Big Serge Thoughts

Big Serge Thoughts
29 Sep 2022 | 10:24 pm

The War Has Just Begun

"You should know, by and large, we haven't even started anything yet in earnest."

I have been attempting for several days to collect my thoughts on the Russo-Ukrainian War and condense them into another analysis piece, but my efforts were consistently frustrated by the war's stubborn refusal to sit still. After a slow, attritional grind for much of the summer, events have begun to accelerate, calling to mind a famous quip from Vladimir Lenin: "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen."

This has been one of those weeks. It began with the commencement of referenda in four former Ukrainian oblasts to determine whether or not to join the Russian Federation, accompanied by Putin's announcement that reservists would be called up to augment the force deployment in Ukraine. Further excitement bubbled up from the Baltic seabed with the mysterious destruction of the Nordstream pipelines. Nuclear rumors circulate, and all the while the war on the ground continues.

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In all, it is clear that we are currently in the transitional period towards a new phase of the war, with higher Russian force deployment, expanded rules of engagement, and greater intensity looming. Season 2 of the Special Military Operation looms, and with it the Winter of Yuri:

Twitter avatar for @witte_sergeiBig Serge ☦️🇺🇸🇷🇺 @witte_sergei The Big Serge Pledge Special Military Operation, Season 2: The Winter of Yuri

September 27th 2022

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Let's try to process all the developments of the past few weeks and get a handle on the trajectory in Ukraine.


The keystone event at the heart of recent escalation was the announcement of referenda in four regions (Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson) to determine the question of entry into the Russian Federation. The implication of course was that if the referenda succeeded (a question that was never in doubt), these regions would be annexed to Russia. While there were some rumors circulating that Russia would delay the annexation, this was never really plausible. To allow these regions to vote in favor of joining Russia only to leave them out in the cold would be monumentally unpopular and raise serious doubts about Russia's commitment to its people in Ukraine.

Formal annexation is a certainty, if not on September 30th as rumored, then within the next week.

All of this is rather predictable, and completes the first layer of annexations which I noted in previous analysis. The reasoning is not particularly complex: clearing the Donbas and securing Crimea were the absolute minimum Russian objectives for the war, and securing Crimea requires both a land bridge with road and rail connections (Zaporizhia oblast) and controlling Crimea's water sources (Kherson). These minimum objectives have now been formally designated, though of course Ukraine maintains some military activity on these territories and will have to be dislodged.

The Big Serge Annexation Map: Phase 1 Complete

I think, however, that people lost focus as to what the referenda and the ensuing annexation means. Western talking points focused on the illegitimacy of the votes and the illegality of any annexation, but this is really not very interesting or important. The legitimacy of annexation is derived from whether or not Russian administration can succeed in these regions. Legitimacy, as such, is merely a question of efficacy of state power. Can the state protect, extract, and adjudicate?

In any case, what is far more interesting than the technicalities of the referenda is what the decision to annex these regions says about Russian intentions. Once these regions become formally annexed, they will be viewed by the Russian state as sovereign Russian territory, subject to protection with the full range of Russian capabilities, including (in the most dire and unlikely scenario) nuclear weapons. When Medvedev pointed this out, it was bizarrely spun as a "nuclear threat", but what he was actually trying to communicate is that these four oblasts will become part of Russia's minimum definition of state integrity - non-negotiables, in other words.

I think the best way to formulate it is as such:

Annexation confers a formal designation that a territory has been deemed existentially important to the Russian state, and will be contested as if the integrity of the nation and state is at risk.

Those fixating on the "legality" of the referenda (as if such a thing exists) and Medvedev's supposed nuclear blackmail are missing this point. Russia is telling us where it currently draws the line for its absolute minimum peace conditions. It's not walking away without at least these four oblasts, and it considers the full range of state capabilities to be in play to achieve that goal.

Force Generation

The move to hold referenda and eventually annex the southeastern rim was accompanied with Putin's long-awaited announcement of a "partial mobilization". Ostensibly, the initial order calls up just 300,000 men with previous military experience, but the door is left upon for further surges at the discretion of the president's office. Implicitly, Putin can now ramp up the mobilization as he sees fit without needing to make further announcements or sign more paperwork. This is similar to American Lend-Lease or the "Authorization for Use of Military Force" in America, where the door is opened once and the President is then free to move at will without even informing the public.

It was increasingly clear that Russia needed to raise its force deployment. Ukraine's successful drive to the Oskil River was made possible by Russian economy of force. The Russian army had completely hollowed out Kharkiv Oblast, leaving only a thin screening force of national guardsmen and LNR militia. In places where the Russian Army has chosen to deploy sizeable regular formations, the results have been disastrous for Ukraine - the infamous Kherson Counteroffensive turned into a shooting gallery for Russian artillery, with the Ukrainian Army haplessly funneling men into a hopeless bridgehead at Andriivka.

A Shooting Gallery

So far in this war, Ukraine has achieved two big successes retaking territory: first in the spring, around Kiev, and now the late summer recapture of Kharkov Oblast. In both cases, the Russians had preemptively hollowed out the sector. We have yet to see a successful Ukrainian offensive against the Russian Army in a defensive posture. The obvious solution, therefore, is to raise the force deployment so that it is no longer necessary to hollow out sections of the front.

The initial surge of 300,000 men is being a bit muddled. Not all of the men being called up will be sent to Ukraine. Many will remain in Russia on garrison duty so that existing ready formations can be rotated to Ukraine. Therefore, it is likely that we will see more Russian units arriving in theater much sooner than expected. Additionally, many of the units originally committed to Ukraine have been off the front for refitting and resting. The scale and pace of Russia's new force generation is likely to shock people. On the whole, the timing of Russia's manpower surge coincides with the depletion of Ukrainian capabilities.

Ukraine spent the summer sending its 2nd tier conscripts to the front in the Donbas as it lovingly collected NATO-donated weapons and trained units in the rear. With generous NATO help, Ukraine was able to accumulate forces for two full scale offensives - one in Kherson (which failed spectacularly) and one in Kharkov (which succeeded in pushing past the Russian screening force and reaching the Oskil). Much of that carefully accumulated fighting power is now gone or degraded. Rumors circulated of a third offensive towards Melitipol, but Ukraine does not seem to have the combat power to achieve this, and strong Russian forces are in the region behind prepared defensive lines.

On the whole, therefore, Ukraine's window for offensive operations has closed, and what remains is closing quickly. The last zone of intense Ukrainian operations is around Lyman, where aggressive Ukrainian attacks have so far failed to either storm or encircle the town. It is still possible that they take Lyman and consolidate control of Kupyansk, but this would likely represent the culmination of Ukrainian offensive capability. For now, the area around Lyman is a killing zone that exposes attacking Ukrainian troops to Russian air and ground fires.

The large scale view of force ratios is as follows:

Ukraine has spent much of the combat power that they accumulated with NATO help during the summer, and will have an urgent need to reduce combat intensity for refitting and rearming at precisely the same time that Russian combat power in the theater begins to surge.

Simultaneously, NATO's ability to arm Ukraine is on the verge of exhaustion. Let's look at this more closely.

Depleting NATO

One of the more fascinating aspects of the war in Ukraine is the extent to which Russia has contrived to attrit NATO military hardware without fighting a direct war with NATO forces. In a previous analysis I referred to Ukraine as a vampiric force which has reversed the logic of the proxy war; it's a black hole sucking in NATO gear for destruction.

There are now very limited stockpiles to draw from to continue to arm Ukraine. Military Watch Magazine noted that NATO has drained the old Warsaw Pact tank park, leaving them bereft of Soviet tanks to donate to Ukraine. Once these reservoirs are fully tapped, the only option will be giving Ukraine western tank models. This, however, is much harder than it sounds, because it would require not only extensive training of tank crews, but also an entirely different selection of ammunition, spare parts, and repair facilities.

Tanks are not the only problem, however. Ukraine is now staring down the barrel (heh heh) of a serious shortage of conventional tube artillery. Earlier in the summer, the United States donated 155mm howitzers, but with stockpiles of both guns and shells dwindling, they've recently been forced to turn to lower caliber towed trash. After the announcement of yet another aid tranche on September 28th, the USA has now put together five consecutive packages which do not contain any conventional 155mm shells. Shells for Ukraine's Soviet vintage artillery were running low as early as June.

In effect, the effort to keep Ukraine's artillery arm functioning has gone through a few phases. In the first phase, Warsaw Pact stockpiles of Soviet shells were drained to supply Ukraine's existing guns. In the second phase, Ukraine was given mid-level western capabilities, especially the 155mm howitzer. Now that 155mm shells are running low, Ukraine has to make do with 105mm guns which are badly outranged by Russian howitzers and will be, in a word, doomed in any kind of counterbattery action.

As a substitute for adequate tube artillery, the latest aid package does include 18 more of the internet's favorite meme weapon - the HIMARS Multiple Launch Rocket System. What is not explicitly mentioned in the press release is that the HIMARS systems don't exist in current US inventories and will have to be built, and are thus unlikely to arrive in Ukraine for several years.

The increasing difficulties in arming Ukraine coincide with the rapid closing of Ukraine's window of operational opportunity. The forces accumulated over the summer are degraded and fought out, and every subsequent rebuild of the Ukrainian first tier forces will become harder as manpower is destroyed and NATO arsenals are depleted. This depletion comes precisely as Russian force generation is surging, foretelling the Winter of Yuri.

The Winter War

Anyone who expects the war to slow down during the winter is in for a surprise. Russia is going to launch a late autumn/winter offensive and achieve significant gains. The arc of force generation (both Russia's increasing force accumulation and Ukraine's degradation) coincide with the approach of cold weather.

Let's make a brief note about combat in the cold. Russia is perfectly capable of waging effective operations in the snow. Going back to World War Two, the Red Army was more than capable of offensive success during the winter, starting in 1941 with the general counteroffensive at Moscow, again in 1942 with the destruction of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad, and in 1943-44 with two successful large scale offensives beginning in the winter. Now, of course World War Two is not directly applicable in all ways, but we can establish that from a technical standpoint there is a clearly established capability to wage operations in cold weather.

We also have more recent examples. In 2015, during the first Donbas War, LNR and DNR forces launched a pincer operation which successfully encircled a Ukrainian battalion at the Battle of Debaltseve. And, of course, the Russo-Ukrainian War begin in February, when much of northern Ukraine was below freezing temperatures.

Nice Move

Winter weather actually favors a Russian offensive for multiple reasons. One of the paradoxes of military operations is that freezing weather actually enhances mobility - vehicles can get stuck in mud, but not on frozen ground. From 1941-43, German troops celebrated the arrival of spring, because the thaw promised to bog the Red Army down in mud and slow their momentum. The winter death of foliage also reduces the cover available to troops in a defensive posture. And, of course, cold weather favors the side with more reliable access to energy.

