Weekly Overview Cables - Ukraine war updates: new commander-in-chief, and unpacking Tucker-Putin interview, Part I.
Ukraine War Updates.
1) Ukraine gets a new chief commander.
President Zelensky has now removed Valery Zaluzhyi and replaced him with Oleksandr Syrskyi.
We have previously discussed this at length in the last week’s cable, but to recap briefly: it is unlikely that this decision was motivated by Zelensky’s fear of a political challenge: timing and overall context bely these claims - on the contrary, now that Zaluzhnyi is out of office, he can go after Zelensky openly and directly.
A more likely reason for Zaluzhnyi’s dismissal is likely a combination of two things:
a) Simply put, Zaluzhnyi was far too independent for a non-civilian leader of the armed forces - he went around publishing opinion essays in the The Economist magazine and challenged Zelensky’s political communications.
For all his heroism and capability as a military leader, frankly, this was a bit unprofessional - to say the least.
Such a conduct would certainly not have been tolerated in the most of the liberal-democratic NATO states either;
b) With no expectation of a breakthrough this year, Zelensky’s political-strategic objectives may have been diverging from Zaluzhnyi’s narrower military goals.
It is important to remember that unfortunately, Zelensky has to worry about the optics of this war in addition to the actual progress on the battlefield.
The “Ukraine fatigue” in the West is totally unjustifiable, but yet, also real.
Zelensky has to remain aware of the needs of the key stakeholders/audiences in the West - who all suffer from significant attention-deficit order, and who want quick results (in spite of bearing no real pain or cost from this war).
And by definition, this requires a focus on tactical gains over strategic outcomes.
And Zaluzhnyi is famously known for his clear preference for grand strategy over quick tactical wins.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Zelensky is being unwise in his deviation from Zaluzhnyi’s more sobering approach to military planning.
It may very well be the case that Zelensky is right in calculating that in this particular period of the war, optics will matter a lot - and that even minor tactical (and strategically insignificant) gains will make it more likely that Ukraine manages to secure funding and support necessary for the proper prosecution of this war.
And so Zelensky’s choice in a successor was instructive.
We previously discussed how Kyrylo Budanov (head of military intelligence) could be a potential replacement - although he was too good at his current job to be moved.
And certainly, Zelensky didn’t go for Budanov, and instead, Oleksandr Syrskyi was chosen as the new Commander-in-Chief of the Armed forces of Ukraine.
So then, what do we know about Syrskyi?
At least three things:
1) He was in charge of Kyiv’s successful defense from Russian assault in the early weeks of the war;
2) He was in charge of a successful counteroffensive in Kharkiv in the fall of 2022; 3) He is known for his preference for exploitation of tactical gains at high costs: he is widely known as a ‘‘butcher’’ or general200 (which apparently means general death), and was the main proponent of the relentless defense of Bakhmut (in fact, it is rumored that he copied Wagner’s human wave attacks when fighting back Russians).
It is not hard to see how appointing someone who is known for his ruthlessness and preference for tactical gains (at the time when strategic gains are unlikely to materialize for a long time) could serve Zelensky.
This appointment will also surely carry a signaling effect: if nothing good is expected this year, and at the time when Russian advantage in firepower and ammo keeps on growing, appointment of someone who is willing to absorb enormous casualties without flinching, is a strong signal of intent and staying power.
This is a signal that even with the current near-term bleak reality on the battlefield, Ukraine is still not going to be intimidated into concessions and into offering Putin territorial gains anytime soon.
And things are indeed bleak, with the US aid still hanging in the air, and with European deliveries still taking far too long to make an immediate difference on the battlefield, Ukraine is now forced to “rationing stockpiles” and firing only about a third of the number of artillery shells that they need each day to even maintain their positions - let alone to advance.
3) Russia’s presidential (anti-war) candidate removed from Ballot.
It was fun while it lasted..
Boris Nadezhdin, who (in his own words, wasn’t the most charismatic candidate) managed to galvanize significant support amongst Russians who were fed up with the war in Ukraine.
Nadezhdin was a long-time opposition candidate (and former friend and political ally of the assassinated (2015) Boris Nemtsov - who was probably the only genuinely liberal-democratic opposition politician in Russia) that had not made a mark up until this moment.
