We Are in Unknown Territory — Russia Is Acting in Unprecedented Ways
All bets are off
On the diplomatic front Russia has adopted a posture that is most un-Russian. One thing Moscow always had in abundance was patience, especially for Putin’s “Western partners”. Never has it opened negotiations by declaring that the window for them to succeed was extremely brief. Never has it opened negotiations by making its opening demands public. And never has it openly and repeatedly threatened that if its far-reaching demands aren’t met almost immediately it would promptly take matters into its own hands.
Can we please take a moment and appreciate just how wildly uncharacteristic this is?
Russia is acting like a power that is annoyed it even has to sit through these talks. It gives off the air of a power that would much rather be at home implementing the threatened “military-technical means” than having to sit through another meeting with the Americans. It is using the talks as little more than a stage from which to make sure the globe knows of American vow-breaking and encroachment.
Perhaps this is all an elaborate new negotiating technique. Salesmen will tell you that appending a tight expiration date to an offer is an effective way of forcing a decision. Opening with an exhaustive list of demands that you know you’re not going to get is also not unheard of, but why the move of making them public? The public nature of Russia’s opening demands makes it that much more difficult for the US to accept them and for Moscow to climb down from them.
And where is the build-up to this? For example, the Russian demand that America withdraws from all NATO members that have been added since 1997 is perhaps eminently reasonable and just. However, why drop it like a bomb? Yes, Russia has been grumbling about American eastward advance since forever, but why did it take until 2021 for Russia’s position to crystalize as a return to 1997 and not an inch less? And why is the biggest publicly-expressed Russian worry that the Americans will try to bog them down in endless talks that go nowhere? How uncharacteristic of Moscow to complain that Americans are scheming to keep them at the green table. It wasn’t so long ago that making it so that Americans would have no choice but to engage Russia was a goal in of itself for Moscow. (A big reason for why it went into Syria.)
All of these questions perhaps have very good explanations. But the explanations do not change the observable reality that Russia has broken with its past way of doing things and is now acting in ways that for Moscow are totally unprecedented. Putin has gone from someone who Russian nationalists and half of Russophile internet commentators have been accusing of being a perennial pushover to someone dropping ultimatum bombs on his former “Western partners”.
And can we appreciate just how unprecedented the Empire’s reaction has been? America does sometimes hold security talks. These are talks in which the other side is invited to appease American security concerns by ridding itself of WMDs, uranium enrichment, or nuclear missiles in return for trade or just not to be invaded. They are *not* talks on the security fears of the other side.
America holding a summit to discuss how it may appease Russia’s security concerns is wholly unprecedented and hugely humiliating for what is supposed to be the unipolar superpower. The position of the Empire is that only the Empire can have security concerns. Everybody else is insignificant enough that their fears don’t warrant so much as a meeting. Until now.
After 30 years of lording it over the world, why is America humbling itself in this way? What do they know and what are they afraid of? What do the Russians have over them? Specifically, what do the Russians have over them that they didn’t have even a year ago?
Another state of affairs that is unprecedented is that Russia has 60 battalion tactical groups close enough to the Russian-Ukrainian border that they could deploy there in 2-3 days. 60 battalion tactical groups isn’t necessarily so big a number that it screams immediate danger. But it is a number that is wholly unprecedented. With the exception of March-April 2021 Russia has never assembled this much military potential in the theater. Before 2014 it barely had troops there and since 2014 the normal state of affairs would have been a force capable of generating no more than 30 BTGs. Actually, it is worse than that. The 30 extra BTGs aren’t manned. The equipment from far-away units has been assembled but the men are still behind. This means that some of the crack units of the Russian land army aren’t able to train and maintain their combat readiness.
