Ukraine War Day #138: Illarionov And The Mathematics Of Attrition, Act I

You taught me language, and my profit on ’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!

(Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest)

Dear Readers:

This post consists of a summary of an online interview. In which Russian economist Andrei Illiaronov explains to blogger Mark Feigin the basic algebra of how a war of attrition works. I realize all this sounds pretty dry, but I promise you it’s anything but. The interview itself should be seen as a masterwork of theater; this two-man play could have been written by Shakespeare, or Chekhov, or Ibsen. The underlying themes are: rage, hope, disappointment, and betrayal. In order to understand the full piquancy of what we see, we must understand the background and psychology of the two players. For those not familiar, allow me to introduce:

Feigin as Caliban
Illarionov as Ariel
  • Mark Feigin is a Russian-speaking blogger who basically lives on the internet. He streams podcasts several times each day, and interviews people who are generally much more interesting and intelligent than himself. Breaking the ancient stereotype that all Jews are smart, Feigin is actually rather stupid. (Except for making money, which he does in abundance.) Feigin fits a different stereotype, however: That of the Ungrateful Jew who feels a burning hatred for Mother Russia, the very nation which saved his people from the Nazis! He is despised by many other media personalities, including popular Ukrainian blogger Anatoly Shariy, who calls him a “despicable croaking toad”. Feigin suffers from a severe case of PDS (“Putin Deragement Syndrome”), he hates Putin so much that he would literally cut off his own head, if such an act would bring Putin down. In his past life, Feigin worked as a Criminal Defense Attorney in Russia. He was noted for his extreme incompetence in defending such notorious “enemies of the regime” as Pussy Riot and Navalny. His clients always ended up serving more time than they would have with a more competent defense. Since Feigin was either too stupid, or too stubborn, to cut a plea deal or work a technicality, even when the Judge and Prosecution were literally bending over backwards trying to cut him a break. For Feigin, his own clients were just cannon fodder in his never-ending crusade to expose the repressiveness of the hated regime.
  • And in this corner, we have Andrei Illarionov, who hates Putin just as much as Feigin does, but his motivation is different: He is a red-hot capitalist and Westernizer, who feels that Putin changed course too much and betrayed the Russian economy. (Illarionov is an ideological Rand-ite, as far as I can tell.) This guy actually used to work for Putin (back when Putin was still a neo-Liberal), but then defected to the West, where he now plies his craft in the Cato Institute, a perfect venue for his free-market ideology.

The Set-Up

Alexei shows his contempt for Feigin by drinking on the set, and doesn’t believe a word he himself is saying.

Now that we know the dramatis personae, I still need to set up the context of the joke. (I said this was theater? It could also be two-man standup comedy, with Feigin as the straight man.)

So, Feigin invites people onto his show (“Feigin Live”) where he schnorrs for money and subscribers; and seeks out any news or information that fits his narrative. Anybody who can reassure him that, for example, the Azov Battalion will resurrect from the dead and pound that final nail into Putin’s coffin. There is a kind of mania there. After the current war started, Feigin has been performing nightly broadcasts with Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Alexei Arestovich. The latter, who happens to be a talented actor and also a trained psychologist, is famous for soothing Feigin’s moronic pro-Ukrainian audience with his lies and fairy tales about the war. As the Ukrainian army goes down the toilet, it’s hilarious to watch the growing tension between his beautiful self and the ugly Caliban Feigin. See, all that Mark really wants from Alexei is reassurance that Ukraine is going to win, that the noble Banderite warriors are going to give Russia the whipping of a lifetime. But Lusya can be a slippery eel, as she sips away at the vodka in her coffee mug. With growing intoxication she becomes merrier, more playful, and sometimes even blurts out a truth or two. Or is forced to interrupt the yammering Feigin with an irritable, “Mark! Mark!”, and we see that unexpected flash of contempt before our lovely Lusya goes blank for a second, then puts her neutral face back on. ACTING!!

But… but… what about Lend Lease?

