March 31, 2023
It has been two months since my last comprehensive update right after the start of the Russian winter/spring offensive operations, which I called the “Gerasimov Offensive.” I have been waiting for some important changes in the front lines to write another update, but now the Russian operations around one of the key sectors (Bakhmut) appears to be culminating, and the time has come for analysis and forecasts.
The Gerasimov Offensive That Hasn’t Been
As I have indicated before, everyone expected Russia to attempt a decisive offensive with the goal of capturing at least the Donbas region, and perhaps even Zaporizhzhia (crossing the Dnipro River to take Kherson was ruled out by analysts early on). There were signs of serious preparations for attacks from several directions, including either a diversionary attack on Kyiv from Belarus or, more likely, an attempt to interdict Western supplies with a strike toward Lutsk. The Russians chose, predictably, to encircle Bakhmut and Avdiivka, to take Vuhledar, and to push ZSU beyond the Oskil River in Luhansk and possibly take Siversk. Thus far, the offensive operations have yielded very little to the Russians despite costing a lot.
In the north, the determined efforts to oust ZSU from Luhansk have had some success only near Dvorichna, where VSRF appears to have managed to reach the Oskil River before getting stuck there. The rest of the frontline toward Svatove and Lysychansk have seen little change aside from a small bulge toward Zarichne, which has left the pushing Russian forces dangerously exposed to flanking attacks. The main goal of Siversk has remained steadily out of reach despite the Russian taking of Soledar directly to the South. Right now, the assessment is that the Russians have prevented ZSU from taking the key town of Svatove or cutting the road toward Lysychansk, but they have not advanced much beyond this.
The main Russian effort until about a week or so ago has been at Bakhmut, and the dogged Ukrainian defense of this town has stirred up quite a bit of controversy among armchair experts, a lot of aided by a relentless Russian disinformation campaign. Recall that ZSU fell back toward Bakhmut last year when the Russian broke out of Popasna, and thrust north, forcing the collapse of the Lysychansk defense, and east, toward Bakhmut. ZSU tried to resist with a fighting retreat, but the Russians made steady, if not rapid, progress initially. But their offensive steam ran out and after initially making some inroads toward Bakhmut, they were thrown back by a surprising counter-attack. Since then — about 8 months ago — the Russians have been trying to take this town (prewar population of about 70,000) without success. The assault on the city was initially conducted mainly by PMC Wagner mercenaries and their convict recruits. When it became apparent that head-on attacks are unlikely to succeed (the Ukrainians have had years to turn Bakhmut into a fortress), they attempted to encircle it. The thrust north turned into a grinding battle for the small settlement of Soledar (prewar population of about 10,000), which Wagner and VSRF units finally managed to conquer despite serious losses. From there, the Russians continued to push both east and south, in an effort to cut the supply lines of the Ukrainian defenders. Currently, they are fighting around Bohdanivka — where ZSU reinforcements seem to have stopped them — and have the northern road from Chasiv Yar under partial fire control next to Khromove. In other words, while the Ukrainians can still use the road to access Bakhmut, it’s dangerous because the Russians can reach parts of it with their artillery. The fire control, however, is sporadic because the Russians do not have very precise artillery (due to shortage of drones to get coordinates and intel) and because their usual profligacy with shells (which allowed them to compensate for inaccuracy with sheer volume) has caused shortages even in critical sectors. To the south, the Russians took Opytne and Klischiivka, and have been trying very hard to reach Ivanivske in order to cut the other main supply road from Chasiv Yar to Bakhmut. I know of at least two serious pushes that temporarily penetrated close to the road but that were thrown back by ZSU counter-attacks with fresh reinforcements. This road is only sporadically under Russian fire, and so remains viable for the Ukrainians. As for the city itself, the Russians have entered it from all three directions, and there is savage street to street fighting. The Russians have not given up on taking Bakhmut, but there are no signs that the Ukrainians intend to surrender it either.
This is a good place to pause to talk a bit about Bakhmut, which has become a political symbol and a sort of a Stalingrad in reverse for the Russians. The city is a key transport hub but its overall strategic significance declined after the ZSU counteroffensive last year. Critics of the Ukrainian decision to defend it — seemingly at all costs — have pointed out this relative unimportance, and have argued that it made more sense for ZSU to fall back to other defensive positions (e.g., Chasiv Yar) in order to avoid being slaughtered or forced to surrender in an encircled Bakhmut. They say that the large Ukrainian losses cannot be justified in military terms, and so the decision to defend Bakhmut must have been political — at this point they talk either about a conflict between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhnyi or pin the blame on the commanding General Syrskyi.
Since I have been in the distinct minority who has maintained that the defense of Bakhmut made strategic sense, I feel these points need to be addressed head on. First, I do agree about the relative strategic unimportance of Bakhmut given the overall situation on the front right now. But — and this is an important but — this does not mean that the town is strategically unimportant in general. In Russian hands, it would quickly resume its role as a key transport point, which would be crucial in supporting VSRF’s further efforts to conquer Donbas. Moreover, liberating it from the Russians would be costly to ZSU as well, perhaps a lot costlier than defending it since in these situations the attacking force invariably suffers much greater losses than the defending force. Given the Ukrainian objective of liberating their territories, they would have to regain Bakhmut, which means they would have to be in the (worse) role of an attacker against a well-defended fortified place. The idea that Bakhmut “does not matter” is very situational and likely to be temporary.
Second, the notion that ZSU can just “fall back” to more defensible positions might make military sense, but let’s not forget what this means. It means the Russians will be able to direct more forces at Siversk, which will become a repeat of Bakhmut. It means another Ukrainian city coming under Russian artillery attacks. It means another depopulated Ukrainian city in smoldering ruins. It could mean the Russians coming close enough to the Sloviansk-Kramatorsk agglomeration which, while formidable defensively, is also home to nearly 300,000 people. This population would be subjected to daily horrors from the Russian attacks, and would require resources to defend and, potentially, evacuate. The fact is, one does not abandon a fortress that one can defend successfully unless one is forced to do so.
This leads me to the third point, and part of it is due to successful Russian disinformation campaigns online, to which even many Ukrainians have succumbed. For over two months now, we have heard the steady drumbeat of “Bakhmut will be encircled shortly,” that there are thousands of Ukrainian soldiers trapped in the cauldron and about to be compelled to surrender, that ZSU has lost thousands upon thousands of its very best troops in a futile defense against worthless Russian convicts, and that the decision to stay in Bakhmut is either due to military incompetence or political infighting.
