Yves Smith on Ukraine’s unfolding defeat

14 Aug

See my previous post today, Down to the last Ukrainian. After writing it, and while doing a mountain of steel city ironing, I listened to Michael Hudson being interviewed on why the USA is a failed state. After that the rain had cleared so I performed Herculean tasks in the steel city garden shed before checking the Naked Capitalism site.

Wherein I found a piece today by Yves Smith. Due to its excellence I’m replicating it in full. And due both to its length and relatively complex formatting, I’m dispensing with my customary practice of using red text for third party extracts. What follows, other than her own choices of quote, is all Yves. That includes the footnotes, with the sole exception of the first. That’s me.


The West and the War in Ukraine: Selling and Buying Hopium

The kinetic war in Ukraine has gotten less attention over the summer than in past periods due to the much-previewed-and-hyped counteroffensive in the southern oblast of Zaporzhizhia being worse than a bust. Yet we’ll give some examples below of how the Western press, to a large degree, is applying unimaginable amounts of porcine maquillage to Ukraine’s deteriorating situation. At best, this is a desperate effort to keep the war going in the hope that somehow, someway, luck or divine intervention will shift the tide in the West’s favor. But the damage to Ukraine is catastrophic, and the cost to the European economy from sanctions blowback, to arms stocks in the US 1 and NATO member states, and of the fiscal commitment distorting national priorities (guns over butter in societies already showing social decay and fracture) is not shabby either.

From time to time we’ve repeated the advice we first heard from the investment bankers at Lazard to their CEO clients, of the dangers of believing their own PR. Here we see this psychopathy as a mass phenomenon as too many individuals in or near positions of authority keep repeating things that are bunk and genuinely seem to believe them. And that is occurring even as more and more Administration-friendly outlets are signaling the counteroffensive is going badly.

Another sign of problems are the complaints from the US and NATO officials that Ukraine deviated from its orders training of “combined arms warfare” (gotta love those talismanic phrases) to small unit infantry attacks after its initial attempts fared badly against heavy Russian mining. It does not take a great deal of insight to recognize that this is pre-positioning the scapegoating of Ukraine. However, it goes unsaid that “combined arms warfare” US-style presupposes air supremacy, something Ukraine has never enjoyed in the conflict areas.

An optimistic view of the inconsistent messaging is a sign of divisions in policy-making circles, and specifically, of the realists (reported particularly to be military officials who know the West can’t win a land war against Russia) starting to get the upper hand.

But this apparent increase in “realism” still has a lot of fuzzy thinking. For instance, overwhelmingly, the op-eds that discuss peace talks or some other endgames, exhibit another pathology we’ve described: that the West is talking to itself about what Russia will accept as if that were true. Exhibit 1 is the frozen conflict idea, that Russia will agree to what amounts to a standstill. The wee problem with that is that Anthony Blinken stated in a Washington Post interview last fall, that the US would keep arming Ukraine after the war and planned to retake any territory Ukraine ceded to stop fighting now.

From the Washington Post:

The Biden administration, convinced that Vladimir Putin has failed in his attempt to erase Ukraine, has begun planning for an eventual postwar military balance that will help Kyiv deter any repetition of Russia’s brutal invasion.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined his strategy for the Ukrainian endgame and postwar deterrence…

Russia’s colossal failure to achieve its military goals, Blinken believes, should now spur the United States and its allies to begin thinking about the shape of postwar Ukraine — and how to create a just and durable peace that upholds Ukraine’s territorial integrity and allows it to deter and, if necessary, defend against any future aggression. In other words, Russia should not be able to rest, regroup and reattack.

Blinken’s deterrence framework is somewhat different from last year’s discussions with Kyiv about security guarantees similar to NATO’s Article 5. Rather than such a formal treaty pledge, some U.S. officials increasingly believe the key is to give Ukraine the tools it needs to defend itself. Security will be ensured by potent weapons systems — especially armor and air defense — along with a strong, noncorrupt economy and membership in the European Union.

