Streetwise Professor

February 20, 2024

Alexei Navalny: Voluntary Martyr

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 3:29 pm

The most stunning news from Russia in recent days–months or maybe years, for that matter–is the death of Alexei Navalny in a Siberian prison.

This was murder, if not by poisoning, strangulation, suffocation, beating, shooting, stabbing or what have you, then by incarceration in a 21st century gulag. (You wonder why so many Russian convicts “agreed” to fight in Ukraine for a promise–since reneged upon in some cases–of release upon completion of military service? You shouldn’t. And the prison to which Navalny was confined–often in solitary–was the worst of the worst.)

Navalny was obviously a brave man. Insanely so. He volunteered for martyrdom by returning to Russia after a failed poisoning attempt (in which he brilliantly proved state involvement by punking one of the perps in a prank phone call). And martyred he was.

And like many martyrs, he and his story are far more complex and ambiguous than the hagiography would lead you to believe. In particular, Navalny was no liberal, classical or otherwise, in the Western sense. He was, in fact, a Russian chauvinist and nationalist. He in fact supported the annexation of Crimea for a long time, and his rhetoric about Ukrainians was not all that different from Putin’s.

Indeed, it is plausible that the special enmity that Putin and his clique directed at Navalny, as opposed to other opposition figures, is attributable to the fact that he had the potential to appeal to their base (Russo-chauvinists) far more effectively than anyone else.

Those who have been following Russia for some time surely remember La Russophobe, whose virulent hatred for Putin was second to none. Yet she also held Navalny in disdain, precisely because he was a Russian nationalist. (La Russophobe went silent years ago–more than a decade if memory serves–because she saw the futility of raging against Putin, in part because Navalny was the only apparent alternative.). Not endorsing her. Just pointing out that anti-Putin definitely does not imply pro-liberal.

Yes, the Russian siloviki–of whom Putin is the front man, but not necessarily the head man (with Patrushev being the most likely eminence grise)–have killed many who have threatened them. But Navalny is not Progozhin is not Politkovskaya. They are all different, except in that they were perceived threats to the siloviki.

Navalny’s death is being used in the West generally, and the United States in particular, to resuscitate popular anti-Putin sentiment to facilitate the flow of further aid to Ukraine. As if we needed further proof of Putin’s–and the siloviki’s–ruthlessness and depravity.

The case for aid to Ukraine–and in what form and what amount–should not be based on Mr. Mackey-esque “Putin is bad, so don’t do Putin, uhm-kay” rhetoric.

Instead, it should be based on a sober appraisal of national interest.

Which brings me to the most recent battlefield development–the Russian capture of Avdiivka. This too is being used to make the case for continued (and lavish) American support.

But here’s the dirty little secret: Ukraine lost Avdiivka because of a shell shortage, period, and additional supplies from the US or Europe in the quantities needed are not forthcoming. The cupboard is bare. The US could pass a $1 trillion military aid package for Ukraine, and it would not make one iota of difference on the battlefield for months, because shell production is maxed out already, and US stocks have been reduced to dangerous levels.

Only shells matter. (Something I pointed out in March 2022.). Yes, more Patriots or HIMARs would help, but without copious artillery Ukraine is on the back foot. And shells are not forthcoming not because the US (and Europe) won’t supply them in the numbers needed, but because they can’t.

Militarily, the capture of Avdiivka is irrelevant. As I have written before, it was merely a salient in the front line, and even after collapsing it Russia does not have the capability of exploiting and breaking out. Ukraine will just withdraw to (belatedly) prepared lines to the west, and the stalemate will resume.

Indeed, Russia doesn’t even appear to be attempting to exploit its “victory.” Reports suggest that they are redeploying troops from Avdiivka to other points along the contact line, where they will pinch a salient here or there–at best.

And the cost that Russia has paid to gain a few square kilometers of blasted ground has been appalling. One must discount casualty reports, but sifting through both Ukrainian and Russian accounts it appears that Russia prevailed in Avdiivka by deploying disproportionate numbers of troops–and suffering disproportionate losses.

