Streetwise Professor

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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  1. I dont see this conflict going on for more than a few more weeks. It will be over before the beginning of April, IMHO.

    The reason is that Russia doesnt seem to have the men to fight the long, protracted conflict in the urban areas you predict to take place, professor. There were rumors right now about Russia recruiting guys in Syria with urban conflict experience and presumably some fighting spirit, but would there be enough to even offset the tens of thousands of highly motivated volunteers from across the globe going over to defend Ukraine, many of them former Spec Ops or paratrooper types with just such an experience from Iraq and Afghanistan? I doubt it.

    Putin needs a victory, absolutely. But he doesnt need to gain that much to be able to spin the whole thing as just such a victory: control of the whole of Luhansk and Donetsk region and most important, securing a land corridor connecting Crimea to mainland Russia. I would argue he would be more than willing to put aside the dreams of reuniting the whole of Ukraine with Russia that he had just 14 days ago, in exchange for some serious sanction relief, which the pacifistic Euros would be more than happy to provide, as they too could declare themselves the winners in all this, showing the world how the “sanctions worked”.

    Ukraine already agreed not to seek NATO membership before the first round of negotiations even begun. The only two issues I might see preventing such a settlement was the demand that certain “offensive weapons” are not stationed in Ukraine. No idea what the Russians meant by that, but if is something like no tanks, no planes, no heavy weaponry, than it would be along the lines of Hitler demanding we surrender the fortification line in Sudetenland in Munich. And there is no way anyone in Ukraine would agree to that. They have enough brain to know that would equal to a national suicide in the form of another Russian invasion few years down the line.

    Granted, most of these assumptions are based on the premise that Putin behaves rationally, which is quite possibly delusional in the wake of what we saw so far. But I genuinely believe that – on the risk of sounding like Chamberlain – if the conflict goes longer than a few weeks, it is going to be because of the Ukrainian leadership refusing to cede land for peace, and not because Putin and his henchmen wouldnt strive to reach such a settlement, for no other reason than them not having the manpower to wage bloody conflict for very much longer.

    Ukraine wont be another Afghanistan, for the current Russia lacks the means, men and money of the USSR and US to fight such a war for years and years to come.

    Comment by deith — March 6, 2022 @ 9:34 pm

  2. To extend your analogy, maybe it’s time for the US/NATO to throw a few Fisher-esque chess moves of our own to throw our opponent further off balance e.g. rapid admittance of Finland, Sweden, Moldova, Georgia (!) into NATO, stir things up in Belarus and the ‘Stans (as you alluded to before) etc?

    Russia may win the war, but it looks highly unlikely they could win the peace, having effectively kicked a hornets nest. There’s reportedly already been protests in the east (“Welcome to Russia’s economy! Please form an orderly queue”), and if this degenerates into full-on unrest then their troops will really be hard-pressed, effectively encircled themselves. One analysts estimates that Russia will need to permanently garrison a minimum of half a million troops in the country to keep a lid on things (remembering that, unlike Belarus a few years back and more recently Kazakhstan, there is no sympathetic state security apparatus in place, so will effectively have to be built from scratch). Add to that a sizeable force to police the lengthy border with NATO member states to prevent the inflow of weapons and foreign fighters (reportedly 10K have signed up so far, incl Arabs and Israelis – go world!), then things look really bleak.

    Regarding Russia’s military, if this is the result of 20+ years of investment, how long will we have to wait for them to present a credible conventional threat? And how much would they have to spend to achieve this – 20% of their GDP (as was)? 30%?? Higher??? Maybe we could sub them a couple of billion Dollars to make it a fairer fight and save them embarrassing themselves again…

    A question about those American pro-Putin wingnuts. How do they square his alliance with China, seeing as China is the root of all evil in their eyes? Wilful blindness, fake news?

    Comment by David Mercer — March 7, 2022 @ 3:28 am

  3. Excellent post, thanks.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — March 7, 2022 @ 4:11 am

  4. “It is possible to deal with those in the US whose misjudgments and manipulations greatly contributed to the current situation at the proper time”

    They’ll no more be dealt with than will the crooks and fools who gave you mass lockdowns, vaccine mandates, and all the rest of that fiasco.

