Ladies And Gentlemen, The 2023 Overture Has Begun, Please Take Your Seats
Notes from the theater of war
At the beginning of the week, western intelligence analysts reckoned that the 300,000 Russian mobiks — soldiers mobilized in the emergency of the Russian Army’s defeat at the hands of Ukrainians last year — had already suffered more than 100,000 casualties during Vladimir Putin’s disastrous winter offensive.
As the week ends, expectations for long-term victory are greatly reduced: “Putin has pared back his goals in the war in Ukraine to focus only on maintaining territory he has already seized, according to a new U.S. intelligence community assessment.” Following the old imperial form, Putin has assumed a defensive strategic crouch, hoping for a settlement that will give him time to rebuild.
Ukrainian intentions are less clear than they were last week. Military observers talk of postponement, even a “summer counteroffensive” rather than a spring counteroffensive, now. Time is increasingly on Ukraine’s side. Reclaiming territory is becoming a secondary mission to the breaking of Russian armies, so that Russia has nothing left to rebuild. Attrition has become their strategic position.
Defeat is an orphan, they say, while victories have thousands of fathers. When the music stops and the curtain finally rises on this opera of annihilation, Putin’s special operation is already an orphan.
Putin is hardly responsible. Defeat will be someone else’s fault, for he was in Moscow, at his residence, nowhere near the Senatsky Dvorets, or Senate Tower. Though he did visit the “front lines” himself recently to see just how bad things were, and boy were they bad. Some problems, such as the poor condition of roadways, could not be hidden from him. He will blame someone else, such as his generals, for everything.
The siloviki, oligarchs allowed to own Russia as long as Putin gets his cut, fear for their fortunes in the wake of defeat. Rubles may be worthless; the state seems likely to start nationalizing various industries, and their wealth might suffer direct taxation to make up for the current deficit spending of a regime which, being a global paraiah, cannot access foreign investment capital. They cannot be blamed for defeat, but they can be forced to finance it, at gunpoint.
Yevgeny Prigozhin has already moved to reject defeat. “We were supposed to take Bakhmut by May 9. And knowing that, military bureaucrats almost completely cut our shell supplies on May 1,” he claims in a statement through his press service. Threatening to “withdraw what’s left of Wagner to lick our wounds” on 10 May, Prigozhin indicated that the Kremlin has ignored his appeals on this matter, so any defeat that happens now, is not his fault.
Holding defeat in their hands right now, the Russian Ministry of Defense and its generals (as well as their oligarch friends among the siloviki) will want third parties to take the blame in their stead. Even a fictitious internal enemy will do, though of course internal enemies are always real enough in Russia.
Given all of the above, mysterious fireworks over the Senate Tower, right in front of prominent security cameras, can serve every agenda on the list.
It is unlikely that such small drones, carrying small payloads, came so far by flight, on their own. Rather, if this was the result of Ukrainian actions, the most likely scenario involves Ukrainian agents supplying the weapons to some internal dissidents.
Sensitive to Washington’s concerns about potential enlargement of the war, Ukraine has an incentive to maintain deniability in this respect. By now, hundreds of major fires across Russia have been blamed on “smoking,” the jocular Ukrainian explanation for their clandestine work. If Kyiv arranged this, then it is psychological preparation of the battlefield, and nothing more. Ukraine knows quite well that Putin does not sleep in that dome. They are signalling a new phase in their war has begun.
Contrarily, the shrill accusation of US involvement in the so-called “attack” points to Kremlin complicity. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made this claim today in India — without any evidence, of course. Kremlin propaganda cannot admit that any Ukrainian is capable of independent thinking, let alone independent action. And as various observers have noted, the Kremlin would ordinarily downplay such an embarrassing breach of security. A “false flag” is hardly out of the question and at least as likely as Ukrainian resonsibility.
Next Tuesday was supposed to be Victory Day, but no Russian victory is forthcoming in Ukraine. Instead, all the Russians who matter are bracing themselves for defeat, positioning themselves against where Russia will be in the summer, when Ukraine is victorious and Russian armies are broken.
At best, Russians can hope to limit that Ukrainian victory and erect a Potemkin victory of their own. At worst, the whole thing falls apart, and then the fight begins over who gets to rule the rubble.
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