September 29, 2022
Moscow is preparing for the annexation of the four regions where the Kremlin recently staged the circus act they call “referenda.” The demonstration in support of the annexation is set for Sep 30, and the sessions of the Duma and the Federation Council are set for Oct 3 and 4, respectively. It looks like Putin will announce the signing of instruments of annexation on the 30th, and then send them to the Constitutional Court, which will approve them, and then to the other two bodies for ratification.
Insider channels report that some variants are still under consideration. The first, and most likely, is that all four will be annexed. The second is that Putin will welcome the “results” but delay the annexation for additional review. (I don’t believe this is in the cards at all.) The third is that they will annex Luhansk and delay the annexation of the others until the territories are conquered.
The last one is intriguing since it will postpone what has to be a very difficult decision — what to do with the Ukrainian forces that would still be attacking what would now be considered Russian territory. In Luhansk, one could argue self-defense along existing lines (which is why I think the timeline must be accelerated as the Ukrainians are about to take Lyman and make Luhansk very vulnerable). But in the others, the Russians would have to do conquest as defense, and that’s a lot harder. Putting off these annexations relieves him of the immediate need to launch nukes or escalate further.
Putin being Putin, I’ve no doubt that he will select the worst possible course of action.
There are reasons, however, to think that the Russians want to delay as much as they can. Right now, the mobilization is chaotic and desperate — they are literally throwing new units into the gaps hoping the plug them with bodies. They have already filled their announced targets even though not with the quality recruits that the General Staff had asked for. (I am very puzzled why the generals expected an orderly partial mobilization of the type they imagined — it was entirely predictable, and I wrote about this, how it would play out and who was going to end up ensnared in the first wave or two.)
Proper training requires at least 2 months, and for offensive operations, closer to 6. This is what ZSU did, and you can see the results in the counter-attack. The Russian system is designed to handle about 120,000 twice a year, so the immediate call of more than twice the annual number has put it under severe strain. But, over time it will start to sort itself out. The massive losses on the front (probably on the order of 65-70% of the new conscripts) are going to create a selection effect: the ones who survive would not only become seasoned veterans fast but will likely acquire that soldier fraternal bonds that keep people in battle when other motivations fail. For instance, our soldiers have performed admirably well in wars despite never having to fight on American soil to defend it. This is true of any army, and thinking that somehow the Russians are different is nonsense. The demoralization we see comes from bad command and failures, not because they don’t understand the aims or something like that. If these problems are corrected, then the Russians will fight. Yes, not nearly as motivated as the Ukrainians but fight nevertheless. Under this scenario, the Russians will need about 6 months or so to prepare a sufficiently strong force that will allow them to go back on the offensive. Maybe sooner if they find a way to deal with their supply and command staff problems. I do not know how close the Ukrainians are to exhausting their mobilization potential but at any rate it’s several times smaller than the Russian pool.
This tells me that what happens next really depend on whether the Russians can solve their supply and command issues fast enough. I happen to think that this is unlikely. These are the consequence of years of mismanagement and corruption, and now they have to be fixed under conditions of increasing scarcity and, potentially, social unrest arising from a worsening economy and body bags that will start coming home soon in large numbers. The Western aid to Ukraine will keep increasing — the US has not even started to deliver under lend/lease. The sanctions will get worse for Russia as well. And the flight of what appears to be already a quarter of a million males with education and means cannot but have an impact on the economy as well. The mobilization of so many men of productive age itself is going to have a detrimental effect, at least in the short term (in the longer term, women will be able to step in). In other words, it will be exceedingly difficult to pull this off.
Which leads me to a bit of speculation about the Nord Stream sabotage. We should wait for the results of the investigation, but my working hypothesis is that the Kremlin ordered it. Given that this means the loss of the most lucrative client for Russia, my position needs explaining. There are two reasons why this makes sense strategically.
First, the Kremlin could have concluded that Europe is well on its way of weaning itself off Russian energy, and that the process is irreversible. It would still have made sense to keep selling while they are willing to buy, but it also could be that the mobilization — and the actions that it will now entail — will speed up that process considerably, shortening the period of expected profitability. If that’s the thinking, then the expected value of keeping the line will have decreased substantially. (There are also some arguments about Gazprom payments, but these are too small to be worth mentioning.) The expected benefit of interrupting the supply now, however, is fairly large if it wreaks havoc on the European economies just as the cold season is starting. It will almost certainly push the European economy into a recession, the governments will scramble to cope with the fallout, and social discontent will increase quite a bit. Even if it is proven that the Kremlin was behind this, it will not matter — people might blame Russia but they will still demand measures from their own governments. This means that Ukraine might be pushed a lot further down the list of priorities in Europe, and so aid to Kyiv could be in jeopardy. The US will doubtless have to spend resources to help our friends in Europe, and that’s another strain on our budget. Overall, if your goal is to win some time for the mobilization to become effective, and if you believe that Europe is lost as a client anyway, blowing up Nord Stream would be a way to go.
