Streetwise Professor

December 29, 2022

Putin’s Army Goes Back to the Future: Will Vova Admit Error?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 3:49 pm

I noted in my last post on the Ukraine-Russia War that Putin and Shoigu had announced a plan to expand the Russian military to 1.5 million personnel. Strategy Page has the details of their plan, which makes for fascinating reading. Basically, the “new” Russian military will be the “old” Russian military: the “reforms” announced with such fanfare in the past decade are being largely reversed.

The backstory: the Russian army’s performance in Georgia was pretty poor, and first under Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov (“the furniture salesman”) and then his successor Shoigu made many changes in an attempt to improve its combat capability and effectiveness. One of the most important was to address the serious problem of dedovshchina –the institutionalized hazing of first year conscripts by second years. This was done by cutting the conscription service term to a year. Another was to try to move away from conscription altogether, and increase reliance on professional, volunteer “kontraktniki” especially in front-line combat units.

Further, to improve flexibility the Russians imitated the American movement towards brigades (rather than divisions) as the basic maneuver element. In doing so, they stood up brigades made up of “battalion tactical groups,” largely self-sufficient (in theory) maneuver units with organic armor and artillery.

In response to the latest underperformance, Russia is reversing major parts of response to the previous underperformance, and essentially reverting to the system that produced the previous underperformance. The draft term is being extended from 12 to 18 months: this is basically the only way to increase headcount, but risks a reemergence of dedovshchina. Moreover, the scope of conscription is being widened, partially reversing the move towards a volunteer-based military.

Brigades and BTGs are out the window. It’s back to old school divisions instead.

In other words, it’s back to the future for the Russian military.

It’s highly unlikely that this reshuffling of the deck chairs will save the Titanic that is the Russian military. After all, this same organization was tried and found wanting in a far less demanding conflict than the one currently being waged in Ukraine.

The Russian military’s problems are far more fundamental than what can be solved by tinkering with the manpower system or redrawing orders of battle. For example, this will not fix the corruption that has wreaked havoc with operations in Ukraine. Nor will it fix the clearcut logistical deficiencies. Or the profound incompetence of the officer corps at all levels. Or the obvious doctrinal failings, most notably in the employment of air power, but also at the tactical level (apropos my earlier posts on the shocking attempts to operate armor without adequate infantry).

New plan or old, the material losses in Ukraine also necessitate a virtually complete recapitalization of Russia’s military. It needs new everything–tanks, APCs, aircraft, artillery, and personal equipment from body armor to boots. But its existing designs have been shown very wanting and the failure to deploy supposedly advanced weapons like the Armata MBT betrays a belief that even the cutting edge of Russian military tech is pretty dull. Replacing old crap with new crap of the same design will just produce the same old–crappy–results.

And that’s assuming that Russia has the wherewithal to recapitalize. It likely does not. Its defense industrial base has already proved to be hollowed out and hamstrung by corruption. And to make things worse, sanctions and the conscription of larger numbers of workers will reduce capacity, especially for relatively high tech weapons that rely on Western technology. The cost will also contribute to the immiseration of the Russian populace. (Not that Putin GAF.)

All in all, these changes are rather futile. The restoration of large parts of the pre-2008 status quo suggests that the old guard is taking its revenge on the reformers, and that Putin is going along.

What Putin is doing now is a repudiation of what Putin did over the last decade plus. One wonders if New Putin will explicitly acknowledge Old Putin’s errors.

Actually, I don’t wonder. I know he won’t. But his deeds speak louder than any words he could utter.

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December 22, 2022

Vova Has Issues

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 5:13 pm

I haven’t written much about the Ukraine war for months because not much has happened for months, since the major Ukrainian advances in August. Zelenskyy’s visit to the US nudges me to providing an update.

Since the major Ukrainian gains, the war has reverted into another stalemate, a la Korea 1951-1953 (an analogy I used before) or the Western Front 1914-1918. The culmination of the Ukrainian advances was predictable, and the logic of warfare means that the marginal cost of additional gains rises rapidly. The advancing force’s logistics become more stretched, and the defender’s more compact. Moreover, the most strategically important advance, in the south around Kherson, means that now the Ukrainians are the ones who must fight with a major river to their backs, and supply their forces over tenuous river crossings.

