Stumbling Toward the Desperate Hours

Well, I know this is a writers blog. But what the hell, I’ve got a platform here, and the beauty of obscurity, is that I can say anything I want at any time I want.  Most of us trudge through life in silence, or we ‘tweet’ or post ‘memes.’  But I’m a writer, I like to write. I like to develop complex thoughts and ideas. In this world of flash and brevity, I like to go a little longer.

Anyway, back to the war.  The Ukraine/Russia War. March 17, officially three weeks in. When it started, everyone thought it would be a rout. Two weeks or less. Russian tanks would be in Kyiv in days. Funny how it didn’t turn out like that.

It’s still Russia’s to lose. They’re probably going to conquer Ukraine, but it’s not looking nearly as certain as it once did, and it’s definitely not going to be as easy as anyone thought.

I’m going to offer a few meditations and thoughts as to how things are going.

Stalin is alleged to have said “Quantity has a quality all its own.”

I don’t know if he actually said that. Stalin was at heart, a cheap thug and something of a buffoon. So maybe he said it. Maybe someone else did, and it just got attributed to him.

So it may be that sheer overwhelming numbers are going to win out.  Putin has gone in big.  Just to repeat – the Russian armed forces are about 750,000 strong. It’s supposed to be just over a million, but there’s evidence that they don’t have a full head count. Of that 750,000, a lot are engaged in aeronautics and space, a lot are in the navy, a lot are in the border patrol, and some are in the National Guard.

The actual effective Russian army, ground forces, including air support and Special Forces, are around 325,000 give or take. Of that, it looks like the invasion, counting both the forces in Ukraine, and the folk just outsides supporting in Russia and Belarus are about 210,000.  I’m ballparking obviously.  But that means that about 65% of Russia’s entire ground army has been committed.  That’s a huge effort, that’s about the maximum you can get away with – the rest is infrastructure, manning bases, readiness, basically all going on skeleton crews.

Now, some interesting things coming out of this. Almost from the beginning, we’ve been hearing stories about Russians running out of gas, short on food, uncoordinated actions, etc.  I tended to dismiss a lot of that for three reasons. First, its not propaganda, but they’re the bad guys, so the media is interested in making them look bad, there’s bias there; Second, there may be a lot of ignorance of tactics and operations and stuff that might make no sense or look like weakness to a layman is actually seasoned soldiers methodically making their preparations;  Third, sure its real, or some of it is, but in an operation this gigantic, taking up so much of the army, even with extraordinary preparedness, hiccups and screw ups are going to be an inevitable drumbeat.

I wasn’t sure it was real. Probably wasn’t. If it was an illusion, or simple teething, that would prove out over a couple of weeks.

But it’s persisted.

Which leads us to the conclusion that the Russians are a lot less effective than we thought. The whole invasion is shot through with logistical screw ups and break downs, poor organization, poor tactics, poor training, poor equipment. Operationally, the Russian army has been consistently sub-par. We can’t dismiss it outright, that’s still a lot of men, vehicles and weapons, but the showing in the field has been disappointing, and the Russian military is suddenly a lot less intimidating.

Of course, you can’t rely on that too long:  People learn. The Russians are good at learning from their mistakes and getting it right, eventually. In WWII they went from assclowns getting bitchslapped by Finland, to relentlessly crushing Hitler’s armies.

Except… they don’t have time to get it right, this time, do they. They’ve made a massive commitment of two thirds of their ground army, they literally are throwing everything they’ve got into the opening rounds. There’s no reserves, no stockpiles, nothing to draw on once what they’ve got on hand are used up.

To supply their army after the initial resources start to deplete, they’re in trouble. They can give themselves a little time by stripping other branches, but that’s not going to get them far. They can basically start shipping straight from factory floor to front line, literally sending stuff out as they’re making it. But they don’t have the industrial or logistic capacity for that, not to the degree they need. Right now, they’re apparently begging supplies from the Chinese in anticipation of fast approaching bottlenecks.

Bottom line, time is still their enemy. They’re screwing up, and normally, they’d learn and get their act together, but they don’t have the time. So they’re in danger of the whole thing falling apart if it goes on too long.

But are they though?  Two things:

First, as badly as they seem to be messing up tactically and logistically, it appears that their overall strategy is sound or at least coherent, and they’re still following it. They’re going a lot slower than they want to, and taking far far more damage than they intended. But the great big plan seems to be continuing, and if it continues, they’ll eventually crush Ukraine.

Second, remember our pal, the odious old fraud, Stalin? Quantity is quality. The Ukrainians have killed 10,000, wounded another 21,000. That’s almost thirty thousand off the board. Terrific. Lots of helicopters blown up, planes shot down, tanks destroyed. The Ukrainians are kicking ass.

10,000 Russians out of the picture still leaves 200,000.  Even assuming all the wounded are completely disabled and its 30,000 out of the picture… Still 180,000. It’s like that everywhere across the board. No matter how many the Ukrainians kill and wound, no matter how many helicopters they shoot down, tanks they blow up, they Russians still have a shitload more. No matter how inept the Russians are, they still have manpower, and probably enough competence to get the job done.

They have the numbers, and they have some limited ability to bolster those numbers. Putin’s pulling troops and hiring mercenaries from Syria and Chechnya. They can probably pull a few thousands from Border Patrol or National Guard. Not huge numbers, but they can probably replace a few tens of thousands.

There’s a limit. The Russian command has basically admitted that they just don’t have the kit or resources to outfit and equip a half million reservists theoretically available for call up. They can’t pull a whole new army out of their ass. But they can do some replacement.

So that makes it tough for the Ukrainians. They either have to make it last long enough that the wheels come off and the expedition runs out of everything, or they have to do enough damage that the army can’t replace and it loses effectiveness.  So far, they’re trying both.

The Ukrainians are definitely putting up a fight. Eight years ago, in 2014, the Russians essentially walked all over them, and they had no ability to even quash small regional Russian-fed uprisings. The failure and incompetence of the Ukrainian army back then probably convinced the Russians that they were just going to walk in this time.

That might have been a mistake – the Ukraine was paralysed by political crisis back then, so that probably had something to do with it.

And Yanukovych was a Colombian Drug Lord level Kleptocrat, so he’d probably stolen the army blind and crippled it in his four years of power.

But the thing is, this time around, there was no political crisis to paralyze the country, there’s no Kleptocrat bleeding the army dry. Instead, there’s just a humiliated Ukrainian army, spending eight years learning its lessons, getting its act together, and fighting on home ground in a righteous war.

Previously, I’ve pointed out that this isn’t the usual mismatch of big powerful countries kicking around small helpless ones. Usually, that’s really lopsided – the big country in terms of population or wealth has a ten to one, or hundred to one advantage.  Here, Russia’s advantage is only four to one. It may well be beyond feasibility, the gap may not be big enough for Russia to win. The math counts.

Russia still has the advantage, and is still likely to conquer Ukraine, but it’s by no means certain, and every day that passes shifts it towards Ukraine.

We’ll see.

And actually, speaking of math, Russia has a really big problem:  Cities.

Here’s the issue:  Conventional war doctrine says you need a four to one advantage for an invader decisively defeat an enemy in the field. This is because the defenders have all the advantages, fortifications, home ground, closer logistics, and motivation. To break that, you need decisive numbers.

Given equality – defenders win. Given a numerical advantage for the aggressor, defenders can still win. You need a lot.

That’s regular battlefield.

City combat is different. Urban combat is hell. A lot of the special tricks stop working. Technological superiority, longer range weapons? Doesn’t matter, because all the ranges inside a city are short. Sight lines are short, lots of places for defenders to hide, to shelter, home ground advantage to get around. You really need a decisive numbers advantage to win in a city, at least six to one. And count on taking serious casualties, because it’s literally heavy duty, building by building fighting.

