Streetwise Professor

February 20, 2024

Alexei Navalny: Voluntary Martyr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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July 24, 2023

The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy, 2023 Edition

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 11:32 am

There is considerable angst over the glacial pace of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. This angst is a product of unrealistic hopes and expectations derived from totally different circumstances.

The unrealistic expectations derived from the stunning success of the Ukrainians last year, around Kharkiv/Kharkov and Kherson. These successes were rooted in Russian errors. The Russians overextended themselves in their initial offensive in 2022, leaving open flanks and exhausted forces that made them extremely vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks. The Russian situation last summer was in many respects comparable to the Ukrainian situation in 2014, when they overextended themselves in pushing at separatist forces, leaving them open to a devastating attack by Russian forces.

(Both episodes remind me of a maxim my mother uttered during one of our many tours of Civil War battlefields (she was a saint to take me on so many): “Nobody ever won a battle, but some people sure lost one.”)

Circumstances are totally different now. The Russians had ample time to dig in extensively, and in particular, sow extensive minefields. It’s a totally different proposition attacking deep, heavily mined defenses than pouncing on the flanks of demoralized, exhausted troops in the open.

The Ukrainians, Zelensky in particular, have been damning the West vitriolically for failure to provide enough of, well, everything. Sorry, but “enough of everything” would really mean deployment of several American heavy divisions, and most importantly, a good chunk of the USAF. American doctrine for attacking prepared defenses involves an extended period of intense air attack to degrade them, followed by assaults by heavy divisions (i.e., divisions other than the 82nd and 101st, and 10th Mountain), supported by continued air attacks and massive artillery.

Not happening in Ukraine. Never was going to happen. Never will happen.

I am a Patton fan, but this quote from the movie is wildly incorrect:

Fixed fortifications, huh? Monuments to the stupidity of man. When mountain ranges and oceans could be overcome anything built by man can be overcome.

As Patton surely knew, history is replete of examples of the power of fixed fortifications. Ironically this statement was made about the fortifications at Metz, which stymied Patton for months. (And it is amusing that in the same film Patton gives a tour of the fortifications of Malta, and describes how the Knights of Malta used them to stop the Turks.)

Given these realities, the Ukrainians have adapted. They are gnawing through some of the minefields (at non-trivial cost), but are also executing WWI-like trench raids to attrit front line units and deep strikes with drones and Western-supplied weapons (notably HIMARS and StormShadow) to undermine Russian logistics.

This has some chance of succeeding–eventually. Chewing a wide enough gap may permit a breakout, with someplace like Tokmak playing the part of St. Lo. Russian reserves and operational mobility are likely inadequate to contain such a breakout–if it can be engineered. With “engineering” being the operative word, because making the gap that could be exploited is first and foremost a combat engineering task.

But nothing will happen quickly, if it happens at all.

In the meantime, both sides are acting like exhausted fighters in a no-holds brawl, with attacks on civilian and infrastructure targets being the equivalent of eye-gouging and ear-biting. The Russian attacks on Ukrainian grain-exporting capacity are the most prominent example of this.

(NB, especially to people like supposed commodities expert Javier Blas. The first thing that pops into the minds of most when attacks on Ukrainian grain-handling infrastructure is wheat. But Ukraine is a much bigger player in corn than wheat.)

And these attacks carry the risk of dramatically escalating the conflict. Today Russia extended its missile attacks westward from Odesa/Odessa to the banks of the Danube, and executed a strike that landed ~100 meters from Romanian territory. That is, Nato territory.

All this raises the question: what’s the point? And I don’t mean the point for Russia and Ukraine, or more particularly their governments. I mean for the interests of the United States.

A strong case can be made that the US has already achieved–courtesy of tens of thousands of Ukrainian lives and tens of billions of American dollars–about all of the conceivable strategic benefits of this war. Courtesy of Putin’s idiocy, Russian military capacity has been (a) dramatically reduced, and (b) shown to have been not that great in the first place. The threat to Europe posed by Russia (which (b) suggests was not that serious in the first place) has been neutered, at the cost of increasing the US’s vulnerability in a more vital theater–Asia. Good strategic thinking should not focus on making the rubble bounce, but should pocket gains in eastern Europe and focus on Asia.

So rather than acceding to Zelensky’s ever greater demands, the message to him should be: take half a loaf, and make a deal. For the sake of your people.

But that is not the attitude of America’s (and most of Europe’s) ruling class. They are monomaniacally focused not just on restoring pre-2014 borders, but crushing Putin and transforming the Russian state. As illustrated by this:

Vladimir Kara-Murza writes: There is only one outcome of this conflict that would be in the interests of the free world, of Ukraine and, ultimately, of the Russian people: resounding defeat for Putin, to be followed by political change in Russia and a Marshall Plan-type international assistance program both to rebuild Ukraine and to help post-Putin Russia build a functioning democracy so that it never again becomes a threat to its own people or its neighbors. That is the only way to make sure Europe can finally become whole, free and at peace — and stay that way.

