Streetwise Professor

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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September 11, 2022

The Judo Expert Takes a Stunning and Unexpected Blow to the Right Temple

Filed under: Military,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 2:04 pm

Although one has to be skeptical about all real time reports from battle zones–especially in Ukraine, given the intense information warfare waged by all sides–all indications are that the Ukrainian military has achieved dramatic success, not in a counteroffensive in Kherson, but in Karkiv/Kharkov. The Russians have acknowledged that they have “redeployed” troops from Kharkiv Oblast to Donbas to continue their offensive there. This is risible, and reminds me of McClellan claiming that his retreat from the front of Richmond in June 1862 was a “change of base.” Ukrainian reports that they have routed Russian defenders appear far more credible.

Like all battlefield victories and defeats, what is transpiring now is an amalgam of competence and incompetence. (Or, as my mother always used to say on our Civil War battlefield tours–nobody ever won a battle: somebody lost it.). On the Ukrainian side, it appears that they achieved considerable surprise, based on months of shaping the information space. They tipped a right uppercut (into Kherson) then delivered a thundering left hook crashing into the Russian right temple (in Kharkiv).

In other words, the judo expert was fooled, caught off balance, and is now reeling.

The attention for months was on a highly touted forthcoming Kherson offensive. Attacks in Crimea further served to direct attention to the south. Russia apparently directed reinforcements to the south and denuded (or at least did not strengthen) its forces around Kharkiv. Ukraine thus was able to achieve solid gains in the east, and now threatens to create what in WWII was called a “cauldron battle” by pivoting south to cut off large number of Russian troops. (Which is why Russian troops are apparently “bugging out,” to borrow Korean War lingo.)

The flip side to Ukrainian operational surprise facilitated by distraction is a Russian intelligence failure. Russian aerial reconnaissance, signals intelligence/electronic warfare, and human intelligence obviously fell woefully short. They did not see through the ruse, and were unable to suss out the real distribution of Ukrainian forces or Ukrainian defenses.

I wonder if Ukraine may be following the example of Montgomery at El Alamein, who alternated advances on two widely separated axes, ramping up one when Rommel shuttled reinforcements to counter the other. If so, expect increased effort on the Kherson axis in the coming days and weeks, especially if Russia rushes troops to the east in an attempt to stymie Ukrainian progress there.

Despite the large disparity in populations, Ukrainian forces outnumber the Russian now. The Russians are reportedly assembling outfits of old men and young boys, an expedient the Germans did not resort to until 1944 (Volksgrenadiers). The Russians are also reportedly scouring the prisons for potential cannon fodder.

Further, the Ukrainians are operating on interior lines, the Russians on exterior ones, and what’s more, Ukraine has shown the ability to strike in Russian rear areas with indirect fires more effectively than Russia has been able to strike the Ukrainian rear, and this despite the on paper superiority of Russian air forces.

So the balance has shifted. Ukraine has made gains in days that took the Russians months to achieve in Donbas.

That said, I expect that this will mainly move the line of stalemate to the east and south, rather than result in a decisive ejection of the Russians from Ukrainian territory, and a termination of the war by Putin.

Indeed, some crazed nationalist elements in Russia are celebrating the defeat. Now, they say, the gloves will come off!

The problem, of course, is not that Russia has been stymied because its blows have been softened by strategic and tactical gloves: it is that Russia has not landed any real blows to speak of since about 1 March. Those celebrating reverses in the east say now Russia has no choice but to strike at the infrastructure that Ukraine uses to deliver western weapons (mainly American). But how they do not explain.

They seem to be operating under the same assumptions (or more accurately delusions) that most western observers (me included) held on 24 February, namely, that Russian air and missile forces would overwhelm Ukrainian defenses and allow Russia to romp unhindered against Ukrainian lines of communication. But actual events put paid to this assumption months ago.

What’s more, in an ineffectual and futile campaign of missile and air strikes, Russia has expended the vast bulk of its precision weapons. Not that they have proved at all effective heretofore, but they still would be more effective than whatever else remains in the Russian quiver.

In other words, Russian failures to interdict Ukraine’s lines of supply reflect incapacity, not a failure to utilize capacities. And the capabilities now are less than they were six months ago. Taking off the gloves helps little when you have no fists.

