This won’t be a thematically unified post, which is why it’s being put up as a Ready Room.
In some ways, public dialogue on weighty matters is getting sillier and sillier, to the point that one can’t even join the discussion because the premises are so off that there’s no discussing it sensibly. (I’ve written about this Babel-ization of public communication before, going back to Trump’s first year in office and even prior to that. Rounds of ritual chanting have largely taken the place of thoughtful speech in the mainstream media and much of standard politics. The Left is about nothing but this now – people who stray from the model are actively punished – and although there are still parsable sentences and paragraph-length thought-packages coming from the Right, the pattern is present there as well. Trump has had a unique and remarkable faculty for cutting through it and being understood, but he’s out of office now.)
On the topic of Ukraine, writer Daniel Greenfield expressed a related thought a few days ago, one with which I certainly agree.
I take my thinking about Ukraine from neither the Brothers Grimm Writers’ Consortium of the Western media, nor the Brothers Grimmer and Gruesomer of the Kremlin. But few can seem to think outside those hardened and deeply buried premise frameworks, and everything you say, unless it’s couched in the expected orthodox language, is triggering to the majority that thinks within them. “Neocon!” “Fascist!” “Putin stooge!” “Biden bot!” It’s not worth the headache.
Since framework bias is pervasive, it’s hard to be sure we’re even getting the simple situational updates on Ukraine and Russia accurately. The conclusiveness with which we’re supposed to “know” things instantly, the very minute they happen, is so antithetical to the reality of a career spent in military and geopolitical intelligence. Information technology has changed, but the components of human cognition really haven’t. (In any case, IT had already undergone its big change before I retired.)
A picture is still a picture, for example: better than not having one, but trust me, even pictures lie to you, and even when they haven’t been doctored in any way. They aren’t instant evidence, from which there is no appeal or need for further analysis. They’re data points that require corroboration. And maintaining a cognitive advantage in a war is a matter of keeping a constant chain of surveillance, data points, and corroboration going. It’s not about the jerky simplicity of waking up every day to fresh, perfect, itch-scratching evidence arriving neatly packaged from the Evidence Fairy.
The narrative of the Ukraine war has felt far more like the latter than the former. You can’t work with it because it doesn’t act like real-world information. It acts like someone’s narrative (or the narratives of multiple someones). As the tumult and shouting turn to the topic of nuclear weapons use, this is becoming more and more dangerous. If a nuke or nukes get used, will there be any way to trace the decision-making process and identify what really went into it?
I don’t see value, at this point, in trying to evaluate every update every day. Over time, we’ll see what has really been happening. I’m satisfied that Russia is losing some ground in the areas Putin recently proclaimed were his by right of local referenda (also, from a larger viewpoint, that eastern Ukraine has been enduring vicious torture for months under a primitively brutal Russian attack); beyond that, I’m with Daniel Greenfield. No acting as a repeater for either side’s propaganda.
I’m confident that there’s a pretty standard Putin-run state system – an organ – of propaganda churning out stuff from Russia. I’m equally confident that we’re getting propaganda favoring the “Western” side of the argument, but less confident about who’s “in” on it (namely, Zelenskyy. I know some people are convinced he’s playing a role, while others are convinced he’s a Churchillian hero. I’m not passing judgment on that).
The recurring theme in Western media about U.S. intelligence heroically foreseeing everything Russia’s about to do, and running victory laps for the public when Russia either does or doesn’t do it, is pure, unadulterated propaganda. It does nothing other than shape the way we’re supposed to think about what’s happening. (Putin is nowhere near stupid enough to have his mind conditioned by these claims and movie-script-ready analyses.)
The propaganda is thick on both sides. It’s not deception meant for the audience of decision-makers on the other side; weird propaganda that sounds like propaganda isn’t the way that’s done. To deceive Putin, you insert false signals into his info stream, but they have to look like normal signals to him. The media themes about U.S. intelligence recognizing in advance what Russia is about to do aren’t normal; they’re pathetically strange. Clearly, they’re meant to affect the public.