Sounds great! How is that going to happen, exactly, Vlad baby? Especially the part about “build[ing] a functioning democracy so that it never again becomes a threat to its own people or its neighbors”?

This reminds me of a statement that I saw from China today, about how government policy makers promised to “optimize and adjust policies” in response to the real estate meltdown. Optimization is not a plan–it is an aspiration. Almost to a person the policy establishments in the US and Europe are hooked on a categorically, metaphysically unachievable aspiration and are willing to spend countless lives and dollars in the futile attempt to achieve it.

These people believe in fairy tales. Murderous fairy tales that cannot possibly come true.

In an ironic twist, a war in Europe (not Asia) is now “The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” (I’m not a big Omar Bradley fan, but he got that one right.) But our policy “elites”–of both parties–are hyper-focused on the wrong war. (Why that is is a story for another, and probably much longer post.)

War and geopolitics require cold-blooded calculations. The cold-blooded calculation for the United States is definitely not to dream of magically transforming a notoriously intractable and autocratic society into Switzerland with nukes. (The possession of nukes in itself making such a transformation wholly fantastical.) It is instead to push for an outcome that satisfies none of the combatants–and indeed infuriates them–and shift focus from eastward to westward. Don’t fight the last war. Prepare for the new one–in order to prevent it.

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June 24, 2023

The Wagner Putsch: Kornilov Redux or Something More Threatening?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 1:30 pm

The news of the day is that Yevgeny Prigozhin has reversed direction, and instead of attacking Ukraine has occupied Rostov-on-the-Don and Veronehz, and has advanced some distance into the Moscow Oblast in an attempted putsch. As in all things Russian, good information is hard to come by–and the Russian authorities are doing their best to shut down all non-official “information” sources.

Prigozhin launched a broadside against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov. In a version of the old “the tsar doesn’t know and is being misled by bad boyars” trope, Progozhin claims that this pair of mouth breathers deceived Putin about the need for an invasion of Ukraine and the ease of accomplishing it, and continue to deceive him by downplaying casualty figure. This is a transparent attempt to claim–incredibly–that this action is directed against Putin. Since Putin is the only man who matters, any challenge to the state is a challenge to Putin.

There are reports of combat between Prigozhin’s Wagner forces and the Russian military, with the former claiming to have shot down several military helicopters and at least one SU-34. There are also reports that some Russian military and national guard forces have thrown in with Wagner, or stood aside.

Some analysts claim that Wagner represents a real military threat to Putin. The conventional wisdom is that it does not: on the BBC Mark Galeotti claimed that Wagner has only 10,000 men at his disposal. But information is scarce, everything is in flux, and there is always the prospect that enough military and security force commanders are so disenchanted with the Ukraine fiasco that they will start supporting Wagner, or refuse orders to attack it, or block other units from doing so.

The most recent reports, from less than reliable sources (such as the Belarussian administration), are that Prigozhin has agreed to return to barracks. Which would be suicidal unless he has some sort of ironclad deal.

The fact is that the die is cast. Prigozhin made his choice and he must win or die. Any pause will be a tactical one.

My conjecture is that Prigozhin has known for some time that Shoigu and Gerasimov and the rest of the establishment intend to eliminate him and Wagner with extreme prejudice. The “sign a contract or else” ultimatum was just setting up the legal justifications for such an action.

Given that, Prigozhin was desperate, and had to throw the dice. He had nothing to lose.

The uncertainties in a situation like this make prediction perilous. If I had to guess, I wold say that this will play out something like the pathetic Kornilov Affair in 1917, when the eponymous general marched on the capital (then St. Petersburg) in an attempted coup against the Kerensky government. (Though some claim that Kerensky was part of the plot–and not surprisingly I have seen some claim that Putin is actually in cahoots with Prigozhin.) The coup attempt collapsed within 3 days.

But you never know.

As for Putin, this morning he gave a fiery speech denouncing the putsch and promising that it would be crushed. In so doing, Vova treated us to some of his Fractured Fairy Tale history:

A blow like this was dealt to Russia in 1917, when the country was fighting in World War I. But the victory was stolen from it: intrigues, squabbles and politicking behind the backs of the army and the nation turned into the greatest turmoil, the destruction of the army and the collapse of the state, and the loss of vast territories, ultimately leading to the tragedy of the civil war.

For one thing, Russia was hardly on the verge of victory in 1917. In fact, its army was teetering on the edge of collapse–and at times did collapse. Widespread desertion and mutiny contributed to the crisis that culminated in the abdication of Nicholas II. After something of a recovery following the February Revolution, the collapse of the military resumed after the utter failure of the Kerensky Offensive. And vast territories had already been lost by 1917.

For another thing. Wait, whut? The Putin I know lamented the fall of the USSR as the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. This Putin–is he an imposter?–is lamenting the revolution that resulted in the creation of the USSR. Just another illustration, I guess, that to Putin history is purely instrumental, meant to be distorted to meet the needs of the political moment.

