Aside from mores (see discussion here), one of the most common mistakes in analysis comes from thinking that the events taking place are a single jigsaw puzzle. That if we can just find all the pieces and get them in place, the picture will be complete and allow complete understanding of who, what, why, when, etc.
Real life, however, is never that neat. No matter how hard anyone, analyst or politician, tries to pound things flat into and into that ideal picture, the 3-D mess just keeps popping back up. For any given event, there are a large number of puzzles in play, and what makes life fun is trying to figure out not only what pieces you have (and don’t have), but to which puzzle they belong. Some actually belong to several puzzles at once. Fun!
In this case, the “main” jigsaw puzzle is the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Far too many are presenting it as a nice, simple, 2-d event. What’s worse, some of those so doing are setting policy, and 2-d policy rarely works in what truly is almost an ♾-1 environment. As for others, well, social media is full of them.
Within this puzzle reside quite a few others. In fact, the actual number of puzzles/dimensions is a bit staggering, so I’m going to try to simplify it without over-simplifying it.
In any respects, the prime intersecting puzzle is Vladimir Putin himself. Yet, his puzzle is made up of many more puzzles. His health is one, as I am more convinced than ever that he has mentally deteriorated. I don’t know if it is because he joined the Branch Covidian cult, or if that was just a symptom. It is clear, however, that he has slipped a few moorings and that those are most obvious in certain professional aspects. While it is pure speculation, a part of me suspects that he has came face-to-face with his mortality a few years ago, and it scared him. He is scared of death, and considers that being forced out and/or the system being changed is a form of death or will lead to death. His power is not nearly as secure as many seem to think. Pro tip: desperate people do stupid things.
His relationships with his fellow oligarchs is several other puzzles. Even allowing for a bit of flattening to reduce the number, this is one of the key elements in what is happening and what will happen. And before you start jumping to conclusions, you really do need to read this excellent article on how things work (or don’t work) in Russia. A friend posted the link on social media, and my hat is off to that friend and the author of the article. It gets how things work and explains it in a way even a politician can understand. No, they don’t do things like we do; they never have, and, they never will. The why’s have to do with history, the systems, and with culture.
To get back to the puzzles that are his relationships with his fellow oligarchs: it is complex as some like him, some hate him, some see him as inconvenient to their plans to move up and gain more power. All, however, are unlikely to want to upset the apple cart as doing so puts them all at risk, and a good bit of what is happening right now stems from the perceived risk of the current order being overturned. They see the potential for their world to end, and it terrifies them. Pro tip: desperate people do stupid things.
Now, there is the puzzle of his dream of a new Imperial Russia. For all that he seems convinced that the current Russian Army is the old Red Army, Vladimir is NOT a Soviet Communist. Exercise for the reader/student: look up who he does subscribe to. Short version, he — along with quite a number of influential and/or hardliners — believe that communism was an import to the Rodina that poisoned her. That because it came from outside it didn’t, wouldn’t, and couldn’t work there. Again, a bit of a simplification but the asinine idea that he wants to restore the Soviet Union seems to be everywhere. And, again, this puzzle is a major part of why he is frantic to have a new cordon sanitaire in place to keep Western (and other) ideals and practices away from the Rodina lest they poison her and lead to the system changing.
Then there is the puzzle of Putin and the military. Really, the military and intelligence functions, but lets go with the shorthand for now. As always, there are multiple puzzles here. First up, it seems fairly clear that he was not getting accurate reports on the state of the military, nor was he getting good intel on enemy preparations, operations, and general attitudes. I include the U.S. in that part, though the majority of this puzzle should concentrate on the Ukraine. Outside of that, it is clear that the response of most of the world caught Vladimir by surprise.
Tied into these puzzles are the quality and quantity of the briefings he has been given. As noted previously, the Red Army was noted for gundecking reports and it would appear the current Russian Army has continued the tradition. Keep in mind that the Russian Army is a conscript army, as that has huge implications. There is some word that while the KGB may be gone, zampolits and special troops/police to make the troops obey still exist. That said, they can’t be everywhere and the number of troops who have been captured or just surrendered is a sign of that as well.
