Speculation Over What Russia Does Next

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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.

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  1. rkka

    I think we’re getting a taste of what Russia is going to do next, escalate strategic precision strikes on critical Ukrainian fixed infrastructure. They’ve started with electrical distribution. They might go for electrical generation, such as the generator halls of hydroelectric dams, fossil fuel power plants, as well as oil refineries. Ukraine’s railroads run on electricity, so lack of electric power & lack of diesel will impact Ukraine’s strategic & operational mobility and logistical capacity. So look for Ukraine’s ability to mass forces for, and sustain forces in, offensive operations to decline They’ll still be able to maintain stubborn defense in fortified areas by feeding in infantry to be ground up by Russian artillery.

      1. rkka

        Thank you. I’ve always admired the force that on 22 June 1941 was almost universally predicted to fold up & blow away in 4-6 weeks under an attack supported by the resources of a united continental Europe, falsified all but the first of the fundamental assumptions of the Barbarossa plan in 7 weeks, irreparably wrecked the German infantry branch in 1941, and then parked itself in the middle of Europe, to enforce the least warlike, least bloody 46 years of European history in the last thousand.

    1. elkern

      Attacking dams in (un-occupied) Ukraine would be a dangerous move for Russia. The Kakhovka Dam is within range of HIMARS; blowing it would prolly dry up the canal which supplies much/most of Crimea’s fresh water. Bonus: flood waters would knock out any Russian pontoon bridges supplying their troops in Kherson Oblast, (temporarily) exacerbating their supply problems there.

      It would also prolly drown a few thousand civilians in Kherson & other down-river towns; and it would eliminate the coolant pool for the ZNPP. Ukraine could loudly blame Russia, and US/Western would dutifully repeat the lies (as we’ve seen from the reporting on the shelling of ZNPP).

      I suspect that main reason that Ukraine has not blown that dam yet is that they know that Russia would retaliate by attacking many dams in un-occupied Ukraine. But if Russia goes first – attacks [a critical number of?] dams, Ukraine might as well bomb the Kakhovka Dam. The situation is symmetrical – mutual hostage-holding, MAD, a (temporary?) stalemate.

      Attacking Ukraine’s electricity grid makes more sense – it’s a clear response to Ukraine’s very dangerous attacks on ZNPP.

      Also, attacking the rail lines which Ukraine used to move troops to Kharkiv/Izium would be “proportional”, and would have tactical value (reducing Ukrainian mobility & supply options in Donetsk Oblast).

  2. Ignacio

    I think that inmediately after the Kharkiv counteroffensive, Mercouris became excessively fixated with the optics…, or may be not. It is getting increasingly clear that in Ukraine, Zelensky’s stance is to do whatever, (sacrifice soldiers etc.) to escalate conflict. He was unhappy with Russians going too slowly and let’s say it this way being too careful not to disrupt energy in Ukraine, not to do excessive damage, (keep infrastructures intact etc…). The goal of Ukraine’s counteroffensives is bring an escalation that will be the excuse for full NATO-Russia confrontation. This is the only hope remaining for Zelensky. On the other side, IMNSHO, Putin was reluctant to such escalation, probably knowing what that escalation would bring: the final extreme rupture with the West. Now, he has been forced, probably by the optics (let’s think or Russian hawks) to escalate a bit. In this sense Mercouris is correct: the optics matter.

    From the post and comments inside yesterday on the telephone call between Scholtz and Putin plus news from von der Leyen’s discourse on the state of the Union it looks like Germanty is fully with Zelensky on escalation. Phrases like “our weapons save lifes”, von der Leyen’s “our dependency on Russian gas has been reduced to 9%” and remarks by Scholtz in the sense that he didn’t find the correct attitude in Putin the narrative is set for an escalation and more direct NATO involvement to the point of war declaration anytime soon against Russia.

    The successful recovery of Idzum (or however it is written) by Ukraine, might have been the perfect excuse for a “mission accomplished” claim by the EU (even if they conquered terrain deserted by the Russians), let’s now negotiate! Scholtz broke this possibility with his rapid call setting conditions absolutely unacceptable for Putin. So, Germany is fully engaged in escalation and sees this as the only “sensible” option after doubling down in each turn of events. The rest of EU leadership is sleeping on the job or apparently willing to be dragged to this nonsense.

    1. Karl

      Maybe Sholtz’s “unreasonable demands” story was a cover for the real reason for the phone call: “Mr. President, how does Germany get Nordstream I and II gas flowing quickly?”

  3. Lex

    One major point is that the world has never seen a conflict like this play out on social media. If this kind of media environment was possible in 2003, there would have been massive arguments about how British incompetence couldn’t take Basra and it was messing up the whole plan. Even as it was, the US cut off almost all embedded journalists for a while. Because war is messy and never goes according to plan.

    I assume that in the beginning, Russia wanted this over quickly and was willing to negotiate in a way that would allow Ukraine to save some face even if it angered parts of the Russian population. But now there’s no point. Kiev says it won’t stop until it captures Moscow, the US has thrown nearly the full weight of NATO into this and EU leadership is right now saying that it’s only satisfied with complete destruction of Russia economically (which means complete destruction). So the calculus is different but some constraints remain. Russia’s held back forces and that seems prudent, for example the potential that Armenia could still call for CTSO forces. And since the US publishes its plans, Russia knows that the US strategy is to stretch Russia; hence an effort to not be stretched.

    As for public pressure in Russia, it’s been there since 2014. Putin himself wrote that he considers Donbas personal failure and promised to rectify it. But he’s an incredibly cautious leader (why I was surprised he went kinetic) and a stickler for international law so he’s going to always wait for precedent and counter escalate rather than escalate. And his escalations will always be delayed, especially compared to public opinion. That’s opposite to what westerners are used to experiencing.

    The current context is Russia favorable, geopolitically. Russia could not have predicted that in March. So now there need not be a rush except for in terms of PR. There are some MoA commenters who always bring up “NATO back to ‘97” demands and assume it’s military. I think Russia sees a potential opportunity to collapse NATO without a fight beyond Ukraine and is taking it by degrading NATO military capability and opening fractures inside the alliance and the EU. Will it work? Dunno, but if I’m in the kremlin I’d take the chance in current context. It’s relatively low cost and ending the conflict won’t lift the sanctions. As it stands, Ukraine is a quagmire for the US, not Russia. How does the US walks away from “defending democracy” in the middle Europe and at the same time how does it maintain this level of aid or increase it (likely necessary)? How long before Europeans start thinking, “wait a minute, the US is stabbing us in the back?” after reading US media about how Europe’s economic destruction helps US inflation. The US and friends are getting desperate and the tar baby is firmly stuck to them. What are its real and effective options for the short and medium term?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Yes, I added the NATO back to 1997 point in the last para before seeing your comment.

      Russia cannot do that by force, at least in the conventional manner. Russia does not have enough men even to occupy and hold a hostile Western Ukraine. It has to drain Europe into submission, whether economic or military. My bet has been that it will bizarrely be the self-inflicted economic war that conclusively turns the tables for Russia.

      Putin may have been seen as referring to the kinetic war when he said (approximate quote, I will correct later) “We really haven’t started much of anything yet.” But that is even more true of the economic war.

      If Russia embargoed key commodities, or Russia decides to use the G7 dopey oil price ceiling scheme to stop deliveries as it has promised, and oil prices do a moonshot, the West will be in a world of hurt in short order. It’s already well along that path by not getting out of its own way (with bank sanctions) to free up Russian fertilizer shipments. Ag prices will rise even more in 2023 and 2024.

      1. Ignacio

        After reading the final version of the article I have to say I agree 100% with your view and believe that Russia should and will temporize and act with relative calm bit by bit, trying not to become crazed by Western PR and will try to clear the full Donbas region soon but without risking their armies excessively. It wouldn’t be wise to go for Odessa, for instance, and give fresh munition to the “Russia is imperialistic” crowd.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I think they will have to eventually take Odessa. It’s a majority Russian area. A horrific abuse occurred there during Maidan. Protestors fled into a building, then the building was set on fire. 44 died. And Russia getting control of the Black Sea coast will help immensely in controlling Western Ukraine on the cheap, as well as being strategically important for other reasons. But they may go about it more slowly than I thought earlier, again aiming to bring Ukraine men and materiel to them.

          The general assumption is Russia will engage in some sort of winter advance.

          1. digi_owl

            I seem to recall articles about the US military building some sort of base in Odessa as well, but searching now comes up with scraps (surprise surprise).

          2. psv

            Yes, I saw a maybe 30-minute video from the Trade Union Building fire in 2014 and it definitely affected my view of Ukraine. There were people casually milling around, taking cell phone pictures, you could see others in the windows inside. Some people started to try to set the building on fire and eventually it spread. No sirens, no official forces coming to intervene, at least in the clip I saw. It made me wonder what kind of country this was, where something like this could happen.

        2. Jay Francis

          If western opinion was decisive, there would be no war. Clearly it isn’t. If the Russians take Odessa then they will have a stranglehold over the rump western Ukrainian stage at the end of the war, because they’ll control it’s ability to export bulk foodstuffs. Without Russian cooperation the Ukrainian economy will collapse. So Ukraine will have to stop cooperation with NATO and feuding on the borders so I’m fact taking Odessa is the key to Russian war goals.

          1. Polar Socialist

            I think there’s more to that than just controlling access to Black Sea. If Russia takes Odessa region and Transdnistria also becomes part of Russia, Ukraine east of Vinnitsa-Zhitomir line will be one huge, 400 miles long “cauldron” waiting to happen.

      2. Lex

        I agree that Russia can’t do that militarily and I don’t think Russia wants to do it militarily, nor does it want the territory. Based on Putin’s speech and questions at the eastern economic forum a few weeks ago, Russia is almost fully turning east.

