NB: some of the following is from a recent videoconference that included our own Trent Telenko, who is very much the man of the hour, but some of it is more publicly available, not to mention common sense. First, though, as is my wont, a quadrant diagram to organize my presentation …
I. Theater “Hardware” (physical assets/consequences)
- Trust only reports of failure, not reports of success; Russian gains on the ground have been quite modest, and Ukraine conversely lacks the ability to clear Russian forces from its territory.
- Russian losses have been massive; more than a tenth of their trucks (as Trent vividly explains, many from mechanical breakdown rather than enemy action), approaching half of their air force, a large majority of their cruise missiles and rockets expended, and possibly as many as 25k KIA.
- Russian resupply is infeasible on the relevant timescale (weeks); it will take calendar quarters to years.
- Russian equipment and ammunition is of poor quality and is often antiquated; due to corruption, they lack drone jammers entirely. What is shown on video is Potemkin-village stuff; even their first echelon is using arms and matériel from the 1980s or earlier. Some goes back to the 1950s.
- Ukraine has developed, and is using, a system for interdicting Russian paratrooper landings.
- The necessity of using trains to transport Russian rockets to within operational range of their targets, combined with deliberate flooding from the Kyiv Reservoir, makes it likely that Kyiv will hold.
- Conversely, Kharkhiv and Mariupol, being already within rocket range, are likely to fall.
- The Russians are increasingly constrained to indiscriminate-bombardment tactics as used in Syria, with high civilian casualties, as we are seeing in Mariupol.
- Inflation is rampant in Russia, and food riots are likely, although Russian media will not report them.
II. Theater Software (attitudes/motivation)
- It’s not that the stresses of our time are unique, but that our ability to cope with them has decreased so much; not to overlook the obvious, militaries in Europe are far smaller than they were during the Cold War (US forces on the continent are, at most, one-fifth of their size then), and there is no Iron Curtain with physical fortifications and sizable units positioned < 1 km apart. It wasn’t the expansion of NATO that started this. See also my Talebian “x and f(x)” excerpt as quoted in quite another context in Reopening — II (Theory).
- As per Blainey, this war started with an aggressor acting on an assumption of relative strength in an atmosphere of expectation of immediate victory.
- Putin has been cloistered, or as we say in the 21st century, in a bubble, for quite some time, probably at least a decade. No one close to him has dared to convey bad news about military preparations.
- Russian planning was fantastically inept. They have repeated the mistakes of Barbarossa in spite of being the immediate descendants of those who were the victims of Barbarossa. This notably supports the Strauss-Howe/Xenakis model of generational turnover leading ineluctably to the next “Crisis Era.”
- Conversely, Cold War constraints on tactics may no longer apply. My favorite Arkady Shevchenko quote, which I recall hearing in an interview on PBS NewsHour in the early ’80s, was a pithy characterization of the Soviets: “They are predatory, but they are not insane.” In the 2020s, the line between predation and insanity seems to be blurring.
- In which connection—“There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men.” (Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers)
- It’s the size of the fight in the dog, not the size of the dog in the fight. All other things being equal, Ukraine would be expected to be outnumbered and outgunned by at least 3:1, and possibly by as much as 10:1. As we have seen, the action has not been so lopsided, and as I write this, has continued for more than three weeks rather than the three days invasion planners presumably expected.
- Ukrainian virtualization of the TOC (tactical operations center) via mobile phone software applications is routing around the sort of institutions that allow American intelligence agencies to enforce a “no-kill” list and otherwise assert their power. This was among Trent’s more subtle-yet-penetrating points.
- Their own severe constraints notwithstanding, the Ukrainians will attempt to drive the Russians from their entire territory, including Crimea and Donbas.
III. NATO, ie American Hardware (physical assets/consequences)
- We let the Russians do it; a pre-emptive attack on the scale of the 2017 Shayrat missile strike would have seriously degraded their ability to mount the invasion, possibly without directly killing a single Russian, by blocking roads and disabling aircraft and ground vehicles. Their buildup was observable, and raising concern, as early as April of 2021.
- The US is involved now; hand-wringing over American intervention seems oddly oblivious to the reality that $175k FGM-148 Javelin missiles don’t sprout from the rich black earth of the Pontic Steppe. If I were Vladimir Vladimirovich, I would want those interdicted as far upstream as possible, including by attack/sabotage inside the US with anything short of WMD. (Are Raytheon and LockMart’s facilities hardened against non-nuclear EMP?)
- To be sure, our WMD are useless in this situation; even most of our force-projection ability is useless.
- Everything is everywhere. The Chinese Foreign Ministry this month claimed: “The US has 336 labs in 30 countries under its control, including 26 in Ukraine alone.” In a globalized economy, casus belli abound, and as Aesop reminds us, any excuse will serve a tyrant.
