While it’s been a while since yours truly has posted on the war in Ukraine and our determination to mix things up with China, we seem to be in an intermediate phase of sorts. Major country leaders in the West remain focused on the conflict. The Collective West is trying hard at the G20 to muscle more countries in line, after an embarrassing fail in a similar exercise with Global South invitees to the Munich Security Conference. Biden and then Janet Yellen went for Kiev photo ops with Zelensky. That Biden trip, which made the Administration neglect of the East Palestine toxic train blast more galling, gave Republicans, most of all Trump, an easy win.
But there are more signs of anxiety and erratic behavior by key players. While the structure of the system looks the same, more and more energy is being pumped into it. Either it will be released somehow, say by an aggressor de-escalating, or the pressure will keep rising until we have a state change. And state changes means the system becomes chaotic. The September 2008 financial crisis was an example.
While we won’t dwell on China escalation today, the over-the-top, paranoid response to
Commies under the bed peregrinating balloons looks like big-time displacement activity. We are in no position to whack China so we’ll whip ourselves in a frenzy over something we can (eventually) destroy.
Then the US and its NATO stooges went into effrontery overdrive at the Chinese presenting a high-minded napkin doodle and overselling it as a peace plan. Mind you, there were cool-headed ways of saying China has no nexus to this conflict save via its burgeoning friendship with Russia, and the latter means it can’t pretend to be a fair minded interlocutor.
Instead, the ham-handed outrage made the West look anti-peace, as opposed to anti China trying to play nicer hegemon. And then we have the conveniently-timed reheating of the lab leak theory on shoddy “new” evidence, and the House launching a “cut China down to size” committee.
The most charitable interpretation is China demonization is being readied as the next shiny object to divert attention from the coming Ukraine defeat, which will be very hard to ‘splain away. But there are competing interests at the top, with the Atlanticists very much committed to breaking Russia, not caring what the effect might be on the China project.
While arms makers theoretically make out no matter what, they can’t deliver quickly enough to make a difference in Ukraine, and they run the risk of having Russia demonstrate that our super-pricey, over-fussy weapons aren’t very effective in combat. So even more demand for hardware is not necessarily a boon. To fight an industrial war, we need lots of comparatively low tech munitions that they don’t regard as lucrative enough to interest them.
Mind you, the fact that principals are trying to increase pressure does not mean that they will succeed. Propaganda and optics and arm-twisting off and on allies only goes so far. A realistic trajectory for the Ukraine conflict is Western support will fizzle out as the Russian campaign continues to drain Western weapons stocks.
In keeping with that possibility, recall all of the drama of the buildup to the “anniversary” of the launch of the Special Military Operation last week. Western pundits and the press blathered on about how Russia was going to launch its over-anticipated offensive, even though Russia has insisted that it does not have a timetable for this campaign. Oh, and Putin’s overdue State of the Unions speech was not on the date when Russian forces moved into Donbass, but when Putin announced Russia was recognizing the breakaway republics.
Biden tried to upstage Putin with his trip to Kiev and then a speech in Warsaw. But Putin refused to play to demands of warmongers by stating that Russia was not going to full militarization. He delivered an otherwise informationally dense and long talk, treating his zinger, the suspension of Russia’s participation in the START treaty, as almost an afterthought at the end.
Not only did Russia not meet escalation expectations last week, Ukraine didn’t either. Zelensky had promised a big speech for the anniversary of the invasion, and Ukraine boosters expected something more, if not an offensive, at least a stunt, as in a headlines-getting jab that made Ukraine look like it was on the front foot even if in the end it would not affect outcomes. The Kerch Bridge bombing and the misuse of the grain corridor to attack the Sebastopol naval base are examples.
And there’s evidence that Ukraine is closer to the end of its rope than the press would have you believe. Brian Berletic has been relentlessly chronicling how US weapons deliveries to Ukraine have been falling, to the degree that the US has stopped putting numbers on many items. The commitment that Biden made in his Kiev trip was meager. Dima at Military Summary pointed out that Ukraine shelling has fallen markedly in the last week, suggesting Ukraine is forced to ration ammo. Dima has also been pointing out that the daily Russian “clobber lists” have almost no tank kills on them, contrary to earlier in the war, and instead mainly features destroyed armored and too often, passenger vehicles. That suggests that either Ukraine is hoarding its remaining tanks for its long-touted counter-offensive, or is really pretty much out of them. Big Serge, in a new piece, mentioned (as Dima has) rumors of a few of the Polish Leopard tanks having been deployed to Bakhmut. If true, Big Serge argues that would be proof that Ukraine is unable to accumulate reserves for a later offensive.
To use the new Big Serge piece as a point of departure, I have to differ with one of his high level points. He contends the Russians have been slow to launch their big offensive because they are having to make a very large reorganization from a military optimized for fighting small wars to one able to engage in a large scale, protracted conflict (Douglas Macgregor recently said Russia is now planning for an up to 30 month war).
It may very well be true that Russia is finding the process of changing its military organization to be time-consuming, but Big Serge, like many others, particularly those from military backgrounds, seem impatient for Russia to launch a big attack. Again, remember Russia has repeatedly disavowed having a timetable. The one thing they have promised, per General Sergey Surovkin, is to wage a grinding war, for among other reasons, to preserve Russian lives. This isn’t just politically sound; Russia also has comparatively few professional troops and needs to risk them only when the potential payoff is high.