All so Vlad can squat over another blasted shithole and claim battlefield success as a reason to vote for him in a sham election from which he has banned any viable opponent. Or killed them, as in the case of Navalny.

February 9, 2024

When Vlad Met Tucker

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:47 pm

The hysteria over Tucker Carlson’s interview of Vladimir Putin is yet another monument to the stupidity of our age. And a very revealing.

Apparently Carlson was supposed to go all Perry Mason on Vova, leaving him to blubber out confessions. As if.

Putin is a pathological liar and master of whataboutism and projection. He would have batted away more aggressive questions with ease, and probably enjoyed it. As the old joke goes, never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and the pig likes it.

As it was, Carlson’s questions gave Putin ample opportunity to put his psychopathy on full display. His long historical disquisitions were particularly revealing, though not at all surprising to me as someone who has written about them for going on two decades.

As for projection, this is a classic:

This from the guy who has for decades intimidated his own population with an imaginary Nato threat.

But most are probably unfamiliar, and giving Putin a platform to spin his Fractured Fairy Tales view of history to a Western audience is a great service.

Indeed, those screeching the loudest should be particularly happy that Putin’s pathologies are put on display to the world: it gives them an opportunity to show them for what they are.

But the “elites” cannot countenance the idea of Putin (or Trump for that matter) communicating with the public without going through their filter. This betrays either deep insecurity about their ability to demonstrate that the ludicrous is in fact ludicrous, or more likely, a deep disdain for the ability of the hoi polloi to discern Putin’s mendacity without the tutelage of their betters. In their minds, they are pre-Reformation priests and only they can be trusted to convey scriptural truth to the masses: the shlubs cannot be relied upon to draw the “right” conclusions–that is, the officially sanctioned ones.

The Reformation is a pretty good metaphor of our current travails. Publication of the Bible in the common languages of the people made possible “every man his own priest,” which was a deep challenge to the authority of the established Church, which claimed a monopoly on truth, and in particular on the interpretation of the Bible. Today, modern platforms permit people to access information not filtered and curated by our “elite” clerisy.

And the clerisy’s reaction is no different than that of the Catholic Church in the 15th and 16th centuries: moral panic that triggers a repressive response.

The reaction also shows what they think of you. That without their oh so benevolent guidance, you are all to prone to lapse into heresy. So the repression is for your own good, dontcha know.

Private Patrick Martin of the 1st New York: Patriot, Rogue, Both, or Neither?

Filed under: Civil War — cpirrong @ 12:31 pm

I have long had a very extensive genealogy of my mother’s family, with the exception of my maternal grandmother’s father, Francis (“Frank”) L. Martin. I knew he was an Irishman from NYC (my grandmother spoke of his thick New Yawk accent) who was born in the 1860s, but finding a particular Irishman in New York City in the 1860s or 1870s is a challenge. Fortunately, a few days ago I was able to find my great-grandparents’ marriage record, which gave Frank’s parents’ names–Patrick Martin and Catherine Kerr Martin.

With that in hand, the 1860, 1870, and 1880 Censuses allowed me to identify which Patrick Martin was my ancestor.

The 1860 Census was particularly interesting. Patrick Martin was 28 years old then. I immediately thought: likely candidate for Civil War service. Using Fold3 I identified the 30 odd “Patrick Martins” who served in the Union army, and using the New York Adjutant General’s reports I was able to narrow down the candidates to one man, who was mustered into the 1st New York Volunteer Infantry (a two-year outfit) on 7 May 1861. His age in 1861?: 29. Bingo.

Now it’s possible that that Patrick is not my Patrick. But there was no other 28 year old Patrick Martin in the 1860 Census for NYC. So it’s highly likely to be a match.

And there the story gets interesting. The 1st New York was–as its regimental number indicates–raised immediately in response to Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers on 15 April 1861. (Weird coincidence: Lincoln was assassinated exactly 4 years later.) Patrick’s company (“H”) was the last to be mustered.

