The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Samo Burja. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Samo Burja. Samo is the founder of Bismarck Analysis, a consulting firm that investigates the political and institutional landscape of society. He’s also a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation, where he studies how institutions can endure for centuries and even millennia. And he’s a research fellow at the Foresight Institute, and he’s a member of the team at Daniel Schmachtenberger’s Consilience Project. I personally subscribed to Bismarck’s brief services, which each week provides a really well done analysis of an important institution, industry or player. Welcome back, Samo.
Samo: Great to be here with you again.
Jim: Yeah. This is the sixth of the Jim Rutt Show special episodes about the Russia/Ukraine conflict. And this is the second time Samo’s been on to talk about this topic. In fact, we chatted last on my podcast on February 28th when things were just getting started, and a lot’s changed since then, we actually have a lot more information, though perhaps less information than we think we have. I think that’s one of the things we could talk about, what’s our epistemology with respect to a conflict like this, but at least we do have more information than we did then. I guess I would paraphrase the common view is that Ukrainians have done quite a bit better than maybe the world thought on February 28th, and the Russians have done substantially worse perhaps than was thought at that time. But I’d love to know what your take on that is. I’m somewhat suspicious of the common consensus. And I know you keep an eye on this very carefully. So where do you think things are now, four weeks plus into the war?
Samo: I think four weeks into the war, what I’m seeing is a advance or a slow Russian advance in line with what would be expected from mechanized warfare, and the constraints of laying siege to various cities, like Mariupol. And I unfortunately expect eventually Kiev. So when it comes again to mobile maneuvers, I think the Russians have captured a whole lot of territory. I think the most actually accurate Western source that I’ve seen on this is the French Defense Ministry. The French Defense Ministry’s maps and reports on this seem to be not in the business of cheerleading, but in the business of reporting on the matter of the war.
Samo: And I think that, unfortunately the tragic situation, the tragic scenario’s unfolding, what do I mean by the tragic scenario? Territory can be captured. Roads can be captured, armored units defeated, but I suspect the Russians are just now preparing to slog through several Ukrainian cities, and they’re going to do so with the method of warfare that was first pioneered in the Chechen war and has been used in many subsequent encounters where you basically just use artillery to level a city and expedite the capture of the city.
Jim: It could happen. In fact, one of my previous guests, Tim Clancy, also made that same prediction. He called it the belt strategy, where the Russians will stay back aways, 15 or 20 kilometers, make it difficult to counter attack and will just roll up the heavy artillery and just keep slugging until something happens. I’m going to throw out though a possible stopper or restraint that might not make that as feasible as it seems. Clearly technically it’s feasible. Russia has a tremendous amount of heavy artillery. That’s been Russian doctrine all the way back to World War I and perfected in World War II. But I’m going to throw out a concept which I’ve been playing with, which I call maximum acceptable atrocity. Putin has to operate under the fact that there is some level of atrocity, which will arouse the Western public opinion to the point that it forces the hand of the West to intervene actively.
Jim: And I don’t think he wants that, right? Particularly, with the military perhaps underachieving relative to what was expected to confront the first class air power of the Western powers and maybe some forces on the ground and certainly at sea, is not something he’s likely to win. And so if he’s a rational actor, which I think he probably mostly still is, he’s got to be thinking about what is the maximum acceptable atrocity that he can inflict before public opinion, irrespective of what the politicians might actually want, could force the hand of the West. And of course, to make the game theory interesting and dangerous, nobody knows what the maximum acceptable atrocities is. So we’re sort of playing a double blind game of Kriegsspiel here. What do you think about that as a possible constraint on the pounded flat Grozny, Aleppo strategy?
Samo: I think that when it comes to atrocities, the question of political interest still is a very important question. Unfortunately, terrible things happen around the world, whether or not these things make it to Western audiences is almost a decision of the key media organs. It’s a decision of Twitter. It’s a decision of Facebook. It’s a decision of CNN. And to some extent, yes, even Western governments. I think that civilian casualties in particular and the sort of heartbreaking images that you might see from such a siege, I think those are clearly a political liability, so I’m not analyzing it morally. I’m just thinking of it politically, they’re a massive political liability, but they do not in themselves through public opinion transfer into Western intervention.
Samo: So it’s sort of like if Western governments are decided to intervene, the cost of intervening politically drops if the Russians are forced to bomb these cities out, but if Western governments are not interested in going there, I think all this does is like new rounds of sanction. And I don’t think public opinion really would tip the scales towards an intervention or away from an intervention. I sort of feel that in particular the US State Department and the DOD, they’re fairly set in their ways. They have some preconceived policies that they want, the public opinion doesn’t sway it much more one way or the other.
