The Zaporizhia Summer Blockbuster
This is an excellent summary which comports well with the analysis of other commentators such as Andrei Martyanov, Larry Johnson, Douglas Macgregor, Scott Ritter, et al. What isn’t touched upon as much by any of the commentators I follow is the social and psychological composition of the population itself. The basic description of a divided Ukraine is characterized as Ukrainian nationalism vs. Russian cultural identity, but is this the whole story, or merely a superficial construct designed primarily for western consumption? Granted this division is significant, but there are other elements in play here, first of which is the economic and demographic reality of Ukraine since independence in 1991.
I think it’s useful to do a side by side comparison of Russia vs Ukraine post the breakup. They were the most similar of the former republics, and the most significant in economic terms, which meant they were the first to attract the attention of western financiers and their corporate allies. So for the next ten years we had a similar pattern of former apparatchiks acquiring great fortunes with western banking assistance, to the detriment of the population at large. Then the great divergence occurred with the ascent of VVP and his faction, which having gained political power sat the oligarchs down and read them the riot act. You can keep some of your assets, but some you’ll have to return to the state, and by the way, you’re working for Russia now. Anyone who doesn’t agree is welcome to get on their yacht and leave. So sign here, or there’s the door, and I’d like my pen back please.
That never happened in Ukraine, which to me is the defining difference. The looting simply continued and the cynicism of the population increased, whereas in Russia there was a shift in public perception buttressed by a broad nationalism with historic roots that simply doesn't exist in Ukraine as a whole. Ukrainian nationalism, such as it does exist, has a dark past to which only the western portion of the country feels any affinity. For the remainder of the population it was something they either had no part in, would sooner forget, or had family history of opposing. Note, this division does not occur along strictly ethnic lines but includes ethnic Ukrainians who took the side of the USSR, or at least resisted Ukrainian nationalism as defined by the OUN and Bandera elements.
So what does this mean in the current context? Simply that while the ethnic Russian portion of the population is relatively unified, divisions exist on the ethnic Ukrainian side and are widening as a result of a war which a growing portion of ethnic Ukrainians want no part of, and who see it as a continuation of the looting operation described above. The Nationalists know this, and by attempting to root out that element of their own society are simply increasing that division to the point that some of their own people have now turned against them. So a state of paranoia exists within Ukrainian leadership. No one at the top has any delusions about the Nationalist program they're pushing. It’s simply the operational schema for the continued looting of the nation, made all the more attractive by the fact that they’ve drawn their western sponsors into the fray and can loot them as well.
This is the actual background of the war of attrition, in my opinion. It has an obvious military element, but it also consists of aiding Ukrainian oligarchs in the looting of western financial resources on the theory that at some point, it become a political factor leading to a change of leadership in the West. The oligarchs can be dealt with later, as no amount of money can buy them protection from what’s coming, either from their own people, or from Russia herself.
We’ve all seen the map of the 2010 election which is used to illustrate the division between the two ethnicities, but is that the whole picture? Recall that a key element leading to the Maidan protests was the issue of EU membership. I would argue that the split in the electorate had more to do with that than with any ethnic divisions or loyalty to Russia. Consider a 20-something guy in Ukraine with few economic prospects. EU membership would be very attractive as it holds out the potential of employment in the EU. I would argue that was a motivating factor for many young Ukrainians regardless of ethnicity, and would have created the illusion of greater support for the nationalist faction than actually exists. Basically people voted their self-interest, and at the time the EU seemed the best option. Never mind the fact that the eastern industrial sector of Ukraine was an integral part of the USSR, and as such had well developed markets in Russia, whereas they had virtually no markets in the west outside of agricultural products, and no realistic chance of ever competing with Western corporations. That kind of argument takes a back seat when the individual's priority is escape from perpetual poverty. To sum it up, that vote was economically determined and likely had little to do with pro or anti Russian sentiment. It was simply voting for a potential way out of a dire circumstance. Delusional in my opinion, but young people often are.
