Streetwise Professor

May 16, 2024

Putin Doubling Down on the Same Bad Hand

Filed under: Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 12:52 pm

I’m back. A little play. A lot of work.

What to start back with? Russia, I guess.

The war in Ukraine grinds on. The supposed big news is Russia launching attacks near Kharkiv/Kharkov. Many interpret this as a sign of Ukraine’s impending doom. I disagree.

Yes, Russia did make some initial gains. There is some controversy regarding why. Initial reports were that Ukraine had not built fixed defenses in a 10 km wide region near the border with the Belgorod Oblast because engineers would have been too vulnerable to Russian artillery fire while attempting to perform the work. More recently, however, it has been claimed that defenses were planned–and paid for–but little or no work was done.

These explanatons are not mutually exclusive, of course: maybe the work was not completed due to the perceived vulnerability. However, a sadly realistic alternative explanation is that Ukraine’s endemic corruption is to blame, and that the contractors pocketed the money and did no work.

Whatever the reason for the relatively undefended border, Russia has still incurred heavy casualties to take a few slivers of territory, and their advances have slowed to a crawl after the initial gains.

Moreover, the threat from this attack to Kharkiv, let alone to Ukraine’s overall position, is limited. For one thing, the total Russian forces involved–an estimated 50,000 (including tail as well as tooth)–is hardly big enough to take a city as large as Kharkiv, especially if it is being attrited at the rate of 1,000 plus per day.

For another–and more importantly–as is occurring virtually everywhere else on the frontline, Russia is mounting infantry assaults, in company-size packets. Armor is used mainly to ferry troops from the rear and drop them off, before scurrying away. Or trying to scurry away: even then drones are inflicting substantial vehicle losses on the Russians both coming and going.

The infantry attacks are basically bum rushes offering no prospect for breakthrough and exploitation. As has been seen elsewhere on the front, at heavy cost they permit shoving back the front for a few kilometers at most, take considerable time to do even that, and culminate relatively quickly.

Moreover, with the prospect of receiving more artillery ammunition, Ukraine will be able to inflict even more devastation on these attacks without risking its own (scarce) infantry.

So why are the Russians doing this? Perhaps as an economy of force move to draw Ukrainian troops away from other locations. Perhaps in the thought that more progress is achievable here than where the main efforts have ground on for weeks. 10 kilometers here rather than 5 kilometers to the south.

Elsewhere on the front, for weeks Russia has been aiming at Chasiv Yar as a follow on for their glorious victory in Avdiivka. Putin had reportedly ordered Chasiv Yar to be taken by 9 May, Victory Day in Russia.

Well, it wasn’t. And even if it had been, it just shows what a simulacrum of military greatness Putin’s Russia represents. Whereas 9 May 1945 represented the conquest of Berlin–a massive city defended by a greatly diminished but still formidable opponent–a victory at Chasiv Yar on 9 May 2024 would have represented the taking of an obscure, modest town from a scraped together (but scrappy) military lacking pretty much everything.

Despite the absence of a crowning victory at Chasiv Yar (which even then would have only been a way station in a long campaign to come, rather than a war ending event like the taking of Berlin), the Victory Day Parade went on in Moscow nonetheless. But it was a shadow of its former self, with basically only Putin’s praetorian guard and a single tank–a WWII T-34 no les–showcasing military might (or lack thereof).

Sad.

The other big news has been Shoigu’s defenestration as defense minister, and his replacement by technocrat Andrei Belousov. Not just a technocrat, but an economist no less.

This is also being reported breathlessly. Yes, it may indeed represent a strong reflection of Putin’s intentions. Namely, that he is girding for a long war, which will require a substantial reinvigoration of Russia’s defense production. (Note that most of Shoigu’s recent public appearances were at defense plants, where he exhorted the employees about the need for greater efforts.) That is, that Belousov is intended to be a modern day Lloyd George, who drastically reformed Britain’s munitions manufacture in 1915-1916 by taking control away from a bureaucratic and overly traditional War Office.

Yet, intentions and results are worlds apart, and there is substantial reason to believe that Belousov faces a hopeless task.

