In This Episode
It’s been one year since Russia invaded Ukraine. In that time, the United States had an election and the Republicans now calling the shots in the House are the same ones who want us to cut aid drastically if not abandon Ukraine altogether. Between the debt ceiling fight, and regular budget negotiations, Republicans could reduce aid spending by a lot, or they could create a protracted crisis where aid to Ukraine remains in limbo for several weeks or longer. What happens if we cut aid to Ukraine, or worse, while the two countries remain mired in bloody warfare? What might we hope to see happen between now and then on the ground in Ukraine to lower the stakes of a possibly steep reduction in U.S. aid? Could Ukraine conceivably win before that happens? The answer requires knowing the answers to complicated questions about military tactics and logistics. Senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute Rob Lee joins host Brian Beutler to cut through the jargon, and explain what we can reasonably expect to see happen in the coming crucial months before the U.S. posture towards Ukraine changes.
Brian Beutler: Everyone, welcome to Positively Dreadful. With me your host, Brian Beutler. A quick spoiler. We’re going to mark the coming anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on this week’s episode. But we’ve actually been talking about doing this exact episode on this topic since about the fall of last year. We kept almost recording it in January before finally deciding to wait until now. So what was so special about the fall in January? Well, in the fall, we were anticipating a high likelihood that Republicans would capture control of the House of Representatives, maybe the Senate as well. And in looking ahead to the many ways that would change U.S. policy and political discourse, we realized that it would represent a meaningful breach in the U.S. government’s otherwise unified support for Ukraine. A small one, maybe, but a real one. And I don’t really think we were alone in that assessment. I think it was a big part of the reason Congress was able to pass a real appropriations bill to fund the government last year. You may have heard it called the omnibus or the $1.7 trillion spending bill. That bill passed with a filibuster proof bipartisan majority in the Senate in defiance of public pleading from then House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to hold off and to let the incoming House Republican majority take a whack at the bill. But the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, is for now at least highly supportive of U.S. aid to Ukraine. And McConnell knew that punting the omnibus into January or February would mean giving McCarthy and the Republican Party’s pro-Russia faction, which currently holds a lot of sway in the House GOP conference, an early crack at the Ukraine aid budget. So McConnell went over McCarthy’s head. And instead of chipping away at U.S. support for Ukraine, Congress actually locked in tens of billions of dollars for weapons, troop supplies and financial support for the Ukrainian government. Then in January, after putting him through a days long humiliation ritual, Republicans elected McCarthy speaker in a way that made it clear that the people calling shots in the House now are also the ones calling for the U.S. to, if not abandon Ukraine, at least cut aid to Ukraine drastically. And so that’s why McCarthy himself keeps repeating these talking points about taking Ukraine aid dollars and spending them on, for instance, militarizing the southern border. It’s also why he’s threatened to default on U.S. debt unless President Biden and Democrats cough up some as yet unspecified concessions. So that’s all the politics and we realize that even if this coming year’s budget fight goes much, much more smoothly than we anticipate, aid to Ukraine will be on the table. And that doesn’t mean House Republicans will succeed in zeroing it out. They could only do that over the strong opposition of Biden and McConnell and Chuck Schumer and all the House Democrats. But Republicans could reduce that spending by a lot, or they could create a protracted crisis where add Ukraine remains in limbo for several weeks or longer. To say nothing of the unpredictable consequences that would ensue if we were to default on the national debt. And so the question I’ve had since last fall is what happens then? Or more specifically, what might we hope to see happen between now and then on the ground in Ukraine to sort of lower the stakes of a possibly steep reduction in U.S. aid? Could Ukraine conceivably win the war before we reach the end of our budget cycle or at least gain the upper hand securely enough to set the terms of a potential armistice? So now we transition into military questions. And here I have to admit, I’m super unequipped to answer them. Before Russia invaded last year. If you’d asked, I probably have been able to name something like three Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, which I probably would have pronounced Kiev. I followed news out of Ukraine pretty closely over the past year and learned the geography a bit better. But these are really questions of military strategy and logistics, which A, I have no grounding in of any kind, B, are usually written and spoken about in a kind of expert vernacular that can become pretty hard to follow. And C, it’s just a question not everyone agrees on. So we needed a guest who had that specific kind of expertise and a good track record of analysis throughout the war and the ability to cut through the jargon. And the person who came to mind first is Rob Lee. I happened upon Rob early in the war because the defense and foreign affairs reporters, I trust, seemed to trust him and they valued his input. And also through a Twitter list I follow of analysts and reporters who are careful and good at seeing through the fog of war, at least as well as they can. Rob is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute with special expertise in Russian defense policy. And he’ll hopefully be able to help us get a better handle, A, on the status quo and B, on what we can reasonably expect to see happen in the coming crucial months before the US posture towards Ukraine changes. So, Rob, I’m really happy to have you on the show.
Rob Lee: Thanks for having me.
Brian Beutler: And so apologies in advance for all the remedial questions I have. But my sense is that the drop off in knowledge from true experts down to news professionals and then even further down to down to laypeople is pretty steep on this topic. So there are probably a lot of people who can benefit from getting a sort of back to basics.
Rob Lee: Sure. I will emphasize one thing, though.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Rob Lee: And I think it’s important to note that, you know, in wars, there’s a lot of information we don’t know. And, you know, my my, my sources are all open source, so I don’t have any classified sources. So there’s a lot we do know [?] this war. There’s a lot of kind of open source information. There’s a lot we still don’t know. And that also kind of affects about, you know, what kind of conclusions you you jump to, how strong predictions can be. And so I still may give, you know, either low confidence predictions or kind of say, I don’t know is an answer just because in many cases that’s the truth. And even for people, that kind of follow closely, I think it’s important to kind of convey the amount of uncertainty there is, which I think is still, you know, an issue.
Brian Beutler: No, that’s such an important point and like, there’s A, there should be betting markets in wars if there are, and if there were, I wouldn’t want to have a conversation about what the percent chances are of a certain outcome, because, I mean, what does that even mean, right? Like, who could even say but. But, you know, in following your output over the last year, I feel like your sense of how things are going based on open sources has matched what has then happened sort of better than, you know, your average expert on, on Russian defense policy or Russian defense capabilities. And so, you know, you’re just looking for like realistic, plausible senses of the near to medium term because of this question about the budget, which is itself, I think, a highly uncertain one. So let’s start with like the biggest, most speculative question and we can dial it back to more proximate ones where you can probably weigh in with a bit more confidence so that given existing levels of support and arms that will become available in the near future, not just from the U.S., obviously can, in theory, Ukraine win this war this year either by driving Russia out or getting it to to agree to withdraw on some terms that we would all agree weren’t the ones Russians were expecting to to end the war on.