So that’s my summary of the social and psychological backdrop to the conflict. In short, Ukrainian youth of both ethnic extractions were lured by a false promise held out by an entrenched political elite with no intention of enacting the type of reforms which would have admitted them to the EU. How could they, when they were the very source of the corruption the EU decried? Even if the process had moved ahead, it would have taken much longer than would benefit any young person looking for an immediate way out. So instead of a job in the EU, you’re dragooned into a war you want no part of, and from which you’re unlikely to return. Not exactly the outcome you anticipated, so how much commitment can you expect from that cohort, who now make up the bulk of what’s left of the UAF? This to me is the defining aspect of the war at this point. The hard core element have mostly been killed and the remainder are looking for a way to surrender without being shot by their nationalist minders, a sad replay of soviet era military ‘discipline.’ I suppose the end game depends on how much of the UAF leadership are professional soldiers not implicated in the coup or subsequent horrors, who see the best way to end this is to remove the Ukrainian government and negotiate terms of surrender. How likely this is I can’t say as I’m not familiar with the UAF command structure and their loyalties.
Is that a good summary? I welcome comments and criticism as my analysis is strictly from the outside. Although I have friends on both sides of the conflict, none of them have any enthusiasm for what’s happening, they are just simple guys who feel the same as I do, that a massive tragedy has occurred that never should have happened.
It's going to end with a rump something. The big question for Putin is how to get a situation where the rump can't do a quickie marriage with NATO. Or if that is impossible, then the rump has to be pretty harmless. That's bad news for Ukraine. In twenty years if we are lucky, we'll wonder why we let the Iraq and Afghan War geniuses set this whole thing up with Maidan and a good grifting along they way. At least the big guy got his 10% and 5 million.
I am someome who has followed the development of this war closely, that said, I have no relevant experience or depth of historical knowledge to refute any of the the contents of the discussion below. The commenters all seem knowledgeable and able to point out the various factors that have led to this war in the first place and to it dragging out as it has.
The Putin/military leadership's minimumalist goals, seems to be conditon one.
As a veteran, with the limitations mentioned above, it has always struck me as strange that the Russian military did not do one thing, that showed serious intent. The shelling of Donetsk goes on to this day. Given Russia's capacity to pump out munitions, I don't understand why the Russian military didn't turn the area between Donetsk City and from where the Uke fascists were firing on civilian targets, into a total wasteland, in which all that could happen with further bombardment, is make the rubble bounce and mine the area so densely, a rat couldn't make its way though it.
Then move onto other strategic objectives.
Maybe what I said above reflects ignorance on my part, but the US Neo-Cons have no problem with "making the rubble bounce", which is about all the US's direct invasion of Afghanistan seems like it could accomplish, in military terms. The US's proxy war had already succeeded in destroying what there was of Afghan civil society. The US had some identifeable goals: A beach head in the underbelly of the Asian continent and the riches gained from looting Afghanistan's natural resources. Some other goals of the US, it might be pointed out, were not so much strategic, as opportunist. The Afghan War was an excuse to funnel trillions into the Pentagon's wealth transfer to the US's oligarchs apparatus. Allow the opium trade, which had been largley shut down by the Taliban, to flourish.
There is a long history of US/Western involvement in wars in which drugs are a significant element, though, perhaps, as a lucrative and useful (In crippling and creating underclasses where the drugs are ultimately dumped and profits for the int'l banks involved in laundering the drug trades money) side benefit.
I think the point made below about failing to respond to "Red Lines" for 2 decades is correct. A number of informed commentators, that all of us have listened too and have reason to respect, have pointed out, that the US Neo-Cons have become convinced that Russia is weak and its leadership indecisive. Russia is still characterized as a "gas station masquerading as a country". Neo-Con scribblers have advocated using tactical nuclear weapons against Russia. I suppose to some extent, the perceived need by US war hawks for using tactical nuclear weapons against Russia, is a back handed acknowledgement that Russia is more than a "gas station".
Some among the Neo-Con loonies speculate that Russia will not respond to the use of nuclear weapons, by unleashing a full on nuclear exchange. "Tactical" nukes are just one more Red Line that can be ignored.
Other Neo-Cons are not only nihilist enough to chance a nuclear war, they express fantasies about the US coming out on top of a nuclear exchange.
John Mearsheimer has repeatedly said, he thought a nuclear exchange was most likely to be started by a Russia that was loosing and was being backed into a corner by the US and its sycophants in "The Garden". Mearsheimer asserts it is a good thing that Russia is not on a path to complete defeat, as that reduces the likelihood of the use of nukes in this war. I think it is more likely that the US will resort to nuclear weapons, as its goal of re-assuming the mantle of World Hegemon continues to recede.
