After doing frequent Ukraine posts early on, I decided that the war was no long a good match for this blog and my skill set. The basic situation was clear and was moving slowly. In the last few weeks things have started moving more rapidly on multiple fronts. Ukraine has made substantial progress.

In response, Russia has begun substantial mobilization.

Thus, it seems like it is worth writing another of these posts. I am not sure if events will justify any additional ones.

Putin’s Speech

In situations like this, one must watch the speech. I was later pointed to a transcript.

Here are my notes as I watched. I cannot verify the translation but have no reason to doubt it that I can see.

  1. Putin initially frames this, even now, as about Donetsk and Lugansk only.
  2. However he then quickly names other ‘liberated’ regions and talks about the ‘security and territorial integrity’ of the regime – the ‘desire and will of our compatriots to choose their future independently’ (1:10)
  3. He claims West wants to split up the Russian Federation. Yes, well. (1:51)
  4. LNR/DNR units now considered on par with Russian units. (4:57)
  5. Clear intent to keep all territory Russia physically controls. (8:27)
  6. They will do this via ‘referendums’ in all these regions.
  7. Mobilization only of the reserves, promise of training. (10:00)
  8. Mobilization begins today, right now. (10:43)
  9. Defense industry tasked with ensuring there is equipment, promised support as needed. (11:17)
  10. Delivery of Western weapons that could ‘strike Crimea and Russia.’
  11. Claims that West is pushing Ukraine to invade Russia. (12:27)
  12. Accused West of ‘nuclear blackmail’ including weapons threats. (13:06)
  13. “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of the country, and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapons systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”
  14. Emphasis on “By all the systems available to us.”

Speech accused Ukraine and the West of various atrocities and other things as justification for all this.

Speech does not mention how many troops are being called up. Many sources say 300,000. The speech neither limits that in any way, nor commits to doing anything that substantial.

The references to industrial production being the responsibility of industry, aside from promises of financial support, seems like throwing industry under the bus. It is a useful thing to not interfere too much with industry. It is a different thing when you say they are ‘responsible’ for such matters while they lack the necessary inputs.

Mike Ryan has an interesting close reading. He concludes that a lot of the speech is about preparing to blame others for failure. These are not measures one takes without accepting the possibility of losing.

Close reading of Putin’s words is most important when it comes to nuclear weapons.

Our Words Are Backed By Nuclear Weapons

Russia threatening the West with nukes is nothing new at this point.

Neither is Russian television continuously pushing anti-West, anti-American lines and calling for starting World War III.

Putin explicitly threatening to use nukes to defend Ukrainian territory he has taken, however, does seem new.

What exactly is he intending here? Is it a bluff? Here is one analysis.

It is never a good sign when you are saying “this is not a bluff.”

The first thing to notice is that the nightmare scenario, where Russia creates its sham Republics, annexes the Republics (potentially including territory it does not control) and then is willing to use nukes to defend them?

That is a possible interpretation, which Putin is carefully ensuring one could hear if one wishes to do so. It is not what he is actually saying, or what he believes he will need to claim that he said in order to maintain credibility.

Which is important, since that plan would absolutely not work.

If Putin’s plan is that he will declare captured territories to be ‘part of Russia’ and then Ukraine will not attack them because of the threat of nuclear weapons, that plan is not going to work. Ukraine will attack anyway, and they will use American weapons to do so. That is clear. Ukraine will call the bluff if it has the power to do so, even if it isn’t a bluff.

Putin would be giving himself no good options when that happens. One you say ‘this is not a bluff’ and get called anyway and it turns out to be a bluff, all your other semi-bluffs lose credibility.

What I heard were several instances of drawing a distinction between Russia and its territorial integrity, and the territories under occupation. He said that the call-ups would be ‘sufficient for the operation.’ He declared his intention to keep the territory, if he can maintain physical control. Then, he went back to saying that Ukraine was getting weapons that could ‘threaten Russia,’ explicitly including Crimea as part of Russia but not Donbass, whereas Ukraine’s normal forces can obviously already threaten Donbass or Kherson. He framed his threats of nuclear use in response to claimed Western nuclear blackmail and what he says are Western attempts to get Ukraine to invade clearly Russian territories.

While this speech and mobilization were an escalation of the conflict, I strongly side with those who say his nuclear statements are not a real escalation or a serious threat to use Russian nuclear weapons to defend any area of Ukraine other than Crimea.

There was clearly a threat to potentially use them to defend Crimea in particular. In my reading, this is mostly the way things go wrong on a nuclear level, if that happens.

