Streetwise Professor

March 24, 2022

Stalemate . . . And Then What?

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 3:36 pm

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has ground to a shuddering halt. Not that it was ever that dynamic, but with the exception of meager gains achieved at great cost in Mariupol, the Russian army is not advancing. Indeed, in crucial sectors, including Kiev and Mykolaiv it is giving ground in the face of local Ukrainian counterattacks (not a counter offensive–that’s something different) and digging in. For now, at least, Russia has shot its bolt. And that bolt did not travel far.

Some of the stories that have been reported are rather remarkable. Most come from Ukrainian sources, so they must be taken with some skepticism, but given the situation on the ground, and a knowledge of the nature of the Russian military they are plausible. For example, desertions of large numbers of soldiers; orders to shoot deserters and malingerers (a tradition dating back to the Russian Civil War and World War II); large numbers of frostbite casualties; appalling medical care; failures to recover the dead; killing of officers (including one story of a tanker driving his vehicle over the legs of his commander in a unit that had suffered 50 percent casualties). Even discounting the most lurid of these stories, this is a picture of an army on the verge of collapse (if not past it). This would be consistent with the near cessation of offensive operations.

Perhaps the most remarkable data point is the largely confirmed (including by official Russian sources in some instances) spate of fatalities among generals and colonels. A handful of generals (including a lieutenant general) have been killed, and many handfuls of colonels are also apparently dead.

These are American Civil War rates of casualties among army, division, brigade, and regimental commanders–and those guys were on horses on the front lines under fire from massed musketry from a hundred or two yards away. Modern warfare has (until now) much safer for colonels and generals.

The explanation being floated by Ukrainian and western sources is that a breakdown in communications has forced these officers to go right to the front to get things under control, where they get taken out by snipers. Well, I’m pretty sure that communications have something to do with it, but I doubt it’s that simple: if it were, casualties among the rank and file would be greater than the (already appalling) 20-25 percent that has been estimated by US and UK sources.

My conjecture is that the communications problems (which I alluded to in earlier posts) have allowed the Ukrainians (likely with US help) to hack and monitor Russian communications, allowing them to target the Russian commanders. In other words: hack them, track them, and whack them.

Regardless, this has to be very demoralizing to both officers and enlisted alike. Further, it exacerbates the command and control problems that the communications issues already created.

So what next? Most likely stalemate, and increased Russian reliance on indirect fire–including most horribly largely indiscriminate shelling and bombing of urban centers, notably Kiev, in an attempt to break the as of now unshaken will of the Ukrainian people and government. The Russians do not have the manpower to mount serious infantry and armor attacks into the cities. They have already taken appalling casualties (human and materiel), and urban combat is a notorious consumer of men and machines.

The biggest potential for a dramatic change in the battle is if the Russians are able to break through on one of the shoulders of the salient in eastern Ukraine, thus allowing them to trap large numbers of the Ukrainian army. This is something I’ve warned about in previous posts. Western military sources have expressed a similar concern lately.

I suspect the Americans and Nato militaries have been telling the Ukrainians about this, but they are reluctant to leave. Hence, “defense officials” are making these concerns public in order to pressure the Ukrainians.

Giving up territory would be a bitter pill to swallow, especially given the success that Ukraine has had on the battlefield. But a flexible defense that trades space for time is advisable if the Russians threaten the bases of the salient. Withdrawal under pressure is difficult, and requires skill. But with well-timed counterattacks and indirect fire to interfere with Russian attempts to press the retreat, the demonstrated inability of the Russians to advance rapidly and to coordinate the movements of their various units, and the lengthening of Russian communications that the Ukrainians have already proven adept at attacking, a withdrawal that takes a far bigger toll on the attackers than the retreaters is very achievable.

So what next, if indeed a stalemate emerges? For better or worse, the initiative is in Putin’s hands. He can choose to accept defeat, fight it out by shelling Ukraine back into the stone age, or escalate in some way. Any escalation (e.g., use of a nuke, tactical or otherwise, attack on a Nato country–such as an attempt to build a corridor between Russia and Kaliningrad, or an attack on staging areas for supplies going to Ukraine) would be a horrible prospect, but cannot be ruled out.

