Very Quickly, Putin’s War Is Likely To Get Even Uglier

The disintegrating military situation is leading to escalating brutality.

Vladimir Putin has increasing incentives to make his invasion of Ukraine dramatically more horrific than what Russian troops have already inflicted on that country, and those incentives will increase logarithmically over the coming days. Even if you leave aside the international backlash against Putin that has resulted in immediate and painful repercussions, Russia’s military problems continue to escalate. As the trend line of Russia’s military fortunes dips, the curve of brutality rises quickly.

Modern warfare poses a massive logistical challenge. While the problems of feeding and supplying an army in the field have existed as long as armies have, the modern era raises the level of difficulty many times higher than, say, Caesar invading Gaul. Modern weapons systems have many complex components that break and need replacing. Combat units consume ammunition, fuel, and other critical resources at a rapid rate. The modern soldier can’t depend on living off the land to find these resources. The speed with which these units need to operate often puts them at a great and growing distance from their supply sources. The destructiveness of weapons causes death and mayhem at a rate that is hard for medical units to keep pace with. Nations can’t manufacture and deliver replacement tanks, missiles, electronic warfare equipment, military radios, and other key components anywhere near the rate needed to sustain intense combat operations. Because of these logistical realities, Cold War military professionals had to craft strategies based on the assumption that, in weeks, many of these critical resources would run dry. The same logistical realities shape strategies today, when fighting the sort of large-scale conventional war that Russia is waging in Ukraine.

Two weeks into the Ukrainian war, Russian units are running long supply lines back to their bases, struggling to keep supplies in pace with demand. These lines of communication are vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks, which is one of the reasons why the Russian military decided to create a 40 mile convoy consisting not just of further soldiers and weapons, but supplies that those soldiers and weapons could protect. Meanwhile, the Russians continue to lose tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, airplanes, and other machines of war that are impossible to replace quickly.

While the material problems are severe, so too are the human problems. The morale and command aspects of the Russian military is under severe stress. The Russian army is packed with conscripts. That’s a polite way of saying that the Russian front lines are full of soldiers that are poorly trained to handle complex military problems with finesse or skill. They are also likely to be psychologically worn down by combat, and the constant fear, when not fighting, of surprise attacks. Their non-commissioned officers, the people most responsible for keeping these soldiers in fighting trim, are themselves of poor quality. Meanwhile, Ukrainian defenders have already killed generals, plural, plus countless other senior officers, which no doubt makes it harder to lead the war effort.

Therefore, it is more than unexpected resistance that has led the Russian army to switch the focus of its operations from swift take-overs of cities to flattening those cities, deliberately murdering civilians in the process. It is the brittleness of the Russian army that is also behind this change. As the wars in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria show, Russian infliction of death, mayhem, and destruction is already an accepted, perhaps even comfortable approach.

Therefore, as the military situation gets worse in Ukraine, the horror will likely escalate intentionally. Even if that were not the operational approach, brutality is likely to increase unintentionally. Poorly trained, poorly motivated, and poorly led soldiers, stuck in a hostile land, are more likely to resort to atrocities. War is the management of violence, and that management is already fraying.

As bad as his hand is, Vladimir Putin is unlikely to fold. His wealth, prestige, vision of a resuscitated Russian empire, and perhaps even his life, is at stake. Russian casualties continue to mount. US intelligence sources estimated, at the start of the war, that Russia had positioned 120 of its 160 battalion tactical groups, the building blocks of the Russian ground army, for the invasion. Putin has bet it all on the success of this invasion. To ensure his victory, when will he choose even more horrific methods?

In some ways, we’re already there. Certainly the use of thermobaric weapons take Russia up the escalatory ladder another rung. There are other possibilities as well, including nuclear. Given the speed with which the Russian military situation has disintegrated — again, without even thinking about other considerations, such as Russia turning into a pariah state, a potential death spiral for the Russian economy, and opposition within the Russian elite and general population — the distance up the escalatory ladder is a lot shorter for Vladimir Putin by the day.

Would he detonate a nuclear weapon in an unpopulated area, as a “demonstration” of worse to come? It is more thinkable every day.

Would he detonate a nuclear weapon in a populated area? The possibility is less, but it’s it’s not zero. Again, much depends on the speed of Russia’s military, economic, and political unraveling.

Would he want to use nuclear weapons sooner than later, before the generals and oligarchs and other members of the Russian elite coalesce into a real threat to his autocratic rule? That’s certainly something he’s pondering.

