Procurement: Peacetime Sanctions In Wartime Russia


October 13, 2022: The crippling sanctions imposed on Russia for their 2014 and 2022 attacks on Russia now have more impact because of Russian actions in September. First there was the unanticipated damage a major mobilization effort inflicted on the economy. Vladimir Putin asked for a mobilization of 300,000 military veterans. When it was discovered that there were not as many of these as expected, Putin ordered men who had been exempted from military service (university students and men in key jobs). This led to a panic among university students and men with key jobs. Most of them suddenly disappeared from their jobs or universities and headed for the border. Many could not make it before the borders were ordered closed for military age men. Undeterred, these men went into hiding inside Russia, keeping their location hidden from the government and relentless officials delivering mobilization notices. There was also more violence against those who worked for the conscription/recruiting/mobilization organizations. The unpleasant “September Surprise” events threaten to as much as double the earlier sanctions damage.

While all this resistance crippled the mobilization effort, Russian economists noted that it was doing considerable damage to the economy, on top of all the sanctions. The mobilization failure pulled a lot of key manpower out of the economy which crippled many firms that were still functioning. If that wasn’t bad enough, there was the threat of even more sanctions in response to Putin threatening to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

All of this economic and military disruption does have one beneficial side effect; increased public opposition to the war. Putin has laws passed making such open opposition illegal. As the economic and military problems (and defeats in Ukraine) pile up, so do the number of Russians willing to take their chances and speak out. This now includes a growing number of senior officials and outspoken pro-war Russians who now accuse Putin, not the Ukrainians, of being the cause of the problems.

Before these September catastrophes, Russian GDP was expected to shrink at least 15 percent in 2022. It’s worse in Ukraine, where deliberate Russian missile and artillery attacks on economic targets are causing long-term economic damage. In Russian-occupied Ukraine there is no effort to repair economic damage and useful economic assets are shipped back to Russia. Russia is following the ancient strategy of “creating a desert and calling it peace”. Russia is also trying to mobilize its economy for wartime production despite senior government economic officials pointing out that Western sanctions emphasize crippling weapons production. Russian supreme leader Putin insists Russia will find a solution, as it did during World War II. This assessment ignores how Russia lost the Cold War and its empire literally fell apart because of economic mismanagement. The last war Russia won was World War II, aka the “Great Patriotic War”. That victory was made possible by massive economic aid from the United States, Britain and Canada. In 2022 Russia is the German aggressor and Ukraine is the Russian defender. This perception is anathema to senior Russian leaders but makes unpleasant sense to Russians closer to the situation. It’s against new Russian laws to contradict the official interpretation of the war. Yet the government has not jailed any of the increasing number of critics with front line experience who assess the war more as Russian aggression than the official explanation that Russia was protecting Ukraine from NATO Nazis.

Reality asserted itself for the Russian occupation forces in parts of Ukraine that were seized early on and are still under Russian control. The occupation was supposed to emphasize winning over the locals without resorting to mass murder and similar atrocious behavior that Russians endured under Nazi occupation. The main occupation zone is north of Crimea and centered around the city of Kherson, which is the capital of Kherson province. Kherson City was captured during the first week of the invasion and Russia has held onto most of the province ever since. The city is a major port because it is located near the mouth of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea. The Dnieper is a major navigable river for Ukraine and has long been used to handle the movement of cargo, especially wheat being exported. Russia is blocking such exports and burning Ukrainian crops before they can be harvested.

