In my last essay, I devoted considerable attention to commentary by the host of the leading political talk show on Russia’s state television Friday night with respect to the country’s obvious military setback in the Kharkov front, which still had not yet reached its culmination in the evacuation of the strategic town of Izyum and the withdrawal from a vast territory in the neighborhood measuring 3,000 square kilometers. As I noted, Vladimir Solovyov was likely speaking on behalf of the Kremlin when he said Russia was now fighting NATO, not just Ukraine, and it was time to escalate to all out war.
The notion that these talk shows have relevance to conduct of the war was disputed by a few readers in comments posted on my website. They remarked that ‘talk is cheap,’ and that such shows in no way influence what the President of the country does. That in itself is a challenge to my long-standing characterization of such shows: I have said in the past that they reflect the thinking of Russian social elites who set limits on what the Kremlin can or cannot do without running unacceptable political risks.
Under present conditions of war censorship, I believe the producers of the best of these shows strictly control who says what about the war, assigning roles before they go on air, so as not to cross red lines by giving unwanted advice to the Commander-in-Chief and reserving for the host and select panelists ideas coming from Putin and his closest advisers. To those readers who might object that such shows were always stage managed, I say ‘no’ on the basis of my own experience going back to 2016 as a guest panelist on the talk shows of all the state and private Russian channels, including once on the Solovyov show: these live shows were uncensored; you could take the question given you and run with it in any direction without fear of being cut off the air. But that was then…
The best proof that it is worth paying close attention to what the country’s top talk show host says came yesterday, when the first in his list of things to do as Russia escalates to all out war on Ukraine was implemented. The Russians used long range bombers to fire missiles which destroyed electric power stations in a number of cities across Ukraine. The impact of the attack was sufficiently great to create a disbalance in the country’s power grid that compelled Kiev to shut down the atomic power stations they still manage.
President Zelensky today acknowledged that 9 million people in his country were left without power. He called this a ‘terrorist attack’ on civilian infrastructure, as if his own forces have not in the last few months been systematically destroying civilian infrastructure including power stations in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics of the Donbas.
Yesterday Russian forces also destroyed a railway center 60 km west of Donetsk city which was no doubt being used to supply munitions to the artillery that daily strikes residential districts in the capital. Attacking railway trains and infrastructure was point two in Solovyov’s list. For the moment, there has not been any move towards point three in the list – attacks on the decision making centers of the Kiev regime – but that may not be long off.
Vladimir Solovyov from time to time brings in colleagues who make insightful observations that are useful for those of us trying to understand the psyche of Russian decision makers. In yesterday’s Sunday Evening edition, we were treated to the views of director of RT (Russia Today) Margarita Simonyan. Her comments on this program have become ever more serious in recent weeks. For that reason, I open today’s essay with a brief summary of what she told us.
Her main contribution was to remind the audience that overconfidence in its armed forces has been very costly to Russia in the past, just as it seems to have been responsible for inattention to enemy forces that led to the serious losses in the surroundings of Kharkov. What she had in mind was Russian behavior at the outset of the Crimean War, which, she pointed out, resembles the present conflict in that Russia was fighting the combined forces of the leading Western powers of the day, France and Britain. The Ottoman Empire, over which the war was fought, was only a nominal participant, just as Ukraine is today. At the outset of one of the key battles, Russian generals invited polite society to a look-out point to watch the expected Russian victory. The ladies came in their finest, but what they saw was a rout of the Russian army.
However, it is always risky to mine history for lessons, and Simonyan failed to see one big difference with the Crimean War: that was lost because Russia had fallen way behind in military technology and was simply outclassed on the field of battle. Today, by contrast, Russia has developed and turned over to its soldiers some of the most advanced military hardware on Earth.
Meanwhile other panelists drew out lessons from another war in which Russia stood alone against the combined forces of all of Europe: the war of 1812 against Napoleon’s invading Grande Armée numbering half a million soldiers, many of them Germans and Poles. In that case, Western textbooks commonly attribute Napoleon’s defeat and Russia’s victory to Father Frost. However, in a magnificent work entitled Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace (published in 2011), British historian Dominic Lieven carefully explains that Napoleon’s defeat was actually attributable to Russia’s superior logistics and to its manifold numerical superiority in cavalry horses, which were the tanks of that day.