Russian defense production and procurement is rife with corruption. Even if Belousov is not corrupt (and it is hard to believe that anyone who became a deputy prime minister in Russia is not corrupt), that doesn’t mean that he has the ability to root out the pervasive corruption that is present at every level of the Russian military establishment. Moreover, he is an outsider, and the Russian military does not respect outsiders, and is indeed deeply resentful of their interference.

In the coverage of Belousov’s appointment, I have not seen anyone mention Anatoly Serdyukov’s ill-starred tenure as Defense Minister. (Shoigu replaced Serdyukov 10 years ago.)

Like Belousov, Serdyukov was an economic official (Tax Minister) whom Putin appointed–wait for it–with “the main task of fighting corruption and inefficiency in the Russian armed forces” (in the words of Wikipedia, which are accurate). (Sound familiar?) Due to his former career as manager of a furniture manufacturer and merchandiser he was sneeringly referred to as the “furniture dealer” throughout the military, who fought him hammer and tong. After several years of conflict, he was eventually brought down by an allegation of corruption (for which Putin eventually granted amnesty).

Although Serdyukov achieved some reforms, they were superficial–as the experience of the war in Ukraine demonstrates. I do not expect Belousov will fare any better. This is a case of meet the new boss, same as the old old boss.

Moreover, Belousov faces structural problems that would greatly complicate his challenge even absent corruption and internal opposition. Labor shortages are acute. There is a fundamental tension between finding enough men to feed into the meat grinder and finding enough men to make the weapons they carry or ride into the meat grinder. And although sanctions have not been crippling, they have substantially impeded Russian weapons production, especially of more advanced equipment. The impending resupply of ammunition, anti-aircraft missiles, and the like to Ukraine will also increase the losses that the Russian factories have to make good.

There is also the question of the impact of this on Russian military command. Belousov is obviously not going to have a clue about operational matters. So does this mean that Putin will exercise even more control? Or will this give a freer hand to Gerasimov and the other generals, who have proven to be incompetent, callous bumblers? Regardless, there is certain to be a disconnect between the Defense Ministry and military operations.

One last note. The Defense Ministry reshuffle is not the only change at the top. Somewhat surprisingly, Nikolai Petrushev, former FSB head, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, and all around dark dude suspected by some to be the real power behind the throne in Russia, was also removed from his post and designated for assignment–and days later the assignment has not been announced.

This is surprising, to me anyways. Petrushev’s son (sometimes mentioned as an eventual Putin successor) did receive a promotion from Agriculture Minister to Deputy Prime Minister, which suggests that Petrushev is not totally on the outs and destined for an accidental fall from a window. But this is Russia, so who knows?

In sum, all the “changes” of the past days–a new offensive, ministry shakeups–are highly unlikely to herald a major shift in the dreary drama playing out in Ukraine. A mini-offensive here, a cabinet reshuffle there, won’t alter the fundamental realities of the military situation. Yes, they signal that Putin is doubling down, but they don’t improve his hand in the slightest.

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April 13, 2024

Would You Believe . . . Ukraine Refinery Attack Edition

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 10:53 am

As I noted in a previous post, the Biden administration has tried to restrain Ukraine from attacking Russian oil refineries. The previous reason, as set forth by SecDef Lloyd “AWOL” Austin, was that these attacks would disrupt world energy markets.

Translation: these attacks would increase gasoline prices which scares the bejesus out of an inflation-battered administration in an election year.

But apparently the administration decided that wasn’t a very good look. Too obviously self-serving, and perhaps too dissonant with its the-war-in-Ukraine-is-a-vital-US-national-interest one.

So, would you believe, the administration is REALLY concerned on humanitarian, just war grounds:

Nah, we wouldn’t believe that, actually. Especially since this oh-so high minded critique of Ukrainian military tactics has heretofore been completely absent from American policy makers’ discourses. It’s obviously a lie to cover the election-obsessed administration’s true motivations. That is, AWOL Austin committed the Kinseyan gaffe of speaking the truth, and this gaffe had to be cleaned up.