The Pentagon’s current stress on providing Kyiv with weapons and training for maneuver warfare reflects this long-term goal of deterrence. “The importance of maneuver weapons isn’t just to give Ukraine strength now to regain territory but as a deterrent against future Russian attacks,” explained a State Department official familiar with Blinken’s thinking. “Maneuver is the future.”

In other words, Blinken saw the war as ending without any deal. The West would then pump Ukraine full of weapons again to rinse and repeat and somehow expect a better outcome.

Ukraine neutrality was and is a key Russian demand. And Russia has the big conundrum that after the Minsk Accords were revealed as a big France/German/Ukraine con, that Russia can’t trust any NATO/Ukraine pledge. 2

Recall that Mark Milley had had the temerity to suggest that Ukraine consider peace talks after the much-bruited-about counteroffensive of course resulted in Ukraine territorial gains so it could then negotiate with Russia from a strong position. That was what precipitated the rejoinder-via-the-Washington Post from Blinken.

That optimistic belief appears to have been the basis for the recent Jeddah “peace plan talks” which did not include Russia. It appears a prime aim was to dent Global South tacit and explicit support for Russia after Russia was presumed to look weaker after the grand counteroffensive. Despite Ukraine trying to claim the summit was a success, other reports say participants questioned how anything could be accomplished with no Russian participation and did not back Ukraine’s maximalist peace terms.

So what we see are that two ideas of how the war would end, formulated before Russian mobilized forces were trained and deployed and started to show their stuff, appear to be on auto-pilot. Blinken and Biden both are still banging on about how Putin has already lost the war. There’s no sign of a meaningful change in position as the US/NATO plans are doing a big faceplant.

To state what should now seem obvious, the problem here is the dogged refusal to recognize facts on the ground, like no way, no how is Ukraine getting back Crimea or more than trivial amounts of territory Russia has taken, is that this is setting the stage, not for a Korea-style outcome, but the collapse of the Ukraine military and potentially much of what is left of Ukraine as a nation.3

It resulted in huge losses of men without Ukraine even getting to, far less penetrating, Russia’s first of three fortified lines. Douglas Macgregor, who has good contacts, puts the deaths (not wounded, deaths) from this operation that started in early June at approaching 40,000. There’s informal corroboration via graveyards all over Ukraine being reported as out of space, overflowing hospitals near the combat area, and blood shortages. Oh, and more evidence of manpower strains come via Zelensky announcing another mobilization 4 and making a show of stopping bribery to evade service….when anyone who had the dough to do so has almost assuredly already done so.

As the Ukraine counteroffensive in the South has failed, Ukraine has also been contesting Bakhmut 5 at high cost and not much to show for it. In the last few weeks, Russia been pushing in a measured manner into Kharkiv. The Hill has just declared this campaign to be an offensive, but the level of manpower and materiel deployed is well below what Russia could commit if it chose to. 6

Russia may simply have intended to apply enough pressure to create yet another meat grinder snd force Ukraine to commit more forces, either by redeploying from the south or by drawing upon its reserves. Alexander Mercouris has said (IIRC two days ago) that Ukraine was sending its last remaining reserves to this front. He also speculated (yesterday) that Russia may be taking its sweet time about re-taking Kupiansk, a city it had abandoned when it pulled out of Kharkiv last year, so as to better attrit Ukraine. Regardless, if Russia retakes the territory in Kharkiv that it ceded last year, this would be a big psychological blow to Ukraine and its supporters.

With that long-winded intro, let’s look at a sampling of news reports. This screenshot is from the front page of the Wall Street Journal on Sunday:

Now admittedly, the third headline clearly signposts shortcomings of Ukraine operations.7 But let’s look at the first. Its opening paragraphs:

Ukraine’s current campaign to retake territory occupied by Russian forces could still have many months to run. But military strategists and policy makers across the West are already starting to think about next year’s spring offensive.

The shift reflects a deepening appreciation that, barring a major breakthrough, Ukraine’s fight to eject Russia’s invasion forces is likely to take a long time.