Now, it’s obvious that the narrative of the city being on the edge of defeat has suffered a bit since, after all, the Russians have been unable to take it despite trying really, really hard. By Western estimates, the Russians have lost nearly 30,000 troops under Bakhmut alone in casualties. This has been the only sector of the front where the Russians have been able to maintain a serious rate of artillery use (despite complaints by Wagnerites), and it has clearly been a priority for them. The Wagner PMC losses have been so severe that there’s talk about the operation being a deliberate effort by the General Staff of VSRF to dismantle the organization. Elite VSRF paratrooper units have been sent into the fight, possibly in anticipation of taking the city so they can claim credit (as they tried to do in Soledar) but they have not made important headway over the past week. In fact, the Russian efforts at Bakhmut have somewhat fizzled out as they focused on another sector of the front at Avdiivka (see below).
The Russians periodically announced all sorts of successes, cutting off supply lines, and so forth, all with the intent of creating the impression of an inevitable fall of the town. Since the Ukrainians are also suffering heavy casualties, the Russians also exaggerated these — and so critics of the operation began to quote loss ratios as 1:2 in favor of Ukraine or, in some rash moments, even parity at 1:1. Since Russia has a deeper human reservoir, these sorts of loss ratios are unsustainable, and since the Russians were known to use relatively untrained expendable convicts as cannon fodder, the exchange ratio was skewed against the Ukrainians who were said to be losing their best troops.
One should not be surprised to find out that both claims are wrong. First, even conservative NATO sources estimate the loss ratio to be around 1:5 in favor of ZSU. This is not what the Ukrainians claim (1:7+) but it’s very high. Now, one must understand that this is an average over the past several months. There were periods where it climbed to 1:10 and periods where it has gone down to 1:2, depending on the intensity and the location of the fighting. The ratio was worsening over the past month — which is one reason the critics became more vocal — but has improved again after the Russian effort slacked and reinforcements have stabilized the lines.
The attrition argument is important — any Russian soldier killed or wounded under Bakhmut is one fewer soldier ZSU would have to deal with later on. We have all seen the consequence of failing to destroy forces that then regroup and show up to fight again: a lot of the units ZSU is fighting now were among the ones the Russians successfully evacuated from the right bank of the Dnipro in Kherson (there are allegations that ZSU’s “South” command made a deal with the Russians to permit their evacuation so they would not have to fight for Kherson, but that the General Staff got wind of it and forbade it but it was too late — I have my doubts about this). Stalling the Russian forces at Bakhmut and degrading them by forcing the command to throw in reinforcements also undermines the offensive campaign because resources expended here cannot be used later on. All of this makes sense, and if the loss ratio is favorable, it’s a sound strategic idea to hold the defense as long as the enemy is willing to oblige by bashing his head against it.
But, the critics say, the Ukrainians are losing their best troops at Bakhmut and they are also sending in reinforcements needed for their counter-offensive, and so the degradation of potential is going both ways, which does not favor Ukraine. The critics do have a point here, but it’s partial and exaggerated. The Ukrainians are suffering greatly at Bakhmut, and they have sent reinforcements to shore up the defense. However, not only are their losses not nearly as large as critics allege (at least according to reasonable estimates I have seen) nor are they concentrated among the best troops. The bulk of the troops defending Bakhmut are the ones who have been defending it since the start, allowing for rotations. There’s a lot of territorial defense forces there, and these are not the Wester-trained soldiers that ZSU needs for its counter-offensive. Yes, the Ukrainian high command has occasionally sent in elite troops to restore the front line or push back the Russians a bit when they came close to taking some strategic objective, but in general ZSU has been using them sparingly. They have also not used a whole lot of their artillery ammunition (much to the chagrin of the critics who see this as some sort of “betrayal” of the defenders).
The cold, bitter, and inescapable reality is that ZSU needs the time to prepare its counter-offensive. They mobilized a lot of people who need at least 6 months or more of training for offensive operations (which are a lot harder to execute than defense), they need their soldiers to come back from bases in the West where they had been training for months, they need enough of the promised Western equipment to arrive, and they need time to integrate it, and set up the logistical support to use it. Nobody wants a repeat of last years’ Kharkiv offensive when the Ukrainians outran their supply lines and could not push against the rapidly disintegrating Russian defenses to take advantage of the chaos and liberate even more territory. Back then, ZSU stopped in many places not because it encountered serious resistance but because its advance units became dangerously exposed and there was insufficient support to shore up their gains.
Since ZSU needs this time, Bakhmut has to be held, preferably with units that are not critical to the offensive operations and preferably without exhausting much of the supplies readied for that offensive. In other words, ZSU units in Bakhmut would have to make do with whatever they can, and only in very desperate moments would the high command intervene to send reinforcements. Zaluzhnyi said as much quite clearly last year in an interview where he begged forgiveness from the defenders because he knew — as they did — what this meant for them. The ZSU strategy in Bakhmut has always been inherently desperate for the defenders, and inherently fought on a shoestring.
From this perspective, the (costly) defense of Bakhmut has always made military sense, and so I have taken all (unsubstantiated) reports about conflicts between the Office of the President (Zelenskyy) and the General Staff (Zalyzhnyi) with a huge dose of skepticism. (I am not going to dignify the allegation that “Syrskyi is an idiot” with a response since he is the guy who organized the defense of Kyiv, and because at any rate these sorts of strategic decisions are not made by a single individual, even if he is the commander of the operation there.) The Russians — and their Ukrainian allies as well as short-sighted supporters of former president Poroshenko — have been peddling the “Zelenskyy-Zaluzhnyi conflict” story since the very beginning. All indications are that Zelenskyy has wisely left the General Staff to do the fighting and has instead focused on managing the political aspect of the war and ensuring ZSU has what it needs from the allies. I expect there must have been discussions about the political significance of abandoning Bakhmut — it would be a blow to Ukrainian morale and a significant booster for the Russians — but the optics and consequences of losing thousands of troops to encirclement would be so much worse that I doubt anyone would have taken the political aspect seriously if there was no military way to avoid the disaster. In other words, even if such political arguments were made, they could not have carried the day unless the military got behind them and was sufficiently confident that it could fulfill its tasks.
The problem with the “political-military conflict” story is that it does not fully consider the consequences of an imposed political decision. It ignores the fact that for the political aspect to work, the Ukrainians would have to hold Bakhmut and, if forced to retreat, avoid encirclement and such. Moreover, they could not afford to do this at a cost that would jeopardize the counter-offensive because whatever political gain there might be from holding Bakhmut, it would pale in comparison to the gain from another successful ZSU operation that liberates a significant swath of territory. I conclude that “Zelenskyy ordered Zaluzhnyi to defend Bakhmut at all costs for political reasons” is just pure Russian propaganda. Not only do we have no evidence to support this claim, but it makes no sense on its own.
