Tuesday, May 17, 2022

A Contrary View of the War in Ukraine

 By all indications, Ukraine is winning its war against Russia. What other conclusion would you draw from the recent retaking of Kharkiv by Ukrainian forces. Ukrainians who had fled to Poland are returning to Kyiv. Within Russia senior officials are distressed with the progress of the war and want to end it. And the American Congress is rallying to the Ukrainian cause by sending another boatload of cash to the beleaguered nation. And, let’s not forget, Vladimir Putin is dying of blood cancer, or some such.

Aside from the fact that the Ukrainians just surrendered Mariupol-- something that felt inevitable weeks ago-- things are looking up for Ukraine. 

Besides, we are fighting for democracy against autocracy and tyranny. And, everyone knows that this is a righteous war. Now, as you have read Finland and Sweden want to join NATO, even though that eventuality requires a unanimous vote of the members. As it happens, Turkey is sounding like it is going to veto the request, even though we are assured that it will not. When Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov declared that NATO’s adding the two Scandinavian nations is no big deal, savvy commentators declared that it showed how weak the Russian position is. That it might also mean that Turkey has given Russia assurances that it will not happen. But, time will tell.

Anyway, Ukraine is winning. Russian forces are being decimated. Surely, that was not what anyone really expected, so there’s some humble pie on the menu for more than a few of us. 

So, that is the party line. That is the narrative that we are being sold, from all sides of the political spectrum. Since we tend to be skeptical of any narrative that feels completely one-sided, as this one is. 

So, we are somewhat intrigued by an analysis offered by Brazilian journalist Pepe Escobar. (via Maggie's Farm) Since he was recently banned by Twitter, we take his thoughts more seriously. At the least, he seems to be slightly off kilter, a real contrarian, so we will examine his thinking, from a recent article in The Cradle. And, no, I know nothing about said cradle.

Anyway, Escobar sounds like something of a Kremlin apologist. That does not mean that he is wrong. It means that we should take his analysis with a grain or two of salt.

He considers the Russian strategy to be brilliant and he disparages the people who are running American and Western strategy. Needless to say, he does not need to be right on both scores. One understands that American intelligence officials have a rather poor record of geopolitical analysis. Considering how many of America’s current leaders were diversity hires, it should not be surprising that they do not have a clue. Then again, Escobar mistakenly declares Avril Haines to be the head of the CIA, when she is really the Director of National Intelligence, which is not the same thing. Anyway, she’s a lawyer, so what can go wrong?

Escobar explains his thesis, namely that the Russians are trying to confuse the West, to the point that we do not know what they are doing. To be fair, they are suffering an extraordinary amount of destruction in order to play rope-a-dope.

On Operation Z, the Russians revel in total strategic ambiguity, which has the collective west completely discombobulated. The Pentagon does not have the necessary intellectual firepower to out-smart the Russian General Staff. Only a few outliers understand that this is not a war – since the Ukraine Armed Forces have been irretrievably routed – but actually what Russian military and naval expert Andrei Martyanov calls a “combined arms police operation,” a work-in-progress on demilitarization and denazification.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is even more abysmal in terms of getting everything wrong, as recently demonstrated by its chief Avril Haines during her questioning on Capitol Hill. History shows that the CIA strategically blew it all the way from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. Ukraine is no different.

Ukraine was never about a military win. What is being accomplished is the slow, painful destruction of the European Union (EU) economy, coupled with extraordinary weapons profits for the western military-industrial complex and creeping security rule by those nations’ political elites.

Surely, that is an original thought. I have not heard others suggesting that the Ukrainian military had been routed-- tell it to the Russian forces that were just expelled from Kharkiv-- but it is interesting to think that the Russian goal is to destroy the European economy. Most European nations seem to have acceded to Russian demands regarding buying gas with rubles, because they are afraid of what will happen if they refuse.