        I agree on “we haven’t really started much of anything yet”, especially the economic side. I do wonder about discussion inside western military structures. Is there a grappling with the reality that NATO is throwing almost everything it has into Ukraine and Russia is grinding it down with what’s obviously a relatively small portion of its military might? I think that there is this acknowledgment but politics demands more Ukrainian aid. I don’t think the NATO will rearm Eastern Europe means anything. Contracts will be signed but contracts for long term deliveries don’t fight wars and I strongly question how the European nations (including Germany) will be able to afford rearmament under US contracts.

        That just circles us back to the self-inflicted economic war. At the beginning of the Kharkov offensive my gut told me it was western desperation. Von Leyden’s speech, Scholz’s call and the media coverage are all reinforcing that gut feeling. The west is getting increasingly desperate. In that, Putin’s patience is a dangerous weapon. The west wants Russia to go full mobilization because it could regalvinize support for Ukraine through the horrors of war.

      3. Karl

        “We really haven’t started much of anything yet.” But that is even more true of the economic war.

        That’s a good point. Russia’s recent announcement that it is shutting off gas supplies indefinitely to Germany via Nordstream I, and showing he can put Ukraine’s electricity supply at risk, signals Putin will ratchet up the economic war. Perhaps this is the real reason for the Sholtz phone call?

        If Mercouris is right about letting this war drag on in order to drag down NATO/EU this winter (I think he is) then it will be convenient to keep Zelensky in power with an occasional “win”. Ukraine (or the U.S.) getting rid of Zelensky too soon may spoil things, yes?

        At the end of WW II the allies liked having Hitler in power because he consistently made big military mistakes. Same with Zelensky?

        Mercouris and Ritter also point out that Ukraine’s front will turn to mud pretty soon. I think they were non-commital about which side will benefit most from this. I wonder if it will mostly favor the side with air and artillery superiority?

    2. Ignacio

      Since EU leadership is playing “everything is Putin’s fault” they apparently don’t mind if there is pain in Europe and such pain will indeed reinforce their position, they believe: the more pain, the better and that looks prevalent at least in Germany. There is kind of a religious thinking about sacrifices and pain…

      It is the case, IMO, that now Europe (or a part of it) is more engaged in the war (in moral terms) than the US.

      1. The Rev Kev

        ‘There is kind of a religious thinking about sacrifices and pain’

        Either that or people like von der Leyen and Scholz are sadomasochists. :)

        1. Ignacio

          Rather than sadomasochists I would say sociopaths: being unable to admit a mistake they double down no matter how much pain they inflict. They won’t be the ones suffering scarcity.

          1. The Rev Kev

            Fully agree. When this is all over, I fully expect Ursula von der Leyen to be promoted as the new United Nations Secretary General and Olaf Schulf to take her place as President of the European Commission. People like that are always taken care of.

            1. JTMcPhee

              Amazing, in the “fight for Democracy,” that van der Layen has de facto promoted herself to EU Empress. What happened to all that “consultation and debate” and the votes of EU members on matters of policy? She somehow gets to drive the bus without any foundational garment to cover her nakedness (ugh — how can I unsee that image?).

              As to “plodding pace,” as noted, the Russian industrial war machine is chewing up the trash that NATO/US/Ukraine has thrown at the “allied” military as fast as the “former Free World” can throw it at the allied jaws. I’d say for the allies to encourage escalation invites a big chance that the effing crazies in the dying Empire might “go nuclear.” The chess game proceeds apace.

              Big things are happening. Us little people, whatever our positions, can entertain ourselves by trying to figure out what “is going to happen,” with certain certainties but a universe’ worth of “accident and error” waiting to spring.

              The crazed US, and Britain, and France, and of course the Israel -ites, have various flavors of nuclear weapons that some, in their chains of command, are talking freely about using to reshape the battlespace.

              I’ve got my bottles of potassium iodide, how about the rest of us? https://www.trueprepper.com/iodine-tablets-radiation/

              1. feox

                Amazing, in the “fight for Democracy,” that van der Layen has de facto promoted herself to EU Empress. What happened to all that “consultation and debate” and the votes of EU members on matters of policy?

                That’s false. All sanctions necessitate an unanimous vote in the EU Council.

                1. juno mas

                  His point is that van der Layen is making pronouncements (purported policy) without discussion or votes. She’s effectively a loose cannon.

                  1. Ignacio

                    Indeed, though she is not alone. Demonstrated by the fact that she, with all her team, haven’t been so far subjected to a motion of censure. A majority of the EP is subjugated in her game. So far.

                    1. JTMcPhee

                      So then in the “democratic” EU, silence is assent? Do the democracy-loving denizens of the EU nations “represented” in the EP know that their sovereignty has been thus “subjugated,” an interesting choice of verbs?

              2. urdsama

                A truly depressing situation all around.

                As for me, if the crazies get their wish, I hope to be holding my SO and have the end come quick. I have no desire to try and survive in a Threads type future.

                1. Paleobotanist

                  I live by the major railyard in Montreal. Many of Canada’s lines funnel through here. It will be a target to shut down national bulk transport. I take comfort in this fact as it will be quick. I’ll probably never know when we’re hit.

                  In Links, the modern anti-war song “The General” is very good in both languages. The kids are all right.

                  1. norm de plume

                    Living by the railyard, there is another General you might enjoy…

                    The Dispatch’s dedication of the song to supporting Ukraine, like Keaton’s rendering of Confederate myth, while perhaps under-informed and naive, is blameless and even commendable. Ignorance is innocent and the world would be a better place if we all answered to that description. Unfortunately however, we don’t.

              3. drumlin woodchuckles

                The Israel-ites want okay relations with Russia. As such, will they put their A-bombs at NATO-EUFUKUS disposal?

        2. Jessica

          Or perhaps they see an opportunity to Americanize Europe by permanently reducing the living standard of ordinary Europeans to the benefit of European elites.

    3. Amfortas the hippie

      “That’s opposite to what westerners are used to experiencing. ”

      that’s like a lietmotif throughout this whole thing…both in the propaganda offensive and outright panglossian lying initiative, as well…apparently…sincerely in the halls of western power.
      like the “failure” to “take kiev”…unexamined assumptions within the western/us talking head set…because it aint the american way of war.

      if western “leadership”…whatever that even means any more…really is smoking its own stash, that counts as a great disadvantage…and points a klieglight on senescent empire.

    4. Harry

      I have a well placed American acquaintance who had a front row seat to the Iraq shenanigans working for a well known 3 letter agency, and who swears blind the British Army solved their Basra problems with bribery. Without it the casualty list would have been unacceptably high.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Why, that’s positively Byzantine! The vasty gulf between what is bruited, and what is unseen…

        And it’s not like the Empire is above that sort of ‘resolution—‘ like keeping the young-male-abusing Afghan warlords on-side with shrink-wrapped bundles of used $100 bills (a declining value, these days) and of course regular deliveries of Viagra… ‘Viagra lure’ for Afghan warlords http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7800549.stm

    5. Glossolalia

      A little while ago someone posted a quote from a book that said something along the lines of eventually leaders and governments will no longer lead or govern in any real way but instead will just manage perceptions and optics of what is happening. Does anyone recall that quote or book?

    1. Hickory

      Maybe. I’ve been more concerned about a tactical nuke false flag. A couple times, Biden has said the Russians may use nukes, which would be priming the audience for the false flag.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Russia has hypersonic missiles. They do a ton of damage without the nasty radiation. They are better for pretty much every use case except destroying the world.

      But the problem is the West would likely assume in flight that they were tactical nukes.

      1. Polar Socialist

        Considering how that Ukrainian Tu-141 drone managed to get to Zagreb before crashing, the West may not see them in flight, but only when they hit.

          1. digi_owl

            That is pretty much the basis for stealth planes.

            The B-2 for instance is reported to have the radar echo of an albatross.

            Meaning these things can be detected, but then the radars will likely also be picking up large birds and maybe the odd storm cloud.

    3. spud farmer

      If the NATO proxy Ukrainians cross an obvious Russian red line by attacking Crimea or manage to really start pounding Russian forces into submission with western-made weaponry, and NATO doesn’t give Putin a face saving way out, that would be incredibly dangerous.

      I’ll let others read the tea leaves and try to predict what Russia and NATO are going to do next. But looking at the big picture it certainly does seem like this conflict could very well end up at the brink of nuclear war.

      The 1945-1991 Cold War while having its tense moments was overall a gentlemanly affair when compared to the overheated rhetoric and aggressive escalation of the 2.0 version.

      There are almost no voices in American and EU mainstream politics and mass media calling for negotiations or deescalation and there is no organized antiwar movement to keep the notion of a peaceful world alive in the public’s mind. The 1980s antinuke peace marches weren’t beloved by everyone but you didn’t have the entire media denouncing the marchers as traitors or victims of Soviet/Russian prop*g*nd* as would be the case today.

      Perusing Twitter it’s unsettling how many Ukraine war commentators in the west, laypeople and blue checks alike, seem to have a death wish and yearn subconsciously for a “cleansing fire.” Forget make love, not war…Eros is out and Thanatos is in, baby!

      So, yeah, NATO pushing the Russians to the point where they might consider using tactical nukes is well within the realm of possibility.

      1. nippersdad

        I don’t think we have the ability to push Russia into a nuclear conflict using conventional methods, and I don’t think the Pentagon would allow it even if we could. State has overcome Pentagon misgivings for years now, but the potential of a nuke on Washington would be game changing. State will lose every time and twice on Sundays in that kind of scenario.