Jim: I’ll give a counter example, which was the Kosovo succession from Serbia, where our government officials said, nope, ain’t going to get involved. Nope, don’t want to be fighting with those crazy Balkans people, and for our audience’s point, Samo is one of those crazy Balkans folks, he’s a Slovene. And yet as the mounting atrocities, compared to what’s going on in the Ukraine, less horrifying stuff built up, there grew to be a strong public and thought leadership call for the West to intervene and they did. So there’s an example where the clear unequivocal statements from the political diplomatic and executive branches in Congress as well were actually overwhelmed by the accumulation of evidence.
Jim: So I’m not so sure that the powers that be can resist public opinion when it gets strong enough. And in some ways I read the British newspapers to get a sense from the other side of the pond. And I got to say, very, very hawkish, much more so than any of the US papers. And frankly, it reminds me a little bit of what I’ve read about July, 1914, when the blood was up, it feels like, particularly in the UK, the blood is getting up in the populace, and there could be either an accumulation of atrocities or one particularly egregious one that might put such pressure on the governments that they have to reverse their policy just as they did in Kosovo.
Samo: I think an escalation in the use of novel kinds of weapons, so if there was some sort of use of a chemical, biological, even nuclear weapons, that might be sufficient, but I think despite everything, I don’t think bombed out Eastern European cities actually move Western audiences that much. So maybe this is the cynicism here, where Sarajevo was pretty much destroyed, and yes, some intervention was triggered by the Yugoslav war. However, the cost/benefit analysis there was very different. These were small, weak Balkan countries. And at the end of the day, if you judge the standard of intervention in terms of preventing atrocities, well, plenty of atrocities happened in the Balkan wars anyway.
Jim: It is true, but time will tell. Another, I would say counter or part of the conventionalism and somewhat counter to your view, is the much talked about reports from the Institute for the Study of War. They’ve laid out unequivocally that the Russian offensive has failed and that the situation is reaching what they call stalemate or culmination, which the Clausewitz friction of war essentially led to the point where the Russians can’t push much further at the current point in time. Now, of course they do point out that that doesn’t mean the war’s over, that this has been typical of modern war, from World War I, World War II, Korea, et cetera, where there’s pushes and then friction reaches a point where whoever’s pushing can’t push any further, lines stabilize for a while. And then either the first pusher pushes again, or the other side pushes back, even in World War II, the horrific warfare on the Eastern front, which most Americans don’t know was at least 10 times bigger than the fighting on the Western front, and the casualties were 100 times what they were on the Western front.
Jim: But the Germans of course poured in, made great advances, but they then through friction and supply lines and weather eventually culminated in front of Leningrad and Moscow, and then the Russians started pushing them back. Then in 1942, the Germans thrust forward again, culminating at Stalingrad where the tide was finally turned. And so the Institute of War claim doesn’t mean end of war, it just means maybe that this idea that the Russians are going to be able to gradually grind down Kharkiv and Kiev, and capture Odessa, they don’t believe is in the cards in the short term.
Samo: I think that Odessa probably isn’t in the cards in the short term, but I still think that within the next 20 days we’re going to see more territorial gains by Russia in large chunks of Eastern Ukraine. And they’re going to besiege more than one city and take more than one city. I would agree that looking at this now, compared to 30 days ago, I don’t think Kiev is going to be captured in the next month. I do suspect though that eventually the fighting will reach Kiev. And I do think the fighting won’t desist before some important symbolic victory for the Russian side, because that’s just necessary for their domestic politics.
Jim: Yeah. Well, to get to that in a minute, what does it take to get this thing settled? But before we go there, let’s talk a little bit about the West’s intentional and unintentional network response. I mean, this is pretty unprecedented, not only are many, though not all of the economically important players in the world, joining in on more severe sanctions that have ever been inflicted on anybody, I think except maybe North Korea had the most severe, but even many, many companies that are under no legal obligation to do so are pulling back at some non-trivial economic cost to themselves. What do you think about, first, the strength of this, and second it’s effect? I got to say, I doubt it will… It’s not going to stop the war live, but anyway, give me your thoughts about the West surprisingly, seeming to me, coherent and effective and wide-reaching network counter attack.
Samo: I think one of the notable ways to think about this is that this is a new expression of soft power, which has always been understood to be an advantage of Western countries compared to some of their strategic rivals. Soft power however, usually sort of feeds through this kind of almost back channel diplomacy, backroom negotiations, where these decisions are negotiated out and they’re reached. In this case, I think what has happened is the intermediation of communication between Western organizations through social media and general, but Twitter specifically, have sped up this process intensely. So soft power, yes, perhaps is best thought of as network power now. The main difference here is that companies are judging the state of public sentiment, but also the consensus of other Western organizations, not through back channels, but just through the activity on Twitter. Now, the activity on Twitter… And I’m focusing on Twitter here, because I think it’s a disproportionately important social network.
