Sunday 2 October 2022

The Russian Retreat

The war in Ukraine has not gone the way many more Kremlin-friendly sources would have predicted in February. Even for myself, whilst I thought it possible that Ukraine could give the Russian invaders a bloody nose, I'm not sure I would have predicted that the war could still have been going on now. Especially not with a Ukrainian victory - a rolling back of Russian forces to or across the front lines of 24 February 2022 - seeming quite possible, at least not without a direct intervention by NATO forces.

First in Kyiv, in an amazing reversal of fortunes, the disorganised attack of the Russian army was stopped and forced to withdraw after a month. That Putin was able to sell this humiliation to the Russian people as a humanitarian measure is startling but shows his all-encompassing control of the Russian information-space. 

Cities like Chernihiv and Kharkhiv also stood firm against the initial Russian inrush only for the Russians to subsequently be rolled back. The only major city that fell after the first week of the war - Mariupol - was only taken after months of gruelling combat that evoked the defence of Stalingrad. After this the war settled down to months of stalemate in which the advent of NATO-donated long-range artillery systems like HIMARS shifted the advantage towards Ukraine as Russian supply depots and command-centres dozens of miles from the front were devastated in pin-point strikes.

Then in August and September the Ukrainian counter-attack began, resulting in an astounding rout of the Russia occupying forces, with Kharkiv oblast being substantially cleared and Luhansk oblast being entered. This offensive continues today with the capture of Lyman. Even if you do not believe the Russian casualty figures given out by the Ukrainian MOD (which have run at a battalion's worth of men and materiel every day for the past week), their losses in all this have undoubtedly been heavy and far in excess of the sad losses of the defenders of Ukraine.

The response of the Putin regime has been a mass-mobilisation of the Russian reserves announced last week. I expected this to happen much earlier in the conflict. Indeed, if it were going to be done at all, the best time to do it was before the war even started since the Russian forces were simply too small to ever conquer and occupy Ukraine without the reserves being mobilised. Whilst this mobilisation has seen many instances of  chaos, confusion, inefficiency, corruption, and even assassination, it will (assuming it does not simply collapse under its own weight) produce forces of substantial size if dubious effectiveness. 

To correct this imbalance, Ukraine needs immediate access to the latest weapons systems, including modern tanks like the Leopard 2 and Abrams M1A1, modern jets like the F-16, and modern APCs like the Marder and Bradley. Ukraine has requested these weapons many times, and the reasons given for not providing them are specious excuses for apparent bureaucratic inertia and behind-the-scenes horse-trading.

Putin has also upped the ante by declaring a formal annexation of the territories occupied by Russia within Ukraine. The rest of the world has correctly condemned this land-grab, based as it is on fake referendums conducted at gun-point. The annexation has not even been recognised by countries that Russia can typically rely on to parrot whatever line Moscow wants to push that week - the silence from Minsk, Pyongyang, Havana, Caracas and the rest has been deafening.

The use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine has been mooted by some from the Putin regime. Personally I think this kind of escalation is highly unlikely. The use of  small, low-yield "battlefield nuclear weapons" (i.e., tactical ones) holds out little hope for Russia unless used in large quantities since, once the initial psychological effect wears off, the use of one or two of them on the battlefield will at most obliterate only a small portion of the Ukrainian army (the typical target even for a 10kt tactical nuclear weapon is a company-sized unit). Needless to say using them in large quantities will irradiate large parts of both Ukraine and Russia, particularly given prevailing winds being out of eastern Ukraine and into Russia. The threat of NATO retaliation for their use, and complete international isolation and condemnation for breaching the nuclear taboo, would deter them being used even if Putin is tempted to do so. It should be pointed out that there are many steps on the escalation ladder between where we are now and the use of nuclear weapons, including (in no particular order) the formal declaration of war by Russia, the use of chemical weapons, a further invasion of Ukraine outside of the Donbas region, and other steps.

More likely in my view is a play for getting more international support for Russia's war. This would explain the reason for Putin practically declaring a crusade against the western alliance in his demented speech this past week. So far even governments like those controlling Transnistria, Abkhazia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus have not sent their troops to fight in Ukraine, but the mass of troops being mobilised by Moscow may provide the necessary leverage to push them to do so. These are, however, of little consequence - the most important building block of that kind of strategy would be the support of the PRC.

