This is once again a ‘sources and information on everything happening’ post. In the last few days after Russia’s retreat from the Kyiv area, focus has shifted from military and other issues to the atrocities discovered in Bucha. This covers both.
Military Progress and Conditions
The Battle of Kyiv is over, Russia has withdrawn, not entirely smoothly. Here is a claim that sabotage of railway connections with Belarus forced Russia to withdraw. This is in contrast to previous reports of Russia digging in around Kyiv and more in line with earlier reports from late March they were destroying bridges.
The entire Kyiv front is now back in Ukrainian hands, including Chernobyl. The Russians may or may not have been playing chicken with nuclear power plants, but they do not seem inclined to use them as hostages as some originally feared.
It appears they are indeed instead going into some sort of Phase Two, with more limited war goals involving claiming territory in the east. The primary effort looks indeed to be in Donbass. The goal appears to be to encircle Ukraine’s forces. If Russia’s efforts to do this fail, there does not appear to be another path to success even in the east beyond grinding down over a long period.
That does not mean this was ever the plan. It wasn’t, although the encirclement aspect was. Bret Devereaux points out in this thread that Russia’s attacks are entirely consistent with trying to encircle the Ukrainian army and capture Kyiv with a quick knockout punch to achieve a fait accompli, and complete massive overkill for the goal of taking the rest of Donbass.
Here is the new map as of 3 April.
Russia will attempt to use what remains of the withdrawn invasion forces in the Donbas, where they will try to claim a victory that much more urgently. Ukraine will be able to free up a lot of its own resources to do the same. At one point there were 80,000 defenders in Kyiv, many of which are now unnecessary.
According to some reports, Russia then made preparations to attack Kharkiv (4 April). They had a ‘covert mobilization’ starting on 3 April but the covertness level leaves something to be desired. I also have no idea how they think this is going to work. Previously Ukraine had been actively making progress in the area and should now have far more forces locally available. Metaculus did not adjust.
Russia claims some Mariupol defenders surrendered, which those defenders then denied. Given what we know, and the likelihood anyone surrendering would be tortured or simply be killed, I would not expect a surrender.
Now that Russia has withdrawn from some areas around Kyiv, it looks like Russian troops did some rather horrible things. Images of mass murder in Bucha are appearing on televisions around the world. Is it possible they do not indicate what they seem to indicate? Perhaps, but it seems very unlikely.
As always, there are reasons to claim such things happened when they didn’t, so treat all claims with skepticism, especially extreme ones. Some false claims inevitably slip through, at least at first.
With that disclaimer out of the way, still seems like things are at the level where it is worth highlighting some of the claims of what happened – which again, I am not in position to verify.
Wall Street Journal, original title was: Ukrainians Count Dead, Dig Mass Graves, Clear Land Mines After Russian Pullback. New title is: New Reports of War Crimes Emerge as Russians Retreat From Kyiv Area. It starts like this.
BUCHA, Ukraine—More than 100 civilians lay buried in mass graves in this suburb of Kyiv after Russian troops withdrew last week, one of several regions in which Ukrainian officials and independent rights watchdogs say they are uncovering evidence of war crimes perpetrated by occupation forces.
When the Russian military forces abandoned Bucha, it left streets littered with bodies of civilians. Human Rights Watch on Sunday released a report documenting instances of rape and summary executions in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, including Bucha, as well as other alleged crimes.
Yes, we need the pictures. It matters. Pictures. Pictures. Picture. Picture. Short video. Short video. Six minute CNN segment without the pictures, it’s not the same. Firsthand account from a soldier, worth reading. Firsthand report.
Ukrainian official says on April 5 that similar conditions to those in Bucha indeed exist in many other places. Obvious caveats there, but them overselling here seems unwise.