Okay, enough about Lusya, who is spent force at this point: He is not close to the centers of power any more, he knows nothing, and has nothing to offer.

This past Friday, July 8, Feigin had Illarionov on his show, which he hopefully titled, “In the expectations of Lend Lease. A conversation with Andrei Illarionov”. Here is the video, you can click on it and watch for yourself:

The title already gives away what Feigin hoped and expected from his guest: A ringing confirmation that American Lend Lease, and all those shiny weapons, will turn the tide. Hoped for hope; but all he got in return was Illarionov’s cold as steel logic, and a series of equations proving that Ukraine cannot win the war, barring a Russian unforced error or “own goal” type of mistake.

I realize that I just gave away the punchline to the whole joke. But we still need to backtrack and build back up to it, in an act of reverse-engineering. As the video begins, Feigin is yammering on for what seems an eternity, doing his usual schnorring and self-promotion. Illarionov waits patiently, slyly scribbing some notes to himself; and one can see from the tension on his face that he knows he is about to deliver a bombshell; and so must be careful to pick each word correctly.

Ah, Ariel! You could have had Nabiullina’s job!

Once he is finally allowed to open his mouth, Illarionov delivers his stand-up routine in two major sets. The first section we can glide over quickly, it’s just some nit-picking about which term to use to describe this war, Feigin called it “the war in Ukraine”, and Illarionov prefers to call it a “war of coalitions”, defining the coalition of the Aggressor (Russia, Belorussia, and DPR/LPR) vs the coalition of the Victim (Ukraine plus the West). Blah blah blah, who cares.

In the second set, Illarionov gets to the meat of his routine, which concerns the mathematics of a war of attrition. We’ll delve into this in more detail later when we break down his actual words; this is just a preliminary sketch. And once Illarionov proves his point, then that should have been the end of the video. But numbskull Feigin, showing that he didn’t understand a thing that he just heard with his own ears, asks a dumb question: “But will the American Lend Lease program have a positive impact, both quantitatively and qualitatively?” Thus forcing Illarionov to go into a third set, in which he debunks the entire notion of the Lend Lease (“Biden will never sign the approval”), and the whole concept is irrelevant anyhow, since it still fits into the rubric of “West supplying weapons”, which he just proved mathematically could not change the outcome of the war.

Brush Up Your Algebra

Having laid out the overall structure, the outline, of this comedy routine, let us return to that crucial middle set. In which Illarionov describes the nature of a War of Attrition (as opposed to, say a war of surprise attacks and dashing derring-do); how the losses of each side can be programmed into basic linear equations; and how the laws of mathematics and physics lead to Ukraine’s inevitable defeat. This is obviously not what Illarionov wishes would happen; nor what Feigin wants to hear. Feigin playing the role here of little Hedvig in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. Reality bites, as a wise philosopher once said.

Hedvig: “You told me something I didn’t want to hear.”

For those who have not picked up an algebra textbook since their salad days, let me concoct the simplest possible example, using just one variable, X: Stipulate that Team A starts the war with x(1)=100 soldiers, whereas Team B starts the war with x(2)=1000 soldiers. Team A are more skilled fighters, so they lose just one soldier per day (on average), whereas Team B loses 3 soldiers per day. The war lasts for 100 days. Question: Who won? If you look up the answer in the back of the book, you will see that, at the end of the war, Team A had no soldiers left, even though they fought better. Team B fought lousily but ended the war with 700 soldiers still left standing, so they win. Now add hundreds more variables to this simple scenario and make the variables more dynamic by adding a time dimension: More soldiers are added; tanks are destroyed but more tanks are added at a certain rate, etc. Clever mathematicians can encode all of these variables into series of linear equations and figure out who wins. Which is basically what Illarionov did.