Samo: I think basically when it comes to the sort of professional white collar class, they are very much the heaviest users of this site. I say user, much as you might talk about a drug addict, and in a way, really they kind of are addicted to it, right? Like journalists get their takes from the website, VR people watch the website, random employees watch the site, and it shares these very short information clips. Someone can scroll through Twitter for several hours, and at the end of the day, they’ll be very much plugged in into what sort of the media landscape is thinking without needing to even read any New York Times article or watch any clip from CNN or anything like that. It’s just so well synchronized to this collective ID, this collective unconscious of how this class of people is feeling.
Samo: So having said all of this, yes, I think social media specifically has done something remarkable. It’s shortened the communication latency between Western organizations, I think any sort of stampede happens much faster, right? Any sort of bull run or bear run is going to happen much faster. So the Western response in terms of organizations initiating their own economic sanctions and so on, I think it was much sharper and faster than it would’ve been otherwise. The condemnation has been much faster and sharper than it would’ve been otherwise, because you have all of this knowledge. It’s not just that I believe something, is that everyone else I see believes something.
Samo: And then finally, I think this is a vastly more unified media space than it used to be. I think when it comes to this particular class of people, so white collar, educated, they all speak English and they all participate on Twitter. It doesn’t matter if they’re in France, Germany, Britain, United States, they’re participating on the same space. So that would be my key distinction. I wouldn’t say it’s the public in general, in a way the public is a construct of the television era. I think sort of the white collar, bureaucratic class being very active and very addicted to Twitter is the most important part.
Jim: Yeah. What was the Yugoslavian intellectual, used to call it the new class, I think. Yeah, I forget what his name was, Diaz or something like that, but yeah, the new class people. So that’s how the mechanism, I would agree, propagated so rapidly, reached consensus way faster than most of the prognosticators thought. For instance, it was thought it was going to be probably weeks of negotiation to kick the Russian banks out of SWIFT, it happened in two days, right? So the acceleration of the propagation of a consensus happened faster and probably stronger than anybody, including in the West and in Russia thought. But what about the impact at this point, do you think that the cumulative series of governmental and non-governmental actions will actually cause serious harm to the Russian economy?
Samo: I think serious harm to the Russian economy has already happened. It’s only a question of how robust the economy is to withstand that damage. And further, how closely coupled… The nominal purpose of these sanctions, the nominal purpose is to get Russian Putin to desist from this invasion on this military operation. But really the actual reason underneath it might just be to weaken Russia so that it’s less of a threat in the future. And the difference between those two might seem subtle, but it’s very politically important. The desire is to limit any sort of Russian military potential in the future. And that’s in a way, a response to current circumstances. And that sort of desire, I think that will be achieved. I think to a significant degree, there is going to be an economic cost to Russia, that means that this will be just a weaker power in 2030 than it would’ve been were these sanctions not undertaken.
Samo: In terms of changing the war itself, I don’t think it does that much. Again, the politics work out so that Putin is over committed to pursuing this war either way. Now, with the structure of the sanctions, I have to point out, many of these sanctions are sort of symbolic in nature. For example, you might have software companies that make most of their money by servicing existing clients that issue a statement or a sanction saying, oh, we’re not going to take any new clients from Russia, but say nothing about their existing clients, which is actually most of their revenue stream. Right? So a lot of these large companies, when you look at the details, it turns out that about half of these sanctions have teeth, but the other half don’t. When I look at these over and over again, about 50% of the companies seem to be undertaking things that come at great economic cost, not just to Russia, but to the companies themselves, but the other half are just as fiery in their rhetoric, but not as fiery in substance.
Jim: Yeah. Why is that not a surprise, that’s human nature. But some of the things though seem quite substantive like Boeing and Airbus cutting off parts and maintenance of the jet engines. I mean, you can’t run a airline for very long if you don’t have real time supply of parts and maintenance. So that one’s real, and big economic dollars as well. So as you say, it’s a mix. So let’s go onto the next point, as you and I are both students of the history of warfare, we know that relatively few wars end with total victory by one side or the other. The US civil war was one, the World War II was one, but many of the other even quite major wars, were settled at some point. So in your mind, what is the context by which we should think about when this Ukraine situation, when or if this Ukraine situation is likely to start to move towards a possible settlement?
