November 13, 2022
With the liberation of Kherson now a fact, it is time to ask what might be happening next. While many expect the coming winter to create a lull in the fighting, I do not believe it will — the weather might slow down operations, but they will certainly continue, and that’s because both sides are racing against time. The backdrop here is that the Russians have managed to evacuate almost the entire 30,000+ group they had on the right bank, with all of its artillery, and a lot of other equipment (the Ukrainians did score some impressive gains though). This is a fairly sizeable force that is presently on the move across left bank Kherson toward Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia, and who-knows-where-else.
[An interesting side story here: the other day, British intelligence reported that the evacuation of Russian troops must have started on October 22 because it would have taken them quite some time to coordinate such a massive move. I say this is interesting because in my entry on October 20th, I had noted that insider channels had reported that the Russians are moving out all quality troops and equipment while replacing some of them with untested newly mobilized ones. I had speculated that the latter would be a delaying force to cover the retreat, which will occur simultaneously with the announced evacuation of civilians. The Kakhovka Dam scare might have been mostly engineered to induce enough people to get on the move so that they could mask the troop withdrawal. (At least, I keep hoping so.) The episode should illustrate the value of these insider channels.]
Russia is desperate to hold onto as much conquered territory as it can until next year, when the newly mobilized will become at least partially trained to be more than cannon fodder, and when more arms from Iran will become available. But Russia cannot afford to merely stay on the defensive. Its grouping on the left bank of the Dnipro (most of it composed of units evacuated from the right bank) is in essentially the same predicament as before — it has trouble maintaining supply lines sufficiently large and rapid for large-scale operations. It turned out that the damage to the Crimea Bridge — the main supply line for the entire southern front — was more extensive than the Russians had let on, and right now it has a very limited carrying capacity of just a few trains, lightly loaded. The alternative through the “land bridge” requires trucks, which the Russians do not have in sufficient numbers. This is why VSRF are now attacking toward Uhledar: to push ZSU away from the remaining rail line. If they do not succeed there, and so far they have not, the entire grouping in the south will develop acute problems soon. Therefore, the Russians must continue assaults in that area no matter what.
The Russians are also very keen on capturing Bakhmut (most of the city has now been destroyed), and might even throw some of the Kherson evacuees into that fight to reinforce the Wagnerites. We have discussed the importance of Bankmut and Andyivka several times, so I need not belabor it. Now that the Kherson grouping is “free,” the Russians can cause problems for ZSU by concentrating some of it to achieve a decisive local advantage in one of the “hot zones” of the front.
And finally, to the North, ZSU continues to make advances toward, and around, Svatove. I still believe that this is one area of the LOC with a good potential for collapse (by the Russians). We shall see, however, how this develops if the Russians reinforcements elsewhere force ZSU to start reallocating forces as well.
The Ukrainians are obviously in a hurry too — they have to liberate as much land as they can before Russia’s mobilization begins to be truly felt. I will not attempt to forecast where the blows will come, but I am fairly confident that they must come, winter or not.
Turning to the political and economic situations, there are two points I wish to make. First, the Kherson withdrawal pretty much puts a nail in the coffin of the “Putin is cornered” narratives. Second, the West us not weakening the sanctions against Russia, as trumpeted on state TV programs in Russia.
Putin is not “cornered”: he is looking for ways to win the war
On Putin’s domestic threats. Many pundits prognosticated that the loss of Kherson will be the end of Putin’s rule, and therefore, they predicted, he would never do it. I have now been arguing for a while that the way we like to see the war — as moving inexorably toward Russia’s defeat — is manifestly not how it could look to someone in the Kremlin. I even offered one ready narrative to cover the loss of Kherson — Kutuzov.
Recall that during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, General Kutuzov repeatedly refused to give Napoleon what he wanted — a decisive victory (to be followed by a swift peace, as he had done in all his previous wars). Only at Borodino did the Russians make a stand, but the left the field after an extremely bloody, but indecisive, battle. The Russians then abandoned Moscow to the French invaders, leaving Napoleon with the capital but no peace. Lacking the supplies to maintain themselves in Russia, the French army began to withdraw, harried by the Russians. The bad weather and terrible provisioning combined with constant attacks to annihilate the Grand Army that had invaded Russia, and by the time its tattered remains emerged from Russia, very little of it was useful. Within two years, the Russian Emperor Alexander I’s troops were in Paris, and Napoleon was in exile, his empire destroyed as quickly as it had been put together.
Napoleon’s wars — with the names of great Russian generals like Suvorov and Kutuzov — are only second to the Great Patriotic War in Russia’s often partly mythologized history, and in the latter the Soviets had also initially suffered terrible reversals (with an entire cottage industry to “explain” or justify them). Abandoning Kherson, as unpleasant as it must have been, would be interpreted through the lenses offered by these two epic struggles. And, sure enough, the propagandists started to praise Surovikin and the wise military leadership that avoided an encirclement, and temporarily abandoned a “Russian” city in order to preserve the forces and fight another day. (And make no mistake, the Russians did preserve their forces, almost all of them, along with most of their equipment.) References to Kutuzov proliferated — the new story is taking hold right in front of our eyes.
