Streetwise Professor

February 26, 2022

Russian Juggernaut? Not So Much.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 12:09 pm

To the surprise of many, including to some extent me, the Russian assault on Ukraine has bogged down. But that’s probably not the right phrasing. It was never unbogged. It has made very little progress in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance, and this was true from the opening moments of the assault.

The biggest surprise to me is that Russia has not been able to secure anything remotely approaching air superiority. On paper, they should dominate. But they have lost many aircraft, including not just ground attack SU-25s (which are pretty vulnerable) but also front line Sukhoi fighters and IL-76 transport aircraft (presumably loaded with airborne troopers, Russia’s best). Their main air attacks on Kiev have apparently used cruise missiles, which suggests concerns about the risks Ukrainian air defenses pose to Russian manned aircraft.

The first hours–days, actually–of a US assault would have been focused on dismantling the air defense system. (Remember the first 100 hours of Desert Storm.). Once that is achieved, the tanks roll. The Russians have done both simultaneously (perhaps for political reasons) and it is not working out for them.

On the ground, gains are apparently few, and achieved at high cost at places like Kharkiv/Kharkov. (Even though Ukraine probably has no von Mansteins in charge.) I thought Mariupol would fall pretty quickly, but the Russians appear to be more interested in moving east along the coast rather than securing the rest of Donetsk–which was ostensibly the pretext for this crime.

It seems that the Russian plan was to execute a coup de main to seize Kiev/Kyiv using airborne units and special forces (Alfa/Spetsnaz). They have not achieved that. They seized, then lost, then seized again an airport near Kiev that would have been the springboard for that. But damage to the runways and the losses of some planes that would ferry in the follow on forces have delayed that, and possibly scuppered it. Reports indicate that the VDV units are instead moving to Kiev/Kyiv overland from Belarus.

Some special forces units–in Ukrainian uniforms–have been killed and captured. (Here is an example from Nikopol.). Not a good look for the alleged elite. (Not a good look because of poor operational performance, and because of the violation of the rules of war: the Ukrainians had every right to shoot them on sight. But maybe they could serve as very effective weapons in the propaganda war.)

There are stories of some Russian penetrations into Kiev/Kyiv, but Zelensky is still there and the Ukrainians appear to be in control of the bulk of the capital.

Failure to execute a lightning strike that toppled the Ukrainian government now presents Putin with a grim choice. He obviously believes Kyiv/Kiev/the Ukrainian government is the center of gravity in this conflict. The failure of a decapitation strike against the Ukrainian government confronts Putin with the prospect of a protracted battle in the streets of the capital. Urban warfare is slow and bloody, a meat grinder par excellence.

The historical Russian approach to such battles is to use overwhelming firepower (cf. Berlin 1945, or more recently Grozny). But Putin supposedly venerates Kiev as the cradle of Russian civilization, and reveres St. Vladimir (a prince of Kiev) as “as the unifier and defender of Russian lands, as a visionary politician.” Will he subject this holy place to the Grozny treatment if Ukrainians (soldiers and civilians alike) fight his soldiers in the streets?

The cost in lives–including Russian lives–of such a choice would be immense. The financial burden on Russia of sustaining a high intensity conflict would also be acute. And making such a choice would almost certainly lead to the imposition of the most severe economic sanctions against Russia, namely its excision from the world financial system via expulsion from SWIFT and sanctioning of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. This would no doubt set off some intense political dynamics within Russia.

Putin was counting on a short, decisive, victorious war. With every passing minute, it becomes clearer that he won’t get it.

What then, Vova?

Given that he is quite likely mentally unbalanced–severely so–that question is as fraught for us as it is for him.

So why hasn’t the supposed juggernaut juggered?

Well, for one thing, the enemy gets a vote. (More on that in a bit.)

For another, Russia’s performance in Georgia in 2008 was something of an embarrassment to Putin and Russia. In its aftermath Russia embarked on a wholesale shakeup of the military, involving substantial investment in new equipment (not just tanks, planes, and the like, but things like radios) and an attempt to reform the manpower system.

From the outside–and here I and others likely fell for Russian information operations–the changes appeared to be working. The Russian army was not the shambolic wreck it had been. But it is clearly not the juggernaut it presented itself to be.

From the outset one question in my mind was not the hardware, but the meatware. I wrote a lot 10 years or so ago about the Russian military manpower problem. The military had become less reliant on conscripts, but the conscript cycle had become shortened to a single year, meaning that many of the soldiers currently violating Ukrainian soil have been in the army only a few months–hardly likely to be effective fighters. Just how this new mix would respond to contact with the enemy was much harder to evaluate than the change in Russian materiel. The initial results are not impressive.