But given his criticisms of the war, (labeling it as a ‘‘fatal mistake’’), he quickly turned into a political vessel for all Russians who wanted to make a political statement and voice their opposition against Putin and this war.
Naturally, the Presidential elections in March are performative only - and Nadezhdin created some significant buzz (tens of thousands of Russians were queuing up in freezing conditions to grant their signatures for his campaign).
His popularity and momentum reached the point where it was simply too risky for the Kremlin to let him stand - and so his ‘‘endorsement signatures’’ were deemed to be invalid (even though Nadezhdin added a lot more as a buffer against expected rejection by Russia’s electoral commission).
Not necessarily because he could actually win unlikely: Putin could still probably win - he is probably popular enough to do that.
There is also the fact that (in addition to a large mass of apathetic people wary of change) there are now around 15%-25% of nationalist Russians who are strongly pro-war, and would back Putin to avoid the ‘‘humiliation’’ of ending the war and withdrawing Russian troops.
(side note: even so, Putin is clearly not as popular as state conducted ‘‘polls’’ claim him to be (for example, during the June 2023 coup attempt, no ordinary Russians came out in support of their “President’’. Contrast this with the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey - where hundreds of thousands of Turks came out to stand in the way of tanks and in support of Erdogan.)
But that Nadezhdin could win outright was not the main risk - instead, what kept the Kremlin technologists up at night was the reality that with Nadezhdin’s momentum, ensuring Putin’s victory would likely require more brazen forms of electoral manipulation and rigging - and in the age of high-penetration social media, this is just too risky: there could be too many spontaneous protest movements to manage.
And having these protest movements in the middle of the war is inviting an enormous amount of risk to the regime (and this risk could also emanate from within: some regime big shot could calculate that Putin is now too unpopular to save, and could, as a result, organize another coup attempt.)
3) Senate embarrassment and US military production updates.
For months, these cables have criticized Congressional leaders - and US Senators specifically for prioritizing cheap politics over national security policy.
We have maintained that attaching border security funding/legislation to Ukraine aid was an unnecessary and short-sighted decision driven purely by political optics.
There was simply no good reason to conjoin the two disparate issues: there was a moderate Democrat vote for border security regardless if the GOP played ball on Ukraine.
But this didn’t happen, and instead, after months of insisting that there was no way that Senate Republicans would ever send money to Ukraine without simultaneously securing the border, they have now reversed their course and did just that.
Last Thursday, 17 GOP Senators advanced a bill that would provide the necessary funding to Ukraine regardless of the agreement on the southern border.
The $95bn funding bill for Ukraine, Taiwan, and Israel is now close to being passed.
Of course, this is not a done deal, and further obstacles may yet emerge, but it clearly wasn’t worth four months of delays - pushing our allies in Ukraine to the brink and desperate measures to preserve ammunition.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney summarized it well:
“We’d have been smarter to do it four to five months ago. But we Republicans insisted on a border bill to be part of the deal. We could have saved a lot of time if President Trump had just told Fox and others he didn’t want the bill.”
It is some consolation however, that at the time of a major dysfunction in Congress, elsewhere, things are starting to look up: the US production of 155mm artillery shells will hit 36k by the end of this quarter, and will likely double by the end of the year.
In absolute terms, the numbers are still small, but together with improvements in the production in the EU, these bode well for Ukraine - once political will is there, necessary infrastructure is gradually building up to sustain Ukraine’s defense in the long term.
Tucker and Putin.
This interview was a consequential event in itself.
War is fought in multiple arenas, and the mere fact that Ukraine fatigue is setting in amongst western publics (to the extent that it endangers continuous funding and aid to Ukraine) is in itself the biggest proof that information warfare matters a lot.
This is because there is no good objective reason for the west to even experience such ‘‘exhaustion’’.
Especially when fiscal contributions from the west are minimal, and when western economies are back on track with economies growing again and inflation abating..
In fact, these days, the Houthis cause more of a disruption to the western life than a major continental war raging in eastern Europe...
And yet Putin’s talking points are somehow effective - to be clear, they are not overwhelmingly effective, but the mere fact that the Kremlin narratives stick at all, is already proof of Russia’s significant accomplishments in information warfare.
It is astonishing that Russia has invaded a sovereign nation, and the premier talking point in the west is not ‘‘how we can expedite Ukraine’s win/what more must we do?’’ but it is instead ‘‘how long will this thing last?’’ or the most irritating of all: ‘‘how long should we keep funding this war?”
