Putin’s Assault On Ukraine, Six Months In

The situation remains utterly grim. Tens of thousands are dead. Whole cities have been annihilated.

And after months of unrelenting brutality, there is still no end in sight.

Two essential truths make understanding war incredibly difficult.

First is the immense difficulty figuring out what exactly is going on when literally millions of people are involved, each with a totally different perspective on what’s happening.

The second is the tendency for humans to believe what they want or feel they need to in any given situation, which is usually defined by what groups they want to belong to.

Hence why it has long been said that truth is the first casualty of war.

It doesn’t help that the nature of organized violence means that anyone engaged in it has a strong incentive to seek control of truth, fighting over it like any other essential resource.

In the parts of the world dominated by the faith system that the high and mighty of our time like to call “Western Civilization,” this manifests as a deliberate effort to reduce war to a simple moral narrative with the embedded implication that the bad guys deserve whatever team good does to them.

In the Western philosophical paradigm, the harsh truth that war is usually what decides right and wrong in human society is buried under a metric ton of moralizing bullshit.

The victor of any conflict will nearly always tell the story of it as some variety of noble struggle, which explains why American history is such a cesspool.

And why Russians like the late Darya Dugina and her twisted father push their inane imperialist nonsense about the Russian World.

Well, right up until they don’t, because someone kills them.

Turns out, the pen is not always mightier than the sword — or car bomb, in this case.

That’s why the Greeks and Romans got to write the history of the people they conquered, their victors history giving rise to the sick myth of Western Civilization.

A delusion that a bunch of rich jerks are trying to use to justify dragging the world into yet another global grinding conflict.

The difficult reality of our world is that what survives perceives itself to be special, clinging to this view until the real world intervenes to say no, you aren’t.

As it always does, sooner or later. True of individuals, and also true of the big sprawling countries called empires.

The conflict in Ukraine has astonished a whole lot of observers in the West, largely because Western philosophy avoids addressing war in a critical way, preferring to leave it in the hands of unaccountable elites claiming to possess special knowledge the rest of us don’t have or could even understand.

So war has become shrouded in myths, ones frankly designed to obscure what is really happening.

Wars are not giant epic Hollywood or Bollywood battles that break out and are done in a day with a clean, clear resolution.

Leaders in countries like their people to think this is true, but the success of Ukraine’s non-professional soldiers in fighting Russia to a standstill has proven once again that war is a process of constant innovation and adaptation.

And wars don’t come out of nowhere. Every single active conflict underway around the world today has roots going back decades if not centuries. Their causes are never simple, a series of intersecting systems operating at different scales create a situation where some group bets that violent action will get them something they desire.

Peacemaking is about tamping down the violence produced by fear and greed until enough time passes that people stop wanting to fight.

Unfortunately, the historical record shows that peace is typically only won after enough blood is shed that someone decides to stop fighting — or simply can’t anymore.

The leaders of both Ukraine and Russia are in this fight to the death, and neither can change course at this point.

No matter what you, I, or anyone else believes about why the war escalated and brought the world here, this simple reality defines the situation.

Pretending that the whole thing can die down in a stalemate where the combatants enter negotiations in good faith is worse than accepting the difficult truth that this is World War Three, and there’s no way out now but right through.

It’s gonna hurt, but putting off a lasting resolution only means the violence will pick up again in one or a few years and be even worse.

The postwar global order is dead. Everything is going to change, nothing can now stop the system from cycling as it must.

One of the world’s breadbaskets is literally on fire. A major nuclear power plant is on the front lines, suffering near daily attacks that risk triggering a new Chernobyl. Civilians continue to die every day, and hundreds of thousands face an approaching winter where all basic services across thousands of kilometers are simply gone.

Meanwhile across the world prices for food and fuel are going up when most of the planet still lives on the edge of poverty because billionaires are in control of far more than their share of global resources and no one is taking it away yet.

A system that was always deeply compromised is in turmoil, the bonds that held everything together flying apart one by one.

Welcome to Fimbulwinter, folks. The Fall exactly as the Eddas lay out in kenning and metaphor.

Can’t say I didn’t warn you. The ancients warned me — I’m only passing on the message to those with the will to adapt.