The same appears to be true about Putin’s nuclear rhetoric. He’s well aware the U.S. tracks his nuclear posture and movements very closely. He knows his public pronouncements aren’t how we judge his readiness or the imminence of any potential action. He’s speaking to a public audience; with respect to his force movements, if he’s trying to conceal preparations or intent, he’s probably using some combination of staging, baffling feints, maintaining a normal “look,” and hiding key assets.
Three pings on a centerline narrative
Beyond these observations, I don’t find it useful to spend a lot of time breaking down for people why the daily media reporting is often spurious, misleading, and even ridiculous. I think it’s more worthwhile to simply characterize the situation the way it looks to me, which briefly is as follows: invading Ukraine overtly, with uniformed forces, was something Putin was always likely to do if he found an opportunity. That’s partly because of the specific history he regrets and longs for, in terms of Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine.
It’s also because, as I’ve outlined before, he has a vision for what we might call a breakout of Russia against encirclement by the “Atlantic” alliance. Through the global reach of the United States, that alliance in fact largely encircles maritime Russia; i.e., via our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore in the Far East. The same alliance confronts Russia’s very extensive northern flank across the Arctic in the form of Canada, with a little bit of the U.S. (Alaska) and European Denmark (Greenland) in the mix.
Russia has perceived this encirclement to be real, and to mostly wax rather than wane as an emergency, for at least the last 40 years. The American alliance structures at either end of the Eurasian land mass are one of the first two pillars of our basic post-World War II national security posture; the other is our forward deployed Navy and Air Force, with their key mission of ensuring stable international conditions and access. Americans on average have little knowledge of how essential our latent force is to sustaining the practical meaning of international agreements and norms for orderly conditions, in the world’s waters and air space.
The two maps below are re-upped from my 2018 post (link above):
Putin has chosen the last eight years to begin challenging this post-World War II stasis. That’s a very important component of what he’s doing, and he’s doing it because he perceives that it’s too easy for the “Atlantic” powers to set Russia at a disadvantage with the post-war, post-Soviet lines drawn where they are. He sees an EU-oriented Ukraine as a weapon that can be wielded to bottle Russia up. Indeed, all of Southeastern Europe can be used that way.
But the third component of the current situation is as specific and sui generis as the history of Russia and Ukraine, and Putin has reason to think it involves the current American president in a unique and directly relevant role.
This isn’t about what you think of the matter; it’s about what Putin thinks. The topic here is the syndicate-corrupt, cartel-like nature of commercial kingpins in both Ukraine and Russia, the patterns of power and influence that that brings to bear on politics and state relations, and the perception that American factions have entangled themselves in the cartel-ridden structure in the region, with trails of money and influence that go back to Washington, D.C.
The point here is not to take a stand on who’s guilty of what. It’s to make the essential observation that the fight in Ukraine in fact has aspects of a cartel fight; there’s been fierce competition as well as collusion, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, between cartel bosses in Russia and Ukraine, and those currents run unfettered through Ukraine’s national politics. To suggest that they’re not a core feature of Ukrainian state operations is to look, shall we say, poorly briefed.
And the current U.S. president has had documented, indisputable family business ties to oligarch-linked business in Ukraine since the last Russian invasion in 2014. I don’t think this “cartel wars” drama is by any means the only factor on which the course of events in Ukraine hinges. What we think of as “real” politics, with ideologically and philosophically defined views of priorities and interests, is certainly present. But it is never, at any time, operating outside the effects of cartel corruption, with oligarchs controlling resources, money, and access to the levers of power. (As an aside, note that the appalling destruction and brutality Putin has visited on Ukrainians in the occupied portions of the East bear an interesting similarity to some of the mass slaughters and population subjugation of the cartel wars in Mexico and Central America. The message being sent is as much that of a syndicate kingpin as of a 1940s-era Communist takeover – or a Roman-style burning, razing, and sowing with salt.)
The difference between Putin and Zelenskyy, on one hand, and the American public on the other, is that Putin and Zelenskyy see the syndicate-crime outline very clearly. They know the environment they’re operating in. That doesn’t mean Putin is right in any particular thought he has about Joe Biden, but it does mean Americans staking out sides are frequently wrong in the thoughts they have about the overall Ukraine situation. It’s not the case that it’s about Putin hating “democracy” (he’s perfectly satisfied with it as long as he can manipulate it, which makes him no different from George Soros), any more than it’s about Maidan Ukrainians being in their essence a fascist cabal, as Putin alleges.
It’s about power, geography, and those facets of human nature we probably understood somewhat better before Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill came among us.
A useful shorthand observation here is that a cartel war with national flags is no situation for nuclear solutions. For my money, what we need is not turning the heat up, but a face of menacing and implacable coldness turned toward Putin’s incendiary rhetoric. Unfortunately, the Western media and President Biden are bringing heat rather than stillness and chill. Putin needs intimidating, not the gratification of hysterical yelps from the West.
What Biden says must be about deterring Putin, not impressing imaginary elements of the American public. Sadly, his administration’s priority seems to be triangulating against its own domestic constituencies, angling for ways to depict critics at home as mere “Putin apologists.” This, and the lack of media criticism or even skepticism about his odd Ukraine policy – shoveling huge amounts of money and moderate amounts of weapon systems at Ukraine, with only a caricature of a connection between the weapon systems and progress on the battlefield – create a pervasive sense of surreality that make the war hard to take seriously, other than in terms of the damage it’s inflicting on Ukraine.
A geomilitary grab-bag
With that said, a few specific observations. One, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. I don’t have a confident conclusion on whodunnit. I don’t think it was Russia. Loss of the pipeline closes off an indispensable option for Russia, and I don’t see Putin doing that. He controls the spigot; he doesn’t need to blow gas into the Baltic and render the pipeline inoperable. No, he’s not insane.
I don’t think, as of now, that it was the U.S. or another NATO nation. I do think we probably know who it was. (Yes, that would mean the administration is lying when it fingers Putin.)
It appears to have been a professional job, but that doesn’t mean it was executed by the military force of a nation-state. That’s essential to keep in mind. It isn’t necessary to have the kind of assets Russia has in the Baltic Fleet complex to bring this off. Drawing conclusions from the mere existence of capability isn’t warranted in this case. Anyone could actually have done it using national military assets: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Poland, etc. Or a non-Baltic power with forces deployed to a Baltic host. Doesn’t mean any of them did.
To the cui bono? question, the answer seems to be: those pushing extreme climate alarmism, whose project is to stun and rapidly transform the world with drastic hits to our energy arrangements. I don’t think it was megaphone-waving street activists though. This was a deep-pocketed attack.
Two, the movement seen in imagery of Russian strategic bombers to the Northern theater air base at Olenya.
The bombers didn’t move there to menace Ukraine or other parts of Europe. They do that better, using long-range land-attack cruise missiles, from Russian air space closer to Central Europe; i.e., east of Ukraine, in Belarus or Western Russia. Their main base at Engels is a better location to execute such missions from. (Attacks on Europe would also, and perhaps more likely, be executed with Tu-22M Backfire bombers, which fill a theater operations rather than a strategic role, but can carry the nuclear-capable Kh-101 long-range cruise missile. Russia has Su-30 and Su-35 strike-fighters that can also employ the Kh-101, which as noted here is a violation of the New START arms limitation treaty with the United States.)
Staging bombers to Olenya is about sending a strategic readiness message to North America and the UK. It’s a Cold War pattern. The bombers gain time by operating from a base closer to North America. This was a move about strategic posture and readiness vis-à-vis the United States, Russia’s nuclear-strategic peer.
Three, the disappearance of the Belgorod special-purpose submarine, which Western reporting continues to link with the Poseidon “super-weapon,” a very large nuclear-powered undersea drone thought to carry a unique form of nuclear warhead. (Update on Belgorod from 5 October at the end of this section.)
The Belgorod was in Severodvinsk on the White Sea, a great bay that opens to the south off the Barents Sea. Belgorod was constructed there, and was delivered to the Russian navy in a ceremony there in July 2022.
I doubt Belgorod has deployed for operations, or at least not with a mission of using the Poseidon. The Poseidon still requires testing. Russian reporting in 2021 suggested it would be test-fired in the Arctic in 2022, which could mean somewhere in the Barents or Kara Sea (for maximum privacy it would be the Kara Sea), or even further north under the perennial ice cover.