Rob Lee: Yeah, it’s it’s hard to kind of put figures on this, it is certainly possible that Ukraine can take back its territory this year. I don’t think that’s the most likely scenario. I think you know, I looked at a, I wrote an article in December with Michael Kofman and we kind of looked at Ukraine’s two recent offensives, one in Kharkiv and Kherson and kind of compared and contrast two of them. And when, I think when you look in detail in Kharkiv, it really is a case where Russia’s very weak and really kind of weak. It is quite vulnerable in that area, it didn’t have enough forces. The forces that were there were not very well trained or composed. Kherson, had much better forces, more lean units. And basically we saw in Kharkiv, Ukraine achieved a lot of success. Very spectacular, quick advance. And then Kherson is was a much slower advance. So they did have a breakthrough after a month. They also took back the entire right bank of of of her Kherson by by mid-November. But it was a much more costly fight. And basically you look at the two and you try compare to what they’re facing now. You know Kherson, I think is is a better comparison because now the force ratios Russia has and the defending the areas that it is defending now is much higher than it was in Kharkiv. And they’ve also came to a realization they had to build a fence, they started building greater defenses, thinking through kind of offensive plans all these kinds of things. We saw this huge amount of trenches being built all across, kind of occupy Ukraine. And so the issue is that, you know, basically what our conclusion was that if you look at Kharkiv and Kherson it looks as though Kherson is a better example of what Ukraine is going to face going forward. And, you know, the prospects are more difficult because ultimately this is something, you know, kind of warfare lesson, we we’re relearning is that if you’re attacking side, you attack a, you know, well-entrenched opponent, it’s defending in depths. It has enough artillery and other kind of advantages. You know, it’s very difficult. It’s quite difficult to overcome those things. It’s not impossible. Right. And, you know, we have to try and forecast, you know, what kind of decisions are made, others things that add a lot of variables. It’s certainly possible Russia makes some, you know, significant mistakes in in the coming months that could set up, you know, the Ukraine advancing more. But, you know, when you look just kind of at those factors the things we can kind of we try to analyze of resources, you know, it will be difficult and we more difficult than Kharkiv. I think Kharkiv is not the best example of what Ukraine is gonna face. It is not clear a lot of the new equipment that’s going to be arriving. You know, some of the tanks will be arriving, I think, next month or so, but not all of them. I’m not sure when [indistinct] are going to get there, even if they’re going to get there you know, the fighting season for this year. The ground launched diameter, small diameter bombs. You know that kind of thing that would be about twice the range of of HIMARS kind of munition. I don’t know when those are arriving either. So there’s a few of those things. I’m not sure if they’re going to be available kind of during the fighting season this year. And so I’m not sure we can kind of integrate that into analysis or not. So a lot of kind of still a lot of uncertainty and of course, there is uncertainty on the Russian side. Right. So they’re tapping the foreign support too. We know Ukraine is very dependent on foreign support at this point. But for Russia, you know, they’re getting artillery ammunition from North Korea, apparently. And right now, you know, one thing that that I wrote with Michael Kofman is that potentially the biggest single kind of variable that could determine how the war goes in 2023 is artillery, ammunition availability. Right. Which side has more, the attacking side typically is, uses more artillery ammunition than the defending side. So we might have a situation where neither side has enough artillery ammunition to advance that much but they can both defend. That might make it more likely that we see, you know, less significant movement in the front lines. But of course, the, you know Russia’s receiving drones from Iran. There is talk they might receive missiles, too, that could change the complexion of the war as well. So a variety of things that kind of you know, basically the issue comes down to it depends. So. I wouldn’t I wouldn’t say it is. You know, it’s not possible. And of course, Russia’s force now is is largely composed of involuntary soldiers. Right. Mobilized guys or, you know, volunteers who signed up in the, over the summer, on a three month contract who then got told, well, your contract’s not ending until the war ends. So that affects things as well. But, you know, again, if I don’t think a collapse of Russian lines is the most likely event right now, even though we’ve heard tons of anecdotes of of problems of mobilization and all these other kind of things. So, again, anyway, we’re, we’re trying to throw all these things together, all these variables together hard to kind of come to an ultimate conclusion. But again, I would not dismiss the chance that Ukraine makes significant advances this year. It’s certainly possible the final weeks pull a point in Russia’s lines. And they can you know, they’ve shown they can exploit that. They’ve shown they can do combined arms warfare. And, you know, I don’t at this point, I wouldn’t ever, you know, dismiss the chance that Russia will make a terrible strategic decision, worse, terrible strategic decisions that set up themselves for more failure. Putin has done that repeatedly in this war. But, you know, I don’t think that’s the most likely scenario.
Brian Beutler: I gather what you’re saying is that it’s a hard call to make. [laughter]
Rob Lee: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: But but but to actually, you know, sort of put it in rudimentary terms. So Kharkiv and Kherson are are strategically significant cities on the long front line that stretches down eastern Ukraine to sort of southeastern Ukraine. And your assessment of how fighting in those places went informs your view that while you know it’s possible we’ll reach the later months of 2023 and Ukraine will be at or near the point of victory. You don’t think it’s the likeliest scenario? And that’s complicated by lots of uncertainty around when, for instance, M1 Abr— The Abrams tanks will be available and various other artillery, how much artillery they’re going to have. Is that a good way to sort of condense it?
Rob Lee: Yeah, and Kharkiv and Kherson, they’re both cities and regions, because [?] of the regions and Kherson they put [?] city and the region. In Kharkiv the city was always in Ukraine hands, but it took back almost the entire region during that kind of the first week in September. One of the potentially most important moments of the war was the Russian withdrawal from the right bank of of Kherson. So they crossed the Dnieper river. And before that, you know, this happened in November and Russia kind of declared this publicly. And the offensive there began end of August by Ukraine. The first month they didn’t really achieve much. October, they had a breakthrough and then it kind of, extended, kept pushing. So it’s a big question because Dnieper is a big river. And once they made their advances, once HIMARS arrives, the few bridges across the river were within range of HIMARS. So the munitions that HIMARS have, the ones we provided are not mass munitions. You know, they can’t they can punch holes and bridges, but they couldn’t destroy the bridge itself unless, you know, you fired a lot of rounds and Russia tried to kind of repair it. And, it, all this to, you know, a long story of repeated kind of strikes because the Russians are using kind of pontoon bridges, other things to move things across. And one of the kind of views you know going up to it was basically, if interdicted, if Ukraine has interdicted the supply line, then maybe Russia will not be able to supply it’s forces or it would be very difficult withdraw to, you know, get guys across the river without kind of collapsing. And ultimately, what we found somewhat counterintuitive was that Russia still, you know, fired a lot of artillery ammunition in Kherson until basically it. So HIMARS were had been very important. But I think we might have exaggerated the effect a little bit because Russian logistics, you know, proved to be pretty pretty satisfactory in that case. And in the withdrawal itself, you know, I thought it was it was potentially it could be a very costly moment for Russia and Russia had a lot of supposedly [indistinct] the airborne forces units were on the side of the river. And of course, while they’re there, Russia couldn’t kind of move them back and forth, and so it was a big you know question of whether or not Russia could do that. And ultimately, you know, the withdrawal was very successful. It appears they they managed to get the units back. Most of the equipment was, they managed to pull back as well. So, you know, I think this is probably a big significant moment. Ukraine didn’t capitalize on that. And I think it’s still, you know some question of why is some sort of saying that Russia used a lot of mines. Ukraine couldn’t pursue effectively. But, you know, all those elite units that were stuck on the right side of the river when Ukraine was still advancing elsewhere, all these years are now spread across the front lines now and they’re elite units. And so now, you know, those elements of frontline that were vulnerable back in November or October were Ukraine was still pushing in Luhansk and elsewhere. Now, those areas of front are much more stabilized, they stabilized, basically you know, pretty quickly I think after that happened by December, and that really changed the complexion of the war. And so I think that’s one thing we look forward. You know, first off, Russia’s front lines have gotten smaller, cause now the Dnieper is a large barrier for much of it. And then they’re able to kind of rebalance forces elsewhere. And then you had mobilization, immobilizations the other kind of big significant event where now Russia’s manpower is probably greater than Ukraine’s. Yes, there are issues with how well trained these soldiers are how good are these units? You know, do they make huge mistakes? They do. But ultimately, it allows Russia to have some kind of rotation now. And so, I mean, some units, you know some of these elite units in the airborne forces were basically perpetually in combat since that February 24th right, up until September, October, November, basically. Now, you can rotate those units, you can you can mobil— You can send common replacements to those units. And so it’s it’s it’s giving Russia an ability, a greater ability to stay in the war and that’s why, that’s one of the reasons why it’ll be more difficult for Ukraine to keep advancing.
Brian Beutler: Got it, got it, so I mean in in a war you don’t generally I don’t think, want to be withdrawing from anywhere it it’s it’s a bad sign but what you’re saying by successful withdrawal is it wasn’t a sort of catastrophic collapse in fighting that allowed Ukraine to kill a lot of people, capture a lot of weaponry, and they were able to disperse the surviving forces elsewhere in the country. And so this is sort of I think it sounds like it’s part and parcel of my general sense. And maybe this is related to why you think less likely than than more likely that the war is winnable within the time span of a few months. My sense is that the war has settled generally, and maybe not just there, into this kind of grinding game of inches across a huge frontline and that. And that even when. Russia is being set back. It’s in a way that, you know, you’re not talking about them giving up tons of ground, really, at any given point.