    Comment by dearieme — March 7, 2022 @ 5:19 am

  5. I’m trying to think of a single one of the Russians I know, through YT and FB, who supports the war even narrowly. Contrary to what you may think, Russians are no more death or glory fanatics than you or I are. They want the same things that we do, like a job, a home and a car, with sometimes a shot of vodka and a cigarette for breakfast.

    Comment by Michael van der Riet — March 7, 2022 @ 6:03 am

  6. After thought about my last-but-one point. What I’m saying is that we should do what Ali did i.e. take a few punches so as not to totally humiliate our opponent? Or maybe we should just go full Iron Mike…

    Comment by David Mercer — March 7, 2022 @ 6:57 am

  7. Given that the corrupt elements in the U.S. were intent on attacking Russia:
    What choice did Putin have?
    During the time that Trump tried to go after the corruption that was Ukraine and going after that corruption looked like the right direction. But NATO, Graham, and the cabal got their man installed in 2020, leading to today.

    Comment by Richard Whitney — March 7, 2022 @ 7:47 am

  8. If Putinsants to reflect on sieges, he need only look at heroic Leningrad, his birthplace. Nations go to war, not only armies. Ukraine has vastly more “skin in the game” than any Russian.

    Lots of rumors about using home police as troops, rounding up draftees to send to Ukraine—shear lunacy.

    Comment by The Pilot — March 7, 2022 @ 8:51 am

  9. Your comment about NATO air power has also been made by others, including retired US military generals.

    As far as a nuclear threat – here is an alleged (translated) analysis by an FSB guy. I have posted the excerpt on the nuclear threat:

    Now we are stuck waiting until some mentally screwed up advisor convinces the top to start a conflict with Europe, with demands to reduce the sanctions – they either loosen the sanctions or war. What if the West refuses? In that instance I won’t exclude that we will be pulled into a real international conflict, just like Hitler in 1939. Our “Z” will be equated to the Swastika.

    Is there a possibility of a localized nuclear strike? Yes. Not for any military objectives. Such a weapon won’t help with the breach of the defenses. But with a goal of scaring everyone else (The West).

    We are plowing to create a scenario in which to blame everything on Ukraine. Naryshkin (Director of Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia) and his SVR is digging the ground to prove that Ukraine was secretly building nuclear weapons. F*&K. They are hammering at what we’ve already analyzed and closed the book on: We can’t just make up any evidence or proof and existence of specialists and Uranium. Ukraine has a ton of depleted isotope 238 – this is nothing. The production cycle is such that you can’t do it in secret.

    A dirty bomb can’t be created in secret. Ukraine’s old nuclear power plants can only produce the material as a by-product in minimal amounts. The Americans have such monitoring at these plants with MAGATE that even talking about this is stupid.

    Do you know what will start in a week? Let’s let it be even in 2 weeks. We are going to be so screwed we will start reminiscing about the good ol’ hungry days of the 90s. As the markets are being closed, Nabiullina appears to be taking the right steps, but it’s like plugging holes on a ship with your fingers. The situation will break through anyway and even stronger. Nothing will be solved in 3 or 5 or 7 days any longer.

    Kadyrov is kicking his hoofs not without reason. They have their own adventures. He created a name for himself as the invincible – and if he falls down once his own people will remove him.

    Next. Syria. “Guys – hold on, everything will end in Ukraine and then we will fortify our positions in Syria.” And now at any moment our contingent stationed there may run out of resources, and then ridiculous heat will come…. Turkey is closing the strait, and sending supplies to Syria by air is the same as heating an oven with cash. Please notice – this is all happening at the same time, and we don’t even have time to throw it all in one pile for analysis.

    Our current position is like Germany in 1943-1944 – but that’s our STARTING position in Ukraine.

    Sometimes I get lost in this overwork, sometimes feels as if this is just a dream and all is as it was before.

    With regards to prisons – it will be worse. The nuts will start to get tightened till blood. Everywhere. To be frank, purely technically, this is the only way to maintain any control of the situation. We are already in total mobilization mode. But we can’t remain in this mode for long, but our timetables are unknown, and it will only get worse. Governance always goes astray from mobilization. And just imagine: You can sprint 100m – but try that in a marathon.

