The kill chain and the green wooden dragon

The kill chain and the green wooden dragon

Alexander Smukler explains the hard truths — and odds — of Ukraine’s fight

Volodymyr Zelensky
Volodymyr Zelensky

This is not a good time for Ukraine as it fights back against the Russians who invaded in February 2022, our analyst, Alexander Smukler of Montclair, warns.

The war is now 700 days old. When Vladimir Putin, Russia’s strongman president, invaded Ukraine, he imagined a cakewalk to victory. Instead, it’s been a deadly slog. But the situation is changing, Mr. Smukler warns.

There are many tools at his disposal as he considers the situation; he has contacts in both Ukraine and Russia, amassed over the first 30 years of his life, when he lived in Moscow, and then the years since 1991, when he and his family created a life here and he built businesses both here and there.

The metric Mr. Smukler is using now is the length of the kill chain.

The kill chain is a military term, he explained. It measures, in time rather than in distance, how long it takes between when a target is identified and when the attack begins. The shorter the kill chain, the better, at least for the attack’s initiator. “It’s a very important measure of the successful defensive operations in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine now,” he said.

“At the beginning of the war, and in 2022, Ukraine always had a much better kill chain time,” Mr. Smukler said. “Because of the way the Ukrainian army is structured, there’s a short time between identifying the target and making the decision to hit it.

“The radar operator sees a target — it could be a tank in the field, it could be a military airplane, it could be a group of soldiers on the front line. The operator identifies the target, reports it to his commander, and the commander will have to decide what kind of weapon to use to hit that target — artillery or a missile or a tank or a group of soldiers. A commander or group of commanders meet to identify the targets and to send a signal to those units that operate the weaponry they want to hit that target. And after that time — maybe hours, if it’s by tanks, or minutes, if it’s by drones, or seconds, if it’s by missiles — the weaponry is activated.

“That’s the kill chain.”

The Russian army had to go up through levels and levels of control; it’s based on the old Soviet model, with its insistence on hierarchy (always an odd indicator of reality in the Communist world). Its kill chain was significantly longer than the Ukrainians’.

There’s a recent example of the short kill chain time, which has its own inherent risks. In a way, it’s an extreme (and lethal) version of Mark Zuckerberg’s description of how Facebook’s creators worked — they’d “move fast and break things.” Here, the “things” are human lives.

On January 24, Ukrainians shot down a Russian military plane that carried 64 Ukrainian prisoners of war as it flew over Russian territory. Everyone aboard died.

“That was an example of a short kill chain. The Ukrainians know that if they see the target on their radar, they make the decision to hit it.

Alexander Smukler

“In this case, it was a terrible mistake, because the Russians did not inform the Ukrainians that they were transporting prisoners of war. The Ukrainians thought they were hitting a military target.”

Despite the tragedy that came from this hit, it’s a prime example of how the short kill chain works, Mr. Smukler said.

“During the 700 days of the war, Ukraine has been trying to defend its territory and its country. It’s an existential conflict for Ukraine. And one of its advantages was how short its kill chain was.

“But now, Ukraine is suffering a major shortage of weaponry,” he continued; it’s running short of artillery shells, missiles, drones, tanks — basically, of everything.

That means that the kill chain necessarily gets longer, Mr. Smukler said. “That’s because the Ukrainians have to think twice or three times about whether they should use up a missile to hit a target.” Is the target really that important?

That adds time to the kill chain; each decision has to be second-, third-, and maybe even fourth-guessed.

“Ukraine’s ability to defend itself — and I’m not talking about going on the offensive, about attacking, just defending itself — is declining.”

Much of that decline is directly attributable to the United States’ changing policy on Ukraine. Ukraine has become less important to the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, except perhaps as a bargaining chip. Aid for Ukraine, along with aid for Israel and Taiwan, and a new immigration policy that would be enforced at the U.S. border with Mexico, have become bargaining chips in Congress.

