Putin Likely Has One Big Push Before Military Collapse. Consensus For a Long, Grinding War Doesn’t Reflect Reality on the Ground.

Putin’s Army has one big push left.  Maybe. If that fails, his forces are useless as an effective attacking force.  They are already too small and degraded to effectively occupy much territory.  Leaving Putin where?  In a bad place.  Which is still worrying.  But not a long grinding war.

The Russians likely will make gains nevertheless and may either trap or wear down Ukrainian forces enough to secure much of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, but it is at least equally likely that these Russian offensives will culminate before reaching their objectives, as similar Russian operations have done. – ISW

General consensus seems to expect a long, grinding war in Ukraine.  The consensus of the “sub-group of analysts that have actually called it right so far,” however, suggests Putin has only one more throw of the dice before his military collapses.  We have already seen one collapse around Kyiv last weekend.  A similar collapse in the East probably finishes off the Russian Army’s offensive capacity.  Putin can try to keep the pot simmering, but he’s done until/if he manages to rebuild a shattered army under heavy sanctions.

The general consensus is making three common analytical errors;

  1. Excessive reliance on tidy, quantifiable top-down analysis (ignoring messier, more anecdotal bottom-up analysis).
  2. Shrinking away from forecasting non-linear inflection points in preference for (safe-seeming) linear projections.  Even though most things human happen along curves and rarely along straight lines.
  3. Clinging to a comfortable-but-wrong mental model even after facts disprove it.

Mistake 1 is relying on top-down analysis => What does Putin want to achieve?   Flying at 50,000 feet pouring Russia’s “1 million man army” into a Ukraine-wide map covered in ominous Red blobs. Accompanied by beard-stroking commentary on the 5-10 year impact on China/Russia relations, China’s Belt and Road projects, wheat trade via a Russian controlled Odessa, and that shambling humbug idea of  the “land bridge to Crimea.”  That top-down, geo-strategic view has been reliably, totally wrong since the war began.

Before the war started, the geo-strategic, top-down perspective seemed valid.  But it got mugged by reality about 1-2 days into the shooting war.  Those red blobs on the map were just thin threads of roadway the Russians only “controlled” when driving them in force.  Their “million man army” has visibly and obviously run out of actual fighting troops and equipment beyond the 190,000 committed.  6 weeks later, that geo-strategic, top-down model is largely disconnected from obvious facts on the ground.  Yet it still dominates the media and investor/market consensus.

What has worked well after those first 1-2 days of war was bottom up analysis, asking => what is the Russian army actually capable of?  This group of analysts, working bottom up, were early (and correct) in calling the outcomes we have actually seen.  The daily updates from the Institute for the Study of War have been reliable, balanced, and accurate.  As have military-specialist academics and think-tankers.  The UK Ministry of Defence has also been a reliable source – their daily analysis post has spoken volumes between the lines even if they have avoided specific forecasts.  Supported by a gaggle of people with weirdly specialized expertise looking “up” from logistics, equipment types, tire wear?!?, troop counts, maintenance, reinforcements (or lack thereof) etc…  Russia’s shortage of trained, fighting-capable manpower is obvious from their own actions – bringing in Syrian mercenaries,  raiding the training divisions for officers…  Morale problems are clear in the anecdotal, daily tally of functional Russian vehicles left abandoned, often with gas in the tank.  Out of 2731 independently documented Russian vehicle losses, 1021 were captured in usable working order;  187 tanks abandoned/captured out of 464 documented losses.  With a terrifying (for their crews) number of obsolete, 30+ year old Soviet era tanks/APC’s in that count.

The sum of that bottom-up analysis showed an under-motivated, poorly supplied, under-strength military with ineffective air support and weak communications/command asked to do too much in too many places.  That picture emerged early in the war.  It culminated in last weekend’s headlong retreat from Kyiv.

It isn’t just Russian weakness.  Ukraine’s surprising success also tells us that defense had a greater-than-expected advantage over offense in the modern era.  Small, cheap missiles operated by small, units are chewing up big-ticket weapons systems at an unsustainable rate.  This isn’t just the Russian’s problem.  One day the US Army is going to waltz into a reasonably well armed country and get chewed to pieces just as badly.  Especially because our military industrial complex will work overtime to obscure that lesson.  They want to keep making those high-profit, big-ticket systems even if our boys/girls get incinerated in them down the line.

