RUSSIAN FEDERATION SITREP 16 SEPTEMBER 2021

EXERCISE. The Armed Forces hold big exercises every year, working their way around the compass. This year was West – Zapad. Back in the Day, every September saw big exercises in West Germany – REFORGER – in which formations drove around the countryside (I was on a couple myself and we just drove tanks anywhere we wanted to). The Russian ones, however, are generally restricted to exercise areas and, while they are said to involve, in this case, 200,000 troops, they count everyone involved in any way. But the alarmists make a big deal out of it – here’s can’t-find-Putin’s-speech Applebaum, for example. But they’re impressive nonetheless; two highlights this year: the night drop of a parachute battalion plus armoured vehicles and the appearance of some combat robots.

THEN AND NOW. There is a series of videos using Google Street view of Russian towns in 2010 and 2020. I mentioned Gelendzhik last time but here’s Perm, Sochi (booming, by the way), Arkhangelsk, Petrozavodsk. If you still believe the Western media’s rubbish about decaying Russia, give them a look: it’s not China, but it’s a lot of improvement.

HISTORY. Putin unveils a monument to Aleksandr Nevskiy. In the meeting room in the MoD in Moscow (where I’ve been a couple of times – maybe they meet somewhere else now) there are three decorative bas reliefs – 1941-45, 1812 and Nevskiy. The existential threat to Russia has always come from the West. Highly recommend Paul Robinson’s essay on the background and meaning of this.

NORD STREAM. The last pipe was welded on the 6th; apparently there are some legal details to be completed before the gas comes through. Kiev fulminates, Washington threatens. Meanwhile gas prices in Europe hit a record high.

INFLATION. At a five-year high – 6.7%. Food especially; but that’s a world-wide phenomenon.

NAVALNIY “POISONING”, John Helmer has much on how the story was created. (Still waiting for a Western “news” outlet that was insisting Putin wanted him dead to explain why he isn’t.)

DISEASE. Further evidence that Russia is thinking about biowar attacks: it is building a network of labs and testing facilities: “sanitary shield” they call it.

ELECTION INTERFERENCE. The US Ambassador was challenged to explain “irrefutable evidence” of interference in next Sunday’s election. (Video purporting to show observers coached to claim fraud.) As typical, the West will instantly condemn them; the object, as Korybko argues, being to block any attempts to better relations. This example shows how savagely such suggestions are beaten down and one can be sure that “yet-another-rigged-election” will be used to smear the next modest suggestion to improve American relations with a country that has 1) a close relationship with the number-one economic power, 2) the capability of obliterating the USA and destroying NATO’s military.

JUST NUKES AND OIL. Work on a Russian-Chinese jetliner begun. Big market, few suppliers (especially given the damage Boeing did to itself). Another medium-sized tanker launched.

THE EMPTINESS OF FORMER FLAPS. CNN then “Authorities in Belarus have announced the arrest of 33 Russian mercenaries on suspicion of terrorism“. CNN now: “Ukraine spies tried to ensnare alleged Russian war criminals with a fake website, promises of riches and an international sting.” I didn’t cover the story at the time, correctly assessing it to be part of the colour revolution attempt against Lukashenka. (Why would CNN, not known for admitting to its propagandising, put this out? is Ukraine being “Afghanised”?).

LEARNING. General Hyten described a recent US exercise as a miserable failure – see my piece here. In a talk at Brookings he said “our goal is to never go to war with China and Russia.” He also said that the US military was moving too slowly and suggested that the USA wasn’t getting its money’s worth in defence. Very interesting, especially when said in such a citadel of the neocon world. On the other hand, he’s apparently retiring soon and will probably be replaced by a rah-rah type.

UKRAINE. Zelensky complains that Washington is still vague on NATO; possibility of war with Russia; has “no time to think about [Putin]” but wants a meeting. Ukraine is not Afghanistan; army “one of the most powerful“. Meanwhile Edward Lucas gushes about Ukraine’s success which is somehow a challenge to Putin. Stunning levels of delusion; second-poorest in Europe they say.

