Streetwise Professor

May 4, 2023

Another Impenetrable Moscow Mystery

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:02 pm

The big news in the Russo-Ukrainian war transpired not in Bakhmut or anywhere else on the battle lines, but in Moscow where a drone struck a flag flying over the dome of the Kremlin:

Like all things Russia that have occurred over the last year plus (e.g., the Nordstream explosions, the Darya Dugin assassination) no one knows for sure who is responsible, or why. Hence, the theories and accusations fly fast and furious, but with no facts by which to evaluate, only competing theories of motive exist, and people make judgments based on their prejudices and their beliefs (largely shaped by their prejudices) of what motive sounds most plausible.

Yes, the Ukrainians have a motive. But they deny any involvement. You could also argue that realizing the possible reactions in Russia, they would not do this–or at least the government would not. (See below.). But there are hotheaded elements in Ukraine who would not be so restrained, and who might even want to provoke an escalation.

Putin might also have a motive–a false flag operation to blow up the flag on the Kremlin, as it were. In order to justify escalation, as wildly hypocritical as that would be: “We can invade you, bomb your capital (and many other cities), attempt to assassinate your president, but how dare you fling a few drones at us!”

Track record gives this theory credence–there is a reasonable likelihood that Putin orchestrated the apartment bombings in Ryazan in order to justify the Second Chechen War. Further, the catastrophic failures of the past 14 months mean that the regime needs to do something to distract from the disasters and the death, and to feed the narrative of Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia that must be vanquished regardless of the cost.

The hysterical Russian reaction gives further credence to this theory. A plot to assassinate Putin!!!!! FFS, to say that a couple of drones carrying the kind of explosives depicted in the video could pose a threat to Putin buried deep in the bowels of the Kremlin (even assuming that he’s there) is farcical: this was the Mouse of All Bombs, not the Mother thereof. (And he could hide under that huge table! A table saved Hitler, right?) But noted narcoleptic and boogie master Dimi Medvedev is saying that as a result of this assassination attempt Russia has now no choice but to “annihilate” Zelensky:

But if so, this is a sign of true desperation. Admitting that Ukraine is able to penetrate what is supposedly the most formidable air defense of any city in the world with drones would be a confession of military ineptitude that makes the failure to prevent German teenager Matthias Rust from landing a Cessna in Red Square in 1987 look like a military triumph. (The Russian military claimed that the drones had been disabled by electronic measures–sure as hell doesn’t look like it in the video.). Would Putin/the Russians really be willing to look this weak to provide a justification for doing something extreme? Has he ever needed a justification before? FFS, he just made shit up (denazification!!!!) before he invaded last year. He could just make shit up again. And certainly will.

But . . . going further down the Russian rabbit hole, maybe someone in the siloviki did this precisely to discredit rival factions in the military in order to justify a purge.

Really, whenever dealing with Russia I have to stop myself to prevent becoming like this:

Suffice it to say that under any theory one can think of, this does not bode well for Putin. Taken at face value, the event is further demonstration of Russian military incompetence. Switching to riddle-enigma-mystery-dogs-fighting-under-the-carpet mode, the event smacks of desperation and/or internal feuding and chaos. Regardless, it bodes a continuation of a futile, pointless war until Putin goes tits up, one way or another.

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April 9, 2023

He Blowed Up Real Good.

Filed under: History,Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 11:29 am

And the war grinds on.

The main news in the last weeks is the death by bombing of Vladlen Tatarsky, AKA Maxim Fomin, a mouth-breathing Russian nationalist military blogger–or at least he was, before he rested in pieces. He blowed up real good.

The deliverer of the bomb (concealed in a statuette of Fomin, apparently to appeal to his narcissism) was a woman who was associated with the opposition movement (such as it is). She claims she was duped, and had no idea that the statuette contained a bomb.

Of course the issue is whodunit. The Ukrainians might first jump to mind, but they have far bigger fish to fry. My immediate conclusion was that Fomin was a casualty of dogs fighting under the carpet, Russian style. Specifically, the military vs. Wagner, and vs. Yevgeny “Nosferatu” Prigozhin specifically. Prigozhin definitely thinks so. Fomin was blown up in a Wagner-associated club, and was a vehement partisan of Prigozhin.

This makes perfect sense, and is emblematic of the mafia-like nature of the Russian state. (I am reminded of Cleveland, circa 1976-7, when it was known as “Bomb City USA” because the mobsters were whacking one another with bombs rather than bullets during that period). Darya Dugin’s demise is another example.

These internecine struggles are traceable to a single fact: the utter failure of Russian military efforts in Ukraine. The fact that private security companies are vying with the state, and specifically the uniformed military, is also symptomatic of the degradation of the state and its concomitant loss over the monopoly of violence. This poses a threat to the autocrat.

Wagner was created to give Russia plausible deniability when intervening overseas, in Africa and Syria, for example. (Although in the latter case, when they attempted to tangle with the US hundreds of them got greased. By Trump. You know, Putin’s puppet.) But there is no guarantee that a force created for that purpose can be limited to that purpose, but instead may slip the bridle and pursue its own interests.

