I love Russia, I love Russian and I love Russians. My favorite physics professor was a nuclear scientist from the Soviet Union. I studied Russian in college where a classmate gave me my first copy of Foreign Affairs Journal. Catherine the Great is #4 on my list of heroes.
I don't know much about Ukraine or Ukrainians, but it is hard not to love them too after the swagger and humor they have exhibited since the Russian invasion.
A week ago I wrote "The Russian Armed Forces is among the three most capable militaries in the world". Since then, I have been astonished by the incompetence of the Russian Armed Forces.
When I found out Ukraine issued 10,000 automatic rifles to civilians my first thoughts were "Those rifles could arm an insurgency but using them in conventional battle against Russian forces would be suicide". That's because there's more to fielding an effective soldier than giving a man or woman a gun. He or she needs to know what direction to point it.
Here is an interesting comment thread between people who (I assume) are mostly American infantry.
Having heard over the past 18-24 months about LSCO [Large Scale Combat Operations] and russia, I have to admit they have been exposed pretty badly. Also one of my friends noted during all of the combat footage we have not seen any night infantry combat, let alone any IR lasers. Now objectively I haven’t seen every single piece of combat footage and presumably there is night combat. ―regularguyofthenorth
I saw a report from Ukraine that said that Russian forces wait until dawn to attack because they don't have NVGs, nor the training on using them, not sure how accurate that is. ―IllustriusDot1866
Everything I've seen has said the same. No NODs, no optics, for anyone but leadership positions in infantry units. That's insane to me. I can't imagine life in a combat zone without NODs or optics. ―bang_the_drums
That was something that stuck out to me too - even for the UA. I see maybe 1:20 with anything but an iron sight and a dream. ―Roastage
I've seen an AS VAL [a Soviet assault rifle] and a VSS Vintorez [a silenced Soviet sniper rifle] as "combat trophies" so far, neither one of them had optics, which basically defeats the point of a suppressed gun shooting subsonic ammo that can penetrate armor.
I also saw the VDV [Russian Airborne Forces] guys at the Hostomel airport, one of them had an AK-12 with no optic, no light, no laser, nothing. "Next gen" AK with ironsights. WTF? ―xyolikesdinosaurs
Yep more or less the same for me. Expected for the Ukrainian Militia but surprising to see so few amongst the Russian infantry. There is a photo on combatfootage of some SF [Special Forces] guys who were fully kitted out with MCXs [gun] and all the jewellery. Unclear if they were FOG but there was more glass in that photo than I'd seen in all the footage to date. ―Roastage
"IR" stands for "infrared [nightvision]". "NVG" stands for "Night Vision Goggles". "NOD" stands for "Night Observation Device". These American troops are shocked to discover their Russian counterparts cannot see at night. My bicycle has better optics than Russia's paratroopers. American door-kickers in Iraq and Afghanistan operated at night because the best time to do battle is when you can see and the enemy can't.
How can Russia's frontline troops be missing such basic equipment? Because Russia has a GDP the size of Florida's. Subtract oligarchic graft and what's left is Soviet hardware.
When I found out the Ukrainians were defacing signs I thought "that's the right thing to do but I expect it won't do much because Russians can navigate via GPS instead."
It appears unlikely that the majority of Russian military armored vehicles are using GPS, which would be a shock to any US soldier if you told them they had to operate that way. If you told me in Iraq that we wouldn't have GPS in our vehicles I would have reclassed from infantry to admin right there.
The Russian military is under-funded and under-equipped. Russia pauses its operations at night because they can't afford the kind of equipment that (ignoring sanctions) a civilian could buy for $100 on Amazon.
There are several videos of Ukrainians forcing/allowing captured Russian soldiers to call their mothers. I am entirely in favor of this because ① if I was a Russian mother and my son was a Ukrainian Prisoner of War (POW) then I would prefer to receive a call from him than not receive a call from him and ② filming POWs being treated humanely incentivizes the humane treatment of POWs. It's great propaganda for Ukraine too.
Here's a video of a Russian POW calling his mother.
Soldier: "I'm in Ukranian territory, as a prisoner of war. But I am fine."
Soldier: "I'm in Ukranian territory as a prisoner—"
Mother: "What do you mean prisoner? Wait—"
Soldier: "Well, it is what it is."
Mother: "Please explain this to me."
Soldier: "Mom, please listen to me carefully. They are treating me fine. Don't worry about me. They are treating me fine. Don't you worry. You need to contact my unit. Write this down."
Mother: "I'll write down the unit number but what do I say?"
Soldier: "Tell them that this certain prisoner got captured. They told us we were going as peacekeepers to the DNR and LNR territory. But in fact there's a war. Meaning, we are the aggressor. Cities are being bombed hard. Please be aware of this and spread the word if you can."
Mother: "How can this be? Why won't they let you go?"
Soldier: "Mom. I'm a prisoner. I came here as the aggressor. How can they let me go?"
Mother [crying]: "What territory of Ukraine? Which city are you in?"
Soldier: "Mom, please don't panic and do what I'm telling you."