When Kyiv’s counteroffensive began in spring, optimists hoped Ukrainian troops could replicate their success last year in routing Russian forces. But an initial attempt to use newly supplied Western tanks and armored vehicles to punch through fortified Russian lines stalled.

Since then, progress has been slow and painful, relying on small-unit tactics. A renewed push could still be in the offing. But military leaders and policy makers already are grappling with the question of what can be achieved in the next few months and how to prepare for a protracted conflict.

A nagging concern in Kyiv and Western capitals is that politicians and voters may come to see the war as a quagmire and sour on supporting Ukraine. Even if Kyiv’s Western backers stay resolute, clocks are ticking as Ukrainian forces burn through munitions, manpower and stamina for a grueling fight.

All military campaigns end at some point—even in wars that grind on for years—at what tacticians call a culmination, or the point when advancing forces can go no further due to success, impediments or lack of supplies.

Kyiv’s goal now is for its current offensive to culminate with sufficient gains to show Ukrainian citizens and backers in Washington, Berlin and elsewhere that their support hasn’t been misplaced—and should continue.

There is so much misdirection by omission that it is hard to know where to begin. For starters, there’s no indication of how badly the offensive has underperformed expectations. It was supposed to puncture Russian fortified lines in three weeks. Now well into the third month, it has not even gotten up to them.

On top of that, Ukraine does not have months left for this push. Mud season is expected to start in mid-late September. And if there is another warm winter, the ground will not harden enough for a winter campaign.

And we have the bogus claim that Ukraine defeated Russian forces, when Russia made tactical withdrawals before it had beefed up its forces via its partial mobilization, preserving men and materiel. So not only did Russia not suffer a battlefield defeat, but the Russian army now is not the Russian army as of then.

Now arguably Ukraine could regroup and refit during a fall-winter slowdown. But the fights can continue readily in urban areas….like Kupiansk in Kharkiv. Russia can also keep up missile strikes. So there is no great reason to think Ukraine will emerge next spring in better shape than it is now, even with more mobilization efforts apace. Recall Ukraine, out of desperation, has thrown these new troops into the front lines with barely any training, almost assuring their combat life will be very short.

Due to this post getting lengthy, I will spare readers more from this article or the companion Wall Street Journal articles, although I encourage readers to carry on about them in comments.

In a bit of synchonicity, reader Userfriendly sent along an even more disconnected piece: The Ukraine War might really break up the Russian Federation from The Hill. To give you a flavor:

It’s time to start taking the potential disintegration of Russia seriously.

A number of analysts see the shattering of the Russian Federation as a possible aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s catastrophic war in Ukraine.

Although the world would be better off with a much weakened Russia, its fall may not go smoothly…

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Tatiana Stanovaya occupies a middle ground, while leaning toward Ignatius. She writes that, on the one hand, “the Kremlin will be wrestling simultaneously with…a deepening crisis of Putin’s leadership, a growing lack of political accountability, increasingly ineffective responses by the authorities to new challenges, an intensifying fragmentation among elites, and a society that is growing more antiestablishment.”

Huh? Putin’s approval rating remains around 80%. People in Russia like Mark Sleboda and Gilbert Doctorow, and visitors like Alex Christaforu, report that stores are full, life in proceeds very much like normal despite the war, and economic activity is accelerating. And despite Western mythology (and Putin’s high competence, particularly as a bureaucrat), Russia has bench depth in its leadership, so it’s not as if the state depends on Putin. 8

And Putin is far and away the least bellicose member at the top of Russia. The idea that Putin gone would mean a less fierce Russia is lunacy.

As Userfriendly remarked,

I just do not understand how the entire US press core can be so utterly oblivious to the facts on the ground, and so confident of how right they are. Seriously, when dawn breaks I am genuinely worried what they will do. It wouldn’t be the first time we got led into a war purely based on the obstinate ignorance of the stenographer class.