Russia denies all of it and claims all the images are fakes, that they ‘didn’t show up until four days after they (arrived?) left’ (which NYT also verifies is false from satellite images), that the bodies were moved (which they weren’t), and that it will crack down on such claims, threatening felony prosecution. Link has analysis of these Russian claims, as well as links to many graphic videos.
Here is one thread about other places.
In response, France, Germany, Spain and others expelled diplomats. Latvia lowered its diplomatic relations with Russia. Lithuania expelled the Russian ambassador. Biden called Putin a war criminal and called for him to be put on trial, to which Russia responds with whataboutism. USA also wants Russia suspended from the Human Rights Council. Boris Johnson says he will not rest until justice is done, I give him a day. He also called for “maximum sanctions,” whatever that means, matching my image of him from reading descriptions by Dominic Cummings.
Day before the war:
As usual, Twitter responded by suspending at least one of those trying to share information on the terrible things happening, saying it is against the rules to share such terrible things.
Then there’s this, which has been published by Russian state media, here is the Russian media original source. I have read the Google translate version of the original, and the summary here if anything downplays the content. If you want to split the difference, here is a longer thread that covers more details, the shorter one is reproduced below.
It is clear that in this lexicon, ‘Nazi’ simply equals Western equals any opposition to Russia. It also says quite plainly that all Nazis deserve death, and that Ukraine and its culture must cease to exist. Anyone who took up arms is explicitly to be killed but it clearly goes much farther than that, with calls for ‘liquidation.’ ‘Passive’ Nazis who supported the state are also guilty. The design here says it envisions some sort of fully demilitarized (and likely occupied) rump state in Western Ukraine where people who hate Russia can go, but that does not seem compatible with the rhetoric otherwise used.
That does not make this policy but there is only one reason to allow this to be published.
In Putin’s Russia
USA claims that Putin is not being informed of the real situation by the Russian military. Many say this may be the actual greatest insult one could throw at him, given his background as KGB, to call him uninformed. It is almost certainly true. Who would dare tell him what is happening? That doesn’t mean he can’t figure it out on his own if he wants to, but full and honest communication is not possible here.
Kasparov will keep repeating that Putin must be opposed and must go, and pointing out that people should stop denying this obvious thing. Here he was on March 26 after Biden said Putin ‘could not remain in power’ to point out that Biden was obviously correct, and to point out that in his model saying this explicitly is helpful. Here he is later on March 28 calling for more support for Ukraine, along same lines.
A report from Russia on April 1, so before the full retreat from the Kyiv area, that Russians felt confident in victory and did not expect major disruptions in their lives or for companies to stay away from Russia for long, the ‘few months theory.’ Some scary other stuff is included as well, like the normalization of the use of nuclear weapons. I’d be curious to hear an update now.
At least for now Russia seems to be holding up from the sanctions rather well. The ruble has stabilized (although who is willing to hold it at these prices I have no idea, except for short-term use), and the reports of shortages and panics and disfunction have stopped. If there were major problems I would expect to hear about them. There is still hope for new more impactful sanctions or for greater effects over time, but the most impactful estimates seem clearly wrong.
The New Statemen interview that’s been going around, for those who missed it, claiming that Russia ‘needs some kind of victory’ and will find a way to get one no matter what, and generally giving Russian perspective. Sees risk of escalation as very high.
March 27: Russian parliament introduces bill to make all who speak Russian ‘Russian citizens residing abroad.’ Speculation is that this is to justify future interventions, could also be a way to attract good people. Interesting thought experiment what would happen if we did the same for everyone who speaks English.
March 28: Citizens of ‘unfriendly countries’ will be unwelcome in Russia. Oh no.
Also some thoughts on working on and viewing Russian history in light of current events. Like everything else, one should not worry that accurately describing past events will somehow help the wrong people. That way lies madness.
