Russia is living out a risk that’s even made its way into pop culture. In the movie Elizabeth, Cate Blanchette as the queen intones, “I do not like wars. They have uncertain outcomes.”
Despite Western efforts to claim otherwise, Putin is risk averse. He seemed agitated when he announced the launch of the Special Military Operation, an underpowered attack which some non-neocon US military experts argue was meant to show Russia would no longer tolerate attacks on its border and the West continuing to arm Ukraine. The invasion initially did achieve the desired outcome of bringing Ukraine to the negotiating table. But after the initial talks showed progress, Boris Johnson visited Zelensky and scuppered the peace initiative.
European leaders no doubt read Putin’s cautiousness since the start of the conflict in 2014 and may also have seen it as an admission of military weakness. They snookered him into the Minsk Accords, which the Russian side took seriously. Since then, gloating Western leaders have revealed it was a sham to buy time to better arm Ukraine.
The comparatively small group of Westerners who are militarily/intelligence savvy and opposed to US adventurism have generally called the trajectory of this conflict correctly, even if they clearly thought or hoped it would be closer to resolution by now. Russia, after realizing the US and NATO would not stomach Plan A of a negotiated settlement, geared up for a war of attrition along an already extended line of contact. That took some time, but despite the bad optics of Russian pullbacks in Kharkiv and Kherson, Ukraine didn’t profit from Russia having to take time to train newly mobilized men and restructure operations. Russia was aided in this by its overwhelming advantage in artillery, superiority in air defense, and missile and drone capabilities, which have only increased over the course of this still comparatively short conflict. In fact, as many have pointed out, Russia has essentially gone through the original Ukraine armed forces and a second army constituted by the West, and has been grinding through what is effectively a third set of forces.
Conventional wisdom in these circles (and I generally subscribed to it) was Russia would wait for the Great Overlydiscussed Ukraine Counteroffensive, and at most cede some territory for a bit while further chewing up Ukraine men and materiel, and then see what to do next, as in, say, whether to engage in further comparatively localized operations to further bleed Ukraine, like taking some important towns and cities in Donbass (actually not a small task given the natural fortifications of sturdy old Soviet-era buildings) or whether the Ukraine would be so degraded at that point that a big offensive might finally be in order.
But again, consensus views in this cohort have been along the lines of Russia needing to take at least its four annexed oblasts in full and probably now Kharkiv to better protect the Russian border. The next mission objective might be to march up to the west bank of the Dnieper and issue some sort of ultimatum, more for appearances’ sake that out of an expectation than a belief it might be entertained. These experts then posit that Russia’s next objective is Odessa; Colonel Douglas Macgregor pointed out that Russia recently destroyed a bridge near Moldova that would have been essential for any NATO ground defense of Odessa. Macgregor’s conclusion: “Odessa is now on the menu.”
There was an implicit optimists’ case in term of the war ending on an equilibrium where what was left of Ukraine would be so weak that it would not be able to threaten Russia on its own. If Russia controlled the Black Sea coast, the industrial production in the East, and a fair bit of the best agricultural land, what was left of Ukraine would be very poor and dependent. And if Russia could keep up its slow grind, it would drain Western weapons stocks to the degree that rearmament woudld be very costly and take a very long time.
Western rearmament is further complicated by many EU members having their own weapons systems, which makes it hard to work out joint logistics, as Ukraine is showing in real time now. National arms makers will not want to cede power and prestige to Airbus-style joint design and manufacturing initiatives, even before getting to the long time it would take to sort out what to do assuming agreement. And that’s before getting to the fact that Project Ukraine is becoming increasingly unpopular among the European public. It will become more so as structurally higher energy costs mean more de-industrialization, which means higher arms spending would eat even more into social safety nets and other services.
Or shorter, there was a conceivable, if narrow path, to Russia being able to conclude the war at least reasonably to its satisfaction without occupying or otherwise neutralizing western Ukraine. One option was the Medvedev map: of Ukraine windup up as Greater Kiev, with the rest of western Ukraine eaten up by Poland, Romania, and Hungary.
The events of this week point in another direction. Even though Ukraine’s first moves towards its counteroffensive are by many accounts going not at all well despite much more use of high end Western armaments (see Alexander Mercouris, Dima, and Simplicius the Thinker, among others, for details), the big infrastructure attacks suggest Ukraine will salt the earth rather than let Russia have it.
While there are many, starting with Ukraine president Zelensky, who blame the catastrophic failure of the Kakhovka dam on Russia, circumstantial evidence and cui bono point strongly the other way.
First, let’s consider another major infrastructure hit, 24 hours before the dam breach, to an ammonia pipeline. The pipeline, the subject of dispute in the grain deal. Despite the popular label. Russia had treated being able to resume fertilizer deliveries as integral to that pact. Some backstory via a John Helmer post yesterday:
The Russian government has repeatedly accused the UN and the Ukrainians of refusing to honour the reciprocal export provisions of the food export initiative, so that Russian grain and fertilizers will not be blocked in the European ports, or at sea where vessels carrying the Russian cargoes have been denied Anglo-American insurance. The UN publications, statements and press releases published by Guterres’s staff have reported the full 26-paragraph text of the grain agreement; they have omitted the text of the fertilizer agreement. The combination of the two makes the difference between the grain deal and the real deal: for the Russians the latter was the precondition for their agreement to the former.