One possibility is that Patrick was fervently patriotic and rushed to the colors at the first opportunity. But there are others. He had a wife, 3 children, and a father in his home. Was volunteering an escape from a claustrophobic family life? Or perhaps he was an early example of what William Marvel calls “Lincoln’s Mercenaries,” individuals for whom military service was the best economic opportunity available, especially if he believed (as most did) that the war would be short and glorious. (He was a stage driver by profession, according to the Census.)

If patriotic fervor was indeed Patrick’s motivation, it eventually dissipated. The 1st NY fought in the war’s first significant land battle–Big Bethel–soon after mustering, and then participated in the Peninsular Campaign and the Seven Days’ Battles. Its largest engagement was at Glendale/Frayser’s Farm, when most of its color guard was shot down.

With the rest of the Army of the Potomac, after fighting in a supporting role at Malvern Hill the 1st retired to Harrison’s Landing, where it lingered for more than a month before being ordered north to join Pope’s Army of Virginia near Washington. It was transported by train to Alexandria, and upon debarking there on 22 August 1862 Patrick Martin decided to debark from the army. He deserted.

Again possibilities abound. No doubt the realities of 13 months of active campaigning disabused Patrick of his visions of military service. The crushing of hopes during McClellan’s retreat from before Richmond certainly discouraged many soldiers in his army, especially while they lingered at Harrison’s Landing. (I will do some research to see if there was a desertion uptick at this time.).

But maybe it was the need of his large family, or genuine affection for them, that led him to take a powder when reaching the banks of the Potomac. Was there a plaintive letter (or letters) from Catherine?

All I know so far is that Patrick deserted. His post-desertion fate remains unknown to me. I have ordered his full service record from the National Archives. Perhaps that will reveal more. But based on my experience with these records, perhaps not.

It is things such as these that are grist for historical fiction, where imagination fills factual gaps. I have a slim set of facts which fit numerous alternative explanations. But whatever explanation is the correct one, this Patrick Martin’s (voluntarily) abbreviated military service casts an interesting light on the realities of social and military experience at the outset of the Civil War.

Senility, Sundowning, and Seances: The Biden Presidency in a Nutshell

Filed under: Politics — cpirrong @ 11:48 am

“Independent” Counsel Robert Hur’s report on Biden’s squirreling away–and sharing–classified documents (including documents with very high classification levels) merely puts the exclamation point on what your lyin’ eyes have been telling you the last few years: Joe Biden, never sharper than a bowling ball (as friend of the blog Global Guru put it), is now a senile husk of a man who struggles to remember important parts of his own life.

Actually, Hur leaves Biden an out: he’s faking it. As Hur put it, he decided not to indict Biden for the crimes he committed in flagrante delicto because if put on trial, Biden would “present himself to the jury” as a well-meaning, befuddled old man. The “present himself” suggests that Hur is insinuating that Biden’s forgetting is feigned, a la mobster Vincent “The Chin” Gigante.

As if that would make it better.

But Biden’s forgettiness and mental fog have been on conspicuous display even when he has a strong incentive not to pretend to be befuddled.

For example, his multiple recent claims to have spoken with world leaders who happened to be dead at the time of the alleged conversations.

Apparently Biden doesn’t attend summits. He attends seances.

In a kamikaze-like attempt at damage control, they wheeled out Biden for a late (for him) press conference at 8PM ET last night.

Never a good idea to put a man prone to sundowning on display in a stressful situation after sundown. Like most kamikazes, Biden went down in flames without impacting the target.

In fact, the performance put paid to any doubts regarding Biden’s senility. His rage-y responses to press questions are symptomatic of senescence, not a refutation thereof: it is well known (and experienced by many with aged parents) that the senile respond with intense anger at any suggestion of their cognitive decline.

This is where we are now as a country. The crucial question is where we will go from here. Can Biden possibly remain the candidate in the 2024 election? Hell, can he even remain president until the 2024 election? If not, then who will it be?

Initial indications are that the Democrats are sticking with their (husk of a) man.

Perhaps they think they are shackled to a corpse, and have no other choice. But are they really shackled to Biden? Do they believe they are because the alternative is Kamala, who is as clueless as Biden but doesn’t have the excuse of senility? Or is it because the string pullers figure that it is far easier to pull the strings of a sundowner with a closet of skeletons than someone who is compos mentis and at least remotely ethical (by DC standards)?