Rob Lee: Well, I mean so in Kharkiv they did. Right, so it was a it was a very dramatic. I think Ukraine was surprised how fast they advanced because they think they had a city that was [indistinct] target and they reached it within, I think, four or five days. So it was a very dramatic advance. Kherson of course, when Russia pulled back. Right. You know, they immediately gained a lot of ground. That was quite significant for a variety of reasons. It was it was a a massive amount of land they took back. And of course, for Ukraine now we’ve seen what happened in all the areas that have been occupied by Russian forces. You know there’s a strong kind of moral or kind of, you know, motivation for Ukrainians to retake these areas because they want to they want to liberate these areas. Right. And it’s you know, it’s something that we probably can’t kind of comprehend because we’re not Ukrainian. And so it is a tremendous victory for them to do that in both cases. But yeah, you know, when you when you try and apply what happened in those places going forward, you know, the force ratios Russia had in Kharkiv, force standing on the front line was was very kind of limited in the unit the district that was there was kind of it was basically Russia’s worst kind [indistinct] in charge of that and now it’s been somewhat fixed. But I would make one point in that on, you know, the people, so Russia put, in the beginning of October General Surovikin in charge and made, made a change command change. I think he was the first true kind of overall command of Russian forces in Ukraine were basically Putin was was asking reports from him and he would provide them. I don’t think Putin was talking support at this point, he was the point of contact. And during the withdrawal, it was Surovikin who I think was the one who wanted to do that. Who saw that basically the way to stabilize the front lines is to pull back from that side of of Kherson. And then it appears the VDV with their new commander Mikhail Teplinsky was the one in charge of [indistinct] withdrawal. Again, by all accounts, quite successful operation. And of course, you know, Surovikin way to keep in charge, you know, the things they stabilize. Right. So. So, yes, they gave up territory. And of course, you know, Russia caused all this part of Russia now, which is, you know, there is an added kind of element of embarrassment of of, you know, justifying why you’re withdrawing from those areas, because part of those, you know, sham referendums they ran. But that part was successful. However, even though those couple months, it seems though, Surovikin was relatively successful in stabilizing lines, stabilizing while mobilization kind of coming to effects and have it have have to be useful. He was later demoted and Gerasimov took over is now the commander of of of the war and then the commander of the VDV appears it appears he resigned as well. It’s not very completely clear. Even though they both kind of oversaw this successful withdrawal, maybe the most successful operation Russia did since the beginning of the war, they were rewarded with basically either getting demoted or basically being kind of pushed out and then other people put in charge who are, you know, less capable, who have less experience of war. And so it all comes back to, you know, Putin has had this terrible kind of effect on, I think, the Russian military’s decision making and how it rewards, you know, what kind of symptoms it has. And he consistently has pushing for more ambitious objectives than they can achieve. And so either generals can kind of say, you know, we can’t achieve this, in which case they might get demoted or replaced or they will try to achieve it. And you see these kind of, you know, costly and really unsuccessful advances like Izyum and Vuhledar, which in the last couple weeks where it’s just been, you know, basically Russian force trying to advance through minefields, really limited prospects of success and taking very heavy losses. And basically, you know the videos just kind of come back and say, you know, what’s going on here have they learned any lessons. Well, I think the problem is that when when the person in charge of this keeps having these demands, they’re unrealistic. And you keep having officers who are willing to say, okay, well, we will try something. At least he’s got a result where people get killed for no good reason.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Rob Lee: And of course, you know, when you try to extrapolate, what does that mean for the future? It means if Russia’s smart, right, if Russia just tried to play a defensive war, they just tried to hold the current front lines. They had a lot of manpower. They probably have enough artillery ammunition. They probably have enough things to make it very difficult for Ukraine to retake all that territory. But they keep trying to advance and we keep seeing these costly advances. And basically Ukraine’s big success in Kharkiv and Kherson in the fall. The reason for the successes was Russia was doing a lot, of costly advance of Donbas in spring and summer. They took heavy losses. They weren’t able to sustain those losses. They weren’t able to to make up for them. It left them vulnerable and set the stage for Ukraine’s successes. It’s possible the same thing could happen this year if Russia throws in forces that aren’t ready and creates problems it doesn’t need and they keep having these unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve.
Brian Beutler: It sounds like Putin has very unrealistic expectations of and demands of his forces, which are themselves sort of, if not depleted in number, then depleted in capability. And that’s created chaos and disruption of the of the chain of command. Nevertheless, the line hasn’t changed very much through all that chaos. And so I wonder, you know, if you if you think it’s sort of less likely that this is all over or coming to an end six months from now, is how likely is it that this can sustain itself, the sort of punch and retreat, high casualty fighting that leaves the front line almost unchanged over the course of months?
Rob Lee: Yeah so you know, one of the big questions, if we look at the last two months of this war. So since mobilization kicked in and Russia pulled back from [indistinct] so basically we’ve seen Russia advance or try to advance. We haven’t really seen Ukraine do that much. I think probably Ukraine was hoping they could advance more through the winter, but I think mobilization kind of just made it much more difficult and it made it you know, I tweet about the other day, basically Ukraine could be trying to advance right now. Right. I think I think we get a perception sometimes based on who’s trying to advance, we say, oh, this side is winning. It’s not necessarily the best indicator, because oftentimes your hold back reserves to wait for an offensive and you want to hold back enough reserves to give yourself a chance to actually achieve significant success. So not just a grinding you know, we took back these, you know, like this one town, but looking more like a Kharkiv type thing where not only did you penetrate where this town is, we drove past it. And we’re continuing to push to try and take back the entire region. And so I think what Ukraine’s doing right now is they I think they are still trying to take territory this winter. Once Russia kind of mobilized, once they solidified their front lines, it became pretty clear they couldn’t do that with kind of small offensives. And so I think they’re kind of waiting for a bigger offensive when they have better conditions in place and so part of that means, you know, training units that can be ready for this. Obviously, Ukrainians will rely on mobilized soldiers, too. So they have to constantly be training units, constantly working on unit cohesion, on training new equipment, replacing equipment, all those things. So I think there’s a lot of things going into it. Any kind of offensive, if Ukraine is going to have success with it, with an offensive going forward, they’re going to have to have a very well planned, kind of prepared plan that, you know, they attack the right area. They find where Russian forces are low, they husband kind of their you know you got ammunitions to use them for that specific kind of operation. And they do everything they can to give themselves a chance to not just, you know, penetrate, not just to, you know, take one town, but to do a substantial breakthrough, to try and push to the Sea of Azov [indistinct] which I think, is what they want to do. So that’s why they’re kind of holding back some of those things. You know, one of the big questions is sustainability. And, you know, in general, if we look at it, Russia should have the advantage to stay in this war. Because you know I at different times thought, you know, maybe there’ll be some kind of domestic, you know, events that that’ll be pushed back and it’ll put Putin in a tough position. And ultimately, you know, we’ve seen the economy’s gotten hit again mobilizations occurring right there, you know, I mean, we heard the anecdotes of mobilization where, you know, they’re pulling men in their fifties out of bed in the middle of the night, you know, sending them into, you know, to live in tents in Siberia in the middle of winter with no heating and then deploying them, and then some of these guys are getting killed right away. And and yet, you know, we saw protest at the beginning mobilization. Nothing really since then. Right. We’ve seen videos sometimes where soldiers say, oh, we’re angry with our commanders, etc.. But what are those anecdotes you know, build up to? And thus far, you know, nothing in terms of any kind of real domestic threat to Putin. I don’t you know, maybe something could happen, right? I don’t I don’t I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility. It just didn’t seem this was the most likely events. And so I think, you know, Russia will be able to continue to endure this. You know, they have a lot of people to mobilize now. And when we look at kind of what happened in December, Bakhmut kind of became the focus right where Wagner became kind of more important. It kind of elevated their role in the war and Bakhmut was kind of the main place where Russia was kind of advancing during most of December and January and they had had some success in Soledar and in Bakhmut in general. So, you know, the fight still going on, still possible that Russia will take the town based on, you know, things have taken around them more recently. The big question with Bakhmut was you know Wagner’s a bit of a unique case because they recruit a lot of prisoners. Their tactics involved using prisoners in a very kind of in, the term they keep using is, you know, meat grinder, or somewhere along those lines, taking very, very heavy casualties. That would not be sustainable in normal cases, but its prisoners. And so it’s a question of, you know, how much do prisoners hate being in Russian prisons, how much you want to get out of a 20 year prison sentence. Right. So, you know, there is having some success there. It was a combination. It was prisoners but Wagner also has elite units that are comparable to some of the best Russian military units. It was it was using them together that basically led them to having some success. And so there was question though Russia’s accruing heavy casualties while doing so. Ukraine was as well, which is also a problem because Ukraine, can’t kind of sustain that level of attrition because that level attrition now makes it more difficult for Ukraine to have success on offensives later this spring. So they need to have units that are trained and so on. And so it’s a bit of a question is, you know, how much of this is a representation of something that Russia can sustain or is this something they can do for a month or two and can’t, you know, for the foreseeable future? That part, I think, probably is something that they couldn’t sustain. More recently, it