Streetwise Professor

May 16, 2024

Putin Doubling Down on the Same Bad Hand

Filed under: Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 12:52 pm

I’m back. A little play. A lot of work.

What to start back with? Russia, I guess.

The war in Ukraine grinds on. The supposed big news is Russia launching attacks near Kharkiv/Kharkov. Many interpret this as a sign of Ukraine’s impending doom. I disagree.

Yes, Russia did make some initial gains. There is some controversy regarding why. Initial reports were that Ukraine had not built fixed defenses in a 10 km wide region near the border with the Belgorod Oblast because engineers would have been too vulnerable to Russian artillery fire while attempting to perform the work. More recently, however, it has been claimed that defenses were planned–and paid for–but little or no work was done.

These explanatons are not mutually exclusive, of course: maybe the work was not completed due to the perceived vulnerability. However, a sadly realistic alternative explanation is that Ukraine’s endemic corruption is to blame, and that the contractors pocketed the money and did no work.

Whatever the reason for the relatively undefended border, Russia has still incurred heavy casualties to take a few slivers of territory, and their advances have slowed to a crawl after the initial gains.

Moreover, the threat from this attack to Kharkiv, let alone to Ukraine’s overall position, is limited. For one thing, the total Russian forces involved–an estimated 50,000 (including tail as well as tooth)–is hardly big enough to take a city as large as Kharkiv, especially if it is being attrited at the rate of 1,000 plus per day.

For another–and more importantly–as is occurring virtually everywhere else on the frontline, Russia is mounting infantry assaults, in company-size packets. Armor is used mainly to ferry troops from the rear and drop them off, before scurrying away. Or trying to scurry away: even then drones are inflicting substantial vehicle losses on the Russians both coming and going.

The infantry attacks are basically bum rushes offering no prospect for breakthrough and exploitation. As has been seen elsewhere on the front, at heavy cost they permit shoving back the front for a few kilometers at most, take considerable time to do even that, and culminate relatively quickly.

Moreover, with the prospect of receiving more artillery ammunition, Ukraine will be able to inflict even more devastation on these attacks without risking its own (scarce) infantry.

So why are the Russians doing this? Perhaps as an economy of force move to draw Ukrainian troops away from other locations. Perhaps in the thought that more progress is achievable here than where the main efforts have ground on for weeks. 10 kilometers here rather than 5 kilometers to the south.

Elsewhere on the front, for weeks Russia has been aiming at Chasiv Yar as a follow on for their glorious victory in Avdiivka. Putin had reportedly ordered Chasiv Yar to be taken by 9 May, Victory Day in Russia.

Well, it wasn’t. And even if it had been, it just shows what a simulacrum of military greatness Putin’s Russia represents. Whereas 9 May 1945 represented the conquest of Berlin–a massive city defended by a greatly diminished but still formidable opponent–a victory at Chasiv Yar on 9 May 2024 would have represented the taking of an obscure, modest town from a scraped together (but scrappy) military lacking pretty much everything.

Despite the absence of a crowning victory at Chasiv Yar (which even then would have only been a way station in a long campaign to come, rather than a war ending event like the taking of Berlin), the Victory Day Parade went on in Moscow nonetheless. But it was a shadow of its former self, with basically only Putin’s praetorian guard and a single tank–a WWII T-34 no les–showcasing military might (or lack thereof).


The other big news has been Shoigu’s defenestration as defense minister, and his replacement by technocrat Andrei Belousov. Not just a technocrat, but an economist no less.

This is also being reported breathlessly. Yes, it may indeed represent a strong reflection of Putin’s intentions. Namely, that he is girding for a long war, which will require a substantial reinvigoration of Russia’s defense production. (Note that most of Shoigu’s recent public appearances were at defense plants, where he exhorted the employees about the need for greater efforts.) That is, that Belousov is intended to be a modern day Lloyd George, who drastically reformed Britain’s munitions manufacture in 1915-1916 by taking control away from a bureaucratic and overly traditional War Office.

Yet, intentions and results are worlds apart, and there is substantial reason to believe that Belousov faces a hopeless task.

Russian defense production and procurement is rife with corruption. Even if Belousov is not corrupt (and it is hard to believe that anyone who became a deputy prime minister in Russia is not corrupt), that doesn’t mean that he has the ability to root out the pervasive corruption that is present at every level of the Russian military establishment. Moreover, he is an outsider, and the Russian military does not respect outsiders, and is indeed deeply resentful of their interference.

In the coverage of Belousov’s appointment, I have not seen anyone mention Anatoly Serdyukov’s ill-starred tenure as Defense Minister. (Shoigu replaced Serdyukov 10 years ago.)

Like Belousov, Serdyukov was an economic official (Tax Minister) whom Putin appointed–wait for it–with “the main task of fighting corruption and inefficiency in the Russian armed forces” (in the words of Wikipedia, which are accurate). (Sound familiar?) Due to his former career as manager of a furniture manufacturer and merchandiser he was sneeringly referred to as the “furniture dealer” throughout the military, who fought him hammer and tong. After several years of conflict, he was eventually brought down by an allegation of corruption (for which Putin eventually granted amnesty).

Although Serdyukov achieved some reforms, they were superficial–as the experience of the war in Ukraine demonstrates. I do not expect Belousov will fare any better. This is a case of meet the new boss, same as the old old boss.

Moreover, Belousov faces structural problems that would greatly complicate his challenge even absent corruption and internal opposition. Labor shortages are acute. There is a fundamental tension between finding enough men to feed into the meat grinder and finding enough men to make the weapons they carry or ride into the meat grinder. And although sanctions have not been crippling, they have substantially impeded Russian weapons production, especially of more advanced equipment. The impending resupply of ammunition, anti-aircraft missiles, and the like to Ukraine will also increase the losses that the Russian factories have to make good.