History warns that events of the magnitude of the conflict in Ukraine tend to trigger a cascade of other crises that can overwhelm the world and force dramatic changes in a whole lot of people’s day to day lives.

You might not be interested in the great global kaboom of our times, but rest assured that it is very intrigued with you.

When Putin launched his cruel assault, he and the powerful around the world, including and perhaps especially US President Joe Biden, had already openly written Ukraine off.

As is his habit, Biden tipped his hand months before, all but inviting Putin to strike if Russia was willing to pay the high cost of international isolation.

How? By ruling out sending American troops to do anything to help, even to simply protect American citizens in Ukraine — like my own cousin — or enact a no-fly zone over even a portion of Ukraine well away from Russia solely to protect fleeing refugees.

When American intelligence sources started telling journalists that Kyiv would fall in days last winter, this was part of a deliberate strategy.

It’s classic marketing. The administration was acting to prevent a repeat of what it believed went wrong in Afghanistan in 2021: public messaging.

Democrats have been told for a year now to believe that Afghanistan was a debacle solely because the media covered it that way.

Not because American personnel and dozens of refugees got blown up by a suicide bomber, which prompted a drone strike that slaughtered an innocent family thanks to bad intelligence and trigger happy American leaders.

They only really care because the situation drew harsh headlines and started Biden’s epic crash in the polls.

When US intelligence realized that Putin was absolutely not bluffing about escalating the war if Ukraine didn’t surrender Donbas — something I predicted months before — the Biden Administration took the unusual step of broadcasting much of what it knew.

Not that most of it wasn’t already visible to open source intelligence types, but the media ignores them for the most part.

This served an important political purpose — it let Biden look prescient when Putin actually went ahead with the attack.

But that’s silly nonsense. Setting aside rhetoric and looking logically at the moves each side was making, what really happened was that Biden eliminated most of the risk from Putin’s calculations.

Ukraine’s President Zelensky carefully but deliberately alluded to this in a recent interview where he revealed that Kyiv knew full well the attack was coming but didn’t sound the alarm for a simple and very compelling reason:

Ukrainians and the rest of the world wouldn’t have been shocked when the bombs began to fall. Many would have already fled.

That shock drove millions of Ukrainians who were generally indifferent about their government to embrace total resistance when they might otherwise have resigned themselves to the inevitable.

In short, Joe Biden played directly into Vladimir Putin’s hands.

Had Ukraine’s defenders not risked everything, too often armed not with the much hyped US Javelins but just Molotov cocktails and homemade drones, and actually freaking won, the map of Europe would look much different today.

But by grace of the gods competent leadership is still to be found in other parts of the world. And there are still people who have the guts to stand and fight when the bully comes, as one always will in this life, sooner or later.

Of course, Putin unleashed his mad assault on Ukraine for reasons even more pathetic and self-serving as those animating Biden’s chickenhawk valor-thieving fair weather support for Kyiv.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m no defender of Vladimir Putin.

I seek to understand him in hopes that can somehow help defeat him and all his kind, regardless of their country of origin.

And I know, as a hunter from a young age, that you have to know your prey to take it down. Lying to yourself about the difficulties involved is setting yourself up for failure.

In the medium term, Russia’s future is even grimmer than America’s. Russia is probably doomed to fragment into city-states ruled by nuclear-armed thugs before the decade is out.

Frankly, I look forward to the map of that part of the world getting some new divisions, just as I do North America. As a Pacific-focused person, I look forward to Russia’s Far East becoming its own vast country and joining the trans-Pacific society that is beginning to act as a counterweight to the Trans-Atlantic order.

But to secure Ukraine’s victory at the least human cost and ensure that Russia evolves into ten separate countries requires a completely honest appraisal of the conflict that has only just begun.

All the nonsense pushed by Western outlets like the Institute for the Study of War, American Enterprise Institute, and rest of the American thinktank universe about Russia’s imminent collapse is sadly so much bunk.

Their aim is to support the Biden Administration’s play in Ukraine, the effort to portray all aid America gives as sufficient because Russia is doomed, its military too inept and antiquated to stand for much longer.

That’s why their rhetoric hasn’t really changed since March, when after being wrong about how quickly Kyiv would fall — for the record, I always predicted encirclement at best, not conquest — they pivoted to predicting Putin’s imminent demise through disease, coup, or battlefield debacle.