This justification is also utterly ridiculous on myriad grounds. For one thing, as Rep. Scott pointed out, why should Ukraine fight asymmetrically, but in a bad way, taking blow after blow to its civilian targets but not striking back. For another, oil refineries are a legitimate military target, given (a) Russia’s armies in Ukraine run on the fuel they produce, (b) fuel exports are a material source of revenue for the Russian government, and (c) the Kremlin is clearly concerned about higher fuel prices, and the potential effect they would have on support for the war.

For yet another, in military conflicts in the modern age the United States has made attacking enemy energy assets a primary target. In WWII, the most effective element of the strategic bombing offensive (and one that probably should have been introduced earlier) was the attacks on Germany synthetic fuel production. (The attacks on the oil fields at Ploesti, Romania in 1943 less successful, but the April-August 1944 attacks did materially restrict fuel supplies to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe). In Gulf War I, one of the first targets of American air strikes (after Iraqi air defenses were dismantled in the first wave) were Iraqi electric power plants, which were attacked with graphite bombs. Soon after, the US turned its attention to, yes, Iraqi oil refineries. In 1999 the US unleashed graphite bombs on Serbian power plants.

The US, in other words, has long recognized the strategic importance of enemy energy production, and has made it a priority target. So why shouldn’t Ukraine?

And note that given the previous history, Wallender is implicitly accusing the United States of violating the laws of armed conflict.

It’s actually quite disgusting that the administration covers its nakedly political motivations with high sounding blather about “the laws of armed conflict” and the “standards of European democracy.” Maxwell Smart was funny. These clowns are not.

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April 9, 2024

To Call Biden Administration Energy Policy “Schizo” Is an Insult. To Schizos.

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 3:13 pm

Not surprisingly given its avatar, the Biden administration is a picture of drooling incoherence. This is especially true when it comes to energy policy and the Russo-Ukrainian War and especially the intersection of these.

Case in point. The administration constantly asserts that it is a vital US interest for Ukraine to prevail and Russia to lose. Secretary of State Blinken went so far as to promise that Ukraine would join Nato, despite the fact that this is akin to waving a red flag in front of a bull (in the form of Putin). Ukraine must win! We must provide massive military aid! UKRAINE MUST WIN! FREEDOM AND OUR DEMOCRACY ARE AT STAKE!

But not if it raises the price of gasoline in an election year, apparently. In recent months one of Ukraine’s most successful gambits has been drone attacks on Russian oil refineries. These attacks focused on distillation units, the disabling of which sharply cuts refinery output. As a result, Russian refined product output is supposedly down around 10-15 percent, exports of gasoline have been banned for six months, and the country is desperately seeking imports of gasoline from Kazakhstan. This is a serious economic blow to Russia, and also crimps military efforts which are obviously dependent on fuel supplies.

Further, the impact is likely to be long lasting because repairs depend on foreign parts and foreign expertise that Russia cannot readily obtain due to sanctions.

These attacks are also mirror images to Russia’s relentless bombardments of Ukrainian energy facilities, especially electric power generation.

Especially given the trivial resources devoted to the campaign (which is carried out using drones), this is arguably one of the most effective measures that Ukraine has implemented in the two plus years of war.

So given the allegedly existential stakes in a Ukrainian victory, the administration is gung ho in its support for these attacks, right? Right?

Wrong! The administration, first in the form of the execrable Ichabod Crane doppelgänger Jake Sullivan, then in the form of the utterly embarrassing Secretary of Defense Lloyd “AWOL” Austin, is intensely pressuring Ukraine to cease its campaign against Russian refineries.

Why? Because it might raise gasoline prices. It’s an election year dontcha know:

The incoherence is only compounded when you consider the administration’s antipathy for fossil fuels in its obsession over climate change. The administration thinks that fossil fuels are really, really bad, m’kay, and wants to reduce sharply their use. What better way to do that but to make them more expensive?

Now that I mention it, none, actually. Demand curves slope down. So for the climate change obsessed, burning Russian refineries and the consequent increase in fuel prices is a good thing. A great thing, according to the theory of the second best! And something that harms our alleged arch enemy to boot! What could be better?

