This report circulated widely this morning:
Two persons close to the Russia-Ukraine negotiations (including back channel talks) tell me Russia proposed (1) Zelensky remains pro forma president but Russia appoints Boiko as PM, (2) Ukraine recognizes L/DNR and Crimea, (3) No NATO. Ze told them emphatically no.
— Christo Grozev (@christogrozev) March 7, 2022
A few hours later, a spokesman for the Kremlin made Russia’s demands public:
The Kremlin has announced its demands for ending the war in Ukraine:
-Ukraine must change its constitution to guarantee it won't join any "blocs", i.e. NATO + EU.
-Must recognise Crimea as part of Russia.
-Must recognise the eastern separatist regions as independent.
— Patrick Reevell (@Reevellp) March 7, 2022
The condition about Zelensky in Grozev’s report was either untrue or has been quietly dropped by Russia. For good reason: There’s no way Ukrainians would agree to disempower their hero by making him a figurehead president, knowing that he’d be marked for death by the Kremlin so that the new Russian-backed prime minister could succeed him.
Step back for a moment, though, and compare Russia’s demands today to what Putin said on February 24 when he declared war. Quote:
“People’s republics of Donbass approached Russia with a request for help. In connection therewith, <…> I made the decision to hold a special military operation. Its goal is to protect the people that are subjected to abuse, genocide from the Kiev regime for eight years, and to this end we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine and put to justice those that committed numerous bloody crimes against peaceful people, including Russian nationals,” Putin said in the television address.
That was understood to mean that Russia would seek to topple Ukraine’s government, kill or imprison Zelensky and his deputies, and smash the country’s military, all part of a plan to convince Ukrainians that resistance to reabsorption by Russia was futile.
Where are the demands about denazification and demilitarization in today’s new list of Russian conditions? Has Putin given up on them?
Last Thursday, Russian’s foreign minister claimed that the effort to demilitarize Ukraine would continue even after peace agreements are signed. But that seems to imagine a scenario in which Russia has successfully subdued Ukraine and now has the run of the place, confiscating Ukrainians’ weapons and eliminating any officers who might help lead an insurgency.
What if Russia can’t subdue Ukraine, though, and has begun to come to grips with that reality? What if “demilitarization” has been dropped because the Kremlin realizes they simply don’t have the muscle to do it?
Consider these surreal clips that circulated on social media this weekend:
In an apparent attempt to help fix their broken logistics, the Russians are pushing up all manner of civilian vehicles to the front in Ukraine.🇺🇦
This is footage of a transport train around Rostov-on-Don.👇pic.twitter.com/PLV1ojG9Vf
— Jimmy (@JimmySecUK) March 5, 2022
Lmaooo here comes Russias week 3 reinforcements pic.twitter.com/H4XY7TJyxS
— Lost Weapons (@LostWeapons) March 6, 2022
Ukraine has fought a smart war, targeting Russian supply lines in the knowledge that an army can’t advance if it can’t eat or gas up. Take out the trucks that are bringing fuel to Russian tanks and mechanized infantry and you’ve essentially taken out the tanks and infantry themselves. The huge stalled convoy outside of Kiev has become a symbol of Russia’s logistical misadventure, bogged down in mud and short on supplies with no means to proceed without rescue.
The clips above suggest that, less than two weeks into the war, Russia may already be so desperate for vehicles to move supplies around inside Ukraine that they’re resorting to conscripting civilian vehicles for the task. That’s a testament to Ukraine’s ability to neutralize Russian military trucks. But it may also be evidence that the Russian army is to some degree a Potemkin village, with possibly even Putin unaware of how much military spending has gone into the pockets of officials as graft instead of towards its intended purposes, modernizing the force:
Video released by Russia of SU-34s taxing and departing prior to attacks in Ukraine. Notice the full load out of OFAB 250-270 dumb bombs on what is one of the Russian Air Force's most advanced aircraft.
— Oliver Alexander (@OAlexanderDK) March 6, 2022
How much money was stolen from Russia’s military modernization campaign? This is as embarrassing as it is fascinating https://t.co/ZJTSgfhwr3
— Blake Allen (@Blake_Allen13) March 7, 2022
The curious lack of precision-guided missiles means Russian planes have to fly lower to improve their chances of hitting their targets, which exposes them to anti-aircraft fire. Where are those missiles? Were they ever purchased? An interesting fact that I didn’t know until this morning: Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense secretary and top general, has never been a professional soldier. He’s a Putin crony, as is virtually everyone who holds a position of power in modern Russia. Shoigu’s task over the past decade has been to professionalize Russia’s military. What we’re seeing instead in Ukraine is shambolic.
