Our Dutch correspondent H. Numan draws on historical parallels to analyze the likely consequences of the Russo-Ukrainian war.
Mene, tekel, perish!
by H. Numan
We’re about one month into the Russian invasion. The fog of war covers everything. It’s pretty clear Russia is not winning this war. Let’s have a look at the big picture.
Germany, before that the German Empire, and before that the Kingdom of Prussia, developed Blitzkrieg. Not the word; that was coined by British journalists in 1939. The Germans called it (still do) Bewegungskrieg. It was their answer to most of their military problems. Attack aggressively with everything you’ve got as fast as possible. It worked pretty well for them.
Russia has a very different strategy. They made sure their borders were far, far away. Really far away. No matter who attacked, they would invariably get stuck in the snow before reaching Moscow. Even Napoleon capturing the city didn’t deter them. They burned it down themselves, and continued the fight. That worked pretty well for them. Supposing the Wehrmacht had captured Moscow, it certainly wouldn’t have ended the war.
After World War 2 the USSR set up a large security zone to extend that wide border. Most of it consisted of occupied countries and Nazi allies during WW2, turned into vassal states. Other states, Finland, for example, were forced into benevolent neutrality. All gaps were closed or under Soviet control. Mother Russia was finally secured!
Socialists know nothing about economics. That’s a given. All they can do is spend money. Eventually they run out of it. A major contribution to the collapse of the USSR was the Chernobyl disaster. The cleanup costs exceeds $700 billion. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The USSR collapsed soon afterwards in 1991. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved. Many former republics within the USSR gained their independence. Among others, Ukraine.
The date 1991 is important. That’s forty-one years, or in Gettysburg terms: two score and a year ago. In other words: a very long time. That’s where Putin got it wrong. You see, people change over time. So do nations. Wishing for something doesn’t make it right. Putin firmly believes Russia deserves secure borders. Nothing wrong with that. So do I. In my opinion, the Dutch borders are only secure when we can observe German and French movements from our trenches just outside Paris and Berlin. (That’s a joke, folks!) See where Putin is wrong? He looks at a map. Picks the largest extent ever of Russia’s borders and works to reestablish them again. Regardless of what others think about it. Most do not want to be part of Russia again.
Times change. As simple as that. Time hasn’t been kind to Russia. One of the reasons why Ukraine among others does not want to be part of Russia again is the economy. Russia and North Korea have more in common than Putin likes to admit. Both have a pathetically small economy supporting way too big an army. The only real difference is the number of nukes. North Korea has just enough to secure its existence. Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Both use theirs to prop up their economy. It’s not a coincidence that from the start of the war Putin threatened to use nukes, if he doesn’t get his way. To give you an idea, the German economy is slightly smaller than the Russian economy. If the Benelux together with Sweden and Austria compete economically with Russia, Russia loses.
The invasion idea wasn’t a bad one. “Let’s march into Ukraine, stomp some people and change the government.” It worked very well in the past. Kazakhstan and Belarus were reconquered that way. They are independent countries in name, but in reality parts of Russia. It worked to a lesser extent also in Georgia and Moldova. There they didn’t change the regimes, but set up “independent” enclaves. Just enough for the moment. Georgia and Moldova are more independent than Belarus, but not a lot. By the way, reconquering Moldova was also part of the invasion plan for Ukraine. The troops are already there.
At first Russia did the same in Ukraine. The Crimean peninsula was annexed, after a rather silly referendum. A referendum the way dictators always want it: with a nearly unanimous yes vote. Had Hitler and Putin been really clever, they would have invited the entire world to witness the referendum. Made scrupulously sure the referendum was fair and honest. In both cases it was certain more than 65% would vote yes, far more than required. By going for the illusive 99% they showed the world it was all bogus.
A bit later Putin annexed parts of the Donbas. That’s where he went wrong. Disastrously wrong. You see, part of Ukraine has a Russian population. Most of it has not. By annexing those Russian speaking parts, he antagonized everybody else. The more he took from Ukraine, the more resistance he created. The Ukrainian army in 2014 was a joke. Russian, in other words. They knew what was coming, and started to modernize. They weren’t capable of resisting the Russian army taking Donbas, but are now ready. Exactly on time.
Russia went into that war with some severe handicaps that are killing the Russian army right now. They went into Ukraine with a ‘handbrake invasion’. It was intended to be a lightning strike, forcing the government to surrender or flee, and the Ukrainian army wasn’t supposed to resist. That utterly failed. The government and the army didn’t surrender. Far from it! Even worse: the people rallied behind their government.
A ‘handbrake invasion’ is an invasion with minimal force. Something the Russian army is not very good at. Traditionally the Russian army is very strong in artillery. We have a machine gunner supported by riflemen. They have loads or artillery and mortar batteries supported by infantry. The standard procedure is to saturate the area with artillery, and send in the infantry to kill any survivors. They couldn’t do that; hence the handbrake.
Another age-old Russian tradition is their lack of and disdain for maintenance and logistics. That’s not something from the last couple of years; it goes back to way before the Russo-Japanese War. Lack of logistics lost them the Crimean War, even. Putin is one of the richest man on earth. Not bad, for a middle-rank KGB officer! Come to think of it, it might be the rank: Thaksin Shinawatra was also a lieutenant-colonel.
How did Putin get so rich? By being utterly corrupt, of course. In the army, corruption is very democratic. Everybody needs a cut. A general can order cheapo tires in China, but he’s in for a lot of trouble if he doesn’t split his profits down the line. Of course the generals knew the Russian army wasn’t ready for war. Their problem was how to tell Putin that, without being sent to Siberia. Putin himself simply had to look the other way, otherwise he would have to send all his commanders to count trees. So they told each other exactly what they wanted to hear. Happens often, in dictatorships. Remember World War 2? When the logistics staff of the Wehrmacht told the OKW they’d be running into trouble about 700 km inside Russia, Halder’s reply was: Don’t worry. We’ll fake it.