As for where Russia will choose to commit its newly generated forces, there are four realistic possibilities, which I will enumerate in no particular order:

  1. Reopening the Northern Front with an operation around Kharkov. The attractiveness of this option is clear. A Russian move in force towards Kharkov would immediately collapse all of Ukraine's gains towards the Oskil by compromising their rear areas.

  2. An offensive on Nikolayev out of the Kherson region. This would move further towards the goal of a landlocked Ukraine, and would take advantage of the fact that Ukrainian forces in this region are badly chewed up after their own failed offensive.

  3. Massive commitment to the Donbas to finish the liberation of DNR territory by capturing Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. This is less likely, as Russia has demonstrated comfort with the slow tempo of operations on this front.

  4. A push north from the Melitopol area towards Zaparozhia. This would safeguard the nuclear powerplant and end any credible threats to the land bridge to Crimea.

Other possibilities I regard as unlikely. A second advance on Kiev would make little operational sense, as it would not support any of the existing fronts. I would expect action around Kiev only if the new force generation is significantly larger than the headline number of 300,000. Otherwise, Russia's winter offensives are likely to be concentrated on mutually supporting fronts. I think some movement to reopen the northern is likely, as it would completely compromise Ukraine's gains in the Izyum-Kupyansk direction. There are rumors that forces are being moved into Belarus, but I actually think the Chernigov-Sumy axis would be more likely than a new Kiev operation, as it could be supportive of an offensive on Kharkov.

Potential Axes of Winter Advance (Base Map Credit: @War_Mapper)

On the broadest level, it is clear that Ukraine's window to conduct offensive operations is nearing its close, and the force generation ratios on the ground are going to swing decisively in Russia's favor through the winter.

Nordstream and Escalation

As we were pondering these developments on the ground, yet another plotline emerged underwater. The first hint that something was amiss was the news that pressure in the Nordstream 1 pipeline was dropping mysteriously. It was then revealed that the pipeline - along with the non-operational Nordstream 2 - had suffered serious damage. Swedish seismologists recorded explosions on the floor of the Baltic Sea, and it was revealed that the pipelines are heavily damaged.

Let's be frank about this. Russia did not blow up its own pipelines, and it is ludicrous to suggest that they did. The importance of the pipeline to Russia lay in the fact that it could be switched on and off, providing a mechanism for leverage and negotiation vis a vis Germany. In the classic carrot and stick formulation, one cannot move the donkey if the carrot is blown up. The *only* feasible scenario in which Russia might be responsible for the sabotage would be if some hardliner faction within the Russian government felt that Putin was moving too slowly, and wanted to force an escalation. This would imply, however, that Putin is losing internal control, and there is no evidence whatsoever for such a theory.

And so, we return to elementary analysis, and ask: Cui bono? Who benefits? Well, considering Poland celebrated the opening of a new pipeline to Norway only a few days ago, and a certain former Polish MP cryptically thanked the United States on Twitter, it is fair to make a few guesses.

The first lesson of doing crimes is not to brag about it on twitter

Let us briefly meditate on the actual implications of Nordstream's demise.

  1. Germany loses what little autonomy and flexibility it had, making it even more dependent on the United States.

  2. Russia loses a point of leverage over Europe, reducing the inducements to negotiation.

  3. Poland and Ukraine become even more critical transit hubs for gas.

Russia clearly perceives this as a bridge burning move of sabotage by NATO, designed to back them into a corner. The Russian government has decried it as an act of "international terrorism" and argued that the explosions occurred in areas "controlled by NATO" - the concatenation of these statements is that they blame NATO for an act of terrorism, without explicitly saying that. This precipitated another meeting of the Russian National Security Council.

Many western nations have advised their citizens to leave Russia immediately, suggesting they are worried about escalation (this coincides with Ukraine's unhinged claim that Russia may be about to use nuclear weapons). For the time being, I expect Russian escalation to remain confined to Ukraine itself, likely coinciding with the deployment of additional Russian ground forces. If Russia feels compelled to undertake an out of theater escalation, targeting American satellites, digital infrastructure, or forces in Syria remain the most likely option.

On the Precipice

I am fully cognizant that my views will be spun as "coping" after Ukraine's gains in Kharkov oblast, but time will tell out. Ukraine is on its last legs - they drained everything usable out of NATO stockpiles to build up a first tier force over the summer, and that force has been mauled and degraded beyond repair just as Russia's force generation is set to massively increase. Winter will bring not only the eclipse of the Ukrainian army, the destruction of vital infrastructure, and the loss of new territory and population centers, but also a severe economic crisis in Europe. In the end, the United States will be left to rule over a deindustrialized and degraded Europe, and a rump Ukrainian trashcanistan sequestered west of the Dnieper.

For now, though, we are in the interregnum as the last flames of Ukraine's fighting power flickers out. Then there will be an operational pause, and then a Russian winter offensive. There will be several weeks where nothing happens, and then everything will happen.

During that operational pause, you may be tempted to ask - "is it done, Yuri?"

No, Comrade Premiere. It has only begun.


Big Serge Thoughts
16 Sep 2022 | 10:28 pm

Three Regimes in Russia


Revolutions can be tricky things. Often, they are fairly obvious and hard to miss - the Bastille is stormed, the Tsar is placed under house arrest, or the British are forced to leave the Atlantic seaboard in disgrace. The political and societal churn that accompanies such dramatic state upheaval provides catharsis for angry populations, avenues of ascent for the ambitious, and the climactic "year zero" of the new state, society and man, who is permitted to believe that everything really has changed. These sorts of revolutions feel good - at least for a time.

Paradoxically, however, the most successful political revolutions tend to be the ones that nobody notices.

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Consider, for example, the curious case of England, where a decade of civil war, regicide, and a brief interregnum of rule by Oliver Cromwell failed to resolve the tensions between the Crown and Parliament. Within a few years of Cromwell's death, the restored monarchy had issued a Sedition Act which made it a crime to even suggest that Parliament could rule without the King's assent. Monarchs continued to veto acts of Parliament, right up until 1708, when Queen Anne vetoed the Scottish Militia Bill. Since that moment, no British monarch has vetoed an act of Parliament - but why? Nothing about the legal mechanism was formally changed; no heads were chopped off. Under Queen Anne's successor, George I, royal power gradually diminished and the guiding animus of the state concretized around a cabinet led by Lord Robert Walpole, who became the de facto first Prime Minister.

Cromwell's revolution did not last. Neither did the counterrevolution of the restored monarchy. Walpole's however, did, and it happened gradually and almost indiscernibly to the common people of England - like the proverbial frog that is slowly brought up to boil.

Americans, similarly, like to speak of their "Revolution", naively believing that there was only one. In fact, America has undergone no less than four revolutions. The first, most famous, and only openly acknowledged one ended British rule, but the subsequent, unseen revolutions changed the American system of government no less than the first had.

The American Civil War forced the state to expand its capacity to deal with the strains of war - the state sold bonds and levied income taxes for the first time, created new agencies like the Bureau of Pensions and a primitive Department of Agriculture, and government contractors exploded as the government vacuumed up weapons and supplies. The rapid expansion of the federal bureaucracy also spawned a patronage system, wherein jobs and sinecures were distributed as political favors - a concept that is very familiar to modern Americans who are used to seeing the revolving door between Washington DC and the defense contractors in Baltimore and Northern Virginia.

Subsequent American revolutions occurred in the 1930's, when the Great Depression provided screening for FDR's New Deal and the further metastasization of the federal bureaucracy and its powers (Wickard v. Filburn), and again in the 1960's, when Civil Rights added a new dimension of litigiousness to society. The Civil Rights movement sought to overturn a democratically established system of legal oppression in the South - a worthy cause, perhaps, but to accomplish this, the federal government needed to empower judges and bureaucrats against southern state governments, creating, in effect, a weaponized federal apparatus that did not simply disappear once segregation had been dismantled.

The point of this admittedly rather long detour is not to air the laundry of Anglo-American political history, but rather to make what I think is an important point: the political system of a country can be radically remade without the accompanying bloodshed that we typically think of as characterizing revolutions.

Such "silent revolutions" have occurred countless times in countless places, but here I would like to consider the ways this has occurred in Russia.

Civil War Without Revolution

One of the defining periods of Russian history is the so-called Time of Troubles (in Russia, simply "Смута", or "the Troubles"). This was a fifteen year period of civil war and general societal upheaval which took place between 1598 and 1613.

The causes were myriad. Underlying the whole situation was a general exhaustion of Russia's security and economic model. The Tsar granted landed estates to the military class in exchange for their service, but by the late 1500's the country was short on both productive agricultural land and peasants to work the fields. As a result, military servitors found it ever harder to meet their expenses (some even sold themselves into temporary slavery), and the peasantry was ever more harshly oppressed by their landlords. Simultaneously, Russian urban areas were becoming depopulated as residents fled to avoid taxes (one peculiarity of the Russian state at the time being the fact that the tax burden fell almost exclusively on townsfolk). The whole concoction was very dangerous - a resentful and oppressed peasantry, depopulated and impoverished towns, and a military servitor class that was barely hanging on.

The extinction of the ruling dynasty provided the match to light the whole explosive mixture on fire. The Tsar, Feodor I, was mentally handicapped (some now suspect Downs Syndrome) and unable to produce an heir, and his death sent the country spiraling into a cataclysmic civil war which ravaged the land. The Troubles live up to their name in every way - the country was subjected to the bizarre spectacle of a series of imposter tsars, who all claimed to be "Dmitri", the supposed long lost son of Ivan the Terrible. Every time a Dmitri was killed, a new imposter would materialize claiming to have miraculously escaped death. Eventually, Russia was invaded by both Poland and Sweden, while much of the country became the domain of armed bandits. Moscow was finally liberated after an extended Polish occupation by an army of patriotic Cossacks and militia.

The Time of Troubles fits the conventional profile of a political revolution. The ruling dynasty went extinct, and the subsequent unrest and civil war saw mass participation from virtually all strata of society. The end result of the troubles, however, was the total reset of political system to its pre-Troubles form. Michael Romanov was chosen to become the new Tsar, and his coronation and reign were carefully choreographed to signal continuity with the old dynasty (to whom he was related). Despite the fact that the liberation of Moscow and the enthronement of the Romanovs was made possible by the lower classes - especially the Cossacks - the reconstituting Romanov state was built around the high born princes and aristocrats (boyars), and expended much of its energy putting the Cossacks back in their place.

