The Coming Ukrainian Offensive

May 11, 2023

It has been a month since my last comprehensive update, and now there is enough accumulated material to write an update on the eve of the coming Ukrainian summer offensive. There is a lot of speculation about what it would mean for the war, how it could pan out, and a lot of it is basically disembodied optimism (no, it won’t bring the end of the war this year) or equally detached pessimism (no, the Russians will not be able to prevent a breakthrough). Here, I would like to sort through some of these analyses and try to clarify what we should expect/hope for in this offensive. I believe it is going to be very important in setting the expectations about the likely trajectory of the war and that it is not necessary that ZSU deliver some absolutely fantastic victory to achieve that (not that I would mind them doing that!) But I am not a fan of the over-optimism displayed by Westerners and Ukrainians alike because disappointing expectations has a deleterious effect on morale — and politics — no matter how unrealistic these expectations had been.

Before we delve in discussing the meaning of the offensive from the perspective of the theory of war termination, a brief operational update is in order.

War Update

Bakhmut stands. It has now stood for 283 days despite remaining essentially the only sector on the front where the Russians are still active and striving to achieve their goal of capturing it. Wagner chief Prigozhin reported today that his men are less than a kilometer away from the western edge of town, but this does not mean he will succeed. Over the past few days, ZSU conducted several counter-attacks along his flanks that have succeeded in pushing the Russians east, and exposing the Wagner troops in the city to the danger of flanking attacks or, worse, encirclement. Prigozhin released a few videos about this, fuming at first that the Ministry of Defense is not giving him enough ammunition (according to Ukrainians fighting in Bakhmut, this is a total lie as they have observed to significant letup in Wagner’s use of artillery there), then threatening to abandon Bakhmut if he wasn’t given enough ammo (nobody believed this, and of course, he did not leave), then alleging that the 72ng brigade that was guarding positions previously taken by Wagner had dropped its weapons and run (this was confirmed by the Ukrainians who released a video of their assault on these positions), and now another one saying that more of the flank has begun to fall apart. (I will discuss this drama later in a bit more detail.) What seems to have happened is that Prigozhin might have promised to deliver Bakhmut to Putin by May 9th, and having failed to do so, was looking for plausible excuses casting the blame on Shoigu & Gerasimov. One must always take his statements with a grain of salt, of course, but it does look like ZSU have, perhaps temporarily, relieved some of the pressure on the road to Chasiv Yar.

Bakhmut Sector

Elsewhere along the front, the Russians seem to have essentially transitioned to defensive operations, having failed to achieve any significant gains. Even if they take Bakhmut over the next few days — which is by no means certain — this will be it; the limit of four months of furious exertions and very costly attacks.

Can Russia Defend Its Conquests?

Where does this leave the belligerents then? The Russians have amassed something like 200,000 troops in Ukraine and have dug hundreds of kilometers of trenches and built echeloned fortifications almost everywhere. Their problem is that they have to defend a nearly 800-kilometer front (if you add all the secondary lines and parts in Crimea, it’s closer to 2,400 km):

Russian Fortifications (about 2,400 km to defend)

So what does this mean? NATO doctrine says that to defend a 30km front against mechanized division, you would need 9,000 troops in the first line of defense, backed by 600 MBTs and 900 IFVs, with another 22,000 troops in two lines behind them for mobile defense. They would need hundreds of pieces of artillery, mortars, ATGMs, and such, plus another 36,000 reserve troops to contain any potential breakthroughs. Let’s ignore the reserve and focus on the 31,000 troops for a 30km sector, which means 1,033 soldiers per kilometer of defense. Even if we take only the first-line of defense outside of Crimea, the Russians can only field about 250 men per kilometer, which is less than a quarter of NATO doctrine. We are not even considering here the crucially important factors such as troop morale (by most accounts, very low), equipment (old and worn out), and logistics (shaky already, about to get much worse because of Storm Shadow). This means that unless the Russians guess correctly where the Ukrainian strike(s) will come, there is no chance that they will be able to prevent a breakthrough. In fact, even if they do guess it, concentrating their forces in that sector would enable ZSU — which is using much more sophisticated logistics and has interior lines of logistics (they are sitting in the middle of a semi-circle and can strike in any direction) — to attack any weakened spots. In short, when the hammer comes down, I expect to see ZSU getting through the Russian defenses in several places. What I do not know — and this is what the offensive will show — is whether this can lead to a collapse of wider sectors of the front. Will the Russians turn and run as they did last year? Will the Ukrainians be able to liberate significant chunks of territory and hold them against Russian attempts to reconquer them? How far will the Ukrainians get before their offensive culminates?

