Streetwise Professor

May 19, 2022

Z Is For Zugzwang

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 4:05 pm

Ten days ago Vladimir Putin gave his much anticipated “Victory Day” speech, and said . . . well, not much at all.

There was much anticipation and speculation in advance. He would declare war and full mobilization. He would declare victory, or announce some criteria for victory that even his shambolic military could achieve.

Instead, he basically affirmed the status quo. Russia would keep grinding away. It would not escalate. Nor would it de-escalate.

In other words, Putin tacitly admitted what I had asserted weeks ago: Putin/Russia are in Zugzwang: any move makes things worse, so Putin has basically chosen to do nothing, or at least to change nothing.

There has been much conjecture what the Z on Russian equipment means. Now you know. It means “Zugzwang.”

Things have gotten even worse for Russia since 9 May. Ukraine has mounted a modest counteroffensive (a real counteroffensive, not a local counterattack) north of Kharkiv, and pushed the Russian army back across its border in places. The Russian offensive in Donetsk and Luhansk is essentially stalled. Indeed, the Russians suffered a humiliating reverse in an attempt to mount a river crossing: an entire battalion tactical group and its equipment were destroyed, as was the bridging equipment.

Overall, Russian losses continue to mount, with nothing to show for it. The only simulacrum of an achievement is the surrender of the besieged and battered defenders of the Azovstal plant after weeks of relentless Russian assault and bombardment. But on net Ukraine gained far more from that battle by delaying and attriting Russian forces than Russia has by its ultimate capture of the facility.

And now the Russians appear to view their “triumph” as an excuse to commit a massive war crime by trying the captives as war criminals and threatening to execute the surrendered Ukrainians.

But of course they have to do that to justify their war propaganda that they are fighting Nazis. You know, act like Nazis to pretend they are fighting Nazis. But the Russian military and state are already so far down the war crimes road they won’t stop now, especially if this one provides something that they can use to sell this fiasco to the Russian public.

Now the battle resembles World War I far more than World War II. It is an artillery war being fought on a relatively static front. Even if Russia gains some local objectives, “the big push” and “breakthrough” are clearly beyond their capabilities.

Ukraine is clearly encouraged that it can win, with victory defined as pushing out Russians from all of Ukrainian territory. I think this is too optimistic, and even if it is realistic, the cost to Ukraine, let alone the world, is not worth it.

I understand the risk of leaving Putin/Russia with a rump of Ukrainian territory from which they can spin up a future justification for resuming hostilities once they’ve licked their wounds and convinced themselves that they have really fixed their military this time. But the pretext will exist, and in fact be even stronger, if Ukraine retakes the Donbas. For no doubt the Russians will claim that Ukraine is Nazifiing the recaptured Donbas if it retakes control, and this will be a future casus belli. Retaking it would alter the tactical situation somewhat in Ukraine’s favor for the next time, but not enough to change materially the probability of another Russian attempt. The war exists because Ukraine exists. Redrawing the lines of effective control in Ukraine won’t remove the Russian rationale for war. It is not worth it.

So the war will grind on, because Zugzwang Putin can’t admit he’s lost, and Ukraine believes it can win. Nothing good will come of that.

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  1. As far as I can tell (being no expert)
    Zelensky was elected on a promise to a) reduce corruption and b) to negotiate a deal in the Donbas.
    He was prevented from doing so by a) the Ukrainian oligarchs and b) the neo Nazis of various militias (Azov battalion)
    So he became a prisoner of the established gangsters.
    The USA also wanted a war (nothing like a humiliation to inspire the troops, eh?).
    So Zelensky has swapped being a puppet for gangsters for being a puppet of creepy Joe and the MIC.
    The poor bloody Ukrainians don’t have a vote in this battle for democracy, do they?

    Comment by philip — May 19, 2022 @ 6:15 pm

  2. “The USA also wanted a war”
    It’s hard to see where you’re getting this idea, given that multiple US presidents have literally spent decades trying to reset relations with Russia, to get them to be productive (i.e. not murdering their neighbours) members of the global community. I’m sure the US would much rather expend their resources against their actual strategic threats, like China, rather than against the two-bit thugs in Russia.

    “The poor bloody Ukrainians don’t have a vote in this battle for democracy, do they?”
    They have signed up for reservist duty by the million, their diaspora has mobilised everywhere to protect and solicit support, Ukranians in occupied territories confront armed soldiers on a daily basis… what more engagement are you possibly looking for?

    Comment by HibernoFrog — May 20, 2022 @ 1:57 am

  3. Ten days ago Vladimir Putin gave his much anticipated “Victory Day” speech, and said . . . well, not much at all.

    Yup, no surprise there. Honestly, he’s sh*t scared of escalating for whatever reason, most likely domestic.

    But the pretext will exist, and in fact be even stronger, if Ukraine retakes the Donbas.

    But will it though, given Russia has effectively levelled the place and relocated much of its population to the Motherland? I can’t imagine many Ukrainians of any sympathy (Russia or the west) will want to return there anytime soon, even if hostilities ended today.