        They have a lot of retired generals contracted out by the MSM these days for analysis, and just see how long State can hold out when the Generals start blaming incompetent neocons for the results of all of our military misadventures over the past twenty years. In a game of chicken between a McGregor and a Blinken, I know where my bets would be placed.

        1. norm de plume

          ‘They have a lot of retired generals contracted out by the MSM these days for analysis’

          It is worth pointing out that many of those retired generals earn their keep from a media owned and operated by the same elite forces who have their hands up the jumpers of State. It is not clear that they would be representing realist Pentagon views.

          ‘and just see how long State can hold out when the Generals start blaming incompetent neocons for the results of all of our military misadventures over the past twenty years’

          If that happens, said neocons will want to ensure that the accusations against them consist merely of incompetence. The charge of fool, ignoramus or even coward can be dealt with, wriggled away from, with the help of a media owned by the same people who own them. ‘Whocoodanode?’ and or ‘Oops, my bad’.

          If however the charge sheet lists greed, knavery and megalomania in the service of treason, insanity or pure evil, most if not all bets are off. Increasingly it seems that ‘the potential of a nuke on Washington’ would be insufficient for a critical mass of key minds to migrate to a position of self-preserving common sense; it seems more likely that the probability, if not the actuality, of such an outcome will be required for that purpose.

  4. John

    Since the USA is the paramount power in NATO/EU, my premise is that in all pronouncements by European leaders the US is the “man behind the curtain.” Is that a assumption too far?

    1. hemeantwell

      It would be extremely helpful if commenters, particularly those with some direct experience in peak EU institutions, address this question. There has been a marked skew here towards explaining EU behavior in terms of elite incompetence or the unwieldy nature of decision making in large organizations without due consideration of the extent and nature of the influence the US has deployed in driving this mess. The US’ paramount position in NATO has been a defining, perhaps the defining, feature of its post-WW2 strategic program. Via machinations during the Balkan crisis of the 90s, on which it artfully sprayed jet fuel to promote a militarization of the conflict, the US kept itself in the driver’s seat and blocked a full development of the post-Soviet peace dividend. But now the economic dimension of the war threatens to supplant the military dimension as a definer of European interests. Since WW2 freedom to accumulate capital has been at the core of European acquiescence to US dominance, and without that possibility NATO could disintegrate. What is the big stick Washington has for keeping its allies in line?

      How about some scenario speculation? What pressure can the US bring against, for example, Germany if German elites get it together — roughly, their bourgeoisie overrules their NATOheads — and decide freedom is more about having a viable economy and gas from Nordstream 2? Russia, and maybe Russia and China, would be prepared to offer buckets of additional incentives. The US can of course tell the Germans they are no longer protected from Russian tank armies. So what? Should we believe that German economic elites really worry about that? What does the US have at its disposal to frighten those elites?

      1. Karl

        I, too, have been amazed by the subservience of Germany’s (and Europe’s) elites to the apparent cashiering of Ostpolitik, which has helped Germany immensely economically since Willy Brandt went down this path in the 70’s. Surely the titans of German industry have always understood the paramount importance of cheap Russian energy to Germany’s economic success? Or did they forget? Or are they, like their leaders, just stoopid?

        As to whether “the US can … tell the Germans they are no longer protected from Russian tank armies [by removing its nuclear umbrella]: don’t forget France’s “force de frappe”, i.e. its own ICBM force, which may well be sufficient to deter Russia. Of course, the U.S. would benefit by keeping a nuclear exchange a purely European affair. NATO expansion arguably is not in the US’s own interest. In fact, NATO’s existence is arguably no longer even in Europe’s interest. I suspect that NATO’s obsolescence –indeed, its dangerous aggressiveness upsetting the European security balance–is what Putin is trying to communicate to Europe. Europe may yet take matters in its own hands if and when this whole game explodes in their faces this winter. Such are the stakes.

        Stoopidity reigns!

        1. hemeantwell

          What I would urge as part of the scenario development is a temporary suspension of stupidity as an explanatory option. It is not hard to imagine that that any given actor, or small group of actors, would be really afraid of being the first to step out of line. How far does one go in imagining what they imagine? Wouldn’t it be plausible for disgruntled biz owners to think that they cannot discuss an agreement with Russia without the NSA listening in? And if they get past that threshold, what can be done to them if they are not protected by the German state?

          Another angle: we’ve all gotten used to thinking that it was within the Warsaw pact that things would get rough, the tank armies would indeed start to roll. In the MSM world, such things cannot possibly go on between fraternal capitalist powers. But isn’t there an equivalent of Hungary in ’56 within the Dollar/Wall Street system?

          1. Minor Squabble

            I’ve worked in large corporates for years, and I wouldn’t discount a combination of ambition, arrogance, cowardice and stupidity (in this case ideological zealotry) as key factors.

            Experience also tells me that these are exaggerated in military orgs, where the covert presence of secret services, enormous power and fear combine to create a culture of cowardice and sycophancy, both of which are rewarded with power for those stupid and ambitious enough. Truss and Johnson are the most perfect examples.

            All of these euro pollies will have a) skeletons in their closets (fear) and b) swiss bank accounts (reward for sycophancy) that the US deep state can leverage at their whim.

            There is nothing worse than being a public figure that becomes aware the US deep state has begun to take an interest in you because you haven’t toed the line.

            This is the reality these people operate in; a surreal world of considerable power at one level and crushing impotence at another.

    2. fjallstrom

      A year ago, or so, a minor scandal erupted in Denmark. By way of a leak it became public knowledge that Danish security services did surveillance on surrounding countries top politicians. Given what we know of the nature of collaboration between European and US intelligence services, from for example the FRA legislation in Sweden, it is a fair assumption that NSA had access to whatever Danish security services got hold of. And unless one assumes that there is something particularly rotten in Denmark, it would be a fair assumption that this goes on in other EU countries too. The way the scandal rather quickly turned into yesterday’s news certainly points in that direction.

      If then the US has what amounts to massive surveillance of all top politicians in the EU, applying carrots and sticks could certainly produce a “man behind the curtain” situation. Though one can rarely know for sure until long after the fact, when documents reflecting internal deliberations become public.

    3. elkern

      NeoCon/NeoLiberal capture of US Foreign Policy was achieved via two (related) “investment strategies”: funding for FP Think Tanks, and campaign donations.

      Think Tanks like The Atlantic Council & the CFR pump out propaganda to support the “consensus” (Borg) view of US FP options. Campaign donations – especially in Primary elections – make sure that few Senators can afford to oppose that “consensus”.

      Seems to me that different “investment strategies” would have been needed in Europe. Dont’ most European countries have (somewhat) better mechanisms for protecting their elections from the power of Money? Aren’t their major Universities a more important source of ideas for FP than privately funded Think Tanks?

  5. The Rev Kev

    Time is still on Russia’s side if they have the patience to let things play out. Said recently that I think that fundamentals are important and such is the case here. So setting aside the battles, skirmishes, advances and retreats, take a look at some of the things ticking along in the background-

    -Hyperinflation starting to take off in the Ukraine as money printing is increasing to pay bills.

    -The Ukraine’s last trained reserve decimated by about 40% and hundreds of vehicles destroyed.

    -Lack of weapons that can be sent to the Ukraine as western stocks are tapped out. Training now being substituted.

    -Energy shortages in the EU causing supply problems, de-industrialization and increasing unemployment. Recession on the way.

    -Major schisms opening up in the EU, particularly with the Baltic States/Poland trying to run EU foreign decisions.

    -Disfunctional EU leadership meaning no unified stance nor any attempts at any negotiations. No off-ramps.

    -Every sanction having only small effect on the Russian economy but huge blowbacks to the EU economies causing chaos.

    -Increasing isolation of the west from the bulk majority of the world’s countries.

    -Winter is coming

    I’m sure that people here can add more to this brief list but you get the idea.

    1. MT_Wild

      On your last point, family is headed to Germany to visit relatives today. The forecast for the next week is rainy, with highs in the upper 50’s and lows in the upper 30’s. Might get the populace thinking about how they are going to heat their homes this winter.

      Really agree that the Russians can run down the game clock and let the economic and political situation in the EU collapse. All Ukraine can do is try to get Russia to change strategy and make a mistake.

      1. Hope Dies Last

        In Europe we can only hope that the Russians are not interested in having a Europe in chaos due to economic and social collapse, meaning that as soon as our misleadership gets their heads together, go to Moscow and apologize, maybe clean up the most russophobic swines in the security structures, they will sell gas to us so that we at least get food and shelter.

        I only hope, I don’t bet on it though.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I don’t think Putin wants that. He’s long been pro-European to the degree that a lot of Russians have seen him as sentimental.

          But Europe divorced Russia and continues to show no interest whatsoever as to why Russia started the war. Scholz’s demands leave Russia with only the option of pressing forward until something on the opposing side breaks.

          1. Hope Dies Last

            Putin, maybe. But he’s not around forever and who knows who is standing in line after.

            Russians have a sense of living history. Some anecdata. Every time I attended some official Russian-Swedish event with ambassadors and the alike, the Vikings sailing down to Nizhny Novogorod as well as the Battle of Poltava came up. Not only as a joke or trolling but also as a serious past that shapes our relations. Living history.