There is also the question of the impact of this on Russian military command. Belousov is obviously not going to have a clue about operational matters. So does this mean that Putin will exercise even more control? Or will this give a freer hand to Gerasimov and the other generals, who have proven to be incompetent, callous bumblers? Regardless, there is certain to be a disconnect between the Defense Ministry and military operations.

One last note. The Defense Ministry reshuffle is not the only change at the top. Somewhat surprisingly, Nikolai Petrushev, former FSB head, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, and all around dark dude suspected by some to be the real power behind the throne in Russia, was also removed from his post and designated for assignment–and days later the assignment has not been announced.

This is surprising, to me anyways. Petrushev’s son (sometimes mentioned as an eventual Putin successor) did receive a promotion from Agriculture Minister to Deputy Prime Minister, which suggests that Petrushev is not totally on the outs and destined for an accidental fall from a window. But this is Russia, so who knows?

In sum, all the “changes” of the past days–a new offensive, ministry shakeups–are highly unlikely to herald a major shift in the dreary drama playing out in Ukraine. A mini-offensive here, a cabinet reshuffle there, won’t alter the fundamental realities of the military situation. Yes, they signal that Putin is doubling down, but they don’t improve his hand in the slightest.

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  1. On the Western Front the British cavalry were trained to fight as mounted infantry, not as cavalry. So, no charging with lances, swords, carbines, but (it was hoped) rapid movement into new positions where the men would dismount, one man would look after six horses, and the other five would fight with their infantry rifles.

    Maybe the Russians should try the idea out: drones may find it easier to kill infantrymen concentrated in armoured fighting vehicles than advancing dispersed on horse back. Think of it as the return of the Mongols.

    Comment by dearieme — May 16, 2024 @ 3:37 pm

  2. Right, Ukraine has only the ‘prospect of receiving more artillery ammunition’ to fight an enemy that reportedly significantly outproduces all of NATO combined. Maybe the DoD can divert some artillery ammunition from Israel, now that the Biden administration has decided to side with Hamas. BTW, the timing of October 7 is probably blowback from the brilliant decision to wage a proxy war against Russia in the first place (connect the dots — Hamas, Iran, Russia). As the saying goes, ‘cui bono.’ ‘Russian defense production and procurement is (are?) rife with corruption.’ Maybe you should do a piece on comparative corruption in defense production and procurement, the USA versus Russia. As I have said before, even if everything you say about the Russian military and government is accurate, it doesn’t matter if the foe Russia is fighting against (the US and NATO) is run by bigger and more incompetent clowns. Speaking of which, you forgot to mention Blinken’s guitar concert in Kiev.

    Comment by koshmap — May 17, 2024 @ 11:24 am

  3. Woe betide us if this info is accurate and not simply created for alarmist purposes…

    I’m old and my memory is not what it was, but I have a dim recollection of Eisenhower, first, and then Kennedy sending “advisors” to Vietnam, which proved to be the camel’s nose poking under the war-tent. We’ve now had decades’ worth of the “doomed to repeat it” quote, but have we still not learned the lessons of history?

    Further, I doubt the competence to prudently manage U.S. military activities vis-à-vis Ukraine, of the present-day civilian and military leadership who brought about the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

    …am I being overly concerned here about the path that we appear to be treading?

    Comment by ColoComment — May 17, 2024 @ 12:46 pm

  4. ‘a dim recollection of Eisenhower, first, and then Kennedy sending “advisors” to Vietnam’

    Eisenhower sent about 800, who therefore might indeed have been advisors.

    Kennedy increased their number twenty-fold, so there was no chance they were all advisors.

    People who like to romanticise JFK will assure you he was against the war in Vietnam. Yeah, yeah.

    Comment by dearieme — May 17, 2024 @ 1:25 pm

  5. With everything this Administration does, anyone who is politically on the right has to ask themselves the question “if they set out deliberately to destroy this country, what would they be doing differently?” But by gum, even though they’ve made a mess of everything else, the one thing they did right was to stand up to those Rooskies! Not one inch of concessions, no sir, not even to let them use a corrupt dysfunctional country like Ukraine as their ‘buffer zone.’ 4 more years of this and the country will be unrecognizable, the military will be run by a coalition of bat-shit crazy women and men in skirts, but the consolation prize for conservatives is that the Rooskies will be on their knees at long last and for that alone it will all be worth it. Sorry, but I’m not buying it. We should have been grateful that we are separated from Russia by 2 oceans, that even the coldest parts of this country don’t have winters as brutal as those in most of Russia, and we should have let them enjoy alone to freeze in a country that only a Russian could love.

    Comment by koshmap — May 17, 2024 @ 4:33 pm

  6. In the end wars end, by total victory, truce or treaty.

    The likely result is a treaty that is in fact just a temporary truce.

    It is striking that the Ukrainian youth are very reluctant to defend their homeland. Average age of combatants is 42 or 43. When these guys are demobilised they are going to be very resentful of the youth. It’ll make the German army “stab in the back” myth look harmless.

    Pity Ukraine. Post war divisions will be intense. The billions of aid for “reconstruction” will be diverted to line the pockets of some very unpleasant people.

    Comment by philip — May 19, 2024 @ 1:13 pm

  7. different question…..whenever you read a story about anything in Russia corruption is a theme. Virtually everything is corrupt. Assume Putin is gone, how do you change Russian culture to make it less corrupt or even to eliminate corruption? Even pre-Lenin, the culture was corrupt.

    Comment by Jeff Carter (@pointsnfigures1) — May 21, 2024 @ 5:18 pm

  8. on another note, this is reminding me of WW1 again and again

    Comment by Jeff Carter (@pointsnfigures1) — May 21, 2024 @ 5:19 pm

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