War of attrition and maneuvers in the succession struggle

June 8, 2022

We begin, as has now become usual, with an operational update. Please bear in mind that in this war of attrition, daily developments should be interpreted with caution — breakthroughs are unlikely for either side, towns and villages are likely to change hands multiple times, and the important thing is to keep the overall picture in mind.

The last few days have been difficult for Ukraine, with massive artillery exchanges, Russian assaults on cities, and — most importantly — directed attacks on the supply lines, some very successful. The new RFA commander, General Zhidko, seems to have decided to try, yet again, to close the Severodonetsk cauldron, and the Russians are rushing 152mm replacements for the 122mm artillery the LNR/DNR forces are equipped with that have now run out of ammo. Once these arrive, the assaults will resume although by this time the NATO-supplied 155mm artillery might reach the separatists at positions they cannot shoot back even with their new guns.

Starting with the norther, clock-wise.

The fighting east of Kharkiv heated up again, with the RFA pushing the Ukrainians away from the critical transport hub of Vovchansk. This is one area where the 155mm howitzers the Ukrainians recently got might make a huge difference because it would enable them to hit the Russians even from the new positions they fell back toward. The VSU desperately need to start destroying the rail network if they are to have any chance to hold the RFA. So far, they have been unable to reach it because the frontline is too far away. The Russians are periodically shelling Kharkiv as well and it appears they have not given up on the idea of taking that region in addition to the other four they intend to conquer (Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia). The Ukrainian counter-intelligence services are investigating collaborationists in Kharkiv — the city nearly fell in the early days of the war, much like Kherson did, and people now want to know why. I guess at least some of the billions the FSB spent on bribing Ukrainians went to the right (wrong) hands.

The situation in Severodonetsk remains critical. The Russians announced they had captured the city, only to be pushed to the eastern suburbs when the VSU rushed reinforcements. The RFA regrouped, and counter-attacked, throwing the Ukrainians into the plant on the western side. The Ukrainians still seem to be on the right bank of Siversky Donets south of the town while fortifying themselves in Lysychansk. From that position they could hold out for quite a while provided the road to Bakhmut remains open, which is why the RFA has redoubled its attack on it.

The battered units north of Popasna have been rotated out, and the RFA attacked toward Berestove, and right now are claiming to have cut the road there. I cannot verify that, but if so, the Ukrainians will have to counter-attack to dislodge them or else their forces in the cauldron would be left without supply lines, and will eventually have to surrender. If this happens, the scale of defeat would be larger than Mariupol. The RFA had previously taken portions of the road only to lose it to VSU, so there is still hope there.

The larger problem is developing south of Izyum, where the RFA consolidated its hold on the area around Lyman and pushed into Svyatohirsk. The speed of that advance is a bit startling since the Ukrainians were supposed to have fortified that city. The Russians have to do this because breaking out of Lyman toward Slovyansk from the east will be nearly impossible (as the disastrous attempt during WWII showed). Taking this city would put the Russians within striking distance of taking Donetsk Oblast, which is their second major objective after finishing the conquest of Luhansk, of which about 5% remain in Ukrainian hands.

Since the Russians are throwing everything into the fight in Donbas, their efforts in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have stalled. The Ukrainian distracted them with an attack north of Kherson, and the Russians have been unable to push them back across the Inhulets River around Davydiv Brod. The VSU does not have the manpower to advance south toward Nova Kakhovka — if indeed they ever contemplated doing so — but they have forced the Russians to reallocate resources to stop the treat there.

The collaborationists in Kherson and Zaporizhzhie have announced that they intend to hold “referenda” on incorporation into the Russian Federation in the fall (September, most likely), although any setbacks for the RFA in these regions might push up the time-table into the summer. The reasons for these referenda — which nobody but Russia and its five allies would accept — are both political and military. On the political side, they are meant to signify that Russia intends to keep these territories and reassure wavering potential collaborators that they would not be abandoned while simultaneously driving the resistance to despair. The Russians are not bluffing about this, and this is not about creating chips for the bargaining table — they fully intend to dismember Ukraine.