The 1812 war was very much on the minds of educated Russians this past week as they marked the anniversary of the Borodino battle, which was a loss in terms of casualties but a win in terms of stopping the onslaught of the invaders and demonstrating the bravery and élan of Russia’s men at arms. The battle was a necessary relief from the incessant retreats that weighed so heavily on the mood of Russian society at the time. As Solovyov’s panelists remarked, Russia’s general Kutuzov, hero of the battle, had an edge over today’s generals in that he did not come under daily attack for his strategic retreat from outraged patriots using the Telegram social app.
Indeed, one of the main points in Simonyan’s several minutes at the microphone last night was that she has been receiving a lot of social network messages from ordinary citizens, from Putin supporters, who simply cannot understand Russia’s restraint in the way it is conducting the war. ‘Why do we hold back?’ they ask. This message, of course, builds on what Vladimir Solovyov was saying last Friday, and it explains the change in Russian war making we are about to see in the coming weeks.
A word is now in order with respect to what the Ukrainians have achieved on the ground in the Kharkov region. I have in front of me today’s Financial Times article entitled “Russians ‘fled like Olympic sprinters’ as Ukraine retook northeast.”
The story is surely music to the ears of the Ukraine Contact Group that assembled in Ramstein last week. The Ukrainians are delighted to describe the Russian departure as ‘cowardly.’ A military adviser to Ukraine’s defense ministry concludes that “the Russian army is a blown-up balloon.”
The FT journalists are more cautious in their conclusions. “The strategic effect of what this attack has already achieved – other than free vast swaths of thinly populated Ukrainian territory – are still to become clear.”
Russian news channels do not dispute the loss of territory but give some clarifications that are vitally important to appreciate what happened. First, the Russian lines around Kharkov were held not by the Russian army but by local militias of the Donetsk Republic, who are not professionals and are not equipped with the advanced hardware of the Russian army.
Second, it appears that the Ukrainian ambition of surrounding and capturing large numbers of Russian soldiers in Izyum and nearby settlements in their very swift attack failed completely. To what extent the ‘sprinters’ skills of the Russian side explains their evading the enemy as they withdrew, we will never know. But I make reference again to Dominic Lieven’s book when I say that effective retreat is a more difficult operation in war than attack due to a number of factors, especially the morale and discipline of the combatants. In this sense, the Russians have no more reason for embarrassment than did Kutuzov in his day.
Finally, I would like to shine some light on what we may expect from the Russian war effort in the coming week. Why the coming week? Because we are in a count-down period to the meeting of Chinese President Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand, Uzbekistan at the gathering of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization one week from today.
This will be the first trip abroad for Xi in over two years, and there is heightened expectation that some understanding with the Russians over the way forward together in dealing with the US-led containment policy against them both will be agreed. It may be that the Russians will do something of importance to move their campaign in Ukraine to a higher plane right now to give a positive impulse to the cooperation with China.
From the outset of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, one of my close colleagues in the United States insisted that Putin would never have entered upon this project without having secured the backing of Xi. I was skeptical that Putin, the Realist, would ever commit his nation to a conflict that it cannot handle on its own thanks to its own armed forces. However, as that conflict has gone on and on, as the United States has drawn ever more countries to its side to punish Russia, the need for Chinese assistance becomes clearer by the day.
Until now, the Chinese were very circumspect in their backing to Russia. They were generous with diplomatic support in the United Nations and elsewhere, but their leading international corporations withdrew from the Russian market for fear of coming under U.S. sanctions, and we have not heard about any arms and munitions being sent to Russia. The only signs of material cooperation so far have been from second tier Chinese companies which have no big foreign establishments that might come under U.S. scrutiny and can safely trade with Russia. .However, recent American warnings that it will apply secondary sanctions against countries importing Russian oil in violation of price caps, as China is certainly going to do, have put the country on notice that further confrontation with Washington is inescapable.
What Russia needs now from China is more than words and more than enhanced trade, including in military supplies. Arms and munitions, the Russians can procure elsewhere. But China has the possibility of rendering the Russians invaluable help by simply stepping up their pressure on Taiwan and harassing the American fleet in the South China Sea. This would open the specter of a ‘second front’ that would necessarily distract Washington from its current focus on the Kremlin and would cut Russia some much needed slack.
This question of relations with China may become as important an ‘off ramp’ for Russia from the Ukrainian war as the possibility of popular demonstrations forcing European leaders to change course, lift sanctions and cut their support to Kiev, about which I wrote in my last essay.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022