It now appears that, with or without the knowledge of the Chinese government, some Chinese companies have been providing Russia with military supplies as well as helping Russia bypass sanctions.  China has thus far shied away from providing weapons (or at least weapons-systems easily identifiable as Chinese) to Russia, but it is an open question as to whether Beijing actually wants to see a Russian defeat or the unseating of Putin, and whether, if push comes to shove, they would not be willing to step in to supply Russia. A Russia entirely indebted to Beijing might be an attractive prospect, but this might be obtained in a number of ways, nor is attaching themselves to a losing and morally bankrupt cause likely go down well domestically (in as much as Xi Jinping cares about such things).

Without such support Russia is condemned to slowly lose this war if NATO continues to provide full backing to Ukraine. It is a great sadness that this war will continue to kill hundreds or even thousands of people, mostly innocent Ukrainian civilians, each day until Russia finally abandons this imperialist project.

Saturday 24 September 2022

Death of a Queen


A picture of Queen Elizabeth II, seen in Gatwick airport on Monday as I passed through

In spite of the fact that her health had been fading for many years, and her advanced age, to me the death of Queen Elizabeth came as a shock. From my earliest childhood she had been a constant of British life, her face on the money and on the stamps - on the very symbols that as a young child one first latches on to as identifiers of the larger society outside the walls of your house.

No tears were shed, but the sadness and sense of foreboding matched that of the day after the announcing of the result of the EU referendum, and for similar reasons: there was the sense of the passing of something good and essential. The Queen had been a great symbol of British unity, a dutiful figurehead for the country. In a modern world where everyone spends all their time telling the world what their opinions are (including on blogs!) and is hated for it, she kept her views to herself and so was loved. She epitomised loyalty and service.

Unlike after the EU referendum, however, the sensation soon passed as the wheels of the ancient machinery of monarchical succession spun into motion. Certainty asserted itself. King Charles III was proclaimed king, and the old fashioned words of the proclamation - that the Queen had been of "Blessed and Glorious memory... God Save The King!" still held meaning.  Toasts were drunk in the house and things seemed better.

One of course could subject the whole thing to tiresome logic and ask why the head of state should be a man of no particular skill who would not have won an election. For me the fact is simply that the UK is not a tabula rasa on which we will build a new society today, but a country built up steadily over a thousand years, and I do not want to see that history end. Loyalty is not a creature of reason, and for a ceremonial head of state there is no real reason to be bothered if the way in which they are chosen is not strictly democratic.

Friday 8 April 2022

From Sarajevo to Kramatorsk


As the BBC reminded us a few days back, this week marks 30 years since the start of the siege of Sarajevo. For nearly four years the city was shelled and bombed from outside by Serb nationalists intent on wiping out the Bosnian and Bosnian-Croat peoples, and was wracked within by massacres and assassinations directed by all against all. To describe these attacks as indiscriminate would be to misunderstand what was happening - the Radovan Karadžić's men knew exactly what they were doing when they rained down mortar bombs on the Markale market.

Today an attack every bit as evil as those that the Bosnian Serb army threw down onto the city of Sarajevo from the surrounding hills during the siege there struck the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk. A cluster-bomb delivered by ballistic missile struck a train station packed with women and children trying to evacuate: a clear civilian target, hit with a weapon that cannot possibly have been headed for anywhere else. Mothers with prams, old people, young children, innocent people massacred by a terrible weapon of war designed to cause mass casualties across a wide area. The missile even had "For The Children" stencilled on it in Russian.

It is difficult to consider something like this with equanimity. Logically you can think of all the Russian people you know who are not monsters but ordinary people. Yet this brutal act - and thousands of other similarly bestial acts across Ukraine - was done in their name and on their behalf, by the army that fights under their flag.

Saturday 19 March 2022

Russia's "Ukraine incident"


Present Ukrainian situation map, via Wiki

Seven years ago I wrote about the similarities between Russia's invasion of Crimea and Donbas and Japan's 1931 invasion of Manchuria. It is remarkable that Putin is now invading Ukraine in a way that has so many similarities to Japan's ill-fated full-scale invasion of China in 1937 that followed their aggression in north-east China.

The motives of both are similar. Japan's invasion of China ultimately sprang from the fact that they could never be secure in their possession of those parts of China that they had already invaded and annexed whilst some part of China remained outside their control. Similarly Russia's hold on Donbas and Crimea is not secure whilst Ukraine has a central government that refuses to accept Russian occupation of these territories.

The goals are similar, in that they are largely about regime change. China wished to install a Chinese government in place of Chiang Kai-Shek's KMT that would do their bidding. Putin says he wishes to "denazify" Ukraine, a statement that, if it has any meaning at all (and it may not) points to a change in government in Kiev, perhaps installing a government under the disgraced and treacherous Yanukovich. In both cases these aims are deeply unrealistic and based on false assumptions, since the Chinese people would never have accepted a Japanese puppet government nor will the Ukrainians accept being a satrapy of Moscow.