Again, there are way too many possible paths for the future of this conflict. If I were Russia, I would be thinking hard about a big offensive in the spring or summer of next year, both due to Ukraine’s likely decay path and to discomfit Biden. But the latter also risks reckless action by the US. So perhaps Russian just keeps grinding, albeit at a harder pace, and waits for Ukraine to start visibly falling apart before it acts.


Hi, steel city scribe here again. Though I reproduced Yves’ piece in full, you might consider visiting her Naked Capitalism site. For one thing, mindful of my rising data usage, I’ve axed graphics I saw as non essential. More importantly, the average standard of below the line discussion at NC is unusually high for so widely read a blog. This piece is no exception.

* * *

  1. The depletion of arms stocks in the US may be embarrassing and revelatory. But as my earlier post points out – see also Scott Ritter’s reply to the first question put to him after his interview with George Galloway a few days ago – the prime concern of America’s military industrial complex is not to provide effective weapons but to deliver the highest returns to shareholders.
  2. That may be why Zelensky was so quick to agree to Ukraine not joining NATO in the failed March 2022 negotiations in Istanbul. He anticipated Ukraine would not have to live up to it. Recall that the revelation that Ukraine was just playing Russia did not come till June 2022, and even then from Petro Poroshenko, who could be depicted as an unreliable reporter. But in December, his account was soon confirmed by the two key European leaders who were party to the deal: Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande.
  3. That is not to say that a Western defeat was baked in, but it most certainly is on that trajectory and there is no evidence of any plan to change course. Russia has increased its production of artillery, missiles and drones over the course of this war. The West kinda sorta plans to, through existing manufacturers and programs. Not only was Russia ahead in arm production capability when the war started but if anything it appears to have widened the output gap. Russia is also ahead of the West in missiles, air defense, and signal jamming. Russia reorganized its military, it seems successfully, for large-scale war and incorporating new in combat, such as the Penicillin counter-battery system and the Lancet and Geran drone. There is some controversy over the Geran drone. Russia appears to have been making it from kits from Iran since there are certain modules, particulars the analogue to GPS, that would have to come from Russia. It now seems to be making largely or entirely domestically. one assumes under license.

    The Lancet was first presented at a military show in 2019, which I take to mean it was neither produced in large scale or yet integrated into training or logistics. It was used in Syria in 2020 in what Wikipedia describes as a test and in some attacks in April 2021. And even then, Syria is an insurgent war and so the limited experience there would need to be translated to the Ukraine operation.

  4. Ukraine defenders argue that this is not a total mobilization. Zelensky already has authority for a “general” mobilization via a decree signed February 24, 2022, so he does not appear to need to do anything formally to intensify recruitment. However, it is pretty clear that Zelensky is scraping the bottom of the barrel, manpower-wise.
  5. It should be called by its Russia name of Artyomovsk since the Russians captured it in early May, but we’ll stick with Bakhmut for reader convenience.
  6. Admittedly it is not clear how large the Russian commitment to this effort is. From Asia Times today:

    Information about Russian operations, particularly in the Kupyansk direction, is hard to find. The Russians are not calling their operations an offensive, although unconfirmed reports say that Russia has mustered 100,000 or more troops for their operation in this area, and have moved in a lot of heavy equipment.

  7. Cynics will note this is just another pitch to extend the war: Ukraine would be winning if it had more and better Western weapons.
  8. Admittedly succession could be messy but the point is that there are not big dissenting factions at the top.

7 Replies to “Yves Smith on Ukraine’s unfolding defeat

  1. This piece, also on NC, provides further contextual analysis in regards a previous question posed on this blog of the poor decision making of Western elites:


    ” The government is like any other moral maze. If you want to succeed, you modify yourself to be someone who instinctively plays the political game of success, seeks power and forms an implicit coalition with others who seek power. You implicitly reward power seekers and those with power, and punish those without power and who do not seek power, without thinking about it. If you didn’t, the others in the game would notice you thinking about it, or worse notice you failing to act on it, and punish you accordingly.