Yours truly has opined that Russia’s moves are going to be even more reactive to events than one might normally expect in a war. Part of that is due to Russia facing layered opposition: its immediate combatant is Ukraine, but as we all know, it is fighting the Collective West. Russia is pressing and testing the West across all lines of combat: military, economic, geopolitical. For instance, it is too often simply not admitted that Russia controls Ukraine’s future. Only Russia can restore Ukraine’s grid; the West cannot begin to afford a rebuild. Russia does not need to point that out; it will come into play in due course.
So I hazard that the principles guiding Russia’s actions in the near-term in Ukraine are:
Paraphrasing Napoleon: “Don’t get in your enemy’s way when he is making a mistake”
Don’t make sudden moves around crazy people
As Big Serge and others have pointed out, Ukraine’s strategy, such as it is, is close to ideal for Russia. Admittedly, Russia is in the midst of the difficult process of cracking Ukraine’s extensive fortifications without wasting Russian lives. That is why Russia is faced with the embarrassment of Ukraine still being able to shell civilians in Donetsk.
But thanks to the partial mobilization, Russia has hardened its positions all along the very long line of contact, which is also comparatively easy to keep supplied. Due to Ukraine’s need to maintain coalition support (mentioned as a major objective by Alex Vershinin in a late December 2022; Big Serge expands upon this idea), Ukraine is desperate to maintain the appearance of success. As many have pointed out, that translates into a refusal to make tactical retreats (save trivially) to preserve men and materiel. Worse, as we see particularly in Bakhmut, Ukraine keeps pouring forces and weapons into doomed positions.
So why, at least for now, should Russia do anything more than let Ukraine keep breaking its military on the shoals of Russians at the line of contact, and also keep pressing on as many potentially exploitable targets to force Ukraine to keep those positions defended and limit their ability to redeploy forces?
As frustrating as it is for war-watchers, Russia could keep the meat-grinder approach going until the Ukraine forces really do start collapsing, as in run out of ammo, are unable to send in reinforcements, and show other signs of serious inability to execute. Mind you, Russia still has a lot to do just to accomplish its immediate goal of clearing the Donbass and forces stationed close enough to shell it. Russia has also vowed to take all of the oblasts that voted to join the Russian Federation, so “liberating” the rest of Zaporzhizia would seem to be high on the list (the timing of Kherson would seem to be more up in the air due if nothing else to Kherson City being in an undesirable location).
The dealing with crazy people part also argues for making the war as boring as possible, and a slow grind serves that end too. The way to give the West an off ramp is to provide them the space to move the war off the front pages and then rationalize the abandonment of Ukraine (via greatly reduced support).
Putin’s biggest obstacle here would seem to be domestic hawks, who seem to get share of mind out of proportion to their numbers due to being both highly vocal and very good sources of day-to-day information on Telegram. Putin seems at least for the moment to have persuaded most Russians that not pursuing a war-time economy is the soundest long-term approach and I suspect he’ll continue to prevail in that debate. As long at the Russia public isn’t demanding a faster resolution of the conflict, the Russian leadership ought to have a fairly free hand with pacing.
Ukraine, despite being weakened, still has agency. And the US, with the Nord Stream bombing, has demonstrated it can be ruthless and utterly unprincipled.1 So far, all we have seen are failed or pinprick attacks that nevertheless get coverage, like the rumored but apparently never happened attack on a Russian plane in Belarus, or drone attacks meant for Moscow that didn’t get there.
Big Serge, along with many others, has discussed the rumor that Ukraine and Moldova will cook up a pretext for Ukraine to move on Transnistria. On paper, it’s not well enough defended to stand up to a determined Ukraine attack, and too far from Russia for it to readily send in reinforcements. So this could be a very big bloody nose for Russia and a huge morale booster.
The wee problem with this picture is the huge ammo dump that Russia is protecting. Russia could and presumably would blow that up, which per Moldovan (as in not Russia friendly) sources would be a nuclear level blast. On top of that, as Scott Ritter discussed long form in a recent talk with Garland Nixon and Andrei Martyanov, Russia’s Foreign Ministry made very clear that if Ukraine made a move on Transnistria, that would be an act of war against Russia. That would give Russia license to do things (to the mystery of Western military types) that it has refrained from doing, like taking out the Ukraine leadership. The noisemaking about that scheme seems to have died down.
But Russian officials have warned of intel on other provocations, such as chemical weapons and drums of radioactive material (along with hazmat gear!) being moving into Ukraine to stage false flag attacks that would be attributed to Russia. So until the US and NATO get over themselves, we could still see a lot of nasty developments.
And we keep seeing far too many stories in high profile Western outlets about how Ukraine can or must win, despite the lack of realistic ideas for how that happens. So expect if nothing else for the press to try to keep the emotional dial turned up to 11 even if the battlefield action remains a slow, bloody slog.
1 Even if you do not believe Sy Hersh’s account, there is no way it happened without US approval and support in that Sixth Fleet lake called the Baltic Sea.