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
23 thoughts on “Russia ‘takes off the gloves’”
Will the escalation lead to an actual declaration of war and the entry of the main Russian army into the field? I wonder if the (expected) new Ukrainian offensive in the South (towards Mariupol) will push Russia to that step.
As a side note, I posted a comment of concern about escalation of the war elsewhere and was mobbed by people who think Russia has committed their entire army, and finest technology, and have no options except to lose. One can hope that such ignorance does not extend to any so-called “decision makers” in the U.S.
Dear sir, perhaps I could ask you a question. I just listened to RT, as well as to the Gaggle podcast with mr. Szamuely and Mr. Lavelle. In both cases, I heard that Russia should not have left “its people” behind. They pretend that everyone there only wants to belong to Russia, while the other side says the exact opposite. So, to your knowledge, or in your opinion, which percentage of the people living in the territory that Russia held, and has lost for the moment, has Russian sympathies rather than Ukrainian ones? Which percentage before February 24th, and which percentage now? And, if this percentage would be 100, or would approach 100, which is the territory where this is the case? Up to the Dnjepr river, the whole of Ukraine, the former Soviet republics such as Moldova and the Baltic States? Whatever territory is gained or lost, each side pretends to have liberated it. However, they cannot both be right, or not for 100 %.
My understanding is that the Russians have been evacuating from the Kharkov region they occupied everyone who wanted to leave for a couple of weeks. Those who chose to stay are, most likely, are those who support and want to live in Ukraine.
LikeLiked by 1 person
“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. ”
According to both Twitter and news reports, the Ukrainians have taken Izyum.
Yes, the the Ukrainians took Izyum, but the Russians succeeded not only in withdrawing their troops but also evacuating from Izyum and other settlements they were leaving some 40,000 local inhabitants who had cooperated with them. That is a remarkable and very honorable achievement
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for the article. It truly is remarkable if they managed to evacuate 40,000- I certainly hope that it is true. There must be more to tell about this, after all it would take considerable time to move so many people. Do you have a decent reference please?
Reference: last night’s Evening with Vladimir Solovyov show
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yalensis, in his most recent article in his blog “Awful Avalanche”, has some information regarding the movement of the Kharkov locals. The details are not very specific and it seems they left the region over a period of time. Hopefully, most at risk left in time.
Russian talk shows sound very sophisticated compared to what we are used to in England, where they are pretty much unwatchable if your IQ is three digit. The thought of discussing lessons from 1812 or The Crimean War is just totally next level!
I do not buy for a second the idea that Russian soldiers were cowardly or ran away. Am sure they withdrew purposefully bleed on specific orders. Various alternative commentators have noted that even the National Guard / Police units defended tenaciously.
This war needs to end but I fear that there is still a lot more fighting to come. Russia really feels threatened (with reason) and the west is doing everything it can to convince them that they are right. That is not a recipe for peace.
I’m going to repost what I wrote on Awful Avalanche with the hope of illuminating the situation from a military standpoint:
It’s worth remembering that these areas west of the Oskil and Donetsk are essentially steppe plains with small villages sprinkled throughout, which was why that area was so sparsely occupied in the first place. It is terrible as a staging ground and extremely dangerous to hold with any concentration of forces. Any BTG stationed in those areas risk getting enveloped by a fast rush (i.e. what the UAF just pulled off) plus their precise numbers can be picked up by satellite recon. If the Russians had reinforced those areas the same result would occur except they’d suffer large casualties. Note the UAF is not crowing over capturing Tornado-S and TOS 1A systems because there are none in those areas. They are not boasting about large numbers of captives or munitions. It was by and large scattered light mechanized infantry.
As a PR move it is highly effective. Most people judge the success of a move by whether it captures territory, something clear and distinct that the average layperson can grasp. It also leaves civilians vulnerable to the wrath of occupying forces. The pro-Russian cohort are screeching and losing their minds because this signals utter ineptitude…or something. Like this wasn’t always a weak point in holding that area.