    You instinctively know that you must continuously demonstrate your commitment to power seeking, and to rewarding your allies and being with the program, or else you won’t be a reliable person who can be trusted to do what is required. You must avoid motive ambiguity, and make it clear that you are not going to sacrifice considerations of power to improve physical world outcomes or otherwise do the ‘right thing,’ or to assert the true answer to a question simply because it is true….

    ….The key point, in my mind, is that members of the in-group must at all costs signal their loyalty to power-seeking, and it is more important for them to signal adherence to their West Wing instincts than to do something useful or say something true. As Aurelien said, “[t]hese people recognise each other by their declaratory vocabulary and performative acts.”

    Doing something useful or saying something true can actually harm your career if it makes the other power-seekers suspect you of disloyalty to power-seeking…..

    …..Anthropologically, ritual adherence to belief systems that strained credulity might have been helpful for strengthening internal cohesion in relatively unified tribes of people. I don’t think it can be considered a positive development when a fractured society like ours reaches a stage where the elites are forming subgroups, and the subgroups demand such an extreme level of internal loyalty that they need to distinguish their cliques by how divorced from reality they are. ”

    This seems to be not that far away from this 2006 Observer piece:


    “If only the facts matter, it shouldn’t matter where they come from. That undercuts the traditional justification for hierarchy: that the boss knows best. Facts force the boss to choose between being ‘in control’ and being right. Many choose the former.

    All this sets up a bizarre corporate amnesia – a kind of conspiracy not to learn in which organisations find new ways of repeating mistakes in an endless loop. They are suckers for half-truths – more dangerous than total nonsense because they are not entirely wrong, except when treated as whole truths, in which case they become total bollocks.”

    A process anyone who has worked on the coalface of any Western organisation or institution over the past half century will have experienced and witnessed on a daily basis.

    It seems reasonable to surmise this tentative explanation/description concerns the operation of power dynamics, at least in regards to the West.

    However, this still leaves us with an unresolved question.

    In the wider context of Micheal Hudson’s observations and analysis – which goes all the way back to the Roman and Greek periods – it still does not tackle the matter as to why it is the Chinese and perhaps to a lesser extent (?) the Russians do not face the same problems. Hudson observes that in China at least Capital serves the State/Common Good – mirroring his analysis in “The Collapse of Antiquity” noting the differences even two and half thousand years ago between the Eastern and Western approaches.

    Point being that so far I’ve yet to see an systemic analysis which identifies as to why this is so.

  2. Further news on the unfolding defeat, extracted from a longer article:

    “First, those air raid sirens across the whole of Ukraine were related to the systematic Russian bombardment of all still functional Ukrainian airports from which their air force’s SU-24 and SU-27 can operate.

    Second, we are told that the Russians have just used Kinzhal hypersonic missiles to destroy the railway tunnels passing under the Carpathians which have been the main supply route of Western military hardware arriving from Poland and Romania.

    By Russian calculations, they have now nullified the latest Western plans to prolong the war.”


  3. I read your posts Phil and very much appreciate them. I cannot always follow the depth of your analysis but they are a vital antidote to the stuff coming our of mainstream press. As someone without the intellectual maps of international politics that you and others here have I would simply say it was blindingly obvious from the very beginning even to me that Ukraine was being used by the US in a nasty continuation of a covert war with Russia. How on earth anyone imagined Ukraine could win a war with its mighty neighbour is beyond me. I feel for the ordinary folk who just want to live their lives, laugh with neighbours, have dinner with friends, see their children growing up happy and healthy, their animals content so they can enjoy the goodness of their lives free from the machinations of delusional wealthy war mongering politcians. It’s always the poor ordinary folk who suffer, whether it’s Ukrainian chlldren terrified by bombs, Russian mothers grieving their dead sons, farmers unable to work their land, NATO and the US financing this war when people have to turn to food banks else starve, poor immigrants are stuffed into floating prisons, if they’re lucky and didn’t drown trying to escape some of the legacies of our colonial past, and all the while the world burns and about 20 species a day become extinct. Thanks Phil. Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *