Lies, damned lies, and stupidity: Gfoeller & Rundell in Newsweek

December 13, 2022

I have seen my share of very bad analysis and amplified Kremlin propaganda about this war, but the recent article by Gfoeller and Rundell in Newsweek manages to stand out even in this crowd for its mendacity, disinformation, and unadulterated stupidity. The authors assert that “lessons from the U.S. Civil War show why Ukraine can’t win,” and then proceed to cast Ukraine as the South and Putin’s Russia as the North. Rarely have I seen someone assert something so wrong with such confidence. Let’s take a quick look at the list of “arguments” these two bring to the table. (Yes, I am aware of the authors’ credentials — this is why I am so infuriated: you’d think they would know better.)

First, the usual bogus nonsense about the start of the war. “Putin’s initial assault was limited to barely 150,000 troops. He expected a quick victory followed by negotiations on his principal concerns: Russian control of Crimea, Ukrainian neutrality, and autonomy for the Russian population in the Donbas, but he was wrong.”

The initial assault was well-prepared, with nearly 170,000 of the best Russian troops and the best equipment. In the northern attack on Kyiv, the VSRF achieved what some analysts estimate to have been a 12:1 superiority, and it was a miracle that the Ukrainians held. People now like to pooh-pooh the Blitzkrieg phase of the war, but it was exceedingly dangerous. The Ukrainians did not have any of the better Western weapons just yet, and there was no guarantee that the West would even help. The aid began to trickle in only after Ukraine did not buckle under the initial onslaught. In other words, they survived the best the modern Russian army had to offer, and they did this mostly on their own. This should be the starting part of this analysis.

While the authors are quite nebulous about what “victory” Putin expected to achieve, their assertion about “autonomy for the Russian population in Donbas” is a bald-faced lie. Putin recognized Donbas independence before the attack even began, and it was evident that this was merely a prelude to annexation, just like it had been with Crimea, and like it would be with Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The Russian notion of Ukrainian “neutrality” is also manifestly not what these two are talking about.

Second, we are told that after Putin’s initial strategy failed, “he is about to unleash his own General Sherman and make Ukraine howl.” To hear them talk, Surovikin is the modern reincarnation of Sherman. I will leave aside the gloriously wrong description of this general as the savior of the Assad regime — had the authors done a 5-minute google search, they would have found out a bit about his background in the “technologically sophisticated Aerospace Forces” and what it was that he had been doing there. In short, while the guy isn’t dumb by any means, he’s neither a strategist nor really a very good tactician. The fact that the VSRF under him keep repeating the exact same strategies they used before him is a sure sign that he’s just someone willing to do what Putin wants him to do. The only achievement so far has been the withdrawal from Kherson, which I am sure the authors will spin as a stunningly smart tactical move sure to win the war for Russia.

But there are several other problems with the Civil War analogy. To begin with, the North did not win because Sherman laid waste to Georgia, but because of its industrial capacity and ability to mobilize resources and keep its armies supplied. Sherman’s ability to make Georgia howl was predicated on that. So the esteemed useful idiots are getting their causality quite in the wrong direction. Even if Surovikin could make Ukraine howl, this will get him nowhere near a victory, and that’s a very uncertain “if”.

The authors say that Surovikin “has begun to methodically destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure with precision missile attacks. Armies need railroads and while Sherman systematically tore up the tracks leading to Atlanta, Surovikin is destroying the electricity grid which powers Ukrainian railroads.” Setting aside the lie about “precision missile attacks,” it is true that VSRF have managed to destroy a large part of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Now, the authors want you to believe that it’s because of some genius plan to disrupt the railroad communications but they seem to have mistaken the Ukrainian army for the Russian one. You see, it’s the Russian army that’s desperately dependent on railroads — which is why their attacks are always so predictable as they have to come from a concentration supplied by rail and go toward another rail junction — but the Ukrainian is not, certainly not to the same degree. This mobility has been one of the advantages of ZSU, and since their engines are not electric, they are unaffected by the rail nearly as much.

The Russian attacks on the energy infrastructure have just one purpose, and it is to terrorize the civilians in the hopes of breaking domestic morale and international resolve. There is no deeper military meaning to it given how the fighting has developed.

But why do the authors think that Russia here is in the role of the North in the civil war? Perhaps because of the following nonsense: “Russia has now put its economy on a war footing, called up the reserves, and assembled hundreds of thousands of troops, including both conscripts and volunteers. This army is equipped with Russia’s most sophisticated weapons, and contrary to much Western reporting, is far from demoralized.”