On the Kharkiv front, there are see-saw battles around Kreminna. Again, very Korea/Western Front-esque.

The Russians are concentrating their efforts on the taking of Bakhmut. The accounts are again redolent of the accounts of battles like Pork Chop Hill or Verdun, where massive casualties are incurred to take, and then sometimes lose, mere yards of territory. Literally yards.

Interestingly, apparently due to the wrecking of their armored and mechanized forces, Russian attacks are carried out by mass infantry attacks, a la Chinese human waves in Korea, with little or no armored support. Moreover, the attacks are evidently primarily carried out by Wagner troops, rather than regular Russian formations, and many of the Wagner “troops” are convicts who apparently decided that it was better to play the odds in Ukraine than stay in Russian prisons.

The Russians sometimes gain a few yards here and there. Reading the accounts is fascinating. It is accounted as a major victory if they take this street or that. At the cost of great slaughter.

Accounts suggest that the tactics that worked for the Russians over the summer in Luhansk are not feasible here. Specifically, the tried-and-true method of saturation bombardment followed by infantry advance is infeasible because the Russians lack sufficient munitions to execute the bombardments. So it’s modest bombardment, or no bombardment, followed by waves of Ivans advancing on entrenched positions, hoping to win by weight of numbers.

It’s all so pointless. Even if the Russians “win” in Bakhmut–so what? Lacking mechanized forces they have no hope of a breakout even if they do achieve a penetration. So the front will move a few meters or kilometers with no fundamental change in the military situation.

In this respect, they are engaged in as futile a struggle as the British and French were in 1915-1917. Even when they broke through the first couple of lines of trenches, they had no ability to exploit the gains. Same with the Russians today.

The futility has not penetrated the skulls of Putin and his slouching acolytes, though he has made some hilarious statements recently. In an oblique attempt to rationalize failure, has described the campaign in Ukraine as “complicated,” and said the Russians are facing “issues.”

What’s the over under on when he says the situation is “problematic”?

Lapsing even further into delusion, Putin and his sad sack defense minister Shoigu announced plans to expand the Russian military from 1.15 million personnel to 1.5 million.

Let me get this straight. Russia has suffered casualties numbering probably around 200,000. It is not able to replace the wastage at the front even by throwing almost completely untrained mobiliks into the meat grinder. It has lost most of its best equipment, and cannot supply even the most basic kit to its soldiers. Around 300,000 military aged men have fled the country.

But Putin is going to increase the armed forces by 40 percent. Uhm-kay! Whatever, dude!

In other news, Rogozin the Ridiculous took some Ukrainian shrapnel in the shoulder. Could be serious. If it had hit him in the head, not so much.

But Vova won’t give up. In fact, he can’t give up. It’s far better (for him!) that numberless orcs get fed into the meat grinder than for him to admit defeat–and thereby risk getting fed into the meat grinder himself.

Meaning that there is no end in sight. Not just because Putin won’t accept defeat, but because Zelenskyy won’t accept anything but total victory, and indeed Russian failure and Ukrainian success has fed Zelenskyy’s ambitions. As I said probably 9 months ago, the core is empty: there is no mutually acceptable set of terms to end the conflict, even a limited end such as a cease fire or an armistice.

That said, part of the reason that the core is empty is that the US (and Europe) are encouraging Zelenskyy. Or at least, they are afraid to put him in his place, apparently never having learned who pays the piper calls the tune.

I get that giving Putin even the simulacrum of victory presents dangers for the future. But in my mind those are outweighed by the dangers of the present, not least to Ukrainians, but to the world economy, and potentially to the world–for who knows what a desperate Putin will resort to.

Logic says he will not use nukes, or escalate dangerously in some other way. Well, as I wrote immediately before the invasion, logic said he shouldn’t invade. But here we are.

Macron beclowned himself at the World Cup. But Biden beclowns himself on a daily basis. And when choosing between clowns, Macron’s proposals for an ugly peace–or at least, an ugly cessation of hostilities–is far preferable to Biden’s (and alas, the Senate Republicans’) blank check policy.