Thus, non-victory is staring Putin in the face, and there is little he can do about it. Little conventionally, that is. Which is disturbing. Putin cannot be so out of touch as the mouth breathers in Moscow. His only escalation options are unconventional–and hence extreme. The only other choice is to hang on and let the war drag on. Although I would not exclude the possibility of an extreme escalation, I think he will make the latter choice, and hang on by his fingertips while condemning thousands of Russians and Ukrainians to death and maiming.

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August 21, 2022

No, Dugin Is Not Putin’s Brain: They Are Products of a Shared History

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 12:40 pm

Yesterday Daria Dugin, the daughter of Russian philosopher and ideologist Alexander Dugin, was killed on a Moscow highway by the detonation of a car bomb. The bomb was apparently intended for her father, who decided at the last minute not to ride with her from an event.

The murder triggered an avalanche of ghoulish, creepy, and frankly disgusting celebration. The only regret that many expressed was that Dugin père was not vaporized. Better luck next time!

The commentary was littered with descriptions of Dugin including “Putin’s brain,” or “Putin’s Rasputin,” and “fascist.” The implication being that Dugin is and has long been Putin’s Svengali, and that Putin has been in Dugin’s thrall. Putin wouldn’t have considered seizing Crimea without Dugin’s suggesting it, dontcha know.

This is illogical, idiocy, and entirely at odds with actual historical facts.

In terms of logic, D saying X and P doing X does not imply that D’s words caused P’s actions.

More generally, to the extent that there are parallels between Dugin’s writings and public statements and Putin’s words and actions, this does not mean that Putin was an acolyte sitting at the master’s feet, an Alexander to Dugin’s Aristotle.

Instead, there is a common root. Dugin’s emphasis on Russian exceptionalism–especially Russians’ supposedly transcendental spiritual mission in existential opposition to a degraded materialist West–and Putin’s expression of similar ideas draws from a very common theme in Russian thought. Think Dostoevsky, for example, or Solzhenitsyn, or the veneration of the supposed “Russian soul.” The examples could be multiplied.

Putin has long sought ideological and philosophical justifications for his politics. Once upon a time–in the mid-2000s, basically–Dugin was the flavor of the month. He was just a fashion that Putin donned for a bit, before moving on. Dugin didn’t shape Putin’s thinking. Instead, Dugin’s thinking was useful to Putin at one time. But the dynamic of Putin’s actions and the logic underlying them are largely independent of Dugin’s writing, and to the extent that they are correlated, it is because they draw inspiration from a common historical source, or from geopolitical forces that Dugin wrote about but did not create. If anything, Putin used Dugin for a while, but Dugin has never used Putin.

Much of Dugin’s writing is rooted in the geopolitical, geographical theories of Mackinder, combined with a distinctly Russian, anti-Western, anti-Enlightenment civilizational perspective. One can explain a lot of what Putin has done, and does, as an expression of the geopolitical and civilizational forces that Dugin wrote about, that doesn’t mean that Putin wouldn’t have done the same thing if Dugin had never existed. In fact, it means the opposite.

In other words, both Dugin’s words and Putin’s actions are the products of common forces and a common history, not the creators thereof.

As for fascism, yes there are points of contact, regarding culture, idealism v. materialism, Romanticism, etc., but the very Russianness of Dugin’s thought makes comparisons to Mussolini let alone Hitler superficial at best, and highly misleading at worst. The historical palette of most American and European commentators is highly limited.

I think of Dugin as the Russian avatar of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations–and Dugin would probably consider that flattering. The hatred directed at him, and his returning that with interest, reflects that clash.

In other words, like most intellectuals, Dugin isn’t all that important except as an expression and illustration of what produced him. If he had chosen to ride with his daughter yesterday, the future would not have differed a whit, just as he reflected but did not create the past.

If he doesn’t matter, why was he targeted? Well, I am arguing that he shouldn’t matter. That’s different from saying that some people think that he does. The ghoulish gloating and “Putin’s brain” idiocy demonstrates that many do.

Some have weirdly suggested that Putin wants him gone. Er, why? And Putin has found that he can silence opponents by jailing them or tormenting them with judicial processes. No need to create a martyr.