Ukraine has been trying to recapture Kherson City and province ever since March, and is making progress, aided by a growing partisan movement inside Kherson province and passive resistance to Russian occupation by most Ukrainians there. Some Ukrainians agreed to work for the Russian occupation, including pro-Russia Ukrainian politicians that were so unpopular in post-2014 Ukraine that they fled to Russia. These officials returned to administer the occupied territories and were soon the targets of attacks by Ukrainian partisans. Some of the turncoats were killed but more worrisome to the Russians were indications that other Ukrainian officials quietly agreed to work for the partisans. The Russians now believe that many of their Ukrainian administrators were working with the resistance from the beginning. At the same time the Russian occupation forces still have their orders to try and win over the Ukrainians or at least discourage them from joining an armed insurrection. To help with that the Russians sought to Russify the province as quickly as possible. That meant replacing the Ukrainian cell phone service with a Russian one. Ukrainian TV and radio transmissions are blocked. Russian ID documents became mandatory and use of any currency but the Russian ruble was forbidden. Russia controlled utilities (especially water and electricity) and every effort was made to link Kherson to the Russian economy. The initial reason for pacifying the population was to make life safe for Russian troops in Kherson. That was never fully achieved and now Russian troops have to worry about roadside bombs, anti-vehicle mines, sniper fire and assassination via pistol or a bomb planted in a vehicle. Russian efforts to impose conscription on Ukrainians in Crimea, Donbas and other occupied areas failed, often violently.

The Russian goal in the newly occupied territories was to hold elections that could be depicted as honest and show a majority of Kherson residents supporting annexation by Russia. The Ukrainians did not cooperate and did so in clever ways that Russian Information War specialists could recognize but have a difficult time counteracting. The Ukrainian resistance is both armed and dangerous but also mindful of the importance of outperforming the Russian Information War campaign.

Russia already had experience with how Ukrainians respond to military occupation. This occurred in the portions of Donbas that Russia occupied since 2014. Since April Russia has been fighting to gain control over all of Donbas. By the end of June Russia controlled nearly all of Luhansk province, which is the northern half of Donbas. Russian experiences with occupied areas of Donbas since 2014 are repeating themselves. In 2014 Donbas comprised about nine percent of Ukrainian territory, 13 percent of the population and 15 percent of the GDP, and was about 38 percent ethnic Russian. Russia noted that the lowest percentage of Ukrainians approving the separation from the Soviet Union in 1991 were from Donbas and Crimea. Russia ignored the fact that all these votes were in favor of independence. Crimea has the smallest majority (52 percent) but 83 percent of people in the two Donbas provinces voted for independence,

The two provinces comprise the Donets Basin (or “Donbas”) which was originally an economic powerhouse for Soviet Russia. That began to decline in the 1980s and accelerated when the Soviet Union fell (and Ukraine became independent) in 1991. Between 2014 and 2016 over two million people fled Russian-controlled parts of the Donbas, most heading for Ukraine and only about three million remained at the end of 2021. About half were ethnic-Russian pensioners who lose their pensions if they leave. Russia held phony elections in 2014 to create the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic in the portions of those two Ukrainian provinces they controlled. Russian-sponsored violence in Donbas has reduced economic activity to less than a third of what it was in 2013. Many businesses moved to Russia and Russia had to supply money to pay over 100,000 military and civilian employees of the new governments. Russian-occupied Donbas was and is sustained by money and supplies trucked in from Russia. This was costing Russia several billion dollars a year. Where Russian occupation forces controlled the Ukraine/Russia border, the border ceased to exist. The Russians controlled only about half of Donbas from 2014 to 2022 and that area gradually became part of Russia. Only the Russian currency is used and any foreign trade is with Russia. Some rebuilding was financed by Russia. Until the 2022 Russian invasion, the Russians offered peace if Ukraine recognized the loss of the Russian-occupied Donbas, which would then be free to become part of Russia.