And it will work.
Troublemakers Kadyrov and Prigozhin already praised and endorsed the move, seemingly burying the hatchet with the Defense Ministry. The regime has no patience with anyone who would question the official line: attempts by MPs in the Duma to learn why Kherson was abandoned through an official inquiry were blocked. Moreover, the Kremlin has clamped down on the more bloodthirsty voices that had been pushing the use of nuclear weapons to prevent the fall of Kherson. They are all but gone from the airwaves, as far as I can tell. Propagandists now moan how Russia had not expected this war, that it was not prepared to fight 50 nations, and that its army is small (!), and so it was a genius move to evacuate the troops and preserve their ability to fight another day. Peskov was careful to insist that Kherson remains part of the Russian Federation: in the wonderful world of magic mirrors that is Russia, it is now Ukrainians who occupy Russian territory.
Not everyone toes the party line. An amusing development was the purported “philosopher” behind Putin’s policies — Alexander Dugin, whose daughter was recently assassinated — posted a rather inflammatory note on his Telegram channel. I won’t translate the whole screed, just some highlights.
“Kherson surrendered. A Russian city surrendered, the capital of one of Russia’s regions… If you don’t care, you are not Russian. The Russians are clenching their teeth in pain, weeping, and suffering as if their hearts have been ripped out, as if their children, brothers, mothers, and wives were murdered in front of their very eyes. If you are not in pain right now, you are nothing.”
“The ruler. He is responsible for this. What’s the point of autocracy, which is precisely what we have? We give the Ruler absolute power, and he is supposed to save us all, the nation, the state, the people, the citizens, in a critical moment. It does not matter if he surrounds himself with shit or spits on social justice, as long as he saves us. And if he does not? Then — the fate of the “King of Rains” (see Frazer).
[Since most of us are not current on our Frazer, we quickly google “The Golden Bough” to Chapter 17 and read the story of Namvulu Vumu, King of the Rain and Storm. Long story short, if the king fails to deliver the rain his people have made him sacrifices for, they rip up his belly. There has to be something in the Russian code about openly calling for the murder of the Dear Leader, but I am not a lawyer.]
“Autocracy has an obverse side as well. Full power in success, but also full responsibility in failure. And how else did you want it?”
[Dugin is apparently unaware of the scholarly literature on credit claiming and blame shifting. I recommend a quick refresher… but, basically, all credit goes to the autocrat and all blame attaches to the underlings. The Russians do have a saying about this, “Царь хороший, бояре плохие,” which translates to, “The king is good, the dukes are bad.” As every medieval and early modern European peasant would tell you, revolts do not go against the king, they are meant for the king to become aware of the plight of the peasants due to depredations of the local lords. They are pleas for intervention from above. The Russians will not blame Putin, they will ask Putin to fix this.]
“And how should we get out of this situation? We must immediately transition from a sovereign dictatorship to a commissar one, that is, introduce ideology.”
[I admit, I had never heard of either type of dictatorship, although I do understand that Putin’s rule has no specific ideology, which, I guess, is what Dugin wants to fix. So what is this ideology?
After claiming that no PR work would help Putin, Dugin asserts that he is losing the war, and the “civilization of Satan” (that’s us!) is winning it. And since we, being Satanists and all, would never offer Moscow acceptable terms, nukes must follow.
But! Dugin does not like nukes. (So, not as crazy as I thought. I don’t like them either.)
So how to avoid the nukes? With magic mushrooms! Ok, bad pun, I take it back. With magic nonsense called ‘ideology’, which is apparently now “the last resource.” This ideology is: The Russian Idea. Dugin put this in bold, and I can’t so uppercase it is: THE RUSSIAN IDEA!
And what is that RUSSIAN IDEA? Dugin does not say. I tried looking up Frazer, but he’s silent as well. I hope the Russians know what it is because Dugin wants them to:]
“The war must become fully national. But for that, the government must also become national — Russian! And not what it is now.”
I probably should not have spent so much time on this, but I just wanted to illustrate the sort of thing that the so-called ideologue of the war has to say about the Kherson fiasco. It’s quite clear by now that Dugin has no influence whatsoever in the Kremlin, and this impotent rage — complete with unsubtle calls to assassinate Putin if he fails to conquer again — is probably going to be ignored. If not, the next car bomb will certainly not miss him.