The most likely culprits are Ukrainian. Not necessarily (or even likely) the government. More likely Azov types.

Killing Dugin would perhaps be emotionally satisfying to Ukrainian nationalists, but it would not advance Ukrainian interests in the slightest. Indeed, it would quite likely have the opposite effect, because it would only make the conflict even more existential from the Russian perspective.

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August 19, 2022

Putin’s Army Taking It In the Rear

Filed under: Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:50 pm

If you would have asked me in February, or even early-March, whose rear areas would be more vulnerable, Ukraine’s or Russia’s, I would have said Ukraine’s without a doubt. Russian airpower would be able to roam at will over the length and breadth of Ukraine, attacking its headquarters, supply areas, and lines of communication. It would also be able to obtain targeting information for its standoff weapons to attack such military resources.

Wrong! Russia’s air campaign has been the dampest of squibs. It’s pathetic, actually. And its standoff weapons (cruise missiles, Iskanders, etc.) have mainly hit civilian areas–apartment buildings, shopping centers, and the like.

In contrast, in recent weeks and days Ukraine has hit numerous Russian rear area targets by a variety of means.

The arrival of HIMARs has allowed the Ukrainians to take out numerous headquarters, including army-level headquarters. (Though to be fair, Russian armies are really just big divisions or at most a corps, compared to WWII antecedents.) HIMARs have also wreaked havoc on Russian ammunition depots vital to their artillery-centric tactics–which is precisely why their assaults in Donbas have ground to a shuddering halt. HIMARs have also inflicted substantial damage on bridges essential to the Russians for supporting their units on the north/west bank of the Dnipro around Kherson.

But the Ukrainians have also mounted several attacks in Russia proper, through means not fully known. In particular, military targets in Belograd oblast have been hit: these include an oil refinery and yet more ammunition dumps.

Some of these attacks appear to have been carried out by helicopters and rockets. But others are more likely the result of sabotage. And recent explosions in Crimea are almost certainly the result of sabotage operations. The most notable occurred at an airbase at Saki which per satellite photographic evidence destroyed nine or ten front line Russian aircraft. But in the last few days there have been explosions at ammunition dumps in Crimea and even in Sevastopol.

One thing I did get kind of right was predicting that the Russians would be vulnerable to partisan and guerrilla activity in their rear areas. But I was only kinda right because I envisioned this would occur after they had rolled across most or all of Ukraine. The fact that even what should be secure Russian and largely Russified areas are at risk is pretty staggering.

At the tactical level, this means that the Russians will have to divert already scarce manpower from the front to secure their rear, thereby reducing their offensive capacity. Guerrilla/commando/partisan warfare is an economy of force tactic, and it will almost certainly perform that function here.

At the strategic level, the impact will be largely psychological. And I don’t say that to diminish its importance. War is often won by breaking an enemy’s morale and psychologically unbalancing him into making mistakes.

The strikes on Crimea are especially salient in this regard given the psychological value of that region to Putin, and to Russians generally. Putin’s bloodless conquest of Crimea is his crowning achievement, and his prowess is severely tarnished if he can’t even defend it from saboteurs and “terrorists” (something else Putin has claimed to vanquish).

Given the neuralgia Putin has about Crimea, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that these attacks, and continued attacks there, will unbalance him sufficiently to induce him to do something rash–and stupid.

The military damage inflicted by some of the Crimea attacks appears to be small (Saki being an exception). But frequently small events can have outsized consequences if they strike at the leadership’s pride.

Consider the 1942 Doolittle Raid, which had virtually no direct military consequences. But striking the Japanese homeland and at least theoretically threatening the life of the Emperor so shocked and humiliated the military and naval leadership who had promised that such a thing was impossible that they launched the Midway operation (because they viewed Midway as the keyhole through which the Americans had gained access to Japanese airspace). The catastrophic failure of that operation was the beginning of the end for Japan.

Partisan/guerrilla/commando operations in Russian rear areas, and especially in Crimea, are deeply humiliating to Putin and the Russian high command. If they continue, and especially if they escalate, honor (one of the main motivators of war, according to Thucidides) will compel Putin to exact revenge. Given that he has proven incapable of doing so against Ukraine conventionally, the forms that revenge could take are sobering.

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