This analysis was reprinted from Kyiv Post's Senior Military Correspondent Stefan Korshak's personal blog. 

You can read the original article here.

Sturm und Drang in Dem Congress

As the mainstream of the Ukraine information business went into full-on Sturm and Drang hankerchief-twisting about the EU, Congress, military funding, and Putin’s speech, meanwhile, the war went nowhere, it’s still there.

Me personally, while this Ukraine aid fracas has been in progress in Washington, I’ve been talking with a lot of UAF soldiers for several articles, of which two have to do with imported French small arms and possible issues with that. The second piece recently got published ( link to the first one offered earlier), so here’s that. To be clear: this article would not have been possible without the help of readers of this blog.

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Other articles on the horizon or recently finished include a report on what the Ukrainian army says it does to support front line troops as opposed to what the troops and their relatives say, a piece on drones and how an army gets more, and war aims in the medium to long term.

(Plus the standard end-of-year “top five of 2023” stuff news organizations do so the journos can goof off on the actual holidays, in other words rehashes designed to get clicks from people off from work).

On the wrangling and angst and hullabaloo in the US Congress about aid to Ukraine, from what I’m seeing here, the Ukrainians themselves are pretty far from having kittens. Seriously.

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The news story about the Republicans and the Democrats and the US border and assistance to Ukraine and Israel being held “hostage”, in the mainstream Ukrainian media, is being reported as unfortunate, bad news certainly, but not a surprise because it’s not exactly a secret in Ukraine about how US national politics work.

The message in the Ukrainian media is that odds are, slightly, that the US Congress will approve the assistance eventually, but it may not be fast and it certainly isn’t in Ukraine’s hands. From time to time reporters or interviewees point out that Ukraine stopped the Russian army cold outside Kyiv in Feb. 2022 and it wasn’t like Ukraine was awash in western weapons then, so it’s not like the US assistance is live or die now.

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Live or die in Ukraine is you or someone you know getting injured or killed by a piece of Russian metal or an explosion made by a Russian weapon. Or someone you don’t know, but who is just like you or someone you know. And you find out they’re dead or injured. Very often it’s someone’s relative. Politicians pointing fingers who don’t have to worry about that sort of thing, somewhere else, well, they have their problems and you still have yours.

Arguments and emotions and voices raised in Washington aren’t discounted as irrelevant. Everyone in Ukraine knows American military aid is important. But there is a point where worrying about things out of one’s hands becomes physically impossible. Most Ukrainians I would say are past that point.

Also, and this doesn’t seem to be reported much at all in the US, the last week or so has seen major and I mean major European military support commitments to Ukraine: Germany at more than a billion US including a Patriot system, Bulgaria at three or five billion US (I’ve seen various numbers, but apparently a mix of armored vehicles and artillery ammo), Denmark at a bit above a billion US (I’m assuming this is F-16 stuff, Leopards, and artillery), Norway kicking in about 400 million (budget support and NASMS air defense), Estonia with 80 million (ATGM topped with more Javelins).

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And that’s not taking into account backdoor support from the US, to wit, $350 million in two tranches over the last month, plus the Pentagon “accounting error” that plussed up Ukraine’s tab with the USG to buy military material by $6 billion. Obviously this is not sustained assistance over years, and certainly it’s easy enough to find Ukrainians griping about all the M1A1/2 Abrams tanks and Bradley IFVs in mothballs in the US and waiting apparently to be scrapped, when the Ukrainian point of view the only rational move is to send it to Ukraine to kill Russians.

Everyone interested in such things, in Ukraine, knows, that if Donald Trump were to be returned to office US assistance to Ukraine would, at minimum, become more chaotic. But trust me, all the European aid getting committed while the Americans can’t seem to decide what to do, that’s being reported in detail in Ukraine. As is the basic fact that, right now, European military AND non-military aid to Ukraine is more substantial than what the Americans are managing.

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Ukrainians understand less US aid means more dead Ukrainians and more destroyed Ukrainian homes and businesses. Ukrainians would prefer less dead people and less destroyed homes and businesses. But surrender and capitulation?

Talk like that is possible, on the margins, it’s a free country, but you would have to look very long and hard to find many Ukrainians who would agree with that. You can find people to discuss, theoretically, because the decision absolutely is up to the elected government, what does the situation on the front might need to look like, and what kind of security guarantees would be needed, to make stopping shooting at the Russians a safer national policy than continuing to do so. Some people say 1991 borders, some say 2014 borders, some say NATO membership, some say neutrality and a military a la Israel and Switzerland, but bigger than the entire EU.

