Suppose I accuse you of wearing a blue tie on a Tuesday. Surely the most obvious response is, What’s wrong with wearing a blue tie on a Tuesday?

Well, Russia is accusing the Ukrainians of having bombed a fuel depot in Belgorod last night. And the Ukrainians are declining to say whether they did or didn’t. Why? Aren’t these two countries at war? What am I missing here?

I can understand why neither side would want to admit they’re deliberately targeting the other’s civilians. But the other’s army’s fuel depots? Aren’t the other’s army’s fuel depots precisely what a country at war is supposed to target?

The best that I can come up with is that by targeting Belgorod the Ukrainians have extended the war into Russian territory. And this constitutes … What? Escalation? The Russians have been inside Ukraine targeting its military and civilians for six weeks now. The Ukrainians get in one lucky shot on Russian territory and the Kremlin cries foul?!

For those six weeks I’ve been wondering when the Ukrainians would manage to bring the war home to the Russians. Last night they finally did. After all, turnabout is fair play. But there’s something unmanly about pretending that it’s not. The Americans cried foul after 9/11, but at least they could claim, albeit myopically, that “We wasn’t doin’ nothin’!” But the Russians are hardly in a similar position.

What I’d like to see – though I doubt that I will – is something like the Doolittle Raid against Japan on April 18, 1942. That was thought to be a suicide mission, though it turned out it wasn’t. It had no military objective. Its sole purpose was to warn the Japanese people about people who live in glass houses. A Ukrainian air strike on Moscow wouldn’t end the war in Ukraine any more than the Tokyo Raid ended the war in the Pacific. But looking at the satellite footage of Mariupol, it’s hard to see how it could make matters worse.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

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2 replies

  1. Maybe Ukraine wants NATO to have plausible culpability in the eyes of a paranoid Putin?


  2. A lot of background, followed by a short argument (skip to the bottom paragraph for that).
    – Deployed Russian forces appear to be nearing immediate combat exhaustion, without a rotation they will become increasingly combat ineffective, this will make achieving political objectives via war increasingly difficult.
    – Russia has deployed ~60% of its active military personnel (I believe this number to be derived from the number of active contract soldiers “kontraktniki”
    total number of contract soldiers ~400,000
    – Russia has suffered significant casualties, and there is a sense that they cannot win an immediate victory over Ukraine, and if they want anything like total victory (how this is defined is murky), then it seems likely that they’ll have to engage in a longer term, attritional style of conflict.
    – Russia keeps ~250,000 conscripts that rotate through on a two year tour of duty. These soldiers lawfully cannot be deployed sooner than 6 months into their training. Further Putin has previously made political promises that no conscript would see combat, and promised to punish leadership when it was uncovered that conscripts had taken part in the Ukrainian operation (read:invasion)
    – Ukrainian military likely has around ~400,000 forces in the field with an unknown number of paramilitary reserves and conscripts from post-2022-invasion mobilization.

    Russia launched this campaign as a “special operation” rather than a war. This presents Putin with a challenge. Russian military forces are unlikely to be able to achieve anything close to what Putin’s political war goals were at the start of this invasion, particularly in the short term. This has created a political challenge for Putin. If he wants to achieve his war goals he must ready the Russian state for a longer-term attritional war, of which Russia has historically been quite good at, and which demographically it seems setup to have the potential to outlast Ukraine in. However, he also must manage this against internal political dynamics. So far, he has done quite a good job of this. Russian propaganda efforts may not have had much effect in Ukraine or in the West, but they appear to be quite successful at galvanizing people whose own children live in Ukraine, against the country. Russian atrocities are regularly laid at the feet of Azov, or Ukrainian military who are supposedly executing collaborators. Domestic support for the war appears to be high (though polling on this occurs inside a totalitarian state, so a dose of skepticism is warranted), so all is good right? For the motherland, lets get this thing done.

    Well not so much, on the flip side of this there are limitations to the reality that Putin has constructed inside Russia. The younger demographic shows significantly less support for the war than older demographics. Early propaganda efforts also painted that this would be a limited conflict. Finally, a lot of active soldiers in the Russian army are not ethnically Russian. These factors are important, because if Russia is to scale up to a large attritional war, they will have to: conscript the young and potentially rebellious demographic, explain why Russia was defeated in the field in a way that doesn’t damage Putin’s legitimacy, and start deploying young ethnic Russians to the conflict zone.

    So far Putin appears unwilling to engage in the necessary internal politics to mobilize the Russian state for an attritional war. Russian conscripts were very recently let off their rotations on schedule, so a batch of about 100,000 conscripts will be leaving the Russian military at an inopportune moment, and the batch that replaces them will be ineligible, legally (more important, practically), for combat for several months. All this comes back to the original question: why won’t the Ukrainians take credit for a strike at Russian territory?

    Ukrainian forces have acknowledged a previous strike inside Russian territory at Millerovo, but that occurred in the opening salvos of the war, and the political situation is much different now. They understand that Ukraine will face a much tougher opponent if they must enter into a long-term attritional war, and they want to avoid that potentiality. Ukraine’s armed forces do not want to provide the metaphorical ammunition that Putin will require to escalate the scope of the war domestically, even if it means sacrificing on military opportunities in the short term.


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