Russia says it's fighting the whole world. Has anyone told Putin?
Putin is acting like a man who started a war and is now embarrassed to fight it
NOTE FROM EDWARD: It’s been two months since Russia launched its “special operation” in Ukraine. Your humble Moscow correspondent asked his dear friend, Marko Marjanović, to comment on the current military situation. He agreed.
By Marko Marjanović, Editor of Anti-Empire.com
Let’s do a mental exercise. Let’s try to imagine how much the US might be willing to spend to prop up Ukraine in its war with Russia?
What sum do you think is likely?
Would it be willing to spend as much as it spent on Afghanistan? Would it be willing to spend a lot more? Or a lot less?
On the one hand, Afghanistan was an American war where America’s own prestige and victory were on the line. On the other hand, there was the nagging feeling that they might not be the good guys.
And really what was the Afghan war for? To bring female education to the valleys of Pashtunistan? The benefit of backing Ukraine seems much clearer by comparison — to weaken, frustrate and humiliate Russia.
Backing Ukraine is the current hip thing and the current moral crusade. It has broad bipartisan support and — after 20 years of looking a lot like the baddies — American elites are embracing it as vindication that they are on the right side of history, and the benevolent empire after all.
I think Afghanistan has to be taken as the lower bound of how much the US is willing to spend.
After all, the US made no secret that in the case of a successful Russian invasion it intended to lavishly fund a Ukrainian insurgency. That it now gets to equip and bankroll a conventional war — which can inflict far greater losses on the Russians — instead, is Christmas come early for DC.
Dissident journalists calculate the Afghan war cost the US $2 trillion. But the Pentagon, which only counts the cost of military operations and reconstruction, puts the figure at $825bn. According to the Pentagon at the peak of the surge the US was spending $110bn on Afghanistan per annum, but as late as 2020 it was still spending $40 billion.
US Congress has voted in a $13.6bn Ukraine war “response” bill, but $3bn of that was for US redeployment in Europe and $4bn was allegedly to help refugees. However there was also $1.8bn there to help Kiev pay salaries and $3.5bn for weapons. Together that is $5.3bn but Biden has already said that the sum is almost exhausted and that soon Congress will have to allocate more. 60 days in and $5.3bn has almost already been spent.
If the US props up Ukraine with a new $5.3 billion every 3 months then per year that is $20 billion. But why should the US stop at this sum? The US has been steadily ramping up what weapons it is willing to send. In 60 days it has moved from man-portable missiles to heavy artillery. Janet Yellen has said the current aid packages are “only the beginning of what Ukraine will need” and other officials have said that the US is “always preparing the next package of security assistance.”
If the US feels it is getting a good return on its investment (which in Afghanistan was never the case) eg in dead Russians, then why wouldn’t the US ramp up the backing to $40-50 billion annually?
And that’s just the US. The EU has so far pledged $1.5 billion, Germany $1 billion, and Poland claims it has already transferred $1.6 billion in weapons. Can the US get its vast vassal swarm to collectively chip in another $10-20 billion?
Why not? They helped out with Afghanistan and that was never nearly as popular. So we’re looking at $60bn in aid to Ukraine per annum, and that’s not even counting what they will spend directly on training Ukrainians in Poland, and on flying their fleet of intelligence-gathering planes.
And $60bn is very possibly much too conservative. The US printed $4 trillion to “fight COVID” and the EU about $2 trillion. Why wouldn’t they print up a couple of hundred billion to fight Russians?
America’s main competition is with China, but weakening Beijing’s number one ally sure would be helpful and sweet — especially when it can be done with foreign blood and for sums that for America’s printing presses aren’t large at all.
People are ridiculing Zelensky for asking for $7bn per month in financial injections alone, but that is just the opening bid. He will very much be getting assistance of this type. It will be much less than $7bn but it will also only be the start.
Now let’s do a second mental exercise. Let’s try to imagine what getting a $60bn injection every year of war does for Ukraine’s military.
Russia herself normally runs a $60bn defense budget. This year it’s doubtlessly going to be higher.
But assuming a $60bn injection from the West and adding Ukraine’s own spending, the two could soon have equivalent military budgets in nominal terms.
What would equal spending do for military balance?
Russia has been spending that sum every year for many years and is far ahead. But the qualitative gap would certainly start to narrow. Ukraine is still the much smaller country with the much smaller population so perhaps Ukraine can’t possibly field a very large army? Normally in a war of materiel the limiting factor on army size is the labor force needed at home. If everyone is drafted then who is going to work at the equally important steel mill?