The tone emanating from Russia is increasingly hysterical. Dmitry Medvedev’s recent diatribe on VKontakt is an example. Medvedev claims that the US wants to end “our Motherland,” and

“This means that Russia must be humiliated, limited, shaken, divided and destroyed,” Medvedev wrote, saying if Americans succeed in that objective, “here is the result: the largest nuclear power with an unstable political regime, weak leadership, a collapsed economy and the maximum number of nuclear warheads aimed at targets in the US and Europe.”

One interpretation of this is that Medvedev views the war in Ukraine as being an existential issue for Russia, and merely a battle in a Manichean struggle between the US and Russia, defeat in which would represent the end of the Russian state. Put this together with Kremlin spokesman Peskov’s statement that Russia would use nuclear weapons if the existence of the state is threatened, and the potential for nuclear escalation is very real.

Is this a bluff? Do we want to find out?

The US and Nato have to walk a fine line here, between concessions that could encourage Putin to pocket gains today and seek more tomorrow (and not just in Ukraine) on one hand, and an aggressive response that leads a paranoid, bitter, aggrieved Putin to play Sampson.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. “largely indiscriminate shelling and bombing of urban centers”: isn’t that what the USA calls “shock and awe”?

    It would be interesting to try to define the best possible outcome for the average US citizen. I imagine it would require the destruction of both Moscow and Washington DC.

    As for nukes: I’d be most worried if there were reason to think that Putin is terminally ill. Which he might be; else why start the war in February rather than wait for May or June?

    Comment by dearieme — March 24, 2022 @ 4:18 pm

  2. I’ve been trying to think of the dimmest piece I’ve seen about Russia’s slow progress. I think it was when somebody compared Putin’s speed of advance into Ukraine with Hitler’s.

    Hitler’s army was largely horse-drawn, for heaven’s sake.

    Someone will come along in a minute and explain what an advantage that was since the horses could just be allowed to graze the fields: no need to bring up fuel for them!

    Still, it all makes the German blitzkrieg to the Channel in 1940 even more impressive.

    Question: the latter was made possible in part by French failure to destroy the filling stations i.e. to leave petrol available to their foes. Has Ukraine destroyed filling stations to deny the Russians free fuel?

    Comment by dearieme — March 24, 2022 @ 4:25 pm

  3. @dearieme Quite the opposite, US “shock and awe” is based on massed PGM taking out C&C nodes, LOCs, specific military targets. OGMs are the opposite of indiscriminate attacks aimed at citizens.

    I find it hard to believe Russia would try under the current state of war to open the Suwalki Gap to Kaliningrad. That’d bring NATO into and not change the stalemate in UKR. Tactical nuke on Kyiv, while possible, seems deeply counterproductive even for the crowd in the Kremlin.

    Comment by The Pilot — March 24, 2022 @ 4:53 pm

  4. Boy, was I wrong thinking it will be over in a few weeks. And you were right from the get-go with the months long grind estimate, Prof.

    I wonder at this point if Russia has the ability to encircle all the forces Ukraine has in the east, when they apparently could not even encircle Kharkiv and Kiev. But agree it would be better to withdraw back and then throw the soldiers at Kherson and Melitopol. Retaking the Kherson region would turn the capture of Mariupol to ash immediately, as the land bridge with Crimea would be severed yet again.

    It is insane what is happening in that brave town on the sea of Azov. Reports of people dying of starvation, civilians forced to go to Russia and then sent to some far-away Siberian towns by tens of thousands, all the while the most insane propaganda is being broadcasted in Russia, such as this clip, which shows the devastation in Mariupol, but the presenter claims it was done by the retreating Ukrainians:

    On the plus side, saw a video today of American vets in action for the first time since the start of the war, retaking some village near Kiev:

    If there is thousand of these guys on the ground already, could see them be a difference maker, given the terrible shape of Russian army and the morale of their troops.