            Also, celebrating the WWII victory has been very important in Russia as long as I lived there and such a big thing that sometimes it has looked like the only thing they have to celebrate – in light of the fall of Soviet Union and the horrible 90s – so they cling on to it too much.
            However, in light of the SMO I have changed my mind on this. They celebrate both the sacrifice and suffering of millions of people but also, relevant now, keeping the memory of nazis alive.
            As we have seen, Ukrainian nazis were receieved with open arms in Canada and US. US put top nazis in charge of NASA and other key institutions.
            So a bunch of hardcore nazis were successful in life and therefore never had to rethink their priorities. You can bet your house on that these people have formed more or less secret nazi societies promoting ideas about the inferiro Russians. Also, there are few people that so vehemently hate their homecountries and the recent history as a diaspora that lost wealth in the homeland. CIA also financed nazi networks in Ukraine during USSR-times
            and they were reactivated now. The Russians have certainly known about this thanks to the close ties between the countries. So the nazi threat was low for many years but never went away.
            EU has now shown the real European values: delivering weapons and money to hardcore nazis. Not Disneynazis shouting Heil Hitler and swinging swastikas and beating up the occasional immigrant but real nazis that happily kill Russians en masse in Lugansk and Donetsk when the Ukrainian regular army refused to.
            So visualize this and take a listen again to the level of disgust when Putin anmounces the SMO and specificall when he speaks about denazification.
            So I think this will linger for quite some time and unless the Russian government is not interested in Europe being the new source of immigrants fleeing chaos or they can’t sell their natural resources to Eurasia and the rest of the world, I reserve the right to not betting on Russia selling stuff to EU to keep us above survival mode.

            1. digi_owl

              What worries me there is how rapidly media buried the Ukrainian nazi angle once Russia started complaining about same.

            2. Polar Socialist

              Also, celebrating the WWII victory has been very important in Russia as long as I lived there and such a big thing that sometimes it has looked like the only thing they have to celebrate – in light of the fall of Soviet Union and the horrible 90s – so they cling on to it too much.

              There’s a good argument that being a republic with 85 subjects and a nation of 193 ethnic groups, the most uniting thing for all citizens is that they all have relatives who fought and/or died in the Great Patriotic War.

              I’m not saying TPTB are not seriously backing this phenomena, but it is my understanding that all kinds of other national celebrations have been tried, and yet the Victory Day has had some natural, real grass root strength behind it, especially the Immortal Regiment.

          2. Michael Fiorillo

            “… why Russia started the war.”

            Perhaps better to phrase it as, “… why Russia escalated a civil and proxy war that had been taking place since 2014,” no?

            1. Yves Smith Post author

              Well, yes, I was being too telegraphic, but the point is the West likes to see this as unprovoked aggression when as we know the US has now fessed up to this being a proxy war and ignoring Russia clearly being upset about the rising security threat. I keep saying if Russia had tried something like this in Mexico, the US would have invaded way earlier.

        2. The Rev Kev

          Things may turn for the worse for the US as well. Right now, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are pushing forward a bill to have Russia declared as a “state sponsor of terrorism” which is a sort of nuclear option in its consequences. That is such catastrophic idea that even Joe Biden and Antony Blinken are against it-


        3. Polar Socialist

          I believe Russia will sell as much gas and oil as Europe will buy, as long as it’s paid in rubles. Diplomatically and politically Russia may have pushed Europe to the side for now, but they will still make business if and when there’s business to be made.

          I don’t think they even care about apologies (even if those would be nice touch), but they do expect to be treated as equal, so no to be lectured on but their concerns taken into consideration.

          I hear a lot of talk in EU about how EU has turned it’s back on Russia, and that it will last for decades with or without war. What people here don’t seem to understand that Russia has turned it’s back to EU and actually doesn’t need EU as much as EU needs Russia.

          Russia seems to currently have the power, and will, to make it’s own “security arrangements” regardless of what EU or The West wants. EU, on the other hand, will not feel secure until it accepts Russia has to be a part of European security.

          1. The Rev Kev

            The EU also seems to be picking a fight with China as well and calling it a threat which does not seem to be a great idea. I mean, how many other large markets will they have left to sell their goods to?

            1. nippersdad

              Perhaps the rationale is that if they cannot produce goods to sell on those markets then the markets no longer matter?

              How many houses are there in Miami to house all of the Guaidos, Zelenskis and von der Leyens. anyway?

            2. drumlin woodchuckles

              The long run China plan is to sell enough goods into Europe to exterminate numerous industries in Europe just as Chinese imports have been used to exterminate numerous industries in America.

              The concept of “Europe selling goods to China” will soon become obsolete, unless you mean luxury goods like olive oil, wine and truffles. And cultural tourism opportunities.

          2. hemeantwell

            I hear a lot of talk in EU about how EU has turned it’s back on Russia, and that it will last for decades with or without war. What people here don’t seem to understand that Russia has turned it’s back to EU and actually doesn’t need EU as much as EU needs Russia.

            These can be thought of as threats made within a bargaining context. For Europe, TINA to purchases of Russian resources, unless Russia is really governed by revanchist crazies instead of a developmentally-oriented Bonapartist regime (pulling on Volodymyr Isochenko here, who sees Putin as an organizing leader in that mold). Russia has demonstrated that it does have alternatives, but I think they want to keep open as many as possible in order not to become too dependent on China.

    2. Robert Hahl

      “Germany will become totally dependent on Russian energy if it does not immediately change course.”
      – Donald Trump at the UN.

      Watch the German delegation scoffing at Trump’s presumptuousness in telling them how to run their country. Bet they wish now that they knew what he had in mind then.


        1. jrkrideau

          Bleuidy h%%ll. Neither of them know how to use an axe. We are probably lucky no one chopped off a leg. Still, it is funny.

          I have proposed that Canada should start exporting firewood. We can get it to Europe a lot faster than LNG.

    3. vao

      Other things are ticking in the background:

      1) Syria. Unfinished business. Israel has been progressively escalating its military attacks against Syria for months now, the USA is reinforcing its bases there, and Turkey’s plans are as inscrutable as ever.

      2) Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia wedged between two adversaries with which it wants to keep good relations.

      3) Central Asia. Internal strife in Tajikistan — following a spat with Krgyzstan last year. And there were those trouble in Kazakhstan some time ago.

      Notice that all those places have been flaring up recently. Nothing that can defeat Russia, but it sure can “fix” and weary some of its military resources, and require attention from its very busy diplomats. I would not be surprised by renewed attempts from the West at colour revolutions somewhere near Russia, or simply at provoking mayhem (perhaps with islamist extremists).

      1. Polar Socialist

        I did see a mention yesterday that Russia deployed Mig-31K and Tu22M3 in Kheimim. Both armed with Kinzhals. I was wondering what that was all about.

        Regarding Armenia-Azerbaidjan tensions, Russians can now work with Iran to keep things cooler.

        I think China already asked for “no meddling” in Central Asia, so Russia isn’t dealing with that one alone, either.

  6. Stephen

    I watched Mercouris last night, Yves, and thought it was very good analysis, as yours has very much been too. He did stress that the Russian strategy of going slowly is high risk. My reflection is that no scenario is low risk for them, or for Putin personally.

    Russia does have clear staying power and this is all consistent with the historical Russian way of making war. Even in the Napoleonic era they deliberately planned for a three year war from 1812 and the actual campaign lasted until 1814 with the Russian entry to Paris. Accompanied too by excellent coalition building. Countries tend to operate consistently. The geo politics do not necessarily change so much! So this argument makes lots of sense.

    The real Russo-Western war is, of course, not about Ukraine but from the Russian perspective is about an overall security arrangement that meets her needs. The flare up in Armenia and EU attempts to build relationships with Georgia and so forth all underline that.

    Keeping the Global South and China plus India on side is integral to Russia’s security objective as an end in itself not just as a means (or even at all) to support the actions in Ukraine. So avoiding western shock and awe is smart because it may lose support.

    The real end game is about what that security arrangement will be and how it will not be reneged on. In an ideal world it would be a Concert of Europe style settlement but I guess it may end up as the destruction of NATO equipment and a rival alliance structure. The west does not want an agreement (this could change with new leaders) and is not agreement capable, as noted on these pages before. This security architecture feels the trickiest element and my thoughts are sheer speculation.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      As you might infer from the post, I think Mercouris is overestimating the risk of the go slowly approach. Russia is much more likely to make a big mistake (overextending itself, making a big move) if it proceeds more aggressively. The external risks Mercouris talked about were basically Ukraine would have more time to do more mischief…but they will continue to do mischief until they are completely subjugated, and trying to do that quickly likely requires some sort of occupation, which Russia can’t do. And the US and EU are, despite big talk otherwise, increasingly unable to pump enough air into Ukraine’s leaky balloon.

      Aggressive action would also increase the odds of the US depicting Russia as desperate and using tactical nukes.

      The risk of going slowly, IMHO, as we saw with Kharkiv, is the reaction within Russia. When you have only grinding, incremental victories that add up over time but seem underwhelming on a day to day basis, a setback can look more consequential than it really is.

      1. chuck roast

        What continually gets lost in the tactical verbiage are Putin’s three stated goals of the SMO. Goal #1 is the demilitarization of Ukraine. “Grinding incremental victories” are a way to accomplish this goal. The Ukraine is drafting 60 year old guys into the territorial battalions? One day soon their reserves will be exhausted. No amount of psy-ops will fill the trenches.

        I am curious about the role in this of the Azov’s and the various other right sectors battalions. They got trapped at Mariupol, but otherwise they seem to be particularly unscathed. I’m wondering if their battlefield function is to act as blocking forces behind the territorials, regular army and mercs. Eventually, they will be forced into the breach. Then the really serious grinding will commence. Goal #2 – denazification. I would call Putin a very goal oriented kinds guy.

        1. vao

          I already mentioned it, but here it is again:

          There are plenty of ultra-nationalist “battalions” and regiments, but not all of them (such as Donbass, Kraken or Aidar) fight on the front lines as part of the Ukrainian military. The Azov regiment is officially subordinated to the Ukrainian National Guard, and is therefore a kind of military police. The Dnipro and Sich battalions are Special Task Police forces. In other words, these are the guys who will perform the “filtration”.