But if the majority of your war effort is being supplied and bankrolled from abroad that falls by the wayside. If the US becomes Ukraine’s military-industrial complex then how many Ukrainians are available to work in Ukrainian plants becomes rather irrelevant.
Moreover, the war has been devastating for Ukraine’s economy, especially with the Russians blockading the ports and causing a serious fuel crunch. This means that many Ukrainians in the private sector will start to go unemployed or see their wages slashed. Meanwhile, Washington will make certain that there is money enough to pay the soldiers. Soon the military might be a rare well-paying and reliable employer. Ironically Russia might be growing Ukraine’s pool of available manpower and channeling it toward the military.
It’s a country of 35 million. It has over 5 million men between 18 and 38. If the US is willing to pay for it all, there is no limit to how big its army can grow.
The retort is that the war has also already caused 5 million refugees to evacuate the country. But a friend who works on the refugee trains reports that among evacuees there are almost no men.
Also keep in mind that Ukraine’s pre-war GDP is only equal to that of 5-million Finland. Even replacing its entire economy is not beyond the means of the collective West.
Russia has a peculiar feudal arrangement with Chechens where Mosow bankrolls 70% of their budget but expects them to repay the favor by helping massively in its wars.
Can Ukraine become Washington’s Chechnya? Heavily dependent on the US financially but massively militarized and earning its keep by tying down the Russians?
The US would surely welcome such an arrangement and can definitely afford it.
Question is, can Russia afford to live with such an arrangement? Locked in a forever frozen conflict with a heavily militarized polity of 35 million bankrolled by the equally hostile 1-billion Collective West?
Putin claims his “Special Military Operation” was launched in part to improve Russia’s security situation. But if Russia accepts to live with such a Ukraine then its security situation will have definitely been enormously degraded.
It will mean that looking just at the security equation — without even factoring in Western sanctions and the damage to Russian-Ukrainian social relations — the war will have been a giant blunder for Moscow, and a stinging defeat.
To win territories home to 4 million people at the cost of turning a relatively manageable 40-million Ukraine that the West was only arming to a symbolic extent into a 35-million Prussianized battering ram for the Americans, composed of your ethnic kin, is not a win. It is a disaster almost without precedent.
Russia cannot control to what extent the US is willing to back Ukraine. But Russia can control what is there to back. Make it so that Ukraine isn’t a 35-million entity but a 20-million one and things become a lot more manageable again. At that point even a victory of sorts (a mangy one) could be claimed.
But that means taking territory. A lot more territory. Territory that at the present level of mobilization Russia isn’t capable of taking.
Right now Russia isn’t on pace to win anything that would make the cost of launching the war, which has already been baked in, remotely worthwhile.
The transformation of Ukraine into an Anti-Russia that Putin railed against has now been completed precisely by him and cemented for centuries or at least until an even bigger boogeyman comes around.
He has also given DC exactly what it needed to mobilize its vassal swarm for an almost unrestricted economic siege of Russia.
Banished from the global division of labor Russia will find itself falling further and further behind the West technologically as happened to late-era USSR.
The majority of the world has not joined the siege but you can’t go to Argentina for machine tools, Tanzania has not yet mastered avionics, and you can’t start a joint chipmaking venture with Indonesia. Even if you could the Empire’s vassal swarm would soon threaten them with secondary sanctions and they would fall back in line.
This has nothing to do with Russian talent, but only with scale. If an industrial and technological superpower like Germany was similarly cut from the global division of labor it would just as surely start to fall off. Having to figure out every step of everything by yourself, and being able to collaborate with no one, isn’t a recipe for rapid advancement.
The only hope is offered by China. Perhaps China will soon have analogs for everything Russia was sourcing in the West. (Not likely.) Perhaps China will soon even be making these analogs without Western inputs (patents, components, machine tools) so that they will remain exportable to Russia.
Even then, it would leave Russia’s technological level dependent on the political winds in Beijing. The Chinese have the talent and the numbers to accomplish anything, but more than once in their history their advancement was arrested and reversed by their own state.
If Beijing continues to unlock China’s productive and deductive powers via increased economic liberalization that’s great. But if it turns again more to stifling command economics the first victim will be Russia’s hopes for competitive Chinese analogs.
To sum up, the situation for Russia is:
— The cost of having launched the war is very high and already baked in.
— The cost of not making very large territorial gains will raise the cost even higher.
— With each month meeting these objectives becomes more difficult.
You would think that in such a situation the Kremlin would be unambiguously signaling its iron resolve to make large gains that could make up for the negatives.
