Dispatch: Nothing Promising
They're calling it "de-escalation"...
This week Russian deputy defense minister announced that the army will “drastically reduce combat operations” around Kiev and the northern city of Chernhiv in a withdrawal that they are pains to clarify is not a cease-fire. According the British Intelligence this look a great deal like a forced retreat ahead of advancing Ukrainian resistance. US Military observers see a “redeployment” of troops.
Whatever they are calling it, the Russians are still shelling Chernhiv eight ways from Sunday.
My years as a journalist and analyst has taught me one very counter-intuitive lesson about people: That lies will often tell you more about a thing than the straight truth. Lies are, for the most part, what we wish were true. They are aspirational, and they are very telling. On 26 February, two days after the invasion of Ukraine, the state-backed Russian news agency RIA Novastic accidently ran a pre-scheduled story with the headline “Ukraine has returned to Russia.” Which contained with the swell rhetorical: “Did someone in the old European capitals, in. Paris and Berlin, seriously believe that Moscow would give up Kiev?”
Another lesson I’ve learned is not to write out stories before they happen. Still, aspiration tells us a great deal about motivation. And motivation tells us a great deal about what’s coming next.
This conflict has been called the “Tik Tok War.” And why not? We live in a Tik Tok world. What makes this conflict novel is that it just may be the first one designed within that slick air of social media bullshit.* What is becoming clear from a series of high-level arrests in Moscow is that the war doesn’t seem to have been planned by the military at all. Planning likely came out of the Bowles of the FBS, the intelligence arm of the internal secret police, an organization with the single-minded skill set of intimidation and propaganda, but is a little light on conquest. It’s a strange place to plan a foreign war, but it does make sense in a paranoid former almost-a-spy sort of way. When your favorite tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Which, in retrospect is the only way a military with all the advantages that Russia had could screw a war up this badly.
The reports of Ukraine’s return to Russia were greatly exaggerated. On the other hand, now that they’ve dug in, getting the Russians out by force is all but impossible. On 25 March Russia’s defense ministry was still calling that “special military operation” a success as it had achieved its war original war aim of liberating the Donbas region. Which doesn’t explain why the army is still pummeling that region into a ruin as well.
Everything being as wonderful as it is on social media, Russia insists that its retreat is a “de-escalation” to build trust, while strangely insisting that it not a cease fire, and therefore retains the right continue killing everyone. Vladimir Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron that to build the trust required to implement a cease-fire in the south of the country, the “militants” of Mariupol – another city the army has managed to destroy, but not take - need to lay down their arms so that a benevolent Russia can stop committing war-crimes against it.
You know, surrender. Which really is a geopolitical innovation. If my military history serves, in the past to get an unconditional surrender you had to actually be winning the war.
Back in reality, Russian spokesperson Dmitry Pekov said, in reference to the progress made at the latest round of peace talks in Istanbul “Nothing very promising.”
* I’m not being vulgar, Dr. Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University couldn’t come up with a better term, and he wrote the book on the subject.