The answers to these questions are important because of where the war is at this stage. We can think of the war in terms of several campaigns, each starting with a set of unknowns that get resolved on the battlefield, followed by strategic adaptations that introduce new unknowns, which then get resolved in turn through more fighting.

Resolving Unknowns and the Battlefield

The war began with several key unknowns about the state of the Russian and Ukrainian military power, about the strength of Zelenskyy’s government, about the willingness of the Ukrainians to resist (especially in the east and south), about the penetration of Ukrainian security and politics by Russian intelligence services, about the reaction of third parties, and especially the West and China, and so on. The Russians had their estimates — which were widely shared in the West, lest we forget that little detail — and so planned accordingly: a Blitzkrieg that would decapitate the government in Kyiv and allow them to install a puppet regime that would then acquiesce to the annexation of Novorossiya (the oblasti of Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Odesa), which the bulk of the Russian forces aimed to conquer. Since the West shared the Russian estimates, it had opted to provide Ukraine only with weapons suitable for guerilla-style warfare, not the mechanized artillery duels that the VSRF unleashed on them.

We all know how this went. When their estimates were shown to have been incorrect, the Russians changed strategy: they withdrew from Kyiv, essentially abandoning the goal of regime change for the time being, and focused on their annexations, for which they obviously needed to complete the conquest of the desired oblasti. The West, organized and prodded by the US, began to supply Ukraine with more appropriate equipment but at a painfully slow rate and in inadequate quantities. ZSU tried its best to delay the Russians while preparing for a counter-attack and they clung to nearly every town and city that they could. Still, the Russians advanced: first Mariupol fell, then Severodonetsk, both despite desperate defenses by the Ukrainians. The Russians ground on, and it looked like they were poised to take Bakhmut and threaten both Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhia. Putin’s strategy seemed to be paying off, albeit at a much higher price than originally thought.

The summer of Russian ascendancy ended abruptly on September 6, when ZSU launched its counter-offensive. The unprepared Russian lines in Kharkiv oblast collapsed as VSRF soldiers abandoned some of their positions in a mixture of panic and organized retreat. The Russians lost Izyum, then the entire foothold in Kharkiv, and were soon trying to defend Luhansk oblast itself. It became clear that the forces the Kremlin had committed to the war would be unable to deliver even under its new strategy that had seemed to work during the summer. Putin reacted as one would expect: instead of scaling down his ambitions, he launched a mobilization, and his government began to transition the country to a war economy, as the legislature also passed a flurry of measures designed to clamp down on any potential protest. As Russia needed time to draft the 300,000+ men it intended to throw into the war, its high command adapted its strategy yet again to try to hold ZSU back and possibly degrade their ability to prepare their own operations. The Russians began systematic missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, which also had the added bonus that it could shake civilian morale if the country went into winter plunged in darkness, and without heat or electricity. These attacks resulted in massive harm to the energy infrastructure and killed hundreds of civilians since the Russian aim was often inaccurate and the missiles slammed into residential buildings instead of militarily valuable targets.

The attacks did not stop ZSU from improving its strategic position in the south until the large Russian grouping on the right bank of the Dnipro was threatened with operational encirclement. The Russian high command decided to withdraw them — a wise choice — even though this meant abandoning the newly annexed regional capital of Kherson. The Russian attacks also did not produce the desired effect in Ukraine: citizens rallied, their friends from around the world rushed generators, and Ukraine went through the winter without hunger and emerged more determined than ever to fight the Russians. By the spring, it had even resumed energy deliveries to Europe.

The huge unknowns arising from the Russian response in the fall were numerous: how many mobiki will they be able to train and equip (getting the numbers they wanted was never an issue), how effective would they be on the front, how will the Russian economy fare once the important sanctions finally go into effect (December), what will the West do to support Ukraine, and so on. Again, all of these questions could only be answered by the battlefield and by observing the decisions in real time.

One important answer came in mid-winter when the West finally committed to Ukrainian victory with the decision to deliver MBTs (and all attendant equipment for combined arms warfare except for planes). It was a long and tortuous process, but eventually the Germans agreed and Ukraine began to receive Western tanks. This meant that the Russians would have to face a much more serious military challenge late in spring when this new equipment would be delivered and integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces. The implication was clear: Russia had to strike before any of that happened.

The Russians managed to go first in what is likely to be considered the stupidest decision of this war despite the imperative I just mentioned. If Surovikin was not flashy, his strategy had saved the 25,000 strong grouping in Kherson from destruction. If Russia had followed his defensive strategy, they would have not only dug the fortifications they did, but also saved thousands of troops, many of whom experienced, to man these defenses. Instead, Putin appointed Gerasimov to place Surovikin, and the General ordered an offensive, which began in mid January 2024.

The offensive answered the questions, and the answers were pretty bad for the Russians. Despite the influx of 300,000 new troops, the Russian army proved incapable of launching large-scale offensive operations. When it advanced, it was very little, and at an enormous cost. Just under Bakhmut, they are estimated to have lost nearly 30,000 troops, and they still have to take that town. Their massive defeats at Vuhledar and Avdiivka led to many puzzled posts in pro-Kremlin channels and loud shouts from imperialist circles that Putin is losing the war. The map below shows the results of the Gerasimov Offensive after four months of furious assaults practically along the entire front, and tens of thousands of casualties, and stunning equipment losses that overwhelmed the volunteers documenting them at Oryx:

Territorial Gains of the Gerasimov Offensive (in yellow)

As the abysmal performance of the VSRF/Wagner became clearer and clearer, the Russians intensified their defensive preparations. Obviously, the Kremlin had adapted once again: instead of trying to conquer the territories they annexed, the Russians were going to outlast Western support for Ukraine. For this, however, they absolutely must be able to hold onto their conquests by force. That is, the current strategy seems to be to stop the Ukrainian summer offensive, which would show to the West that Ukraine cannot prevail on the battlefield despite all the military aid it has sent, which presumably would lead to pressure on Ukraine to negotiate (meaning, territorial concessions) and perhaps even reduction of aid if any political changes favorable to Russia were to happen (cough, Trump, cough).

This is not the place to debate these assumptions but to think what unknowns they involve. The most obvious one — and the entire strategy is predicated on it — is that ZSU will not be able to break the Russian defenses. I have already explained why I don’t think this is an issue, but hey, maybe the Russians do not share my estimates. Even if ZSU do breach the lines, how far will they be able to get, and — more importantly — will they be able to hold the newly liberated territory against what would be a furious attempt by the Russians to recover them? In this sense, it does not matter much whether the Ukrainians move 20km or 50km, but whether they stay in the places they liberate.

This is the meaning of the summer offensive: it has to answer the question whether it is possible for Ukraine to dislodge the Russians from its soil when VSRF is defending prepared positions. It is worth noting that ZSU has not faced this sort of problem before. In Kharkiv, they broke through a thinly defended unprepared line. In Kherson, they actually ran into trouble initially when they assaulted prepared Russian positions and failed to make any headway. (One should recall that the Americans had advised them not to launch an attack in that direction initially — and this shows that the advice had been right on the money.) The Russians retreated — with all their equipment — from Kherson when their position became untenable, and ZSU was unable to prevent even the equipment from being carted off, to be used against them later on. In other words, we have not yet seen ZSU do this, and we know that the Russians were only able to do it very rarely, and at an exorbitant cost. The Ukrainians cannot afford losses like the Russians do, and so all this has to be not only done, but also done with acceptable losses (which will be high).

Two (So Far) Stunners

The firmness of the Western commitment became even clearer today when news broke out that the UK had delivered (not agreed to deliver, but actually delivered) long-range missiles ‘Storm Shadow’ to Ukraine. The Ukrainians had been asking for these types of weapons forever with the solid argument that the Russian war effort is sustained by logistics in the rear, and if ZSU could strike at depots, infrastructure, and troops concentrations there, it would relieve pressure on the front. When the US finally gave them HIMARS, the effect was almost immediate. The Russians moved their supply lines out of HIMARS range — which made everything more cumbersome and slower — and had to disperse their supplies when they were closer to the front. We also recall the stunning destruction of barracks with hundreds of Russian soldiers in them. The range of HIMARS that the US gave Ukraine is about 50 miles, which is not enough, so Kyiv has been asking for longer-range missiles like ATACMS or other ammo for HIMARS. The US, fearful of escalation if the Ukrainians use them on targets in Russia, has been refusing to do it. But not the British. Storm Shadow will triple the range of Ukrainian missile reach (to 155 miles), which will cover almost all relevant territory except southern Crimea (for now). It is also GPS-guided, so it can follow terrain contours while flying at 130-150 feet above it, making it exceedingly difficult to intercept. This should give the Ukrainians a lot more options when disabling Russian logistics.

The other bit of stunning news is from about a week ago, when rumors spread that the Ukrainians had downed a Russian Kh-472M ‘Kinzhal’ missile. ZSU initially denied it — and threatened the officers who had talked with punishment — but when photographs of the debris emerged they admitted to it. It was later confirmed officially by the Pentagon, so we can take it as a fact: the Ukrainians became the first to shoot down a ballistic missile in a war using our 30-year old Patriot system. Not a bad performance from the people who haughty Westerners had claimed would need a year just to figure out the buttons to operate.

This is a big deal. Kinzhal is an air-launched ballistic missile that the Russians also claim is hypersonic. Ballistic missiles are extremely difficult to intercept because they can reach nearly 3,200 km/hr in their terminal phase (when they fall on the target). Hypersonic missiles are even tougher because earlier parts of their flight are at extreme speeds at about 12,000 km/hr. The Russians had made a huge deal of the “impossible to intercept” Kinzhal because it is also maneuverable, and when they entered service in 2017, they were considered “carrier killers” because they were supposedly going to sink a supercarrier with a single strike. The fact that the “new” Russian super-tech weapon (it’s not really all that new tech) was downed by a 30-yeard old Patriot operated by new crews that did not even have access to the latest software must be particularly jarring to the Russians. This fact is equally encouraging for the US, in our competition with China because it shows that the threat of hypersonic missiles might have been exaggerated.

This development was accompanied by the news that the Kyiv air defenses had destroyed all 35 Shahed drones the Russians launched at it on May 8th (unfortunately, the AD was not as effective in Odesa, which was hit with Kh-22, for which more Patriot systems are needed). Thus, one of the main “revelations” from the Teixeira leaks — that Ukraine’s air-defense is on its last legs — seems to have either been incorrect or, more likely, outdated — the West had taken steps to fix the problem before the Russians learned about it. (I don’t have much of anything to say about the leaks, which were embarrassing but not critical, and which mostly show that our military really needs to improve its background checks on people.)

What Does This Mean for Peace?

Unfortunately, not a whole lot. It should be clear that Putin will not back down and will keep fighting while he remains in power. The question is what form this fighting would take. The Ukrainians have a decent chance of removing the Russians from the newly occupied territories, perhaps even from Donbas and Crimea. One possibility is that if they succeed, the conflict will “freeze” along Ukraine’s international borders, and it will be up to Putin’s successor to make the peace. The other option that ZSU will be unable to get to the borders, and will have to keep fighting on Ukrainian soil for the foreseeable future. The keys to peace are in the Kremlin, not on Bankova.

As I have explained before, we can think of four main war aims that the Russians have declared more or less openly from the start, and are pursuing according to an official statement from the Foreign Ministry as late as March 29 2023:

  1. Territory. While not fully spelled out, in practice, this means the annexation of what Russians call Novorossiya, which includes the modern Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhie, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Odessa oblasti. This would create a “land bridge” to Crimea and Transnistria, and deprive Ukraine of access to both the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Since Putin has not enumerated which Ukrainian territories he intends to conquer, it is worth explaining how we know what they are. Putin publicized the nostalgic imperial idea of Novorossiya during a televised Q&A session on April 17 2014, and has been remarkably consistent about it since. Recall that after the annexation of Crimea, there were determined attempts to replicate the same basic scenario in regional centers in all of these oblasti. We talk about Donbas now because they only succeeded in Donetsk and Luhansk. In contrast, the attempted takeover in Kharkiv ended when the locals expelled the pro-Russian group and the one in Odessa ended with the infamous Trade Unions House fire. Everywhere else, the Ukrainian government had quelled the pro-Russian disturbances by early March. Russia recognized the independence of the so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk three days before the invasion began. Under Russian law, annexation is only legally permissible if the territory in question is independent. In other words, recognition of independence in these cases is a necessary first step toward annexation, and the fact that Putin took it before the invasion had even begun is evidence of his territorial ambitions.
  2. Denazification. This means (a) regime change: Zelenskyy’s freely elected government, which the Russians regard as an illegal junta, would be replaced by one friendly to Moscow; and (b) purging society of anti-Russian elements in people, language, and culture.
  3. Demilitarization. This would limit the size of the armed forces that Ukraine would be allowed to maintain. It would also place restrictions on the number and type of weapons it could field, with a prohibition on importing Western arms of any significance, and on what Ukraine’s defense industry could produce.
  4. Neutrality. This would proscribe joining any military alliances (like NATO) or pursuing any political or economic integration with the West (like the EU).

Collectively, these four aims amount to the dismemberment and subjugation of Ukraine. More than a third of its territory with about half of its population would be annexed to Russia, while the landlocked rump Western Ukraine would be made subservient to Moscow through the installation of a puppet regime that would lack both internal (through its own military) and external (through an alliance) means of defending the country. Having lost about two-thirds of its prewar GDP, this country would also be entirely dependent on Russia for its economic survival, making it even less likely that its government would ever dare cross the wishes of the rulers in Moscow. An historical analogue to such a policy would be the dismemberment of France and the creation of the Vichy regime following the Germany victory in 1940.

In the annexed territories, a policy of de-Ukrainization would be instituted to ensure pacification. These sorts of policies always have the same components: killing people associated with the military and security establishments of the previous government, rooting out potential subversives through bribes, threats, and torture, imprisonment of many suspects, mass deportations from especially problematic regions, and forced “re-education” of the remaining population to ensure public compliance with the new rule.

The Russian military has shown that it cannot achieve all of Putin’s maximalist goals. At a minimum, an independent sovereign Ukraine will continue to exist when the fighting stops, it will remain a democracy that will integrate in the European Union. Its population is likely to define itself, at least in part, in opposition to Russia, much like the Poles do. The Russian war aim of regime change and de-Ukrainization has been denied, and is exceedingly unlikely to be satisfied in any peace settlement.

With his military failing to conquer the territories Putin attempted to annex, Russia’s territorial ambitions would have to be scaled back considerably. Kharkiv, Odessa, and Mykolaiv are now out of reach, and it is doubtful that the Russians would be able to conquer Donetsk, Kherson, or Zaporizhzhia to their administrative borders. In fact, by the end of the Ukrainian summer offensive, the Russians might find themselves unable to hold to more of the territories they are currently occupying as well.

Since Russia will not be able to coerce the Ukrainians in granting them these concessions, it will remain a revisionist power that seeks to overturn any peace settlement it deems unsatisfactory. Whether it takes Moscow five years or ten to recover its strength (as US intel estimates), if the regime deems it feasible, a revanche is the most likely outcome. This means that any such peace would have to be enforced by deterrence.

Deterrence requires that Ukraine maintain a sizeable army, trained and equipped to modern Western standards, and supported by a vibrant defense industry and an involved population on the Israeli or Swiss models. This implies that it cannot be demilitarized in any meaningful sense.

The war has also shown that even a debilitated Russian military is a formidable opponent capable of inflicting massive harm to its much smaller neighbor. As valiant, inventive, and ferocious the Ukrainians have been, fighting an enemy like Russia is exceedingly costly and risky even for the second largest country in Europe. For deterrence to have a chance, Ukraine cannot be alone resisting a future Russian aggression. It would require external support, and therefore cannot be neutral.

Neutrality is incompatible with demilitarization. Most neutral countries that do not have a military are very small, and reliant on their neighbors to protect them. The larger ones – Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, and Ireland – all maintain sizeable militaries, and many have large defense sectors. Sweden and Finland, of course, have already decided that even this is not enough, and have sought NATO membership for additional protection.

Ukraine would have to be a part of a multilateral alliance with Western and Eastern European countries – most likely NATO – to ensure that will receive the requisite aid should Russia attempt to revise the settlement by force again.

Since Putin’s demands are unlikely to be met, he would either have to settle for something much less or continue the war in the forlorn hope that “something changes” and he can get out of the conflict with some serious gains. It does appear that Putin never really had Plan B for this invasion, so now he is stuck with the bad choices made so far. Knowing his modus operandi, he is likely to double down on the bad choices rather than to look for an exit. This is why I am pessimistic that even a successful offensive can end the war soon.

Developments in Russia: Lots of Questions, Few Answers

As argued above, I expect Putin to continue the war while he remains in office, which could be years unless he dies of unnatural causes. One key question then would be the ability of the Russian economy to sustain the war effort. Setting aside the impact of sanctions, which has been discussed a lot, let’s look at less flashy but perhaps much more important factor: demographics.

Not-boring Demographics

According to official Russian statistics, the number of workers between the ages of 19 and 35 has shrunk by 1.34 million in 2022, the largest such decrease since the fall of the Soviet Union:

Workers, by Age Group, 2022

Russia experienced a “demographic hole” during the crisis years of the 1990s, with the most noticeable decline in births between 1993 and 2006, as seen in the population pyramid for 2021:

Russia’s Age Structure, 1920-2020

This would account for some of the “missing” workers and this is how the statistics have been explained in official releases. This “fits” with the 724K decline in the 25-29 age group, but let’s take a closer look at the age cohorts at the start of 2022. The 30-34 group (which would have been born between 1988 and 1992) is the second largest in the population (so not in the “hole”), and yet somehow the number of workers in that group declined by 524K. Where did they go?

Russian Population by Sex, 2022

Then there’s the 25-29 group, which is indeed part of the “hole” and has about 8M in it. The 724K missing are about 9%. The next, even smaller cohort, is the 20-24 group with about 6.8M in it, whose 87K missing are about 1%. Why the different rates?

The likely culprits are emigration and mobilization. The 25-29 group is the one that has acquired marketable skills and probably has more means to leave than the younger ones, not to mention that it is also more likely to be mobilized. Moreover, they are less likely to have families than the older group (524K missing, about 4.5% of 11.9M). This, admittedly cursory, look at the data suggests that that Russia is being hit with the perfect storm of population outflow, demographics, & war-related missingness. Too many people are fleeing the country or being sent to the front, & they are precisely in the age groups that are likely to have modern skills that Russia desperately needs. No replacements are coming b/c of demographic hole either. It’s going to get much, much worse.

Keep in mind these numbers when you read about low unemployment in Russia as if it were a sign of a strong economy. You can only have unemployment when you have workers, and labor is getting very scarce in Russia. The low unemployment rate there is a sign of a struggling economy.

New Russian Legislation

Amid the flurry of new legislation the Duma has been passing (it’s almost ridiculous how “productive” it has been in that regard), a few caught my eye:

  • All Ukrainians in occupied territories who refuse to take Russian passports will be declared foreigners, and can be deported for any violations of public peace, which include “participating in unsanctioned meetings, protests, demonstrations, processions, or picketing” (that is, for basically anything) — the Ukrainian government advised its citizens there to comply and take the Russian passports in order to preserve their lives and livelihoods
  • Anyone who “assists the illegal decisions of international organizations” will be subject to 5-years of imprisonment — Putin is obviously trying to protect himself, and others, from the threat of ICC warrants
  • All Russians who fought (illegally) in Ukraine since 2014 will be recognized as combat veterans and become eligible for military benefits — so much for the much-beloved by Western useful idiots story that no Russians were fighting in Donbas! You gotta love it when their idol Putin throws them under the bus. I wonder what new fairy-tale excuses they will come up with to explain this.
  • The penalty for treason increases from 12-20 years in prison to life in prison.

Basically, Putin is conducting a simultaneous genocide against Ukrainians while repressing the Russian population as well. This leads me to a few thoughs on several internal incidents that seem relevant.

The Drone Incident over the Kremlin

On May 3, two drones attacked the Kremlin in the middle of the night. The first crashed on the roof of the Senate building and the second exploded above it. Neither caused much damage, and there were no injuries. We don’t know how was behind the attacks, so let’s try to figure out who stands to benefit most from them.

There are meager benefits to Ukraine:

  1. The likelihood of actually assassinating Putin with a hit on the Kremlin is zero. He’s rarely there, and he would be in a well-protected area.
  2. The symbolic value of hitting the Russian flag — which did not go down — is negligible.
  3. The value of demonstrating that Russian AD are not working is also low. It’s better to make use of such knowledge for a real strike than giving the enemy reason to fix the problem.

There are significant costs for Ukraine:

  1. There will be a flood of articles in the West about “escalation” and “risk of nuclear war” and “Ukrainians can’t be trusted not to misuse the weapons we are giving them.”
  2. The pressure to freeze the conflict & give Russia what it has been unable to win militarily will increase, and will put Ukraine in a very uncomfortable position having to defend itself against these allegations.
  3. It might increase suspicions in Washington about what Ukraine would do if given the long-range weapons it so badly needs. People like Sullivan would be “wise” again and counsel against “provoking” Russia.

There are large benefits for Russia:

  1. All the bad news for Ukraine & potential tensions with the West is great for Russia since its strategy is to split Ukraine from us. Threats to supplies & support are particularly important.
  2. It will create a “rally around the flag” effect as Russians who are lukewarm toward Putin or the war would support him in “defense” — this is a well-researched & predictable phenomenon & while it only lasts a few months, it will be there.
  3. The rally effect will also boost volunteers for the army — contract ads have been all over Russia for a while since the regime does not want to continue overt mobilization. Even a short burst of patriotism is enough to sign up for service.
  4. It might give the regime plausible excuse to tighten domestic controls & even perhaps introduce martial law or state of emergency. And nobody would blink an eye, as people in these situations tend to approve of freedom-for-security exchanges

There are some costs to Russia:

  1. People say this is humiliating for government & military but I do not know about that. According to Russian propaganda, they are already fighting NATO which has superior tech. It’s not shameful to be attacked by superior enemy.
  2. Since the drone attack failed in the purpose the Kremlin assigned to it — assassinate Putin — this will be spun as a victory: even NATO’s superior tech could not actually get through to kill the president.
  3. It does reveal that the air-defense systems are inadequate, which is a serious black mark against the Defense Ministry (which had installed AD on rooftops!) and might further prod the drone-panic that had gripped Moscow for weeks following the discovery of crashed drones in the nearby forests (citizens were advised to form “rooftop watches” to look out for drones with the naked eye)

From this, I would rule out Ukrainian origin with 90% confidence. The drones appear to have been launched from within Russia and arrived from different directions, likely signifying familiarity with the defenses or perhaps even “safe” routes established through bribery. I am not aware of any Ukrainian partisans in Russia, and I think the Russian partisans are also largely a myth. This is why I am leaning toward a “false flag” operation, but not necessarily initiated by Putin. I am starting to suspect that the attack came from someone who wishes to make the military look bad in Putin’s eyes. There are two possible culprits for this: FSB and Prigozhin, whose recent theatrics and overt abuse of MOD seem particularly relevant in this context.

Be that as it may, the more important thing is what Putin will make of it. The Ukrainians adamantly denied it was them at the highest level, including directly by Zelenskyy. This is in contrast to other events, when the responses were more ambiguous. Only GUR chief Budanov claimed Ukraine will keep killing Russians no matter where they are, but he’s known for provocative statements. The Russians blamed the… United States. This is not unexpected since this is the plausible explanation of the AD failure. Politically, the Kremlin will, of course, milk this for all its worth. They already attacked Kyiv immediately after (with no effect), they escalated their nuclear threats, including false rumors about movement of warheads to delivery vehicles. (For this, always remember that we monitor the warheads very closely. If a Russian comes within 3 feet of one, all of NATO will light up with activity, so until you hear otherwise, assume all such “info” is nonsense.) Medvedev and Solovyev called for assassinating Zelenskyy (as if they had not been trying for months). I also expect more draconian legislation in Russia under the pretext of security.

The Wagner Opera

I would be remiss if I did not spend some time on the theatrical antics of one Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of PMC Wagner, and candidate for wingless flight from a high window. As I have reported on numerous occasions, the Wagner soldiers have been the only ones who have been able to make any advances in Ukraine, albeit at unsustainable costs. By some reports, even the convicts they recruited and used up as canon fodder in their “human wave” assaults at Soledar and Bakhmut were better trained than the average Russian mobik. They had complained about being mistreated by the Ministory of Defense (MOD) before, and apparently Putin had Prigozhin and Shoigu mend fences a few months back with a personal intervention.

As I noted above, Prigozhin has been trying to capture Bakhmut for a long time, and even though his progress has been very slow, at least he was making it unlike the regular Russian/ORDLO troops who were ignominiously destroyed at Vuhledar and unceremoniously thrown back at Avdiivka. Over the past week, Prigozhin released five videos that accused MOD of intentionally starving Wagner of ammo — and so making it impossible to capture Bakhmut, threatened to withdraw from Bakhmut completely unless his demands were met, announced that he got promises of deliveries and was therefore staying, unloaded on MOD that its troops had fled abandoning a sector that Wagner had sacrificed 500 men to take, complained that ZSU is turning his flanks (with more defeats of regular Russian troops), called Putin names then retracted it.

This ongoing feud with MOD is one of the reasons I think Prigozhin might be behind the drone attacks on the Kremlin: what better way to impress on Putin that his military leadership is useless. They can’t win in Ukraine, they interfere with him winning, and now they can’t protect even the Kremlin, and all of this despite being given nearly unlimited cash to improve itself. Since FSB is heading the investigation and it has its own beef with MOD, it’s very likely that whatever they uncover, they might keep to themselves. Of course, they also do not like Prigozhin, so maybe a double-cross is possible. (I am stopping now with the conspiracy theories and won’t even mention the assassination of two pro-war people.)

The imperial Party of Angry Patriots (war criminal Girkin’s project) already attacked Prigozhin calling him the Butcher of Bakhmut because of the methods he used to almost-but-not-quite take it. (They mean the costs to the Russians, of course, they are very happy with Ukrainian casualties.) Now Meduza published an article quoting an internal source that says that Prigozhin’s attack on Putin has crossed a line and that he’s been given a warning to back off or else the security forces will put a stop to it. Even the brave TikToker Kadyrov recorded personal messages that first expressed support for Prigozhin but then — when it became clear that the cook might have overstepped — changing his tune and warning him to be careful or else the Chechens would come to teach him a lesson.

It is possible that all of this is noise: there is no conflict between Wagner and MOD, and it’s all an elaborate ploy to lull the Ukrainians into a false sense of security and perhaps guide their attack onto better prepared defenses. I doubt it though — it seems that things are getting out of hand for Putin. Even if this is all a ploy, outsiders — which includes everyone who’s not in the Kremlin inner circle — can’t see any of it. All we see is Prigozhin, a nominal head of a private security company, deride openly the Kremlin leadership while being the only one who can still make gains on the front. Some Russians already see it that way, as residents from the village of Krasnoe (Belgorod) recorded a video begging Prigozhin — not Putin — to help them because they are being shelled daily by the Ukrainians. This does not look good for Putin, and it’s not surprising that there should be a reaction. But Prigozhin is not dumb: if he really has designs on the seat of power, he would certainly not move while Putin is still strong.

As to why Putin is tolerating all of this, there are several reasons. The obvious is that Prigozhin is useful as the face of Wagner. The less obvious one is that Prigozhin is useful as the face of Wagner. What I mean by this is that while Prigozhin might be operating more or less under Putin’s thumb (which I believe to be the case) — and so useful as a facade to hide Putin’s string-pulling, he is also a dangerous operator that might be deterring would-be plotters from moving against Putin. The logic is simple: what happens if they take Putin out and Prigozhin is unleashed? The guy is on record threatening various oligarchs with expropriation and all sorts of things, up to and including meetings with sledgehammers. I’ve always wondered why rulers sometimes keep dangerous, and perhaps slightly unhinged, generals around, and this might be one of the reasons. There’s a risk that the guy might try to take you out, but there’s also a benefit that others — perhaps more devious ones — might not dare try. At the end of the day, if Prigozhin outlives his usefulness to Putin, he would meet with the fate of another mercenary contractor by the name of Wallenstein.

Relevant International Events

The Russians, who are currently mocking the UN by presiding over the Security Council, have been saying that they are not isolated and that global sentiment is not against them.

There’s the obvious problem that in the UNGA resolutions branding Russia as the aggressor, nearly everyone is aligned against Russia. Here’s the result of the vote a year into the war:

UNGA Vote Condemning Russia, February 24, 2023

Then, a bombshell dropped on May 1: China broke its pattern of abstention and voted in support of a resolution that calls Russia the aggressor in Ukraine and Georgia. The resolution (А/77/L.65) states that there are “unprecedented challenges now facing Europe following the aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, and against Georgia prior to that.” This is meaningful because it’s yet another sign that Xi is very displeased with Putin’s antics. China’s diplomats do not freelance often, and when they get off the script — like the Ambassador to France did when he said that Crimea was Russian — the rebuke comes fast and unambiguous (Beijing immediately disowned the opinion). Coming as this does on the heels of the first post-invasion call between Xi and Zelenskyy, it’s a significant development. We do not know what was said in this call, but it lasted for an hour, so it was not empty pleasantries. China has been trying to position itself as a peacemaker in the war, and the US appears to be willing to let it do so (per Blinken statement), likely in order to prevent Chinese military aid to Putin.

China, of course, has its own image problem that it needs to worry about as it is widely perceived as a threat as well (so it’s not just American anti-Chinese fear-mongering):

In a recent poll, Gallup found a sharp decline in global ratings of Russia’s leadership. Across 137 countries surveyed in 2022, 57% said they disapproved of it, a dramatic jump from the 38% in 2021. (The highest disapproval prior to that was in 2014 over the Crimean annexation, when it had reached 36%. The poll started in 2007.) Approval is down to 21% from pre-invasion 33%, and share of people with no opinion has decreased from 35% in 2007 to 18% in 2022. In other words, Russia has managed to get people to think about it, but the thoughts ain’t good.

Opinion of Russia in 2022

The surge in disapproval is driven by the global West but there are notable movements in Latin America, where the change was most pronounced mostly because they had been friendlier toward Russia in the past), and parts of Central Asia as well. (China was not included in the survey.) The world isn’t buying what Putin is selling.

Finally, on May 5, the European Council approved the allocation of EUR 1 billion for the purchase of shells for Ukraine from the European Peace Fund. A 155mm shell costs about EUR 3,300 (smart ones with Excalibur cost A LOT more, about EUR 103,000), so this would mean about 300,000 shells. That’s two months worth of supplies at about 5,000 shells/day. Shorter, if it would be needed for a burst in offensive operations.

And now we all wait to see what this Summer Offensive will do.

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