Samo: Right. I mean, to me it seems that, I suspect the Russians are going to occupy a substantial chunk of Ukrainian territory and they will not retreat from this territory. Whether or not this territory [inaudible 00:21:24] changes hands and is just annexed into Russia, that’s a separate matter. You could imagine a situation where the Russians insist on the presence of Russian military personnel, even while still acknowledging the territory as part of the Ukrainian government’s control. Or the Russians set up more puppet states as we’ve discussed in previous episodes I believe. I think that there’s sort of like the question that the future of Ukraine should consider is, can they take the goodwill, but also let’s call it arms support, from the Western world that’s flowing into Ukraine right now, and let’s be honest, it’s flowing into Ukraine, not because the West loves Ukraine so much, but because they want Russia sort of to pay a cost for the invasion. Can this be made a permanent feature, right?
Samo: Can this be made permanent? So if you imagine that the Ukraine, that has lost some of its territory, but continues to receive over the coming years after the conflict is stabilized with them losing some territory to Russia, especially in Eastern Ukraine, them continuing to receive high tech weapons from the West, you could see a fairly secure country develop, possibly a country that while not in NATO is very well armed with the best Western systems, has a well trained military, and perhaps even has some avenues of economic growth, perhaps some economic integration with the Western world. Now I’m calling this both the optimistic scenario, but sort of also the sort of, I think almost likely scenario, I think there will be some sort of remnant state, and I think if the Ukrainian government continues to be as agile and smart when it comes to dealing with Western institutions, they might be able to secure some of this support.
Jim: And do you see that there be a settlement, a negotiated end to the hot war where Ukraine will-
Samo: I think sort of a never ending cease fire, like a cease fire where there technically exists a state of war, there’s no big accord signed. It’s just a cease fire, somehow the cease fire never goes away.
Jim: Kind of like the Donbas situation from 2014.
Samo: From 2014 to today, exactly, yeah. Because in a way, to make it final, to negotiate it, would mean a loss of face for the Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian government has continued of course to claim, as its sort of its old internationally recognized borders, Crimea is still Ukraine’s territory, and that the Donbas and [inaudible 00:24:06] are Ukraine’s territory. As long as it can preserve these claims, there’s no reason not to. It’s not completely clear what the Russians could offer for a real peace treaty. I think the Russians would have to pull out of almost every part of Ukraine, except Crimea, for Ukraine to even recognize Crimea as sort of a Russian acquisition. So I don’t expect any peace treaty.
Jim: Okay. That’s interesting. Yeah. I sort of thought of the two powers, it depends where things really are. If you believe the stalemate strategy, not only the stalemate strategy, but some signs of the Ukrainians rolling Russians back at least in limited places, and the fact that it certainly appears that the Ukrainians, perhaps contrary to what we were chatting about four weeks ago, are now unified as a nation, such that an insurgency is likely on any territories, at least out of other than the far East, that Russia holds, Ukraine could just keep hot war going until they grind the Russians down. That’s the other side of it. If Zelensky thinks that’s possible, he may not even go for an armistice, he may just keep the Russians in, I call it the quick sand pool until they either sink or leave. That’s the alternative if you accept a view that things are actually going relatively well for the Ukrainians.
Samo: No, I think so. I think so. Perhaps the correct way to think about this war has always been that this is sort of the Soviet civil war that didn’t happen in 1989. Ukraine is a relatively large country. Russia is obviously a huge country. Ukraine has a pretty dense population, a significant population, depending on how exactly accounted, it might be something like 35 million people in the country currently. I think though that the fact that the Russians are holding territory and gaining territory in the South and East, that shouldn’t be understated. So currently I think it looks like a moderate Ukrainian defeat.
Jim: Okay. Interesting. Now let’s assume that Zelensky actually believes what he says and is not ready to settle, maybe not even at the armistice level, unless the Russians pull completely out, with the possible exception of Crimea. In fact, I’ll insert here the rut view of the right answer, this should be the solution both sides would accept, but currently they’re not willing to probably, which is Crimea goes to Russia, the Donbas provinces stay with Ukraine, but get very substantial autonomy within Ukraine, and Ukraine agrees not to join NATO for 15 or 20 years. That should be a deal that would clear the markets, but neither side seems to be yet ready to get to that point.
Samo: I think that one of the points I want to just underscore is the similarity of Russia and Ukraine’s forces, right? The common military tradition, common culture. Honestly, the institutional differences between the two countries at the military level are not that huge either. This common history goes back a long ways. And if the war is reduced to who has more material, that’s definitely the Russians. And then the Ukrainians can keep on fighting, as long as the West resupplies them. How long does the West continue to resupply Ukraine is a different calculus than what is acceptable or not to Zelensky. There is overlap right now, but will there be overlap six months from now? Unclear.
