"Day Sixteen of the Russian-Ukrainian War - Changing Realities, Changing Mood"
by Gilbert Doctorow
gilbertdoctorow.com (March 11, 2022)
From before the war and in its early days, I have used the widely followed political talk show “Evening With Vladimir Solovyov” on Russian state television as a valuable indicator of the thinking processes of the country’s elites. Virtually the only significant contingent of opinion makers who do not appear on such shows are business leaders, who tend to operate only behind the scenes and not in public view.
In today’s essay, I direct attention to Solovyov’s show broadcast on 9 March. In the past, I would watch this program and other key state television programs like Vesti on youtube.com. However, since the early days of the ongoing war, youtube, a Google subsidiary, has thrown nearly all Russian state television channels off its servers. Happily, several months ago, a special Russian internet portal www.smotrim.ru opened its doors and in now carries the most popular programs for viewing by live streaming or as recorded video. The link to the Solovyov show in question is here:
As usual, this particular broadcast had a cast of panelists representing different walks of life, including area specialists from universities or think tanks, a retired general and the General Director of Mosfilm studios, cinematographer Karen Shakhnazarov, who appears on almost every show hosted by Solovyov together with about half of the other panelists.
The mood of the show on 9 March was very different from the exuberance I reported in shows before the start of the war, when the long awaited reckoning with the enemy across the Atlantic was almost eagerly anticipated. This evening the show was sober, grave. The host, Vladimir Solovyov, cracked very few jokes during his opening remarks and they fell flat. Though he normally is fairly generous in the time he allots to Shakhnazarov to ramble across the waterfront of recent news, this time it was all the more striking because of what the Mosfilm Director was saying. And we must keep in mind that of all the panelists Shakhnazarov is surely the closest to Russia’s “chattering classes” and “creative professionals” thanks to his position in the movie industry.
In a nutshell, Shakhnazarov was critical of the way the war is being conducted and very nervous over its possibly going on much longer than anyone wants, leading to destabilization of Russia’s political structure. The Ukrainians had proven more resistant than was anticipated, and apart from Kherson in the south major cities all were proving difficult to capture and hold. Consequently, the Russian armed forces had changed tactics, were now inflicting devastating damage on selected cities and refugee flows numbering in the millions were passing the frontiers to Poland, Hungary and elsewhere.
In Shakhnazarov’s view, the result of watching scenes of damage to civilian quarters in Ukrainian cities and scenes of refugees en marche were awakening the long inculcated antiwar sentiments of various strata of the Russian population and setting the stage for civil disorder if the war is not wound down in the coming two weeks or so and instead goes on for months. It was this factor of refusal to inflict on Ukrainians the same misery their militias and army had inflicted on Donbas which is the greatest threat domestically in Russia. By contrast, the damage to the Russian economy from Western sanctions and relative isolation from the West are manageable and less consequential for the average Russian, per Shakhnazarov.
Other panelists may not have agreed with his assessment but were not quick to criticize.
In the past several years a key element in Western accusations against Russia within the envelope of “hybrid warfare” was the potential for devastating cyber attacks We were told periodically about Russian cyber attacks that shut down internet web sites of government offices in Estonia or in other EU countries, not to mention the massive cyber attack on U.S. government and corporate computer systems within the past year for which Russia was blamed.
However, an outstanding feature of the Russian operation in Ukraine is the apparent absence of any cyber attacks whatsoever on the part of the Russians. On the other hand, what I see is a lot of cyber attacks on Russian websites of all kinds. Whether they are coming from Ukraine, where computer geeks are very experienced in such measures or coming from other locations under instructions from the U.S. or EU governments cannot be determined from public sources at present.
My own experience indicates that the attackers are persistent up to a point, then move on. For two days straight earlier this week I was unable to access the Sberbank Online site. Access denial is a typical hack situation when hundreds of thousands of sign-on attempts overwhelm the given servers. On the third day of my attempts, the hackers must have been taking a smoking break. And so I successfully entered Sberbank Online to pay some bills. As regards www.smotrim.ru as well: now you see it, now you don’t. The website exists but for long periods of time may be inaccessible.
Meanwhile, the Russians have not used their capability of knocking out communications within Ukraine or have done so only accidentally when repeater towers for mobile networks are destroyed during fighting. Thus, two nights ago, I watched on an evening BBC News program devoted to the war an interview with a spokeswoman for the Kiev authorities living in Kharkiv. She gave a ten minute interview from her well-appointed upper middle class apartment in downtown Kharkiv, a city which in general, as we know from news reports, is being deconstructed brick by brick from intensive Russian shelling to force a surrender on the municipal authorities. The lady in question was well coiffed, her dress was elegant and her demeanor was calm even if her message was shrill in denouncing the Russian aggressors. The entire setting was surreal given the reported Russian onslaught, but this seems not to have occurred to the BBC presenter and presumably was not detected by the British and overseas audience.
Changing Russian war objectives and changing Russian military strategy and tactics.
I see maximum flexibility and responsiveness of the Russian forces to realities on the ground which from the beginning frustrated their conduct of the war. The Russian military command had wrong assumptions about the possibility of separating the professional Ukrainian army from the Nazi and other radical nationalists like the Azov battalion which were some time ago incorporated into the regular armed forces. There were wrong assumptions not only about the level of resistance, but also about the level of training and military hardware available to the enemy. Blitzkrieg very quickly disappeared from the realizable outcomes. Surrounding the Ukrainian armies and creating ‘cauldrons’ in which the Russians would, figuratively speaking, turn up the heat till the enemy raises the white flag – this has gone slowly, too slowly to be sustainable in light of changing public attitudes towards the war within Russia.
In the meantime, Vladimir Putin has added to the Russian ultimatum addressed to Ukrainian leadership: now it is not merely denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine, as well as exclusion of all possibilities of joining NATO that the Russians demand, but also direct recognition of the loss of Crimea and of the now independent republics of the Donbas. It also would appear from the remarks made in Antalya yesterday by Dmitro Kuleba, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs following his meeting and talks with Sergei Lavrov, that simple adoption of “neutral” status within a convention to be monitored by unspecified Powers is not enough to satisfy the Kremlin.
I see this build-up of demands as having one logic only: to prepare for a settlement with Ukraine that looks like a compromise in which both sides give up some of their demands to reach an agreement. Surely some of what Putin has added to Russian demands will enable him to jettison other demands that were put up at the start of the conflict, in particular, denazification. As Shakhnadzarov remarked on the Solovyov program, this is simply unrealizable, because you would have to have not 150,000 Russian soldiers on the ground but ten times as many to go through this vast country and make arrests.
Nominally the entire Russian ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine was about protecting the Donbas from a Ukrainian onslaught. Back in November, Russia raised its military forces at the Ukrainian border to over 150,000 in order to precisely counter a similar number of Ukrainian troops and irregulars which had been reached as the culmination of several years’ efforts. Now we are told and shown in Ukrainian documents presented publicly by the Russians, that the Ukrainian forces had indeed planned to unleash an all-out assault on the Donbas on 8 or 9 March which, if successful, would move on to recapture Crimea as well.
In light of this war priority of Moscow from the onset, it is paradoxical that the daily artillery strikes and other attacks on the Donbas republics today is as bad or worse than at any time in the past. Every day a large part of Russian television programming is devoted to the suffering of the villages of Donetsk and Lugansk republics under attack. We are shown houses destroyed earlier in the day by bombardments, and the now homeless owners, generally pensioners, are interviewed at length. In effect, the Russians are showing on their screens a mirror image of the scenes of destruction and human misery coming from the Ukrainian cities under Russian assault. And it may well be that the level of suffering in Donbas has been a determinant in the transition of the Russian military policy these past few days from ‘softly, softly’ to aggressive destruction.
Of course, none of the scenes of misery in the Donbas today are reported or shown in Western media, just as they were never shown during the past 8 years of the simmering civil war. And so the Russians’ new aggressiveness in pressing the war is left utterly unexplained other than by reference to the supposed maliciousness of the invader. Nor do you read or hear in Western media about the peculiar “resistance” that the Russian armed forces have encountered: namely the way that the Ukrainian army as well as its irregular battalions chase civilians from residential apartment buildings and infrastructure buildings then install artillery and fire on the Russians from these new supposedly protected and off limits surroundings. This is how the Russians have explained their dramatic bombing of a hospital for children and laying-in facility: it had been emptied of its civilians and was being used as a military center by the Ukrainian forces. They went on to say that the televised videos of women in labor who were supposedly injured in the bombing were fakes. At present neither accusations from the Ukrainians nor counter-accusations from the Russians are verifiable, but in the coming weeks the truth may come out. In the meantime, the Russians have undeniably received a bloody nose in the PR realm.
Why are the Donbas residents suffering more bombardments? The answer is plain to see. As I noted several times in my ‘war coverage,’ the Russians let the Donbas republics fight for their own statehood, providing only some logistical support. On their own, these local forces have succeeded in recovering territory from their pre-2014 boundaries by taking day by day one village after another. This has occurred chiefly in the north, in Lugansk, where success has been greatest but where resistance has been least severe. The Donetsk forces have been stalled in their movement south at Mariupol to join up with Russian troops arriving from the Crimea. Meanwhile, at the line of demarcation in the West, the military hardware and manpower at the disposal of the Donetsk armed forces is inferior to the very large and well equipped Ukrainian forces on the other side of the border, which have the most up to date equipment supplied by the USA and other NATO member states.
It is appropriate to mention that today in his televised meeting with his military advisers Vladimir Putin ordered them to provide Russia’s most recent armaments to the Donetsk and Lugansk fighters to level the playing field. Also worthy of note, today Vladimir Putin agreed to requests of these same advisers to allow foreign fighter volunteers to join the Russian forces in Ukraine, in a mirror image response to the increasing presence of European and American soldiers of fortune who in their thousands have joined the ranks of the Ukrainian forces in recent weeks. To draw an analogy, we are witnessing formations of foreign combatants similar to what occurred in the Spanish Civil War.
The question of Western sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions merits a word of comment at this point. Both U.S. and European economic sanctions have come close to the absolute limit of possibilities with very few additional options being held back, and they, such as total exclusion from SWIFT, are nearly impossible to implement because the blowback to the West would far exceed any incremental pain they might inflict on Russia.
Against this background, the Russian response has so far been very restrained. Yesterday, President Putin signed a decree placing a great many product categories under export ban till the end of the year. However, when you look at the list it becomes clear that the measure is to protect the Russian economy from domestic or foreign speculators rather than to impose pain on the United States and the Collective West. Now that the Russian ruble has fallen to record lows, representing a loss of value in the past several weeks of 40%, Russian movable assets can be scooped up and sold abroad instantly for the respective differential as profit. That is the sense of a ban on export of medical equipment or motor vehicles and so much else.
Russia has not yet used its own “nuclear option” with regard to hydrocarbon exports, although in the past couple of days Deputy Prime Minister Novak, who has for the past decade been the leading Russian government official in the oil and gas sector, said pointedly that the country is considering halting operation of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
Nord Stream 1? The reasoning here is clear. Germany’s Chancellor Scholz has turned out to be one of the most determined advocates of sanctions on Russia, though so far sparing oil and gas from the list of sanctions imposable on Russia due to his country’s utter dependence on Russia at this moment. Nord Stream 1, like the ill-fated Nord Stream 2 which Scholz suspended, or shall we say, cancelled, is Russia’s direct supply to its single biggest customer in Europe, Germany. If the long serving pipeline is closed down by the Russians, while the Yamal and Ukrainian pipelines remain open, Germany will have to beg Austria and other countries receiving Russian gas via these routes to Central Europe to divert gas supplies to Germany. That will spell humiliation for the Chancellor and his cabinet of Russia-haters, as well as a steep rise in the country’s expenditures on energy.
Another vector of possible Russian attack on the Collective West is in nationalization or expropriation of the assets of companies that have left the Russian market. The estimated value of factories, retail installations and the like approach 150 billion dollars. That is to say, Russian nationalization could yield to the Kremlin value approximating the financial reserves of the Bank of Russia in Western banks that have now been frozen. So far the legislation enabling such confiscation is under preparation in the State Duma.
What are the medium and long term consequences of the war that we may prognosticate at this stage?
Firstly, Russian-European relations will not be the same for a generation to come, if ever. The sheer hatred of things Russian that European authorities have not merely watched indifferently but actively encouraged cannot dissipate in a matter of weeks. That will take years to run its course. See the several years that it took for the United States to put behind it the paroxysms of hatred for France and things French following the French refusal to go along with the planned U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, a refusal that denied to the USA cover of United Nations authorization. “Freedom fries” in place of French fries did eventually leave the lexicon, but it took time. In the case of Russia today, the irrational hatred that is being encouraged by the European Institutions and by the cowed leaders of European Member States will leave a long residue of rejection of Russia.
This extends to culture, or rather to the “anti-culture” movement spreading across Europe, whereby lectures on Dostoevsky are cancelled then reinstated in an Italian city, where Tchaikowsky is withdrawn from concert performances and similar idiocy has become rampant in supposed towers of culture in the West. It is simply incredible how easy it is for cave-man instincts to prevail and drive away all tolerance in mature societies of the West however much they pay mouth honor to ‘universal values.’
I say this not merely as an abstraction but as something we in our family experienced firsthand in Brussels, Belgium. For reasons of security, I cannot go into the details here but will only say that the offense was directed at our eleven year old grandson because he has a Russian first name even if his family name is as Flemish as they come.
Other casualties of the war would appear to be “rule of law,” “presumption of innocence” and due process. The lead in this degradation of supposed “European values,” the standard to which the European Union holds the entire world to account, is to be found in Britain. The freezing of assets on the Russian oligarch, Abramovich, owner of the Chelsea football club, yesterday is a case in point. The supposed justification is his alleged closeness to Vladimir Putin, on the basis of which he is said to have amassed his fortune. However, Abramovich was never close to the Kremlin. He was close to Boris Berezovsky, the Kremlin’s great enemy until he was murdered by British intelligence. Abramovich had for years been the fair-haired boy carrying the suitcases of Berezovsky before he found his own path to fortune in that milieu of crooks and moved out from under his protector.
Moreover, the arbitrary confiscation of private property that Britain’s prime minister is now implementing extends incredibly not merely to spouses of the oligarchs under attack but to their children, even to children born to their lovers out of wedlock. No further comment on this return to barbarism is required.
I assume that the oligarchs have teams of lawyers and will vigorously defend their rights. With the passage of time, they may even unfreeze their improperly seized assets. But in the meantime, rule of law has gone to hell in Britain and further afield on the Continent.
Since it takes two to tango, the widespread disappointment of ordinary Russians to the undignified, shabby and “racially” motivated treatment they now receive in Western Europe as students, as musicians or ballet performers will leave an indelible residue of disgust. A Russian pivot to Asia, Latin America and Africa is inescapable.
Thirdly, NATO expansion in the former Soviet Union is finished, though expansion into Scandinavia is almost a certainty. Despite all the rhetoric of journalists and politicians across the Continent, anything approximating a Russian victory over Ukraine will amount to a serious diminution of NATO’s status as it exposes the animal fear of NATO’s leaders to risk a war with Russia, which is what the alliance is supposed to be all about. To cover these traces, it is probable that NATO will induct as members the two Scandinavian countries that have been on the sidelines till now. But in terms of NATO power, that will mean little or no increment, because under long existing Memorandums of Understanding both Finland and Sweden already are obliged to open their territory and make available facilities and manpower whenever NATO asks. As for the Russians, having these two NATO states on their border cannot be compared to Ukraine: neither is belligerent or rabidly nationalistic in the way that Ukraine has been post-2014.
European consolidation has been given a big boost, but what that means is still undetermined. In defense, it is a certainty that the European Union will now seek to strengthen its own capability to defend itself without an American umbrella. In this connection the recent decision of Germany to raise its military budget by 100 billion Euros and reach the NATO target of 2% of GDP has been seen as a boost to NATO, but that is very questionable. More likely the new resources will boost European common defense aspirations and independence from U.S. dominated NATO. There is a great deal to do not merely to line up multinational battle units but to rebuild the European defense industry which has been gutted by decades of forced acquisition of U.S. manufactured hardware.
These are just a few of the most easily identifiable consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian War, which is ushering in a new political configuration on the Old Continent for better or worse.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022