Illarionov [starting around 8:30 minutes in]: It is necessary to understand the essence of this Russo-Ukrainian war, the character of this war between coalitions. The nature of this war has changed [since its inception]. It has become a war of attrition. A war of attrition has very specific characteristics, which distinguish it from a special military operation or a Blitzkrieg. This is a war that goes on for a long time and uses all possible resources: military, demographic, economic, financial, etc. The war goes on until one side is exhausted and has to bow out of this ferocious confrontation.

Which brings us to the question: What exactly are the parameters which play a role in the outcome of a war of attrition?

Professor says: “Ukraine is lost!”

There are 3 parameters: (1) will to win, of each side, that is the say the morale of the armies; (2) quantity of resources possessed by each side; (3) effective use of these resources.

As for morale, we may currently say that it exists on both sides of this conflict. [He thus nulls out parameter #1, making it moot.]

As for effective use of resources, given losses on both sides, we may say that the Ukrainian side had the superiority here during the first couple of months of the war. Perhaps even as much as three times greater, especially when pitched against the DPR/LPR forces. However, the past two months have shown a significant decrease in this factor, on both sides; the Ukrainians might still be a little bit ahead on this, but the differences have levelled out. [He thus nulls out parameter #3, making it moot.]

Which leaves Parameter #2 as the deciding one. The issue of resources. The possession of resources. Going back to February 24, let us look at the data on the resources possessed by the pro-Russian Coalition (which includes Russia, Belorussia, and the occupied territories within Ukraine). Including the amount of population and geographical area. Looking at the mobilized resources, we have a ratio of 10/1 (in Russia’s favor). Then looking at the number of tanks, armored vehicles and so on, there is a ratio something like 10 or 12 to 1 (in Russia’s favor). Planes and helicopters, 15 to 1. Rockets and nuclear weapons, nobody can doubt the absolute superiority of the Russian side. The Ukrainian side either has no equivalents (for example, nuclear weapons), or possesses just a trivial amount of such weapons. There is actually no comparison.

We are still talking about the start, the first phase of the conflict. Then, in the course of the conflict, equipment is used up and destroyed. And this is where we must study the tempo in which the resources are used up, on each side.

[to be continued]

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8 Responses to Ukraine War Day #138: Illarionov And The Mathematics Of Attrition, Act I

  1. I’ve not sat down and cranked out the math myself, because I’m a lazy old codger, but that’s the impression I’ve had from day one. As it happens, I’ve been reading Chuikov’s account of the battle of Stalingrad lately, and one of the points he (and many other accounts of that battle) makes is the importance of massed artillery. The god of battle continues relevant in today’s campaigns, both the sideshows (Kharkov, SW Zaporizhe, Nikolaev) where the poor Ukrainians get hammered flat every time the leave their fortifications, and ground down when they stay, as well as in the main action in the Donbass. It’s starting to seem a lot like the Eastern front post-Bagration where the only options are die slowly in the bunkers and tremches or die fast out in the open.
    Jesus wept.


    • yalensis says:

      To do the math properly you would need all the data points lined up in a row: number of tanks, number of shells, etc. Illarionov mentioned that he acquired this data from various sources, and it isn’t always accurate. Still, that’s his job, I reckon, and it’s a full-time job. He probably has computer software where he can just plug in the variables, instead of pencil and paper, like they had to do back in the Soviet times.
      Funny thing is, if HE can do it over at the CATO institute, then why can’t the masterminds at the Pentagon do the same thing?


      • moon says:

        The Guardian, Ukraine war live
        Russia-Ukraine war: Zelenskiy plans million-strong army to retake south


        • yalensis says:

          There is a theory out there in the blogosphere, which I think I subscribe to:
          Those million Ukrainians do exist, but they consist of a million names on a Ukrainian census (of military-age men and women, meaning aged 17 thru 65). In other words, just names on a piece of paper.
          And that American (and other Western) real soldiers will take to the field, hiding behind these names. These will be fully trained Westie soldiers who know how to operate Westie heavy equipment.
          It’s just like laundering money, only in this case it’s laundering people!