appears the MOD which is, I think, reasserting itself in the war now, with Gerasimov taking over, it appears, Wagner is no longer recruiting prisoners. Maybe that’s partially because prisoners found out that they were probably going to die if they joined the fight and might also be a case of the alleged the MOD took over that kind of pipeline of manpower. If they had that manpower pipeline, Wagner doesn’t. It means Wagner’s role will be reduced in the war so that that potentially changes it. But the other issue is that with mobilized soldiers, you know, there, plenty of mobile soldiers have been killed often and in an instances where, you know, terrible leadership right, there’s one strike in, I think it was [?] where like a battalion was kept in one building next to ammunition. And there all, a large number were killed in a HIMARS strike, just, you know, but again, one of those mistakes that Russian forces learned back in July. If you do this right, if don’t bunch together within HIMARS range, you know, there’s a good chance you’ll get killed, well that mistake happened. A lot of guys got killed unnecessarily because of leadership mistakes. But right, with mobilized soldiers you can’t use them the same way Wagner’s using prisoners. And in Vuhledar we’re seeing, you know, trying to, Russia’s trying to advance. Currently, there’s some mobilized soldiers being involved there. Trying to, as common place as these units, the Russian military units can they use that kind of template elsewhere. I don’t think really they can. So they can try and advance if they you know, don’t have success after a couple of days or a week, they can’t keep doing the grinding stuff that Wagner can do. And a lot of success Russia had, in the late spring and summer in the battle of Donbas, like June, we were hearing a lot of really concerning stories. It was cause Russia was in a enormous artillery advantage. Right, they’re firing like range of estimates, probably 10 to 1, 15 to 1 artillery rounds a day than what Ukraine was firing, right, you know 20, 25 thousand I think people were saying about Russia, they can’t fire that much anymore. They can still fire plenty of artillery, but not like the overwhelming amount that Ukraine just can’t compensate for at all. And so a lot of their success in June and July was due to this massive quantitative advantage. But they’d, shoot, do that. They don’t have that massive advantage anymore. And so we talk about, okay, if you’re going advance, you want to have different kind of advantages, right? Maybe it could be manpower, it could be air superiority, which neither side really has. It could be artillery ammunition and all these kind of different things. And the the kind of tools that Russia had before, they don’t really have this point. They have a manpower advantage. But you know, can you use mobilized soldiers the same way you can use Wagner conscripts. The answer is no. And there are more political issues there. And so, you know, I again, I’m skeptical that Russia will advance that far. But the bigger issue is that, you know, with a large manpower of mobilized soldiers now they can still help defense. So it makes it more difficult that Ukraine can advance. And that’s you know, the question is, does either side have enough offensive capability to break the deadlock? And that that’s an open question.
Brian Beutler: So quick terminology interlude for for the benefit of listeners, MOD, Ministry of Defense, to, give them a quick overview of what the Wagner group is and then I’ll on the other side of that, I have a question of my own about about how it is that Putin has managed to avoid internal blowback from, like you said, pulling 50 year old men out of bed and throwing them onto the frontline.
Rob Lee: Sure. So Wagner, [indistinct] Russian PMCs. The recent one goes back to like 2013 or so 2012. There are a group that were recruited to fight in Syria in 2013. I don’t think they had an approval by the Russian government. So when they came back from Syria, they get ruled out by the FSB, the Russian security service. And you know, basically they got stopped when when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and Wagner kind of came about when the fight at Donbas occurred where basically Russia was, you know, putting up with this, you know, attempt at implaus— In plausible deniability that they were involved in the fighting in 2014 at Donbas, where they said Russian [?] is out there. And one thing that we’ve learned from this war is, you know, they basically stopped pretending. So, you know, these, there was there was a Russian regiment commander was killed the couple months ago. You know, one of the one of the Wagner channels on Telegram was posting photos of him fighting in Donbas in 2014 where he was charged with these DNR units. That was a separatist unit, they claim, but clearly, you know, Russian military officers leading it. So there was a demand for volunteers, a demand for kind of manpower that could fight that wasn’t necessarily you know, part of the Russian MOD structure. So Wagner came about in 2014, or, yeah 2014. So they put a role there. And then Syria is really where it kind of became they became big, basically, Syria it was obviously a intervention that Russia said publicly that they’re doing. But there still a concern that Syria was not the popular of a war with Russians. It was not unpopular, but not that popular. And so the Kremlin, I think, was concerned about it. It started taking heavy casualties. You know, there might be political blowback. And so they looked at Wagner as, kind of alternative option, where whenever the Syrian military, Syria army couldn’t maybe choose to make itself Wagner is another option they could do where these [?] guys actually assault kind of positions with Russian militaristic support all that kind of military support. But the Russian military itself would be kind of farther back. Less likely to take casualties, and Wagner would do the heavy lifting. And one side effect is that when the Russian military invaded Ukraine in 2022 was that a lot of units were not as capable at doing some of these operations like assaulting a lot of these inventory kind of operations because the Russian military wasn’t doing that necessarily, it was Wagner doing that and so Wagner had more experience, had some more expertise. It also kind of affected kind of cultural aspects of Russian military because when Russian soldiers guys said, okay, who are who are the elite guys for the Russian military? It kind of set cultural kind of [?] like in the U.S., it’s special operations forces, really. But in Russia, it’s maybe partially special operations units but also Wagner, because Wagner are the guys you know, fighting and the Wagner are the guys that kind of achieves the most successes. The Wagner, the leader of it, was a former GRU officer who has a penchant for Nazi kind of ideology and things. He’s has like SS tattoos he was awarded and and anyway, so Wagner came from the German composer and then the person overseeing the organization itself Yevgeny Prigozhin is a businessman who got started in St Petersburg, he spent time in prison, he has a catering business. He also set up at some point was was catering all the Russian military type things, got a lot of state contracts as many things in Russia. That’s how you kind of become rich is you have right connections and you get state contracts. His connection to Putin. And that’s also, you know, a big point of how power works in Russia where regardless of what the flowchart says of who is the most important person, it’s really who is the who can talk to Putin, who is a close relationship to Putin, which is really kind of better indication of power in this case—
Brian Beutler: And so their supplies and their food and their money that all comes from Kremlin or that—
Rob Lee: So so the equipment comes from the Russian military so they get stockpiled weapons from the Russian military. At times they’ve gotten bad stockpile weapons. So they get they they complain a lot about what they’re getting in Syria. But during this war has been a combination. So Wagner guys have been seen with BMP-3s with T-90M tanks, the newest tanks, they had their air force operating Su-24 bombers, one of which got shot down or damaged in a day. So, you know, we talk about kind of private military companies. We often talk about it in the US context, but a lot of those companies are they’re not really I mean, they’re not really that capable of doing independent military operations because they kind of fill in when the US military doesn’t do things, right. Wagner is a case where it, in a lot of ways it is a more of a real private military company in that it can do military operations independently in many cases, as long as it gets kind of logistic support from Russian military. So in Libya, it was fighting alongside LA forces, Libyan forces, there now in Tripoli. They’re operating in [?] Republic. They make, they’re making a lot of money in Africa because a lot of the deals they said would provide some security or personal security for leaders in Africa. They also get the contracts for a lot of mining deals. And so they kind of spread out. And, you know, it appears Wagner is making quite a bit of money in Africa on their own, by their own operations. But it’s also kind of a low cost kind of foreign policy option for Putin, where Prigozhin go to Putin say you don’t have to deploy soldiers. Right. So there’s no risk that we [?] back to you. But we can go a country and we can kind of develop a relationship and we you know, we make money because we’ll run their mines or other things. At the same time, you know, basically because we’re providing security for this leader, we have an ability kind of, you know, to influence or coerce kind of thing going going our way and kind of can, you know, can support kind of Russian foreign policy and regard. And so, anyway, in the beginning of the war Wagner did not play a significant role. But once Russian military losses became significant, Wagner had a an infrastructure for recruiting new people that the Russian military didn’t. So the Russian military gets people from con— From conscription, some of whom they signed contracts. But it doesn’t really kind of go out and recruit like the U.S. military does? Well, Wagner did and so when the war began. Wagner had that infrastructure to to immediately tap into the guys who fought for them before to offer other kind of deals. They had their own training center, which is co-located with a [?] brigade training center down in the south. So they had the ability to train people and an ability to equip people and so on. It’s kind of gave them a kind of leg up to immediately play a role in this war. And by the time of December, right when when Russia, kind of pulled back elsewhere and was trying to defend elsewhere, Wagner kind of raised it’s, it’s role in that it was the one kind of Russian force that was trying to advance. And Prigozhin, you know, was very much putting himself front and forward as kind of the head of the war. And he was you know, he posted a video of himself allegedly going to the front lines. You know, when guys would get killed, he’d go and be there to go to the funerals to see guys who’ve been wounded. He’s doing all these kind of traditional leadership steps. And the issue, I think, for the Russian military he also is criticizing many Russian military leaders, including the kind of, you know, the [?] the head of it. And part of the issue is that he was kind of asserting himself as a leader of the war. And I think one of the reasons why Gerasimov took over more recently is he wanted to reassert the MOD, the Ministry of Defense, saying, you know, we are the ones in the war, we’re the face of the war. Wagner might be playing a role, but we are the ones, you know, overall, we should, we also we should be getting the credit, successes although they might try and push away the failures on someone else. So we’ll see how that goes.
