A Few Thoughts on the War
If you are a Russian reader or speaker, I highly recommend anything by Gleb Pavlovsky. Pavlovsky is a great observer of Russian politics. His Sistema RF should be translated into English because it is a short comprehensive summary of the structural incentives of Russian politics. Last night, I watched a few recent interviews he gave, and I was struck by his argument that "the war is the [presidential] transition." What he means by this is that the political system could not figure out how to achieve a transition from power because the entire Russian political system has been de-institutionalized. Thus, it was impossible for elites, including Putin himself, to figure out how to move forward in an organized manner. The war allowed Putin to return to the fore of Russian politics as the person in charge who is irreplaceable. Russian elites now prancing around the occupied territories are dancing to fulfill Putin's orders. Thus, Pavlovsky argues that this is a very comfortable place for Putin because now the is not just the president, which is a political post, but a "commander-in-chief."
I think this works very well with my idea that the ideal world for Putin is that the war becomes background noise to as many Russians as possible. Putin, as commander-in-chief, can take care of things, and average Russians can more or less remain apolitical. That would create a kind of stasis for the Russian government, which it can live with and then figure out something later. Putin isn't a strategist. His system isn't set up for that kind of thinking, even if he wanted it to be. Rather, he's very good at tactics and finding short-term opportunities. That, in turn, requires he has room to find them at his pace.
What does that mean for the war? First, a disclaimer. I am not a war knower. I have some knowledge of military history, even less of theory, and zero of practice. However, I think we can all agree that Clausewitz is roughly right when he says, "war is politics by other means." The implication is that a "policy-strategy match" needs to be where battlefield strategy drives a political policy objective. At first glance, it seems that Russia has no such concept. Its first moves were haphazard resulting in a defeat in Kyiv. I already discussed my theory as to what happened to create that. It then turned around and announced a measurable goal of capturing the Donbas but is now reversing itself to make grander claims to "de-nazification," de-militarization," and lately hinting that it won't stop at the Donbas or its occupied territories. It seems like the Russian elite doesn't know what they want to do because Putin is lost. I am not sure he is. I think this slow grinding suits him just fine for now. It's clear he thinks it will end with some Western capitulation and a freeze of conflicts due to economic pressure (whether he is right or not is an open question). Then a few years later, it could heat up again, which would be fine too. This prolonged slow muddle is ok because it puts off succession questions and gives Putin chances to take advantage of the short-term opportunities. It's where he is comfortable.
Thus, from his point of view, there probably has to be what Michael Koffman described as a "set piece battle" for the Slovyansk-Kharmatork conglomeration. It will be a hard battle, and not one Russia is guaranteed to win. But if it ends in trench warfare for months, it won't be a defeat. As long as military and economic degradation is gradual, it is likely that Putin, maybe correctly, thinks he can handle domestic politics. What would give Putin problems is if there was an acceleration of problems. Those are harder to routinize. The last time we had the Russians face such a problem was when they were beginning to lose the battle of Kyiv. In late March, it did seem that Putin was personally starting to lose his cool and the vultures might have been circling. The Kyiv offensive was obviously a failure, but what made it a problem was that instead of stalling, the Ukrainians were finding some success in mobile warfare that could result in Russian forces suffering a visible defeat. However, in April, Ukraine didn't have the military capacity to force this outcome either. That is why the Russians were able to make the decision to retreat in good order and pivot the war into the grind we have seen for the past few months. With an orderly withdrawal, it became domestically feasible to call a larger military clusterfuck into a "feint."
This sheds light on what I think the Ukrainians want to do. For Ukraine to break Putin's comfort zone, it has to force a very specific type of defeat on Russia. One that can't be routinized. This shores Western support and creates a political problem for Putin. The place to do it is Kherson City. There are a few obvious reasons I've heard from people that seem to know what they are talking about for Ukraine's focus on Kherson. One is that it is obviously the largest Oblast capital Russia has been able to take. It is Russia's only outpost on the west side of the Dneiper. Taking it back removes their bridgehead and allows troops to reposition to other fronts. But I suspect there is a very specific way the Ukrainians wants to win this particular battle. They want to trap a Russian military formation and visibly defeat it in a way that will be hard to spin as a second Kyiv "feint" or a "gesture of goodwill" like the Russian withdrawal from Snake Island. This will put Putin out of his new comfort zone and open up the space for what he dreads most: politics.
Here is where the limits of my knowledge show up. Can Ukraine do this? If so, will Russia choose to somehow retreat and claim they did it for "humanitarian reasons" or something of the sort? We do know that the Ukrainians are starting to target bridges and lines of communications. Obviously, they are doing it to make supply and communication more difficult – even I can figure that part out. But are they also doing it to try to have an enemy force they can trap and destroy? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I hope someone smarter than me in Kyiv does.