The result was a Civil War which ended in a political settlement wherein nothing changed. The desire, after so much disorder and death, was only to put everything back the way it was before, and the first Romanovs presented themselves as a continuation of the interrupted old Tsardom. Power continued to be concentrated in the aristocratic families that swirled in constellation around the throne… at least for a time.

The Rule of Strong Men

Peter the Great was born in 1672 into a very confused political situation. He was the son of Tsar Alexei by his second wife - the first having died after giving the Alexei several children. As the child of the second marriage, Peter's position in the hierarchy was not ideal, but each of his half siblings had problems that helped his case: the eldest boy, Feodor, was extremely frail and chronically ill (and would indeed die shortly after taking the throne), the second, Ivan, had some undiagnosed but extreme mental handicap (he allegedly sat still staring blankly into space for hours), and the rest were girls and thus unable to take the throne.

Given the confused state of the court - and the activities of ambitious and conniving aristocrats who were always seeking to aggrandize themselves - Peter spent his formative years shuffled off to the side, where he began to do what many young boys have done throughout the ages: he played soldier. As a royal son, however, Peter had the power to recruit local boys, requisition real weaponry, and hire foreign instructors to drill them. Peter's famous "toy army" became his adolescent preoccupation - but it was also the embryonic form of the Guards Regiments that would become a crucial arm of the state.

From a group of boys drilling in the woods outside Moscow, Peter's regiments were gradually transformed into bona fide military units, which were formally christened the Semyonovsky and Preobrazhensky Life Guards Regiments. The regiments fought with distinction in Peter's wars against Sweden, and when he built the new city of St Petersburg on the Baltic and moved the capital there, the Guards Regiments became a sort of gendarme, permanently posted in the heart of the court.

Sergei Soloviev on Peter the Great: "No people ever accomplished such a heroic deed as the one accomplished by the Russian people in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. On the historical scene there appeared a people, little known, poor, weak… by superhuman efforts, by frightful sacrifices… it became a powerful people… The man who guided that people in that deed, we have every right to call the greatest historical figure, for no one can have a greater importance in the history of civilization."

Alongside his overhaul of the military and the formation of the Guards, Peter famously engaged in a concerted effort to whip the nobility into shape (sometimes literally). For centuries, the Russian aristocracy had been governed by a system known as Mestnichestvo ("Position Rank"), which placed all the aristocratic families in a tightly regulated and choreographed hierarchy based on family pedigree, and determined which men could be appointed to which positions. This system was a bulwark against meritocracy, incentivized jealousy, and stagnated the ruling system. According to the iconic Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky:

"You could beat a boyar up, you could take away his property, you could expel him from government service, but you could never make him accept an appointment or a seat at the tsar's table lower than what he is entitled to."

In place of this sclerotic system, Peter instituted a famed "Table of Ranks", which assigned hierarchical preeminence based on service to the state - it further equivocated between service in the civil government, the military, and the court. For example, a State Councilor in the civil government (usually a vice-governor or the vice-director of a government bureau) was equivalent to a Brigadier General in the Army, or to a Cup-Bearer in the court. The Table of Ranks was intended to jolt the aristocracy into action, creating a competitive drive to serve the state in order to enhance their ranks.

The Table of Ranks did not eliminate Russia's hereditary aristocracy. Most high positions continued to be filled be the sons of old and great families - but the reforms did create the necessary incentives to drive better state service from these men, as well as create avenues for ambitious and competent low-born men to rise. The frenetic activity of Peter's reign allowed a coterie of key functionaries to coalesce around him. Some, like Boris Sheremetev, were the scions of old aristocratic families; others, like Alexander Menshikov - "The Prince from the Dirt" - were commoners who came from nothing.

Menshikov: The Prince from the Dirt

The ingredients of Peter's silent revolution begin to come together. The Guards Regiments mill about their barracks in the heart of the Saint Petersburg palaces - a potent armed force in direct proximity to the halls of power and free access to the rooms where secrets are whispered. Menshikov and Peter's other "New Men" - men who enjoyed a meteoric rise by participating in Peter's numerous reforms and projects, who would militate to protect the new system. Finally, we add in the simple fact that Russia had no concretized system of succession. Peter favored a system of designation, allowing the reigning Tsar-Emperor to choose their heir, but he never exercised this prerogative himself - famously writing 'leave it all to" on his deathbed, and falling unconscious before he could complete the sentence.

No sooner had Peter the Great died than the system he built sprang into action to defend itself. Menshikov convened the rest of the inner circle in a room down the hall from the Tsar's body, and they agreed that Peter's second wife, Catherine, should become Empress. Menshikov summoned the Guards Regiments and appraised them of the situation. The Guards then paraded out into the grounds of the Winter Palace and acclaimed "our Sovereign Lady and Empress Catherine."

For the entirety of the 18th Century - beginning with Peter the Great - power in Russia was settled by the will of strong men in Saint Petersburg. Catherine I was chosen in 1725 by Peter's men, and her ascension was made real by the Guards Regiments. In 1730, Anna (a niece of Peter's) was then similarly chosen by Catherine's privy council. The childless Anna designated her infant nephew as her heir, but the child and his parents were soon arrested by the Guards Regiments, who instead acclaimed Peter's daughter Elizabeth as the Empress. Finally, Elizabeth's own nephew (another Peter, and a particularly lousy one) was himself arrested and murdered by the Imperial Guards, who favored his wife (another Catherine, and a particularly great one).

All the transitions of power between the death of Peter the Great and the time of Catherine the Great at the end of the 18th century were decided almost entirely by the Guards Regiments and the strongmen at the highest ranks of the state at the time. This has at times been characterized as Russia's age of Praetorian Rule, recalling the Praetorian Guard of the Roman Empire, which both murdered and selected emperors seemingly at will. The Guards were the creation of the Emperor, but over time the Emperor (or Empress, as the case may be) seemed to increasingly be the creation of the Guards. Catherine the Great in particular, as a foreigner, owed her reign to the support of the Guards, and her two most famous lovers - Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin - were both Guards officers.

Because the Guards and the strongmen of the nobility were the crucial determinants in any transition of power, they necessarily became the base of power for the monarch. The entire guiding animus of Peter's reign had been to modernize Russia by goading the elites into action; crafting carrots and sticks that would force a lethargic, sclerotic, and corrupt hereditary aristocracy into rendering better and more dynamic state service, wedding them to Peter's project of modernization.


Peter's silent revolution was to elevate strong men to the heights of the state and nurture a prestigious and politically invested armed force in the heart of the court. This created a self-perpetuating Petrine machine that drove Russia's ascent to preeminence; the machine conscripted peasants to build new cities and man the army, creeping like slow moving lava over weakened neighbors like Poland and the decaying Khanates of Central Asia, reaching an apogee under Catherine the Great, who conquered Crimea from the Tatars and settled the steppes of Novorossiya with Russian peasants, founding the cities of Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson, Sevastopol, and Mariupol. When the ruler faltered - either by dying, or by being weak - Peter's Praetorian Machine sprang into action to select and install a new Emperor or Empress that would safeguard and advance its interests.

All of this was undone by one of the most ignominious and unappreciated of Russia's rulers - Tsar Paul, son of Catherine the Great. Paul ruled for only five years, and had the bad fortune of being the link between his famous mother and his son Alexander I, who defeated Napoleon, making Paul himself look rather lame by comparison. He also had the even worse fortune of being assassinated, which virtually ensured a negative popular image, since assassins are rarely induced to speak well of their victims.

Paul spent most of his life languishing, waiting for his mother to die so that he could rule (not unlike King Charles III). Paul resented the fact that his mother - who was not Russian at all - had, in effect, usurped his father and generally considered Catherine to have unjustly occupied throne. Paul could not go back in time and begin his reign earlier, but he could prevent the same injustice from befalling his descendants - so, one of his first acts was to promulgate a formal succession law dictating that the throne should pass down by strict male primogeniture. This, with a single stroke of the pen, neutered the Praetorian State by denying the Guards and the Aristocrats of their power to influence the succession.

Tsar Paul I

Paul was not done. He was a man with strong military inclinations - not in the sense of craving war or violence, but in his love of the predictability, discipline, and hierarchy of the army. He therefore attempted to force the Russian aristocracy into a more intense and disciplined service to the state – what one historian has called Paul's attempted "militarization of government". He had little sympathy for the liberties that the nobility had enjoyed under Catherine, and encouraged provincial governors to pressure aristocratic sons into state service. It has been suggested that Paul suffered from what would now be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder: he was extremely preoccupied with rules, cleanliness, and predictability, and he imposed these principles on his environment by attempting to create a more rationalized government that ran according to routines and procedures. This led him to lean on professional administrators rather than a loose coterie of aristocratic administrators.

Paul's twin attempts to both neutralize aristocratic privileges and force the nobility into more intense state service naturally made him unpopular with those same aristocrats (his paranoia and mercurial manners did not help), and in due time he was assassinated in his bedchamber. But the succession law stayed, and his son Alexander took the throne. From that point on, the throne passed cleanly down the male line.

Paul's descendants steadily moved the country towards a cabinet style government, with successive advances under Nicholas I, who established a multi-department Chancery that ran most affairs of state, and Alexander II, who abolished serfdom. The end of serfdom was a great moral victory, but it also forced a radical reorganization of the country's administrative life. The relationship between landowner and serf was an oppressive one, but it was also the basis of the state's functionality. Landowners acted as conscription agents, tax collectors, and police on their own estates - lightening the administrative burden on the state and distributing responsibility for keeping law and order. With serfdom ended, this relationship was severed, and the state was forced to radically expand its footprint in order to take up the administrative and policing duties that had previously belonged to the aristocracy.

By the late 1800's, the power structure in Russia had been radically changed, and the old cooperative arrangement between the aristocracy and the monarch had gradually given way to a bureaucratized autocracy where the Tsar wielded unconstrained political power (in theory, at least) enforced by a thinly stretched administrative police state.

The Russian state underwent two systematic restructurings under the Romanov dynasty. The first was inaugurated by Peter the Great, who tried to break apart the stale and calcified old feudal rank system and reinvigorate the aristocracy with new incentives and a powerful Praetorian Guard to safeguard the machine. The second began with Paul, who in turn neutralized the political power of the Guards to control the succession process, and continued by his sons and grandsons, who pushed Russia further away from aristocratic oligarchy towards a bureaucratic-administrative state. Both of these revolutions were essentially silent, in that they occurred by the gradual action of political mechanisms, and without major social unrest or civil war. Even the abolition of serfdom was achieved bloodlessly - no small feat indeed.