    And so, with the Ukrainian question we lunged as if going for a 100m sprint, but turned out we’d signed up for a marathon.

    And this is a rather brief overview of the current events.

    To offer further cynicism, I don’t believe that Putin will press the red button to destroy the entire world.

    First, it’s not one person that decides, and someone will refuse. There are lots of people there and there is no single “red” button.

    Second, there are certain doubts that it actually functions properly. Experience shows that the more transparent the control procedures, the easier it is to identify problems. And where it’s mirky as to who controls what and how, but always reports full of bravado, is where there are always problems.

    I am not sure that the “red button” system functions according to the declared data. Besides, plutonium fuel must be changed every 10 years.

    Third, and this is the most disgusting and sad, I personally do not believe in Putin’s will to sacrifice himself when he does not even allow his closest ministers and advisors to be in his vicinity. Whether it’s due to his fear of COVID or a possible assassination is irrelevant. If you are scared for the most trusted people to be near you, then how could you possibly choose to destroy yourself and those dearest to you.

    Comment by elmer — March 7, 2022 @ 10:41 am

  10. @Michael. I think you are ignoring sample selection bias (e.g., the Pauline Kael Effect). The Russians I know are also opposed. But I know they are not a representative sample.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 7, 2022 @ 11:48 am

  11. @deith. I largely agree. I wrote that Putin could not sustain a battle in a major city. Hence he would turn to terror.

    As to what he will accept . . . that’s the question. And one of the errors that was made (by the US and Europe in particular) was to reject out of hand something along the lines of what you suggest. That’s what I proposed before the tanks rolled. At least it would have served to clarify what his real objectives were.

    Putin’s rationality is open to question. There is the question of the rationality of his goals. There is the question of the rationality of his choice of means to achieve those goals. The events of the past weeks cast serious doubt on the latter. The former are also questionable, given how they are seemingly built on imperial fantasies and a twisted view of history.

    I too think that this will be resolved sooner, rather than later, due to Putin’s resource constraints. But what will happen in that period of weeks (or a few months) is hard to forecast, especially given the opacity of Putin’s mind to me–and pretty much anyone else for that matter. And those weeks or months are likely to see a humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine and serious economic damage in the world.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 7, 2022 @ 11:56 am

  12. Like many another military ignoramus I entertain an occasional view on strategy. I pooh-poohed the notion of an invasion in February on the grounds that surely May would be better – the earth firm, the days longer, the skies clearer.

    So why is the old man in a hurry? I speculate, evidence-free, that he’s seriously ill; he couldn’t do it from the grave.

    Or maybe he believes that by May the USA might have a non-demented president. Who knows? Seriously, does anyone in the West know? What do the USA’s 42 different spy services know?

    Comment by dearieme — March 7, 2022 @ 1:39 pm

  13. I really don’t understand these “Trump loved Putin” accusations when factually one of the strongest cool-downs happened under Trump: for example, 2 out of 4 Russian consulates in US were permanently closed by Trump orders, strong anti-Russian actions in Syria, continuous anti-Russian sanctions. All happened under Trump.

    Comment by SK — March 7, 2022 @ 4:45 pm

  14. Consider that the Ukraine government and its people are not the same thing. It seems to me that Putin considers the Ukraine government to be run by certain interests. Some of these are westerners like Biden who profit from the connection to the country. It is all speculation at this point, but I’d like to know more about the various motives behind this conflict. I seek a better explanation than Putin is a bad guy. Surely some motives cannot be so strange to the USA, who is used to doing the regime change thing?

    Comment by grapesode — March 7, 2022 @ 5:46 pm

  15. SK: if Trump was truly in Putin’s pocket, he would’ve been on the sidelines cheering for Nordstream 2 (why not, all the European great-and-the-good were doing just that) – at very little cost to himself, and maybe getting a little credit among the wokerati (OK, that’s a stretch). He wasn’t, and in fact was an opponent – from this there is only one possible conclusion: Trump was not in Putin’s pocket, despite the “Steele dossier,” DNC opposition research, HRC’s shrill accusations, and the NY Times, which were all of a contrary view.