“Still, I hope that the United States Congress will adopt a plan that will help provide the Ukrainians with more missiles,” Mr. Smukler said. “Because now, Ukraine is suffering from the shortage of everything. We see that it’s still holding up and defending itself, but it is clear to all the experts that Ukraine has no capacity now. Not only can it not be on the offensive; its capacity to defend itself is declining by the minute.

“And because of that, Ukrainians are slowly, slowly, slowly, very slowly leaving the defense lines.” Some of those lines were built in 2014, Mr. Smukler said. “It’s one of the key Ukrainian defense centers, in the city of Avdiivka,” in the Donetsk oblast. The Russians are moving in, very slowly, and just as slowly the Ukrainians are leaving, but eventually, if nothing changes, the Ukrainians will be done and the Russians will take it over.

“We’re not speaking about strategic success,” Mr. Smukler continued. “From a strategic point of view, we see that the front lines are stable.” The front lines are about 1,000 miles long; the Russians are bringing in men, man after man after man, and sending each one into the meatgrinder, where overwhelmingly most of them die.

The war is unspeakably brutal. “The Russians are succeeding because they are ready to sacrifice their cannon fodder” — their soldiers. “They don’t care how many they are sacrificing. They just keep sending them in.”

Vladimir Putin

Progress is very slow. “Getting 400 meters in a week, sacrificing thousands of lives, is considered a big achievement,” Mr. Smukler said. The Russians also are getting some help from the weather; they are used to the bleakest of winters, and they can fight through it.

“This is a very new situation, with such a long front line that it is almost impossible to break through it,” Mr. Smukler said. “There are massive minefields, and every soldier’s every move on the frontline is very visible to the other side, because of drones and satellites.”

The carnage has been horrifying.

But the much-touted Russian offensive did not happen with winter, despite all the predictions. Mr. Smukler thinks he knows why.

“The Russians don’t have enough manpower for it,” he said. Yet. Because “Putin is very reluctant to mobilize people before the election, on three days, from March 15 to March 17.” Yes, Mr. Smukler acknowledged, elections seem unlikely to matter to an authoritarian with despotic tendences. But still, he says with great conviction, Putin cares about winning a large enough mandate so that he can know that some percentage of the overwhelming majority he wins genuinely wants him to continue in office. That validation is surprisingly important to Putin, Mr. Smukler said.

Which means that once the election is over, it’ll be Katy, bar the door.

“Putin made a decision not to mobilize anyone before the election, but in an interview on Sunday” —Putin is now in full candidate mode, giving interviews, visiting distant places, shaking hands, kissing babies, doing all the things — “he said that right now Russia has about 617,000 troops on the front line.

“Nobody trusts Putin or reports from the Ministry of Defense, but most of the experts think those figures are more or less true. Putin also said that everyone on the front line now is either a volunteer or signed a contract.” In other words, no draftees.  “But because the front line is so long, he needs to have at least another 500,000 or 600,000 people mobilized.

“That means that there will be a million Russian troops on the front line.

“And according to the speaker of the Ukrainian general staff, the Russians lost about 380,000 troops already.

“I don’t entirely believe that number. I think that the Ukrainians are exaggerating. I think that yes, there are almost 400,000 dead or injured, but that the number includes both the dead and those who are too badly hurt — who lost limbs — to be able to go back to the front lines. My estimate is that there are about 280,000 dead on the Russian side, and the rest of the 380,000 are injured.”

But it is important to remember that while the Ukrainians lost perhaps about ten percent fewer soldiers than the Russian did, Mr. Smukler said; still, the Ukrainian losses are harder for them to swallow than for the Russians, because of the difference in the countries’ size. Ukraine has about 38 million people; Russia has about 144 million. While each death is a devastation for the family, all these deaths are a devastation for all of Ukraine. “Proportionately, the Ukrainians lost twice more than the Russians did,” Mr. Smukler said.

Part of the large number of losses is because of “a political decision that Zelensky” — Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, is the president of Ukraine” — made over the summer,” Mr. Smukler said. “The strategy was for very aggressive offensive operations, because it was so important to show the world that they could break through Russia’s offensive line.” It didn’t work, and the cost of the failure was high.

Zelensky made his decision against the advice of the head of the army’s general staff, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi.