Instead, Russia re-geared its forces and pressed on with a less intensive and longer lasting offensive that takes advantage of the inexorable approach of winter and all the economic weapons that hands Moscow.

Putin’s end will come, but only after the massive centralization of power in his hands caused by the US-led sanctions regime half the world is flat out ignoring upsets the balance of power inside Russia too much — or the war in Ukraine is clearly lost, whichever comes first.

The next six months will be just as crucial as the last because the situation is still live or die for Ukraine — and Vladimir Putin personally, too.

Putin’s very regime exists as a perpetual war on the Russian people. It feeds off their productivity, wielding it to achieve the regime’s aims.

First and foremost is always survival, which is why dictatorships and oligarchies tend to be so violent — concentrated power means everyone wants, even needs, to take control.

These leaders tend to create mazes of competing authority structures to protect themselves, turning would-be rivals against each other. The internal tensions paradoxically mean that no one wants to break ranks or dissent, for fear of winding up on the losing end of an internal fight.

The broader regime’s survival now depends on Putin winning his war — and by that, I mean seizing Donetsk province and holding a land bridge to Crimea.

Putin, however, has an incentive to keep the fighting going on for as long as he can, even expanding the war’s objectives or escalating further, because the moment the fighting stops he faces a reckoning.

Putin’s best play now is to drag out the war well into next year, and so long as Russia’s forces can make even incremental progress on any front through summer and autumn he can count on winter to undermine Europe’s paper-thin unity.

This, as much as the HIMARS and (probably) drone attacks on Russia’s logistics infrastructure, help explain the slowing pace of most Russian offensives after securing Luhansk in July.

Recent news reports have made much of Russia shifting somewhere around 20 battalion groups, around a fifth of its remaining forces in Ukraine, to the southern wing of the front, Kherson and Zaporizhizhia provinces, supposedly in response to Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive there.

However, these reports say nothing of the quality of the units being moved around. Russia has likely been building an operational reserve to the degree it can, a formation of rested troops who can be thrown in when the time is right, and moving higher quality formations at the same time less combat ready ones are shifting position can mask their destination.

The Russian Army could be nearing exhaustion, or at least parts of it, but more likely is that a substantial force has been committed to pushing into Donetsk. Russia may have even sent less battle ready units to reinforce the defense of Kherson, calculating that attacking in Donbas will draw off a portion of Ukraine’s forces and complicate the counteroffensive in the south.

Over the past few weeks Russian attacks have intensified all across the front, with special emphasis near the Russian-held city of Donetsk, along a portion of the line of contact where there has not yet been intense combat.

Immediately prior to the breakthroughs near Popasna and south of Lychansk that forced Ukraine to retreat from Luhansk two months ago, Russian forces followed pretty much the exact same pattern. HIMARS rocket strikes on big logistics depots has clearly forced a degree of decentralization on the system, but Russia is adapting to the difficulties this incurs and HIMARS hits have become markedly less spectacular as a result.

Focused pushes have started in recent days near Izium and Donetsk city, complementing the ones already underway across a broad front south of Bakhmut.

It looks suspiciously like an attempt to create a new cauldron around the northern half of Donetsk province, meaning that Ukrainian forces on the eastern side would receive less supply and support thanks to Russian threats to their flanks.

Situation in Donetsk region August 23, 2022, base image from Liveuamap. Red arrows show recent Russian progress, red hashed arrows show apparent assault directions over the past couple weeks and the likely direction of any breakthrough. The magenta line approximately denotes the Donetsk province boundary and minimum extent of Russian operational goals. Blue shows approximate Ukraine forces lines, and bastion around Sloviansk-Kramatorsk-Pokrovsk Ukraine will likely hold at all costs.

Russian officers clearly perceive that they were only able to make significant advances in Donbas when they could threaten to surround whole Ukrainian units. Ukraine waged a slow fighting retreat through Luhansk that gave up territory in exchange for preserving its forces while incurring a steady cost on advancing Russian units.

Whether they will be able to achieve this is remains open question — as is whether these pushes are feints intended to delay Ukraine’s push in Kherson. Russia’s forces have certainly been badly mauled and many line units are probably combat ineffective.

