Taking Stock

I’m going to go back to sharing sources of what I believe is reliable information about the situation in Ukraine, in addition to commenting on developing issues. But I wanted to attempt an overview of where things stand two weeks in.

In advance of the Russian invasion it was clear that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine was an immense gamble for Russia. Success depended on a number of outcomes that were, critically, not under Russia’s control: most specifically a rapid collapse of Ukrainian morale and disintegration of the Ukrainian state under military assault. Had that happened, the military cost of invasion would be limited and there was at least a chance that the Europe and the U.S. wouldn’t have had the appetite or unity for sanctions in the face of what was a fait accompli. Maybe. But after only a few days it had become clear that the the decision to invade was a strategic disaster of immense proportions for Russia. The invasion finally created the united and militarized NATO Russia has long professed to fear. That unity also spurred a tide of economic sanctions that are already bringing the Russian economy to its knees. The Nordstream 2 gas pipeline which appeared to be an unbreakable link between the Russian and EU economies is now a distant memory. The Russian stock market has been shuttered since just after the invasion. At least the country’s near term future looks to be one of economic autarky, collapsed incomes and savings and one in which basic technology driving sectors of the economy may sputter or grind to a halt for lack of parts which can no longer be imported.

What has gradually become clear over the second week of fighting is that Russia may not even be able to manage a pyrrhic victory on the ground in Ukraine. It is exceedingly difficult to make sense of the military situation in Ukraine. Part of that is my difficulty making sense of so many questions outside my domain of expertise. But clearly true experts are similarly struggling to make sense of what’s happening.

We can divide these mysteries/questions up into three categories.

Russian Military Underperformance

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The first is the dramatic underperformance of the Russian military. Russia has suffered widespread breakdowns in basic logistics, such as fueling vehicles and feeding personnel. They’ve lost substantial numbers of tanks, armored vehicles and aircraft. Armored formations outside of Kyiv have now been bogged down for more than a week and Russia still doesn’t control the skies over the country. But as Adam Smith said, there’s a lot of ruin in a nation. And there’s a lot of ruin in an army. Especially a really big one. Armies can literally and figuratively regroup. How much the current Russian difficulties are based on early errors, bad luck, transient bad morale as opposed to a deeper incapacity in the Russian military is one of the most basic questions. I’ve read as much as I can find from competent military analysts trying to make sense of this question and one basic debate is whether the Russian Army is actually capable of integrated operations using substantial number of aircraft and armor.

Morale

The intensity and effectiveness of Ukrainian resistance is an equally great part of this story. And that has derived in significant measure from the intensity and persistence of Ukrainian morale. Morale is always a critical factor in warfare. But this war seems to be on the extreme margins of the differential between the relative morale of each side. Ukrainian morale is super high and Russian morale seems super low. The difference is so great that it seems to be overcoming or at least balancing out what on paper should be an extreme imbalance in the fighting capacity of each side. How sustainable is that? How much of what we’re seeing unfold is driven by the intangible and difficult-to-measure difference of morale as opposed people misinterpreting in advance the relative strength of each side? Again, a lot depends on that.

Much of the poor Russian troop morale has been attributed to the fact that Russian forces — even up to a relatively high level — weren’t told they were going to war until just before the invasion began. So the great bulk of that army on Ukraine’s borders thought they were on an extended training exercise and bluff. They simply weren’t prepared, either operationally or psychologically, to go to war. But there’s a basic chicken and egg issue here. The only conceivable reason why you keep your own troops in the dark like that is that you think they’re not going to like the idea and that it’s going to seriously bum them out. That may be the troops in the field and/or their families back home — from whom knowledge of what’s happening can’t realistically be kept over an extended period of time. So poor Russian morale seems to be the result, either direct or indirect, of the unpopularity of a war with Ukraine itself.

Political Will

I had some family business I had to take care of yesterday. So Josh Kovensky subbed in for me on the podcast. Josh and Kate’s discussion of the situation in Ukraine is one I strongly recommend listening to. But one of the points Josh made is that whatever problems they’re having, Russia has a history and reputation of just slogging these things out by taking lots of losses and upping the brutality of the campaign. Indeed intensifying attacks on civilian infrastructure and civilians as more conventional warfare strategies have broken down is one of the things we’ve seen over recent days. So the question is really one of political will. For the Russian government I think, unfortunately, there’s a lot if only because for Vladimir Putin and the current Russian government this has become an existential conflict. The costs Russia has incurred for this war are so great that it’s difficult to imagine Putin’s rule could withstand a clear cut loss.

This bring me to my final point. If you look at the comments coming from Ukrainian political leaders over the last few days they’ve moved off the tone of valiant last stands and more toward rebuilding after they win. Now, you do a lot to sustain your population’s morale. So we shouldn’t read too much into these things. Or rather we should never take them at face value. But it does seem a bit more than bluster. Secondly, there have been increasing instances of calls to stop the war on Russian state TV. We’re also seeing Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders criticizing or possibly firing various members of the security services over the reverses in Ukraine. Just the totality of what I’ve been seeing gives me the sense that something has shifted, perhaps only in perceptions but maybe in the actual military situation. For the first time I’ve seen what I think are credible military analysts say that it is now possible that Ukraine could battle Russia to a stalemate indefinitely.

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