Brian Beutler: Right. Okay. So it’s, you know. Semi independent. Semi rogue. Fighting force that. Has been helpful to to Russian fighting position and also seemingly sort of helpful to the political leadership insofar as it takes pressure off of them to go out and conscript from, you know, pull, you know, pulling 50 year old men out of bed like to use example you used. Is that like a—
Rob Lee: Yeah, so I think there is a question now that Russia has mobilized is a question of how how important is Wagner as a large organization. So one problem is that Wagner, I think is more arguably effective than the Russian military is. The Russian military is bigger and it’s also harder to reform. And there are some systemic problems and and issues of Russian military. You know, Wagner had some success in this war right and a couple of cities. Again, it’s it’s not massive successes, but it is at least recently, right. The most recent kind of successes Russia has had it’s been as a result of Wagner forces. So they’ve gotten kind of credit for that, which is obviously and everyone in Russia wants to credit for the successes there and not for the failures so they are playing a poor role in that regard. But right the prisoner aspects that was something Wagner tapped into early I think they were smart to kind of do that. They saw this untapped potential there. Not clear that that was going to be a sustainable thing forever. Not clear that you know, Wagner kind of exist and operate the same kind of scale once mobilization began. And also, you know, the other aspect is Wagner kind of plays by its own rules. And so there are two guys who are four prisoners who joined Wagner, who surrendered to Ukraine, who apparently were, you know, passed back to Russia in that prisoner swap and Wagner posted videos of them executing both these guys with sledgehammers. And so there is another aspect where basically say, you know, we will execute people who are not you know, who are not loyal to our forces. We will operate a different way. And they kind of present themselves as this brutal kind of unit that that’s more effective and more results oriented than maybe the Russian military. And Prigozhin kind of, you know, says this is kind of in public where he says, you know what we’re going to take casualties. We’re going to do it but we’re we’re going to achieve things. And kind of, you know, it’s explicitly says that. So, of course, you know, the guys that joined Wagner, you know, there is acceptance that you’re more likely to die and it might be acceptance that mobilized soldiers do not have. And also there might be still a political dimension saying, okay, you know, could win in Syria elsewhere. I don’t think Russians care too much when Wagner numbers get killed because they they sign up for this. They knew what they were kind of, you know, signing up for. Mobilized soldiers are involuntary soldiers. They’re not necessarily that well trained. And so I think there is a distinction, I think, among Russians about what are the political kind of costs associated with Wagner guys getting killed or you use mobilized soldiers in these kind of, you know, very unsuccessful frontal assaults that are likely to lead to heavy casualties and are, you know, conduct in a very kind of poor manner.
Brian Beutler: Right. Like like send the cowboys in instead of the, you know, the people who work in laboratories and wherever else.
Rob Lee: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: Okay. So so you say Putin managed to avoid the kind of political unrest, political blowback that you might have expected given that they had to mobilize the population? Is that just information control? Is that just that that he can kind of keep the masses, if not literally, everybody, from becoming aware that that A, that he did that the kind of people that were mobilized and then what happened to them or is there more that has sort of insulated him from the kind of catastrophic blowback that I think a lot of people were, if not hoping for, like maybe thinking was kind of likely earlier in the war.
Rob Lee: So I think one prerequisite for this war to happen and it happened the way it did, was basically all the steps that Putin has taken the last twenty years to control the system in Russia, to make, descent you know costly, to push back any kind of, you know, independent opposition to him. You know, before the war began, most the opposition was was in exile or in jail. Right. And we know that Navalny now, of course, Navalny is a good case, right? He was he was poisoned. He was put in jail on trumped up charges, he’s you know, you see these videos of him who, you know, it looks he’s in terrible condition. And, you know, it didn’t lead to any kind of unrest in Russia. I think protests in the beginning. But, you know, again, it’s just the extent of it. You know, Putin has kind of shaped the system in a certain way that makes descents, costly and is basically incentivized, you know, indifference. I think the issue is that a lot of Russians say we have no ability to affect what the Russian government does. So I’m just not going to think about it, right we’re going to try and pretend it’s not going on and life goes on because I can’t control it myself. I think that’s kind of the attitude that Putin has managed to kind of maybe forced in Russia the last 20 years and obviously you know the big protests in 2011 that they had [?] as well. But, you know, the Russian security services managed to make it difficult to do that, made it difficult to kind of protest or organize protests. So, you know the war began, of course, you know, they made it very clear when the war began that, you know, any kind of descent was not going to be really was not going to be accepted and permitted. So I think all those kind of things just set the stage where basically, you know, Russians I think a lot of Russians are against the war. But, you know, I think a lot of them feel basically, well, I can’t do anything personally. So either, you know, many obviously Russians left. Right. Of course, military age males left, you know, but o the ones who don’t. They kind of say, well, my entire kind of prospects for a career wise or other things, you know, is tied to not saying anything. And they put they put people in charge for criticizing war, for, you know, posting information about the actual things that have happened. And so, again, it’s a strong incentive to to not kind of speak out.
Brian Beutler: Got it.
Rob Lee: It’s you know, it’s just it’s been 20 years of Putin kind of putting the system in place to make it difficult to have any kind of active resistance. And so that was critical. And then, yeah, you know, the propaganda side, right? We know for a long time on TV, Russian TV is, you know, can provide a kind of singular angle on that kind of stuff. And telegram is a bit of an outlet where you get more unfettered view from kind of war correspondents or the groups are often war, but those are mostly pro-war people, right? So they don’t complain about officers making bad decisions. They won’t complain about the war itself or, you know, for the most part or kind of goals, things of that nature. You don’t really hear as much about that. And then yeah, I think even just, you know, personally, I think people are just reticent to tell other people that might be against something else, because they know there might be professional consequences for them and, you know, little prospect, I think, of Putin be replaced from their view because they’ve probably seen all these kind different times before when, protests have occurred and ultimately didn’t lead to any kind of significant change. So, yeah, you know, again, I thought there’d be more I thought there would be more risk for Putin. And of course, you know, he was delaying decision to do a mobilization until September, until after the kind of really significant setback in Kharkiv. But ultimately, you know, since we’ve been doing that, we haven’t seen that much kind of pushback domestically. And, you know, that’s, despite some really horrific anecdotes of there is a shooting from one of the ranges where the mobilized soldiers were. There’s, you know, all these kind of different anecdotes of terrible things occurring. And, you know, guys, guys are deploying immediately. You know, they said you get like, oh, multiple weeks training, etc.. And of course, you know, in many cases that was not true. And anyway, despite all that, right, anecdotes are not building up to any kind of significant, I think, domestic opposition that we can tell. And, you know, we try and predict things in the future. You know, I don’t think I predict that, you know, we’ll see a breaking point in time in the future. Could happen, but probably not the most likely possibility. [music break]
Brian Beutler: So on the power of information on hiving off the information, half of information control. Right. The analyst Phillips O’Brien, you know, there’s been news media reports and rumors and other things about a looming Russian turnaround. They’re going to mobilize. They’re going to actually finally break through this sort of stalemate that we’ve been in for at least a couple of months. He reasoned that this meme I don’t even know what you want to call it this the sense of of a coming turnaround for Russia was something that Ukrainians may have been feeding to the press as part of, like a bank shot bank shot, a diplomatic feint essentially to secure more aid. But maybe. It got like a little bit out of hand or they did too good a job because they by by sort of tipping global conventional wisdom about the war into an unhelpful place. You know, it wasn’t just that they were able to persuade foreign governments that they needed more aid. They might have been persuading foreign governments or foreign elites that maybe the this is a lost cause or the cause is a long shot and they might start getting comfortable with the idea of. He called it a bad piece, quote unquote, “bad piece.” Do you buy that reasoning? Just about the importance of public information over facts on the ground.