[UN Secretary-General] Guterres’s office has acknowledged that the real deal was more than the grain deal, and that compliance also required the US, the UK and the European Union (EU) states to lift the sanctions they have imposed on Russian shipping, port access, vessel insurance, and commodity exports….
Of the 43 releases which have followed from Guterres’s office since last July, not a single statement, press release, report, or update identifies the terms of agreement on Russian grain and fertilizer exports, or acknowledges Russian protests against Ukrainian, UN, EU, and US non-compliance.
On March 23, [British lawyer Martin] Griffiths announced he had met Russian officials, and claimed: “The discussions focused on the implementation of the two agreements signed on 22 July 2022: the Black Sea Grain Initiative between the Russian Federation, Türkiye, Ukraine and the United Nations; and the Memorandum of Understanding between the Russian Federation and the UN, to facilitate unimpeded exports of food and fertilizer. The UN Secretary-General expressed today that the UN remains fully committed to the Black Sea Grain Initiative, as well as to efforts to facilitate the export of Russian food and fertilizer.”
Griffith’s last sentence was lying. The Russians had told him they would agree to extend the grain deal until July on condition Guterres and Griffiths did what they promised they were doing. They didn’t….
Because Guterres and Griffiths refused, Russian officials have announced that the current 120-day extension of the grain deal to July 17 will be the last. In the meantime, because Russian ammonia exports are still stopped, Ukrainian grain cargoes have been blocked from Odessa and Chernomorsk, and restricted to Yuzhny (aka Pivdennyi). In retaliation, the Ukrainians have attacked the new ammonia and LPG export terminals at Taman with drones.
Now for the update. Be sure to click through to read the full text:
NEWS UPDATE AMMONIA PIPELINE NOON JUNE 7
The worlds longest ammonia pipeline, 2470 km, going from Togliatti at the Volga to three harbours at the Black Sea has been breached near Masyutivka (red dot left of M) in the Kupiansk region. It happened at June 5th, the day before the… pic.twitter.com/JTPe44KuSH
— Mikael Valtersson (@MikaelValterss1) June 7, 2023
As with the Nord Stream pipeline, Russia had no incentive to blow up infrastructure that delivers its exports. It can simply, as it had, turn off the tap. Dima reported that the ammonia release seems to have done a lot of damage in the area, and troops have pulled out for now.
As for the dam, Russia did not need to destroy or damage it to open the floodgates and send a surge downstream to impede a Ukraine crossing or amphibious operation, were one to get going (the Dnieper is very wide near Kherson city, and Ukraine attempts to ford the river so far have all failed). Again, Russia had more options, and therefore more power, with the dam intact.
Similarly, despite teary-eyed depictions of harm to Ukraine civilians, the Russian-held areas have suffered more damage. Russia also had mines and fortifications flooded out, but experts believe Russia has additional defense lines behind them. Ilargi tartly noted:
The best comment on Kakhovka I’ve seen perhaps comes from @CheburekiMan on Twitter: “Restoring water flow to the North Crimean Canal was top priority for Russia, the very first act of the SMO. Before Kiev shut off the flow in 2014, the canal was supplying 85% of Crimea’s water. So much depended on it, from crops to industry to drinking water, that’s how important it is. Now the pro-Ukraine bleating sheep want people to believe that Russia would wreck the dam, empty the reservoir and cause serious harm to its own people by running the canal dry. It’s so bonkers that one has to seriously consider such ideas are the result of brain damage, or perhaps fetal alcohol syndrome.”
Recall also that Ukraine has been threatening the dam for at least the better part of a year; Surovkin was willing to rattle the confidence of ordinary Russians by pulling troops out of Kherson as a cautionary measure. Ukraine has been regularly shelling it, including with HIMARS, which means with Western help in targeting. Both the New York Times and Washington Post published separate accounts of Ukraine plans to destroy the dam.
First, let’s start with a small update on the Kakhovka dam. Earlier today, Twitter “community notes” attempted to debunk the narrative that Ukraine was playing with the water levels of the Kakhovka reservoir. But soon after, their own ‘fact check’ was destroyed when new footage was released from residents upriver showing that Ukraine’s hydro-electric plants had in fact massively opened up their sluice gates. Here are both of the videos compiled:
The man recording even says, “I’ve never seen this in my life.”
⚡️⚡️⚡️Meanwhile, at the moment, the locks are still open in DneproGES (Ukrainian controlled), which means that the Ukrainian leadership is not interested in stopping the flood…and the Western media is silent⚡️⚡️⚡️
Vladimir Rogov appears to believe that the lowering of the Kakhovka Basin water levels will actually increase the risk of Ukraine landing to try to seize the ZNPP nuclear plant at Energodar:
💥💥💥⚡️ The lowering of the water level in the Kakhovka Basin due to the weakening of the dam of the hydroelectric power plant of the same name located downstream of the Dnieper increases the risk of landings by militants of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to capture the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant.