Well, what could be better to someone who thinks logically is the real question. The freak out over the refinery attacks is clearly symptomatic of people who refuse to think logically. People who apparently elide the word “foolish” from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s epigram that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

The administration’s draining of the Strategic Oil Reserve is another example of its foolish inconsistency.

There are many other examples. One that also checks the Russia and energy boxes is the insane pause on US LNG development approvals. This will also “impact global energy markets,” and not in a good way. And in particular not in a way that helps those whom we hope will help Ukraine.

When European natural gas prices reached stratospheric levels in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden proclaimed that the US had Europe’s back, and would replace Russian gas with good ol’ ‘Merican LNG.

Suckers!

The administration’s obsession with keeping down the most visible price of energy (that paid at the gas pump) also clashes starkly with an array of other policies that will dramatically increase the cost of energy. The push towards electrification of everything, with the electricity generated by renewables, is just one example. Renewables are not cheap. They are expensive. Hella expensive–just look at how much higher electricity costs are in jurisdictions here (e.g., California) and abroad (e.g., Denmark and Germany) where renewables penetration is highest. Driving up demand (e.g., by penalizing the use of ICE vehicles) of a high cost resource is a recipe for higher energy costs. Much higher.

The force feeding via vast subsidies of high cost efuels and hydrogen will also inflate energy costs, though here (not coincidentally) the cost will be concealed in your tax bill and higher interest rates (required ot get people to buy US debt).

In sum, to call Biden administration energy policies “schizo” is an insult. To schizos. It is full spectrum contradiction and incoherence that simultaneously strives to lower energy costs and raise them, and to protect Russia while demonizing it.

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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.

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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.

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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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November 28, 2023

Tales of Two Wars

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 2:12 pm

The war in Ukraine grinds on with no appreciable movement on either side–except in the body counts.

The conflict is often compared to World War I, but this is in some respects unfair to World War I. Territorial gains on both sides are measured in meters–when there is any progress at all. Even catastrophic assaults like the Second and Third Battles of Artois in 1915 saw the French advance a few miles.

The most extreme current example is the sustained Russian assault on Avdiivka. Day after day for more than a month the Russians have mounted attacks on the three fronts of the Ukrainian salient enclosing the town. And day after day their attacks are repelled with massive losses. Many times the assaulting troops do not even make it to the contact line, being smashed by Ukrainian artillery and drones as they move to contact.

At most the Russians take a field or two here, a tree line there.

The Ukrainian experience to the south, around Verbotene, is much the same. The Ukrainians made some decent (albeit slow) progress there during the summer, creating a modest bulge in the Russian positions, and here and there breaching Russian minefields and fortifications. But for months the two sides have fought to a standstill, exchanging fields and tree lines here and there.

Moreover, in each location the attackers at first attempted armored assaults, only to suffer massive tank losses from mines, artillery, and drones. Consequently, each now mounts small infantry assaults. In Avdiivka, the Russian AFVs drop off their mounted infantry a couple of kilometers from the front. The soldiers slog forward and then throw themselves into frontal assaults.

You can find lots of video of the results on Telegram. It is not pleasant viewing.

And if these infantry assaults succeed breaching enemy lines? Nothing will change. Just as in WWI, infantry cannot exploit a penetration by infantry. The “successful” attackers are worn out and often combat ineffective due to heavy losses. Even if they were capable of moving forward, or reserves could be rushed into the breach (something neither side has proved able to do) the defenders can withdraw and regroup faster than the attackers can advance. Meaning that a “breakthrough” just moves the stalemate a kilometer or two. Absent the ability to exploit with armor–and crucially, without the logistics to support armored exploitation–decisive advances are impossible.

The stasis of the battlefield is in large part due to the inability of either side to achieve air superiority. In Ukraine, air superiority does not refer to manned fixed wing aircraft or helicopters, but drones. Both sides are able to operate drones for both reconnaissance and attack with relative impunity. This is a major reason (mines being another) for the impotence of armored forces.

The only front holding out the prospect for maneuver is in the south, on the left bank of the Dnieper/Dnipro River near Kherson. Unlike on the remainder of the front, here Russia did not create deep lines of entrenchments, and its forces are spread relatively thin. But an advance here would require Ukraine to send large amounts of supplies over a wide river, and it is doubtful that it is capable of doing this. (Its logistic capabilities to support a deep drive are suspect generally, even without the necessity of bridging a wide river, and defending the bridges.)

