The Russians resort to terrorism: why?

October 11, 2022

It has been five days since my last update, and during this time a lot has happened and nothing has happened.

The biggest (by design) news at first was the bombing of the Crimean Bridge on October 8th. After some initial confusion about what had happened, it appears that a truck laden with explosives blew up a section of the motorway, which eventually caused the collapse of the half of the road. The explosive appeared to have been released in proximity to a train loaded with oil, making it look like that aim had been to trigger a larger explosion on the (far more important) strategic train track. The Russians immediately pointed the finger at Kyiv, and labeled it a terrorist attack. The Ukrainians said nothing except to note that the bridge is a legitimate military target because it constitutes a vital part of the supply infrastructure that supports the Russian war effort in the southern theater of operations. The howls of pro-Russian media were deafening, all demanding blood and accusing, sometimes directly, Putin of cowardice and failure. Some even went so far as to ask Kremlin spokesman Peskov whether this attack warranted a nuclear retaliation (Peskov answered that this was the “wrong question to ask” — nuclear use doctrine only envisions strikes if there is an existential threat). It was clear that the Kremlin had to do something to appease these voices. And so, the massive missile attacks across all of Ukraine on October 10 were the revenge for the bridge.

Or so the story goes.

There are some issues with that story, and it is important that we discuss them because the interpretation of the sequence of events has some consequences for our expectations about what the next steps are likely to be.

I have no information about who planted the explosives but if it was the Ukrainians, then they were singularly incompetent. If they wanted to harm the bridge significantly, they would have not attacked an unremarkable section of the span where they did but at the more important point where the arches are, which would have also impeded sea traffic underneath. The explanation that they may have intended something like that but the train had slowed down/stopped had forced them to trigger the explosives prematurely because a delay would have meant the train oil would not ignite, limiting the damage only to what had been on the truck. This sounds good until one realizes that the train did not actually explode, and the reason may have something to do with the type of bomb used, which made it less likely that it would. At any rate, the Russian authorities worked hard to restore auto traffic using the undamaged lane, and soon got a train across to demonstrate that the rail track was operational. While the full restoration of the bridge could take many weeks (possibly months if the sea gets really choppy), the bridge will continue to fulfill its essential role as part of the military infrastructure.

In the end, then, the Ukrainians would have achieved nothing of military (strategic) value, and the symbolic effect would be quickly weakened by Putin’s ability to deliver some bloody spectacle to satisfy his critics. Moreover, with the operation such an abysmal failure, they would make a second attempt far less likely to succeed because now the Russians would be on very high alert about protecting the bridge, which may even curb some of the widespread corruption among the inspectors that had allowed loads to pass without taking a closer look at the contents.

While I cannot exclude the possibility that the Ukrainians screwed this up, the fact that the act had such high symbolic value but was nearly devoid of practical significance leads me to suspect that it might have been an internal Russian operation that was designed to revive flagging passions about murdering Ukrainians at home, distracting from the disastrous mobilization and unremitting bad news from the front, and provide cover for the coming terrorist attack on Ukraine that Putin had been planning since late September.

You see, despite the media constantly portraying the massive missile strikes on Ukraine as retaliation for the bridge — and there’s a reason that Putin himself framed them this way — they are nothing of the sort. This kind of coordinated assault from multiple locations using very specific targets (more on this below) requires careful planning that cannot be done overnight. Targets have to be acquired, their defenses — investigated, and all should cohere in an overall plan that is supposed to deliver some strategic or tactical advantage. Nobody launches such an operation out of pique blindly shooting somewhere, anywhere. And the Russians were not shooting blindly at all. In fact, even a casual look at the pattern of destruction they wrought shows a very deliberate attempt to destroy the energy infrastructure of Ukraine while also targeting a few “seats of decision-making” with high-precision weapons. In other words, the strikes are not a retaliation for the bombing but a plan that had been prepared in advance (some insider sources claim that it was supposed to be executed in early October), and the bombing just provided some (plausible, to some ears) justification for what is, essentially, a terrorist attack.

Russia’s strikes on the energy infrastructure of Ukraine. This is a map provided by the pro-Russian (but reliable when it comes to military operations) account @rybar, which even titled the map accordingly.

That this sort of attack was forthcoming is not at all surprising (which is another reason it should not be linked to the Crimean Bridge bombing) — I have written about something like this on several occasions, albeit in somewhat more apocalyptic terms because the Russians can also hit the dams on some of the major rivers to cause catastrophic flooding (this remains an option, unfortunately). To understand this, let us put this in context of Putin’s latest series of decisions.