Putin is trying to transition the economy to wartime footing, and I have written about this many times before. But there’s a huge difference between the government ordering people what to do and the economy producing the desired results. The Russian budget for 2023 dedicates 30% to the military — already indicating how terrible the strain of the war is becoming — and even then it’s laughably minuscule relative to the US military budget alone. The 2023 Pentagon budget alone is twice the entire budget of Russia for that year. This is before we figure in EU’s financial muscle, arms from NATO members in Europe, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine from all over the world. Russia is isolated and alone, it’s economy is already struggling to cope with basics. It won’t crumble, at least not anytime soon, but to think that it can suddenly mobilize to outperform the West is laughable. And the West is the relative comparison here because, as the Russian themselves are fond of saying, Russia is not fighting Ukraine alone, it’s fighting the West. The correct analogy here is that Ukraine, with Western support, is the North in the Civil War, and the Russians are the pitiful southerners who are going down despite their “superior” war-making ability.

The sanctions are working, especially now that the oil ones have gone into effect. OPEC+ decided not to help Russia by cutting oil production to keep prices high, so now Russia is hit with both falling exports and lower prices. Its “replacement” customers India and China cannot import oil/gas at anywhere near the European volumes that the Russians lost, and will not be able to for the foreseeable future because they will have to build pipelines for the gas (and probably hire more dodgy tankers for the oil). The Russian imports have fallen so much that the country is running a trade surplus (and this is another reason why the ruble has not cratered — demand for hard currency is weak because they can’t buy anything with it).

The authors assert, with zero evidence, that the Russian army is not plagued by morale problems. This is contrary to all information we have, from Russia and from Ukraine, where they die in large numbers. We know from Russian officers who are fighting in Ukraine just how bad the new mobiki are, and just how demoralized they themselves are, often because they have no idea what they are supposed to do — probably because Surovikin is busy commanding forces in space rather than on the ground — and how they are supposed to do it given the lack of supplies.

Ah, supplies. The authors give us another “truth” bomb about that: “Ukraine on the other hand has exhausted its armories and is totally dependent on Western military support to continue the war.” Well, it is true that Ukraine needs our help — the Russians have unleashed just about anything they could think of — and find in their own armories — short of nuclear weapons. But the Russians are scraping the bottom of the barrel too, and while their barrel is really, really large, it’s not bottomless and they have limited ability to bring in outside support. I do not know what “most sophisticated weapons” the new masses are equipped with — nobody has seen them, and the Russians are frantically pulling out of storage T-62 tanks, slapping passive defenses (they call this upgrading), and then rushing them to the front. These are dinosaurs, and nobody really knows how many of them are usable.

Just to take the documented and verified losses of Russian tanks, Oryx reports 1,570 as of today — this is almost certainly about 30% less than the actual number, but let’s go with it. The Military Balance 2021 lists 2,840 tanks in the ground forces, 330 in the naval infantry, and 160 for the airborne troops, for a total of 3,330 operational tanks. The conservative estimate is that Russia has lost 47% of its active tank park — the reality is likely much worse for them.

Ah, but what about those in storage? The Military Balance (p. 192) estimates that there are 10,200 T-72s (7,000), T-80s (3,000), and T-90 (200). The 2014 publication also lists 7,300 older tanks in storage: T-55s (2,800), T-62s (2,500), and T-64 (2,000). This gives us a grand paper total of 17,500 tanks, and so suddenly the losses amount to only 9% of the total tank reserve. Maybe that’s why the authors expect a “massive Russian onslaught” to start once the “black soil is firmly frozen.”

Now, given these thousands of relatively modern tanks that Russia has in storage, why is it that it’s been pulling out T-62s in such numbers? Why is it emptying the Belarusian tank park as well? And where are these massive armored columns we are supposed to be cowed by?

The key to the mystery is to realize that Russian numbers aren’t just any numbers, they are very special numbers. Rule of thumb is: when the Russians say they have N units of some machinery, the actual usable fraction is calculated as follows: 20% exist just on paper because they stole the components when they were ordered; 20% are inoperable because they stole components at the time of production; 20% cannot be restored because they stole components during the decades-long storage and never did maintenance; 20% will not be restored because they will steal the components during the restoration, which leaves 20% as an estimate of what might be usable.

Now, I am joking, of course, since I have no idea about the extent of thievery and corruption, but since the Russians never do anything in half measures, rest assured that they will be gigantic and dwarf anything you think you can imagine (unless you are also Russian). The Ukrainians, however, have a keen interest in figuring out what the true reserve looks like, and here’s an August analysis by the Ukrainian Military Center of tanks stored at 19 known facilities, mostly east of the Urals. Since these are stored in the open, they looked at satellite images and estimated that 2,299 tanks appear unrestorable (scrap metal), another 1,304 in a state of disrepair (requiring maintenance at a special facility), another 2,075 looking usable but after some restoration, and only 866 that can easily be made fully operational. There are also about 1,330 tanks in hangars at these bases, but obviously one cannot guess their state from satellite images. Of the 6,544 tanks stored in the open that they analyzed, 35% are scrap metal, 20% need a major overhaul, 32% require maintenance, and 13% are ready for use. In other words, anywhere between a third and a half of the stored tanks might be completely unavailable for this, or any other, war.

