The Last Empire

October 4, 2022

Let’s begin with some war updates.

North. ZSU seem to have cut all supply lines to Svatove, threatening the Russian forces with another encirclement. If VSRF’s behavior at Balakleya, Izyum, and Lyman is any indication, this would be sufficient to cause the bulk of the forces to abandon the town, leaving the defenses in the hands of their hapless “allies” from the banana republics. With this, the Kharkiv Offensive can be renamed the Kharkiv-Luhansk Offensive. Meanwhile, ZSU have attacked Kamennaya, and by some accounts SRGs have penetrated the city limits.

South. The sudden ZSU offensive in Kherson has resulted in advances so deep and so quick that even the Ukrainians are a bit confused as to how far they have gotten (at least their war correspondents seem to be). ZSU tore through the Russian defenses in the north-east, and have pushed about 25km deep in a day. This is an absolutely stunning distance that is more consistent with marching than with fighting. Simultaneously with the drive to Dudchany on the Dnipro River, ZSU have attacked multiple positions along the LOC in the north, threatening the Russian grouping in the region with encirclement. The main thrust has come at Davydiv Brid, where ZSU long ago established a salient that the Russians were unable to eliminate. Unconfirmed info is that the city itself is finally in Ukrainian hands as well.

These developments almost certainly mean that VSRF will withdraw toward Kherson. They blew up an earth bridge in Dudchany but that seems to have accomplished nothing.

Two interesting things about these advances. First, the inclement weather seems to favor the Ukrainians. The Russians — who rely on heavy equipment — are getting stuck in the mud yet again like they did back in February/March, while the Ukrainians — who rely on light armored vehicles for their moves — do not even bother using the roads. Their vehicles are apparently quite capable of traversing open fields. Second, the Russian communication lines were (again) completely broken. It got so bad that the Russians took to twitter and social media to call for air strikes and ask for support. None of their messages were getting through on their military channels. The strange silence of the commanders led some Russians to claim that the Ukrainians have deployed some secret weapon that disrupts communications. I do not know anything about any such weapon (but it would be cool if they had it), and am more inclined to believe that the silence is due to collapse in the chain of command, traditionally bad communications, lack of reinforcements to send, and chaos on the front. This demoralizes the already battered Russian troops even more.

Within Russia — where the regime remains as opaque as ever to outside observers like me — something is afoot. A few days ago there was a coordinated attack on the High Command of VSRF by Kadyrov, Prigozhin, and the FSB (in the persona of Strelkov). All three accused the military of botching the operations, and demanded the heads of the guilty — from the commander of the military district (Kadyrov) all the way to Chief of Staff Gerassimov and Defense Minister Shoigu (Strelkov). After a day or so of silence, the Kremlin pushed back a bit: Peskov affirmed Kadyrov’s right to voice his opinions as a regional governor and someone who’s contributed to the war effort a lot but warned that emotions need to be left out of it (Kadyrov wanted the commander to expiate his sins with blood on the front). The military also pushed back and accused Kadyrov of commanding from the safety of his armchair thousand of kilometers away while the VSRF general was commanding from about a hundred km from the frontline.

While the witch-hunt is inevitable in these situations, it’s remarkable how open this rift has become. It is too early to say what this means aside from the military being in hot water. As I have explained before, the Russian forces in Ukraine are not under unified command. Kadyrov’s 40,000 strong force is not even used on the front-line and is loyal to him, not the Rossgvardiya chief to whom they are nominally subordinated. Prigozhin is running his fiefdom of mercenary forces and seems to have immense latitude in violating Russian law, as his prison recruitment campaign demonstrated. His troops, hitherto among the most useful for attacks, are also loyal only to him. VSRF’s command has also had to deal with Putin’s micromanagement of their plans, invariably to great detriment because as bad as some in the Russian high command might be, Putin is even worse. By some accounts, the military has repeatedly asked Putin to authorize a withdrawal from the right bank of the Dnipro River because it has become indefensible, but he’s refused — Kherson is just too obvious and too big of a loss to take politically. It could be that the Russian commanders are conducting their own withdrawal without this authorization (this would explain the sudden and complete collapse of the front lines as well as ZSU’s inability to capture a lot of VSRF soldiers despite the encirclements — by the time these are complete, the Russian soldiers are long gone).

It is unclear which Kremlin tower Putin is going to side with. Right now, he seems to be doing his usual balancing act although FSB joining Kadyrov and Prigozhin (two characters who are widely loathed in the agency) to criticize the military seems to indicate some worry about the possible succession struggle. The Russian military is (in)famously apolitical — in the sense of always being part of politics but hiding behind civilians — and if they conclude that the private armies and FSB are setting them up, they could interpret this as a threat not just to the institution but, by extension, Russia itself, which might cause a reaction. If this reaction is as incompetent as their war-fighting, it might not amount to a lot.

Perhaps more interestingly, there are cracks in the information wall the Kremlin had erected between the war and the Russian population. Some of the most prominent propagandists like Simonyan and Solovyev among others have started to talk about the failures on the front and are blaming the government for misleading them and the public. Guests on some of the most furiously patriotic shows are openly talking about the impossibility of winning the war in Ukraine and the absurdity of annexing territories Russia does not control. There are also public doubts that the mobilization would be able to turn the tide of the war.