And you would think it would be taking action to realize these gains quickly before Western supplies and Ukraine’s mobilization make it even harder.
If so, you could not be more wrong.
The Russian government continues to utterly fail to explain what this war is about. What it hopes to accomplish, or what military goals need to be met to get there.
The Russian government is also acting like there is no urgency to the war. As if whether Russia springs into action today, 6 months from now, or 2 years from now doesn’t make a difference.
I have never seen anything so feckless.
The deputy commander of Central Military District (correctly) states that Russia has embroiled itself in a war against the entire world:
“Apparently, we are now at war with the whole world, as it was in the Great Patriotic War, all of Europe, the whole world was against us. And now the same thing, they never liked Russia.”
But the Kremlin stubbornly refuses to fight an actual war. The Russian effort is clearly crying out for manpower. At the same time there isn’t even a partial mobilization, there isn’t retention of conscripts, there isn’t even deployment of conscripts to Ukraine. The army has literally been told to treat one-third of its manpower as untouchable and to leave it at home.
Until very recently the vast, overwhelming majority of all soldiers in the world were conscripts. And conscripts have fought and won every major war in the past 200 years.
In two months the West has transferred to Ukraine $5 billion in arms. That is five times Ukraine’s annual military procurement budget. In two months.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin balks at deploying trained soldiers who became soldiers via conscription. Perhaps this is a reflection of his humanism? But if he is so humane perhaps he should not have started the war in the first place? Why start a war and *then* remember how pacifistic you are?
What will be said of Putin’s “humanism” if months from now conscripts nonetheless have to be sent in, but it’s a new batch that isn’t as well trained (the current one isn’t being retained) and only to face a larger, more experienced and reequipped Ukrainian army?
Where is the mercy of standing by as Ukrainian forces reform and expand, and only moving decisively many months into the war after the West has been allowed ample time to ensure the fighting will be of the utmost intensity?
Russia isn’t in a position to intercept the flow of Western arms as they enter Ukraine. The trucks are unmarked and Russia’s fleet of armed drones is tiny anyway. It doesn’t have a way to loiter and have permanent eyes in the sky at such distances.
But Russia could block the shipments from reaching the left bank. Destroy the crossing points across the Dnieper and Ukraine is reduced to transferring equipment via the pontoon and tugboat combo that is sure to become a bottleneck.
Russia has so far launched over 1700 precision-guided missiles. Precisely one has targeted a Dnieper bridge. Naturally, splitting Ukraine into two halves would also greatly harm its economy and impose hardships on its civilians. But maybe the time to think about that was before the war was launched? If you’re that humanistic maybe just don’t launch a war in the first place as I humbly suggested?
Putin is acting like a man who started a war and is now embarrassed to fight it. He looks like a man who doesn’t believe his cause justifies full-hearted war or can be realized by one. That’s too bad because full-hearted war is exactly what Kiev and NATO are fighting.
It’s also ironic because nobody else in Russia knows if this war is worth fighting because nobody knows what Putin’s objective is or what he would settle for. There’s precisely one man in Russia with the information to know if this is worth it and he apparently doesn’t have a clue.
Pray do tell what sort of a 5D move is it to embroil a nation of 150 million people in a war with the 1-billion Collective West that lords over another 6 billion and then decline to actually prosecute that war?
Moscow went into Crimea in 2014 without a clear plan. The plan was to go in and wing it. Moscow was happy with the outcome and the Kremlin drew the lesson that improvisation works.
In reality, the outcome was mixed and showed just how unpredictable these type of adventures are. On the one hand Crimea was gained without a shot fired, but on the other hand, it sparked an uprising in Donbass to ask for the same liberation granted to Crimea that Moscow neither expected nor desired.
In addition to gaining the not-very-big Crimea, Moscow also became embroiled in intra-East Slavic bloodshed, gained the enmity of Ukraine, and peeled away 5 million pro-Russians so that pro-Russians could never again carry a Ukrainian election.
Russia cites Ukraine’s “Nazification” and “militarization” as gripes that need to be addressed by force, but until eight years ago Ukraine sold defense products to Russia and hosted Russian military bases. It honored May 9, its army retreated from Crimea under cherished Soviet battle flags, and only had 5000 combat-ready troops.
In fact, this utter lack of a serious military is the reason civilians, even neo-Nazi civilians, were welcomed to come help the military suppress the Donbass rising. Having fought they won prestige that made them impossible for politicians who had none to purge. And besides, what if they were needed to fight the Russians again?