If we also take into account that because of the shortage of components newer tanks (e.g., T-72s) are most likely cannibalized for parts to repair operational ones, then it might make more sense why the Russians are unpacking relics for the front — they don’t have much of anything in terms of modern equipment on them, and they do not even get rudimentary active defenses before being sent to the front. Just a quick mechanical job to make sure the thing runs, slap on some panels “for protection,” and off to the trains.

The Ukrainians have now more tanks than they started the war with, mostly thanks to capturing Russian ones. And the West has not sent a single Wester-made tank to this war yet.

I have also written about the shortage of artillery rounds due to the high intensity with which the Russians are using them. The pre-war production/repair capacity of the Russian industry was estimated not to exceed 1.7 million rounds per year. The VSRF has used up nearly 7 million rounds in the war so far — they fire an average of 20,000 per day, and the use could triple during more intense operations. Recently, serial markings on debris found in Ukraine suggest that Russia is using rounds produced in 2022, which basically means everything is going to the front — fresh from the factories and whatever usable they can get from storage. At this rate, the Soviet-era stocks must have gone quite low since the Russians have noticeably decreased the intensity of artillery fire on most sectors of the front excepting the very active one in Donbas (especially around Bakhmut). I am sure the Russians will try activating more production lines for ammunition, but it is not clear to me how fast they can outperform their peak in the 2010s (when the 1.7M was reached as part of determined reform effort). This is why they have been getting rounds from Belarus and North Korea (despite the latter denying it). This means that the Russians might very soon be limited to about 5,000 rounds per day, which is just about what ZSU is using on average right now. Given the higher accuracy of the Ukrainian shots (about 1 to 10 in terms of what it takes to hit a target), the vaunted Russian numerical superiority in firepower will be eliminated.

But maybe they will get enough rounds. Then consider barrel wear for the artillery, which is also a problem given the lack of proper field maintenance that Russian military publications decried back in 2020. The Ukrainians noted that the German howitzers need repairs after about a month of field use at rate of about 100 shots per day. This is the ceiling for Russian weapons, most of which are rated as needing repairs after firing 2,000 – 3,000 rounds. In other words, Russian artillery pieces will need replacement/refurbishment in large numbers, which places another demand on the straining war economy and antiquated system of logistics.

Meanwhile, neighboring allies of Ukraine (e.g., Poland and Slovakia, but also Bulgaria, and maybe others I am not remembering right now) have set up equipment repair facilities for ZSU. It might not be the most efficient thing in the world, but these are out of reach of Russian missiles and invulnerable to electricity shortages. (This is yet another reason the grid attack strategy is not going to be nearly as effective as its proponents seem to feel.) And the West has very deep stocks of Cold War-era ammunition, not to mention new production that they have already ordered increased. Unlike Russia, the combined economies of the West are not working under sanctions, and are clearly better positioned for any long-term competition in supply.

Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that the Ukrainians are better at using the weapons than the Russians because of their better command structure, training, motivation, and modern network-centric operational approaches. A lot of the Russian equipment is actually very good, but you can see its qualities mostly when it falls into the hands of ZSU and they turn it on the Russians. The superior expertise — most of it gained during the 8-years of fighting Russia through its Donbas proxies — has given ZSU a sharp edge that surprised the Russians, who, for some unfathomable reasons, apparently had expected to see the same force they had routed back in 2014. ZSU spent eight years modernizing the army, getting rid of both Soviet-era generals and their Soviet-era thinking, and trying to transition to operations to NATO standards. The West, short-sightedly, never sent Ukraine any heavy weapons over that period, but the Ukrainians focused on what they had (although I have heard allegations that due to Russian influence they did retire a lot of stored ammunition). In other words, numerical advantages are far less significant than they appear at first glance. As it gets reduced both due to problems that the Russians will not be able to solve and the unlocking of the “arsenal of democracy” in the West, it is abundantly clear that the long-term situation for the Russians in pure military terms is actually quite dire.

Keep this in mind when you read that the “massive Russian onslaught “has already begun at the important transportation hub of Bakhmut, which has become something of a Ukrainian Verdun. We expect Bakhmut to fall and predict that without much more Western support, Russia will recapture Kharkov, Kherson, and the remainder of the Donbas by next summer.” No reputable military analyst predicts anything remotely close to this. It is not even certain that Bakhmut would fall, despite the Russians banging their heads at it for months. I have reported on the staggering losses they have suffered there for a few hundred meters of advance. One has to wonder where these super special weapons are that the Russians are supposed to have, and why they are not using them at this, the most active sector of the front. Instead, it’s all infantry attacks, with a noticeable reduction in the intensity of artillery use everywhere else just to maintain a rate of fire here.