Jim: Interesting. So let’s assume we’re in a position where the market is not yet ready to clear, Zelensky is here and Putin is there, I’m holding my fists up six inches apart. One of the things that happens in these kinds of conflicts is things change, right? War is, if nothing else, a compendium of the unexpected. And so I’m going to run through some things that could happen that could move both sides views of their prospects. Because I think about negotiation in war very much like the way a labor strike gets settled, which is initially, both sides have very ambitious goals. We’re going to get 10 extra dollars an hour, labor thinks, we’re going to give them a 1% pay raise and cut their vacation by a week, that’s what management thinks. And then they both start inflicting pain on each other. The factory closes, the workers don’t get their paychecks, but then there becomes a point where both sides realize that both sides can inflict and absorb pain, that’s important. And both sides so far have shown they can inflict and absorb pain.
Jim: And then here’s the other key point when the labor situations settle, is when both sides realize their maximalist plan is not going to work. The workers realize they’re never going to get $10 an hour, and the management realizes the workers will never accept a 1% raise. When those two things happen, that’s when a settlement can happen. And there sometimes has to be facts on the ground to demonstrate that.
Jim: So, anyway, I’m thinking that some of the possible new events that could happen over the next few months that could change the position, and either bring the two together to a settlement occurs or push them apart, are things like maybe the Russians can reinvigorate their mobile offensive and take Dnipro, which is a place on the Dnipro River, that if you take it from the North and the South, you cut off all those forces in front of Donbas, that could change the situation a fair bit. I went back and looked at the history, because World War II, the Germans blitzkrieged around Kiev and captured 600,000 Russian units in Kiev, but it took six or eight weeks to reduce that force even after it had been surrounded. So even if the Russians take Dnipro, it’d still take a couple of months to capture the forces.
Samo: It would be a slow slog, yes.
Jim: Yeah. Very slow slog, and at least so far, the Russians have not shown the ability to do the American style land air thing, where you can blitzkrieg through, I mean, they just have to muscle their way through. So even getting to Dnipro, which isn’t that far from the current leading parts of the Northeast thrust and the Southern thrust, could take quite a while.
Jim: Next one, and again there’s reports, God knows how much of it’s propaganda, probably some of it, that Ukrainian encounter attacks are starting to occur. And there was a claim that they recaptured a town outside of Kiev, and then there was local counter attacks in the South. And even some speculation that the Ukrainians might have within their power, what’s the town, [Kirson 00:31:20] the big city, the one big city that’s fallen so far to the Russians, possibly the Ukrainians could counter attack and take that back. If the Ukrainians were able to actually start rolling the Russians back on multiple fronts, that would change the situation on the ground. It might change both sides’ perspective. That would probably increase Zelensky’s goals, no Crimea for the Russians, but it might make Putin more realistic.
Samo: Yeah. The possibility of a Ukrainian push back against Russia, if organized, if organized, this is sort of the kind of… If that were to happen, this is the kind of historical event that sort of creates and defines a new nation, right? It’s the equivalent of the seven days war, for example. This would be sort of Ukraine’s new founding myth. And I suspect would actually result in a bunch of state capacity and a bunch of economic and other development in the coming decades. The effects of these things are always very indirect, but very, very powerful. So I think if Ukraine’s new founding myth was, the Russians invaded and we pushed them back, this means that sort of a whole new type of patriotism becomes viable, and there’s space and room for ambition within Ukraine. It means you don’t have to leave Ukraine for the United States or Germany to make your mark. It means you can make your mark right then and there.
Samo: So on Putin’s end though, if that were to happen, things become very unclear, in particular, I think a whole bunch of secessionist efforts within the Russian Federation restart. I think we would see a destabilization of the Russian Federation. I still think we would not see Putin leave power, but they would start to be a flare up of new wars probably in the coming years and decades, in first off Chechnya itself. But the caucuses’ region in general, and these efforts would then be supported, maybe even armed by an invigorated Ukraine.
Jim: Interesting. Another possibility is Zelensky could get captured or killed. It could be an intelligence failure that allows a cruise missile to take him out or a commando team to grab him. That’s again, one of these unexpected, but not by any means impossible events that could change the dynamic.