          Apart from that, there are loose cannons like the Slobozhanshchyna battalion — whose exactions were so extreme in 2014-2015 that it was dissolved, before being resuscitated on the 24th of February. Remember that video of Ukrainians shooting Russia prisoners in the legs? That was the Slobozhanshchyna battalion.

        2. Paleobotanist

          Yeah, it boggles my mind that I’m draft age! I thought I was safe finally. My strength runs out like water these days as I try to keep up with the young pups in the field… Damned if I know why I try, stubbornness, I guess. Nobody should want me as a soldier.

      2. Stephen

        I agree. Risks are relative anyway and, of course, are meaningful to the extent they flip decisions. If I have three options I can follow and the level of risk is similar in each then it is a bit irrelevant how we label them!


        Massive Blitzkrieg = mega Russian casualties, possibly upset Global South if you level Ukraine plus what do you do afterwards anyway to control the country;

        Immediate Ceasefire / Peace deal = seen as defeat, possible coup in Russia and does not address Russian security concerns, west does not want to negotiate anyway / only allows totally unacceptable terms;

        Slow Grind = domestic frustration and the (unlikely) possibility that “something” turns up for the west to turn the tide.

        There might be other options / risks but the Slow Grind does seem the best one, without wishing to downplay the domestic frustration risk too much. It also seems the best way to achieve the objectives of grinding down Ukraine and getting the west eventually to come to terms of some form. Remote as that may seem right now. The west clearly hopes that the “something” turns up though.

  7. timbers

    Regardless of what Russia calls this or not – SMO whatever – fact is in they HAVE in the past week moved outside SMO framework. Russia HAS escalated as I’ve been wanting them to and IMO this will bring them enumerous benefits w/o jeopardizing all the political calculations many mention here: the targeting of electricity to disrupt UAF mobility to the south, and the attack on the damn (have yet to see any reports on this but it has happened apparently) to trap UAF forces in cauldron. IMO this is very ling past due and will greatly shorten this conflict to an enormous benefit to Russia.

    1. The Rev Kev

      The Russians did not just attack that dam for the heck of it. Last I heard, that reservoir is down by about 40% which is causing chaos in the region. But more to the point, all that water flowed down the river to the Kherson area and which cut off a major Ukrainian force that was on the other side of the river. The pontoon bridges would have been swept away and so those Ukrainians are now in a cauldron without chance of evacuation or resupply. They are cut off. The Military Summary channel was talking about this and is at about the 11:50 mark in this video-

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsG39R0YFBI (17:44 mins)

      1. lambert strether

        Are there any hydraulic engineers in the readership? Has anyone done the math on whether busting a dam upstream on the Inhulets River will create the downstream effects claimed? Also, has anyone seen a photo of the busted dam?

        1. Dave in Austin

          The picture is at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-62910245.amp. The Ukrainians say “as many as eight missiles” hit the dam but only one hit is shown in the picture.

          The dam is a low, wide dam in relatively flat country so it has little volume or height but is needed for possibly power generation but more importanly, for cooling water for industrial use. The Russian precision attack damaged at least one sections and over the past hours that has drained the lake reportedly to 40% capacity. The NYT has a picture showing wide- but not deep- flooding.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      How has Russia escalated and gone outside? They did missile strikes in Lvov early in the war. They hit electrical transformers for all the train stations in the West. That’s dual use infrastructure. They already crossed the Rubicon of not hitting civilian infrastructure with that. The latest missile strikes on the electrical grid (unlike the hits on the train transformers) could mainly be repaired quickly. And they served to stop trains transporting troops and equipment, and Russia took out some (many?) of them. So there was an arguable military rationale.

      They did two days of hits of almost entirely repairable damage. By design. And stopped. Escalation usually means a continuation at a new, higher level.

      The SMO is to destroy Ukraine’s warmaking capacity. The one change is that some of the electrical grid hits were arguably purely civilian…unless you consider the ones on Kiev to fall under the rubric of the earlier pledge to hit decision making centers. Taking out the electrical grid overnight is awfully tame compared to sending Mr. Kinzhal to visit Kiev.

      1. Dave in Austin

        The US 1999 air strikes against the Belgrade power system and by extension the water treatment plant shut down both electrical and water service. So the Rubicon was crossed by the US and the Russians are following our example. Incidentally, there is a big discussion among the NYT staff on the use of “air strike” versus “attack”.

        The US/Belgrade power system attack dropped long aluminum strips of chaff across the high tension wires and shorted-out the distribution network leaving the actual power plants intact. The recent pictures from Kharkov indicate the Russians took the same, limited, approach.

        In WWII all gloves were off; in Korea the gloves were off inside Korea (we’d destroyed every building in Pyongyang by the end of 1951). Vietnam was limited by the fear of escalation by the other side; neither the power plants nor the low dams which controlled water for the North’s rice paddies in the north were hit.

  8. Another Anon

    Erdogan likes playing it both ways with Russia and the West. I wonder whether there will come a time when Turkey stops this and comes down on Russia’s side. After trying for decades to become a member of the EU, Turkey may decide that it is not worth becoming a member of a collapsing EU. Turkey itself is not in great economic shape so maybe it can get a better deal with Russia. Certainly trade between both countries have increased a great deal recently. After the US, Turkey provides the largest army to NATO, so it would be a big deal, if Turkey even hints that it would turn away from the West. On the other hand, the Turkish elections are coming up soon. Does any one knows how the opposition looks at the conflict ?

    1. Polar Socialist

      In many respects by not clearly taking a side Turkey is already on Russian side.

      Columnist Timofei Bordazev (program director of Valdai club) said yesterday in Vzglyad that soon “The World Majority” will be meeting in Samarkand and start creating a new unauthoritarian world order, where nations can disagree on many issues and work together on other issues. But unlike in Rammstein meeting, no country will dictate to others how they should behave – no unanimity is needed or sought for.

      For a country like Turkey, that could be the preferred arrangement instead of constant fealty to globalist and ideological demands of The West.

    2. Altandmain

      The Turkish people as a whole do not trust the US.


      Of course, the US has tried regime change in Turkey and everyone knows it.



      So really, if Turkey falls back to the US orbit, it will be because of the government and ruling class in Turkey being corrupted by the US in a way that will hurt Turkey’s interests. In other words, a Turkish equal to the Zelensky regime.

    3. The Rev Kev

      The Ukraine is not making many friends in Turkey right now. Through a website of theirs, they have been sanctioning Turkish businesses and thousands of individual. In fact, treating them like a hostile nation. The website is ‘apparently “affiliated with the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs” that lists individuals and entities it wants sanctioned over their alleged dealings with Russia.’ Now Ankara is demanding an explanation-


      1. Tom Bradford

        And are not European banks being arm-twisted into ‘sanctioning’ Turkish banks that accept Russia’s MIR card? How many feet does the West have left to shoot itself in?

        Mercouris in his latest suggested that Erdogan – who has gone to this meeting in Samarkand which is a very, very significant sign that he’s looking to the East now and away from Europe – has dropped a hint that Turkey might leave NATO, which would be BIG.

  9. Altandmain

    Time is on Russia’s side.

    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.

    Yes, Alexander Mercouris does have a lot of good points about the risks of a conservative plan, but there is also a lot of upside as well.

    The Russians can literally wait and see what happens. The Europeans are effectively engaging in economic self-destruction.

    The military situation is manageable even with the small amount of troops (80,000 according to Alexander if you saw his video yesterday) that Russian has deployed into Ukraine.

    About the only change I would advocate is a small increase of troops. They could modestly increase the number of troops and I would argue even the small “victories” and I emphasize the quotation marks because of the heavy losses Ukraine sustained to capture territory, would be much harder to achieve, denying NATO even those PR victories. This would not require a full mobilization, which as Scott Ritter notes, would be a failure.


    There’s an interview bettween Scott and Kim Iversen that is worth a watch.


    The Russians can sustain the losses. NATO and the Ukrainians can to sustain their losses.

    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.

    The practical issue is how to do that? Russia would need at least a minor military victory to assure the public and influential chattering classes.

    For that reason, I think that a modest increase in troops might be necessary. There are some signs of that. The Duran was discussing how the Russians might escalate this into an anti-terrorism operation.

    The Russians don’t need to escalate much because time is on their side, but Putin does need to keep the domestic pressure at bay.

    1. Mike

      I cannot know the troop strength Russia has employed- our esteemed guesstimators on the Web say anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000. If the DPR and LDR are supplying well over 100,000 troops, this is still a much smaller number than the available numbers in Ukraine. If it is true that at least 600,000 personnal were part of the armed forces/territorial defense of Ukraine, we can guess that that number has been augmented by conscription. The concentration of Ukrainian forces in a tight area coupled with disregard for losses made these incursions possible, and was a decision made jointly with NATO input.

      While Russia could increase its troop strength numerically to offset this tactical disadvantage, I believe (do not have evidence, just an hypothesis) that economic considerations are at play within Putin’s government that limit the expense of this SMO. The Izium front was thinly manned, and gains previously made on the Kharkov front were accomplished with minimal effort by lack of Ukrainian resistance and troop strength. Lately the gains were made mainly to bait Ukrainian reaction so attrition fire could be engaged. Large losses of troops and equipment are not sustainable nor a winning strategy for Putin’s governmental popularity. Anyone else see this, or am I out on a limb?

  10. lambert strether

    From the perspective of any Real American Patriot, that which destroys The Blob fastest is best; it’s a cancer on the body politic. Hence I support Russia cutting Ukraine off from the Black Sea by taking Odessa at the earliest possible date.

    However, Putin’s perspective is not mine. ““In that case,” said Napoleon, “let us wait twenty minutes; when the enemy is making a false movement we must take good care not to interrupt him.””