The Age of Party Rule

Of course, not all revolutions are bloodless and quiet. Russia's most famous revolution was born in a world war and became a civil war which left untold millions dead. This is not the place to adjudicate or discuss the events that led to Bolshevik rule in the lands of the Russian Empire. Instead, let us make a brief meditation on the political fruits of that war and revolution. The Bolsheviks crafted something entirely new and undeniably innovative: the party-state.

The defining structural feature of the Soviet state was innovative party-state dualism. The Bolshevik Party, later renamed the Communist Party, remained a nominally private organization that was institutionally separate from the state. It wielded power by virtue of personal union with the state, rather than legal or institutional union. That is to say, the Communist Party ruled the Soviet Union because every member of the state's organs - every bureaucrat, policeman, the head of every trade union, the manager of every factory, the director of every collective farm, and every commissar (equivalent to a minister or secretary in western parlance) was a member of the Party, and was duty bound to obey party dictates. The state had a Council of People's Commissars, which on paper was a fairly typical cabinet style government, whose chairman was the equivalent of a prime minister. Yet decision making did not occur on this council; it occurred in the Politburo, which was the highest decision making body of the Party.

The 20th Party Congress

Virtually every institution in the country became statized, after the abolition of private property, and the nature of party-state dualism dictated that party organizations should proliferate and dominate inside all institutions. The result was something akin to a theocracy. The state, with its bureaucracy, police force, factories, farms, and intelligence services provided the the musculature and the organs of the Soviet Union, enabling it to move and act in the world - but the party provided the skeleton and the nerves, binding all the variegated parts together and ensuring that it acted with a single purpose.

The Party, in turn, was governed by the Secretariat and the Orgburo, which made personnel decisions, disciplined party members, and distributed rewards like jobs, apartments, cars, and vacations. These organs controlled the party "apparatus" - the administrative web of party committees and organizations staffed by "apparatchiks'', who were party members that worked full time for the party and did not hold outside posts (a powerful but narrow minority of the party's full membership). The focal point of this control system was the Nomenklatura ("System of Names"), which consisted of those party members that were elevated to state positions - factory managers, university administrators, bureaucratic posts, and high office.

The consolidation of the party-state dual structure was achieved under Stalin, whose massive appetite for work, administrative prowess, and political acumen gave him the skillset needed to tame an entirely new sort of state structure and force it to do what he wanted. Any suspicions that the party-state was a manifestation of Stalin's will were put to rest after his death. Lavrentiy Beria and Georgy Malenkov, two crucial members of Stalin's inner circle at the end of his life, both had technocratic tendencies - which is to say, they favored empowering the state organs and reducing the overt influence of the party. They were defeated in the post-Stalin power struggle by Nikita Khrushchev - a party man par excellence whose base of power was precisely the apparatchiks whose influence Beria wanted to curtail.

Ultimately, the party state was undone by its final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who disastrously opted to neuter his own administrative system. In many ways, he faced a problem that was intimately familiar to Peter the Great: an elite that had become sclerotic, corrupt, and - as Gorbachev saw it - simply incapable of doing what needed to be done to carry the country forward. Gorbachev desperately wanted to be a reformer - he earnestly desired to be a second Lenin, who could reinvigorate the socialist system and push a stagnating superpower to new heights. But the party was a problem - as the source of all political power in the country, he needed the party to implement reforms, but the party apparatus was viewed as an obstacle to those very reforms.

Gorbachev believed that he needed to jolt the party into action and break through the opposition of the party apparatus. To do this, he neutered the secretariat - the same administrative body that was his own source of power. He distributed the secretariat's duties to other bodies, drastically reduced its staffing, and stopped convening meetings, before neutralizing the party's political power altogether with changes to the constitution. Having emaciated the powers of his own party, Gorbachev jumped to a new office - "President of the Soviet Union" - and attempted to use this new position to wield power.

For Gorbachev - a committed communist who idolized Lenin - to intentionally destroy the party's hold on power seems bizarre, but it makes good sense given his own presuppositions and logic. He believed that the sclerotic USSR needed reform, and he viewed the party - especially the apparatchiks - as a barrier to reform. But the idea of party-state dualism gave him an out; he could weaken the party while empowering the state, so that the state could do the work of reform that the party seemed unable or unwilling to do. What he did not understand (shockingly) was that it was the party that held the entire construct together. Without skeleton or nerves, the Soviet Union collapsed into an unseemly pile of formless flesh.

Regimes and Revolution

On a sojourn through Russian history, one can identify several discreet regimes, three of which we have discussed at length here:

  1. Praetorian Rule: rule by the monarch, through the Guards Regiments, strongmen, and aristocratic allies - animated by the reforms of Peter the Great.

  2. Bureaucratic Monarchy: rule by the monarch through the bureaucratic, administrative, and policing organs of the state. The transition towards this regime from the Praetorian regime was begun by Paul I changing the succession law, and concretized by his successors.

  3. The Party-State: a dualistic structure where the ruling party remained a private organization, institutionally separate from the state, but controlling all political and bureaucratic matters through its control of state personnel.

The comparison of the current Russian government to praetorian rule is obvious - Putin is surrounded by so-called "Siloviki", or "Strongmen". This is a government amply staffed with current and former personnel of state security agencies. Putin himself is a former head of the Federal Security Bureau, and the most powerful men in Russia are by and large "securocrats." While some have tried to call Russia a de-facto single party state, given United Russia's supermajority in legislative bodies, the comparison is an atrocious one. There is no omnipotent party apparatus controlling all things behind the scenes, and the bureaucratic reach of United Russia as such is miniscule and unworthy of comparison to the Communist Party in its heyday.

In any case, the long arc of Russia's history should give us pause before we seek to speak of its political system with broad, blunt categories. This is a civilization which marks its progress in centuries, and from its medieval past, to its Praetorian apogee, on down through the rise and fall of party rule, it has always been defined by tenacity and clever mobilization of resources. Putin is only the latest in a long line of Russian leaders to confront the problem of mobilizing indigenous resources while in a state of civilizational siege. Whether the securitocracy, this neo-Praetorian state can successfully manage the current crisis remains to be seen.

One thing that is clear from history, however, is that the state structure changes and adapts to face challenges - silent revolutions happen gradually, under the surface, as the state grapples with new challenges, fights to either reinvigorate or purge sclerotic and decaying elites (oligarchs, anyone?) and seeks new ways to defend itself and exert power. This applies to Russia's competitors no less than it does to Russia herself. So for those hoping for spectacular regime change - be it the fall of Putin, or the collapse of dominant western institutions - you may be disappointed. Sometimes the revolution is quiet.


Big Serge Thoughts
12 Sep 2022 | 9:02 pm

Special Military Operation, Season 2

The Power's Out!

September 9 - 11 will go down in history as a period of great significance in the Russo-Ukrainian war. Both belligerent parties crossed very important thresholds, which taken together suggest that the war is entering a new phase. On the 9th and 10th, Ukraine achieved its first concrete success of the war by retaking all the Russian-held territory in Kharkov Oblast west of the Oskil river, including the western bank of Kupyansk and the transit node of Izyum.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin convened an emergency meeting of his national security council, which precipitated Russia's own escalation on the 11th, when Ukrainian infrastructure was at long last subject to attack, plunging much of the country into darkness.

It seems clear that the war is entering a new phase, and it seems highly likely that both parties will attempt to take decisive action in the near feature. For now, let's try to parse through the developments of the past week and get a handle on where the war is heading.

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The Kharkov Counteroffensive

At the risk of sounding very pedantic, Ukraine's counteroffensive in eastern Kharkov Oblast is an excellent demonstration of the difficulties in evaluating military operations. Everyone agrees on the basic geography of what has happened: Ukraine cleared everything west of the Oskil river of Russian forces. Nobody agrees on what this means, however. I have seen all of the following interpretations posited - note, people reached all of these conclusions from the same set of data:

  • Russia has drawn Ukraine into a trap and will soon counterattack

  • Russia voluntarily withdrew from Kharkov to prioritize other fronts

  • Russia drew the Ukrainians out to hit them with artillery

  • Russia suffered a massive intelligence failure and did not see or respond to Ukraine's offensive

  • Russia suffered a defeat in battle and was forced to retreat

Let's do a methodical autopsy and see what we come away with.

The first thing we want to note is that the disparity of forces on this front was absolutely laughable. Ukraine assembled a strike group of at least five full brigades, and aimed at a line of contact which had no Russian regular troops at all. The Russian frontline defenses in the region were manned by allied donbas militia and national guardsmen. It seems there was a lone Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) in Izyum, but little else.

It is undeniable, even for Ukrainians celebrating the advance, that Kharkov oblast had been almost completely hollowed out of Russian troops, leaving little more than a screening force. Two important things flow from this. First, that the Ukrainian shock group was in most places advancing against virtually nonexistent resistance. Secondly, more ominously for Ukraine, the low quality units left behind for screening purposes were able to put up good resistance against the Ukrainians - the Rosgvardiya men in Balakliya held out tenaciously for several days before evacuating through a corridor.

In my previous analysis, conducted while the Ukrainian counteroffensive was just beginning to develop, I noted two important things about the shape of the battlefield.

  1. I argued that Ukraine would be unable to push across the Oskil and properly exploit their offensive.

  2. I noted that Ukraine was making rapid advances against thinly manned, hollowed out portions of the front, and that Russia had committed very little to the battle.

Both of these statements were correct. I freely admit, however, that I drew the incorrect conclusion from them. I believe the Ukrainian advance would culminate at the Oskil river, leaving them vulnerable to a Russian counterattack by the arriving reserves. It seems fairly clear now that this is incorrect, and the Russian reserves that were en-route were tasked with stabilizing the defense at the Oskil, not launching a counterattack.

This was not an operational trap by Russia, but neither was it a victory in battle for Ukraine - for the simple reason that there was not much of a battle at all. Russia had already hollowed out these positions, and withdrew the remaining screening forces very quickly. Ukraine covered a lot of ground, but were unable to destroy any Russian units, because there really weren't any there.

It would be silly to try to talk the Ukrainian side out of their excitement right now. Credit where credit is due, they did manage to put together a good sized shock group, aim it at a weak portion of the front, and regain a good bit of ground. Considering the abject lack of successes for Ukraine in this war, they are rightfully trying to eke every last bit of morale and propaganda out of this.

I do not, however, believe that the territorial losses in Kharkov in any way change the ultimate calculus of the war. Russia hollowed out this front and surrendered ground, but they were able to maul the Ukrainian forces as they advanced with relentless artillery and airstrikes. Ukrainian channels widely report overflowing hospitals. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed 4,000 killed and 8,000 wounded for Ukraine during their advance - I believe this is high, but even if we reduce the numbers by 50% (leaving us with 6,000 total casualties, reasonable given how much ordnance Russia discharged) it is very clear that the loss ratios in this operation were stacked badly against Ukraine, as they always are.