    Retaking it would alter the tactical situation somewhat in Ukraine’s favor for the next time, but not enough to change materially the probability of another Russian attempt

    More’s the reason to press on then, surely? Given the vast pool of willing volunteers and the might of the west at its back, I think Ukraine should finish the job and do us all a favour.

    @Hiberno: I think Philip was wibbling but he does have a point – as I noted before, it seemed that Biden was almost daring Putin to act, and his administration is now loving the fact he did and has been utterly humiliated as a consequence. It’s even funnier given China have based much of their kit and doctrine on Russia’s.

    Comment by David Mercer — May 20, 2022 @ 4:34 am

  4. @Professor

    “I understand the risk of leaving Putin/Russia with a rump of Ukrainian territory”

    I don’t believe you do. For the Russians to steal something, just two conditions are sufficient: 1) they have a physical capability; 2) they believe they can get away with it. Granting them Ukrainian territory both improves their capability for the next invasion and bolsters their belief they will get away with it.

    “But the pretext will exist, and in fact be even stronger”

    This is obviously incorrect. A pretext for Russian invasion is not something that can be weaker or stronger, or even needs to have any plausible connection to reality. If history teaches us anything, it is that as long as the sufficient conditions above hold, Russia will manufacture a pretext (in fact, many of them) every time. Since this is not something we can influence, we should ignore it and focus on the sufficient conditions that we can.

    “but not enough to change materially the probability of another Russian attempt.”

    It would be good to see your data and calculations supporting this statement 🙂

    The trick is to push the date of the next attack into the future beyond the date of Russia’s disintegration. Complete liberation of Ukraine certainly makes the first date later and the second one sooner, so the sign is clear. As for the magnitude, I’m afraid we can only guess.

    ” It is not worth it.”

    Other people strongly disagree.

    Comment by Ivan — May 20, 2022 @ 5:19 am

  5. I’m with David and Ivan: Russians gonna Russia, come what may. I agree with the Prof’s sentiment that if there’s a Realpolitik that can save lives we should take it, but With the nuclear threat apparently not in play, I say drive the bastards back as far as Ukraine can manage, and then do whatever is necessary to increase the cost to Russia of a repeat performance.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — May 20, 2022 @ 6:16 am

  6. With the nuclear threat apparently not in play, …

    Are you sure, Hibernofrog?
    Russian TV seems to think nukes are very much in play. I agree it’s probably just sabre rattling, but I’m not 100% sure.
    What probability would you put on it? I’d say the risk is greater than global warming, covid or anything else the elite scare us with.
    I hope they are distributing iodine tablets to the Ukrainians at least.

    Comment by philip — May 20, 2022 @ 8:06 am

  7. I think the real danger here is pushing the russians to use something a bit more dangerous when they finally decide to quit and leave with what they have. (To push for “negotiations” basically)

    The Ukrainians aren’t going to take Crimea, and the Russians seem to be entrenching quite heavily in the southeast, even a shambolic military stands a much better chance of pushing an opponent back once they start digging in.

    Nuclear weapons seem like a no go, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility for them to use chemical weapons, and then what?

    Is the west ready to potentially escalate this into a nuclear war? (Of course not)

    That’s the real danger in my opinion, if you corner a wounded animal it’ll strike hard, i agree with Prof on this, fight them to a stalemate until they declare themselves ready for peace talks and then take the chance to push for a cease-fire.

    People talk about the russian losses but from anecdotal reports that i’ve read from polish and indian media, the Ukrainians aren’t that far behind in terms of dead/wounded.

    Comment by JKK — May 20, 2022 @ 8:42 am

  8. Well try as they may I don’t think Russia are going to have much of a chance to freeze this conflict, simply because Ukraine will not let them settle, especially now that they’ve been given pretty much unfettered access to the the west’s conventional military locker (and then some, with all manner of new gadgets being offered). Also, up until February many people were fearful of provoking Russia even within the limits of the Donbas – given the myth surrounding their reputed military strength has been well and truly dispelled, it’s game on.

    Another justification for Ukraine to fight on on our behalf: I read that Russia is expending six months worth of military production for every week of fighting, and spending an eye-watering $300million per day on the campaign, propping up various parts of its economy etc. That surely must be unsustainable.

    @Philip: Russian TV?? My God they’ve spouted all manner of unhinged rubbish and crazed threats. I’d discount this as a news source if I were you.

    Comment by David Mercer — May 20, 2022 @ 9:43 am

  9. David
    Russian TV is not a news source, it’s the propaganda arm of the Kremlin.

    Now we’re in this war (which stinks of the assassination at Sarajevo to me) I agree we have to win. But it is legitimate to ask if embroiling ourselves in a dispute between two corrupt and failing states was in our best interests.

    Comment by philip — May 20, 2022 @ 12:45 pm

  10. @HibernoFrog …Philip’s comment, “The USA also wanted a war”, probably came from viewing this video of two U.S. Senators encouraging the nazi Azov Battalion members to make war on Russia.
    What were those Senators doing in Ukraine in December 2016 promoting war?

