Streetwise Professor

July 23, 2022

Putin’s Hamster Wheel Spins Bloodily On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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9 Comments »

  1. Once again, I look at my incompetent government in Canada, who refuses to free oil and gas from the ground for export or even domestic use, and think how different the world would be if Canada and the US had acted differently on the energy front.
    All the money and power that wouldn’t have flowed to Putin and company would be flowing to North America and helping us recover from the self imposed suffering brought in to stop the unstoppable virus.
    Would Putin have had the resources and the political leverage to start a war for territory if we hadn’t given up exporting oil and gas to Europe?

    I believe not but then again, I’m just one of the uninformed dolts living in fly over country between Toronto and Vancouver. Worse yet, a cisgendered, straight, white male in his 50s.
    Perhaps PM Trudeau will suffer a fatal accident while taking one of his many surfing vacations to Tuffano beach and of course, Biden isn’t long for this world or at least it’s not likely that his cronies will have their hands on the levers of power after November.
    Perhaps things will look up after either or both of those events come to pass.

    Comment by Geoff H — July 24, 2022 @ 9:45 am

  2. “Putin’s hamster wheel.”

    There does seem to be a certain performative aspect to the conflict as if the dreadful deaths and injuries were part of a gruesome sideshow played out for the benefit of a global audience.
    I mean, there are maximalists in RU who rail against Putin for not going “all-in” while he refuses to even deign to bestow on the continuing struggle the epithet “war”.
    On the other side, Zelensky (or Zelenskyy) gives bold speeches in international fora about Russian “terrorism” every time they send off random missiles that land on civilian targets. But such attacks are (mercifully) few.
    It all seems terribly … restrained. Not exactly ‘total war’. It’s as if there is a side-agreement among the various parties (RU,UKR,EU/NATO/USA, Turkiye) as to the implicit rules of engagement. Hot, but not too hot.
    And never mind the poor shmucks on either side of the front line in the East.

    Comment by Simple Simon — July 24, 2022 @ 10:37 am

  3. >>But they don’t have to in order to make the agreement a meaningless scrap of paper.<< Like the Minsk Accords?
    This will make you feel better: https://www.moonofalabama.org/2022/07/50-sick-headlines-about-vladimir-putins-health.html#more

    Comment by Richard Whitney — July 24, 2022 @ 5:53 pm

  4. …They will choose the muddle course, because they don’t have the guts either to confront Putin or to capitulate to him…

    what do you propose to confront him? And did not you, yourself write that “dying for donbass is demented”…
    https://streetwiseprofessor.com/die-for-donbas-demented/

    Also curious that you fail to mention the US even once in this article, don’t they have any say in this?

    My prediction:
    NS2 will open within the next 12 months…

    Comment by viennacapitalist — July 25, 2022 @ 12:27 am

  5. Europe will survive without the gas – it will suck, but it will force us to do what we should have been doing for years: Build LNG infrastructure and get homes onto heat pumps instead of gas.

    Except Germany – they’ll double down on lignite and Russian gas. Because they’re interested in peace and want to save the environment. Obviously.

    No, the biggest victims are those countries dependent on grain imports: China is panic-buying, Ukraine can’t export last year’s harvest, this year’s harvest is being destroyed or not planted at all, and the Russian economy is struggling to move it’s own grain. Things are looking, very, very, very bad…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — July 25, 2022 @ 4:08 am

  6. In a perfect world I would support sanctions. After all, they worked in South Africa – after twenty five years.

    But the world is imperfect. Putin, thanks to our refusal to sell him BMWs and French cheese, already has an enormous trade surplus. That makes the refusal to buy his gas mere virtue signalling.

    Putin can turn off the taps to the EU any time he likes, but the EU is not Ukraine’s armourer. Another example of the essential irrelevance of the EU.

    Comment by philip — July 25, 2022 @ 5:38 am

  7. Some western European governments’ resolve may be wavering, anticipating the problems ahead this winter, but their electorates most definitely are not. In contrast eastern Europe remains resolute (Poland in particular), and are spending massively on defence.

    There has also been a huge push to move away from Russian gas – give it a year or two and much/most of Europe will have secured alternative supplies.

    On the battlefield things have settled down somewhat. Lots of reports on the effectiveness of HIMARS and other western supplied precision artillery (and the lack of, with reference to Switchblade). Time will soon tell whether the current Russian tactical pause is because of, rather than is spite of, this. Kherson is looking interesting, although the real focus is further east.

    Comment by David Mercer — July 25, 2022 @ 6:26 am

  8. @philip

    it is Putin who has forbidden his slaves to buy French cheese, not the EU.

    Comment by Ivan — July 25, 2022 @ 2:23 pm

  9. I note that the Rashans have now admitted responsibility for the attack, after having told as many people as they could ‘It wasn’t me!’

    Some things never change.

    O/T, Prof, but, remembering how impressed you were at the skill of the churchman who took down a homicidal intruder to his church, I think a couple of years ago: I think the feat of the young man in Indiana was quite a ‘see you, and raise you’ in that regard. Just exceptional, actually unbelievable marksmanship, which saved many lives.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — July 25, 2022 @ 7:03 pm

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