The next problem for the UAF is they have to deal with the aftermath. There’s a wide distinction between capturing territory, consolidating control over territory, and using it as a bridgehead to take more. And this has to be kept in mind when judging the overall approach of both parties. Most land in eastern Ukraine is not worth holding with military forces because it doesn’t contribute towards accomplishing strategic objectives – it is a hindrance. Hence despite how porous the countryside is, fighting has largely been confined to specific small urban areas.
All the problems the DPR militia faced are now the UAF’s onus to address. As far as I know they have not penetrated operational depth; they have not interrupted the RF’s ability to resupply, communicate, and project long-range force. They would have to cross the Donetsk and Oskil and secure bridgeheads. Their artillery will be exposed to reprisals as it must cross exposed flat land. Ditto for their supply lines. Their leading forces will gradually get thinned out as they have to station troops in every captured settlement and village, lest they want to encourage the RF to perform sabotage operations. These settlements lack the fortifications and trenches that allowed UAF soldiers to hold onto positions for so long. And the attrition rates so far are fairly lopsided according to MoD daily reports. 4000 dead, 8000 injured (as of September 10th) is not unfeasible: the speed demanded for this assault would necessitate a lack of CAS and artillery support for the spearhead. This was the eternal bane of the Nazi’s mechanized forces too and according to some Ukranian journalists, the initial UAF forces at Kupyansk were slaughtered by air strikes.
In any discussion whether this was planned, a huge blunder, a 4-d chess mastermind gambit, etc., remember it takes time to flesh out all the advantages and disadvantages of a maneuver operation. Creating salients create opportunities for the aggressor and defender alike, especially when the enemy has preserved the vast bulk of their forward lines (which the envelopment tactics are SUPPPOSED to prevent, and that goes back to von Seeckt’s revamping of Germany’s military doctrine post-WW1).
TL;DR this is a stunning success for the UAF in the short-term and a horrible decision for its troops in the long-term.
Word is Russia withdrew a while ago because the area did not provide a path to Donbass it expected. In fact someone commented over at Naked Capitalism of the huge mass of helicopters the Russians amassed a bit ago near by. Implication being the withdrawal was ongoing and planned. Others suggested Russia believes UAF plan an offensive in the south and it takes UAF about a 10th of the time to deploy troops south via electric rail vs Russian troops (hence taking out Ukraine electrified rails). Who ever is right, I agree strongly that Russia needs to start acting as if she is at war with NATO, which openly proudly advocates the destruction of Russia. Take out Ukraine infrastructure railways and Miltary and Government infrastructure decision making centers. This should have been done on February 24. IMO Russia should target decision centers and military supplies and infrastructure in NATO as well though I’m sure many disagree. Supposedly Putin is an obstacle to Russia’s urgent need to escalate BTW.
Putin is one of the more dovish forces in the government when it comes to escalation. I always find it funny when commentators pretend as if he’s the one aiming to build an empire or filled with irrational possessiveness. All one has to do is look across the aisle and see full-throated hawks who want to raze Ukraine to the ground.
Hello from Vancouver and thanks for your thoughtful and informative blog posts.
“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.”
Just to underline what might be going on. Azerbaijan, a NATO ally, started shelling its neighbor, Armenia yesterday. Armenia (a Russian ally) is requesting Russia step in and negotiate a peace with a NATO ally, Azerbaijan.
Why? Qui Bono?
I believe Azerbaijan is pulling a Lithuania (with its blockade of Kaliningrad), is attacking Armenia on behalf of NATO. I believe Azerbaijan is pulling an Estonia who, on behalf of NATO, allowed the Ukrainian assassin, Natalia Vovk, who murdered Russian Darya Dugina, to escape into Estonia for repatriation back to the Ukraine. This is just three (3) examples of endless bear-baiting of Russia by the United States.