Will Bakhmut fall? I do not know — as of today, the town has stood against furious Russian assaults for 243 days. I have been cautiously optimistic since the beginning and have always pushed back against the “it will fall any day now” narrative. The Institute for the Study of War assessed a few days ago that the Russian offensive there might have culminated or is about it (meaning the Russians do not have the resources to continue it). Just today, I read reports that the Russians have sent troops from their reserve paratrooper unit, which appears to have been initially intended to hold Bakhmut after its conquest or participate in offensive operations after that — indicating a failure of the original plans. General Zaluzhnyi himself went on record yesterday saying that the situation — while difficult — has stabilized at Bakhmut. Zelenskyy even made a trip to the frontlines somewhere in the vicinity of the city a week or so ago to stiffen the resolve of the defenders and demonstrate support for their sacrifice. The critical voices have somewhat lowered their pitch too, and even the Russians are now beginning to say that perhaps they won’t be able to take Bakhmut after all. If their offensive ends with Bakhmut in Ukrainian hands, it would be a terrible blow to the already low expectations many on the Russian side have had about their prospects for success. Maybe it’s in part to compensate for that (impending) lack of success that the Russians have now refocused on Avdiivka.
The Ukrainians have been defending Avdiivka for 8 years. This town is close to Donetsk, and so the Russian/ORDLO forces have been trying to dislodge them from there for a long time. Knowing the town’s strategic importance, the Ukrainians have turned it into yet another fortress, and it has been weathering all assaults so far. Over the past two weeks, however, VSRF has drastically ratcheted up the pressure. They seem to have given up on the frontal attacks and are attempting an encirclement — i.e., it’s an almost exact copy of the Bakhmut operation.
There is now ongoing savage fighting in this sector, and the Russians have made some limited gains at Krasnohorivka in the north and Vodyane in the south. The terrain does not favor the attacking forces here, and so these attempts have been very costly to the Russians as well. This is a spot that we need to watch closely over the next few weeks.
The rest of the frontline has been stable. The Russian attacks on Vuhledar ended in ignominious failure with gigantic losses that made it even to the pages of the NYT. The Russians seem to have concentrated to defense in the south although by some accounts the lines have been considerably thinned out because of troops being taken to the hot sectors of the front. Russian analysts seem nervous about a potential attack toward Crimea and wonder if they have enough forces there to stop it. Fording the Dnipro River is going to be a difficult task for ZSU but they have received a lot of Western aid that seems very specific to river-crossings (boats, etc.) I would not exclude the possibility that they might do this as part of their counter-offensive but I am not sure if this would be a main axis of attack or a diversionary one. (More on this below.)
To recap, the Gerasimov Offensive seems to have run out of steam, and I doubt it has more than a few weeks of sustained serious effort in it left. Its meager results are so embarrassing that some pro-Kremlin channels have now taken to claiming that there was never any plan to launch a large offensive, that this has been a huge lie invented by the Ukrainians, and that Russia’s strategy is purely attritional and defensive. Given the effort the Russians invested in breaking the ZSU defenses and the mind-boggling expenditure of blood and resources, the evidence that Gerasimov intended some dramatic breakthroughs is overwhelming even if circumstantial. The Russian military is simply incapable of reaching the stated objectives despite months of learning (and, in some aspects, improving) because of the inevitable cumulative impact of losses of trained personnel and equipment and the similarly inevitable inability of the domestic economy to replace them. When thinking about Russian potential — which we have to do because of how this war has developed and how it is likely to unfold — one must always bear in mind that in order to realize any potential, proper governance is necessary, and the Russian regime simply does not have, and cannot conjure it up out of thin air. Most of the vast Russian potential will remained permanently locked away from the Kremlin.
The “Wartime” Economy
Speaking of the economic and domestic aspects of this, let us look at several interesting developments in Russia. There is mounting evidence that our hypotheses (and, frankly, educated guesses) about their problems with ammunition, equipment, and training have mostly been borne out.
The most remarkable must be Putin’s direct admission that the VSRF has been forced to ration artillery shells on the front because they do not have enough to sustain their rate of use. He said this in the context of “we are going to produce millions of shells per year while the West can only make thousands” but he said it nevertheless. The “shell hunger” turned out to be very real, and not just a consequence of the Russians husbanding them for their offensive (which has been ongoing for 2 months at this point). I do not need to tell you that Putin’s numbers are lies — both in what the West is capable of and already gearing up to deliver, and in what Russia can actually produce over the next few years given its capacity — but let me just note that in focusing on out-producing the West, Putin cited Russian numbers for all kinds of ammunition, but Western numbers only for 155mm shells, only for the US, and only the ones from last year before we expanded capacity. In other words, to make the lie seem even remotely plausible, he had to compare apples and oranges. I have written extensively on our estimates of what Russia can produce, and I have seen no reason to revise them. My expectation is that by the summer, VSRF will be only capable of firing about 5k shells per day — which I think they can sustain indefinitely — and that ZSU will be able to match this, and in some sectors they will be able to achieve operational dominance with artillery, which would set conditions for breakthroughs.
There is one catch with the Russian ammo though: North Korea. We have heard talk about DPRK supplying Russia with weapons but aside from a grainy photo of a covered train transporting who-knows-what, I have seen no evidence of that. In fact, I think that even if DPRK wanted to send military aid to Russia — ok, to be clear, sell very expensively military aid to Russia — it might have been prevented from doing so by China. I will discuss Beijing’s role here below, so for now let’s just say that if Xi fears that Putin might lose the war outright, he would really need to help Russia, and since he still would not want China directly involved, he might do this indirectly through North Korea. Consistent with this, the rumors about DPRK looming involvement have resurfaced, and this time they are both about ammunition/equipment and soldiers!
If Russia is indeed desperate, then North Korea is a promising source: it has a lot of ammo & equipment, and it’s all compatible with Russian equipment (since it’s all basically Soviet knock offs). Moreover, the North Korean soldiers are supposed to be better trained than the Russian mobiki, and so they could prove a lot more useful in offensive operations. There are, however, significant logistical obstacles to making use of any such aid. First, and obviously, there’s the distance: it’s nearly 10,000km from Vladivostok to, say, Voronezh — a train trip through Moscow takes over 6 days. Second, capacity. For the amount of ammo to make a dent on the front, there would have to be supplied in sufficient quantities. The last time rail traffic between DPRK and Russia via their only link over the Tumangang Friendship Bridge on November 4th last year was observed, the train had 3 railcars. Each railcar can carry about 100 tons, and a 152mm shell weighs about 50kg (these are the 155mm-equivalent for the Russians, so most important). Thus, my rough calculation is that 1 railcar can carry about 2,000 of these shells, so a train of the type we saw could carry 6,000 shells. Doubling the capacity would mean 12,000 shells per train, and VSRF right now is still firing 15,000 shells per day. In other words, to make a dent on the front, the Russians would have to be running more than one train load per day, every day, over a distance of 10,000km. I don’t know about you, but I do not have such faith in Russia’s logistical capabilities. If this aid to materialize, it can at most help VSRF avoid collapse due to shell hunger on the front. It will not add to its offensive potential.