Russia ignored or failed to accurately assess how, since 2014 Ukraine had been expanding and reforming its Soviet-era military. In early 2019 Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine by a large margin. He was not a politician but proved to be a lot more capable than the Russians expected. Worse, Zelensky quickly demonstrated that he was more of a threat than the professional politician he replaced. Since taking power in 2019 Zelensky quickly replaced notoriously corrupt or incompetent government and military officials. Zelensky tried to get negotiations going between himself and Russian leader Putin. The Russians did not want that, and their response was an “invasion threat” that became real in February 2022. Zelensky didn’t flinch because he could do the math. Ukraine could win if it obtained enough military support from nations also threatened by Russia, especially new NATO members who had joined since the 1990s and shared Zelensky’s assessment of Russian goals and the relatively poor state of the Russian economy and military forces. Ukrainian forces stopped the Russian 2022 invasion and forced Russian troops back towards the Russian border. The Russian threat to Europe was revealed as very real, and this prompted Sweden and Finland to abandon their long-held neutrality and join NATO. Russia justified its 2022 invasion by claiming NATO was conspiring to attack Russia and that part of that conspiracy was NATO installing anti-Russian politicians in Ukraine so that Ukraine would become an involuntary NATO member. This was quickly revealed to be a lie as the invading Russian troops were being defeated by better armed and motivated Ukrainians who wanted nothing to do with Russia. That reality slowly got back to Russia despite Russian efforts to deny it and describe such information as another clever NATO lie.

Before September the Russian government was losing the support of its own people, including a growing number of senior officers who speak out, usually via encrypted messages on Telegram, a popular cell phone app in Russia and Ukraine. Early on many of these Russian Telegram based military blogers (“mil-blogers” supported the invasion and were supplied with information by the Russian government, including opportunities to spend some time with the troops inside Ukraine. By June the Russian mil-blogers were no longer reporting the official Russian version of events in Ukraine, but what was being reported by Russian veterans of the fighting in Ukraine.

After Russia announced a pause in offensive military operations in early July, one of these mil-blogers, a former general who had served in occupied Donbas before the invasion, reported a different reality. He insisted that Russia had suffered higher losses in Luhansk than the Ukrainians, who were conducting a classic attrition defense. The Russians had suffered far more losses in men and equipment than the Ukrainians who were not driven out of Luhansk but withdrew deliberately to encourage Russia to keep attacking and losing troops and combat vehicles that could not be replaced. Meanwhile the Ukrainians were receiving more weapons and equipment from NATO and forming new units, including armed resistance groups in Russian-occupied Ukraine. This was not the official Russian assessment but it was the reality that Russian troops in Ukraine were experiencing and some Russian mil-blogers were reporting.

All this was nothing new. When the most modern and effective Russian forces were assembled to invade Ukraine in 2022, they quickly discovered they were not facing an inept, poorly trained and armed foe but one that was far more effective. The main offensive in the north against the Ukrainian capital took heavy losses and within weeks was forced to retreat. Russian troops were told by their government that they had encountered NATO troops who were in Ukraine preparing to invade Russia. The surviving Russian troops knew better because all they encountered were Ukrainians, usually armed with weapons similar to what Russia used as well as more effective ones they had received from NATO. The Ukrainians used more effective tactics and some new weapons that were based on Western models but Ukrainian-made. The Russian state-controlled media was ordered to ignore reports like this and stick with the official story that this was all a secret NATO operation to attack Russia via Ukraine.

While this information war played on, the Russian military ordered everything Russia had, short of nuclear weapons, into use in an effort to salvage the situation. Russia was at war with a near-peer opponent and losing. Many Russians, civilian and military, figured out what was happening and were openly criticizing and sometimes physically attacking their government because of the mess in Ukraine that was killing a lot of Russian troops. These Russian critics were often well-educated professionals in regular contact with Westerners, including more than a million Russians who had left since 2014 because of fears Russia was headed for what actually happened in 2022.

NATO countries believed the Russians had the edge in some areas, like electronic warfare, but the Ukrainians were coping by using their own ingenuity and the help of Western technologies that no one believed had military potential. Chief among these was the American Starlink satellite-based Internet service that Ukrainian engineers and electronics experts believed, even before the 2022 invasion, had military potential. Ukrainians also developed new equipment and s0ftware. One striking example was artillery fire-control software and tactics that were far more effective than anyone, Ukrainian, Western or Russian, imagined.

Putin encountered major problems trying to control information made available to his people. This became a critical problem after the invasion of Ukraine and the government wants to conceal the extent of their military failures. Passing new laws against disclosing such information and shutting down the last few media operations that were not state-controlled has not been enough. The ban on casualty information created a lot of public protest that found ways to get past the censorship.




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