  11. Skip Intro

    I feel there is a fine line that Russia is trying to toe. They want to keep bleeding NATO of matériel, and that is optimized when the west sends the equipment to the front lines to catch artillery. But understanding the west’s PR war as a self-blinding tactic, they need to manage the story to be relatively boring, and non-threatening. In this light, the Kharkiv withdrawal sold as a stunning Ukrainian victory feeds enough hopium back into the system to avoid escalation or premature capitulation. Timed to impress the Rammstein meeting, the faux victory will keep the pipeline open, delivering the arms that a generation of eastern Ukrainians will recycle as scrap. A splashy Russian victory might induce withdrawal or major escalation, neither optimal for the goal of demilitarization.
    The map is not the territory, the PR is not the war. The side that remembers that has a significant advantage.

      1. Karl

        Agreed. Giving Ukraine enough hopium to keep fighting and eventually bleed to death, while limiting own exposure (by avoiding big offensive moves) seems perfectly suited to Russia’s position.

        The response of the West to this strategy must be to make it painful for Russia to continue to run down the clock. How can it do that in the requisite time frame (i.e. before winter sets in)? The only options I can see are too scary to contemplate.

        1. Skip Intro

          It may be that the actual decision makers are also ok with clearing out old weapons inventories, as long as the budget for replacements is suitably generous. They only need a fearful populace. The simmering ‘Russian menace’ has served that purpose for decades.

  12. michael hudson

    Yves’ major point is quite right: Time is on Russia’s side.
    It looks to me as if NATO actually had expected the conflict to have been over by now, with Russia’s rouble crashed, popular discontent rising and Russia suing for peace. That would have been granted by imposing harsh terms on Russia’s gas and oil trade, which would have resumed at low prices for German and other European industry.
    There was no planning for Russia NOT to surrender. Now, all Russia has to do is accept Europe’s refusal to buy its gas (and pay in roubles), and watch Germany lose its steel industry, other countries their glass industry, and go without aluminum.
    Maybe China can suggest to Siemans that it should move to the East, lock, stock and barrel.

    1. JohnnyGL

      I suspect the Russians didn’t expect the conflict to last this long, either. However, the Russians also seem far better prepared for it.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        The early focus on the oligarchs who are abroad makes me think Western elites by and large think oligarchs create the state and aren’t parasitical problems tolerated by modern nation-states if not out right supported. Putin may not quite be in the latter camp, but he knows the oligarchs aren’t necessary. The Russian state might lose the oligarchs and the hope they will piss down some wealth, but the Russian state will have impoverished oligarchs and the resources that made the oligarchs wealthy.

        Certainly, in the West, we just call our oligarchs billionaires and so forth, but I think the political elites genuinely think

        One story is the rail strike ended because Biden couldn’t figure out why rail road workers couldn’t seek medical care at which point the industry folded. He couldn’t conceive Saint Warren Buffett wouldn’t just be a jolly old guy until he as forced to see it by the impending strike.

        Its not just that the Russians are better prepared for it, but that the West actively destroyed what is a parasitical element in the Russian economy without destroying productive capacity.

        1. Skip Intro

          The focus on threatening oligarchs as a way controlling the government was a wonderful bit of projection on the part of western oligarchs.

    2. John Wright

      Maybe Russia can wait a bit longer make the suggestion that Siemens move to resource rich Russia rather than resource poor China.

      Siemens can then “cut out the resource middleman”.

    3. Skip Intro

      I still believe that Nordstream2 was a major target, and replacement of Russian gas with abundant US-fracked LNG a major goal of the entire Ukraine gambit starting with Maidan. Of course that was when the war was scheduled for 2017, and many still believed the fracking hype.

      1. Karl

        I always thought Germany’s refusal, in November 2021, to approve final permits to allow Nordstream II to operate was a tipping point in Putin’s thinking on the necessity to start the SMO sooner rather than later. Germany seemed to be signalling that Ostpolitik was dead, or at least that it favored Ukraine in the gas transit power game. Also, that it was kow-towing to the U.S., despite its clear economic interests. In short, this seemed to be a throwing down of the gauntlet.

        Biden’s public position on Nordstream II, early in his administration, was to acquiesce to the start-up of the pipeline. I breathed a sigh of relief that realism had descended on DC. Unfortunately, this was either a PR feint, or the neocons turned him around. Does anyone know if Blinken et. al. put huge pressure on Germany to disapprove those last permits?

  13. JohnnyGL

    I’ve been keeping an eye on things and I’ve got to say, if the casualty estimates are anywhere near what analysts like Scott Ritter are suggesting (50K on Russian side and 200K+ on Ukrainian side) then I have to say I’m thoroughly amazed at the willingness of both sides to maintain their appetite for further conflict.

    So much death and destruction for what, exactly?

    Russian leadership seems to be quite patient and content to slowly grind Ukrainian manpower to dust and Ukrainian leadership seems to have a higher threshold for pain than I would have anticipated. Zelensky seems quite clear that his primary audience is in the west (he now regularly wears a t-shirt with english writing on it) and he must not be under much domestic pressure to stop the carnage.

    The political elites in the west are far more unified and hawkish on this than I would have thought possible back when this started in February.

    One scary thing I’m concerned may be true is that everyone involved on all sides believes their own side’s propaganda. The west believes Russians are just hordes of barbarians bent on conquest, and they’ve convinced Ukrainians of this, too. The Russians also believe this is existential and that they have to win this proxy fight or else their country will be broken into pieces.

    I’m not sure what might change the dynamic here, but the conflict looks set to continue for a good deal longer. I wonder if we may see those casualty numbers double before the war ends. How high is the tolerance for bloodshed?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The 50K number for Russia is way high. The BBC has twice gone looking all over Russia to find how many soldiers died. This was maybe as of April and then June. Grave markers, church records, newspaper stories. Found only 4,000. Far and away most of the death were early in the war. So 6,000 would be a high estimate.

      But the Russian army has not been doing much infantry fighting. That’s been the militias, the Wagners, the Chechens. So gross up to 20,000.

      By contrast, the Ukranians have been taking massive punishment. 200,000 seems high but I’d guesstimate any where from 100,000 to 170,000. Remember, no air support so exposed when not in bunkers, being at a massive disadvantage in artillery, running low on armored vehicles to the degree that they’ve been often (mainly?) using passenger cars.

      1. hk

        4-5000 KIA, incidentally, would be a pretty huge number, especially given that WIA would be several times higher, the number of troops involved is fairly low, and professional troops are hard to replace. Comparable (I think somewhat lower, in fact) casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan threatened to seriously undermine combat effectiveness of US Army, after all. These might be small for the entire Russian army (and for that matter, iraqi casualties were vis-a-vis US Army), but Russia has other defense priorities, too.

        One thing that boggles me is that the reported numbers of militiamen from Donetsk and Lugansk seem quite large (and their presumed casualties very high). Just how many troops can they field and how large a population (and where) are they drawing their manpowe from?

        1. Polar Socialist

          Luhansk People’s Republic had an estimated population of 1.4 million and 2.3 million. That was before the current event’s with people leaving for Russia and new territory becoming under their control. But those are good starting points.

          Both had a militia of around 40,000 men, and both did a full mobilization when Ukraine started the heavy shelling in February, at least doubling their manpower.

          Their manpower comes from besides Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts (add another 2.7 million people), from all over Ukraine where people opposed the Maidan coup.

          While they obviously are not as professional and well armed as Russian armed forces, they have held against Ukrainian army for 8 years.

  14. Andrew Watts

    The Russian plan from the beginning to seize the Donbass was to grind and encircle the Ukrainian forces there. That operational plan doesn’t appear to be tenable anymore. When they lost Izium it crippled their ability to launch and sustain a northern pincer movement to form a cauldron in the Donbass. Bakhmut was an important objective as it was necessary to begin this operation, but it’s capture won’t have any strategic value as the staging point for an encirclement operation from the south. It’s just the reason why it’s been the site of intense fighting lately. The gloating of Serhiy Kuzan in yesterday’s FT article over the fact they’ve neutralized that particular threat is a good confirmation of what the Ukrainians were planning to accomplish.

    The lack of operational and strategic analysis in western media is quite telling on the other hand. Their reports provide circumstantial evidence that suggest Washington didn’t have a clue about Ukraine’s military plans. They probably listened politely to the Americans, nodded their heads in agreement, and then left with even more determination to do what they originally intended. But only after they received the arms and intelligence they wanted. The difference between what the Americans expected and what happened was likely unanticipated.

    The only person from that list of sources who seems to understand any of this is Scott Ritter. Neither Mercouris, Christaforu, or Martyanov appear to have any relevant military expertise which matters as they’re incapable of offering anything more than their opinions. B from Moon of Alabama appears to have some military experience just not in any in an operational planning capacity. Still worth listening to. Larry Johnson is a dope who is talking about Patton for some reason. Maybe if he talked about Genghis Khan and how the Ukrainian use of lightly armored vehicles in their offensive resembles the Mongols I might take him seriously. I don’t know enough about Dima, could care less about Berletic, and the Twitter people usually only report on present events without any of the necessary reasoning and/or actual thought to make sense of them.

    The successful Ukrainian offensive likely means that any hope of a peace deal are non-existent. If that was even possible at this stage. The war is going to last a lot longer and be more costlier than anybody expected at the start of it. The only winners of this negative sum game are the non-aligned countries who will benefit from skirting the sanctions regime. It’s disturbing that people are treating this as an abstract information war, or a sportsball game, when it’s a war comprised of objectives, stratagems, and bloodshed.

    1. tegnost

      The difference between what the Americans expected and what happened was likely unanticipated.

      Oh sure. We had good intentions and they just wouldn’t listen. (/s )
      Of course I think that is one of the least likely possibilities.