The Ukrainian government and its Western supporters claim that if it only had more weapons, it could drive out the Russians. Given the trivial incremental effect of the offensive weapons already supplied, this is to be seriously doubted.

The real constraint on Ukraine now is manpower, not equipment. It started at a severe manpower disadvantage, exacerbated by the emigration of many military aged men, evasion of conscription, and lukewarm volunteering. In contrast, Russia has proved able to replace its ravaged ranks by hook and crook, even without resorting to a formal nationwide mobilization. Even at an inflated exchange ratio, this meat swap is a contest that Ukraine cannot win.

That said, there is no real prospect for peace because Zelensky and many others in Ukraine are still wedded to the idea of driving Russia out of Ukraine altogether, and Putin is perfectly willing to pay the exchange rate for as long as it takes to out wait Ukraine.

Israel stupidly hit pause in the other war, in Gaza, apparently bowing to U.S. pressure. The pressure was stupid, and bowing to it was too. Israel was making steady progress at extirpating Hamas and digging up–literally–its military infrastructure.

The deal it made with Hamas takes off the pressure on the terrorist organization. Moreover, the terms of the deal, in which Israel releases more prisoners than Hamas does hostages only encourages future hostage taking. This is utterly insane.

The fecklessness of Biden and his administration exceeds even what I had expected–which is saying something. The only American hostage released so far is . . . wait for it . . . a relative of one of the connoisseurs of Hunter’s art. I mean you cannot make this shit up. And it demonstrates that the administration calculates that it will pay no political price.

The proper response to the taking of American hostages should have been reboot of “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” The Hamas “leadership” livin’ large in Qatar (apparently on large stacks totaling billions) should have been told: all our hostages alive, or you dead.

But noooooo. Indeed, that’s not even the worst example of his cravenness. Yesterday, he abjectly apologized to five (unnamed) Muslim heavyweights for questioning whether Gazan “authorities'” (AKA Hamas stooges’) casualty figures are accurate.

Joe is disappointed in himself. Aren’t we all. Aren’t we all.

He “promises to do better.” Even though the bar is very low indeed, I’m taking the under on that one. It’s always the sure bet with Biden.

War is always grim. These wars are even grimmer than most. They will be long running attractions, with no constructive results.

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September 11, 2023

So, You Really Want Elon Musk Unilaterally Making US War Policy?

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 12:38 pm

Elon Musk is taking a lot of heat from the Ukraine Amen Corner over his decision not to extend Starlink internet service to cover Crimea–Sevastopol in particular–because of fears that Ukraine would launch an attack on the Russian fleet based there, and this would spur a massive retaliation by Russia. Musk has claimed in particular that he feared the possibility of a nuclear retaliation.

There are conflicting stories. The one is that SpaceX turned off Starlink coverage to Crimea precisely when Ukrainian submersible drones were inbound. Denied navigational assistance and control provided by the satellites, the drones went stupid and the attack failed. The other–which Musk laid out himself on X–is that Starlink did not cover Crimea, the Ukrainians asked him to activate its coverage there, and he declined.

The second story is more plausible than the first. How would Musk know that an attack was on its way? And there has been no evidence of any such attack: in more recent drone strikes, the Russians have provided images of beached drones and video of drones being sunk by Russian gunfire.

The umbrage from the usual quarters–illustrated by the rant from Jake Tapper–is over the top, as is the response by Ukrainian official Mykhailo Podolyak: “By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via #Starlink interference, @elonmusk allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities.”

For one thing, this assumes that the drone strike would have inflicted devastating damage on the fleet. Subsequent strikes (guided how?) have inflicted some damage, but have hardly posed a major threat to the striking power of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

For another, since when is an American company obligated to make its resources available to a foreign country to commit an act of war against a nation with which the US is not at war, and which has the world’s largest force of nukes to boot? Indeed, do we want CEOs making those kind of choices, given that especially when dealing with someone like Putin the target would immediately attribute responsibility to the United States? Such would be a major national security policy decision and should be made by those Constitutionally responsible–although given the current government, they may not be constitutionally fitted. But even given the dubious judgment of the current administration, it is they who should be making such decisions, not corporate CEOs.

