Wars are not won by propaganda alone
As expected, the beginning of autumn saw the Ukrainian conflict became even more heated than before. When, finally, after long delays, military aid arrived from the West, the Ukrainian army launched an offensive. This led to a series of events described as “regrouping” and “transition to more advantageous positions” and “reduction of the front line” in the Russian state Newspeak. It is curious to note that similar words had been before used in a completely different country and during a completely different war, but we will keep silent about this.
The mobilization initiated by Vladimir Putin as a way to turn the tide on the front has not had the intended effect and turned into a serious problem in itself. There is no one to teach the mobilized, there is nowhere to keep them, there is no equipment to use, and no uniforms to wear. The State Duma acknowledged the fact of the “disappearance” of one and a half million sets of military uniforms (although now recruits receive generous offers to buy this same uniform at their own expense in Voentorg stores). Several hundred thousand young men, including many valuable professionals, have fled the country, evading the draft. At the front, completely unmotivated conscripts die en masse, surrender, desert, and even defect to fight alongside the Ukrainians. An illustrative example of such sentiments was Ukrainian journalist Vladimir Zolkin’s recent interview with a Russian prisoner of war, which began with the captive admiringly telling his interlocutor how much he loves his programs.
The destruction of the Crimean bridge on October 8 was a kind of culmination of the autumn troubles, which the Kremlin could no longer leave unanswered. This answer followed in the form of massive bombardments of infrastructure facilities on Ukrainian territory. From a military point of view, the effect of this action is minimal. The facilities that must be disabled in order to really paralyze Ukraine’s ability to wage war number in the tens of thousands. Recall the history of the American bombing of North Vietnam. Sorties were carried out on a massive scale, on an almost daily basis, for more than two years. The United States lost a large number of aircraft and the best pilots, including the downed and captured future Republican Senator and unsuccessful presidential candidate John McCain, and everything destroyed was quickly restored and even modernized. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese continued to receive a flood of arms and economic aid from the Soviet Union and China. It all ended with American diplomats fleeing Saigon by helicopter from the roof of the embassy.
The experience of the West’s air warfare against Yugoslavia (and later Serbia) proved somewhat more successful. But we must remember that Serbia is a very small country in terms of territory, it was practically isolated, and its population was by no means (contrary to the myths of pan-Slavist patriots) consolidated around the government, which eventually fell. It should be noted that at that time Russia did not provide any serious assistance to its Slavic brothers (“we do not abandon our own”).
Returning to the specific Ukrainian situation, it should be noted that most of the infrastructure facilities that became the targets of the bombings were built back in Soviet times. And in the USSR, such structures were initially built with the expectation that they would certainly be bombed, and more than once. As a result, both the design and the construction process included multiple safety precautions. Recovery measures after shelling have been accounted for and are built into the design. The survival rate of such structures is simply fantastic, as seen in the situation with the Antonovsky bridge across the Dnieper, which the Ukrainian forces could only damage, but not destroy, even though many dozens of missiles were fired at it. In contrast, the Crimean bridge built by Russian oligarchs looks much less reliable. The market economy has a completely different logic than the mobilization economy of the Soviet era had. The different outcomes, as observed in the course of hostilities, turn out to be relevant.
From the point of view of a market economy, massive attacks on infrastructure facilities do not look like a good solution. Rockets are insanely expensive, the costs associated with their use are many times greater than the resulting economic damage caused to the neighboring country. The logistical difficulties faced by Russian military production make the process of replacing spent modern weapons an extremely expensive one, and at the same time an extremely slow one. Were all these circumstances unknown to the Kremlin leadership, who made the relevant decisions? Of course, any expert economist or historian could have enlightened the military on this matter, even if they had had some doubts. But, of course, neither economists nor historians were asked. Most likely, the military was not asked either. The decision was made not at all for military reasons, but for ideological and propaganda reasons. It was necessary to respond to the unpleasant news of September and early October. Something that would have a short-term but quick propaganda effect: we are still cool, we are doing well, we can turn the tide.
A notable feature of this conflict (at least on the Russian side) is that military, strategic, and foreign policy considerations enjoy much less influence on the decisions made than do domestic political and propaganda ones. The struggle for ratings and the desire to arouse popular enthusiasm explain the actions of the Kremlin authorities - since February 24 - much better than the mythical considerations of geopolitics, the experience of “existential threats” and the dream of the revival of the Empire. Of course, the steps taken in any case turned out to be erroneous and fatal, no matter how we explain them. But this is already an indicator of the degree to which the Russian state has degenerated over the last thirty years of development directed by oligarchic capitalism.
And although the ruling circles chose to rely on the psychological and emotional effect of their actions, they also did not bother to consult psychologists, just as they had also previously not asked about the assessments of economists and the military (except perhaps those who are afraid to express any own assessment, not coinciding with the previously known opinion of the authorities). Meanwhile, if psychologists had been asked, they would have extremely unpleasant things to say.
The fact is that by creating artificial, short-term enthusiasm, by generating hope with events that not only are not critical, but only mark a brief respite between waves of bad and very bad news, those in power may trigger an extremely dangerous and destructive emotional swing. The point is not only that after another surge of unreasonable expectations, a collision with an unpleasant reality will be even more painful, but also that such emotional swings do not allow supporters of the authorities to develop psychological resistance to regular and inevitable bad news. Sharp fluctuations generally undermine the psyche of society. After a short period of emotional upsurge, bewilderment sets in (where is the promised break?), and then shock, depression and panic follow once it is discovered how things really are.
We already observed something similar at the end of September, when the TV propagandists suddenly broke through and they began to fall into hysterics on the air, screaming about defeats and demanding something be done immediately. At the same time, the head of the Wagner Private Military Company, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, both close to the Kremlin throne, began an aggressive campaign against the army leadership, trying to blame them for the defeats. These attacks were perceived by the military as offensive and unfair. And while the Russian generals, of course, are far from Napoleon or Suvorov, it is quite clear that by presenting them as scapegoats, the authorities were trying to cover up their own political failures. The war being waged by Putin’s Russia today was not only unwinnable, it should never have been started.
Meanwhile, squabbles between the leadership of the pro-Kremlin civilian factions and the leadership of the General Staff. Even if these help to divert attention from the responsibility of the top state leadership for what is happening, they may turn out to be factors of destabilization in themselves.
Naturally, the failures - prepared by all the previous development of the country for decades - cannot be corrected by any one-time magical action. But since systemic changes are not only undesirable for those in power, but most importantly, it is precisely for the sake of preventing them that the so-called special operation was even begun, there can be no serious understanding and analysis of what is happening.
Power, which has reached a dead end and does not even have the potential to develop a strategic plan of action that addresses the objective situation, is held hostage by propagandists who are able to create an appearance of well-being in virtual reality, at least for some time. In order to calm the propaganda mafia for two or three weeks, more than a hundred rockets and several hundred million dollars had to be spent. Perhaps the stabilization of the propaganda discourse was worth it. Unfortunately, however, missiles and money are a limited resource that tends to run out.
And as we will see shortly, so is propaganda.