    2. juno mas

      …objectives,strategems, and bloodshed.

      Well, it seems Russia is winning on all of those components. Add in economic elements and the West is sure to be the loser over the winter.

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      If you thinks this offensive amounts to more than a hill of beans, except for PR value, you are smoking something very strong.

      You really need to get better sources. You keep spouting very poorly informed views with great confidence. The FT has been consistently anti Russia and thus regularly wrong or at best cherry-picking.

      Izyum became strategically unimportant after Russia developed other supply lines and it discovered it would be way too costly as to go south as they had earlier planned due to the density of bunkering in “Sherwood forests” on that path. By contrast, the map watchers have been keen about Bahmut as a way to crack the Donbass line. And this was well over a month ago.

      If you’re going to engage in ad hom and can’t address any substantive issues, you are no longer welcome here. Maryanov has in fact got an advanced degree in military operations and has written three extremely well reviewed books. Berletic has written papers for military journals and his critique relies almost entirely on US/UK/NATO/Ukraine sources. Calling Larry a loon when his article about Patton was to show that the image it gave about military operations (that many having seen the movie believe; I certainly had) was to make a key point on operational planning. The fact that you are hectoring about that reflects poorly on you. You can’t argue on the merits so you are reduced to personal attacks.

      I trust you find your happiness elsewhere on the Internet.

    4. spud farmer

      Good point. The commentators you mention, and many others besides, talk far too confidently about things they have no way of knowing for certain. The recent successful offensive by Ukraine, for example, was supposed to have been impossible. Almost all of them were caught off guard. I wonder what other surprises await?

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        No, your statement is false. First, Andrei Martyanov refuses to do sitreps because as a former military officer, he says the information that those who do rely on is not good enough. Larry Johnson does not do sitreps. Berletic comments on bigger picture matters and mainly gives ex post commentary based on DoD briefings and other Western information. Only Dima and to some degree Mercouris and Christaforu do but Christaforu mainly defers to Mercouris.

        Second, many sourced notes the Ukraine buildup in Kharkiv. Started over 2 weeks before the advance. No one was surprised that Ukraine tried to do something there. What they were surprised as is that Russia pulled back as Ukraine moved in, and then that Russia had already pulled out nearly all of its forces before the Ukraine move. Clear the West didn’t see or expect that either since their hope was to capture or destroy a lot of Russian forces.

        Even though Dima speculates a lot as to what the next moves on the battlefield might be, he makes clear it is speculation (I will concede Dima also works in strategic views, like “Russia must attack before winter” so he is a mixed bag but from what I can tell, most of his watchers learn quickly to focus on his map updates and tune ou the rest). Mercouris also takes care to allow for a lot of possible scenarios and to signal uncertainty. His British accent and his manner are confident, but his language about future possibilities is pretty much always well hedged.

    5. Karl

      The orderly withdrawal of Russia from Izium (and loss of the Northern pincer) is entirely consistent with what we are discussing here. Namely, that for Russia, a short-term victory in the Northern cauldron is no longer the objective. Success there, too quickly, might prove once and for all to the West that Ukraine’s position is hopeless. Keeping just enough hopium alive to continue the war and to grind up Ukraine until winter wreaks havoc on the West may now be the objective. This is precisely what Mercouris speculated could explain recent events. This is his way of connecting the rather fuzzy dots, and he admits that this is speculation. So, positing as true that this is a strategic defeat for Russia (when no one knows) contributes nothing to this discussion. You may be right, but it seems inconsistent with the fact that Russia exited most battalions a week before, and that Ukraine (to use Mercouris’s expression) was “punching air.”

    6. The Inimitable NEET

      “Maybe if he talked about Genghis Khan and how the Ukrainian use of lightly armored vehicles in their offensive resembles the Mongols I might take him seriously.”

      I would take you seriously if you understood that any comparison between the Mongols and the UAF would be at best facile. Not only is the latter much worse off man-for-man in terms of skill (the vast bulk trained in archery, horse-riding, and operation-level maneuvers since childhood) but the Mongols regularly defeated much larger forces with far less casualties. Capturing and maintaining control over steppe territory was of particular importance because their vast horses depended on the grass for sustenance, as opposed to a modern army where all logistical lines are routed through cities.

      Furthermore, the Mongols didn’t “swarm” opponents contra misguided novice interpretations. Steppe ponies specialized in hardiness and endurance; if you want examples of fast-moving/hard-hitting cavalry formations in medieval times, check out Arabian light cavalry and European destriers (the latter were bred for muscle and short peaks of speed). The steppe pony’s primary strength was carrying off operational-level maneuvers while remaining hale enough to fight shortly after reaching the destination. And the Mongol’s ideas regarding maneuver warfare didn’t resemble WWII Germany (which was the genesis of all modern-day offensive military doctrine in the West, including NATO’s).

      Ironically in terms of maneuver, Mongol forces under the first generation of their generals resembled the Russian approach to warfare more than the UAF’s. They utilized lots of screening forces to scout; they frequently retreated the frontline to exploit the famed “Parthian shot” as well as dissipating the force projection of charging enemy cavalry; they synchronized mass arrow attacks to wear down static opponents and prioritized protecting their men’s lives over everything else; they recruited mercenaries, conscripted able-bodied men from conquered territories, and forced prisoners to act as frontline personnel while the indigenous Mongol forces carried out specialized roles. And this shouldn’t be a surprise because both the Mongols and the current RF devised their military doctrine around the same environments.

      Subutai would castigate the UAF for wasting so manpower for so little advantage in the Kharkiv offensive.

  15. dingusansich

    Interesting how defense of “democracy” (Ukraine) seemingly demands ever more reliance on Straussian noble lies (translation: lies beneficial to the nobility). As NC has long noted in its coverage of Ukraine, we’re in a funhouse information environment where down is up and 2 + 2 = anything the ringmasters say it is, which today may be 5, tomorrow 3, the day after negative 8.5. Ours is to reason why.

    What is this “democracy” of which the headliners speak to promote a proxy war waged by a propped-up authoritarian kleptocracy chockablock with vintage fascists? Ideally, from the vantage of managerial elites, it is a slogan for gulling masses into powerless compliance. It is a love child of Pavlov and Freud’s nephew, reflexively stimulating the public’s appetite for war, charted by calculated production of froth and foam. It is a venerated shibboleth, a taken-for-granted lacuna, an appeal to faith over reason.

    Yet it is not entirely pro forma and toothless. Hunger and cold have a way of snapping even the classically conditioned out of a trance of mystification that no small number already know, confusedly, as if in the doorway between sleep and waking, that they are in. New bosses take over from old bosses. Even a superficial turning can be consequential. Perhaps the best to hope for for now is that today’s headliners make the transition to yesterday’s sooner than later.

    It will not fundamentally alter the problematic of the few and the many. But it may break the fever reminiscent of another epidemic from the European teens.

    1. spud farmer

      I hope you’re right and games of nuclear chicken don’t become another “new normal” that was previously unthinkable. There is also the Russian factor – what if Putin’s SMO gamble fails and he is ousted by a more hawkish element unhappy with how the war is going?

      I agree that while the chances of this conflict going full nuclear are still low, NATO’s 30 year long ‘Drang nach Osten’ and provoking Russia by deliberately crossing its oft stated national security red lines and, now, aiding and abetting Ukraine has increased the risk of an unforeseen event, or series of events, triggering an escalation that goes out of control. The overheated rhetoric and both sides framing the war as an existential fight doesn’t help either. All in all the current status quo is not a healthy place for two heavily armed nuclear powers to be at.

  16. Shellbay

    From the start of this war I’ve believed that Russia’s no 1 target is the bioweapons program. It has to be because an effective bioweapon in NATO hands will lead to the destruction of Russia. MAD simply isn’t possible because NATO leaders are crazy enough to believe they can get away with an attack without experiencing significant blowback.

    To destroy the bioweapons program I think they need to:
    1) Destroy NATO economies
    2) Convinct and imprision or assassinate major figures in the program
    3) Attract significant numbers of the West’s technical base to Russia/China so as to prevent another program being developed in the West for at least a generation

    I think it’s going to take a few years for them to achieve this.

  17. juno mas

    Yves, you are the best! Your analysis makes my prior call for escalation look less than smart.

    After watching the Mercouris analysis and your assessment it appears the long game is the smart game. Provided the US doesn’t do something stoopid. Thanks.

  18. GW

    Russia definitely needs to step up its war effort. It’s now clear that Moscow committed insufficient numbers of troops to the campaign. Had Russia sent twice as many soldiers into combat, then reversals such Balakleya-Kharkov-Izyum would never have happened. Possibly the war would be over by now, too.

    A shake-up of Russia’s top military command must occur. Shoigu is not a professional soldier. Also, who is the fool who inadequately defended the Balakleya front, giving the Ukrainians a cheap, easy opportunity to smash Russian/DNR/LNR defenses in that sector? There must be accountability in the MoD for what happened last week.

    I wish I knew why Putin hasn’t put the RF on a war footing, or at least a partial war footing.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Tell me why Khakiv matters. This is an assumption without evidence aside from PR value. As I said in the post, Putin’s party did very well in local elections Sunday despite the uproar in Telegram and some pointed criticism on TV and from members of the Duma. It seems upon getting more info and after the grid hits, the general public is still on board (by contrast, hawks gonna hawk). And they have a lot better vantage than we do.

      I had been saying privately that Kharkiv city would fall to Russia in due course.

      The captured area was as sparely populated as Wisconsin before it became a combat area and was down to 1/4-1/3 the original population. Izyum originally appeared to have strategic value as a launching point for an attack on the Donbass line and early on, to protect Russian supply lines. But both of those proved not to be operative. So it became an albatross, costly to hold, no strategic value.