Based on the guys I’ve been talking to, and it’s on all three major fronts, the soldiers are more hard line than the average civilian, try to find even one that will discuss leaving Crimea to the Russians or some international oversight thing. Very, very consistently, I get told: “If we do not beat them back, and destroy their army, kill so many of them that they won’t think twice, they will just attack again. I don’t want my children fighting Russians, so I’m here to fight for as long as it takes.”

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Putin earlier this week had one of those three hour talkathons during which he said Russia’s war goals are unchanged that the Kremlin’s intent is total defeat of Ukraine and annexation of about 1/4 of Ukraine’s territory. Which pretty much validates the considered opinion of pretty much every soldier you talk to. A ceasefire with a Putinist Russia that has already invaded Ukraine twice, in direct violation of signed agreements guaranteeing Ukrainian sovereignty, is stupid, and condemns future Ukrainian generations to invasion and war.

Even if the US cut off all aid full stop, my impression, that would change nothing for the Ukrainians. They would be sorry more Ukrainians would die. But the problem with the people in Washington talking about compromise and ceasefire and ceding territory, they don’t live next to the Russians. The Ukrainians do, and they are sick of being invaded and having missiles shot at their families and their relatives bombed and explosions set off in their homes. In 2014 they were told that if they just accept a ceasefire everything will be OK, no more invasions. They see how that worked out. Not again. Now they choose to fight. What the American Congress does or doesn’t do won’t affect that, is the impression I get.

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Hungarians helping Hungarians?

Some of you will have noticed President Zelensky’s visited Washington, which in most western media was reported as an event mostly like a beggar or a drug addict to make a last-chance score from wealthy people kind of offended he doesn’t wash enough. I’m reading all sorts of reports about “dead ears”, “America first”, “won’t work”, “why are we helping them?”, etc. ad naseum. OK, fine.

But just for the record, Zelensky’s visit to the US in his own country’s media was described as an important but ultimately unsuccessful pit stop, but part of a trip started in Argentina and guess what even Argentinians have heard Russia invaded Ukraine, and the trip ended in Germany, and there Herr Scholtz offered up serious support including a Patriot system.

Reporting on Ukraine and the EU was different too. Many of you will have heard that Hungarian Premier Mihaly Orban is refusing to green light 50 billion EUR, not his money but the EU’s, aid assistance to Ukraine because he thinks it’s a bad idea. Of course, he says, wee the EU to unlock money to Hungary it froze because he ran roughshod over the courts and the media, you know, in direct violation of the EU treaty, then he is graciously willing to un-veto the aid to Ukraine, but the EU has to give Hungary about 25 billion EUR first. You know, because Hungary has the fiduciary interests of the EU at heart.

Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban.

The mainstream western media take on was that the weak, spineless, faceless EU is once again impotent, and this time in thrall to an autocratic pissant leader for one of the Union’s poorest states, and how absolutely embarrassing it it is that the likes of France, Germany, Spain and Italy are getting pushed around by one of these classic crowd-rousing 20th-century-style European politicians. The mainstream western media take, looking at it from Ukraine, is echt Euroschadenfreude: Even though the EU leadership goes to the gym regularly, has children that do well in school, are well-dressed, speak great English, and have the civilization and decency not to be snobby and corrupt too often in a too visible way, these nice European politicians and leaders they are absolutely at sea when confronted with an avowed nationalist populist shamelessly using the Hitler/Franco/Mussolini play book.

Which all may be true, but, meanwhile in Ukraine, what got reported was the EU formal offer to Ukraine to begin an accession process — the very goal that, when the Yanukovych rejected shooting for it, it set of the Maidan protests. At the same time the supposedly clever and all-powerful Orban, who according to the conventional wisdom is giggling and running rings around everyone in Brussels, had to ignominiously leave the room, on television, so the EU could ram the Ukraine vote figuratively down his throat.

Instead of dooming and glooming about how EU financial assistance is dead, because Orban “vetoed” it, in the Ukrainian media the write-ups are all about the already-set EU plan to bypass Orban by just sending Ukraine the money on a bilateral basis, and leaving him to explain to voters why his foreign policy is to their benefit.

Speaking of which, basically nowhere in the European (forget US) media have I seen the letter from the leaders of the ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine — the very people Orban says he’s protecting and the supposed suppression of whose language rights he says are the sole reason for his antagonistic stance on Ukraine — telling Orban that, actually ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine are fine, we don’t need your protection thank you, actually ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine would very much like to be in the EU, would Mr. Orban please just stop trying to “protect” them by stopping it, etc. etc. I mean, it’s a public letter to the EU, from the heads of the Ukrainian communities Obran says he’s so interested in protecting, telling him he’s a goof and would he please just be quiet.