The other rumor is that DPRK is ready to “sell” Russia something like 30,000 troops. To be honest, I find this highly implausible.
The other bit of “news” that the Kremlin dropped is that Russia is going to produce 1,600 tanks, which will more than match the 400 or so promised by the West. I don’t know why the Russians have a tendency to lie by quadrupling whatever their estimate for the other side is, but there you go. I have dealt with the tank production repeatedly, and am quite convinced that this fantastic estimate is very far from what they can actually do. Even with this number, they are not talking new tanks but mostly refurbished ones. And since their main problem for refurbishing isn’t the hulls but components, any such restoration is going to end up with MBTs that are not modern in any meaningful sense. In other words, even if one were to believe the claim of 1,600 “new” tanks per year, these aren’t going to be of a quality anywhere near a Western MBT supplied to Ukraine. It is extremely doubtful that Russia would be able to produce even half of the number claimed — its prewar production maxed out at about 300 per year, and this was back when they did not have significant problems with supply of components.
The documented losses of Russian MBTs is at 1,906, which is un undercount of at least 30%. Since Oryx also reports 144 ZSU tanks captured by the Russians, the net Russian loss is 1,762 MBTs over 13 months (the actual number could well be over 2,500). That is, the Russians have been losing an average of 135 MBTs per month, and even the astonishing propaganda claim says they can make 133 MBTs per month. The reality, of course, has been way worse than that: 192 MBTs lost and only about 25 produced per month. Even doubling the actual production numbers — and this would be no mean feat given the dislocations in the economy — this is not a war of attrition the Russians can afford, especially once the Western production comes online and begins supplying Ukraine with new MBTs rather than the refurbished ones we are sending now.
The dire situation of the Russian “wartime” industry is illustrated by the fact that they have now taken T-54/55 tanks (in addition to the T-62s) out of storage. (Not just that, but a photo surfaced with the positively archaic IS-3 MBT being transported… somewhere — given the age and probable usefulness of this tank, I would think this is meant for some museum rather than the frontline, so I do not think they are taking them out of storage in large numbers… just yet.) The T-54/55 MBT was last produced in the USSR in 1981, and is one of the most-widespread tanks in the world. Significantly upgraded, it is still in service in some militaries around the world. Not in Russia, though — this is the first time they have used these MBTs since the start of the war. These tanks are not expected to do very well on the front, which has led some armchair experts to assert that the Russians are going to use them as artillery, maybe even burying them as part of defense installations. I have my serious doubts about that — the Russians have consistently used them as regular MBTs, and SPAs are much better at — you know, their job — than re-purposed MBTs. I very much expect them to continue using the tanks as tanks, which is why I also take this as evidence of serious problems with their production/refurbishment processes.
In another tank story, it turned out that our earlier estimates about the T-72 MBTs in storage were inflated. In my previous writing on this, I said that Russia had started the war with 3,300 operational MBTs, and have under 1,000 left, and that from the putative 15,000 reserve, only about 3,000 are un usable condition. A Forbes article examined closely situation with T-72s, of which there were about 2,000 (60% of the park), with 1,500 lost (75% of losses). The discrepancy in the numbers is probably due to this being the MBTs most widely used by the Russians (so most at risk) and it being not-that-great against the Ukrainians. In this article, the author’s initial estimate was 6,900 T-72 MBTs in storage, of which 2,300 usable. The new estimate, which takes into account the total produced by the Soviets and subtracting the numbers lost in combat or exported, is 1,500 in storage. (This excludes the first T-72 “Ural” model, which is pretty bad, but of which there might be a couple of thousand produced.) Long story, short, not only do the Russians not have the deep reserve of decent tanks we initially thought, but they are unable to refurbish them in large numbers.
The Russian economy did better than expected last year, buoyed by higher energy prices, a rush of purchases by Europeans, smart sanction avoidance through parallel imports, and skillful management of the ruble by the Central Bank. This is not to say that it can continue to avoid the consequences of sanctions. Yesterday, even Putin was forced to acknowledge publicly that there are problems caused by the sanctions, which is quite the contrast with just several months ago when he was still arguing that they had just served to make Russia’s economy stronger. In March, the price of Urals crude oil hit $48/barrel, down from over $110 in April last year, and let’s not forget that much of the “replacement” sales (lost to the Europeans) have been to India and China, which command an “eternal friendship” discount and buy it at around $35/barrel. The lost income from gas is also very significant: Gazprom is now saying that Russians would have to pay more for their gas to make up for the vanishing sales to Europe (which had subsidized domestic consumption).
The crash of the automotive industry was among the most visible, and Moscow made some dramatic efforts to control the narrative. They said that Moskvich is going to be making totally home-produced cars, and quickly unveiled a model that sharp eyes immediately recognized as a Chinese car with a Russian label. In the end, this also proved to be a Potemkin village story: Moskvich sold 86 — that’s EIGHTY SIX — of these models, and then announced an embarrassing voluntary recall so they can fix a problem with the multimedia software. It turned out that in this 100%-Russian made car, they had done the translation from Chinese incorrectly.
No wonder that Medvedev read a letter from Stalin to the people responsible for ensuring that VSRF gets what it needs from the economy: “If you fail to fulfill your duty to the Motherland, I will destroy you, like criminals who disregard their honor and the interests of the Motherland,” he narrated, complete with mentioning the punctuation marks.
We now have more quantification of the state of degradation of the economy and society in Russia: “Russian society lost jobs and incomes, experienced doctors and social workers, further damaging the lives of the sick and vulnerable. The invasion reverses the social gains of 22 years of Putinism, meager as they were. The generalized social crisis that resulted from the post-Soviet transformation never disappeared. Now Russia is at the next turn of the spiral, with no end in sight.”
Russian analyses offer a similarly glum picture. Officially, incomes fell only by 1% in 2022, but…
The downward spiral in incomes started in 2014, and was caused by the combination of sanctions over the illegal annexation of Crimea a fall in oil prices, and the pandemic. As a result, the real income in 2022 was 6.5% below what Russians had in 2013 — the last year of peace — and was about the 2011 level.
Russia has lost a decade in real income.
The other factor is consumer demand, which has fallen off a cliff. Worried by the war, the Russians bought a lot less in 2022, causing an annual decline of 10.5% (and an additional 6.7% in January 2023). This is where the economy was back in 2008.
Russia has lost a decade and a half in consumer demand.
This, and much more, you can find here (in Russian).