An argument that it is the ‘correct mistake’ to overestimate opponents such as Russia. I agree that the cost of that mistake is lower, but it is very much not first-best to believe false things in military situations. Yes, one shouldn’t assume the enemy tanks will be stuck in the mud but one should plan that they might indeed be stuck so you can take advantage. And there is the very important argument that Ukraine was initially denied aid on the basis of the situation being hopeless, so these pessimistic forecasts did real damage.
I had selected Russians With Attitude as my attempt to hear what the semi-plausible Russian line on things was, but finding one of those proved difficult.
If anyone has a new pro-Russian source to take their place, let me know. I demand a plausible lie.
Kamil Galeev has doubled down in many of this threads in predicting, if the West stands firm, not only the fall of Putin but the collapse of the Russian Federation. In this one he compares it to the collapse of the Spanish colonial empire.
Galeev also speculates on Russia’s future. If Russia is seen as winning in Ukraine, he predicts an outcome similar to North Korea. If we stand firm, he predicts Russia breaks apart.
Russian soldiers impressed with how rich Ukraine is? Sounds weird, Ukraine is rather poor, but Russia’s wealth is concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the places Russia actually gets its soldiers are that much poorer.
With so many tech experts leaving, Russia is hoping it can help convince them to stay by exempting them from the draft. It is an interesting dilemma. If you admit you’re an expert, you can’t be drafted, but also you can’t leave. I wonder if they have linked up the two lists successfully.
Sanctions, Oil and Gas
Biden released a million barrels a day from the strategic oil reserve, and in order to do that he is… drum roll, please… waiving the Jones Act. Nice.
My tax incidence modeling confirms the story checks out, the correct play is to tax Russian oil (MR).
Russia tried to respond to sanctions by insisting that Europeans pay for its gas in rubles. Europeans gave them a very firm no. At first it looked like Russia’s bluff had been called and it would simply fold, but then Putin stepped in and insisted no, really, we will make this happen, and seems to have implemented this by having the payments be made in Euros to Gazprom accounts, then having Gazprom buy rubles which they use to ‘pay for’ the gas.
This setup is important because it matches the mafioso status hierarchy model. Putin escalated against Europe, made a demand and a threat. Europe refused and it turned out the threat was a bluff. Which would move Europe up and Putin down, and is actually kind of a huge deal. Putin’s whole system collapses if he makes threats, doesn’t get what he wants and doesn’t follow through, but he couldn’t follow through for real. So Putin claims he got what he wanted. Interesting.
Germany takes control of German branch of Gazprom to ‘secure energy supply’ and infrastructure. Not sure how that is going to work exactly. Germany has shown a willingness to switch to coal (that’s what you get for closing down nuclear power) if gas is disrupted, but Slovakia and Austria say they won’t cooperate with any gas sanctions and Germany says ‘we need some time’ and there are claims they are the main barrier to further sanctions including by the Prime Minister of Poland. The Baltics are going ahead and stopping the purchase of Russian gas on their own, but even Poland won’t be ready for that until December. Given gas is most needed in winter, that is odd timing to stop buying gas.
Thread about the technical issues surrounding scaling up our use of heat pumps, claiming the main limiting factor is people to install the systems rather than manufacturing. More than that, it seeks to highlight the pattern whereby those trying to solve our environmental (or other) problems are amateurs who talk strategy instead of logistics. It is all symbolic actions and none of it involves asking about the physical path through spacetime that leads to desired results at scale.
Or rather, they talk logistics in the sense of actively sabotaging logistics, like shutting down New York’s nuclear power plant on the argument it could be replaced by renewables, then shutting down the plans to allow New York to import hydropower, forcing us to fall back on natural gas.
We also get efforts like when the European Commissioner for Competition says ‘no more long showers in the EU. Every time you turn off your hot shower water say ‘Take that, Putin!’’ This destruction of the joys of life for symbolic gains while not making the changes that would actually matter is Peak European Union. As with climate change, it is not about how much carbon or energy you save, it is about how visibly you suffer.
Meanwhile France is asking people to do their laundry and dishes on the weekend due to supply issues in order to manage demand, which makes sense but also is the kind of thing that used to be handled by (Bart Simpson standing ready by the blackboard) changing different prices.
Actually impactful new sanctions in the wake of the newly discovered atrocities: Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are closing their borders with Russia and Belarus for all goods. Russia will be cut off from Europe by land. Kaliningrad will be cut off except for the sea.
March 22: Claim that ruble is strong (it has continued to be strong) but that we should not confuse that for sanctions not working because if we cut Russia off from imports and won’t let anyone sell rubles then there is no way for the ruble to weaken. There is clearly some truth in this, but it is still not a good sign, and also you very much do not want to be holding rubles.
Famine To Go With Our War, Pestilence and Death
A lot of people pointed me to Sarah Taber, usually this thread, where she makes the case that the wheat market will be fine. Here are the main points.
I am mostly convinced that this will turn out fine, but markets know better than statistics. If prices are spiking a lot, there is a reason. If most wheat stays local, then losing 0.9% of wheat all of which usually gets exported can still be a pretty big deal, especially if various places ban wheat exports expecting trouble.
This thread claims it will take 15 months for world grain production to adjust, and I see no signs various countries will release their grain reserves to smooth things over despite the obvious futures play of selling grain now and buying cheaper grain futures to restock later.
India however has a surplus now, and is negotiating to get into various markets. When you don’t allow people (who are in no way attacking anyone) with wheat to sell their wheat to you, it is bold to complain about a shortage of wheat.
This thread claims that no, seriously, the wild swings in commodity prices, including both wheat and fertilizer, are going to be huge problems for poorer countries, and even threaten to disrupt China’s rice crops. Yes, India has lots of wheat to sell, but the bigger problem seems to be not the wheat but the fertilizer. Fertilizer prices are getting crazy high, and this may discourage many from planting more than rising grain prices encourage them, which could end in much bigger production gaps. Paul Graham reports a farmer friend tells him some farmers are indeed not planting due to the high fertilizer prices. If there is not enough ability to produce crops, there is going to be big trouble even if the direct wheat shortfalls from Ukraine and Russia are not too bad.
Reminder that we should be very grateful here in America that we have the right of free speech, for Europeans enjoy no such right. As an example, Germans who approve of the Russian invasion could be subject to prosecution.
The closer EU countries are to Russia and Putin, and the better they know him, the stronger the line they want to take. This is of course not a coincidence. Here is a joint proposal by Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic from 25 March.
I am fully with them on 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 (especially, how is this not already done).
I continue not to believe that censorship is the answer to anything, but given what else the EU is censoring, by their principles they should do 3 I suppose.
I actively oppose 7. If Russians want to leave Russia, Europe should welcome such folks. Rather than deny visas, the right move is to throw open the border.
I am highly skeptical of 10, the exclusion from organizations. I get the idea, but you absolutely can even, and sit across from people and talk to them. That is the point.
Austria happy to welcome refugees, but using lack of ‘blue cards’ to deny them ability to work. They are offering 215 euro per adult, 100 euro per child in social support, which is not exactly enough to buy reasonable food.
Claim that Poland supports giving Russian soldiers political asylum, which is a completely obvious free win that very much should have been done by now.
The closest parallel to Russia’s debacle in Ukraine might be China’s invasion of Vietnam. Author here thinks this is evidence that China will learn from mistakes by itself and Russia and avoid them in the future. An alternative interpretation is that authoritarian armies that have not been tested in a long time and then are asked to invade have a tendency to dramatically underperform – it has been a long time since China’s lessons and things have changed quite a bit. No one who was there at the time is still around now.
That was before the atrocities in Bucha were discovered. It is too early to know what line China will take there, but state-aligned sources for now are still defending Russia.
By March 26, Trump had returned to calling Putin smart, describing the whole incident as a ‘great negotiation that did not go so well for him.’ I’d hate to see what he thinks a not so great negotiation looks like.