Although who will win in Russia is in doubt, there is no doubt that the biggest winner here is Ukraine. Chaos at the top will distract the Russian military leadership from managing operations in Ukraine. If the Wagner threat persists Putin will have to divert units from fighting Ukrainians to fight Russians.

Regardless of how this plays out, it is a clear sign that all is not well in Putin’s Russia. In fact, things are quite bad. Some natives are restless–and with good cause. Meaning that Putin is confronted with a war on two fronts, precisely when experience has shown that he is incapable of handling just one.

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June 17, 2023

A Near Run Thing On the Steppes

Filed under: History,Military,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 3:30 pm

So the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive has begun. How’s it going? Who knows?

Initial reports indicate that the Ukrainians have made advances measured in kilometers, but not tens of kilometers, in several areas along the long front. They have suffered losses in armor and of course personnel, but how much is hard to gauge. The Russians have crowed about inflicting large material losses, but showing the same damaged Leopard tank from several angles rather dilutes their boasts.

Regardless, this is hardly Guderian racing to the Channel coast, Patton rampaging from Normandy to Paris to Metz, or the USMC breaching Iraqi prepared defenses and reaching Kuwait City long ahead of schedule. But does that mean anything? Again, who knows?

For one thing, the above are exceptions rather than rules when it comes to offensives, so one should not benchmark Ukraine’s efforts against them. For another, it is still unknown whether this represents the main Ukrainian effort, or is instead probing attacks, or feints, or shaping operations, or initial grinding assaults intended to gnaw through prepared Russian defenses thereby opening gaps through which the main Ukrainian assault forces can pour into the Russian rear areas.

In preparation for the Ukrainian assault, the Russians have constructed multiple lines of defense, with the approaches heavily–and I mean heavily–mined. (Where’s Princess Diana???) Getting through the minefields is a major challenge, and the necessarily slow pace of doing so subjects the attacker to artillery bombardment and air strikes. So the going can expected to be tough, with high casualties.

One model that comes to mind is El Alamein. Rommel had entrenched along the Egyptian border, and sowed massive minefields. When Montgomery attacked, it was extremely slow going at first, with large casualties in personnel and armor. It took about 10 days for British (mainly ANZAC and South African, actually) infantry to clear pathways through the minefields through which British armor could eventually pass. During the 3 week battle, Montgomery shifted the weight of his advance from the right flank to the left and back again as one flank became bogged down. It was a long, slow process, but once the British had gnawed through the prepared defenses, at high cost, Rommel was forced to withdraw, thus beginning a race westwards through Libya and back to Tunisia.

The Normandy campaign is another. Weeks of bitter combat with Allied forces attempting to break through German lines, measuring progress in yards, if that, eventually resulting in breakout at St. Lo and a precipitous German withdrawal to the Seine and beyond.

Today, the Russians have some advantages the Germans lacked. In particular, they have an edge in the air, whereas the British did in 1942 and the Allies did in 1944: the breakout at St. Lo in Operation Cobra was made possible by a massive air bombardment that wrecked and stunned the already heavily attrited Panzer Lehr division–and also killed a lot of Americans hit by “shorts.” After being an non-factor during offensive operations, Russian attack helos have apparently been effective in the defense against the counter offensive. Russian fixed wing aviation has also made itself felt in contrast to its performance heretofore. Ukraine has no ability to execute the equivalent of a Cobra.

That said, German troops were far better than the Russians are–and maybe even the derided Italians in the desert were better than the mobiks currently absorbing blows.

The Ukrainians have advantages in night fighting capability, and that can be decisive. But it’s hard enough to breach minefields in the day, let alone at night. So the night fighting advantage can’t be decisive until the minefields have been breached and the Ukrainians can close with the Russian defenders–assuming, of course, that the Russians stand if the Ukrainians do make a breach or breaches and start running amok in the Russian rear.

So as of now, uncertainty reigns. Uncertainty regarding the Ukrainian operational plan (e.g., is this their main effort, or a shaping operation?) Uncertainty regarding what is actually transpiring on the battlefield. Uncertainty regarding the combat power and endurance of the contending forces.

The advantage of the offense is that it is only necessary to break through in one place to achieve a decisive victory–provided the attacker has highly mobile reserves to exploit a breakthrough and the defender doesn’t have the mobile reserves (and especially mobile reserves led the by likes of a von Manstein or a Model) to seal the breach. It remains to be seen whether the Ukrainians have the ability to break through, and more importantly, the force to exploit a breach if they do. Several Russian counterattacks have apparently been repulsed quite bloodily (wrecking an entire division in one instance), and based on prior performance and the attrition of the past months I seriously doubt whether they can execute a mobile defense if their lines are breached anywhere–or even if Putin will let them. The necessity of deploying over a very long front extending hundreds of kilometers combined with the pronounced lack of skill at combined arms mobile warfare suggests that a Ukrainian breach anywhere would be devastating to the Russians. But whether Ukraine can achieve that breach before culmination is a very open question.

So I predict that the race between Ukrainian counteroffensive and the Russian defense will be like how Wellington described Waterloo: “the nearest run thing you ever saw.”

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