This is where the military aspect comes into play: with the regions incorporated into Russia, the Kremlin will treat any attempt to liberate them as an attack on Russia, which can easily escalate the war. Not to nuclear weapons, as some have suggested, but at least to (a politically acceptable) domestic mobilization. The Ukrainians will probably try to do everything they can to prevent these referenda from taking place. Recently, they were discussing whether attacking Crimea would constitute a violation of Zelenskyy’s promise not to use the American HIMARS against targets in Russia. This is really a grey zone since Crimea belongs to Russia according to the Kremlin but to Ukraine according to Washington. So far, the Ukrainians have not had the capability to strike Crimea (and, most to the point, the bridge) although now with the land link to Mariupol restored by the Russians, the logistical situation has markedly improved for the RFA.

In all, the Russians are adamant about taking all of Eastern Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson, or about a third of the country. It is not clear how they can accomplish this without a mobilization, and that’s even before we factor in the drama that seems to be unfolding in Moscow.

I previously wrote that the struggle over Putin’s succession is likely to involve (and depend on) Kadyrov and his private army of well-heeled Chechens. The reasoning is simple: with the massive losses in Ukraine, Putin committed the cardinal sin of any dictator, namely, failing to keep enough loyal troops in reserve to ensure his power at home. Kadyrov, for all his ridiculous TikToks, did some “war theater” in Ukraine, mostly bolstering his media presence, but without actual heavy casualties. As a result, his forces are basically intact in their bases in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Chechnya.

I am not privy as to what transpired during his meeting with Defense Minister Shoigu (and FSB head Bortnikov, among others) in early June, but it stands to reason that Kadyrov was probed about his preferences in the matter of Putin’s departure while he was trying to assess the state of Putin’s health and the political situation. While I do not think he can replace Putin himself, his thumb on the scale is likely to determine who the successful successor is likely to be. Today, I also learned that his right-hand man, Adam Delimkhanov — the head of the Chechen fighters in Rosgvardia (the National Guard, into which Kadyrov’s forces were supposedly incorporated but de facto left with their own command) — who also happens to be Kadyrov’s cousin and who was made a Hero of the Russian Federation for his participation in the taking of Mariupol, was now appointed first deputy head of the Committee for Security and Anti-Corruption in the Russian Parliament. He was given his post for his remarkable contributions in the special operation in Ukraine, and it is very likely that the appointment was cleared with Putin. In other words, Kadyrov’s visit to Moscow is starting to bear fruit.

Meanwhile, former President Medvedev went haywire on his Telegram channel. Speaking about Ukrainians, he had this to say: “I am often asked why my Telegram posts are so harsh. The answer is — I hate them. They are bastards and degenerates. They wish us, Russia, death. And while I live, I will do everything to make sure they disappear.” (Despite the convoluted grammar, he was hating on Ukrainians, not on his Telegram posts.)

Some have said that this was an outburst because the US expelled his son, but that’s highly unlikely — this is not the first time he has said outrageous things since the war began (recall that he echoed the sentiments of that genocidal article in RIA Novosti that I covered months ago). Others have claimed that he is trying to impress the siloviki by presenting himself as a hardliner. I do not think they would be that easily hoodwinked — Medvedev has years of being a non-entity to solidify his image. Instead, I think he is making these statements for public consumption so that in case the siloviki decide to coordinate on him, the choice would be credible. (I have explained before why a non-entity like him would be the perfect front for the uneasy collective that will likely succeed Putin in power.)

What troubles me is that he believes that an extraordinarily harsh line on Ukraine is what the prospective job requires. I cannot say that I am surprised — I have argued for a long time that the entire Russian elite and most of the people are hawks on Ukraine — but that it should be so openly extreme worries me.

These moves all have the appearance of maneuvering into positions to enable quick action if anything should happen to Putin. I do not think they are readying a coup, but it could well be that Putin’s health is in a much more precarious state than we know. These are preparations for a struggle for his succession.

But what will happen if Putin goes? As I said before, do not count on peace — the only possibility I see for that is if the succession becomes chaotic and possibly violent. For now, the hawks are the only voices heard in the media and in the corridors of power.

