Since the Russia-Ukraine conflict has given unprecedented prominence to propaganda, it is easy to fall prey to being unduly interested in the messaging, since that’s far more visible than what is happening on the ground. The surrender of the Mariupol holdouts in the Azovstal factory is classic: rather than getting much in the way of the numbers leaving and their composition, the spin dominates. Yesterday’s depiction of them as “evacuees” today morphed into Russia-blaming: Russia Uses Surrender in Mariupol to Portray Ukrainians as Terrorists. And the Times presents Russia’s intent, announced from the get-go, to hold war crimes trials, as in response to Ukraine announcing it was prosecuting Russian soldiers. So yet another diversion.
One thing that seems to have fried brains on all sides, the pro-Ukraine camp, some of the pro-Russia camp, and even some of the itty bitty cohort that tries to be realists and is too often treated as pro-Russian for not buying the shameless pro-Ukraine spin, is that Russia has been prosecuting its campaign at a measured pace…and to some, it’s been getting long in tooth. That’s not how the US likes to prosecute its wars, nor how Hollywood presents them. The US has also been trying to present Russia as behind schedule, when Russia hasn’t said if it has one, and since it doesn’t seem to be having any supply issues (contrary to Western claims), it’s not as if there is a need for urgency.
Admittedly, Russia’s initial lightening runs and then its stationing of a 40km line of tanks led many to assume Russia would move quickly, particularly those of us who relied on Scott Ritter’s repeated predictions that Russia was within days or at most a couple of weeks of winning. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Ritter has experience in calling a war in real time, particularly one where the US does not have boots on the ground.
Ritter’s propensity to paint in bright colors has led him to repeatedly walk back his aggressive estimates of Russian success. It sadly also appears to be the proximate cause of his Twitter ban. Recall that Ritter’s tweet disputing the official narrative called Joe Biden as a war criminal for aiding and abetting what were actually Ukraine killings. That may have been great for eyeballs, but it took the focus off why the party line on Bucha could not be accurate, and Ritter didn’t publish a tweetstorm to back up his assessment.
Since at least April, there’s been some criticism of the war, it appears mainly at the top echelons of the government and society. One is of the botched opening days, which appears to be the result of poor intelligence (Russia had allegedly gotten some officials to agree to permit Russian forces to pass through. Two mayors who tried that were shot. The other collaborators either lost their nerve or always planned to betray Russia). Others think Russia should be more aggressive. From a Gilbert Doctorow post on Russian political talk shows, which he makes a point of watching regularly, on April 26:
As is now the rule, the very best discussion of these issues was on the political talk show “The Great Game,”….And yet even here it was clear that the mood of panelists is for more decisive action against Ukraine right now, meaning the bombing of the ‘decision making institutions’ in Kiev, as the Russian Ministry of Defense proposed to do a week ago in response to Ukrainian missile and artillery attacks across the border with Russia. This was made all the more topical by the statements of the British delegation in Rammstein encouraging the Ukrainians to do precisely that, and by the corresponding offer to ship appropriate missiles to Kiev now. The panelists also want the transportation infrastructure of Ukraine to be destroyed without delay in order to prevent the new heavy weaponry being shipped to Kiev from ever reaching the Ukrainian forces at the front.
Surely the bombing of central Kiev will come, effectively removing the Ukrainian regime. But it will come at the moment of choosing of Vladimir Vladimirovich and will signal the Russian decision to break up Ukraine into several states, as the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev yesterday said might be in the cards if the war drags on due to Western intervention and cheerleading.
With respect to Lloyd Austin’s statement yesterday that the United States’ objective is to greatly weaken Russian armed forces over an extended period of time, the panelists on The Great Game offered an interpretation that is well worth repeating here. The Russians view this as an admission by Washington that the Ukrainians’ position on the battlefield is hopeless. The Americans now seek to redefine their objectives so as to turn a defeat into an apparent victory. Whatever happens on the front lines in the coming days and weeks, Washington will be able to say that it forced Russia to dip deeply into its store of missiles and other high tech gear, that it forced Russia to lose a substantial part of its professional soldiers. The objective is now intentionally vague and stands independently of the possible loss of Ukrainian’s main army forces adjacent to the Donbas in a ‘cauldron’ of confinement where they will be killed like herrings in a barrel.
Before we continue, note that the attacks by Ukraine on Russia have been pinpick level, although blowing up two of 17 storage units at a Belgorod refinery was a bold move.
Russia has since started to attack transportation infrastructure in the west of Ukraine, by taking out electrical substations in rail hubs there (but not in the east) and destroying some bridges (I wish I had a map that showed how many and how important the bridges Russia were destroyed compared to the ones Ukraine had taken out). Note that the destruction of transportation networks works both ways; it would make it harder for Russia to go into western Ukraine were that an objective.
It’s also worth noting that as the US is insistently presenting Russia as less capable and well equipped as it is (and greatly overplaying Ukraine’s competence and effectiveness), the panelists above over-interpreted Austin’s remarks. Even if this is a moving of the goalposts in anticipation of a Ukraine defeat, that does not mean that the US is not serious about pursuing a Plan B, of somehow bleeding the bear.
Of course, war = uncertainty and uncertainty is bad for business. But in contrast to the talk show bristling, Doctorow found his neighbors and contacts in a town near St. Petersburg to be on board with how the war is going and not keen about escalation. From his latest post:
The quiet discussion of the war which we have had with locals closest to us shows unquestioning confidence that it was necessary to preempt an attack on Donbas and Crimea by Ukrainian forces planned for the first week of March and that it is being properly prosecuted. Yes, soldiers are dying, but that is in the nature of wars. Should there be a mobilization? Absolutely not! One professional special forces contract soldier is worth 100 recruits says our friend and handyman Sergei.
