August 23, 2022
Hi Friends. There have been a few developments that warrant a new post on the war in Ukraine.
A few days ago, Turkey’s Erdogan had a meeting with Zelenskyy after talking to Putin in Sochi. The meeting lasted 40 minutes, and both sides would only says they talked about generalities. We now have some information that might explain why the meeting was cut short, and it has to do with the demands from the Kremlin that Erdogan apparently communicated to Zelenskyy. Here they are:
- Ukraine must officially recognize Crimea as Russian, and the Parliament must write this into the Constitution.
- The phrase “aggressor country” must be removed from all Ukrainian publications. An agreement about “all-encompassing neutral cooperation” must be signed and ratified by parliaments in both countries.
- LNR / DNR must be recognized as independent republics, and their sovereignty must be confirmed by the United Nations.
- Kherson and Zaporizhzhie must conduct referenda under UN supervision.
- Ukraine must accept a neutral status and forego participating in any blocs, and in return it would receive security guarantees from the UN.
- Ukraine must fully demilitarize.
- While these reforms are taking place, an international peacekeeping force must be placed in Ukraine to defend its borders, nuclear power plants, and airports.
- Early elections for Parliament.
- Early elections for President.
- Complete overhaul of the Ukrainian Constitution for transparency, equal rights for Russian-speakers, and neutrality.
I have to admit that I have difficulty taking this seriously. If this truly is what Putin is demanding, then no wonder Zelenskyy told him to follow the Russian ship. These demands are basically the second-best option after Russia failed to conquer the country in the Blitzkrieg. They make no accounting for the Russia’s abysmal military performance, its inability to impose terms anywhere near what is being demanded, and — most astonishing of all — require other countries to make commitments that they will absolutely not make. Nobody will be recognizing LNR/DNR anytime soon, nobody would be supervising sham referenda under Russian occupation, and nobody would be providing security guarantees with our without Russian participation. The Ukrainians would sooner string Zelenskyy on a pole in the middle of Khreshchatyk than allow him to sign anything like this.
So there are two possibilities here: either my source for this information has been smoking too much weed recently or the Kremlin has already gotten its first shipment of poppy from the Taliban in payment for oil. The brevity of the meeting with Erdogan seems to suggest the latter although I can’t imagine Erdogan — savvy political fox that he is — taking these extravagant terms to Zelenskyy in the first place. He might have simply told Zelenskyy what Putin wants without indicating any support for it. In fact, today Erdogan said that Turkey sees the annexation of Crimea as unconstitutional and illegal, and that it would continue to support Ukrainian efforts to achieve territorial integrity and a just peace. This is coming on the heels of Turkey’s deputy minister of Finance saying that despite Turkey’s ongoing economic interests with Russia, Erdogan would not permit Moscow to use Turkey to evade the sanctions regime. This sounds a lot like Erdogan looking out for himself than the fantasy list above.
At any rate, the prospect for negotiations right now is as dim as it has been for months, and recent events can only have pushed talked further into the uncertain future.
Let me explain.
The situation on the front lines has remained essentially unchanged. As I indicated in my last post, one would do well to ignore both Russian reports of amazing conquests (they seem to conquer the same town every few days) and Ukrainian dreams of a vast counter-offensive. Admittedly, the latter have now receded a bit, as reality has set in — the Russians are doing very poorly but, unfortunately, Ukraine does not have the strength to take full advantage of it. Still, the ZSU (I am switching to the Ukrainian abbreviation instead of the Russian one, VSU, to refer to the Ukrainian Armed Forces) are doing quite well with what they got, fighting the war in a way that many Russian generals had advised Putin to do from the start: destroy the supply infrastructure and the ammo/fuel depots before launching a full attack. It is known that Putin personally overrode these plans in favor of the Blitzkrieg, and now the article in the Washington Post about the biases and failure of Russian intelligence can help explain why this happened. At any rate, here’s a rundown in all directions:
- Donbas. The Russians are shelling Kharkiv every single day, causing a lot of destruction and inflicting civilian casualties. The ZSU has been unable to push them out of artillery range. The much anticipated Russian attack south of Izyum has not happened yet (if it ever will). The ZSU stopped several minor attacks there, and the Russians have been mostly conducting reconnaissance-by-fire, probing the Ukrainian defenses. The Separatists have yet to capture Siversk after weeks of fierce fighting. The Russians (apparently spear-headed by mercenaries) have repeatedly assaulted Bakhmut but have been unable to make progress. The ZSU seems to have reinforced its artillery there, making attacks especially costly (I talked about the artillery shortage in my previous post). Presently, the Russians are attacking Kodema from three sides, but it is still holding out. Similarly, the Separatist attempts to take Avdeevka have failed. There is some bad news though: the Russians have captured Pisky, and have now come out into operational open space. Whether they can develop an attack there remains to be seen — the ZSU has rushed reinforcements and blew up a Separatist HQ and ammo depot in Donetsk, which might slow down Russian plans a bit.