When the Ukrainian Kharkiv Offensive turned the tide of the war (this much is now apparent), the Russians attempted to stem ZSU’s advance by “plugging the holes” in their defense lines, staging a desperate last stand at Lyman to buy themselves time, and busily preparing more defenses further east. These tactics did not succeed in stabilizing the front along the Oskil River, as the Russians had initially hoped, and produced very large numbers of casualties. (It’s still unclear how big, but the latest incomplete counts suggest over 5,000 dead, and 10,000-15,000 wounded between September 19 and October 9.)

Putin’s reaction was to finally order mobilization to make up the losses and provide fresh forces for the very long front and annex the territories he’s trying to conquer (even though he does not fully control some of them) in order to make his threat to see the war to the end more credible. This last bit essentially makes it impossible for him to agree to any peace that does not give Russia these lands, which has two effects: (1) makes him more likely to take desperate measures if the fighting continues to go bad because his choice would appear to be between ending the war and getting removed from office or gambling with a costly / risky act for personal survival) — in particular, this increases the risk that he might resort to (at least operational or tactical) nuclear weapons; and (2) split the unity of Ukraine’s allies by providing grist for the mill of useful idiots who are properly scared of these threats, and become even more insistent that the West should force Ukraine to agree to a peace by ceding the territories Putin wants (i.e., on his terms).

As I have said before, mobilization is a “good” sign in the sense that it shows that Putin hopes to win the war by conventional military means. However, to make this effective, he needs to buy time — several months at the very least — because the tardiness of the decision means that mobilization started at a time when it was supposed to begin delivering the first batches of trained personnel. The Ukrainians are quite aware of this, which in part explains the furious push on the southern front — it is an attempt to liberate Kherson and the region on the right bank of the Dnipro River before fall rains and winter cold make operations much more difficult.

When it comes to the winter slow-down, it is not clear which side stands to benefit more from it. Russia would be able to fix some of its problems with mobilization and supply, and work on splitting Western unity, and destroying Ukraine’s economy and, as it clearly hopes to, the Ukrainian people’s will to resist. On the other hand, its own economic fortunes will keep dwindling, domestic discontent is likely to increase, and there is no guarantee that whatever policy and personnel changes it undertakes will deliver any tangible results large enough to affect the course of the war. Moreover, the displeasure of the “partners” will increase, closing ways of coping with sanctions, and increasing the dependence of the regime on the good graces of the few remaining ones. It might all be worth it to Putin if the war ends with Russian “victory” because the West turns out to be as weak as he expects it to be.

On the Ukrainian side, the war grinding on means further degradation of the economy (which might not be as severe if the European Union and the US deliver the financial aid they have promised), and terrible suffering, especially now that the Russians have moved into the terrorist phase of attrition warfare. It will mean more losses for ZSU that, even though small compared to the Russians, affect the Ukrainians significantly because these are trained and battle-tested personnel whose absence is more readily felt. On the other hand, if the West increases the supply and keeps training ZSU soldiers, time will work on ZSU’s behalf.

Whatever the expectations of the warring parties and their partners, the conflict must continue because Putin has no choice but to delay. Or, rather, he has no choice but to delay in order to escalate later (hopefully amid a Western split) or escalate now, potentially with even more catastrophic attacks on civilian infrastructure or, if that fails, with nuclear weapons. The mobilization would have to continue, the fighting will have to go on, and the Russians would have to somehow break the momentum and seize the initiative from the Ukrainians.

This also explains why Putin would authorize such terrorist attacks despite their most likely (predictable) outcome being a increase in supplies and aid to Ukraine, and further international condemnation — he has no other options left except the nuclear, and that one is (still) a bridge too far. There is, of course, always the alternative of admitting the war is lost but this is not very likely.

Right now, the Russian propaganda machine is trying to recover some of its early optimism about the war by promising a bloodbath in Ukraine. One commentator said that Ukraine must be drowned in darkness, cold, and hunger. Another proposed killing everyone who resists Russia (to an incredulous Solovyev, who asked if he meant 1.5 billion NATO members). And another, a prominent separatist, helpfully explained that while Russians do not want to kill anyone, one must understand that Ukrainians are merely “Russians who have been possessed by demons,” and if they refuse to be cured, then they would have to be killed, whether it’s one or five million, it does not matter. We may not be winning the war right now, but if we murder enough Ukrainians, victory is assured. That is, in essence, Putin’s “strategy.”

I have no doubt that the Ukrainians will not give in to this. I am not aware of any society that has actually given in to a foreign power trying to eradicate it by laying down its arms when the momentum of the war is clearly on its side. It will all come down, as I have been repeatedly saying ad nauseam, that the outcome of this war will turn on Western unity. If we keep it, the Ukrainians win. If we don’t, the Ukrainians also win, just a decade or so later, and at much greater cost, and possibly after a world war that Putin would unleash if he wins.