I remember sitting in a college level history class in the 70's, arguing with people that the US is willing to use nuclear weapons in a first strike. The answer as to whether or not the Shining City on a Hill will resort to the use nuclear weapons has been answered, twice.
A tip of the hat, and a thanks for the useful comments to Big Serge and to the people who have commented on his article.
And...we haven't mentioned China in all of these exchanges.
This war is just math. Russia has a 10:1 advantage in artillery and ammunition; air superiority; and twice the number of available (better trained) troops; well prepared fortifications and minefields; and surveillance and intelligence assets to know exactly where Ukrainian forces are at any given moment.
Why would anyone think an offensive would have any chance of strategic success under these circumstances? It's literally insane. It's basically the George Armstrong Custer theory of offense -- i.e., just recklessly attack a vastly superior force and see what happens.
The really interesting question is **why** the US (who apparently demanded and planned the offensive) is so stupid militarily? Potential explanations: (a) They really are just that stupid due to a retarded decision making process based on groupthink, believing their own propaganda, and perhaps deliberately politicized intelligence assessments; or (b) They somehow cynically calculated that a counter-productive doomed offensive would somehow play better politically than just a grinding attritional defense.
Wonderful writing and analysis. Rare and beyond compare.
Humility might not come easy to me. Big Serge just knocked it out of the park, to coin the American phrase. I find it rare, beyond compare, to obtain this incredibly insightful and detailed analysis available for all the world to see, even though all the world is not much given to thoughtful, detailed analysis.
One of things people seem to slide right over, this is not a war between Russia and Ukraine. It is a war between Russia and the NATO states. Where Serge rightly points out Ukraine cannot fight a war of attrition, what could also be noted is that it's likely NATO cannot fight a war of attrition. NATO does, however, have additional resources that Ukraine does not have and that are not yet engaged, clearly nuclear and biological - and possibly, perhaps fantastically, depending on what Lahaina tells us, directed energy weapons.
It's a war between Russia and the NATO states and Ukraine is only the name of a particular field army.
What virtually every commentator on the war - with the possible exception of Scott Ritter - fails to point out is that Ukraine is out of men. And no, you can't just throw three million civilians into the front with AK's and hope for the best.
As my Substack posts have shown - using very conservative figures - Ukraine is losing at least 60-100,000 men per month. Ukraine can't possibly keep that up for more than another 1-3 months before it runs completely out of men. And long before that, as Big Serge notes, their combat and operational effectiveness will cease. We're already seeing that now with the Ukrainians barely able to launch small unit attacks with minimal armor - which means combat effectiveness is on the wane - and the complete failure of the "counter-offensive" - which it isn't - demonstrates that Ukraine has lost all operational effectiveness.
Another Less-Than-Short Ukrainian Interlude...
Wherein I explain how I calculate Ukrainian losses and estimate the remaining length of the war...
A Comment in Response to a Comment...
Wherein I calculate Russian losses in the Ukraine conflict...
A Refresher On How To Read The Daily Russian Ministry of Defense "Clobber Report"...
Gotta remember the little details...
Wherein the U.S. Department of Defense spills the beans...
They unwittingly confirm that the Ukraine military is on the verge of collapse...
Yet Another Quick Ukrainian Interlude...
Wherein we show once again that Ukraine is frickin' doomed...
And as for the future of Ukraine...
Dmitry Medvedev Agrees With Me...
On the future of Ukraine...
"In the case of the Kharkov offensive, Ukraine identified a sector of the Russian front that had been hollowed out and was defended only by a thin screening force. They were able to stage a force and achieve a measure of strategic surprise, due to the thick forests and general paucity of Russian ISR in the area."
IIRC, there was no surprise. Even bloggers on the internet saw the Kharkov offensive coming. However, the Russian leadership refused to do anything about it, even as the scale and scope became abundantly obvious. The Ukrainians took huge casualties, but nobody in Kiev, much less Washington cared then or cares now.
Russia faces a similar problem now, in that it needs to have the stomach to devote the men and resources needed to actually win. Kharkov could easily have been saved with a few thousand more men.
The problem is that Russia cannot really promise the average frustrated citizen much as a result of victory. Whether Russia wins or loses, it matters little to a person in Ekaterinburg whether Kharkov is Russian or Ukrainian.
Ukraine can promise its victims that if they win, the West, The Golden Billion, will finally have to let them join the club.