AFGHANISTAN. I’m amused by all the statements that Taliban must do this or that. No. USA/NATO were defeated. That means Taliban doesn’t care what they have to say and isn’t frightened by their threats.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Canada Russia Observer

AFGHANISTAN: SAME, SAME; AGAIN, AGAIN

(First published Strategic Culture Foundation)

The lesson of Afghanistan is not that the US is washed up as a great power. The lesson is that the US is such a great power, militarily and economically, that it is continually tempted to try hopeless things that nobody else on earth – including China – would ever attempt.

David Frum gives new meaning to the expression “in denial”.

Don’t believe what you’re told by the generals, or the ambassadors, or people in the administration saying we’re never going to do this again. That’s exactly what we said after Vietnam. We’re never going to do this again. Lo and behold we did Iraq. And we did Afghanistan. We will do this again.

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)

Bill Ehrhart arrived in Vietnam in 1967 believing everything. His first indication that all was not as expected came when he wasn’t welcomed the way Allied soldiers had been in 1944. A couple of days later he was shocked to see “detainees”, bound hand and foot, casually tossed off a high vehicle by other Marines. This didn’t seem to be the way to treat people the Americans were there to help said he to his companion who told him to keep his mouth shut “until you know what’s going on around here”. And, he continues in this video, “it went downhill from there”. Every day patrols met “snipers and mines” but he saw hardly any enemy soldiers. He came to realise that the Viet Cong didn’t have to force people to fight the Americans; once a Marine patrol had destroyed its way through a village, they’d have all the recruits they needed:

the longer we stayed in Vietnam, the more Viet Cong there were, because we created them; we produced them… The Vietnamese people hated me and I gave them every reason to hate me.

The war he saw bore no resemblance to the optimistic stuff he read in Time Magazine and other mass media. So he hunkered down, stopped asking the questions of what and why – “the questions themselves were too ugly even to ask” – did what he did and waited for the date when he would go home.

This story is from Afghanistan but it fits Ehrhart’s conclusion perfectly. The first Americans into a valley in 2001 make contact with a local timber baron; he tells them his rival is a Taliban supporter; the rival is bombed; he loses his business, some of his family are killed and he does join Taliban. You can just imagine the locals, when these dumb and ignorant – but terribly destructive – aliens drop out of the sky, calculating how best to manipulate them. The Americans never think to reflect on Putin’s observation of five years ago:

The extremists in this case are more cunning, clever and stronger than you, and if you play these games with them, you will always lose.

Or try to answer his question: “who’s playing who here?

The scene shifts to Afghanistan as we move four decades ahead from Ehrhard’s observations. For example, in this account in the Military Times:

  • Expecting to be welcomed: “I just felt we were over there fighting an enemy who attacked America and liberating the people of Afghanistan from Taliban rule”.
  • They’re all the enemy: “It was such a complex war with more than one enemy, not just the Taliban… Sometimes it seemed like it was just some young, bored kids shooting at us”.
  • The happy-happy reports are all fake: “Seeing politicians use Afghanistan and Iraq as a talking points without any action, then seeing young men and women run through deployment after deployment until they have nothing left to give, only to be discarded and left to figure out how to cope…”.

What’s the difference between these American soldiers’ experiences in Afghanistan and their predecessors’ in Vietnam?

Ehrhart doesn’t talk about personnel rotation policy in Vietnam although there is an allusion to it: he knew to the day when his time would end and, as it happened, he was literally plucked out of a firefight and sent home. The practice was that junior officers were at the front for six months and other ranks for one year. Thus an individual infantryman might go through two or three platoon commanders with fellow platoon members appearing and disappearing as their dates came up. The effects of unit cohesion were devastating – indeed there was no unit cohesion at all. This rotation policy was argued to be one of the reasons for the defeat as described in this essay. A colleague of mine was peripherally involved in this discussion as he presented the British/Commonwealth “regimental system” in which units and subunits went in together and came out together. But what do we see in Afghanistan four decades later?

Hearts and minds sounded great on paper, but it was often seen as an empty promise to the locals… We would inevitably break those promises in one of two ways. First, the command may just up and move us to a different area, leaving those who helped us high and dry. Second, frequent deployment rotations meant personal relationships would only last, at most, a few months to a year.