Samo: I think killing Zelensky would not help Russia domestically. It would however shake Ukraine and the Ukrainian government. And while it would produce an outpouring of sympathy, possibly even an elevation to martyrdom in the Western world, it would also cause the West to quietly stop backing the country. So much of Ukraine’s response has been embodied in Zelensky and his PR image, right? His sort of image has now even been imitated by Macron, right? With Macron showing up in hoodies and pseudo combat gear in the LSE palace for photo shoot-
Jim: That was embarrassing as shit, that was terrible, but-
Samo: It just didn’t work very well. But the fact that he tried it, that shows you how powerful this image is. So if you put a war effort, not in the broad population as a whole, but in a single figure, and then this figure is killed, then the war effort is perceived to have failed, even if you say good things about it. So I think you would see suddenly a lot of Western support would go limp, it would sort of go, it would become softer, less reliable, indirect, it would cease to be a political asset for any organization to back Ukraine.
Jim: Yeah. So if Russia were thinking network war, that would be a significant move by them.
Samo: It’s not clear whether they are though.
Jim: We’ll talk about that soon, how inept they’ve been at it, they’re this alleged monster of psych-ops, and very incompetent in many ways. Another possibility, this is one I would pull out of my playbook, at least consider, is get the Belarusians with some Russian support to come down the Ukraine/Polish border and cut off the supply lines from Poland. I expect at this point there aren’t very many Ukrainian reserves out West to stop such a thrust. That would be another sort of somewhat unexpected but possible play that could change the negotiating dynamics.
Samo: I think that move would be perhaps beyond the capacities of the Belarusian Russian military. We in fact don’t know that much about how prepared Belarus has been for this war. Assuming they’ve been very well prepared and that they would have been coordinating with the Russian government from the start, that’s definitely possible. I think their success is less guaranteed. I see some reasons and some evidence for institutional reform within the Russian military, maybe this reform was insufficient. Maybe they still end up stalling. I don’t see a lot of evidence in the Belarus military. So I actually think the Belarus military would underperform in such an operation.
Jim: Interesting. Okay. Now let’s skip ahead. We’ll come back to a couple other topics. We alluded to this, which is, if you were playing 5G, 5GEN war and thinking about war as a network phenomena, taking out Zelensky seems like a good play because it undermines the enthusiasm in the West and this buzzing culture thing that has been an important part of keeping the governments focused and committed to providing the most sophisticated arms they can figure out how to deploy into Ukraine. But it’s not clear at all the Russians are actually realizing they’re in a 5th gen war. They’re not even dealing with the physical network. I was amazed last week when the three prime ministers of, was it Poland, Czech Republic and one other country, I don’t remember what it was, three of them, came across by train to Kiev, all the way.
Jim: If it was the US fighting Ukraine, they would’ve dropped every bridge within 250 miles of Kiev on day two. That the Russians haven’t made that obvious move, it just seems like they’re not thinking in network terms. The internet’s still up. Electricity is still up, let alone the psych-ops, the psychological warfare of news and manipulation. The Russians are utterly been outplayed by the Ukrainians, at least in the West, apparently it’s not less the case in China and Africa and India, but at least in the West, the supposed great manipulator of public opinion hasn’t shown its hand at all. It’s completely ham handed when they’ve tried to do anything. Do you have any idea, I mean, are the Russians just clueless of the fact that we’re in a 5G war, or are they just really bad at it?
Samo: Perhaps the claims of Russian misinformation were always to some extent, misinformation. I think the Russians are not that good at manipulating Western public opinion. I think their talent at this has been greatly overstated in the last decade. And we could talk about why, but that seems almost a different topic. With regard to Ukraine itself, I think their initial goal was to keep the infrastructure running because they intended to use the infrastructure. Maybe that will prove to have been too optimistic. But I think that was their thinking, destroying bridges, roads, they might intend to be crossing those roads and bridges in the not too distant future.
Jim: Could be. It’s not how the US would’ve done it, but to your point, we have a different doctrine and we’re equipped in a different way than they are. I mean, even against Serbia, we blew up their power plants, dropped their bridges, boom, boom, boom, and they surrendered without even fighting on the ground. So let’s now go back to a really big picture that actually transcends this particular conflict, and may be an evolution of warfare. In the history of warfare at various times, the tactical offense and the tactical defense have changed in relative power. A couple of famous examples were between the Napoleonic wars and the US civil war, the invention of the mini ball and the rifled muzzle loader basically tripled the effect of range of the small arms and made the Napoleonic charge almost certain to fail. And all the west pointers, and unfortunately been trained on Yemenese techs about the Napoleonic work, Clausewitz had not been translated into English yet.
Jim: That’s an interesting little footnote of history. And so the civil war generals were still doing those frontal charges, and they almost always failed, unlike in Napoleonic times when more often than not they succeeded. And of course the perhaps more famous example was the epoch between the Franco-Prussian War and World War II, the development of the machine gun… I mean World War I, Franco-Prussian War, World War I, Franco-Prussian War, Germans came in pretty quick, World War I, machine guns, plus barb wire, plus rapid fire field artillery led the stasis, at least on the Western front.