More to the point, the Russians do not expect to be able to mount such a fantastic recovery. The very Surovikin that the authors so idolize is busy retreating from Kherson to the south and digging defensive lines from Luhansk to Crimea. Yes, including on the beaches in Crimea. Because he expects to go to Kharkiv. What joints are these two authors smoking? The Russians are frantically casting about for ways not to lose more of the occupied territory in the very near future. The front in the north is crumbling already because they are trying to hold it with demoralized mobiki armed with half-a-century-old weapons. Repeated efforts to counter-attack toward Lyman and around Svatove have all been repulsed by ZSU. The near-fanatical focus on Bakhmut might cost them ZSU breakthroughs elsewhere very soon.

The authors are not content with making a total hash of the military situation and the mobilization potential of the two sides. No, they are going to dig some dirt on Ukraine too, since it does not meet their exacting standards of a “flourishing democracy.” Instead, “It is an impoverished, corrupt, one-party state with extensive censorship, where opposition newspapers and political parties have been shut down.” Let’s go down that list:

  • impoverished: its GDP has fallen by a third, and unemployment is reaching 25% because of the war, which the authors for some reason neglect; Ukraine was not “impoverished” before the war by any standard that I am aware of, and there is no reason to suppose that it would not recover, with Western help, fairly quickly
  • corrupt: yes, very, to a large degree as a result of Russia influence operations, which is why “oppositional newspapers and political parties” have been banned. I wrote about this in my previous post, but as a reminder, all of the 12 parties that were shut down under the new law have extensive Russian links, all had promoted the Russian narratives, and many collaborated with the invaders and helped organize the sham “referenda.” Some of their leaders are directly tied to Putin personally or to Russian security services. These are, without doubt, fifth-columnists. Ukraine is not a one-party state, as even a cursory glance at the voting patterns would have told the authors, and yes, it practices war-time censorship because, you know, it’s at war.

Of course, the Nazis show up too, as the authors remind us that “far right Ukrainian nationalist groups like the Azov Brigade were soundly condemned by the U.S. Congress.” This is both true and irrelevant: the original paramilitary groups were disbanded in 2017, and Azov itself was brought under government control, with many — perhaps most at this point — of its personnel having been replaced. The authors are either pitifully unaware of anything here or are just lying to smear the Ukrainians. My money is on the latter because of the following bit of nonsense: “Kiev’s determined campaign against the Russian language is analogous to the Canadian government trying to ban French in Quebec.” I do not know why the authors think Canada is not a flourishing democracy either, but the bit about Russian is also a total malevolent lie invented by the Kremlin. While the Ukrainian government has prompted Ukrainian as the official language, nobody has infringed on rights of Russian-speakers to speak Russian. President Zelenskyy himself is a Russian speaker. Of course, the depredations of the Russians in Ukraine are going to make sure that after the war, nobody will be willing to speak Russian.

Speaking of depredations, the authors have to do the “where were you when they bombed Donbas for 8 years” crazy talk too, but this is so stupid I can’t even bring myself to debunk it for the 45,376th time.

All of this revolting brew of lies, omissions, distortions, and plain incompetent analysis is then served with a flourish of asinine immorality and cowardice: “The truly moral course of action would be to end this war with negotiations rather than prolong the suffering the Ukrainian people in a conflict they are unlikely to win without risking American lives.”

The authors want an honest and sober debate about what we should be doing in this war. I am totally for it. But I will be damned if I waste my time with nonsense written in the Kremlin, and then served by two useful idiots in a Western outlet.

At least the authors have made a prediction: “if we are correct… February finds General Surovikin at the gates of Kiev.” I would not be taking that to the bank.

One thought on “Lies, damned lies, and stupidity: Gfoeller & Rundell in Newsweek

  1. Shame on them, indeed. – As I often (en)counter Putin-trolling in lower class fora (e.g. quora) who pull the “bombed Donbas for 8 years” crazy talk – I would appreciate a link to your/another’s debunking of it. Even if for the 45,376th time. ( I tried to check the osze-reports, but I find them rather opaque for the uninitiated.) – OTOH: using that nonsensical narrative is a sure sign of s.o. in Putin’s pocket (by valuta or brain-wash). Useful as a shibboleth. The neutral public is not buying this level of agitprop “Seit 5:45 Uhr wird jetzt zurückgeschossen”(Hitler’s shooting “back” on Poland). – Strangely, newsweek does.


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