What is up in Ukraine?

It is make or break time for Ukraine. Peter Zeihan has a good overview of what the stakes are.

The one thing that Peter does not go into is the consequences of failure for Ukraine. They really don’t have time on their hands. Western populations forced their leaders to adopt harder line on Russia then they really intended to (so much so that US treasury had to ask companies to not “over enforce” sanction regulations and EU ports were turning away legal Russian cargos because the longshore unions were refusing to unload). But the EU populations are starting to learn what the consequences are for their actions and Ukraine is going to start facing a falling off of support if for no other reason that all easy gifts (small arms, old stocks of soviet weapons in eastern European weapon stocks) have all been given. So the question of the hour is does Ukraine have a chance of achieving its goals in southern Ukraine?

From one perspective, this is a silly question. The answer will be clear soon and I cannot conceive of how it would change my life if I knew the answer ahead of time. But in another sense, the difficulties in answering this question are something we are going to increasingly have to deal with in this brave new world we are now in. In this brave new world, there is no longer a range of opinions. There is only the right opinion and the wrong one. The western media is walking in lockstep and self censoring anything they perceive might damage Ukraine’s cause. Meanwhile, the alternative media is mindlessly accepting everything Russia says as the truth even though we all watched them lie in real time in the lead up to the war.

It was not always this way. There was always a partisan slant to the media and there was always a national slant to the media. But even as late as the second gulf war, there was a greater diversity of thought in the western world then there is now. You could easily get what would now be considered a wide range of views about that war even while it was underway. And if you did not like range of views you got in the US media bubble, you could read or watch media that was produced in other western countries that had a different range of opinions then you could find in the US alone.

This all changed with Trump, Covid, and now war on Ukraine. Now the media of the entire western world moves in lockstep and only has one right answer. To make matters worse, the backlash to this media lock step has been people falling in love with their own delusions and justifying believing what they want to believe on the grounds that “the media are censoring the truth.” So on one hand you have the censors and on the other hand you have those who feel justified in abandoning any attempt at basing their views on “facts”. And this seems to be shaping up the norm for the foreseeable future on any subject from “monkey pox” to “global warming”.

And this is why the prospects for Ukraine in this latest counter offensive are so intellectually intriguing. We will know the truth soon enough and so looking through the various sources is like conducting a trial where the verdict will soon be given. In normal times this would be overstating it a little. After all, in the fog of war where chance has a big role to play, people of good faith and good judgment can offer honest opinions that will turn out to be wrong.

But already there are two competing narratives that can’t both be based on reality even if you make allowances for the fact that we can all be fooled by the fog of war and unforeseeable events. The Russians say that they have already defeated the Ukrainian counterattack. The western sources are saying that Ukrainian is making slow but steady progress. One side is wrong right now but the rest of us will not know who until later.

This is the most reasonable pro-Russian statement of the current situation that I can find….

“The solitary Ukrainian breakthrough remaining as of Saturday night was a bridgehead across the Ingulets river — the so-called Andreevsky bridgehead. There is speculation that Russians may have lured the Ukrainian troops into a “fire trap.” The river crossings have been cut off and Russians are probably encircling the Ukrainian troops trapped on the western side of Ingulets with no supplies or reinforcements reaching them.

The counteroffensive has lost its bite and is now positional battles on one or two sites in the Mykolaiv-Krivoy Rog direction. A Russian counterattack has also been mentioned to the effect that the frontline now touches the “administrative boundary” of Mykolaiv region (which is a crucial city en route to Odessa.) Heavy bombardment of Mykolaiv has also been reported. The Russians claim to have destroyed vast quantities of weaponry, too.”

And this is most reasonable pro-Ukrainian statement of the current situation I can find….

“The Ukrainian counteroffensive is making verifiable progress in the south and the east. Ukrainian forces are advancing along several axes in western Kherson Oblast and have secured territory across the Siverskyi Donets River in Donetsk Oblast. The pace of the counteroffensive will likely change dramatically from day to day as Ukrainian forces work to starve the Russians of necessary supplies, disrupt their command and control, and weaken their morale even as counteroffensive ground assaults continue. The Russians will occasionally counterattack and regain some lost ground and will of course conduct likely fierce artillery and air attacks against liberated settlements and advancing Ukrainian troops. Ukrainian forces have made substantial enough progress to begin evoking more realistic commentary from the Russian milbloggers, who had been hewing very closely to the Kremlin’s optimistic rhetoric until today.”

