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.
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.