Streetwise Professor

August 19, 2022

Putin’s Army Taking It In the Rear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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July 23, 2022

Putin’s Hamster Wheel Spins Bloodily On

Filed under: Commodities,Energy,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 1:46 pm

The war in Ukraine grinds on, and recent developments–non-developments really–mean that it will grind on for a long time to come. Specifically, Russian Foreign Minister stated that Russian territorial goals were not limited to the Donbas but included (at least) the Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia regions. For his part, Ukrainian president Zelensky declared that Ukraine would attempt to negotiate a cease fire only after his country had recaptured all of the areas previously seized by the Russians (presumably including Crimea as well). I say “non-developments” because they represent mere restatements of previous positions.

These stated goals are clearly irreconcilable. Therefore, the beat will go on. And on. And on.

Russia continues to grind, but at an even slower pace than in May and June–and that pace was glacial. Ukraine is making some gains around Kherson, and is intimating that it will mount an offensive there. Even if successful, that will put the attempting-to-take-a-city-shoe–with all the attendant casualties–on the other foot. And even if successful, it will not be decisive, especially given Putin’s obvious bloody mindedness. Zelensky’s ambition of decisive victory is delusional.

Even the one glimmer of hope in the situation shone weakly for only a few hours. The day after a deal brokered by Turkey was reached between Russia and Ukraine to resume grain shipments from Ukraine, the Russians launched a small salvo of Kaliber cruise missiles at the port of Odesa/Odessa. As this video shows, firing Kalibers in ones and twos at a port poses relatively little threat to port infrastructure:

But they don’t have to in order to make the agreement a meaningless scrap of paper. Cruise missiles, even in penny packets, would pose a threat to ships loading at the port. The brazenness of the Russian action before the ink was dry on the grain export deal makes it plain that calling in Odesa/Odessa is nothing but a game of Russian roulette–literally. Few if any carriers (or their insurers) will be game to play, especially given the other dangers (e.g., mines).

So what Putin giveth with one hand to great fanfare he taketh away with little more than a shrug. A typically cynical play.

The biggest losers from all this (other than the combatants themselves, of course) are the Europeans. They are looking at a cold, dark winter. And they are looking at serious economic damage for as long as this lasts. German industry (chemicals especially) will suffer greatly from protracted high energy prices, natural gas in particular.

German resolve, such as it was, is already cracking. It is fading its promises to provide weapons to Ukraine, and its foreign minister said the quiet part out loud: “If we don’t get the gas turbine, then we won’t get any more gas, and then we won’t be able to provide any support for Ukraine at all, because then we’ll be busy with popular uprisings.” Translation: Ukraine, we don’t have your backs–but we might stab you there! (“At your feet or at your throat” also comes to mind.)

She backtracked, but her words are a vivid example of Michael Kinsley’s definition of a gaffe: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” Or in this instance, “she.”

Putin is executing a major psyop, varying the volumes of gas shipped to Europe. “Nice little energy-dependent economy you got here. Shame if anything happened to it.”

The likely outcome is that the western Europeans will temporize. They won’t back off on sanctions altogether, but their support for Ukraine and their opposition to Russia will be hedged and tepid at best. They will choose the muddle course, because they don’t have the guts either to confront Putin or to capitulate to him. This will also help extend the stalemate.

Years ago I used to refer to “Putin’s hamster wheel.” The fiasco in Ukraine is just a particularly bloody version of that. And betting on form, it will continue to spin for the indefinite future.

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July 13, 2022

Hey, Janet, Here’s a Deal! Buy a Russian Toaster for $5 Mil, and Igor Will Throw in 100K Barrels of Oil for an Additional $5 Mil

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:06 pm

The Biden Better Than Yous’ most recent brain flash is to impose a price cap on Russian oil. We’re told (by an anonymous senior Treasury official–maybe the ex-economist Janet Yellen herself?) that if we don’t the price of oil could reach $140/bbl.

Oh thank you for thinking of how to save us!!!

Not so fast. That is based on a particular counterfactual: namely, a complete cutoff of Russian oil exports. That counterfactual is totally unrealistic.

Let’s compare to a more realistic alternative–current reality. Russia currently has to sell its barrels at a discount. But even the discounted price is well above the price cap being bruited about. So, if the plan works–which it won’t, for reasons I’ll get into momentarily–Russia would receive a lower price for its oil. Russia’s supply curve slopes up. Yes, it’s pretty steep, but it will export less if the proposed price cap were indeed binding. And if it exports less, world prices will rise. And since the demand curve is pretty steep too, the price rise will be appreciable.