Jim: And in World War II, air power plus radio plus tanks changed it back to a offensive dominated epoch. Could it be that smart anti asset weapons, anti tank, anti-air, they’re inexpensive, but now because they’re fire and forget at their highest level, make the exchange ratio between relatively inexpensive man portable and or truck portable smart missiles, versus very expensive assets like airplanes, helicopters, tanks, and ships have switched the dynamic back to where defense may now be dominant, at least tactically over offense. What’s your thoughts about that as a possibility?
Samo: I think that the balance between offense and defense is a tricky one. For the purposes of mechanized warfare, I think perhaps yes, that defense is stronger than it was. For the purposes of, say the Amer supremacy strategy that the United States employs, it’s not clear that that’s changed at all. So depending on what type of warfare you pursue.
Jim: Yeah. And that was going to be my next point, which is, to the degree that it may be true in the context of Ukraine, could that be just the match up between the two militaries, like in sports, you say that two soccer teams, football teams, what are their strengths and weaknesses, how do they match up? In this case, the match up between Ukraine and Russia is such that the defense is stronger than people thought perhaps, and the offense is weaker.
Samo: And not just that, the forces are surprisingly symmetrical, right? These are armed forces that come out of a common military tradition.
Jim: On the other hand, it is true that there’s been, since 2014, a lot of training of the Ukraine forces in light infantry tactics. That’s what the US has been sending a number of experts, including special forces. The Canadians have been as well. And they came up with the strategy, hey, you guys ain’t going to make it in tank battles in wheat fields. But light infantry tactics with these smart weapons could be surprisingly effective and may help break the pure weight of number advantages that Russians would have. And so that may also be part of it. It could be doctrine plus weapons that are produced, at least in this matchup. So let’s assume the Russians are underachieving relative to what people expected. I think that’s true. I mean, again, is it all propaganda? Did Putin never believe it could be over in three days? I don’t know. But let’s assume that is true and the Russian military is under performing. What might be the causes? Doctrine, readiness, equipment, corruption, nepotism, all of the above?
Samo: I basically think that the crucial problems of Ukraine’s military and Russia’s military, again, I do think that there’s some similarities between them, and the similarities are the difficulty of getting an organized response to carry through all the levels needed to engage in mechanized warfare well. So in other words, if you get 90% of your institutional reforms right, you put in this military together and it’s 90% right, it’s not going to be 90% as effective as if you got it perfectly right. It’s going to be maybe 10, 20% as effective.
Samo: So in other words, I think the Russians, if they’re failing, might be debugging sort of one, two, three problems left with the military. If they carry out those relevant performs, their performance in future wars dangerously, might exceed their performance in this one. It’s common in history to start wars with a situation that’s an unmitigated disaster, even though on paper it really shouldn’t have been an unmitigated disaster. And over time, the more competent people are promoted up the chain of command, changes are made to the course of a war, and the battle hardened army has in a way been debugged of all of these problems. It went from 90% ready to 100% ready. And maybe those last 10% or those last 20% can only be crossed with large scale military experience.
Jim: Yeah. American civil war is a perfect example of that, where to everybody’s surprise, the confederates booted the union right back out again, and only after a period of three years did the union finally realized… Find the right leaders and find the right tactics, and realized that they were basically unbeatable if they just didn’t just apply that brute force strategy in one. So it may be that the Russians will improve. On the other hand I would point out that… Reading some of the rate at which material and men are dying, and weapons are being consumed, something like half the Russian total inventory of cruise missiles has been used up already, the pace of current high energy kinetic warfare, doesn’t give you years to improve. And when you change leaders, you can’t assess whether the new leader is better than the old leader until a significant period of time has gone by. So you can’t spend three years to find your Ulysses S. Grant, the way Lincoln did in a very high energy kinetic situation, such as modern all on warfare,
Samo: Perhaps though, the supply chain issues for this very high tech weaponry are not just going to be found on the Russian side, but also on the Ukrainian side. I do want to point out, European militaries are extremely limited in the amount of supplies they can give to Ukraine. Those armies have been sort of almost starved in the case of the German military of funding and stockpiles of advanced equipment. The United States of course is different. And it might be the case that the United States at great expense just continually resupplies Ukraine. However, if you have a situation where both sides have run out of the cutting edge stuff, the cutting edge munitions, you revert to a simpler kind of warfare out of necessity, and that might still take years.
Jim: And that would probably favor the Russians.
Samo: Probably favor the Russians, though again, a mere military victory doesn’t mean there’s a strategic win.