IV. American Software (attitude/motivation)
- Americans side with the underdog … if they notice; sub-Saharan Africa’s equally deadly troubles in recent years notwithstanding, we won’t be seeing any, eg, DRC flags in Facebook profile pictures any time soon. “Structural racism,” anyone?
- To be fair, though, Boomers have a Cold War mentality and are far more likely to react to events in Europe, especially those involving former Soviet areas. And Boomers run the show.
- Wartime means lots of IFF signaling, and it’s getting pretty overwrought these days: fierce vows to break off contact with—excuse me, “defriend”—anyone who doesn’t blame Putin (don’t worry, I do); equally fierce assertions that Putin is the real hero for foiling the nefarious plots of the WEF (rapidly becoming the preferred TLA of garden-variety conspiracy theorists, replacing the somewhat shopworn “NWO”); and of course about Zelenskyy, who is a [hero | villain], you ignorant [neo-Nazi | sheeple]. (The funniest IF/F signal out there, though, is easily the one about how anybody who supports Ukraine should head straight over there and join the fight, or shut up, already. Speaking of Starship Troopers, this strikes me as a large step in the direction of the political system of Starship Troopers, which … might not be what the people sending this signal have in mind.)
- To be sure, much of the support for Ukraine is tainted by hypocrisy, irony, and opportunism, given that it entails: a strange new enthusiasm for otherwise ordinary people wielding AK-47s; a stance toward Russia that is practically a photographic negative of “progressive” views in, say, 1982; a striking parallellism insofar as accusing Trump supporters of being neo-Nazis nontrivially resembles Putin’s claimed intent to de-Nazify Ukraine; and an ill-disguised hope that by tying it to the story a certain faction was telling five years ago about Trump getting elected due to Russian “interference,” that faction can do better this November. For how that’s going, graze (Midwesterners don’t surf) on over to PredictIt and search on “midterms.”
- More generally, whatever the spot shortages of our supply-chain-challenged time, we don’t lack for clichés being spouted by people of widely differing views all assuring us of how thoughtful and caring they are: “When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.” — George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
- So, however clumsily, a national consensus is developing on this issue, although I must say that watching the process is right up there with watching laws and sausages get made.
- Only the most financially and socially marginal entities and people get sanctioned; Russia’s GDP was ≈7.4% that of the US in 2021, and my guess is that the percentage of the American electorate believing in the Putin-vs-WEF fable is rather smaller than that. See also the implosion of the Belarusian and Russian stock markets as documented below.
- You don’t get to specify what gets disrupted, or the consequences thereof, in a Strauss-Howe “Crisis Era,” because nobody does.
- … which is part of the reason it seems so bizarre, which in turn fuels conspiracy theorizing, starting with rejection of the obvious; to quote Trent directly: “A lot of people in the West are in complete denial that the Russians are this stupid.” And John Mearsheimer is one of them, or anyway was in 2015.
V. The Future Dimension
- As always, watch the markets; here’s my calculation for what happened to them in the final 6 months before the invasion (more accurate numbers are welcome, for Belarus in particular):
- -60% (BY; BCSE)
- – 5% (CN; SHCOMP)
- -36% (RU; MOEX)
- – 1% (UA; PFTS)
- – 9% (US; W5000)
- Also as always, listen to the experienced—those who grew up in or have spent considerable time in Eastern Europe/former Soviet areas. Their opinions may not be dispositive, but they are certainly indicative. Not one such person in my acquaintance thinks Putin is in the right, or adheres to any of the conspiracy theories being propounded about what’s supposedly really going on “behind the scenes.” More on this in the next section; it’s akin to the obvious wisdom of taking advice from longtime firearms owners about gun laws or from people who have risked their lives to escape to the US about immigration policy—Talebian skin in the game.
- Lackluster American leadership is already painfully obvious. The conservative wish-fulfillment fantasy of the week seems to be that the ever-shadowy powers behind the throne are going to make both Biden and Harris depart. I’ll believe that when I see it.
- The past two years would indicate that the US is vulnerable to biological attack, to put it mildly. Simultaneous release of Variola major in a hundred small-town venues in flyover country would go undetected for several crucial days and thereby engender a tsunami of contagion. Less than half the American population is vaccinated against smallpox, it would take at least several weeks to distribute and administer stockpiled doses, and probably a fifth of the unvaccinated would refuse it anyway. A seven-figure death toll within a calendar quarter seems readily achievable.