In other words, compared to the current situation, this plan will raise prices if it works.

This is not complicated.

One could rationalize this as a way of reducing Russian oil revenues while having a relatively modest impact on prices. If Russian output was completely price inelastic, the cap would not reduce its output, and world prices would not rise, but Russia would receive less money to blow up Ukraine with.


Again . . . if the plan works.

This rosy scenario would mean that the plan is oil price neutral. But it would create a huge windfall for any entity that secures barrels at the capped price. That “windfall” is an economic rent, and there will be massive rent seeking to attempt to secure it. And rent seeking will undermine the operation of the plan.

It’s not as if this is a theoretical possibility. Remember why Marc Rich fled the US? Well, one reason was that he sought rents created by Jimmy Carter’s idiotic oil pricing scheme which created different categories of oil with different price caps. “Old” oil was subject to a price cap. “New” oil wasn’t. So enterprising rent seekers like M. Rich found ways to buy old oil and magically transform it into new oil, thereby making bank.

Substitute “Russian” for “Old” and you have Janet Yellen’s current plan. It creates tremendous incentives to evade, and will require tremendous resources to enforce. Uncle Sam no likey, and indicted Rich. But remember Marc died a free man in Switzerland.

Moreover, there are myriad ways to circumvent price controls.

If you are old enough, you’ll remember banks giving away toasters and other small appliances to depositors. Why? Because interest rates on deposits were capped at below market levels. But there was no rule against giving away toasters! So, in essence, interest was paid in toasters.

Think of the possibilities now! Buy a limited edition autographed portrait of Igor Sechin (the old Igor, with a mullet) for $5 million, and Rosneft will throw in 100,000 bbl of oil for $5 million more–a 50 percent discount off the current price, and compliant with the cap! It’s a bargain!

Or maybe buy a Russian toaster for $5 million, and get the 100kbbl for another $5 mil.

Warning: Do NOT accept sausages from Igor.

The bundling possibilities are endless. Side deals run through a labyrinth of shell companies are another way around this.

And don’t forget, one of the main ways that Russian oligarchs got rich in the 1990s was buying commodities at official Russian prices (well below world prices), illegally exporting them and selling at world prices, and then stashing the money overseas.

Meaning that they just have to dust off their old playbooks–they are pros at this. Only this time they will be circumventing foreign price caps instead of domestic ones. And they will have numerous eager accomplices in China, India, South America, and Africa.

And the Russians aren’t the only pros. Do you have any idea about all the invoicing scams in China to circumvent capital controls?

What’s the US going to do in response? Sanction everybody?

In sum, this is a plan that looks great on a whiteboard in economics class, but will not survive contact with the enemy. The enemy being reality.

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June 25, 2022

Russian Tactical Failures in Ukraine: Where’s the Meat?

Filed under: History,Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 11:02 am

In the very early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, after watching many videos of columns of Russian armor or individual tanks getting blown to smithereens, I remarked on Twitter several times that what astounded me is that the tanks were operating without infantry support, which left them vulnerable to being ambushed by a couple of guys with an ATGM fired within spitting distance. FFS, it has been known since the dawn of tanks in WWI, and especially since their widespread employment in WWII, that tanks without infantry are extremely vulnerable to one- or two-man antitank weapons. The bazooka is one example, but the panzerfaust (and subsequently its imitator the RPG-7) is the best illustration.

I had written down the Russian failures to a meatware problem: namely, badly trained or badly led troops, operating under bad doctrine. Well, it appears that it is a meatware problem, but a different one: a lack of meat. To modify the old Wendy’s commercial: where’s the meat?

For it seems that the vaunted Russian Battalion Tactical Groups–BTGs–have been deployed to Ukraine seriously undermanned. Fifty percent undermanned, in fact, a problem only exacerbated by the massive attrition that undermanned units inevitably suffered.

Many of the infantry fighting vehicles like the BMP-2 in its several variants have apparently operated without infantry: only the driver, commander, and gunner man the vehicles. So the reason that Russian armor has no infantry support is that it has no infantry period.

This is nothing short of criminal. Alas, the real criminals here (from Putin on down) will not pay the price. The poor Ivans incinerated when Javelins or Stugnas and other ATGMs demolish their vehicles have–and will.

Recently there have been fewer such images, because the Russians have changed tactics, due no doubt to the carnage of February and March. Now most Russian losses (at least the ones depicted on video) are from indirect fires.

For the war in Ukraine has become one of indirect fires. As predicted here when the original coup de main was smashed, the Russians have reverted to reliance on their God of War–artillery. In particular, after giving the Grozny treatment to Mariupol and winning a pyrrhic victory there, they have done the same at Severodonetsk.