A key puzzle in this mix is tactical and doctrine training. While the grunts have only a limited exposure to this, and keep in mind they do not have the strong NCO base that we do in our troops, their officers do. How realistic is that training? That may prove to be a major point, especially when it comes to nuclear doctrine. The Russians have continued with the Soviet thought that tactical weapons can be used, multiple times and locations, without retaliation. They view such use as justified, while any similar response is an escalation of the conflict.
While I mentioned intel above, the relationship between Vladimir and the FSB is another major puzzle. There are multiple reports that elements of the FSB have given warning, intel, and more to the Ukrainians. That is huge, and indicates that Putin’s control over the bureaucracy has slipped in a major way. It is going to add to his sense of desperation. Remember the pro tip.
There are more levels and puzzles, but you get the idea. There are several things bothering me in terms of missing pieces.
First missing piece that fits in several puzzles: endgame. If Vladimir’s entire goal was to take over the Ukraine, then his mental slippage is worse than I can imagine. It is clear he (and his advisors) misread the response to his actions. Vladimir of old would have had some fallbacks, even if he thought he could get away with it. And, yes, he did think that as he’s never been called out on Georgia, previous incursions into the Ukraine, shooting down the civilian airliner, or anything else. That said, he used to plan for things not to go perfectly, not depend on them doing so.
Was he maneuvered into this war? It is possible, and not just by some in the West. He’s not alone in the idea of a new Imperial Russia. I will note that Archbishop Vigano does raise some interesting points and — to my mind — questions.
Missing Piece Two: lack of video/other of combat. There is some, but there is a dearth of helmet cam and related, and not a lot from the South where there clearly is fighting underway. We see a lot of the aftermath, but not a lot of the events themselves. This video shows a small bit, but the context we are used to seeing from our own troops and others is missing.
Missing Piece Three: the nuclear chain. Yes, Vladimir has threatened to use nukes, and to even go strategic. He has apparently ordered nuclear-capable artillery into the fray. Yet, we are not (currently) getting reports of either movement of nuclear weapons or that Dead Hand has gone on alert, at least not beyond the televised order given to stand up a nuclear response. I hope neither pops up, but some of the dog-not-barking has me wondering if Vladimir may not be cut out of some of the nuclear loop. Part of me hopes he is, and yet the implications of that are terrifying. Also, do I trust our leadership here and elsewhere in NATO to warn us if there is movement of the nukes? No. In fact, I would place money on them lying about it, at least at first. Sadly, a safe bet.
There are some other missing pieces, but this is a post and not a book. Before anyone starts baying: no, I am not saying the war is a fake one. I am saying that there are elements we are not getting, and the why on that is important. I’m also not saying the Ukraine is going to win: Putin can grind them down simply with volume, though the cost of so doing will destroy the Russian Army and economy, and bring him and his buddies down. Keep in mind what people facing the end of their world might do, as it is unlikely to be a “smart” thing.
I am going to say that the rest of the world appears to owe the Ukraine a huge thank you. One thing they have done with their resistance is to destroy the myth of the mighty and invincible Red Army, er, Russian Army. What we have is a poorly trained army with nasty logistical issues. If you think some of the countries now openly defying Putin would have done so before this, I have a bridge you would be interested in purchasing for a sweet deal. This is also going to have an effect on China and its operations, or at least how things are viewed. You know Taiwan is making notes. How well they may apply is the question.
One more puzzle for you though. There appear to be two wars going on in the Ukraine. You have the north, which is getting almost all the press and attention. Then, you have the South, which is not getting the attention it should. I would also note that based on what I am seeing and hearing, the leadership of the Russians in the South seems to have it together, which is not the case in the North/East. Different terrain and other factors, but there is a huge difference. Pay attention.