It’s possible the sub has moved for protection to a hideout location, a frequent pattern during the Cold War. It may be headed for the Pacific Fleet, where Russian reporting has indicated the sub will go after an initial period of subordination to the Northern Fleet. But I don’t think Belgorod will go to the Pacific before the Poseidon is tested. (Northern Fleet submarines have transferred to the Pacific Fleet in previous years via the Arctic, in late summer and early fall. A departure this late would be historically unusual; the limiting factor is the ice cover. If the sub is testing the Poseidon at the moment, the window on further movement to the Pacific Fleet would be closing, and such a transfer won’t happen until next year.)
Belgorod’s capabilities for other undersea operations may be in play. There’s a possibility the sub has entered the Norwegian Sea and will perform activities there and/or in the North Atlantic. I wrote about a potentially related development earlier in 2022 when the invasion of Ukraine was imminent. Reading that treatment should make it clear what the topic is, without elaboration here.
I consider the likelihood low that Belgorod has embarked on such a mission, given the very short time since the sub was delivered to the fleet, and the lack of prior indications of at-sea operations. I’d expect to see substantial time on shakedown and crew training first. But the whole package of the post about Russian Atlantic operations and the Belgorod’s movements are a reminder that, as discussed at TOC throughout 2022, Putin’s objective isn’t just to annex parts of Ukraine; it’s to induce broader – and fundamental – changes in the geopolitical status quo.
He’s doing that, in spades. We don’t live in the same world we lived in back in January.
UPDATE: Some may have seen that, since the above was written, Belgorod has been spotted and photographed in the eastern Barents Sea, south of Novaya Zemlya Island.
That doesn’t surprise me at all, and my assessment would be that the sub is probably conducting system checkouts and crew training. I concur with H.I. Sutton that a Poseidon test firing can’t be counted out. But I don’t consider it likely. Belgorod was seen in a location that would be typical for such testing, which is worth noting. But I regard it as likely that, if the ice conditions allow, Russia will prefer to perform a test in an even more remote location.
I’m leaving all the original commentary in place, as it remains valid and relevant even with the resolution on where Belgorod is at the moment.
This is nothing near a comprehensive survey of events we could talk about. Another one, which I will comment on very little, is Germany’s pursuit of the Arrow 3 air and missile defense system from Israel. The interest is in the point that Germany wants to buy a system that is not part of NATO’s tiered missile defense concept.
A similar development has been Italy’s purchases from Israel of Eitam-variant airborne warning and control aircraft (hosted on a Gulfstream G550 platform). NATO uses the E-3 Sentry-series AEW aircraft, which is frequently operating around Europe on the alliance’s defensive missions. But Italy now prioritizes having a dedicated national capability (as Greece and Turkey have for some time, given their wariness of each other’s airborne activities).
In both cases, and others like them in recent years, it’s clear that the nations involved perceive significant security concerns that are distinct from the parameters of NATO’s defensive concept and commitments. Yet the concerns arise on the perimeter of NATO.
It’s especially interesting in Germany’s case, as Germany is buffered against potential missile and air threats by numerous NATO nations – yet chooses to buy an autonomous national air/missile defense system. Germany’s NATO missile defense would be in place if Obama hadn’t canceled the interceptor sites in Poland in 2009. Those interceptors were originally to be operational by 2013. They would have provided more comprehensive coverage than the Aegis Ashore missile defense system now deployed to Romania – and their mission performance would not depend on access to the Black Sea, as the U.S. Navy’s Aegis BMD patrol ships’ does. The Aegis BMD ships have been unable to perform their missile defense function since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
On the other hand, even if the NATO missile defense umbrella were whole and operational as conceived 20 years ago, the Biden administration actually indicated willingness to submit it to Russian “inspections” at the time Putin invaded Ukraine this year – hardly a signal of U.S. firmness or strategic coherence.
The premises for solid NATO unity, however you slice it, are in fact seeping away.
One more noteworthy event, with commentary in the tweet.
Feature image: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Felix Garza Jr. (Via Wikimedia Commons)