As I predicted in my last piece, Ukraine has so far been unable to exploit their offensive by reaching the operational depth. They have been totally unable to project forces across the Oskil River. With the advance eastward firmly culminated, they are seeking to maintain their momentum, or at least the appearance of it.

Ukraine's successful advance in Kharkov Oblast has been augmented with a blitz of fakery and propaganda designed to simulate a total shift in strategic momentum. These include fakes related to Russian domestic politics, such as fabricated calls for Putin's impeachment, and battlefield misinformation, like claims that the Ukrainian Army has breached the borders of the LNR or stormed Donetsk City. They have also circulated out of context videos (the most popular one shows a Russian vehicle depot in Crimea) purporting to show that the Russians abandoned hundreds of vehicles in Izyum.

The fakery is not important. Ukraine will, however, also attempt to maintain battlefield momentum by piggybacking on the Kharkov operation with additional counteroffensives. They continue to attempt to cross the Donets River in force to storm Lyman, unsuccessfully. They also continue their attacks in the Kherson direction, making little progress and taking high casualties.

The most important development, however, is the claim that a second Ukrainian shock group has been assembled in Zaparozhia. This is an area where the geography actually would allow Ukraine to achieve operational exploitation. A successful drive towards Melitopol or Mariupol would compromise the land bridge to Crimea and threaten to crumble Russia's entire position in the south.

Unlike Kharkov, however, this is not a hollowed out portion of the front. The newly formed Russian 3rd Corps is concentrated in the south, and Russian convoys have been spotted recently moving through the Mariupol region. Ukraine may very well attempt yet another offensive operation in this direction, but given the strength of the Russian grouping here the results will be more like Kherson than Kharkov.


During the opening months of the war, I argued on Twitter that massed offensives are difficult, and that Ukraine had not yet shown the organizational ability to organize an operational higher than the brigade level. All the attacking action that we saw from Ukraine early on took the form of single brigade - or more often, single battalion - commanders taking initiative.

Well, lo and behold, Ukraine managed to field at least two (Kherson, Kharkov) and perhaps three (Zaporizhia) multi-brigade shock groups, and launch coordinated operations. This was made possible because Ukraine is a pseudo-state, which is supplied, financed, and increasingly managed by NATO. Western agencies cannot resist bragging - Britain identified itself as the party responsible for planning and organizing the Kherson operation, while the USA claims credit for the more successful Kharkov attack.

It is difficult to overstate the extent to which Ukraine is sustained solely by the west. Ukrainian soldiers are trained by NATO officers, armed with NATO weapons, accompanied in the field by NATO soldiers foreign volunteers, and the Ukrainian pseudo-state is kept running by cash injections from the west. Videos from the Kharkov front abound with English speaking soldiers and foreign weapons.

The point isn't just to point out, yet again, that Ukraine is a failed state - a corpse that is given the illusion of life by outside actors moving its limbs. The point is that Russia understands this and correctly understands itself to be in a civilizational collision with the west. To that end, we must understand that Russian escalation is underway, and think about what that means.

Escalation and Mobilization

By this point, the idea that Russia needs to mobilize has become a tired old meme, courtesy of the deranged Igor Strelkov. It is certainly true that Russia must escalate, but leaping directly to mobilization (putting the economy on war footing and calling up conscripts) would be a grave mistake. Russia has other, better ways to escalate. The recent Ukrainian advance in Kharkov is an obvious signal to raise the force deployment, and Ukrainian potshots at targets across the Russian border only add to the pressure to take the gloves off.

First, I would like to comment on why I am against mobilization. One of the most important dimensions of this war is the economic front. Europe is being driven to the brink by the energy crisis. The Wall Street Journal keyed in on what I believe to be the most apt descriptor of the crisis, warning of a "new era of deindustrialization in Europe."

A full mobilization would be very costly for Russia's economy, risking the edge that it currently holds in the economic confrontation with Europe. This, I believe, is the main reason that the Russian government was quick to quash rumors of mobilization today. There are other steps on the escalation ladder before going to total war footing.

There are already rumors that Russia is planning to change the formal designation of the war, from "Special Military Operation". While that could mean a formal declaration of war, I think that is unlikely. Rather, Russia will likely give the Ukraine operation the same designation as its operations in Syria, loosening the rules of engagement and beginning to target Ukrainian assets in earnest.

We saw a foretaste of this last night, when Russia wiped out over half of Ukraine's power generation with a few missiles. There are many more targets that they can go after - more nodes in the electrical grid, water pumping and filtration facilities, and higher level command posts. There is at least some probability that Russia begins targeting the command facilities with NATO personnel in them. Plausible deniability works both ways; because NATO is not officially in Ukraine - only "volunteers" - targeting their personnel is not an overtly aggressive act.

Russia also has many ways to boost its force deployment in Ukraine that fall short of full mobilization. They have a pool of demobilized contract soldiers that they can call up, as well as a pool of reservists that they can raise with a partial mobilization.

The Russian line is hardening. Just in the past 24 hours, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there were "no prospect for negotiations" with Ukraine, and Putin said "Unfriendly forces are targeting us, and we must take initiative in order to succeed in confronting them." Medvedev went even further just now: "A certain Zelenskyy said that he will not hold a dialogue with those who issue ultimatums. The current 'ultimatums' are a warm-up for kids, a preview of demands to be made in the future. He knows them: the total surrender of the Kiev regime on Russia's terms"

If you believe the Russian government is utterly incompetent and duplicitous, feel free to view statements like this as bluster. But given the warning shot at Ukrainian power generation yesterday, my sense is that Russia is preparing to escalate to a higher level of intensity, which Ukraine cannot match with its indigenous resources. The only other player on the escalation ladder is the United States.

Dark times area ahead for Ukraine - and perhaps for Americans on the other front of this war.

The Other Southern Front

Syria and Ukraine are two fronts in the same war. This is very important to understand. In Syria, the United States has attempted to wreck Russia's most important Middle Eastern ally and create a Trashcanistan of chaos to suck in Russian resources; in Ukraine, NATO has armed a kamikaze state to hurl at Russia's western border. In the Russian mind, these wars are inextricably linked.

After the Kharkov counteroffensive, I strongly suspect that Russia will look for a way to strike back at the United States, without crossing red lines that could lead to a more direct confrontation. Syria is the place where this would happen. The United States maintains several illegal bases on Syrian soil, which Russia could strike using its Syrian allies much the same way that the United States is using Ukraine. Russia is in the finishing stage training a new Syrian airborne division. With Russian air cover, an attack on one of the American bases in Syria would be possible - the USA would be forced to choose between shooting down Russian planes and flirting with nuclear war, or humbly accepting the loss of an illegal base that it has worked hard to hide from its own citizens. Given the utter lack of enthusiasm among the American public for yet another war in the Middle East, it seems that the USA would simply have to swallow the loss.

Big Serge Expectations:
  1. Russian escalation of attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure and command centers.

  2. Russian force deployment raised without full mobilization.

  3. Intensification of Russian efforts to recover DNR territory.

  4. Possible escalation in Syria, likely in the form of Syrian army attacks on US bases.


Big Serge Thoughts
9 Sep 2022 | 7:58 pm

Ukraine Counterattacks!

Ukraine plays to its audience

In the last 72 hours or so, the pro-Russian side of the internet has been sent into an tailspin of panic over a new Ukrainian counteroffensive which is currently being launched in the Kharkov region, with the intention of compromising the Russian army grouping at Izyum. The panic was triggered by claims that Ukraine was advancing unopposed, encircling - or perhaps even capturing - the city of Balakliya - and on the verge of cutting off supply lines to Izyum.

If you will indulge me, I would like to revive a bit of optimism.

My view is fairly simple: Ukraine cannot and will not reach meaningful objectives - what we call "operational depth" - and has in fact thrown much of its carefully crafted premium reserves into a dangerous position. I believe it's highly likely that these top rate Ukrainian formations are about to be savaged - but this is still an important learning moment for Russia.

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Let's just get straight into it, starting with an overview of the geography of this area, why Izyum is important, and why Ukraine has very poor prospects of reaching meaningful operational objectives.

Izyum: Gateway to the Donbas

A modest city with a prewar population of perhaps 50,000 people, Izyum was always slated to be a focal point in this war, due to its location at a critical intersection. The topography of northeastern Ukraine is dominated by a few critically important features which determine patterns of movement. These include the crucial E40/M03 highway, which connects the metropolis of Kharkov and the urban agglomeration of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, which are the largest and most important cities in the western Donbas. The region is furthermore shaped by the Severodonetsk River - alternatively called simply the Donets (from which the Donbas, or Donets Basin, draws its name) - which snakes lazily around the plain.

The Donets forms a geographic barrier between the Donbas to the south and the Kharkov region to the north, while the E40/M03 highway forms the main arterial for transit between Kharkov and the urban centers of the western Donbas. Izyum is a strategically crucial city because it is where the highway crosses the river; as an added cherry on top, the Oskil River - a major tributary of the Donets - confluences with the Donets less than five miles to the east of Izyum, meaning the city essentially sits directly on the intersection of all the most important geographic features of the region. A highly simplified map of the area looks like this:

Capturing Izyum was a major objective for Russia in the early weeks of the war (as I argued in a previous piece, this was a major reason for the pinning move on Kiev), because it not only interdicts and complicates supply to Ukrainian forces in the Donbas, but it also gave Russia an early position on the Donets river.

It is obvious why Ukraine would want to dislodge Russia from Izyum. This would simplify and secure lines of communication to Slovyansk and greatly complicate the Russian push in the Donbas by freeing Ukraine's northern flank. To achieve this, they are attempting a thrust toward Kupyansk, with the aim of cutting the line connecting Izyum to Belgorod in the north. This operation, I believe, is doomed to spectacular failure.

Operational Depth

The panic that set in on the Russian side (on the internet, at least, for there is no evidence that the Russian armed forces panicked) was due to the perception that Ukraine was advancing unopposed towards the east, rapidly approaching Kupyansk and doing… something, to Balakliya. Whether that something is encircling, capturing, or merely screening remains to be determined, as conflicting reports abound at the moment. It is prudent, however, to think about what it means to "advance." This is a highly contextual question, which depends entirely on the level of resistance being offered and the proximity to operational goals.

Here, we can introduce a notion in military theory that we call "Operational Depth." Please note, this is not a specific distance - it's not 20, 50, or 100 km, but it could be any one of those depending on the situation. We'll define it like this:

Operational Depth refers to the level of advance wherein the attacking force is no longer attacking the enemy's frontline elements, but is instead directly assailing the enemy's ability to sustain itself in combat.

