First, a diatribe against the word “narrative,” now pervasively used in commentary, particularly what purports to be political/geopolitical reporting. What is a narrative? It is a story. Until recently, “narrative” referred to plot lines in works of fiction, such as screenplays. So the widespread use of the word “narrative” to describe various official and press efforts to ‘splain what is happening in Ukraine is an up-front warning that what you are being told could very well be the product of overheated imaginations.
Lambert is sometime wont to say: “You can’t reverse engineer the truth out of bullshit.” But then he adds, “But God knows we try.” So here we go again.
Some of the sources we follow on the Russia-Ukraine conflict were painting in awfully bright colors in their latest updates. One wonders if this is due to discomfort with comparatively limited action on the battlefield even as Russia is moving troops from its partial mobilization into place and Ukraine is supposedly about to Do Something Big, like launch its much ballyhooed Kherson offensive or blow the Kakhovka dam to flood Kherson city.
But this isn’t impatience isn’t due just to the tense surface stasis during this preparatory/transition phase of the Russia operation. Many readers, commentators, and increasingly Russian citizens want Russia to get on with it, even though fast and aggressive prosecution of the war is not a great course of action. The fact that the new theater commander, General Surovikin, looks like a human incarnation of a mailed fist has only somewhat reduced their anxiety.
Alexander Mercouris, who did stay measured, pointed out at the top of his Sunday show that he’s never seen such a stark divergence between Western and Russia-friendly commentary, and then unpacked which version had better factual foundations, focusing on the battlefield.
As we will see below, the Russian leadership, even in this front-line to-ing and fro-ing stage, sees Ukraine as readying to escalate, and in particularly nasty ways. So this may be the phase when energy is building up in a system before it goes chaotic.
To try to step back from the fog of narrative:
Russia’s campaign against the Ukraine electrical grid and selected military targets looks to be very effective and very much underreported. The fact that the Western press is acknowledging only in passing that Russia has seriously damaged up to 40% of Ukraine’s electrical grid (this from a Ukraine official at the end of last week) is a tacit admission that the US and NATO don’t want to talk about it. It’s a big problem for which they have no answer.
Having said that, the one aspect of this development that is getting traction is the accusation that Iran has provided Russia with some of the drone that are proving to be mighty effective in these attacks, and the West is therefore readying yet more sanctions. Russia and Iran have both denied that Russia got the drones from Iran. Even though Iran does apparently have (very) similar drones, these are technologically not complex, so it’s possible, as some claim, that Iran and Russia wound up in pretty much the same place via parallel development.
Because reporting is fragmentary, I hope this 50,000 foot recap is more or less accurate; please feel free to correct and/or update in comments. (Mercouris cites John Helmer as doing the best reporting on this topic and Helmer’s last account was on the 18th).
Russia started heavy strikes on Ukraine’s electrical system and other military or combined use targets on Monday, October 10. Even though the timing of the attacks looked to be in retaliation for the Kerch bridge bombing, experts deemed that the campaign had been planned before that. Russia reduced the level of attack on subsequent days, leading observers to speculate that Russia was probing, to see what hits produced what damage and how quickly Ukraine could repair it, as a combo heavy-duty softening up/intel gathering before a presumed really big grid assault in conjunction with a ground campaign.
It also appears that Russia is targeting transmission lines (particularly substations) and not so much generating capacity. One assumes that the lines are easier to repair. But since Ukraine’s system is 330kV, used only in Russia and CIS states, it is pretty certain that Ukraine will soon run out of needed equipment.
However, Russia again considerably picked up the intensity of its attacks over the past weekend, seemingly back to the assault level on day 1. Does this mean Russia is already at the point where it is degrading the electrical network immediately before a big combined arms campaign? Does it mean Russia learned whatever it was seeking to garner during its reduced scale phase and now has a clear picture of what it wants to take out and how?
I wonder about the idea of even bigger “shock and awe” electrical system attacks right before the expected big offensive. The fact that the Western press is barely acknowledging the Russian grid destruction is close to saying it does not officially exist (mind you, that could change when the Anglosphere figures out how to spin it and/or Ukraine tips into a crisis, particularly flood its neighbors with refugees).
That alone argues for Russia making maximum use of this approach in the face of the US/NATO inability to respond. Why should Russia use more men and materiel than it needs to, and subject Ukraine cities to more shelling (and impose more rebuilding costs on Russia), if it can prostrate Ukraine by turning off nearly all its power?
