Streetwise Professor

January 24, 2015

The World in Flames: Another Low, Dishonest Decade

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:36 pm

Recent days have seen a dramatic escalation of military operations in eastern Ukraine. The New York Times headline is on point: “War Is Exploding Anew in Ukraine.” The Russians* launched an assault on the battered hulk of the Donetsk airport, which had held out for 242 days. The airport fell, with the garrison of “cyborgs” being killed or captured. A counterattack by Ukrainian regulars was abortive. Recent days have seen rocket attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk,with civilians dying. Today a Grad attack in Mariupol killed over 30.  A Ukrainian salient centered on Debaltseve (between Donetsk and Luhansk) is evidently under attack. The “leadership” of the rebels in Donetsk announced-and then unannounced-that an assault on Mariupol was underway.

As I wrote in November, an attack along the coast to open up a route to Crimea would be an obvious move. As for those (including some former military) who claim that major offensive operations would be postponed to the spring, I say: Huh? Winter warfare is a Russian specialty, and even a passing familiarity with the history of campaigns in Russia (Napoleon’s, WWI, and WWII) shows that it is spring (and fall) mud that is a far greater impediment to military operations than cold and snow. The notorious “raputitsa” that follows the snow melt (or fall rains) causes movement to grind to a halt until the fields and roads dry.

This offensive could be underway now, but given the lack of reliable reporting it is impossible to know.

What is Putin’s objective here? Securing Crimea, which is now isolated and vulnerable and difficult to supply, is clearly paramount. Beyond that, I doubt he really wants to take ownership of a Sovok sh*thole like the Donbas. His main objective is to force Kiev to sacrifice its sovereignty, and become a reliable satrapy of Russia. A combination of economic and military pressure falling short of an all out invasion is likely sufficient for that purpose. This is especially true inasmuch as the feckless West is quite clearly unwilling to risk anything to protect Ukraine. Keeping the meat grinder turning in Donbas advances this objective.

As for the indiscriminate attacks on cities, I have no good explanation. Perhaps it is just the thuggishness of the anti-Kiev forces. Perhaps it is part of Putin’s testing of the West. If killing of civilians elicits no more than a shrug of indifference, Putin can be assured that further escalation will come at little cost.

So much for Obama’s State of the Union boast:

Second, we are demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy. We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies.

Putin apparently didn’t notice. Ukraine certainly hasn’t noticed that the bullying has stopped. Indeed, the final assault on the Donetsk airport occurred on the day that Obama uttered these words.

Traveling to the south and west, Syria and Iraq are also in flames, and making a liar of Obama.

Back in December I discerned the outlines of a campaign that will culminate with an attack on Mosul. Last week it became clear that this campaign is indeed proceeding. The Kurds, supported by American airpower, are shaping the battlefield and isolating Mosul from the west and south. The Kurds have made advances around Sinjar and Tal Afar, thereby interfering with ISIS supply lines to its Syrian fastness. The US military has indicated, however, that an assault on Mosul will not occur until the summer, when sufficient numbers of Iraqi regulars have been trained.

In Syria meanwhile, the US is pounding Kobani regularly, and the Kurds are painstakingly pushing back ISIS.

The US commander in the region, General Lloyd Austin stated that ISIS had lost approximately 6000 KIA, and was having manpower problems. This theme was picked up by the US ambassador to Iraq, but the Pentagon quickly squelched this discussion, due to Viet Nam body count flashbacks.

But other than attrition and shaping the battlefield around Mosul, there has been scant progress against ISIS. Indeed, ISIS has been expanding rather dramatically throughout Syria, giving the lie to this SOTU statement: “In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance.” That’s true to a limited degree in Kobani and Mosul, but flatly wrong elsewhere in Iraq and especially Syria. Don’t even get me started on another Obama delusion: the “success” in Yemen, which has descended into absolute chaos with competing “Death to America” factions, both Shia and Sunni, vying for control.

It’s rather depressing to see the President of the United States do a Baghdad Bob imitation while addressing a joint session of Congress.