The Ukrainians have wisely decided to withdraw. Perhaps a bit too late, but better late than never. By holding out the Ukrainians did cost the Russians time and materiel and casualties. But the Ukrainians suffered severe casualties as well. Judging when to make a tactical withdrawal is hard.

Severodonetsk is (or perhaps was) at the nose of a salient. The classic means of assaulting a salient is to strike on the shoulders and pinch it off, trapping the defenders. But the Russians have signally failed in their attempts to do so. So they bashed in the nose of the salient with brute firepower. It is a victory, of sorts, but one that will not have decisive because the Russians have proved that they do not have the ability to exploit such breaches through armored maneuver.

Severodonetsk was just a WWI battle, or a battle akin to the ones in the static phase of the Korean War July 1951-July 1953. A few kilometers are taken, at heavy cost (especially to the attackers) with no decisive strategic effect.

And the prospect is for more such battles, until one side or the other–or both–collapses due to an exhaustion of personnel or emotional/moral collapse.

Morale on both sides involved in the slugging contests is reportedly cracking. This is understandable. Especially on the Ukrainian side, given they are outgunned. There is nothing more terrifying or demoralizing to soldiers than artillery bombardment. The soldier feels utterly helpless, with no way of fighting back, and wondering whether the next whoosh of a shell is the last sound they will ever hear. What we now call PTSD was referred to as “shell shock” in WWI for a reason.

So, again as predicted early on, the war has degenerated into a war of attrition. The deciding factor will be which army, and perhaps which government, collapses first. Existing Russian forces have been hollowed out. Russia has additional manpower to draw on, but that would require Putin to mobilize, something he has been reluctant to do. And even if he does, re-manning depleted BTGs with unmotivated raw recruits will just permit extending the slow grind west, will not result in a decisive advance, and will push the Russian death toll ever closer to 6 figures.

Ukraine has made some marginal gains on the periphery in the north (around Kharkiv) and in the south (around Kherson). But nothing decisive.

Further, the events in Donbas have apparently been a rude awakening and cured the “victory disease” that inflicted Zelensky, the rest of the Ukrainian leadership, and many supporters in the West after the initial Russian thrusts were turned back.

But given that neither side seems willing to stop the fighting except on terms that the other finds completely unacceptable, the bloody, pointless war will drag on for the foreseeable future.

Astoundingly, even though it should have been apparent no later than mid-March that based on events on the ground and betting on form regarding Russian behavior that this is exactly where we would be, US military “intelligence” has supposedly been surprised at how the Russians have responded to their initial setback: “But U.S. intelligence apparently missed another possibility: that Russia would revert to its traditional “way of war” based on mass and attrition.”

How is that possible? I mean really. This should not have been complicated.

After Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine, U.S. military intelligence–especially the parts responsible for evaluating enemy capabilities and intentions–needs to be ripped down to the foundation and built from scratch. Ukraine is another example of “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” And it doesn’t even require looking at relatively ancient history, like, you know, WWII. It only requires looking back back 20-25 years, to Grozny.

These serial failures of US intelligence scare me far more than anything happening along the Don. An addle-brained president, with moronic advisors, acting on bad information. What could possibly go wrong?

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May 19, 2022

Z Is For Zugzwang

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 4:05 pm

Ten days ago Vladimir Putin gave his much anticipated “Victory Day” speech, and said . . . well, not much at all.

There was much anticipation and speculation in advance. He would declare war and full mobilization. He would declare victory, or announce some criteria for victory that even his shambolic military could achieve.

Instead, he basically affirmed the status quo. Russia would keep grinding away. It would not escalate. Nor would it de-escalate.

In other words, Putin tacitly admitted what I had asserted weeks ago: Putin/Russia are in Zugzwang: any move makes things worse, so Putin has basically chosen to do nothing, or at least to change nothing.

There has been much conjecture what the Z on Russian equipment means. Now you know. It means “Zugzwang.”

Things have gotten even worse for Russia since 9 May. Ukraine has mounted a modest counteroffensive (a real counteroffensive, not a local counterattack) north of Kharkiv, and pushed the Russian army back across its border in places. The Russian offensive in Donetsk and Luhansk is essentially stalled. Indeed, the Russians suffered a humiliating reverse in an attempt to mount a river crossing: an entire battalion tactical group and its equipment were destroyed, as was the bridging equipment.