What does Ukraine, the United States, Europe, and everyone else do, if we we are witnesses to the first nuclear shot in anger since WWII happen? That’s what leaders in every country are discussing quietly right now. The Ukrainian and Western reaction is also what Vladimir Putin is trying to predict— and again, he assumes weakness in his adversaries, particularly when faced with the most vicious consequences.

It is unlikely that the Ukrainians would just surrender. It is unlikely that the US, NATO, and the European Community would not take further steps that they now consider unacceptable. (The no-fly zone is a bit of a distraction, since other military measures exist that don’t have the risks and imponderables of shooting down Russian planes and bombing Russian anti-air batteries.) No one can say where these steps will lead. Western powers are in the situation most like the risky brinksmanship of WWI and the Cuban Missile Crisis since those events.

Even though I am painting a very grim picture, I am not an alarmist by nature. For example, back in 1990, during the build-up to Operation DESERT STORM, I thought that there was a very low chance of the tens of thousands of American and coalition casualties that some military analysts were predicting. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, placed its troops in static defenses, and surrendered the initiative to his enemies. Now, we are faced with an adversary who is desperate to maintain the initiative, has many horrifying options (not just nuclear) remaining, and doesn’t yet face any significant threat to his hold on power. This is not a time for either wishful thinking or a loss of nerve.

FILED UNDER: General, , , ,
Kingdaddy
About Kingdaddy
Kingdaddy is returning to political blogging after a long hiatus. For several years, he wrote about national security affairs at his blog, Arms and Influence, under the same pseudonym. He currently lives in Colorado, where he is still awestruck at all the natural beauty here. He has a Ph.D in political science that is oddly useful in his day job.

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Once again, I thank the God I don’t believe in for Joe Biden.

    I don’t see how we can allow the use of a nuke without retaliation. If he hits empty space, we should drop one in Siberia. If he hits a city we should hit Kaliningrad. I think. I doubt we have a legal basis, but we can’t just ignore it. Can we? We’re all out of sanctions. If he’s as rational as so many of you seem to think, it would end there. If he’s a man on the edge, no one knows. But, this is not a decision I’d want to make.

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  2. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I don’t think the US would retaliate with nukes if Vlad used them, in any number, on Ukraine. The fear of escalation to an exchange of broadsides is real and large. And if Vlad isn’t rational, he may think he could carry out a successful disarming first strike (which is impossible).

    What to do? There isn’t much to do short of war, and war is realistically off the table. You go with the economic equivalent of a nuke: trade embargo. Yes, I know how that has worked with Cuba (it hasn’t, really), and how many countries would join it? NATO and EU countries possibly, maybe Japan, Australia, and South Korea.

    But I don’t get paid for solving geopolitical problems or predicting the future (which is good, because these are near-impossibilities).

    I wonder if Ukraine has chemical weapons. I don’t suppose they do.

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  3. Ken_L says:

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me point again to the years-long campaigns the USSR and Russia waged in Afghanistan and Chechnya. And of course it’s already been in Ukraine for eight years. So much commentary takes it for granted that something dramatic is going to happen this week, or next – certainly very soon! But an option for Putin is to go on the defensive once Kyiv has been surrounded, consolidate his position, and lay siege to the capital. He knows no reinforcements are going to come racing to Ukraine’s rescue. He knows Ukrainian morale must drop as they realise there’s no way out of their horrible predicament other than capitulation.

    The unknown variable is the extent to which powerful people in Russia have lost or will lose confidence in Putin as a result of the sanctions the west has imposed. Provided he faces no serious internal opposition, there’s no need for him to hurry. I see no reason why he couldn’t wind down the offensive and hope for the remorseless passage of time to force Ukraine to acknowledge the hopelessness of their position and come to terms to prevent further suffering.

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  4. DAllenABQ says:

    Saw some drone footage of a strike on a Russian armored column earlier today, ya’ll likely saw the same. It is simultaneously thrilling and ghastly. Russian tanks blowing up means the invaders are getting their just desserts, but it also means Russian boys are dying before our eyes. All for one man’s overweening vanity. Vlad will not be well regarded in the eyes of history.

    Another observation; that Russian armored column was sitting motionless on a roadway nose to tail with no cover or concealment. Sitting ducks. It seems the Russian Army, or at least that piece of it, is not good at its job. It would not surprise me in the slightest if the US/NATO has figured out how to share real time intelligence with the Ukrainian Army.

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  5. Lounsbury says:

    @Ken_L: While move to siege

    He knows Ukrainian morale must drop as they realise there’s no way out of their horrible predicament other than capitulation.