In sum, at present it appears that Putin is on the advance in Ukraine and ISIS is at best stalemated in Iraq and Syria. And the West’s leaders, reflecting the indifference of their citizenry, are content to let it happen, or at least do too little to prevent it from happening. In other words, we are in the midst of another low and dishonest decade.

*There is a war of labels in Ukraine. What to call those fighting against the Kiev government? Rebels? Separatists? Pro-Russians? Terrorists (the preferred Ukrainian label)? Russians? The problem is that each label describes a part of the anti-Kiev combatants, but none describes it completely. Yes, there are Ukrainian citizens who are engaged in a separatist rebellion that aims to achieve unification with Russia, and they are advancing Russian interests, making them pro-Russian. Yes, sometimes they employ terrorist methods, though they primarily use conventional military tactics. Yes, there are Russian troops involved, of various types (GRU spetsnaz, artillery and air defense units, armored and infantry elements) in fluctuating numbers. Russian number spiked in August, and appear to be increasing now.

This is  a Russian owned and run operation. The indigenous forces in Donbas obviously obtain massive quantities of Russian ammunition and weapons from Russia, and can’t pay for these arms themselves. Their objectives largely overlap with Putin’s. In addition, there is direct Russian involvement, and that will increase if Putin indeed decides to escalate.


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  1. As far as Putler is concerned – I think he is trying to provoke the EU and NATO into an armed conflict. There is an escalation of men and weapons from the Rasha into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The tactics are abominable and include indiscriminate shelling of civilians.

    Putler has only one thing on his mind – protection of Putlerism and his own wealth. In his delusional mind, “foreign provocation” and the “defense of Rasha” against NATO, the EU, Ukrainian “nazi-fascists”, the US and the CIA is the way to go to protect himself and his wealth and his circle of chosen “friend-of-Putler” thugs.

    Comment by elmer — January 24, 2015 @ 5:20 pm

  2. Never in my life have I’ve seen such ineptitude from our supposed Euro-Atlantic leaders. Sadly even Petro Poroshenko isn’t any better, and failed to take whatever steps at the maximum to ensure the defense of Ukraine. A combination of overconfidence, incompetence, or even sabotage from Russian moles within the officer corps and civilian political leadership doesn’t really help.

    Mass mobilisations should’ve occurred months ago and defense lines fortified to ensured a meat grinder for the (pro) Russians when they’ll come. This meatgrinder will buy Ukraine vitally needed time to revitalize and strengthen it’s earned forces, while carrying out economic and other necessary anti corruption reforms that doesn’t distract from the war effort too much.

    Eventually when the circumstances are right and Moscow isn’t in any credible position to assist it’s ‘Novorossiya’ puppets, then that’s the time for Kiev to strike back. Otherwise Putin’s wet dream of his ‘Novorossiya’ stretching the enitrety of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast would become a reality.

    Comment by Guy Montag — January 25, 2015 @ 5:25 am

  3. Excellent analysis, but, Professor, your statement,

    “As for the indiscriminate attacks on cities, I have no good explanation.”

    Then you actually provide a very good explanations,

    “Perhaps it is just the thuggishness of the anti-Kiev forces.”

    IT is the thuggisness! and,

    “Perhaps it is part of Putin’s testing of the West. If killing of civilians elicits no more than a shrug of indifference, Putin can be assured that further escalation will come at little cost.”

    Putler tests the west constantly and they, except for Malyasian airline attack, have given him the green light.

    Comment by traveler — January 25, 2015 @ 9:56 am

  4. Professor, I believe your website is under mild internet attack. Periodically trying to enter the comment sections through the link on the main page instead of typing in the URL itself leads you to a different, Russian based site nominally hawking pills or whatever. Pettis’ Chinese Economy blog periodically gets attacked by Chinese hackers in a similar but more successful manner too.

    Comment by d — January 25, 2015 @ 5:53 pm

  5. @d-Thanks. There was a hack mid-week, and it was supposed to have been addressed, but I guess not, or they are in for another go. I will contact my hosting provider. Sorry about any inconvenience.

    Perhaps I should take this as a compliment 😛

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — January 25, 2015 @ 6:28 pm

  6. US=good; russia =bad. got it

    Comment by sainchaw — January 28, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

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