  2. Lex says:

    Thanks for the summary translation. I enjoy Lusya. Illarionov is wrong though. The highest number I’ve been able to conjure for Russian and allied forces is 250K, maximum. It was likely significantly lower from day one. Ukraine had at least 150K in Donbas and on the LoC. The military math Illarionov points to standardized a force ration of 3:1 to attack. Russia might have had 1:1 in late February but also spread that out over everything from Kiev to Kherson. And while Russian losses were absolutely their worst in the first few weeks, the attrition rate for months now has been quite dismal for the Ukrainians. Illarionov is trying to make everyone listening feel better that Ukraine fared less than well against an overwhelming and superior force. Except it wasn’t (except in missiles and air power). It’s being beaten in a scenario military textbooks would classify as near impossible and/or suicidal.


    • yalensis says:

      Thanks, Lex. I also think Illarionov is wrong about the numbers of soldiers and troops. Later (hopefully in today’s post, if I get that far) he becomes ever more pointed in his analysis of hardware and military equipment ratios, then in the amount of dollars spent on such. Hard to psychologize a man I don’t know, but I get the impression that Illarionov’s main goal here is to (a) dash some cold water on the pro-Ukrainian team’s expectations; and (b) possibly to lobby the U.S. for more equipment and money. As in, “If you really want to win, then you need to get serious…”

      In any case, there is a certain Schadenfreude in watching Feigin’s reaction, that dope is more used to listening to people go “Rah rah Ukraine is WINNING!”

      And yes, I also enjoy Lusya, what a character! My hope for him is that he survives the war and gets back into show business.


      • Lex says:

        Agreed on Illarionov’s goals and his starting assumptions. One of his issues appears to be that he’s taking Ukrainian claims at face value, which is bolstered by “see, the westerners agree.” Except that the west has been running with Ukrainian information all along and that’s problematic. Mostly because it does not correspond to reality.

        I read today’s continuation and he’s probably much closer on the equipment and ammunition aspect. And what we’re finding is that the vaunted militaries of the west can’t physically supply Ukraine with what it needs. Even if it was willing to give away it’s own, modern equipment it doesn’t have that much and it isn’t equipped to make more fast enough. Illarionov is correct about a war of attrition, but incorrect in there being anything that can change the equation at this point. The US only has about 5,000 tanks while making about 4/month. There is no math that works for Ukraine and the western military planners know it. They’re just sacrificing Ukrainians now. It doesn’t even significantly degrade Russian capability since Russia still manufactures all this stuff.


        • yalensis says:

          Fully agree, with everything you said.
          Illarionov is a very smart guy, and I don’t see anything in his body language that would indicate he is dissembling, he seems to be quite earnest in his taking points.
          His blind spot no doubt comes from his ideology as a firm neo-Liberal Westernizer, this is why he takes “Western sources” as the gold standard, even when those prognoses are just regurgitations of Ukrainian propaganda!

          Agree that no math, not even “fuzzy math” can win this for Ukraine. Unfortunately, the Ukrainians can do a lot of damage in the meantime, both to Russian military and to civilians, especially with these HIMARS.

          Was watching an interesting podcast last night on The Duran, Mercouris’ guests were “Dima” from Military Summary, plus Gonzalo Lira. There was a bit of a debate between the latter two on whether or not the HIMARS are a “game changer”. Lira engaged in a bit of what I consider to be a logical fallacy, of the nature: “They said the Javelins would be a game changer, and they weren’t, they said the Howitzers would be a game changer, and they weren’t, therefore the HIMARS are not a game changer either…” This type of argument is a logical fallacy, as I think everyone can see. (Earlier in his monologue, the part I skipped over, Illarionov had given the 19th-century example of English soldiers setting up machine guns and mowing down “savages”.) In other words, the HIMARS could be a game changer in this war, logically speaking.

          However, Mercouris gave the proper rebuttal, which is that the U.S. already gave a third of all its supply of HIMARS to Ukraine, and can hardly produce any more, they don’t just roll off the assembly line like cookies. If there were an endless supply of these things, then maybe…


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