    This may indeed be what Putin “knows” but it is an assumption that we do not know, being of the same tenor as early assumptions that the Ukrainians would fold quickly, particularly in Russophone regions. It is also the kind of assumption that regulalarly failed in WWII (and in other cases) in the cases of defenders on home turf feeling they are facing an existential threat. Defences of motherland under heavy bombardment did not show the plummeting that the Bombardment schools generally predicted.

    The Putin driven Russians by their own autistic propaganda rather mitigate the ‘collapse’ insofar as their narrative is to deny the very Ukranian identity and state and the Ukranians know that.

    The logistical hurdle of siege in a context of non-secure supply lines (Ukranian attacks up and down and it seems likely within ‘conquered’ zones) risks being as risky for Putin’s conscript army as for the besieged population.

    Generally all this points as Kingdaddy states to some horrific calculus coming up, given Putin should rationally understand his army is a wasting asset with insecure supply lines. The escalation logic of an old KGB man with his back to the wall is an ugly one.

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  6. Ken_L says:

    @Lounsbury: There are two separate issues. One is the willingness of Ukrainians to endure a full-scale military offensive. The other is the capacity of Ukrainians to wage an indefinite campaign of irregular resistance to Russian occupation. To draw a World War 2 analogy: many countries capitulated to Germany within weeks of being attacked: Holland, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Poland, for example. They laid down their arms, their soldiers became prisoners of war, and Germany decided how they were to be administered. But then spontaneous resistance sprang up and grew, aided and resourced by the remaining combatant nations.

    What I’m suggesting is that a time will come when capitulation might be the honorable thing for Zelenskyy to do, to prevent any more death and destruction in a war his military assets have no hope of winning. But that will not be the end of the conflict. It will take on a new character, just as the Russian “victory” over Afghanistan and the American “conquest” of Iraq did.

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  7. JohnSF says:

    @Ken_L:

    He knows Ukrainian morale must drop…

    Putin may assume that; in which case his assumptions are as faulty as they have been up to now.

    First, the Russians must surround Kyiv.
    That is actually very difficult to do without going through Kyiv. due to geography and road network.

    Kiev on Dnipr (main centre on the west) which is a big river.
    The next crossing south of Kyiv is about 60 miles downstream, after that 90 miles, and both highly vulnerable to demolition.
    Next after them 160 miles, and in the centre of the city of Kremenchuk.

    Swinging round on the west might be “easier”; but based on current Russian performance, that could take the rest of the month.

    Leading to the obvious option for Ukraine, of evacuating the civilians and fighting in out in the ruins after encirclement. A meatgrinder for the Russian army.

    And taking Kyiv does not mean “war over”.
    You seem to assume Ukrainian morale will collapse simply because Russia seizes the capital.
    I suspect not; similar events in other European conflicts, against superior enemies, have not caused capitulation.
    Why should this?

    South west of Kyiv is an are the size of England including Lviv and several other sizable cities, and road and rail links to Poland, Hungary and Romania.
    In the far south west are the Carpathian Mountains, about the same size as the Swiss Alps, though less high.

    Judging by Ukrainian performance up to now, that entire area is likely to hold a large number of nasty surprises for the Russian army.
    The Ukrainians don’t need reinforcements to keep fighting.
    Since 2014 Ukraine has had six drafts. Of these the Donbas contingent was around 60 thousand soldiers and constantly rotated. So now Ukraine has 400,000 combat trained veterans; more than Russia.
    They need supplies of anti-tank weapons and SAMs above all, but also other small munitions, artillery shells, medical supplies, ration packs etc.
    As long as those can cross the borders in quantity, the Ukrainians can continue a fighting retreat to the south-west.

    Especially as on current performance, Russia may run out of armour before Ukraine runs out of territory. Supplies of western ATGW are if anything increasing.
    And there is still no sign of Russia achieving theatre air supremacy.
    The Russian army can achieve a military “victory”, but the cost of self-immolation.

    Russia might decide to take the south coast, Kyiv, and the east-of-Dnipr regions and try standing pat.
    But they would then face continuing fighting along a front of around 2000 miles!
    And having to hold a population of tens of millions which includes tens to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers.
    The Russian army will bleed on a scale that will make their sojourn in Afghanistan look like a picnic in the park.
    They simply don’t have the numbers to sustain this without mass mobilisation of Russian manpower.
    And all the while sanctions will continue to undermine the Russian economy.