The mere traction of that last question is a major propaganda victory in itself - no one in the mainstream politics/media is doing enough of a good job to rebut the underlying premise of that question and point out the fact that the US is not funding the war - it is instead funding the self-defense of a sovereign nation that wants to fight to prevent its destruction and total invasion by Russia - and that without this funding Ukraine would simply disappear.
But rephrasing and asking ‘‘how long should we help Ukraine to prevent Putin from absorbing this country into Russia, and destroying a sovereign nation in front of our eyes?” is not going to be as appealing.
In any case, this was a long aside - just to reiterate the importance of this interview: it was watched by hundreds of millions of people, and unfortunately, a lot of comments are highlighting how ‘‘sincere’’ Putin was.
It somehow escapes people that sincerity of motivation doesn’t bestow justification to actual conduct.
These cables never once doubted Putin’s sincere belief that he was copying the deeds of Peter and Catherine the Great.
In fact, from the very outset, and by: 1) pointing at Putin’s own essay on Ukraine (where he repeatedly denied independent national identity to millions of Ukrainians and public statements (where he likened himself to Peter the great and claimed that he was only ‘‘returning” historic Russian lands), and 2) unpacking behaviors, statements and aspirations inconsistent with the false (excusatory) narrative that it was NATO threat/expansion that drove Russia to retaliate, these cables have repeatedly argued that Putin’s true reasons for this invasion were rather straightforward: territorial conquest and restoring Russia’s greatness on the global arena.
(side note: there was even a leaked comment by Russia’s own foreign secretary Sergei Lavrov - who in response to a question from a Russian oligarch wondering why Putin was not listening to their advice, said that Putin had ‘‘three advisers: Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. And Catherine the Great”)
So it was not at all surprising that in spite of Tucker Carlson’s repeated attempts to lead Putin towards “threat from NATO/US” narrative for casus belli and reason for invasion, Putin started with a thirty minute monologue on history of Russia - going back to the ninth century and repeatedly justifying Russia’s claim to Ukrainian lands as historically theirs.
Tucker was practically begging for Putin to blame it all on NATO (which he finally did later on) - only for Putin to repeatedly talk about ‘‘historic lands’’.
At this point, even Tucker couldn’t help himself and (to his credit) in the rare glimpse of minimal journalism pushed back with ‘‘should all countries go back to 1654 borders then?”
Putin didn’t give a straight answer to this - which in itself is already very revealing..
But this is all of course silly talk - such absurd claims could appeal to large uneducated masses - especially those in the global south that have experienced redrawn borders after WWII and are not fully bought into rules-based global order.
But naturally, I doubt any of our readers need a primer on why ‘‘historic lands’’ arguments are extremely weak.
(side note: but there might be a small minority of Americans thinking this is a persuasive argument. Well in that case, they should be ready to accept all implications of such an absurd position: starting with the suggestion that Texas should be returned to Mexico.)
So in this (Part I) post, we shall focus on rebutting the two primary claims made by Putin: 1) NATO expansion as a trigger (in violation of alleged promises not to do so), and 2) A claim on how Minsk agreements of 2014-2015 could have prevented a war, and that supposedly Ukraine and not Russia was in violation of this deal.
These are both often-repeated claims by Putin sympathizers/appeasers like Tucker (or outright cranks like the presidential candidate Robert Kennedy).
Both sound ‘‘about right’’ as an explanation to an average person in the West.
It sounds plausible that Putin was pushed into action due to NATO’s expansion.
And when ‘‘Minsk accords’’ are thrown around, people subconsciously start to associate Ukraine with a violation of a treaty that was supposedly going to prevent the war - nothing could be further from the truth.
For the definitive rebuttal of ‘‘NATO expansion’’ narrative, please see this post (now unlocked and available to all): it outlines how Putin was never promised such a thing, how he never really saw it as a threat (revealed by his own words and conduct), and how his current behavior doesn’t correspond with the reality of a NATO threat (for example, why is he not re-deploying troops to protect a major 830-mile land border with a the latest NATO member Finland?)
So for now, we shall focus on another apparent (and in Putin’s own words, more proximate) cause for the trigger: the Minsk accords and its alleged violations.
The Minsk agreement - what was on paper, what Putin actually wanted, and how invasion was to act as a substitute?
