Streetwise Professor

September 24, 2022

Vova Shovels Fleas

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 10:57 am

In an unhinged speech earlier this week, Vladimir Putin (a) threatened (again) to use nukes, and (b) announced the mobilization of 300,000 reservists–although there are reports that the order actually calls for the mobilization of 1 million. This raises the issues of what this means about the state of the war, and the effect that the mobilization will have on it.

The speech speaks volumes about the state of the war. Putin realizes that he is losing, badly, and is desperate to reverse the reverses. He is in essence following Eisenhower’s advice:  “Whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve, I always make it bigger.  I can never solve it by trying to make it smaller, but if I make it big enough, I can begin to see the outlines of a solution.” Or, as it is often expressed: when a problem appears insoluble, enlarge it.

Putin has two margins on which he can enlarge: nukes and bodies. He’s threatening the former and implementing the latter.

When I say Putin’s speech was unhinged, I do not exaggerate. Look at the videos. He was incandescently angry. His rhetoric recycled the common themes–Nazis, Banderaists–and added twists on his West-directed paranoia by way of rationalizing (although not admitting) the defeats: Ukrainian forces are not just armed by the West, but Nato generals are in command and western troops are in the ranks. The speech was filled with projection about violations of sovereign territory and atrocities. Perhaps it was all for effect–Mad Vlad–to make the nuclear threats more credible. But it seems all too genuine to me.

As for the effect of the mobilization, a quote from Lincoln comes to mind: “Sending armies to McClellan is like shoveling fleas across a barnyard: not half of them get there.” My surmise is that far less than half the fleas that Putin is madly trying to shovel into Ukraine will get there.

If the front line Russian military has proved shambolic on the Ukrainian steppes, the Russian reserve system is beyond shambolic. It was allowed to decay after the collapse of the USSR (which depended on mass mobilization), and the military “reforms” of the last decade only accelerated its decay: the goal of the “reforms” (which were realized more in the promise than the delivery) was to move away from conscription-based forces towards a professional military.

It is therefore best to view what is happening not as a mobilization of an existing reserve force (e.g., the mobilizations seen in August 1914) but as an improvised, hurried mass conscription. Although the initial announcements stated that the mobilization would be targeted at those with combat experience and with specialized military skills, there are reports–all too believable–that the authorities are casting their net far beyond these categories, and that the unfortunates caught up in it are being assigned to units willy-nilly with no regard to their past duties. Tellingly, the dragnet is most intense in the republics: ethnic minorities have already borne the brunt of the war, and Putin wants to shelter metropolitan Russia as much as possible for fear of sparking unrest in the cities.

The existing Russian conscription system is a disaster, rife with evasion and corruption. And that was just to escape the miseries of peacetime service. Both will be far worse when the prospect is being shoveled to Donbas.

No this is not a mobilization. It is press ganging and the yield will be far less than Putin wants.

And what will be the effectiveness those poor fleas who do make it across the barnyard? More bodies will not fix the deep dysfunctions that have been revealed on the battlefield. The high command will still prove to be incompetent. Already poor leadership at the regimental, battalion, company, and platoon level will become even worse as poorly trained and dispirited officers will be put in charge of scared and resentful losers of the conscription lottery. Further, there will be an adverse selection problem: the cleverer and more fit will find ways to escape the net, leaving a disproportionately dimwitted, sociopathic, and addicted rump to fight. More bodies will not fix the paralyzing over-centralization of the Russian command. More bodies will not fix Russia’s disastrous logistics: indeed, trying to supply more bodies will actually exacerbate the logistical problems. More bodies will not fix Russia’s underperforming air forces. More bodies are not the same as more precision guided munitions. Historically Russia has used more bodies successfully when supported by massive artillery, but now ammunition shortages (is another “Shell Crisis” a la 1915 coming?) loom and Ukrainian counterbattery fire has proved devastating thanks to HIMARS and M177s. More bodies will not address Russia’s repeated intelligence failures at the operational or tactical levels. Russian armor has proved extremely vulnerable, but the more bodies will deploy in older and even less well-maintained AFVs.

In sum, more bodies cannot and will not fix the real reasons for Russian battlefield disasters. They will just be more victims for these reasons.

There is also the issue of how the new bodies will be deployed: as replacements or in entire units. The time involved in standing up new units is considerable, even if rushed. Putin is in a hurry, so I conjecture that the unfortunates swept up by the press ganskis will receive lick-and-a-promise “training” of a few weeks (after all, they are veterans, right?, so they just need a refresher course!) and be shoveled to the front and shoved into shattered units. If you look at say the American army in WWII, you’ll find that the life expectancy of replacements is often measured in hours or a few days. (Experienced infantrymen often avoided learning the names of replacements, because it was pointless.) That will happen here as well.

