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A curious community that doesn’t buy conventional wisdom on the conflict in Ukraine has been following it attentively and offering often ahead-of-the curve views and information that doesn’t get into the Washington Post. I’ll shortly turn to its latest hot topic, how much if at all Russia will change course after the much-lambasted pullback out of Kharkiv (which some argue persuasively isn’t strategically important but is at a minimum a big PR blow in a very much PR driven conflict).
I’ve been arguing privately with Lambert for some time that time is on Russia’s side, from a military and even more an economic perspective. There’s no particular reason Russia has to pick up the pace absent the West doing something actually game-changing, as opposed to touted as such, or the Russian hawks getting the upper hand.1
Russia is conducting a war of attrition on multiple fronts: military with Ukraine; military with NATO, the US, and Europe; economic with the “collective West”; and geopolitical by using the Ukraine conflict as a case study in how the European powers are still able to engage in colonialism through the self-serving “rules based order”.
But there’s a robust debate among contrarian kinetic/economic war watchers, such as Alexander Mercouris and Alex Christaforu of The Duran, Brian Berletic of New Atlas, Dima of Military Summary, Moon of Alabama, Andrei Martyanov, Larry Johnson, and particularly on the topic of whether and how hard Russia should respond 2 This group often, in a much smaller version of the Iraq War and pre-financial crisis blogospheres, promote and critique each other’s work. There are some other prominent commentators who present their own views and don’t interact much/at all with these YouTube and blog commentators, such as Scott Ritter, Douglas MacGregor, and the Twitterati like Russians with Attitude and @AZmilitary1. This group also has very different relationships with Russian Telegram, which if nothing else seems to have a lot of gossip and war porn. Some clearly make heavy use of it while others like Andrei Martyanov are dismissive or like Ritter and Macgregor, rely on other sources.
And it was Alexander Mercouris, at the end of his broadcast on Wednesday, made an articulate and integrated case for what I’ve been saying in fits and starts. Russia can carry on the war at its current pace indefinitely. It has the production capacity to do so. The toll in dead and wounded is tolerable.
By contrast, Western material support to Ukraine is falling despite efforts to pretend otherwise. The latest NATO, really US, package, was $2.2 billion, half going to 18 other nations, and the half for Ukraine consisting mainly of training, not weapons. Similarly, it is an open question about what happens in Europe as the energy crisis goes from bad to critical. The current non-response is to try to limit consumer power prices. That still won’t stop the most desperate from being harmed. And artificially low prices amounts to subsidizing consumption, which means the acute phase will hit earlier and harder than it would otherwise. What happens when businesses and families suffer rolling blackouts? At a bare minimum, it will be hard to work up much enthusiasm for the Ukraine project.
In addition, Ukraine’s focus on PR priorities, like never falling back to regroup and save lives, has made the war even more costly than it should have been, and that’s still pretty pricey. Even this bizarrely slow-tempoed war has chewed through pretty much all of Ukraine’s initial armored vehicles and artillery. It only has a pretense of an air force left. The Ukraine skeptics argue, and can point to strikes on command centers and broken battalions being recombined as proof, that the war has depleted Ukraine’s experienced fighting men, particularly the seasoned ones. Those losses can’t be replaced on the fly. And even fairly new armed force members are still much more effective than raw recruits.
I was surprised at what seemed a disproportionate reaction to the Kharkiv setback, now revealed as a planned pullback. Shit happens in war. Even a weakened opponent can find opportunities.
The West would have every reason to go gaga, since this was the first successful offensive since 2014, although in light of the Russian withdrawal, in fact the “offensive” part was not much evident. Even with Russia surprisingly ceding Izyum, unless and until Ukraine crossed the Oskil River, the advance did not represent a strategic gain. And Ukraine did not get far.
Moreover, even though critics correctly pointed out that the Russian pullback means it had over-committed itself (an argument for deploying more troops), they did not choose to notice that this episode exposed that Ukraine is also stretched, despite being supplied with yet more weapons and allegedly also mercenaries and/or NATO forces.3 Ukraine had to pull troops from other engagements to send them to Kharkiv. Among other things, that allegedly weakened the defenses against the linchpin city of Bahmut. The Wagner Group is reported to have entered its suburbs.
However, the explosion on Telegram and in the press and by some politicians says that there’s a lot of pent up frustration over not knowing exactly where the war is going and why, plus many being upset at Russia not retaliating over ongoing provocations like Ukraine shelling of the Zaporizhia nuclear plant and dropping petal mines in Donetsk city. The strikes on electrical infrastructure satisfied some of the blood lust. The constituency for the more measured approach seems to be winning the debate. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a general mobilization was not an option now. That does not rule out lesser escalation strategies but is clearly meant to lower expectations.
Russia has had to bend to political considerations before. Taking the terrain necessary to stop the shelling of Donetsk city was not an important military priority, but it was important to the DPR, and the DPR militia is an essential part of the Russian coalition fighting force. But escalating the war is a much bigger decision and one that can’t readily be rolled back.
If I were Putin, I’d temporize since other events in play seem likely to reduce the worry level in the Russian chattering classes, particularly since local elections this past Sunday still showed strong support for Putin’s party. If Russia is able to take Donetsk by say the end of the first week of October, that would be seen as a major accomplishment in Russia and would restore faith in the plodding pace of the war. Similarly, if the economic crisis in Europe becomes more acute, that would also bolster Russian confidence. And Russia could make some opportunistic strikes, similar to or even a repeat of the electrical grid strikes, to satisfy some of the blood lust without committing to an amped-up war.
There is a risk of Ukraine launching yet another counter-offensive, as it seems to be discussing non-stop. There are even rumors that Zelensky wants to reboot the disastrous Kherson offensive, an outcome some in Russia are likely praying for. I haven’t had a look at a map, but the Zaporizhia power plant is strategically important (Ukraine really needs the power!) and high profile. I’d certainly give that a hard look as a possibility, and unlike Kharkiv, one Russia can’t afford to lose.
Mercouris yesterday also reminded his viewers that Russia had in its 2021 negotiations included its demand that NATO pull back to its 1997 lines. The only way that happens is if Russia has or does open an artery and the West bleeds out.
1 While your humble blogger has never been big on the Western promotion of the idea that Putin is a decider, the restraint shown in, or as Russian critics say, constraints put on this conflict clearly comes from Putin. He’s seen as (far too) dovish and famously dragged out the conflict in Syria by repeatedly allowing for the opening of humanitarian corridors, which often helped the rebels get food. But Putin keeping that war at a lower heat level enabled Russia to later mend fences with Turkey, a critically important priority.
2 Gonzalo Lira has had to pick his spots for quite a while. The Saker sometimes has his original posts quoted my members of this group.
3 It seems likely that NATO-member troops have been manning some of the wunderwaffen in Ukraine. It takes too long to train for Ukraine soldiers to be proficient. But aside from mercenaries, I doubt there are foreign fighters on the zero line.