101st Airborne Division in Romania freakout. The Naked Capitalism commentariat did an exemplary job of taking the hot air out of a lot of the patter on this story, both from Western and Russia-friendly venues. A typical account, this from AntiWar:
The White House has deployed thousands of American soldiers just miles from Ukraine to prepare for war, according to CBS News. Officers speaking with the outlet revealed they were there for combat against Russia.
Brigadier General John Lubas confirmed nearly 5,000 troops from the 101st Airborne recently joined the 100,000 American soldiers already deployed to Europe. Lubas described his troops as being on “full deployment,” and they are preparing to fight Russian soldiers in Ukraine. “This is not a training deployment, this is a combat deployment for us. We understand we need to be ready to fight tonight,” he said.
As you’ll see below, there is actually not much there there. That leads me to wonder if this obvious media plant (the deployment took place in June and was significantly a rotation of the 82nd Airborne, so why all the puffery now?) is a threat display aimed at Russia, posturing for the US and EU, and/or throwing a bone to Ukraine.
“Note that these guys replaced the 82nd Airborne Division, so this was not then and is not now a new deployment of U.S. troops. Moreover, these troops have been in place for a little more than four months:
Elements of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) began arriving to the Mihail Kogalniceanum Airbase in Romania June 20, and are scheduled to continue arriving during the next several days.
Headquarters, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, will support the U.S. Army V Corps’ mission to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank and engage in multinational exercises with partners across the European continent in order to reassure allies and deter further Russian aggression.
The deploying 101st Soldiers do not represent additional U.S. forces in Europe, but are taking the place of Soldiers assigned to 82nd Airborne Division Headquarters and the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division.
In all, approximately 4,700 Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division are scheduled to deploy to locations across Europe.
Several readers picked apart Brian Berletic’s contention that the 101st Airborne deployment to Romania may reflect plans for US military to enter Ukraine in the western and Odessa region to prevent Russia form taking all of Ukraine coast. If this actually is a plan, it doesn’t look so hot. First from David:
I doubt it. The 101st is a Light Infantry Division, for heaven’s sake. It’s used for fighting wars in places like Afghanistan. The only situation I can see it being used is as a purely deterrent force, ie it could enter Ukraine by invitation and set up shop somewhere, denying the Russians a chance to take and hold the area without a serious risk of escalation. This would be, to put it mildly, very dangerous, since a single weapon firing in the wrong direction could start something nasty. It would also rapidly become, in effect, a hostage unit for the Ukrainians, and I would have thought the US realises this. In any event, for all that it could influence the battle, the Russians could simply ignore it, and perhaps just manoeuvre to get it out of supply.
I wouldn’t pay any attention to the reported words of the Commander, by the way. Generals don’t get to decide things like that.
And then The Rev Kev:
Agreed that the 101st does not have any heavy equipment and even if they managed to get into Odessa, there would be the matter of back-up and logistical support. Still, you can bet that there would be some White House policy makers like Blinken or Sullivan who would think that this would be a great idea because they did that in Syria and got away with it. I doubt that the Pentagon would let them do it though as the thought of the 101st Airborne coming up against a combat-experienced Russian battalion tactical group is not an idea to be lightly entertained. And if the 101st called in air support, because they would have to take off from bases in NATO countries, that would be as good as a declaration of war against Russia.
The problem with 101 crossing into Ukraine from southern Romania, where has been positioned is that there is no bridge over Danube between Ukraine and Romania and the first highway /road that links Ukraine with Romania, starting in Galatzi, crosses through Moldova. And then, given the destroyed bridge in southern Ukraine, another pass through Moldova would be necessary to reach Odessa. Logistically I don’t see how they can accomplished any transfer, maybe this is why Romania accepted to participate in this charade.
Finally from Karl:
U.S. troops entering Ukraine would presumably require a Congressional AUMF for offensive operations. No way.
Without an AUMF, you’d probably need a covert operation. A covert force to save Odessa is a pretty ridiculous operation to contemplate, given its high chances of failure, human loss, exposure, and consequent U.S. humiliation. Biden may be dim, but too many cooler heads would have to sign off….. And then, who would sign up for that mission impossible?
Still, these are extreme times, and our leaders have surprised us with extreme stupidity many times, so it’s not out of the question I guess!
