Streetwise Professor

September 11, 2022

The Judo Expert Takes a Stunning and Unexpected Blow to the Right Temple

Filed under: Military,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 2:04 pm

Although one has to be skeptical about all real time reports from battle zones–especially in Ukraine, given the intense information warfare waged by all sides–all indications are that the Ukrainian military has achieved dramatic success, not in a counteroffensive in Kherson, but in Karkiv/Kharkov. The Russians have acknowledged that they have “redeployed” troops from Kharkiv Oblast to Donbas to continue their offensive there. This is risible, and reminds me of McClellan claiming that his retreat from the front of Richmond in June 1862 was a “change of base.” Ukrainian reports that they have routed Russian defenders appear far more credible.

Like all battlefield victories and defeats, what is transpiring now is an amalgam of competence and incompetence. (Or, as my mother always used to say on our Civil War battlefield tours–nobody ever won a battle: somebody lost it.). On the Ukrainian side, it appears that they achieved considerable surprise, based on months of shaping the information space. They tipped a right uppercut (into Kherson) then delivered a thundering left hook crashing into the Russian right temple (in Kharkiv).

In other words, the judo expert was fooled, caught off balance, and is now reeling.

The attention for months was on a highly touted forthcoming Kherson offensive. Attacks in Crimea further served to direct attention to the south. Russia apparently directed reinforcements to the south and denuded (or at least did not strengthen) its forces around Kharkiv. Ukraine thus was able to achieve solid gains in the east, and now threatens to create what in WWII was called a “cauldron battle” by pivoting south to cut off large number of Russian troops. (Which is why Russian troops are apparently “bugging out,” to borrow Korean War lingo.)

The flip side to Ukrainian operational surprise facilitated by distraction is a Russian intelligence failure. Russian aerial reconnaissance, signals intelligence/electronic warfare, and human intelligence obviously fell woefully short. They did not see through the ruse, and were unable to suss out the real distribution of Ukrainian forces or Ukrainian defenses.

I wonder if Ukraine may be following the example of Montgomery at El Alamein, who alternated advances on two widely separated axes, ramping up one when Rommel shuttled reinforcements to counter the other. If so, expect increased effort on the Kherson axis in the coming days and weeks, especially if Russia rushes troops to the east in an attempt to stymie Ukrainian progress there.

Despite the large disparity in populations, Ukrainian forces outnumber the Russian now. The Russians are reportedly assembling outfits of old men and young boys, an expedient the Germans did not resort to until 1944 (Volksgrenadiers). The Russians are also reportedly scouring the prisons for potential cannon fodder.

Further, the Ukrainians are operating on interior lines, the Russians on exterior ones, and what’s more, Ukraine has shown the ability to strike in Russian rear areas with indirect fires more effectively than Russia has been able to strike the Ukrainian rear, and this despite the on paper superiority of Russian air forces.

So the balance has shifted. Ukraine has made gains in days that took the Russians months to achieve in Donbas.

That said, I expect that this will mainly move the line of stalemate to the east and south, rather than result in a decisive ejection of the Russians from Ukrainian territory, and a termination of the war by Putin.

Indeed, some crazed nationalist elements in Russia are celebrating the defeat. Now, they say, the gloves will come off!

The problem, of course, is not that Russia has been stymied because its blows have been softened by strategic and tactical gloves: it is that Russia has not landed any real blows to speak of since about 1 March. Those celebrating reverses in the east say now Russia has no choice but to strike at the infrastructure that Ukraine uses to deliver western weapons (mainly American). But how they do not explain.

They seem to be operating under the same assumptions (or more accurately delusions) that most western observers (me included) held on 24 February, namely, that Russian air and missile forces would overwhelm Ukrainian defenses and allow Russia to romp unhindered against Ukrainian lines of communication. But actual events put paid to this assumption months ago.

What’s more, in an ineffectual and futile campaign of missile and air strikes, Russia has expended the vast bulk of its precision weapons. Not that they have proved at all effective heretofore, but they still would be more effective than whatever else remains in the Russian quiver.

In other words, Russian failures to interdict Ukraine’s lines of supply reflect incapacity, not a failure to utilize capacities. And the capabilities now are less than they were six months ago. Taking off the gloves helps little when you have no fists.

Thus, non-victory is staring Putin in the face, and there is little he can do about it. Little conventionally, that is. Which is disturbing. Putin cannot be so out of touch as the mouth breathers in Moscow. His only escalation options are unconventional–and hence extreme. The only other choice is to hang on and let the war drag on. Although I would not exclude the possibility of an extreme escalation, I think he will make the latter choice, and hang on by his fingertips while condemning thousands of Russians and Ukrainians to death and maiming.

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  1. Well, dearieme, the world demands to know, how does this change your views?

    Answer: not much. I still believe only a small part of what I am told. I still feel sorry for the Ukes (and the Russian troops too), and I still enquire about Putin “what was he thinking of?”.

    I do hope his next Special Military Operation doesn’t involve flinging nukes around. Is there anyone in Moscow who could shoot him if he seemed likely to try that? Stupid question: how would any of us know?

    Comment by dearieme — September 11, 2022 @ 4:03 pm

  2. Perhaps an Ukrainian finger pressed the button that launched an American armament against a target identified by US intelligence and that’s about as much credit as the Ukrainian military deserves.

    Comment by Shadeburst — September 12, 2022 @ 2:20 am

  3. “…the vast majority of the American media has uncritically recited what they have been told about the conflict by U.S. government and Ukrainian officials.”

    Comment by Shadeburst — September 12, 2022 @ 2:46 am

  4. I think the speed of the Ukrainian advances or, more correctly, the total absence of any Russian reserve forces, has taken everyone by surprise. Russia apparently has the thinnest of lines protecting the lands it has so far gained. Intriguingly, yesterday there was talk of them trying to use the Oksil river as a defensive line, but I see this morning that there are already reports that the Ukrainians have crossed this and are pushing on. Last one to Vladivostok is a wiener!