Orban’s response came the next day explaining, tortuously, that even though Hungary will veto Ukrainian EU accession and financial aid under all circumstances, because that’s what’s best for the EU, Hungary really, really has the best interests of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine at heart.

Locally, it’s really textbook case of backwoods, Eastern European political cynicism and I would say the Ukrainian point of view is that they’re sort of sorry the Hungarians have a rotten leader, but the Ukrainians have had plenty of their own so they’re not going to point fingers.

Anyway, the spectacle in all its hypocritical irony (I mean, when was the last time you saw an European ethnic minority write the nationalist leader in the other country waving a flag about protecting them and their language, telling him please stop we’re fine please don’t protect us) was pretty much skipped by mainstream European media, so instead of Orban looking like a fool on the level of the Sudeten Germans sending Adolf Hitler a note stating they are perfectly fine in Czechoslovakia the Wehrmacht can stay home, if Orban made the news at all, he showed up — again — as a tinpot dictator the EU can’t figure out what to do with.

Glad to be corrected.

The Estonian war plan

One of the historically-interesting aspects of this war has been the way the western coalition supporting Ukraine has attempted to come up with a collective plan in a situation where the US has a lot of other geopolitical fish to fry, the European states all have their own interests and their own “best long term outcome” relative to Russia, and pretty much all the key players — and this absolutely includes Ukraine — are real democracies that argue internally all the time and whose politicians inevitably will, if offered the chance, try to shift problems at home to idiot allies abroad. No one dictates anything, the US sort of leads but sometimes other players take initiative and that pushes the coalition, each part of it to its own individual degree, in one direction or another. Sometimes, small players lead because the big ones for their own internal reasons can’t.

On Thursday the Estonian Defense Ministry published a “discussion paper” laying out how the coalition can and should win the war by 2026 at the latest. I recommend reading it in detail because — am I anthropomorphizing here? — like the Estonian stereotype it’s logical, straightforward, direct, pragmatic, and written in English better than the overwhelming majority of native speakers can manage. From beginning to end it’s obvious that the authors know the target — the Russian Federation and its military — in granular, exact, rigorously-checked detail. This is no essay written by some Beltway think tank designed to CYA/create political options to a US elected official trying to figure out which is the most career-enhancing way to jump. What came out on Thursday, is a blueprint that should terrify any (if there are still any) rational Kremlin decision-makers.

So who cares? Well, you watch. In one sense, the Estonians publishing what effectively is the formal Tallinn declaration on how to beat Russia, is an answer to that part of the US politics that is arguing that aid to Ukraine must stop because there’s no strategy to win a war.

I have no doubt, that for instance in Germany or France or even Italy or Belgium there are smart government people who have come to the same conclusions, and it’s probably not too much of a leap of faith to bet that there are policy papers like this bouncing around the the internal government email accounts in all those countries. But of course, smart European political players know there are political reasons why Paris can’t just come out and announce its plan to defeat the Russians (internal politics and Marcon’s dire need to be only successful in foreign policy initiatives), nor can Berlin (when the war’s over, Germany must still be able to do business with Russia), etc.

But if the Estonians come out with a plan, that is really hard to challenge because it’s well-reasoned, then that’s a discussion that becomes a lot more acceptable inside other European governments, the big states at first will just do a little so as not to be seen as rejecting the idea outright, and then over time they’ll jump on board and if you wait long enough their politicians will tell you that was the plan all the time. For anyone who doesn’t think that’s how Europe makes foreign policy, I direct your attention to Germany’s 180 reverse of policy towards Russia over the past 18 months. Individual European states setting examples, that deliver results, can, have, and will sometimes drive pan-European foreign policy.

I won’t take a personal stance on the Estonian plan, but I will say this: if you talk to Ukrainian troops, and ask any one of them how they think Ukraine bring the war to a successful conclusion (notice how I’m not using the word “victory”), you pretty much always will get an answer along the lines “Kill Russian soldiers until they get sick of it and leave our country.”

There is a really interesting correlation: The more the Ukrainian soldier is directly involved in killing or wounding Russian soldiers, or destroying Russian equipment, the better his morale. This is not to say there aren’t soldiers that wind up basically without support on the front line under heavy artillery fire, and I’ve talked to survivors who are anything but upbeat. But even they say, what the UAF needs to do better is kill the enemy. So at minimum, from what I can see and have heard, the Estonian plan aligns with the general views of the Ukrainian soldiers. All anecdotal information obviously, this wasn’t a scientific survey.