Historically, Russia relied on a huge demographic advantage vis a vis its foes in a quantity-over-quality approach. But even when Russia did have a demographic advantage, the results were often disastrous: cf. the Russo-Japanese War, and Tannenberg and other WWI battles. Now a demographically devastated Russia is falling back on old formulae. To call it tragic is an understatement.

In sum, more cannon fodder without more cannon (and logistics, and leadership, and on and on) to support them will result in a bloody disaster. But it will allow Putin to defer deciding whether to resort to his only other option: nukes.

It is also important to consider how Putin’s adversaries–not just Ukraine, but the US and the rest of Nato–will respond. The prospect of facing greater numbers (even of a low quality) incentivizes Ukraine to accelerate its offensives and press its advantages, even though that will entail larger losses. If successful, that would in turn accelerate when Putin has to decide whether to back down or resort to his only remaining way of expanding the problem. Ukraine will redouble its already frenzied efforts to lobby western governments for more weapons.

The US and Nato need to turn their attention from what is happening on the battlefield to focus intensely on forestalling Putin concluding that it’s nukes or nothing. Sadly, that means hoping that Putin’s more bodies measure will extend the stalemate, thereby buying time for some diplomatic resolution.

Alas, the US and its allies appear set on Ukrainian victory on the battlefield and on the humiliation of Putin, rather than on securing an unsatisfying and messy diplomatic compromise. That is gambling with millions of lives–and perhaps many more.

Which means that where things go may hinge crucially on the Russian popular reaction to Putin’s desperate measure. It is optimistic in the extreme to believe that the mobilization will spur a 1905 or February 1917 or August 1991 moment in Russia. And it is equally optimistic to believe that if such a moment indeed occurs, that it will not result in Putin’s replacement with someone even worse.

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  1. As a resident (for now) of Western Europe I’m not overly concerned about a humiliated Putin launching nukes. Indeed, I think it will take severe and humiliating military reversals to force him to the negotiating table. I see him more as a survivor than suicidal, and whatever BS story he tells the Russian people they’ll believe and he’ll continue.

    What would concern me a lot more is the prospect of an indefinite future whereby Russia, either under Putin or his successor, know they can annex territory, commit appalling crimes against civilians, and get to sleep in a warm bed and repeat it in another few years simply by threatening nukes. I genuinely think we either defeat the Russian army now or we fight them again, closer to home, in 5, 10, 15 years. And fighting them now looks like the best option. What does that mean? Arming Ukraine to the teeth so that Putin has no army left to conquer land with. And make no bones that if he uses nukes, it’s not going end well for him or Russians.

    Comment by Tim Newman — September 24, 2022 @ 11:28 am

  2. Putin’s successor will no doubt be an even nastier piece of work. But he will be (or pretend to be) unencumbered by the military disaster and therefore able to sign the surrender document.

    Prof, do you have any news of what is happening in Kherson? It appears that up to 20,000 troops are on the wrong side of the Dnipro. Without much resupply or means of retreat so it seems possible that an entire army division will have to surrender. Thoughts?

    Comment by philip — September 24, 2022 @ 1:31 pm

  3. I wonder about the state of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. How well is it maintained? Is it possible that Putin will push the button, and the nuke will blow up on the launch pad and obliterate Moscow?

    Comment by Emperor of Ice Cream — September 24, 2022 @ 1:54 pm

  4. Yes, Tim.

    Our response to Putin’s threat should be some diplomatic yet clear form of “go ahead, idiot, use them. See what happens next”

    Comment by LL — September 24, 2022 @ 2:05 pm

  5. Also there is additional point that Putin view himself as historic figure in Russian history with scale of akin Peter the great or someone comparable. So for him ending modern world and ending Russia imo would not be acceptable. Nuking Ukraine looks much more probable as last resort measure.

    Comment by Linur — September 24, 2022 @ 2:14 pm

  6. To make a long story short, Tim’s views have been mine since Day 1. Russia needs to be stopped cold.

    Comment by Howard Roark — September 24, 2022 @ 5:59 pm

  7. @Tim
    (South Park) Timmy! Brilliant yjinking: “And make no bones that if he uses nukes, it’s not going end well for him or Russians.”

    (South Park) Timmy! I’m just checking on my personal stockpile of iodine tablets
    Have you remembered to go to the store and get yours?

    Comment by Simple Simon — September 25, 2022 @ 10:41 am

  8. @Professor

    “I conjecture that the unfortunates swept up by the press ganskis will receive lick-and-a-promise “training” … and be shoveled to the front and shoved into shattered units.”

    According to Ukrainian intelligence reporting, this is precisely what is happening. Minus the “unfortunates” part: they get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to escape the prison that is Russia by surrendering rather than dying.

    “It is optimistic in the extreme to believe that the mobilization will spur a 1905 or February 1917 or August 1991 moment in Russia.”