    I wonder if Zelensky will strive to reach an agreement at this point. He may very well think that with the supply lines from the West working better than the Russians ones and with a better trained, more motivated military, they will be able to outlast the Russians and push them back from most areas they initially captured in the following months.

    Comment by deith — March 24, 2022 @ 8:20 pm

  5. One of the images of the war for me to date was the footage yesterday of the landing ship ablaze in Berdyansk plus two others fleeing the scene, apparently damaged too. This came a mere two days after Russian MoD broadcast from the dockside, hailing the arrival of military hardware by sea, the Ukrainians duly noting this timely and highly actionable intel. You honestly couldn’t make this stuff up.

    @deith: I agree, I really don’t think the Russians have the forces or wherewithal to encircle the Ukrainian force in the east. This isn’t 2014 – it’s a much bigger scale. As for those Americans, I see some of them are asking for donations to keep them in the fight. Be generous peeps…

    Comment by David Mercer — March 25, 2022 @ 3:55 am

  6. “the Ukrainians duly noting this timely and highly actionable intel”

    It’s a mistake they keep making over and over: In the first few weeks, Russians would post selfie videos of themselves and their convoy, parked in neat densely-packed rows along roads – and then within a day or two there’d be drone-strike videos from those areas. Time after damn time. Not that I mind, but it’s beyond absurd at this point that they keep making the same mistake. There’s also the the airfield (Chernihiv, IIRC) where the Russians park large quantities of equipment at the airport only for the Ukranians to morter the s**t out of it that night. Apparently this has happend 10 times now – I’m starting to wonder if the Russians on the ground have decided that they’re happy enough to let their equipment get destroyed, that way they don’t have to take the risk of taking it into battle!

    Comment by HibernoFrog — March 25, 2022 @ 4:59 am

  7. Correction: Kherson airport, not Chernihiv.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — March 25, 2022 @ 5:28 am

  8. @The Pilot: are you asking me to believe that the US didn’t kill masses of civilians in Iraq?

    Or are you saying ‘of course we killed lots of civilians but we didn’t call that Shock and Awe’?

    Comment by dearieme — March 25, 2022 @ 9:25 am

  9. “Mar 25, 2022

    I figured out Putin’s plan. He wants to annex all of eastern Ukraine that includes all Ukraine’s oil and gas fields. But this region is 50% Ukrainian and millions would be hostile. So his troops are grinding through each city and town, killing anyone who resists and asking civilians if they want to live in the Russian empire or be evacuated to western Ukraine where they can to go western Europe. This takes time, but when he’s done eastern Ukraine will be 80% Russian and 20% compliant Ukrainians (or half Russian) while Ukraine and Poland are left with millions of refugees. Meanwhile, Putin doesn’t want to win quickly or a ceasefire nor take Kiev.”

    Comment by dearieme — March 25, 2022 @ 9:28 am

  10. @1 dearieme, ““largely indiscriminate shelling and bombing of urban centers”: isn’t that what the USA calls “shock and awe”?


    Comment by Pat Frank — March 25, 2022 @ 1:52 pm

  11. @8 dearieme “are you asking me to believe that the US didn’t kill masses of civilians in Iraq?

    Iraqbodycount reports that about 18,000 or so Iraqis were killed by the US forces and Iraqi troops between 2003 and 2011.

    About 128,000 Iraqis died from violence at the hands of all perpetrators over that time.

    Saddam Hussein, his sons, and their agents could well have murdered 18,000 Iraqi civilians every year.

    Comment by Pat Frank — March 25, 2022 @ 5:16 pm

  12. An interesting article that tries to determine the real casualties sustained by the Russians in the early days of the war:

    It traces the serial numbers of the Order of Courage medal, claiming these are awarded en-masse to all the killed in Ukraine. It found social media images of awards with serial numbers ranging between 78546 on the low end and 83281 on the high end. That would put the casualties by March 3rd, when Putin signed the decree to award the medals, just below 5 thousand in the most conservative estimate.

