Russia Plays Into Ukrainian Rope-A-Dope

Though It Would Rather Be Doing Something Else

I was 13 when Mohammad Ali, the underdog, fought George Foreman, the 4-to-1 favorite, in the Rumble in the Jungle, where Ali employed a “rope-a-dope” technique; that is, Ali let Foreman hit him continuously against the ropes. Round after round, Ali took a beating.

Ali won by knockout in round eight. During the fight few saw that coming. Most believed Foreman would wear Ali down and one of the punches would send him to the canvas.

Ukraine didn’t choose to fight Russia. So the analogy quickly falls apart. However, there are a couple of similarities worth noting.

No fighter has unlimited energy. Russia may have material (power) advantage of 6-to-1 in howitzers and ordinance but that wouldn’t stop Ukraine from gaining a time advantage if Russia exhausts itself and must take time to re-arm.

When Ali believed Foreman was spent, and would need time to recuperate, Ali succeeded in knocking Foreman out.

Foreman spent many years regretting a simple fact. He didn’t have to engage Ali against the ropes. The technique only worked because Foreman chose to play Ali’s game.

Also, no one knew if Ali could knock Foreman out, no matter how exhausted Foreman became.

Ukraine too, can’t win just because Russia tires itself out. That doesn’t mean it won’t.

Ali is legend because he had the confidence to take round after round of losses in the belief that he would be able use a small time advantage to knock Foreman out. If the fight went to a decision and Ali lost, his rope-a-dope tactic would have gone down in history as a pathetic attempt by a big talker to take the title from the better boxer.

Ukraine is dealing with a similar psychology. I believe most people expect Russia to prevail in the end; that is, Russia will keep most of the territory they currently occupy. They already have it, right?

Many Ukrainian fighters must be finding it difficult to believe they’ll win, no matter how much firepower Russia wastes.

Mark Wylie

Today in the New York Times it was reported “The Western sanctions intended to create pain for Russia have sent food and energy prices skyrocketing across the world, even as Moscow’s war machine has shown little sign of slowing down.”

Should Ukraine quit?

Foreman didn’t show any signs of slowing down either. It’s impossible to measure what strength a fighter has left; nor the confidence of his opponent. Aggression has a quality of its own too.

All of Russia’s relentless pummeling makes it easy to lose sight of a fundamental truth governing any battle or war. The more material expended the less one has left. The Times reporter could have added “little sign of slowing down…on their way to depleting their entire inventory of missiles”.

Of course, experts are interviewed who believe Russia is running out of equipment and ordinance. Yet no matter how much we understand the math of depletion, Russia’s firing everything it has, day in, and day out — again — leads us to believe it will go on forever. Despite all their confidence, Ukraine is probably barely holding it together.

One reason Foreman lost was because he overestimated how much energy he had left. But that’s not all of it. When Ali went on the attack he leveraged a psychological quirk.

Let’s back up.

From the beginning of the war, Ukraine has been been capturing Russian equipment whenever they gain a local advantage. Russians mostly fight if they have an overwhelming advantage.

Advantages can be measured in many ways. What advantages do Russian units have in the Donbas, in the South, the North? What advantages in artillery for each area? In expertise? Does it matter if a local unit of Russians lose when they can fall back to the greater, larger power of the Russian occupation? From the Russian soldier’s perspective, as long as they can withdraw to the safety of their larger force, they will keep the psychological feeling of superiority.

During the Ali-Foreman fight Ali was continuously taunting Foreman, saying “Is that all you got, George?” Ukraine can’t employ such a tactic openly, but should we believe Ukraine isn’t waging that war through propaganda, like through intercepted phone calls from Russians?

That is, even if Russia is losing strength, Ukraine would only attack when it has a one-two punch. The “two” being Russia’s psychology becoming weak enough to fold. Victory for Ukraine probably won’t come from a slug-fest against Russia. It could come when most Russian soldiers feel they have nowhere to fall back on.

Watching the war it seems so obvious that Russia is going to win. Yet every time I work through the logic I come to the same conclusion.

Here is that logic

  • After 120+ days Russia is no closer to subjugating Ukraine than it was before February 24th. Therefore, Russia should quit attacking. But like Foreman, it just can’t conceive of losing.
  • Sanctions work, they just take time. Moreover, their ability to weaken another nation’s military is underappreciated.
  • No smaller autocracy has ever prevailed over a large democracy.
  • Russia is fighting with poor, uneducated men from small villages; Ukraine is fighting with men and women from all aspects of society — including experienced foreigners.
  • Russia is expending ordinance and wearing down equipment faster than it is replacing it with newly manufactured equipment. (A big question, does the West have, and can deliver, enough equipment to Ukraine for it to gain the upper hand? Those stats are closely guarded secrets but I believe if it was a problem we’d notice it in the posture of Western leaders.)
  • In time, Russia’s inventory of weapons will reach parity with Ukraine’s; however, Ukraine’s weapons will continue to improve while Russia will find it more difficult to manufacture weapons (again, Sanctions).
  • Even China and India will run out of storage for cheap Russian oil which will make it increasingly difficult for Russia to make money it can use, even in China.
  • China does not want trouble with its Muslim Eastern half (Xinjiang may be pacified but there are more areas than that). So I don’t see China risking domestic unrest in the East by shipping weapons across both countries to Ukraine. I’m firmly of the belief that China wants nothing to do with Russia’s self-destruction.
  • Putin’s regime doesn’t listen to its pro-Russian “crowdsourcing” criticism. Therefore, it continues to make tactical military blunders.
  • Comparing economic strength, Russia has as much chance of defeating the West as Texas would have beating the United States at large.
  • Russia burnt too many Western and Asian bridges with its continuous threat of nuclear war. For all their differences, the West, China and Asia will end up on the same page when it comes to Russia’s ability to threaten anyone with nuclear war in the future — these aren’t threats that will be forgotten, in my opinion. (Not once has the US or China even remotely suggested that nukes would be used over Taiwan).
  • Russia has no real friends. As cynical as I am, friendship does exist. For starters, Poland took in most of Ukraine’s women and children. China has done nothing for Russia of any substance.
  • China and the EU want Russian gas/oil. The U.S. wants Russia de-militarized. The average Russian doesn’t care wo runs the country. The cost of outside Russian interests taking it by force, and economic siege warfare, is declining relative to the cost prior invasion.
  • Russia believes it’s damaging Ukrainian morale by terrorizing various cities with missiles. Instead, it revitalizes Western support. More ordinance wasted.

When will everyone recognize Russia’s defeat? I have no idea. It could be next week or years from now.

Unless something happens in the West, which stops them from supporting Ukraine, it’s only a matter of time before Russia wears itself out. The big question is will Ukraine be able to keep it psychologically together until that opportunity presents itself?

The rope-a-dope takes time. And in that time Ukraine has to feed some Western narrative. What better narrative than they need more weapons or they’ll lose? It’s not that Ukraine doesn’t need more weapons. The question is, IF Ukraine is employing a rope-a-dope strategy what PR/propaganda would make the most sense? Ali had to let some punches come through. He had to look weak.

In the real world, wars do not have a limits in rounds fought, where judges decide the winner in the end.

Even if this logic is mostly right, I’ll be wrong about something big. When I write these stories I try to make sure I don’t miss anything. It’s interesting to find out later what I missed.

After the war, the West can focus on civil war, or maybe war with China, or both. Or maybe the Ukraine war will bring everyone to their senses. One can only hope.

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Max Rottersman

Max Rottersman

I try to write stories that go where the general media doesn’t.