The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Putin’s Personal Interests and the Interests of Russia Have Diverged & The Divergence Is Running The Ukraine War

So, Ukraine has had its second significant success in the war, launching a successful counter-offensive which took the important logistical center Izyum. The counter-offensive worked because the Russians didn’t have enough troops defending AND didn’t have reserves for a counter-attack (which could have turned the Ukrainian attack into a fiasco.) The Ukrainian attack was well-telegraphed in advance, and there are very consistent reports of there being a LOT of foreign fighters. The actual area taken is less than the size of Rhode Island, it doesn’t have to be a war-determining catastrophe, but it shouldn’t have happened.

There are two military issues here for the Russians. The first is that the command doesn’t seem to have anticipated this, despite it being known in advance. Certain Generals need to be relieved.

But the second is one which has been known for a long time and which has exercised Russian observers: Russia attacked at 1:3 local odds and for the entire “operation” has been fighting with less troops than the Ukrainian side. Without “mass” they have had to engage in slow attrition warfare, without breakthroughs or significant envelopements.

This is something I haven’t understood, because Putin’s political calculus about the war is fairly simple, as I’ve said before. His actual opposition is to his right, and if he loses the war, he will almost certainly lose power. If he loses power, he’ll probably wind up dead, and so will his family. He can’t afford to lose this war.

Russia, even without full mobilization, has a much larger military than Ukraine, and no, it isn’t all crap. (Besides, as Stalin observed “quantity has a quality of its own.” Even third echelon units, in sufficient numbers, would have been sufficient to stop this counter-attack.)

So, what I’ve said since the beginning is “Putin has to win this war or he will probably wind up dead, and he has the resources to do so, so he will win the war.” This logic is good and I still think it’s accurate, but it has been contradicted by the fact that Putin wasn’t using the resources. One reason might be that the Russian military beyond this 200K force is so bad and under-equipped it’s essentially paper only, but I’ve never found that convincing.

What appears to be the case, on further investigation, is that domestic political considerations are the problem. Again, Putin’s opposition is his right. There is no liberal or left wing opposition of significance. The people who will replace Putin are the ones who have been saying that Putin should use much more of the military and “take off the gloves.” Understand that power and water is still on in Ukraine, and Russia could “bomb it off” tomorrow if it wanted to, along with taking out most of the core rail and road infrastructure.

If Putin uses more troops, he essentially gives weapons to his opposition. Even without general mobilization, when those troops go to war, the careful control over who has what weapons at all times goes away. Weapons will wind up in the hands of the right wing opposition, and will stay there after the war, and that appears to be what concerns Putin.

This is the strongman’s dance, and indicates more weakness in Putin’s position than I had realized was the case. Putin, in the Russian context is a moderate (not a liberal, which is what that would mean in the West, but a moderate). He played a cautious game thru his entire tenure as leader, trying to avoid a final rift with the West.

But the time of the moderate is done in Russia. The liberals have fled to the West or been completely dis-empowered by this war. Russia is now firmly anti-West, games can be played with sanctions, but even after the war, unless Russia loses in a way that allows the West to put its own government(s) in charge, there will be no long-term resumption of trade, but a titration off. China and the 2nd and 3rd world (BRICS, Africa, etc…) are Russia’s future, and Russia is at best a locked-in Junior Ally to China and arguably a powerful satrapy.

Russia has chosen or been forced to choose its side in the upcoming cold war and struggle for world supremacy: it’s on China’s side.

This means that the day of the moderate is all but over. There’s no need or reason to play moderate games with the West and try and balance the West vs. China any more. It’s cold war (and almost hot) and the people who recognize that are likely to take power after Putin. Putin appears unwilling to take on the right wing mantle

The question for Putin is if he can take on the mantle, or how the transition occurs: does he or at least his family get out alive, with their assets intact, or do they wind up dead and/or lose their wealth? Putin, even though he politically disagreed with Yeltsin, made sure that Yeltsin’s family was kept safe, but if Putin can’t be sure that his successor will do that for him.

A good bell-weather here is Dimitry Medvedev, the man who Putin chose as President when he had to step aside for one term. Medvedev has gone full right wing, one of the most rabid warmongers in Russian politics, but he was considered a moderate and near-liberal before. He sees where the future is, and knows whose support he needs.