However, a concentration of twenty battalion groups backed by the weight of Russia’s artillery and air power could likely push 20–30km before being brought to a halt, creating a dangerous salient Ukraine would have to commit blood to eliminate.

And in other areas Russian units are making surprising moves that indicate more combat power in reserve than is ideal for the hopes of the optimists.

Just the other day a small-scale Russian attack outside Mykolaiv threw the Ukrainians back several kilometers from Kherson along a front line where Ukraine was supposed to be doing the attacking.

You can’t infer too much from one engagement, or from reports of individual units refusing to fight in Ukraine, as good as that is to hear.

But it is wise to assume that Russia has some nasty surprises brewing for Ukraine, even if the risk of a nuclear attack now appears thankfully low, for the present.

There is sadly no evidence the Russian army at large is set to collapse any time soon, clear recruiting issues aside, and there remains the possibility that Russia is getting better at feeding Western intelligence and media sources what they want to hear.

Russia is not going to suddenly turn around and march into Kyiv. But badly damaging Ukraine’s fighting forces and eliminating much of its counterattack potential remains a serious risk.

On Ukraine’s counterattack, although it has not yet gained much territory, Ukraine’s forces might not need or want to advance swiftly because of Russia’s artillery.

There’s a little more nuance to the idea of a counterattack than you might realize.

Like everything, it’s a matter of perspective.

Soldiers in a gunfight are constantly counterattacking. You get shot at, you shoot back — it’s a basic rule that helps keeps you alive, because the more bullets from your side are flying their way the fewer tend to come back, because everybody ducks, or dies.

And sometimes, the best form of attack is a faked retreat. The Mongols, Arabs during the Crusades, and later the twentieth-century Germans were experts at this, which modern day gamers also use, calling it aggro.

Simply, you poke your opponent, then run back to friendly ground in hopes they chase you into an ambush.

Attacking and defending are just different movements in the greater dance, the choice between postures one of timing when and how to apply energy.

However, at some point, Ukrainian forces will have to mount the kind of counterattack that gives them control of lost territory.

And unless and until they get proper heavy arms from abroad, like tanks capable of surviving hits without burning their crews alive and multirole combat jets, any seizure of territory will have to go slow.

Russia still has firepower superiority along most of the front line — artillery, rocket, and drone assistance given to Ukraine so far by the West has only sufficed to keep it in the fight.

The too-slow delivery of weapons has constantly been accompanied by excuses that these would either escalate the situation with Russia or Ukraine couldn’t work out how to use them.

But the animating force behind the reticence to give Ukraine what it needs to win isn’t complicated, and it has a name: Joe Biden.

Having claimed the mantle of leader in the fight to isolate Russia, he isn’t keen on admitting that his strategy has been desperately flawed from day one.

Biden needs to be seen as a foreign policy savant, against all available evidence including the judgement of his old boss Barack Obama, to secure his ridiculous claim to be the only Democrat who could possibly save America from scary old Trump.

He was deeply involved in the Ukraine crisis from the get-go. And despite that, even meeting Putin back in 2021, he completely failed to stop this war.

As I laid out above, Biden’s primary objective was to make sure the media didn’t accuse him of not seeing Ukraine’s collapse coming.

His other goal has been to impose as many costs on Putin and Russia as possible and try to unite the world against Moscow.

He achieved the first — and nearly gave Ukraine to Putin by sowing panic. On the second, all Biden did was fracture the world into three camps — anti-Russia, pro-Russia, and neutral.

For Biden, what needed to happen was Ukraine to mostly collapse and carry on a guerilla fight that would bleed Russia for the foreseeable future without risking a direct fight between Russia and NATO that could well go nuclear.

But the moment Kyiv failed to fall on schedule, his hands were tied.

Biden acted according to script, weirdly offering to evacuate Zelensky — despite promising not to send American troops, which that would have required—provoking the epic retort that he needed weapons, not a ride.

The clear tension between Zelensky and Biden is one of the best-kept secrets of the conflict.

Zelensky knows just how self-serving NATO’s unity always is. Finland and Sweden get to join and fall under the NATO nuclear umbrella, but Ukraine doesn’t even get more than a measly sixteen HIMARS systems?

Should make you wonder.

But Zelensky is as trapped as Putin and Biden at this point. He needs help to keep up the fight, and as unreliable as America is Europe is facing extreme challenges going forward.

Europe’s economy depends on cheap natural gas, and no clear alternative source to Russia exists that can come online in the amounts Europe needs before the coming winter.

Sadly, the fossil fuel economy remains the lifeblood of global prosperity and the highest quality sources of the stuff are generally under the control of dictatorships.

Virtually every political leader on the continent risks losing their job as public discontent rises during the cold, fraught winter to come. Putin didn’t fully leverage this weapon last winter, but he absolutely will this time around.

The horrible truth about the war in Ukraine is that all the leaders involved are trapped in a doom loop that seems set to draw the world into a massive geopolitical storm.

Ironically, the understandable reluctance on the part of American experts to get in a direct fight with Russia has made a direct and likely nuclear confrontation even more likely in the future.

Russia, like America, can only survive if it has a foreign enemy to focus on. But because the leaders in both countries present every confrontation as existential, there’s nothing preventing escalation.

When a violence spiral begins, breaking it requires immense force and a lot of luck to boot, and this sort of process is what let to the last two World Wars.

People forget just how long they lasted. How many days passed between major shifts in the front line — even in World War Two, where mechanized warfare created the potential for explosive changes until anti-tank weapons caught up.

The poor bloody infantry will adapt, if you force them to.

Ending the fighting in Ukraine as quickly as possible is in humanity’s best interest.

But to achieve this requires the kind of optimism-shunning realism that has fallen in disfavor among the high and mighty in this era blighted by postmodern delusions.

It is unjust, unwise, and frankly disgusting to ever expect Ukraine to give up and accede to Russia’s demands.

The atrocities in Bucha and Mariupol cannot go unanswered. Forgiveness is a Christian ideological concept with no place in international relations — there can only be justice, as defined by the one who was most badly harmed.

That’s the cruel paradox of it all — in this anarchic world, people have to believe that justice was done for it to be so.

All the formal written laws and codes in the cosmos can’t change that fact of human life.

Before the war, it would have been wise for Ukraine to give up Donbas in exchange for a lasting peace.

Of course, it is now clear that Putin’s regime is too far gone down the nationalist rabbit hole to ever give up Ukraine, so ultimately this would have achieved nothing.

Ukraine’s existence is an affront to their Russia. Neither can live while the other survives, not now.

What both Biden and Putin want now is for major fighting to stalemate with Russia in control of Donbas and Ukraine tacitly accepting it will take years to rebuild and prepare for the next round.

This will allow the war to continue indefinitely while minimizing the odds of a direct NATO-Russia confrontation in the near term.

Putin is in a position where he can constantly fan flames of a nuclear accident at Enerhodar, threaten a new assault on Kyiv, or just launch sporadic missile strikes, treating Ukraine like the US did in Iraq throughout the 1990s.

Ukraine will be forced to fight back, draining its economy, while many of its partners will feel satisfied at the price Russia paid for its gains and start leaning on Ukraine to back off.

This represents the worst case scenario for Ukraine short of a sudden cutoff of foreign support, which Russia might well be hoping to engineer through an “incident” at the Enerhodar nuclear power station.

Time is not on Ukraine’s side, nor Europe’s, for the next six months to a year.

European countries must recognize that Ukraine’s security truly is their own.

If America is going to dither, Europeans must step up to give Ukraine everything it needs to win this war in the next six months.

Forget NATO commitments — if America cares, it can backfill these with its own forces.

Europe’s future will be decided on the battlegrounds of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s defenders can get the job done — it has more than enough people willing to fight.

But it needs the right weapons, and enough of them, with the same speed it received smaller arms in February and March.

Europe’s survival absolutely depends on it.

Russia must be defeated. Only once Ukraine has regained everything Moscow took, when Putin is forced to take the blame for the nightmare he created, can there be any hope of peace.

Only when Russia’s leaders are forced to choose between the leaders of the current regime and a steep slope to nuclear war will the war in Ukraine come to an end.

The truth sucks. But deny it, and the world will impose a heavy price.

For once, let it fall on those who deserve to pay it: the monsters whose sick games threaten all our lives.