The problem with videos of POWs is that POWs are strongly incentivized to say whatever their captors want. If I was captured by America's enemies I'd happily shout "Death to America!" on camera in exchange for humane treatment. Death to America. Death to America. Thanks for the coffee, black please. Death to America.
Captured Russian soldiers are incentivized to tell their Ukranian captors "We were doing drills in the Kuzmynsky range. After about two weeks we were sent to the border. Told this is now our station. They we crossed it at night all of a sudden. We drove past it, stopped in a village…. [cut] I had no choice. If we refused to obey after we crossed we would be considered traitors. It's a 15-25 year sentence, plus insubordination which is additional jail time. That's almost your whole life."
Makes you kinda realize when the US Army says it cares it’s not “here’s a functioning lifestyle and decent garrison conditions” it’s “we won’t just tell you it’s a training op then send you uncovered and unsupplied against legions of javelins in cold war built vehicles” ―PaladinSL
The idea soldiers could be sent to conquer a foreign nation without being told they're in enemy territory is less ridiculous than it might sound to someone unfamiliar with how soldiers are treated.
My father was a soldier in the US Army. The US Army would randomly call him in the middle of the night and command him to appear at his airbase ready for deployment. He never had to go to combat but he never knew that for sure until after he arrived on base because if the US Army told soldiers "this time is for real" then there would be desertions. My father's commanding officer told him he was an idiot for answering up the phone. USSR soldiers were often kept even more in the dark. They might not find out where they were or what they would be doing until after they had landed in enemy territory.
Russia employs conscripts and lacks a free press. It is entirely believable that in the Fog of War, many troops might find out they're in enemy territory by getting shot at.
Here is a video of a Russian armored personnel carrier (APC) instructing (via pre-recorded message) Ukrainian citizens to remain calm. The APC is sitting out in the open, stationary, without infantry support. A Ukrainian just walks up with an RPG and blows it up. The Russians in this video are acting like they actually believe themselves to be on a peacekeeping operation.
Russian Civil Society
I used to think that the jokes about the Soviet Union's propaganda were hyperbole. Now that I have to sift through real Russian propaganda, I appreciate the political propaganda in my own country. Russian propaganda isn't just anti-truth. The official Russian media has so little credibility it doesn't even care when it gets called out on its bullshit.
Russia is ostensibly invading Ukraine to remove the Neo-Nazis from power. The president of Ukraine is a Jew. How Jewish, you might ask?
Press: "Mrs. Zelensky, the whole world admires your son Volodymyr for his bravery and leadership. You must be very proud."
Mrs. Zelensky: "My other son is a doctor."
That was a joke. But for real, President Zelensky's great-grandfather plus three great-uncles were murdered in the Holocaust.
The Russian media has zero credibility. It has zero credibility now. It had zero credibility in the late Soviet era. It had zero credibility in Stalin's time. It had zero credibility in Lenin's time. The Russian media has been a joke for longer than anyone in Russia has been alive.
Thanks to the Internet, I can just talk to people in Russia and ask what they think. It seems to me that some Russians are indifferent to the war in Ukraine but most Russians are opposed. I will not reveal my sources because spreading "false information" (i.e. contradicting Russia's official media) carries a prison term
between 10 and 50 years [Edit: see comment].
That hasn't stopped Russians from protesting and getting arrested by the thousand. If you are going to protest in Russia, please keep it peaceful. Violent resistance might oust Putin and his cronies from power but peaceful resistance is way more effective than violent rebellion at transforming a backwards nation into a thriving liberal democracy.
I always thought it'd be cool to visit Russia, but after publishing this blog post I don't think I will feel safe doing so. Oh well.
If you live in Russia you should consider getting out ASAP. Borders are open until suddenly they aren't. You don't want to be trapped behind the next Iron Curtain.
[Advertisement] Want to hire a Russian rocket scientist to write your software?
I have never met a Russian whose intelligence failed to impress me. I don't think Russians are smarter than other people. I think it's sampling bias. Russian-Americans are smarter than both Russian-Russians and American-Americans because smart Russians migrate to America.
I have a friend in Russia who wants to escape Putin's rule. He's easy to get along with. He speaks good English. He's a nerd. He's good at math. He's technically a rocket scientist but he has worked as a commercial software developer too. He's brave and ethical. He's smart enough that he compares well even amongst the physics PhDs and Wall Street quants who read this blog. He's humble. He reminds me of this guy from Margin Call.
My friend is looking for software development jobs. He prefers to work on-site but he can work remotely for a few months while the visa/immigration stuff gets worked out.
If you have a job opening you'd like to fill, PM me on Less Wrong or send me an email.
Advertisement over. Back to the report.
Why conquer Ukraine?
Russia's ostensive reason for attacking Ukraine is obviously bullshit. Why is Russia really attacking Ukraine?
Only Putin knows for sure, but my guess is he wants a buffer state between NATO and Russia. That's why I would attack Ukraine if I was playing Europa Universalis.