    As for the kit the Russians have generously bequeathed the Ukrainians in their haste to flee – kerching! The ammo will be returned in due course…

    It’s peculiar how these posts always seem to end with a dire warning of escalation. Have we learnt nothing yet? These events follow a now boringly predictable cycle – Uke have some spectacular success on the battlefield, and Moscow retaliates the only way it really can i.e. by flattening some token civilian infrastructure, wasting yet more of their ever-dwindling long range missile stocks. It happened with the Moskva, Snake Island, and now with this counter-offensive.

    The fact is the credulous Russian public is, according to a recent survey, already losing interest in the Ukraine war. Without any meaningful scrutiny, Putin will easily be able to dress up his military’s latest pratfalls as some cunning redeployment, feint or other such BS (it’s already happening online big-time). I reckon even if he were on the verge of total defeat he would still be spinning a yarn about successfully destroying the Azov battalion and denazifying Ukraine (mission accomplished!). On the remote off-chance we all disappear in a mushroom cloud you’re all welcome to point out I was wrong.

    Comment by David Mercer — September 12, 2022 @ 5:46 am

  5. @ 2 Yes they’re doing absolutely none of the heavy lifting on the battlefield, are they? Just pushing buttons on consoles.

    In your defense, Russia’s sack-of-sh*t military is making them look super-good, like supermen and women. But what to do, who else is there to fight in the neighbourhood?

    Comment by David Mercer — September 12, 2022 @ 5:52 am

  6. Hi SWP, I felt like all was lost early on, but for some reason, I picked up on a few good signs shortly after that and felt like Ukraine had a chance. It was still a crazy notion, but something felt right about it. I got a bit frustrated with some of your ensuing posts about it, honestly, plus none of my comments seemed to be showing up, so I gave up on it until now. (not even sure this comment will work). The basic premise of my optimism was that Ukraine was only going to get stronger as Western support ramped up. Russia was only going to get weaker. With HIMARS and other equipment, Russia started losing its ability to wage war and hence, become vulnerable. I can’t explain why this past week has been so dramatic, but I always hear that in warfare that an army can fight viciously with no signs of backing down, but then suddenly evaporate when their weaknesses finally catches up to them. It looks like this happened and we’ll see if it continues elsewhere. Ukraine certainly has momentum and I’d say, a very patient, methodical war plan.

    Secondly, about the nuclear fear. I won’t ever say never, but I, and the rest of the West, have bet big that this won’t happen. My gut feel continues to hold sway. I have to think that NATO has ways to counter that threat, but I have no idea. And as you said, how does Russia benefit from the nuclear wasteland they create? We just won’t know until it is completely over.

    Lastly, @Shadeburst, I’m not sure I understand your point. So the Ukrainian pushes the button. You mean that we are forcing them to? I think not. If you’re worried about who gets the credit, nobody cares. All we care about is Russia getting removed from Ukraine. We don’t care how it happens. As for corruption, well, we already know that. However, if you’re so worried about it, I suggest that you support them joining NATO and the EU. That will improve matters substantially. If they remain beholden to Russia, it will only get worse. I’m also tired of this whole thing that says, “Ukraine bad, let’s let them be Russia’s slave. That’ll teach ’em.” Makes zero sense. Why would we want an emboldened Russia. My god, this has been the pettiest, stupidest reaction I’ve ever seen… and it’s usually coming from my own side, and it’s depressing.

    Comment by Howard Roark — September 12, 2022 @ 12:08 pm

  7. As an economist, prof, you must be familiar with the ways companies go broke. Slowly, then suddenly.
    As an historian, you must be familiar with how the revolution started in 1917. Or how the great war ended in 1918.

    Comment by philip — September 12, 2022 @ 4:41 pm

  8. @Howard Roark

    “All we care about is Russia getting removed from Ukraine”

    Arguably, we should care about a bit more than that. As in Russia “got removed” from Poland in 1920, only to come back in 1939 together with its Nazi ally, with devastating consequences not just for Poland.

    Hence we should care about Russia not being able to come back. Like about ensuring that Muscovy can no longer exploit its currently enslaved nations to try and enslave new ones, by e.g. looting oil from Tatarstan to buy tanks an rounding up cannon fodder from Buryatia to fill those tanks.

    Once you don’t have unaccountable access to free resources, wasting them the way Russia has been doing throughout its history becomes rather more difficult.

    Comment by Ivan — September 12, 2022 @ 6:44 pm

  9. So apparently the story was that the Uke’s advanced to the first positions, expecting a level of resistance, got none or very little, then called up command who told them to push on until they did. And so it went on until the Ukes felt that they were in danger of over-extending and over-exposing their flanks, so called a halt to allow them to consolidate and replenish.

    And this was all done primarily by new conscripts using legacy Soviet kit. Most of the regulars and western supplied kit is elsewhere. And they were reportedly faced by the ‘elite’ 1st Guards Tank Army, who did a collective runner…

    Annnd its now being reported Russian high command have decided not to send any fresh troops to Ukraine, partly on account of them flat-out refusing to go…

    Comment by David Mercer — September 13, 2022 @ 5:13 am

  10. @David: it’s a little reminiscent of Charles I’s attack on Scotland. He had terrible trouble recruiting anyone. When finally the Royal army approached the Scots army and had a look at it they turned tail and scurried away south.

    He later had a second go and then the armies did engage. Charles’s army was soundly beaten.

    Lesson: if your people are loath to fight for you think twice about going to war.

    Comment by dearieme — September 13, 2022 @ 3:58 pm

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