If anything, it should go the other way. Companies should be prohibited from making such clearly belligerent moves on their own hook.

Indeed, note that US law requires approval of arms sales by US companies:

The FMS sales process begins when a country submits a formal Letter of Request (LOR). Ideally, this includes both a desired military capability, and a rough estimate of what the partner is able to spend.  Sales are approved following U.S. government review and, when required, after Congressional notification. After the sale is approved, the DSCA issues a Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) specifying the defense articles, training, and support being offered for delivery.  Major FMS sales formally notified to Congress are publicly announced on the DSCA website

Providing an asset complementary to things that blow up–and which are indeed necessary for the use of the things that blow up even if they don’t blow up themselves, as Starlink supposedly was in this instance–should be subject to the same strict scrutiny and approval.

And again ironies and idiocies abound here. Those who consistently condemn Putin as evil and perhaps irrational dismiss Musk’s concerns about nuclear retaliation. Those who routinely attack Musk’s actions–and his management of Twitter in particular–want to delegate war making decisions to him.

Elon making decisions about waging war on Putin. Yeah, nothing unpredictable or frightening about that, right?

It should also be noted that the United States has been extremely circumspect about supplying weapons that Ukraine could use to strike at Russian territory, and at Crimea. The hemming-and-hawing about F-16s is one example, as is the continued reluctance to supply long-range ATACMS missiles. Even approval of main battle tanks–which pose little threat to Russian territory proper–occurred only after much debate and indecision. And for years–even following Russia’s invasion of Donetsk in 2014–the US was incredibly stingy about providing even clearly defensive weapons (like ATGMs) to Ukraine.

Meaning that those who attack Musk for not facilitating Ukrainian offensive capability into Russian- and Russian-claimed territory should really direct their fire at the administration. It’s their call, not Musk’s, and they have been just as cautious–if not more–than Elon.

The utter ingratitude of Ukraine to Musk is truly astounding. He kept Starlink operational over Ukraine for months on his own tab, and it was vital to its military operations. Yet since he doesn’t cater to their every whim–even potentially very ill-considered ones that implicate the United States–they demonize him incessantly. I believe that if Musk was not so dependent on the US government generally, and the security state in particular (especially insofar as SpaceX is concerned) he would tell them to GFY.

I have been very critical of Musk on some things, more favorably disposed on others. Here is a case where he is clearly in the right.

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September 2, 2023

Did They Send the Families a Bill for the Missiles?

Filed under: History,Russia — cpirrong @ 12:41 pm

In its concerted effort to ensure that Yevgeny Prigozhin will not become a venerated martyr, the Kremlin consigned the late Wagner impresario’s funeral to an obscure cemetery in a gritty part of St. Petersburg, limited attendance to his family members, and deployed considerable police and military resources to prevent anyone from going to the cemetery. They also attempted to undermine the development of a shrine by requiring the burial of the three main Wagner figures who went down in flames–Prigozhin, Valery Chekalov, and Dmitry Utkin–in separate locations (although that risks the creation of three sites of veneration, no?)

Perhaps the families should be grateful that funerals were even permitted. In Soviet times, the NKVD and KGB would send the families of those they shot a bill for the bullets used to kill them.* Did the FSB send the families of the Wagner casualties a bill for the S-300 missiles used to shoot them down? Or for the bomb, if that’s what did it?

Indeed, the Wagner leadership may be considered lucky as compared to their employees. There are reports that at least one cemetery of Wagner soldiers KIA in Ukraine is being obliterated.

There are also reports of the Kremlin and the MoD moving rapidly to seize control of Wagner assets and operations in Africa. This would represent a reprise of the early Putin policy of eliminating the Russian mafias by incorporating them into the state structures: it was a takeover, not an elimination.

*Someone on X pointed out to me that Indonesia still does this.