- The nuclear brinkmanship over Enerhodar in Zaporizhzhia continues. The shelling continues while evidence of Russian weaponry inside the plant has come out. Moscow is throwing up all sorts of smoke and mirrors about this, the most recent being a call to convoke a meeting of the UN Security Council, no doubt to peddle their fairy tales about Ukrainians trying to blow up the plant (for purposes unknown). My position on this remains unchanged despite many pundits claiming that Putin can, in fact, order an “accident” at the NPP. I understand that many of these pundits fancy themselves pro-Ukrainian but they are unwitting conduits of Kremlin propaganda. Recall that one strategy to make incredible threats credible is to persuade the adversary that the decision-maker is irrational, and so no subject to cost/benefit calculations of the sort that people use to argue that a certain action makes no sense. Kissinger tried telling the Russians that Nixon was “out of control” and might press the nuclear button, and several generations of North Korean Kims have made it state policy to look crazy. Thing is, not once has anyone produced evidence of a case where this has worked, and I very much doubt that anyone in a position of power would entertain the idea that Putin is not rational. (Yes, I am aware of many articles claiming that the Ukrainian invasion “proves” that he is irrational, but I have worked hard to give many completely rational reasons why that policy only looks crazy in retrospect.)
- Kherson: the ZSU attacks have stalled there, which is not entirely surprising given the artillery situation. Moreover, the VSRF (I am switching to the Russian designation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation) has managed a few successful counter-attacks that recovered some land previously liberated by the ZSU. Their attempt to dislodge the Ukrainians from the Inhulets River bridgehead, however, failed. For their part, the Ukrainians have hit — yet again — the Antonovsky and Kakhovka bridges, rendering them inoperable for another time being. Apparently, they scored big in both cases by hitting something that was being transported over them at the time.
- The Black Sea situation remains unchanged except reports that the Russians have loaded a bunch of Kalibr missiles onto ships, possibly for use in the massive assault on Ukraine that is expected to come over the next few days.
- No changes in Transnistria.
- While the Russians continue to stockpile forces in Belarus and, apparently, are constructing a second air field, Lukashenko recently dismissed point-blank any notion that Belarusian armed forces would enter the war in Ukraine. I always take pronouncements by dictators with a huge pinch of salt, but thus far there are no signs of preparations for such a large-scale intervention. There are already about 13,000 Belarusians who have volunteered to fight for the VSRF, so maybe such volunteers will be the extent of direct Belarusian participation. I just do not know, and, more importantly, nor do the Ukrainians, so they are still keeping a sizeable force to block any potential advance on Kyiv or toward Lviv. I sure hope they have mined the border regions properly this time.
From this overview, it seems clear that the Russians have made very little progress in the “third phase” (as they call it) of the war. Their casualties are great. According to internal Russian data, VSRF’s losses as of August 20th are 48,745 people, which does not include mercenaries (another 13, 494), and Rossgvardiya’s (another 2,366). This corresponds with the numbers from an independent source, which gives the range as 44,835 – 51,032 KIA, MIA, or dying from wounds. In addition, there are between 82,904 and 94,983 wounded, of whom about 40% would be able to return to service. When the war began, we learned that the Russian military had ordered 45,000 body bags (and I indicated earlier that according to some sources, some Russian military projections envisioned up to 50,000 dead), so now the toll is past the worst-case scenario and none of the major goals have been accomplished.