Rob Lee: Yeah. So Ukraine certainly manages the information environment and they do a very good job of that typically. So you know the statements from Ukraine officials are more accurate than what you get from Russian officials. There’s no doubt about that. But there’s certainly cases where some of the figures they give, you know, I think is reasonably skeptical about that. There was some interviews that were given in December where they were talking about there might be a huge new offensive in early January that certainly did not seem to be corroborated by the facts we knew. Now, we haven’t we’ve seen kind of offensive going on January, just kind of big push they’re talking about. The initial part has not been that substantial, that significant. We’ll see about the kind of the area Luhansk was kind of waiting for. It probably already began, but we haven’t seen a huge kind of change yet. So I do think Ukraine, you know, I think Ukraine officials deliberately try and shake the information environment. I think there is, you know, when they were hyping some of the things of the Russian invasion, you know, we might see some Belarus or some of the some of the forces involved. I thought some of that was probably maybe kind of taking the more, you know, the worst case scenario as opposed to kind of the baseline was most most likely. And, of course, you know, if you need more weapons to stop a bigger invasion, you know, those weapons will be useful for taking back all that dread. Right. And ultimately, you know, the question, of course, is always with the US and Ukraine. There is a overlap in kind of war aims. But in terms of what is the you know, what pieces of terrain in terms of will Ukraine take back all of its occupied terrain? That’s where I think it becomes somewhat of a divergence, where it’s more important for Ukraine to take back every piece of territory that’s occupied right now. I think from a lot of U.S. officials or kind of U.S. politicians, there might not be the same. You know, I guess I guess significance there, it’s more important the Ukraine isn’t defeated. It’s more important that kind of Ukraine remains a kind of sovereign state and isn’t kind of isn’t collapsed. So I think there certainly is an issue there. I think there has been a concern at points that Ukraine officials have maybe given views that are not held by U.S. officials and there might be kind of disagreement over that. But ultimately, I’m not I’m not sure about the full extent of it. And, of course, you know, we’ll see. We’ll see if, you know, Russia, there are some training areas near in Russia, near near Ukraine that that have been kind of reopened, that we’re seeing kind of movement happening again over the last week or so. There’s been talk of they’ve they’ve can deploy more aviation. So all that’s kind of possible. The big issue is that when you talk about a large mobilized force, you know, manpower is important, but mobilized soldiers, you train someone to sit in the trenches and defend and shoot back if someone attacks them much more easily you can to kind of attack and do offensive operations because that takes more training, more unit cohesion, things like that. So, you know, the issue with this kind of large, robust force, Russia has now certainly gives them the ability to defend, but it gives them not as much of a better ability to attack because units are not going be as capable. And of course, the question of how much equipment do they have and do they need more equipment to attack as well. So, yeah, I mean, I guess I guess we’ll see. I do think in some cases Ukrainian officials have probably given the more kind of worst case scenario when they paint the intel picture. But, you know, again, they they want to take back all their territory. I think there is a legitimate question whether or not foreign aid is, you know stated kind of goals of officials about what we want Ukraine to achieve in a question whether or not there is a mismatch between what we’re actually providing them. And so ultimately, I think that, you know, that is a concern. And so, you know, I think that if if Ukraine is trying to kind of maybe, you know, massage that a little bit, you know, it’s not that surprising because as I said before, you know, to to to to overcome kind of Russian forces, if any, in depth, especially if Russia is going to manpower advantage. Ukraine will need a number of, you know, capability advantages. Right. So maybe artillery, more precision guided munitions, more tanks, Right. All these [?] things. And it comes kind of a holistic package. Right. Combined arms. Does Ukraine have enough capabilities? Enough advantages to kind of overcome those things. That’s not fully clear. And so anything they can get new equipment, more ammunition, all that could play a role and could give a better chance of success. And ultimately, you know, Ukraine officials they are, they are responsible Ukrainians and Ukrainians want to retake all the territory. So, you know, it’s not not surprising they might kind of massage some of those figures—
Brian Beutler: Right.
Rob Lee: —expectations in order to achieve what Ukrainians wanted to achieve.
Brian Beutler: They have to walk a fine line between persuading allies of the importance of aid without making the situation seem so dire that those same allies start entertaining the idea that something short of full Russian withdrawal is an acceptable outcome.
Rob Lee: Yeah. I mean, so I think there’s a distinction here between U.S. especially have a good idea of what’s going on in the war, and they have a better idea than I do, because they see things that I don’t see. So, you know, when they hear the Ukrainian officials, maybe hype up the threat of a Russian new invasion they, they’re not seeing, they they know what’s happening. But the question is, is that shaping public perception in the U.S. in a negative way? I think that’s the bigger risk is that, and you hear that more often now, is that people think Ukraine can’t take all the territory, they think it’s a hopeless stalemate at this point. And when you hear these kind of new comments, oh, actually Russia now has the advantage, [?] the last month. A lot of these very kind of short term is based on who is attacking right now. Well, there the reasons why Ukraine might not be attacking even though they could. So it’s not necessarily the best indicator. But when Ukraine officials are maybe saying, you know, we [?] this to happen, there’s going to be more claims or more calls for the U.S. to intercede and say, okay, no more arms unless we’re making a push for diplomacy. Of course, the problem there is that Russia’s not particularly interested in diplomacy. Right.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Rob Lee: They they want they want to take more of Ukraine. They want to force more concessions on Ukraine. They’re not happy with status quo. And, of course, you know, if we push for negotiations, it would be a worse situation for Ukraine than what they’re facing right now. So that’s the bigger kind of concern. The conditions just basically aren’t there. Regardless, I think of whether or not we want to be.
Brian Beutler: Can you talk like in maybe more general terms about your understanding of how perceptions affect material outcomes in war? Right. Like. In this specific case, why does it matter if various global publics start getting the wrong idea about Russian military capabilities? If the fact is that they aren’t actually capable of a major incursion, but just generally. Why do these perceptions, whether they’re in the heads of the people fighting the war, in the heads of the populations that are supporting it from the outside matter? Is it just morale? And can you see is there when you’re when you’re sort of analyzing a war in real time? Can you is there like a correspondence between what the information environment looks like and then how the actual fighting is is going on? Does it? Does it change things in a in a somewhat predictable way?
Rob Lee: I’m not not sure about that. I think it does. On one hand. Right. Ukraine is playing an information game. So is Russia. So is any country in fighting war. And then there’s also obviously the information they have at hand, which they, you know, they’ll keep kind of secret. They won’t kind of publish. Ukraine’s done a very good job of publicizing their victories and concealing their defeats. So some of the some of their defeats don’t become clear until months later when you get reporting on it or the kind of things that come out. So in that regard, it’s often difficult to get a full picture of a war if you’re only relying on open sources, because, you know, open sources will not tell you everything. How does that shape the fighting on the ground? You know, I’m sure since the momentum that guys will get right where they get either negative or positive kind of perception. But, you know, if you talk about some of the big [?] that happened for Russia in September, October, and there are a lot of, there is a lot of outcry telegram complaining about these leaders or that, so on. You know, ultimately they’re able to kind of still have a successful withdrawal from Kherson, and stabilize a front line. So even though you had all these morale issues, ultimately you know they they still are able to kind of prevent a kind of collapse. And, you know, they look like they’re in a decent position now and they kind of went back on the offensive, even though they’re not advancing that far. So, no, I think I think one concern is that we’re the people for us, not, not in the war, not not kind of seeing it directly, but kind of perceiving from open sources is a risk that we kind of look at little changes week to week or kind of perception changes. And you exaggerate what the kind of analysis of the war is or how the war is going to change, when a lot of cases it isn’t actually. It’s information. It’s not [?].
Brian Beutler: Right.