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August 27, 2023

Prigozhin F’d Up: He Trusted Putin.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:26 pm

Last week Russian warlord/PMC impresario Yevgeny Prizoghin met his demise, as his plane plummeted from the skies near Tver, killing him and several other high ranking Wagner personnel.

Two theories of the cause of the takedown of his aircraft (it is not a crash, per se) are in play: (1) his Embraer corporate jet was taken down by SAMs, or (2) a bomb was planted on the plane and detonated in flight.

The second theory has been pushed by Russian sources, which is reason enough to discard it. When the theory was first advanced, skeptics pointed out that the plane fell with the fuselage intact but minus a wing, whereas a bomb in the passenger or cargo compartments would have seriously damaged the fuselage. The Russian sources then pivoted to say the bomb had been planted in the wheel well, located in the wing, which would explain its loss. Subsequent photos of the detached wing show it to be intact, however,and crucially, the landing gear and tire are pristine and bear no signs of fire or explosion.

Support for the first theory comes from (1) the observation of smoke or vapor trails pointing skyward in videos of the plane’s descent, and (2) photographs of plane pieces with many small holes, characteristic of the shrapnel jettisoned with the explosion of a SAM warhead. (FWIW, there are rumors that the corpses of the victims also contained shrapnel wounds.). It should also be noted that the takedown occurred close to a military base at Tver where SAMs are stationed.

So I’m strongly leaning towards the shoot down theory.

So whodunit, and why? Well, of course the near lock primary suspect is Putin. Prigozhin’s/Wagner’s Kornilov moment exactly two months before Yevgeny et al bit the dust was a threat to Putin, and worse, an insult (despite Progozhin’s protests he wasn’t targeting Putin) led virtually everyone to believe he was a dead man walking. The only question was how? Tea that would break a Geiger Counter? A window? “Suicide”?

Indeed, the most confusing thing about the entire episode is that not only did Prigozhin live so long, he was apparently traveling to, from, and within Russia with impunity. This led some to hypothesize that the entire June “coup” was some sort of scheme drawn up by Putin and Prigozhin, others to conjecture that Putin was too intimidated to move against him.

Or more likely, Putin figured revenge is a dish best served cold. And further, he needed to destroy not one man, but to decapitate Wagner altogether–and Prigozhin and his confederates did not provide the opportunity to do so until they boarded the plane this week.

One can only consider Prigozhin as a fool. He fucked up–he trusted Putin.

He was also a fool because he forgot the old adage–if you strike at the king, you must kill him. By recoiling at the last minute, he sealed his fate.

Now of course we’ll never know if Putin gave an explicit order. Perhaps it was a hint, hint, nudge, nudge will no one rid me of this turbulent boyar kind of thing. But it’s extremely unlikely that this happened without Putin’s approval.

Of course, like Murder on the Orient Express, many had a motive to kill Prigozhin. Most notably the Defense Minister Shoigu and the Armed Forces Commander Gerasimov, both of whom Prigozhin had attacked furiously and whose removal he demanded. But I seriously doubt they have the stones to do something like this on their own hook. Indeed, their sad-sackiness is exactly what drove Prigozhin nuts and which endears them to Putin.

What now? The hardcore nationalist factions in Russia are furious, and Wagner rank-and-file could pose a threat. But they are leaderless, and no doubt the FSB and GRU are sweeping up and eliminating the most dangerous of them. No doubt some hardcore elements will survive, perhaps fleeing to Africa, and attempt to move against Putin a la how French paratrooper veterans of Algeria tried to snuff De Gaulle. But the very public De Gaulle represented a much easier target than the reclusive Putin, and even then the disgruntled French soldiers failed in their attempts.

Presumably the event has also scared straight anybody else thinking of mounting a challenge against Putin. Indeed, the very extravagance of the killing–much more lurid than a mere fall from a high place–puts an exclamation point on the assassination, and sends a very strong message.

But it’s not immaterial that Putin felt it necessary to engage in such extravagance and send such a message. A confident leader, like Caesar in many instances, can show mercy. A shaky or fearful one cannot. And perhaps it was the lesson of Caesar that convinced Putin that longtime colleagues can be extremely dangerous. “Et tu Yevgeny” were not words Putin was going to utter, if he could help it. And he could.

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