I thought the execution of this part of Putin’s speech was remarkably good. It did an excellent job of sounding threatening and creating uncertainty and deniability in all directions, while also communicating to those listening carefully that he was not planning on doing something additionally crazy, and emphasizing that Crimea is different in his mind. Which does make me worry more about Crimea.

James Acton warns not to assume the speech is telling us what Putin would or wouldn’t do to defend the Donbass, and to assume Putin will do what he thinks is in his interests. To me that answers the question. Using nuclear weapons in that spot is clearly not in his interest, the only question is exactly how not in his interest it would be, and he knows this.

Hal Brands at Bloomberg says to take Putin’s threat seriously, but not too seriously. Putin’s framing of Russia’s nuclear response being framed as a response to supposed Western nuclear threats is noted here and seems underappreciated. Andreas Kluth, also at Bloomberg, lays out the choices Biden would have in response to a ‘escalate to de-escalate’ tactical strike, saying the logical response is conventional retaliation by the United States, perhaps directly on whatever base launched the strike, while keeping commitments as vague as possible. The best possible response, in my mind, comes not from us but from China, where it need not be military.

Russia Mobilizes

For a few days it was clear Putin intended to give a speech that was likely to include mobilization.

Putin finally gave his speech and announced mobilization on September 20.

Within minutes, all flights out of Russia were sold out. The cost of flights shot up an order of magnitude or more overnight.

The next day, airlines were instructed to stop selling tickets to men ages 18 to 64.

Hours after that, flights were only mostly sold out.

Belgrade is slightly cheaper.

For those who need it and are allowed to buy, sounds like a bargain at twice the price.

Events move quickly in some senses. Those same events move slowly in order senses.

Not only was there a several month window in which individuals had the opportunity to flee, there was a several day window right before the speech in which it was (as I understand it) still practical to book a ticket. Then after that, flights were still available and only sold out in minutes rather than seconds. All of this despite airlines offering free cancellation within 24 hours and the implied willingness to pay in potential future worlds.

The market for tickets was clearly not efficient at all. The market for other preparations was presumably similarly non-efficient.

In general, the possibility, even a reasonably likely one, of an emergency, does not provoke reasonable responses. People who would be quite foolish not to take action in advance instead act quite foolish.

At the same time, exiting on the ground has its own issues.

This is, of course, the exact opposite of the correct response to this situation. Any Russian who wishes to flee call-up is effectively deserting and defecting. We should welcome them.

What exactly does the decree say?

President Vladimir Putin’s decree announcing partial mobilization in the Russian Federation.

In accordance with the federal laws of May 31, 1996 No. 61-FZ “On Defense,” of February 26, 1997 No. 31-FZ “On mobilization training and mobilization in the Russian Federation” and of March 28, 1998 No. 53-FZ “On military duty and military service,” I decide:

1. To announce partial mobilization in the Russian Federation from September 21, 2022.

2. To carry out the call-up of citizens of the Russian Federation for military service for mobilization in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Citizens of the Russian Federation called up for military service by mobilization have the status of military personnel serving in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation under a contract.

3. Establish that the level of remuneration for citizens of the Russian Federation called up for military service by mobilization into the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation corresponds with the level of pay for military personnel serving in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation under contract.

4. Contracts for military service entered into by military personnel continue to be valid until the end of the period of partial mobilization, with the exception of cases of dismissal of military personnel from military service on the grounds established by this Decree.

5. Establish during the period of partial mobilization the following grounds for the dismissal from military service of servicemen undergoing military service under a contract, as well as citizens of the Russian Federation called up for military service for mobilization in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation:

a) by age — upon reaching the age limit for military service;

b) for health reasons — in connection with their recognition by the military medical commission as unfit for military service, with the exception of military personnel who have expressed a desire to continue military service in military positions that can be fulfilled by the specified military personnel;

c) in connection with the entry into force of a court verdict on the imposition of a sentence of imprisonment.

6. The Government of the Russian Federation:

a) will finance activities for partial mobilization;

b) will take the necessary measures to meet the needs of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, other troops, military formations and bodies during the period of partial mobilization.

8. The top officials of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation shall arrange the conscription of citizens for military service for mobilization in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in the number and within the time limits determined by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation for each constituent entity of the Russian Federation.

9. Citizens of the Russian Federation working in organizations of the military-industrial complex have the right to defer from conscription for military service for mobilization (for the period of work in these organizations). The categories of citizens of the Russian Federation who are granted the right to defer and the procedure for granting it are determined by the Government of the Russian Federation.