Our course is simple but difficult and nerve-racking: increase our military and financial aid to Ukraine, and support it until the Russian armies in Ukraine have been driven out. Then, and only then, sit at the negotiation table. Beyond that, continue with the containment of Russia, and when it begins to fall apart, do not lose your nerve, and let the chips fall where they may. The time of the last empire has come. Let Russia emerge as a normal state that can live without constantly trying to intimidate or conquer its neighbors, or threaten the entire world.

10 thoughts on “The Russians resort to terrorism: why?

  1. Well then, finally give to Ukraine long-range missiles, tanks, jets, more missile defense systems, a submarine (ok, maybe next year). It becomes obvious to me that the US is afraid of Russian OR not in a hurry to end this war, otherwise why not give at least ATACMS?! This looks like a weakness of the west.
    Meanwhile, Ukrainians are dying.
    Of course, you can go on the attack with a shovel, but how many victims will there be?! I hope this war does not turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Ukrainians.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The US is trying to keep the West/NATO unified on this, and it requires quite a lot of compromises. We’ve got some Trojan horses in there muddying the waters all the time. The Europeans who want to help do not want to stick out their necks and go before we do. And we have our own concerns with doing things that Putin could use to claim “provocation” that the Chinese might believe. I happen to think that the Biden administration is a bit too slow and too cautious but then again they might have information we don’t. We will give them air defenses now (these were considered beyond the pale when the war began).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dakuju for the insights! Our German media did indeed go for both: a) the truck-bomb was Ukrainian (which I do believe, more below) and b) that the missiles were mostly hitting civilian targets like living-quarters and then “also some energy-infrastructure”.
    I do not think that Putin needs any “pretext” at this point to do any hit, even massive, on Ukrainian infrastructure (short of nuclear power stations and the massive dams). He controls the media, he controls the narrative in Russia and – as you point out correctly – if anything, he gets criticized for being too soft. – On Quora et al. his trolls still claim that a “pogrom in Odesa” 2014 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_Odesa_clashes – and naming streets after Stepan Bandera was reason enough for the 2022 invasion. Most Russians probably remember the fake story of a crucified boy – as pravda.

    The hit on the bridge might also be more serious than it appears. Trent Telenko tweeted that the heat of the fire probably did harm the stability of the train-track-part, too. Keeping heavy freight trains running over it may easily lead to a breakdown soon. https://twitter.com/Tendar/status/1579586019607064576https://twitter.com/Tendar/status/1579586019607064576
    Why take such a risk on your important and expensive bridge?? Esp. as Putin has no problems with having some apartment blocks in Moscow “hit by the enemy” if he feels like needing a “pretext”. As in: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_apartment_bombings

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If this was indeed a false flag operation, I am not at all sure Putin approved it. It could well have been the military (which will have the expertise to bomb it just the right way). What they reported to Putin, I don’t know but it’s probably “it was the Ukrainians”. There are several very opaque games being played among the principals in the Kremlin, so who knows what’s going on. The more we learn about the operation, the less likely it seems to have been Ukrainian. At least to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Seems to me we are deliberately calibrating our aid to turn this into a war of attrition, where Putin won’t be forced to turn to nuclear weapons. Boris is right that the fast way here is to force things to a head with increasing support, but I fear that could lead to an escalatory spiral of the sort he himself described. The real worry is that a calibrated, limited NATO strike in response to tactical nuclear use will cause a stressed out, paranoid Kremlin to to miss the signaling that we want to keep the conflict limited, and they’ll strike NATO in retaliation, and sooner or later they’ll launch strategic nukes because their conventional power is very weak vis a vis NATO.

    I think the crazy risk of MAD greatly outweighs the geopolitical gains of a swift Russian defeat, and Boris also says something I find bizarre: “If we don’t [increase aid to Ukraine], the Ukrainians also win, just a decade or so later, and at much greater cost, and possibly after a world war that Putin would unleash if he wins.”

    Given how battered Putin would be in almost every facet of national power, I don’t see him unleashing anything after he claims a Pyrrhic victory. He’s 70 in any case, and not in good health. We could manage his containment going forward. We can’t be nearly as sanguine about our capability to manage a nuclear escalation spiral over Ukraine sometime in the next year or so.

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  4. Seems to me we are deliberately calibrating our aid to turn this into a war of attrition, where Putin won’t be forced to turn to nuclear weapons. Boris is right that the fast way here is to force things to a head with increasing support, but I fear that could lead to an escalatory spiral of the sort he himself described.

    The real worry is that a calibrated, limited NATO strike in response to tactical nuclear use will cause a stressed out, paranoid Kremlin to to miss the signaling that we want to keep the conflict limited, and they’ll strike NATO in retaliation, and sooner or later they’ll launch strategic nukes because their conventional power is very weak vis a vis NATO.