So, we know what is happening in Kharkiv. But, Escobar explains what is happening in Kherson. It’s a slightly different picture:

Russian forces, meanwhile, have brought diplomacy to the battlefield, handing over 10 tons of humanitarian assistance to the people of liberated Kherson – with the deputy head of the military-civil administration of the region, Kirill Stremousov, announcing that Kherson wants to become part of the Russian Federation.

And then there is Mariupol:

As much as there’s an energetic debate among the best Russian analysts about the pace of Operation Z, Russian military planning proceeds methodically, as if taking all the time it needs to solidify facts on the ground.

Arguably the best example is the fate of Azov neo-Nazis at Azovstal in Mariupol – the best-equipped unit of the Ukrainians, hands down. In the end they were totally outmatched by  a numerically inferior Russian/Chechen Spetsnaz contingent, and in record time for such a big city.

When it comes to Kharkiv or Kharkov, as you wish, Escobar seems not to know that the city has been retaken by Ukrainian forces. So he focuses on the city of Izyum, which has, for the past few weeks been under Russian military occupation:

Another example is the advance on Izyum, in the Kharkov region – a key bridgehead in the frontline. The Russian Ministry of Defense follows the pattern of grinding the enemy while slowly advancing; if they face serious resistance, they stop and smash the Ukrainian defensive lines with non-stop missile and artillery strikes.

Escobar also seems to think that Russian forces have taken control of other cities:

Popasnaya in Luhansk, dubbed by many Russian analysts as “Mariupol on steroids”, or “the Stalingrad of Donbass,” is now under total control of the Luhansk People’s Republic, after they managed to breach a de facto fortress with linked underground trenches between most civilian houses. Popasnaya is extremely important strategically, as its capture breaks the first, most powerful line of defense of the Ukrainians in Donbass.

And he predicts the next stage of the conflict. We shall see if he is correct:

That will probably lead to the next stage, with an offensive on Bakhmut along the H-32 highway. The frontline will be aligned, north to south. Bakhmut will be the key to taking control of the M-03 highway, the main route to Slavyansk from the south.

This is just an illustration of the Russian General Staff applying its trademark, methodical, painstaking strategy, where the main imperative could be defined as a personnel-preserving forward drive. With the added benefit of committing just a fraction of overall Russian firepower.

If most news stories and most political commentary in this country sounds to be too positive about Ukraine, Escobar seems to be besotted with Russia. While I am hardly an expert in military analysis, I do not know anyone who thinks that the Russian general staff is overwhelmingly intelligent. Their understanding of tank battles seems not to have worked out very well.

Now, is Russia suffering economically from the Western sanctions regime? Apparently, not as much as one would imagine:

Compare it with Russia reaching its biggest surplus in history, with the rise and rise of commodity prices and the upcoming role of the stronger and stronger ruble as a resource-based currency also backed by gold.

Moscow is spending way less than the NATO contingent in the Ukrainian theater. NATO has already wasted $50 billion – and counting – while the Russians spent $4 billion, give or take, and already conquered Mariupol, Berdyansk, Kherson and Melitopol, created a land corridor to Crimea (and secured its water supply), controls the Sea of Azov and its major port city, and liberated strategically vital Volnovakha and Popasnaya in Donbass, as well as Izyum near Kharkov.

Is the West on the way to a recession? Many serious analysts, like former Goldman Sachs Chairman Lloyd Blankfein, say that it is. Then again, one might counter that the West would have entered a recession without any help from any outside forces:

That doesn’t even include Russia hurling the entire, collective west into a level of recession not seen since the 1970s.

The Russian strategic victory, as it stands, is military, economic, and may even coalesce geopolitically. Centuries after the Byzantine Strategikon was penned, the Global South would be very much interested in getting acquainted with the 21st century Russian version of the Art of War.

So, now you have another side of the debate. It feels a bit pie-in-the-sky, but that does not mean that it is wrong. And that does not mean that Escobar does not offer information that we have not been seeing in the Western media.


Steve Goodman said...