This was stated by Vladimir Rogov, leader of the “We are together with Russia” movement.💥💥💥
And on the note of the Dnipropetrovsk hydro-electric plant being opened up by Kiev prior to the Kakhovka event to raise water levels, we have the first truly high level Russian confirmation of this. Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev stated the following:
Patrushev: Kyiv released water to Dnipropetrovsk HPP a day before the attack on Kakhovka Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolay Patrushev said today that, on the order of Kiev, water was released in the Dnipropetrovsk hydroelectric power plant, a day before the attack on the Kahovka HPP. “On the orders of Kyiv, 24 hours earlier there was a massive water release at the Dnipropetrovsk HPP, and then there was an attack on the Kahovka HPP, which led to terrible consequences,” said Patrushev, TASS reports.
Another recent event, which didn’t get the attention it warranted, perhaps because it was so cringe-makingly detached from reality, was a speech by Anthony Blinken in Helsinki on June 2. Blinken among other things argued Russia has failed comprehensively in the war, was becoming more isolated, and the US had been willing to negotiate but Putin kicked the table over. The last claim is probably the worst of the many howlers in the talk.
But what is signifies is dangerous: the hawks are absolutely not backing down and despite evidence, are convinced they will prevail. Blinken gave the usual bromides about US controlled freedom-loving Ukrainians and the US being committed to Ukraine for as long as it takes.
These new infrastructure strikes, which harm civilians and may do lasting environmental damage, seem likely to force Russia to pursue the war to the destruction of the Ukraine government, as opposed say to a mere dictating of terms of surrender. As Lambert put it, “Russia can’t permit a fascist state on its borders.”
The ever-careful Putin has even changed how he speaks about Ukraine. The Washington Post on May 31 quote Putin as referring to it as “hat territory known as Ukraine,” suggesting it has no standing as a government. That framing, particularly in connection with the two blasts, may lead Russia to cross the Rubicon and designate Ukraine as a terrorist state. That means among other things no negotiations. Simplicius set forth evidence of more hardening of attitudes among top officials, beyond the usual Medvedev bad-coppery. For instance, he hoisted this section from a post-Kakhovka disaster RIA Novosti interview with Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev:
The new goal of the SMO is the demolition of the Nazi regime in Kiev.
It seems that new specifics have been added to the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine as the goals of the SMO.
“Washington and London created the Kiev Nazi regime, which must be replaced, giving Ukraine the status of a neutral state in practice,” said Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev (pictured) in an interview with Belarusian Security Council Secretary Alexander Volfovich.
Now many have assumed that capturing and subjugating such a larger territory as Western Ukraine would be an incredibly costly and corrosive task. But yours truly has pointed out there are ways, albeit not at all nice, to square this circle, and if yours truly can come up with one, there are surely much better ideas being considered in Moscow.
As we pointed out, if Russia takes Ukraine west of the Dnieper and the Black Sea coast, what is left of Ukraine is not all that valuable, save perhaps some farming areas.
Russia gained a huge amount of knowledge about how the Ukraine grid works and repeatedly disabled it severely enough to force Ukraine to commit meaningful amounts of its dwindling air defenses to protect big cities, and also forced Ukraine to deplete its equipment reserves. Remember the West does not make any of this gear; it can only look to its spares and perhaps those of former Warsaw Pact states. If Russia were to fully de-electrify Western Ukraine, only Russia could restore it. And it could decide what to restore.
So one option for Russia would be to destroy the grid in areas of Ukraine it did not want to attempt to subdue. The result would be something like the unorganized territories of Maine, a land of prepper beardos. Remember that no electricity means no heated pipes and water pumping in the winter, so many would burst in the winter, further reducing the number of habitable structures.
Russia could even conceivably take out power in a way intended to herd the population into Europe. In Japan, the media carefully follows the so-called sakura line, where cherry blossoms are going into full bloom. Russia could march a de-electrification campaign across Ukraine, starting closest to the areas Russia wants to keep and rebuild, then moving gradually west and north, to give Poland and NATO time to get the message if they had not worked out what was in store,
Now making a huge part of a country largely uninhabitable is a very ugly end game. Aside from recognizing that punishing citizens, as opposed to decision makers, is to be avoided if at all possible, Russia also cares about its image around the world. So the idea of de-electrifying huge sections of western Ukraine would be a not-so-hot fallback to a costly and difficult occupation. But the fact that any such fallback exists suggests there might be less terrible ones. So the highest levels in Russia may be thinking hard about such possibilities.
Yours truly said from the very outset of the SMO that Russia could win the war but lose the peace. Even though it has repeatedly exercised restraint in the face of Ukraine provocations like the Kerch Bridge bombing and the strikes on Belgorod, which endanger civilians, the escalations, which also look intended to draw NATO in, are also forcing Russia to consider more comprehensive solutions.