The insanely aggressive voices in Russia have proliferated: MPs are calling for bombing of Kyiv into submission, like Mariupol (Zhuravlev) and for attacking Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh (Delyagin). Mikheev — a particularly odious propagandist — wants to invade the Baltics to create a land corridor to Kaliningrad (why Russians are intent on recreating Hitler’s moves, I do not know, but an army of psychologists can probably explain it). The Russian scare tactics and propaganda is starting to bear fruit in the West, with more establishment voices for “peace” and “negotiating with Putin” and “territorial concessions” beginning to overwhelm the media despite mass popular support for Ukraine’s cause. The Hungarian Trojan Horse finally opened up as well, with the speaker of Parliament calling into question Zelenskyy’s mental stability, and the foreign minister doubling down on that. Yesterday, Zelenskyy sought to counter some of those voices by saying that Ukraine has lost too much blood to accept territorial concessions. That he felt the need to say this, is also worrisome — nothing will doom Ukraine faster than a collapse in Western unity.

As the Westerners are busy looking for ways to weasel out of confronting Russia, Turkey’s Erdogan is trying to make out like a bandit. Under the guise of sponsoring peace talks, he met with Russia Foreign Minister Lavrov to negotiate the transport of stolen Ukrainian grain on Russia’s behalf (Turkey will get a hefty 25% discount) and the disposition of the Kurds in northern Syria (Russia is sure to bless Turkey’s “special operation” there).

The great grain robbery will sure prove lucrative for Putin despite the tribute he has to pay to Turkey for safe passage (this is the modern equivalent of a caravan bribing nomadic tribes along the route centuries ago), which will come in handy as a supplement to the gold his Wagner mercenaries are now mining in Africa. It will not help with the economy — which needs imports and technology rather than money — but it will help with the salaries and subsidies that are so important for domestic stability.

The final question mark today remains Belarus, where the preparation for an invasion seems to be proceeding apace. I just cannot see what Lukashenko has to gain from it though. While Putin wants territory, what will Belarus get except the honor to join said territories into being swallowed by Moscow? Putin also wants the CSTO to enter the war, but the interests of its other members are even more distant than Lukashenko’s. If the Russians again grind to a standstill in Donbas, expect the pressure for Belarusian intervention to become unbearable. As of today, my assessment is still 50/50 that such an attack would come.

The overall picture is not great for Ukraine right now. The unconscionable delay of NATO weaponry allowed the RFA to regroup faster than the thinly stretched VSU, with the result that the Russians have been able to grind their way into Donbas and the South when this could have been prevented. This advance has a quality of a self-fulfilling prophecy — the image of the incompetent and badly led Russians nevertheless advancing with the sheer weight of numbers is making even the most resolute Ukrainian defenders (inside and outside the country) wobble in their convictions.

As for me, I think the Russian economy and political system will not be able to see this through to victory as long as the West does not get cold feet.

So what would a negotiated peace acceptable to Kyiv look like?

  1. The Russians leave the territories occupied since February, including all of Donbas.
  2. Luhansk and Donetsk are granted autonomy within Ukraine.
  3. Crimea becomes jointly administered by Ukraine and Russia.
  4. Ukraine becomes a member of the European Union.
  5. Ukraine becomes a member of NATO but without foreign bases or troops on its soil, and without nuclear weapons.

These are not at likely unless the Russian regime collapses or the VSU manages some stunningly successful counter-offensive. If the economy compels Moscow to seek a cease-fire, a more realistic solution would be:

  1. Russia annexes Donbas.
  2. Russia retains a land bridge to Crimea, possibly by taking the territory south of the Dnipro River (this would exclude parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions).
  3. Ukraine spends a decade negotiating accession to the European Union, the most likely obstacle being its endemic corruption (the war has not solved that problem).
  4. Ukraine obtains guarantees similar to Article V of NATO and maintains a large Western-supplied army capable of repelling another Russian invasion with support from its guarantors.

In this scenario, Ukraine would lose about 25% of its territory and Russia will get rewarded for an outright war of conquest. This outcome would be a failure of the international security regime of the highest order, and while Russia would continue to be isolated and going bankrupt, the West would not have exactly covered itself with glory either. I have no clue how China would interpret any of this.

The only way to avoid this unpleasant outcome is to stand firm, send the lend/lease aid to Ukraine, and keep Western unity at any cost, waiting for the Russian Federation to stumble.

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