    Found the idea clever, so sharing for those interested.

    Comment by deith — March 25, 2022 @ 7:58 pm

  13. It looks to me that we are witnessing the Birth of a Nation. Previous bits of Ukraine have been Tartar, Ottoman, Lithuanian, Polish, Hapsburg, German and Russian. Now the concerted resistance seems to be uniting the country in a Founding Myth, with Zelensky (however improbably) becoming a sort of amalgam of Alfred the Great and Simon Bolivar.

    Comment by philip — March 26, 2022 @ 3:29 am

  14. The same people that convinced you to willingly take the poisonous poke are the same people providing “news” from Russia and Ukraine.

    Even Tucker Carlson is now making a connection between US made bio weapons (Hello Alex Vindman) and Hunter Biden.

    Opps, have to go Fat Tube of Goo Sean Hannity has news on the stalled convoy that he was NATO to rake.

    Comment by Joe Walker — March 26, 2022 @ 7:32 am

  15. @Pat: Yup, to attempt to make any such comparison is an affront. Russia’s actions in Mariupol and beyond are obscene, and demonstrates they have zero empathy for Ukrainians of any ethnicity or sympathy.

    We now hear the Russian military leadership have changed tack, now focussing on securing the Donbas. As if we needed any additional evidence of their incompetence and hubris.

    No comments from elmer, Tatyana, Viennacapitalist??

    Comment by David Mercer — March 26, 2022 @ 8:50 am

  16. WKPD tells me “Population-based studies produce estimates of the number of Iraq War casualties ranging from 151,000 violent deaths as of June 2006 (per the Iraq Family Health Survey) to 1,033,000 excess deaths (per the 2007 Opinion Research Business (ORB) survey). Other survey-based studies covering different time-spans find 461,000 total deaths (over 60% of them violent) as of June 2011 (per PLOS Medicine 2013), and 655,000 total deaths (over 90% of them violent) as of June 2006 (per the 2006 Lancet study). Body counts counted at least 110,600 violent deaths as of April 2009 (Associated Press). The Iraq Body Count project documents 185,000–208,000 violent civilian deaths through February 2020 in their table. All estimates of Iraq War casualties are disputed.”

    Comment by dearieme — March 26, 2022 @ 10:05 am

  17. @16 dearieme the issue was this, “are you asking me to believe that the US didn’t kill masses of civilians in Iraq?

    The Wiki article you quoted on total violent deaths includes sectarian massacres, deaths from roadside explosions (IEDs), criminality and revenge murders.

    All of that is beside the point you raised. None of those can be chalked up to the US. And they clearly add up to greater totals than the number killed by US troops.

    You’re offering oranges to contest applies, in other words.

    Thanks for pointing to the Wiki piece, though. It is mostly an illuminating discussion of the disputes surrounding the accounting of Iraqi war deaths, including publication of politically motivated distortions.

    The Iraqbodycount site shows 128,000 total violent deaths between 2003-2011, at the hands of any perpetrator.

    They show US troops alone are responsible for about 14,700 deaths.

    “Unknown Actors” accounted for about 87,000 deaths. That would probably be the murders of crime and revenge and IEDs. Various Sunni and Shia opposition groups killed about 19,500 people; more violent deaths than fall to the US.

    Comment by Pat Frank — March 26, 2022 @ 11:14 am

  18. @philip #13:
    There is a long-standing dispute which nation has been formed first as a Kievan Rus – Ukrainian or Russian. Which goes back to 11th century.
    Ukraina as a nation was formed at least 400 yrs ago – see, f.i., such historical events as a battle at Ukrainian city of Poltava during the war fought by Swedes with the Russian tzar Peter the Great. Geographically all the action was happening over the territory of “Malorossia” – which is how Russian imperial ego was calling Ukraine even then (17th century) – but it was still a singularly separate country. There isn’t and never were any Tartar, let along German and/or Lithuanian component in the Ukrainian ethnics – or, rather, to the same percentage, as any other Slavic nation, from Serbs to Poles (and what the dickens you mean by “Hapsburg”?) Ethnic Ukrainians are Slavic, it is a stable, old and distinctive ethnicity.