Now, to the bad news from my reading of the tea leaves. Vladimir quite literally can’t pull back at this point. Not only are his troops in the North/East bogged down (literally in some cases), he has not achieved any of his major objectives. While Zelensky has offered to negotiate, and even make some major concessions, I don’t see it going anywhere. What Putin wants and needs is complete capitulation. He craves having a cordon sanitaire like a junkie needs a fix.
Vladimir can go for the long haul and simply grind the Ukrainian Army down. The problem is, as noted earlier, he can’t afford the economic costs and the political costs are going to be unacceptably high to him. He may, I hope, begin to have an idea of how the Ukrainian people are likely to respond to being occupied. One of the reasons for his attacks on civilians right now is to establish the brutality he will have to use to maintain control and order. If you read the linked article above, this brutality has a purpose that goes far beyond a mere madman being mad. He is seeking to break their spirit now, in hopes of a more peaceful (absence of all opposition) later.
So, what’s between the short victorious war that he never had a chance of and a long, drawn-out war of attrition? Soviet and Russian doctrine says (opens envelope, reads): nukes. If we get lucky, he will open up the thermobaric arsenal first; but, doctrine calls for tactical nukes with strategic being used to dissuade retaliation. Keep in mind, also, that he has already made clear that any action of any type to help the Ukraine is an act of war; that any sanctions or other activities against Russia is an act of war; that any action by any non-governmental group is an act of war; and, that pretty much breathing heavily is an act of war. In his mind, Vladimir is already at war with the U.S. and the West (and most of the rest of the world except China, for now). All is fair in war don’t you know.
The scary thing is, I think he believes he can get away with it all. That the current leadership of the U.S. lacks the will to respond to his use of nukes, or anything else. This grows out of his (extremely mistaken) belief that he could invade and both not be seriously opposed, but also that he would face no real sanctions or other retaliation from NATO or elsewhere. I think that when it comes to nukes, he is just as extremely mistaken but is too proud and too far gone to admit it.
So, you have a powerful man that is slipping, and sees his world literally and figuratively ending. You have his “buddies” who also see the potential for their worlds to end too, as reform and change come to Russia. You have others in the world who see their power and control slipping as well. I’ve noted before: I’ve never seen a time when pretty much every major world leader is weak and desperate. Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was premised on the least stable leader doing something stupid (for all it claimed that even someone so stupid wouldn’t do anything). What happens when no leader is secure and stable? We’re likely to find out here soon.
At my most optimistic, barring some unforeseen event(s) changing the situation, I think the odds are about 60/40 for one or more nukes to go off. In my more pessimistic moments, which are growing, I’m seeing about an 80 percent chance. Add in idiots who think Vladimir is bluffing about the use of nukes (he’s not, he’s following doctrine and is crazy enough to think it will work), and I actually may raise that a bit.
Vladimir sees the doctrine, and is depending on brutality to keep him in power as it has done so far. From jailing those who oppose him (in almost any way) and killing ex-pats via nerve agents, to threats of war and worse to get away with major military activities against neighbors, brutality is his way. If he uses nukes in the Ukraine, even with maskirova as doctrine demands, it will not work out for him. I think it will galvanize the Ukranians to the point they will bleed any occupier white. I think it will bring about retaliation from his neighbors, NATO, and more — which is where I am concerned that Dead Hand could come into play. If you are going out, he is of the mindset to take everyone with him.
Want all this to happen faster? Bring NATO or any member into the fight. The idiots here who are calling for any form of No Fly Zone want a war, and are just as stupid as Vladimir in believing that it will be a short victorious war. Or one that they can make bank on, and I think they are wrong on that too. Commander Salamander makes some very good points on that.
Right now, in my opinion, there are few good options. Even regime change in Russia via the Russians has its perils. Especially since the head of the military is a Putin loyalist. Something quick and clean might work, but anything else can lead to a civil war, or give someone desperate time to try to take everyone else with them. All we can do in many respects is hope and pray for the best. And make all due preparations for the worst. If you aren’t already into preparedness, well, it’s almost never too late.
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For something different, yet another reason to move to the SW other than being hit by lightning.