War is complicated. At the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, I listened to a lot of people who I thought made very plausible arguments that Russia had an overwhelming advantage and would ultimately prevail. At this point, it seems to me that one has to be pretty disconnected from reality to still be bullish on Russia. But I’ve been wrong before, so who knows?
No longer confident in my own ability to forecast military events, I’ve figured that the best I can do is listen to those who have been right up to this point. You may remember Chris Nicholson from our Better Call Saul podcasts. What you don’t know is that he also loves thinking and talking about war.
He told me very early in the conflict – it might’ve been as early as March – that he thought Ukraine would eventually take back all the land Russia had won, and even move into pre-February 24 territory. At the time I thought he was crazy. Sure, the Russian push into Kiev had failed, but Ukraine had not proved it could go on the offensive, and most observers thought that when the Russian military concentrated its efforts on the territory it held, it could at least maintain its current position. This view was reinforced when during the summer we saw Russia still making real, albeit slow and incremental, gains in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Then, practically overnight, in early September it was pushed out of Kharkiv province, losing ten percent of the Ukrainian territory it had taken since February 24. The speed with which this happened was shocking to me, as I had been used to watching Russia struggle for weeks and months against heavy resistance to take a series of cities and towns it was now giving up without a fight.
All of this had me rethink what Chris had been telling me at the start of the war, and frankly gave me a lot more trust in his ability to clearly understand what is happening in a very complicated battlefield environment. He thought that Ukraine’s will to fight plus open-ended and unlimited support from the West meant that time was on its side.
The Russian collapse in Kharkiv appears to only have been the beginning of what will be a much longer process. One day after Putin announced that Russia was annexing four provinces of Ukraine, his troops lost Lyman in Donetsk. Some of the residents of the town, having been cut off from electricity and the internet, were apparently surprised when they were informed that they had been residents of Russia for a day. Ukraine is making gains on multiple fronts, and it is possible that there might be another breakthrough by the time you read this. I recently speculated that Russia may have been annexing territory in order to justify soon using nuclear weapons, based on the theory that they are currently on the defensive and it would be too humiliating to claim land and then immediately lose it. But Russia isn’t even being clear about what the borders of its “new territories” are, which indicates that they’re not in fact committing to anything concrete and instead sort of stumbling along. It’s difficult to explain all of this in any way without giving at least some credence to the idea that the regime really is as corrupt and incompetent as its worst critics allege.
Given where we are, I decided to have a chat with Chris about the war so far and where it’s going. As you’ll see, he thinks Russia is in deep trouble. We get into the technical details as to why, with Chris explaining to me how artillery works and the game changing nature of HIMARS. We also discuss whether the Russian war effort can be saved by the recent mobilization of personnel and which strategies make sense for Putin at this point. I ask Chris why, if things are as bad as he suggests, Russia wouldn’t just roll the dice and decide that going nuclear is its only option. He replies by arguing that there are still steps that the US can take on the escalatory ladder, which leads me to ask whether that means Putin can game things out and realize that threatening to destroy the world might be his only card to play.
Near the end, we converge on a reasonable explanation of Russia’s seemingly puzzling decision to annex territory it either does not control or is in the process of losing.
This was a frightening but ultimately fascinating and productive conversation, and before long I hope to have Chris on again to talk about the war.
Wikipedia: M142 HIMARS.
The New York Times on GMLRS rockets. Video demonstration of the weapon. Article on the subject.
BBC article comparing HIMARS to other weapons in terms of range.
The Washington Post: “Russia’s spies misread Ukraine and misled Kremlin as war loomed.”
The New York Times: “The Kremlin, after trumpeting annexation, admits it doesn’t know where the borders are.”