    Erm, Kadyrov already publicly stated there won’t be a mobilization in Chechnya, and Dagestan seems to be mounting successful popular resistance.

    If the US embraces the national liberation movements rather than repeating the disastrous chicken(-Kiev) policy of trying to preserve the rump (and soon-to-be revanchist) empire, Russia’s defeat on the battlefield will rather inevitably lead to its disintegration: there won’t be much left to bribe the co-opted elites of the subjugated nations, and the threat of force will not be credible.

    Comment by Ivan — September 25, 2022 @ 5:49 pm

  9. Putin is perhaps trying to invoke the spirit of 1812 here. It has long been a thing in Russian military history that in extremis you organise a levée en masse of the plebs, an “opolchenie”. It’s also been a thing that you organise it when you aren’t in extremis, but need to ginger up the populace. The Moscow militia sent to Borodino mostly dug fieldworks but didn’t do a lot of actual fighting. Is that what’s going on here? He’s digging in like it’s 1914-1917?

    A possible alternative explanation is that Vlad has seen and was excited by Chris Pratt’s movie “The Tomorrow War”.

    Comment by Green as Grass — September 26, 2022 @ 2:49 am

  10. Hmm, there are already reports circulating of new conscripts being sent to the front with no training at all, also all-infantry units (i.e. no armour) being constituted using them. There’s going to be a mountain of dead in a few weeks.

    Intriguing that there have been protests in Dagestan, and that Kadyrov has stated that Chechnya won’t play ball (after all his rhetoric! I guess even he’s not so stupid to see how this will play out). Lots of opportunity hereabouts for those dark forces to do their thang (see Iran..).

    @Philip – re Kherson. Not much to see here really – the Ukes have the Russians just where they want them, and don’t want to unnecessarily expend combat power pushing them into the Dnipro. They’ll just keep prodding away with HIMARS and arty, and circulating rumours that their commanders are negotiating a surrender. The fact Putin has stated that the city is to be held at all costs must be music to Uke High Command’s ears.

    @Emperor – urrghh, why do people keep grasping at this straw? I’m sure they’ll work through their stock and eventually find one which works.

    @Ivan: “The threat of force won’t be credible” – on the money. The myth of Putin’s power appears to be disappearing in Russia too. “You and whose army?”

    Comment by David Mercer — September 26, 2022 @ 3:34 am

  11. My guess would be that any all-conscript unit sent to the front will immediately arrange its own surrender.

    Comment by Green as Grass — September 26, 2022 @ 8:50 am

  12. Let’s not forget that the Russian army — before Ukraine — is fed by 250,000 conscripts annually in its current condition. The Russians conduct two drafts a year.

    They have a core professional, thuggish cadre around which the conscripts orbit until discharged. The professionals are brutes and the army discipline is bloody. They are a jake leg operation on their best day.

    Their officers and senior NCOs are poorly trained and schooled in the basics.

    A conscript serves a single year and then is in the reserves apparently for life. These “reservists” are the ones currently being impressed.

    The notion that these reserves are trained or combat experienced is nonsense. They are simply men who have had the most basic training and have never served with units for long enough to learn their trade or MOS (military occupational specialty).

    The “new” Russian soldier is hopelessly and woefully unmotivated to fight for a cause that even they know is baloney.

    As a former professional soldier, a grad of a military school, and a regular turned reservist, I can tell you it takes a lot of work and training to turn out a decent soldier as an individual.

    It then takes a lot more training to make that individual function as part of a fire team, squad, platoon, and company.

    Throw that soldier directly into combat wherein the Ukrainians are kicking their butts and they either are routed or surrender.

    I don’t see the average Russian reservist — fat, out of shape, smoker, drinker, slow, old — being called up against his will for this shit show being much of a fighter.

    The Russians grossly miscalculated the fighting qualities of the Ukrainian soldier — as did the American military and intel apparatus.

    If we give the Ukrainians enough arms and ammo, they will do the job.


    Comment by Jeffrey L Minch — September 26, 2022 @ 10:16 am

  13. Dumb post that will be proven wrong. Ditto most if not all of the comments with Dim Newman topping the chart. Russians didn’t have a number advantage in the Russo-Japanese War in terms of actual combatants fighting.The Japanese had geography on their side.

    Kiev regime is fighting all out with ages 16-60 and having women in combat. People are forcefully yanked off the street and beaches to serve that regime.

    Russia is fighting at about a 10% manpower rate. Kiev regime is getting rocked and will be further rocked, the longer this conflict lingers.

    Comment by Hector — September 26, 2022 @ 10:22 pm

  14. There are thousands of videos on YouTube of Ukrainian military actions prior to the invasion. They display no special competence on the part of the Ukrainian army. The present Ukrainian victories are thanks to huge US involvement in the form of advanced weapons, elint and electronic battlefield surveillance. Oddly enough, Whispering Joe is now accusing China of sending arms to Russia. Byzantium and Machiavelli come to mind.