So the top-down approach has failed and the bottoms up approach has worked pretty well so far.  SCORE: Armchair generals/colonels = 1. Armchair geo-strategists – 0.  

The second error – shying away from forecasting inflection points – is harder to criticize.  I went away on a camping trip this weekend with a pretty solid sense the Russians were in trouble around Kyiv; Hoping an inflection point might be reached.  But I did not expect much less forecast they would fall apart in a pell-mell retreat over one weekend.  That is a classic inflection point.   They are always hard to forecast.  At best you hazard a guess at how things might go non-linear.  The “when” is impossible to predict with accuracy.  Which is why consensus forecasters shy away from inflection points in favor of comfortable linear trends.  If you are too obviously wrong with a non-linear forecast, they won’t invite you back on CNN for the next war.  Better to be conventionally wrong (with the crowd) than unconventionally right (alone).

Pentagon background briefing “On the refit, Bob, we don’t know for sure how long this is going to take because some units are much more devastated than others. We’ve seen indications of some units that are literally, for all intents and purposes, eradicated…”

The final error – sticking to an obviously wrong mental model – is less defensible.  After 6 weeks of evidence to the contrary, the general consensus now expects those same shattered Russian forces – with no obvious reinforcements or time to rest – to wheel across Eastern Ukraine and secure that blessed land bridge to Crimea.  The “million man Russian army” still crops up in supposedly informed commentary.  People talk about the Russian Air Force flying 250-300 sorties a day, but fail to note those flights are mostly in Russian airspace firing a diminishing stock of stand-off missiles.  A number of people still don’t seem to understand how little ground Russia has ever “controlled,” or that shops and even restaurants were open in Kyiv during an assumed Russian siege.

Putin could still get lucky. If he doesn’t, Putin can still cause trouble.  Either way, he’ll end up with a shattered military.  He can keep the pot boiling on a small scale.  But that is only what he was doing in the Donbas before the invasion.

Even that might be too much for him.  He has destroyed pro-Russian sympathies in Ukraine.  He has frittered away most of the (forcibly conscripted) Donbas-region soldiers in the meat-grinder of Mariupol and frontal assaults on the Ukranian lines in Donbas.  He might not even be able to hang on to those breakaway DNR/LNR regions once that butcher’s bill arrives in full.  He’ll also be struggling under sanctions and a for-real-now European shift away from buying his gas and oil.  Rebuilding the military he’s just destroyed will take time and money he may not have.  It is hard to re-build precision missile stocks without (western) semi-conductors in a sputtering economy.

I’m including below two excellent, expert pieces that sum up the bottoms-up analytical consensus as of this weekend.  Both are must-reads in full.

If I was a gambling man, which I’m not, I would wager it’s more likely we see a major Russian military collapse somewhere in the south and east (Kherson?) by May 9 through being overstretched and attritted than a Russian Army having seized Dnipro and surrounded the entire Donbas.  – Phillips O’Brien “Professor of Strategic Studies, University St Andrews, Author: How the War was Won, and Second Most Powerful Man in the World. Editor in Chief, War in History”


The Russian military is attempting to generate sufficient combat power to seize and hold the portions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts that it does not currently control after it completes the seizure of Mariupol. There are good reasons to question the Russian armed forces’ ability to do so and their ability to use regenerated combat power effectively despite a reported simplification of the Russian command structure. This update, which we offer on a day without significant military operations on which to report, attempts to explain and unpack some of the complexities involved in making these assessments.

We discuss below some instances in which American and other officials have presented information in ways that may inadvertently exaggerate Russian combat capability…. 

We assess that the Russian military will struggle to amass a large and combat-capable force of mechanized units to operate in Donbas within the next few months. Russia will likely continue to throw badly damaged and partially reconstituted units piecemeal into offensive operations that make limited gains at great cost.[1] The Russians likely will make gains nevertheless and may either trap or wear down Ukrainian forces enough to secure much of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, but it is at least equally likely that these Russian offensives will culminate before reaching their objectives, as similar Russian operations have done.


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