What this means in practice is that instead of fighting the enemy's deployed combat units, the attacking force finds itself directly attacking the enemy's lines of communication, supply depots, command centers, reserves and assembly points, and all the other facets of the rear area. In short, this is the phase where an offensive is exploited. Rather than simply fighting the enemy's forces, you begin to destroy his ability to sustain and deploy forces altogether.

Now, there are a few major factors which lead to the inevitable conclusion that Ukraine cannot reach operational depth in this counteroffensive - furthermore, in the absence of such a success, they will be savaged and suffer horrific losses. Let's run through the issues here.

Izyum: The Non-Salient

In military parlance, a "salient" simply means a bulge in the frontline, where one side has achieved some level of penetration at a particular point. A salient is a classically vulnerable position - a glaringly obvious operational focal point, because simultaneous attacks at the base of the bulge can easily cut it off and trap the forces inside. Essentially, a salient is a position where a force is already encircled on 3 sides, leaving only the exit to be snapped shut.

In the opening phase of the war, Izyum was indeed a salient. Russia had captured an exposed position which jutted out into Ukrainian territory, and there was talk of a Ukrainian counteroffensive to take advantage of this. Furthermore, the only safe supply line to Izyum ran through Kupyansk, making this a vulnerable position indeed. Here's a map from Ukraine War Mapper from early May, for reference:

This is a Salient

However, throughout the following weeks, Russia took control of the territory directly to the east of Izyum, including the town of Lyman. This concretized the Russian flank and secured additional lines of communication into Izyum, creating redundancies for the highway from Kupyansk. Behold the map in August:

This is not a Salient

The window of opportunity for an easy encirclement or interdiction of supply to Izyum ended when Russia cleared all the Ukrainian forces from the north side of the Donets river. Supply lines to Izyum are now shielded from the south by the Donets, and from the west by the Oskil.

Because Russia has redundant supply lines to the northeast of Izyum, for Ukraine to reach operational depth, they must cross the Donets and Oskil rivers. Even suppressing Kupyansk is not enough to disrupt Russia's ability to project force here. The Oskil river - which, incidentally is more than a kilometer wide in places - presents a major barrier that will prevent Ukraine from exploiting their early advances. They have more or less advanced into a wall, and already the map presents an unfolding catastrophe for them. Courtesy of Rybar:

This is a Salient with Ukrainians inside

In short, the Ukrainian advance has been too slow and lacks a clear path to reach operational objectives. Already, Russia has begun to deploy huge reserves to this theater, and fear is beginning to show among the more operationally aware Ukrainians. One Ukrainian journalist at the front had this to say:

"There is heavy fighting near Kupyansk, worse than Balakleysky. We are taking heavy losses. The enemy is transferring a bunch of reserves by air. The "Wagnerites" have already arrived in the city itself. The sky is filled with aircraft. Hearing about all this, a haunting feeling of an ambush arises in the soul. What if this all really turns out to be a strategic level ambush?"

I do not believe this is an "ambush" per se by the Russian army. The word ambush implies that the Russian forces were already in position, drawing the Ukrainians into a specific maneuver plan where they could be attacked from prepared positions. That's not what's happening at all - Russian forces are coming in fresh from reserve and were not pre-deployed to the sector. What the operation reflects instead is Russia's preference to wage a high-firepower, mobile defense. Frontline positions are, relatively speaking, thinly manned, which powerful mobile reserves are held back. This is a flexible, firefighting approach which allows the Ukrainians to advance into vulnerable positions so that they can be destroyed.

For Ukraine, one of the basic problems is that Russia has such an enormous advantage in firepower - aircraft, tube artillery, rocketry, and tanks - that any offensive must reach operational depth quickly in order to disrupt Russia's ability to bring this firepower to bear. In the Izyum sector, this simply isn't possible.

Lacking the ability to operationally compromise Russian forces here, Ukraine will find itself in a good old fashioned shootout against an enemy with vastly superior firepower - not only that, but it is in fact Ukraine that now faces operational complications, having blasted their way into a salient with no prospects for crossing the Oskil in force and exploiting.

What Happens Now?

It seems probable to me that Ukraine's advance has reached, or is nearing its culmination, as Russian reserves flood into the area, Russia missile strikes attack the Ukrainian command post in Chuguev, and Russian aviation and artillery begin to lay it on thick. The choice Ukraine now faces is whether to continue to funnel forces into the salient that they have created for themselves - in other words, Ukraine now gets to decide the scale of its losses. According to Ukrainian insider channels, they are currently planning to double down and feed more reserves in, promising a correspondingly larger defeat.

I don't like to make concrete predictions about dates or casualty numbers. There are far too many unknowns for anyone to actually think they can predict such specifics. But regarding the general trajectory, I am confident predicting that Ukraine's offensive is nearing the high water mark and will soon become a mass casualty event for the Ukrainian army. It may take a few more days for the situation to stabilize entirely, but that point is rapidly approaching and many of Ukraine's best units face destruction.

However, I would be remiss if I did not make an appropriate critique of Russia's conduct of this operation. There are still important lessons to be learned.

Future Conduct of the War

While the actual counteroffensive is turning into a catastrophe for Ukraine, the fact that they were able to launch this operation at all has important implications, specifically in regards to Ukrainian manpower.

Russia has been fighting an economy of force operation that aims to destroy the Ukrainian army through attrition. Ukraine's ability to launch two counteroffensives (Kherson and Kupyansk-Izyum) suggests two important reasons to modify Russia's force deployment.

1) The Deficiency of Tripwire Defenses

Many sector's of Russia's front are thinly manned, with forces being held in reserve to wage a mobile defense. The actual troops at the front amount to a string of token forces who are there primarily to try to slow the enemy while reserves are brought forward. While holding a mobile reserve is the correct approach given the force deployment that Russia has made, this is problematic because it allows the Ukrainians to make temporary gains.

In an operational sense, this isn't a catastrophe. Russia has the firepower and mobility to crush these offensives. The problem is that it allows Ukraine to temporarily retake settlements, which exposes the civilians in these areas to reprisal killings, such as occurred in Bucha. In the current example, we can look at Balakliya. In and of itself, these city does not have major operational value, but it does have Russian civilians in it who would be exposed to Ukrainian revenge if the city was temporarily recaptured. Russia must reconsider its force deployment so that it can more firmly hold settlements at the frontline for the sake of these civilians.

2) Ukrainian Force Generation

Ukraine's meta-strategy so far is predicated on a two-tier army. The lower tier consists of poorly trained cannon fodder who man defensive belts and slow down the Russian army with their bodies, by forcing an exchange of artillery shells for their lives. This is the army that Russia is attriting at horrific loss ratios in the Donbas. The first tier Ukrainian army are the forces that are being trained and equipped by western handlers. The Ukrainian scheme is to delay Russia by trading their conscript cannon fodder while they assemble the first tier forces for counteroffensives.

Ukraine has demonstrated that, even if they haven't competently used these first tier forces, they still have the capability to assemble real strike packages with western help, so long as the lower tier army is able to buy time. This calls into question the Russian strategy of attrition, because it means that Russia is attriting soldiers that Ukraine doesn't care about. It is probably unwise to allow the west to build yet another army in the rear for yet another wave of counteroffensives.

Russia should evaluate ways to deny Ukraine access to its manpower pool and raise its force deployment to that effect. Nikolayev, Dnepropetrovsk, Zhaparozhia, Odessa, and Kharkov must be taken from Ukraine to that end, and the Russian army must become serious about destroying Ukrainian infrastructure and logistics to prevent Ukraine from continuing the buildup of first tier forces in the rear.

Russia continues to attempt to win the war with a light hand - bare minimum force deployment and precision strikes, sparing critical infrastructure. While the defeat of the current counteroffensives demonstrate that it is still well on the path to victory, the mere existence of these counteroffensives suggests that Russia must raise its force deployment - taking advantage of its significant powers of force generation - and deny Ukraine access to its population pools, or else victory may well be slower and more costly than necessary.


Big Serge Thoughts
31 Aug 2022 | 9:30 pm

The Russo-Ukrainian War

Napoleon quipped that God was always on the side with the best artillery

With the Russo-Ukrainian War now rolling on into its seventh month, I thought this might be as good a time as any to put together a more extensive analysis than the twitter format allows. What follows will be my assessment of what exactly the Russian Armed Forces have achieved, why they made specific operational choices, and the general shape of the battlefield today.


But first, I will indulge in a brief paragraph about myself. Feel free to skip this and proceed to the first section heading below.

I am a luddite by nature and have never had any sort of social media presence. However, when the Russo-Ukrainian War began in February, I was alarmed by the amateurish, even clownish levels of analysis that were being amplified by the typical establishment channels. Public figures that contravened the collective wisdom, like Colonel Douglas MacGregor or Scott Ritter, were largely ignored. It seemed to me that the public was being memed into believing a story about cartoonish Russian incompetence, while what I saw was a lethal and locked-in Russian military waging an intelligent war. I will freely confess to having Russophilic tendencies, like many American Orthodox Christians. However, I will also bluntly say that when you've read as much military history as I have, you begin to see things a certain way – perhaps this is bragging, but I don't think so. I don't claim to be smarter than anybody else; I did spend the last fifteen years extensively reading in subjects that gave me a strong base of knowledge for the current moment, but it seems to me that I simply got lucky picking a hobby that would one day be so relevant.

So, I created a twitter account hoping to contribute to the discussion however I could, as well as to capitalize on the current fascination with war to talk about military history. People seem to like it, so I'll try to keep doing it.

Now, let's talk about the war. A great deal has been said, and will be said, about the causes of the war and Russia's motives and aims in Ukraine, but I would like to skip this and proceed directly to discussing the operation itself.

How I Think About War

We should begin by acknowledging that the Russo-Ukrainian War is a novel experience for humankind. This is the first high intensity war between peer states to occur in the social media age. The content and pace of the information hitting the internet has therefore from the first moment been an aspect of the conflict itself. Ukraine, which is almost entirely dependent on foreign financing, intelligence, and weaponry, has from the beginning been hard at work shaping the story of a plucky underdog showing unexpected resilience against a barbaric invader.

All the basic motifs of this story have been well established from early on, and have been continuously reinforced with an unending barrage of pictures depicting burning vehicles which we are assured are all Russian.

Ultimately, Ukraine's ability to shape the narrative has been aided and abetted by four major facets of the information war:

  1.  Russia has done little to contest Ukraine in the information space. Ukraine enthusiasts eagerly propagate Ukrainian claims, no matter how absurd, but the information coming from the Russian side mostly takes the form of dry briefings from the MOD. Ukraine is playing a Marvel movie, Russia is putting on a webinar.

