What to make of the current military situation in the Donbas. And how many kinds of infantry does an army need?
Ukraine at D+91: All combat is local.
Several reports indicate that Russia's refocusing of its efforts on the Donbas are producing some of the results Moscow has hoped for. Russian artillery fire has been heavy and indiscriminate, hitting towns in the area very hard, the Telegraph writes. In a related piece the paper reports that the Russian army is showing an ability to operate as a team, at least in small "bite and hold" operations.
The morning situation report from Britain's Ministry of Defense (MoD) constitutes an excursus on Russian employment of airborne troops. "Russia’s airborne forces – the VDV – have been heavily involved in several notable tactical failures since the start of Russia’s invasion," the MoD tweeted. "This includes the attempted advance on Kyiv via Hostomel Airfield in March, the stalled progress on the Izium axis since April, and the recent failed and costly crossings of the Siverskyi Donets River. Russian doctrine anticipates assigning the VDV to some of the most demanding operations. The 45,000-strong VDV is mostly comprised of professional contract soldiers. Its members enjoy elite status and attract additional pay," but it's been assigned tasks that might have been expected to go to heavy forces. "The VDV has been employed on missions better suited to heavier armoured infantry and has sustained heavy casualties during the campaign. Its mixed performance likely reflects a strategic mismanagement of this capability and Russia’s failure to secure air superiority. The misemployment of the VDV in Ukraine highlights how Putin’s significant investment in the armed forces over the last 15 years has resulted in an unbalanced overall force. The failure to anticipate Ukrainian resistance and the subsequent complacency of Russian commanders has led to significant losses across many of Russia’s more elite units."
What does tactical competence look like, in a modern army?
These reports are worth some reflection. While complacency about any army's capability is always unwise, and while NATO and the rest of the civilized world would do well to consider how they might continue their support of Ukraine, it would be premature to see recent events as showing a major improvement in Russian capability. The MoD's comments about "misemployment" of elite airborne forces suggest that an amateur's understanding of combat remains in evidence among Russian operational planners. The VDV is indeed considered an elite, and that's probably part of the problem. Forces told they're "elite" tend to come to believe their own press releases, and quickly grow lazy and overconfident. Serious generals will tell you that every army needs one kind of infantry--"good infantry"--and that hype about elites should be regarded with skepticism. The other problem is that senior political leaders can also buy into the hype. Take Kyiv? Sure--the VDV will handle it. Of course they were less than fully successful, but it's unclear whether Russia's army will learn from that failure.
Because the Russian army's culture isn't what you'd find in what the business school gurus call "a learning organization." A World Policy Review essay on "militarism," or the temptation to substitute the trappings of glory for hard training and rigorous self-examination, suggests why this may be so.
So what is one to make of local success in the Donbas? Note, first, that they've been produced within range of Russian artillery, and the Russian army's ability to line the guns up hud-to-hub and fire, hard, at stationary area targets has never been in doubt. And infantry, from the dullest conscript to the most prancing elite paratrooper, can be directed with a pointed finger and some profanity into undefended rubble a few hundred meters away. This is not genuine combined arms coordination. When Russia's army shows the ability to move, shoot, and communicate against resistance, that would show improvement, but so far that's not in evidence. How long the Russian forces will be able to maintain even their artillery capability against what may prove to be effective Ukrainian counterfire and special operations remains to be seen.
Google honored by Kyiv.
Ukraine's government has honored Google for the assistance the company has rendered to Ukraine during Russia's invasion, awarding the company a "Peace Prize." The award was presented at Davos by Vice Prime Minister - Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov when he met with Google's Vice President for Government Affairs and Public Policy, Karan Bhatia at the World Economic Forum.
“From February 24, a new history began not only for Ukraine, but also for the global community," Fedorov said. "The world is changing, the old system no longer works. Everyone should express a clear position, whom they support. With this award, we are pleased to emphasize that Google is a great friend of Ukraine. Literally from the first days of the war, you began to help us on the information front, with many business initiatives and, most importantly, humanitarian support for our citizens." He drew particular attention not only to Google (and Google-inspired) donations to Ukraine, which have amounted to some $45 million, but also to Google's actions against Russian interests.
“An important step was also imposing the sanctions," Fedorov said. "Suspension of Google advertising in Russia as well as cooperation with Russian advertisers. Google blocked all new registrations in cloud services, GooglePay and the monetization function for YouTube in Russia. Also, since the early days, Google has been restricting ads and trying to provide coverage of the war in the most correct way. Since the beginning of the war, YouTube has removed more than 9,000 channels and 70,000 videos that spread lies about Russian aggression.”
Google's Bhatia was appreciative: “The war in Ukraine, and resulting humanitarian crisis, is devastating. From the beginning of the war, we’ve sought to help however we can. We’ve committed over $45 million to humanitarian support, and worked to ensure our tools are being as helpful as they can be - providing trustworthy information and fighting against cyber attacks. We’re humbled and honored that our work has been recognized with this special Peace Prize from Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. We will continue to work with the Ukrainian Government to provide more support for as long as we are needed."
Sanctions, default, and blockades.
The ruble is trading higher now, but the Russian economy continues to suffer under the weight of international sanctions, the Wall Street Journal reports. Moscow continues to teeter on the edge of sovereign default.
Russia is attempting to evade sanctions in some trendy ways, the Wall Street also reports, noting that the US Department of the Treasury is looking into the potential for abuse of hedge funds and private equity for that purpose. Moscow is also taking a page from Pyongyang's playbook, resorting, according to Bloomberg, to at-sea transfers of goods ships that are flagged in ways that facilitate sanctions evasion, suggesting another small step in Russia's path toward transforming itself into a colder, larger, version of North Korea.
The Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports that ship grain abroad, widely condemned internationally as productive of food shortages and, eventually, should they continue, of famine, may be relaxed. At any rate Russia has said it would open some sea lanes as a humanitarian gesture, Bloomberg says that Ukraine is skeptical of the gesture. According to the Wall Street Journal, the offer to permit food shipments is a gambit intended to trade grain for a relaxation of other sanctions.