Turning now to the human factor in the military, the hidden mobilization has continued but its results have not been as encouraging for the Kremlin, if one is to judge by the renewed efforts to recruit contract soldiers. Putin just signed the order for the spring conscription of 170,000 men (this is part of their traditional conscription process that has a spring and a fall induction). The Kremlin has repeatedly denied rumors of an official second wave of mobilization, and with good reason. The first open mobilization wave got, as it usually does, all the ones who wanted to fight (not many since contract recruitment had failed), those who saw it as their duty to fight, but mostly those who could not get out by leaving or bribing, and those who did not have the resources to resist. As a result, the mobilization has disproportionately affected the remote rural areas of Russia, but left Moscow and St. Petersburg largely untouched. This is now documented in the extraordinarily skewed loss statistics (where the remote regions are 10-20 times more affected by casualties) but also open criticism by the likes of Prigozhin, who has voiced discontent with the fact that privileged citizens are exempt from the war. The authorities have now announced a drive for volunteers that is supposed to get 30,000 from Moscow, but I would be stunned if they got anywhere over 5,000 without coercion. Running an open mobilization as in the provinces would not go nearly as smoothly in the heartland. Putin might not have a choice in the end given the losses his army is suffering in Ukraine, just like he did not have much of a choice last year. But, and also like last year, I expect him to waffle and delay this until the last possible moment, at which point the usefulness of the additional numbers would be undermined.
Peskov is now saying that the Kremlin is in for the long haul, that this is going to be a long war (of attrition). This is not news to anyone who has been reading my blog: I have said that this is probably the only strategy available to Putin if he’s unwilling to countenance defeat and withdrawal. The Gerasimov Offensive was supposed to show to the Ukrainians and to the West that Russia has staying power, and so they would consider making the concessions Putin demands. Instead, it has shown that Russia is incapable of serious offensive operations, and that its predicament is going from bad to worse by the day. Of course, Putin is not going to leave Ukraine or make peace, so the war will continue as long as he is in power. Peskov is merely articulating that. The importance here might be in calibrating people’s expectations in Russia — is the population really ready for a “forever war” rather than a “special military operation”? And to what end? This leads us to the problem of Russian war aims & popular support.
The Russian War Aims
Putin — and various other people affiliated with the Kremlin — have repeatedly listed their war aims, but for some reason pundits continue to insist that the listed aims are not the real goals. Just to make sure we are all on the same page, the deputy Foreign Minister of Russia — Mikhail Galuzin — explicitly listed their current demands of Ukraine. Here are the 10 points that he said Kyiv must take for the war to end:
- Ukraine’s military forces must stand down and the West must stop supplying them
- Ukraine must demilitarize
- Ukraine must denazify
- Ukraine must pledge to never join the EU or NATO
- Ukraine must pledge to remain a non-nuclear state forever
- Ukraine must recognize Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk as Russian
- Ukraine must protect the Russian language and rights of Russian-speakers
- Ukraine must reopen the border with Russia and restore legal framework it renounced in 2014
- The West must lift all sanctions and termination of prosecutions (ICC)
- The West must pay for reconstruction of civilian infrastructure destroyed by ZSU since 2014
Moreover, Galuzin said that Russia would not tolerate “an openly anti-Russian state, whatever its borders,” as a neighbor.
That’s… quite the list. In the context of the military, political, and economic situation, this sort of “peace initiative” shows very clearly that the Russians are not serious about peace. Any “peacenik” who talks about how the West is prolonging the war and refusing to negotiate must reckon with the reality of the Russian position. How, exactly, does one propose to satisfy most (any?) of these demands?
It should be abundantly clear to any observer that ZSU would not “stand down” when they trounced the Russians last year, and have contained the determined Russian push this winter/spring. An attempt by the government to “stand down” would likely cause a popular revolution in Ukraine and any putative “peace-makers” are going to be dangling from lampposts in short order. That’s assuming one could find what effectively be traitors in the government that are stupid enough to try it. The reality is that the Ukrainian government has the people’s will behind its policies, and the same is true — even to a higher degree — of the Ukrainian military. And, as long as they are willing to continue to fight the Russians to expel them from their lands, Western support is also likely to continue. The only way one obtains the sort of capitulation that #1 demand requires is by destroying the bulk of the opponent’s armed forces or its political leadership. The Russians are not even close to any of that. This point alone is a non-starter.
I have explained why points #2 through #4 are impossible to satisfy in any peace deal that stands a chance of working. Briefly, if Russia emerges from this war without Kremlin’s wishes being satisfied — as it is almost certain at this point — Ukraine will face a bitter, revanchist power on its border for as long as Putin’s regime is in place. It will be an armed peace, with the looming possibility that Moscow would try again. Such a peace can, of course, be made to work — witness the truce with North Korea — but it requires deterrence of revisionist attempts. In other words, it requires that Ukraine maintain a strong military (with a defense industry to match) and secure external alliances with sufficiently powerful and committed countries (USA, UK, Poland). Since the Ukrainians elected Zelenskyy’s regime and the fight is primarily about their ability to chart their own independent course politically, replacing the government at Russia’s whim is also out of the question, as is denying the trigger for the current troubles, which is Ukraine’s aspiration to join the EU. These sorts of maximalist demands can only be obtained at gun point, after disarming the opponent. This will not happen, and as a result Russia can expect that none of its #2-#4 pretensions will be satisfied.
Number 5 is fanciful: Ukraine has not been a nuclear state since the Budapest Memorandum that Russia so blatantly violated, but arguably it was not a nuclear state even before that. At any rate, it has no intention of becoming one now. This demand is there just to create the illusion that Russia is fighting some unseen menace from a nonexistent plan to nuclearize. Simply put, Ukraine will spend the next several decades rebuilding after the devastation that Russia wrought, and even after that it cannot hope to create a nuclear deterrent to Russia, so there would be no point in trying.
Demands #6 through #8 are attempts to gain what Russia has wanted to take by the force of arms after failing to get it by the force of arms. It’s not at all clear why anyone should take this seriously. Russia has no standing to claim any Ukrainian territory. A reasonable precondition for negotiations would have been for them to withdraw to — at the very least — pre-invasion borders, but to demand more territories than one controls after a year of trying to conquer them is a peculiarly unrealistic aspect of this list.
Point #9 underscores the fact that sanctions are very much working — although the idea that Russia can just go back to doing “business as usual” with the West immediately is far-fetched — and that the warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for Putin and Lvova-Belova have made an impression (more on these below).
I am going to pass on #10, which is as offensive as it is funny. The West will certainly invest in Ukraine and help rebuild its infrastructure after the war. It is more likely that the Russians would have to pay reparations for the damage they caused with their invasions stretching back to 2014.
In other words, not only have the Russians failed to calibrate their demands to reflect their miserable performance on the battlefield, they have decided to expand them. One could read that as firm belief in eventual victory. This is how pro-Kremlin people with challenged cognitive abilities treat them. To me, they are part political theater — designed to show Kremlin’s unshakable commitment to seeing this war through — and part delusion at the highest levels — where the reality of Russia being totally capable of losing a war has not sunk in. At any rate, the upshot is clear: no peace with Russia is possible while Moscow makes such demands, and it does not matter just how fervently one desires peace.