Putin’s biggest miscalculation was the response of the West. He was certain the West would accept it. Of course they would issue some sanctions, for appearance’s sake. Boy, he couldn’t have been more wrong if he tried! Putin showed his hand, when he invaded Ukraine. The plan is simply to re-institute the old USSR borders. Something the Baltic Sea states aren’t particularly keen on, not to mention Finland. Or everybody else, for that matter.
Putin did the impossible: he united both the EU and America. Even staunchly neutral countries, such as Finland and Sweden, now want to join NATO. Before the invasion, there was talk NATO was no longer necessary. It was a relic from the Cold War. You don’t hear that a lot nowadays.
The next huge miscalculation was the sanctions. Putin knew he was going to be hit by sanctions, but on this level? Not even in his worst nightmares. The EU doesn’t have nukes, because we don’t need them. We can blast a country into oblivion with economics.
What you probably don’t know is that oil and gas were already developed during the USSR period. Europe could have become dependent on USSR oil 40 years ago. Just when production became viable, the USSR collapsed. With it, the oil industry. Oil has to flow, literally. If the flow stops, it solidifies everywhere. When the USSR collapsed that happened. It took them at least one-and-a-half score (30) years to start up again. All pipes have to be heated, to melt the oil in it. Every seam in every pipe had to be checked. Wellheads had to be re-drilled. That solidifying process goes much faster than you’d think; it’s already happening — again. If Putin doesn’t surrender within a month, Russia will be in a much worse position than in 1991.
Related to this is how to ship oil to other customers. Russia doesn’t have any deep water oil ports. Large oil tankers cannot dock. At best, smaller tankers can be filled in port, and transfer their oil at sea to a large tanker. That’s a very expensive and lengthy process. It might work, if the price is low enough. There are plenty of customers for it, especially India and China. However … the idea that NATO will allow Russian tankers to resupply at sea well inside NATO waters is somewhat ludicrous. It ain’t gonna happen.
Russian banks and the aerospace industry are also victims of Western sanctions. You can’t buy a candy bar with a Russian ATM card abroad. About 150.000 Russians are stuck outside Russia. In Thailand, about 5,000 Russians (and <1,000 Ukrainians) are caught between a rock and a hard place. They can’t fly back; all Russian airlines are boycotted from flying. They can’t pay their hotels, as their ATM cards are refused. The Thai government allows them to stay, but there is a big difference between staying in a hotel or being a refugee in Thailand. At least they won’t be sent to the immigration prison. That’s something.
What worries me most is how Putin has painted himself inside a corner. There is no way he can get out without serious damage. It’s not the first time in history a Russian army simply dragged on for months, regardless of the consequences. The only option Putin has now is what the Russian army is very good at: scorched earth tactics. Bomb the cities, force farmers to flee. Create immense streams of refugees. Allow those refugees to go to NATO countries. So far, two million refugees have fled. Expect at least another 10 million (!) to follow. Probably a lot more.
That’s two strokes in one for Putin. 10 to 15 million Ukrainians fleeing the country are 10 to 15 million people you don’t have to worry about. They will be a huge drain on the EU. Perhaps that will help convince the EU to negotiate. Just as important is that 10 to 15 million refugees are 10 to 15 million less people you have to control. Depopulate the cities (they are already doing that) and shoot every farmer who even looks at a tank. Let alone takes one. It’s standard Russian practice to first send in the army to conquer the land, followed by the troops of the Ministry of the Interior to pacify it. They need a lot fewer Ukrainians before the ministry can safely send in its troops. That’s the moment real genocide starts. A page ripped straight from the history books. Stalin and Hitler were experts in it. It seems Putin has no problem with that kind of odium.
As long as NATO doesn’t commit itself, there is no risk of a nuclear war. Great, but the Russian army has a very different doctrine. NATO doesn’t allow battlefield commanders control of smaller tactical nuclear weapons. A nuke — big or small — is a political weapon. Brussels decides when to use them. A Russian general is trained, in theory at least, to use tactical nukes.
Putin may threaten to use nukes, but he certainly won’t use the big ones. Smaller nukes are a very different story. He may be tempted, or desperate enough, to use a small battlefield nuclear weapon, just to show how far he is willing to go. Remember that NATO supply dump just across the border with Poland? What if such a dump is attacked with a small nuke? I’d rather not.
Is it possible Putin will disappear? Yes. Is it likely? Not really. Don’t forget we think very differently from Putin, or Russians. Russia has always been an autocratic country. Putin sort of rose through the ranks, and built his own power structure. Most top people are in with him, whether they like or not. There is some talk that another ex-KGB officer might possibly replace him, but what would that solve for us? It’s like Hitler being replaced by Goering or Hess. The plan — reconstitute the old USSR borders — probably remains the same.
It’s even worse than you might think. We have a global economy. That means this war will have a global impact. Expect food prices to rise seriously this year. Both Ukraine and Russia have other things on their minds than harvesting. Next year, there won’t be a harvest. Simply because there won’t be enough men and material available for seeding, let alone harvesting.
Oil and gas prices are rising sky-high. That makes your daily commute unaffordable. Not only that, it will affect food prices, too. Next year we will also have a severe shortage of fertilizer. Much of it is produced with oil and gas, and potash normally comes from Belarus.
By then Russia will be a Chinese colony. Where do you think Chinese technology comes from? They bought it in 1991 for bargain prices when the USSR collapsed. Russia will have no other option but to sell everything, again for bargain prices.
No matter what happens, we’re in for very serious trouble.
— H. Numan