The Pace Of Events: watching the war crimes in Ukraine

One of the things that needs repeating given 24/7 news channels, the social media treadmill, tweets and so forth is that the pace of events in the real world isn’t governed by the news or social media cycle. Unfortunately, that doesn’t feed the media beast, so events and information are distorted to fit the cycle, and it results in the average person focusing on isolated, emotionally engaging, easily digestible bits rather than the much more complex big picture. The ridiculous “real time” COVID death counters were a classic example. We see this again with the Ukraine special operation/invasion. Things are moving at their own pace, and most of the “breaking news” banners are unjustified: they are more about keeping you engaged and enraged than informed.

In watching the news here in the US, I still haven’t decided to what extent this is one of the best propaganda campaigns in history, or a frightening example of the worst group-think exercise of all time. Of course, the truth is somewhere in the middle and it is a mixture of both with the occasional element of truth thrown in when convenient. (No, Russian Media isn’t any better, just a different biased perspective.) But that’s a different and more complex rant. This post is about the progress and pace of the conflict, which is on the order of weeks and months rather than days (much less hours), where things might be headed, and another caution about being manipulated by the horror of war.

It is disappointing to see the amateurish attempts at analyzing Russian strategy in the US media. They are almost uniformly based on several key assumptions that are most likely wrong. I hope internally the US Government has a better picture, but I have concerns over that. In any event, the public misconceptions are clear. First, the assumption behind much of the commentary is that Russia intended to occupy most or all of Ukraine and overthrow the government, and has been stymied. Second, that the Russians had numerical superiority. Third, they are assuming Russian forces are being used and deployed in a similar way that US forces have been in recent US military operations. As Russian forces are re-positioning from the two salients threatening Kiev and shifting east and south, two new narratives are being pushed: retreat and atrocities. What is really going on? It’s hard to say for sure, but here’s a shot at a coherent picture.

First let’s look at the overall Russian strategy. As noted in previous posts, based on both public and private statements from Russian sources,it seems the primary goals of the operation were to stop the civil war and ongoing ethnic cleansing, destroy the ultra-nationalist (and, yes, Nazi affiliated) elements especially in eastern Ukraine, and delay or prevent Ukraine from becoming a member of NATO with NATO bases moving in to that strategic area. Secondary goals were to force the US/NATO/EU in to negotiating a more stable European security environment, further disrupt the US stranglehold on the global financial system, and disrupt US efforts at “regime change” directed at Russia itself. That still seems to be the case.

I was surprised and thrown off a bit by the sharp initial advances towards Kiev in the early days. However, it has became clearer after the second week that the number of Russian troops involved in the push towards Kiev was in fact pretty limited, and this was likely a classic (if expensive) feint designed to pin down Ukrainian forces and test their resolve. All the while Phase I was under way, the elimination of Ukrainian command/control, logistics and air defenses was underway, along with consolidation and isolation of the units in the East. The same for the amphibious forces roving offshore from Odessa: to keep forces that could move east pinned down as their logistics and air defense assets were depleted. Those of you familiar with military strategy and tactics are aware that, in general, you want a significant local superiority before attacking – generally 3:1 is a minimum. Of course a lot goes in to that calculation, including the technical advantages of your hardware, not just raw numbers of troops engaged. Overall, it seems Russia is conducting this operation using an economy of force – they are outnumbered in Ukraine roughly 2:1. They have been successful (using their metrics, not ours) in the sense of destroying much of the ability of the Ukrainian military to maneuver, while, with a numerically inferior force, encircling the majority of the combat potential of Ukraine. This was Phase I. Phase II will be the ultimate destruction and consolidation of the bulk of the Ukrainian forces arrayed against Donbas. Phase III? Don’t know for sure – for whatever reason, Vladimir Vladimirovich isn’t in the habit of sharing his plans with me.

So for what it’s worth, it is my impression is that Operation Z is moving forward more or less on the planned (if not hoped for) pace. What I mean by that is there was hope by the Russians that the Ukrainian military would collapse. There is disappointment over that, but I don’t think it was entirely unexpected. It seems that the plan from the beginning was for a longer term (90 day by some Russian sources) operation and that is what we are seeing playing out. We are now entering Phase II: the final destruction of the offensive combat potential of the Ukrainian military in the east, the destruction of the remaining NATO infrastructure, and the establishment of a “buffer” in eastern Ukraine. Luhansk and Donets have already said they will vote on asking entry into the Russian Federation (also, lost in the noise over all this, South Ossetia, the disputed region from the 2008 Georgia-Russia conflict, is also scheduling a vote on admission into the RF). In the map below the orange areas should see the bulk of this next phase on the ground – but I expect air and missile attacks will continue, and likely intensify, in other areas especially the resupply corridors in the west.

As I have been saying for some time, I think the Russian end game is a partition of Ukraine along its somewhat “natural” fault lines of east and west. Exactly where those lines “could” or “should” lie has shifted since the 2008/2010 time frame due to the massive anti-Russian campaign leading up to and subsequent to the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in 2014, not to mention the ethnic cleansing during the last eight years of civil war. I’m not entirely sure that Russia has appreciated the demographic shift in Ukraine, and the changes in some areas. That said I still suspect that by summer the situation will look something like the following map. I don’t know if that area in purple (I’m calling it a “Z Phase III”) is going to be occupied. The argument for it is to complete the land bridge to Russian friendly and affiliated Transnistria, “liberate” the traditionally Russian area of Odessa (how Russian it is after all this is in question), and isolate the remainder of Ukraine and inevitable subsequent NATO buildup from the Black Sea. The argument against is leaving those areas in Ukraine would be a good bargaining chip to ensure neutrality and improve the economic viability and independence of a new “reduced” neutral state of Ukraine. Hard to say, and I suspect the plans are in place to go either way, and the choice is awaiting events.