As soon as Putin is free to start drafting young men, he will do so, Mr. Smukler said. “That will be a serious political risk for him — the largest political risk of his career.

“That’s why the Russian propaganda machine now is preparing the population for it. They’re trying to implant in people’s minds the idea that Russia isn’t fighting with Ukraine. It’s fighting NATO and the organized West. This is another patriotic war, like the ones their grandfathers fought 80 years ago. And there is no way for peace with Ukraine until the so-called fascists in Ukraine are gone.

“I think Putin will survive,” Mr. Smukler said. “It will be very difficult. We will see enormous political repression in Russia. They will throw thousands of people who are opposed to the mobilization in prison. But once Putin is announced to have won his next six-year term as president, he will get the full power of dictator.

“Right now, he’s not talking about mobilization. He’s being very careful. But his propagandists are increasing their message to the public.”

Part of the message, Mr. Smukler said, is that Ukraine is part of Russia. It’s Slavic, its people are Russian down deep, and it’s been taken over by proto-fascists, neo-Nazis like that Jew Zelensky. So the war has come to the homeland, and all true Russians will have to fight to protect it, just as their grandfathers did.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the Ukrainians are losing because they do not have the materiel they need to win, and they’re running out of manpower as well. Because many of the patriotic young men who volunteered at the beginning of the war are dead, injured, or prisoners of war, and those who are alive and available are exhausted, the army already is re-mobilizing. But the new troops, whose average age is 40, require far more training than their younger counterparts had, and they take to their new work far less easily.

There are now three political camps in the Ukrainian leadership, and the future depends on whose vision the country follows, Mr. Smukler said.

First, there’s the camp led by Zelensky, who is up for reelection in March, and who is arguing against holding that election. He says that it’s impossible to hold a democratic election when the population is as scattered and war-torn as it is now. Mr. Smukler said that he agrees with Zelensky and thinks it’s a good point, but “after 700 days, we can see cracks in Zelensky’s popularity.”

Zelensky’s camp “believes that the West will not abandon Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said. “They try as much as they can to make Ukraine’s case on an international level. They continue very intensive diplomatic efforts to restore and even increase the military help they get from different sources.”

The second camp, centered around Zaluzhnyi, “is not going to give up on the war with Russia, but based on a very important article Zaluzhnyi published in the Economist in November, they realized that they will not be able to take back territories that Russia already occupies. This group is more realistic. They explain to their Western allies that they need to defend the territory they already hold.”

This group wants to use the Korean model to create a demilitarized zone between the northeastern oblasts Russia occupies and the rest of Ukraine.

The third camp, led by a former Zelensky adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, wants to start to negotiate with Putin immediately, “trying to find ground for peace, even if it means sacrificing territory,” Mr. Smukler said. “They are looking for a way to satisfy Putin, to convince him to stop the war now.”

Meanwhile, there is the green wooden dragon.

This is the Chinese Year of the Green Wooden Dragon. And China is waiting in the background, benefiting from the situation, biding its time.

“China, as I said even 700 days ago, is the key player,” Mr. Smukler said. “China is sitting quietly, buying Russian oil. It’s replacing every Western player who left the Russian market during the last two years. There are thousands and thousands of them, and each one was replaced by a Chinese company.

“Basically, the Russian market will become a Chinese monopoly.

“And although China does not supply military equipment directly to Russia, China is the lord of North Korea, and it is clear now that North Korea supplies Russia with everything it needs, with drones and shells and missiles, including the ballistic missiles Russia is using on the front line in Ukraine. That can only be done with permission from China. And Russia receives money from China and India for sales of oil and gas and mineral resources. It’s getting more now than it did before sanctions were imposed.”

And remember, Mr. Smukler said, that it’s to Russia’s advantage that the war in the Middle East continues to divert attention away from what it’s doing in Ukraine.

He cares a great deal about what happens in Ukraine, but he cares far more about what happens in Israel, he said. But it’s necessary to remember that the two wars are deeply connected, because Russia started one and benefits from the other.

And the Green Wooden Dragon waits patiently for it all to play out.

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