(For the Ukrainian side, yesterday Zlauzhnyi said that they have lost over 9,000 heroes. I say heroes because it’s not exactly clear what he means. A lot of reporting says 9,000 soldiers, but this is not what Zaluzhnyi said. The statement, which you can find here, translates as follows:
“In this war, not only military personnel and not only those who took up arms participate in this war – our little children, who are not guilty of anything at all, except that they were born right here and right at this time. They really do not understand anything that is happening, but they definitely need protection near Soledar, Bakhmut, Velika Novosilka, and here, because their father went to the front and, perhaps, is one of the almost 9 thousand heroes who died.”
It seems to me that he is referring to people who volunteered when the war began rather than ZSU soldiers, reason being that the credible estimates I have seen put total Ukrainian losses to anywhere between 32,145 and 34,670 KIA, MIA, and dying of wounds (another 48,341 to 53,525 wounded, of whom about half will be able to return to service). The discrepancy is just too great, and — given the intensity of the fighting — the lower number is unlikely to be correct unless it refers to some specific category.
The Russian woes are not limited to losses in men and materiel (as ZSU continues to successfully target depots and infrastructure) — the psychological and propaganda factor also matters, and here the Ukrainians have made some notable progress. Over the past several weeks, the attacks on targets in Crimea have increased. Some militarily successful — the attack on the airbase in Saki is said to have destroyed a large portion of the naval air force of the Black Sea Fleet — and some not so (as the drone that damaged to roof of the HQ building but without indication of killing command staff) but all very visible, very public, and very consequential because they bring the reality of the war to Russians (who, totally inexplicably for me, have chosen to vacation near a war zone and now have to evacuate in a hurry — the famous “Мамулечка, надо сваливать отсюда!” [“Mommy, we gotta get out of here!”] — is the best example, now turned into a meme), and because they exposed as a lie the myth of “impenetrable shield over Russia” that the regime had been busy creating for years. The problem with the shield is that it was built to deal with an American/NATO attack, not drones or low-flying cruise missiles, which means that no territory reachable by ZSU is actually safe.
The Ukrainians have shown remarkable (and politically correct) restraint so far, not hitting military targets on Russian or Belarusian soil — places from where the Russians are regularly shelling Ukrainian cities and villages. Crimea also seemed out of bounds to some, with Medvedev even promising “judgment day” in case the Ukrainians dared attack it (he has since removed this post from his Telegram channel). But Crimea is now definitely in play although the Ukrainians could just say that this is not Russian territory. How long before more incidents with dangerous smoking in total disregard to safety measures occur in Kursk or Belgorod? Every time Moscow responds by not blaming the Ukrainians (because doing so would require an actual response that the Kremlin seems, so far, unable to bring itself to implementing), the ZSU would get bolder. Putin’s apparent reaction to the event I discuss next (at least so far) seems to indicate little appetite to expanding the war, and an increasing focus on maintaining his rule domestically despite very shaky performance in Ukraine.
The newest development that has blown up on social media and even in the Western press is the assassination of Darya Dugina, the daughter of the infamous Alexander Dugin. Predictably, the Russians immediately pointed the finger at the Ukrainians, and in just two days — a remarkable feat! — the FSB has even identified the agent who carried out the plot, a Ukrainian woman who is now hiding in Estonia.
It is not easy to say what is going on but it is fairly easy to predict what will happen next. Let me begin by dismissing the ludicrous notion that Kyiv had anything to do with the assassination. There are no upsides to this for Ukraine and, as we shall see, downsides abound. We do not even need to go into detail about the clumsy forgery that FSB presented as evidence or their utter failure to approach the Estonians for some cooperation with interrogating the suspect (they could easily do this while she is in Estonia). Clearly, no cooperation is wanted because all conclusions have already been drawn. But if not the Ukrainians, then who?