What happened? Where did the money go?
Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies in the UK, posted a thread this weekend that’s worth your time. Marveling at Russia’s resort to civilian vehicles in Ukraine, he proclaimed, “We might be about to witness a logistic collapse.”
There is indications that basic rations have not been kept up to scratch, with soldiers given food seven years out of date, and at the same time running out of food already and having to loot from Ukrainian civilian supplies. https://t.co/WPvDpeHsTY
— Phillips P. OBrien (@PhillipsPOBrien) March 5, 2022
And if Ukrainian claims are anywhere near the truth, they are destroying some of the most important–fuel trucks. As of today, the Ukrainians have claimed to destroy 60 Russian fuel carriers–which would be a significant blow. https://t.co/uenF21rCcL.
— Phillips P. OBrien (@PhillipsPOBrien) March 5, 2022
Whatever the nominal strength of Russia’s fighting force in Ukraine may be, notes O’Brien, it’s significantly diminished on the ground if its troops can’t move. And bringing in civilian vehicles to replace military ones is a highly imperfect solution: They can’t handle off-road terrain like military vehicles can and the many different makes and models being used means spare parts may be hard to find.
Russia’s logistical debacle may also explain why they’ve begun shelling Ukrainian cities. It’s not just a matter of Putin demonstrating ruthlessness and the military practicing the “Russian way of war,” which has always relied heavily on artillery. It may also be due to the fact that … the infantry just can’t move. They might not be able to wage urban warfare at the moment because they can’t get around. So they’ve resorted to shelling to keep up the pressure on Ukraine and obscure their own tactical weakness.
Meanwhile, the brutal western assault on Russia’s economy is eroding Putin’s ability to pay for the war. A document purporting to have been written by an FSB officer about the state of the war circulated this weekend. Grozev claims that he showed it to two known FSB contacts and they believe it’s authentic. The author’s assessment is that the clock is ticking: “We have a conditional deadline of June. Conditional – because in June we have no economy left, nothing remains. By and large, next week there will be a turning point in one of the sides, simply because the situation cannot be in such an overstrain.” Lawrence Freedman estimates that the expense and logistical headaches of the war mean the true deadline is much sooner than June:
There have been a variety of estimates about how long the Russian army can keep this up, especially if Kyiv and Kharkiv continue to resist. Without a major resupply effort it has been put at no more than 3 weeks. The Russians have not planned for a long war nor made provisions to sustain it over time…
The pre-war assumptions of a modernised and efficient Russian army that would soon overwhelm the outgunned Ukrainians have now been jettisoned but it remains difficult to accept the contrary assumption that this is a war that the Russians might lose. This is where the state of mind of those involved becomes important. Were it not for the fact that Russia still has the means to make life miserable for ordinary Ukrainians and use its firepower to push those unable to flee down into bunkers, one would say that it is facing defeat. Its army displays the pathology of one in disarray – at least away from the south, its logistics are literally being shot to pieces, command systems are degraded, and its troops demoralised and surrendering. We must keep emphasising that war is an uncertain business. The Ukrainians have yet to show how well they can cope with a major setback on the ground. But if they can manage more counter-attacks and start pushing Russian forces back and not just hold them off then we might have to revise the view that Ukraine’s best hope is to defend for as long as possible to give economic sanctions the chance to bite.
Could Ukraine actually “win”?
Does the rising likelihood of that possibility explain why Russia’s demands have evolved from obliteration of the Ukrainian state to some sort of face-saving territorial concession plus a pledge not to join NATO, which was never going to happen near-term anyway?
The dilemma for Zelensky is how much face he should agree to let Putin save when the momentum is with his own side. He wants to end the killing as soon as possible, since all the world understands that Putin is willing to do worse. But to reward Russia for its aggression — and logistical fiasco — by carving out parts of Ukrainian territory to soothe the tsar’s wounded pride seems unthinkable, particularly if Freedman is right about Russia’s military disintegrating in the field. Maybe the Ukrainians should try to hold out for two more weeks and then see what Russia’s willing to offer.
I’ll leave you with this. Go figure that Putin’s few remaining friends don’t want to throw in with the mighty Russian war machine.
Belarus general resigning and saying the assault units that he was supposed to prepare have refused https://t.co/549J9kIWQa
— Lost Weapons (@LostWeapons) March 6, 2022