And a blast from the past — Scuds and Anna Semenovich revisited

After waiting for months for the Russians to restart their power grid/infrastructure bombardment campaign, this week it looks like they’ve decided to try, although what actually has been shot at us is piddling next to what they theoretically have in reserve.

If the Russian cruise and ballistic missile production is still on track — and that’s an extremely big “if”, you need imported electronics to manufacture the missiles — then according to the Ukrainian air force the Russian military has about 800 long range missiles it could lob at us here, plus between 2,000 and god-knows-how-many Iranian putt-putt drones.

What we have seen has been a long way from shock and awe and cross-spectrum annihilation. Instead, we’ve seen two or three dozen of the moped drones most nights, and then starting in the second week of December, the Russians mixed in 2–10 missiles. The conventional wisdom is the Russian strategy is to exhaust Ukrainian air defenses by making them shoot off all their anti-missile missiles, and then once Ukraine is defenseless level the power grid. However, one might argue a smarter strategy (again, IF the missiles really are there to shoot) would be to launch hundreds of missiles right off.

The other problem with the Russian massed missile strike, of course, is do they have enough launchers? The Ukrainians have burned Russian bombers on airstrips 700 km. Inside Russia, they’ve chased the ships capable of launching missiles out of the central and west Black Sea and were those platforms to sail out of the east end, the Ukrainians have land- and air-launched anti-ship missiles and Russian propaganda really doesn’t need another Moskva sinking bouncing around the internet. There is also the not insignificant issue of Russian bomber maintenance and the question of how capable Russian air force mechanics are of keeping a large number of bombers flight-capable long term.

Heck, while we’re on the subject of things that might keep Russian bombers on the ground, if I were a Russian bomber pilot, I’m not sure I would be enthusiastic about flying missions to hit Ukrainian territory, because if it ever got out who I was, and the Ukrainians are publishing identities when they find them, then I’m looking at a potential future where if I go to any country with a treaty with Interpol, for the rest of my life, I might get arrested on war crime charges. Maybe it’s safer to tell the flight surgeon I have pains in my chest that come and go but I’m good for a desk job…

Anyway, the point is that so far what we have seen is limited Russian missile launches, and most recently it was proper ballistic missiles which are the hardest to shoot down. Supposedly it was Iskander missiles, a weapon Russian media said western weapons couldn’t stop and that would inevitably strike fear and terror in the hearts of anyone the missile was aimed at. Image attached.

The other day I suspect — can’t prove it yet — a record of sorts was set in that the Russians fired ten surface-to-surface missiles at Kyiv (these are big weapons with a half-ton explosive warhead) at Kyiv and all its nice monuments and homes and businesses and parks and so forth. By all accounts all of them got shot down. I only observed two intercepts personally, in my pajamas, and unfortunately for Kremlin terror bombing messaging my personal emotions were mostly sleepiness and irritation, and I know for a fact that goes for a lot of Kyivites. Anyway, for the rest of that we have to take the word of the Ukrainian air force.

Still, if it was ten Iskanders, then not only was that a concerted Russian attempt to beat its way through Ukraine’s most dense air defenses with a concentrated ballistic missile strike, it probably was one of the biggest single massed launches, of ballistic missiles, in history. Moreover, if the Ukrainian kill claims are borne out in fact, the other day saw the UAF set a new world record for most successful intercepts of incoming ballistic missiles, in history.

Addition: There were scattered reports that it was S-300 missiles, S-400 missiles or a mix of one or both of the previous, with Iskander missiles. I will take advantage of my eyewitness status and declare the explosions I saw in the clouds were Iskander-scale explosions, and after 14 months of Russian bombardment I am no longer a tyro missile target. If a correction is needed it will be here.

If anyone reading this knows of past incidents that are confirmed and that undermine that claim, please chime in here or in a PM.

But in any case, I think it’s apropos to recall a Moscow public messaging narrative dating back to 2014, when the Kremlin’s response to the weak sanctions of the time included the printing of t-shirts reading “Sanctions? Don’t try to make my Iskanders laugh!” and handing them out to public figures to create pro-Russia internet content. One of the most prominent in this campaign was former figure skater and then pop-singer Anna Semenovich, pictured. At one point she trained in the US but she went back to Russia. I checked, and the last time she made a splash in the news recently as part of a group of Russian pop singers calling for the government to pay one million rubles in prize money to a service member managing to destroy a Leopard 2 tank in Ukraine. So she’s still in the war morale business, but not talking about Iskander missiles any more.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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