      So why does it make sense to waste materiel and potentially men holding terrain? Russia is not waging a war of territorial acquisition. It’s waging a war of attrition. Staying stuck in places that are functionally useless and where it can be attrited by Ukraine makes no sense.

      Russia unwound an earlier advance that made sense in terms of the info they had at the time but did not work out as planned. So they wound up in a not good position (that no amount of manpower would have fixed).

      So are you saying that if some find out, despite making what appeared to be a sound decision, when it works out to be a mistake, they should throw more resources at it even though that won’t remedy the underlying problem? How sensible is that? It’s letting institutional ego trump making course corrections, even if awkward (and made more so by Ukraine quickly running into the space that Russia had exited).

      Russia got out at low cost in men and materiel. And it’s been engaging in air and artillery strikes on the Ukraine forces there and inflicting serious costs, claimed to be over 3000 deaths out of 15,000 Ukraine troops. Even if Ukraine actually committed more men, this is still an extremely high price to pay for some good headlines.

      Putin had Shoigu give a very big speech at the recent Moscow arms conference. I doubt he is going anywhere.

      1. GW

        It seems to me that Russian forces are thin (in numbers) across all fronts, stretching from Kherson to Lugansk. That creates opportunities for the Ukrainians to amass troops and armor in certain sectors and achieve break-throughs. The Russians need to rectify this weakness, or else, IMO, we’re likely to see more Ukrainian advances such as what happened last week.

        In other words, if Russia has enough troops to 1) adequately man front-line defenses, and 2) maintain strong strategic reserves behind all the front lines, then the Ukrainians would have no chance to launch successful offensives.

        Also, if Russia invested more troops in the war effort, it would have opportunities to launch mini-offensives and trap large numbers of Ukrainians in cauldrons. What’s been happening these past few weeks at Kherson is an example. Reports indicate that the Ukrainians, upon being repulsed, might have been encircled and destroyed by Russian counter-attacks. But Russia couldn’t do so because its forces on that front are stretched too thin.

        Something else to consider: Russia’s reversals in northern Ukraine early in the campaign probably wouldn’t have happened except that the Russian BTG’s were undermanned.

        I’m not saying Russia’s military goal should be to advance and occupy more territory. I’m merely saying that lack of adequate numbers of troops have spoiled opportunities to achieve signal victories on the offensive, while simultaneously rendering Russia vulnerable to Ukrainian offensives.

        Russia’s got the military aspect of the conflict won just as long as it successfully locks Ukraine into a grinding, casualty intensive war of attrition. As we all know, Ukraine doesn’t have the manpower pool to win such a war. But, as long as Russia’s troops are too few in number, Ukraine has a chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by launching offensives which, at some point, might result in something catastrophic for the Russian army.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          You have not answered the question: Why was Kharkiv important? You instead assert that Russia was overextended with no evidence. That is a Western narrative you have bought.

          Russia reduced its forces from 10 BTGs to one before the Ukraine advance. It took very few losses. It has held the line at the Oskil River. That is consistent with a planned withdrawal. If Russia had been routed or unable to stop Ukraine at the Oksil River, you would have evidence of your assertion but neither happened.

          I explained above why Izyum had become strategically useless. It was also costly. Ukraine kept attacking it. Why should Russia sacrifice soldiers’ lives to defend what had become a bad decision? You keep trying to talk over that point.

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          To add: I’ve now gotten caught up in being unduly oppositional.

          Russia can continue to grind as it takes Donbass. Ukraine is likely to try more attacks on more or less current front lines. I don’t see strong evidence that Russia needs more men for than the current forces it has deployed at various points of the combat. It has brought back Chechen fighters.

          If and when Russia takes the Black Sea coast, unless the Ukraine forces have substantially degraded, it will need more men. But it has been training brigades from locals in those areas so that would help reduce the number required of more regular forces. They may not be useful on the front lines but there are lots of other roles. Russia will likely need to bring in more men in policing (help keep order in the “liberated” territory. I believe each of the Russian federations has forces that could be enlisted in this capacity.

  19. Boomheist

    Great summary, as always. I have noticed a narrative thread emerging in some of the MSM crying about Putin’s war-crime freezing and starvation of innocent European civilians as if, now that he was unable to sweep through Ukraine, he is now engaged in a barbaric crime against civilians. This neatly avoids or ignores the direct tie between the West-imposed sanctions and the rise of Russian energy prices. But, in the grand context of Putin As A Monster, this narrative may work, especially in a populace trained to have the memory of a gnat (assuming gnats have poor memories which I of course cannot know).

  20. Alex Cox

    Thank you for this excellent discussion. Elsewhere (at the head of Links) you and Lambert observe that this is the worst information environment that you have ever experienced. However, I don’t think it is.

    Being an oldster I can remember the UK coverage of the American War in Vietnam. My parents bought the Daily Mail and Liverpool papers, and we watched the BBC. There was no dissenting coverage whatsoever: all the UK media towed the US line until the second Nixon administration, by which time American defeat was impossible to ignore.

    In the US there were small, radical magazines like Ramparts. But what I saw of Life, Newsweek and Time (all on sale in the UK) was entirely in favor of the American War. There was literally no dissent at all.

    Today, regarding Ukraine, despite the extraordinary censorship of Russian media in Europe, we have a variety of competent and knowledgeable sources, including NC, Mercouris, the New Atlas, Military Summary Channel, Moon of Alabama, and Andrei Martyanov. Because there was no internet, there was nothing comparable to this during the Vietnam era.

    Yes, for an uninformed reader it may be hard to find these sources. But they are there.

    Thank you again!

  21. Irrational

    Excellent article and comments as usual.
    I agree with a number of you that time is on Russia’s side because of the economic impact on Europe, but would like to tie this to a point Alexander Mercouris repeatedly mentions and Rev Kev alludes to above): Ukraine’s economy looks terrible and the projected budget deficit for next year is IIRC 38 billion euros or dollars. The Ukrainian government expects the EU to pick up a significant share, which would be a large proportion of the EU budget when it is not bloated by “Next Generation EU” spending.
    This is on top of delivering on US demands for increased military spending, rising spending on unemployment benefits or short-time work arrangements, energy and other support for industry. Somewhere some hard choices will have to be made and upcoming elections in various countries will hopefully focus minds – at least I hope so, being stuck in Europe!

    1. The Rev Kev

      A year or two ago an American general alluded to the fact that Europe is going to have to cut all their social spending and use the money instead on weapons for their NATO commitments – American weapons mostly as it turns out. So goodbye free education, sick pay, holiday pay, maternal leave etc. Especially now with a cold, hungry winter the Europeans will wake up to what is going on now.

  22. Karl

    Yves and commenters:

    Reading this collective appraisal of the Ukraine situation has been fascinating and hugely informative. NC and its community of bright commenters is (to me) without peer as an information source. The diligent moderation has helped to maintain a very high level of discourse (intelligence and civility). This undoubtedly takes a lot of work by Lambert, Yves and others behind the scenes.

    I will be responding to NC’s fundraising challenge as generously as I can. I hope you can do likewise!!!!

  23. Pookah Harvey

    I’m wondering how much this counter-offensive was to do with the PR on the military aspect of this hybrid war and how much with the economic side. This offensive started just days before Putin , Xi, and many of the world leaders (including most of the world energy producers) are meeting for the SCO summit. As an editorial in the Global Times entitled “Non-dollar settlement in energy trade will break US hegemony” states:

    There is real and common need for both developing and developed economies to seek non-dollar settlement in their energy trade. It is time for the concerned economies to act and fully coordinate and experiment with the possibility.

    Would an invasion that is tactically and strategically worthless but a excellent PR ploy attempting to show Russian weakness be a good propaganda move aimed at this summit?

  24. William Verick

    On the other hand, so far, it appears the war of attrition is being fought not between Ukraine and Russia, but between Ukraine and the militias of the Donetsk and Luansk People’s Republics. That is a war of attrition that Ukraine may actually be able to win.

    I’ve wondered for a while now what the politics are of Russia using the military age men of Donetsk and Lugansk as cannon fodder in Russia’s war with the West. Why would the people of those two oblasts vote to join the Russian Federation when this is how they’ve been treated?

    1. John Steinbach

      Ukraine and its Nazi militias has been savagely attacking them since 2014 to the tune of about 15,000 deaths, many of them children. They are fighting for their lives, now with formal Russian support. Russia hasn’t treated them as cannon fodder.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        And 1.5 million refugees, who fled to Russia and Belarus.

        Russia appears to have been deferential to at least some LPR/DPR priorities. In terms of prosecuting the war, cracking the very heavily bunkered Ukraine lines opposite Donetsk city would not have been a priority, but it was important to the DPR since Ukraine was shelling civilians from there.

  25. Max Jacobsen

    What difference would it make if Ukraine does cross the Oskil river? Or even take Lyman? What difference would any if that make?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Fair point. I need to look at the roads and supply lines to see what difference that makes. Most commentators treated Oskil as important as a natural barrier; I’m not sure if there’s another better or more logical defensive position.

      My understanding based on verbal accounts is that if Ukraine proceeded much beyond the Oskil, it could split Russian forces in Lugansk. But for the moment it looks moot. Ukraine keeps trying to depict itself as having crossed the Oskil since Sept. 9. As least so far, they either haven’t or Russian forces have pushed them back.

      Also recall in Kherson, Russia let Ukraine cross the river and then cut off their retreat and really pounded them. So even if Ukraine crosses the Oskil, this may be a rerun, particularly since this area is MUCH closer to Russia (as in Russia could use its air force as a major offensive weapon here, which it not how it has normally operated). Ukraine is amped up to capitalize on this advance, so they are likely to try to press forward.

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