Overall, Russian losses continue to mount, with nothing to show for it. The only simulacrum of an achievement is the surrender of the besieged and battered defenders of the Azovstal plant after weeks of relentless Russian assault and bombardment. But on net Ukraine gained far more from that battle by delaying and attriting Russian forces than Russia has by its ultimate capture of the facility.

And now the Russians appear to view their “triumph” as an excuse to commit a massive war crime by trying the captives as war criminals and threatening to execute the surrendered Ukrainians.

But of course they have to do that to justify their war propaganda that they are fighting Nazis. You know, act like Nazis to pretend they are fighting Nazis. But the Russian military and state are already so far down the war crimes road they won’t stop now, especially if this one provides something that they can use to sell this fiasco to the Russian public.

Now the battle resembles World War I far more than World War II. It is an artillery war being fought on a relatively static front. Even if Russia gains some local objectives, “the big push” and “breakthrough” are clearly beyond their capabilities.

Ukraine is clearly encouraged that it can win, with victory defined as pushing out Russians from all of Ukrainian territory. I think this is too optimistic, and even if it is realistic, the cost to Ukraine, let alone the world, is not worth it.

I understand the risk of leaving Putin/Russia with a rump of Ukrainian territory from which they can spin up a future justification for resuming hostilities once they’ve licked their wounds and convinced themselves that they have really fixed their military this time. But the pretext will exist, and in fact be even stronger, if Ukraine retakes the Donbas. For no doubt the Russians will claim that Ukraine is Nazifiing the recaptured Donbas if it retakes control, and this will be a future casus belli. Retaking it would alter the tactical situation somewhat in Ukraine’s favor for the next time, but not enough to change materially the probability of another Russian attempt. The war exists because Ukraine exists. Redrawing the lines of effective control in Ukraine won’t remove the Russian rationale for war. It is not worth it.

So the war will grind on, because Zugzwang Putin can’t admit he’s lost, and Ukraine believes it can win. Nothing good will come of that.

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May 13, 2022

Congresspeople, Being Idiots, As Always: Gasoline Price Edition

Filed under: Commodities,CoronaCrisis,Economics,Energy,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:28 pm

Mark Twain never grows old:

“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

This came to mind when reading about the proposal of Rep. Katie Porter to impose some sort of price control on gasoline:

Since the beginning of recorded history–and that is not hyperbole–the stock government response to high prices is price controls. The Pharaohs. Hammurabi. Diocletian. And many other examples. And it continues through the ages to more recent history, e.g., rent control in NY starting in WWII, Nixon in 1973.

And the result is always the same: economic disaster. It is price controls result in real shortages: people standing in lines, empty shelves, etc.

Always. If price doesn’t clear the market, waste (e.g., time spent standing in line) will.

But politicians never learn.

Nancy Pelosi (who is old enough to remember gas lines–hell, she’s probably old enough to remember the Code of Diocletian, if not that of Hammurabi) is of course fully on board. Which is an illustration that the adage “those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is wrong: many who can remember the past repeat its errors nonetheless.

Elizabeth Warren hasn’t weighed in on this yet, but you know she will, because she’s the main spokes-shrieker for The Gouger Theory of Prices.

The Gouger Theory is stupid on its face. Did oil companies wake up one morning and realize: “Whoa! We coulda jacked up prices and gouged the suckers! What were we thinking?” Did they have some sort of epileptic fit in 2020, when prices crashed? What were they thinking?

No. This isn’t gouging. This is-as it almost always is-fundamentals.

Oil prices are high. But in this week’s edition of “Find the Bottleneck,” that’s only one of the drivers (no pun intended) behind high gasoline and diesel prices. The bottleneck is in refining.

How do we know? Let’s look at the diesel crack:

It’s gone from around $22/bbl to as high as $70/bbl. (And the $22 is high compared to what it was a year ago). (Gasoline crack somewhat similar though not as bad–though it is likely to get so when the peak demand season kicks in.)

A high refining margin means that refinery capacity is constrained. And yes, it is constrained: it’s not as if refiners are exercising market power (i.e., gouging) by withholding output. Here is the capacity utilization in the US over time:

It’s running at pre-Pandemic levels.

And here’s another thing: post-Pandemic capacity is well below pre-Pandemic capacity:

That drop from pre-Pandemic levels is around 5 percent. That’s a lot.

So refineries are running flat out, and refinery capacity is down. What do you get?: big refining margins and high prices at the pump. Yes, it’s good to be a refiner now (though not so much two years ago). But it’s not good because you get to exercise market power. It’s because even under competition it’s highly profitable because of supply-demand fundamentals.