Both invasions scored initial successes - the Japanese invasion of China much more obviously so than the Russian invasion of Ukraine - before petering out as the invaders became over-extended. In both cases the invaders face the same military paradox: advancing further means occupying more territory that they do not have the strength to occupy and so worsening the situation, yet victory cannot be achieved without a further advance.

As with the Japanese in 1937-41, Putin's regime even refuses to acknowledge that it is actually at war. The Japanese described their aggression in China as a mere "incident", whilst the Russian government insists that their aggression in Ukraine is only a "special military operation". In both cases this failure to acknowledge the reality of what they are doing created problems -  if Russia is not at war then measures such as calling up the reserve or creating a new draft cannot be justified, and Russia's soldiers are sent into combat with the notional expectation that they are not going to be shot at and killed. Similarly Japan never fully mobilised for war in China until their war became global in 1941.

Russia in 2022 and Japan in 1937 are also similar in an economic aspect. Japan could only continue their war in China with oil and scarp-metal imports from the US and European powers. Russia relies on revenue from hydrocarbon exports of gas and oil to Europe to keep its economy afloat. In the case of Japan these were belatedly cut off, in the case of Russia we are still in the process of weaning ourselves off our addiction to Russian oil and gas. 

Of course one can take historical parallels too far. Japan's leaders, frustrated by their failure in China, expanded their war further and further, until it erupted out across the entire Indo-Pacific area, hoping that an elusive military victory would dig them out of the hole they were in. We can hope that the Russians will have more sense than this, and the lack of military success in Ukraine should deter them from trying their luck with more powerful and well-prepared opponents such as Finland, Sweden, and NATO.

I also fervently hope that the present war in Ukraine does not end in the same way that Japan's war on China did - with a world war and the use of nuclear weapons.

Sunday 6 March 2022

High on his own supply?


Putin, via

For decades Putin has dominated Russian politics, and during that time many have credited Vladimir Putin with political savvy or even "genius".  Personally I never saw him as anything but a thug, a man who made his way to the top by the easiest path possible - by killing his opponents. However even I would never have predicted that he would have decided to invade Ukraine in such poorly-planned and badly thought-out invasion.

During the months of December and January the question was repeatedly raised by various commentators that, if Putin was planning to invade Ukraine in a full-scale invasion, why was the force he was deploying insufficient for the task of occupying the country? People answered this in various ways: some said that the invasion must be a bluff, others that the invasion was going to happen but on a much smaller scale - for example that only the Donbas region would be occupied. For myself I did not know the answer to this question but simply assumed that he must have some kind of plan, probably the involving the use of a puppet government installed in Kiev.

It turns out that he did have a plan and it probably did involve a puppet government. However, whatever that plan was it was completely unrealistic and based on a total misunderstanding not only of the situation in Ukraine, but of the forces with which he planned to use for it. Quite how he ended up doing so we will only know for sure (if ever) from the history books, but the outline of Putin's misunderstanding of Ukraine can be seen in his speeches about Ukraine. Vladimir Putin apparently managed to  convince himself that Ukraine simply wasn't a "real" country, and as such no-one would fight for it. 

Putin's misunderstanding of his own forces is also worthy of study. The performance of the Russian armed forces in this attack has quite simply been calamitous. The sight of a 40-mile-long of broken-down lorries, blocked in place for days and out of food and fuel, indicates that something is very wrong with Russian logistics, as does the apparent mobilising of civilian vehicles to replace trucks lost in Ukraine. Russian soldiers appear to have invaded Ukraine on 24 February with no idea even of where they were going or what they were doing until they started being shot at. 

Putin apparently knew enough to try to keep his invasion plans secret (though western intelligence knew all about them) but not enough to know that the people he was asking to carry out the invasion also needed to know why they were doing what they were doing. The propaganda campaign launched before the war to blame Ukraine for starting it does not seem to have reached the average Russian private soldier, who finds himself in a Bruderkrieg against people who speak the same language as him but who also want no part in Putin's game. The result is the apparent desertions and abandonment of vehicles in running condition seen amongst Russian troops due to poor motivation.

The picture emerges of a man who has become duped by his own propaganda, who has come to believe that something is true simply because he says it is true. So in Putin's world Ukraine was not a country, there would be no fighting, and because of that no planning for actual war was needed as all that would happen was a "special military operation" of a few days. When this failed to work Putin unleashed artillery bombardments against the very people he said he was invading Ukraine to protect - the ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population of Ukraine that is concentrated in northern Ukrainian cities like Kharkiv - but even this has failed thus far to force a Ukrainian collapse.