So Putin has a problem: if he loses the war in Russian perception he loses power and probably his life. A stab-in-the-back narrative (not, actually, unjustified, in this case) will be used by his domestic opposition to take him out. He had hoped to win the war using the minimum number of troops possible in order to not empower his internal opposition and give their followers weapons, but it may be that’s not possible.

If he wants to stick to the current force structure of only about 200K men, I’d guess he has about 2 months to show that this counter-offensive didn’t matter: it was just one of those things that happens. If by then Russia isn’t clearly back on its front foot, I’d say he’s at genuine risk, because he’s losing the army’s political support and it’s not clear the secret police will back him because winning this war is genuinely in Russia’s interest: if it loses or is seen to lose the hit to its prestige and perceived power will be massive and its position with China will definitely be “satrapy” not “junior ally.”

Understand that winter is actually the best time to advance in Ukraine, for both sides: the ground is solid, the rivers may well be frozen.

We’ll see in the next few days what Putin decides to do: try and finesse it out with the current force structure, or send in more troops and resources. But this is, for him, a genuine problem and shows that his personal interests have now diverged from those of Russia itself. That’s not a good position for him to be in and I suspect the best path forward for him might be to let loose the military, win the war, and negotiate a safe retirement with his domestic opposition, since it’s better for them if he goes peaceful into that good political night.



Open Thread


Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – September 11, 2022


  1. NL

    On the maps from this morning by our time (of course, Russia is ahead of us in time zones), the Ukrainian forces seem to have crossed the border into Russia in the Kharkov region. The Putin’s forces are still running in the Donbas region and the civilians are fleeing throughout all the captured territories not just those that were re-occupied by the Ukrainian…

    Interesting and why this is hugely shocking to the Russians is that on Saturday Sept 10, Putin’s oligarchs celebrated the 875th anniversary of Moscow with giant fireworks: “The fireworks will be launched from 23 different parts of the city, so people attending the celebrations may enjoy the show from every part of Moscow.” and other festivities. So, as people were watching the fireworks show, news began coming in about the torching of the Putin’s mercenaries in Ukraine — the TV channels did not know what to do — to stop the stream of the festivities and report on the situation in Ukraine or not — TV commentators were dumfounded and some went off the script, telling the people that something bad just happened and difficult times are ahead for everyone… The leadership meanwhile probably already knew about the Ukrainian offensive, which was already on on Friday, but either did not take it seriously or calculated that the fireworks will distract the populace from the bad news… Many in retrospect think that the festivities should have been cancelled and the juxtaposition of the festive oligarchy and fleeing solders and civilians put the final dagger through the heart of the Putin’s regime…

    What I wrote Astrid several months ago — Russia is just an oligarchy, a weak incompetent and lacking in the willpower oligarchy. The time for the Gorbachev/Yeltsin/Putin regime is up. 30 years is enough of incompetence, naivete, buffoonery and robbery. It is because of the regime’s neglect and lack of care that the war started in the first place. It is because of the regime’s indifference and self-indulgence that the nazi have come to power in Ukraine. A strong Russia is in everyone’s interest, including ours and including Ukraine. A weak Russia is a human, ecological and potentially nuclear disaster waiting to happen. Time for us to stop admiring the short man with the face that betrays lack of willpower. What is coming can’t be as bad as what has transpired so far…

  2. Ian Welsh

    If Ukrainian forces have crossed into Russia, I don’t see how Putin avoids some form of mobilization.

  3. Z

    I have read nothing that indicates that Ukrainian forces are in Russia. If it has happened at all it is probably very small groups looking for terrorism and sabotage opportunities and if so it is highly unlikely IMO that they are dressed in Ukrainian army uniforms.

    It looks like what happened is that the Ukrainian/NATO forces hit Russia with a larger amount of force (force = mass x acceleration) than the Russia artillery strikes could absorb. I’d imagine that the attack plans were kept under a small hat, probably almost all among the NATO “advisors” and that disinformation was spread through the Ukrainian channels of command because NATO, and Zelensky, realizes that there are so many high level moles in the Ukrainian power structure that the Russians were being tipped to their every movement and acting upon it. Adding to the mass part of it was that I’d imagine that some of weapons and tactics NATO used have been kept under wraps (remember it took a while for Russia to adjust to the introduction of HIMARS into the war arena) and that there were a number of probably highly trained and paid, recently “retired” from the regular military, western mercenaries that were added to the mix. Also, I’ve read that recent Ukrainian conscripts were aggressively fed into the grinder facing their own fire if they retreated or the Russians if they maintained their positions or didn’t advance.

    Russia probably had become too dependent upon their moles and thought they had the situation totally under control and didn’t build up enough of a buffer in case the nature of the war changed. That was foolish. Mind you that this has been a multi-faceted war on both sides with the Ukrainian/NATO side in particular creating many fires to put out such as the myriad of economic sanctions, the nuclear power plant attacks, Lithuania’s provocations in regards to denying Russia access to its territories, Kosovo flaring up, and Syria getting hotter. The Russian power and command structures are too narrow, got overwhelmed, and were complacent.

    It ain’t over yet though and now we see how fast Russia can adjust and if the force of their adjustments can help them reclaim control of the situation. I’m guessing that they will. Mind you that winter is also approaching and the European citizenry, in the form of protests against their U.S. supplicant governments, may also play a more prominent role in this matter than they have so far.

    Ukrainian citizens are paying the highest toll in this war, that should never be forgotten, and their enemies are the Zelensky/NATO regime more so than the Russians, and this entire situation was largely created by the West and in particular by the Jewish elites who raped Russia during the Yeltsin years and are looking for their revenge on Putin for kicking them out and to resume plundering Russia’s vast resources.

    Putin was a decisive break from the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years, not a continuation of them. Ask the Russians. They certainly noticed the improvement of their living standards.


  4. Astrid

    Sheesh Ian. Give it another 10 days for things to shake out. Larry Johnson’s analysis and the reported Ukrainian KIA seems a lot more convincing, especially as they appear to be withdrawing the vast majority of civilians who were still in the area.

    “Russia is just a weak oligarchy…” Then what is a West that can’t even produce enough munitions to support a limited conflict conflict with a peer competitor, whose solution to every problems is to give more money to the rich and everybody else “go die”? Neither China or Russia are monolithic and based on my recent watching of their media, they seem much more heterogeneous and sophisticated than anything I’ve encountered from Western media in the last 15 years. If they’re houses of cards, then the West is a house of vapor.

  5. Ian Welsh

    Putin was a decisive break with the Yeltsin era, agreed, and it’s one of the reasons he actually does have significant popular support. But he also did make sure Yeltsin’s family was taken care of, and it’s one of the reasons Yeltsin chose him.

  6. Ian Welsh

    It really shouldn’t have happened, Astrid, and it is because of under-use of the military. It took a lot of time to take that ground, slow grinding artillery warfare.

    But as you say, we’ll see how it plays out. Still, I have thought from the beginning that Putin was not using sufficient forces.

  7. someofparts

    Well, the light-touch approach is about to be over. If Russian national opinion wants Putin to take the gloves off, that is what he is going to do. Why is it a sign of weakness that he waits until the people of his nation want it before he escalates the military actions in Ukraine?

    And seriously, the Russian economy is in good shape and getting stronger. They are crazy busy building trade and mutual support with the other nations of Asia. Meanwhile, the European economy is dying at the hands of it’s leaders. I think that Putin, who has made his country safe and prosperous, is in less danger of being overthrown than the leaders of Europe.

    I follow the Duran and New Atlas daily. Also follow anything posted by Larry Johnson, Scott Ritter or Michael Hudson.

    Maybe I’m wrong. I have nothing but respect for your opinions Ian and god knows you are light years smarter than I am. Even so, this is the first time in the more than a decade I have spent at this site that I respectfully disagree with your analysis.

  8. Trinity

    “If they’re houses of cards, then the West is a house of vapor.”

    Exactly. The West is a house of con. For many years now it’s been one long, ongoing con, as in “confidence man” trickery and deception. I wish it was vapor, where a good stiff wind could dissipate it.

  9. Willy

    All the evidence suggests that the Russian soldiers don’t all have “ownership” in this war. By contrast, American soldiers in Iraq at least had some belief in their misguided mission, even if some of them knew it was being fought for kleptocrats. And in Ukraine we haven’t even gotten to the occupation phase.