Meaning that Putin is fighting a war on two fronts, one far more dangerous than the other.

On the other battlefield, i.e., Ukraine, the meat grinder stalemate continues. Russia makes incremental gains around Bakhmut, but at appalling cost. And for what? Even if they take the city, it will not materially change the operational picture. They will push back the Ukrainians, rather than achieve a penetration. And even a penetration would be irrelevant, because Russia lacks the means to exploit it. Hell, it is refurbing T-54s and T-55s (NB: the number refers to the year the model was introduced) to replace its horrific losses in armor. Those will be meat for Javelins and Carl Gustavs, and regardless, the Russians haven’t the logistical capability to support a breakout.

The Russians are also on tenterhooks awaiting a threatened Ukrainian counteroffensive. To illustrate their anxiety, they have dug defenses on numerous beaches in Crimea.

How are the Ukrainians going to get there, pray tell? Swim?

The success of any such counteroffensive depends less on Ukrainian capabilities than Russian infirmities: last autumn’s Ukrainian advances were made possible by Russian exhaustion and collapse. The more Russia wastes itself in futile assaults against meaningless objectives that lead to nowhere, the better chances the Ukrainians have to push them back again.

Now is not a favorable time for a serious advance and breakout, due to rasputitsa. May is the time to look for something decisive to happen, when the roads and fields dry. The question is whether Putin will recognize that reality and husband his forces to resist, or will persist in attriting them for no purpose. Based on form, I predict the latter.

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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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January 28, 2023

Tanks Anyways

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 3:55 pm

After much hemming and hawing, too-ing and fro-ing, Germany has finally relented and agreed to the provision of German-built Leopard II tanks to Ukraine. Apparently the deal clincher was an American agreement to supply 30-odd M1A2 Abrams MBTs. These will join a modest number of Challenger IIs to be provided by the UK.

This is an important development, but not an earth shattering one as some on each side are saying. Some pro-Ukrainian western observers assert this will allow Ukraine to recapture all its lost territory-including Crimea-from Russia. On the other side, which includes the Russians and many right wing populists in the United States, this is the next step to Armageddon. As Trump put it: “today tanks, tomorrow nukes.”

Settle down, everybody. (A big ask, I know.)

Yes, these MBTs are far superior to anything Ukraine currently operates, and to anything in the Russian armory. On every crucial dimension, the western-supplied tanks are superior: firepower, protection (including protection of ammunition), cross country performance, gun accuracy, optics and fire control systems. Optics and fire control systems are especially important because it has been long known that in armored battles, he who shoots first almost always wins. Iraqi tankers found this out to their dismay (if they were lucky enough to be able to find out anything) in 1991 when their tanks began exploding from hits from M1s that they couldn’t even see. Although both the western and Russian tanks have improved in the decades since, the already yawning gap in performance demonstrated in 1991 has only increased over the years.

But quantity has a quality all its own, as Stalin was wont to say. And the fact is that the quantity of tanks being supplied Ukraine is modest. Given the inevitable attrition due to combat and breakdown, the approximately 300 tanks is about enough for one armored division for one big battle.

Consider the use of this type of force on the defense and offense.

On the defense, an armored force of this size and quality could stop Russian armored advances and launch devastating counterattacks–if they are located where the Russians choose to attack, or can get there in relatively short order.

Given the record of the last 11 plus months, moreover, it’s not clear that Ukraine needs this force to defeat a putative Putin armored attack. In February-March of last year, Russia proved singularly incapable of utilizing armor effectively in the offensive, and its tanks proved easy pickings for anti-tank guided missiles. This was in part to (as I wrote at the time) Russia’s incompetence at combined arms tactics: tanks without infantry are extremely vulnerable. Given the dross with which Russian formations are being reinforced with, and the lack of training they have received, their capabilities are almost certainly worse rather than better than a year ago.

Logistical failings also helped doom the Russians in early-2022. If anything, massive attrition in vehicles and the effect of HIMARS has worsened their logistics woes: due to HIMARS, the Russians are being forced to locate their supply dumps well to the rear, increasing the duration of vehicle trips (effectively reducing supply capacity) and increasing the vulnerability of supply convoys to attack by drones, air attack, artillery attack, infiltrators, partisans, what have you.

So although an impending Russian spring offensive is anticipated, there is no reason to believe it would fare any better than the last one, and considerable reason to believe it would fare worse, tanks or no tanks.

Insofar as offensive operations are concerned, yes, the western MBTs can provide a striking force that might break through Russian lines. But a decent-size force of modern tanks is likely a necessary but not sufficient condition for such an outcome.

Successful armored assaults often rely on surprise and indirectness rather than mere smashing power. Tanks deployed against a weakly held section of an enemy line are far more effective than those hitting strong prepared positions. Compare Ardennes (1940, 1944) to Kursk (1943) or even the Seelow Heights (where in April 1945 a massively superior Soviet armored force took horrific casualties to overcome prepared but weakly-held defenses).