This does not say who will be called up. Or how many will be called up. It is one word different from a general mobilization order. That one word, ‘partial,’ may or may not be reflected for very long. The order seems to give permission to draft anyone the military wants, up to a million men. And of course, there is nothing to stop Putin from giving another order on top of it if he wants to.

Here is an ISW thread asking what partial mobilization means in practice, with official reassurances on how partial the call-up is and who it will not target.

One major impact of mobilization is the indefinite extension of military contracts. A lot of contracts were about to expire, and Russia’s existing army would have shrunk substantially, potentially melting away. There is a theory that mobilization was primarily about preventing this, and that Russia’s systems are so rule-based and procedural that one could not be done without the other.

Essentially, it is possible that Russia has Declared Mobilization in order to keep the current units in place, without any intention to actually mobilize.

I was initially skeptical that this could be the best they could do, and no other solution could have been found. Then again, Putin has a history of announcing things that turn out to operationalize to nothing, and perhaps scare the West by saying the word mobilization was also a motive?

Then ISW noticed that there did not seem to be much mobilizing on the 21st, although that has changed in areas with ethnic minorities.

ISW has observed no evidence that the Kremlin is imminently intending to change its conscription practices. The Kremlin’s new law is about strengthening the Kremlin’s coercive volunteerism, or what Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called “self-mobilization.”

They explain.

  • Putin’s illegal annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory will broaden the domestic legal definition of “Russian” territory under Russian law, enabling the Russian military to legally and openly deploy conscripts already in the Russian military to fight in eastern and southern Ukraine. Russian leadership has already deployed undertrained conscripts to Ukraine in direct violation of Russian law and faced domestic backlash.[5] Russia’s semi-annual conscription cycle usually generates around 130,000 conscripts twice per year.[6] The next cycle runs from October 1 to December 31. Russian law generally requires that conscripts receive at least four months of training prior to deployment overseas, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied that conscripts will be deployed to Ukraine.[7] Annexation could provide him a legal loophole allowing for the overt deployment of conscripts to fight.
  • Russian-appointed occupation officials in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts announced the formation of “volunteer” units to fight with the Russian military against Ukraine.[8] Russian forces will likely coerce or physically force at least some Ukrainian men in occupied areas to fight in these units, as they have done in the territories of the Russian proxy Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR).
  • The Russian State Duma separately passed new incentives for foreign nationals to fight in Russia’s military to obtain Russian citizenship and will likely increase overseas recruitment accordingly.[9] That new law, which deputies also rushed through normal procedures on September 20, allows foreign nationals to gain Russian citizenship by signing a contract and serving in the Russian military for one year. Russian law previously required three years of service to apply for citizenship.
  • Putin’s appeals to nationalism may generate small increases in volunteer recruitment from within Russia and parts of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk. However, forces generated from such volunteers, if they manifest, will be small and poorly trained. Most eager and able-bodied Russian men and Ukrainian collaborators have likely already volunteered in one of the earlier recruitment phases.
  • Local Russian administrators will continue to attempt to form volunteer units, with decreasing effect, as ISW has previously reported and mapped.[10]
  • Russian forces and the Wagner Private Military Company are also directly recruiting from Russian prisons, as ISW has previously reported.[11] These troops will be undisciplined and unlikely to meaningfully increase Russian combat power.

That does seem like the kind of thing Russia would do in this war, and also seems unlikely to get all that many useful conscripts.

However, also seeming like the kind of thing Russia would do is to aggressively draft people in some places, and do essentially nothing in others, drafting ethnic minorities while avoiding drafting ethnic Russians.

This seems to be what ‘partial’ means.

Putin still ends up with a bunch of conscripts at some point. What happens then?

A conscript requires training. A conscript requires equipment.

With some past conscripts this did not go so well. There are many reports of little or no, or woefully inadequate, training. There are already signs of men being shipped out without any training. The equipment often leaves something to be desired. Russian milibloggers are advising recruits to bring their own and compiling lists.

This Kamil Galeev thread explained why he believes mass mobilization is not an effective option for Russia. I’ll quote a bunch from it.

He includes quite the warning at the end.

As usual, Kamil is not an unbiased source, so take with appropriate salt.

All the information still seems to point in the same direction.

Mobilization did not happen earlier largely because it does not solve Russia’s core problems. Mobilization will prevent them from losing existing soldiers. I do not expect these new Russian units to have much military effectiveness.

Protests and Draft Dodging

Why else did Russia not mobilize earlier?

One other reason is that people do not like being mobilized.

How much protesting did we see? It is hard to tell until it reaches critical mass. Which by all accounts is not close to happening.

Guess what they’ll do to you if you protest?