    There is no military route to a strategic victory for Russia.

    They can take Ukraine, at horrendous cost, but even after years or decades, they will fail to control it, and in the end fail to keep it.
    Because that cost will be higher still, and ever mounting.

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  8. JohnSF says:

    @Ken_L:

    …many countries capitulated to Germany within weeks of being attacked: Holland, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Poland, for example.

    This is incorrect.
    Poland never capitulated at all.
    The Norwegian army surrendered in the field, but the government continued in exile, with the remainder of the Norwegian Navy and Air Force, in Britain.
    Similar with the Netherlands.
    In Belgium the King capitulated, and surrendered the army, but again the government continued war in exile.

    Denmark did capitulate.
    Also, France and Yugoslavia.
    Greece did not.

    Resistance in many cases was a direct continuation of the fighting, notably in Greece and Poland.

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  9. drj says:

    @JohnSF:

    They can take Ukraine, at horrendous cost

    I think that was a reasonable assumption at the beginning of the war. In fact, the Russians might still be able to pull it off.

    But looking at Russian military performance and losses, this is no longer a given, I think.

    Commentators who know what they are talking about (such as, e.g., Michael Kofman who accurately predicted Russia’s actions up to its invasion) are giving Russia’s forces two to three weeks before they are spent to the point of combat ineffectiveness.

    That doesn’t mean that Russia’s troops will leave, or that Ukraine will be able to reconquer lost territories, but military progress will come to a halt for weeks or even months. And what does Russia have in the tank to improve its military position?

    It was just officially announced that they will bring in Middle Eastern “volunteers.” Russia is currently employing armor that hasn’t been upgraded (or perhaps minimally upgraded) since the 1980s, i.e. no modern sensors or fire control.

    If your regime needs to be propped up by Syria and you need to rely on 40-year-old equipment, you’re not in a good place, to say the least.

    Of course, this will only increase the risk that Putin will escalate.

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  10. JohnSF says:

    Concerning that in meetings in Turkey, Lavrov shows no sign of taking the “offramp”:

    Even before the invasion there was at least one occasion on which a Ukrainian diplomat said the Ukraine would not rule out NATO and accept neutral status (if I recall wording correctly, can’t find via google) “on a unilateral basis” and “as an unreciprocated concession”
    Diplomats are usually very careful with their language: the implication being that a multilaterally guaranteed neutrality might be conceivable in return for concessions from Russia.

    Recently Zelensky has indicated similar indications of a compromise regarding NATO membership.
    And willingness to discuss a solution re. the Russian occupied areas.

    So the obvious terms:
    – agreement on non-membership of NATO; possibly multilateral guaranteed neutrality
    – UN(?) supervised plebiscites in Crimea and DNR/LNR areas, including votes for exiles/refugees (and no silly games about shipping in Russian votes)
    – possible missile systems limits as part of new INF agreement including Ukraine and other areas
    – western agreement to lift the most damaging sanctions on payment transfers upon evacuation of Russian forces
    -provisional agreement to end other sanctions (eg tech sales, oligarch assets) when the terms are observed

    However, Lavrov continue to state the “near maximal” Russian demand: Ukraine must not only renounce NATO but also EU membership, something not seen as incompatible with neutrality in past cases (Austria, Sweden ,Finland, Ireland, and Malta are neutrals; at present anyway).
    And by implication even a trade agreement with the EU.
    And must “demilitarize” (unilaterally disarm), and “denazify” (in the past code for a demanded Russian veto on government positions), and recognise the Russian seizures without qualification or terms.

    In effect, Moscow continues to demand surrender.

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  11. JohnSF says:

    @DAllenABQ:
    Another point about that artillery stonk footage.
    A thought I’ve had for some time.
    Either the Ukrainian artillery are really good shots, or something else: Ukraine may have its own supply of pgm/tgm type “smart” anti-armour shells.

    That would enable Ukrainians to operate more dispersed, with individual guns in a battery “shooting and scooting” in turns to avoid Russian massed counter-battery fire.

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  12. Lounsbury says:

    @Ken_L: As @JohnSF: has noted, your summary is at once incomplete and inaccurate. The examples from WWII lessons of back-against-the-wall resistance (and of course post WWII proxy wars) are sufficient to make clear that an a priori conclusion as you are indirectly asserting is wrong.

    While it is of course possible that Ukranian resistance and will to fight will collapse, as a people facing a reasonable ‘existential threat’ (as Russian agitprop certainly conveys the sentiment they have no legit existance except as ‘little Russians’ subserviant to great Russian, and denial of state and national idenity), and one getting significant ongoing material support, asserting as a foregone that they will collapse is… very Putin of you.

    Three weeks ago such assertions were rationally valid – now proven wrong, but rationally valid from mixed evidence.

    Now they are questionable at best and really flyin the face of weightier evidence that a long resistance should be the base assumption.

    Had the West not rallied to substantial material support this would be different. Also had their President not proven to be at least a Master communicator to raly his people, it would be different. But both have proven out. Plus the doubts about Ukranian identity in the whole while legitimate some weeks ago must be discarded.

    Substantial provision of mobile SAMs and as well drones like the apparently quite brilliant Turkish ones plus man portable anti-armour and MANPADS really change the equations quite a lot, in the fact of a really doubtfully motivated Russian force with signficant challenges in sustaining itself.

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  13. dazedandconfused says:

    @Ken_L:

    Capitulation may not be necessary as the Russian offer, as currently presented in the press, is just recognizing the break away states of Donetsk and Luhansk and ceding Crimea. These are areas the Ukes have not controlled for 8 years and do not currently occupy, so in effect it’s an armistice.

    If the Russians manage to position heavy artillery around Kyiv it might be time to take that offer. Pretty sure Putin does not want to reduce Kyiv to rubble but I think it likely he would.

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  14. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    No, that is NOT the Russian offer.
    Lavrov in Turkey repeated earlier demands:
    Ukraine must renounce NATO membership
    Ukraine must renounce EU membership
    Ukraine must “demilitarize”
    Ukraine must “denazify”
    Ukraine must reccognise the Russian seized territory unconditionally

    In effect, Moscow continues to demand capitulation.
    Ukraine continues to say “No.”

    I don’t think getting artillery in range of Kyiv will alter that one bit.

    Russia could investigate Ukraine’s offer:
    Possible agreement on non-membership of NATO subject to guarantees.
    Potential plebiscites in Crimea and DNR/LNR

    Russia would be sensible to consider that offer, before being further humiliated and degraded.
    But Putin increasingly seems unwilling to admit he is not the strategic political genius he liked to think he was.

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  15. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    I wouldn’t quibble with Putin on those other things. Mere legalities which can be ignored down the road after Putin withdraws his troops. Token forces will probably be left behind in the contested areas so that must be taken seriously for the moment, but mobilizing for an Ukraine II would be very difficult for Putin to do, he even had to sneak this on his own people. As you astutely pointed out, the Russian military has now been revealed to be something of a clown-car.

    Relieve the pressure on Kyiv and stop the carnage. It’s not as if NATO is eager to admit Ukraine at the moment anyway.

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  16. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    If the Russian offer was withdrawal before having their terms imposed, that might be workable.
    However, the comments from Lavrov and Kuleba indicate that the Russian demands are that Ukraine “disarm and denazify” before withdrawal.

    In the past that has been expanded on by the Russians as having their nominees in the Ukrainian government, and the putting beyond use of Ukrainian combat aircraft, missile systems, armoured vehicles and artillery.

    Ukraine is never going to accept that, IMO, and in the opinion of Ukrainians I have spoken to.

    If OTOH Russia is prepared to withdraw forces without forced disarmament and effective installation of a Russian proxy government, that may be another matter.

    As I linked to in a comment above, Zelensky is on record as being open to a compromise regarding NATO membership, probably based on a multilateral guarantee,
    And willingness to discuss a plebicite based solution re. the Russian occupied areas.
    The space is there for a deal, if Putin can back away from maximal demands.
    (Plus the West can both sweeten and police it with phased ending of sanctions)

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  17. just nutha says:

    @dazedandconfused: I’m not sure that the “mere legalities which can be ignored down the road” thing works quite the way you imagine it does. Maybe in a nation where critical legal theory has taken hold there are things that are mere legalities that get argued in court, but in other situations ignoring agreements as mere legalities can require an army to repel those who will seek to enforce the agreements by whatever means are necessary.

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  18. dazedandconfused says:

    @just nutha:
    As you say, without military enforcement such legalities are irrelevant. Iran thought they had a legally binding agreement on their nuke program and what became of that? As far as I can tell we are in agreement on the relevance of legalities in matters of war, so I’m not sure what it is you think I don’t understand.

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  19. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    That requirement they will manage the demilitarization is just a comment from one of their people. It’s unclear what that means and is not one of the four requirements put on the table.

    Clearly a non-starter for the Ukes, if it exists.

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