I’ve been getting requests to comment on the recent Ukrainian counterattacks, with some people musing that perhaps “the tide has turned.” There have been two counterattacks, one in the Kherson region in the south, which was repelled, with the Ukrainian forces suffering casualties in the thousands, filling every hospital and morgue in the region and requiring emergency blood drives. That little caper cost the Ukrainian side around 100 tanks and other vehicles, 4000 dead and 8000 wounded. Rest assured, some people are quite happy with this turn of events—especially those who profit by cutting livers, lungs and kidneys out of the corpses and shipping them off to clinics in Israel and points beyond for transplantation (given the large number of casualties, this has turned into quite an industry at this point, along with money laundering and weapons smuggling). In another attack, supposedly much more successful, the Ukrainian side recaptured areas around Izyum and Balakleya, with equally impressive losses.
Since this is the only instance of Ukrainians actually gaining ground since the start of the operation, some people instantly started to hyperventilate and claim that now the Russians will surely be routed from Crimea. I will do no such thing and instead explain why Russia, having committed perhaps as much as 16% of its professional soldiers (no draftees or reservists but increasing numbers of volunteers), is actually succeeding in its mission to demilitarize and denazify the Ukraine, provide for the security of the Donbass region and, beyond that, to shift its relationship with the West (if any) to a more equitable basis. Everything is going according to plan, and although we don’t know the details of that plan ahead of time (it is normally a state secret) we can discern some of its details as it unfolds.
First, it is important that while for the West the action in the Ukraine is an existential “total war” (as stated by the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian), for Russia it is a Special Military Operation, and Russia is ready to simultaneously engage in three, perhaps four of them without having to mobilize or to call up reserves. The reason it is an existential question for the West has to do with energy. With Peak Oil well in the past and the fracking phenomenon in the US ready to fizzle out over the next year or two, Russia’s oil and gas, and many commodities that require cheap oil and gas for their production, are absolutely essential if the West is to maintain even a trace of its dominant position in the world. What’s more, Russian oil and gas have to be made very cheap, whereas they are now far too expensive for the West to sustain its industrial capacity, with chemical and metallurgical plants, and even bakeries, closing daily. Thus, if the West is to survive, Russia must be destroyed and its treasure trove of fossil fuels and other commodities looted.
For Russia, the conflict serves an entirely different set of functions. First, politically, it is beneficial for Russia to expand its territory and to regain some of the most interesting Russian territories it lost to the whimsical, artificial country called the Ukraine which was formed when the USSR fell apart. Second, given the level of anti-Russian hostility inculcated in the Ukrainian population, it is incumbent upon the Russian military to render what remains of the Ukraine maximally innocuous, destroying its warmaking capacity and ruining it economically by destroying its infrastructure—turning the Ukraine into the Uk-Ruin.
The most advantageous time to do this is before inclement weather sets in, and with it what in Russian is called “raspútitsa”, or roadlessness—a time when dirt roads turn to impassable mud. That, plus a few rocket strikes against roads, railroads, bridges, electric transformer farms, pumping stations, refineries, fuel depots, etc., will be enough to make sure that nothing much moves or operates as winter weather descends. This part of the plan now seems to be in operation and at present many parts of the Ukraine don’t have electricity as a result of recent rocket strikes.
Capturing a maximum amount of territory as quickly as possible is not advantageous at all because this territory would then have to be controlled, defended and rebuilt to Russian standards, as is now happening in Donetsk, Lugansk, Mariupol and Kherson. Capturing and occupying large cities such as Kharkov, Kiev or Odessa would have meant having to supply them; why not let the West do it instead, and exhaust itself in trying? Another reason for advancing slowly was to allow the Ukrainian population to sort itself out. Do they want to be one with Russia (as in Donetsk, Lugansk and Kherson) or do they wish to remain as Western parasites for as long as possible, feeding their native sons, along with some clueless mercenaries, into the meat-grinder that is the eastern front?
A similar reason for moving ahead slowly has to do with the pro-Western tendencies of a small but influential part of the Russian population that is concentrated in a few big cities (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and a few others). These people have been conditioned, over the past 30 years, to look up to and ape the West and are naturally compelled to ingratiate themselves with it even to the point of committing treason against their own country. Some of them, hilariously labeled “frightened patriots” by the cryptically ironic Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, fled to the West or to Israel as soon as Russia had announced its Special Operation. A lot of them have since come back, along with many Russians who had been living in the West. It takes time for all of the above to realize that there is nothing good out there for them any more in the increasingly wild West and that Russia is the best place for them.
And then they have to actually move back, which is rarely an easy process. People have to find jobs, places to live, sometimes get their papers in order, ship their belongings and so on. Right now schools in St. Petersburg and Moscow are seeing an influx of children who have been hounded out of schools in the UK, the US or Canada. They are often disoriented, poorly socialized, and typically behind in every subject except English. The process of moving back is getting more complicated: there are no longer direct flights, containers with possessions have to be shipped via third countries and funds often cannot be wired directly due to sanctions. Russians are famously foolhardy, often getting stuck in various risky places and giving the Foreign Ministry headaches when the time comes to try to rescue them. I am probably at the opposite extreme, having moved my family back five years before it became absolutely necessary.