Popular (Elite) Support for the SMO
But how much do Russians desire peace? It’s impossible to answer with precision, but the indications are that support for the SMO has been declining. There is still a hard core of imperialists who want to see Ukraine destroyed or at least Russian arms triumph (maybe up to 20% of the population?), but the fact that Putin has not dared to call for an open continuation of the mobilization is telling me that the Kremlin is worried about the majority of the population. Supporting war on TV is one thing, supporting a losing war when it’s causing real deprivations and real losses is quite another, especially when ordinary Russians often have trouble articulating what the goals of the SMO actually are. In this regard, the recorded call between two prominent members of the Russian elite is quite instructive.
The call is between billionaire & former representative of Krasnodar in the Russian Federation Council and the music producer Iosif Prigozhin (no relation to Wagner’s Prigozhin). The released portion is about 35 minutes long, and I have provided a translation of most relevant parts for those who don’t speak Russian (I have omitted the curse words, which constitute half of the talking). Here are the main points for our purposes here:
- The blame game in the Kremlin has begun: “Sechin, Chemezov (or maybe Lavrov), and Zolotov are all blaming Shoigu for everything, call him an idiot to his face. They want to get him removed but they are waiting.”
- Putin is being consistently misled about the true state of affairs: “They screwed up all sectors [of the economy]. He said that nothing mattered aside from the army. And it turned out there was no army. Of course! They lied to him, they are lying to him. They live in their own parallel reality. In their own world. I am so disappointed with all of them. I am in shock.”
- The elites are unlikely to do anything: “Are they going to stay in power? They screwed up the situation, they screwed up the country. They screwed up everything. Everything. I don’t know. What are we waiting for? The problem is what happens after. That’s the issue. What will happen? We’re going to have “kadyrovtsi” [Kadyrov’s troops], “prigozhintsi” [Prigozhin’s troops], and oprichniki [security forces]. It’s going to be fucking machnovshchina [anarchy]. The knives are going to come out, and the sledgehammers. I have not heard a single reasonable proposal. Not a single correct move.”
- The war is lost, and so Russia’s future: “The President will answer for everything. Everything. They lost everything. They are staying these and those are all fighting against them here and there, but they gave them the reason to do it. He brought this on himself. He sold out the country, he lost it. And we have nowhere to go. We’ll be fucked. We have no options. Even if he presses “the button”, the nation has no future. He fucked us all.”
- Repression is going to get worse: “The people are like zombies. He [Putin] does not care about the elites. He does not give a shit about anyone. He does not care about the people. He is Satan. They are not just saying that they are going to confiscate things, to shoot people, to kill. This is a catastrophe! Deprive people of lives. It’s chaos.”
- Putin is not smart, and is manipulable: “He [Putin] isn’t a driver, he has not directed anything. He always says what they write for him. He flew here and there. They made a media star out of him, a hero. But in this sort of situation he turned out to be who he is. And that’s it. His entire group is like that. Empty, totally empty. With a chip on his shoulder, he and the next one. All Lilliputians. Never fully grew up, full of complexes. Everyone hates them.”
- Putin’s system cannot support & win this war: “Remember how Stalin ruled? What a system! And now? The generals, all decorated and puffed up. And their kids are all businessmen. Where are the picks, where are the uniforms, where are the weapons, where are the missiles, where are the tanks, where are the defense systems, where? We got nothing. They screwed up everything, ate everything, spent everything. If we are going to fight, then let’s fucking fight. But we can’t even fight! Why? Because there’s no fucking army. They can’t supply it, there’s no ideological training. Stole everything.”
- NATO did not make Putin do it: “We lived great. Frontiers to explore, land everywhere in Russia, 86 federal subjects. Just go and do something, create the conditions so that people could work, earn, live, and prosper. Prosperity and happiness, damn it. But no! We got some fucking external threat! They all went into NATO, all around us, everyone. And they are at the border and shooting now. That was his far-sighted policy.”
- The war was Putin’s decision: “And who could have foreseen this before February 24th? Who knew? This is now our life, our fate. We can’t rewind the past. Who could have seen that he’s going to do such a thing without thinking it through? He screwed everyone. The entire country. The entire people. He buried the Russian people. Yes, he buried the entire Russian people. And for a long time too. When will be able to cleanse ourselves from this? This is a fratricidal war, fratricidal.”
- The Russians do not know why they are fighting & will lose because of that: “The only way would be for him to win it. And if he loses it, then it’s a total clusterfuck. The end. I don’t know how he can win it. I am following it, I read. I am not an idiot. I don’t know, I don’t know — we’re in this mud. I am watching this movie, “Liberation” [a Soviet film about WW2] and people were throwing themselves against embrasures. Because they were fighting to liberate their country from the German fascist invaders. But here… it’s all made up. So he recruits convicts and mercenaries.”
There are more interesting tidbits (e.g., about the effectiveness of Western sanctions, which appear to be extraordinarily strong and difficult to circumvent, according to Akhmedov’s own experience) but the ones above are most pertinent to our discussion. One word about the recording: it’s authentic. Prigozhin denied it at first, claiming that this was an AI deepfake. But Akhmedov said nothing, and a day later Prigozhin put out another statement that he can’t recall this conversation, and that at any rate the recording violated his privacy. So yeah, it’s real.
The picture that emerges from this is remarkably consistent with the one I have been describing for months: Russia is losing the war, the economy is struggling, the elites do not generally support the war, but they fear Putin’s circle, they fear what might happen if he is removed, and so they are not going to do anything about it. One wonders how long the regime can maintain the facade about the SMO for the average Russian — it seems to have new cracks appearing every day — but even then, I remain very dubious of any regime change be it through a elite-led coup or popular demonstrations that elites could seize upon to oust him from power.
We can hope that something like that happens, but we should not plan for it. The war will last while Putin is in power, and for all practical purposes this will be in power until he dies. I used to add “or voluntarily steps down,” which was not as far-fetched as one might suppose, but now I can no longer say this because of the ICC warrant.
The International Criminal Court Warrant
When the news broke on March 17 that the ICC has issued warrants for Putin and Lvova-Belova, I was taken by surprise. It’s quite difficult to collect enough evidence for war crimes for the Court to make a move like this, certainly while the person is still in power and access to any evidence is basically impossible. But in this case, the Court went with something that Putin and Lvova-Belova themselves asserted in a televised talk: the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children, which is a war crime. She said that it was done on Putin’s personal orders — as a way of flattering him for “saving their lives” — and he acknowledged that. At least that’s my reading about why these two warrants, why on this particular charge, and why now. I have no doubt that more counts will be added later on as more evidence piles up (the Biden administration is refusing to send the Court evidence it has because the US does not recognize the jurisdiction of the Court).
While everyone seems focused on Putin, it’s the warrant for Lvova-Belova that is likely to have a serious impact.
The warrant for Putin might intensify suspicions in his circles as top-level siloviki begin eyeing each other & Putin for possible moves. I doubt that much will come of this while Putin is in power (much like nothing happened to Milosevic until after he was ousted). Since it makes Putin’s retirement even more uncertain (“will they send me to The Hague?”), his incentive to cling to power is stronger. What effect this might have on his circle is hard to predict. On the one hand, it gives confidence to those who want him to stay the course because it forecloses a “peaceful retirement” option. This would embolden them to pursue the war. On the other hand, it undermines the confidence of those who want to see him go. They could either resign themselves to their fate and attempt to wait him out or, if waiting is too costly, acquire a stronger incentive to move against him. Since nobody can tell which way these people would swing, mutual suspicions will mount, and that might lead to some purges, demonstrations of excessive loyalty, and even a palace coup. All very murky to me.
The warrant for Lvova-Belova is different. She is a mid-level state official who’s accused of illegally deporting children from Ukraine. Unlike the top level siloviki, she will have very little protection in any successor regime. (Again, I believe that she will be quite safe while Putin is in power.) If so, she might wonder whether she could be sacrificed by said successors to appease the West/Ukraine, much like Milosevic was sacrificed for that purpose by the new Serbian government. If she was anywhere less than 100% committed to Putin, now she’s fully committed.
However, people like her who have not yet committed crimes on behalf of Putin’s regime will see this differently. They have a chance to avoid ending up with ICC arrest warrants if they avoid that behavior. If they think there’s a chance Putin won’t last forever and that his successors might have to deal with the West, they will worry about their prospects if they follow Lvova-Belova. Many of them might choose differently if they know they can be held personally responsible for policies ordered from above (which was, after all, the precedent set at Nuremberg). And so they will become less likely to comply by seeking another job, dragging their feet, implementing it badly, and so on.
Bottom line: these warrants make those who have committed acts that can reasonably be designated as war crimes more committed to Putin’s regime and his victory, but weaken the commitment of everyone else when it comes to such acts.
The fact that ending prosecutions has now become an official war aim of the Kremlin, the ICC decision is a problem for Putin & Russian administrators.
Putin might be even more restricted now with his international travel than he had been before (even Austria said that he would be arrested if he went there — Austria!), but that does not mean that he can’t be visited by others. And the first important visitor to Moscow post-ICC warrant was none other than President Xi of China.
The Chinese Factor
I have not talked a lot about China except to note the potential impact that its decisive swing toward Russia could have on the war. We all recall how the invasion began after Putin’s visit to Beijing — where presumably he told Xi about it — and we all waited with trepidation for signs of some drastic change in foreign policy that Xi’s reelection — and him cementing his rule — would produce. Since this was Xi’s first post-reelection foreign visit, many thought it would be the occasion to signal (or reveal?) what China intends to do. In the event, the visit showed the impossibly difficult position that China is in, and the fact that Xi has few options, and they are all bad or awful.
China’s preferences in this war are, for the most part, obvious. It is on Russia’s side, it wants Putin to win — albeit perhaps not too much, it does not want him to lose — but not at the cost of nuclear weapons use, and while it likes the West getting embroiled in this war and so distracted from a potential conflict with China (especially the US), it does not like the resulting consolidation of the West with a reinvigorated EU and a growing NATO (with the Hungarian and Turkish ratifications, Finland’s membership is now secured, but I am sure Sweden’s will soon follow), or the fact that the West has begun rearming. China cannot afford to have Russia lose and seek an accommodation with the West (and seek this Russia will, as soon as Putin is gone, and we will likely respond, on their side because Russian elites detest the growing dependence/vassalage to China, and on the other because we would want to ‘decouple’ Russia from China, much like we did with China and the USSR during the Cold War). But it can also see, like everyone else, that Russia cannot win this war either.
In these circumstances, in an ideal (for Xi) world, China would help Russia: lending Russia massive support would make the war truly an indefinite commitment, would discourage the Ukrainians, and would undermine resolve in the West. But the world is not ideal because the one certainty that China can expect is that the initial reaction would not be to capitulate but to slap sanctions on China. As everyone knows, China is very dependent on the West for technology, and its economic relations with the global West are far more valuable than its trade with Russia. Getting cheap energy is all well and good, but losing your largest customers is probably not a smart move. China’s economy is weak, having not weathered the real estate construction bubble, the botched pandemic response, and the even worse sudden dropping of zero-COVID policies. It’s not the best time to add another negative economic shock by triggering Western sanctions.
As a result, the Chinese have been very careful with their approach to Russia. They offer verbal support — although even that often falls short of what Putin would like — they offer timid diplomatic support, they help Russia plug part of its financial hole by exporting goods and perhaps even assisting with Russia’s import of parallel goods, but they have provided no military support. They have also been explicit in their opposition to any use of nuclear weapons or to stationing nuclear weapons on foreign soil. This latter part will be important shortly.
During Xi’s visit, all ceremonial niceties were observed. The two leaders pledged all sorts of friendship and cooperation, posed for photos in front of giant flags, and issued joint statements, but the actual results were practically nonexistent. There are several things that Putin must have wanted from China — military support, financial support (loans), economic support (the gas pipeline) — and he got none of them. Here is a brief list of China’s cooperation with Russia that goes beyond the ornate words in joint statements:
- China has refused to supply Russia with dual-use equipment
- China has refused to lend Russia money, and Putin has said that Russia might transition to foreign trade in yuan
- China has not backed Putin’s dream pipeline Siberia 2 yet, and only indicated preliminary interest
- China’s VISA credit card alternative cut off Russian banks
- China’s largest logistics company OCCL stopped shipping goods to Russia
- China sold to Ukraine the same number of uniforms and boots it sold to Russia
- China has sold Ukraine quite a lot of drone components, apparently more than to Russia
While Xi speaks softly, he is also quietly robbing Russia of sovereignty: Putin was positively groveling during their meetings — much to the disgust of Russian nationalists who said so openly — while Xi remained polite but very reserved. Not only did Putin fail to obtain any assistance that might help him in the war in some dramatic fashion, he was forced to pay dearly just to get China to continue with its tepid policies.