A variety of factors have contributed to this. The loss of a good chunk of Russian oil output is keeping the price of oil up, but the loss of Russian diesel supplies to Europe is probably a bigger factor. The US is to a large extent filling the gap, to the extent it can, by exporting.

But no matter how you break it down, it is clear that this is fundamentals driven. It is not gouging. And capping prices on the delusional belief that it is gouging will wreak economic havoc.

Which has never stopped the Democrats before, I know. (And Republicans too, e.g., Nixon).

One thing here does deserve emphasis. The decline in capacity is directly attributable to the Pandemic. Correction: it is directly attributable to the horrible policy choices that politicians and bureaucrats forced on us in the name of the Pandemic. The lockdowns in particular.

Like many, many things going on in commodity world right now, the current spike in product prices overall, and relative to crude, is yet another baleful consequence of completely mental decisions to shut down economies and crater the economics of producing and processing commodities.

In other news of economic-related political hysteria, there is also a lot of finger pointing going on about baby formula. I don’t have the information at hand to analyze in the same way as I can refined petroleum prices, but I can say what it isn’t. It isn’t “oligopoly.”

But again, those educated in politics (did I really use “educated” and “politics” in the same sentence?) and not economics immediately seize on this as an explanation.

Er, the baby formula business was an oligopoly a year ago. And a year before that. And a year before that. So . . . why all of a sudden did they supposedly decide to create a shortage? And pray tell–how do you make money if you aren’t selling stuff?

So whenever Congresspeople, or people who buzz around them like insects (yeah, I’m looking at you, journalists) come up with some economic brainstorm, remember Twain. They’re idiots. Dangerous idiots.

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May 3, 2022

Pace MacArthur, There Are Substitutes for Victory, When Victory is Too Costly

Filed under: Energy,History,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 12:03 pm

Its unexpected success on the battlefield has convinced Ukraine that it can achieve victory. And by “victory,” I mean driving Russia out of Ukraine altogether, including Donetsk, Luhansk, and yes, Crimea.

This is very disturbing. Defending against a shambolic attacking army with horrible logistics and a pathetic operational plan is one thing. Attacking–even against a shambolic army–is another. This is particularly true given that the Russian army was designed and trained to stop a Nato offensive (as ludicrous as that idea is), and has massive amounts of artillery that would make any attack a nightmare: if it was doctrinally unsuited for offense, and adopted a terrible offensive plan, that does not imply that it cannot defend (and against an army that has itself taken serious casualties in personnel and materiel). And all of the tactics that allowed the Ukrainians to blunt the Russian attack, notably ATGM ambushes and attacks on lengthening supply lines, could be turned against them. Ukraine would be giving up all the factors that have worked to its advantage, and would be courting all of the factors that contributed to Russia’s disaster.

The last time the Ukrainian army got the bit between its teeth, in Debaltseve in 2014, it did not turn out well. Yes, the Ukrainian army is far better now, but fools rush in.

Worse, the US appears to be encouraging this. And in an unbelievable and inexcusable error, the administration–SecDef Austin in particular–have publicly announced that the US objective is to weaken Russia. Even if this is the objective, and that would be defensible, it is not defensible at all to make it public. It only validates the Russian narrative that it is at war with the West, thereby bolstering Russian popular support for the war, but it encourages Ukraine to run risks that it should not.

What is the alternative? Alternatives have to be evaluated in terms of the ugly facts.

The war is exacting a horrific toll on Ukraine. Its people, its infrastructure, and its economy. Tens of thousands dead. Millions of refugees. Devastated cities. A ruined countryside.

But more, it is exacting an awful toll on the world, through its extraordinary disruptions of agriculture and energy markets. All the more because Russia appears to be exacerbating deliberately these impacts. This is not merely a matter of comfort and ease. It is a matter of survival for the world’s poorest.

Given this reality, a less than ideal, and likely temporary, resolution is preferable. Something that gives Putin (or whoever is really in charge) a pretext to cease hostilities, and leaves Ukraine not in control of all the territory within its official boundaries. Edward Luttwak suggests legitimate (emphasis on legitimate) plebiscites in various Ukrainian regions.

The downsides are apparent. Putin/Russia could come back for more in time: maybe “will” is the better word, because no deal with Putin/Russia can be considered binding. Such a deal would represent major concessions on fundamental principles.

But it would stop the slaughter and mayhem for a time. It would allow time to build up Ukraine, and to permit a development of a longer term strategy to deal with the Russia Problem. And it is a big problem.

Remember. There are no ideal “solutions” in foreign policy. There are only shitty options. Statesmanship is the ability to choose the least shitty, and make it reality. Neither Ukraine nor the US (nor Russia) is demonstrating such statesmanship.