Jim: Got it. All right. Now let’s back up all the way to the top. What have you seen so far from this conflict in looking at, in the 5GEN sense, including the network response, et cetera, with respect to future implications, with respect to international relations and conflict more generally going on. So I guess in short form, in business speak, what are the lessons learned so far that are applicable to the future?
Samo: I think the first lesson is that big wars still happen. I think almost no one was expecting this, possibly not even the Ukrainians themselves. There was talk about an invasion for a few months before, a military operation a few months before, but really over the course of the last few years and decades, we’ve always assumed that wars would be small affairs. The war in Ukraine is a large war, right? And a world where large wars matter, where middle powers such as Russia, so not just the [inaudible 00:49:33], not just the United States, which is still the world’s premier superpower. But these other powerful states, that they might pursue large wars, that suggests a very different world than the one we’ve been used to since the 1990s.
Jim: That would be unfortunate. I mean, I think that’s one of the reasons people are so disturbed by this, is that Putin has broken the taboo against attacking a neighbor to try to absorb them, that had so plagued-
Samo: Try to take their territory, yeah.
Jim: Yeah. That was European history for a very long time. That’s all they did, attack each other, try to grab territory. But that had been taboo since 1945. And if we’re going to return to that world, that’s not good.
Samo: Well, it wouldn’t be the last border that people would… It wouldn’t be the last border of countries with attempt to revise through military means.
Jim: That’s true enough. What about… I’m going to throw back a somewhat more positive vein. I’ve been thinking, if it turns out to actually be able to put a serious hurt on Russia, this network economic response may turn out to be the collective deterrence of war we’ve been looking for since 1918. We tried the league of nations, didn’t work. We tried United Nations, didn’t really work. The thing that worked in the cold war was the fortuitous mutual assured destruction. And maybe if these network effects are strong enough in an interconnected world, this could be inexpensive enough and effective enough and not dangerous, such that the penalties, the costs for waging aggressive war are so severe, that even if it doesn’t stop Russia in its current hot war, if the aftermath effects are so large, it could act as a deterrent finally, an effective deterrent to aggressive warfare going forward.
Samo: I think a sufficiently high cost to war might deter Russia specifically. I suspect though that if territorial gains are made, other countries might just take this as a challenge to learn how to just fight these wars better, because the proof is that you can gain territories and resolve political disputes. And then just it’s a matter of minimizing the cost, finding the right moment.
Jim: And perhaps designing your economy to make it more robust against the economic network attack, right? Well, that’ll bring us to our last question, on this we’ll exit, and you can guess what it is with this setup, which is, all right, what does China make of all this?
Samo: China will perceive the strong benefit of disentangling from Western economies from its end because of the political freedom that this economic disentanglement allows it. When I talk here about political freedom, I mean, political freedom of action. I don’t mean the freedom of the citizens. To resolve the time on question, they might come to the conclusion that what they have to do is actually deglobalize. And that would be such a multi decade spanning policy, that would be a policy where they attempt these new partnerships directly by passing global institutions with African and Asian countries, and of course Russia, to provide China with the raw resources and markets it needs to sustain its industrial base.
Samo: And yes, Taiwan, it might sound silly to propose that China would build a global neo-colonial empire just to have the political freedom to retake Taiwan, or sorry, the political power or the political ability to retake Taiwan, but really, it’s that domestically important. It’s sort of a basic plan [inaudible 00:53:24] the legitimacy of the communist party. To conquer a third of the world, or to put a third of the world in your sphere of influence to capture a small stubborn island, that’s happened before. Those kinds of political paradoxes are common to human history.
Jim: Interesting. Though I must say, I’m feeling a little bit better about our bet, where of course it’ll probably be a no bet, because I think the bet was conditioned on a Russian decisive victory in Ukraine, could still happen, which Samo said, “Well, if the Russians win a decisive victory in Ukraine within three years, China will attack Taiwan.” My sense is that the takeaway for China would be, no, probably don’t want to attack Taiwan in the next three years. I would find your strategy that, all right, let’s develop a worldwide trade network that’s disconnected from the Westerners so they can’t whack us with the network effect, and maybe go for Taiwan in 20 years, if it doesn’t just fall into our lap, which it might.
Jim: So I’m looking good. I’m looking for that slivovitz to come my way here. So I think that maybe we’re now more closer on the same page on what China might take away from this conflict so far. Well, as always, Samo, just the greatest conversation. Great, deep thinking, and I love the fact that you don’t feel compelled to follow the conventional wisdom. I mean, that’s what we need when we’re trying to make sense of the world.
Samo: Thank you. Thank you for having me on the show again.