A different lesson drawn from 2014 could have been that intervention causes yet more fallout that also calls for intervention. Another lesson might have been that not being able to decide if yours is a pacifistic or militaristic approach ultimately begets you the worst of both worlds. All the burned bridges of the militaristic strategy with none of the direct gains to show for it.
Anyhow, even if we accept that Crimea improvisation worked, it was a trick that was only going to work once.
Moscow’s belief that it can jump into things headlong and figure things out later immediately caused it to suffer $360 billion in “frozen” reserves that are now lost forever.
To escalate a frozen Donbass War into a hot Ukraine War and not think to evacuate your euros from foreign banks beforehand is quite something.
But it is only the most obvious facepalm in this disaster, but not at all the most consequential.
To start a war with NATO and then spend two months pondering whether to allow the army to use a third of its complement, that’s the real fecklessness and catastrophe. But it’s worse. The Kremlin will in the same press conference tell the public it is in an existential struggle for the very survival of Russia, then “reassure” it that one-third of Russia’s military is off-limits for combat in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, US officials are already working on ramping up production for Ukraine. Early on ramping up production is difficult. Then it gets progressively easier. In 6 months or a year $100 million in aid can represent vastly more missiles than it does now.
Really, what is the game plan here? Take the rest of Donbass and declare victory? Fine, but that will actually be a defeat. Not the least because Washington and Kiev will get to vote on whether what follows is peace or years of positional warfare. Or is the plan to follow it up with Odessa or more of the left bank, or both? Fine, but that is going to take using conscripts so you might as well start doing it now and get a better correlation of forces that will make things faster and less painful for everyone.
The Kremlin is prosecuting this war with all the conviction of a provincial Russian cop enforcing the vax pass. The difference is the war was Putin’s idea. It was sprung on the nation and the soldiers as a surprise. There was literally no debate on its merits because officially war was beyond impossible.
At the time I thought the war was launched after months of denials because that’s what makes sense militarily. However the effort was accompanied by so much of what flies in the face of military logic that this explanation becomes doubtful. The whole point of surprising the enemy is to overwhelm his unprepared force quickly. Instead the enemy is being given ample time to build up its force, only after which Moscow will start using Russia’s draftee soldiers.
But this secrecy is perfectly in line with how the Russian government loves to do things to start with. To this very day, Russia only has the official tally of 374,902 covid deaths but not even a simple breakdown by age bracket. This information does not exist in the public domain. The number of vaccine injuries exists and that number is zero. The number of Ukrainian dead is known to the Russian MoD down to the single digit and provided regularly, but the Russian public has no right to know the number of the Russian dead.
Never having to explain itself to anyone, or even sharing just the most rudimentary information is exactly how Russia’s technocratic Caesarism system likes to roll. Transparency is treated as an even bigger enemy than Americans, Zelensky, Azov and sanctions combined. The government doesn’t just withhold information. It actively works to discourage the very notion the public is owed data or explanations or should have any expectation of such.
And here lies the problem with a national call to arms.
Start mobilizing or using conscripts and the Russians will go along with it but they will also have a lot of questions, a lot of conditions, and a lot of ideas of their own. Techno Caesarism goes out the window.
Soulless staged rallies in front of government workers bused in for the occasion suddenly no longer do the trick. Suddenly you’re having to engage with people who are merely anti-anti-Putin but who aren’t United Russia cronies.
Waging a state effort is one thing, but a popular, national effort is another thing entirely. It means unlocking movements and forces you are not fully in control of.
On the one end of that spectrum lies Russia where Putin sitting in his covid cocoon can plunge the nation into a war with the whole world without even a debate.
On the other end of the spectrum lies Ukraine where every regiment has its own foreign policy and can veto the President.
Doubtlessly the Ukrainian way has its own pitfalls but the Kremlin way isn’t getting the job done either.
It is said that support for the war is high in Russia.
That’s not exactly right. What is high is the support for the war effort. The Russians are at war with the whole world, what other choice do they have but support Russia’s effort?
But that’s not the same thing as being an appreciator of the war. To support a war you first have to know basic things about it. What is the objective? How can it be accomplished? And at what cost?
If the nation is asked to finish what Putin started (without consulting with it) then it will go to Ukraine and finish the job.
And then the veterans will come back and will pass judgment on whether they were well-led in the war, was the war worth it, and was the war a wise decision or the work of a pyromaniac.
A leader who does not issue a call to arms when the situation clearly demands it is one who is not certain the people’s judgment would be in his favor.