    Comment by dcardno — March 7, 2022 @ 5:55 pm

  16. @dearieme–I also hypothesized that he’s ill.

    Re non-demented US POTUS by May. You do know Kamala Harris is next in line? And Nancy Pelosi next after that? And Patrick Leahy after that?

    The prospects for a non-idiot assuming office before the next election is basically zero.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 7, 2022 @ 10:51 pm

  17. Wouldn’t the line of succession depend on whom President Harris appointed as VP?

    Comment by dearieme — March 8, 2022 @ 7:19 am

  18. How many Putin courtiers and oligarchs are desperately seeking back channels to negotiate a climbdown with some semblance of honour or even “success”? Some of them or all of them?
    Do we know the name of Brutus yet?

    Comment by philip — March 8, 2022 @ 8:43 am

  19. Agree. Plus use your economic might to crush him. Why are we not rescinding exec orders on fossil fuel exploration in the US? Would send a signal to the market that things are changing and the price would reflect it.

    Comment by Jeffrey Carter — March 8, 2022 @ 9:38 am

  20. @Philip: One can but hope. How their fortunes – and freedoms – have changed over these two short weeks? Personally I’m not holding out much hope for a palace coup, given how well ensconced Putin is. Looking at the police on the streets, not much sign of wavering or doubters there, and this Z Swastika nonsense appears to be swinging some doubters to the national cause. Reminds me of ‘03 when the British public kind of forgot about their opposition to the war as soon as the fighting started (i.e. it may be a sh*tty war started on the thinnest of pretexts, but they’re our boys). People are nothing but fickle. I’d gird yourself for the long haul, and hope Mother Nature intervenes early…

    Comment by David Mercer — March 8, 2022 @ 9:47 am

  21. Amateurs debate tactics; professionals discuss logistics.

    Logistics — the Russians getting down to Kyiv, the West getting weapons into Ukraine — is really at the core of the battle.

    Whoever wins the logistics war, wins the war.

    BTW, the Americans are the best logisticians in the world.


    Comment by Jeffrey L Minch — March 8, 2022 @ 10:54 am

  22. Prof

    Interesting what appears to be starting according to The [UK] Times:

    Fears are growing that spikes in commodity prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are causing a wave of margin calls that threaten wider financial stability…UK gas prices have also been extremely volatile, spiking by 73 per cent to an all-time high of 800p at one stage on Monday. Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) said on Tuesday it was raising margins — or collateral required to be posted — for the UK’s benchmark gas contracts for April by 30 per cent, to be reflected in margin calls from Thursday.

    Ole Hansen, head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank, said the world was now in an “increasingly dangerous phase where sanctions on the world’s single-largest commodity producer may threaten financial stability”.

    “Suddenly producers who have been hedging . . . have increasingly been caught out with futures exchanges demanding more and more collateral to prevent their short positions from being stopped out,” he said…The LME debacle has raised questions about its oversight of the market and triggered a backlash against its decision to cancel trades.

    Wow, who’d have thought that concentrating business out of the OTC and onto cleared exchanges could ever be a bad thing? Clearing solves everything doesn’t it?

    Well, er, no. So, per previous conversations we have had, I would say we are at the point where IJN Taiho has taken the torpedo hit; the avgas tanks have fractured; the fumes and vapour are pouring noisomely out; some fool has the air conditioning permanently on, to get rid of the smell; and we’re now wondering if the fumes spreading through the ship by a deliberate design feature are about to reach a place where somebody is smoking a cigarette.

    And that’s clearing this morning, that is.

    Comment by Green As Grass — March 10, 2022 @ 4:50 am

  23. Can anyone tell me, or even speculate interestingly, about the US biolabs in Ukraine that have now been admitted to?

    Was Iraq invaded for less ?

    Comment by dearieme — March 10, 2022 @ 10:26 am

  24. @Green as Grass. I’ve been following with interest (and will post on nickel shortly). As the self-styled Clearing Cassandra, I can’t say I’m surprised. Yes, clearing turns credit risk into liquidity risk, which is not a good trade off in stressed conditions. Which is where we are now.

    Yes, the Taiho sailed along for a bit before going kablooie. We could well be in similar straits.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 11, 2022 @ 11:34 am

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