Achieving such an outcome requires considerable operational skill and operational security. Recall the lengths to which the US went to conceal its shift of its armored striking force from fronting Kuwait to fronting Iraq some distance to the west in order to be on the Iraqi flank. (In the event, the Marines smashed through prepared defenses in Kuwait, but the point holds). In 1940 and 1944 the Germans were helped by overoptimistic French and then American/British assumptions which led them to leave the Ardennes weakly defended and to discount the possibility of German massing there. At Kursk, the preparations were too massive to be concealed, giving time for the Soviets to construct a defense in depth which ground down the German armored spearheads before they could achieve a decisive penetration and breakout. Subsequently the Soviets launched a massive armored counterattack–against weaker German forces on the flanks. The same thing happened at Stalingrad.

Recent Ukrainian successes suggest some skill at deception and operational security. They evidently duped the Russians into believing the main Ukrainian effort would be in the south but instead the attack started in the Kharkiv region–agains skeleton Russian forces.

But there’s no guarantee of achieving that again, and ironically, the very mass of a big tank force makes deception and operational security all the more difficult.

There’s also the issue of whether the Ukrainian army can carry out the combined armed tactics that are necessary to succeed in an armored strike against opposition. The large casualties they have suffered over the past 11 months has certainly weakened what combined arms skill they possessed prior to 24 February 2022.

Further, there is considerable room to question how deep a penetration Ukraine could achieve. Its logistical capabilities are also limited, and the tanks they are receiving are gluttonous consumers of fuel (especially the Abrams). It would also have to confront the inexorable logic that every kilometer of advance hurts the attacker’s logistics and helps the defender’s.

And with respect to logistics, tanks require considerable maintenance support to begin with, especially when they are on the move. The fact that Ukraine is receiving three different kinds of MBT, each requiring a separate support structure (which will be of suboptimal scales) means that a lower percentage of their tanks will be operating at any time than would be the case for an American division operating a single type of vehicle.

In sum, the new western tanks will help shift the balance in Ukraine’s favor, but are unlikely to do so in a decisive way. I doubt that they will shorten the war appreciably, especially since even though they will likely result in more Russian losses on the battlefield, such losses have clearly not persuaded Putin to consider giving up, especially on terms suitable to Ukraine. And any advances the tanks facilitate will only encourage Ukraine in its belief that it can restore its 2014 borders.

So my prediction is that the western MBTs will mainly shift the line of stalemate to the east. Perhaps a considerable distance, but not nearly the distance Ukraine desires.

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January 13, 2023

Putin the Pathetic: Mommy! NO FAIR! Nato hit me back!

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:32 pm

Vladimir Putin has added a chapter to the Annals of Gobsmacking Asininity by whining about the unfairness of Russia’s fight in Ukraine because of the involvement of Nato.

The article stated, “As Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized earlier… ‘the military potential and capabilities of virtually all major NATO countries are being actively used against Russia.’ Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu noted that Moscow is fighting not so much with the Ukrainian military as with the ‘collective West.’”

Tass further tried to emphasize that Russia was at a considerable financial disadvantage on the battlefield, as foreign aid to Ukraine has exceeded $150.8 billion, including military, humanitarian and financial support.

So let me see if I have this straight. Nato has always been hell-bent on destroying Russia. Ukraine posed an existential threat to Russia because it wanted to join Nato. But who coulda possibly thunk that a Nato looking for an opportunity to crush Russia wouldn’t have just stood by with its thumb up its collective butt when Russia invaded Ukraine?

The incoherence of Putin’s “thinking” is a thing to behold. But maybe that just means that Putin is a first rate intelligence, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

Actually, I don’t think Vova is a genius, by anyone’s definition. The more plausible explanation for his actions is that he didn’t fear Nato, or the United States. He thought they were paper tigers who would acquiesce to his invasion of Ukraine. (No doubt the Afghanistan fiasco encouraged this belief.) They turned out not to be, so now he’s crying No Fair!–the lament of losers.

Perhaps Putin’s calculation would have been correct had his other crucial assumption that he would kick in Ukraine’s door, and “the whole rotten structure would come crashing down” been true. (For those who are unaware, that’s what Hitler thought of the USSR.) But it was Vova’s vaunted army that proved the paper tiger. Therefore, seeing that Ukraine was not going to collapse, and that Russia had jumped into a quagmire, the United States and many Nato nations (not Germany!) found that Putin had handed the opportunity to beat the crap out of him on a silver platter.

And according to Putin, that’s what Nato has been panting to do forever. And he gave them the perfect opportunity to do it. Genius!!

Which leaves Putin to be a whining little bitch bewailing the unfairness of it all.

Dude. Don’t start a knife fight on the assumption with the guy with the guns isn’t going to use them.

Some time ago I pondered what Putin’s sobriquet should be. I think this settles it. “Putin the Pathetic” it is.

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December 29, 2022

Putin’s Army Goes Back to the Future: Will Vova Admit Error?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 3:49 pm

I noted in my last post on the Ukraine-Russia War that Putin and Shoigu had announced a plan to expand the Russian military to 1.5 million personnel. Strategy Page has the details of their plan, which makes for fascinating reading. Basically, the “new” Russian military will be the “old” Russian military: the “reforms” announced with such fanfare in the past decade are being largely reversed.