NATO, meaning the United States, keeps pushing the boundaries between what constitutes a proxy war (which is an act of war), and direct conflict (which would be an act of war). Another in a long list of acts of war against Russia.
Sanctions are an act of war. The confiscation of between $350 and $600 billion in Russian bank accounts is an act of war. In total, nearly $1 trillion worth of Russian assets have now been frozen by sanctions, according to Bruno Le Maire. Confiscating the private property of a citizen solely upon which nation that person is a citizen of, is an act of war. Fixing the price which a country can charge for their own natural resources — like Russian natural gas, coal, oil, minerals and rare earths — is an act of war.
Recent military activity in the Ukraine was direct — between Russia and NATO. Ukrainians were just playing their part as obedient cannon fodder.
And now the United States attempting to draw Russia into yet another proxy war with yet another escalation and provocation, doing it again, this time between Armenia and Azerbaijan. How many billions of dollars in American Taxpayer money is already on its way to Azerbaijan? How soon before the wife of President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev appears on the cover of Vogue Magazine?
If Russia moves from a SMO to full-out war in Ukraine then World War 3, having already started and having been in progress for some time, will go kinetic.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I would note that the strikes two days ago on Ukrainian power stations were not followed up the next day, which surprised even my doomer takes. Let’s see what happens today and the next few days, if those strikes were just one-and-done to distract from events at Kharkiv, “we fired some missiles at them yay!”
The other issue with strikes on civilian infrastructure is that Russia is limited to using missiles, and does not have an infinite number of them. It cannot fire 500 missiles a day like nato can fly 500 sorties a day. Every missile strike on a civilian infra target is one less strike on weapons depots, etc. So I remain quite skeptical of Russia going in that direction.
I would also note that looking beyond talk shows to official statements, the overwhelming impression since the fiasco in Kharkiv is business as usual. No mobilization, no declaration of war, not even a changing of the SMO to the same designation as operations in Syria. I think this is a grave mistake, and risks all of the many gains Russia has made under Putin, as I think the USA smells blood and wants to flip/dismember Russia if possible.
NATO can’t fly 500 sorties a day either. The well in Europe is already running dry and American stockpiles are dangerously depleted. The industrial capacity of Western nations to manufacture war equipment has greatly degraded over the last 30 years.
LikeLiked by 1 person
How many hypersonic missiles does Russia have? They have hardly used any so far.
Can they still make all their weapons, maybe with the help of China and others behind the scenes?
Russia could also open another front in Syria, by destroying US oil installations that are used to steal Syrian oil. Also, wait for and then destroy another one of those tanker truck convoys that smuggle the stolen Syrian oil and grain to Iraq at night.
Thank you for your informative and thoughtful analysis.
As I said in a much graciously removed comment pastly, the fact is that the West, USA included, cannot stop. They have lost the freedom to stop.
I don’t see much of a third option, besides the submission of Russia and China in the guise of the “EU”, or a definitive, resolutive clash between “NATO”/”The International Community” and Russia & China.
Russia and China would stand chances only if truly united in their effort. A point which I don’t think either of them has missed.
Well, Nato can’t really do much more without becoming an official war party, which would mean WWIII. Ukraine’s military is shrinking fast, and sooner or later there won’t be soldiers left because most young people don’t want to throw away their lives. So, what is Nato supposed to do then?
The EU has all but ceased to exist in political terms. It is just an appendix of the US.
Not sure what China is going to do, but they might already be doing a lot in the background. Another heavyweight, India, is not on the West’s side, either. Actually, 3/4 of UN countries are not, which ties the West’s hands as they cannot accuse China of doing something that 3/4 of the world including India are doing as well.
Russia is clever, they are gradually pulling the world on their side, for instance by explaining in the UN how the grain deal is being abused by the West to grab all that stuff, basically stealing it from the poor countries the deal was made for – supposedly.
Comments are closed.