    Comment by Tatyana — March 26, 2022 @ 3:01 pm

  19. “The Wiki article you quoted on total violent deaths includes sectarian massacres, deaths from roadside explosions (IEDs), criminality and revenge murders”

    Brought about by the US attack, Frank. Do you want to wash your hands of those? If, say, typhus were now to kill lots of people in Ukraine would you claim that that had nothing to do with Putin?

    It was a disgraceful war. The excuses were lies; it exploited the American public’s hysteria over 9/11. Utterly shameful.

    I see that that demented, corrupt old shitbag Biden now wants regime change in Russia – presumably because American-imposed regime change went so well in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. The failed attempt in Syria hasn’t brought the world much in the way of love and happiness either.

    Comment by dearieme — March 27, 2022 @ 5:29 am

  20. Trust *dierie to slap everything unrelated into a one big pile (*free paraphrasing of Russian proverb*).
    -Yes, absolutely – US has nothing to do with sectarian massacres, it has been happening in that part of the world for centuries. Besides, as we know from Dame A. Christi novels, these happened under heavy-handed British influence, also going on for for centuries.
    -Yes, absolutely, US has nothing to do with roadside IEDs – they were placed there by mujaheddin. I know that how? From first-hand reports dating from the Soviet-Afghan War
    -Yes, absolutely, US has nothing to do with criminality and revenge murders: blame where the blame is due: the perpetrators and their brutal medieval customs.
    That war was not disgraceful – your comment is. The reason for it – Iraq chemical and biological weapons- were real and sufficient for US intervention. The fact they were not found after invasion (or, rather, not found in volumes you’d like) doesn’t mean there were none, it only means interested partied succeeded in removing them in time. [Russian convoys in Syria, anyone? or it is conveniently forgotten now?]

    What a demagogue you are, dearie me

    Comment by Tatyana — March 27, 2022 @ 8:54 am

  21. Is Putin gonna believe Biden (the man with the loose lips) or Blinken (the man with the lying eyes)?
    Regime change in Moscow is US objective or not.
    Lots of pundits clamoring for a war crimes trial for ‘The Butcher’.

    Seriously, it’s like Biden inviting Putin to go nuclear (‘cos wot’s a fella got to lose, eh?)

    Comment by Simple Simon — March 27, 2022 @ 10:00 am

  22. @19 Dearieme — your ex-countryman Christopher Hitchens on the US and the Iraq war:

    He makes the case that Iraq under Saddam Hussein violated all four international standards that remove a right to national sovereignty. Under Saddam, Iraq harbored international terrorists; violated the non-proliferation treaty; repeatedly attacked neighboring states; committed genocide — against the Kurds in the north and the Shia Arabs in the south.

    Under Saddam Iraq also committed the two worst environmental disasters in history in draining the marshes of the Shat-al-Arab and setting fire to the Kuwaiti oil fields.

    It’s true innocents died consequent to US conquest.

    But your view removes the element of personal choice from the people who murdered or set off IEDs. Their actions were not reflexive nor the behavior of automatons set in motion by events. Those who murdered or set off IEDs freely chose to do so. They could have chosen to build a civil society, but did not.

    It’s not unreasonable to surmise that far fewer Iraqis died violently after Iraq was freed of the Hussein family than during their psychopathic reign.

    Comment by Pat Frank — March 27, 2022 @ 11:52 am

  23. @dearieme. Your argument seems to be the US purposely targeted Iraqi citizens to force capitulation, as the Russianscare clearly doing across southern and eastern Ukraine. That argument is patently false.

