Streetwise Professor

February 3, 2024

The Groundhog Day War

Filed under: History,Military,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 4:44 pm

Yesterday was Groundhog Day, and the classic movie by that name is an apt metaphor for the war in Ukraine. Different day, same bad shit, day after day after day.

Defense Minister and all around shlub Sergei Shoigu proudly claims that Russia has the initiative. Yeah, I guess you could say that, because they are the ones attacking repeatedly all along the front. But seizing the initiative yields them nothing but piles of corpses (disproportionately Russian) and masses of demolished tanks and AFVs (almost all Russian). It certainly does not yield them gains on the ground, at least not gains measured in more than meters, and a tree line or field here or there.

Russian tactics, such as they are, beggar description. Day after day they send penny packets of armored vehicles in strung out along some muddy track, only to see them centimated (decimated means losing one out of ten, so I made up a more accurate word). The armor seldom makes contact before it is blown up. What progress the Russians do make is with bloody infantry assaults that take slivers of ground, often because the Ukrainians run out of ammunition. Sometimes those slivers are taken away in counterattacks.

Decisive action by armor requires it to be deployed in mass. Sending a platoon here and a platoon there is idiotic and cannot achieve anything, let alone a decisive breakthrough.

To give an idea of how farcical this all is, in a rare Russian advance measuring more than a kilometer (in southern Avdiivka) they tunneled under a Ukrainian strongpoint, popped out of the ground, and seized it. As a result, Russia obtained a long finger of territory, under fire control and at constant threat of attack on either or both sides of the bulge.

What, is Russia going to tunnel its way to Kiev, let alone Lviv or Odessa?

Most of the Russian vehicle casualties are now caused by drones, especially First Person Video (FPV) drones (you don’t hear much about Bayraktars anymore), rather than artillery. That’s because the Ukrainians are suffering from a severe shell shortage. Western stocks and production cannot keep pace with the prodigious consumption of ammunition in a static battle.

Videos tell the tale. Back in the summer many videos (taken from drones) depicted Russians being plastered with artillery, and cluster munitions in particular. One seldom sees those now. Instead, it is video after video of FPVs smashing into Russian armor: some from the attacking FPVs themselves, some from recon drones loitering overhead.

Ukraine’s vaunted summer offensive, which was worse than a damp squib, was stymied primarily as a result of deep Russian prepared defense lines, including dense mine belts. Apparently after eschewing constructing such defenses themselves, Ukraine is belatedly doing so. (The fraught situation around Avdiivka largely reflects the lack of prepared defenses in that salient.)

Ukraine apparently took a similar attitude to the French and British in WWI, whereas the Russians adopted the German approach. The Germans built massive, semi-permanent fortifications in the lands they captured in France and Belgium: one of the few interesting parts of the otherwise vastly overrated film 1917 was the depiction of the elaborate German trenches and bunkers that they abandoned when withdrawing to the Hindenberg Line, and which amazed the Tommys who stumbled into them. The Tommys were amazed because their trenches (and French ones too) were much less elaborate, and much more in the nature of temporary field fortifications than permanent positions (like the Germans’). This was a conscious choice by the Allies, and in particular the French, who reasoned (if you can use that word here) that building more permanent defenses would be seen as a concession to German occupation of French lands, demarcating a new border. The trenches were just launching points for offensives–that failed.

Ukraine’s failure to build up lines analogous to the Russian Sorovikin Lines (three deep) is evidently due to the same “reasoning.” Building them would establish a de facto border.

The reconsideration of more elaborate defensive lines is just one reflection of a command crisis in Ukraine. The failed offensive and the recognition that the war is likely to drag on for years is creating consternation in Kiev, and one manifestation of this is the falling out between Zelensky and Ukrainian military chief Valery Zaluzhny. Zelensky is trying to push Zaluzhny out, but the general says: I won’t quit, you have to fire me. Given Zaluzhny’s popularity, that’s risky for Zelensky to do–although truth be told Zaluzhny’s popularity is probably the main reason Zelensky wants him gone.

Zaluzhny’s fate was sealed last year in articles quoting him criticizing Zelensky and the Ukrainian strategy overall. Doubling down, yesterday he released an article calling for a complete revision of Ukrainian strategy.

So all is not happy in Kiev, but it shouldn’t be smiles and giggles in Moscow either because if anything Putin’s strategy and tactics are failing even worse than Ukraine’s. But Vlad appears drunk on delusions, this week saying that his objective was to advance the front sufficiently to put Russian-occupied territory out of range of Western-supplied long range weaponry. Beyond the fact that this logic implies that Russia would have to occupy all of western Europe (including the UK!) because more territory would be required to create a buffer for the new territory (wash, rinse, repeat), this reflects a complete failure to recognize the realities on the ground, where Russians cannot take and hold meters here and there, let alone tens or hundreds of kilometers along a 1000 kilometer front.

The one area in which Ukraine has achieved some success is in deep strikes by drones and Western weapons (e.g., Scalp missiles, HIMARs). And by deep, I mean well inside Russia, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities. These strikes have hit air bases and economic targets, most notably arms manufacturing facilities, ports, and oil assets.

Crimea has been hit the hardest. The Black Sea Fleet has been driven away to Novorossiysk after losing several ships in Sevastopol. Russian air bases and command centers on the peninsula have also been hammered.

Fascinatingly, high ranking Russians, including the commander of the Black Sea Fleet and even the head of the Stavka, Valery Gerasimov, have not bee seen since attacks on Sevastopol, leading to suspicions that they were killed or badly wounded in the strikes. Hell, Lloyd Austin reappeared after a couple of weeks. Gerasimov has been MIA for 35 days. Where’s Valery?

The success of these strikes lays bare the Potemkin nature of Russian air defenses, including their vaunted S-400 systems. Indeed, the Ukrainians have taken out many of these systems: SAMs, defend thyself!

The Russians claim to shoot down everything shot at them. I mean everything. So why the explosions and destruction of valuable assets? Well, you see, the missiles and drones their valiant air defenses down hit the targets while plummeting to earth. Like this one that started massive fires at a Lukoil facility:

Dizzy with success! Or should it be on fire with success?

The failure of Russian air defenses should not be surprise. Soviet and Russian built AA systems have been shredded every time they have been confronted since their initial successes (due largely to surprise) in North Vietnam in the late-60s and early-70s, and Egypt (in 1973). After the shock of their losses to these systems in those wars, the Americans and Israelis designed and implemented comprehensive suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD–which really means DEAD, for destruction of enemy air defenses) operations. Dismantling of Russian air defenses is therefore not unexpected, although it is shocking to see how Ukraine has been able to extemporize a successful SEAD strategy with such scant resources, especially as compared to the US and Israel.

The chain reaction effects have been fascinating to watch. Ukrainian destruction of Russian ground based radars required them to fly their version of AWACs (the A-50) close to the shores of the Sea of Azov–which happened to be in range of Ukrainian operated Patriots, which destroyed the A-50 and seriously damaged its companion aircraft, an IL-22 (poor man’s version of an RC-135 Rivet Joint).

These deep strikes are damaging, and embarrassing to Russia. (Assuming Putin is capable of embarrassment, which on the basis of the record is a dubious proposition.) But they are not war winning.

Instead, they are just another vignette in Groundhog War.

I haven’t written much about this war because there’s seldom little new to say. I have every expectation that there will be another long hiatus, because there’s nothing in prospect that will decisively alter the situation.

So here we are, and here we will stay.

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26 Comments »

  1. C’mon, groundhog day is my favorite movie and is 100% American and it’s brilliant.

    Why would you put that smell to it, just based on the pattern that something repeats itself? I’d suppose Prof is brushing his teeth at least once every day again and again an again..I’m going to see whether I can find some Russian and Ukrainian tooth paste and send it to Prof…

    So, Ukraine, Russia, US, EU is governed by incapable people? And surprise US wants to give Russia some more trouble along it’s borders, not just in Ukraine?

    In Europe they all buy overpriced F-35, filling also the black pockets of the pentagon, but they don’t expect them to see much flight hours, because of a lot of quality issues…but one day Nato incl ‘neutral’ Switzerland want to fly to Russia in a coordinated attempt in order to fight it, just not in heavy wheather for example as the F-35 cannot deal with lightening.

    F-35 is not a Ferrari, it’s not a bomber, it’s just the name of a scheme within the military-industrial-complex to sack money from tax payers in the US and EU.

    Comment by Mikey — February 4, 2024 @ 6:06 am

  2. In other news, Tucker Carlson arrived to Moscow.

    Comment by LL — February 4, 2024 @ 7:52 am

  3. @mikey,

    You’ve got a lot to learn about aviation. The Israelis are using the F-35, pretty much leveling Gaza in precision bombing. No one has used it against an IADS, yet, well. No fighter that stretches technology has been anything but trouble until it’s a game changer. The F-15 and -16 are recent examples while the P-51 was garbage until the Merlin was installed. The B29 was a similar disaster, development cost more than the Manhattan Project.

    Comment by The Pilot — February 4, 2024 @ 10:15 pm

  4. It might be nothing new but I wasn’t aware of any of this. Especially the Russians launching penny-packet raids against fortified/defended positions. The only reason I can think why the heirs of Bagration and Zhukov aren’t massing their tank armies and driving forwards is because they are under orders 1) not to win the war outright, yet, nor to force a large breakthrough, so as to maintain the war of attrition, but also 2) to keep up the offensive initiative.

    I honestly thought they were just sitting back and using their advantage in artillery to turn Ukraine’s male population into a paste. That would seem to be the strategy with the lowest opportunity cost.

    But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a mind-meltingly stupid and unnecessary war is being fought with mind-meltingly stupid and unnecessary tactics.

    Interesting also the failure of Russian military technology. The success of (relatively) cheap and easy to make drones and missiles, both in Ukraine and in Arabia, seems to be revolutionising warfare. I’m not sufficiently plugged in to understand what it means for warfighting but I’ll now keep an eye out for anyone who can make sense of it. A first impression is that big, expensive pieces of kit appear to be going the way of the battleship, the horse and the biplane.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — February 4, 2024 @ 11:32 pm

  5. Professor,
    A small point, but I think you are doing the British and French WWI planners a disservice.
    If you think – as they thought – the rational German move was to be offensive in the East, and defensive in the West, then the western powers would have to go on the offensive even if only to help Russia. Why then build sophisticated emplacements?
    Moreover, the Germans having seized land early on were always able to retreat when necessary to the next, often pre-prepared, line of high ground. The allies otoh knew that each advance then would still leave them in the worse, lower, terrain (for drainage, and observation). Trying to keep going forward was sortakinda rational, since stopping carried costs too.
    The losing German move was to go back on the offensive in the west once Russia was out. But not irrational: they feared the advent of the Americans.
    Shoigu should have learnt: build to defend, not attack. And, having done so, THEN NOT ATTACK. But pity poor Zalezhny, for having to build to go forwards, and then defending against an irrational move.

    Comment by David Wallace — February 5, 2024 @ 12:43 am

  6. Tucker Carlson has been doing such an outstanding job for Putin remotely he got an invitation to a teambuilding event by the core team. As usual, they may even offer him a personal prison cell and an all-inclusive life-nong (but not long) tour to Siberia later on.

    As for the Russian fleet, it’s a ruse: the Russians are clearly under orders to get it sunk so they can save on maintenance.

    Comment by Ivan — February 5, 2024 @ 1:51 am

  7. @Pilot: You’re right, I don’t know much about aviation. I can only talk about what was said in the discussions in Germany and Switzerland about it. So, the F-35 here was said to be a platform, to need software updates all of the time, to send data to the us military, to be used long distance and in a hive, amongst other things. So, did Israel need a F-35 to ‘fly all the way to Gaza’? Is “leveling” the logical outcome of “precision bombing”? The pictures I’ve seen and numbers heard support the “leveling”, but keeps me wondering about the “precision”…with my first comment I was also questioning how much of ‘F-35’ is about about aviation? Like Germany pays 286 Mio USD per F-35 to the Pentagon, Switzerland 167 Mio USD ‘only’ and the Pentagon is said to buy it for around 62 Mio USD from the manufacturer.

    Comment by Mikey — February 5, 2024 @ 7:18 am

  8. Gaza is a very target-rich environment, the bombing I saw was all PGM. When bombs hit a precise corner of buildings g yo knock it down, that’s controlled demolition. The F-35 is all about reconfigurable software. That you lot in the EU can’t design one means you have to pay for it—thru the nose. Time and combat will prove its value.

    Comment by The Pilot — February 5, 2024 @ 6:08 pm

  9. word is, through several articles (this is on the level), that the vaunted Russian air defenses have been pulled into areas around Putler’s palaces

    which makes other areas deep inside Rasha vulnerable to air strikes

    good defensive strategy on the part of Putler – protect his palaces at all costs

    Comment by elmer — February 6, 2024 @ 7:58 am

  10. At what point do we realize, that much like the Germans, we have started a war against Russians that will give every life to defend their own border. Had we not tried to expand NATO into Ukraine there would have been no war at all. “In early February 1990, U.S. leaders made the Soviets an offer. According to transcripts of meetings in Moscow on Feb. 9, then-Secretary of State James Baker suggested that in exchange for cooperation on Germany, U.S. could make “iron-clad guarantees” that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward.” Less than a week later, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to begin reunification talks. No formal deal was struck, but from all the evidence, the quid pro quo was clear: Gorbachev acceded to Germany’s western alignment and the U.S. would limit NATO’s expansion.” https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-shifrinson-russia-us-nato-deal–20160530-snap-story.html

    This is on us. We caused this. Now, you can call me whatever you would like but I have spent 32 years of my life in service to our country, knowing that if the launch was ordered I would go knowing I would not return and my family would not be there if I could have. My bet, not a one of you have done the same.

    Comment by OldSarg — February 6, 2024 @ 2:47 pm

  11. Gorbachev: We will think everything over. We intend to discuss all these questions in depth at the leadership level. It goes without saying that a broadening of the NATO zone is not acceptable

    Baker: We agree with that.

    https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16117-document-06-record-conversation-between

    Read it yourselves.

    Comment by OldSarg — February 6, 2024 @ 2:55 pm

  12. OldSarg
    Very well explained and put: this is on us, as has been obvious since long before 23 February 2022. We should be appalled by the dishonesty and stupidity of our masters, as well as ashamed of the evil that they’ve done in our name.

    The Pilot
    History is replete with grandiose military projects that failed in practice. Time and combat may prove the F-35’s value – or they may not. But don’t worry: with their signature wisdom, our masters have crammed all our eggs into one basket.

    Comment by Fen Tiger — February 7, 2024 @ 3:44 am

  13. I saw a good article yesterday. Russia and the Ukraine have terrible demographies. Their populations are in decline and, in particular, are aging dramatically – like other countries, but worse. There’s a great shortage of young people.

    So they have adopted policies that kill thousands of young men per week and send other young people fleeing abroad.

    Comment by dearieme — February 7, 2024 @ 6:41 am

  14. @Mikey: Much as I agree with you on some things, on F-35 I’m afraid you’re wrong in simple fact. An F-35 costs less than even a new-build F-15. Sure, it has issues, but as an aerospace engineer, I can tell you that almost every new project does. There’s good reason to believe that the F-35’s stealth capabilities absolutely trounce what Sukhoi has to offer, so only the Chinese are a possible threat to it (TBC). I’m not saying that it got into this position by pure and honourable means, but from a technical and economic point of view, the worksharing and economies of scale have made it and *extremely* difficult proposition to beat.

    @OldSarg: Unless you can point to a treaty, nobody GAF. And besides, Russia doesn’t even respect their treaty obligations, nevermind verbal agreements, so get lost with your hypocrisy.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — February 7, 2024 @ 6:58 am

  15. “Hyperfig” you may not GAF. I don’t care. Just live your best life.

    Comment by OldSarg — February 7, 2024 @ 7:41 am

  16. Hyperfig: you would do well to read the “Founding Act” we signed with the Russians in Paris, 1997 before spouting off anymore.

    Comment by OldSarg — February 7, 2024 @ 7:50 am

  17. Interesting take. The Uke’s shift in tactics to taking out strategic and economic assets is noteworthy. Russia may be able to churn out 100 MBTs per month (according to our MoD, albeit with no mention of their fit-out, build quality etc), but they’re going to struggle to replace these specialised aircraft and expensive warships anytime soon. This will certainly be causing Vlad some sleepless nights.

    @Mikey Ahh, the ol’ F35 chestnut! Wasn’t this a thing like a decade ago (it won’t fly in the rain etc etc)? If you any proof of its capabilities, just go ask the Israelis or Japanese. They’re waaay too savvy and switched on to buy any old crap the US churns out.

    Craig – was kind of hoping for your take on the navy lark in the Red Sea. Gravely using Phalanx??! Bejesus, talking about the whites of their eyes – hold fast, lads.

    Comment by David Mercer — February 7, 2024 @ 11:52 am

  18. @HibernoFrog: you write ‘An F-35 costs less than even a new-build F-15.’ That’s even my point, when you google the prices you’re right, but that’s only the prices in the US. The Europeans don’t get the F-35 for what it costs, 62-90 Mio, CH has to pay 167 Mio and DE 286 Mio (not even a final price), compare e.g. https://www.blick.ch/politik/deutsche-zahlen-fuer-f35-fast-doppelt-so-viel-das-kampfjet-wunder-von-bern-id18135796.html .But that’s not a question of aerospace engineering. I was remarking on the surcharge of 100-200 Mio per F-35 that goes to the Pentagon…and then maybe to somebody somewhere else…it’s that US institution that cannot account for 50% of their assets or recently did not know where 59% of certain equipment sent to Ukraine went…

    The stealth qualities would normally be not relevant for DE and CH. DE per ‘constitution’ is only allowed military defense and CH is a so-called neutral and small country in the middle of Europe, and the F-35 is not suitable for interceptions…

    F-35 vs. SU…how do you comment this report? https://bulgarianmilitary.com/2023/06/02/su-30-has-used-khibiny-ew-system-while-intercepting-the-f-35/

    Comment by Mikey — February 7, 2024 @ 11:59 am

  19. LOL, yet another one the Kremlin propaganda has not quite thought through. So apparently the US has promised to Gorbachev it would not let parts of the USSR join a military alliance against the USSR. Did Gorbachev at least promise not to let Vermont join the Warsaw Pact in return? If he did not, that’s obvious and unprovoked hostile intent right there!

    Comment by Ivan — February 7, 2024 @ 7:17 pm

  20. @OldSarg: While I appreciate you providing a reference, thus making you much better than the usual Russian shills, the US State Department released a statement in 1997 saying:

    “The Act has no impact on NATO enlargement. That process is proceeding on schedule; NATO leaders at the Madrid summit in July will extend invitations to the first countries to begin accession talks. Those countries admitted will have the full rights and responsibilities of Alliance membership, and the door to membership will remain open to all emerging European democracies.”

    So… ummm… your point is that the US signed an agreement with NATO where NATO EXPLICITLY reserves the right to admit new European democracies (e.g. Ukraine) into NATO?

    @Mikey:
    – There’s a lot of things that go into those prices. Training, spares, munitions and (very importantly) trade offsets, so you can’t rely on the headline prices like that for comparison.
    – I’m afraid you’re wrong in simple fact about stealth. I heard a great quote recently, that modern air combat was basically “playing stealth peek-a-boo at the limit of missile range”. If your enemy has better stealth than you (US strategy), or longer range missiles (Russian strategy) or both (Chinese strategy) then you will almost certainly lose an engagement. Germany is allowed to participate in UN-sanctioned combat, and there’s nothing to say that they won’t face a technically capable enemy if they do so.
    – That the Swiss are buying it rather undermines your point. Since they’re not part of NATO, the logical assumption has to be that the F-35 really just is that good…
    – Thanks for the link, it paints an interesting and worrying picture of Russia’s EW capabilities and of some remaining issues in the F-35 sensor suite. That being said, everything was in Russia’s favour in that engagement, since the F-35 was at close range for escort duty and had already been spotted. At combat standoff range, EW is much less effective, and a 1990s Soviet design would have been easily seen by the F-35s radar. I would speculate that the outcome of an actual combat engagement between those two would be determined by whether the Russian EW would be effective against the F-35’s missiles.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — February 8, 2024 @ 7:00 am

  21. @OldSarg: Correction: “the US signed an agreement with Russia”, sorry.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — February 8, 2024 @ 7:06 am

  22. @HibernoFrog: the Swiss did have trade offsets, not the Germans despite the higher price. It’s said in media reports, apart from the trade offsets (that CH has for 50% of the package sum reportedly) the packages of DE and CH would be comparable. But not all details are clear. The defense minister of DE has resigned in the meantime.
    Criticism in CH included: ‘he F-35 is designed for complex and networked air-to-ground air warfare scenarios (bombing raids, ed.) with multiple aircraft. Such an F-35 fleet is dependent on support from a variety of other assets, such as reconnaissance aircraft, early warning aircraft (“AWACS”), high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft (“HALE”), tanker aircraft, satellites and – depending on the threat in the target area – escort fighters. This is a classic NATO alliance in a NATO scenario. Switzerland will never be able to afford this as a sovereign nation.’
    What is the case with CH is that ‘they want’ to get closer to Nato and EU…

    Comment by Mikey — February 8, 2024 @ 8:03 am

  23. Well the Swiss did hold a referendum on the purchase of the F35, and the people spoke (as they did when they binned the previously agreed purchase of Typhoon). It is slightly baffling as to why a neutral country surrounded by a friendly defensive alliance of would feel the need to tool itself up to this degree. National pride? More money than sense??

    Also, what choice is there for the Swiss or anyone else? Typhoon is getting too long in the tooth and too hidebound by politics/workshare, Gripen too diddy and limited in capability, and Rafale is French. Also none of these can be classed as 5th generation. The Korean’s KF-21 is causing a bit of a stir, but some still years off being service-ready. I actually think a number of US allies see F35 simply as a stop-gap until they can field the various other 5th/6th generation fighters being mooted (Tempest etc), not wanting to be too reliant on US tech.

    And regarding the intercept with the Sukhoi, the one thing the F35 certainly isn’t is a dogfighter (with those stubby wings?).

    BTW 50% offsets aren’t uncommon. BAE reportedly offered the South Africans even more than this in order to secure the Gripen deal (there was a rumour doing the rounds that their employees were being ‘encouraged’ to holiday there in order to help the company meet its obligations).

    Comment by David Mercer — February 8, 2024 @ 12:34 pm

  24. @David Mercer: the F-35 referendum did not happen, the contracts were signed before the referendum would have happened. There was a referendum against purchasing Gripen in 2013. There was a referendum later, for the decision of buying fighter jets up to 6 billion in total without determining which ones to buy. It was sold as ,do we secure the airspace above Switzerland or not, do we want to have air force or not’?

    The Swiss are specifically angst ridden and feel a big need always for security…which just needs to be adressed to get through with whatsoever, covid or or…

    There is an initiative pro F-35 (by military, admin, some economy) and where others say it’s expensive and doesn’t fit the needs, there the say the opposite. Apart from slogans like ‘economy needs security’ etc…

    They bring one argument as ,opinion’: the F-35 would be the only option that could fight the Russian SU-57 in 2050…and for the Swiss military and how public opinion gets influenced, Russia is already almost at the Swiss Eastern border…there is nothing in between, only Eastern Europe and Austria and Russia sure wants to target CH…

    Then what this ,opinion’ says, there are two military airports in the middle and west of little Switzerland from where fighters would start, should Russian fighters enter the CH air space in the East. And because of the stealth quality of F-35 they would not get shot at right at the start with rockets…to me that does not sound convincing…when the infrastructure of a small country is known…

    My point more, the F-35 is said to function within a hive and is a concept of hive mind. And I see this Western hive mind, even here on the block, where they think the same and want to make Russia into the old enemy again and work on fullfilling their own prophecy. Our problem first of all is this Western hive mind…

    Comment by Mikey — February 8, 2024 @ 5:01 pm

  25. So… entering international agreements Russia did not like IS, apparently, enough legal and moral justification for starting a war.

    Wow. Just wow.

    Comment by LL — February 8, 2024 @ 7:11 pm

  26. Yeah, the thought you can’t just roll your tanks into Prague or Vilnius the next time you don’t like their domestic policies must be truly unbearable to a Moscow Khan. How else was he supposed to react to such an affront?

    Comment by Ivan — February 9, 2024 @ 3:50 am

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