Despite the regular Western press braying about Russia’s terrible military, developments on the ground appear to be going Russia’s way. The much ballyhooed Ukraine offensives near Kharkiv and Izyum were nothingburgers. The one real Russian setback was a failed pontoon bridge crossing where they may have lost as many as 150 men, but most estimates say lower…when Ukraine was attempting a crossing at another point on the same river that did not go well either.
Most important, Russia is systematically and seriously degrading the operations in the east, where Ukraine has the bulk of its best troops. Multiple independent sources estimate daily Ukraine losses (death, injury, capture, surrender) to be 400 to 700 men. That is simply not sustainable. The notion that Ukraine is losing headcount is confirmed by surrender videos over the last three weeks regularly including quite a few middle aged men. This strongly suggests that Ukraine was already having to infill with recent conscripts who can’t be all that well trained.
Similarly, many videos show Ukraine forces moving on foot or in passenger cars, a sign they are low on armored vehicles. Ukraine country-wide is low on fuel and Russia has taken out its refineries. Russia has been blowing up ammo dumps. Recall that Ukraine started the war supposedly well endowed with equipment. It’s now gone through much of that. The replacements, aside from generally being old and not well functioning, are mainly not getting to the front between being destroyed en route or being sold on the black market.
So if all these things are going Russia’s way, why isn’t it making faster progress on the ground? First, Ukraine is the biggest country in Europe, bigger than France. Russia already has control of an area larger than England. The Ukraine forces in Donbass have extensive, deep, and well hardened bunkers, claimed to be second only to the bunkers in North Korea. Trying to storm they would result in lots of Russia losses for little gain. The strategy here is similar to that of the Azovstal factory: pound them with artillery (which is apparently extremely unnerving) and starve them out. They may not run out of food soon, but they will run out of ammo and fuel. And when that happens, they know they can’t win.
This course of action minimizes Russian deaths and should maximize Ukraine surrenders. It may eat up a lot of shells but I haven’t seen any non-West-connected expert express concern that Russia is in danger of running out (it was assumed to be well stockpiled and also now producing at top speed. Long range missiles might be another story if the combat drags on).
Scott Ritter has recently flip-flopped on Russia. He now argues Russia has been too leisurely, allowing the Ukraine-NATO-US time to arm and mobilize in the west. Ritter now contends Russia will have to fight Finland before it becomes part of NATO.
The other independent military commentators I follow have not changed their view of Russia’s prospects or a change in the West’s ability to respond effectively, although Ritter’s shift has stirred some discussion in that cohort and other Ukraine-skeptic presenters.
I don’t understand Ritter’s analysis. First, (I confess to not having tracked them down due to time constraints but I am relying on Alexander Mercouris here), Putin has been misrepresented. The press first depicted him as making a hostile reaction, then walking it back. Mercouris, who read Putin’s remarks, said in effect he didn’t understand why Finland thought this was necessary or helpful, they’d had good relations and Russia had no territorial disputes with Finland. Mercouris and others also observed that nevertheless Finland was closer to Europe than Russia and was presumed NATO-friendly despite its official posture of neutrality.
And as we know, Turkey is seeking a very big bribe to agree to let Sweden and Finland join, and Croatia is also making unhappy noises. So while a deal is still likely to get done, it is also likely to drag on rather than be a fast triumphalist affair, and will expose that NATO is not a happy family.
Second, many assume that once Russia and its allies in the militias have gotten the Donbass conflict down to a mopping up operation, if Ukraine has not relented (or its army has not collapsed), the next target would be the Black Sea coast. Russia might go slowly in taking Odessa, since it’s a historically important city and Russia would be keen to minimize damage.
If and when Russia has accomplished that, it’s hard to fathom what the point would be in trying to take the eastern part of Ukraine (as opposed to, um, liberating other ethnic-Russian dominated areas in the east). Unlike much of the east, the natives in the west are firmly anti-Russia. Taking hostile terrain is much more difficult; holding it is costly and corrosive to the occupier.
Russia has also taken the position that any NATO or foreign troops or materiel is fair game for attack, and Russia has repeatedly blown up ammo caches and troop training facilities near Lvov. So if Russia has enough in the way of long-range precision missiles, it can hit any forces that try to enter Ukraine.
Moreover, once Russia controls the east and Black Sea coast, the Ukraine rump is poor… and will be saddled with Lend-Lease debt. How it survives economically is beyond me.
Third, the West has been drinking its own Kool Aid in big slugs, which means it won’t be quick to move to a Plan B of finding a way to do more than send equipment and maybe some advisers. The reality is that Ukraine has not made a single significant attack since the war started. Some armchair pundits argues that Russia would become overstretched if Ukraine tried to take Transnistria, but no such campaign took place.
Indeed, the West keeps touting the idea that the plucky Ukrainians can still best the Russian meanies, so a big course change would amount to admitting Ukraine is in serious trouble. On top of that, Ukraine is now touting the idea that they can mount a big counter-offensive in August…which of course charitably assumes they still have an army by then. But this new story line means no major change, particularly no search for meaningful manpower to supplement Ukraine forces, is likely to be contemplated before late summer (oh, and let us also remember that Europe goes on holiday in August, so no new plans by late July means no new plans until September).