However, the good news is that the press for the moment has dropped its obsession with Putin starting a nuclear war.
What about the October Surprise? YouTubers, based presumably on Telegram gossip, have said that the Biden Administration had told the Zelensky government to take Kherson city by the US midterms. Given the fall rains setting in, that attack should have happened if it were going to happen. Rain means the ground becomes so muddy that most Ukraine armored vehicles have to use roads, as opposed to open steppe, which makes them even easier to attack and counter.
Lambert believes that a Ukraine “stunt” as in a terrorist attack, even on the scale of the Nord Stream sabotage (not that we know who was behind that) or the Kerch bridge attack, won’t do for electoral purposes. He thinks Americans would want to see Ukraine taking ground, as they did in the Kharkiv offensive.
Even though blowing up the Kakhovka dam an a resulting big flood could be spun as a Ukraine victory if it force Russian to pull out of the west side of the Dnieper, even temporarily, there’s been enough talk of that that I would bet any attack would only be partially successful, as it in could damage the dam and increase outflow, but not create a big flood. Dams are very substantial and need to be blow up from the bottom to be largely destroyed. And Russia has also been lowering the water level in the reservoir behind the dam so as to reduce the damage potential.
The cynic in me has to wonder if this talk of the dam is diversionary. The two big sabotage attacks, the Nord Streams and Kerch bridge, were complete surprises. And any splashy splashy destruction would boost Ukraine morale and pry some more funds from Western coffers.
Dismissal of Russian “dirty bomb” warnings. I wonder why Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu bothered, unless this move again was to play to the Global South, particularly since the first defense minister Shoigu called was Turkiye’s. The Western knee-jerk dismissal and trying to depict the alert as a dastardly Russian scheme was predictable.
As Lambert said, this is not how serious players are supposed to act. From Aljazeera:
Russia has accused Ukraine of planning to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb and blame it on Moscow.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu discussed the “rapidly deteriorating situation” in the Ukraine war in calls with NATO nations on Sunday….
“The purpose of the provocation is to accuse Russia of using weapons of mass destruction in the Ukrainian theatre of operations and thereby launch a powerful anti-Russian campaign in the world aimed at undermining confidence in Moscow,” the RIA Novosti news agency said on Telegram.
“The calculation of the organisers of the provocation is that if it is successfully implemented, most countries will react extremely harshly to the ‘nuclear incident’ in Ukraine,” the post said. “As a result, Moscow will lose the support of many of its key partners.”
After Ukraine shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, it’s hard to see how the idea of a Ukraine dirty bomb rejected out of hand, particularly since my impression is that dirty bombs are actually crappy weapons qua weapons. Notice how one has yet to be used? There is a tradeoff between how much nuclear material you use and how much in explosives. My guess is they can actually only effectively contaminate a relatively small area, and would best be used in a high volume transit hub, like Grand Central. But to Shoigu’s point, any dirty bomb, even one not all that effective in radiation/detonation terms, would still taint Russia if Ukraine could pin it on Russia.
Aljazeera said (presumably based on Western sources) that Shoigu provided no evidence. That may be true, but a phone call is not a venue for providing evidence. And even if Russia had some indicative or even pretty solid intel, Russia might be leery of sharing it due to not wanting to reveal sources and methods. Perhaps Turkiye could have served as a confidential intermediary, to comment on the degree of credibility. But the fact that Russia presented evidence of the US biolabs in Ukraine to the UN and that investigation has gone nowhere says Shoigu was not likely to be believed even if he had been willing and able to serve up bona fide substantiation.
So the reaction was predictable. From the Wall Street Journal:
Late Sunday, the U.S., U.K. and France released a joint statement on Mr. Shoigu’s remarks.
“Our countries made clear that we all reject Russia’s transparently false allegations that Ukraine is preparing to use a dirty bomb on its own territory,” the statement said. “The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation.”
As I indicate in an earlier post, the more the prospect of battlefield success recedes for Ukraine, the more Ukraine will fall back to terrorist acts. The dirty bomb idea, whether just (potentially idle) chatter or a more advanced scheme, is just an example of what Ukraine could try to execute.
If I were Russia, that argues for hobbling Ukraine as quickly as possible. And the fastest way to achieve that is doing enough damage to the electrical grid to severely limit movement and communication across Ukraine. That won’t stop attacks, but it ought to markedly reduce their number.