Putin is betting on Western resolve collapsing before his military collapses. I don’t think he is going to win that bet.
We’ve been through a weird period where Russia and the media re-narrated capturing a 2nd tier regional city (Severdonetsk) into a major strategic pivot point. At the same time, Ukraine went on a PR offensive emphasizing its losses to crank up Western weapons deliveries. The narrative has changed, but the facts on the ground haven’t.
- Ukraine is trying to bleed Russia white and force a collapse.
- Russia is trying to find some way to declare victory, freeze the current conflict, and go lick its wounds. Preparing for another round of battle in a few year’s time.
What has changed is the Russian army has peaked. The evidence of exhaustion is right in front of us. The Russian’s vaunted Eastern offensive has taken a tiny amount of territory by firing an incredible number of artillery shells backed up by shrinking, increasingly timid ground forces. Barring a lucky breakthrough, Russia isn’t going to take much more territory. They have lost a huge number of soldiers. Their remaining men are depleted, exhausted, and demoralized after months of hard fighting.
We now know Putin can’t/won’t fully mobilize the nation for this war. Hence Russia’s scraping out the bottom of its manpower/materiel barrel – obsolete T-62 tanks and men well over military ages going to the front. Putin has no meaningful reserves left to throw into the fight.
So the Russians have peaked – “culminated” being the (slightly post-orgasmic) military/strategic term. That leaves two open questions.
- Can they hold the ground they have with the forces at hand? No. The front lines are too long and their forces too depleted to hold everything everywhere all the time.
- Can they convert a hot war into a “frozen conflict” to be resumed at some later date? Probably not. Even as Germany/France have flirted with appeasement, Ukraine, the US and the front-line NATO states have shut that door. That leaves Russian capitulation as the world’s fastest/only exit route out of today’s gas, oil, and wheat shortages. A lot of nations quietly hoping for a quick Ukrainian surrender will eventually realize their best interests lie in hastening a Russian retreat. Even China, struggling with an economic slowdown, might eventually see that logic.
Militarily, it is possible the Russians achieve a lucky breakthrough. It is equally (or arguably more) possible the Ukrainians break through. Especially towards Kherson or Melitopol where Russian forces are weakest. Otherwise, we are going to see a static front line with the Russians being picked off by longer-range artillery they can’t reply to. That leads (eventually) to another Russian collapse somewhere and somehow. When and where will be impossible to know until it happens. But the world will be hoping it happens sooner vs later. More detailed commentary below.
1). Can Russia hold the ground they have with the forces at hand? No.
Every Russian on the ground will struggle just to get through the day. There is nothing worse for military morale than a static, but “hot” front line of bad food, no hot water, flies/shit-smells everywhere, boredom, and dread of the (deadly accurate) shell with your name on it. The Ukrainians can rotate troops back to friendly, communities behind the lines. The Russian havens are farther away and much less committed to the fight.
Russians in static positions will be, literally, cannon fodder. Ukraine is now taking delivery of artillery and HIMARS rockets with much longer range and greater accuracy than the Russian artillery can match. Every time and every place the Russians try to settle in, Ukraine can drop a shell or rocket in their midst without risking retaliation.
Russian soldiers will come to know there is a shell with their name (or GPS coordinates) on it. The only thing more demoralizing than indiscriminate artillery barrages (Russia’s approach) are discriminating, accurate, devastating artillery bolts-out-of-the-blue. Having the command post wiped out by 4-5 “surprise” shells is more psychologically damaging than losing it to a barrage of 40-50 shells. The only “safe” places will be where there aren’t enough forces concentrated to make for a decent target. Those places will be tempting targets for Ukranian ground attacks. Leaving no place to hide.
Russian artillery troops will go from hunters to hunted – scuttling about dodging incoming Ukrainian counter-battery fire. Every Russian artillery crew that fires a shot will have 4-5 minutes to run before Ukrainian shells come roaring in from beyond the Russian guns’ range. If they don’t fire, they still risk satellite or drone spotted pre-emptive attacks.
If Ukraine’s artillery lacks juicy front line targets, they can use the (longer-range) HIMARS missiles to hit rear-area supply depots and command centers. The Russian’s only weapon against the HIMARS are direct air attacks. The Russian Air Force hasn’t been up to that task so far. They likely won’t manage it any better in the next few months.
While Russia’s front line troops get picked off along a very long front line, the occupied rear areas will remain a problem. An occupation can require more troops than an invasion. Especially if/as local sentiment shifts against continued conflict. Consider the US experience in Iraq. The IED’s haven’t started up yet in Ukraine, but they will.
The Ukrainian army will have its own struggles on that static front line, but; They will shelter under an increasingly effective long-range artillery counter-battery umbrella; They are defending so they can hold the line thinly; They will gain morale-boosting hope from local or strategic counter-atacks; They have higher morale to start with.
Can Russia convert a hot war today into a “frozen conflict” to be resumed at some later date? Not as long as Ukraine (and the US) want to keep it a hot war.
Putin is betting the Germans and French will want the gas taps turned back on before winter comes to Europe. But the US and the front-line states – Poland, the Baltics, Slovakia – won’t countenance appeasement. They know it just kicks the can down the road. We’ve destroyed a lot of the Russian army already. We might as well finish the job now.
That takes a “frozen conflict” off the table. If Putin declares a cease fire and invites negotiations, Ukraine will just keep on shelling the Russians. Their supply of shells will keep rolling in across the Polish border. Unless Germany invades Poland to stop that supply. That seems unlikely.
Putin’s risk is the Germans et al finally realize a Russian military collapse is a faster path to turning the gas back vs a Ukrainian surrender. Because that is the only path Ukraine, Poland, the Baltics, and the US are forcing on Germany and France.
The same goes for the global famine card Putin is playing. Either “the world” works to push Ukraine to surrender or “the world” works on Russia to unblock the port at Odessa. The world will also figure out that Russian surrender is the better bet.
Haven’t blogged in a while. I’ve been busy/distracted, but also not a lot new to say on Ukraine.
I’d originally dusted off this blog to write up some thoughts on the Fed/Economy etc. I’ll turn to that in the next weeks/months.