Streetwise Professor

February 25, 2023

Another Year of War in Ukraine: Ring Out the Old, Ring In the Old

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 11:52 am

Today is the first day of the second year of the Russo-Ukraine War, and there is every indication that 25 February 2024 will mark the first day of the third.

Putin gave one of his increasingly demented speeches on what used to be called Red Army Day. In a nutshell (emphasis on nut) he claimed that this is an existential . . . something . . . against the “collective west,” land of godless pedos. Apparently this is a preemptive war intended to defend Russia against an impending onslaught from Nato.

Which Putin’s own actions give the lie to: according to UK military intelligence, Putin has committed 95 percent of his combat power (such as it is) to fighting Ukraine. Which would leave the rest of Russia’s long borders with godless western pedos completely open to their attack. Not something someone fearing such an attack would do.

Speaking of borders, Putin’s wannabe mini-me, your favorite narcoleptic and mine, Dmitri Medvedev, ranted that it was necessary to push back Russia’s border with Poland by a significant distance. Er, I though math was a big deal in Russia. I guess not. A simple inductive proof demonstrates that this implies that Russia would have to absorb the entire European continent in order to achieve security. Which demonstrates the futility of any attempt to find a end to hostilities based on “addressing Russia’s security concerns.” Their security concerns are unaddressable, except by dissolution of the west.

The rationalizations and projections and aspersions in these speeches don’t really matter. What matters is that they show that Putin will continue to grind on, fighting to the last Russian, to . . . . Who knows? I am reminded of Santayana: “Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” The war has become an end in itself, not as Clausewitz famously said, politics carried out by other means.

Fanaticism or no, the prospect is for war without an end in sight. So just how is that going?

Late last year and early this there were repeated warnings of an impending Russian offensive. Some people are still talking about an “impending” offensive.

Wrong. Nothing is impending: the offensive has started. And it is going about as well as previous offensives. Arguably worse, actually. One way to summarize would be Wellington’s remark regarding Waterloo: “They came on in the same old way, and we sent them back in the same old way.“ Though Napoleon made it “the nearest run thing you ever saw” (again in the words of Wellington), on most of the front in Ukraine it is not a near run thing at all.

Why do I say the offensive has started? Several reasons. First, Putin is in a hurry. He has demonstrated his impatience time and again. Second, the evidence on the ground: the frequency and intensity of Russian attacks has increased (even if the results have not). Third, the time of year: in not too long the raputitsa will make maneuver and advance very difficult. Fourth, the Russians have every incentive to try to get ahead of the next wave of equipment (notably tanks and air defenses) that the west is (slowly) supplying to Ukraine.

The main fighting has centered on the town of Bakhmut. The Russians have “succeeded,” at the cost of immense casualties, shoving back Ukrainian positions a few kilometers here, a few hundred meters there.

If Russia takes Bakhmut, so what? Itself it has no real strategic importance. The battle reminds me of say Pork Chop Hill in Korea in 1953. The hill had very little intrinsic military importance. But the Chinese and the Americans invested it with a symbolic importance–we can’t let those other bastards have it!–and hence spent many lives and countless artillery fires to take it. Or fights over useless bits of blasted terrain in Verdun, 1916, Fort Douaumont, for example.

Bakhmut is like that. It has become important because both sides have made it a test of wills and capability.

Even if Russia takes the town, it has no ability to break out and exploit into the Ukrainian rear. Bakhmut is an infantry and artillery battle, and shoving back the Ukrainian front a bit here or there will just shift the location of the next infantry and artillery battle. This is like WWI, where even local gains could not be exploited because of the inherent limitations on movement of the attacking forces.

In WWI the Allies achieved something resembling breakout and exploitation in late-October, early-November 1918 only because the German army had been bled white in its spring offensives and the allies had amassed overwhelming superiority in infantry, artillery, armor and airpower, not least because of the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

The Germans made gains in their 1918 offensives, but those eventually also culminated far short of objectives due to the inherent limitations of trying to take large areas at speeds dictated by logistics and the pace of horses and men on foot. Nearly the same limitations the ground pounding Russian army faces today.

The Germans were in much better shape in March-May 1918, moreover, than the Russians are now. They could bring hundreds of thousands of relatively fresh, and experienced, troops from the East to spearhead the offensive. The Russians are scraping the bottom of the barrel, throwing the unfit and untrained into futile assaults in which their lifespans are measured in hours, at most.

As I noted near the beginning of the war, one reason for Russian failure then was they attempted to use armor without infantry. Now they are attempting to use infantry without armor–and when they do attempt to use armor, as they did recently at Vuhledar, the result is a bloody shambles. But without armor any possibility of exploitation is nil.

