Streetwise Professor

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

June 6, 2023

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This Before: Those Damned Speculators Are Screwing Up the Oil Market!

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — cpirrong @ 1:05 pm

Saudi Arabia is fussed at the low level of oil prices. So true to form with those unsatisfied with price, they are rounding up the usual suspects. Or in this case, suspect–speculators!

I’m sure you never saw that coming, right?

As the world’s biggest oil producers gather here Sunday to decide on a production plan, the spotlight is on the cartel kingpin’s fixation on Wall Street short sellers. Abdulaziz has lashed out repeatedly this year against traders whose bets can cause prices to fall. Last week he warned them to “watch out,” which some analysts saw as an indication that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies may reduce output at their June 4 meeting. A production cut of up to 1 million barrels a day is on the table, delegates said Saturday. 

Claude Rains is beaming, somewhere.

I’m so old that I remember when oil prices were beginning their upward spiral in 2007-8 (peaking in early-July), in an attempt to deflect attention from OPEC and Saudi Arabia, one of Abdulaziz’s predecessors blamed the price rise on speculators too.

Is there anything they can’t do?

Not that I’m conceding that speculators systematically or routinely cause the price of anything to be “too high” or “too low,” but if you do think that they influence price, they should be Abdulaziz’s best buddies. After all, they are net long now and almost always are. (Cf. CFTC Commitment of Traders Reports.)

If the Saudis (and other OPEC+ members) have a beef with anybody, it is with their supposed ally, Russia. Russia had supposedly agreed to cut output in order to maintain prices, but strangely enough, there is no evidence of reductions in Russian supplies reaching the world market, even despite price caps on Russian oil and the fact that they are selling it at a steep discount to non-Russian oil. Perhaps Russia has really cut output, but (a) that doesn’t really boost the world oil price if Russian exports haven’t been cut, and (b) it would mean that Russian domestic consumption is down, which would contradict Moscow’s narrative that the economy is hunky-dory, and relatively unscathed by sanctions.

But I think that the more likely story is that Russia is playing Lucy and the football with OPEC.

Which would be a return to form: see my posts from years ago. And I mean years ago. Apparently Won’t Get Fooled Again isn’t on Abdulaziz’s play list.

The other culprit behind lower oil prices is China: its tepid recovery is weighing on all commodity prices–not just oil. A fact that Abdulaziz should be able to understand.

But it’s much easier to shoot the messenger, and that’s what speculators are now–and almost always are. Venting at them probably makes Abdulaziz feel better, but even if he were to get his way that wouldn’t change the fundamental situation a whit.

Bashing speculators is what people who don’t like the price do. And since there’s always someone who doesn’t like the price (consumers when it’s high, producers when it’s low) bashing speculators has been and will continue to be the longest running show in finance and markets.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

May 4, 2023

Another Impenetrable Moscow Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

April 9, 2023

He Blowed Up Real Good.

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

And the war grinds on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

February 25, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meaning that stalemate is in prospect indefinitely.

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

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

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

« Previous PageNext Page »

Powered by WordPress