force. Airmobile units could be brought in rather quickly, but they are light and not equipped for sustained combat in a heavy environment. The US would therefore have to ship heavy forces to Europe, and as we saw with both Desert Storm and OIF, that takes time, like a month or more. I'm assuming the UK is not much faster, and that no other NATO members either have the desire or ability to contribute significantly to the creation of an offensive force that will directly engage Russian forces. In that time, Russian forces are rushing to consolidate their gains and present a fait accompli to the West.

I have to go to work now, but I leave it to others to build on this framework. I'll comment later...


I'll build on it.

Despite the rather pitiful posturing of some Western leaders, and the abject refusal to court conflict of the rest, physical resistance to a Russian westward advance would be akin the French and Polish attempts to resist the Germans in 39-40. The only thing that could stop them reaching the Atlantic would be tactical nukes and the only thing that could stop them keeping it would be the Russian's own logistical frailties.

The only thing stopping the Russians going into Ukraine is their own economic self-interest and the certain knowledge that a European-wide American-funded insurgency opposing Russian occupation would doom them. Personally I suspect that if they did invade Ukraine NATO would send them a very angry letter and nothing more. If they invaded an eastern European NATO member who invoked Article 5 then half the Alliance would refuse to support and NATO would be broken.

Just my opinion, though,
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elgin_j wrote:
. . . The only thing that could stop them reaching the Atlantic would be tactical nukes and the only thing that could stop them keeping it would be the Russian's own logistical frailties.


And I think those frailties would definitely stop them. They might subdue Ukraine, and they could roll through the Baltics, but I think that's about it.

elgin_j wrote:
Personally I suspect that if they did invade Ukraine NATO would send them a very angry letter and nothing more.


You're likely right on that point.

elgin_j wrote:
If they invaded an eastern European NATO member who invoked Article 5 then half the Alliance would refuse to support and NATO would be broken.


It might indeed break NATO. Ironically, NATO's weakness is a product of its own overly ambitious expansion -- a Victory Lap of sorts -- in the wake of the collapse of the USSR. It now has too much territory to protect with too little force to act as a deterrent, and what could be a fatal lack of consensus. NATO expansion was encouraged to quickly fill the void left by Moscow's retreat, but the members never reassessed its mission in the post-Cold War world.
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Jim McNaughton
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http://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/08/opinion/foreign-affairs-bi...

This article, published in 1996, suggests a simple way to assess whether or not a country is likely to have too much to lose by going to war with another industrialised economy. The important thing is therefore, that a McDonalds continues to serve in Moscow.

So this:

http://www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/russian-agenc...

might be the deciding factor!
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Bill Eldard
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Maccyn wrote:
http://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/08/opinion/foreign-affairs-bi...

This article, published in 1996, suggests a simple way to assess whether or not a country is likely to have too much to lose by going to war with another industrialised economy. The important thing is therefore, that a McDonalds continues to serve in Moscow.

So this:

http://www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/russian-agenc...

might be the deciding factor!


Like so many of Friedmann's clever theories, this rule was broken just 3 years later when NATO (mainly the US) attacked Yugoslavia (Serbia) in Operation Allied Force. Belgrade had McDonalds.

Friedmann was also the guy who coined the term "Arab Spring," which was supposed to caputre the uprising that were replacing authoritarian Arab regimes with democracies. Oops.
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