[If you see this note, the post is not quite complete. Please come back at 7:45 AM Eastern]
I had intended to look at some of the likely boundary conditions in the evolving Russia-Ukraine conflict. But the Western media-gasm over Ukraine successfully (and presumably with US/NATO help) landing a reported 4 out of 6 HIMARS missiles on a Russian deployment center in Makiivka in Donetsk oblast and killing a bunch of Russian soldiers is a vivid reminder of how Ukraine’s ability to keep prosecuting the war more and more depends on preserving an illusion of success, or at least continued viability.
It ought to be pedestrian to believe that telling tall tales isn’t viable in the long run. Ponzis and bubbles, which also run on hype and hope, eventually do collapse. But the dot-com mania had formerly rational investment professionals adopting the view that companies which were clearly never going to be cash flow positive were nevertheless highly valuable because eyeballs. The intensity of conviction in deeply unsound ideas enabled the dot-crazy to become more manic and last longer than any dull conventional person dreamed was remotely possible.
As we’ll discuss in due course, despite the continued media cheerleading, which includes running patently false claims from Ukraine officials, this propaganda process is self-limiting. And there are also signs it may be getting to the end of the line.1
Admittedly, this is a slow news day, but it is nevertheless noteworthy to see the BBC, New York Times and Financial Times running news of this successful strike as a lead story. Let us turn to Anadolu Agency to get the two sides:
A Ukrainian rocket strike killed at least 63 Russian soldiers at a Russian deployment area in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Monday…
“All necessary assistance and support will be provided to the relatives and friends of the fallen servicemen,” the statement further said.
Late on Sunday, the Ukrainian army’s strategic communications department claimed that nearly 400 Russian soldiers were killed in strikes in Makiivka.
The statement also noted that an additional 300 Russian soldiers were wounded at varying levels of severity.
Let’s say the Ministry of Defense is bad at counting plus some of the now wounded die. 100 dead would still be in line with initial estimates. Ukraine claims 400.
Even using Ukraine’s figures, this is front page news? There have been many days, particularly in recent weeks, when Ukraine’s losses are one to two battalions a day. But we are to believe that the West should be chuffed by Ukraine and the West effectively admitting that a very bad day for Russia rises only the the level of routine losses for Ukraine?
Now admittedly, there is reason for Russians to be upset about this outcome. This loss was not due valiant sacrifice but incompetence. Why were troops, and per some reports, recent recruits not yet done with training, housed within missile range of Ukraine lines? But it’s not due to the magnitude of the losses but the fact that they look to have been completely preventable and may have been made much worse by storing ammo near the barracks.
Nevertheless, those who have been watching Russian reporting closely will note that this Reuters article makes much of the upset among Russian military bloggers…when they are chronically angry at the Russian armed forces with not being aggressive enough and get bent out of shape over comparatively minor Bad Shit Happening, like a recent incident where three helicopters were lost. So I would wait to see the tone of reactions in Russian mainstream media before jumping to conclusions. Nevertheless, from Reuters, Anger in Russia as scores of troops killed in one of war’s deadliest strikes:
Russia acknowledged on Monday that scores of its troops were killed in one of the Ukraine war’s deadliest strikes, drawing demands from nationalist bloggers for commanders to be punished for housing soldiers alongside an ammunition dump….
Igor Girkin, a former commander of pro-Russian troops in east Ukraine who has emerged as one of the highest profile Russian nationalist military bloggers, said the death toll was in the hundreds, later editing his post to include wounded in that figure. Ammunition had been stored at the site and Russian military equipment there was uncamouflaged, he said.
Another nationalist blogger, Rybar, said around 70 soldiers were confirmed dead and more than 100 wounded.
Given that co-locating ammo with barracks is inexcusable, one would also assume that Reuters inclusion of Rybar would mean Rybar was also outraged about the incident.
This is all I could find on Rybar:
🇷🇺🇺🇦🎞 Chronicle of a special military operation: events of December 31, 2022 – January 2, 2023
▪️On December 31, the Russian army launched a massive missile attack on military and industrial facilities on the territory of Ukraine.
At least eight targets were hit in Kiev , including a hotel where foreign advisers were located and CHP-5…
▪️Unfortunately, not without tragedy. On New Year’s Eve, the Armed Forces of Ukraine launched a strike from the HIMARS MLRS on the location of Russian troops in Makeevka .
Air defense destroyed only part of the missiles. As a result of the hit, about 70 Russian servicemen were killed, more than 100 people were injured.
To underscore: This strike was an impressive stunt. Either by virtue of Western surveillance or loose-lipped cleaning women tipping off Ukraine authorities, Ukraine killed a not-consequential number of men and disproportionately embarrassed the Ministry of Defense. It has no strategic impact and will not change the direction of the conflict.
In fact, it is consistent with what your humble blogger predicted weeks ago: as Ukraine is increasingly incapable of scoring meaningful victories on the battlefield, will increasingly resort to terrorism as a way of looking like it can still cause meaningful pain to Russia. Technically this attack was not terrorism but spending 6 of Ukraine’s scarce HIMARS to achieve a mere PR blip looks an awful lot like desperation to score any type of “win” appearance, as opposed to strategy.
In fact, Alex Vershinin, known to many readers as the author of the seminal Royal United Services paper, The Return of Industrial Warfare, recently provided an updated take on the strategies of the two sides. He mentions Ukraine’s two key elements, and the second one in such a matter of fact manner that it is easy to miss its importance:
1 It turned out that securitizing subprime debt, at least with all the greedy intermediaries getting enough fees to make it worth their time, wound up with one tranche, or slice of the risk layer-cake, being not attractively priced and therefore hard to sell. That was the BBB or BBB- tranches. That tranche was mainly or even entirely rolled up with the same tranches from other deals, with supposedly some better debt thrown in to make a risk sausage called a CDO.
But the BBB- tranche of a CDO was similarly unloved. Sometimes it was put into other CDOs (!!!) or used to make a yet more speculative risk sausage called a CDO squared.
There were even CDO to the thirds and a very few CDOs to the fourth. In a mathematical joke over my pay grade, there was a tiny CDO to the fourth series called Octonians. Octonians are the end of the line for normed division algebras over the real numbers.