Regardless, this election is shaping up to be an utter clusterfuck. How has the greatest country in the world come to this?

My simple answer is the one I gave back in 2016 when I thought things were bad but I had no idea what a real clusterfuck is: our “elites.”

Establishment delenda est. Perhaps the only good thing that can come from our politics in the coming months is that this will come to pass. Hope was the last thing to emerge from Pandora’s Box. And that’s pretty much all we have right now.

February 3, 2024

The Groundhog Day War

Filed under: History,Military,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 4:44 pm

Yesterday was Groundhog Day, and the classic movie by that name is an apt metaphor for the war in Ukraine. Different day, same bad shit, day after day after day.

Defense Minister and all around shlub Sergei Shoigu proudly claims that Russia has the initiative. Yeah, I guess you could say that, because they are the ones attacking repeatedly all along the front. But seizing the initiative yields them nothing but piles of corpses (disproportionately Russian) and masses of demolished tanks and AFVs (almost all Russian). It certainly does not yield them gains on the ground, at least not gains measured in more than meters, and a tree line or field here or there.

Russian tactics, such as they are, beggar description. Day after day they send penny packets of armored vehicles in strung out along some muddy track, only to see them centimated (decimated means losing one out of ten, so I made up a more accurate word). The armor seldom makes contact before it is blown up. What progress the Russians do make is with bloody infantry assaults that take slivers of ground, often because the Ukrainians run out of ammunition. Sometimes those slivers are taken away in counterattacks.

Decisive action by armor requires it to be deployed in mass. Sending a platoon here and a platoon there is idiotic and cannot achieve anything, let alone a decisive breakthrough.

To give an idea of how farcical this all is, in a rare Russian advance measuring more than a kilometer (in southern Avdiivka) they tunneled under a Ukrainian strongpoint, popped out of the ground, and seized it. As a result, Russia obtained a long finger of territory, under fire control and at constant threat of attack on either or both sides of the bulge.

What, is Russia going to tunnel its way to Kiev, let alone Lviv or Odessa?

Most of the Russian vehicle casualties are now caused by drones, especially First Person Video (FPV) drones (you don’t hear much about Bayraktars anymore), rather than artillery. That’s because the Ukrainians are suffering from a severe shell shortage. Western stocks and production cannot keep pace with the prodigious consumption of ammunition in a static battle.

Videos tell the tale. Back in the summer many videos (taken from drones) depicted Russians being plastered with artillery, and cluster munitions in particular. One seldom sees those now. Instead, it is video after video of FPVs smashing into Russian armor: some from the attacking FPVs themselves, some from recon drones loitering overhead.

Ukraine’s vaunted summer offensive, which was worse than a damp squib, was stymied primarily as a result of deep Russian prepared defense lines, including dense mine belts. Apparently after eschewing constructing such defenses themselves, Ukraine is belatedly doing so. (The fraught situation around Avdiivka largely reflects the lack of prepared defenses in that salient.)

Ukraine apparently took a similar attitude to the French and British in WWI, whereas the Russians adopted the German approach. The Germans built massive, semi-permanent fortifications in the lands they captured in France and Belgium: one of the few interesting parts of the otherwise vastly overrated film 1917 was the depiction of the elaborate German trenches and bunkers that they abandoned when withdrawing to the Hindenberg Line, and which amazed the Tommys who stumbled into them. The Tommys were amazed because their trenches (and French ones too) were much less elaborate, and much more in the nature of temporary field fortifications than permanent positions (like the Germans’). This was a conscious choice by the Allies, and in particular the French, who reasoned (if you can use that word here) that building more permanent defenses would be seen as a concession to German occupation of French lands, demarcating a new border. The trenches were just launching points for offensives–that failed.

Ukraine’s failure to build up lines analogous to the Russian Sorovikin Lines (three deep) is evidently due to the same “reasoning.” Building them would establish a de facto border.

