Showing posts with label Ukraine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ukraine. Show all posts

27 April 2022

Performance Anxiety


Talking to a guy I know – we’ll call him Mike – who was once upon a time in the same trade I was, and who still has skin in the game, I wondered what he thought about how badly the Russians have stepped on their dicks in Ukraine.  There were in fact two parts to the question: why Russia has underperformed so fatally, and why Western intelligence so overestimated their war-fighting capacity beforehand.

Mike happened to be on his way to Ft. Huachuca for a workshop, or a briefing, or a roundtable, at the least a guarded conversation with some other stakeholders on this very subject, so he already had his ducks lined up, and was ready to share them. 

The chief impediment is that Russian command authority is rigidly hierarchal.  The culture and doctrine are top down.  Initiative is career suicide.  And the weakest link is simply that there’s no professional NCO class, not in the sense that an American combat soldier would understand.  Russian junior enlisted are cannon fodder; their sergeants are brutal, indifferent, and corrupt.  Morale is clearly in the toilet, unit cohesion near collapse. 

Where, then, did the intelligence consensus come from, that the Russians were going to kick ass in Ukraine?  Mike had an answer for that one, too.  We put a lot of faith in the hardware.  That’s because intelligence analysis mirrors our own presumptions.  In other words, NSA looks at the performance specs for, say, the MiG-31, and the obvious question is how it stacks up against the F-16.  Same thing with tanks, or infantry weapons: the AK-47 is one of the most copied guns in the world.  Our attention is fixed on the platform.  Mike’s point being that less weight was given to the personnel, the existing skillset of the pilots or the tank crews or the ground-pounders, or in support.

Like a lot of things, once you hear the explanation, you slap your forehead and tell yourself it makes perfect sense.  Nor do I think it’s Monday-morning quarterbacking.  For me, it actually conforms to what I learned back in Berlin, in the 1960’s, during the Cold War, when our target was the Soviet occupying forces in Eastern Europe, and the Warsaw Pact.  Poland and East Germany and Hungary and the other satellites were being trained by Russians, on Russian equipment, so there was a lot of overlap. 

The reason we were there, if I haven’t made it clear before, or if you’re new to this space, was to provide a basic profile of what the Russians could throw at us.  In military vocabulary, it’s called an Order of Battle.  A specific example might be: How many aircraft are at Zossen Wunsdorf? - Are they fighters or ground attack? – And how many pilots? - What’s their readiness posture?  This is all numbing detail, but it kept the Cold War from going hot.

Here’s why I don’t think the Russians have learned anything in fifty years.  Back in the day, they had sophisticated systems and platforms, but they didn’t trust them, or they didn’t trust their people, which adds up to the same.  They scrambled fighters, for drills, using Ground-Controlled Intercept, or GCI.  MiG-21’s and Yak-28’s were fitted with on-board pursuit radars, and a ground station tracking their targets could transmit encrypted signals directly from the ground radar to the pursuit radar on the aircraft, and the radar would vector the plane to target, all done electronically.  Hands off.  Fire and forget.  We, meaning your humble servant and his crowd, were listening to the pilot chatter, we could image the Russian ground radar, we could follow the encrypted signals, we intercepted the frequency shifts from the aircraft’s radar and knew when it went from Lock to Launch.  In effect, we were in the cockpit, too.  And not a single one of those pilots, or their command structure on the ground, believed the system would work on its own.  Every instruction the pilots got, every course correction that was transmitted, over a secure network, the pilot would repeat, in the clear, on Voice.  “Roger that, turning to heading 270.”  At which point you watched him on radar, changing course to 270.  I kid you not.  And you wonder why Russian generals are getting blown out of their shoes in Ukraine?  They’re using open comms.

I think there are other reasons for what’s going on.  I think the Ukrainian defense is heroic.  Volodymyr Zelensky has bigger balls than Vladimir Putin.  And the resolve from NATO has been unexpectedly solid.  But at its most basic level, the Russian disaster is a character flaw.  Arrogance defeats empires.

 

10 April 2022

The Fog


The light of the sun is barely penetrating the early morning fog. Some trees are visible, some are hidden. It should be a warm spring day but instead it’s cold and there are still patches of dirty snow on the ground.

This is the weather.

This is my mood.

The pandemic is still raging on despite those who try to hide the infected and dead behind the fog of words.

The war in Ukraine is raging on and those who declare it is just another war are trying to obscure what is at stake.

Even if we can see through the fog created by today’s chatter, none of us can see how the pandemic or the Ukraine war will end.

When the pandemic first hit, I was naively convinced that we could manage it well by following advice by scientific and medical experts and that vaccines would come rather quickly.

The vaccines did come quickly but their durability is still problematic. I’m certain we’ll get the better, more durable vaccines. However, the hit to science, to medical expertise, I worry may also be more durable.

The Omicron variant was first detected in Canada in late November, a few months ago. Since then, we have had 53% of deaths in people 19 or younger and 20% of all deaths from COVID-19. Long covid - a disease that impacts the brain, heart and many organs - will be worsened by the increasing infections we are seeing with omicron and its new variants. Yet the narrative that this variant is ‘mild’ reigns, so people are removing their masks, interacting in unsafe ways because they are convinced that the danger of COVID-19 is over.

How can the ‘mild’ narrative be so persuasive when the facts prove it wrong? One of the main reasons is that the anti-science, anti-expert movement has gained great strength during this pandemic by feeding on its favourite food: fear. When people are frightened, science, with its nuanced and new emerging facts, is less enticing than the strong, definitive anti-science narrative where answers are clear and unalterable because they aren’t true. It’s easy to make up a narrative when it’s immutable in the face of facts, and it is the very rigidity of the narrative that appears to make it strong and a haven for the frightened - fear is reassured by strength, even if it is false strength.