    I think the crazy risk of MAD greatly outweighs the geopolitical gains of a swift Russian defeat, and Boris also says something I find bizarre: “If we don’t [increase aid to Ukraine], the Ukrainians also win, just a decade or so later, and at much greater cost, and possibly after a world war that Putin would unleash if he wins.”

    Given how battered Putin would be in almost every facet of national power, I don’t see him unleashing anything after he claims a Pyrrhic victory. He’s 70 in any case, and not in good health. We could manage his containment going forward. We can’t be nearly as sanguine about our capability to manage a nuclear escalation spiral over Ukraine sometime in the next year or so.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s Branislav, not Boris.

      The US administration has been quite explicit about its calibration strategy but it never made any sense. The Russians started rattling nukes from the first day of the war and painted so many red lines that we crossed, it’s hard to keep track of them. They just want to be left alone to pulverize Ukraine, and nobody should be allowed to meddle (“it prolongs the war”).

      The idea that you can craft these calibrated responses is not borne out in practice. I am not aware of a single time when it has worked. It was attempted, for instance, in Vietnam with Rolling Thunder. Did it coerce Hanoi? Nope, it did not. Because it does not work that way. McNamara tried “no cities” with the Russians, who just told him point blank not to play nuclear games because any “limited” strike will escalate into a strategic exchange. Did the Russians forget their own advice?

      I am not sure what it is that you are finding bizarre in my statement. You seem to think that if Putin dies peace will prevail. That’s not at all certain. It’s not even very likely. Not without a military defeat of Russia in Ukraine. If you want to know why, read the blog. I’ve written extensively about the composition of Russian elites and what goals they have. Independent Ukraine isn’t among them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I apologize Branislav, it was entirely an accident getting your name wrong and not intended as a slight… fast fingers type quickly but not accurately.

        On your point about calibration not working, I think it does… the war was in a bloody artillery stalemate this summer until HIMARS arrived. Targets deeper into Russian territory have barely been targeted because of HIMARS range limit, without the longer-range ATACMS munition. Let alone the advantages that could be conferred by F16s, US tanks, etc. The lack of these high-end items clearly limits how quickly Ukraine can advance. And I absolutely think Biden should caution Zelensky in private about trying to invade Crimea.

        I was reading Jeremy Shapiro’s article (link below) where he extrapolates the current pathway and finds us in a Strangelovian disaster, and what he says is quite plausible even as he concedes that there is a large amount of room for both sides to maneuver.

        I think the biggest issue with looking back to old examples is that Putin’s Russia is not like the USSR, it’s just him and elites who think like him (as you say). He may not be deterred because of his personal situation (age, desire for legacy, ideological bent, inability to take a loss). I hope I am wrong, and that Putin does remember how carefully the USSR played the nuclear game. But judging by his behavior to date in this conflict, he doesn’t really seem to know how to deescalate or craft an off ramp, he is simply basing his thinking on the belief we won’t trade New York for Odesa, as Walter Russell Mead said in his WSJ column last week. Given the stakes I don’t think we should go down this road. You seem to suggest in your writings that you agree on the risk but that this world-ending risk is worth bearing now. I just don’t think I nor most US voters would agree, and when the threat becomes more apparent, especially after the US midterms, a Republican Congressional majority may end up doing the calibration for Biden by voting down any future large Ukraine aid bills.

        https://warontherocks.com/2022/10/the-end-of-the-world-is-nigh/

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I am not sure why you think “calibration” is working. Do you think Russia would have done anything different had we sent the HIMARS earlier? The issues with F-16s and tanks are different — right now it just makes a lot more sense to provide the Ukrainians with weapons they can use and integrate immediately.

        I don’t know about cautioning Zelenskyy about “invading” Crimea (they would be liberating it). As far as the Russians are now supposedly concerned, Crimea is no different from the territories they annexed. So, are you saying that the Ukrainians should withdraw to the borders the Russians just declared with the annexations?

        You (and maybe many US voters) do not seem to understand that this is it. This war will define the 21st century. If Putin wins (that is, if Russians are not expelled beyond the 1991 borders of Ukraine), you will have a revisionist Russia that will threaten everyone around it and will upend the world order we created. This is 100% going to happen — anyone who studies what Russian elites want and how they think will know this. This is no regional land grab that we can brush off. The next targets are NATO members — do you want to abandon them as well using the same logic: no trading New York for Tallinn or Washington for Warsaw? If we do that, NATO is dead, and Germany, France, and Italy will quickly make peace and concessions to Russia because individually each is weaker than Russia. And we will be out of Europe. Also out of Asia since the Russians will reassert their empire in “their” sphere very quickly. Maybe you want to live in that world, but I don’t.

        Yes, there’s a risk. It’s probably higher than it was in 1962. (Although it’s the Europeans who will suffer most.) I don’t think any reasonable US government would simply bow down to Putin’s megalomania. It would be a sad end to the American century if we did.

        Liked by 2 people

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