    Lesson learned: you always gotta have a convincing boogieman to vanquish. Plus some grand moral values which the fighting minions might be willing to sacrifice themselves for. A buncha Zs painted on tanks doesn’t seem like enough.

    I’d think this dynamic would translate well to things like corporations and political movements. But what the hell do I know. I myself was once given a “special project”, which everybody else suspected was aimed towards offshoring and automation. Apparently I’d been brainwashed by my company’s “quality improvement” propaganda.

    Oh crap, am I back at propaganda again?

  10. StewartM


    Putin was a decisive break from the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years, not a continuation of them

    Yeltsin (“shock doctrine capitalism, looters are welcome!!) was a break with Gorbachev (keep the USSR together and transform it into a Western social democracy). Putin is Russia’s Thermidorian Reaction; he is not left-wing in the remotest sense, but formalized Russia’s oligarchic rule,. Said oligarchic rule with the oligarchs stealing Russia’s public wealth (including looting its military) is probably the chief reason why Russia’s operations in the Ukraine have been underwhelming.

    I have seen Putin being asked in a forum about a possible ‘return to socialism’, and he threw cold water on it. Putin, like a French Louis or other European monarch, while he fights his ‘nobility’ (his oligarchs) at times he also needs them. While Putin can punish individual oligarchs like a Louis could punish individual nobles, he can’t punish them or take their power away as a *class*. Just because a leader is anti-Western does not make him ‘left’ or a fighter against Western neoliberalism. And I say this as someone who actually believes that on the whole, the goal that Putin has been accused of wanting–reuniting the USSR—would be a *good thing* for its peoples and for the world…..Putin is just not the person I want to see do it.

    As for a full Russian mobilization–I’d say forget about it. In the absence of any real threat to ‘Mother Russia’, most young Russians I’d dare say will evade service, or maybe desert at the first opportunity. The few I know say that.

  11. someofparts

    Larry Johnson, from links at NC this morning –

    “the Russians knew it was coming and chose to let the Ukrainians flood the zone in order to eventually hit the Ukrainian forces with a massive counter attack. The Ukrainians are no longer in fortified defensive positions and their lines of communication to support the forward troops are now defined precisely. The Ukrainian attack has not destroyed nor disrupted Russia’s air, artillery, rocket and missile assets. Attacking the Ukrainian units is an easier task, not more difficult.”

  12. marku52

    One other likely outcome. The Chinese have been watching this all carefully, and no doubt have concluded that “Softly, softly” gives you enemies way too much time to create trouble.

    Once they decide to take Taiwan, it will be with overwhelming force, and if they have to break the all the eggs, they will do so. Can always build it back later.

  13. TimmyB

    I do not understand thinking Putin and his family’s lives are in danger if he loses this war. Neither post communist Russia nor the Soviet Union post Stalin have a history of murdering failed leaders. Nikita Khrushchev was ousted in 1964. He died of natural causes in 1981. Gorbachev died of natural causes. So did Yeltsin. Simply put, there is no basis to believe Putin’s family would be murdered and little to believe he would be in the highly unlikely event he were deposed.

    Concerning the war, observing the current situation and claiming Ukraine will win is little different that observing a cold day in winter and claiming global warming is a hoax. Russia is going to win.

  14. NL

    Astrid — “Then what is a West…” — You answered your own question. That is what we have… Russia and us, we have all massively de-industrialized. It has been worse and quicker in Russia. The difference between our and Russian oligarchy is that our oligarchy has more skill, tenacity and willpower, while their oligarchy is just delusional, indifferent and lazy. I do not know what ‘heterogeneity’ has to do with anything. The difference between Russia and China is that Russia is run by the largest property owners bound by a common interest, while China is not run by the largest property owners. The US is likewise run by the owners of the financial assets. Every leadership has their priorities.

    Ian, I have an open mind, but I can’t find evidence of the decisive break between Gorbachev/Yeltsin and Putin. Please clue me in. The video of Putin with the roses and the bow to the man universally recognized as either naïve or a loser is symbolic evidence of the continuity. Google “President Putin Lays Flowers At Coffin Of Soviet” to see the video. Even from pure political consideration, why bow to a man whose popularity in the country is <1%? Many people in the country were aghast when they saw the video. The majority in Russia believes that Gorbachev should have been prosecuted. What kind of signal has it sent to China that considers Gorbachev to be a loser? To me it sent a clear signal of weakness and an impeding disaster… Putin's regime has no other ideology than the ideology created by Gorbachev/Yeltsin — and that is the ideology of denigrating the Soviet Union and extoling virtues of the West. And that is a problem that they have been intellectually lazy to solve — Putin's oligarchs worship and hate the West all at the same time…

    So, now the discussion is about universal mobilization, which will take from 30 days to 6 months, depending on who well one wants to train and equip the new recruits. Watch, just like us, Russia will find out that they have no industrial base to produce military equipment… perfect time for China, Iran, North Korea, etc to start supplying Russia with weapons and fight the West to the last Russian.

    Russia also hit the Ukrainian electrical grid. Many regions are without power. Regress, de-industrialization and the dash to the stone age continues apace. You know — electrification of the whole country was one of the earliest priorities of the Soviet Union. Now we are watching de-electrification in Ukraine and soon in Russia (the Ukraine will send out their saboteur groups; Russia territory is now regularly hit in various ways).

    I suppose there is beauty in watching progress unfolding in reverse…

  15. bruce wilder

    Regardless of pov, everyone’s narrative constructions suffer from the paucity of reliable facts and the surplus of disinformation.

    Ian, correctly imho, cites the fact that Ukraine has the Russians outnumbered on the ground. The Ukraine as Underdog narrative pushed by mainstream U.S. media (ex. NY Times) has often obscured and denied this. The maps distributed by the Kagans (ISW), a faction pushing the West to escalate, has never marked Ukraine’s extensive fortifications, most notably in the suburbs of Donetsk city from whence Ukraine shells that city.

    I am not sure Putin has much more in troop numbers to deploy, without mobilization. You can say Russia has a million-man army, but most of that army consists of either conscripts serving a one-year training or career soldiers paired up with the conscript units or actually training the conscripts. Putin put together a motley crew in Ukraine to do the actual fighting, including Chechen militia and Wagner Group mercenaries to supplement the Donbas militia units. And, the “frozen conflict” playbook Putin generally follows features a high degree of tactical restraint aimed at keeping intact a counter-party with which to negotiate an armistice. The West’s “fight to the last Ukrainian” strategy has Putin’s initial plan past its culmination point without achieving its minimal territorial objectives (the whole Donbas plus Kherson and Zaporizhzhia south of the river) and unable to secure its new territory from bombardment. More important, the West has effectively destroyed the Ukrainian counterparty Putin needs if he is to avoid launching a war of conquest and occupation. The unthoughtful Russian patriot expects Kharkiv, Odessa and a landbridge to Transnistria—and the Russian right, as Ian sees, gains ambition and leverage with this expectation.

    This an extremely dangerous situation in large part because Putin is in an open conflict with increasingly unstable regimes in the West, with their Ukrainian proxy a deadman walking completely dependent on a flow of money from the U.S. He cannot negotiate with Zelensky who cannot agree to anything with a hope of surviving. Ukraine cannot depose Zelensky for fear of turning off the spigot. The Tory regime in the UK is destroying the country it runs unopposed. Germany’s leadership is like a deer caught in the headlights of an on-coming freight train running over its economy. Italy’s economic collapse is accelerating inducing political paralysis. Poland and the Baltic states are rabidly anti-Russian, busy destroying any human barrier to war without heed to the consequences.

    I know only enough about Russian politics to know that I do not know enough. Since the great constitutional shuffle, I have thought Putin plans to retire in 2024. Like some others I think he saw the War as a gamble to galvanize the country’s politics into resistance to Western efforts to undermine and dismember the Russian Federation. The West was willing to back creatures like Navalny because that kind of Russian racist nationalism is poison to a Russian Federation that spans Islamic and Turkic or Mongol peoples. Russia also has in its political culture a strong anti-authoritarian cynicism that could be turned to support a Bonaparte figure even less adept at playing that role than Putin; it is also a potentially centrifugal force suppressed for the moment by intensely threatening censorship.

    Ian may be right that Putin’s efforts to evolve a stable institutional and legalistic regime over the raw-power mafioso local and economic politics that emerged under Yeltsin when the West deprived the central government of finance have not gone nearly far enough. Putin’s main support are the siloviki who run the bureaucracy and the state-controlled enterprises that dominate the controlling heights of the resource economy. The war has led to centralization of key aspects of the Russian military-industrial complex and political support for substantial allocation of resources to that sector after years of economy and focused attention on a few wonder weapons.

    Poland and the Baltic states want to close the border to Russia almost completely, which is nuts. But is Macron strong enough to hold them back. Is Macron strong enough to do anything? And France may be the most stable economically and politically among the major West European states.

    Which is long-winded way of saying, I do not see a military play available to Putin that brings the war to an armistice and frozen conflict status as long as the stability of Zelensky and the EU are in increasing doubt. A military play to secure his personal safety or that of his family seems less of a consideration until the stability of his regime is in much greater and immediate jeopardy. That immediate jeopardy thing seems to be coming up faster in the West. And a reversal of fortune on the battlefield, which seems to me within the scope of Putin’s options in the very short-term but maybe not so easy in the medium-term could prove more a shock to the system in the West. We will see. Somebody’s narrative is wrong — maybe everyone’s narrative is wrong given how ill-informed we all are.

  16. Z


    I agree with you that calling the Yelstin era to be a continuation of the Gorbachev years is not fair to Gorbachev.

    You could say that Gorbachev invited the looters into Russia with good, though naive intentions. Gorbachev left and Yeltsin then took over and got drunk and passed out while the looters raped Russia. Yeltsin was willing to look the other way as long as they kept him supplied with “juice”, and by “juice” I mean money.

    I suspect that Yeltsin sobered up a bit towards the end though, especially after NATO’s actions during the Kosovo War, and brought in Putin to bring back Russia’s honor.

    I think that a call for mobilization in Russia will go better than you do. The Russians who you know have probably migrated to the U.S. and their view, and the Russians who keep in contact with them, may not be representative of the majority of young Russians. The hard times that Russia went through aren’t all that long ago, most of their parents experienced it.

    Anyway, I suspect that we’re about to see who is right.


  17. Carborundum

    When you don’t have mass, you emphatically do not fight wars of slow attrition, particularly when a great power system clock is ticking. Then, more than at any other time, you attempt to achieve relative superiority (see McRaven) to achieve critical facts on the ground. These guys think they’re making widgets – functionally bozos all the way down (in the sense that the system neuters the competent) – it’s just that simple.

    Tangentially: Russian speakers in the commentariat, show of hands?

  18. Mark Pontin

    Jeez, you guys. Imagine what WWII would have been like with the internet around.

    It’s a real war, increasingly so, and it’s increasingly expanding into a prolonged war of attrition that’s likely to run for years. As far as the situation in Ukraine itself– which is only this war’s epicenter — three things to bear in mind.

    [1] General Erwin Rommel: “Anyone who has to fight with even the most modern weapons with the enemy dominating the air, will fight like a savage against the European colonial troops, in the same conditions and with the same chances of victory.”

    The Russians have air superiority. They achieved full air dominance in the war’s first three weeks, destroying essentially half to two-thirds of the Kiev regime’s air defense and detection capabilities and most of its aircraft. That changed by the end of April with the US_NATO essentially taking on the role of C&C fire control for Kiev via its satellites and its AWACs flying at the borders of Ukraine (but limited detection ranges with those). So the Russians are again operating under constraints in terms of air power use.

    The Ukrainian ground forces, on the other hand, are effectively naked under the sky. So Rommel’s statement applies in the long term.

    [2] The Russians have carried out what the Pentagon’s former head of Net Assessment Andy Marshal predicted would be the next RMA and has technological operational preponderance by some ways. From 2013: —

    “Such thinking has led Marshall to argue that some foundational weapons of the armed services — the tank, the aircraft carrier and short-range fighter jets — are doomed to obsolescence because of advances in missile technology. That has made him an unbeloved figure among some U.S. generals and admirals, who view him as an unrealistic radical and a threat to conventional military strategy.”

    [3] The Ukrainian breakthroughs in Kharkiv didn’t occur against the Russian army, but a small fragment of the Donetz-Lugansk militias. Just as US-NATO is using the Kiev regime’s military as a proxy, Moscow is largely using the Donetz-Lugansk militias as their proxy infantry, rounded out with Chechens and Wagner mercenaries, and backed up by Russian army artillery, rockets, and military which move where necessary.

    The Russian army in Ukraine is not big enough to be an invasion/occupation force. ‘Demilitarization’ was what Putin said and what the Russians are aiming for, and they are also aware that the US-NATO is prepared to fight to the last Ukrainian 55-year-old conscript to weaken Russia, so they want to resist that trap. Moreover, Russian doctrine traditionally follows Clausewitz, where the objective is not to occupy territory but eliminate the enemy’s armies.

    So as US-NATO ramps up — and in commentaries on the Russian side, rumor increasingly has it that British and other Western professional soldiers are now in place at the forefront of the Kiev’s regime’s forces — Putin does NOT necessarily have to ramp up the Russian army presence in Ukraine and expose Russian forces to an increasingly attritional war to achieve the aim of ‘demilitarization’ of Ukraine.

    Russia has the capability to simply flatten Ukraine by destroying all infrastructure and population centers with missile and artillery barrages up to, say, the Dnieper River, and driving the population there to the west of the river. That will also achieve the aim of demilitarization.

    Not that that will end things. This is becoming a civilization war and governments will have collapsed by the time it’s over.

  19. Mark Pontin

    Bah. Typo: ‘This is becoming a *civilizational* war.

  20. Jack

    Ian, thank you for your analysis. I ha not thought about Putin’s dilemma in regards to his successor and the dangers of arming more troops. If that is the case, you are correct, he is in a bind now. The recent Kharkov offensive, plus the attacks on Russian soil and the assassination of Durgin’s daughter, certainly have to amp up the pressure on him to take the gloves off. It might be that Putin was waiting for public opinion to sway more toward a more general war rather than an SMO. We will have to wait and see. One final comment. I cannot believe that given the Russians superior intelligence gathering capabilities they did not see the Kharkov offensive coming. Data has been coming out that the Russians had already been moving troops in advance of the offensive. People forget that Russia strategy isn’t so much about quickly gaining territory or holding it; it is destroying the Ukraine army and its resources.

  21. Mark Level

    I fully agree with Mark Pontin, war is a back and forth, the presentation via the virtual 24/7 news cycle needs to be mistrusted. One thing Ian has covered in this blog in the past (as other progressives, Michael Hudson comes to mind) is the dumb thinking of the financial sector in which gains need to be made only in quarterly terms and not in a longer term (see the Native American idea of thinking generations ahead for a contrast.) Russian involvement in the war is due to an existential threat that Mr. TV reality Star Elensky (see also Trump, Berlusconi, perhaps senile Ronald Reagan started the trend) made to put nukes on their borders. From the little I know of domestic Russian response, most citizens get the intent and are understandably NOT okay with it . . . my forecast would be as likely “thru a glass darkly” as many others, but consulting some sites I trust more (A. Mercouris, MoonofAlabama, The Saker, Brian Berletic) it seems that now that a setback has redirected Russian leadership (which I imagine is broader than simply “Putin”, not that I would assume Ian makes such a simplistic misinterpretation) to deploy some US style “shock & awe”, e.g. taking out local power grids, etc. onto the wider populace of Ukraine, the stakes are higher and as winter approaches the likelihood that not only Germany will be freezing and starving makes the likelihood that the Puppet Masters of Northern Virginia are less able to “fight to the last Ukranian” (a bipartisan pledge which has been openly shared by Lindsey Graham for the Rs and Adam Shiff for the Ds), and some negotiations may begin before 2022 is out. Jack is correct as well, Russia does not fight for territory (it has endless lands– I drove from California to northern Minnesota twice last year, & that’d be a drop in the bucket for Russia), it could cede it to Napoleon and later to the Reich and take it back when the attacker is swallowed up in freezing cold with no local food available. I’m no fan of Putin more than the majority of sociopath “leaders” (an individual who got banned from this site once accused me of being “starry eyed over Xi Jinping” for not hating the Chinese as programatically as he’d been trained by our wonderful MSM to do), however in this battle between Gojira and Mothra I do not want the force that has its boot on my neck (the US financial-paid health care monopoly-MIC-theocrat Scotus, Liberal Imperialist racist killing swine) to win, as my life and the life of everyone they then dominate will be worse and more austerity-driven and exploitative. I know the US plan is to bust the unions there, which Mr. TV comedian already did, and sell most of the farmland to the Cargill-Monsanto cartel for bio-engineered petroleum ag production which won’t benefit the locals. Uggh!! P.K. Dick correctly labeled what was coming “the Black Iron Prison” back in the 70s, & it has come to pass pretty much as he expected. RIP Old Europe, vassal slave of the Empire of Lies & Hate– let’s foster a little inner hope that this miserable immiseration of the general populace will break down and be replaced with something more humane and better!!