The other problem that Russia faces is that, short of a nuclear strike, there is nothing Russia can do that so much as mildly inconveniences the decisionmakers in Washington. So the West has every incentive to keep on doubling down.
"Whether 10,000 Russian females fall down from exhaustion while digging an antitank ditch interests me only insofar as the anti-tank ditch for Germany is finished." sums up the mentality in Washington and Kiev just fine.
The question is what Russia proposes to do about it.
Embedded in this superb article is this hilariously understated moment of truth regarding Ukraine's recent efforts; "A frontal attack against a prepared defense without the element of surprise is generally considered a poor choice".
Speaking of bats, what comes to mind is a quote from an article which an FBI guy stated the following about the Russians. “Here in the US the national pastime is baseball. In Russia, the national pastime is chess. How the heck are we going to compete with people like that?”
In the ranking of who's winning - yes, Russia is winning. Against Ukraine. But not against its primary adversary. Every Russian soldier killed is an irretrievable loss, and the other guy is taking nil casualties. Nobody in the west gave a shit about Ukraine in 2021, and in 2023 they still don't. They just found a tiger willing to fight the bear on their behalf. I remain convinced that they will eventually realize they have the tiger by the tail, but that's another conversation
A lot of words but no mention of any Russian offensive to end this thing.
We really are lucky to have an honest and skilled analyst such as Big Serge to dispel the, frankly, disgusting and mendacious cheerleading of the Western media. Candidly, I lack the acumen of Serge but I cannot but wonder what is gained by hurling elements of Ukraine's rebuilt military into an abyss rather than husbanding it as a defensive force. In any event, it's becoming ever more clear that the nitwits in the Biden cabal and their puppet Boris Johnson were not acting in the interest of the Ukrainian people when they decided to scuttle the peace talks.
Good article (and great historical series!).
It looks like the time has come, when most of the existing fleets of military hardware need upgrades across the board to face varieties of smart munitions that are now fielded at scale. Hard to predict what kind of innovations will result.
The question of UA manpower remains, but too much misinformation to know where it's at. Estimates of 250k hard losses per year now seem to be on the low side. But several years of fighting still possible if that is the number. Neither Kiev nor Washington likely to shed tears for the men who die for their privilege.
Moscow seems resigned to several years of this slog going on. Everything I've seen suggests to me they're simply trying to keep losses to a manageable rate, which might be in the 100k / year ballpark, but if pressed hard, the capability is there in Russia to go quite a bit higher.
In broader strategy, US is stuck for the time being by its obsession with "maintaining credibility". Kind-of the domino theory reasoning. Meanwhile PRC, the big dog, must like the situation just fine. EU and Euro currency knocked out from first-class status, US stuck on the fool's errand taking on Russia.
Expecting an inconclusive end to this campaign, followed by some modest RF counter action in the fall/winter, that will likely disappoint most of us; rinse/repeat for next year.
Thank you for this very detailed analysis.
Just a few comments/notes:
1) “The single most coherent core of theoretical writings on operational art is still found among the Soviet writers.” - the link here is broken.
2) "this is a bit like sending a boxer out to fight with a broken arm, and then critiquing his technique. The problem is not his technique - the problem is that he’s injured and materially weaker than his opponent" - I really loved this analogy!
3) "Kiev will either need to admit defeat and acknowledge Russian control over the annexed areas, or it will continue to fight obstinately until it is a failed state with nothing left in the tank."
Personally, I think that, as we stand now, Ukraine will never admit defeat, at least not with Zelensky and his junta in power. Hence, they will keep fighting to the last Ukrainian or until Russians march into Kiev!
It is commonsensical that in an attrition war Ukraine loses. But this is only superficially a war with Ukraine. Ukraine is a proxy for NATO, which is a proxy for the U.S. That is why you hear gleeful comments from U.S. public figures like Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney. For them the war is a dream come true. It costs the U.S. next to nothing to bleed Russia. It is Afghanistan 2.0. Ukrainian losses simply do not matter. If Ukraine runs out of Ukrainians for this excellent adventure, other Eastern Europeans can take their place. It is chilling because the people behind this war do not see it as a defeat. They see it as a strategic masterstroke. However they are not only malign but wrong. In time NATO and the U.S. may well come out the attritional losers, their "victory" in Ukraine a strategic disaster to impress even a Pyrrhus.