Since Xi did not offer anything, he could not get anything on Ukraine from Putin either. Recall the so-called “Chinese proposal” that got lambasted by critics (like me) for being extremely pro-Russian? Well, in his remarks during Xi’s visit Putin declared that Russia would take a look and some of its points could be the basis for negotiations. This is diplomatic-speak for “I ran out of toilet paper, so I used your proposal instead.” There was much speculation that China would involve itself as some sort of mediator after that proposal went public: there was a rumor of Xi having a video call with Zelenskyy after his trip to Russia, and Ukraine signaled that it was interested in hearing what China had to say. I believe that Xi’s proposal would have involved Russia withdrawing to pre-invasion borders as the basis of opening negotiations with Ukraine — something, by the way, which I regard as a reasonable compromise in order to start talking (I don’t believe it’s a reasonable final solution). Whatever that proposal entailed, Putin must have rejected it, and so all talk of Chinese mediation seems to have died down.
Zelenskyy’s office said that they had contacted China for talks, but have received no response. Pro-Kremlin people interpret this as Xi being firmly in Russia’s camp, but I beg to differ. Two things that occurred after Xi’s visit to Moscow lead me to believe that the relations between them might be a lot more strained than their photo-ops let on. First, almost immediately after he returned to Beijing, Xi issued an invitation to the leaders of all Central Asian countries that used to be Soviet republics. He did not invite Putin. All invitations were accepted. There is a clear redistribution of influence in the region, and it is all flowing away from Moscow. Most, but not all, is flowing toward Beijing (Armenia, for instance, has indicated that it is considering adhering to the Rome Statute — becoming a party to ICC — which would oblige it to arrest Putin if he were to set foot in that country). For Xi to do this so openly and so quickly after the visit cannot be an accident: it is a signal of displeasure, and perhaps a warning.
Putin’s reaction did not disappoint — true to form, he decided to return the insult. Mere days after explicitly agreeing with Xi in a joint statement that no nuclear power should place nuclear weapons beyond its borders, Putin revealed that Russia will do just that in Belarus. Now, the process of subjugating Belarus has been ongoing for a while, and there has always been a plan to put more Russian weapons and troops there. But to state this openly, right after Xi’s visit is also no accident. Pro-Kremlin accounts say that this was all vetted with China & approved, but then one is at a loss to explain the joint statement. Nobody would have been hurt by omitting the “nukes on foreign soil” issue, and nobody would then think that Putin is showing the middle finger to Xi. Now one cannot be so sure.
All of this, for me at least, boils down to one thing: Xi is trying to square the circle — help Russia achieve some of tis goals without escalating the war or turning it into a permanent one, but without provoking the West into sanctions against China, all of this while trying to profit from its relations with Russia. This is an impossible task, and there’s no surprise that they have not found solutions for it yet. At the very least, China needs to see how ZSU’s counter-offensive will develop this spring/summer.
Perhaps reflecting on all of this, Medvedev’s remarkably frank assessment in an interview is revealing: “We are in a unique situation. I don’t even know what to compare it to — maybe the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. Because then came the Warsaw Pact. When there was the tsarist regime, the empire, we had allies, they were changing — Germany, France, whatever, then Entente, then not Entente — but we were not alone. And now, for the first time in at least 150 years, we are alone.”
Whatever happened to the eternal friendship that is achieving new heights (or is it depths?) of cooperation with China?
A Final Word on Western Aid & Ukraine’s Counter-Offensive
It’s not enough, and it’s too slow.
There are some really good news:
- Ukrainian pilots train on F-16s in the US, and instructor says they can be ready in under 6 months (not 12-18)
- Ukrainian soldiers train on Patriot, finish in just a few weeks rather than half a year
- Germany supplied 2 more Leopard 2 tanks than promised, many already in Ukraine
- Spain sent the promised Leopard MBTs
- Slovakia and Poland delivered MiG-29 jet fighters to Ukraine (Slovakia gave all of its)
- The US switched to sending existing Abrams MBTs instead of waiting for new production
- Bulgaria ordered replacement of 122mm & 152mm ammo, existing 350,000 rounds will go to Ukraine
- The EU Collaborative Procurement of Ammunition to support Ukraine is moving ahead, and even Hungary joined it (Russia added Hungary to the list of unfriendly countries after its vote to ratify Finland’s NATO membership)
On the bad side is the fact that a lot of this aid is coming in too slowly, which delays its integration into ZSU, and forces the Ukrainians to fight more defensively than they might want to. The rate of supply simply does not seem to allow ZSU to fight the war we want them to fight (maneuver) but instead forces them to fight a war that the Russians prefer (attrition). For all the talk for Westernization of its military, ZSU is still largely fighting with Soviet equipment and does not have enough trained personnel to use Western tactics. The Ukrainians are paying for this delay with blood, and it is grating to listen to “pundits” here claiming that the delays are due to some imaginary constraints Ukrainians have on learning how to use the equipment. (That’s why I noted the two data points we got on that.)
What does this mean for Ukraine’s coming counter-offensive?
It means that it will be harder than it could have been. Without sufficient supply of artillery and ammo, it might have to use attritional tactics against defended Russian positions rather than lighting-fast maneuvers to take them. (This is what ZSU did initially in Kherson, when its offensive stalled amid great losses — people don’t much talk about this after the liberation of Kherson but it did happen, it might have been the reason for South Command to “allow” the evacuation of Russian forces from the right bank, and it is an indicator of the limits of our expectations.)
The West started late on rearming and increasing production, and the Ukrainians will pay for it.
Still, the coming offensive by the ZSU can prove decisive — not in ending the war, but in telling us how it is likely to end. The Russians were unable to make gains in their opening offensive this year, and now all eyes will be on the Ukrainians. If they manage to turn the Russian defenses and liberate some significant territory, the West will be reassured and aid might even increase. If they fail, the calls for a settlement — with inevitable loss of territory — will follow just as sure. I do not think that the Ukrainians would give up, and neither do I think that we will give up on them though, even if the gains are not as extraordinary as in Kharkiv last year. But expectations must be managed — from what I read, some people seem to think the war will be over by the fall. The less one is willing to confront the reality, which is that Russia remains a formidable opponent, the more one is bound to be disappointed with the results. I believe ZSU are about to achieve some incredible things, and it would be a pity if they do not get properly credited just because some people expect them to march to Moscow.
5 thoughts on “The Russian Offensive That Wasn’t”
Thank you. Your take on the Xi-visit was esp. enlightening! – Sadly, the “link” to Prigozhin’s call did not work for me (even not copy-pasting). I read/heard some pieces of it online; cutting out the many many swear words (namely: BLin=CUrd) seems a substantial loss (mostly it’s Prigozhin ranting, smart Akhmedov hardly says anything).
I appreciate your responses to this Russian barbary, and in today’s post your extensive overview. I was interested to read your take on the painfully slow supply of U.S. arms to Ukraine, which at this point I find inexcusable. As always, thank you for your time and expertise devoted to helping readers (or at least this reader) understand aspects of this war otherwise less commonly known.
Thanks for letting me know. I fixed the link.
Dakuju! Works now, interesting. Before, I missed the part when Akhmedov gets going. He is just as much into BLin as his friend. An amazing conversation, indeed.
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