One can understand, on a human level, the Ukrainian reaction. The US does not have the same excuse. It is a time for realism, realistically pursued with cold eyes. It is not the time for Wilsonian impulsiveness. That has never turned out well.

MacArthur said “there is no substitute for victory.” This was an absolutist statement that violated fundamental principles of choice. Substitutibility depends on relative costs. Victory–e.g., expelling Russia from all of Ukraine–would be very costly, if is achievable at all. Given such cost, there are substitutes, MacArthur notwithstanding.

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April 20, 2022

Moskva Update. (It’s still on the bottom)

Filed under: Military,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 11:18 am

The early Russian story regarding the Moskva’s fate was that it sank in “stormy seas” or “heavy seas.” Well, pictures have emerged that show . . . now brace yourselves for this! . . . that the Russians are full of shit.

The sea is like glass. Other reports (including those from the US) said that bad weather obscured satellite and aerial imaging. Well, there is high overcast, but nothing that would prevent real time observation of the aftermath of the strike.

From the images, it does not appear that the P-1000 Vulkan ASM mounted so prominently on the deck were hit, or exploded. The hits appear to have occurred on the superstructure, although the list could have been due to a waterline hit. Alternatively, the list could have been due to the explosion of ammunition stowed in the magazines below deck.

The fire appears to have been very severe, and was obviously not extinguished before the ship was abandoned. The smoke appears even heavier in other images. (Helluva lot of good those two water cannon are doing there.)

Of course it is impossible to judge the condition of the inside of the ship from these photos in order to determine whether it should have been possible to save it. The external view shows less apparently less damage than on the USS Stark, which was also struck in the superstructure. (And to correct my earlier post, the Stark was hit by two Exocets, which BTW had warheads about 10 pct larger than the Ukrainian Neptunes.) So the inability to save the Moskva remains something of a puzzle.

Not that we will ever get the straight dope from the Russians on this.

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April 15, 2022

It Sank

Filed under: History,Military,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 3:10 pm

In a rather amazing development, the Russian cruiser Moskva was hit by two Ukrainian Neptune surface-to-surface missiles, caught fire, and experienced a major munitions explosions. It subsequently sank, allegedly while under tow, although that is according to the Russian side which (as will be seen) was even more deceptive during this incident than it has been in the rest of the war–which is saying something..

Perhaps some latter day Larry King can get Putin on his show and ask him what happened to the Moskva:

Somehow I doubt Putin would be so smug now.

Would that the sinking of two major combatants provide the bookends to Putin’s malign reign.

This episode was even murkier than the rest of the war. The Ukrainians almost immediately claimed that they had struck the ship. The Russians merely acknowledged that it had experienced a severe fire and an ammunition explosion, but that the entire crew had been evacuated.

These things did not hang together. Fires and explosions sufficient to sink a ship with no casualties? Or had the crew failed so miserably in fighting fires that the captain ordered abandon ship before the fires triggered the ammunition explosion? And if there was no missile, what could have caused such a devastating fire, and the failure of the crew to be able to control it?

The missiles that allegedly hit the Moskva are powerful, but not that powerful. Far smaller ships, e.g., the USS Stark, a frigate that displaced about 1/3rd of the Moskva, was hit by an Exocet (which had a bigger warhead than the Neptunes) and survived–though only after heroic efforts by the crew (as an exhibit at the UNSA Museum documents). The HMS Sheffield, which was only slightly larger than the Stark, was hit by Exocets. It eventually sank under tow, but only after several days. The bigger Moskva should have been able to absorb these hits.

Perhaps they were very lucky hits. But hits devastating enough to put such a large ship in mortal danger would have almost certainly killed large numbers.

My guess is that Russian damage control was very poor. Damage control is a war winner, and a force multiplier. It was the US Navy’s saving grace throughout WWII in the Pacific, and has also proved invaluable in later conflicts, e.g., the fires on the carriers Oriskany, Forrestal, and Enterprise during Vietnam. (When I was at Navy we had to watch a film about the Forrestal fire as part of our education on the importance of damage control. Pretty sobering watching.) If Russian damage control was poor, either due to bad training, bad doctrine, or bad equipment (e.g., DC gear being stolen, or not maintained) that would explain fires getting out of control and forcing abandonment of the ship, and a subsequent explosion.

There is also the issue of whether the ship should have been struck in the first place. Apparently its primary role in the Ukraine war was to provide air surveillance and defense for other Russian fleet units operating in the Black Sea. It had a rather extensive suite of long range and short range air defenses, including point defense systems that are intended to take out threats like the Neptunes. So why did it fail so spectacularly to defend itself?

