Overview:

There is no way out of this for Putin. The cost-benefit calculation is terrible. This amounts to the most incompetent campaign in history.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Over the last few months, I’ve been keeping close tabs on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and sharing my analysis both editorially and in conversation on my YouTube channel. This is, after all, what appears to be the most public war in history, with as many armchair generals as there are serving soldiers.

The war itself is proceeding along exactly the lines I predicted given the way it went from the very start. This map might help orientate you:

The Ukraine war map | A much-improved map for Ukraine
Ukraine as of 3rd April 2022. Via Ukraine War Map on Twitter https://twitter.com/War_Mapper/status/1510772226127187980/photo/2

Let me lay out how I see things have developed:

  1. Putin and his command had nothing short of terrible intelligence about what was actually going on in Ukraine, and what its political desires were. They really did think Ukraine was run by Nazis and that the population needed liberating. It’s like they had no idea of the Euromaidan protests and hadn’t even bothered to watch Netflix to even remotely understand the Ukrainian political desires.
  2. The Russians amassed a large hugely unprepared army (conscripts, rations, poor equipment, lack of quality centralized command, etc.) mainly by rail on the borders of Ukraine. The Russian command told soldiers they would be welcomed with open arms and flowers but the liberated Ukrainian masses.
  3. Russia invaded Ukraine with a 3 to 5-day plan to quickly overthrow the government in Kyiv, spending 15 days tops to clear up the mess. We know this from captured plans, rations, and fuel to last only a week, parade uniforms found in wrecked Russian equipment (that they were ready to don in Kyiv for a victory parade after a quick, effortless overthrow), POW declarations, and positioning of forces.
  4. Putin and Russia completely underestimated the scale of both the Ukrainian resistance (in terms of morale, desire, training from the West over the last 8 years, and equipment) and international unity and resolve.
  5. In demanding Ukraine not join NATO (it would not have been able to anyway with a present border conflict in the Donbas), Russia ended up empowering NATO, making it more attractive for other border nations like Finland and Sweden, and strengthening the unity and resolve of the EU. Epic fail.
  6. Russia’s invasion was one of the most incompetent ever documented. With Ukrainian rail disabled, with air superiority (let alone supremacy) not achieved, with poorly supplied battalion groups full of low-morale conscripts that thought they were going to training, with no NCOs and battlefield officers to take initiative and command for themselves, with outdated and malfunctioning equipment, with initial plans immediately thwarted (such as the initial special forces airborne attack on Hostomel Airport utterly destroyed), with the West supplying the Ukrainian forces with mountains of superior defensive equipment, with poor tactical nous, with morale being shot to pieces even online in a disastrous social media PR presence in light of both Zelenskky and his army all over the socials, with either the snow giving widespread frostbite or spring-time rasputitsa mud getting the Russian equipment stuck all over the north, with Ukrainian strategic defensive guerrilla-style warfare with their superior weaponry and incredibly effective Ukrainian drone strikes causing mayhem to forces and supply lines…the Russians found themselves stuck in a foreign country, that they grossly misunderstood and miscalculated, getting hammered.
  7. Plan A (Kyiv overthrow) had failed. Plan B was to encircle Kyiv and move en masse on other cities all over the north, east, and south. The Russians appear never to have read a history book or learned anything from their joint forces military wargames with Belarussian forces. The Russians, stretched beyond their limits with destroyed supply routes and ruined in logistical capabilities (without rail, they were relying on 4000 trucks—where the US army has 100,000 equivalent—that were either getting blown up or stuck in the mud), were fighting on too many fronts. They did not have enough personnel to both encircle large cities and take them, and then keep them. They failed miserably to surround Kyiv, and only took the smaller cities of Melitopol and Kherson in the south (due to having drier conditions, less vegetation for guerrilla-style attacks, and supply directly from Crimea). Even then, the populations showed their utter contempt for the “liberators,” with the kidnapped Mayor of Melitopol being released as the Russians realized the city wasn’t overrun with Nazis and they weren’t torturing WW2 veterans in the streets as their own propaganda had misinformed them.
  8. Plan B was going badly. Some 7 senior generals or similar were killed. An entire elite unit was decimated. So Plan C evolved. Instead of fighting up close, Russia would bomb cities with airstrikes or cruise missiles. Even here, many missiles were shot down and aircraft downed or were forced to fly sorties from conservatively nearer the borders before releasing their payload. But there’s not so much you can do about constant artillery barrages. As a result, Kyiv and the northern cities of Kharkiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv were heavily bombarded. Even if not encircled, they could still be broken, it was thought. Could they hold out?
  9. Mariupol. The key. The Russians soon realized the importance of this city since it joined the eastern contested (read “previously invaded”) provinces (oblasts) of Luhansk and Donetsk to Russian-controlled (previously invaded) Crimea. With Mariupol taken, there would be a land bridge from Crimea (including the powerful Russian naval port of Sevastopol) on the Black Sea through to Russia. As a bonus, Russia could take the whole Ukrainian coast down to Odesa so that Ukraine had no coast and thus a crippled economy would result, and Russia would have all the access to the Black Sea and international trade it had ever wanted.
  10. The problem with Plan B to C was twofold. a) They failed to take the key city of Mykolaiv. This joined Kherson, just above Crimea to the west, to Odesa, the historical and economic jewel of the coast. The Russians could not get to Odesa (with the waters being heavily mined) to surround it without first taking Mykolaiv. But Mykolaiv sits on a river and the bridges were cleverly blown up. Hampered by really effective defenses and counter-attacks, the Russians were unable to take Mykolaiv and, moreover, Ukraine could then mount even more robust counteroffensives from there. b) Mariupol was a very different city than it was a decade ago with even more Ukrainian nationalistic fervor and a very effective fighting force, now established in the army, of the Azov Battalion. Mariupol could not be taken. It could only be flattened, like Grozny and Aleppo. War crime after war crime, Mariupol was flattened, and still, to this day, it holds on, sucking in Russian resources that cannot be redirected elsewhere. This all moved Russia towards the idea of destruction rather than occupation. You can’t occupy such a big country that hates you that much with the forces they have. The insurgency would be too much to handle. So they defaulted to destruction.
  11. Plans B and C failed. So Plan D has developed, which was, apparently, the main objective all along… How convenient. Russia realized it couldn’t fight on all these fronts and its losses were so fundamental and widespread that many of their Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) have become incapacitated. As of April 2nd, the Institute for the Study of War reported: “The Ukrainian General Staff reported on April 2 that out of the 75 Russian Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) it assesses have participated in operations in Ukraine, 16 BTGs have been “completely destroyed” and 34 more are currently combat-ineffective and recovering.” Plan D is now concentrating on the Donbas—Luhansk and Donetsk—through Mariupol and down to Crimea. If Russia can claim all of that territory as a land bridge to the Black Sea, then Putin can claim victory and leave with his head held high. Ish.
  12. Plan D is now in full swing. Russia has untactically retreated (run away leaving all sorts of equipment languishing, as well as dead war crime bodies, and tens of thousands of mines) from the entirety of the north. This is a good move, strategically speaking, but should have been done from the get-go. Russia should have considered one of two options: a) use the entirety of their force to encircle Kyiv or b) use the entirety of their forces to secure the south and east. Not both and badly. Now, beaten and heavily, heavily militarily wounded, they are forced to claim that securing the east and south was always their aim.
  13. And to help deliver Plan D, Putin is heavily “recruiting” conscripts and relying on broken BTGs being able to get back on their feet and rejoin the efforts. As one expert says (the thread is well worth reading): “Although the Russian military has a lot of kit, assuming a 200,000 force deployed with more than 120 BTGs involved, separatist army corps, and Rosgvardia, that military now has substantially reduced combat effectiveness. The Russian military has pulled together what they could from the remaining standing force, including bases abroad, and Kaliningrad. There’s now close to nothing left to send beyond those battalions that have recently arrived to support offensives in the Donbas… I would say it is still a significant, but substantially diminished force. Best guess is ~80 BTGs total… In short, Russia can get more battalions, but without a national mobilization its ability to pursue the war beyond the Donbas looks very circumspect. And it can’t get more units quickly. Right now, the Russian mil[itary] has to fight largely with what it has managed to put together.” Behind the scenes, Russia is doing everything it can to get more manpower and turn conscripts and veterans into contracted soldiers.
  14. As an example of the challenges for Russia, Ukraine has reportedly captured more tanks than it has lost, and Russia has lost—visually confirmedat least 450 tanks (which means more likely 600+ overall given many will not have been photographed and shared on social media and with open-source intelligence outfits). This is some 40% of their deployed fleet of tanks. Russia claims to have 10,000-12,500 tanks in total. The reality is stark since most of these are sitting in huge tank graveyards unused, rusting, and unusable in fields, stripped of their parts and essentially broken. It is thought that Russia really only has 3-4000 working units, so it might have lost a devastating 15-20% of its entire working tank fleet, with many others unable to be fixed due to only large tank producing company Uralvagonzavod having to stop production due to lack of certain parts. And that’s not to mention the vast array of other military vehicles they have lost.

And that’s where we are at. Mariupol, against all odds and like a Greek tragedy, holds out on its last legs doomed to fall, but falling with geta honor in their courage amongst terror and destruction. Russia is extracting its entire force from the north with the hope of eventually getting them to the east, and long-range attacks are still taking place, creating residential death and destruction.

The West have offered him a lifeline for an off-ramp in a very subtle bit of psyops: announcing publicly that Putin is not getting good intelligence. He is being lied to. There is misinformation and disinformation at the heart of Russian intelligence.

Ukraine has the audacity to make (arguably multiple) strikes into Russian territory, most recently destroying a fuel depot that services the entire northern force. Russian incompetence meant that the depot and city were unprotected with air defenses.

Putin cannot win.

Let me repeat that. He cannot win. There is no conceptual scenario where this could happen.

It is impossible for Putin to come out of this with anything remotely resembling a win. The very best that can happen is he obtains the Ukrainian east and south in some agreement. But this shows Zelenskky’s brilliance here: the President offers compromise and willingness to sit down and thrash out a deal, knowing full well it would have to go to Ukrainian referendum, and the people would reject any Russian demands. Clever. He can seem like he wants a deal but if his people say… Anyway, such an agreement would invariably entail an ongoing regional insurgency at great cost to Russia.

Or Putin gets to occupy a decimated country that Russia would be financially responsible for maintaining.

Or he takes the whole world down with him in an all-out war. Let’s assume hope it won’t come to that.

But both at what cost? A simple cost-benefit analysis shows that the very most Russia can now extract in terms of genuine value (either soft or hard power and value) is but an infinitesimal fraction compared to the costs. The Russian losses are now gargantuan. Global financial and economic sanctions. Tens of thousands of dead Russian servicemen. Tens of thousands of injured servicemen. A hugely costly war in terms of resources and daily drain of money. A loss of untold amounts of equipment and the inability to fix or replace them due to sanctions. A more disgruntled population than previously, many thousands losing their jobs. A total loss of respect and soft power around the world. A realization from the whole of the rest of the world that the Russian armed forces are not the 12-foot bear we thought they might have been, but a disorganized, corrupt, unprepared, ill-equipped, untrained hot mess that they clearly are. A strengthening of NATO. A bonding of the EU (Hungary notwithstanding). An oligarchy, once an integral source of money and power for Putin and the country, now hamstrung. The long-term prospect of Russian natural resources being picked up by non-Western, pro-Russian nations at a far lower price. A brain drain of scientists, and a loss of middle-class intelligentsia who have fled abroad. Political, economic, and cultural isolation. A President who will be had up for war crimes and who will not be able to set foot in 123 countries governed by the International Criminal Court.

Nothing that Russia can do is enough to overcome the above list.

And this amounts to the most miscalculated and incompetent piece of geopolitics we have witnessed in a long, long time. Perhaps ever.

If Putin has the inability to be ashamed, he should instead be utterly embarrassed. Though for someone like him, that will merely translate to anger.

The West has offered him a lifeline for an off-ramp in a very subtle bit of psyops: announcing publicly that Putin is not getting good intelligence. He is being lied to. There is misinformation and disinformation at the heart of Russian intelligence.

This might to the untrained eye look like a simple PR game, with Western intelligence sources providing media sources with a way of attacking Russian inadequacy. Au contraire, it is actually a clever way of allowing Putin a way out. He might well not take it, but it is there for him. He could admit it was all a cock-up and be able to blame the information and intelligence sources around him at the heart of his government and security services. He could use plenty of people around him as scapegoats.

This damage limitation exercise could be an option, however unlikely it is that Putin would actually entertain it.

Really and honestly, from my own point of view, it is probably his best bet. Truth has an odd way of getting out eventually and there is no denying that, while the Ukrainians haven’t and won’t win the war, they are and might well defeat Russia. In that, there is a useful difference.

If Putin wants a stab at a long-term future as head of Russia, he probably needs to seriously consider the blame game, clear out the government of any number of high rankers, and start over, claiming he knew nothing and that it was “them wot did it.”

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...