This breach is very important because for elites to act against Putin, there must be some social context of discontent they can rely on. Putin’s ratings have fallen by 7% but he remains popular. And the imperial Russian attitude simply cannot comprehend the possibility that their mighty army could lose to dinky Ukraine. (This is why wild stories about foreign armies fighting in Ukraine have quite a bit of currency in Russia.) The exodus of young and middle aged men from Russia continues, with an estimated 700,000 having already fled since the start of the mobilization. As more information trickles out about the appalling conditions, in which the mobilized are forced to serve and their families being compelled to provide for even basic military necessities because the government would not, going to the local recruitment office willingly will become even rarer and resistance to mobilization will increase. When the body bags start coming home — and given the breach in the info wall, this time it might be impossible to completely hide the extent of that disaster — this discontent could turn dangerous. Surveys already show that most of the Russians do not believe the official figures of the Ministry of Defense regarding Russian losses. They still do not have a clue just how bad it is, however.

While the Kremlin tells tall tales about Europeans already freezing, not being allowed to shower, and not being able to turn on the lights, the Russians are themselves being confronted with rising prices of energy. This on top of accelerating inflation is going to add to the pressure of the sanctions once the new packages come into effect. Add to this the problems in the Caucasus (especially in Dagestan) where minorities are finally waking up to the fact that they are being disproportionately sent to the slaughter. People might be coming around to the realization the Putin’s Russia is just the current (and hopefully final) reincarnation of the Russian Empire.

The last Empire should have fallen with the rest in World War I, but the Bolshevik coup and the subsequent Civil War allowed the communists to reconstitute it, albeit in slightly abridged form. They managed to keep it going for another half century, but it collapsed anyway. Then the West (mostly the US) made a grievous error in helping Russia keep itself together as a “federation” in even smaller borders. But the imperial problem remained, and Russia has been at war with its neighbors every year since 1991.

Observers are so used to Russia that they do not readily recognize its blatantly imperial structure (to us it appears as “domestic”). There are two huge metropolitan centers — Moscow and St Petersburg — both built in places that cannot possibly sustain their sizes. The government plunders the peripheries (the rest of the federation) to ensure the continued supply of this core, where all wealth and economic development is concentrated. Because these are the places of attraction when it comes for work, the core keeps growing, which exacerbates the problem and causes even greater outflow from the regions. The empire is constantly at war along its borders too because, like all empires, it’s practically insatiable for territory and resources. The increasing need for resources to feed the core pushes the Kremlin to control its near abroad as well, and generally the only way to resist this encroachment is when the neighbors have powerful patrons. Poland and the Baltics found NATO. Kazakhstan found China. Azerbaijan found Turkey. But the pressure will continue because there is no other option — internal development on the imperial model just isn’t possible. And it’s even worse when the ruling elite is thoroughly criminal and corrupt.

The aggression in Ukraine is but the latest manifestation of the declining empire syndrome. It is no coincidence that the annexation of the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine were in Kremlin’s plans from the get-go. This is where the richest regions are in terms of resources. Russia’s neighbors recognize this dynamic very well, which is why they are convinced that Putin would not stop with Ukraine if he gets away with it.

There are now voices in the West that are clamoring for a settlement with Russia that leaves 20% of Ukraine in its clutches. This would be a monumental mistake. No doubt there will be voices (probably the same ones) that call on the West not to allow the collapse of the Russian Federation when the internal processes of imperial dissolution finally bring the regime to that stage. This would be a monumental mistake as well. This time, the West should let that Empire fall, once and for all. Yes, I know all about nuclear weapons but the argument so far has been that by keeping Russia together, we can at least ensure they are under single command. Putin’s nuclear blackmail shows that this benefit might be illusory. We could have been better off working out separate deals with whoever inherits the weapons to take them out of commission. Or maybe we should have never insisted on Ukraine and Kazakhstan becoming non-nuclear in the first place.

As ZSU continues to liberate Ukrainian territory, Putin will be increasingly hemmed in by his own rhetoric, the ill-advised annexations, and the growing rift among the elites, some of whom will call for Ukrainian blood (nukes) and others for some sort of disengagement. With Kyiv now officially refusing to negotiate with Putin (Zelenskyy published the resolution today), he knows that he must either win militarily to compel the Ukrainians to talk anyway or else leave the Kremlin. Given the circumstances, leaving is increasingly likely to take the form of being carried out, not necessarily in one piece.

We should steel ourselves to increasingly desperate acts by this failing regime, and the very real possibility that the Russian Empire might finally be in its death throes. We’ve certainly waited long enough for that.

4 thoughts on “The Last Empire

  1. Impressive! – Partly because your strong views of the Russian Empire read as the takes of Kamil Galeev. Are there books by serious historians or al. about “RF as a colonial empire” or well-known articles in … about this topic? (I am just a B.A. in history, Russia after 1991 I know personally, but not the relevant literature.). – What is your take on K.G.’s take that Putin is preparing a possible exit: provoke the US into the war, to ‘face-savingly’ lose against them, not “dinky Ukraine”.


    1. I’m not very familiar with Galeev’s views but I’ve heard this particular idea voiced by others. I think it severely underestimates the Russian superiority complex. Putin spent 20 years raising them from their knees. They are ready to take on the west. There’s no face-saving if he loses. The moment he declared mobilization, he’s burned all bridges and off ramps.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So Branislav, why do you think the high command of the VSRF (and Putin) appear so passive in the past few days in the face of a relentless ZSU offensive? Is this sheer inability to act, or could they be making plans to strike back if the ZSU overextends itself in the East or South? Or even make a dash for Kyiv again from the North?


    1. They certainly were planning a counter offensive. It looks like ZSU jumped them by a day or two (according to Russian officers in Kherson). They are not passive. The battles are fierce in many places. They are falling back and, at least VSRF forces, are saving as much of their men and equipment as they can.


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