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October 1, 2022

Another Anti-Anglo Saxon Jeremiad From a Demented (and Desperate) Dwarf

Filed under: Energy,History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 11:15 am

In an earlier post I said that Putin’s mobilization address was his most unhinged speech ever. That record did not last long: his Friday speech announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian regions was beyond unhinged.

The speech was Castroesque in length. The bulk of it was a jeremiad against the west, and “Anglo-Saxons” in particular. (Apparently he is unaware of American diversity!) He justified his invasion of Ukraine, and the annexations, as a war of survival against a west that is hell bent on subjugating Russia. The speech was a litany of the west’s sins, colonialism and slavery most prominent among them. He conveniently elided over Russia’s imperialism, symbolized today by the disproportionate representation of ethnic groups from Russian republics in those fighting–and dying–in Ukraine, and touted the USSR’s “anti-colonial” record in Africa and elsewhere.

The speech was chock-full of projection, most importantly regarding waging war on civilian populations. There were also the now familiar accusations of Ukrainian Naziism, the betrayal of 1991, and the non-existence of Ukrainian nationhood.

In brief, Putin portrayed the war in Ukraine as an existential conflict waged to defend Russia against Anglo-Saxons attempting to colonize Russia, and to defend the world against such western rapacity. (The reference to the Opium Wars was obviously an attempt to appeal to China, whose ardor for this Ukrainian adventure is obviously waning fast.)

The atmospherics were also bizarre. The images of a dwarfish Putin clasping hands with the hulking mouth breathers leading the sham annexed regions, chanting “Ross-i-ya!” with a demented grin on his face are quite striking–and disturbing. Especially when contrasted to the reality on the ground, where Russian forces continue to reel and rout–the bugout from Izyum being the latest example. “Reservists” are being shoved to the front without even a simulacrum of training, where they will no doubt be slaughtered without changing the battlefield dynamic one iota. Putin is giving no retreat orders and is bossing about formations that have been destroyed or dissolved. Gee, whom does that remind one of?

Tens of thousands of Russian men are fleeing to avoid the press gangs, a visible demonstration of widespread panic. (Kazakhstan–the Russian Canada!) Personal contacts indicate that the panic is widespread even among those who have not fled, but who fear the knock on the door.

The realities of the battlefield and the home front reveal that this is truly an existential conflict–for Putin. He objectively can’t win, but he can’t lose and survive. This creates a tremendous bias towards escalation, with nuclear weapons being his only real escalation option.

There is a considerable debate over whether when push comes to shove Putin will push the button. This is an unanswerable question. Suffice it to say that his Downfall-esque rants in public (one can only imagine what he’s like in private) mean that there is a material probability that he will.

Which poses a grave dilemma to the Anglo-Saxons. (In this respect, Putin is on to something: the continentals are hopelessly ineffectual and along for the ride.) Months ago I wrote that Putin was in zugzwang, i.e., a situation where any move made the situation worse, but one is compelled to move. Well, currently the US is arguably in zugzwang as well. The consequences of letting Putin off the hook or pushing him to the wall are both deeply unsatisfactory.

What is in the US’s opportunity set? The situation on the battlefield does suggest that giving Ukraine a blank weapons check could result in pushing Russia out of most of, and perhaps all, of the occupied portions of the country–including Crimea. But choosing that option is a bet on Putin’s sanity and willingness to go nuclear, and how far up the escalation ladder Putin is willing to go. Conversely, pulling the Ukrainian’s leash will likely result in a continued grinding war with its global and human and economic toll. Brokering a compromise is almost certainly out of the question, given the intransigence of the parties and the completely irreconcilable nature of their demands (though Putin did graciously say that he was willing to accept Ukraine’s capitulation).

The administration is clearly leaning towards–but not completely towards–engineering Russian defeat on the battlefield. Most of the American populace is disengaged. The populist right in the US is engaged but stupidly pro-Russian, because (a) Putin criticized the west’s trans obsession, and (b) the enemy of their enemy (the administration) is their friend. With respect to (a) this is beyond bizarre because these passing references were embedded in a speech that damned the entirety of American history in a way that would make Howard Zinn beam: is the PR buying into that now? (It is also stupid because it validates left narratives about them being Russian puppets.)