As far as I can tell, the reasoning is that things that help Trump hurt America, so Putin should help Trump? I mean, fair, but a little on nose and saying the quiet part out loud even for him.
Trump continues to trade around 40% to be the Republican nominee. I suppose the Scottish teens do not think anyone will care.
Peace Talks and Victory Conditions
For a while there were some plausibly real peace talks. I doubt there will be much talk of peace for the time being after the atrocities in Bucha, as it doubtless makes Ukraine much less willing to compromise.
Also there’s the whole thing where it seems there was an attempt to poison participating-in-the-talks Russian oligarch Abromavich, who lost his sight for several hours, and the Ukrainian negotiating team? We have confirmation that three otherwise healthy people had symptoms. Everyone involved has recovered. Not trying to kill the negotiating team seems like an important safety tip for a successful negotiation, but I have a very different negotiating style so what do I know. There is the implication this might have been done by a hardline faction trying to sabotage the talks, which would make sense. The subsequent public downplaying of the whole incident by all sides also makes sense.
When the parties met on 29 March in Istanbul, the host called even asking for Crimea and in independence of Donetsk and Luhansk as “maximalist” and “not realistic.” This seems very much like siding with Ukraine. Ukraine presented a concrete proposal, in which they get security guarantees (I still don’t get what they are thinking these actually do for Ukraine), Ukraine becomes a neutral non-aligned nation but can join the EU, Russia withdraws, and they agree to then settle the questions of Crimea and Donbass. Russia seemed to at least be pretending to take the talks seriously, including no longer demanding demilitarization or ‘denazification.’ Here is a good list of the details.
Not sure how this fits into a report from 28 March that Putin responded to a handwritten Zelenskyy note outlining peace terms with ‘we will thrash them.’ And it seems there was much criticism that the negotiators were ‘too soft.’
Either way, seems like a moot point now.
As part of those negotiations, Russia claimed it would pull back from Kyiv area. Then, as if it was afraid it might be seen keeping its promises and lose its street cred, it bombed Kyiv. Since then, of course, it as completely withdrawn from the area, so it does seem like Putin wants to be seen as constantly breaking his promises even when he is going to effectively honor them. It’s a bold strategy.
Risk of Nuclear War
Normally this would be alarming, since whatever such governments loudly proclaim they are not thinking about has a way of soon happening, but with nuclear weapons the threat is stronger than its execution so this actually does seem reassuring.
For more on the subject see my previous post.
In Other News
Samo Burja watch: On 31 March he recognizes that Russia will not win militarily within the first 50 days, still predicts a similar outcome within the year as the most likely result and considers Russia taking a bunch of territory the optimistic scenario.
Thread (from 25 March) documenting some of the terrible conditions Russian soldiers are subjected to, and that Zelenskyy promises good treatment to Russian soldiers who surrender. I still say they’re not paying enough.
Arnold Kling asks the not-asked-enough question ‘what did we learn?’ I strongly agree that the lesson is not ‘the country with the larger GDP will win.’ That is true for long protracted symmetrical battles like World War 2, but very much not what mattered here. The lessons I am taking are that modern warfare favors the defense, being highly motivated matters a lot, having had experience matters a lot (Ukraine got to fight in Donbas for 8 years). And most importantly, that corrupt autocratic mafioso states like Russia are by default far more dysfunctional than we realized.
It is no longer the current thing, but there were numerous reports that the Red Cross (seen here meeting with Lavrov) was helping Russia distribute forcibly displaced Ukrainian citizens to where they would be put to work, calling the whole thing an ‘evacuation,’ although this did not stop Russia from detaining Red Cross workers aiming to help people in Mariupol. Ukrainian sources were warning not to donate to the Red Cross. Among those I know this is a moot point, since everyone already considered them a relatively inefficient option.
The real River Tam would never apologize.