And it must also be noted that Ukraine also engaged in a crash reform of its military post-2014. Its performance has been far more credible than most expected. Thus, if anything, it appears that the Ukrainian military reforms over the last 8 years have been more effective than Russia’s over the last 14. Indeed, the Ukrainians have demonstrated considerable pluck, with numerous incidents (telling a Russian ship to “go fuck yourself” when the ship demanded their surrender, a soldier sacrificing himself to blow up a bridge in the faces of advancing Russians) that will build a legend of national resistance. (This in turn would make any putative Russian occupation all the more difficult.)

Initial reports (which must always be treated with care) indicate the the Russians are already facing serious logistical difficulties. If true, this is gobsmacking. If you can’t support a campaign on your own doorstep, you may be a colossus, but you have logistical feet of clay. This is especially true since the Russians had considerable time to plan and prepare, lay in stocks, etc.

And their logistical difficulties will only get worse. It is axiomatic that the further the advance, the more logistical friction impairs operational effectiveness.

And supply lines present the Ukrainians with a perfect opportunity to turn the asymmetric warfare table on the Russians. Partisan warfare against invaders has long been a speciality of Ukrainians, whether it be against the Red Army in the Civil War, the Germans in WWII, or the Soviets in the aftermath of WWII. Tanks can’t move without gas. Soldiers can’t fight without food. Detaching units to hunt down guerrillas erodes combat power.

In sum, Putin wanted and expected–and in fact, absolutely needed–a quick victory. It is increasingly likely that he will not get it. Another example of “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”

On the one hand, that is encouraging–although Ukraine will pay a high price in a protracted conflict. But we have to ponder how Putin will respond to a stalemate, or a long slog towards victory.

Putin tells a story from his youth in which he cornered a rat–to his regret (Putin’s, not the rat’s). Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn’t. But he tells it to send a message: if you corner me I will try to rip off your face.

He justifies his invasion of Ukraine as a legitimate act of self-defense because the US and Nato had backed him into a corner. That was a grotesque exaggeration, but he may well find himself in a corner in Ukraine.

One response to stalemate is to escalate. As Eisenhower said, “If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” But if Putin’s military proves itself to be a brittle sword, what other means does he have to escalate? The answer to that question is obvious–and ominous. Especially when one considers Russian nuclear doctrine.

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  1. I am surprised but then I have no military experience. I would have guessed that the way you reduce a city is to cut off electricity, gas, water, and motor fuel, and block the sewers. Besiege it, in other words. To blast it with artillery is just to destroy the prize you sought. I conclude that I don’t understand Putin’s motives. Speculation, at least by me, is pointless.

    Comment by dearieme — February 26, 2022 @ 1:36 pm

  2. Possibly the best outcome of this is for Putin’s inner circle to exercise the “Khruschev option” (forced early retirement).

    I wonder about the morale of Russian troops, having to shoot at people who might be their relatives. It’s almost a civil-war type situation.

    Comment by Emperor of Ice Cream — February 26, 2022 @ 1:43 pm

  3. Two gross misjudgements by Vlad, the level of opposition in Ukraine and, possibly more fatally for his tenure, at home. That, coupled with some seriously retro Soviet doctrine, easily countered by a motivated, well-equipped and well-informed* adversary, and RoE which seem to preclude any engagement which may harm civilians (surely a first?), and he’s seriously up sh*ts creek. I reckon part of the reason NATO is standing to is that they may need to move against Russia if things go turbo, possibly in concert with China?

    * The Ukrainians will undoubtedly have access to top-Dollar NATO intel on Russian dispositions, movements etc, given the level of reconnaissance activity over Poland, Romania and the Black Sea, way more so than the Russians have on them (and presumably access to the very best planners, analysts, tacticians etc).

    Comment by David Mercer — February 26, 2022 @ 3:08 pm

  4. The first hours–days, actually–of a US assault would have been focused on dismantling the air defense system.

    In the past certainly and one can hope in the future.

    Presently, though, under the command of General Milley, the first days of a US assault would have focused on eliminating white supremacists from among the troops and giving proper deference to the LGBTQ population.

    Comment by Pat Frank — February 26, 2022 @ 3:24 pm

  5. @Emperor. I am watching Death of Stalin tonight. One can always hope!