And, of course, that great favourite of the American Way of War – bombing. Lots of bombing. In the Vietnam War the US is said to have dropped seven million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I haven’t found tonnage numbers for Afghanistan, but there are numbers on “weapons releases”. This presumably includes bombs (but was each “dumb” bomb really counted?) and missiles but not artillery or – vide the destruction of the MSF hospital in KunduzHercules gunships. The numbers I can find say that there were, between 2013 and 2019, about 26,500 “releases” plus about another 21,000 going back to 2006. Another estimate puts it at at least 81,000 in total. It is generally accepted that 160,000 tons were dropped on Japan proper – a country with numerous shipyards, naval bases, aircraft and munition factories; few of which existed in Vietnam and none at all in Afghanistan. What were they bombing?

The next similarity is that reports in both wars were, to put it gently, doctored to make things look better than they were. The Pentagon Papers have their direct match in the Afghanistan Papers. From each it is clear that the authorities knew, from the first few years, that it was a failure; but they hid, lied and obfuscated. Each commander kicked the failure down the road for his successor to deal with. Official accounts of each war show plenty of “light at the end of the tunnel”, “turning the corner” year after year until the last corner was turned and the lights went out.

In Vietnam the enemy was moving under forest cover, so the US forces dropped immense quantities – tens of thousands of cubic metres – of defoliants to clear away the leaves they were hiding under. Few trees in Afghanistan so instead there was geological bombing “blasting away mountain passes and potential cover to limit where and how militants can operate”. An insane use of technology and destructive power substituting for tactical competence. And little to no effect on the outcome.

Accounts of soldiers’ experiences in Vietnam speak of patrols that, when they run into snipers or mines, call in artillery or airstrikes at vague targets – effectively saturation bombing – and helicopter out. We hear the same thing in Afghanistan. The only difference being that patrols in the former were on foot and in the latter in vehicles. It sees that the patrols had little purpose other than to show a presence: they’re not armies moving closer to Berlin or some other objective, they are just moving around. Something to do with “hearts and minds”, I suppose. But targets for the enemy and the opportunity for immense random destruction in retaliation.

Fake metrics are another similarity. Robert McNamara was US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1966 – the very height of the Vietnam War. He had been a “whiz kid” at Ford and had had the knack of impressing his superiors with flow charts and numbers. His behaviour in Vietnam has led to an entire fallacy being named in his honour. The “McNamara Fallacy” is described by Daniel Yankelovich as the following four steps

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes.

The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading.

The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness.

The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.

In the Vietnam case the “easily measured” was the famous body count – number of enemy soldiers killed: the higher the number, the closer to “the light at the end of the tunnel”. According to this source, a rough calculation suggests that in 1965 there were more than five million males aged 15-39 in Vietnam and another seven million younger. That’s lot of bodies between the USA and victory. Secondly, if that’s what the boss wants to hear, that’s what we’ll tell him and the metric rapidly became GIGO. In Afghanistan, according to this account, it was dollars spent:

Perversely, because it was the easiest thing to monitor, the amount of money spent by a program often became the most important measure of success. A USAID official told SIGAR, “The Hill was always asking, ‘Did you spend the money?’…I didn’t hear many questions about what the effects were.”

Schools, hospitals, roads: hard to find, hard to measure (especially with widespread corruption) – bundles of hundred-dollar bills out the door easy to measure and so that became Afghanistan’s version of McNamara’s Fallacy. The make-believe precision measurement of nothing.

In a word, everything I’ve written about the American Way of War has been illustrated in the Afghanistan failure. The initial success feeding the appetite for further engagement and ever-larger aims. The assumption of free air movement and reliable communications. The obsession with technology. The self-replicating intelligence feedback cycle in which you only hear what you want to hear culminating in the final error of how much time was left to get out. The reinforcement of failure – bombing hasn’t worked, do more of it; can’t find the enemy, change the terrain. Worthless metrics. Inability to see things from the enemy’s perspective.

The only difference between the American performances in Vietnam and Afghanistan is that in the first, the vehicles were painted green and in the second, sand. They should sit out the next one.