With Russia’s recognition (and later, annexation) of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” (DNR and LNR), the Minsk agreement is in effect dead.
But what was it?
What did Putin want - and why did he ultimately decide to shred it into pieces with the recognition, invasion, and finally, annexation of aforementioned territories?
First of all, and although the agreement has been floated by Putin-appeasing pundits and public figures, there hasn’t been a great backgrounder that clarified a few crucial realities:
1) There were two separate agreements: the first one was signed on September 5, 2014, produced almost no results, and consequently led to the second agreement on February 12, 2015 - which was signed by the Ukrainian President (then, Poroshenko) under conditions of extreme duress - literally, to save the lives of trapped and surrounded Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas.
Russia was the party to the agreement, and yet pretended to be only a facilitator - insisting that the agreement was in reality between Ukraine and the two Russia-backed separatist ‘‘republics’’: the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR), and the Luhansk People's Republic (LNR).
2) Russia has been violating the Minsk Agreements from the very outset.
The deal required (under an OSCE supervision and oversight): removal of foreign military forces, dissolution of illegal armed groups (ostensibly belonging to DNR and LNR), and Ukraine taking back control of its eastern border with Russia.
Russia refused to implement any of these requirements - in fact, it continued to arm and support the two separatist “republics’’.
Ceasefire was not a default - it was a temporary welcome respite from an otherwise continuous fighting that claimed the lives of approximately 14,000 people since 2014.
3) There was nothing else that Ukraine could reasonably be expected to do.
In accordance with the Minsk agreement, Ukraine passed (and renewed) legislation providing special status to the occupied territories, amnesty for those that committed crimes in the course of the conflict, and provisions for local elections.
Here were the two main issues:
a) Certain parts of the Minsk agreement couldn’t have been implemented precisely because of Russian involvement.
For example, the local elections would have to be held for Ukrainian cities and councils - not for the separatist and fake ‘‘republics’’ of the DNR and LNR.
b) The agreement required a certain extent of devolution of powers from the central government in Kyiv - Ukraine complied with this too.
But there was absolutely no provision of the agreement requiring Ukraine to create a Federal State where the DNR and LNR get a say on foreign affairs of the country - which is exactly what Russia desired: an effective veto (via puppet DNR and LNR) on Ukraine’s foreign policy choices.
Given that Ukrainian acceptance of such wild ‘‘interpretations’’ of the agreement would effectively amount to the forfeit of a national sovereignty, it is no wonder that Kyiv (correctly) ruled out such a possibility.
It was becoming quite clear that even with a build-up of troops, and an effective blockade of the Black Sea, Ukraine wasn’t going to be compelled into implementing the agreements in accordance with Putin’s desired interpretation (granting him a veto over Kyiv’s foreign policy).
Seeing that the Minsk agreement was not going to be implemented (in the way that he wants), Putin decided to instead recognize the separatist states as independent.
Consequently, when Putin realized that his strategic objective of turning Ukraine into a pliable puppet state (with a perpetual hold/veto on its foreign policy decisions) was not possible via Minsk protocols (to be interpreted in a hostile/pro -Russian way), he had (in his mind) yet another reason to invade Ukraine: not only was such an invasion aimed at boosting his personal prestige (by returning ‘‘historic lands’’) and re-establish a modern version of a Russian empire, but that at the minimum, there was now an additional geostrategic reason for this invasion.
It is important to remember therefore, that: 1) Ukraine was fully compliant with the Minsk accords and was implementing its obligations in good faith, and that 2) For Putin on the other hand, the Minsk accords were always just a tool to implement his nefarious strategic objectives - the biggest proof of this is how the actual invasion (among other things) was to end up acting as an effective substitute for the accomplishment of the very same strategic objectives in lieu of the Minsk accords: creating a perpetual territorial dispute and preventing Ukraine’s membership of the EU and NATO (since supposedly, without a clear definition of a Ukrainian state with clear borders, neither organization could possibly admit Ukraine as a member. This is thus far, largely true - with the presumption that Ukraine would return its lands prior to full membership into EU/NATO. But things could always change, and there are a number of potential options - but this is a subject for another/longer discussion).
In part II, we shall unpack more the rest of this interview - in addition to a lot of nonsense, there were also a few subtle points/openings offered by Putin.