    Comment by cpirrong — February 26, 2022 @ 4:47 pm

  6. Prof,

    Is it not early days? My understanding (or lack thereof) is that even the Germans during WW2 only achieved control of 5km per day on the Eastern Front during the start of the blitz. So far the Russians have been moving at a clip of about 15km/day and their artillery will naturally be lagging behind. To take major cities artillery will be necessary.

    Maybe I am missing a lot (I am), but most of the reports of Putin’s fuming are coming from Ukrainian sources, at least in the major US papers I have read. I am skeptical of internal reports at the moment. Three days seems like too short a time to take a country of 44MM people.

    Time will reveal all I guess.

    Comment by Dan in Euroland — February 26, 2022 @ 9:09 pm

  7. Many years ago my dear old Dad told me that the Allies were a little shocked that as it got closer to the German border the Germans in their army fought noticably harder. The Ukrainians care about defending Ukraine more than the Russian army does about invading Ukraine. Home ground matters, hence the result in Afghanistan. The population defends their land to the death, we are a territorial animal. The Ukraine army has been having that important practice in Eastern Ukraine for years now, they have battle hardened troops to put up against Russian conscripts. History may not matter but it can be predictive if read correctly.

    Comment by Peewhit — February 26, 2022 @ 9:24 pm

  8. Putin can’t raze Ukraine. The war must be quick and bloodless enough that Europe can still convince itself (with some help from the troll army) that the russian gas is more important than taking a stand.

    Comment by tegla — February 26, 2022 @ 11:36 pm

  9. I wonder how the poor souls at ZeroHedge are taking all this.

    Comment by Qez — February 27, 2022 @ 3:06 am

  10. The US and Europe have agreed some sort of excision from SWIFT of certain Rashan banks. OK, they finally fell halfway over the line. But the big news is that they are going to work together to limit the freedom of action of Rasha’s central bank. Surely that can’t be legal? It might even be an act of war, much like a naval blockade is, yes? (What did they teach at Annapolis?)

    I don’t have enough info or knowledge to discuss the military side of things. But arming civilians and getting them to make molotov cocktails is not a good sign. I guess the traditional punishment for franc-tireurs, the same as for those disguised spetznats soldiers, still applies. What a godawful mess.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — February 27, 2022 @ 4:26 am

  11. Prof, this might interest you.

    This is the author:

    P.S. We laughed throughout The Death of Stalin. When I recommend it on an American blog one commenter declared it was not a comedy.

    Comment by dearieme — February 27, 2022 @ 6:03 am

  12. Vlad owns this Fubar totally.
    First he fools himself that Ukraine is just like Russia, only ruled temporarily by putchists, neo Nazis and homosexuals. Therefore the Russian army will be greeted as liberators by an adoring populace.
    So there’s no need for detailed planning and budgeting. The tanks can just fill up at the wayside gas stations and the troops can pop into the local supermarkets.
    As for military resistance, of course there will be a little but most Ukrainians love mother Russia…
    It’s a cocktail of cognitive dissonance, the Dunning Kruger effect and other brainless psychological defects too numerous to mention.

    Comment by philip — February 27, 2022 @ 6:45 am

  13. The Daily Mail has already reported on a Russian tank out of gas, being taunted – “need a tow back to Russia”?

    the tactics are bewildering – missiles through apartment buildings?

    communications, energy, water still work

    obviously, Putler does not want to have to rebuild everything

    but – methinks he also WANTS people to see the destruction – as a form of terrorism – “if you defy me, beeg men Putler, thees eez vaht veel khappun to you”

    Comment by elmer — February 27, 2022 @ 8:57 am

  14. Lots of deception in information too! I have heard conflicting stories on a Ukrainian ace pilot, the grey ghost. I have heard conflicting stories on the Snake Is sailors.

    My question is what is going to happen INSIDE Russia now that they will be limited on the SWIFT system. Who has the power internally to revolt, decapitate Putin and end the madness?

    My other question is will the Biden Administration stand up to the Greenies and actually drill baby drill? Putin’s strength is $100 oil. We know with enough of it, we can make it go negative!

    Comment by Jeff Carter (@pointsnfigures1) — February 27, 2022 @ 10:45 am

  15. “… what other means does he have to escalate? The answer to that question is obvious–and ominous.”

    Prof: you are very much on the ball. Reports today that the nuke forces are in a heightened state of readiness. And a meeting of the top guys scheduled for a spot outside Chernobyl (as if the messaging wasn’t already clear enough)

    ‘Interesting times’ sounds a bit understated.

