What do say to a country after you’ve helped kill ten of their generals?
Nothing you haven’t told them ten times already.
That’s a Ukraine War variation on a very old and very bad joke, but it has relevance today, thanks to some loudmouth American intelligence leakers.
First, a little background.
Reports are that Ukraine has killed nine one- or two-star Russian generals. With the number of troops involved in the invasion, Russia hasn’t seen such top-heavy losses since World War II.
In fact, just last week Ukraine hit another high-value target and claims to have killed a tenth Russian general. Major-General Andrei Simonov was reportedly a commander of an electronic warfare unit, and Ukraine says they killed him and up to 100 other troops in an attack on a command post near Izyum.
That strike, if true, was part of the heavy fighting around Kharkiv, where Ukraine has pushed Russian forces back 25 miles in recent days.
Ten generals sounds like a lot, but there are a couple of caveats.
The first is that the numbers are in dispute, as they always are during war. Russia admits to only two generals KIA, disputes two others, and is mum about the rest.
The second is that the Russian army is top-heavy. In a Western-style army, non-commissioned officers are the backbone, and even low-level officers are allowed lots of leeway to make decisions, and take the initiative. Russia relies mostly on conscripts to fill the ranks, and their NCO corps isn’t anything like ours. Their NCOs get a little extra training and the unofficial authority to haze lesser beings, but that’s about it.
Decision-making is slow because anything serious — and even what would be trivial decisions in a Western army — has to go up to at least a colonel, maybe higher.
So as bloated as our officer corps is, the Russians have it worse.
What that means is, that there are a lot of generals to kill. A Russian general, in order to speed up the inherently slow decision-making process, might have to keep himself closer to danger, too.
Russia’s information security has been notoriously lax, too, with even vital communications going through unencrypted channels. That can put a virtual bullseye on the officer making an important call.
With the usual caveats about the fog of war, all that makes me tend to believe that Ukraine’s claims are closer to the truth than Russia’s denials.
It’s also been an open secret that the U.S. (and other Western governments, to a lesser extent) has been providing Ukraine with actionable intelligence, and lots of it.
ASIDE: As awful as our intel services can be when it comes to domestic politics — hello, trying to rig 2016 and successfully helping rig 2020! — at least they haven’t gotten so depraved that they’ve lost their skill for getting dirty work done abroad, like they’re supposed to.
“Actionable” means intel so timely that you can do something actionable with it. For instance, you might be able to hit a vital command post and maybe kill a general who happens to be there, or sink a powerful warship with just two not-so-powerful missiles…
…just to give a couple of totally hypothetical examples, wink-wink.
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What it comes down to is this: The U.S. has been busy doing to Russia with our proxy in Ukraine what Russia did to us with their proxy in Vietnam.
Payback’s a… you know.
But there’s a line that must not be crossed during Great Power proxy wars, even if that line is sometimes only imaginary.
For reasons of the other guy’s prestige, you don’t go bragging about exactly how much you’re helping his opponent. Nations, as Donald Kagan showed in his brilliant On the Origins of War, will go to war over something so “trivial” as prestige.
At least a few Russian pilots and antiaircraft gunners almost certainly fought us directly in Vietnam, but Moscow never openly bragged about how many of our pilots they shot down or killed. And for the most part, we pretended not to notice that a few Vietnamese pilots and gunners looked suspiciously caucasian.
Either side going public risked a very dangerous escalation from regional conflict to World War III.
The same thinking applies in Ukraine. We can help Ukraine, even a lot. But there are certain actions we can’t take at all, and other actions we can take so long as we don’t brag about them.
You see where this is going, don’t you?
Here are two recent headlines for your shock and horror:
American officials — probably political hacks — are going on the record to brag about how we’re helping Ukraine kill Russian generals and sink one of Russia’s very few capital warships.
Are they trying to start World War III?