Your humble blogger felt the need to Say Something about the Ukraine conflict, in light o the very much touted Zelensky speech to Congress and a much less widely discussed series of meetings on the Russian side. The text below was intended to be an aside at the start of the completely unrelated post on the US weather-bomb, but wound up being more or less a post….and ignored due to where I first stuck it.
So if you encountered this discussion in the earlier post, apologies, but this hoisting makes more sense. This is an admittedly short take in light of current events because, as Lambert is wont to say, the situation is overly dynamic despite the limited motion at the surface.
Despite the big flurry of activity, Zelensky supposedly at the front in Bakhmut, then in Washington to see Biden and speak before Congress, as Russia’s top officials trek to Belarus for lotsa meetings and Security Council Deputy Chairman Medvedev goes to China to meet with Xi (an interesting deviation from normal protocol, and then Putin having a big meeting with military personnel, we still seem to be in waiting-for-other-shoes-to- drop mode.
Specifically, Russia is presumed to be just about ready to do whatever it intends to do with its recently-mobilized forces. However, it also seems as a precondition for launching any big or even deliberately moderate offensive that Russia needs to stop the shelling of Donetsk and take Bakhmut, and better yet, then take Slaviansk and Kramatorsk, believed to be less well bunkered than Bakhmut, on the last major Ukraine defense line before the Dnieper.
Although Russian can and will pursue its operation any way it pleases, it would seem both politically important as well as militarily advantageous to have gotten far enough with clearing Lugansk and Donetsk (and land within missile strike range of Donetsk City) so that what remains is mopping up and Russian forces can shift focus.
As Zelensky made clear with his visit to Bakhmut and then his speech to Congress, despite recent press efforts to minimize the strategic value of Bakhmut, Zelensky is doubling down on the importance of holding it, both from a PR and a troop commitment perspective. This suits Russia just fine. Having Ukraine send men into a battle where it has become uncontroversial to admit that Ukraine is losing soldiers at a massively higher rate than Russia is a very economical way for Russia to attrit Ukraine troops and materiel.
As most readers know, the reason Bakhmut is key is that it sits at or near key routes, so that for Russia to break the Ukraine defenses here will in comparatively short order produce the collapse of that defense line (see Brian Berletic for a more detailed discussion). While Russian fighters, led by the Wagnerites, are having to engage in intense urban fighting in Bakhmut, Russia is also creating a pincer around the city, with some commentators saying that Russia already has fire or actual control of all supply routes. Some go even further to assert that Ukraine forces are almost at or even past the point where they could withdraw from Bakhmut. In other words, the end game looks like Mariupol, except with potentially a lot more troops captured and no well fortified and supplied hang-out like the Azovstal Steel works where they could hunker down and vainly hope for rescue.
In other words, it was jarring to hear about the Zelensky victory-gasm in DC when events on the ground show it to be the wildest of fantasies. And those who are paying attention will also know that the Patriot missiles being sent to Ukraine are about to join the “Hall of Hollow Mandate” wunderwaffen. The number of systems and missiles being sent are too small to turn the tide. And the Patriot is a “jack of all trades, master of none” missile, intended to take down manned aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. By contrast, the Russian air defense systems are designed to shoot different types of missiles to intercept different types of threats.
Plus the Patriot launcher is stationary. Once Russia is confident the Patriots are in Ukraine, it might launch a very decoy and drone heavy set of attacks on Ukraine targets to identify where the platform is to facilitate destroying it.
So Russia can and will continue to hit military and dual-use targets, particularly the electrical grid. Despite the Western press not taking much note, the last set of attacks again reduced capacity in a meaningful way.
This is a long-winded way of saying Russia seems able to handle the likely events of the coming weeks. Ukraine’s most potentially damaging moves would be more terrorist attacks, which can rattle the Russian public short term but don’t deter combat operations.
And Putin continued to have a grueling schedule of meetings where he again seemed focused and cool-headed. Some of the important tidbits were Putin’s exchanges with Acting Head of Donetsk People’s Republic Denis Pushilin, where they discussed progress of infrastructure rebuilding and new construction (apartments, schools, hospitals) along with the struggle to keep water running in cities still being shelled. The next day, Putin had four meetings, one of them a long session with what the Kremlin translated as the Defense Ministry Board, but might more accurately be called a collective or collegium.
Many sections stood at stark odds with how we do business in the US. These statements were from Putin:
The job of the Defence Ministry and the General Staff, as I mentioned, is to carefully analyse this experience [against NATO in the special military operation], systematise it as quickly as possible and include it in the programmes and plans for personnel training, training troops in general and supplying the troops with the necessary equipment….
I also expect our designers and engineers to continue the practice of visiting the frontline. I would like to express my gratitude to them for making regular trips and making the necessary adjustments to the equipment. I hope that they will continue the practice of checking the tactical and technical characteristics of weapons and equipment in real combat situations and, as I have already said, of improving them.
Now it is easy to dismiss this as aspirational blather. But if you read his remarks, Putin sets high and specific objectives, and many are operational, as in methods and structures for improving results. Even if only 1/3 were to get done, it would still be a lot. Consider further:
I would like to ask the Defence Ministry to pay attention to all civil initiatives, which includes considering criticism and offering an adequate and timely response. Obviously, the reaction of people who see problems – and problems are inevitable in such a big and difficult undertaking – their reaction may be emotional as well. There is no doubt that it is necessary to listen to those who are not hushing up existing problems but are trying to contribute to their resolution.
And if they are to believed, the military has improved its performance on key metrics. Illustrative factoids from Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu. This bit came well into his report
We are paying considerable attention to the development of military medicine. Thanks to prevention care measures taken in the armed forces, the incidence of medical conditions has decreased by more than 30 percent over the past 10 years. The number of military medical facilities that provide high-quality medical assistance has tripled and the range of services they offer has doubled. Over 28,000 patients have received this type of medical assistance.
Our combat medics have proved their worth during the special military operation. First aid is provided within 10 minutes. The wounded are delivered to medical units within an hour and to military hospitals within 24 hours.
They have decreased the fatality rate during evacuation stages. The fatality rate in hospitals has gone down to less than 0.5 percent, which is the lowest figure in the history of military medicine.
In other words, one gets the sense that the Russians have a relentless operational focus. Even if they don’t meet objectives, and one assumes they often fall short, it does not appear that they kid themselves about progress but either keep pushing or try to revise their approach.
This attitude may explain how Russia was able to adapt quickly and with considerable success to the shock and awe economic sanctions. It also underscores that those who underestimate Russia do so at their own risk.
Having said that, Alexander Mercouris on Wednesday mentioned a rumor that Poland was going to mobilize 300,000 men by May. While this is a potential wild card, Poland gave half their tanks to Ukraine and IIRC now have only 200. And Western ammo and missile stocks would be even more depleted by then on current trajectories. But this bears watching.