The backstory: the Russian army’s performance in Georgia was pretty poor, and first under Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov (“the furniture salesman”) and then his successor Shoigu made many changes in an attempt to improve its combat capability and effectiveness. One of the most important was to address the serious problem of dedovshchina –the institutionalized hazing of first year conscripts by second years. This was done by cutting the conscription service term to a year. Another was to try to move away from conscription altogether, and increase reliance on professional, volunteer “kontraktniki” especially in front-line combat units.

Further, to improve flexibility the Russians imitated the American movement towards brigades (rather than divisions) as the basic maneuver element. In doing so, they stood up brigades made up of “battalion tactical groups,” largely self-sufficient (in theory) maneuver units with organic armor and artillery.

In response to the latest underperformance, Russia is reversing major parts of response to the previous underperformance, and essentially reverting to the system that produced the previous underperformance. The draft term is being extended from 12 to 18 months: this is basically the only way to increase headcount, but risks a reemergence of dedovshchina. Moreover, the scope of conscription is being widened, partially reversing the move towards a volunteer-based military.

Brigades and BTGs are out the window. It’s back to old school divisions instead.

In other words, it’s back to the future for the Russian military.

It’s highly unlikely that this reshuffling of the deck chairs will save the Titanic that is the Russian military. After all, this same organization was tried and found wanting in a far less demanding conflict than the one currently being waged in Ukraine.

The Russian military’s problems are far more fundamental than what can be solved by tinkering with the manpower system or redrawing orders of battle. For example, this will not fix the corruption that has wreaked havoc with operations in Ukraine. Nor will it fix the clearcut logistical deficiencies. Or the profound incompetence of the officer corps at all levels. Or the obvious doctrinal failings, most notably in the employment of air power, but also at the tactical level (apropos my earlier posts on the shocking attempts to operate armor without adequate infantry).

New plan or old, the material losses in Ukraine also necessitate a virtually complete recapitalization of Russia’s military. It needs new everything–tanks, APCs, aircraft, artillery, and personal equipment from body armor to boots. But its existing designs have been shown very wanting and the failure to deploy supposedly advanced weapons like the Armata MBT betrays a belief that even the cutting edge of Russian military tech is pretty dull. Replacing old crap with new crap of the same design will just produce the same old–crappy–results.

And that’s assuming that Russia has the wherewithal to recapitalize. It likely does not. Its defense industrial base has already proved to be hollowed out and hamstrung by corruption. And to make things worse, sanctions and the conscription of larger numbers of workers will reduce capacity, especially for relatively high tech weapons that rely on Western technology. The cost will also contribute to the immiseration of the Russian populace. (Not that Putin GAF.)

All in all, these changes are rather futile. The restoration of large parts of the pre-2008 status quo suggests that the old guard is taking its revenge on the reformers, and that Putin is going along.

What Putin is doing now is a repudiation of what Putin did over the last decade plus. One wonders if New Putin will explicitly acknowledge Old Putin’s errors.

Actually, I don’t wonder. I know he won’t. But his deeds speak louder than any words he could utter.

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December 22, 2022

Vova Has Issues

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 5:13 pm

I haven’t written much about the Ukraine war for months because not much has happened for months, since the major Ukrainian advances in August. Zelenskyy’s visit to the US nudges me to providing an update.

Since the major Ukrainian gains, the war has reverted into another stalemate, a la Korea 1951-1953 (an analogy I used before) or the Western Front 1914-1918. The culmination of the Ukrainian advances was predictable, and the logic of warfare means that the marginal cost of additional gains rises rapidly. The advancing force’s logistics become more stretched, and the defender’s more compact. Moreover, the most strategically important advance, in the south around Kherson, means that now the Ukrainians are the ones who must fight with a major river to their backs, and supply their forces over tenuous river crossings.

On the Kharkiv front, there are see-saw battles around Kreminna. Again, very Korea/Western Front-esque.

The Russians are concentrating their efforts on the taking of Bakhmut. The accounts are again redolent of the accounts of battles like Pork Chop Hill or Verdun, where massive casualties are incurred to take, and then sometimes lose, mere yards of territory. Literally yards.

Interestingly, apparently due to the wrecking of their armored and mechanized forces, Russian attacks are carried out by mass infantry attacks, a la Chinese human waves in Korea, with little or no armored support. Moreover, the attacks are evidently primarily carried out by Wagner troops, rather than regular Russian formations, and many of the Wagner “troops” are convicts who apparently decided that it was better to play the odds in Ukraine than stay in Russian prisons.

The Russians sometimes gain a few yards here and there. Reading the accounts is fascinating. It is accounted as a major victory if they take this street or that. At the cost of great slaughter.

Accounts suggest that the tactics that worked for the Russians over the summer in Luhansk are not feasible here. Specifically, the tried-and-true method of saturation bombardment followed by infantry advance is infeasible because the Russians lack sufficient munitions to execute the bombardments. So it’s modest bombardment, or no bombardment, followed by waves of Ivans advancing on entrenched positions, hoping to win by weight of numbers.

