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Confidence Is High
Casualties are also high
Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old airman with the Massachusetts Air National Guard, was arrested Friday for posting classified documents related to the war in Ukraine onto a Minecraft server in order to win an internet argument. Russian intelligence seems to have appropriated and modified the materials to win further internet arguments.
Predictably, news organizations sensationalized the documents that Teixeira released, following the editorial line that works best for their discrete purposes. Ukrainain casualties may be too high for a counteroffensive, or ammunition delivery might be too slow, or powerful JDAM bombs could be too vulnerable to jamming, or Bakhmut might get encircled any minute.
Teixeira posted the purloined documents in March, so they describe an American understanding of the state of the war no later than February. We may therefore regard the analysis as two months old. Ukrainians say that the disclosure does not affect their plans for a counteroffensive, and that rings true, for much will have changed in the meantime.
For example, high tank losses in the disastrous Russian attacks of February have resulted in the deployment of museum-quality replacements from deep storage to Ukraine. High human losses have consumed most of the mobilized manpower available to Russia. No wonder Kyiv seems increasingly confident. No wonder they are in no hurry to get started with their counteroffensive. Time is on their side, right now.
Overwinter expectations were that either side would attack, using the supposed advantages of the season to attempt an offensive breakthrough. Defying expectations, the Second Battle of Bakhmut has been a decisive defense by Ukraine. Yevgeny Prigozhin seems to think so: his Wagner forces have decreased the daily number of attacks in Bakhmut, and now he is floating a change of strategy for Russia.
According to his title, Prigozhin wants “Only an Honest Fight: No Negotiations.” A decisive victory or defeat. Otherwise, he warns, in “the army, which for years considered itself one of the best armies in the world, decadent moods may begin at first, and then the situation degrades, as it already happened after the defeatist wars of the early twentieth century — Finnish, Japanese — and the tragic events of 1917.” This is an oblique warning to Vladimir Putin, who rails against the same historical calamities.
Abusing the much-abused term “deep state” to suggest that regime enemies can absorb the blame for defeat, Prigozhin recognizes that military defeat would “lead to global changes in Russian society. “
The people are already looking for someone to blame for the fact that we are not the strongest army in the world, and in this situation they will look for "extreme". And these “extremes” will, of course, be representatives of the “deep state”. That is, those people who today, without putting any effort into a military operation, are as far away from the theater of operations as possible, trying not to lose their capital, to live a familiar life, and this is absolutely unacceptable for a people weary of war and losing the taste of victory.
Of course, Prigozhin is not calling for withdrawal. On the contrary, he wants Russia to continue the war against Ukraine from a defensive crouch, though of course he does not say that, exactly. Russian armies are not supposed to go on the defensive. Just ask Gen. Sergey Surovikin, who retired a Russian army from Kherson in good order, stopped the collapse of Russia’s position in the east of Ukraine, dug in for a fight, and got fired for his success.
What Progozhin wants is a rerun of the Surovikin strategy, but this time with feeling. It is the only way to avoid a total Russian defeat. For “if these processes happen quickly enough, within a year or two, then the liberalized, Americanized, Western-facing ‘deep state’ will force the Russian authorities to make concessions and, under various pretexts, return to Ukraine those territories that are now under our control, and which the West considers occupied.” Hang on to what we have, rejoice that we have killed many Ukrainians, and call it a victory.
As one alert reader pointed out to me during February, Russian manpower reserves are not inexhaustible. Perhaps as many as three million Russian men fall into the reserve pool, since Russia trained about 300,000 conscripts a year before last February. According to the documents Teixeira released, the number of Russians killed in action easily exceeds an entire year’s conscript class.
Ramping up production of new soldiers is also not an option. Put simply, the machinery to train and arm a larger pool of reservists is not getting bigger. “At this point, even if they were to call up a very large-scale, a million-person mobilization, [Putin] wouldn't be able to process them,” says Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
“Russia, during the previous mobilization callup…really had to send some forces to the frontlines without any preparation whatsoever. They were not very effective,” Stepanenko said.
But the more important reason is simply that Putin perceives such a move would alienate large sections of the public and imperil his regime. The Russian leader has emphasized volunteerism for a reason, she said.
“I don't think that the information space has yet been prepared for a new mobilization, she said. “We obviously see an influx of very nationalist rhetoric, especially from the Kremlin officials, and some advertisements in Moscow, which is unique, something that we didn't really see last year, and mostly the recruitment campaign for targeting ethnic regions with ethnic minorities.”
Meanwhile, Russian media outlets cheerily report the arrival of ancient tanks on the battlefield. Ukrainian intelligence tracks the expansion of defensive preparations along the left bank of the Dnipro, announcing to the world just how many kilometers of trench the Russian command must now defend with a force that has been diminished by months of fruitless, relentless attacks.
Yes, Ukrainian casualties are high. They will get higher. Thousands will die just breaking through in the south, thousands more in crashing the gates of Crimea. How many thousands? Who knows. Ten thousand would be consistent with the history of Crimean invasions. In fact, that would be on the low end compared to either the Wehrmacht or the Red Army in World War II, or the armies of 1914-1918, or the armies that fought the Crimean War, or any of the armies in the various Russo-Turkish wars before that. For Ukraine, this is the normal kind of war, and has been since at least the Battle of Poltava. Attrition and total war are not strangers there.
It is difficult for many Americans, being used to wars with relatively tiny casualty rates, to understand how a country like Ukraine can sustain tens of thousands of deaths in combat. Americans have not endured an attritional conflict themselves since the Korean War — which, like the war in Ukraine, was dominated by artillery.
Korea is perhaps a good parallel for Ukraine, as an increasing number of commentators seem inclined to draw it. Stalemate at the end of 2023 would not bring peace from Moscow, just a lower intensity of conflict in Ukraine, much as the cease-fire in Korea did not entirely end hostile actions from Pyongyang. The Korean conflict petered out into a draw during 1953 because both sides were exhausted. At the front, the United States and UN allies could not deploy enough artillery tubes to overmatch their opponents. For like the distraction of Chinese intentions towards Taiwan today, fears of a pending Soviet attack in Europe diverted most of President Truman’s wartime mobilization spending across the Atlantic instead of the Pacific.
China has not been able to do the same for Putin, though. Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and even Vietnam are far stronger than the ROK of 1950. In even the most aggressive scenario against regional partners, naval and aviation assets — things that are not being used in Ukraine — would do the lion’s share of American intervention.
No one is going to rescue the siloviki of the Kremlin from the strategic trap they have built for themselves. The best outcome they can hope for now is to imitate the Hermit Kingdom.
Russian politics are indeed being shaped for a generation. “Prigozhin’s essay may continue to fuel debate along existing cleavages in the Russian information space where Prigozhin’s supporters and competitors may use selective readings of the essay to either praise or malign Prigozhin while advancing their own arguments,” says the Institute for the Study of War. Meanwhile, “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party intends to recruit Russian military personnel who have served in Ukraine as candidates for elections in 2023 and 2024, likely in an effort to establish itself as the definitive pro-war party in Russia.”
Do not ask what price Ukrainians will pay for their counteroffensive. Weather is a far more important factor than manpower for Ukrainians, who already know what the costs will be, and remain undeterred. Misgivings always exist in armies, but there is no sign of any mass disobedience. Morale remains quite high, despite the cost, because they are fighting to exist, whereas high-level Russians are turning the war into the sole reason for their existence.
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