  2. Russia's operational plans are a secret. This very fact allows the Ukrainian side to interpolate their aims, putting words in Russia's mouth, as it were. This is how we got to the claim that Russia expected Kiev to fall in three days, but more generally the inherent uncertainty in war favors the side with the more aggressive propaganda arm.

  3. People, to put it bluntly, don't know anything about war. They don't know that armies use up lots of vehicles in a high intensity conflict, and so a picture of a burning tank seems very important to them. They had never heard of MLRS before this year, so the HIMARS seems like a futuristic wonder weapon. They don't know that ammo dumps are a very common target, so videos of big explosions seem like a turning point.

  4. Finally, Ukraine has enjoyed the enthusiastic collaboration of western governments, government-controlled "thinktanks" like the Institute for the Study of War, and western media.

Through the interaction of these factors, people are being barraged with information which they are not equipped to interpret, and the sheer noise has convinced most people that Ukraine is, if not winning outright, at the very least badly frustrating the Russian army and exposing Russian incompetence.

I am not interested in a pictures of scrap metal, vehicle wrecks, or flat tires. What I am interested in is the ability of armies to deliver sustained and effective firepower, and to intelligently plan and implement operations. The basic objective in war is to destroy the enemy's fighting power – it's not to raise a flag in the center of Kiev and it's not to claim nominal control over empty territory. Wars are won by destroying the enemy's ability to offer armed resistance, and my belief is the Russians are prosecuting an intelligently designed operation that has them well on course to destroy the Ukrainian Army and achieve their political objectives.

Allow me to walk you through my interpretation of the Russian operational scheme.

The Kiev Thunder Run

Nothing did more to confuse mainstream narratives than Russia's rapid move to the environs of Kiev in the opening days of the war. This remains a jumble for most people – the Gostomel airport operation, the 40-mile (or was it 4, or 400? Nobody can remember) column of vehicles on the highway, the Ukrainians arming the general populace, then claiming that the ensuing crossfire was a Russian attempt to storm the city, and finally the Russian withdrawal. It's a clutter of disjointed happenings, and the bedrock of the lie that will not die – the "three-day operation" meme.

I'll tell you what I think Russia was attempting to accomplish, and what I think happened.

Let's first dispense with the silly theory that Russia wanted to "capture" Kiev. Really, "capture" is one of those buzzwords that get thrown casually around without people really thinking about what it means. The Kiev metropolitan area is home to nearly 3.5 million people, and as the capital it is a stronghold of Ukrainian security organs. Capturing a city doesn't just mean blasting your way to the city center; this isn't a game of tag. Capturing means controlling, policing, countering insurgency, and asserting political control. The force that Russia brought to bear around Kiev was clearly insufficient for this task. Furthermore, in the opening phase of the war, Russian forces consistently bypassed urban areas, except for in the south and the east – more on that in a bit.

Now, it certainly seems rational to assume that the Russians harbored at least some hope that the sudden appearance of a substantial Russian forces on the doorstep would spook Kiev into surrender, or perhaps political fragmentation. That did not happen – in fact, the Ukrainian political center has largely held thanks to intensive intervention from western sponsors, who have propped up the regime with cash injections and material aid. Let's clarify what this means though – Russia may have hoped for a very short war, but this outcome was always contingent on Ukraine lacking the political will to fight. There is no evidence that the Russian military believed they could "conquer" Ukraine in three days, three weeks, or three months. That's a silly thing to even say.

So, what was the military rational for the move on the Kiev region? I believe that in the broadest sense the intention was to disrupt Ukrainian deployment, and that the Russian army succeeded in this objective. Let's look at the specifics.

As I just mentioned, Russian forces in the opening phase opted to bypass urban areas, and never made meaningful attempts to enter or occupy Kiev, Kharkov, or Sumy. They did, however, enter cities in the south and the east, including Kherson, Melitoipol, Berdyansk, and of course Mariupol. The conduct of the war was radically different in the two theaters. In the north, Russian forces moved fast and hard, staying out of urban areas, and making no attempts to consolidate control of the territories they were passing through; in the south, the movements were more methodical, urban areas were cleansed, and the Russians actually deployed the administrative, humanitarian, and policing tools needed to digest and eventually annex captured territory.

It's very obvious that in some parts of Ukraine – Donestk, Lugansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts, the Russians came to stay, and in others – Kiev, and Sumy – they did not. Everything that occurred around Kiev should therefore be viewed in light of what happened in the south.

On the operational level, what Russia achieved with its drive on Kiev was the paralysis of Ukrainian deployment which allowed for the relatively unhindered capture of key nodes in other theaters. The early phases of Ukrainian mobilization were hectic and scattered, largely because it was unclear what the focal point of the Russian operation was. There were fears that Kharkov would be taken, that Odessa might come under amphibious assault, or that Kiev itself was about to be stormed. Zelensky even dramatically told the world that the fate of Kiev was about to be decided - but of course, the Russian army never actually tried to enter the city.

With multiple axes of advance and missile strikes all over Ukraine, the AFU were very clearly paralyzed in the opening days of the war. But the Russian presence near Kiev had one particularly important implication for Ukrainian mobilization.

People following the battles around Kiev in the first month of the war probably noticed three place names coming up regularly – Gostomel (the site of the airport operation), Irpin, and Bucha. If you aren't familiar with Ukrainian geography, you may not realize that these three cities are all suburbs of Kiev that are directly contiguous with each other: from the northern tip of Gostomel to the southern edge of Irpin is only about seven miles. They make up one continuous urban area, and they happen to lay immediately to the north of the E40 highway, which is the main east-west arterial of Ukraine. Russian forces sat on this for most of March, blocking E40, forcing Ukraine to keep forces tied up around Kiev, and totally preventing Ukraine from contesting the capture of key objectives.

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Let's briefly talk about the Gostomel airport operation. The narrative being spun by the Ukrainian propaganda machine is that Russian airborne units attempted to capture the Gostomel airfield so that additional units could be brought in by air for an assault on Kiev. Furthermore, they maintain that the Russian paratroopers (VDV) were annihilated. This is utter nonsense.

For starters, we should remember that just a day into the war, the Ukrainians told the world that they had destroyed the Russian airborne forces at Gostomel. Taking this claim at face value, a CNN news team actually drove out to the airport and found… VDV, in control of the perimeter. The VDV, knowing that CNN isn't important, allowed the camera crew to hang around for a bit filming them. Yet, despite CNN broadcasting live that the Russians were in full control of the airport, people still are under the impression that they were annihilated. Very strange.

CNN's prepared chyron identified this as a "Ukraine defensive position" - the confused reporter instead found VDV guarding the perimeter

Furthermore, it is absolutely bizarre to believe that the Russians intended to take Kiev by landing forces at the airport. It was claimed that Russia had 18 IL-76 transports loaded up to deposit forces at Gostomel, but these planes would not even be sufficient to carry a single Battalion Tactical Group. So, why go for the airport?

Red Army operational doctrine classically called for targeted paratrooper assaults to be conducted at operational depths, for the purpose of paralyzing defenses and tying up their reserves. If, as I believe, the main purpose of the drive on Kiev was to block the city from the west, obstruct the E40 highway, and disrupt Ukrainian deployment, then a paratrooper assault on Gostomel makes perfect sense. By inserting forces at the airport, the VDV ensured that Ukrainian reserves would be tied up around Kiev itself. Russian ground forces needed to make a 60 mile dash south to reach their objectives in Kiev's western suburbs, and the VDV operation at the airport prevented Ukraine from deploying forces to block that advance to the south. It worked; the VDV held the airport until they were relieved by Russian ground forces, who linked up with them on February 25. As an added bonus, they managed to destroy the airport itself, rendering Ukraine's primary cargo airfield in the Kiev region inoperable.

During the month of March, while the world was fixated on Kiev, Russia captured the following major objectives, which collectively had huge implications for the future progress of the war:

  • On March 2, Kherson surrendered, giving Russia a stable position on the west bank of the Dnieper and control of the river's delta.

  • On March 12, Volnovakha was captured, creating a secure road connection to Crimea.

  • On March 17, Izyum was captured. This city is critically important, not only because it offers a position across the Severodonetsk River, but also because it interdicts the E40 highway and rail lines connecting Kharkov and Slavyansk. Izyum is always fated to be a critical node in any war for eastern Ukraine – in 1943, the Soviets and Germans threw whole armies at the narrow sector around Izyum and Barvenkovo for a reason.

  • By March 28, Russian forces had pushed deep into Mariupol, breaking continuous Ukrainian resistance and setting the stage for the starving out of the Azov men in the Azovstal plant.

In other words, by the end of March the Russians had solved their potential Crimean problems by securing road and rail links to the peninsula, stabilizing the connection to Crimea with a robust land corridor. Meanwhile, the capture of Izyum and Kupyansk created the northern "shoulder" of the Donbas. They achieved all of this against relatively weak resistance (with the exception of Mariupol, where Azov fought fiercely to avoid capture and war crimes charges). The AFU would surely have loved to deny Russia the capture of the critical transit node at Izyum, but they could do little to contest the city's capture, because the E40 highway was blocked, their forces were pinned down around Kiev and Kharkov, and their decision making was paralyzed by the octopus tentacles reaching into the country from all directions.

While all of this was going on, the Russian forces near Kiev were engaged in a series of high intensity battles with units from AFU Command North, dishing out extreme levels of punishment. A premature attempt to dislodge the Russians from Irpin was badly mauled. Russian forces were able to trade at excellent loss ratios around Kiev while serving the broader operational purpose of paralyzing Ukraine's mobilization and deployment so that the Azov Coast and the northern shoulder of the Donbas could be secured.

It is my view that this was a fantastically successful operation that solved the logistical problem of a land bridge to Crimea while positioning the Russian armed forces well for further success in the east. Once key objectives had been achieved on other fronts, the pinning operation was no longer needed and Russian forces withdrew for rest and refitting. It is not a coincidence that the beginning of the Russian withdraw coincided with the capture of Izyum and the beginning of the endgame at Mariupol.

It's worth noting that less than a week before Russia began its withdrawal from the Kiev suburbs, the head of the Kiev Regional Military Administration explicitly stated that no offensive actions could or would be undertaken to eject the Russian army from Bucha. Ukraine was still in a defensive stance around Kiev when the Russian withdrawal began. This was a voluntary withdrawal prompted by the completion of key objectives elsewhere in the country – it was not a retreat forced by Ukrainian counterattacks.