    All that Vovo has to do is to stall the campaign until winter strikes. Europe is in major amounts of energy ordure already and things are about to get worse.

    Putin has taken his lead from the Austrian Corporal and will not go gracefully. Hopes of a palace coup are unfounded, as the growing mountain of bodies shows. Ordinary Russians especially Muscovites are not happy with the nuclear threat; they know that the Glorious Leader has placed them in the firing line. If the enemy is in range, so are you. Short-term, Europe will have to abandon sanctions. A massive Western Allies propaganda campaign directed at Russian citizens, urging resistance, has a good chance of succeeding.

    Comment by Shadeburst — September 27, 2022 @ 12:33 am

  15. Do not for a second forget that if the war goes hot, Kim will undoubtedly take the opportunity to attack anyone and everyone on his spit list. I wouldn’t care to be Japanese right now.

    Comment by Shadeburst — September 27, 2022 @ 12:40 am

  16. Unhinged? This is what he actually said about the west’s support of shelling a nuclear plant, and the introduction into the discussion by NATO of the use of nuclear weapons:
    “Nuclear blackmail has also been used. We are talking not only about the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant – encouraged by the West – which threatens to cause a nuclear catastrophe but also about statements from senior representatives of NATO countries about the possibility and permissibility of using weapons of mass destruction against Russia: nuclear weapons.

    “I would like to remind those who make such statements about Russia that our country also possesses various means of destruction, and in some cases, they are more modern than those of NATO countries. When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we, of course, will use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.

    “This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.”

    Comment by Richard Whiteny — September 27, 2022 @ 7:32 pm

  17. Love to swallow, Richard?

    Comment by LL — September 27, 2022 @ 8:33 pm

  18. @15 Uhh? Putin (and Medvedev aka Batsh*t Robin) have been signalling their willingness to use nukes from the very start of this conflict (before, actually). Have you really not been paying any attention at all??

    Look, I know this must be hard for you, backing the wrong horse (again!) and seeing his forces sag spectacularly on the battlefield, but you really need to get your head out of your ass. A word of advice – stop watching Fox.

    For everyone else, here’s some genius light entertainment for you all (Twitter but, y’know..). Hopefully the link’ll work.

    Solovyov gets drafted and goes crazy

    Comment by David Mercer — September 28, 2022 @ 3:22 am

  19. Does anyone know why the nordstream pipelines were still pressurised? 750 miles of 36 inch pipe at 100+ bar represents an awful lot of gas. Why wasn’t it allowed to flow back and be diverted?

    Anyway, repairing it will require total degassing (any methane in a hyperbaric welding chamber is a disaster) unless some gate valves can be fitted upstream and downstream. Months of work for the lads, even after a peace treaty.

    Comment by philip — September 28, 2022 @ 4:45 pm

  20. @ 18 My guess is that this is standard practice for what was a temporarily decommissioned pipeline. Word is it has been damaged beyond economic repair and will be abandoned.

    Clearly Mad Vlad doesn’t like the smell of our effete Euros or Dollars. Nope, its a mans-man Roubles (or Renminbi at a push) for him.

    Comment by David Mercer — September 29, 2022 @ 10:57 am

  21. David @19
    Doing some arithmetic there was the equivalent of at least two LNG tanker loads in each pipeline. That’s a lot of money to be leaving at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
    Seems very fishy to me.

    Comment by philip — September 29, 2022 @ 2:08 pm

  22. philip @ 20

    Pipelines are always left pressurized, if possible, because if there is minor leak, it’s better to loose some gas, than to allow sea water inside.

    Comment by SK — September 29, 2022 @ 4:44 pm

  23. @21 sk
    At 100 bar? And bearing in mind that usually pipelines are left with no cap before the tie in, so that they are flooded with seawater as a normal event.
    Pipelines are designed to have no leaks at all. A minor leak is treated as a danger signal for risk of a major rupture.

    Comment by philip — September 29, 2022 @ 5:02 pm

  24. philip @ 22

    Re: seawater.
    Not in this particular case, they were capped and then welded in special enclosures:

    Re: pressure
    Dunno. Was it at this particular pressure? Seems like a surprisingly round number.

    Re: leaks
    I assume they have to drill the pipeline to put in pressure and flow sensors along the way. I wouldn’t be surprised if such installation point may develop a leak at the thread overtime and it would be considered non-critical.

    Comment by SK — September 29, 2022 @ 9:18 pm

  25. It doesn’t seem likely to me that the Russians sabotaged their own pipelines. Why bother when all they have to do is stop pumping gas?

    It couldn’t have been DOTUS, could it? What does a guy have to do to justify his bribes from the Ukraine?

    Comment by dearieme — September 30, 2022 @ 4:37 pm

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