Tuesday 8 March, 2022

Open Vincent

The gates to the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh in Arles.

Quote of the Day

”Everything is funny, so long as it’s happening to someone else.”

  • Will Rogers

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sting | Russians


Sting has resurrected this song, written under the shadow of another nuclear confrontation. Fits the mood of the present perfectly.

Many thanks to Neil Sequeira for alerting me to it.

Long Read of the Day

Space and Time

This is an unmissable analysis of the current state of the Russian invasion by Lawrence Freedman, one of the foremost scholars of warfare. The basic thrust of the essay is that Putin is running out of options as the ($500m to $1B a day) costs of the war mount and his army is apparently in disarray, at least in the North.

The decisions of numerous individuals will determine how this war ends. Can Ukrainian civilians remain steadfast in the face of merciless Russian bombardment? Can the apparently high Ukrainian morale be sustained through a major setback? And on the Russian side, what happens as people realise that they have been misled about the war’s purpose and that their young men have died in an exercise in futility? How are soldiers, many conscripts, responding to the frightening and unexpected situation in which they find themselves? What about officers, alarmed about their lost men and equipment and lack of reserves, unable either to fulfil their orders or to retreat? How do Putin’s courtiers, aware that the war is going badly, explain to their leader the dire consequences of the current strategy? And then there is Putin. At some point will it dawn on him that he has failed in the greatest gamble of his career?

If Freedman is right and Putin is ultimately destined to be cornered, that’s not necessarily good news for the world, though. Not all cornered animals have their paws on a nuclear button.

On the other hand… Politico had this interesting take on it yesterday:

Former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Andrei Kozyrev tweeted a fascinating assessment of Putin’s military objectives and rationale last night. Kozyrev believes Putin “is a rational actor” who made three major “miscalculations”: he “started to believe his own propagandists” that Ukraine was led by Nazis … his military advisers lied to him about the state of the Russian army … and he believed his own propaganda that U.S. President Joe Biden is “mentally inept” and the EU “weak.” This leads Kozyrev to argue that Putin is not mad, but “wrong and immoral.” He adds: “Given that he is rational, I strongly believe he will not intentionally use nuclear weapons against the West … The ultimate conclusion here is that the West should not agree to any unilateral concessions or limit its support of Ukraine too much for the fear of nuclear war.”

And another thing… All those speculations about whether Putin is unhinged may actually be suiting his purposes. As Tim Harford observed at the weekend, Thomas Schelling’s book The Strategy of Conflict contains this interesting thought:

“It is not a universal advantage in situations of conflict to be inalienably and manifestly rational in decisions and motivation.”

And for once… I find myself agreeing with Ross Douhat:

We don’t need to take wild nuclear risks to defeat Putin in the long run. The voices arguing for escalating now because we’ll have to fight him sooner or later need to recognize that containment, proxy wars and careful line-drawing defeated a Soviet adversary whose armies threatened to sweep across West Germany and France, whereas now we’re facing a Russian army that’s bogged down outside Kyiv.

We were extremely careful about direct escalation with the Soviets even when they invaded Hungary or Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan, and the result was a Cold War victory without a nuclear war. To escalate now against a weaker adversary, one less likely to ultimately defeat us and more likely to engage in atomic recklessness if cornered, would be a grave and existential folly.

WAR 101

If, like me, you’ve been wondering what it must be like to suddenly become a soldier, then this guidance from an American combat veteran might be helpful.

You’re a 22-year-old Ukrainian who has just been handed a Kalashnikov, four magazines of thirty rounds, a helmet, and body armor. Last week you were studying architecture at Kyiv National University. Now you’re standing in the lead rank. An officer counts off and puts a hand on your shoulder. “You’re a fire team leader.” He points at the next three people in your rank. “That’s your team.”

There are three people behind you. You’ve never seen them before. They await your command.

Generals are not, contrary to popular belief, the most critical decision-makers on a battlefield. The leaders of the fire teams are. The fire team is the smallest unit in battle, usually made up of three people and a leader…

Read on. It’s an eye-opener.

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