    Comment by Simple Simon — February 27, 2022 @ 11:13 am

  16. So how should we (the West, the US) react to this not-so-veiled threat of a nuclear strike? I am honestly curious.

    And what does comrade Xi think about this?

    BTW, if anyone noticed, the faces of Minister of Defense Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Gerasimov looked pretty stunned during this short TV announcement by Putin, scum as they both are.

    Comment by LL — February 27, 2022 @ 11:33 am

  17. Methinks, a man so afraid of covid-19 that no one is allowed closer than 20 meters in his vicinity is not the most credible person to commit suicide by US nukes… Fool me once…

    Comment by Pekka Laine — February 27, 2022 @ 11:47 am

  18. LL – NATO and China have got to put their differences aside for a moment and figure out how to deal with this lunatic, possibly some deal where we nullify the threat west of the Urals, them the east, we then denazify Russia and install a puppet, pro-business government.

    I honestly believe discussions along these lines are underway via back-channels.

    Comment by David Mercer — February 27, 2022 @ 11:47 am

  19. Forgot to add: I see Zelensky is standing up a foreign legion, if any of you fancy a hunting trip to Europe. Apparently you don’t even need to bring your own weapons.

    Comment by David Mercer — February 27, 2022 @ 11:49 am

  20. He escalated as expected, see latest “red alert”. Nuclear deployment in response to “aggressive statements” – what a logic!

    Well, there is actually a precedent how to answer to threats like this. Nuclear objects in Iran that one beautiful day got eliminated after a preventive airstrike.

    Comment by Tatyana — February 27, 2022 @ 12:38 pm

  21. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when these promised “negotiations without prior conditions” are held in Belorussia.
    U: Fuck off.
    R: No.
    Another couple of weeks of resistance and I reckon Taiwan is safe for a few more years.

    Comment by philip — February 27, 2022 @ 2:10 pm

  22. Here’s a different view.

    I have no view, apart from feeling sorry for the Ukrainians and for the Russian conscripts.

    Comment by dearieme — February 27, 2022 @ 6:37 pm

  23. @Jeff Carter. I never believed the Ghost Pilot thing. But like the movie Patton said, it’s not important that I believe. Resistance is often motivated by romantic legends. As a famous line from another movie went: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

    I pay little attention to the official pronouncements from either side. I pay closest attention to the sound of silence. What speaks volumes is Russian failure to claim victory, or to tout major operational successes.

    And yes, what goes on inside Russia is of crucial importance. See my last post–I address this specifically.

    Comment by cpirrong — February 27, 2022 @ 6:57 pm

  24. @dearieme. Thanks. I’m pretty much on the same page.

    And this makes me wonder what the Chinese think. Will this be a wakeup call/warning for them? Could they be afraid that their military will perform as poorly? That would be one silver lining.

    Comment by cpirrong — February 27, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

  25. @Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break. Yes, I learned at Annapolis that blockade is an act of war 😉 So is seizure of foreign assets. But I am guessing that what they will do will not constitute a formal seizure. They will immobilize them in some way. Regardless of what the lawyers think about that, it’s what Putin thinks about it matters. He could well view it as an act of war.

    Comment by cpirrong — February 27, 2022 @ 7:01 pm

  26. @Dan in Euroland-Yes it is early. But Putin wanted–needed it–to end rapidly. Present the world with a fait accompli. I believe Russia can eventually prevail, with expenditure of enough blood and high explosive.

    What you refer to I call “Plan B” in today’s post. I’ve been making similar arguments on Twitter the last couple of days.

    Comment by cpirrong — February 27, 2022 @ 7:03 pm

  27. @dearieme
    Thanks, very interesting article by Niccolo (Macchiavelli, I presume).
    Two objections. A hot war in Ukraine is only a short term boost to the arms manufacturers and gas companies. Though it might ignite a lot more exploration, e.g. in the UK. That will happen anyway.
    Second, the US objective is to keep Russia quiet, not to provoke. (OK, they may have made a mistake here.) US paranoia is now firmly focused on China.

    The basic policy of western democracies is to have a nice life with lots of goodies provided by debt so that we can focus on the important stuff like gender pronouns.
    It’s not helpful to blame the west when Putin starts a war.

    Comment by philip — February 27, 2022 @ 7:36 pm

  28. “US paranoia is now firmly focused on China.”

    May I infer Philip’s Law of the Conservation of American Paranoia?

    It would be a specialised but stronger version of dearieme’s Law of the the Conservation of Fretting.

    Comment by dearieme — February 28, 2022 @ 5:40 am

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