Maybe how things look in June or July? Click for bigger map,

I don’t think Russia ever had the overthrow of Zelenskii, much less entering western Ukraine, as a specific goal unless Ukraine totally collapsed. If the Zelenskii government is willing (and able – a different question) to move towards stopping the civil war and becoming neutral Russia would be fine with that – in fact, Russian sources have said Zelenskii remaining is preferred to confer some level of legitimacy on the outcome. If not, then, yes, replacement of the current government of Ukraine becomes a goal. However I’m not sure Zelenskii or his government can survive this. I think the ultra-nationalistic forces (who have apparently already assassinated a number of officials who have tried to advocate compromise) will not permit compromise. They are not a majority in Ukraine, but they control the majority of the guns.

This does bring up a related issue – the Nazi factor. While Russia has certainly been exaggerating them as a reason/justification for the invasion since it plays well in Russia …

“for a future without Nazism”

those who say they are not a factor are either lying or ignorant …

Funeral last year of a former SS Galacia Division soldier, attended by members of the Ukrainian Government and schismatic church leaders, complete with “honor” guard in WW II uniform …

As I have often said, the question of the Nazi/neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalism in post-communist eastern Europe is complex. Unlike Germany and Western Europe (which, to be fair, still struggles with fascistic extremism, as does the US and even Russia), Eastern Europe never really came to terms with their complicity with Nazi Germany. So don’t fall in to either of these traps, denying they exist and underestimating their impact, or exaggerating their influence.

So how does this end? Hard to say – whatever happens, it may not be quick unless there is a breakthrough of some kind or collapse by one of the parties. The key now is to bring this conflict to an end in a way that contributes to future stability – not lays the groundwork for ongoing instability or a worse conflict in the near future. I think the least bad outcome is a partition something like the above. To be clear, as I have said many times, we’re well beyond any hope of “best” by now (“Best” would have been allowing Ukraine to chart a neutral path as a bridge between Russia and Europe without forcing it to take sides, but that opportunity has passed).

On atrocities and war crimes: war is always horrific on civilians. I’ve always thought the very term “war crime” was intellectually dishonest: almost all wars are a crime, usually by both sides – and of course you almost never see the crimes perpetrated by your side. War may sometimes become necessary at some point (usually due hubris and failures of diplomacy), but they are never fully “good” or “just.” The line between deliberate targeting and just caught in the crossfire is often a matter of perspective and propaganda. Given the incredible toll on civilians of recent US conflicts (including the unbelievable harm inflicted on innocent children by embargoes, sanctions, and “regime change” operations since 1991), it is an incredible level of hypocrisy for the US media to focus on the humanitarian impacts of the Russian operations in Ukraine without some perspective.

I have no doubt horrible things are being perpetrated by both sides in this conflict. Certainly Russia uses calculated brutality to try to bring operations to a conclusion in a way the US hesitates to do directly (but often does indirectly). It is also apparent that, using US standards applied in other circumstances, Ukrainian forces have been using civilians as “human shields” precisely to make Russia look as bad as possible. Is one side worse than the other? That is an open question at the moment and for history to decide – one which should take in to account the broader picture in the context of the civil war in Ukraine that has caused thousands of direct and indirect casualties. As near as I can tell, this operation is not significantly more harmful than some US inspired operations, and is nowhere near the worst the world has seen in the last few decades.

That’s not a criticism, endorsement, or justification: that’s just a perspective on how horrible wars are. If you haven’t been in one, you just can’t know. It’s only different levels of horror, not “good” or “bad.”

Wars are an ugly business. But something else is true: both sides are playing up atrocities (including several that are almost certainly fake) to gin up support and justify their actions. So be very cautious about the carefully crafted views of this conflict that are designed to sway your emotions and bum-rush you into supporting otherwise unwise policies and agendas not in the best interests of world peace and stability (much less your own well being).

6 thoughts on “The Pace Of Events: watching the war crimes in Ukraine

  1. I for one appreciate your insights. Please keep up the posts. My problem with the reporting from the west is that it completely overlooks the historical context of the reasons for Russia’s “special operations” in Ukraine. If the U.S. had dealt honorably with the collapsed Soviet Union in the 1990’s as we did with Japan and Germany (after WWII) we would have a far safer world. Instead, the U.S. with the greatest hubris thought they ruled the world. Sadly we will suffer the economic fallout (if we are lucky to avoid the real stuff) in a world that becomes multi-polar rather than just a U.S. empire. Thanks again.
    AJ

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks and well done as always. As a former DIA and ASA guy the “wait, hold on now” alarm still beeps, however faintly. Your stuff helps recharge those batteries. Bob on E 51st St

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    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: About not saying | Enki Research

  4. Pingback: Doomwatch and Geopolitics (Ukraine, Taiwan) Notes, 5 August 2022 | Enki Research

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