I don’t think that the Russians have the numbers to take Kyiv, not against the Ukrainian army and a frenzied civilian resistance. They definitely don’t have the time to undertake protracted urban combat. And they absolutely cannot afford the casualties that will come out of house to house fighting.

Ouch, that is a problem.

So, to conquer a country, you need to take those cities, but you don’t have the manpower, or the time, or the willingness to take those cities.

What do you do?

Destroy them. You ring those cities all round with artillery, build a stainless steel mousetrap, bring in the bombers, start shelling, start bombing, and start killing. We’re talking mass murder of a confined city population, killing on a massive scale. Just keep shelling and bombing until the city is literally rubble, until the buildings are smashed to bits, and anyone left is dead or so shell shocked they can’t resist.

That’s what the Russians did to the city of Grozny in Chechnya. Go look up the pictures.

And, fair is fair, that’s what the Americans did in Fallujah in Iraq. Level the city.

Now in Fallujah, the Americans gave plenty of warning and allowed people to leave – into custody, tucked away in refugee camps, photographed and tagged, where the Yanks could basically harvest or select at leisure.

Again, there have been signs of that happening here. The Humanitarian Corridors that the Russians have pretended to open, where those fleeing end up taken away into Russian custody. I imagine anyone fleeing into Russian custody is bagged, tagged, occasionally executed, or assessed for possible hostage value.

If that does happen here, it’s not a good thing. Fallujah was a small city, roughly a quarter million people. Kyiv is a big city, three million.  Kharkov is a million and a half. There are three cities of a million. A half dozen more ballparking around half a million.

Suppose the Russians do to Kyiv the same thing the Americans did to Fallujah? The offer the chance to get out while the getting is good or they level the city.  Maybe they start levelling, rack up some real death and destruction, then make their offer. Whatever.

Refugees stream out, hundreds of thousands; they end up in Refugee camps, where the Russians can leisurely pick over them, while they methodically level the rest of the city.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think the Russians have the capacity to run a refugee camp of a hundred thousand Ukrainians. Certainly not camps of half a million, or millions. Instead, what you get there is mass starvation, mass dehydration, disease out breaks from sanitation and density, riots and massacres. Basically, hell on earth. The Russians simply do not have the ability to take care of refugees on any scale. Worse, they know it. If those camps are set up, then people will be sent there to die.

Whether in the camps or the cities, the Russians appear to have painted themselves into a humanitarian holocaust of staggering proportions. Death and injury of civilian populations in the hundreds of thousands, even millions.  Possibly genocidal scales.

I’m sure that wasn’t their plan A. Plan A was walk in, everyone rolls over, and then break out the dress uniforms, dinner at the finest restaurants, and then on to dictating the terms of unification to the docile Ukrainians.

Mass murder up to genocide is Plan B. I think they made that decision before they ever invaded. They had all the same numbers that I do, and they knew what their options are. Even if they were stupid and didn’t think about it, they’re still painting themselves into that corner.  If they want to win, this is how they do it.

It’s ugly, but there it is.

Even then, they may not win. The Ukrainians have put up a fight, and as the humanitarian nightmare opens up, that may just make them fight harder. There’s no point in surrendering to people who are prepared to commit genocide, that only makes their life easier. The cities may well hold out, the Ukrainian forces may well try to cripple the ring of steel. Time is not on the Russians side, there’s a chance to outlast them.

Which brings us to the most nightmarish possibility.

Putin has gone all in. The guy’s thrown practically his entire available army, everything he has, he’s stood off the entire world, threatened the west with nuclear war.  And this thing has turned into a ruinous fiasco for him. It is literally bankrupting the nation, depleting the economy. If he loses, he’s done for; he might not live out the month. If he loses, Russia is basically humiliated and broken as a superpower. Right now, even in best case scenario, the cost of winning will be hideous. But the cost of losing? Devastating. Losing is not an option.