The reconsideration of more elaborate defensive lines is just one reflection of a command crisis in Ukraine. The failed offensive and the recognition that the war is likely to drag on for years is creating consternation in Kiev, and one manifestation of this is the falling out between Zelensky and Ukrainian military chief Valery Zaluzhny. Zelensky is trying to push Zaluzhny out, but the general says: I won’t quit, you have to fire me. Given Zaluzhny’s popularity, that’s risky for Zelensky to do–although truth be told Zaluzhny’s popularity is probably the main reason Zelensky wants him gone.

Zaluzhny’s fate was sealed last year in articles quoting him criticizing Zelensky and the Ukrainian strategy overall. Doubling down, yesterday he released an article calling for a complete revision of Ukrainian strategy.

So all is not happy in Kiev, but it shouldn’t be smiles and giggles in Moscow either because if anything Putin’s strategy and tactics are failing even worse than Ukraine’s. But Vlad appears drunk on delusions, this week saying that his objective was to advance the front sufficiently to put Russian-occupied territory out of range of Western-supplied long range weaponry. Beyond the fact that this logic implies that Russia would have to occupy all of western Europe (including the UK!) because more territory would be required to create a buffer for the new territory (wash, rinse, repeat), this reflects a complete failure to recognize the realities on the ground, where Russians cannot take and hold meters here and there, let alone tens or hundreds of kilometers along a 1000 kilometer front.

The one area in which Ukraine has achieved some success is in deep strikes by drones and Western weapons (e.g., Scalp missiles, HIMARs). And by deep, I mean well inside Russia, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities. These strikes have hit air bases and economic targets, most notably arms manufacturing facilities, ports, and oil assets.

Crimea has been hit the hardest. The Black Sea Fleet has been driven away to Novorossiysk after losing several ships in Sevastopol. Russian air bases and command centers on the peninsula have also been hammered.

Fascinatingly, high ranking Russians, including the commander of the Black Sea Fleet and even the head of the Stavka, Valery Gerasimov, have not bee seen since attacks on Sevastopol, leading to suspicions that they were killed or badly wounded in the strikes. Hell, Lloyd Austin reappeared after a couple of weeks. Gerasimov has been MIA for 35 days. Where’s Valery?

The success of these strikes lays bare the Potemkin nature of Russian air defenses, including their vaunted S-400 systems. Indeed, the Ukrainians have taken out many of these systems: SAMs, defend thyself!

The Russians claim to shoot down everything shot at them. I mean everything. So why the explosions and destruction of valuable assets? Well, you see, the missiles and drones their valiant air defenses down hit the targets while plummeting to earth. Like this one that started massive fires at a Lukoil facility:

Dizzy with success! Or should it be on fire with success?

The failure of Russian air defenses should not be surprise. Soviet and Russian built AA systems have been shredded every time they have been confronted since their initial successes (due largely to surprise) in North Vietnam in the late-60s and early-70s, and Egypt (in 1973). After the shock of their losses to these systems in those wars, the Americans and Israelis designed and implemented comprehensive suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD–which really means DEAD, for destruction of enemy air defenses) operations. Dismantling of Russian air defenses is therefore not unexpected, although it is shocking to see how Ukraine has been able to extemporize a successful SEAD strategy with such scant resources, especially as compared to the US and Israel.

The chain reaction effects have been fascinating to watch. Ukrainian destruction of Russian ground based radars required them to fly their version of AWACs (the A-50) close to the shores of the Sea of Azov–which happened to be in range of Ukrainian operated Patriots, which destroyed the A-50 and seriously damaged its companion aircraft, an IL-22 (poor man’s version of an RC-135 Rivet Joint).

These deep strikes are damaging, and embarrassing to Russia. (Assuming Putin is capable of embarrassment, which on the basis of the record is a dubious proposition.) But they are not war winning.

Instead, they are just another vignette in Groundhog War.

I haven’t written much about this war because there’s seldom little new to say. I have every expectation that there will be another long hiatus, because there’s nothing in prospect that will decisively alter the situation.

So here we are, and here we will stay.

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