It’s all so pointless. Even if the Russians “win” in Bakhmut–so what? Lacking mechanized forces they have no hope of a breakout even if they do achieve a penetration. So the front will move a few meters or kilometers with no fundamental change in the military situation.

In this respect, they are engaged in as futile a struggle as the British and French were in 1915-1917. Even when they broke through the first couple of lines of trenches, they had no ability to exploit the gains. Same with the Russians today.

The futility has not penetrated the skulls of Putin and his slouching acolytes, though he has made some hilarious statements recently. In an oblique attempt to rationalize failure, has described the campaign in Ukraine as “complicated,” and said the Russians are facing “issues.”

What’s the over under on when he says the situation is “problematic”?

Lapsing even further into delusion, Putin and his sad sack defense minister Shoigu announced plans to expand the Russian military from 1.15 million personnel to 1.5 million.

Let me get this straight. Russia has suffered casualties numbering probably around 200,000. It is not able to replace the wastage at the front even by throwing almost completely untrained mobiliks into the meat grinder. It has lost most of its best equipment, and cannot supply even the most basic kit to its soldiers. Around 300,000 military aged men have fled the country.

But Putin is going to increase the armed forces by 40 percent. Uhm-kay! Whatever, dude!

In other news, Rogozin the Ridiculous took some Ukrainian shrapnel in the shoulder. Could be serious. If it had hit him in the head, not so much.

But Vova won’t give up. In fact, he can’t give up. It’s far better (for him!) that numberless orcs get fed into the meat grinder than for him to admit defeat–and thereby risk getting fed into the meat grinder himself.

Meaning that there is no end in sight. Not just because Putin won’t accept defeat, but because Zelenskyy won’t accept anything but total victory, and indeed Russian failure and Ukrainian success has fed Zelenskyy’s ambitions. As I said probably 9 months ago, the core is empty: there is no mutually acceptable set of terms to end the conflict, even a limited end such as a cease fire or an armistice.

That said, part of the reason that the core is empty is that the US (and Europe) are encouraging Zelenskyy. Or at least, they are afraid to put him in his place, apparently never having learned who pays the piper calls the tune.

I get that giving Putin even the simulacrum of victory presents dangers for the future. But in my mind those are outweighed by the dangers of the present, not least to Ukrainians, but to the world economy, and potentially to the world–for who knows what a desperate Putin will resort to.

Logic says he will not use nukes, or escalate dangerously in some other way. Well, as I wrote immediately before the invasion, logic said he shouldn’t invade. But here we are.

Macron beclowned himself at the World Cup. But Biden beclowns himself on a daily basis. And when choosing between clowns, Macron’s proposals for an ugly peace–or at least, an ugly cessation of hostilities–is far preferable to Biden’s (and alas, the Senate Republicans’) blank check policy.

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October 28, 2022

Blowing Smoke About Diesel

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:31 pm

There is a huge amount of hysteria going on about the diesel market. Tucker Carlson is prominent in flogging this as an impending disaster:

Like so much of Tucker these days, this is an exaggerated, bowdlerized, and politicized description of what is happening. There is a kernel of truth (more on this below) but it is obscured and distorted by the exaggerations.

First off, it is complete bollocks to say “in 25 days there will be no diesel.” Current inventories–stocks–are about equal to 25 days of consumption. But production continues, at a rate of about 4.8 million barrels per week. So, yes, if US refineries stopped producing right now, in 25 days the US would be out of diesel. But this isn’t France! US refineries will keep chugging along, operating close to capacity, supplying the diesel market.

Stocks v. flows, Tucker, stocks v. flows.

Yes, by historical standards, stocks are very low, although there have been other periods when inventories have been almost this low. But low stocks are not a sign of a broken market, or of impending doom.

Low stocks do happen and periodically should happen in a well-functioning market. That is, “stock outs” regularly occur in competitive markets, for good economic reasons.

Assume that stock outs never occurred. Well that would mean that something was produced but never consumed. That makes no economic sense.

The role of inventories is to buffer temporary (i.e., short term) supply and demand shocks. I emphasize temporary because as I show in my book on the economics of storage, storage is driven by scarcity today relative to expected scarcity in the future. A long term demand or supply shock affects current and expected future scarcity in the same way, and hence don’t trigger a storage response. In contrast, a temporary/transient shock (e.g., a refinery outage) affects current vs. future scarcity, and triggers a storage response.

For example, a refinery outage raises current scarcity relative to future scarcity. Drawing down on stocks mitigates this problem. For an opposite example, a temporary demand decline raises future scarcity relative to current scarcity. This can be mitigated by storage–reducing consumption some today in order to raise consumption in the future (when the good is relatively scarce).

To give some perspective on what “short term” means, in my book, I show that for the copper market inventory movements are driven by shocks with a half life of about a month.

Put differently, storage of a commodity (diesel, copper) is like saving for a rainy day. When it rains, you draw down on inventories. When it rains a lot for an extended period, you can draw inventories to very low levels.

And that’s basically what has happened in the diesel market.