Rob Lee: I think sometimes we plug in, we’re trying to predict things. We try and plug in the information from open sources. Sometimes plug in information that is not particularly relevant and it influences how we look at things.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Rob Lee: And again, I think I think especially during the winter, there’s been a big you know, every two weeks has been a big kind of getting a view of say, okay, how is the war going now? Is Russia winning? Is Ukraine winning? It’s like, well, it’s kind of wrong answer or wrong kind of question to ask because it’s neither, right. And sometimes, you know, a lot of wars last a long time. This war has already lasted for a year. It will likely last for, you know, to the summer. To next year could be longer. So we look at it kind of changes from week to week. It doesn’t tell us that much is more what are the kind of really significant events. And we haven’t had a particularly significant event since probably Russia kind of pull back from from the right-bank Kherson in November.
Brian Beutler: Right. Yeah. I mean, at the risk of sort of employing a hammer nail kind of fallacies like my best. You know, kind of experience, understanding what this how morale affects actual outcomes is in covering campaigns like political campaigns, elections and. You know, there’s a reason why campaigns try to keep talk happy about the state of their own campaign, because when the news environment or the polling or whatever starts looking bad, you can sense that it affects the morale of the candidates and their aides, and they don’t want that to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the same time. There are often elections where it’s like, wow, if you if you’re if you’re basing your suspicions about who’s going to win this this race or which party is going to win the midterms or whatever, on the basis of who seems to have the upper hand on the moral question. I don’t see like a real correspondence to you know, it’s not like a very good way to make predictions or forecasts about elections, just like who who is benefiting from good morale or a good information environment. Because ultimately, like, there are more fundamental questions that help determine those things. And I kind of assumed that something similar happened in war, but you’re talking there about people who are like, have to get up in the morning and actually fight for their lives or fight to kill the other guys. And if they’re feeling depressed, essentially is what we’re talking about are like, this is all hopeless. I could see how that could really immediately translate from like the information environment changes to the fighting quality goes down. But I don’t know. It’s just not my field. [laughter]
Rob Lee: Yeah, so I think there’s truth to that, right?
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Rob Lee: I think there’s a risk you might exaggerate it. So for example, when Russia was kind of withdrawing from areas of Kherson or elsewhere like Kharkiv and so on. You know, when the news kind of sham referendum right they said this part of Russia now it is Russian territory and then they voluntarily withdrew from Russian territory. Right. Which is what they get what they claim is Russian territory. Obviously it’s all Ukraine territory. Obviously a lot of the Russian telegram channels are saying, what are we doing right? No one wants to fight a dumb war. No one wants to fight a war in which the goals are unclear. And of course, that was one of the criticisms of Afghanistan after, you know, ten, 15, 20 years. In this case, you know, this war, the goals are even less clear at this point exactly what Russia wants or what what is going to end the war with. And it still hasn’t been [?] but you know what, what is the purpose of Russian soldiers who are trying to Kherson [?] which don’t have significant political or historical connections to Russians. Right. Crimea does, Donbas to some extent but like Zaporizhzhia like does anyone care? I don’t think they do. Where there’s there, what we took with the moral questions. Most of it is kind of more direct things right so it’s you know, it’s winter. You guys, do they have hot food the last night, right? That’s a morale factor. Are their feet wet? They have new socks to replace their wet socks? You know, is the leadership, competent, does the leadership care about soldiers. Are they, do they treat them like garbage, you know, do they get hazed? All those kind of various things. Those are much bigger kind of morale factor for individual units. I think the high level stuff is—
Brian Beutler: Got it.
Rob Lee: —it also comes back to like look, am I getting killed right.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Rob Lee: And are we gonna be employed in some ridiculous kind of offensive that has no chance of success. Or am I sitting in a trench where, okay, life’s not good, but you know, I’ll probably survive. And, you know, I’m I’m warm enough and so on. Those are the kind of more immediate things that are important. The big ones are [?] too. But again, I think I think to some extent because, you know, the thing we’ve probably seen before, because so many Russians, I think, they say, you know, what the Russian government does is out of my control. I think that view might might kind of persist into the Russian military or even mobilized soldiers will say look, I can’t affect how this war is going to go. I’m just trying to survive. And if I have a good leader in charge or bad leader in charge, that’s really what affects my kind of morale, my perception of how today is.
Brian Beutler: Got it. So let’s bring let’s bring this up full circle, because I think there is a morale element to the the question I have about the U.S. budget and appetite for for supplying aid. And I don’t know where it fits on the spectrum from questions like camaraderie and am I cannon fodder to sort of grander 10,000 foot elevation questions of how the war is going? But I guess the question is, you know, can the very fact. If we assume that. This aid that we’re spending now isn’t fixed and will go down later this year. Can the very fact that the US government will no longer be fully unified around the war effort, you know, and all the headlines that will run about that tug of war, can do you expect that to have a material effect on Ukrainian forces, their morale, their. You know, their hunger for the fight, or do you think that that’s sort of too abstract?
Rob Lee: So I think the bigger issue is Ukraine is very dependent on foreign aid at this point right? Most of defense [?] is targeted. I’m not sure how much ammunition it produces at this point, they’re very dependent on ammunition, weapons, you know, servicing, all that kind of stuff. But the bigger issue for them is that when Ukrainian military commanders try and point out, what are we doing next, three months, six months, what you know, what what kind of offensive operations can we plan? What can we plan? They have to allocate ammunition they have to allocate units, manpower, equipment, so on. Right. And with an assumption of we are going to lose this many people. Right. This many guys are gonna get killed. This many tanks will be destroyed. This is how much ammunition it’s gonna take to do this kind of offensive. So the expectation is that if the U.S. is still providing, you know, a similar amount of artillery ammunition every month, they can make that kind of calculation and say, okay, you know, we can use up this amount and still realize we’ll be okay if things go wrong. If they don’t have that confidence. Right. And are receiving, one off kind deliveries of ammunition, then it becomes a question of we have to husband this artillery ammunition to defend. Right. Just just the hold the current front line and we can’t necessarily try new offensive operations because we don’t know if we’ll have enough, you know, to just defend, let alone to attack. So that’s that’s a, it really kind of affects their calculations and it’s been affecting them for a while. Right. As all, I think summer before that, it was a question for them, what can we do with what we have, what we have on hand, what can we assume we’re going to get and how much do we rely on that kind of faith we’re going to get these things? So I think that’s the bigger problem when you’re going into late into 2023. And part is too, I think is just, you know, the U.S. have provided a lot of stockpile ammunition, of artillery ammunition, air defense missiles. That’s another big question because, you know, Ukraine’s air defenses were initially based on Soviet built air defense systems. You know, I don’t know. They’re probably not producing those missiles anymore. Most of those missiles are coming from Russia. Right. So they’re not they can’t we can’t we can’t provide them. And so that’s why, you know, we’re trying, I think, different types of of methods for kind of making up for that. We don’t have a great solution because the U.S. air defense from the U.S. is produced is provided by fighters. Right. It’s fighters [?] we don’t really have medium and kind of other air defense systems ground based defense systems anymore because we, we, the U.S. built the structure differently. So all those things are factors that Ukraine has to keep in mind. I don’t know if it’s going to affect morale that much. I think, you know, again, Ukraine’s they realize it’s kind of an extension of war for them. So they’re going to keep fighting no matter what. You know, and even even there, obviously, are morale issues when things don’t go well. But, you know, Ukrainians are not going to give up because the alternative is is still something they can’t really consider. So, again, that also again, that works against Russia’s war effort. If Russia is saying we just want these limited aims. Right. That would be a way to kind of maybe get it. But as long as the war aims for Russia remain, we want to basically kind of remove Ukraine as an independent country and we still want to do a regime change all these kind of things and we still want to occupy more of your country and you know what’s going to happen to areas of it occupied. That’s a really strong motivator for Ukrainians to keep resisting and fighting no matter what.
Brian Beutler: So whatever morale effects trickle down from sort of global awareness of infighting in the United States, political infighting over how much help we should be giving Ukraine. It’s really the actual material aid itself, the the weaponry and the and the finances that that will affect. The war effort. Like basically it’s like if the if the if the dollar amount of U.S. aid of U.S. aid drops, it will its main effect on the war will just be that Ukraine will have less resources to fight the war with, which is sort of what I expected. And so I guess we can close this on the question, like how concerned are you? You know, assuming there’s no political collapse for Putin in Russia over the next few months or and there’s no big breakthrough on the front lines where Ukraine exploits some weakness and and the trajectory of the war changes. And we’re sort of where we are now that there’s a budget fight in the U.S., the amount of aid in the in next year’s budget drops from the 45 billion we approved last time around to some number that’s significantly lower than that. That what are your concerns that A, that will happen and B, that it’ll have a material effect on Ukraine’s ability to persist beyond late 2023.