  22. Purple Library Guy

    The latest I’ve seen suggests that the whole massive northern assault was basically a feint, albeit in massive force, intended to pin down and perhaps surround large numbers of Russian troops while the main assault happened further south. And further, that the Russians, reading this in advance, had already pulled back most of their troops by the time the assault came, so they could move them south to reinforce the defence there, where it is more important. The same source claims that the reason the Russians have now hit electrical power in Kharkiv is that it stopped the trains from running, which in turn stopped the Ukrainians from redeploying a lot of their materiel southward to join that main assault, thus buying the Russians further time to redeploy their own troops.
    The big assault to the south now may or may not happen, given that the Ukrainians know that front will be heavily defended. Meanwhile, over the last few days of big Ukrainian assaults, the Ukrainians have probably lost over 30,000 troops killed or injured, while the Russians have lost few.

    All of which sounds lovely for the Russians. But I would have to say that this still means the Ukrainians have shown that they have the capacity to seriously worry the Russians with a big offensive. Basically, if they flood the zone with enough bodies, they can make progress despite massive casualties–or the Russians fear they can. If the Russians could have both kept all the turf they were holding against the northern assault and met the expected southern attack at the same time, they would have. They didn’t. And I think that if it becomes a question of trading lives for Ukrainian ground, the Russians will run out of Ukrainian ground to hold before the Ukrainians run out of bodies to feed into the meatgrinder.

    On the other hand, it could be close. Thirty thousand hors de combat in a few days. A few more pushes like that and you got 100,000 casualties.

  23. Astrid

    Just because we have had our optimism beaten out of us by 40 years of neoliberalism and 500 years of imperialism, doesn’t mean there cannot be marginally better governments and politicians (maybe even statesmen) who aspire to better the conditions of their countrymen and treat other peoples somewhat fairly.

    I may be wrong on the end about my new found optimism about Russia/China/Iran multipolarity, but it seems better than the absolute despair or copium (which is largely about projection the evils of the West into its adversaries). There’s still climate change, corrupting effects of money and power, 7.5 billion too many people, stupidity, delusion, Zionism, etc., but a 1 in 10 chance with Eurasia it’s better than a 1 in 1000 chance with the USian regime.

    I expect to be amongst the first round of electricity pole decorations, when the revolution comes.

  24. Astrid

    BTW, a comment in Gilbert Doctorow’s latest post ( suggests that Russia withdrew because the area around Izyum is particularly difficult to defend and large gatherings of troops would result in horrible casualties, akin to the numbers that Russians are reading out for the Ukrainians involved in the offensive. Doctorow said that Russian TV also stated that 40,000 local residents were moved out over a few weeks prior and Russian losses in men and materials are minimal.

    It appears that far from being a blunder, the Russian military (including the local troops) knew weeks in advance about the extent of Ukrainian attack, recognized that it was poor fighting terrain, and strategically moved its troops and people out of harm’s way. Then set up a heck of a turkey shoot against some of the best Ukrainian infantry remaining. While there may be momentary cries of cowardice or betrayal, it’s a far better PR situation than throwing more Russian troops in to die or be potentially captured in their thousands.

    Scott Ritter keeps saying that Russians aren’t ten feet tall and can make mistakes like everyone else. But honestly, I can’t think of any serious missteps in this SMO. Many in Russia and eastern Ukraine obviously want to bomb Kiev and finish it off now, but I think the gardual shift in Global and Russian opinions in the last 6 months amply reward Moscow’s deliberation and care.

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