Carlson is right about one thing: the Russian invasion in Ukraine precipitated the situation. This is best seen by looking at diesel crack spreads–the difference between the value of a barrel of diesel (measured by the Gulf Coast price) and the value of a barrel of oil (measured by WTI):

Gulf Diesel-WTI Crack

Although the crack was gradually increasing in 2021 (due to the rebound from COVID lockdowns) the spike up corresponds almost precisely with the Russian invasion. After reaching nosebleed levels in late-April, early-May, the crack declined to a still-historically high level and roughly plateaued over the summer, before beginning to widen again in September. This widening is in large part a seasonal phenomenon–heating oil (another middle distillate) demand picks up at that time.

In terms of storage, the initial market response made sense. The war was expected to be of relatively short duration. So draw down on inventories. However, the war has persisted longer than initial expectations, and the policy responses–notably restrictions on Russian exports, including refined products to Europe–have also taken on a semi-permanent cast. So the shock has endured far longer than expected, but the (rational) response of drawing down on stocks has left us in the current situation.

To extend the rainy day example, if you don’t expect it to rain 40 days and 40 nights (or for 9 months) you will draw down on inventories and you’ll go close to zero if the rain lasts longer than expected. That’s what we’ve seen in diesel.

As in any textbook stockout situation, price will adjust to match consumption with productive capacity. Inventories will not buffer subsequent supply and demand shocks, meaning that prices will be pretty volatile: storage dampens volatility.

I should note that low inventory levels can create opportunities for the exercise of market power–manipulations/corners/squeezes. So it is possible that some of the price and spread moves in benchmark prices may reflect more than these tight fundamentals.

Hopefully the hysteria will not trigger idiotic policy responses. The supply shock has been most acute in Europe (because it consumed a lot of Russian middle distillate). This has resulted in a substantial uptick in US exports (diesel and gasoline) to Europe, which has led to suggestions that the US restrict exports, or ban them altogether. This would be beggar–or bugger–thy neighbor, and would actually feed the recent narrative advanced by Manny Macron and others in Europe that the US is exploiting Europe’s energy distress.

Further, this would reduce the returns to refinery capital, reducing the incentive to invest in this sector–which would be a great way of perpetuating the current scarcity.

But this administration, and in particular its (empty) head, somehow think returns to capital are a bad thing:

Believe it or not, there are even worse proposals than export bans, windfall profits taxes, and restrictions on returning cash to investors bouncing around. In particular, supposedly serious people (who travel in the best of circles) like Columbia’s Jason Bordoff are suggesting nationalization of the US energy industry.

Yeah. That’ll fix things.

What we are seeing in diesel (and in other energy markets as well) is their efficient operation in the face of extreme supply and demand shocks. You may not like the message that prices and stocks are sending–that fundamental conditions are really tight–but suppressing those signals, or other types of intervention like export bans–will make the situation worse, not better.

And yes, energy market (and commodity market generally) conditions should definitely be considered when evaluating how to handle Russia and the war in Ukraine. But that evaluation is not advanced by hysterical statements about the nation grinding to a halt at Thanksgiving because we’ll be out of diesel.

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October 1, 2022

Another Anti-Anglo Saxon Jeremiad From a Demented (and Desperate) Dwarf

Filed under: Energy,History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 11:15 am

In an earlier post I said that Putin’s mobilization address was his most unhinged speech ever. That record did not last long: his Friday speech announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian regions was beyond unhinged.

The speech was Castroesque in length. The bulk of it was a jeremiad against the west, and “Anglo-Saxons” in particular. (Apparently he is unaware of American diversity!) He justified his invasion of Ukraine, and the annexations, as a war of survival against a west that is hell bent on subjugating Russia. The speech was a litany of the west’s sins, colonialism and slavery most prominent among them. He conveniently elided over Russia’s imperialism, symbolized today by the disproportionate representation of ethnic groups from Russian republics in those fighting–and dying–in Ukraine, and touted the USSR’s “anti-colonial” record in Africa and elsewhere.

The speech was chock-full of projection, most importantly regarding waging war on civilian populations. There were also the now familiar accusations of Ukrainian Naziism, the betrayal of 1991, and the non-existence of Ukrainian nationhood.

In brief, Putin portrayed the war in Ukraine as an existential conflict waged to defend Russia against Anglo-Saxons attempting to colonize Russia, and to defend the world against such western rapacity. (The reference to the Opium Wars was obviously an attempt to appeal to China, whose ardor for this Ukrainian adventure is obviously waning fast.)

The atmospherics were also bizarre. The images of a dwarfish Putin clasping hands with the hulking mouth breathers leading the sham annexed regions, chanting “Ross-i-ya!” with a demented grin on his face are quite striking–and disturbing. Especially when contrasted to the reality on the ground, where Russian forces continue to reel and rout–the bugout from Izyum being the latest example. “Reservists” are being shoved to the front without even a simulacrum of training, where they will no doubt be slaughtered without changing the battlefield dynamic one iota. Putin is giving no retreat orders and is bossing about formations that have been destroyed or dissolved. Gee, whom does that remind one of?