Summary: Russia had no intention of "storming", "capturing", or "encircling" Kiev. The objective of this first phase was to block Kiev from the west, in particular the E40 highway, disrupting Ukraine's mobilization and preventing the deployment of forces to contest the capture of northern Donbas nodes (Izyum) and the land bridge to Crimea. They succeeded and inflicted serious casualties on the AFU in the process, before withdrawing due to the completion of stage 1 objectives.

The Donbas Grind

After the completion of the first operational phase, marked by the successful consolidation of a land corridor to Crimea and the capture of the northern edge of the Donbas salient, Russia enjoyed an operational pause to rest, refit, and prepare for the second phase of the war, which has focused on liberating the territories of the LNR and DNR and – above all – grinding Ukrainian manpower down.

Let's make a brief note about the nature of the Donbas itself. This is a region that is rich in natural resources, and during the Soviet era it enjoyed substantial investment that built it up into an industrial powerhouse. As a result, this is by far the most urbanized and populated region in Ukraine. Donetsk Oblast is not only the most populous oblast in Ukraine, it's a full 33% more populous than Dnipropetrovsk, which is next on the list. It is also by far the most densely populated oblast. This is a dense web of towns, mid-sized cities, factories, mines, and forests – not at all like the open fields that characterize Ukraine.

The urbanized nature of the Donbas necessitates an attritional, positional approach. Ukrainian forces have spent much of the last eight years turning the towns around Donetsk into fortresses – many of these towns are long devoid of civilian residents and have been transformed into concrete strongpoints. Russian operational logic has always dictated that progress through the Donbas would be slow and methodical, for a few reasons.

First and foremost, Russia is waging an economy of force operation, which means making maximally efficient use of infantry – by far the scarcest resource in the Russian arsenal. They have augmented infantry forces with Wagner Private Military Contractors, DNR and LNR forces, and Chechens, using regular Russian infantry only sparingly. Instead, they prefer to lean on their massive advantage in artillery to shred Ukrainian positions before they even consider an approach.

The most vivid description of the Russian methodology in the Donbas came from Ukrainian war reporter Yuri Butusov, who published the following description of the defense of Piski – a key fortified strongpoint near Donetsk:

"Peski. The meat grinder… As I wrote earlier, 6,500 shells on one f**king village in less than 24 hours. It's been like this for six days now, and it's hard to fathom how any number of our infantry remain alive in this barrage of fire…. We almost do not respond. There is no counterbattery fire at all, the enemy without any problems for himself puts artillery shells in our trenches, takes apart very strong, concrete positions in mere minutes, without a pause and minimal rest squeezing our line of defense… It's a f**king meat grinder, where the batallion simply holds back the assault with its own bodies… huge numbers of our infantry are ground up in one day… All the reserves disperse, the military equipment goes up in flames, the enemy approaches and takes our positions without any problems after another barrage of artillery."

Needless to say, the Ukrainians lost Peski. It is now in Russian hands. This is the process that is being repeated ad infinitum in the Donbas. Ukraine's advantages, as such, are a tremendous edge in human resources (Ukrainian manpower probably holds at least a 4 to 1 edge over Russians) and the ability to sit in built up defenses. Russia is nullifying this with patience and a tremendous edge in all types of firepower, including tube artillery, rocketry, and air power.

The final argument by the Ukrainians, always, is that even though they are losing key positions and even important cities – Mariupol, Severdonestk, Lysychansk, and so on – the Russians are taking horrible casualties. This simply makes no sense – not to be blunt, but it's unclear how exactly Russians are supposed to be dying in large numbers right now. Ukrainian artillery is massively outgunned, and the Ukrainian air force is nonexistent over the Donbas. The only way Russia could be taking severe casualties would be if they were rushing the assault on intact strongpoints, but it's clear by now that this is not the case – Ukrainian reporters and soldiers who manage to evade censorship describe being pummeled by days on end of artillery before the Russians advance on them.

Russia will continue to grind the Ukrainians down with artillery, slowly but surely driving them from the Donbas. This is positional, attritional warfare, and it is allowing Russia to trade at absolutely absurd loss ratios. It is a simple transaction: Ukrainian manpower in exchange for time and Russian artillery shells. This is a trade that Russia will happily continue to make.

Slow Burn and the Economic Calculus

A methodical, firepower heavy approach in the east suits Russia for reasons above and beyond the brutal military logic. One of the more interesting aspects of the war has been the extent to which the economic and financial calculus have boomeranged in Russia's favor. There are two aspects to this; one related to Ukraine, and one to Russia and the sanctions against her.

Let's start with the Ukrainians, and more specifically let's start by remembering that it was not Russia, but western agencies that predicted rapid Ukrainian collapse. Ironically, this was the low-cost scenario for the west. In the event of a quick Ukrainian defeat, the west would be left supporting an insurgency – as the Taliban demonstrated, this is a very cost effective way to harass and harm a great power. Instead, Ukraine stayed upright for the moment and is stuck fighting a costly war of attrition that it cannot win.

This is very important – instead of cheaply funding and arming an insurgency, helping coordinate acts of sabotage and the like (something western intelligence agencies excel at), the west (mostly the United States and to a lesser extent the UK) is stuck financing a hemorrhagic Ukrainian state and attempting to prop up its armies. This is far more costly than an insurgency, both in pure dollar amounts and in the level of munitions and equipment that are being poured into Ukraine.

Already, we have seen plenty of evidence that the attempt to supply Ukraine is draining western inventories. Smaller NATO members have already sent much of the capability in their limited arsenals, but even more alarming is the acknowledgment that American stockpiles are being depleted. Leaked texts have revealed that active duty units are being stripped of weaponry for shipment to Ukraine, while a recent Wall Street Journal article claimed that US stockpiles of howitzer ammunition are "uncomfortably low."

Meanwhile, analysis from the Royal United Services Institute (a UK based defense thinktank) came to the sobering conclusion that manufacturing in the west is too degraded and too expensive to keep up in a war like the one being fought in Ukraine right now. A few highlights of that report:

  • Annual American production of artillery shells is sufficient for only two weeks of combat in Ukraine.

  • Annual Javelin anti-tank missile production is, at best, sufficient for 8 days of combat.

  • Russia burned through four years worth of American missile production in the first three months of the war.

Russia so far has demonstrated that it can sustain its operations in Ukraine with ease; artillery activity in the east remains relentless (even with HIMARS systems hitting a few ammo dumps here and there), and the Russians have specially made a mockery of the relentless predictions that they are almost out of missiles. On Ukrainian Independence Day (August 24), the Russians launched the largest and most sustained missile attacks of the war, as if to deliberately mock those who predicted that the would be out of missiles by the start of summer.

In short, because Ukraine has little indigenous production and logistics, the west is bearing the actual industrial and financial burden of the war for them, and this burden is becoming far heavier than western planners expected. The logic of the proxy has been reversed; Ukraine has become a vampiric force, draining the west of equipment and munitions.

On the other side of the coin, the logic of sanctions rebounded strongly against the west. Western governments hoped that a rapid, all-in sanctions regime against Russia would crush the Russian economy and turn the Russian people against the war. The second part of this assumption was always silly – Russians blame the west, not Putin, for sanctions. Even more importantly, however, it is clear that Russia's economic planning for this war bore tremendous fruit.

At the risk of massively oversimplifying the economics, the Eurasian vs Western economic rift that is emerging is a contest between a bloc that is rich in materials and a bloc rich in dollars. Attempts to financially strangulate Russia have so far failed, both due to the competence of Russia's central bank, and due to the basic fact (which should be trivially obvious) that a county which makes its own energy, food, and weapons will always be difficult to pressure. The western sanctions regime was largely doomed from the start, because Europe simply cannot embargo the energy products that are the main source of Russian revenue.

Russia's energy weapon remains the bomb in the heart of the EU. With all the "winter is coming" memes floating around, it can be easy to write this off as simply a figment of the internet. Far from it – small businesses around the EU are already closing in the face of crushing energy bills, energy intensive industrial sectors like smelting are shutting plants entirely. Europe is facing a perfect economic storm, as the Federal Reserve hikes rates, leading to a general tightening of financial conditions, energy prices explode into the stratosphere, and export markets dry up amid a global economic slowdown.

All of this is likely to tip over into a cataclysm over the winter. I would not be surprised to see a financial collapse and unemployment in the EU in excess of 30%. Given the fact that the EU is notoriously bad at solving problems of any kind, there's a non-negligible chance more countries try to leave the EU. Spexit anyone?

Based purely on the economic trajectory, I believe Russia has absolutely no interest in ending the war this year. They are attriting Ukrainian manpower and dragging the EU to the precipice of the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression. America will be far better off, simply because it has its own indigenous energy supply and is generally wealthier and more robust than Europe in every way. But even if Americans won't freeze and starve, contagion from European collapse promises economic difficulty for Americans already struggling under inflation. And in the end, because Ukraine is at this point completely dependent on the west for financial and material, a major economic blow to the west would also be catastrophic for the Ukrainian pseudo-state.

What Comes Next

My overall prognosis is very simple: I believe that Russia has degraded Ukraine's military capabilities beyond repair, and is now doing the methodical work of grinding away the rest, while forcing the west to bear the unexpected burden of propping up the Ukrainian state and army.

The actual intricacies of Russia's operational plan of course remain a secret, but I believe there is a good chance that most of Ukraine east of the Dnieper will be annexed, as well as the entire Black Sea littoral.

The Big Serge Annexation Map

At a certain point, two things will happen that will accelerated the pace of Russia's gains. First, Ukrainian military capability will be attrited to the point where they can no longer effectively offer static defense, as they are doing now in the Donbas. Secondly, western support for Ukraine will begin to dry up, at which point Ukraine will be exposed as a failed state that cannot function independently.

I have voiced my opinion that Ukraine would launch some sort of counteroffensive at some point, simply because the political logic dictates it. Ukraine is under intense pressure to prove that it can retake territory; if it cannot, then this entire war is, at best, an attempt to force a stalemate of sorts and limit the extent of territorial losses. Western sponsorship demands that Ukraine retake territory, and as of this writing they are attempting to do just that around Kherson.

Ukraine simply has no hope of success waging a successful, full scale offensive. For one thing, offensive actions are hard. It's difficult to successfully coordinate multi-brigade action - so far in Kherson, they are struggling to concentrate more than a battalion at critical points. Russia has combined armed reserves, artillery advantages, and a tremendous edge in airpower. Ukraine cannot achieve strategic objectives - all they can do is trade the lives of their men for temporary tactical successes that can be spun into wins by their propaganda arm.

The failure of the Kherson counteroffensive will accelerate progress towards the two tipping points, both by degrading the Ukrainian army further, and souring westerners on continuing to support Ukraine. Winter and the ensuing economic chaos will do the rest.

Big Serge Thoughts
31 Aug 2022 | 9:08 pm

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