    Comment by The Pilot — March 27, 2022 @ 4:54 pm

  24. Extract from the 2002 interview of Dr. Hussein al-Sharistani by British Foreign & Commonwealth officers. Regrets for the long link.

    Dr. al-Shahristani’s testimony is extraordinary both for what he endured and for what he witnessed. Let no one criticize the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as unjustified no matter whether George Bush jr. was cynical and yellow cake was an excuse.

    Dr. al-Shahristani: “I have been a witness to Saddam’s violations of human rights in Iraq. I was the Chief Scientist of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Organisation until 1979, working on peaceful applications of atomic energy. I was arrested, tortured and kept in solitary confinement for over 11 years for refusing to work on the military nuclear programme. However, I was more fortunate than many of my fellow political prisoners in the country. I did not have holes drilled into my bones, as happened in the next torture room. I did not have my limbs cut off by an electric saw. I did not have my eyes gauged out. My three children were brought in to the torture chamber but they were not tortured to death in front of me to force me to make confessions to things I had not done. Women of my family were not brought in and raped in front of me, as happened to many of my colleagues. Torturers did not dissolve my hands in acid. I was not among the hundreds of political prisoners who were taken from prison as guinea-pigs to be used for chemical and biological tests.

    “They only tortured me for 22 days and nights continuously by hanging me from my hands tied at the back and using a high voltage probe on the sensitive parts of my body and beating me mercilessly. They were very careful not to leave any permanent bodily marks on me because they hope they can break my will and I will agree to go back and work on their military nuclear programme.

    “In a way I was lucky to spend 11 years in solitary confinement because I did not have to see what was going on in the larger prison – the country of Iraq – in which 20 million people were kept captives. I did not have to witness the ceremonies in which mothers were ordered to watch public executions of their sons and then asked to pay the price of the bullets that were used in the executions. I did not have to watch people’s tongues being pulled out and cut off because they dared to criticise Saddam or one of his family members. I did not see young men’s foreheads branded and their ears cut off because they were late for a few days to report to their military duties. I did not see the beautiful southern Iraqi Marshes drained and the reeds burnt and the Marsh Arabs massacred and their old ways of life destroyed. I did not see the beheading of more than 130 women, who were beheaded in public squares in Iraq, and their heads put out for public display.

    “In many ways I was fortunate to have survived it all to tell the stories of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who are not here to tell their stories. These atrocities have been going on for over two decades while the international community have either silently watched it, or at times even tried to cover it up. Saddam is not a run-of-the-mill dictator; he is exceptional.”

    Comment by Pat Frank — March 27, 2022 @ 7:04 pm

  25. @ David Mercer
    Hi David,
    no comment from my side as I am neither a military expert, nor do I think that information is reliable at this point “fog of war” and all that. Austrian writer Karl Kraus (less known outside Austria, but a giant in his time) wrote that war is when politicians believe in the propaganda they themselves have dictated to the newspapers…
    For instance, it is hard to fathom that that the Russian army is suffering from frost bites, givent that current temperatures in Central Europe are what you have in Russia in spring, early summer…It is almost certainly nonsense.

    I have been trying to find some usefull objective sources and so far have come up only with this guy here:

    Here in Vienna people have noticed the huge and very expensive SUVs with Ukrainian refugees (often populated with military aged males)..They are sitting it out and know they will make a killing once reconstruction funds from the US/EU start flowing….

    Comment by vienncapitalist — March 28, 2022 @ 11:09 am

  26. At last: an answer to my question ‘why invade in February?’

    “the Russian President is required by law to sign a decree at the end of March setting the draft goals for the annual conscription campaign that runs from April through July.”

    Comment by dearieme — March 31, 2022 @ 10:08 am

  27. Russia is running out of missiles/Bucha/Kramatorsk/Putin has cancer/Gerasimov was injured/Shoigu was sacked/Zelensky is a hero/ The Azov Battalion are not NAZIs/Snake Island/The Ghost of Kiev…
    Yeah, right.

    Comment by Richard Whitney — May 7, 2022 @ 1:26 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress