"Russian military experts on the current state of the war
by Gilbert Doctorow
gilbertdoctorow.com (July 25, 2023)

There is a lot of cheerleading for Russian military successes on the Western alternative news portals. There is also a fair amount of cheerleading coming from front line Russian war correspondents on Russian state television. But, as I have indicated in past essays, the more serious Russian news programs such as Sixty Minutes and Evening with Vladimir Solovyov also give the microphone to military experts from among Duma committee chairmen and others who actually bear responsibility and accountability for the war effort and are not just talking heads. These speakers are much more restrained in their remarks on the war’s progress and I use this opportunity to share with readers what I hear from such sources. I will be drawing in particular on what was said on the Solovyov show two days ago.

The most sober remark was that it is a mistake to gloat over reports that the Ukrainians have run out of reserves and that their soldiers at the front are now just old men and youths, who are demoralized and surrendering to Russians when they can. Saying that is to diminish our respect for the heroism of Russian soldiers who are facing, in fact, peer equals in the Ukrainian forces. This is a tough war.

Moreover, the Ukrainian reserves are not yet exhausted. Out of the approximately 60,000 elite troops that received training in NATO countries only 30 – 40% were killed or wounded in the battle for Bakhmut and subsequent Ukrainian counter-attack after 4 June. The Russians will not begin their own massive offensive to knock out the Ukrainian military until they are confident that most of the Ukrainian reserves have been depleted in the ongoing war of attrition.

Accordingly, what we are witnessing these days is localized attacks that have tactical, not strategic importance. Yes, the Ukrainians make advances here and there of a few meters at great cost in lost lives of the soldiers. Yes, the Russians make advances of three or four kilometers here or there, at significantly lower cost. The Russians are biding their time. This is not a stale-mate as Western media keep telling their audiences.

Now let us turn to another aspect of the conflict that has grabbed the news over the past week when ground skirmishes between the hostile forces moved to the back pages of our newspapers. I have in mind the spectacular Russian missile attacks on Ukrainian port infrastructure in Odessa, in Nikolaev and yesterday in a river port of the Danube estuary just across from the Romanian border. These attacks are described by official Russian military sources as “revenge attacks” for the damage inflicted on one of the roadways of the Crimean bridge by Ukrainian surface drones that exploded under bridge supports.

Of course, that is just Public Relations talk to satisfy the Russian public and overwhelm local outrage at the failure to defend what is, finally, vulnerable infrastructure. No, the reason for the Russian destruction of the Ukrainian port facilities day after day lies elsewhere. The missile strikes were not so much intended to inflict pain on the Ukrainians as to avert what could be naval battles on the Black Sea and a quantum jump in risks of total war. And, en passant, they demonstrated that the latest sea-launched Russian cruise missiles with 3,000 km range that fly just 15 meters above the sea at Mach 3 cannot be intercepted by present Ukrainian air defenses. Let us remember that when Vladimir Putin announced that the grain deal with Turkey and the United Nations would expire on 18 July, the RF Ministry of Defense announced that any vessels headed towards Ukrainian ports ostensibly to receive export grain would henceforth be considered as carriers of arms to Ukraine and were fair game for destruction by Russian forces.

Immediately after this Ukrainian President Zelensky went on air with his proposal to Turkey that the grain exports by sea continue without Russian participation. The safety of the vessels would be assured by Turkish and other NATO naval convoys. In the context of Erdogan’s latest turn to the U.S. and away from Russia, it appeared that Ankara was prepared to strike a deal with Zelensky. If that were done, then the chances of naval battles between Russian and NATO vessels in the Black Sea would have soared.

And so the Russians decided to destroy the Ukrainian port facilities active in the grain trade and so to preempt the dangers in view. Erdogan was compelled to draw back from any agreement with Zelensky on resumption of the grain corridor mission.

To be sure, export of grain by ship is the cheapest solution to bringing Ukrainian grain to world markets. But there are other means, namely by rail and truck, traveling north and west across Bulgaria or Romania or Poland. These logistics were used last autumn to move a lot of grain, but that grain tended to disappear into the nominal transit countries where it provoked outrage among the farming communities of these countries for underpricing their own grain crops. We may expect more of this political turmoil in Eastern Europe and protests against Ukraine in the coming months, and this also will serve the Russian objective of making Europe pay for its support of Kiev.

The U.S. State Department representatives have shrieked over the humanitarian disaster that the Russians were causing first by pulling out of the grain deal and then by destroying Ukraine’s export infrastructure in the Black Sea. Particular attention has been directed at the nations of Africa which purportedly represent a large proportion of the poor destination countries for Ukrainian grain.

It is interesting to note that notwithstanding vicious American propaganda against the Russian pull-out from the grain deal, the leaders of Africa have not gone for the bait. Today all 47 African leaders are assembling in Russia for highest level strategic talks and deal-making with their Russian counterparts. The Russians are offering free of cost grain to the poorest countries and contracts for grain supply to the others at normal commercial terms. The certainty of supply is assured by what the Russians say will be their biggest grain harvest ever during this season.

Though I denounce the U.S. State Department policies under Antony Blinken as a force for evil in the present world context, I do not mean to say that each and every player there is a villain. I am amused to see on Russian television images of the speeches to the United Nations about the grain corridor delivered by Rosemary Di Carlo, a former U.S. career diplomat who since 2018 has served in the UN as Under-Secretary General for Political and Peace-building Affairs.

Once upon a time, in 1998, I had conversations with Rosemary when she was in charge of cultural affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. We sat together at the head table of a gathering of American graduate students and professors on the academic exchange with Russia directed by a Cold War holdover NGO, IREX, for which I was briefly country manager back then. Rosemary talked about the theater season in Moscow and we discussed possibilities for assisting Russian museums and other cultural institutions to adapt to the post-Soviet realities of low government funding and finding private sponsors. She held a Ph.D. in Slavic literature. She was one of the relatively few career diplomats who actually understood and spoke Russian. Her heart was in the right place and I very much doubt that she is working to do the Russians a bad turn today.

Moral of the story above from start to finish: very often things are not what they seem.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2023