The populist right also immediately concluded that the US is responsible for the destruction of the Nord Stream I and II pipelines under the Baltic. The fact is we have no facts, other than that the pipelines suffered catastrophic ruptures, possibly the result of deliberate sabotage. Everything else you read is speculation about motive, which only prove whom the speculators hate most. Those who know ain’t talking, and those talking don’t know.

Although I immediately concluded sabotage, there is reason to doubt this too. This is plausible to me, based on my knowledge of natural gas pipelines and Russian incompetence. (Anybody remember the shitshow of the Russian oil pipelines in spring 2019?)

But again–nobody knows nothing beyond the fact that the pipelines are fucked, so speculation is pointless. And depressingly, given the natures of everyone involved, I can’t say there’s anyone I would trust to reveal the facts.

The populist right is annoying, but largely powerless. Even if the Republicans prevail in the upcoming election, the PR will represent a clamorous but ultimately irrelevant force. Meaning that the US will continue to stumble along, mainly in the direction of pushing an increasingly desperate Putin.

Yes, I can see the upside of that. But I also see considerable downside risk, and indeed the risks are asymmetric. Even as things stand now, beyond nuclear weapons Russia’s military capability has proven even more illusory than a Potemkin village of legend. His conventional threat to Nato is demonstrably non-existent. So the upside to the US and Nato of drubbing Putin further is very limited. But the downside of drubbing him could be serious indeed.

So mutual zugzwang is a not unrealistic description of the current situation.

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September 24, 2022

Vova Shovels Fleas

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 10:57 am

In an unhinged speech earlier this week, Vladimir Putin (a) threatened (again) to use nukes, and (b) announced the mobilization of 300,000 reservists–although there are reports that the order actually calls for the mobilization of 1 million. This raises the issues of what this means about the state of the war, and the effect that the mobilization will have on it.

The speech speaks volumes about the state of the war. Putin realizes that he is losing, badly, and is desperate to reverse the reverses. He is in essence following Eisenhower’s advice:  “Whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve, I always make it bigger.  I can never solve it by trying to make it smaller, but if I make it big enough, I can begin to see the outlines of a solution.” Or, as it is often expressed: when a problem appears insoluble, enlarge it.

Putin has two margins on which he can enlarge: nukes and bodies. He’s threatening the former and implementing the latter.

When I say Putin’s speech was unhinged, I do not exaggerate. Look at the videos. He was incandescently angry. His rhetoric recycled the common themes–Nazis, Banderaists–and added twists on his West-directed paranoia by way of rationalizing (although not admitting) the defeats: Ukrainian forces are not just armed by the West, but Nato generals are in command and western troops are in the ranks. The speech was filled with projection about violations of sovereign territory and atrocities. Perhaps it was all for effect–Mad Vlad–to make the nuclear threats more credible. But it seems all too genuine to me.

As for the effect of the mobilization, a quote from Lincoln comes to mind: “Sending armies to McClellan is like shoveling fleas across a barnyard: not half of them get there.” My surmise is that far less than half the fleas that Putin is madly trying to shovel into Ukraine will get there.

If the front line Russian military has proved shambolic on the Ukrainian steppes, the Russian reserve system is beyond shambolic. It was allowed to decay after the collapse of the USSR (which depended on mass mobilization), and the military “reforms” of the last decade only accelerated its decay: the goal of the “reforms” (which were realized more in the promise than the delivery) was to move away from conscription-based forces towards a professional military.

It is therefore best to view what is happening not as a mobilization of an existing reserve force (e.g., the mobilizations seen in August 1914) but as an improvised, hurried mass conscription. Although the initial announcements stated that the mobilization would be targeted at those with combat experience and with specialized military skills, there are reports–all too believable–that the authorities are casting their net far beyond these categories, and that the unfortunates caught up in it are being assigned to units willy-nilly with no regard to their past duties. Tellingly, the dragnet is most intense in the republics: ethnic minorities have already borne the brunt of the war, and Putin wants to shelter metropolitan Russia as much as possible for fear of sparking unrest in the cities.

The existing Russian conscription system is a disaster, rife with evasion and corruption. And that was just to escape the miseries of peacetime service. Both will be far worse when the prospect is being shoveled to Donbas.

No this is not a mobilization. It is press ganging and the yield will be far less than Putin wants.

And what will be the effectiveness those poor fleas who do make it across the barnyard? More bodies will not fix the deep dysfunctions that have been revealed on the battlefield. The high command will still prove to be incompetent. Already poor leadership at the regimental, battalion, company, and platoon level will become even worse as poorly trained and dispirited officers will be put in charge of scared and resentful losers of the conscription lottery. Further, there will be an adverse selection problem: the cleverer and more fit will find ways to escape the net, leaving a disproportionately dimwitted, sociopathic, and addicted rump to fight. More bodies will not fix the paralyzing over-centralization of the Russian command. More bodies will not fix Russia’s disastrous logistics: indeed, trying to supply more bodies will actually exacerbate the logistical problems. More bodies will not fix Russia’s underperforming air forces. More bodies are not the same as more precision guided munitions. Historically Russia has used more bodies successfully when supported by massive artillery, but now ammunition shortages (is another “Shell Crisis” a la 1915 coming?) loom and Ukrainian counterbattery fire has proved devastating thanks to HIMARS and M177s. More bodies will not address Russia’s repeated intelligence failures at the operational or tactical levels. Russian armor has proved extremely vulnerable, but the more bodies will deploy in older and even less well-maintained AFVs.

In sum, more bodies cannot and will not fix the real reasons for Russian battlefield disasters. They will just be more victims for these reasons.

There is also the issue of how the new bodies will be deployed: as replacements or in entire units. The time involved in standing up new units is considerable, even if rushed. Putin is in a hurry, so I conjecture that the unfortunates swept up by the press ganskis will receive lick-and-a-promise “training” of a few weeks (after all, they are veterans, right?, so they just need a refresher course!) and be shoveled to the front and shoved into shattered units. If you look at say the American army in WWII, you’ll find that the life expectancy of replacements is often measured in hours or a few days. (Experienced infantrymen often avoided learning the names of replacements, because it was pointless.) That will happen here as well.

Historically, Russia relied on a huge demographic advantage vis a vis its foes in a quantity-over-quality approach. But even when Russia did have a demographic advantage, the results were often disastrous: cf. the Russo-Japanese War, and Tannenberg and other WWI battles. Now a demographically devastated Russia is falling back on old formulae. To call it tragic is an understatement.

In sum, more cannon fodder without more cannon (and logistics, and leadership, and on and on) to support them will result in a bloody disaster. But it will allow Putin to defer deciding whether to resort to his only other option: nukes.

It is also important to consider how Putin’s adversaries–not just Ukraine, but the US and the rest of Nato–will respond. The prospect of facing greater numbers (even of a low quality) incentivizes Ukraine to accelerate its offensives and press its advantages, even though that will entail larger losses. If successful, that would in turn accelerate when Putin has to decide whether to back down or resort to his only remaining way of expanding the problem. Ukraine will redouble its already frenzied efforts to lobby western governments for more weapons.

The US and Nato need to turn their attention from what is happening on the battlefield to focus intensely on forestalling Putin concluding that it’s nukes or nothing. Sadly, that means hoping that Putin’s more bodies measure will extend the stalemate, thereby buying time for some diplomatic resolution.

Alas, the US and its allies appear set on Ukrainian victory on the battlefield and on the humiliation of Putin, rather than on securing an unsatisfying and messy diplomatic compromise. That is gambling with millions of lives–and perhaps many more.

Which means that where things go may hinge crucially on the Russian popular reaction to Putin’s desperate measure. It is optimistic in the extreme to believe that the mobilization will spur a 1905 or February 1917 or August 1991 moment in Russia. And it is equally optimistic to believe that if such a moment indeed occurs, that it will not result in Putin’s replacement with someone even worse.

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September 11, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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