It seems that from here, barring some unforeseen collapse of the Ukrainians, Russian defeat is now possible, even likely. The Ukrainians are motivated by the best kind of patriotism to defend their country and their independence, and are now receiving more and more in the way of military hardware that will enable hem to take the fight to the Russians. The Ukrainians also likely now have the advantage of numbers, since they have recruited tens of thousands of volunteers since the start of the war whilst Russia is having trouble supplying even the troops it has in the country, who only ever roughly equalled its defenders.

Whilst I had previous said that I thought it likely that NATO would eventually intervene, if Ukraine can avoid a collapse, then the Ukrainians may survive this war with their independence without a direct NATO intervention. This will require massive military aid from NATO beyond what has already been sent, an including heavier weapons systems such as jet aircraft, helicopters, tanks, and artillery, as well as substantial logistical and humanitarian support. 

All the same it would be foolish to count the Russians out at this stage. Russia has a long history of making disastrous starts to wars but muddling through to victory in the end. Their performance in this war is probably as bad or even worse than that in the First Chechen War - for example by this point in that war (i.e., 11 days in, on 22 December 1994) the Russians had occupied most of Northern Chechnya, reached the outskirts of Grozny on three sides, and were preparing their assault on the city - but they recovered even from that disaster.

It may be that Putin's forces can fix their supply problem, their morale problem, seize control of the air, bring in reserves to bolster their forces, all whilst dealing with an unprecedent economic meltdown brought on by sanctions. It is, however, hard to see at this point how all this could happen, but we should always be prepared for surprises.

If Putin cannot fix these problem then the hope is that he will simply accept defeat in Ukraine. If he can spin it as a victory of sorts he may do so. There is the definite fear, though, that he will not accept it and instead resort to nuclear weapons. That the prevailing winds from northern Ukraine blow across Russia and Belarus may militate against this, however, as Putin, who appears to be paranoid about his health, may not wish for himself at least to be exposed to radioactive fall out.

Use of smaller tactical nuclear weapons may also be militated against by the relatively dispersed nature of Ukrainian forces and their semi-guerrilla tactics giving no good targets for such weapons. Use for a simple "demonstration" against Ukrainian forces would cause consternation around the world, and might even make his remaining allies desert him out of a desire to avoid a nuclear holocaust, but it can't be ruled out.

As such, the situation looks much better than it did on the morning of 24 February when it appeared that Ukraine might simply be overwhelmed. Thousands have died, and will continue to die every day that this unnecessary, unprovoked, and illegal war continues, and so all we can do is hope it is brought to an end as soon as is compatible with Ukrainian independence and freedom.