Rob Lee: It is a concern. So it’s it’s not even just politics. It’s also just industrially. You know, Ukraine is firing more artillery ammunition. You know, every day. That is being produced in NATO members. That’s not going to, production has ramped up fast enough. It’s not clear that we had the capacity right. If we thought through this kind of industrial capacity after the Cold War ended, it’s been a long time, I don’t think we’ve kind of tested. So I think it’s is a combination of issues. You know, one, you know, the politics better than I do, so I can’t speak to that well. But, you know, there was also is I think there is polling that suggesting that Americans are less willing I think that it’s going to provide aid indefinitely. It’s still a majority support it. I think that’s still a strong argument that, you know, the Biden administration can make, and other politicians can make. But you know I think there, especially when information comes out and if people’s get the perception that Ukraine is not winning or is losing or, you know, it’s a stalemate and we can we can achieve negotiations. Right. By pushing for them, which again, I don’t think is is an accurate assessment that can shape people’s views of this. So I think that is a problem. But, you know, ultimately it’s you know, it’s a question of can Ukraine keep receiving enough artillery, ammunition, air defense missiles all that kind of equipment to stay in this war? And, you know, that’s that’s not fully clear. Right. It’s not fully clear that the US not fully clear that NATO members can do that. Not fully clear if our defense industry has ramped up production sufficiently. You know, obviously with some of the weapons deliveries, you know, some of the questions come to how does this effect US posture with China, with Taiwan, North Korea, for [?] the long range missile for the HIMARS, only a limited amount were produced. Ukraine has been asking for them for six, seven months and they wouldn’t have any immediate effect because they already operate HIMARS it put a lot of targets in range within occupied Ukraine. But if you if you start to get HIMARS you know all those, all missiles are kind of accounted for I think in U.S. kind of military planning for potential scenarios. And so if you start removing them, it does become a question of okay, we are in some way right. Downgrading military capabilities for certain other contingencies. And it would be a question, you know, for artillery ammunition, javelins, right. I think I think the the the the risk is a bit lower. But at some point. Right. That might be an issue where okay, now we cannot provide these kind of weapons to other countries now we’re we’ve run through stockpiles we kind of start taking on more risk if other things occur, the longer this war goes on, if we are not replacing that through production. And I think right now, I don’t think we are production wise. So I think there are some industrial questions, right. About how much you know, how much support is Ukraine going to get. And at a certain point, you know, we might be well, I’m sure we’ll keep providing artillery ammunition, but if the numbers decrease, it might basically mean okay, it’s only enough for Ukraine to defend not to attack. And that might kind of affect what Ukrainian can attempt to do and basically their kind of strategy for the rest of the war.
Brian Beutler: Got it. And I mean this is highly speculative, but if you have a situation where these months turn into a full year of very little movement on the front lines and it coincides with a changing political situation, the U.S. Changing ability for the US Congress to to continue financing a war effort that really is just on the same front line and then perception that. Like this is this is just where the line is and we can. You know, spend and spend and spend and spend in the hope that at some point one side or another breaks or we can just say, like we are willing to support an effort to make that the new. Border and hope that Ukraine can be sort of bullied into just agreeing to negotiate around those terms. You’re saying I think you’re saying that you don’t think that that’s a likely outcome. But I guess I guess what I’m trying to circle around is. The political debates that we will have in the U.S. about how much money to supply to this effort that that seems stuck right now can sort of be determinative if of if in the long run, Ukraine will get to keep all or most of its territory or whether it will have to settle for losing a significant amount of it.
Rob Lee: Yes. No, it is a very important variable. And again, I think artillery ammunition that availability for both the Russian and Ukrainian side might be the biggest variable of 2023. Of how we explain how 2023 went. You know, because we have more of it, you’re more like you can do offensive operations effectively if you have less as a bigger deal and if one side runs low, then they’ll have a they will struggle to defend effectively. So foreign support for both sides is significant. And it could it could alter the course of war. And, you know, again, it always comes back to, you know, it’s a debate, U.S. domestic politics, other kind of business policy, NATO members, whatever decision making happens in North Korea. Right. Whatever happens, it’s Iran. I don’t know what what their factors are. All those things come together to try and kind of come up. Okay, which side can kind of sustain this war better based on all this kind of ammunition all the kind of weapons they’re getting. So I don’t know. There’s a short answer. Um, I think Ukraine has a number of advantages, right? I think morale is one. I think clear purpose is one. Right. You know, this unity we see in Ukraine and we know they can do offensive operations if they have the right equipment. I think Ukraine will make gains. But. Right. How much that you know, how much they’ll take back? A lot of it is is kind of up for debate. And, you know, their ability to stay in this war going deeper into 2023 based on these kind of concerns about [?]. That’s an open question, too. And, of course, look, I mean, Russia, if they think they can stay, stay in this war better, if they think they they’re at a point where they have advantages over Ukraine, they’re not going in the war. They’re going to keep pursuing it to try to achieve as much as they can. And ultimately, that’s you know, that’s one of the big concerns going forward, is that it doesn’t look as though there’s a strong domestic threat to Putin. It looks as though Russia can kind of sustain a lot of this for the foreseeable future. Maybe some of that’s wrong, but it doesn’t look good at the point and they think they have the advantage. You know, they’re going to try and take it to try and walk away more from this war than they’ve already achieved. And that’s a big concern going forward.
Brian Beutler: Right. Yeah, almost in a way like the fact that this we have this budget situation and this political division in the U.S. is is a is a signal to Russia. Like if we can just hang on for a few more months, like Ukraine’s capabilities might abruptly change. And, you know, that’s just one factor, as you allude to among many. So it’s I guess we’re sort of ending where we start where I, I like my. Ability to foresee or like my sense of where things are headed remains as unclear as ever. But I understand the the dynamics and the various factors affecting things much better, thanks to your input. So, Rob Lee, appreciate you spending so much of your time with us.
Rob Lee: Yeah, thanks for having me. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: A couple observations to close us out this week. One, Rob really helped me understand A, why logistically the war in Ukraine has from the way, way outside appeared to be stuck in this holding pattern for so long. And B, what kinds of things it would take to break the impasse. The big things in Ukraine’s favor are the possibility of political turmoil in Moscow, which in turn may become more likely if Russia has to conscript more soldiers, particularly from the ranks of the regular workforce. There’s also the potential for a strategic breakthrough at a Russian weak point on the front lines and the potential that new armaments from the West will be game changing in some way. On the Russian side, there’s mostly just a hope that this grind will eventually wear Ukraine down. But relatedly, Vladimir Putin also would clearly love it if a big reduction in military aid made Ukraine simply unable to sustain its own side of the fighting. As this stalemate drags on. And as Rob said, that’s a real possibility. We aren’t wrong to have worried about that and to be a bit more political about it. It’s a reminder that the stakes of Republican budget brinkmanship in Washington are impossibly high. Even if you ignore the total recklessness of threatening to force the country into default. But there’s a bigger lesson buried in that comparison we made between how morale works in political and military contexts. I think Rob’s biggest point in explaining to us how all this shit works is that you can’t really plug everything, you know into a formula. And then have faith that what comes out the other side will be a helpful forecast for the medium and long term. It’s far too chaotic and complicated to model. There’s so much uncertainty. And there I think the analogy to regular politics holds up better with the lesson being that it’s easy to overthink things and imagine that we or the contestants can see ahead several moves. It was really smart of Democrats to put so much Ukraine aid in the last omnibus before Republicans took over the House. It was not so smart to leave the debt limit in place in the hope that Republicans might be suckered into making various political blunders. And I say that even as Republicans are making political blunders. Yes, it’s fun for now that they’re fighting with each other over whether Social Security should even exist. But a lot of people would probably rest easier if that weren’t happening. And at the same time, Republicans had less leverage than they do over the coming budget. [music plays] Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is, Michael Martinez. Our producer, is Olivia Martinez and our associate producer is Emma Illick-Frank. Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.