The two quotes give a fair overview of the differing presentation of fact that is going on regarding the current Ukrainian offensive. And not having any firsthand knowledge, I don’t have any strong convictions about which of these overviews offer a better glimpse of the truth. Since the outcome is not likely to require me to change what I am currently doing, I don’t need to have an opinion.

But what if that was not the case? What if it mattered what the answer was? The intellectually interesting question for me is that if this were a news story that I had a personal stake in and I had to make a decision based on what I thought the facts were, where would I think the truth would lie?

If I am forced to choose, I am going to go with the Russians are lying more than the Ukrainians. I think the Ukrainians will push the Russians all the way to Kherson before the end of the year but be unable to Kherson itself before the end of the year and maybe not ever. Ironically, the primary reason for me going with Ukraine if I force myself to choose comes various Russia sites. In particular, the claim that Russian Airborne forces are holding the Ukrainian advance back.

In this video, you can how the pro-Russian side are trying to present the battle currently.

And in this video, you can see what I believe to be Russian airborne troops “retaking” a town in the Kherson region from the Ukrainians.

If Russia is using airborne troops to hold the line then they are in trouble. That does not by itself mean they are going to lose (famously, the US relied on airborne troops to buy time during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II), but it is not a good sign. This is particularly true when the attack is something the Russians should have seen coming a long ways off and not a surprise like the Battle of the Bulge was for the Americans. Normally, when elite troops are asked to hold the line, it is a sign that all other options have failed. The elite are supposed to be for attacks and to save the day if the lines get broken somewhere. If those elite troops fail under the weight of the enemy, who will be left who can plug the hole in line?

I see the Russian defense of Kherson as having parallels with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. At Dien Bien Phu, the French had elite troops backed by air power in a fortified position. They held out a long time but they were ground down by the sheer numbers of the enemy. The French could not make up their lack of man power with quality, air power, or a good defensive position.

By the fact that the Russians are using airborne troops to hold the line, I am confident that they have manpower shortages. What I am uncertain about, is if Ukraine has the morale and the numbers to pay the price in blood needed to break that thin line of quality troops. Ukraine should have the numbers since they did a full mobilization at the very start of the war where as the Russians have been avoiding that. And so far, Ukrainian morale and willingness to die in large numbers has exceeded what I would have expected prior to the war starting. But since we have very little trustworthy reporting willing to talk about losses on the Ukrainian side, it is hard to be sure.

The bottom line is that if Ukraine has the numbers to keep the push on, the Russian are not going to be able to hold if they are already reduced to using their airborne troops to hold the line. And given that Ukraine has only just started their push, I am going to guess that they still have more in the tank.

But even if Ukraine does have the numbers and morale are there to break the thin line currently holding them back, I don’t see Ukraine as being able to take Kherson itself. The major assumption behind the Ukraine hopes (in part borne out by the Russian use of elite light infantry in country where they should be using mechanized forces) is that bridges supplying the area have been damaged sufficiently to keep the Russians from bringing in sufficient amounts of heavy iron to overcome the Ukrainian advantage in bodies. However, as the Ukrainians themselves have proven, you don’t need large numbers of tanks to defend a major urban area. So if the Ukrainians are having trouble taking the small villages and open country, how are they going to take back a major urban area?

This is particularly true when one considers the fact that the Russians have a second defensive ring around the city of Kherson itself and they can provide supporting fire for the city’s defense from across the Dnieper River. Without a bridge, it would be really hard to bring new tanks and fuel into the city. But there should be no problem keeping up a steady stream of food, water, and man portable weapons even if you are restricted to boats. Baring a complete collapse of Russian morale, I see that as being sufficient to keep the Ukrainians out of the city for this year at least.

Even the Ukrainians themselves are trying to tamp down hope of any kind of quick advance. This video gives a pro-Ukrainian version of the strategy that is based in part on statements from the Ukraine government.

It all sounds good, but the part he leaves out is that for this strategy to be successful, the Russians’ have to run of reserves first. Like I already said, if I had to bet, I would bet that Russians are in fact going to run short. But since I lack confidence on sources from either side, I am very glad that I don’t have to take this bet.

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