In all, it is to Russia’s advantage to sustain maximally hostile relations with the collective West (while continuing to nurture lower-level contacts with individual friendlier EU countries such as Italy or Hungary) but to not rush things too much in order to extract maximum profits from endlessly rising natural gas and commodity prices and to negotiate maximally advantageous trade deals with friendly countries. After this winter, most Europeans will be made to understand that there is no replacement for Russian energy and other resources, whether or not their leaders, many of whom lack basic economic literacy and are outright American plants, are specifically paid not to understand this simple fact. It would be to Russia’s advantage to have these clowns voted out, but another simple fact is that Russia’s future lies with the East, not with the West, and no amount of sincere apologies will compensate for the West’s now obvious degradation and decay or its vast legacy of abetting and coddling Nazis, most recently Ukrainian ones.
In this light, even the recent setback in the Kharkov region, which resulted in the surrender of Izyum and Balakleya, has certain advantages. It helped to further clarify the situation politically: those people who waxed hysterical, claiming that “all is lost” or that “this is the beginning of the end for Russia” just because a few dozen square kilometers changed hands at a cost of thousands of Ukrainian lives have essentially outed themselves as, at the very least, untrustworthy and unreliable, in essence presenting themselves with their own special Darwin award within Russia’s political ecosystem. A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that if the Ukraine were to reconquer all of its territory with similar battlefield losses, its population would be zeroed out well before it reached that goal.
Russia’s Special Military operation in the Ukraine, now in its sixth months, has succeeded in “liberating” (if you accept the Russian term) roughly the third of the Ukraine’s population and territory that is most valuable, all the while maintaining a three-to-one disadvantage in troop numbers against the Ukrainian side and in spite of the Ukrainian’s eight-year lead in establishing fortified defensive positions. This is an achievement without precedent in the annals of military science. Throughout this period, the Russian strategy has been designed to minimize casualties among the Russian military and the civilian population. Meanwhile, losses on the Ukrainian side have been very high, with much of the original contingent either no longer alive or no longer fit for action. The exact numbers will be kept secret until the operation’s conclusion, but informal estimates of the kill ratio are in the neighborhood of ten to one. The latest innovation of surrendering not particularly valuable bits of territory to an all-out Ukrainian onslaught, then perhaps gaining it back as per usual, improves this kill ratio to perhaps a hundred to one.
To explain, let me use an analogy. Suppose your job is to rid of feral cats a large, dimly lit and cluttered room. You need to grab each cat by the scruff of the neck and stuff it in a bag. There are three possible tactics the cats might deploy. The first is for them to try to hide from you, forcing you to move heavy furniture away from walls and to clear passageways so that you might find them and flush them out of their hiding places. This is equivalent to blasting the Ukrainians out of their fortified positions. The second is for them to try to run away from you, forcing you to chase after them, perhaps tripping over furniture and hurting yourself in the process. This is the equivalent of advancing while subjecting retreating Ukrainians to artillery barrages. And the third is rile up the cats and to get them to try to attack you. If you are properly dressed for it and agile (good armor and a highly mobile defensive strategy) you should be able to grab the smaller cats and stuff them in the bag, fight off the larger ones, and leave the room quickly with a bag full of cats having sustained a few bites and scratches.
Thus, the strategy of gaining, then surrendering, then regaining noncritical bits of territory is superior to both picking apart entrenched positions using artillery and to advancing steadily as the Ukrainians retreat. Some people bemoan the fate of civilians who are caught in the crossfire. These civilians have been given the opportunity to evacuate to Russia, where camps have been set up to receive them, stocked with food, medicine and everything else necessary, there to wait out the hostilities. Those that chose to remain are the ones who are unwilling to decide whether they want to be with Russia or with the Ukraine; if so, why should the Russians be particularly concerned with risking their own lives to defend theirs?
A historical note on the patch of ground recently surrendered by the Russians: Balakleya, from the Turkic “fish river,” was first mentioned in a chronicle in 1571, as a defensive outpost of the Moscow state. It was initially a Crimean Tatar settlement that was replaced by a Cossack outpost in 1663. It fits the definition of noncritical territory. It is vastly less important than driving the Ukrainians away from Donetsk, so that they can no longer continuously shell its schools, hospitals and markets using US-supplied weapons.
But these are all minor details. The sweeping panorama is of a great winter of Western discontent, with lack of heat, shortages of electricity, expensive and increasingly scarce food and a great show of financial, economic and political dysfunction. Once the snow melts, we will be in a brave new world in which, we should hope, the collective West will suddenly become much more reasonable and more willing to seek peaceful accommodation with those on whose kindness its survival depends. Here is Gazprom’s lyrical take on it.
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