- Expect lots of nuclear-ambiguous states soon, like a slightly more covert version of Israel, with no official arsenal but components that can be assembled into working, deliverable warheads and fired within hours, if not minutes. Some of these may be build-vs-buy decisions, as with Saudi Arabia approaching Pakistan. I note that at the time of the Einstein–Szilárd letter that kicked off the Manhattan Project, US GDP was $1.3T in 2022 dollars. Current non-nuclear countries at or above that level, rank-ordered by wealth, are: Japan, Germany, Brazil, Italy, Canada, South Korea, Australia, Spain, Mexico, and Indonesia. Current nuclear-armed countries below it—far below it—are Israel (1/32), Pakistan (1/36), and of course North Korea (1/650). Ideology, not wealth, is the determining factor—yep, it’s x and f(x) again—and ideology is getting a huge boost in our Crisis Era. Just to make things more interesting, this will also multiply opportunities for nuclear blackmail, especially by Iran.
- If this (or any other similar situation) goes nuclear, expect derangement on a scale never before seen. For what happens when conspiracy theorists take a country over, see the Russian Civil War et seq, and of course Nazi Germany, or for that matter Imperial Japan.
- To end on a modestly optimistic note, and again drawing on Blainey, the (re-)establishment of an imbalance of power will lead to peace. A Russia that began its buildup for the invasion when oil was $60/barrel seems unlikely to be overawed as long as it enjoys $100/barrel oil exports, financial sanctions notwithstanding. We should be doing everything we can to undermine that revenue stream, including a “Nanhattan” Project (term not original with me) for mass production of nanomaterials to bring about literally dirt-cheap photovoltaics, storage batteries, and diamondoid drilling components for ubiquitous access to deep geothermal energy. (Don’t worry; I’m pro-nuclear too.)
VI. The Personal Dimension
Sometime in second or third grade I learned the Cyrillic alphabet from a children’s book I checked out of a library. Each letter was introduced with the name of a place in what was then the Soviet Union, so some of the names had been Russianized. А was Alma-Ata, В was the Volga, Д was the Don, I’m pretty sure Л was Leningrad, Ч was Chita, Я was Yalta … I don’t remember most of the placenames—although I can still read the alphabet and was therefore good for street signs and simple written instructions when I visited Russia in 2016. But I remember К was Kiev and Х was Kharkov.
So in the fullness of time, I rode the length of the Trans–Siberian Railway, more than nine thousand kilometers from Moscow Yaroslavskaya to Vladivostok. The trip was fantastic, especially the eastern portion; I would spend a month at Lake Baikal every summer if I could. The way things are looking now, travel to Russia may become as difficult as it was during the Soviet period, and stay that way for the remainder of my lifetime.
On the train, I was ostensibly helping chaperon a batch of millennials from Missouri State in Springfield on a “Study Away” trip. Most of them were multimedia journalism students, making the occasional attempt to interview our fellow passengers for a short documentary. Somewhere east of the Urals—which turned out to be about the height of the Ozarks, not at all like their depiction in Dr Zhivago—but west of Irkutsk, which doesn’t narrow it down much, a platoon of army recruits were riding in the 3rd class cars forward of our much nicer 2nd class accommodations. Some of the students talked with them (we had three fluent Russian speakers in the group, so we were not dependent on hired interpreters) and quickly learned that much of the recruits’ training was skipped over because they were forced to do construction work on an officer’s dacha. I remember hearing that and thinking, if this country gets into a real war, these kids are going to be like straw in a bonfire. Eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds.
Six years later and firmly ensconced in the American heartland, I am being repeatedly reminded of a cultural division within American evangelicals, which is the one between those with any involvement with, actual, y’know, evangelism, and those who are more … “self-identified.” At the church where I help out, there are a dozen or so staff and attendees who either grew up behind the Iron Curtain or spent years to decades on mission in eastern Europe in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They have a far more internationalist outlook than the stereotypical Trump-supporting and often unchurched people who nominally share their beliefs while ranting about the WEF/NWO and, in the worst cases, how everything that’s happening is some kind of Jewish plot. Similarly, not mentioned in news accounts of the Ukrainian FCA refugees in KC is that, according to a longtime friend of mine here, their own Russian colleagues warned them that invasion was imminent and they should try to flee. People without such connections, whether due to geography or merely personal alienation, are relatively prone to dark imaginings about Putin-as-hero. These, I submit, are the real “two cultures,” and they bear a more than passing resemblance to Arnade’s front row/back row division of American society.
BELATED UPDATES (Thu 14 Apr):
- Regarding a blurring of the line between predation and insanity … “In a sane world, it would make [the Russians] think twice, but the Russians don’t seem to be acting sane on any measure in this engagement.”
- Local media eventually picked up on the warning the Ukrainian FCA got from Russia before the invasion.