Tens of thousands of Russian men are fleeing to avoid the press gangs, a visible demonstration of widespread panic. (Kazakhstan–the Russian Canada!) Personal contacts indicate that the panic is widespread even among those who have not fled, but who fear the knock on the door.

The realities of the battlefield and the home front reveal that this is truly an existential conflict–for Putin. He objectively can’t win, but he can’t lose and survive. This creates a tremendous bias towards escalation, with nuclear weapons being his only real escalation option.

There is a considerable debate over whether when push comes to shove Putin will push the button. This is an unanswerable question. Suffice it to say that his Downfall-esque rants in public (one can only imagine what he’s like in private) mean that there is a material probability that he will.

Which poses a grave dilemma to the Anglo-Saxons. (In this respect, Putin is on to something: the continentals are hopelessly ineffectual and along for the ride.) Months ago I wrote that Putin was in zugzwang, i.e., a situation where any move made the situation worse, but one is compelled to move. Well, currently the US is arguably in zugzwang as well. The consequences of letting Putin off the hook or pushing him to the wall are both deeply unsatisfactory.

What is in the US’s opportunity set? The situation on the battlefield does suggest that giving Ukraine a blank weapons check could result in pushing Russia out of most of, and perhaps all, of the occupied portions of the country–including Crimea. But choosing that option is a bet on Putin’s sanity and willingness to go nuclear, and how far up the escalation ladder Putin is willing to go. Conversely, pulling the Ukrainian’s leash will likely result in a continued grinding war with its global and human and economic toll. Brokering a compromise is almost certainly out of the question, given the intransigence of the parties and the completely irreconcilable nature of their demands (though Putin did graciously say that he was willing to accept Ukraine’s capitulation).

The administration is clearly leaning towards–but not completely towards–engineering Russian defeat on the battlefield. Most of the American populace is disengaged. The populist right in the US is engaged but stupidly pro-Russian, because (a) Putin criticized the west’s trans obsession, and (b) the enemy of their enemy (the administration) is their friend. With respect to (a) this is beyond bizarre because these passing references were embedded in a speech that damned the entirety of American history in a way that would make Howard Zinn beam: is the PR buying into that now? (It is also stupid because it validates left narratives about them being Russian puppets.)

The populist right also immediately concluded that the US is responsible for the destruction of the Nord Stream I and II pipelines under the Baltic. The fact is we have no facts, other than that the pipelines suffered catastrophic ruptures, possibly the result of deliberate sabotage. Everything else you read is speculation about motive, which only prove whom the speculators hate most. Those who know ain’t talking, and those talking don’t know.

Although I immediately concluded sabotage, there is reason to doubt this too. This is plausible to me, based on my knowledge of natural gas pipelines and Russian incompetence. (Anybody remember the shitshow of the Russian oil pipelines in spring 2019?)

But again–nobody knows nothing beyond the fact that the pipelines are fucked, so speculation is pointless. And depressingly, given the natures of everyone involved, I can’t say there’s anyone I would trust to reveal the facts.

The populist right is annoying, but largely powerless. Even if the Republicans prevail in the upcoming election, the PR will represent a clamorous but ultimately irrelevant force. Meaning that the US will continue to stumble along, mainly in the direction of pushing an increasingly desperate Putin.

Yes, I can see the upside of that. But I also see considerable downside risk, and indeed the risks are asymmetric. Even as things stand now, beyond nuclear weapons Russia’s military capability has proven even more illusory than a Potemkin village of legend. His conventional threat to Nato is demonstrably non-existent. So the upside to the US and Nato of drubbing Putin further is very limited. But the downside of drubbing him could be serious indeed.

So mutual zugzwang is a not unrealistic description of the current situation.

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September 24, 2022

Vova Shovels Fleas

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 10:57 am

In an unhinged speech earlier this week, Vladimir Putin (a) threatened (again) to use nukes, and (b) announced the mobilization of 300,000 reservists–although there are reports that the order actually calls for the mobilization of 1 million. This raises the issues of what this means about the state of the war, and the effect that the mobilization will have on it.

The speech speaks volumes about the state of the war. Putin realizes that he is losing, badly, and is desperate to reverse the reverses. He is in essence following Eisenhower’s advice:  “Whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve, I always make it bigger.  I can never solve it by trying to make it smaller, but if I make it big enough, I can begin to see the outlines of a solution.” Or, as it is often expressed: when a problem appears insoluble, enlarge it.

Putin has two margins on which he can enlarge: nukes and bodies. He’s threatening the former and implementing the latter.

When I say Putin’s speech was unhinged, I do not exaggerate. Look at the videos. He was incandescently angry. His rhetoric recycled the common themes–Nazis, Banderaists–and added twists on his West-directed paranoia by way of rationalizing (although not admitting) the defeats: Ukrainian forces are not just armed by the West, but Nato generals are in command and western troops are in the ranks. The speech was filled with projection about violations of sovereign territory and atrocities. Perhaps it was all for effect–Mad Vlad–to make the nuclear threats more credible. But it seems all too genuine to me.