If Belarus is included in the equation then the number of Russian BTGs in theater rises to at least 70. This Russian presence can be explained away as Russians arriving for the two waves of Russian-Belarusian drills planned to run from early next month to February 20. However, the two just wrapped up the biennial Zapad exercise in September. To hold a yet another huge war game so soon after Zapad is also unprecedented in of itself. Moreover, many of the Russian units now assembled in Belarus are from the Far Eastern Military District, including the naval infantry of the Pacific Fleet. If you wanted to transfer military assets 7,000 kilometers without raising too many eyebrows this would probably be the way to do it. Likewise, many of the 30 additional BTGs within reach of the Russian-Ukrainian border are from the Northern (Western Arctic) and Central (Siberia) Military Districts and normally wouldn’t be anywhere near Ukraine.
70 BTGs, with 30 of them unmanned isn’t cause for immediate alarm. But it is also anything but business as usual. So why is Russia doing this? Why has Russia taken this never-before-seen military posture? Is it to back up its diplomacy? I would be inclined to believe this if Russia hadn’t made it abundantly clear that its expectations for talks with the Americans to produce anything are equal to nill. Whatever the Russian deployment is for, it isn’t to aid diplomacy that Moscow has explained represents little more than the danger of falling for American stalling tactics.
Not only are we seeing a huge buildup of Russian forces near Ukraine, we're probably going to see the strongest Russian military presence in Europe since the early 1990s. 2 S-400 battalions, Su-35 squadron, possibly more than 10 BTGs from the Far East and an army from Siberia. https://t.co/PrjLopjV1o
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) January 22, 2022
I will say one thing, in 2022 in the era of satellites and smartphones it has never been more impossible to assemble a sizable military force in secrecy and fall upon a totally unsuspecting enemy. That is a thing of the past. So if total surprise is impossible, what is the next best thing? The next best thing is a successful maskirovka or masking effort. Luckily for the Russians stealth is only one aspect of maskirovka, and not the most important one. The idea is to confuse your enemy into failing to prepare despite what could be seen as ample warning. Your preparations are going to create certain signals for the opponent to pick up on so your job is to create a cacophony of numerous other signals to drown out the genuine ones. The objective is to fatigue the enemy, to shake his confidence, and to leave him ample room to interpret the situation in numerous ways. When you leave the enemy with evidence for numerous interpretations the chance of him guessing correctly diminishes, especially if you’ve managed to confirm some bias of his.
So maybe the 70 BTGs are nothing, or maybe the Russians are pretty competent at this maskirovka thing they have been perfecting for one hundred years. If you examine the otherwise bewildering Russian build-up through the prism of a maskirovka operation it fits to a tee. If you needed to assemble a large force but without triggering enemy preparations how would you go about it?
Would you have units shipped into theater for drills, then have them leave behind their equipment when the drills concluded and they returned into the interior? Would you be evacuating some units from the theater even as you were bringing many more in? Would you repeatedly have theater units leave their barracks for drills so you could make a show of their going back in? Might you transfer the equipment into theater only very slowly over several months, while still holding personnel back? Might you even stage a very overt buildup a year earlier that ultimately leads to nothing and creates the expectation that sometimes Russian buildups just happen for no real reason at all and disappear as mysteriously as they appeared? The Russians have done all of this. That doesn’t mean that they’re going to invade. But it does mean that someone is performing a maskirovka on us. Just as they would if they were going to invade.
Rather than think about what the Russians still haven’t done, think about what they have already accomplished. They have managed to assemble 70 percent of the assets they would need for the initial offensive without triggering any change in Kiev’s mobilization level. They have gone from 30 to 70 BTGs yet they’ve done it in such a way that leaves Ukraine struggling for answers but no closer to knowing if an answer is warranted or what it should be. Pretty darn impressive. Zelensky has been screaming lately that imminent panic is unwarranted because the current crisis has actually been ongoing since the spring of 2021. He is correct. The Russians put things in motion last March and the CIA didn’t catch on and sound the alarm until late November. Pretty darn impressive if you ask me.
Yes, much of the success of the Russian buildup in generating confusion and avoiding a reply has been down to just how incredibly stretched out it has been. It is fatiguing to observe Russian forces grow by the tiniest of drips while nothing ever really happens. It is the kind of thing that makes you question your sanity. Your mind tells you that a buildup like this could serve only a very limited number of purposes, but since nothing happens for so long you start to feel like nothing ever will. Everything feels normal and the feeling of normalcy starts to undermine and eat away at the logical conclusions that are staring you in the face. This is how CIA and Ukrainian military officers must feel right now. The Russians have been downright sadistic in their patience and deliberateness. Of course, mentally exhausting the enemy in this way — if you have the time in which to do it — is also maskirovka 101.