But why blow it up instead of just turning off the tap? Turning off the tap leaves open the possibility of resuming the supplies at some point, and can be a bargaining leverage. If Putin is interested in extracting concessions from the West, then burning his bridge, so to speak, seems odd.
This leads me to the second reason, and it’s a sort of dual commitment. “Burning bridges” is a tactic used in situations where some option might be very tempting under certain circumstances, but if the opponent anticipates that you will take it, they will strive to create the circumstances that you wish to avoid. The classic example is with an army that is pinned against a river by a superior force. The general wants the soldiers to stand firm and fight, but if there’s a bridge across the river, many soldiers might be tempted to run away, causing discipline to collapse, and the battle to be lost. So the general blows up the bridge, giving the soldiers the choice between fighting and possibly winning or losing and likely dying. An historical example of this is when Hernan Cortez arrived in the New World with a handful of conquistadores, he beached the ships to prevent them from being tempted to go back home and abandon the expedition.
In this case, Putin has two bridges he might have wished to burn, an international and domestic one. On the international side, his signal is that he is irrevocably committed to seeing this war through no matter what the West does. The problem with Western dependence on Russian energy sources actually goes both ways because Europe is also the largest client. While most people focus on Putin’s leverage and blackmail, the Europeans have also had substantial leverage with their threats to limit or stop their buying. One argument was always that Putin can’t really afford to lose that buyer, and so the threats to continue the war or keep the gas off were not credible. (I have made this argument as well.) Turning off the tap does not solve this credibility problem — you can always turn it back on if you are sufficiently incentivized. Blowing up the lines, however, removes this option and so you no longer have the choice. Because the lines have become inoperable for a long time (one of them, I understand, potentially permanently), the Europeans have lost the leverage that their money was giving them.
On the domestic side, this is a move designed to consolidate power. Putin must know about the substantial discontent his policies have created among the elites, and he might be worried about conspiracies against him. One driving force behind any such conspiracy is the hope that with Putin gone, relations with the West can be regularized (I would not say “normalized” or “restored” because even the most optimistic Russians must realized that this is impossible for the foreseeable future.) While the West will remain quite hostile to Russia for a long time, this does not have to mean that business relations of some sort would not be able to resume. And so, potential conspirators might be hoping that replacing Putin could salvage the business relationships with Europe (more generally too, not just in the energy sector), and they may even think that Europe’s loss as a customer is not inevitable. If Putin were merely to turn the tap off, they can simply turn it back on when he’s gone. Destroying the lines, however, means that his potential replacement would not be able to resume delivery through them no matter how much they want to. The massive rift the sabotage will cause with Europe is also going to make resumption of relations a lot harder. This decreases the incentives of potential coup plotters to remove Putin since one of the largest benefits from doing so is now gone. What’s the point of removing him if this will not change anything with respect to the economy?
I have written before about the double-edged sword we are wielding when it comes to sanctions, especially as they cut deeper and become more entrenched. If we cannot credibly promise benefits to a successor regime, it that much less likely that elites would risk trying to rid themselves of Putin.
At the end of the day, the incentive would have to come from Putin’s destruction of Russia’s economy, society, and further erosion of its international standing even with respect to its partners like China and India, not to mention the loss of influence in Asia. I am pinning my hopes that the siloviki would conclude that Putin is pushing Russia to disintegration, and would act to prevent that even though relations with the West are bound to remain frosty.
For now, however, their support for the mobilization seems to tell me that they have decided to see how it plays out. The military obviously has hopes that it will be able to take/hold the annexed territories, and I do not think these plans are wild fantasies. Of course, Putin can still interfere and screw up everything, who knows.
There is one silver lining to all of this. If this analysis is correct, the Kremlin is banking on a military solution through conventional forces. This would imply that the risk of nuclear strikes is substantially lower.
My problem is that I think the Russian military collapse will come much faster, the mobilization will not be that effective, and then Putin will have but one way to go — nuclear.