    Comment by Richard Whitney — May 21, 2022 @ 3:59 pm

  11. after the fall of the sovok union, the West propped up Rasha. Example – Rasha was never a member of the UN, but was given a free pass to become a member and take the sovok union’s place, unlike other former sovok states, who had to apply –

    Example – Rasha was propped up to “integrate” into the world economy in numerous way, eg, membership in the World Trade Organization, the G8, and much more

    There was a misguided belief that Rasha, which has never been a country, would implement democracy, and thus “preserve peace and stability.”

    Instead, as Lavrov said quite a while back – “we tried our best, but it turned out like always.”

    Rasha has always been a territory held together by force, fear, threats and intimidation, going way back to Mongols and czarist times.

    Rasha is a state in search of a nation – which it does not have, across six time zones.

    Ukraine is a nation in search of a state – which it has found, and Putler and his Kremlinoids are trying to destroy.

    Putler has unified Ukraine completely – and has scared the s”h”i”t”e out of Yurrup, which has also unified against him and his Kremlinoids.

    Putler has proved conclusively that Rasha is not a superpower. It has a large land mass, but it has an economy the size of Italy, but the people are dirt poor – except for a few oligarchs, including Putler.

    The military bought fake Michelin tires from the Chicoms for its vehicles, due to massive corruption – which promptly started exploding when used. You can find the article in the Daily Mail.

    Rasha is a sick, stupid s”h”i”thole, and Bolobtnaya Ploshcha – Muddy Square – in Moskva fits perfectly.

    I always get a huge kick out of insanely ignorant references to the Azov Battalion, which was actually originally created and funded by 2 Jewish guys, Kolomoisky and a buddy of his. The idiots in the media love to bring up the false references, and Putler caught on to the “fact” that “Zelensky” and all of Ukraine are “nazis.”

    The original push into Ukraine was done by Rashans who had their dress uniforms and stale canned provisions from 2015 in their tanks – they expected to be marching down Khreshchatyk, the central boulevard in Kyiv, on day one.

    O’Biden thought the same, and expected that the “problem” would go away and he – more accurately, his handlers – would not have to worry about it. Just like the exit from Afghanistan.

    Lo and behold – Ukrainians don’t want Putler, they don’t want to be eliminated, they don’t want to be subjugated by the Kremlinoids.

    Turns out that the Ukrainian military has proven that it is way above NATO standards – there is no other military in Yurrup that has fought against the Rashi, and without a doubt, Ukraine has had enormous success against the Kremlinoids.

    In short – for the sake of peace and stability in the world, Putler and his Kremlinoids and Rasha need to be put in their place – not elevated by assorted ignoramus “Putler understanders.”

    PS My best guess is that the “Z” stands for “zashchitnik”, which was found on the collar of a bomb sniffing dog that had been abandoned by the rashi.

    Means “defender.” You know – Putler defending himself against “nazis” – they’re everywhere, they’re everywhere.

    Comment by elmer — May 22, 2022 @ 10:08 am

  12. details on torture and genocide in Ukraine by Putler and his Kremlinoids —

    Konstantin tells his mother how Russian secret service (FSB) agents go about torturing Ukrainian prisoners. “Do you know what a little rose is?” he asks. “No,” she replies. “One can make 21 roses on a man’s body,” he explains, referencing the Russian practice of giving one’s beloved 21 roses. “20 digits and the member. Sorry.”


    “Have you seen how a little rose unfurls, opens up?”

    “Yes,” she says.

    “The skin and flesh are sliced off along the bones,” Konstantin explains. “And then all the fingers and toes. The same is also done [down] there. That’s called 21 roses on a man’s body. Do you know what other tortures I saw later?”

    “Why do you say you took part …? After all, the FSB agent was there.”

    “Well, we captured the prisoners and brought them …”


    “And while we waited for the heads of the torture chambers, we beat them and broke their legs so they wouldn’t run away.”

    The mother is unfazed, so Konstantin goes on to describe another form of torture. “They stick a pipe up his ass and then slide barbed wire inside. They pull out the pipe, while the barbed wire stays inside. Then they slowly pull out the wire.” Mom’s response? “A fuck-up.” After a bit of chit chat, Tatiana reveals her true self: “If I were there, I’d also get a kick out of it. You and I are alike.”

    If this were an isolated instance of cruelty, one could dismiss it as the shared psychosis of two profoundly disturbed individuals. But there is a large body of evidence of similar wanton torture of Ukrainian civilians by Russian soldiers. Killing, rape, and looting have also assumed systemic forms. And, significantly, the mothers and wives of the perpetrators are in many cases fully aware of what their husbands, brothers, and sons are doing—indeed, they often appear to wholeheartedly approve, because “you and I are alike.”

    Comment by elmer — May 24, 2022 @ 8:03 am

  13. Another view:
    I’ll repost when the topic comes up again.

    Comment by Richard Whitney — May 28, 2022 @ 1:08 pm

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