Now that some people have been convinced that science and experts are the enemy - we can only hope that the numbers of people convinced are fewer than those who recognize that the truth - even with facts that change as new evidence emerges - is a better alternative than lies.

The future of how this will play out is unclear: the fog is thick.

The war in Ukraine appears to be a very different animal than the pandemic but they rub shoulders in a very important way.

Right wing, authoritarian ideology has been nipping at the heels of many European countries. The pandemic seems to have worsened this, particularly in countries where restrictions limited the number of infections, they were “sceptical about their governments’ intentions behind lockdowns, and are most likely to accuse them of using COVID-19 as an excuse to control the public”

The pandemic has, “eroded young Europeans’ trust in the political system could have long-term consequences for the future of democracy. Research by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University shows that – even before the crisis – today’s young people are the generation most dissatisfied with the performance of democratic governments. Members of this generation are more skeptical of the merits of democracy compared not only with the older generation now but also with young people polled in earlier eras.”

This merging of the distrust in science with a distrust in democratic governments is the birthplace of autocracy.

The war in Ukraine is a war waged by an authoritarian government against a democratic country. The suffering of Ukrainians has moved the world and also divided it. As Ursela Gertrud von der Leyen - the German politician, physician and President of the European Commission summarized during a visit to Ukraine:

“It is indeed a decisive moment … Will autocracy be dominant or will democracy be the long term dominant winner or will the right of might be the rule or will it be the rule of law. This is what is at stake in this war…it is these big questions that will be decided in this war.”

The rule of might is decisive and clear - a haven for those who crave certainty. The rule of law, like science, is nuanced and cumbersome, as evidence is weighed and considered. Justice, like science, is messy business but it is a crucial pillar of democracy. 

None of us can see how the war in Ukraine will end or what Europe will look like when it does. Nor can we see what the end of the pandemic will look like and what we will have become in response to it.

The fog.

It’s the weather.

It’s a whole mood.

13 March 2022

The Power of Ukraine


On February 24th, Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia expected to win the war in a matter of days since they are so much larger and better equipped than the Ukraine. What Russia did not expect was having Ukraine rally the world to help defend them.

Apart from the geopolitical importance of this invasion, one question is why are so many ordinary people gripped by the story of Ukraine? Because we are indeed gripped, watching the news constantly and protesting in the streets around the world. Something about this war has moved us all. It has moved countries to impose economic sanctions against Russia and send much needed military equipment to Ukraine.

One reason is that Ukraine’s plight is the universal story of the underdog fighting valiantly, like David fought Goliath, and humans are built to be moved by stories.

“The human mind is addicted to stories,” says Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal (how stories make us human)

“As you cross cultures and move around in history, you find the same basic concerns and the same basic story structure. The technology of story changes—from oral tales, to clay tablets, to medieval codices, to printed books, to movie screens, iPads, and Kindles. But the stories themselves don’t ever change. They have the same old obsessions. And that won’t change until human nature changes.”

This story - the underdog fighting valiantly - has been articulated by many Ukrainians but first and foremost by President Zelensky.

When Russia invaded, President Zelensky turned down an offer to evacuated from Kyiv. Zelensky’s now famous response was, "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”

This is truly the story of David entering battle with Goliath, because David did not have to fight but he felt it was his duty to defeat Goliath and, in doing so, save his people from becoming slaves. Certainly, if Russia defeats Ukraine in this war, Ukrainians become owned and subjugated by Russia.

Malcom Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, dissects the battle in a unique way. Gladwell explains that Goliath is huge and frightening but David has the upper hand because he didn’t have the cumbersome armour of Goliath and could be nimble. Most importantly, David had a sling that can kill a target from two hundred yards away.

David wins the battle by doing the unexpected – he runs towards Goliath, who is immobilized by a hundred pounds of heavy armour, and kills him by hitting him in the head with a stone with a  velocity of thirty-four meters per second. (122kmph or 76mph)

Gladwell’s perspective is that underdogs win by fighting in unexpected ways that make their opponent’s strengths useless. Goliath’s size, armour and weapons were no match for David’s nimbleness with his lack of armour and heavy weapons, nor was his bare forehead a match for David’s lethal stone sent at high velocity by a sling.

Just like David, Zelensky fought Russia from the start in very unexpected ways. He didn’t flee. More importantly, despite the famed strength of Russia’s information warfare, Zelensky won the information war from the day he refused to flee. He did this by not speaking like a politician. He spoke with the emotion of a man who loves his country and his people. Rather than speaking of strategy, he appealed to the emotion we all feel towards our own countries, our homes and families. He used the most unusual and unexpected tactic of all when fighting a large military power: he asked the world to see themselves in the plight of Ukraine.

Ukraine is smaller, poorer and ill-equipped compared to Russia. To fight a behemoth like Russia seemed impossible but President Zelensky fought by making us all feel like every missile, every tank and every soldier in Ukraine was like a missile, tank and soldier in our country. This sent people into the street to protest the war and moved countries to sanction Russia. How do you fight a rich country? By making it poorer with economic sanctions. How do you fight a better equipped army? By moving the world to send you military equipment.

We are two weeks into a war that Russia expected to win in days and now some are suggesting that Russia might lose.

I know nothing about military strategy, but I do know the power of stories. From ancient times they have shaped our values and the way we act. The story of Ukraine is one of the reasons that the world values Ukraine and wants to act to protect it. They are the underdog, our modern day David, and we too are Ukraine, the underdog, the victim of Russia’s aggression. Every hospital that is bombed, every child that is killed, feels like ours and we all suffer with Ukraine. As we watch David running towards Goliath, fighting a battle in unexpected ways, we suffer and we hope because that’s the power of stories.