One story circulating is that the ship was “distracted” by several Turkish made drones. Really? That shouldn’t happen. If true, that smacks of lack of situational awareness and target fixation. Or a smug confidence that the Ukrainians had nothing that could hit them. It also suggests that the drones have taken up residence in Russian heads.

The US contributed to the fog of war. Initially the US said that it could not confirm that missiles had struck the ship, or that it was in a sinking condition, or had sunk. Then today the US said yes, it was able to confirm that Ukrainian missiles had taken it out.

I find this purported ignorance to be implausible. The Black Sea has to be blanketed with US surveillance and reconnaissance assets, in space, in the sky, on land, and in the ether. The US is likely sucking up visual, photographic, and electronic information (radar emissions, communications intercepts) at a prodigious rate. The very fact that the Moskva’s electronic emissions would have largely disappeared when it was in extremis would have been one clue that it was hors du combat. And no doubt all all Russian fleet radio transmissions were sucked up and analyzed in near real time. It’s plausible that the US Navy was more informed about developments than the Russian.

This would explain the pains to which the American went to appear mystified by what was happening with the Moskva. “Hey, we can’t see nothin’. Big mystery to us!” In reality the US sees a lot. A lot. Ex ante and ex post. Those ex ante observations, if provided to Ukraine, could have made possible a strike that Ukraine could not have carried out on its own.

And here’s another thing. The Moskva was hit relatively far offshore–approximately 100 kilometers, or well over the horizon. Over-the-horizon target acquisition is not easy. (This might be another reason the Moskva felt secure.) Did the Ukrainians have the requisite targeting capability, or did a little birdie tell them? That is, one very plausible hypothesis is that the US fed Ukraine the necessary targeting information, again relying on the extensive array of sensors upon which the US can call.

If Ukrainian assets targeted the Moskva, that would only raise other issues. Why didn’t Russia take them out over the past 6 plus weeks? Again, US doctrine prioritizes going after the eyes. It’s a lot easier fighting a blind enemy.

What are the broader implications of this sinking. It is unlikely to have a first order effect on the fighting. It does make an amphibious assault less likely, but I always thought that was a remote prospect in any event.

Its main impact is most likely psychological. A fillip for Ukraine, a humiliation for Russia. And in particular humiliation for one specific Russian–Vladimir Putin. No doubt this will stoke even further his incandescent rage against the Ukrainians–and his own military. It will represent yet another ignominious defeat in a litany of ignominious defeats to be avenged. That bodes ill for any prospect of seeing this war end soon.

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April 9, 2022

What Ukraine Needs

Filed under: History,Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:45 pm

The prospect that the war in Ukraine will drag on for some time has rendered urgent the question of how the west can support the country militarily. Specifically, what weapons can and should the west supply?

Retired General Barry McCaffery recommends supplying the full panoply of an American force–armor, air defense, aircraft. This is unnecessary, and unrealistic.

The immediate answer to the question hinges on the nature of the battle, the time frame, and the ability of the Ukrainian military to absorb and use equipment.

The nature of the battle is now clear: Ukraine is fighting a defensive battle, and will almost certainly do so on a relatively restricted front in the eastern part of the country.

The time frame is compressed. Although it will take some time for the Russians to generate sufficient combat power in Donbas given the necessity of reconstituting units devastated by the last six weeks of combat, Putin is clearly impatient and needs to demonstrate progress soon.

Military hardware can be complex and require considerable training to use effectively. Ukraine doesn’t have the time to train on unfamiliar equipment.

Given these realities, what are the priorities?

Number one, clearly: artillery. Artillery. More artillery. And lots of ammunition. Given that Ukraine is defending, towed tube artillery would do just fine, although self-propelled guns would have some benefits. Also, rocket artillery (MLRS) would be extremely useful.

Ukrainian troops could readily employ conventional artillery and it could play a decisive role in smashing any Russian advance. The stocks of European countries and the US should be adequate to provide a healthy upgunning of Ukrainian forces in relatively short order.

Relatedly: equipment to leverage the effectiveness of artillery. Specifically, counter battery radars (of which the US has already supplied some) and drones (for reconnaissance and battle damage assessment as well as for carrying out precision strikes).

Number two: air defense weapons, especially longer range SAMs. This could be something of an issue. The Ukrainians are trained up on Soviet/Russian weapons (e.g., S-300). It would take time to get them up to speed on western equipment (e.g., Patriots). Further, the US has legitimate security concerns about supplying these weapons, due to the risk of capture and reverse engineering.