Meaning that stalemate is in prospect indefinitely.

The stalemate has brought about one change in Russian politics: the dogs are no longer fighting under the carpet, but in plain sight. In particular, the ghoulish-looking (and face it, just plain ghoulish) Yevgeny Prigozhin has been attacking publicly the Russian defense establishment. Festernik has taken credit for the gains at Bakhmut and Soledar (such as they are), and claims that the defense ministry and army have caused the slaughter of many Wagner troops by withholding artillery ammunition. Further, the nationalist right has been attacking the military for its incompetence–with good reason.

All is not well in Muscovy, in other words, and in contrast to history, some of the unhappiness is being played out in public.

Objective conditions imply that the internecine struggle will get only worse. It is the product of failure on the battlefield, and no end of such failure is in sight. A new year of war has begun, but it will not be different than the old year. A dreary verdict, but the only one the facts support.

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  1. Yup, things will stay the same. Until they don’t.

    I can see that trouble might come in Moscow but mightn’t it also come in Ukraine? Or must we assume that billions of USD buy the silence of the Ukrainian establishment?

    What a horrible bloody fiasco. I hope Ms Nuland and all the others who wanted to provoke it are happy with what they’ve got.

    If this does grind on for another year how will things be in Germany, I wonder.

    Comment by dearieme — February 25, 2023 @ 3:41 pm

  2. Yup, things will stay the same. Until they don’t.

    I can see that trouble might come in Moscow but mightn’t it also come in Ukraine?
    Well, not quite.

    As you say professor, the Russians have fanatically “forgotten their aim” (sic).
    Russia does seem to be pinning its hopes on “war without an end in sight”.

    All indications are that they are using human wave attacks, employing armour without infantry, and infantry without armour etc., no real strategy at all, no evidence of combined operations. I would characterize their performance at the moment as flailing (and with all that fire power, very dangerous indeed). But stoppable.

    But this does not mean stalemate.

    Ukraine is far from the chimera its critics, naïve or belligerent, paint it. Ukraine is far from the corrupt nation it was under Yanukovich (under Russian influence?). Since 2014 they have made great strides in fighting corruption. People generally don’t realize that the Maidan revolution was not primarily about Yanukovich being pro-Russian. It was about Yanukovich being the most corrupt politician anybody ever heard of.
    Indeed, the election of Zelensky was a reaction to the perceived slowness of the war on corruption by the Poroshenko gov’t.

    Ukraine today is unified like almost no other country in the world.
    Every Ukrainian that believes in the existence of Ukraine in emotion if not deed, and every Ukrainian that is defending his country gun in hand, knows exactly why they are fighting, and that it is worth it. This can’t be said about Russia.

    Ukraine has a military command that has proven itself capable of organizing military strategic operations (sometimes not very competently). Their current holding of the line against Russia’s attempt at an offensive, however, I think is mistakenly perceived as stalemate. I don’t believe we are in a state of stalemate. I think Ukraine believes (knows?) that it can hold off Russia’s current offensive.

    Ukraine is growing stronger. Much stronger.
    Russia is growing weaker. Much weaker.
    Probably before the end of the year, Ukraine will choose a time when Russia is most vulnerable, probably after this (ahem..) offensive culminates, and they will strike.

    The war may not be over by this time next year, but I am willing to bet the frontline will be in a much different place, very possibly corresponding to the 2013 borders.

    Comment by Gordon — February 25, 2023 @ 8:31 pm

  3. Professor Pirrong, have you seen Naftali Bennett‘s recent interview? What do you think of his claim that Western leaders stopped negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, which had big chances of producing peace deal, in order to inflict maximum harm on Putin? I think that it’s pretty big revelation.

    Comment by mmt — February 26, 2023 @ 2:59 pm

  4. Well, again, on which data does one dare to try an overwiew of the status quo? Some say, Ukraine is as good as destroyed and split apart, one part to stay with Russia, one with Romania, one with Hungary, one with Poland. Millions of Ukranian refugees to never return. Hundreds of Thousands died or wounded. Rest-Ukraine stripped off its economic and raw material centers. The ‘Ukrainian Nazis’ defeated…but only Russia would use this label…but Soros would have financed the Ukrainian movement since 2014 and earlier that led to this outcome…did nobody ever consider the question, whether an open society institute run by a jewish Hungarian financier that grew up in Nazi occupied Budapest intented this to happen…Bandera’s follower and country crushed…? Soro’s second wife’s motto was ‘zero tolerance for bullshit’. Any how about this comedian and actor running the country…? Nobody getting second thoughts? And could Bennett really bother?

    Comment by Mikey — March 3, 2023 @ 2:41 pm

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