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Putin is Setting Russia Up to Fail
As if he doesn't care about the future
When Vladimir Putin resumed his supposed proxy war against NATO in February, Ukraine was still mostly equipped with Russian weaponry. By necessity, that has begun to change. The longer the war continues, the more of an actual, real, not-imaginary NATO proxy Ukraine becomes. This has been a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.
However, Putin still shows no sign of mobilizing Russia as if he were actually at war with NATO. Against this incoherent policy, Ukrainian objectives are clear, leading to prognostications of long-term doom for Russian military power unless Putin changes his mind on mobilization, and even then, it may be too late. Count this writer among those voices.
Before the end of April, the dimunition of Russian combat power forced a change in Russian strategy. Attacks through May into June have been concentrated on a far smaller front. Cautious infantry advances follow intense artillery bombardments. Loss rates have declined in Russian formations, though they remain high, and progress has also been correspondingly slow.
In response, Ukraine began their own slow series of counteroffensive strokes on the southern front towards Crimea, with the main effort along the coastline so that their ASM (anti-ship missile) envelope can cover more of the Black Sea with new western weapons. A Harpoon missile reportedly struck a Russian tugboat resupplying Snake Island over the weekend, adding to the slow attrition of Black Sea fleet assets that are not being replaced with equivalent vessels.
Instead of recognizing necessity, Putin uses every last unofficial means to feed his “special operation” grist mill. Lucrative contract offers ensure that ethnic minorities within Russia suffer the most. Russia has filled out its BTGs (battalion tactical groups) with hundreds of thousands of poorly-armed, poorly-trained conscripts from the parts of Ukraine they hold and claim to defend. Naval infantry have been marched ashore and thrown into combat zones with unfamiliar machinery.
Two caveats apply. Judging from recent, though thin, verbal evidence, Putin is determined to hold sham referendums in the conquered territories and annex them. As I explained recently, his calculus might change once these fig leafs mean that Ukraine is “attacking” “Russia” in the annexed territories.
Moreover, if Putin’s health gives out — and rumors of his slow degeneration could very well be true — then the siloviki around Putin might formalize the war in desperation once he is gone, and annexation will serve as the pretext. Maybe that is the plan, anymore.
Nevertheless, at this point I am ready to concede that Putin is unlikely to ever follow through with formal mobilization. His rule is constructed on Russian political apathy, a mute acceptance of order. Putin fears that to rouse national feelings might undo this apathy, potentially slipping from his control in a spasm of unleashed public feeling. To put weapons in the hands of the masses is to invite revolution.
Underlining this point are the Russian milbloggers wailing that the Russian state fights with one hand tied behind its proverbial back; their solution is not to stop the war, but to kill Ukrainians harder. Russia will not become more peaceful when Putin is gone. In fact, Russia may very well destroy itself.
Machiavelli wrote that it is best to be loved and feared, but that given a choice between the two, it is better to be feared than loved. Putin’s Russia was never loved, while fear of Russia diminishes before our eyes every day.
Lithuania enforced a blockade on rail transit to the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad Sunday. Declaring that the embargo on sanctioned goods such as coal and computers “violates everything,” Moscow summoned the Lithuanian charge d’affaires to explain himself, and vowed retaliation.
Though purely diplomatic, the escalation in tensions between imperial state and former colony has shaken some observers. Hands wring. Leaders are called upon to cluck remonstrances right away. What if this action brings about World War III, these voices worry?
It is hard to blame Lithuanians. Russian imperial potentates have systematically erased their language and culture and history. Putin is just another hateful Russian autocrat to Lithuanians. They are used to his threats.
They are hardly alone in picking on Russia lately. Putin held an “economic conference” in St. Petersburg Saturday with the president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who drew the Russian auocrat’s ire by ruling out diplomatic recognition for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. Although Tokayev would not be in power without Putin, he has signaled that he will not violate western sanctions, either. Clearly displeased with the display of independence, Putin made a veiled threat against any part of "historic Russia” that refuses to bend the knee.