A stopgap would be more MANPADs. The Ukrainians have made good use of those, and to the surprise of virtually all, have prevented the Russians from achieving air superiority, or even executing an effective air campaign.

Number three: more artillery.

Armor would be nice, but not necessary. The Ukrainians have already demonstrated a remarkable ability to defend against armor using ATGMs. So more of those, please. A Ukrainian armored assault is not in the offing, which reduces the need for more tanks beyond the T-62s, T-64s, T-72s already in its arsenal. (Not to mention captured Russian armor.). They likely have enough for the local counterattacks that they will need to execute as part of an active defense.

Aircraft would assist Ukraine in denying Russia air superiority, but it is uncertain how many decent pilots Ukraine has, and they would be limited to ex-Soviet aircraft types. Further, the bases would be vulnerable to Russian missile strikes. I doubt they would be decisive.

Get them the big guns, and the shells to feed them. That’s the priority. They would prove essential in a defensive battle.

Although Russia already has its hands full in Ukraine, and has proved to be a military paper tiger, amazingly it is looking to pick other fights. Latvia (the least anti-Russian of the Baltic countries) had the temerity to announce a commemoration of Ukrainians killed by Russians during May, the holy Victory Month. Which caused the Russians to lose their shit (I know, it’s a day that ends in “Y”, but still), and call the Latvians Nazis (of course!) and make threatening noises.

On cue, Russia state television trotted out a mouth breathing ex-military type to lay out how Russia would (and by implication, should) invade not just the Baltics, but Poland and Sweden (specifically Gotland):

Pointing a the map, Colonel Igor Korotchenko [Ukrainian name, interestingly], formerly of the Russian General Staff and air force and currently a reserve officer, said at the start of the invasion ‘a massive Russian radio-electronic strike is inflicted’ as ‘all Nato radars go blind and see nothing’, according to the Sun.

This was how the scenario for capturing the countries might look, he added.

Sweden has been politically neutral throughout its recent history, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought the prospect of the Nordic country joining NATO to the fore of political discussion.  

Russia has threatened Sweden and Finland over NATO membership repeatedly since the invasion began.

‘At this time, on the Swedish island Gotland, Russian military planes land, delivering S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems, and Bastion coastal anti-ship systems,’ said Colonel Korotchenko. 

In the video, a border area labelled the ‘Suwalki gap’ is shown – the gap between Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, a leftover territory annexed from Germany after the Second World War.

Colonel Korotchenko explained how Russia would push up from Kaliningrad towards the Suwalki corridor separating Poland and Lithuania, blocking NATO reinforcements from the West.

Is this guy Ripski Van Winkle? Has he been asleep the last 6 weeks? Russia has not been able to blind Ukrainian radars, FFS. It’s vaunted electronic (and cyber) warfare capabilities have proved to be as Potemkinesque as its armored and air forces. And as if Russian transport planes would get anywhere near Gotland: they would all go down in flames due to Nato (and Swedish) SAMs and AAMs. And has Col. Korotchenko noticed that the airborne units that would necessarily spearhead such a mission (a) failed to achieve a similar mission outside Kiev on the opening day of the invasion, and (b) have been torn to shreds in the subsequent combat.

Gotland is an island, you know. Amphibious assault? The Russians haven’t had the stones to do that against Odesa or elsewhere, and the odds of pulling it off in the Baltic are far longer. Ain’t happening.

As for tearing through the Suwalki gap, the Russians haven’t torn through anything in Ukraine. And they could pull this off logistically how, Colonel? Your army has no clothes. Literally, in some cases.

This is the best part:

‘The astonished West and NATO will know that Russia declares a no-fly zone of 400km,’ added the enthused Colonel.

The only thing that is astonishing is that Russia has not been able to create a no-fly zone in Ukraine.

One would have to think this has to be for domestic consumption, to feed the image of a Russian juggernaut capable of taking on Nato to Russia’s northwest, thereby to distract the nation’s attention from the reality of its abject failure against Ukraine to Russia’s southeast. They really can’t be thinking of doing this, can they?

Six weeks ago I would have thought not. Now I am not so sure. The detachment from reality in Moscow is palpable. Ironically, the failure in Ukraine appears to have made the Russian leadership and the Russian people more delusional, not less. The shocking reality has led to denial, and a desperate need to fantasize about military glories to be won elsewhere to compensate for the fact of devastating losses in Ukraine.

Meaning Nato has to be ready for anything. They are just crazy enough to try it.

And in the meantime: send artillery to those who can use it.

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