Streetwise Professor

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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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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March 6, 2022

Putin in Zugzwang

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 7:13 pm

A chess player is said to be in zugzwang when he has to make a move, but any available move worsens his position. I think it is fair to say that Putin is currently in zugzwang in Ukraine due to the myriad operational, tactical, logistical, and intelligence failures of his invasion forces.

What are his available moves?

One would be just call the whole thing off, withdraw to Russia, and say “never mind.” That would represent an admission of humiliating failure, which would be not just completely out of character, but an act that usually seals the doom of autocrats. And it would probably not result in a return to the status quo ante: Russia would still be a pariah, and subject to myriad non-military punishments.

The other is to forge ahead. But that will almost certainly entail protracted battles on urban terrain, especially Kiev. (I seriously doubt Russia has the wherewithal to fight simultaneous city battles in Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa, etc.) Urban battles are notorious consumers of men and materiel. Given Russia’s manpower limitations, the most likely approach will be to utilize massive quantities of artillery, turning cities to rubble while killing countless civilians. To paraphrase French General Koechlin-Schwartz speaking to Patton about American infantry in WWI: “The poorer the infantry, the more artillery it needs; the [Russian] infantry needs all it can get.” Further, Putin evidently has no scruples about employing the firepower against civilians.

So which of these two bad options will Putin choose? From Putin’s perspective, the second is decidedly superior. He is willing to fight to the last Ukrainian, his paeans to the unity of the Russian and Ukrainian people notwithstanding. Moreover, he can see some prospect of “victory” from this approach: if terror breaks the will of the Ukrainian government or the Ukrainian people, they will capitulate to his demands, and he will achieve his stated objective of subjugating Ukraine and removing it from the Western orbit.

This means that to Putin, the center of gravity of this conflict has now become the Ukrainian people and government. But history and operational realities are not on his side. Throughout the 20th century in particular, campaigns designed to win victory through terror (e.g., the London Blitz, the Allied bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan) have not broken the will of the enemy populace, and have often strengthened it. If Ukrainian will holds, Putin is unlikely to succeed. Given his limited numbers, their demonstrated tactical incapacity, and his army’s appalling logistics, the voracious maw of urban battle will consume the Russian army. All of his paper advantages–especially air power (not that he has utilized it effectively–are largely negated once the battle moves to the streets. Then it becomes war to the knife. Thus, Putin’s odds of taking control of Ukraine are low, but they are not zero. So it the best of his bad options.

It is important that the Ukrainians avoid a mistake that would help Putin redeem his currently grim prospects. In particular, their forces in the east are vulnerable to an attack breaking out of the Black Sea coast. They need to be willing to trade space for time and withdraw if that flank appears at any risk of cracking (assuming that they can manage the logistics of a withdrawal, and Russian air power does not exhibit a competence that has been lacking so far). Politically this is challenging because it sacrifices territory to a hated enemy: even an autocrat like Alexander I faced bitter criticism when employing it. But it has proved time and again the best way to prevail–eventually–against an invader on the steppes. As Russians have showed on multiple occasions. And I would argue that it is likely to be particularly effective given the Russians’ obvious logistical deficiencies: a withdrawal would extend their already groaning supply lines, and make them even more vulnerable to a variety of different kinds of attack (drones, guerrilla raids).

Ironically, Putin’s center of gravity is the same as his enemy’s: his population. Putin can continue a murderous campaign as long as the Russian people support it. At present, it appears that scattered protests aside, that flank is secure. Chauvinism combined with propaganda and a ruthless control of the information that Russians receive mean that at present there is either broad support for, or at least not broad opposition to, his invasion.

Severe economic distress resulting from sanctions is the most likely threat to this support. No doubt Putin’s regime will portray any such distress as evidence that Russia’s enemies truly intend to destroy it, and this will resonate with many Russians. But perhaps enough will realize that he is consigning them to misery for no prospect of real gain that Putin’s center of gravity will begin to crack.

Given all this, I estimate that the most likely outcome is a protracted, bloody stalemate lasting for months on the streets of Ukraine’s cities. If it could be guaranteed that the conflict would remain conventional, Nato intervention (through air power alone) could be decisive in days. But Russian doctrine has a low threshold for the employment of nuclear weapons, and that threat has to be taken very seriously. Thus, it is likely that Putin will grind on, under the cover of his nuclear shield.