RUSSIAN FEDERATION SITREP 2 SEPTEMBER 2021

QUESTION. How many in the former USSR and Warsaw Pact now think that they made the correct bet in the 1990s? How about Western Europe? This will be one of the biggest geopolitical questions for the 2020s. The Afghanistan disaster will have very significant downstream effects; much more than the Vietnam defeat. That was one thing but this is another: in 1975 NATO had a purpose because the USSR was still there; China was poor and weak; the Shah still ruled. Afghanistan wasn’t just a defeat of the Washington’s neocon cabal and revelation of the duplicity of the military-industrial-media complex, it was the finish of post Cold War triumphantasies, moralistic finger-wagging, superior values boasting, NATO adventurism, “nation-building” and many other delusions widely shared in the West.

RESCUE. There are still a lot of NATO and Tabaquis left behind in Afghanistan – what do you bet they make their way to the Russian Embassy to ask to be helped out? And Moscow will do it – the propaganda value is too great to pass up: Russia – the reliable partner.

AFGHANISTAN. Another exercise on Afghanistan’s periphery: Combat Commonwealth-2021. Troops from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic will be involved. Mostly air defence which is an interesting choice.

WATCH THIS. They tell you Russia is a decaying rathole, check this out: Gelendzhik 2010 and now.

ELECTIONS. Duma elections will be held on the 19th and the pedestal party (United Russia) isn’t doing too well. The communists (KPRF) and Zhirinovsky’s party (LDPR) may triumph in some regions but most expect UR to keep a working majority overall. Putin – who’s not formally a member of UR – and other government people are out busily bribing the taxpayers with their own money.

NAVALNIY. A documentary takes a look at the “poisoning” and concludes it was likely a mishap from lithium. Meanwhile, in an interview from prison, he complains that the worst thing is official TV. (BTW, didn’t Western “news” outlets spend weeks telling us that Putin was determined to kill Navalniy and actually tried twice; why aren’t they wondering why he’s still alive? The answer of course – which shows you what Western coverage of Russia really is – is that details in war propaganda aren’t supposed to be remembered: they’re just made up and ignored as needed to create the enemy picture.)

IMPORT SUBSTITUTION. As everyone knows, Putin is skilled at judo which is the art of using the opponent’s strengths against him. When sanctions were imposed after Maidan, Moscow cleverly imposed counter-sanctions on food. This, plus government support, has resulted in Russia becoming pretty much food independent. Likewise many other industries have profited from import substitution. The next area is what you might call electronic independence. Even the Moscow Times has to admit that Russia has made huge improvements here too. Russia is gradually becoming a rather curious economic beast – a economically self-sufficient country with high-demand exports. Pretty strong position, I think.

PLUTOCRATS. Forbes (not that I take it very seriously – anybody remember when it put Chernomyrdin at the top?) has decided that Tatiana Bakalchuk and her husband are Russia’s richest. What’s interesting is that they didn’t use their connections to steal stuff in the 1990s but made it from their e-commerce company Wildberries. Banned in Ukraine, of course.

TANK BIATHALON. Loud and dirty things you can do in a tank.

GARBAGE. A subject that has featured in the last few Putin Q&A sessions is garbage dumps. It seems that the communists were pretty casual and the problems are building up. People complain of nasty messes near them and the Natural Resources Minister has warned that facilities in more than 20 regions will run out of space within the next two or three years. There is a plan and I expect that the problem will – as so many others have been – gradually be ameliorated. Plastics ban?

THE DEATH OF IRONY. “Ukraine Shuts Down Opposition Media – U.S. Ambassador Applauds ‘Daring Act’, Calls For Support“. What actually happened is that Medvedchuk’s party is more popular than Zelensky’s; so shut his news outlets down and put him under house arrest. Perfectly acceptable and praiseworthy because… Putin!

ENDING? Biden, in his end of Afghanistan speech said: “we’ve got to learn from our mistakes… This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries”. Does that mean out of Iraq and Syria too? Or is the key word here “major”? which in practice means no change (they all start as minor, soon-to-be-over victory parades.)

Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Canada Russia Observer