What Does Putin Want? Who Cares? What Do His Army And People Want? Revenge of the Henchmen.

Most Russia analysis I’ve seen is myopically top down.  What will Putin do?  What will Putin’s cronies do?  When will they depose Putin?  Who cares?  They aren’t in charge near term or long term.  The more useful questions to ask are…

  1. What will 190,000 Russian soldiers decide to do in the next few weeks?  If they don’t get moving faster in the next week or so, they are as (or more) likely to collapse versus retreating or digging in.    
  2. What will the Russian people do in the 2024 election after the ugly truth seeps in? Yes, they really do have elections in Russia.  Putin and Co. are likely to lose.  Even or especially if they “win” via a manipulated/manufactured sham.  There is nothing so illegitimate and weak as a government holding power through naked fraud.   The gangrenous stench is too obvious.

It doesn’t matter what Putin wants.  What is his army is willing to do?

Behind every good movie villain is an army of henchmen.  Darth Vader’s faceless legions of Imperial Stormtroopers.  The Bond villain’s armies of jump-suit wearing submachine gunners.  Mobs of turbaned or face-painted natives before that movie trope got too racist to sustain.  All henchmen share a few critical qualities.

  1. They are inhumanly willing to die in droves to advance the greedy, odious schemes of an obvious villain
  2. They are inhumanly incompetent – thus “dying in droves” while a tiny band of scrappy heroes gun them down.
  3. They are inhumanly stoic – never blindly howling in animal  pain or crying out for their mothers during the “gunning down” process.  The just slump and – I guess – grit their teeth.

Darth Vader’s Imperial Stormtroopers are perhaps the ultimate henchmen.  They are individually faceless and voiceless behind the armor (allowing a global audience to dehumanize them regardless of race, color, or creed).  The armor is otherwise useless – the Rebels mow them down in droves.  They never bleed. yelp, or shout.  And they never, ever stop to ask Why are we doing this?

Putin is no Darth Vader.  OK, the Russian Army in Ukraine has proven to be Stormtooper-grade-incompetent.  But they are human humans not inhuman henchmen.  They are watching their friends die (very humanly), trying very hard not to die themselves, and very likely asking “why” more often every day.  Especially because Putin didn’t even bother to to create a plausible fig-leaf justification for this war.  In the meantime, they are struggling to stay fed, get diesel, and keep warm.  With motivated people shooting at them with high-precision weapons.  I think poor morale is one reason they keep using the paratroopers with such disastrous results.  Per this fascinating Twitter thread, they are probably one of the few units that can still be relied on to actually press an attack even if they aren’t really well suited to it.  The 82nd Airborne they are not.   “The entire concept of VDV, Russian paratroopers makes total sense if we consider that they are not so much soldiers as the riot police. They don’t need to fight other regular armies, they need to suppress disorganised mutinies and protests”

A low-morale army doesn’t attack very well.  If the alternatives become a fighting withdrawal or surrender, a whole lot of presumed henchmen might prove to be human after all.  Except, maybe, the Chechens and the paratroopers (see thread above).

  • Low morale armies also doesn’t retreat very well;  Retreating is hard, dangerous, and liable to turn into a panicked rout.
  • When asked to dig in and stand still, a low morale army loses energy, will, and (eventually) soldiers at an increasing rate.

If you stall and don’t retreat quickly, the eventual result is likely collapse.

In Ukraine, this suggests Putin has maybe a few more weeks before his army starts to falling apart.  If it hasn’t started to already.  Re-frame the question from “Can Putin’s Army take Ukraine?” to “Can Putin Manage to Extract the Army Out of Ukraine As an Intact Fighting Force With Most of Its Equipment?   The answer is not obvious.   

Putin Likely Loses Power in the 2024 Elections, Even or Especially If He Wins.

2 years from now, Russia will go the polls.  Sure the elections are a sham exercise, but they still matter.  They validate the governments claim on power.

Ukraine is already an ugly mess.  It could plausibly end in a catastrophic, very public retreat/defeat.  Even if Putin manages to avoid disaster, the truth about the incompetent, deadly hubris of the last 2 weeks will have 2 years to seep into your average Russian’s consciousness.  The stories will get out. They will know what was done in their name.  They have lost the propaganda war – the world blames them for all those dead blond children.  Europe will be shifting away from Russian gas for real and for good.  China (the only other local volume gas buyer) will start to lord it over Russia.  It will not sit well.

Putin can still engineer an election win.  But “everyone” will know it was a sham.  The emperor will have no clothes.  He can cling to power, but with diminished legitimacy and authority.  His battered economy will make it hard to rebuild his even-more-battered army.  His only credible military threat will be nukes.  A cornered, angry, illegitimate Putin will be a tough thing to handle.  He will be dangerous.  But he will be on his way out.

The next Russian executive will face a choice.  My economy is too small to support a world-class Army (see “failure in Ukraine.”).  So we are done as World Power although we do have nukes.  So, do I…

  1. …become a vassal state to much bigger, not very nice China?
  2. …join “Europe” and find a slot in the US-dominated but more flexible and pretty obviously richer-living West?

The Russian people will have a voice in that decision.  Which is really the permanent question of Russian identity – look West or East?  What is different today is that Russia may have to lose the illusion it is a power unto itself.  At least until Russia builds a large enough economy – which likely requires a turn to the West and rule of law.  The Ukrainian people had been leaning West for the same good reasons before Putin tried to drag them back.

PS:  Putin likely has limited reserves beyond the 190,000 he has already committed.  Russia has a 1 million man military, but legally no conscripts can be sent outside of the Russian border.  So far Putin has bent those laws (forcing conscripts to “volunteer” after driving them across the border), but he faces a major public uproar if he openly breaks them for a War he has never justified.  You also have to question whether the other ~800k are competent, not needed elsewhere, and motivated to fight?  The Wall Street Journal reported Russia is trying to recruit Syrians to fight in Ukraine.  That should be seen as a sign of desperation not cunning.  It suggests Putin is running out of henchmen willing or able to fight in Ukraine.

PSS:  The Oligarchs are not going to overthrow Putin.  Think about the dynamic as Trump took control of the Republican party.  Did Mitch McConnel or Kevin McCarthy stand up to Trump?  Did most American business leaders?  Or did everyone make an accommodation to keep milking the system to their own ends?  Russia’s oligarchs are likely to do the same.  Watch “The Death of Stalin” for a funny and insightful look at the likely dynamic at the Kremlin.

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