Pepe Escobar is onto something, especially when it comes to the failings of our own intelligence services. We believed, until the facts on the ground proved us incorrect, that Russia had the world's second most powerful armed forces. That belief was so strong that President Biden was induced to call President Zelensky of Ukraine to offer him free passage out of Ukraine soon after Russia invaded. Fool that he is, Zelensky declined the offer and asked for arms instead, thereby uniting his country against the invading Russians. Not bad for a guy who rose to his position by being a comedian. Maybe he knew something that we didn't. Whatever else you might criticize him for, he's got balls.

And this is where the Russians are so cunning. Instead of taking the Ukraine in one or two days as they planned and assumed would naturally follow their attack on Kyiv, they demonstrated that their modern and powerful army was still capable of fighting WW2 but not so much a 21st century affair. They still have not figured out how to deal with the many drones used by the Ukrainians to gather real time battlefield data. After all, Russia's drones have real cameras with real film that has to be developed. And we are approaching the end of the third month of this 2-day war. Clearly, Russia does not field the world's second most powerful army, or the third, fourth, tenth or even twentieth. What they have is more than 6,000 nuclear weapons and have demonstrated that they may not have the capabilities to properly use them.

One important question is whether Russia can even hold together at this point. Will one or more of the various "republics", say Georgia, for example, again seek to gain independence in the not too distant future? Another is whether and, if so, how long would it take for Russia to rebuild its armed forces to fight a 21st century war. (As it does not have the ability to design or manufacture the sophisticated computer chips needed, in my opinion it just can't find a way to compete with NATO. Surprisingly, from what various commenters on China's military capabilities have been saying, neither does China.). Another is whether Russia will even allow its army to return from Ukraine. After all, they have been hiding the true facts from its rather credulous peoples and returning conscripts will have some awful tales to tell (like how they were tricked into fighting in Ukraine, or not given weapons, or not trained on how to use any weapons that were given to them if they were handed them , or which end the bullet comes out of, or shot by their officers if they were wounded, or never told why they were in Ukraine, or why they were ordered to kill Ukrainian civilians, or why they were abandoned by their officers, or how they were ordered to bury in trenches so many Russian dead, and on and on and on). Ukraine is reported to have 9,000 dead Russian soldiers which it wants to return to Russia, which refuses to accept them. To me, Russia's form of kleptocratic government could not survive the truth so it must continue the war indefinitely, or until it loses, or until Putin is thrown out and blamed for the mess.

Yes, Pepe is right on. Russia's cunning is in showing us how smart it is to demonstrate how The Three Stooges go to war. All this unnecessary killing and destruction just to show how hollow Russia is, to the point that obviously Putin is the only person in Russia who believed the lies. After all, they were being told to him by his crooked henchmen that he appointed to run the armed forces. We are very lucky in that the foolishness of the Russians is a step ahead of ours. Fortunately, NATO seems to have taken the lead in dealing with this disaster and Trump put NATO back together during his presidency. Putin gambled on a quick war and lost. Russia is in for some interesting times.

Please excuse any misspellings of Ukrainian names or any typos.

Patrick 59 said...

Another way of looking at this conflict is not that it is a war between Ukraine and Russia, but rather a civil war in Ukraine between the Russian aligned citizens in the East and South against the Western aligned Ukrainians in the West.

From this perspective the Russian encirclement of Kiev was to keep Ukraine forces from reinforcing the East and South. There is little gain for Russia to be dragged into a quagmire trying to pacify the Western part of the nation who hate Russia. The East and South do not want to be part one of the most corrupt governments in the world and have been terrorized by the Ukraine army and national guard who have many leaders whose minds and souls are polluted with NAZI ideology.

It does seem that in the East the war is going very badly for Ukraine and a significant portion of the Ukraine army is trapped with diminishing arms and fuel to maneuver. Without the ability to return fire and Maneuver they will face the same fate as their fascist brothers in the South.

This conflict could have been avoided by not expanding NATO into Ukraine and Ukraine following the Minsk I or Minsk II accords that served as a means of ending hostilities when the Ukraine army was being defeated by Russian separatist militias in the Russian Speaking East.