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.