But real governments aren't run by individual people the way videogame governments are. This article argues that the Russian military has been gaining power among Russia's oligarchy. If you are a hammer then everything looks like a nail.
It makes sense why a corrupt government run by its military would tend to fight more wars. My historical precedent is the Japanese Empire whose military had a de facto veto over the civilian government.
The Japanese Empire conquered Korea to use as a buffer state to protect the Japanese home islands. The Japanese Empire conquered Manchuria to use as a buffer state to protect Korea. The Japanese conquered the Chinese heartland to protect Manchuria.
There are two ways you can sell a war to your population. ① You can promise an easy victory and/or ② you can tell them they're fighting an important battle against the forces of evil. "We need a buffer state" doesn't spark the same degree of patriotism. Ukraine has never attacked Russia. Russians know Ukraine is no threat to them. Recently, Ukraine was even considered more Russian-aligned than NATO-aligned in the Great Game. The only way to sell the Ukrainian invasion was with an easy victory.
I thought Russia would win an easy victory. Western military analysts thought Russia would win an easy victory. I don't know what the Russians analysts think, but my guess is they were in the same boat.
I underestimated Ukrainian resistance and massively overestimated Russian competence. Last week I wrote "There is probably going to be a war. Ukraine is probably going to lose. The question is how much, how quickly and on what terms." That was my final, qualified, draft. The original draft didn't include "probably".
My framing of the question in terms of winners and losers was a mistake. Is it a "win" or a "loss" for Ukraine if Ukraine loses a little bit of territory but the government stays intact? My most likely futures result in the Russian government officially declaring victory, the Russian population hating the so-called "victory" and lots of Ukrainians dying.
How could we all be so wrong? The Russia-NATO relationship is a symbiotic conflict. Russia benefits from exaggerating Russian strength. NATO's military-industrial complex benefits from exaggerating Russian strength. Military analysts benefit from exaggerating Russian strength (because the stronger Russia is the more the West needs military analysts). Only the flower-loving hippies benefit from under-selling Russian strength, but it's not really their style. Anti-war pacifists don't write obsessively-technical blogs about how Russia under-funds its military.
Russian military strengh was a speculative bubble, and that bubble just popped.
Ukraine is fighting a total war for its survival. The last time Russia ruled over Ukraine, millions of Ukrainians starved in the 1932-1933 man-made Holodomor famine. The Ukrainian population decreased by more than 10% as they were forced to listen to Soviet propaganda. Most of Ukraine sees the Russians as invaders, not liberators.
On February 23th I wrote "If you live in Eastern Ukraine, the best time to flee is weeks ago. The second-best time is now." On Febrary 24th Ukraine forbid men of combat age (18-60) from leaving the country. This is a Ukrainian reservist commercial from several years ago.
Ukraine is led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a comedian whose political experience (prior to becoming President of Ukraine) was performing as actor on the show Servant of the People where his character is unexpected elected President of Ukraine. Zelenskyy's political party named itself after the television show and Zelenskyy was elected President of Ukraine for real.
President Zelenskyy wasn't very popular among Ukrainians until the Russians invaded. Now he's a war hero. On February 26th, the United States urged him to evacuate Ukraine and offered assistance in the escape.
The fight is here [in Kyiv]; I need ammunition, not a ride.
The Zelenskyy family remains in Ukraine. President Zelenskyy's is regularly filmed eating with his soldiers on the front lines.
Imagine you command a Russian squad marching through a Ukranian city.
You hear a sniper's gunshot. You can't identify exactly where it came from—just that it came from a specific apartment complex. Do you level the complex?
This is a video of Russians firing unguided (dumb) missiles into a residential population center.
This is a video of a missile strike on the Kharkiv regional administration.
A tank's armor is concentrated in the front. The best places to strike a tank are its sides, back, top and bottom. Driving a tank through a hostile city is dangerous because the top of a tank is visible from nearby buildings. You can solve this problem by burning the city to the ground.
War is awful. Content warning: This is a close-up video (with sound) of civilians getting shot in front of their loved ones.
If you want to get the feeling of what it's like to survive in a city under siege I recommend This War of Mine. The developers have promised to donate all profits for one week (ending March 2nd, 2022) to the Ukrainian Red Cross.
Good Sources of Information
Here are my favorite sources of information. They're not perfect. They make mistakes. Their mistakes are correlated. But they're created by knowledgeable nerds who have been paying attention to Russia since long before the crisis du jour.
- Foreign Affairs Journal for expert debate.
- The Eastern Border podcast for historical context. [Edit 2022/03/19. While The Eastern Border is a great source of information for historical context, I disagree with the author's contemporary political analysis. The author (who is from Eastern Europe) is in favor of the United States fighting a direct war against Russia. As an citizen of the United States, I do not like the idea of the United States fighting a direct war against Russia because I do not want the city I live in to get nuked in defense of a non-NATO state. [Edit 2022/03/23. The author has updated his position to no longer endorse NATO strikes into Russian territory after learning what a no fly zone requires.]]
- Task & Purpose for a former US infantryman's perspective.