The Russians clearly aren’t launch-ready, but they also aren’t super far. If they bump up their in-theater BTGs to 80-100, ship in the personnel of the unmanned 30 BTGs, and constitute more stockpiles and rear services then it would be the time to sound imminent danger. The moment to watch may be when the Belarus drills conclude. If all those forces start their journey back to the Pacific then the danger is perhaps subsiding, but if a significant portion of them stays somewhere in the west then the danger is still growing.
A recent analysis from Ukraine concluded that imminent danger won’t become reality unless Russia assembles several hundred thousand troops on the border. This is wrong. It is wrong for two reasons. First of all, if Russia prepositions eg 300K troops on the border then Ukraine will obviously mobilize, and then where is the advantage for Russia in that? It would just make the opening battles that much bigger and costlier for both the Russian and the Ukrainian sides. (Russia has to minimize Russian but also Ukrainian losses.)
Even if eventually hundreds of thousands would be required Russia doesn’t need to initiate the offensive with so many. It is far more advantageous for Russia to launch with a smaller force and get initial battles and advances out of the way before Ukraine has had the chance to mobilize. (By the time it mobilizes much of its standing army may already be crushed.)
The second reason that a 300,000 minimum for an invasion is wrong is that the nature of warfare has changed. Drone, radar, laser, and GLONASS have transformed the accuracy of artillery to where it is now properly thought of as a smart, guided weapon. Indirect artillery fire has been transformed from a tool of suppression to a tool of annihilation. Kiev imagines fending off Russian massed tank charges with Javelins. But Russians don’t need to charge anyone. Upon encountering resistance they can just as easily disengage and do like the Americans and pick up a phone and order a guided-munitions strike — in their case the plentiful, capable, and now highly-accurate, Russian artillery. It isn’t about troop levels, it is about firepower on target. Warfare has become far more lethal. 80 reinforced Russian battalions represent a far greater quantity of accurate firepower than they would have in WWII or the 1960s. Concentrated, 80 BTGs is enough to severely maul the tiny Ukrainian standing army of not more than 150,000 first-rate troops enveloped from three sides and spread out over 1,500 kilometers.
When the CIA says one thing and Moscow says the opposite it is tempting to go with the Russians and leave it at that. They certainly have a better record than the Empire. But obviously, if they were building up for an offensive they wouldn’t tell us. That would be extremely shoddy maskirovka. The Russians have been less than forthright before. In 2014 it took them days to acknowledge that the insignia-less “polite men” were Russian troops. The imminent nature of the Russian foray into Syria in 2015 was broken by the Western press on the basis of satellite images, upon which various “Russia experts” fell over each other to explain this was Western propaganda. Days later when Moscow’s intervention commenced the same experts turned around to give us a hundred reasons why it was a righteous undertaking and a 5D masterstroke. What Putin has already told us though is that Russia’s back is now up against a wall:
“Do they really think we do not see these threats? Or do they think that we will just stand idly watching threats to Russia emerge? This is the problem: we simply have no room to retreat. That is the question.”
What do you do when you can’t take another step back, but even more new threats are emerging? Join a yoga class? Putin’s formulation is that there is a “tough response” coming that will be “military-technical” in nature. “Military-technical” implies a response short of a war. Of course, if Putin was considering one he would tell the whole world, right?
If we can’t trust the Russians can we trust the CIA? I’ve seen some approach this from the point of view that Americans have an interest in hurling outrageous accusations at Russia and thus can not be trusted. That is true, but do the Americans have an interest in following up the accusations with a series of hurried summits where the Russians thunder and the Americans squeak? That’s a little elaborate, wouldn’t you say? What has followed since the late-November panic has not been a good look for the Americans. They have gone from shopping for European navies that would sail into Russian waters around Crimea to having to publicly admit that they wouldn’t defend Kiev from Moscow with a single drop of American blood. American friendship and encouragement has again been exposed as a liability — sooner to get you into trouble than get you out of it. They then followed it up by launching unprecedented talks for the Global Hegemon to explore if Nigeria With Snow could be somehow appeased and prevailed upon not to take what the Unipolar Superpower can not deny it. It has been a miserable and pathetic two months for the US that have severely hurt its prestige. Since on the whole the US has not at all profited from the accusations I think that the publicly-stated CIA-White House fears of a potential Russian military offensive are genuine.
Perhaps they too have read Putin’s article on Ukraine? Four months after setting the current events into motion on March 2021, in July 2021 Putin published an 8,000-worder on Ukraine and made it mandatory reading for every last soldier in the Russian army. In it he clearly explains:
“The path of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.”
“All the subterfuges associated with the anti-Russia project are clear to us. And we will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia.”
In the essay, Putin states that if Russia’s historical territories and 40 million ex-Russians are pressed into the service of an “anti-Russia project” this equals a nuclear attack on Russia, and is something that will not be allowed, period. An anti-Russia having control of Russian cities like Kiev and Kharkov and willing to make itself a battering ram for the Americans will not be tolerated.
I don’t think it can be overstated just how offensive Kiev’s post-2014 turn toward celebrating Nazi collaborators is to Russians. Just how intensely revolting it is for them to see Soviet generals lose their streets so that Banderites can get theirs. How wrong it feels for them that the Banderite UPA flag should fly in Slavyansk or Kramatorsk. It is one thing if Latvians (or Lviv) celebrate the SS, but for that to be brought into Little Russia is a different matter entirely. Ukraine’s turn toward UPA worship makes it as if the Russians lost WW2. As if the Nazis broke through to Kharkov and never left. As if Barbarosa had never been overturned. As we speak Mariupol is under occupation by troops who sport SS runes. Here is a short origin of the UPA by Timothy Snyder, no lover of the Russians or Putin:
Ukrainians in the German auxiliary police in Volhynia collaborated in the Final Solution throughout November 1942. In March and April 1943, they provided the bulk of the recruits for the OUN-B’s new partisan army, the UPA. The OUN-B had directed its men to the police in 1941, as its task forces followed the Wehrmacht through Ukraine. … In 1943, the OUN-B was able to extract its men, and bring many of the police along with them. They had been taught how to kill. Former policemen brought not only their SS training and their weapons, but the irreplaceabl experience of co-ordinated murder of designated populations.”
A Russian offensive wouldn’t even be about missiles and NATO. Not exclusively. It wouldn’t just be about forming an East Slav bloc of 170-190 million that would be a harder nut to crack than Russia alone. It would be just as much about cleaning up historic Russian lands and cities of UPA pollution. Of refusing to allow a revision of how WW2 is told in Ukraine. It may sound crazy to be moved to war over such symbolic issues, but then there are others who would say that after food and shelter the symbolic stuff is the *only* thing worth fighting for. It is just that until July 2021 we didn’t know that Vladimir Putin may be one of them. Remember this is a religious issue for Russians. Russia’s real cult is not Orthodoxy, it’s WW2.
I know that the alarm of a Russian invasion has been sounded many times. But tell me how many times have you seen AE bite? The only other time AE even acknowledged the alarm bells was in Spring 2021. That is because that was the only other time that there was an actually elevated Russian military presence to go along with the alarm. At all other times, they were transparently self-serving Ukrainian accusations to try and get more weapons and to draw attention to themselves. This time it is different once again in the sense that there actually is beefed up Russian military capacity to go with the panic.
Do with that what you will.
Personally, I’ll be watching closely to see if the 70 number is going down or up. Moving down is good news, moving up is bad. If we get down to 40 or 30 then the war scare is over. If we get to 100 — buckle up.
For the record, the entire Russian military can generate 200 BTGs. 170 by the land army and another 30 by the airborne and naval infantry. A force of 200 BTGs would count 160,000 men plus rear services.