There are advantages to this approach. There are also disadvantages. It seems unlikely to solve their morale issues. Good loyal army they’re building there.

For now, events need not impact most Russians’ everyday lives. For now. The question is when this turns to a less partial mobilization, as the decree permits.

Other former soviet republics are not cooperating.

As with every draft, there are elites dodging it and accusations of hypocrisy.

He says he will be ‘solving it on a different level.’ I do not doubt it.

Everyone must find the right level.

Biden’s Speech

Biden makes it clear USA will not recognize any Russian territorial gains. Also very clear on how he views the war.

None of this is new. It is still informative to see it confirmed, and made more explicit.

The War

My understanding of the state of the fighting comes primarily from the Institute for the Study of War. They are very good with details and explaining what is happening, and I have found them to be highly reliable.

What they are not as good at is synthesis, and providing summaries that let someone keep up with limited time investment.

The basic situation, as I understand it, is simple. Russia’s forces have been degraded. Ukraine has won a major victory in Kharkiv, capturing much equipment, cutting off Russian supply lines and leaving Russia exposed to further drives east. Ukraine is consolidating gains while securing the eastern bank of the Oskil River, after which they will likely attack Luhansk. Meanwhile, the attacks in Kherson are less impressive and harder to evaluate but seem to be making progress. Russia lacks the ability to do substantial offensive operations or even to properly defend the whole front.

No matter what, it is going to mostly be slow going. Ukraine will not have the ability to end the war any time soon, even if it gets all the weapons it needs.

The Fundraiser

I had the opportunity last week to go to the Harvard Club for a fundraising event entitled The Ukrainian Independence War and the Future of the World. I cannot speak the effectiveness or efficiency of the particular organization. This is not the type of event I anticipate I would enjoy, but I was asked nicely and it looked like I might be able to do some good, and I might learn some things by going, so I went.

I was definitely right about not enjoying it, I did learn some things, and there is a chance that by being present I did some good. So, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, except it was not supposed to be fun.

The two speakers I recognized were Eric Adams, who spoke without any notes and of course made it all about New York City, and Paul Krugman who expressed views I agree with and yet seemed strangely confusion that others did not see things his way. Putting on a suit for the first time in many years was weird.

During the opening mingling portion, I got to talk to a few people from Jane Street and Emergent Ventures but mostly had no idea how to ice break or properly mingle in a crowd of old suited up rich white people I did not recognize. At one point I tried to see if I could join Paul Krugman’s conversation if only to listen and see how well it corresponded to what he writes, but he seemed to be deeply unhappy to be there and not likely to say anything of substance, so I let him be.

Alas, most of the event was not spent mingling. Most of the hours were spent at tables. This bulk of the event felt like people signing up to sit around and be fundraised to for hours. That does not seem like something on which I would want to spend my evening. The attendees could have simply given money.

Much of that time was spent on pro-Ukraine videos. The pro-Ukraine videos were good at driving home what was happening but implied that people at a pro-Ukraine fundraiser needed/wanted a bunch of pro-Ukraine rhetoric. Nothing false that I could see, definitely propaganda.

There has to be some model whereby attending makes sense. Where such events should exist. I don’t understand it. Beyond, I mean, sure, you can get an equilibrium of almost anything by making it important for connections and social status, I guess.

However much you envy the very rich, envy them somewhat less. For whatever reason, they feel obligated to do such things.

As for the food: The popovers were good. Roll was lousy. Other things were inedible. If you ever go to Harvard Club stick to the popovers and skip everything else.

The dynamics of the charity auctions were interesting to observe for the first time.

Everything that follows is my resulting naïve model of how things work here.

The purpose of a normal auction is to buy things you want.

The purpose of a charity auction is to avoid buying things you don’t want.

Both goals are important in both cases.

When you are in a normal auction, you should be terrified that you are overpaying via the winners’ curse, or feeling some sort of social pressure to ‘win’ or participate.

When you are in a charity auction, you should be on the lookout for items that you actually want and factor that into your bids. If you both win an item that provides value and give to charity, that is great.

You could say that it is very easy to succeed at a charity auction by doing exactly what I did, which was putting my bidding square on the floor and leaving it there. This is not the case, for two reasons. One, bidding provides social status and not bidding is presumably (for other people in other situations) subject to some amount of social pressure. Two, by bidding you can help accomplish the other reversed goal.

In a normal auction, you usually bid hoping to keep the price low so you can buy. You want to end the bidding.

In a charity auction, you usually bid hoping to make the price high so that someone else gives more money to charity. You want to induce more bidding.