Not a pretty prospect, but it’s hard to see Putin choosing differently.

Finally, a comment on some domestic US effects of this conflict. It is a depressing picture. Those on the Trump right detest Ukraine for its involvement with various efforts to undermine–and indeed, unseat–Trump. As a result, they are are clearly anti-Ukraine, and in many cases pro-Putin.

It must be said that Ukraine did make some horrible misjudgments. Thoroughly enmeshed in the US foreign policy establishment (Victoria Nuland, anyone?) and the Democratic Party (Hunter Biden, anyone?), and buying into the narrative that Trump was Putin’s puppet and therefore inimical to their interests, Ukraine played a part in the anti-Trump campaign that consumed his administration.

For that they are paying a price. Indeed, their fate would almost have certainly been better had Trump been reelected: it clearly could not have been worse. A Russian reporter friend asked me if this would be happening if Trump were still president. I cautioned against putting too much credence in alternative history, but made one observation. Putin’s ambitions haven’t changed, but his actions have.

Regardless of the folly of Ukrainian involvement in US politics, they do not deserve their current fate. They made a miscalculation about the best way to protect themselves against Putin, but it was clearly not wrong to seek desperately such protection–as current events bloodily demonstrate.

There is a single individual responsible for the current calamity: Vladimir Putin. Even if some Ukrainian actions enabled him, that does not mean that they deserve their current miseries. It is therefore beyond disgusting that a clique of Trump right chatterers cheer on Putin and fight against efforts to aid Ukraine.

And insofar as American interests are concerned, Putin’s public statements make it clear that subjugating Ukraine is not the limit of his ambitions. He has demanded the abandonment of everything east of the Elbe to Russian domination. Ukraine has laid bare his inability to achieve that using conventional military force, but that should hardly be consoling, given the only alternative available to him. He must be fought in Ukraine, and since direct US and Nato involvement is extremely risky due to the nuclear threat, that means finding all means to support a war of attrition in Ukraine. Ukraine has demonstrated its will to fight that grim war, and interest and compassion compel the US to support them.

It is important to avoid false choices. (I consider it ironic that the anti-Ukraine right in the US constantly offers false choices–e.g., “how can you defend the Ukrainian border when you don’t defend America’s?”–given that Obama was the master of the false choice. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.) It is possible to deal with those in the US whose misjudgments and manipulations greatly contributed to the current situation at the proper time while making the best choices on how to proceed from where we are–even if where we are is largely the product of those misjudgments and manipulations.

You have to play it as it lies. Sunk costs are sunk. The current lie is hardly ideal, the product of locust years, but the best play is not to abandon Ukraine and embolden Putin. The reverse is true.

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February 28, 2022

Reality is a Mother

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 11:09 am

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has not shocked and awed the Ukrainian military, but it has shocked and awed Germany, fo’ sho’.

In a period of hours over the weekend (and remember, German stores close promptly at 6 and are not open on Sunday), Germany announced that it will:

(a) Increase defense spending to 2 pct of GDP.

(b) Build two new LNG import facilities.

(c) Consider delaying decommissioning its nukes.

(d) Consider all options for energy, including gas, nuclear, and coal: there are no longer any “taboos” on energy sources.

What will Greta say?:

The Germans are saying, in effect: Go away girl. The shit just got real.

I note that (a) and (b) topped the list of Donald Trump’s harangues against Germany, which caused the ruling class to shriek in anger: how dare he insult our dear allies? Actions speak far louder than an apology.

Alas, this reality therapy has not penetrated the thick skulls of the Biden administration. When asked about reversing Biden administration anti-fossil fuel policies, spokesmoron Jen Psaki instead continued to ride the renewables hobby horse. She thereby reinforced the message of the Most Clueless Man in the World, John Kerry, whose big concern about Ukraine is that it might distract Vladimir Putin from focusing on climate change.

Yes, reality is a mother. Enough of a mother to snap even the dreamy Germans out of their green and pacifistic reveries. But not enough of one to do the same in the Biden administration.

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