So maybe at Peace talks, Putin takes Zelensky aside and says “No more bullshit, it’s over. Surrender, or I’ll nuke a city. And if you don’t, I’ll nuke another, and another, until either you roll over or there’s no one left. Surrender, and I’ll cut your country a deal, but you surrender.”

We may come to a point, if Russia fails to win, where that’s Putin’s path.

Does Zelensky surrender?

Does he call Putin’s bluff?

Is Putin bluffing?

It wouldn’t be the first time a nuclear weapon was dropped to force a surrender. Or two.

Whole new ballgame for the entire planet. We may well see worldwide thermonuclear war. Putin is taking a gigantic gamble that the other powers will hold steady and not act. If he’s wrong, it’s all over.

If he’s right, he wins, sort of. At least he gets his short term victory and the world doesn’t end.

The US turned out to be a benevolent and enlightened conqueror in Japan, rebuilt the place and helped turn it into an ally and economic and cultural powerhouse.

That’s not the trajectory for Ukraine. Russia is far too broke, too battered, too overrun with kleptocracy and corruption, for anything like enlightened rule. They don’t have the money to take a high road, to rebuild or integrate. They will not be rebuilding the country they bombed and worked so hard to destroy. The Ukrainians will have to do that. And as things happen, the Russians are going to be deeply in the hole, so the Ukrainians will have to pay a share of that too.

So what you will get is a tyrannical and predatory rule, by a tyrannical and predatory state, itself burned with predatory oligarchs. It’s going to be ugly. And the Ukrainians, once they get over the shock, are going to be angry, vengeful, very organized and very dedicated. The occupation will fail disastrously. Life long, eternal undying hatred will do that. Ukrainian terrorism reaches all the way through Russian society. The Russians can’t murder their way to peace. They partake of hell.

As for the rest of the world – Cold War on steroids. Russia just threw around an atom bomb or two? Congratulations – every country in NATO just tripled its defense budget, the European nuclear nations double their fleet, Germany, Poland and Sweden get their own bombs, and the world is a pretty nervous place.

Sanctions are permanent. The Russian economy and society hollow out, until it’s barely Pakistan with more nuclear weapons, no options and no future.

How likely is any of this?

Not very, I’m hoping.

The problem is that Russia has placed itself in a position where increasingly, it’s options are limited. It’s given itself no choice but to win. There’s just no other acceptable outcome for them. They need something that they can call a clear and unequivocal win.

The perfect win is absolute victory, conquest and integration of the whole of Ukraine. Not just overwhelming victory, but rapid and final devouring.  Anything less than that, even if they call it a win to save face, will be a disaster. But they need to save face – so if they fail, but collect a few provinces, exact reparations, get Ukraine to surrender its foreign policy options, they might be able to live with that.

But no ceasefire, no treaty, no inconclusive peace, no coming away with nothing, definitely no Ukrainian victory.

They need that win, and they’ve painted themselves into a corner where they’ll force themselves to do absolutely horrific things not to lose. Bomb entires cities to rubble? They’ve already done that elsewhere. Inflict brand new mini-Holodomors? Sure thing. Sacrifice their own future? They’re not even thinking that far ahead. An atom bomb or two, if that’s what makes the difference? Can’t rule it out.

The problem that I’m having is that I’m still predicting a Russian win. But I’m finding it more and more impossible to conceive of a Russian win that does not require them to perpetuate a humanitarian holocaust to achieve it. I think that they’re going to be desperate enough to take those steps.

If it goes to these places, it’ll be their choice. Don’t blame America, or NATO or the West, or the IMF. No one forced them. They saw the path and where it might lead, and they decided to follow it. It will be on Russia. No excuses.

We’re in scary country, folks. Right now, we’re not near it. Three weeks into the war. We’ll have to see what happens.

But if the war lasts three more weeks, or five at the most, then we’re all entering the desperate hours.

Cross your fingers.