(There are also non-charity auctions, especially when you are in a game or other competition, or you don’t like the other bidder, where you are happy to see someone else overpay and are even willing to risk buying something you don’t want to drive the price up.)

Thus, the striking fact that when someone bid on an item, they usually only bid once. It was unusual for someone to bid, get topped, and then bid again.

Which makes perfect sense. A bid gives you social credit for bidding, and it helps drive up the final price. If someone else outbids you, why, that’s perfect. Mission accomplished. Assuming you don’t want the item, why ruin it by bidding again?

Other News

Israeli anti-drone technology being transferred to Ukraine in response to Russia’s use of Iranian drones.

Russian hardliners seem upset about a prisoner exchange where Russia gave up 215 prisoners including a bunch of Azov fighters and got back 56 of their own plus one ‘lawyer’ that seems broadly disliked.

Metaculus and Prediction Markets

For our last trick, we will check in with Metaculus and see what it has to say.

Many of the markets no longer are relevant to the current stage of the conflict, with probabilities very close to 1% or 99%. I will ignore such questions.

Will there be a bilateral ceasefire between Russia & Ukraine?

This seems highly unlikely at this point and must have gone down more over the last few days than this is giving credit for.

Will there be 100k Russo-Ukrainian War Deaths in 2022?

I am confident the true answer is Yes, I am less confident it will resolve that way.

When will Ukraine regain control of the city of Kherson?

I was an optimist here even before I saw the related Insight Market and would put my median earlier, but am not engaged enough to predict in markets requiring a distribution.

How many people in Russia will be arrested in anti-war protests before 2023?

Presumably this should have gone up somewhat recently.

Will Putin be the President of the Russian Federation on February 1, 2023?

This has been remarkably steady. Time has gone by while he is still alive and well. His situation has deteriorated, and his long term odds are going down, which cancels out the ticking clock I guess. There is still plenty of time, as when it happens it probably happens quickly.

What will the approval rating of Vladimir Putin be in December 2022?

Again, this should have moved with announcement of mobilization, I presume downward, unless you believe the rating is fully a sham.

Will a coup or regime change take place in Russia in 2022 or 2023?

We know this one is still too low. The clock here ticks a lot more slowly, so the ratio of the chance in 2022 plus Jan 2023 versus the chance in 2022 plus all of 2023 should be changing, and it isn’t.

Will there be a serious radiation incident at a nuclear plant in Ukraine before 2024?

This went up with the incidents and is starting to come back down again. My guess is this is somewhat high.

Will Putin be charged with war crimes?

Originally I was bullish. Now I am bearish given the lack of any movement. Polymarket has this as only 6% to happen this year.

Will a nuclear weapon be detonated as an act of war by 2050?

It is hard to disentangle the amount Russia has weakened (or strengthened, in theory) norms around nuclear weapons or set up a future conflict that involves nuclear weapon use, versus the chance that Russia itself uses one in the Ukraine war. If we accept the 28% prior probability that gives 6% to divide between those two, plus some amount of the share of when it would have happened anyway. The change seems high to me, but not unreasonable.

There was no movement on this probability in the wake of Putin’s speech, at least not yet. I do think there should be some movement up based on willingness to escalate in other ways, but I agree with the nuclear threats not being taken seriously on their own as any kind of new move.

Insight Markets has a few things to offer. They say there has been movement in prices, but they don’t offer price histories so hard to tell.

I’m a seller on a formal declaration of war. Note that this is very optimistic about Kherson, with a big chance it falls within a month.

They have Putin at 90% through the year, which is higher than Metaculus. Polymarket is modestly lower at 88%. Unfortunately, they have chosen mostly not to participate in war-related markets.

Going Forward

The ISW is expressing the very strong opinion that Putin will be unable to assemble sufficient combat power to hold onto his gains, and his lack of enforcement of redlines with regard to Crimea makes them confident that any claimed redlines based on annexations would not be enforced. I agree on both counts.

With regard to future Ukraine posting, I do not predict that the situation will justify going on a regular schedule. This is intended to be a one-off given the confluence of rapid events, and I have other things I need to focus upon. However, if you feel more such updates would be a good use of my time, you are welcome to let me know that and even to make a bid to have me look at the situation more or in more depth.

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I'm interested in observations we could see that would make it the right call to leave major US cities.

Not sure if you saw it or not but MR has a post with links to a Twitter feed claiming that the proclamation allows for up to 1,000,000 to be called up. Supposedly in a paragraph that was basically redacted with "for official use" as the text. 

Thanks for writing this. I have been fretting for some time and realized that what I needed was a rational take on the war. I appreciate the time you've taken you write this out and I'll check out your other posts on this.

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