There are at least three possibilities that I am aware of. Here they are, in increasing order of likelihood:
- Russian partisans. Some group that nobody had ever heard of calling itself National Republican Army (NRA) claimed credit for the assassination. This story was promulgated by Ilya Ponomarev, ex-Russian MP who now resides in Kyiv. He even cited NRA’s alleged mission statement, which was then fully released on Telegram. I have grave doubts about this. The narrative of an underground anti-Putin force seems very attractive… to the Kremlin. It is unclear why they would target Dugina or her father, whose influence on politics is rather limited. Yes, I am aware of the extravagant claims made about his access to Putin and shaping the latter’s world view, but these are quite exaggerated, and not confirmed by anyone close to Putin. The thing is, Dugin’s bizarre view of Russia’s position in the world is actually shared — in its essence if not detail — by a great many Russian elites. I have written about this before, so no need to rehash. Suffice to say that Dugin essentially wrote thousands of pages of cockamamie “philosophy” to just describe what Russian elites already wanted. Saying that he influenced anyone is a gross misrepresentation of what happened. Killing him serves no purpose whatsoever if one opposes Putin’s regime. Moreover, having a phantom resistance group like the “NRA” is great for the Kremlin because it can now attribute to it (or have it claim responsibility) for any political murder the regime wants to commit while justifying extraordinary repressive measures domestically to hunt it down. I expect more “NRA” activity of this sort in the coming weeks and months.
- Donbas criminals. Most pundits assume that Dugin was the target and Darya was only collateral damage. This seems unlikely though. The explosive was detonated remotely — which means that whoever did it probably knew that Dugin was not in the car — and them taking separate cars was not unusual — which means would-be assassins would have to account for that and ensure that he is in the car… if he were the target. I am very much inclined to think that Darya herself was the target, so the next explanations more or less have that assumption in place. The second explanation was that she was killed over shady deals with criminal organizations in Donbas. All of this is murky but there have been rumors of her involvement with such groups there, and if something went awry, this is one way to deal with the problem. I tend to discount that possibility because she’s a very high profile target and criminal organizations generally prefer to not draw attention to their dealings, especially when it’s pretty predictable how the regime would react.
- Imperialist faction, with possible cooperation by Dugin himself. The Dugins, one should recall, are representatives of the “imperialist faction” that believes Russia is not fighting this war properly (more on what that means to them, below). This faction wants to make it impossible to negotiate peace with Kyiv, and so it strives to create an environment that would make any dealing with Ukraine politically impossible. Darya Dugina is the type of sacrifice they could make to stir outrage about Kyiv, inflame public opinion, and push to the forefront politicians who would demand an escalation of the war. The murder of an attractive young woman whom many Russians recognize from endless TV appearances, and who seems essentially innocent (the calling for the murder of Ukrainians does not count) is precisely the type of event that can harden public attitudes and provide context for further measures like internal repression, mobilization, and more vicious war. One variant of this has Alexander Dugin himself initiating the plan and giving the security services the idea — this would be consistent with his bloodthirsty view of what must happen in Ukraine (one should recall what he told his students in 2014 after fighting started in Donbas: “Kill, kill, and kill. There should be no more talks. I am saying this as a professor.”) and his bloody vision that no greatness can be achieved without great personal sacrifice. According to this theory, he offered his daughter (without her knowledge) as a sacrifice to spur the “proper response” and intensify the war in Ukraine. He, of course, is quite aware of how this could play out, and the siloviki who executed this would have been quite capable of the complex plot involved (it would have been easier for an assassin to shoot her but then it would have been clear that she was the target, prompting uncomfortable questions — this way she’s an innocent bystander). The problem with this version is that it would require Putin’s cooperation to work. Given his control of the media, it would be relatively easy to concoct some alternative explanation and take the wind out of the outrage sails. If Dugin or whichever imperialist concocted this thought they could force Putin’s hand, I think they will be sorely disappointed. This is why I am inclined to the next explanation.