As with the blockade in Lithuania, another piece of “historic Russia,” the news of this event caused a stir in the chattering classes. Just like various official and unofficial threats against Poland (“historic Russia”), the UK, and everyone else making Putin mad lately all caused similar shudders of excitement.
One senses a pattern of catastrophist ideation. World War III will follow directly on whatever new spat the Kremlin has developed with any present or former satellite, a veritable slippery slope.
No one seriously expects the war to enlarge, however. Russia is in no position to invade anyone else right now, let alone Lithuania, which only shares a land border with the Kaliningrad enclave of Russia.
The chances of nuclear escalation are also remote. Rather, it is Russian powerlessness which animates all this unease at the sight of states defying Putin.
Following on Henry Kissinger, the expressed worry is that too many humiliations will cause Putin to lash out, possibly with nuclear weapons. Underneath these words is a simple fear of the unknown world that lies beyond Russian empire.
We are often asked to imagine a world without unipolar American hegemony. Imagining a world without the Russian empire, though? That is impossible, unthinkable. The very mind of foreign policy “realism” recoils. Russophiles object. Political partisans object. Outraged tankies and 4chan racial theorists object. A world without Russia, or just a diminished Russia, is unthinkable to lots of people, all of whom rely on Putin to balance American hegemony in some scheme of global power hierarchies. When Lithuania slaps Russia like this in public, seemingly unconcerned with the consequences, and suffers no real consequences, it offends everyone who needs fear of Russia to exist.
The “Third Rome” has existed for about five hundred years, and in that time the Russian model of imperial expansion has been at least as violent and oppressive and dependent upon fear as any in history, probably more so. Russian ethnonationalism harms minorities in Russia today as much as Jim Crow ever did. The reputation of Russian law enforcement is a step down from Derek Chauvin. To idealize or rationalize Russia as some kind of humane counterbalance to the United States has always been a category error.
There are of course legitimate concerns that Russia might become even more of a threat in collapse. What if regional violence required intervention? Who would look after the nuclear weapons? And so on. A dying Russia would indeed need looking after and who knows what the United Nations would do with their Security Council seat.
All true, and all irrelevant to tiny Lithuania. They just slapped the bully. They will get away with it. Russia’s enemies see this. The knives are getting sharpened on the imperial periphery. Perhaps the end will begin in the Caucusus. Putin’s handshake-deal with Kadyrov will end with Putin and the complex conflict geography of the region is a powder keg of possibilities.
On the far eastern salient of the Donetsk front, the Russian Army is determined to meet some semblance of a policy objective by encircling the last piece of Luhansk Oblast. They may even succeed in the weeks to come.
However, the window of opportunity for translating this objective into a Potemkin victory is sliding shut. For this main effort is subtracting from Russian combat power elsewhere along the front, where the Russian Army is increasingly outgunned, and it takes place amid a rising inferno of partisan activity, especially in the Kherson region.
The “special operation” remains a smash-and-grab robbery. With Russia showing little ability to incorporate or repair the devastated landscapes they have conquered, and many BTGs (battalion tactical groups) stripped of infantry to fill out units for a policy objective in Luhansk that will not break Ukraine’s will to fight, preconditions for a local Russian collapse are in place. Putin might win in Luhansk only to lose Kherson at the same time.
Crawling, daily motion of lines on a map can be deceptive. Russia’s army “controls” roughly the same amount of Ukraine today that it did 60 days ago and substantially less than on Day 6. Color-shaded “areas of control” on detailed cartography from studious reporting outlets often imply too much control. Much of the “Russian Army” is only in Ukraine against their will, or for a paycheck. Moral fragilities abound. Quislings and collaborators are unsafe. “Control” is as fragile as the presence or absence of Russian soldiers.
Worse, the near-impunity that Ukrainian ground attack pilots enjoy in the south, hitting targets more than 25 miles inside of Russian-held Kherson Oblast, indicates that tactical Russian air defense is not improving. Despite some successes against Ukrainian drones and planes throughout the war, so many Russian SAM (surface to air) missile systems and radars have been confirmed destroyed by drones or airstrikes through visual evidence to date that I can only conclude something systemic is broken.
We can also take Putin’s garbled mention of the counterbattery battle at his testy conference this weekend as evidence that western radars and artillery systems are devastating Russian artillery batteries. These units had never exhibited “shoot and scoot” tactics before. Instead, they continued shooting from one location until they ran out of ammo. Western systems are now making the Russian artillery branch pay dearly for laziness.
Even if the arrival of new weapon systems seems excruciatingly slow to the outside observer, it is definitely shifting the weight of fire. We know that because the Ukrainians make no bones when they ask for more, please. If the west delivered everything Ukrainians wanted right now — an impossible feat, but imagine it for a moment — then they might win in a matter of months, such is their will to fight and the capacity of western defense industries.
Nor is American will to support Ukraine flagging in the least. On the contrary, the issue is what Washingtonians call a “unicorn,” something with enthusiastic bipartisan support in polls of likely voters. Surveying conservative media and politics here, the most frequent criticism of President Biden’s policy is that he is not doing more to help Ukraine kill more Russians harder. See how that works?
Thus we can draw a general outline of how the present trendlines look in 60 days, 120 days, 180 days, and at one year of combat. It will not matter if a particular weapon system gets to Ukraine in large numbers all at once, or in dribs and drabs. It will not matter if Russia surges again in Luhansk this week. Over time, clickbaiting, doom-laden prognostications will be banished by facts on the ground. So will rosy optimism. This will take time and cost too many Ukrainian lives, no matter what:
By August, the US Navy might lead a maritime access campaign into the Black Sea and Ukrainian troops could be on the doorstep of Crimea. Respectively, these goals would require Turkish agreement and a rate of advance on the ground of less than one kilometer per day. Both objectives are potentially achievable in this timeframe.
By October, the Russian Army may very well find itself outgunned and outnumbered in the east, with western rockets, drones, and aircraft sorties disrupting the supply routes for their Luhansk operations. I would also expect new partisan activity and infiltration tactics to emerge in the occupied zones wherever Ukraine begins to counterattack. We have not seen the full spectrum of their capabilities in this area.
By December, a shortage of capable, trained soldiers will make other standard material dimensions of conflict, such as the number of tanks and weight of fire, irrelevant. One especially destructive resort would be to send the training cadres into battle with their new conscript class, the military equivalent of eating the seed corn. This is unlikely but possible.
At the one-year mark since Putin resumed invading Ukraine, Russia could be unable to field significant offensive combat power while Kyiv enjoys steady streams of advanced weaponry and equipment. Worse, coordination with NATO countries (including Poland and Romania as well as the US), using NATO equipment, would have many of the same reinforcing policy effects as formal NATO membership.
Soviet-era equipment has become scarce and expensive in Eastern Europe. Howitzer tubes and jet planes are consumable items that need frequent replacement. With many of their most advanced technologies sourced outside the country, Russian engineers already struggle to cope. These industries are not well-capitalized, either. Russian industry simply will never achieve the production capacity or flexibility available to western supppliers. Putin seems determined to not even try.
Ukrainian procurement sources still exist in a global economy. Contacts working at the Lockheed-Martin plant located near me say the MRLS rocket assembly line has been working around the clock for several weeks now. Material and moral factors will eventually put conventional victory out of reach for Russia even with drastic changes in policy there.
The only questions left are how long this process will take, how long Putin has to live, and who gets left in charge of the shitshow if he does die. An end-of-life ego trip unfolds as a military disaster for the ages.
Russophiles in the west like to blame NATO expansion for Putin’s actions since 2014, but at this rate all of Russia’s enemies will enjoy a stronger position against them than at any time singe the Mongol invasion, and that is entirely Putin’s doing. He would not do this if he cared at all about the long-term future of Russia.