Sunday 27 February 2022

Predicting the unprecedented

A French soldier carrying a Swedish-made AT-4 anti-tank weapon, via Wikipedia

Some thoughts on the events of recent days:
  • I do not blame ordinary observers of events for not predicting the all-out Russian attack on Ukraine. I suppose people with full access to intelligence such Bruno Kahl, head of the German BND, who was apparently caught by surprise by the attack, might have known better, but the ordinary observer cannot be blamed for not believing that Vladimir Putin would ultimately do something so morally reprehensible and strategically unsound. 
  • I was and am shocked and appalled by the outbreak or war even though I had thought an all-out invasion likely since late January based on the movement of nearly all of Russia's amphibious landing ships to the Black Sea. This belief became a certainty on 22 February when it came out that the Russian National Guard had been moved into Belarus. I don't think this required any great insight, just my natural scepticism and pessimism about the goals of dictators.
  • I would not have predicted Sweden, of all countries, making the single biggest public donation of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, with 5000 of Sweden's AT-4 rockets (pictured) supposedly now headed for Ukraine from Sweden for use by the Ukrainian armed forces against the Russian attack. This dwarfs even the UK's donation of 2000 NLAWs before the war. This is an intervention by this long-neutral country unprecedented since at least the 1939-40 Winter War. More should be forthcoming from everyone, but this is a good start.
  • The speech by the German chancellor today is a major reversal of long-standing policy and an acknowledgment of the seriousness of the situation. It speaks to the galvanising effect of the naked aggression by Putin, when in so many cases in the past even the most flimsy disguise for Putin's actions (e.g., in Donbas and Crimea in 2013-15, in Syria in 2015, and in Salisbury in 2018) gave the international community the excuse to ultimately do nothing. 
  • There is a Brexit angle to this, there is a Boris Johnson angle to this, there is a Trump angle, there is a François Fillon angle, there is a COVID angle to this, there are many angles for the partisans of various Western squabbles, but right now I think they are deeply tiresome and pointless. I don't find painting one side or the other of these disputes as tools of Putin gets us anywhere, except in those cases where people are actively justifying Putin's attack on Ukraine which is a different matter.
  • It is still very possible for Ukraine to lose this war relatively quickly. More than around 20% of Ukraine is now occupied to some extent - the smallness of the the invading force compared to the size of the country means we should not simply assume that everywhere Russia's armies have been is now occupied, but if you draw a map of everywhere they've been you get something like that. The Russians appear stalled in places due to poor logistics, but this can be fixed. They appear to have poor morale due to having no understanding of the reasons for their attack, but again this is not an unsolvable problem. The Russians have weapons they have not used, and plentiful reserves. 
  • To prevent this in the short term we should give them every bit of military aid they need. The German, French, American, UK, Polish etc. donations of arms are all good news for this but we should look to see how long it takes for the Panzerfausts released from Dutch and  German stocks yesterday to reach Ukrainian hands as this will indicate how long it take for these donations to arrive. The EU's declaration that they will make funds available to manufacture and supply weapons to Ukraine is a simply breathtaking step, though the reality is that this will take a substantial amount of time to make an impact within Ukraine.
  • In the long term it seems likely that, if Putin persists with this invasion, NATO soldiers will eventually fight Russian ones. Pretending that we are not directly involved whilst we bankroll and arm one side of the conflict is unlikely to convince anyone. Committing to supplying Ukraine is pointless if those supplies cannot arrive, and the Russians have the option of trying to cut off Ukraine from re-supply and/or attacking the Ukrainian supply lines. A deployment, either open or covert, therefore seems likely. We, the NATO powers, also have to ask whether we are really willing to accept a Ukrainian defeat, whether we really would be willing to accept a Ukrainian defeat after investing likely billions of Euros, Dollars, Pounds, and Złoty in arming them.
  • The French official who stated that Putin needed to be reminded that NATO is also a nuclear power had it absolutely correct. We should not blithely risk nuclear war, but at the same time we should not give into nuclear blackmail. Allowing the conquest of Ukraine through nuclear threats can only lead to the same threats being made later on over Poland and the Baltics. Ultimately, we have to believe that Putin too is not willing to start a nuclear war over a peripheral interest, which is what Ukraine is. 

Thursday 24 February 2022

A Crime

Like most followers of world affairs today, today was a difficult day to concentrate, to focus, on anything. Instead a numbing feeling of sadness, disbelief, and anger crept over everything as the news of Vladimir Putin's criminal, ruthless, and unprovoked attack on an innocent people emerged. The weapons, faces, and flags are different but the nature of what Putin is doing to Ukraine differs in no real respect to that which was unleashed on Poland on 1 September 1939. Putin's explanation that the invasion was a "special military operation" aimed at the "de-Nazification" and "de-militarisation" of Ukraine is as Orwellian as it is absurd. 

I had no idea how to explain what was happening to my children. For a while I thought that I would say nothing. No explanation I could think of could be put into the terms that a six-year-old would understand without coming off as indoctrination. In the end I decided simply to tell them the truth as I saw it, with the hope that when they grew up they would understand I was speaking my mind: that evil exists in the world and has been unleashed on Ukraine, a blameless country. My son repeatedly asked me if what I was talking about was really happening today (he had heard about such things happening in history, a long time ago) - a confusion that I myself share. 

There will be no peace so there is no point hoping for it now, but we can still hope for an Ukrainian victory even if it seems unlikely. Large countries typically defeat smaller ones quickly, but the lesson of 1920 in Poland, and 1939-40 in Finland shows that this is not always the case. Indeed, whilst the war is still in its first day there have already been signs that the Russian military is less than entirely invincible, including the unconfirmed reports from official Ukrainian sources that the airport of Hostomel outside Kiev, which fell to Russian paratroopers earlier today, is now back in Ukrainian hands. 

The Ukrainians need more than just our hopes, though. They need the strictest regime of sanctions to be brought against the aggressor regimes in Minsk and Moscow. They also need anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles in much greater quantities than have already been provided. They also need humanitarian assistance and help for refugees - I have donated to the British Red Cross's Ukraine appeal and the Ukrainian Red Cross and urge anyone reading this to consider doing the same. 

This war is a crime, it will lead to the terrible deaths of countless innocent people. More than anything this should be held in mind, and one day those responsible for it made to pay.