- Anti-imperialist faction, in service to Putin. The most outspoken critic of Putin’s way of war in the imperialist faction is, of course, Strelkov/Ghirkin, but everyone understands that there are “serious people” behind him. This faction wants full mobilization of Russia, transition to wartime economy, and a war of annihilation against Ukraine, and, if necessary, NATO. They see the “special operation” as some sort of dastardly half-measure that will not deliver on their grand goals, and they blame Putin for mismanaging the opportunity and the war itself. Needless to say, these sorts of critics are useful to the regime up to a point — they are great when they make the leader seem sane and restrained by comparison (even though he might actually share their goals), and they might be useful to strike fear in the hearts of anyone who contemplates replacing the leader (someone even worse might come). They are, however, a nuisance if one is trying to extricate the country from a difficult situation, ending the war somehow with at least some of the gains in place, and claiming victory. In this case, imperialists would cry foul, and would make it very difficult to claim credit for what they would label a disastrous and shameful policy. While not criticizing Putin openly — at least as far as I am aware, which, admittedly, in Dugin’s case is not a whole lot since I find him so marginal a figure — Dugin was firmly in the imperialist camp. A show murder of his daughter would be a way to frighten this faction. The propagandists, by the way, immediately started wailing that they do not feel safe anymore, but, more importantly, so should anyone associated with the imperial faction. While it is probably not a good idea to target them openly (for now) — after all, they all want “Greater Russia” and seem very patriotic — they need to be brought to heel as the regime can brook no criticism of its own patriotism and competence. This, by the way, is also why I think the “NRA” is such a convenient fiction as it will allow Putin to purge anyone who seems too hawkish while pretending these great patriots are murdered by some shadowy group that just posts messages on Telegram.
If I had to make any predictions, it would be that Dugina’s assassination — even if not plotted by the regime itself — will be used the way Stalin used Kirov’s assassination in 1934. Recall that back then, the assassin (possibly urged by NKVD) made two attempts. The first was thwarted by alert guards who discovered a revolver in his briefcase, but then inexplicably released him and even returned the revolver to him. Moreover, security around Kirov — a very high-ranking Soviet official — was made particularly lax in the period immediately before the assassination. In other words, while the assassination was most likely the work of a man with a grudge, it was facilitated by NKVD, and maybe even Stalin, who then made great use of it — after dispatching the assassin with a secret trial less than a month after the shooting, Stalin uncovered “evidence” of a grand plot involving all sorts of political enemies, real or imagined. What followed is an elimination of all such potential rivals and opponents, culminating in the Great Purge of 1937. Whether he orchestrated it or not, Stalin took advantage of the assassination to consolidate his power, and I think this is what Putin, a great admirer of Stalin, would do now. In that sense, it matters little who killed Dugina and why: the effect will be a political shakeup that could only make Putin’s position stronger. To me, this is an indication that Putin is really worried about his survival given how the economy and the special operation are going.
Pundits have also speculated that this assassination would be used to justify the expected massive attack on Ukraine, but I doubt that — the Kremlin has never needed a justification of its atrocities in Ukraine thus far, and I see no reason it would do so now. If the attack materializes, it would be because Moscow believes it would demonstrate Russia’s staying power, frighten the Western supporters, and perhaps push Zelenskyy into concessions. I happen to think that such a calculation is wildly off the mark. For all the talk in the Western press about people “being tired” of the war, there is no evidence of that. It’s just a Kremlin talking point, which is inconsistent with developments. Even Serbia now announced that there will be no more Russian gas for them. (The only country that is backsliding into Russian orbit right now is, unfortunately, my own Bulgaria.) While the Europeans are finding it difficult to get away from their dependence on Russian has and oil, most of their leaders have made the case to the publics, and there seems to be very little wavering there. The calls to end the war out of fear of escalation only come from Kremlin’s useful idiots like Mearsheimer (who again penned a diatribe that could have been written by Putin himself — why Foreign Affairs continues to embarrass itself publishing this drivel, I do not know but at the rate they are going, they are in danger of becoming as pathetic as that other Kremlin-friendly rag, The National Interest, which really should specify in a subtitle whose national interest they are writing about).
TL;DR: the war remains stalemated, but the Russian position is weakening. The West seems to be holding, and neither China nor Russia’s new best friend Turkey seem to offer much of a prospect for avoiding the slow death by sanction strangulation. Ukrainians have begun to attack Crimea, causing a huge political headache for Putin. None of the promised 100,000 North Koreans have shown up.