Overall, I do not anticipate much of a domestic threat to Putin to materialize after the loss of Kherson, and — more to the point — if Putin took the step, it means that he does not anticipate much of anything to happen to him. The good news with this decision is that it was eminently the rational thing to do absent a domestic constraint that could have rationalized a potentially serious escalation to avoid even the appearance of defeat. The Kherson retreat strongly suggests that Putin sees room for maneuver, and — considering the fact that just yesterday Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zakharova rejected any idea that Russians might leave Ukraine — the original goals remain pretty much firmly set in his sights.
The strategy that Russia has settled on, out of necessity, is to keep going until the West gives up supporting Ukraine. After even China signaled that any use of nuclear weapons would be unacceptable, it is extremely unlikely that Putin would resort to anything more than rocket-rattling, and even this has become less and less likely. The Russians would mobilize, and keep mobilizing while they think they need more men, keep attacking both to take the initiative from the Ukrainians and to conquer the territories they wish to keep, and the Russian people will keep footing the bill with both their blood and quality of life. This will not end while Putin believes he has a military card to play.
The West is not weakening the sanctions, it is strengthening them
The other narrative dovetails with our discussion — the Western support for Ukraine is weakening and may collapse soon. Even prominent military analysts like the Ukrainian Oleg Zhdanov recently aired the concern that the West is trying to break its own sanctions, and provided links to a post arguing it. There are several pieces of evidence in that post, which I will address separately.
- The US has refused to implement the energy sanctions until May 15, 2023, and its Treasury has now removed all restrictions from major Russians banks.
This is partially correct, but not in the way the claim suggests. The Western allies have worried that if they impose energy sanctions that could potentially penalize third parties (e.g., India), then they might give these states powerful incentives to find workarounds that will undermine the whole sanctions regime, and in the extreme may drive them toward cooperation with the Kremlin. And so from the moment of its inception, the sanctions regime has had a waiver for third-parties, which allowed them to continue their energy transactions with Russia without fear of activating the sanctions against themselves. The waiver was set to expire on June 24, but was extended to December 5. The current extension until May 15 next year is the logical step since we have not been able to persuade several important actors to join the sanctions regime. It is not a weakening of the regime but a reflections of its limitations.
The Russian banks were not freed from sanctions. Instead, they were permitted a temporary exemption from the sanctions so that they can conduct strictly energy-related transactions, which relates to the need to continue such transactions with third parties.
- The US has allowed India to buy Russian oil at prices that exceed the price cap.
This is very misleading. First of all, there is no price cap yet — it is about to come into force in December. Second, the US cannot “allow” or “disallow” India to do anything — India does what India wants to do. The US has been trying to get India to commit not to buy over the price cap, arguing that the cap would make oil cheaper for India as well. This has, so far, been unsuccessful despite Treasury Secretary Yellen’s recent remark that she still hopes it might happen. There is nothing new here either, just another illustration of the limits of the supposed US hegemony.
- The UN has permitted the export of Russian fertilizer.
Also partially true. The deals that the UN and Turkey struck with Russia (and, separately, Ukraine) on June 22 involved both the export of grain — in which the Ukrainians are very interested — and Russian fertilizer. With Russia holding such a strong hand when it came to blocking grain transports, it would have been unreasonable to expect it to give it up without something in return. The compromise was to exempt Russian fertilizer exports from sanctions, which is actually mutually advantageous. The grain deal is set to expire on November 19, and it to be expected that the Russians will get something out of their agreement to renew it. The world needs the grain, Ukraine needs to sell it, and so the Russians will definitely get something out of that.
Despite the narrative in the Russian media (which cites all these as examples of the West folding or about to fold on sanctions), the sanctions are only getting tighter. In her most recent statement Yellen even said that it is very likely that some sanctions will stay in place even after the war ends.
Putin’s plans are destined to fail — as long as the US stays committed, so will the West, and there are no signs that we are getting wobbly. In fact, the Biden administration will be emboldened by the unexpectedly strong showing of the Democrats in the midterms, and our allies might breathe a sigh of relief that they would not have to deal with MAGA-dominated American politics. At the meeting in Bali yesterday, President Xi and Biden met face to face for the first time since Biden became president, and the meeting seems to have gone better than some of us expected. With Xi talking about a bipolar world a few days ago (and he did not mean that Russia is the second pole) and now Biden saying no Cold War with China is wanted, it’s encouraging that war over Taiwan can be avoided — meaning peaceful competition even if China dislikes Biden characterizing it as competition between democracy and authoritarianism (Xi likes to think of his regime as a special kind of Chinese democracy). If the Russians had banked on continuing disorder in the US, they must have been at least slightly disappointed. Moreover, economists are now projecting that the US might avoid a recession altogether, which — together with slowing inflation — is another good sign that the Western economies are resilient enough to handle to shock of Russian energy sanctions.
The West will stay. The Ukrainians will have to win this war on the ground to compel Putin to adjust his goals. It will be a long war.