As for the effect of the mobilization, a quote from Lincoln comes to mind: “Sending armies to McClellan is like shoveling fleas across a barnyard: not half of them get there.” My surmise is that far less than half the fleas that Putin is madly trying to shovel into Ukraine will get there.

If the front line Russian military has proved shambolic on the Ukrainian steppes, the Russian reserve system is beyond shambolic. It was allowed to decay after the collapse of the USSR (which depended on mass mobilization), and the military “reforms” of the last decade only accelerated its decay: the goal of the “reforms” (which were realized more in the promise than the delivery) was to move away from conscription-based forces towards a professional military.

It is therefore best to view what is happening not as a mobilization of an existing reserve force (e.g., the mobilizations seen in August 1914) but as an improvised, hurried mass conscription. Although the initial announcements stated that the mobilization would be targeted at those with combat experience and with specialized military skills, there are reports–all too believable–that the authorities are casting their net far beyond these categories, and that the unfortunates caught up in it are being assigned to units willy-nilly with no regard to their past duties. Tellingly, the dragnet is most intense in the republics: ethnic minorities have already borne the brunt of the war, and Putin wants to shelter metropolitan Russia as much as possible for fear of sparking unrest in the cities.

The existing Russian conscription system is a disaster, rife with evasion and corruption. And that was just to escape the miseries of peacetime service. Both will be far worse when the prospect is being shoveled to Donbas.

No this is not a mobilization. It is press ganging and the yield will be far less than Putin wants.

And what will be the effectiveness those poor fleas who do make it across the barnyard? More bodies will not fix the deep dysfunctions that have been revealed on the battlefield. The high command will still prove to be incompetent. Already poor leadership at the regimental, battalion, company, and platoon level will become even worse as poorly trained and dispirited officers will be put in charge of scared and resentful losers of the conscription lottery. Further, there will be an adverse selection problem: the cleverer and more fit will find ways to escape the net, leaving a disproportionately dimwitted, sociopathic, and addicted rump to fight. More bodies will not fix the paralyzing over-centralization of the Russian command. More bodies will not fix Russia’s disastrous logistics: indeed, trying to supply more bodies will actually exacerbate the logistical problems. More bodies will not fix Russia’s underperforming air forces. More bodies are not the same as more precision guided munitions. Historically Russia has used more bodies successfully when supported by massive artillery, but now ammunition shortages (is another “Shell Crisis” a la 1915 coming?) loom and Ukrainian counterbattery fire has proved devastating thanks to HIMARS and M177s. More bodies will not address Russia’s repeated intelligence failures at the operational or tactical levels. Russian armor has proved extremely vulnerable, but the more bodies will deploy in older and even less well-maintained AFVs.

In sum, more bodies cannot and will not fix the real reasons for Russian battlefield disasters. They will just be more victims for these reasons.

There is also the issue of how the new bodies will be deployed: as replacements or in entire units. The time involved in standing up new units is considerable, even if rushed. Putin is in a hurry, so I conjecture that the unfortunates swept up by the press ganskis will receive lick-and-a-promise “training” of a few weeks (after all, they are veterans, right?, so they just need a refresher course!) and be shoveled to the front and shoved into shattered units. If you look at say the American army in WWII, you’ll find that the life expectancy of replacements is often measured in hours or a few days. (Experienced infantrymen often avoided learning the names of replacements, because it was pointless.) That will happen here as well.

Historically, Russia relied on a huge demographic advantage vis a vis its foes in a quantity-over-quality approach. But even when Russia did have a demographic advantage, the results were often disastrous: cf. the Russo-Japanese War, and Tannenberg and other WWI battles. Now a demographically devastated Russia is falling back on old formulae. To call it tragic is an understatement.

In sum, more cannon fodder without more cannon (and logistics, and leadership, and on and on) to support them will result in a bloody disaster. But it will allow Putin to defer deciding whether to resort to his only other option: nukes.

It is also important to consider how Putin’s adversaries–not just Ukraine, but the US and the rest of Nato–will respond. The prospect of facing greater numbers (even of a low quality) incentivizes Ukraine to accelerate its offensives and press its advantages, even though that will entail larger losses. If successful, that would in turn accelerate when Putin has to decide whether to back down or resort to his only remaining way of expanding the problem. Ukraine will redouble its already frenzied efforts to lobby western governments for more weapons.

The US and Nato need to turn their attention from what is happening on the battlefield to focus intensely on forestalling Putin concluding that it’s nukes or nothing. Sadly, that means hoping that Putin’s more bodies measure will extend the stalemate, thereby buying time for some diplomatic resolution.

Alas, the US and its allies appear set on Ukrainian victory on the battlefield and on the humiliation of Putin, rather than on securing an unsatisfying and messy diplomatic compromise. That is gambling with millions of lives–and perhaps many more.

Which means that where things go may hinge crucially on the Russian popular reaction to Putin’s desperate measure. It is optimistic in the extreme to believe that the mobilization will spur a 1905 or February 1917 or August 1991 moment in Russia. And it is equally optimistic to believe that if such a moment indeed occurs, that it will not result in Putin’s replacement with someone even worse.

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